February 2009 Archives

I spoke too soon

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Since my previous post about rebutting right-wing emails, I've found some great examples--see here for one of them--but they always seem to be one-off responses. There are plenty of fact-based debunking sites (such as FactCheck, FAIR, MediaMatters, and ThinkProgress) but are there any that repay snark with snark on a consistent, ongoing basis?

I found a "Little Red Hen" rebuttal here, but it didn't have quite the flavor I wanted. This one was good but too long-winded. This one and this one are both spot-on, and the kind of work that I'll be using as inspiration.

I'm thinking of writing responses along the lines of the stories in James Finn Garner's "Politically Correct" books, but with more actual correctness. (Conservatives seem to have trouble being both factual and funny, but liberals seem to be doing a better job.)

fighting back

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Regardless of your political persuasion, you've seen them--most likely by the dozens: right-wing chain emails that purport to explain liberalism's evils, uncover Obama's treachery, tell unfunny Limbaugh-like "jokes," relate their paranoid persecution fantasies, or simply spread unverifiable anecdotes with a conservative slant.

If a liberal dares to hit "reply" and sends back a criticism or a correction, then the emailer's true purpose is laid bare. Conservatives are rarely looking for discussion or debate, they're looking for--sometimes all but demanding--ideological agreement and emotional validation. They expect to be able to tell all of us what they believe, without ever having to deal with us talking back to them.

Their time of monopolizing my inbox is over.

I'm not about to stoop to their level of mendacity--as in the Democrats-vote-on-Wednesday "jokes" and other sleazy tactics that would make our side as culpable as theirs in the cheapening and coarsening of our political discourse--but much of what they write needs to be rebutted, whether or not they can handle it. After debunking their propaganda--where Snopes and Urban Legends are invaluable tools, along with the media watchdog sites--I'm starting to add another layer of fun by turning their jokes inside-out.

When I recently received this take on "The Little Red Hen," I decided that it's time to begin puncturing their fables by writing alternate versions of their fairy tales. I'm not a creative writer by trade, but I haven't seen anyone else creating rebuttals to this stuff--so I guess I should give it a go.

Besides, I do relish a challenge.

Stay tuned...

amazon.com

Wolf, Naomi. The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007)

Ms Wolf's "echoes" of fascism ring startlingly true in her patriotic warning from the waning days of Bushism. Even today, after a change in administration, we ignore her warnings about citizens' complacency at our own peril. Her "Ten Steps to Close Down an Open Society" are the following:

All dictators: invoke an external and threat; develop a paramilitary force; create a secret prison system; surveil ordinary citizens; arbitrarily detain and release them; harass citizens' groups; target writers, entertainers, and other key individuals for dissenting; intimidate the press; recast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage"; and eventually subvert the rule of law. (p. 29)

These ten steps, together, are more than the sum of their parts. Once all ten have been put in place, each magnifies the power of the others and of the whole. Impossible as it may seem, we are seeing each of these ten steps taking hold in the United States today. (p. 11)

Wolf notes, though, that "you do not need ovens to create a fascist reality. All you need is fear." (p. 68) Rovian fear-mongering has been manifested in several ways over the past eight years, not all of which are the obvious. She makes a great point about Bush's counter-productive torture regime--it wasn't designed to produce useful intelligence:

Because torturing prisoners is counterproductive if the goal is securing the Homeland, and because it makes us pariahs in the eyes of the rest of the world, then what could be some genuine reasons why this is so important to this White House? Consider: If you have a much-hyped threat that you've used to lead the nation into war--and if case after case against the "dangerous terrorists" falls apart--don't you need false confessions? If you torture prisoners, you will certainly obtain an endless stream of false confessions. In this sense, Guantánamo is an efficient machine for producing a high-value political product: false confessions by brown people with Muslim names. (p. 71)
After a certain point in a fascist shift, it doesn't matter whether most people believe the faked news or not--eventually they simply don't have access to enough good information to assess what is real and what is not. [...] Perhaps the barrage of lies serves a more substantial purpose than simply advancing a certain position. Sending a current of lies into the information stream is part of classic psychological operations to generate a larger shift--a new reality in which the truth can no longer be ascertained and no longer exists. (p. 127)

Her analysis reminds me of this image from Project for the Old American Century:

