December 2007 Archives

Today's NYT op-ed "Looking at America" opens with the plain truth that "There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country." After discussing a few of the "shocking abuses of President Bush's two terms in office," the piece concludes that "the next president will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that have been done and then righting them:

We can only hope that this time, unlike 2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United States of America.

Not only can we do better than Dubya, we must do better. As we look to the upcoming primary season, we must ask ourselves: which of the candidates is most capable of restoring the visage of America so defaced by the outgoing administration?

[typo fixed]

Starr, Paul. Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism (New York: Basic Books, 2007)

Starr claims early on that "Both conservatives and liberals in the United States see themselves as bearers of the nation's founding ideals. This book argues that liberals have the better claim," (p. x, Preface) and bolsters this stance throughout the book. Starr categorizes liberalism as a kind of centrism between the poles of laissez-faire extremism on the Right and command economies on the Left, and notes that: 1920 some people who had called themselves "Progressives" were beginning to refer to themselves as "liberals." [...] After World War I, as many erstwhile Progressives grew wary of excessive state power, "liberal" had the additional merit of highlighting a connection to a long philosophical tradition that gave central importance to individual liberty. Liberalism was more than Progressivism renamed; it reflected a sense that the earlier movement was blind to the dangers of excessive state power. (p. 111)

While some conservatives lay claim to the moniker "classical liberalism" in an attempt to claim liberalism's foundation along with America's founding, it is a blindness to corporate power to which they succumb; they also aim to effectively blind others to this fact via misdirection. In analyzing the Right's demonization of the Left via the rhetoric of liberty, Starr writes:

After the fall of communism, "liberal" took the place of "communist" in the demonology of the American right. During the Cold War, despite McCarthyism, liberals and conservatives had been generally allied in their anticommunism, but conservatives now came to see liberals as their greatest adversaries and attacked them with greater venom than ever. "Now that the other 'Cold War' is over, the real cold war has begun," the neoconservative Irving Kristol wrote in 1993, referring to a "war" against liberalism (p. 185, "My Cold War," National Interest, Spring 1993, p. 141-4; reprinted in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, p. 486)

Here I have a quibble with Starr: the Right was demonizing liberalism long before the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union. One obvious example is Reagan's 1964 "A Time for Choosing" speech, where he famously claimed "Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn't so." Perhaps that shouldn't count because Reagan called us "friends" while slandering us as delusional?

At any rate, Starr has penned a solid paean to liberalism; it joins Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal as the best of this year's crop.


Paul Starr's website

Starr's "Why Liberalism Works" (American Prospect. March 2007)

Starr writes about "The Democrats' Strategic Challenge" (American Prospect, Jan/Feb 2008)

Michael Lind's review of Freedom's Power at NYT

I want my tree back!

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

In his latest column from The Humanist, Rob Boston reminds us of the Biblical injunction against "Christmas" trees:

Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

(Jeremiah 10:2-4)

Sing along with me: "Oh heathen tree, oh heathen tree.."

NYT's John Moore shares his photographs and audio commentary of Bhutto's assassination yesterday.

This is less a "clash of civilizations" than a clash between civilization and barbarism. It is dismaying to see normally civilized people, overwhelmed by shock and horror at what has happened, forgetting on which side they belong.

Bluegal at Crooks and Liars linked to three reviews of Led Zeppelin's performance at the Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert at London's O2 Arena a few weeks ago. This New Yorker review by Sasha Frere-Jones, my favorite of all the ones I've read, enthuses that "it's unlikely that you will see another band with a collective age of two hundred and twenty-four that is as ferocious as this one," but concludes that "Led Zeppelin is a cover band now, covering its own material:"

Without John Bonham, the band can only sound like Led Zeppelin; it can't be Led Zeppelin. The band should turn down the money and let its record stand. The failed gigs of the nineteen-eighties and nineties have been supplanted by a triumph, and the band should be pleased to have done Ertegun proud with such a spirited performance. I look forward to any chance I get to see Plant, Page, or Jones play live. But let the songs remain.

I've listened to a few bootlegged recordings of the O2 show, and LZ II sounded quite good--certainly much better than any of the previous one-off reunions (isn't it amazing what a little practice will do?). The transposition of some songs into a lower key to help mask Plant's aging vocal cords was a trivial complaint, as these old lions can still roar convincingly. Page and Plant were as entrancing and captivating as the last time I'd seen them, and the Jones/Jason Bonham rhythm section forged the four musicians' collective sound into a hammer of the gods that had both power and suppleness.

I eagerly await the official DVD release, and (perhaps?) a tour.

No one should be surprised to hear that al Qaeda has already admitted culpability (I'm not going to use the tepid "claimed responsibility") for the assassination of former Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto (h/t: El Supremo at DU):

A spokesperson for the al-Qaeda terrorist network has claimed responsibility for the death on Thursday of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

"We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen," Al-Qaeda's commander and main spokesperson Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid told Adnkronos International (AKI) in a phone call from an unknown location, speaking in faltering English.

After they scrape the murderer's remains off the pavement, they should wrap him in a bacon shroud, stuff a pork chop in his mouth and a hot dog up his ass, burn him on a lard-fueled pyre, and then scatter his ashes in the feed trough at a pig farm.

The same fate should await Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid and the other conspirators as soon as they are apprehended, tried, and convicted.

How's that for cleanliness?

update (3:04pm):
A quick perusal of the Quran--I use the Pickthall translation (700KB PDF)--will yield several verses (2:173, 5:3, 6:145, and 16:115) where Allah states that he will forgive transgressions that are "driven by necessity," but it would still be rather poetic punishment, no?

update 2 (3:13pm):
Andrew Sullivan sounds a note of skepticism:

Until we know more, it seems to me that al Qaeda's responsibility is actually the more optimistic scenario. If Islamists within the military or ISI did this, then we have the possibility that this is the beginning of something more ominous than the surface event. The collapse of Pakistan into a Jihadist nuclear power is the great nightmare. Here's hoping that however grim this news, the worst isn't yet to come.

Charlie Savage writes about the Boston Globe survey of the top twelve presidential candidates (Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Bill Richardson, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson) on executive power and signing statements.

Biden, Dodd, McCain, Paul, and Richardson each eschewed the use of signing statements altogether, as contrasted with more equivocal statements by other candidates. Three of the GOP's candidates (Giuliani, Huckabee, and Thompson) didn't respond to the survey, which prompted fellow Republican candidate Ron Paul to ask, "What are they trying to hide?" Paul asked. "Why are they embarrassed to answer the questions?"

I suspect that they're trying to hide their inability (or unwillingness) to restore honor and integrity to the White House.

Jon Rowe mentioned a "Secular Defense of Christmas" post from three years ago. It's still worth reading, particularly for his contention that "Christmas can be separated from its religious message:"

What the Hell do Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Christmas Trees, and the date of December 25 have to do with what's written in the Bible? Absolutely nothing, of course. (And there are the universal messages of peace on earth and goodwill towards fellow man, that are not Christian per se).

