February 2008 Archives

A new Zogby poll has some interesting results on the greatness of modern presidents:

Franklin D. Roosevelt has retained his top ranking among the greatest presidents of the modern era, a new nationwide Zogby International telephone poll shows. Roosevelt has dominated Zogby's Presidential Greatness survey since 1997 - only losing out to John F. Kennedy in 2006 and 2002.

[...]

Bush has also surpassed Richard Nixon as the modern president with the highest negative rating - 52% of those surveyed place the current president at the bottom end of the scale as either "below average" or a "failure", compared to 50% who said the same about Nixon. Bush also beats out Nixon on the failure scale - one in three Americans (33%) say Bush is a failure as a president, up from 30% who said the same last year. [emphases added]

Dinesh D'Souza tries to excuse "That Notorious Buckley AIDS Column" via several means, none of them convincing. First, he attempts some chronological obfuscation by claiming "Buckley had written a notorious column during the 1980s" and "not much was known about AIDS in the early 1980s." These statements are both true, and both are misleading.

By writing "during the 1980s" rather than giving the column's date of 18 March 1986, D'Souza tries to obscure its true age, and thus justify its homophobia via ignorance. What was known about AIDS "in the early 1980s" is irrelevant, as a great deal was known--for those who cared to learn--by 1986. (By way of context: The first CDC reports were issued in 1981, the retrovirus was isolated in 1983, and antibody screening for blood donors began in 1985. 1986, the year of Buckley's tattoo remark, saw the release of Surgeon General Koop's celebrated Report on AIDS.)

D'Souza claims that Buckley's suggestion of tattooing people was AIDS was made "somewhat light-heartedly," but I fail to see humor in such Nazi-esque forced tattooing of those who already suffer from a fatal disease. Tattooing "abandon all hope..." on their lower backs is as abhorrent an idea as sewing pink triangles onto their work camp uniforms.

Far from being a mid-1980s aberration, Buckley revisited the tattooing idea in 2005, suggesting that "maybe it is up now for reconsideration." He displayed his homophobia to the end; if he couldn't make history stop, he could at least stop learning about subjects that upset his fragile heteronormative worldview.

How pitiful.


update (3/5 @ 2:59pm):
D'Souza posted his column at ClownHall, and I've been having some fun with the trolls who hang out there.

It's all over the Internet already, but just in case you haven't seen it yet: Barack Obama has released an open letter to the LGBT community. Obama hits all the right notes--he supports ENDA and other non-discrimination statutes, favors the repeal of DOMA and DADT--and only disappoints in supporting marriage equality at the state rather than the federal level.

"Equality is a moral imperative. [...] I will never compromise on my commitment to equal rights for all LGBT Americans."

You had me at 'moral imperative.'

the lying professor

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The story "My Favorite Liar" about an unorthodox teaching technique (h/t: Jason Kottke) is wonderful:

What made Dr. K memorable was a gimmick he employed that began with his introduction at the beginning of his first class:

"Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures ... one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day."

It's a great story about an engaging teaching technique; I wish more professors told lies like this.

RIP, WFBjr

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Rick Perlstein's piece on "Why William F. Buckley Was My Role Model" shows the personable side of the famed conservative icon, while the NYT obituary provides the expected bevy of biographical data. Check out these videos of a 1969 Firing Line confrontation with Noam Chomsky for a sense of how the left-vs.-right arguments have degenerated since Buckley's time at the pinnacle of American conservatism.

Although Buckley's conservatism often led him to conclusions that were indefensible in retrospect, in particular his racism

"The central question that emerges...is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes--the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race." (National Review, 24 August 1957)

and homophobia,

"Everyone detected with AIDS should be tatooed [sic] in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals." (New York Times op-ed, 18 March 1986)
"Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddam face and you'll stay plastered." (to Gore Vidal during an ABC debate, 28 August 1968)

his erudite vocabulary and patrician manner were nearly always a pleasure to admire and to argue against. Buckley was a far more worthy intellectual opponent than the crowd of cretins currently clamoring to claim his crown, and he will be missed.

order from amazon.com

Dean, John. Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches (New York: Viking, 2007)

Broken Government is the final volume in what Dean refers to as an "unplanned trilogy" (p. xi) about GOP misrule of the federal government. (I reviewed the preceding volumes Worse Than Watergate and Conservatives without Conscience here and here, respectively.)

Dean focuses primarily on the process of governance, utilizing some of the same critical material used in my worst. president. ever. posts (ranging from Alan Wolfe's "Why Conservatives Can't Govern" from Washington Monthly to Sean Wilentz's Rolling Stone article "The Worst President in History?"). These two passages serve to summarize Dean's position:

If this book is hard on Republicans, it is because they have demonstrated during the past several decades a remarkable incapacity to govern at the national level and should accordingly be held responsible for the damage they have done to democracy. In fact, as currently constituted, I do not believe the Republican Party can be trusted with control of the national government, not because of its policies (many of which I confess to favoring) but rather because of its philosophical disposition toward the process of government, which they so easily abuse in their pursuit and exercise of power. Their thinking has proven ruinous. (pp. xvi-xvii, Preface)

Congress under Republican rule has proven to be incapable of deliberation, timely annual appropriations, and necessary oversight of a Republican president, all fundamental constitutional responsibilities of the legislative branch. Modern Republican presidents, in turn, believe that they must dominate the entire federal establishment, and in so doing override the fundamental safeguard of our system's checks and balances. Corrupting the independence and impartiality of the federal judiciary has been a priority of Republican presidents, who have devoted four decades to selecting primarily judges and justices with a radical conservative political philosophy. (p. 175)

The government is, of course, only broken from the perspective of a citizenry that expects adherence to the Constitutional preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

From the plutocratic perspective, which demands that its dollar contributions be rewarded and multiplied by legislative and judicial action (and inaction), the government is working exactly as planned. In this article from Harper's, based on her book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein states that:

Under George W. Bush, the state still has all the trappings of a government--the impressive buildings, presidential press briefings, policy battles--but it no more does the actual work of governing than the employees at Nike's Beaverton, Oregon, campus stitch running shoes.

Klein's "actual work of governing," like Dean's, is based on our Constitution; Bush's "actual work" is little more than redistributing tax revenue upwards to his donors. Bushism is another example of socializing the costs and privatizing the profits, and the results are as ugly as they have ever been.

Dean has written another sobering account of GOP misrule: one hopes that conservatives cannot do enough additional damage in the next ten months to justify Dean making his trilogy into a quadrilogy.

I can scarcely believe it, but Ralph Nader is once again running for president. Given his declining vote percentages--from 2.74% in 2000 to 0.38% last time--I hardly think he's in the position of "spoiler" this time around, but I just don't get it. Does Nader have some craving for attention that cannot be satisfied by other means? Does he have candidacy-related OCD? Does he want to tarnish his reputation even more than he did (with the aid of the felonious five) in 2000?