20090227-notfascismwhenwedoit.jpg

Wolf links:
Naomi Wolf (website, Wikipedia)
End of America film website, 2-disc director's cut
Wolf's introduction is online here from the publisher
interview with Tara McKelvey at American Prospect
interview with Don Hazen at AlterNet

fascism links:
Laurence Britt's "Fascism Anyone?" from Free Inquiry
POAC's "14 Points of Fascism"
FDL book salon
Ray McGovern's "Creeping Fascism" at AlterNet
Mussolini's "Doctrine of Fascism"

Here is an interesting design (unique, AFAIK) for a television monitor handling 4:3 (fullscreen) and 16:9 (widescreen) pictures in an elegant way (h/t: Jason Kottke):

20090226-tv.jpg

what a relief!

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According to governor Bobby Jindal (R: LA), we shouldn't be spending $140 million for "something called volcano monitoring"--I guess because, in his party's infinite wisdom, we'll never have to worry about this again:

20090225-mtsthelens.jpg
(Mount St. Helens, 1980)

For a reality-based take on the situation, check out Paul Krugman, Liberal Values, or PZ Myers.

And Republicans wonder why they're mocked as being anti-science?

Adam Rogers discusses "Filming the Unfilmable" at Wired, writing that Zack "Snyder's version, while inarguably cool, is also very risky:"

Adapting a cult comic into a Hollywood blockbuster is fraught with danger, especially when it's the only superhero comic book ever to win a Hugo Award or land on Time's list of the top 100 novels. Even slight changes to Watchmen, changes that will enhance its appeal to the masses, seem certain to alienate the very people who loved it in the first place.

This Q&A with artist Dave Gibbons observes that:

...to see the movie was a bit like seeing the stock frames that I'd drawn as the comic book come to life again, because Zack has stuck so very closely to the panel compositions and a lot of the designs, although the designs have been tweaked up to make them work in movie terms. It's very, very reminiscent of the comic book.

Dork Report's "10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck" slams Snyder for his casting, writing that "the real problem is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias):"

Goode is, simply, totally wrong. Veidt should be ridiculously handsome, like George Clooney, but utterly dispassionate and ice-cold, like Keanu Reeves. He should radiate intelligence and self-confidence, like Kevin Spacey, and be incredibly fit, like Michael Phelps. But Goode here seems shrimpy, ugly, and weaselly.

Snyder also takes hits for lacking subtlety, as in his use of Juvenal's phrase "Who watches the watchmen" (which never appears in the book) and the corporate marketing mentality that demands such ironic idiocy as an Ozymandias action figure. (Fans of the book will either find this deplorable or they'll want to buy one...come to think of it, I'm not sure which camp I fall into.)

20090225-ozymandias.jpg

Harry at Ain't It Cool News echoes Wil Wheaton's "fucking awesome" assessment:

I WATCHED THE FUCKING WATCHMEN AND FUCKING LOVED IT! It isn't the perfect 5 hour wet dream that I always dreamt of, but I love it. I can't wait to see the dialogue you all have with this film, with each other and with us here at AICN.

This was fucking awesome!

<spoilers>

He does, though, put his finger on the problem with Snyder's new ending:

I love the Squid, not because it's a brilliant device, but because it's bugnuts insane. Because nobody could conceive of it as being the brilliant concoction of the most brilliant man on Earth.

Atomic Armageddon is a peculiarly human action--so it's possible that it could be traced back to Ozzy, thereby making his perfect plan a vulnerable one.

</spoilers>

tax hike

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David Leonhardt writes bluntly at NYT:

Your taxes are going up.

They will probably go up in the coming decade, and the increase will be permanent. For a half-century, federal taxes have remained fairly constant relative to the size of the American economy -- equal to about 18 percent of gross domestic product. But the 18 percent era has to end soon.

Why? Not because Obama is a "radical tax and spender," but because:

Americans have made it clear that they want a certain kind of government, one that can field a strong military and also maintain popular programs like Medicare. Yet we are not paying nearly enough taxes to maintain those programs. Even major changes to the health care system -- the single most important step for closing the budget gap -- will not close it entirely. Taxes must rise, too.

Andrew Sullivan makes this observation:

[W]hen taxes have to go up because the most fiscally reckless president since FDR is followed by the worst depression since FDR, we should name the bill that raises them after George W. Bush. They will be his tax increases. And he deserves the honor of being immortalized by them.