Rowe continues, suggesting that "Instead of asking whether we can separate the 'Christian' elements from Christmas, maybe we should be asking whether we can separate the 'Pagan' elements from Christmas:"

Christmas perfectly exemplifies the larger phenomenon of the unique culture that is the West which has a religious (Jerusalem) and a Secular-Pagan (Athens) origin. Culturally, the West presently is and always has been every bit as much of a Pagan society as it is Christian.

And what makes the West special is this unique combination, this tension between Athens and Jerusalem. The orthodox and the Pagan agree on some matters, vehemently disagree on others, borrow from one another and create separately and together. Indeed, this tension enabled the West to be the greatest creative force there ever was.

Pass the eggnog!

Jumonville, Neil & Kevin Mattson, eds. Liberalism for a New Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)

The thirteen essays--unnecessarily divided into three sections--are uneven in quality, but the book is nonetheless worth reading in its entirety. The pieces cover various aspects of liberalism, and touch on everything from Mapplethorpe's photos to Arendt & Niebuhr on the Brown desegregation decision. John Patrick Diggins' essay on "The Contemporary Critique of the Enlightenment" (pp. 33-57) is excellent, and he has gained a new reader for his prolific works. E.J. Dionne's Foreword starts the book off well,

The liberalism that emerged in American politics during the Progressive, New Deal, and civil rights eras was not simply a set of nice thoughts and good intentions. It was the essential concept in creating the America that conservatives, no less than liberals, now embrace as their won. Put another, way, absent the achievements of liberals, I doubt that conservatives would love this country as deeply as they do today. (p. ix, EJ Dionne Jr., Foreword)

followed by the editors' Introduction:

Our book of essays seeks to explicate ideas and values, and we do not seek to dodge the culture wars but to fight them by explaining what liberals believe. In this collection, we and our fellow contributors are less interested in explicating policy that in illuminating core liberal principles of the past and in exploring how they can become more relevant today. (p. 9, Neil Jumonville, and Kevin Mattson, Introduction)

As an example of the pieces chosen for inclusion in this volume, contrast the following paraphrase of Arthur Schlesinger's views:

To Schlesinger, American conservatism was little more than a smoke screen to advance the economic interests of business. It was dangerous because the business community, incapable of seeing beyond its own short-term interests, would provide poor political leadership. (p. 65, Jennifer Burns, "Liberalism and the Conservative Imagination")

to this quote from far-right favorite Ayn Rand (excerpted from John Galt's infamous speech in Atlas Shrugged):

"Now you have placed modern industry, with its immense complexity of scientific precision, back into the power of unknowable demons-the unpredictable power of the arbitrary whims of hidden, ugly little bureaucrats. A farmer will not invest the effort of one summer if he's unable to calculate his chances of a harvest. But you expect industrial giants-who plan in terms of decades, invest in terms of generations and undertake ninety-nine-year contracts-to continue to function and produce, not knowing what random caprice in the skull of what random official will descend upon them at what moment to demolish the whole of their effort. Drifters and physical laborers live and plan by the range of a day. The better the mind, the longer the range. A man whose vision extends to a shanty, might continue to build on your quicksands, to grab a fast profit and run. A man who envisions skyscrapers, will not." [emphases added]

How would Rand modify this observation in the present era, when industrialists plan in terms of their personal golden parachutes, look no further ahead than the next quarter's profit statement, and eschew anything resembling long-term goals (e.g., investment in R&D, funding pensions and health insurance plans, etc.) that might benefit anyone other than themselves? She certainly couldn't claim that society's investments in education and infrastructure are anything other than long-range vision: far longer than short-sighted business executives and investors.

I write this not to belabor Rand's well-known shortcomings, but to indicate the type of ruminations that this intriguing collection can spark. Do yourself a favor by reading it and finding out what conclusions you draw. Amy Sullivan has my Quote of the Day:

The dirty little secret is that conservatives rely on religious rhetoric because they have to. If they don't, Americans might notice that they're not walking the walk in policy. They're not caring for the sick, the poor, the widowed, the orphaned. They're not acting as stewards of God's green earth. They are suffering the little children, but not in the way that Jesus meant. (p. 173, Amy Sullivan, "Liberalism and Religion")

McGowan, John. American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

McGowan opens his introduction with the words "Democracy ain't worth a damn if it's not liberal. And liberalism isn't worth much if it isn't democratic," (p. 1) explicitly noting our Founders' liberalism. He explains later that:

By calling the founders "liberal," I mean to direct attention to their suspicion of concentrated governmental power, their fierce attachment to liberty, and their emergent commitment to equality. Their "republicanism" was both antidemocratic and not yet full liberalism to the extent that they focused on the "general welfare" and not the prosperity of isolated individuals as government's responsibility. (p. 13)

He lumps "leftist" extremists together--as distinct from mainstream liberals--and identifies Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, and Irving Kristol as "three variants of American conservatism:"

To anticipate: traditional conservatism is primarily concerned with liberal permissiveness as a threat to social order, laissez-faire conservatism insists that every attempt to increase equality must come at the cost of liberty, and neoconservatism claims that liberals are "soft" and unrealistic about the threats other states and terrorist organizations pose to American security. (p. 102)

McGowan's support for this tri-partite taxonomy--and the light it sheds on his analyses of liberalism--is the centerpiece of the book. The following example is my Quote of the Day:

Conservatism, at times of stress, will insist that you must obey, no questions asked. Not surprisingly, traditional conservatives especially are fond of the velvet glove; thus, they will wax sentimental about the traditional family or small village, consistently revealing a sublime blindness to how tyrannical such settings can be to underlings and nonconformists. (pp. 109-10)

McGowan's endnotes are excellent, and could serve as a model for other writers. His notes often expand into paragraph-length explications, and are thus exponentially more useful than a simple citation; the note for the common (and erroneous) attribution of "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" to Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. McGowan uses the information at Bartleby to cite Wendell Phillips as the likely originator, indicating a depth of research that is becoming increasingly uncommon even when it is--perversely--easier than ever to achieve.

I wish you all a Spectacular Solstice! (Everyone who participated in the second annual Global Orgasm for Peace event had a head start...)


Remember, obliquity of the ecliptic (or axial tilt, if you prefer) is the reason for the season!

defending Gore

| 2 Comments | No TrackBacks

Not surprisingly, my most recent letter drew some fire; also not surprisingly, no one disputed the facts.

One respondent wrote:

It shows great weakness that Gore never debates the issue, despite many invitations to do so. He will never go head-to-head with a climatologist who disagrees with his stance because Gore knows how porous his argument is.

I routinely attack his arguments and his hypocrisy here on this forum, but I am not an expert and base my arguments on common sense. I would love to see Gore debate with [four deniers] or any of the other climatologists who believe global warming is NOT caused by man. But, of course, Gore avoids any real debate at all costs.