Why is he running again?


update (5:51pm):
Nicole Belle nails it at Crooks and Liars:

I don't disagree with anything that he said (other than citing Frank Luntz. I mean, come on!), and I am a big believer in having viable third, fourth and even fifth parties to help break the gridlock in Washington DC, I'm even a registered third party voter. That said, I have to ask: Where have you been, Ralph? What have you done in the last eight years (and I'm willing to hold the Democrats responsible for some-but not all-of the ongoing mess, but let's lay the onus for how messed up everything is squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration) to help make third parties more viable and allow them a voice on the national stage? How is showing up more than a year into presidential politicking with just a few months left helpful to the validity of third parties?

Making independents more meaningful isn't an eleventh hour appearance on a talking head show. It takes years of sustained effort and commitment, something I haven't seen Nader do. So the question must be asked: who is this run really for?

Social Security

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I received this email from a recent retiree:

Thank you...my Uncle Sam deposited a nice amount of money into my personal checking account. And I will receive another deposit every month for the rest of my life. And every year the deposits will increase based on the cost of living. Uncle Sam calls this a "transfer payment", which means that he takes the money from you and he gives it to me. An interesting concept. I believe that the concept was brought to America by this con man (picture courtesy of Wikipedia):

20080222-ponzi.jpg
1920 police mugshot of Charles Ponzi

And it was foisted on the American people by this con man (picture courtesy of Wikipedia):

20080222-fdr.jpg
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Anyway, politics aside, I wanted to thank you all for the money - I'm going to add it to my retirement savings. I didn't quite save as much as I should have because my Uncle Sam kept taking money out of my paychecks and giving it to old people. Now it's my turn. So please keep working hard so that you'll get lots of raises, because the more you make the more I get.

Here is my response:

Hating FDR has become an article of faith among those on the Right, but it is--like other components of conservative faith-based politics--a weak alloy of unsubstantiated arguments and incorrect assertions.

First, Social Security is in no way similar to a Ponzi Scheme (you may decide to "believe" so, but belief does not create facts). In reality, Social Security (or OASDI) is the means by which the American people self-insure against poverty, disability, unemployment, and the untimely death of a spouse or parent--thereby providing some financial security that is either unavailable in the marketplace.

Second, Social Security was not "foisted" upon us by FDR. Faced with an elderly poverty rate exceeding 50%, the vote in Congress in favor of the Social Security Act indicated broad bipartisan support; even GOP Congresscritters voted 81-to-15 in favor in the House and 16-to-5 in the Senate.

Finally, complaining about the government "taking money out of my paychecks and giving it to old people" is a rather juvenile tactic for denigrating government programs. For just one example: taxes are deducted from our earnings to be given to soldiers and sailors, but the common defense of our nation is considered sacrosanct by conservatives while concern for our general welfare is pilloried as creating some sort of moral hazard.

Politics aside, I'm glad that your retirement is more secure than it would be without Social Security--but our government wouldn't need to supplement retirees' savings if the private sector hadn't destroyed job stability and eviscerated pensions.

I received this email today:

Rep. Renzi indicted on fraud, finance charges

I'm sure you know all about this, but since my knowledge of news is limited to what the editors at comcast deem important enough to make headlines out of, I have some blogfodder for you.

I'd be very interested to see a comparison of convicted congresspeople, their crimes, and their party. I'd even be interested those that have only been indited. It just feels like those holier than thou Republicans are always breakinng the law... when I see a headline involving "congress" and "crime" I always assume it's a republican. I think a chart that I could point to and say, "look, see, republicans are 10x more likely to break the law than democrats" could come in handy.

Get crackin'.

Corruption and Congress: let me count the ways in which our national legislature has been perverted by perfidy. Since chronicling the illegal activities of all 535 Congresscritters would be a full-time job, I often rely on others to summarize and compile this data; a primary source is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. I blogged about their 2006 report here (17 Republicans and 3 Democrats), but somehow neglected the 2007 report, which contains 18 Republicans and 4 Democrats (in addition to 2 "dishonorable mentions," both Republicans). Public Citizen's "Clean Up Washington" website has a "Hall of Shame" report featuring many of the usual suspects; its list contain 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.

Based on those numbers, "ten times as likely to break the law" is a high estimate; five times as likely is pretty close, nearly 16% of the corrupt figures are as Democrats. As the 2007 CREW report laments:

Sadly, despite an election in which Democrats ran on a platform of eradicating the "culture of corruption" and the fact that voters overwhelmingly turned against members with ethics problems, very little appears to have changed.

Perhaps this is because, even in the new Congress, the GOP controls 47% of the seats. (We do have an opportunity to improve the composition of Congress in just over eight months...) On the other side of the aisle, the right-wing Culture of Corruption website has a list of "Democrat [sic] scandals," but their list includes local and state officials, with some incidents dating back to the 1960s. Limiting the scandals to 1). Congress and 2). this century reduces their list from 77 to 4: Robert Torricelli, Gary Condit, John Murtha, and Frank Ballance. As such, the list of Democratic criminals pales in comparison to the epidemic of bribery, perjury, obstruction of justice, money laundering, and insider trading that marks the GOP's era of Congressional dominance.

(This isn't bleeding-edge news anymore, but--since I keep seeing it crop up elsewhere--I thought it deserved a comment.) In reference to last Friday's earthquake in Israel, Knesset member Shlomo Benizri commented:

"the Gemara refers to earthquakes as disasters, but you are searching only for the practical solutions how to prevent and repair. But I no [sic] of another way to prevent earthquakes; the Gemara mentions a number of causes of earthquakes, one of which is homosexuality..." [emphasis added]

(For all the gentiles in the audience, the Gemara is part of the Talmud.) I don't have much to say about this sort of lunacy, except to mock it: Israelis must be quite remarkable in bed if their lovemaking can shift tectonic plates (Did the Earth move for you, too?), but the 19-second duration may leave their partners unsatisfied. The geologically-inclined may be aware of the following information about the cause of Israeli earthquakes, unless they were homeschooled by scientifically ignorant parents and attended fundamentalist colleges:

Seismicity in the EMR [Eastern Mediterranean Region] is mainly associated with the northward movement of the Arabian plate. The 1,000 km-long western boundary of the Arabian plate is a complex plate boundary, extending from zones of sea-floor spreading in the Red Sea to zones of plate convergence in Turkey, and lies along the line of the Gulf of Aqaba, the Dead Sea rift, and the Ghab depression. The sense of motion along the transform fault system is left lateral, with the east side moving northward relative to the west side. Total displacement is estimated at about 107 km since Oligocene time, with an annual rate of about 0.5 cm over the last 7 to 10 million years.