As someone (I forget who) once wrote, Republicans raise taxes all the time--they just don't collect them. The GOP tout their "fiscal responsibility" slogan, but it's Democrats who get stuck with the actual responsibility.

Driftglass takes on Alan Keyes' craziness and uses it to excoriate conservatives in general, writing that "as far as I can see, about all that's keeping 'Alan Keyes: Conservative spokesman' from becoming 'Alan Keyes: All-day-subway-rider-who-screams-at-strangers-about-fluoridation' are several nice suits and a stipend from whatever fascist 'think tank' pays his room and board:"

On the other hand, Tom DeLay spent years using very real power to inflict very real damage on the United States while Conservatives cheered him on, so how exactly are Keyes' ravings any worse than any of the million, sociopathic rants delivered by "The Hammer" over the last quarter century?

Or Newt Gingrich counseling Republicans everywhere to incant "Democrats are traitors" every time they got near a microphone?

Or endless headlines about Vince Foster's "murder"?

The drug-smuggling Clintons?

The mass-murdering Clintons?

[...]

Conservatism in America was not somehow captured, cruelly tortured and then killed by that vile George Bush in 2003; Conservatism was born fucked up and in sin and has been an unholy alliance between plutocrats, fascists and fundies since it toddled out of the cradle and decided that George Wallace was a cultural hero to be emulated instead of a cultural cancer to be excised. And your so-called "responsible, leading members of the Republican party" have been dining lavishly out on scurrilous, Wallace-and-Keyes-style lynch-mob-goading language since I was in high school.

It is no longer productive to pretend a cavalry of responsible grownups from the Right is going to arrive and scold and shame people like Alan Keyes into shutting the fuck up. Keyes isn't capable of shame and Keyes isn't the problem: he is merely the latest high-profile ugly symptom of a disease that the Right -- your Right -- has always nurtured and cultivated.

On the other hand, responsible grownups on the Left have already wasted decades of time and energy and money and adjectives trying to warn people like you about people like Keyes and the calamitous arc your movement was following by embracing people like Keyes.

Driftglass has a follow-up piece here, and it's not any kinder.

amazon.com

Rees, David. Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror, 2001-2008 (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2008)

In perhaps the only disappointment caused by the ending of the Bush era, the comic strip Get Your War On came to an end. After the first two volumes (Get Your War On and Get Your War On II), cartoonist David Rees has closed the book on Bush's militarism with this concluding "Definitive" volume.

For those who haven't seen it before, Get Your War On is a mélange of clip-art office workers who deal in profanity, sarcasm, ridicule, and despair. It's most definitely NSFW, and it's also absolutely hilarious. Here are a few of my favorites:

20090224-getyourwaron.gif

This book contain cartoons dated through 8 August 2008, so after finishing it you can start at page 78 on the GYWO website and go through page 81 to read the remainder of his strips.

the dead right hand

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At American Prospect, Paul Starr looks at how Obama can go about "Breaking the Grip of the Past" on American politics. He cautions against excessive triangulation and notes that motivating the "symbolically conservative, operationally liberal segment of the public" remains "the key challenge if Congress and the new administration are to free the country from the dead right hand of the past." Starr notes that, although "conservatism seems dead, it isn't nearly as dead as it should be:"

...reflexive, conservative ideology -- support for tax cuts, no matter the facts and circumstances; a preference for policies that favor the well-off; a bias against the use of public institutions and public regulation -- remains a powerful factor in national debate. So it's crucial, perhaps more for others than for Obama, to continue to press the case that our present problems have ideological roots -- that they are not due equally to all sides but rather to the mistaken premises, malignant neglect, and sometimes outright malfeasance of a long era of conservative government. [emphasis added]

amazon.com

Krugman, Paul. The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (New York: Norton, 2003)

The Great Unraveling is Krugman's 2003 look at the radical Busheviks, at a time when their reign of error wasn't even half over. The three-page columns--mostly from the New York Times, with a handful from Fortune and Salon--are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Krugman's writing is workmanlike, providing plenty of information in a serviceable manner. He never descends into economic jargon, at least not without explaining his terms and clarifying their relations.