I tend to disagree with decisions to avoid debate, whether they are Al Gore and climate change deniers, Richard Dawkins and creationists, or others. There are two dangers inherent to debating, however: 1) doing so can provide undeserved intellectual respectability to one's adversary, and 2) an uninformed audience may believe that the better arguer--as opposed to the more accurate argument--is correct. I am willing to take my chances, although I understand Gore's reluctance after years of being slimed by the corporate media. As far as "real debate" is concerned, there is little or none within the scientific community.

Another reader asks:

Did he renovate before or after the comments about his high electric bills surfaced? Did his strong support of the internet have anything to do with the rapid growth of internet companies with stock prices soaring with no indication of any profitability? Didn't that pretty much collapse into a near recession in 2000? Let's face it, he has no factual arguement [sic] for man's causing global warming. Has he ever explained what happened to the global cooling scare in the 1970's?

I'll answer those passive-aggressive questions, after having done the research that the questioner neglected to do:

Gore's home renovations were already underway (along with renewable energy, carbon offsets, CF bulbs, etc.) before the inaccurate critique of his electricity bills was propagated by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. For example, Gore tried since at least the previous summer to get solar panels installed on his roof, but was stymied by neighborhood rules until April of this year. (Interestingly, the TCPR waited to issue their press release criticizing Gore's home until the day after he won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth). As ThinkProgress noted,

There is no meaningful debate within the scientific community, so the right-wing busies itself with talk about how much electricity Al Gore's house uses -- and even then they distort the truth.

Upon completion of the renovations earlier this month, Gore's house earned a Gold certification from the US Green Building Council. TreeHugger noted that "the 10,000-square-foot home is one of only 14 in the U.S. to achieve this rating, and the only home in Tennessee that's gotten any certification at all."

Gore's visionary support for the Internet predated the NASDAQ boom by years if not decades, long before stock prices soared. Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf wrote in a 2000 open letter titled "Al Gore and the Internet" (reprinted as part of this excellent primer on the whole brouhaha) that "No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time:"

As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship. [...] When the Internet was still in the early stages of its deployment, Congressman Gore provided intellectual leadership by helping create the vision of the potential benefits of high speed computing and communication

The stock-market bubble started to deflate in March 2000, and the overall economy slowed throughout late 2000 and 2001. (However, the recession is dated by the National Bureau of Economic Research's Business Cycle Dating Committee as March through November 2001.)

For a factual argument concerning global warming, I'll quote (yet again) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's "Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers:"

"Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. [...] Most of the observed increase in globally-averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations."

With respect to any "global cooling" conjectures from the 1970s, popularized mostly by today's climate-change deniers, I was unable to find any mention of it by Mr Gore. If he didn't buy into the scare--having already begun informing himself about global warming--he has no explanations to make.

[follow-up here]

update (2/22 @ 12:00pm):
USA Today demolishes the myth of a "global cooling scare" in the 1970s (h/t: Climate Progress):

Thomas Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center surveyed dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles from 1965 to 1979 and found that only seven supported global cooling, while 44 predicted warming. Peterson says 20 others were neutral in their assessments of climate trends.

The study reports, "There was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was headed into an imminent ice age." [emphases added]

What will the deniers come up with next to excuse their ostrich-like behavior?

update 2 (11/11 @ 11:21am):
The NCDC study is here (4MB PDF); h/t once again to Climate Progress.

Here's another great letter to the editor:

Global warming is really about power and money

It is with morbid fascination that I watch politicians and uninformed people attempt to influence decisions about power generation, especially when most of them have no experience in this business other than appeasing a misguided agenda. [...]

Most agendas are driven by power or money. Governments, foundations and opportunists [...] are pushing the global warming agenda.

A little research will show that 99 percent of the greenhouse gases in the world are not created by man. The 1930s was the warmest decade in recorded history. The Earth has warmed only .7 degrees Celsius in the past 100 years. The ice mass of Antarctica is larger than any time in its history.

More harmful greenhouse gases are emitted by all the cows in the world than by all the automobiles.

The top of Mount Kilimanjaro is cooler than it was 10 years ago. The lack of snow is caused by cultivation of the arid land around its base.

If everyone in the world drove a hybrid car, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced less than .2 percent. [...]

[name and address redacted]

Here is my response:

Power and money? How about accuracy and honesty?

A major problem with the public square is that--as on talk radio or cable TV--standards are appallingly low. There is precious little fact-checking, and media personalities more commonly resemble stenographers than journalists. Spouting opinions is easy; determining their veracity--and thereby differentiating fact from opinion--can be quite difficult. Here is some information that was, to put it charitably, misrepresented by a previous commenter:

ASSERTION: A little research will show that 99 percent of the greenhouse gases in the world are not created by man.
CORRECTION: A little more research will show that greenhouse gases have increased drastically since the pre-industrial era (before 1750). The Department of Energy's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center found the following: nitrous oxide increased by 18%, carbon dioxide by 35%, and methane by 153%. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's "Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers" explains the increases:

"Global increases in CO2 concentrations are due primarily to fossil fuel use, with land-use change providing another significant but smaller contribution. It is very likely that the observed increase in CH4 concentration is predominantly due to agriculture and fossil fuel use. [...] The increase in N2O concentration is primarily due to agriculture."

ASSERTION: The Earth has warmed only .7 degrees Celsius in the past 100 years.
CORRECTION: Although this number is roughly accurate, it is intended to mislead, if not by implication then by hoped-for inference. The relatively small temperature change to date indicates a trend that could have devastating consequences. For one example, check out the EPA's Global Warming FAQ, which observes:

"Global temperatures during the last ice age (about 20,000 years ago) were 'only' 9°F cooler than today, but that was enough to allow massive ice sheets to reach as far south as the Great Lakes and New York City."

ASSERTION: The 1930s was the warmest decade in recorded history.
CORRECTION: That decade may have been the warmest in the United States, but the US only represents 2% of the world's surface. Temperatures continue to rise both in the US and around the world. According to a study by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, "The U.S. mean temperature has now reached a level comparable to that of the 1930s, while the global temperature is now far above the levels earlier in the century."

ASSERTION: The ice mass of Antarctica is larger than any time in its history.
CORRECTION: According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "The first-ever gravity survey of the entire Antarctic ice sheet... concludes the ice sheet's mass has decreased significantly...Antarctica's ice sheet decreased by 152 (plus or minus 80) cubic kilometers of ice annually between April 2002 and August 2005."

ASSERTION: More harmful greenhouse gases are emitted by all the cows in the world than by all the automobiles.
CORRECTION: This is true, but also misleading. The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (among others) estimates that "livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport," but this doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye to automotive fuel efficiency; it suggests that we should examine factory farming, deforestation, and other aspects of our diet. (See this ClimateAction report for more information.)