Lest anyone think I'm bashing Jews instead of idiocy, I'll quote H.L. Mencken:

We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart. (Minority Report, p. 3)

In this case, to follow Mencken's analogy, Shlomo Benizri's wife is a troll and his children are imbeciles.

The cartoonist of xkcd doesn't know me, but this is nonetheless spot-on:

What is WikiLeaks? Their "About" page explains things succinctly:

Wikileaks is developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact. Our interface is identical to Wikipedia and usable by all types of people. We have received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissident communities and anonymous sources.

We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly - in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances - the internet, and cryptography - the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.

Obviously, it would only be a matter of time before WikiLeaks tread upon the wrong toes, as articles in The Guardian and BBC News describe. Surfers trying to visit the Wikileaks website now receive a browser error, because a US court has demanded that WikiLeaks' webhost delete the DNS record that resolves requests for "wikileaks.org" into the webserver's IP address. Barefoot Bum, among others, has helpfully pointed out that WikiLeaks is still available (at least for now) by bypassing DNS name resolution.

Stephen Sodz's AlterNet article provides the legal background

Wikileaks has upset the Chinese government enough that they are attempting to censor it, as is the Thai military junta.

Now censorship has extended to the United States of America, land of the First Amendment. As of Friday, February 15, those going to Wikileaks.org have gotten "Server not found" messages. Today I received a message explaining that a California court has granted an injunction written and requested by lawyers for the Cayman Island's Bank Julius Baer. It seems that the bank is trying to keep the public from accessing documents that may reveal shady dealings. Wikileaks was only given a couple of hours notice "by email" and was not even represented at the hearing where a U.S. judge took such a drastic step attempting to totally shut down an important information outlet. The result was this totally unprecedented attempt to totally wipe out the existence of Wikileaks.

and draws the proper historical parallel to the Pentagon Papers. Today's Daniel Ellsbergs use email and our Ben Bagdikians run servers instead of newspapers, proving the theorem of EFF founder Dan Gilmore that "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." Kim Zetter mentions at Wired that not only are the Julius Baer Bank documents still available from WikiLeaks, they are also in a helpful single file courtesy of Cryptome. (The entire WikiLeaks site has been mirrored in Belgium and Christmas Island.)


update (2/29 @ 8:07pm):
US District Judge Jeffrey White has reconsidered his original decision, and WikiLeaks is back online: ""There are serious questions of prior restraint, possible violations of the First Amendment." It only took 10 days for him to figure that out!

Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! points out that "about a quarter of the Commission's footnotes rely in some way on the interrogation reports" of Guantanamo detainees. Since there was "enhanced interrogation" or other forms of torture applied, the testimony may thus be the "fruits of the poisonous tree" according to NBC investigative reporter Robert Windrem. Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, tries to remove the taint of torture from the commission's Report by claiming that "No one knows...that the information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in these particular interrogation reports came from torture," but then admits that:

The obligation is, tell the public what you know, tell them how you know it, citing all your sources. If there are some things you don't know about the sources, tell them that, too. We did.

Zelikow's excuse relies on this passage from page 146 (the boxed text near the beginning of Chapter 5) of the Report:

Detainee Interrogation Reports

Chapters 5 and 7 rely heavily on information obtained from captured al Qaeda members. A number of these "detainees" have firsthand knowledge of the 9/11 plot.

Assessing the truth of statements by these witnesses-sworn enemies of the United States-is challenging. Our access to them has been limited to the review of intelligence reports based on communications received from the locations where the actual interrogations take place. We submitted questions for use in the interrogations, but had no control over whether, when, or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting. We were told that our requests might disrupt the sensitive interrogation process.

We have nonetheless decided to include information from captured 9/11 conspirators and al Qaeda members in our report. We have evaluated their statements carefully and have attempted to corroborate them with documents and statements of others. In this report, we indicate where such statements provide the foundation for our narrative. We have been authorized to identify by name only ten detainees whose custody has been confirmed officially by the U.S. government.

If we had treated the prisoners humanely, there would be far fewer questions about the results of their interrogations, but now they are credibly alleged to be tainted. As Windrem observes, "at least four of them said indeed that they had provided information only as a result of being tortured:"

And they used the word "torture." They did not use "enhanced interrogation techniques." They said "torture." And two of them, as I recall, said that they recanted what they had said during those interrogations, because it was not the truth.

The Watcher at Fundie Watch does a spectacularly hilarious job of fisking Matt Barber's "Unmasking the 'Gay' Agenda" screed (available at Concerned Women for America, ClownHall, Renew America, and Catholic Online...choose your poison).

The Watcher does such splendid work that I have little to add, except these two points:

The first involves Clinton Fein, who Barber claimed "addressed the 'gay' agenda in a 2005 article candidly titled, 'The Gay Agenda.' When I tracked down Fein's original article, I found an explicit caveat:

"Despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of this piece, it can, and likely will, be taken out of context, and used destructively by bigots and homophobes with ill intentions."

Bigoted homophobe Matt Barber managed to pull five quotes from Fein's piece, thus showing that his hatred is matched only by his dishonesty. Perhaps that's why Barber doesn't link to any of his sources: He knows that he'll be caught misrepresenting them, and relies on his audience's lazy complicity in his deceptions.

The second point is Barber's reference to the "1972 Gay Rights Platform," which I found mentioned all over the wingnut portion of the blogosphere. Given their problems with factual accuracy, I decided to look for it from a more reliable source. Barber was bothered by the demand for the "Repeal of all laws governing the age of sexual consent," which is represented here in its original context:

6. Repeal of all state laws prohibiting transvestism and cross-dressing.

7. Repeal of all laws governing the age of sexual consent.

8. Repeal of all legislative provisions that restrict the sex or number of persons entering into a marriage unit; and the extension of legal benefits to all persons who cohabit regardless of sex or numbers.

One should remember that "age of consent" laws, along with anti-sodomy statutes, were widely used (especially in that era) to selectively criminalize same-sex acts; in the absence of evidence to the contrary, this demand should be read in that light. NAMBLA, to the extent that it even exists, is as much a pariah among the LGBT community as among straights.

FISA humor

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Mark Fiore's animated cartoon "The Spies Who Love You" (h/t: Daniel Solove at Concurring Opinions) actually makes FISA and Bush's illegal spying funny.

Go and watch it, and then link to it.

It's that good.

feeling fisky

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In response to my fisking of his essay, BeastRabban has issued a rebuttal;

Cognitive Dissident, let's go through your reply:

Really? Name one "atheist polemic" that has made such a "deliberate appeal to the gay community." That's OK...I'll wait. (I say this with a fair amount of confidence, having read numerous recent atheist books--Comte-Sponville, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Onfray, and Stenger, to name a few--that featured no LGBT appeals of more than incidental significance.