ASSERTION: The top of Mount Kilimanjaro is cooler than it was 10 years ago. The lack of snow is caused by cultivation of the arid land around its base.
CORRECTION: This may be partially true, but it is also misleading. Four years ago, National Geographic noted that the Kilimanjaro glaciers "have lost 82 percent of their ice since 1912" and "could be gone entirely by 2020." This BBC report states that, although researchers "have a certain expectation that the slope glaciers may last longer" than earlier estimates, the ice is more sensitive to lack of rainfall than it is to temperature change: "the regular snows that would maintain the ice fields are now a rare occurrence in what has become a much drier climate in East Africa...the drying of the East African climate around Kilimanjaro may itself be a regional impact of global climate change."

ASSERTION: If everyone in the world drove a hybrid car, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced less than .2 percent.
CORRECTION: The IPCC estimates road transportation at 13.1% of total GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. A conservative estimate of 30% emissions reduction (the results achieved by FedEx hybrids over their first million miles), replacing every existing vehicle with a hybrid would reduce total emissions by nearly 4%. Hybrids are obviously no panacea, but their increased fuel efficiency can help us on many fronts (FedEx also noted a 96% reduction in particulate matter emissions, no small matter to people suffering from asthma, allergies, and other conditions aggravated by airborne pollutants).

That ends this episode of Climate Change Denialism: "a misguided agenda...driven by power or money." Thanks for playing...would you like to try again, perhaps using some numbers that are both accurate and relevant?

Today's bed-wetting-fear level is:
Terror Alert Level

If Tim Burton can combine Christmas and Halloween, why can't I?

If you've had it up to here with the Faux News "War on Christmas," check out Garrett Eisler's great piece at HuffPo titled "The War on Saturnalia." It's a good read:

There's a war being waged against our sacred winter holiday, people. Centuries ago, our forebearers at this time of year began exchanging gifts, decorating trees, and welcoming the winter solstice with the return of light and end of darkness. All in the name of our beloved God. Yes, you know who I mean. Even in these heathen times, I'm not ashamed to speak his name: Saturn. There, I said it. Let's stop denying who this holiday is really about.

Puzzled at My Left Wing wrote this morning in "Question of the Day: Quoth the Raven" about collecting quotations, a practice that was once known as keeping a commonplace book. Few people seem to do so now, although modern technology has eliminated the drudgery of pen and paper.

I frequently make note of words that speak to me: Sometimes it's a phrase, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes an entire page. Here are a few of my favorites:

"I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine." (John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, 12 May 1780)

"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention." (Francis Bacon, "Of Studies")

"If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life." (Will Durant, The Lessons of History)

In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time... (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty)

"Most people would die sooner than think -- in fact they do so." (Bertrand Russell, The ABC of Relativity)

Here are some that I haven't yet verified:

"Be uncomfortable; be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world." (attributed to Gunter Eich)

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." [attributed to Sinclair Lewis, often--mistakenly--from It Can't Happen Here)

"Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats" (attributed to H.L. Mencken)

"Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for the money." (attributed to Moliere)

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." (attributed to Plutarch)

I've long puzzled over the amount of blatant projection among the wingnuts--Ann Coulter being the most obvious, and most consistent, example--and Sara at Orcinus has recognized their rhetoric as an unintentional "looking glass" into their psyches:

When conservatives tell us that we need constant surveillance to make us secure, what they're telling us is that they themselves are prone to criminal behavior if they think nobody else is watching. The fear of exposure is the only force keeping them on the right side of the law -- and that's why it's the only form of "security" they understand. Bear this in mind if you decide to do business with them.

When they tell us that our future depends on supporting a military that's bigger than the rest of the world's fighting forces combined, what they're telling us is that they can't handle chaos, complexity, change, or being out of control. The whole world is a threat; the only solution is a bigger gun. Bear this in mind if you find yourself in conflict with them.

When they tell us diplomacy isn't an option, they're telling us that it's not an option they understand. Words, agreements, treaties, and contracts mean nothing to them. Brute force is the only option they comprehend...or are likely to respond to themselves. Bear this in mind before you negotiate with them.

When they tell us that homosexuality is a threat to American families, what they're telling us is that homosexuality is a threat to their families. As in: if they ever dared to admit their own sexual interest in other men, their wives would leave them, and take the kids. Bear this in mind when they hold themselves up as moral paragons.

When they tell us the Islamofascists are a threat to our way of life, they are quite correctly pointing out that there are fascists threatening our way of life. They're just deflecting their own intentions on to brown people far away. Bear this in mind before assuming they share your belief in constitutional democracy.

When they accuse reality-based folks of promoting "junk science," they're telling us they basically think all science is junk. Bear this in mind before attempting to present them with convincing evidence of anything.

When they tell us to support the troops, what they're really saying is: You better, because we won't. Bear this in mind when you evaluate the real costs of the war.

When they tell us the government can't be trusted, they're telling us they can't be trusted to govern. Bear this in mind every time you step into a voting booth.

update (3:37pm):
When I revisited some of my notes on Ann Coulter, practically a poster child for projection, this gem stood out:

" could tell what [liberals] were up to by what they accused conservatives of. Liberals can't help projecting their own malevolence onto others." (Treason, p. 201)

update 2 (8:59pm):
Sara responded to my Coulter quote: "That simply takes my breath away. It's just!"

Indeed. Coulter's projection is often so blatant that I wonder how she--or her minions--can be oblivious to it.

This excellent web-only American Prospect article by Peter Dreier and John Atlas analyzes the roots of the sub-prime mortgage crisis:

Some political observers believe that the American mood is shifting, finally recognizing that the frenzy of deregulation that began in the 1980s has triggered economic chaos and declining living standards. If they needed proof, the foreclosure crisis is exhibit number one.


Although the immediate cause is the widespread use of sub-prime mortgages, the root cause is a decades old failure of government to adequately regulate the banking industry.

The Right can chant the "free markets" mantra all they want, but doing so will not make the problem disappear. Greed--enabled by lack of oversight--created this crisis. The antidote is not more of the same.

raisins and nails

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

PZ Myers mentions the zebibah, the Arabic word for raisin, which the NYT defines as "a dark circle of callused skin...on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers." A devout Muslim in Cairo is quoted as saying that the zebibah "shows how religious we are. It is a mark from God," to which Myers replies:

No, it isn't. It's a mark of self-inflicted brain damage.

Why don't they just pound nails into their skulls as a mark of piety?

Bruce Schneier is worried about the Microsoft Vista Service Pack 1 implementation of the flawed Dual_EC_DRBG random number generator.

He explained the flaw last month, noting that Dual_EC_DRBG "includes an algorithm that is slow, badly designed and just might contain a backdoor for the National Security Agency" Schneier continued:

"The math is complicated, but the general point is that the random numbers it produces have a small bias. The problem isn't large enough to make the algorithm unusable [...] but it's cause for concern."