Now this statement seems to be an admission that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and co nevertheless have incidentally made appeals to the gay community. Now I didn't say that the appeal was blatant, extended, or whatever, only that it was there.

Which philosophies does he believe are fashionable? Neo-conservatism? The militia movement? Scientology? Moonies? Raelians? David Koresh? Jim Jones? Aum Shinrikyo? Freethought is on the rise, especially among the younger generations, but it is hardly "fashionable."

Sorry, this seems to be a bit muddled. You seem to assume that if I consider Nihilism fashionable, then I must consider any or all of the above. But in point of fact, I have come across expressions of Nihilism by members of the gay community in the press, as I've said, in the columns devoted to current opinion or trends. So, my comment still stands.

Now let's turn to the comments about Dawkins' statement about sexuality being 'wishy-washy'. Now these weren't mine - they Rod Liddle's, and I said so. If you watched the programme, you'd find that Dawkins agreed. Kant, Mill etc didn't come into it. Regarding Utilitarianism, one of the problems with it is that 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number' can lead to injustice. If the greatest number decide that homosexuality is evil, for example, and gays should be punished, then by that maxim punishing gays for being homosexual is morally right.

On what basis would tolerance be rejected? Without harm--or without a religion that claimed an offense against a supernatural deity--where would the justification for "intolerance and persecution" arise?

This really is just rhetoric. As I said, in the 19th century scientists did find naturalistic explanations for why homosexuality was evil, so you don't need religion to persecute gays.

." His supposition that "many" equals three is specious enough, but only one of his examples is an ideology: Freudianism; the other two are specific regimes, not ideologies. (This reduces his claim of "many" to one, and I don't even need to mention that the allegedly "vehemently antichristian" Nazis were actually very Christian...they were, however, vehemently anti-Semitic.)

Firstly, Nazism and Communism were ideologies long before they were regimes. Marxism may be different from 'Communism', but Communism, or Marxist-Leninism, was an ideology. The various pronouncements by its leaders were articulated as 'theses', for example. Hostility to homosexuals may not have been an integral part of that ideology, but nevertheless it found a place within it.
As for the Nazis being fervent Christians, this is a very tired old canard. As I said, Hitler hated Christianity. Read his Table Talk .

No, your theistic condemnations of and prohibitions against homosexuality (not to mention masturbation, sodomy, and premarital sex) require justification...which has been severely lacking. Neither homosexuality nor any other sexual activity between consenting adults need justify itself to you.

This is just a rant, an assertion without any supporting argument. The problem is, correct expressions of sexuality are always framed within a moral theory. In his Laws , for example, Plato discusses the problem of homosexuality as part of a general discussion of the problem of correct procreation, which also includes subjects like incest.

Then, at least from your viewpoint, they deserve temporal mistreatment and--when their deaths end the ill effects of your disapproval--eternal torture at the hands of your "loving" god.

You're imputing something to me that I never said. I said that homosexuality departed from the divinely mandated ideal. I did not say it merited punishment. Now in point of fact, I don't believe in persecuting nor prosecuting gays. In fact, I stated that I didn't want them to be persecuted. So you seem to be suggesting that I'm in favour of something that I'm not.

Now let's go back to your comments about Leviticus. Yes, it's there. However, there is no particular stress on homosexuality in the early Church. It was preached against as part of a general attitude that sex should only be within marriage, but as far as I know, there was no persecution of gays within the early church. The most you get is a comment by one of the Church fathers to close the doors to stop pederasts looking in at the boys. Even in the Middle Ages, while there is a lot of preaching against it, there are very few prosecutions. Now there are two ways of looking at this: either everyone was far more straight than usual; or it was well hidden; or it wasn't necessarily much of an issue. None of these are necessarily mutually exclusive.

As for gays going to hell - I don't know if they do or not. I make no judgment on it, except that a lot of the gays I know are probably better blokes than me, and I would suspect that they would still merit a reward in heaven for their virtues, regardless of their sexuality.

Here is my response:

I'll begin with an apology: I was not trying to impute all of religion's sanction for bigoted actions onto you as a person. My pronoun use was intended to indicate theists in general, not you in particular. I apologize for any unintentional insult due to my lack of clarity.

Now on to our disagreement:

You claimed "one of the most noticeable features of recent atheist polemic is its deliberate appeal to the gay community." I noted no such appeal after reading many such polemics, but you have still not provided even a single example. After going through some of my notes, the following are examples of what I called "incidental" references to homosexuality:

"Maybe in the future, if more of us brights will just come forward and calmly announce that of course we no longer believe in any of those Gods, it will be possible to elect an atheist to some office higher than senator. We now have Jewish and female senators and homosexual members of Congress, so the future looks bright." (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 245)

"Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.). And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc). This inversion of priorities not only victimizes innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics." (Sam Harris, The End of Faith, pp. 168-9)

"The attitude of the 'American Taliban' toward homosexuality epitomizes their religious absolutism." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 327)

One could hardly write about the problems caused by revealed religion without at least mentioning its animosity toward homosexuality as one aspect of its general fear and/or hatred of non-procreative sex. However, I did not notice--or make note of, which would be equally surprising--any "deliberate appeal" to the LGBT community; I assume you have stronger examples to support your original assertion.

Your utilitarian example is still predicated--at least by Mill's definition--on some sort of harm. Absent any harm to others due to gay "sinfulness," which can be easily alleged but has yet to be demonstrated, this falls in the realm of "tyranny of the majority."

Depending on which sources are emphasized, Hitler's different sentiments about Christianity at different times to various public and private audiences can give differing impressions. (I am aware of Table Talk, but there are numerous--and obvious--counter-examples: Hitler's many public pro-Christian exhortations and his 1941 claim that "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.") His personal beliefs--whatever they actually were--do not change the fact that his regime (or ideology, if you prefer) relied upon the German people's Catholic and Lutheran beliefs (especially their religiously motivated anti-Semitism) in order to support and carry out his hideous "Final Solution." Richard Dawkins makes a related point in The God Delusion:

"Either Hitler's professions of Christianity were sincere, or he faked his Christianity in order to win--successfully--co-operation from German Christians and the Catholic Church. In either case, the evils of Hitler's regime can hardly be held up as flowing from atheism." (p. 277)

Naturalistic fallacies may support homophobia, but the facts do not. I would hardly use Plato (or even the nineteenth century) as a guide, as the concept of sexual orientation barely existed before the late 1800s. Without said concept, same-sex attraction was often considered a disorder (a la Freud) or a perversion of "natural" heterosexuality. Our increasing understanding of sexual orientation, especially over the past few decades, makes such suppositions increasingly untenable. You say that "correct expressions of sexuality are always framed within a moral theory," but a moral theory that does not fit the facts--whether rooted in theism or not--is itself in need of correction.