(For math geeks, the obligatory Wikipedia article on elliptic curve cryptography is here.)

Wil Wheaton is a writer, and a good one at that. His "early morning conversations with my brain" is a great reminder to always be ready and willing to jot down that great idea...even when it wakes you up at 5:13am. All creative people should heed that voice of Coleridge, speaking "Kubla Khan" into our ears at inconvenient times; that same inspiration may never knock again.

update (6:57pm):
While it's geekily satisfying to sidle/saunter/slink/shuffle to one's Jonathan Ive-designed keyboard to pound out a few paragraphs, it's also important to remember that the technology is ultimately trivial...the idea is what matters.

It doesn't matter if it's a PDA and a stylus, a Post-It note and a pencil, a sketchbook and a Sharpie, a whiteboard and some markers, a lined notebook and a ballpoint pen, a mini tape recorder and one's voice, or whatever else might be available...the idea is what matters.

The idea is what matters.

Get it out there.

The following letter-to-the-editor was printed by my local newspaper:

Al Gore got to Norway aboard an airplane

How interesting it was to read [...] about former Vice President Al Gore taking public transportation while in Norway. I wonder why it was not reported that he got to Norway by charter plane. Hypocrisy is alive and well.

[name and address redacted]

Here is my response:

why can't conservatives stop lying about Al Gore?

Seven years after wresting the presidency away from Al Gore, conservatives are still lying about him. During the 2000 campaign, they misrepresented and/or flat-out lied about many things: Gore's reference to Love Canal, his joke about the "Look for the Union Label" jingle, his comments about Erich Segal's book Love Story, and--most famously--his crucial early support for the Internet. In their desperation to win the election, conservatives threw honesty aside and impugned Gore's credibility at every opportunity. Earlier this year, after Gore won an Oscar for his film An Inconvenient Truth, they even made false accusations about his home heating bills.

The latest claim, according to a local hypocrisy-monger, is that Gore flew in a charter plane to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. Actually, according to the Norwegian newspaper AftenPosten, (and this AFP article) Gore arrived in Oslo aboard "a normally scheduled commercial flight from New York."

Instead of spending a few minutes investigating the facts, conservatives would rather manufacture scandals (such as this "charter plane" myth) and then complain that the media aren't credulously reporting them. Media outlets shouldn't participate in right-wing smear campaigns by spreading their misinformation.

Gore is far from perfect, but he does a better job (by nearly any measure) than his critics will admit. He has done vital work in spreading environmental awareness, and it's not just talk. He renovated his own home to make it more efficient, uses renewable (solar and geothermal) energy, and even replaced his Christmas tree lights with LEDs. He flies commercially when possible, and purchases offsets to reduce his carbon footprint. It shows great weakness among the climate-change deniers that they are attacking Gore instead of his arguments.

[follow-up here]

Massey, Douglas. Return of the "L" Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)

Massey, a professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton, combines a defense of capitalism with an explication of liberalism, without the contradiction that some would anticipate. Indeed, Massey declares that "liberal capitalism guided by representative democracy [is] the only viable and humane option." (p. 108) He has written, not the sequel to Barash's book The L Word that one might expect based on its title, but rather" a coherent liberal alternative to the reigning conservative ideology." (p. 35)

He tells liberals to "expose the radical conservative position for what it is:" attempt to dismantle the social achievements of the New Deal and Great Society, roll back the tide of civil rights, erase the wall between fundamentalist Christianity and the state, and ultimately to impose on Americans a restrictive morality that controls their sexual behavior and family formation by institutionalizing gross invasions of privacy and new constraints on civil liberties. (p. 9)

and derisively eviscerates their neo-Confederate wing:

...beginning in the 1980s the United States began to experience a neo-confederate revival that not only restored the older Confederate organizations to new respectability but also led to the formation of brand new organizations that cultivated a membership and political agenda outside the South. The Council of Conservative Citizens, for example, was organized in 1985 as the "true voice of the American right" (the initials CCC being a softer way of writing KKK). (p. 138)

This sentiment, however, clashes with his earlier statement that:

The time has come for liberals to stop dismissing conservative opponents as benighted ignoramuses on the verge of consignment to the dustbin of history and to appreciate them for the principled, driven, and effective organizational actors that they are. Underestimating one's opponents can lead only to defeat. (p. 9)

I agree with Massey here, but with the caveat that one can dismiss opponents' principles without dismissing the opponents themselves. I strive to do the former, but realize--especially in retrospect--that I sometimes fall prey to doing the latter.

What do you call it when a Muslim tries to save three Jews from being attacked by a Christian mob?

No, it's not a joke; it happened last Friday on a New York City subway train:

A Muslim man jumped to the aid of three Jewish subway riders after they were attacked by a group of young people who objected to one of the Jews saying "Happy Hanukkah," a spokeswoman for the three said Wednesday.

Friday's altercation on the Q train began when somebody yelled out "Merry Christmas," to which rider Walter Adler responded, "Happy Hanukkah," said Toba Hellerstein.

"Almost immediately, you see the look in this guy's face like I've called his mother something," Adler told CNN affiliate WABC.

Two women who were with a group of 10 rowdy people then began to verbally assault Adler's companions with anti-Semitic language, Hellerstein said.

One member of the group allegedly yelled, "Oh, Hanukkah. That's the day that the Jews killed Jesus," she said.

Is this the "spirit of Christmas" that surfaces every December?

Barash, David. The L Word: An Unapologetic, Thoroughly Biased, Long-Overdue Explication and Celebration of Liberalism (New York: William Morrow, 1992)

Barash successfully straddles the line between being a folksy writer (think James Carville) and an academic one (think Louis Hartz); he is both lively and scholarly, and he tackles an important subject in a manner both accessible and informative. He boldly asserts that the US' success is "the greatest triumph of liberalism in the history of the world" (p. 14) and does a good job proving his point in the pages that follow. He also makes this great point about education:

Whereas Marxists will diligently study and explicate the writings of Saint Karl, relatively few liberals have read Locke. Similarly, most conservatives haven't attempted Edmund Burke, Disraeli, Plato, or even Goldwater. Nonetheless, there is much to be said for understanding one's intellectual antecedents, if only to discover how far away they are. (p. 36)

This is my reason for devouring a stack of liberal books (a few down, several more to go): the need to use the course of our past to help determine our future trajectory. Conservatives' criticism that liberalism is no longer about protecting liberty is rebutted here:

There is, in fact, a crucial strand of consistency linking classical liberalism with its modern descendants. Liberals of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries must be seen in the context of their times. They opposed government activism when the greatest danger to humanistic values came from those governments themselves. Classical liberals sided with the individual versus the state at a time when the government was monarchical, tyrannical, and inimical to freedom. In the last hundred years or so, with the triumph of democracy and capitalism in the West, the greatest threats to the individual have shifted. Now, they emanate not from society or government, but from the excesses of capitalism itself, and with the collusion of too little government. [...] In this respect, modern-day liberals have kept faith with the prodemocracy, even the procapitalist, traditions of classical liberals, while conservatives have remained true to the antidemocracy, proprivilege orientation of the monarchists and the entrenched. (pp. 46-7)

This observation ties into the Adlai Stevenson quotation in my review of Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal, which examined the same phenomenon from a different angle. Conservatives' reasonable-sounding but ultimately nonsensical appeal to the (liberal) Founders is addressed by Barash this way:

Those stymied in their attempts to ride roughshod over their neighbors often responded by appealing to Jeffersonian ideals and/or States' Rights or, better yet, local government control or no control at all, because the smaller the public unit, the more likely it is to be under the thumb of powerful interests. Accordingly, such appeals were often a cloak for unlimited corporate or private power. (pp. 49-50)

Barash echoes this sentiment later, using the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Palmer Raids, and McCarthyism as examples:

Our fundamental freedoms--of expression, of assembly, of religion--the entire pantheon of America's cherished democratic and civil rights, are valued and defended more by liberals than by anyone else. These rights have very definitely been under attack in the past, sometimes by the United States government itself, most often under the auspices of a conservative administration or legislator. And most often liberals--along with those farther to the left--were the victims. (p. 156)

For my Quote of the Day, I turn to the impossible-to-overpraise conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein:

"Who fought to free the slaves? Liberals. Who succeeded in abolishing the poll tax? Liberals. Who fought for women's rights, civil rights, free public education? Liberals. Who stood guard and still stands guard against sweatshops, child labor, racism, bigotry? Lovers of freedom and enemies of tyranny: Liberals." (pp. 106-7, The New York Times, 30 October 1988, included in this posthumous 2004 "Prelude, Fugue & Riffs" newsletter)

Who wrote an under-appreciated book about liberals? David Barash.

In other GOP torture news, waterboarding would be banned--along with all other interrogation techniques not permitted by the Army Field Manual--under a bill passed by the House today (h/t: ThinkProgress). The vote was 222 to 199; 5 Republicans voted against torture, while 189 of them (along with 10 Democrats) voted for its continuation.

Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) claimed that this bill means "no more torture, no more waterboarding, no more clever wordplay, no more evasive answers, no more dishonesty," but he is overlooking several things: a) a likely veto, b) an even more likely signing statement, and c) an almost certain deliberate flouting of the law by an increasingly lawless administration.

This entire shameful subject is a further reminder that Kucinich was right at the CNN debate last month: "Impeach them now!"

Tony Blankley, one of the GOP's shills at The Moonie Times, ranted on NPR's All Things Considered this afternoon that the CIA displayed "common sense" in destroying videotapes of tortured detainees. Over at DailyKos, Devilstower mocked Blankley's pathetic argument that the potential release of the torture tapes would be "a catastrophic propaganda defeat for us."

Blankley asked "what has happened to common sense," but displays shockingly little of it himself. If we need to "begin to convince the Muslim world we are not their enemy," perhaps not torturing Muslims in our custody would be a good start; a videotape of a tortureless interrogation would inflame no one's passions.

Right-wing pundits may have forgotten habeas corpus, "the rule of law," and "innocent until proven guilty," but the rest of us--and the rest of the world--have not.

MovableType, the blogging software on which this site runs, is now open source! (Open Source Initiative has a nice definition for the non-techies in the audience.) As the MT announcement summarizes:

This means you can freely modify, redistribute, and use Movable Type for any purpose you choose. [...] Our goal has always been to create the best blogging platform in the world and to put that power in the hands of as many people as possible. And we want to honor a tradition of openness that Movable Type has embodied for over six years


In this video discussing last week's speech, Mitt Romney demonstrates that he has no idea what the word "nonbelievers" means:

"There are a couple of things people have pointed out: why didn't I mention nonbelievers? Well, I thought that was assumed within the general purview of faith. But, you know, that doesn't bother me."

By definition, of course, nonbelievers are those without belief (or "without faith," if you prefer). It sounds as if Romney is suggesting one of those "atheists-have-faith-too" arguments; I usually reply to that inanity with some variant of these words:

"...if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby and baldness is a hair color." (DarkSyde at Unscrewing the Inscrutable)

| 2 Comments | No TrackBacks


(courtesy of Friendly Atheist)

Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America (San Diego: Harvest Books, 1991)

Hartz's book is excessively dry, even for someone like myself with a taste for the academic-bordering-on-pedantic style. Hartz assumes the reader's great familiarity with political thinkers both famous and obscure from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth. He frequently stresses our national reliance on Lockean liberalism (although he prefers "Lockian"), as in this passage: "Locke dominates American political thought, as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation. He is a massive national cliché." (p. 140)

Hartz fails in a particularly bothersome way in the area of documentation, as in the case of this remark: "Maistre gloomily predicted that the American Constitution would not last because it was created out of the whole cloth of reason." (p. 49) Although no source is cited for this statement, Hartz is presumably alluding to this passage from Maistre's Considerations on France (Cambridge University Press, trans. Richard Lebrun, pp. 60-1):

"I see nothing favouring this chimerical system of deliberation and political construction by abstract reasoning. [...] All that is new in their government, all those things that are the result of popular deliberation, are the most fragile parts of the system; one could scarcely combine more symptoms of weakness and decay."

This passage, continued below, shows the depth of Maistre's erroneous pessimism:

Not only do I doubt the stability of the American government, but the particular establishments of English America inspire no confidence in me. The cities, for example, animated by a hardly respectable jealousy, have not been able to agree as to where the Congress should meet; none of them wanted to concede the honour to another. In consequence they have decided to build a new city to be the capital. They have chosen a very favourable location on the banks of a great river and decreed that the city should be called Washington. The sites of all the public buildings have been marked out, the work has begun, and the plan of this queen city has already made the rounds in Europe. Essentially there is nothing in all this that surpasses human power; a city may easily be built. Nevertheless, there is too much deliberation, too much humanity in this business, and one could bet a thousand to one that the city will not be built, that it will not be called Washington, and that the Congress will not meet there.

It's fortunate that Maistre didn't wager anything; that thousand-to-one bet would have been an expensive mistake.

Hartz's style, as well as his thoroughness, often leaves much to be desired; sentences like this make me wish he had been a better writer:

There can be no doubt that the Ricardo-Malthus analysis of Edmund Ruffin cuts behind Jefferson's political obsession just as cleanly as the Comtian analysis of George Frederick Holmes. (p. 192)

For all that I found wanting in Hartz's prose, his insights made its reading a worthwhile task. The point he makes here is but one example:

Thus while millions of Europeans have fled to America to discover the freedom of Paine, there have been few Americans, only a few of course, who have fled to Europe to discover the freedom of Burke. The ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition. (p. 57)

Hartz may well have chosen to rewrite the end of that passage if he had the opportunity, but the initial observation is a telling one.

atheist quotes

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

When Mojoey mentioned this list of famous atheists' quotes at Deep Thoughts, I chimed in with a few of my favorites:

"...religion is a collective insanity, the more powerful because it is traditional folly, and because its origin is lost in the most remote antiquity. As collective insanity it has penetrated to the very depths of the public and private existence of the peoples; it is incarnate in society; it has become, so to speak, the collective soul and thought. Every man is enveloped in it from birth; he sucks it in with his mother's milk, absorbs it with all that he touches, all that he sees. He is so exclusively fed upon it, so poisoned and penetrated by it in all his being, that later, however powerful his natural mind, he has to make unheard-of efforts to deliver himself from it, and even then he never completely succeeds." (Michael Bakunin, God and the State)

"God is a word to express, not our ideas, but the want of them." (John Stuart Mill)

Superstition, in a thousand shapes, is employed in brutalizing and degrading the human species, and fitting it to endure without a murmur the oppression of its innumerable tyrants. (Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Refutation of Deism")

Here's one more, for anyone who has ever felt aurally accosted by the seasonal cacophony of the Salvation Army:

"The act of bellringing is symbolic of all proselytizing religions. It implies the pointless interference with the quiet of other people." (Ezra Pound)

Happy holidays!

"Mitt, you're no JFK"

| No TrackBacks

Romney's much-awaited "Faith in America" speech (transcript here) was worse than I had expected. Romney didn't want to deliver an inclusive speech in support of religious pluralism, as Kennedy did in 1960, preferring to temper the separation of church and state rather than forcefully uphold it. Romney echoed JFK in this passage:

Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

Other sections of the speech displayed a far less congenial sentiment:

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

This is nonsense, unless one can ignore both the propensity of organized religion toward conformity and the opposite tendency of some freethinkers toward anarchy. The following passage started off well, but then also veered off into far right field. The wingnuts may applaud talk about the oxymoronic "religion of secularism," but that doesn't make it true.

We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

This section was also bothersome:

Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion - rather, we welcome our nation's symphony of faith.

I believe strongly in religious freedom, but I do not pray to a deity; does this exclude me from "friend and ally" status with Romney? If his "symphony of faith" excludes atheists and agnostics, it would be even less harmonious than an orchestra without trumpets, French horns, and double basses, which together approximate within an orchestra the 18% of American adults without religion. Politicians wouldn't dare to overlook any other voting bloc of comparable size; that they do so to freethinkers is equally unacceptable.

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's famous slam on Dan Quayle, I'll just say, "Mitt, you're no JFK."

update (3:46pm):
Andrew Sullivan mentions some other reactions here.

update 2 (4:05pm)
Ron Chusid has some excellent remarks at Liberal Values:

At least Romney did make mention of separation of church and state, which many conservatives totally deny. He also spoke of "our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty," but he does not appear to understand these principles. Nor does he understand secularism. [...] Romney makes the same mistake made by many conservatives in confusing secularism for opposition to religion. When Romney cites the founding fathers he fails to understand that many of them were simultaneously religious and believers in secularism.


| No Comments | No TrackBacks

This new Harris poll on religious views and beliefs (h/t: NoGodBlog) is largely Eurocentric, but the question on religious self-identification caught my attention. According to the poll, 14% of American adults identify as agnostics, and 4% as atheists.

Ezra Klein writes about "My Shiny New eBrain" at American Prospect, discussing Amazon's new Kindle ebook device. It's a mixed review, as is appropriate for technology that appears poised to alter longstanding habits of information storage and retrieval.

I'm no Luddite, but I fear that Klein's "rare joy" of "curling up with a hardcover and a hot drink" is about to become rarer still.

Dinesh D'Souza tries to explain "Why Atheists Are So Angry"--a topic I've dealt with before--but his latest argument hinges on this sophomoric sophistry:

Atheists often like to portray themselves as "unbelievers" but this is not strictly accurate. If they were mere unbelievers they would simply live their lives as if God did not exist.

I don't believe in unicorns, but then I haven't written any books called The End of Unicorns, Unicorns are Not Great, or The Unicorn Delusion. Clearly the atheists go beyond disbelief; they are on the warpath against God. And you can hear their bitterness not only in their book titles but also in their mean-spirited invective.

If we lived in a country where the vast majority believed fervently in a Unicorn deity, demanded special privileges for worshiping their one-horned savior, amended our Pledge of Allegiance to read "one nation under Unicorn," proclaimed "in Unicorn we trust" on our currency, opened our legislative and judicial sessions with homages to the one-horned, and tacked "so help me Unicorn" onto our oaths of office, D'Souza might have a point; in reality, his analogy is specious at best.

We atheists do, in fact, live our lives without deities, although--as Sam Harris observed--doing so is not without potential conflict: "As an atheist, I am angry that we live in a society in which the plain truth cannot be spoken without offending 90% of the population." Offense-taking on D'Souza's part does not imply mean-spiritedness on ours, despite D'Souza's complaints about the insults hurled his way:

From the atheists you hear statements like this: "D'Souza is a goddamned idiot." "Odious little toad." "D'Souza is full of shit." "A smug, joyless twit." "Total moron." "Little turd." "Two-faced liar." Etc, etc.

For the record, D'Souza, we sometimes call you a "moron" or an "idiot" out of frustration that your (self-)celebrated rhetorical skills are used for obfuscation rather than enlightenment. We sometimes even call you a "liar" when you misrepresent the facts or make untruthful statements.

Even worse, we occasionally point out that you're "full of shit" because, well, you often are.

Damon Linker has posted "Atheism's Wrong Turn" at TNR, criticizing the "mindless arguments found in godless books" by bestselling authors Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Linker proposes to divide the freethinking community into two camps, liberal and illiberal: "one primarily concerned with the dispassionate pursuit of truth, the other driven by a visceral contempt for the personal faith of others."

While I enjoyed Linker's book Theocons, in this article he falls for the "fundamentalist atheist" fallacy; his conclusion that the atheist authors named above represent "a brutally intolerant, proselytizing faith, out to rack up conversions" is wild speculation at its worst. Secularism, the foundation of religious pluralism and liberal democracy, is the exclusive province of no theology. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens would deserve Linker's accusation of illiberality if they attempted to legislate their (anti)theology, but merely stating their conclusions about religion--however forcefully or indelicately--is not evidence of an intolerant illiberalism.