I am not an expert on either Freud or his psychoanalytic method, but this sentiment of his to a mother of a gay son (dated 9 April 1935) seems especially germane (scans of page 1 and page 2 courtesy of The Library of Congress):

"Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too."

Freud, Sigmund, "Letter to an American mother", American Journal of Psychiatry, 107 (1951): p. 787

This "arrested development" thesis would be unsupportable if expressed today, but was moderately progressive for its time. Again, removing homophobia's supporting bulwark of religion leads would-be bigots in search of an alternative support for anti-gay animus. Nothing of comparable strength, and certainly nothing derived from disbelief, has filled this void.

Here we get to my main objection to your thesis: In and of itself, atheism is merely the absence of theistic belief. As such, it has no particular stance on any number of issues, including politics, civil rights, and sexual propriety. Particular theisms, and here I am most familiar with Christianity, do have a number of definite stances regarding death by stoning for homosexuality and other abominations, eternal punishment for sinners, etc. (The fact that the Bible is contradictory, especially between Testaments, makes this situation worse, at least for literalists and fundamentalists. Without an extra-biblical system of ethics, Christianity would have no way to discard the worst elements of its violent and prejudicial heritage.) Atheism is not a panacea for gay rights, but it does have the advantage of removing several rather large impediments; it is thus capable of greater respect for diversity than was present among ancient kings, their tribes, and their scribes.

The White House has flexed its bully pulpit muscles, issuing "Five Myths" about the House's rejection of retroactive immunity for FISA lawbreakers, followed by Bush's assertions (mislabeled "FACT" in standard Orwellian manner). DailyKos has a piece on it by mcjoan, and Steve Benen also tears it apart over at Carpetbagger Report; check them out to get a sense of how divorced the White House's position is from reality. It truly deserves mockery rather than serious analysis, and Brian Beulter does the best job from that perspective:

Myth: 2 + 2 = 4.

FACT: Democrats are terrorists.

In a similarly humorous vein, lambert at Corrente http://www.correntewire.com/whats_the_difference_between_9_11_and_a_cow has my Quote of the Day:

What's the difference between 9/11 and a cow?

The Republicans don't know how to milk a cow.

It's funny because it's true; in another sense it's not funny at all.

FISA follow-up

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I've written sporadically about FISA and telecom immunity (every few months, it seems: here, here, and here for example), so I'm just going to dive right in. AlterNet has video and a transcript of Keith Olbermann (once again) eviscerating Dubya:

Thus, Mr. Bush, what you and the telecom giants have done isn't unlawful: it's just the kind of perfectly legal, passionately patriotic thing for which you happen to need immunity! [...] That the President was willing to veto this eavesdropping means there is no threat to the legitimate counter-terror efforts underway. As Senator Kennedy reminded us in December:
"The President has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. No immunity, no FISA bill. So if we take the President at his word, he's willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies." [emphasis added]

Kevin Drum observes at Washington Monthly:

"In the end, the telecoms are big boys with big legal staffs, and they knew exactly what they were doing -- and providing them with retroactive immunity at this point sets a terrible precedent and creates all sorts of perverse incentives to break the law in the future. At this point, if they think they can make a case that they acted in good faith and shouldn't be held accountable, they need to make it to a judge and jury. If they have a good case, they'll win. If they don't, they'll lose."

If they broke the law, as is increasingly apparent, they deserve to lose...and deserve to be punished for it. We shouldn't be excusing illegal acts merely because they were committed at the request of the president. As for Bush's refusal to sign a renewal without telecom immunity, Drum writes the following:

Look, if it's that important, there's a simple answer: pass the bill without telecom immunity. Then come back and introduce immunity in a separate bill. If you've got the votes for it, fine. If not, too bad. I'm against immunity myself -- though hardly hellbent on the subject -- but whichever way the vote went, in the meantime we'd have the FISA extension and surveillance could continue normally.

But that's not on the table. The supposed grownups in the GOP are, apparently, perfectly happy to play around with "life and death" if it's in the service of a bit of demagogic brinksmanship over telecom immunity. Why?

Why? Because immunity obviates the need for accountability, to which Bush's GOP is deathly allergic. It's like holy water to vampires, or silver bullets to werewolves. DNI Mike McConnell claimed in a WaPo op-ed that "providing retroactive liability protection is critical to carrying out our mission," but this is only true if his mission is remaining unaccountable for law-breaking. As Glenn Greenwald noted in his invaluable "FISA 101," "we're not all going to die under FISA:"

"We're not "going dark." FISA is a modern law that was re-written at George Bush's direction and which he himself said allowed for full surveillance on all of the evil Terrorists and all of their complex, super-modern means of communications. None of this has anything to do with the Government's ability to listen in When Osama Calls. It is only about whether the nation's largest telecoms will have pending lawsuits, brought by their customers for breaking the law, dismissed by Congress. Is that really so hard to understand and explain?"

It's easy to understand and explain, but comprehension is not their goal...obfuscation is. Bush and his cronies can't openly demand a sanction for illegality, so their rhetoric relies on the usual fear-mongering. Kudos to the House for (finally!) standing up against it, and shame on the GOP for their little temper-tantrum photo op.

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars issued "A Fisk-It-Yourself Challenge" to his readers for this "staggeringly stupid" essay on atheism and homosexuality. Let me begin by thanking Hank Fox at UTI for mentioning the concept of "fractal wrongness," which I tracked back to this lexicon of computing:

Fractal Wrongness:

The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person's worldview is incorrect; and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person's worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.

Debating with a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite regress, as every refutation you make of that person's opinions will lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of logic, and outright lies, that requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one. It is as impossible to convince a fractally wrong person of anything as it is to walk around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time.

If you ever get embroiled in a discussion with a fractally wrong person on the Internet -- in mailing lists, newsgroups, or website forums -- your best bet is to say your piece once and ignore any replies, thus saving yourself time.

BeastRabban's essay is fractally wrong, and a complete fisking would indeed be akin to "walk[ing] around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time." While I don't have an eternity to spend debunking BR's inanity, here are several errors that deserve rebuttal:

"One of the most noticeable features of recent atheist polemic is its deliberate appeal to the gay community."

Really? Name one "atheist polemic" that has made such a "deliberate appeal to the gay community." That's OK...I'll wait. (I say this with a fair amount of confidence, having read numerous recent atheist books--Comte-Sponville, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Onfray, and Stenger, to name a few--that featured no LGBT appeals of more than incidental significance. If I have overlooked any, please let me know.)

"...atheism, as a rejection of theism and its values, does not necessarily lead to a more tolerant or positive attitude towards gays."

Atheism--or, to be more precise, its close cousin humanism--does indeed reject the "values" of theism: blind obedience, unquestioned dogmatism, the cult of personality and demagoguery that enables religious cults to thrive, the theistic demand that church and state be merged, and the demotion of unbelievers and other "sinners" to second-class citizenship.

BR then takes a bizarre detour into nihilism, whose relationship to either atheism or homosexuality is tenuous at best. Perhaps nihilism is another of "the postmodern philosophies that have become fashionable in recent years." Which philosophies does he believe are fashionable? Neo-conservatism? The militia movement? Scientology? Moonies? Raelians? David Koresh? Jim Jones? Aum Shinrikyo? Freethought is on the rise, especially among the younger generations, but it is hardly "fashionable."

"Dawkins' revised commandment, 'You shall enjoy your sexuality, as long as you don't harm others,'...was all very wishy-washy."

Is that "wishy-washy" in comparison to Mill's utilitarian principle? The Declaration's statement of natural rights? Kant's categorical imperative? I suppose that it seems "wishy-washy" in relation to forceful and direct statements such as this: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)

"...the tolerance Dawkins was advocating may be totally rejected in favour of intolerance and persecution."

On what basis would tolerance be rejected? Without harm--or without a religion that claimed an offense against a supernatural deity--where would the justification for "intolerance and persecution" arise?

"...many atheist ideologies themselves have been hostile to homosexuality"

When attempting to support this claim, BR lists three examples: the first is "Freudianism" and the other two are the "vehemently antichristian totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany." His supposition that "many" equals three is specious enough, but only one of his examples is an ideology: Freudianism; the other two are specific regimes, not ideologies. (This reduces his claim of "many" to one, and I don't even need to mention that the allegedly "vehemently antichristian" Nazis were actually very Christian...they were, however, vehemently anti-Semitic.) BR also misses the important fact that atheism was merely incidental to his two remaining "many" examples. The combination of totalitarianism and anti-gay bigotry is, however, quite common among right-wing religious fundamentalists (of both the Islamist and Christianist varieties) and central to their sexist and patriarchal dogma.

"...there are many things that occur in nature that human society rightly condemns and prohibits. Science may explain the origin of homosexuality, but it still requires a philosophical justification through moral theory."

No, your theistic condemnations of and prohibitions against homosexuality (not to mention masturbation, sodomy, and premarital sex) require justification...which has been severely lacking. Neither homosexuality nor any other sexual activity between consenting adults need justify itself to you.

"Christian moral attitudes...towards the unborn may also protect those who could be suspected of growing up gay"

They might be protected until they actually grow up to be gay. Then, at least from your viewpoint, they deserve temporal mistreatment and--when their deaths end the ill effects of your disapproval--eternal torture at the hands of your "loving" god.

How's that for a mini-fisking? (Fiskette?)


[follow-up here]

furious about FISA

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Democrats in the Senate caved in to the GOP again today, this time by immunizing telecoms involved in Bush's illegal spying on Americans. Senator Chris Dodd (D, of course) succinctly declared, "This warrantless wiretapping program was the single largest invasion of privacy in the history of the country and we just sanctioned it by granting retroactive immunity." The petition at FDL is a good summary of this appalling situation:

The FISA bill passed by the Senate is a disgrace. By legalizing warrantless spying on Americans and granting retroactive amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms, the Senate seeks to ensure that the Bush administration's illegal spying programs are never investigated or subjected to the rule of law. The Senate bill is a profound betrayal of the votes of millions of Americans who voted in 2006 to put Democrats in control of Congress in order to increase, not eliminate, checks and oversight on this administration, and to restore the rule of law to our country.

If you believe in the rule of law--in reality, not merely as a decade-old GOP talking point--sign the FDL petition and contact your Congresscritter to make plain your displeasure with the impending sanction of lawbreaking in the Senate bill. Christy Hardin Smith's talking points from her "Frustrations on FISA" are a good place to start:

1. Vote NO on any spying bill with telecom immunity. Lawsuits must be allowed to proceed or we'll never know the truth about what laws were broken and how many Americans rights were violated.

2. Vote NO on any spying that allows the government to spy on Americans without getting a warrant. America doesn't need a bill that needlessly expands the President's ability to spy on innocent Americans without a warrant.

3. Don't let the Senate or President Bush steamroll the House of Representatives. Any bill to regulate spying on Americans must respect the Constitution and must not let phone companies off the hook for warrantless spying.

To better familiarize yourself with the details, the bill on which the House will vote (The RESTORE Act) is available in PDF here with comments from the ACLU here (which I mentioned last year).

In "Dueling Billboards," Hemant (Friendly Atheist) Mehta posted this image of a billboard in Pennsylvania:

In the manner of the classic "Have you stopped beating your wife?" loaded question, this billboard asserts the lie that Christianists wish were true: that patriotism is dependent upon religion. I can testify from personal experience that this is most definitely not the case.

Atheists do not hate America.

We do, however, hate liars--particularly the ones who libel us without provocation, without facts, and without honor.

For more criticism of Democrats, check out Matt Taibbi's piece "The Chicken Doves" in Rolling Stone. Here are the opening and closing paragraphs of his piece, which is filled with a righteous anger over broken promises and needless compromises:

Quietly, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been inspiring Democrats everywhere with their rolling bitchfest, congressional superduo Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have completed one of the most awesome political collapses since Neville Chamberlain. At long last, the Democratic leaders of Congress have publicly surrendered on the Iraq War, just one year after being swept into power with a firm mandate to end it.

Solidifying his reputation as one of the biggest pussies in U.S. political history, Reid explained his decision to refocus his party's energies on topics other than ending the war by saying he just couldn't fit Iraq into his busy schedule.

[...]

Even beyond the war, the Democrats have repeatedly gone limp-dick every time the Bush administration so much as raises its voice. Most recently, twelve Democrats crossed the aisle to grant immunity to phone companies who participated in Bush's notorious wiretapping program. Before that, Democrats caved in and confirmed Mike Mukasey as attorney general after he kept his middle finger extended and refused to condemn waterboarding as torture. Democrats fattened by Wall Street also got cold feet about upsetting the country's gazillionaires, refusing to close a tax loophole that rewarded hedge-fund managers with a tax rate less than half that paid by ordinary citizens.

But the war is where they showed their real mettle. Before the 2006 elections, Democrats told us we could expect more specifics on their war plans after Election Day. Nearly two years have passed since then, and now they are once again telling us to wait until after an election to see real action to stop the war. In the meantime, of course, we're to remember that they're the good guys, the Republicans are the real enemy, and, well, go Hillary! Semper fi! Yay, team!