Christopher Hitchens has some remarks at Slate that are sure to get some panties in a twist, calling Hanukkah "not the ignition of a light but the imposition of theocratic darkness" and declaring that "when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded." Hitchens' sarcasm is on full display when he notes that "one stands aghast at the pathetic scale of the supposed 'miracle:'"

As a consequence of the successful Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, so it is said, a puddle of olive oil that should have lasted only for one day managed to burn for eight days. Wow! Certain proof, not just of an Almighty, but of an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists. Epicurus and Democritus had brilliantly discovered that the world was made up of atoms, but who cares about a mere fact like that when there is miraculous oil to be goggled at by credulous peasants?

I'm tempted to send him a congratulatory bottle of Johnnie Walker Black.

This NYT review of The Golden Compass quotes director Chris Weitz as being determined to protect the "anti-theology" of the remaining two books:

I mean to protect the integrity of those remaining chapters. [...] The aim is to put in the elements we need to make this movie a hit, so that we can be much less compromising in how the second and third books are shot.

Mark Morford has a few comments from the San Francisco Chronicle, where he summarizes HDM this way:

The nefarious thing the books aim to kill is religious authority. It's about the destruction of dogma. It's about power, about who wants to control and manipulate life on Earth, about the blind, ignorant, even violent adherence to insidiously narrow codes of thought, belief, behavior, sex, desire and love.

No wonder the anti-HDM protestors (Catholic League, Focus on the Family, and the usual assortment of Christianist know-nothings) are so pissed off! Morford has some choice words for them as well:

If your ancient, authoritarian, immutable belief system is threatened by a handful of popular novels, if your ostensibly all-powerful, unyielding creed is rendered meek and defenseless when faced with the story of a fiery, rebellious young girl who effortlessly rejects your stiff misogynistic religiosity in favor of adventure, love, sex, the ability to discover and define her soul on her own terms, well, it might be time for you to roll it all up and shut it all down and crawl back home, and let the divine breathe and move and dance as she sees fit.

August Berkshire has a list of "34 Unconvincing Arguments for God" at Minnesota Atheists (h/t: PZ Myers at Pharyngula) wherein he analyzes Euthyphro's Dilemma, Anselm's ontological argument, and dismisses claims based on fine-tuning and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. These passages are my favorites:

(3) Holy Books - Just because something is written down does not make it true. This goes for the Bible, the Qur'an, and any other holy book. It is circular reasoning to try to prove the god of a holy book exists by using the holy book itself as "evidence." [...]

(4) The Argument from Historical Settings - This argument states that because historical people and places are mentioned in ancient stories, that everything else about those stories, including descriptions of supernatural events, must be true. By this argument, everything written in the Iliad, including the intervention of the ancient Greek gods, must be true.

(14) "Pascal's Wager" / Faith [...]
Part of Pascal's Wager states that you "lose nothing" by believing. But an atheist would disagree. By believing under these conditions, you're acknowledging that you're willing to accept some things on faith. In other words, you're saying you're willing to abandon evidence as your standard for judging reality. Faith doesn't sound so appealing when it's phrased that way, does it? [emphasis in original]


Krugman, Paul. The Conscience of a Liberal (New York: Norton, 2007)

For a pundit called "shrill" by conservatives for his largely sensible--although critical of Busheviks--NYT columns, Paul Krugman has penned a very even-handed polemic about a contentious subject: the much-maligned political ideology of American liberalism.

Krugman refers to the post-WWII period as "The Great Compression," when the middle class was created as Americans' standards of living became more homogeneous. He laments how this broad prosperity, which he notes "was created, in just the space of a few years, by the policies of the Roosevelt administration" (p. 7) was deliberately destroyed by conservatives. Despite the fact that "America is a far more productive and hence far richer country than it was a generation ago:"

The value of the output an average worker produces in an hour, even after you adjust for inflation, has risen almost 50 percent since 1973. Yet the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small minority has proceeded so rapidly that we're not sure whether the typical American has gained anything from rising productivity. (p. 124)

Economics isn't Krugman's only focus, however. He notes with dismay the MSM complicity with the militarism we gained from rising Bushism:

Initial success in Afghanistan was treated as a huge achievement for the Bush administration, as if tipping the balance of power in a third-World civil war were the equivalent of D-day. Minor details like Osama bin Laden's escape from the mountains of Tora Bora were ignored. (p. 204)

and assesses the Iraq sleight-of-hand this way:

The script called for a blitzkrieg, a victory parade, and then another round of tax cuts. This required assuming that everything would be easy, and dismissing warnings from military experts that it probably wouldn't work out that way. (p. 205)

Lulled by Commander Codpiece's "Mission Accomplished" address, and blind to the reality of flag-draped coffins, some Americans aren't far from believing that Iraq did work out that way. They also appear to have forgotten what Krugman points out: Liberalism is responsible for much of what is worth conserving about America today. Adlai Stevenson, one of the great mid-century liberals, provides my Quote of the Day:

"The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party in the country--the party dedicated to conserving all that is best and building solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party--the party of the reckless and embittered, bent on dismantling institutions which have been built solidly into our social fabric." (p. 266, Adlai Stevenson, quoted from Peter Viereck, "The New Conservatism")


With the long-awaited recent demise of TimesSelect, Krugman's op-eds are freely available here from the NYT; there is an Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive. His blog is here.

Andrew Leonard at Salon

Matthew Yglesias at The Atlantic

NYT review and Krugman's response

Michael Tomasky at NYRB

Peter Beinart at NYT

tristero at Hullabaloo

Nicholas von Hoffman at TruthDig

interview at BuzzFlash

interview with James Harris at TruthDig

I saw this paranoid Christianist persecution fantasy at WingNutDaily last week, but wasn't motivated enough to deal with its myriad misrepresentations and overall mendacity. Thankfully, The Watcher over at Fundie Watch has given it the fisking it deserves.


The Golden Compass is discussed in this Christianity Today article, which quotes from this interview with author Philip Pullman (h/t: Harry at CrookedTimber). Pullman certainly isn't the malevolent mirage conjured up by Christianists; these passages in particular piqued my interest:

I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I'm an atheist, I'm certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. The Church of England is so deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking that to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it.


I would hate to live in a world where all the Christian art, philosophy, literature, music, and architecture, not to mention the best of the ethical teaching, had been obliterated and forgotten. My own background, as I've said many times, is Christian to the core. Christianity has made me what I am, for better or worse. I just don't believe in God.

When discussing god as a metaphor, Pullman said:

Perhaps it might be clearer to call him a character in fiction, and a very interesting one too: one of the greatest and most complex villains of all - savage, petty, boastful and jealous, and yet capable of moments of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection - for David, for example.

Pullman thus recognizes both sides of the deity that Richard Dawkins only sees in part:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

(The God Delusion, p. 31)

Pullman's statement about the absence of Jesus from the trilogy His Dark Materials was likewise intriguing: "I'm going to get around to Jesus in the next book. I have plenty to say about him." I may find myself reading Pullman's books sooner rather than later.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2007 is the previous archive.

January 2008 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives


  • About
  • Contact
OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.031