How much of this bullshit are we going to take? How long are we supposed to give the Reids and Pelosis and Hillarys of the world credit for wanting, deep down in their moldy hearts, to do the right thing?

Look, fuck your hearts, OK? Just get it done. Because if you don't, sooner or later this con is going to run dry. It may not be in '08, but it'll be soon. Even Americans can't be fooled forever.

(It sounds like The Rude Pundit, but it really is Matt Taibbi.) I'm also sorry to have to call Dems on their failures, but I will do it when it's needed. Merely being better than Republicans isn't enough; Dems actually have to do the jobs for which they were elected.

Obama's failing

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PZ Myers dissects "The Obama Failing" and points out the would-be president's main drawback: his overt religiosity. Myers links to Obama's "Call to Renewal" keynote, which he calls "a ghastly exercise in self-delusion and post hoc justification of religious bigotry; I'd say he was pandering to his audience, except that I think he really believes the nonsense he was spouting." Myers is just as blunt later in his post:

I despise Obama's faith. I think it has the potential to be a major hindrance to any accomplishments of an Obama administration, and I worry that it would further promote the desecularization of our government. If Obama is elected, I will not be a cheerleader, but a constant critic.

[...]

I do not aspire to the complete disenfranchisement of all religious people, and I always have to hold my nose and press that lever for some Christian -- as an atheist in America, I have never had the opportunity to vote for any candidate in any election who was willing to admit to disbelief. (Think about that--as a group, we lack representation in our government, but it's the other side that is always claiming discrimination.) So there's nothing new in having to swallow my pride and vote for a compromise candidate who represents my views so poorly.

I wrote about Obama's address back in 2006, and was rather less bothered by it than Myers. I am also accustomed to having to "hold my nose" while voting for the least worst of the available religious candidates. Like Myers, I will also likely vote for Obama while suppressing my rising gorge over his florid religious rhetoric. I hope the nominee won't be the "moderate Republican in Democratic clothing (Clinton)," but I wouldn't hesitate to vote for her over the "mob of flaming lunatics on the Republican side."

In place of a book review, this week I offer a magazine review. Lewis Lapham (editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's and author of over a dozen books) launched Lapham's Quarterly late last year with a purpose that may sound pretentious to some:

In answer to the problem of disappearing context, Lapham's Quarterly discovers in the uses of history both a natural resource and an applied technology. Some things change, others don't, but absent a knowledge of which is which, where then do we find our bearings in the gulf of time, and how do we not become orphans, marooned on the islands of the dream-ridden self?

Cicero framed the thought as an aphorism, "Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child." Children unfamiliar with the world in time make easy marks for the dealers in junk science, totalitarian politics, and quack religion.

The inaugural "States of War" issue is a spectacular read: Over 200 ad-free pages filled with some of the most significant words ever written about war, followed by several contemporary essays. Who do we meet? Which events are described? Everything from Homer's siege of Troy, Sun Tzu's Art of War, and Thucydides' Melian dialogue up through Augustine's "just war" and Grant's "unconditional surrender," to Twain's "War Prayer" and Bush's "axis of evil"...with dozens of others in between. (I wonder, though, why LQ uses the deprecated "BC" instead of BCE for dates preceding the common era.)

I welcome Lapham's Quarterly as a new favorite magazine. It is well worth its $15 cover price, and I hope it will continue to be so with whatever topics are selected for future issues. History will no doubt furnish adequate material for collection and contemplation. (The LQ blog is a nice effort as well, but why isn't it syndicated? There's no excuse to publish a blog without a feed.)

In response to the National Journal's ranking Barack Obama as the "most liberal senator in 2007," Eric Alterman wrote in "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" at The Nation that:

Had the magazine used the far more respected ranking system devised by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Obama would have ranked around number eleven this year and number twenty-one in the previous Senate.

The reason behind the NJ's bogus ranking is that same one that motivated their 2004 claim that John Kerry was the "most liberal"--to scare the electorate away from voting for Democrats. In our era, the tail end of four decades of conservatism's caricatures of liberalism, Alterman points out that:

...if you look at issue after issue, whether economic, social or foreign-policy related, the majority position is actually the "liberal" position. One needs to add caveats when it comes to abortion and perhaps national security, but even here the conservatives cannot claim credit for anything more than scaremongering among the American majority.

But therein lies the catch. Scaremongering--as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have so convincingly demonstrated--is perhaps the only remaining area of conservative competence, thanks largely to media cowed by its transparent tactics.

Alterman is absolutely correct that we liberals need to reclaim the reality of liberalism from under the decades of slime thrown at it by the GOP:

Say it, Barack. Say it loud, and say it proud...

Take that liberal pride right into the Oval Office.

auto music

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An article at Create Digital Music titled "Building a Musical Ensemble Out of Ford Focus Car Parts" (h/t: Make Magazine) is a fascinating look at, well, creating music from car parts. Check out the short video (one minute) and the long one (three minutes). It's like a chamber-music version of Stomp:

If Ford would put that much creativity and ingenuity into their cars, their finances might be in better shape...

Romney out

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According to this transcript of Mitt Romney's CPAC speech announcing the end of his presidential bid, he rolled out the litany of wingnut dog-whistle phrases: he imagines a "threat to our culture" that "comes from within," whines about an "attack on faith and religion," wants to "fortify marriage through a constitutional amendment," promises to "lower taxes, including corporate taxes," and would "take a weed whacker [...] to regulations." As if sowing divisiveness, ballooning the deficit, and proposing yet more destructive deregulation weren't enough, Romney called the potential election of either Obama or Clinton "a surrender to terror," and claimed that the end of our occupation of Iraq:

"would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child's play. About this, I have no doubt."

What an asshat.

I'm glad he's out, because we need less of that bullshit polluting our national discourse.


update (2/9 @ 10:06pm):
Crooks and Liars has a video clip of Jon Stewart saying "F*c# Y%u!" to Romney...great stuff!

(I should have linked to this yesterday.) Brent at UTI mentioned this exchange with a convenience store clerk:

"Hey," I gestured with a friendly smile, "you have a little smudge there on your forehead." I snagged a Kleenex from the box thoughtfully provided for customers between the registers and handed it to him.

I looked down at my wallet and dug out my debit card. When I looked up again I am taken aback... The guy is glaring at me!

Nervously I asked him, "is there something wrong?"

I saw him visibly struggle to settle himself down. "That'll be $2.75, Sir."

Then I remember. Today is Ash Wednesday. He's a Catholic, or some other sect that practices this particular ritual. "Ahhh... ," I said, with another smile to take the edge off his anger. "I didn't realize what today was."

He rang up my purchase, swiped my card, and I punched in my PIN.

"How," he asked with a supercilious sneer barely under control, "can anyone not realize it's Ash Wednesday?"

"Well, I'm an atheist, um," I peered at his name tag, "'David'. I don't usually keep tabs on every religion's quaint little rituals."

Here is my Quote of the Day, Jesus' warning against public piety:

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

(Matthew 6:5-6)

The Guardian reported, via AP, on the existence of a secret prison within Gitmo:

Somewhere amid the cactus-studded hills on this sprawling Navy base, separate from the cells where hundreds of men suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban have been locked up for years, is a place even more closely guarded - a jailhouse so protected that its very location is top secret.

For the first time, the top commander of detention operations at Guantanamo has confirmed the existence of the mysterious Camp 7.

A secret prison inside a restricted base within a nationless land. Curiouser and curiouser...

Is that where they hide the waterboards?

"fruitful" torture

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According to this Reuters article, CIA Director Michael Hayden revealed to Congress some details about waterboarding at Gitmo:

"Waterboarding has been used on only three detainees," Hayden told the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was the first time a U.S. official publicly specified the number of people subjected to waterboarding and named them. Critics call waterboarding a form of illegal torture. Congress is considering banning the technique.

Those subjected to waterboarding were suspected September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and senior al Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Hayden said.

He said waterboarding has not been used in five years but was used then because of concerns of imminent catastrophic attacks on the United States and because authorities had limited knowledge of al Qaeda.

As was revealed in December, these torture sessions were so "particularly fruitful" that the videotapes of them had to be destroyed for fear of reprisal.

There are still 349 days and 21 hours to go.

Thanks to Josh Feit at The Stranger, who posted a link to a list of the "Top 10 Bizarre Biblical Tales." How bizarre are they? Check out the list for such holy delights as: god moons Moses (Exodus 33:23), Balaam's talking donkey (Numbers 22:28-30), biblical Lysenkoism (Genesis 30:37-39), the bride price of one hundred foreskins (1 Samuel 18:25-27), and Jesus cursing a fig tree (Matthew 21:19-20 and Mark 11:13-14).

I feel more enlightened already!

(For more absurdities, check out The Skeptic's Annotated Bible for two versions: the short list and the long list.)


update (1:43pm):
One of the comments at The Stranger (under the name "Fred Phelps") was:

GOD HATES FIGS!

That almost caused a coffee-out-the-nose incident!

Onfray, Michel. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (New York: Arcade, 2007)

Parisian philosophy professor Michel Onfray begins his book with non-confrontational words similar to those of Comte-Sponville: "I do not despise believers. I find them neither ridiculous nor pathetic, but I lose all hope when I see that they prefer the comforting fairy tales of children to the cruel hard facts of adults." (p. 1, Introduction) Almost all similarities cease after that, as Onfray's work is more akin to Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. He mixes the occasional aphorism ("Religion is anchored in tradition and cashes in on nostalgia. Philosophy looks to the future," p. 39) with brutally blunt criticism of the three major monotheisms:

God, manufactured by mortals in their own quintessential image, exists only to make daily life bearable despite the path that every one of us treads toward extinction. As long as men are obliged to die, some of them, unable to endure the prospect, will concoct fond illusions. (p. 13)

Fired by the same inborn death drive, the three monotheisms share a series of identical forms of aversion: hatred of reason and intelligence; hatred of freedom; hatred of all books in the name of one book alone; hatred of sexuality, women, and pleasure; hatred of the feminine; hatred of the body, of desires, of drives. Instead Judaism, Christianity, and Islam extol faith and belief, obedience and submission, taste for death and longing for the beyond... (p. 67)

He made one obvious error, in asserting that "Christians insist that the world is four thousand years old, no more, no less." (p. 91) Onfray is no doubt referring to Bishop Ussher's calculation that Creation occurred in 4004 BCE. This would put the age of the universe at six thousand years, not four thousand.

Onfray's remarks about religion's "death drive" and the "thanatophilic Christian pantheon" (p. 145) is followed up in more detail later, when he observes that "monotheism is fatally fixated on death:"

It loves death, cherishes death; it exults in death, is fascinated by death. It gives death, doles it out in massive doses; it threatens death and moves from threat to action: from the bloody sword of the Israelites killing off the Canaanites to the use of airliners as flying bombs in New York, stopping off on the way to release an atomic cargo over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everything is done in the name of God, blessed by him, but blessed most of all by those claiming to act in his name. (p. 176)

He later notes the numerous alliances between faith and fascism, showing that "the Vatican [was] a fellow traveler with every brand of twentieth-century fascism--Mussolini, P├ętain, Franco, Hitler, Pinochet, the Greek colonels, South American dictators, etc. Millions of dead in the name of brotherly love." (p. 182) Onfray examines the Hitler/Vatican connection for several pages afterward, all of which should be required reading for any conservative who is seduced by Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. This passage is particularly damning:

While the church remained silent on the Nazi question during and after the war, it missed no chance to act against Communists. Where Marxism is concerned, the Vatican has given proof of a commitment, a militancy, and a vigor better expended in fighting and discrediting the Nazi Reich. Faithful to church tradition (which, through the grace of Pius IX and Pius X, condemned human rights as contrary to the teachings of the church), Pius XII, the pope so famously well-disposed toward National Socialism, excommunicated the Communists of the whole world en masse in 1949. He asserted collusion between the Jews and Bolshevism as one of the reasons for his decision. (p. 186)

Lest anyone complain that the Catholic hierarchy is unfairly singled out, Onfray comes down no harder on Christianity than he does on Islam. Note this passage in particular:

...Islam is structurally archaic, contradicting point by point everything the philosophy of the Enlightenment has achieved in Europe since the eighteenth century. In other words, condemnation of superstition, rejection of intolerance, abolition of censorship, resistance to tyranny, opposition to political absolutism, an end to state religion, proscription of magical thinking, extension of freedom of thought and expression, promulgation of equal rights, the notion that all law arises from contractual immanence, the wish for social happiness here and now, the aspiration toward the universal reign of reason. Sura by sura, the Koran clearly states its opposition to them all. (pp. 209-10)

Onfray concludes--after saying that the battle to defend the Enlightenment is "already lost"--that "we must fight for a post-Christian secularism, that is to say atheistic, militant, and radically opposed to choosing between Western Judeo-Christianity and its Islamic adversary--neither Bible nor Koran. I persist in preferring philosophers to rabbis, priests, imams, ayatollahs, and mullahs." (p. 219) Although Onfray offers no cure for our religion-besotted culture, he has at least correctly identified the illness.


LOL theist

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As an even-more-irreverent variant of the LOL Cats phenomenon, LOL Theist has elicited much laughter with their re-captioned paintings and religious icons.

This one cried out for revision, so I did my worst:


update (2/8 @ 12:12pm):
LOL Theist has published my submission here.

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