Krugman deflates the cult of personality surrounding Alan Greenspan, debunks the myths about Bush's tax cuts and his attempt at privatizing Social Security, and excoriates Enron for its part in the California energy crisis. He writes in the Preface that, "These days I often find myself accused of being a knee-jerk liberal, even a socialist:"

If I have ended up more often that not writing pieces that attack the right wing, it's because the right wing rules--and rules badly. It's not just that the policies are bad and irresponsible; our leaders lie about what they are up to. (p. xxvi, Preface)

Bush's attempt at Social Security privatization come in for special scrutiny from Krugman, as he writes acidly:

George W. Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security always depended on the assertion that 2-1=4 -- that we can divert payroll taxes into high-yielding personal accounts, yet still use the same money to pay benefits to retirees. (pp. 275-6, 6 September 2002, "The Bully's Pulpit")

Krugman deflates one of the ANWR myths--the one that I tacked with a 148-Hummers-in-a-parking-space analogy--in this passage:

According to my calculations, my work space occupies only a few square inches of office floor. You may find this implausible, but I'm using a well-accepted methodology. Well accepted, that is, among supporters of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. [...]

Development won't be limited to a small enclave: according to the U.S. Geological Survey, oil in ANWR is scattered in many separate pools, so drilling rigs would be spread all across the coastal plain. The roads linking those rigs aren't part of the 2,000 acres: they're not "production and support facilities." And "surface acreage covered" is very narrowly defined: if a pipeline snakes across the terrain on a series of posts, only the ground on which those posts rest counts; bare ground under the pipeline isn't considered "covered."

Now you see how I work in such a small space. By those definitions, my "impact" is limited to floor areas that literally have stuff resting on them: the bottoms of the legs on my desk and chair, and the soles of my shoes. The rest of my office floor is pristine wilderness.
(p. 339, 1 March 2002, "Two Thousand Acres")

Later, Krugman writes that "While putting this part of the book together, I took a good hard look at the nation's fiscal future--and switched to a fixed-rate home mortgage:"

One of these years, and probably sooner than you think, the financial markets will look at the situation, and realize that the U.S. government has made inconsistent promises--promises of benefits to future retirees, repayment to those who buy its debt, and tax rates far below what is necessary to pay for it all. Something has to give, and it won't be pretty. In fact, I think the United States is setting itself up for a Latin Americans-style financial crisis, in which fears that the government will try to resolve its dilemma by inflating away its debt cause interest rates to soar. (p. 136)

amazon.com

Krugman, Paul. The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (New York: Norton, 2009)

This unfortunate prescience led to the early 2009 revision of his 1999 book The Return of Depression Economics, explaining and analyzing systemic economic catastrophes. (There is no index in this thin book, which indicates a rush to publication.) Perhaps to inoculate himself against accusations of extremism from the (extreme) Right, Krugman takes pains early on to piss off socialists by declaring them all but irrelevant:

This is a book about economics; but economics inevitably takes place in a political context, and one cannot understand the world as it appeared a few years ago without considering the fundamental political fact of the 1990s: the collapse of socialism, not merely as a ruling ideology, but as an idea with the power to move men's minds. (p. 10)

Most of all, the humiliating failure of the Soviet Union destroyed the socialist dream. For a century and a half the idea of socialism--from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs--served as an intellectual focal point for those who disliked the hand the market dealt them. [...] But who can now use the words of socialism with a straight face? [...] There are still radical leftists out there, who stubbornly claim that true socialism has not yet been tried; and there are still moderate leftists, who claim with more justification that one can reject Marxist-Leninism without necessarily becoming a disciple of Milton Friedman. But the truth is that the heart has gone out of the opposition to capitalism. (pp. 13-4)

Krugman is quite complimentary toward Ben Bernanke, writing that "If you had to choose one individual to be in charge of the Fed during this crisis, that person would be [Ben] Bernanke. [...] Nobody was more prepared, intellectually, for the mess we're in." (p. 173)

The mess we're in, of course, has parallels in the crises in Mexico and Argentina, Japan's lost decade, and the Asian collapse. Krugman's tales (the role of the IMF, the mechanics of hedge funds, Soros shorting the British pound, Hong Kong, LTCM, the stock market & housing bubbles, auction-rate securities, the Panic of 1907, the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve System) take up the bulk of RDE. The last two chapters, (pp. 165-91) are the ones that actually examine our current situation. Krugman's thesis is actually quite simple:

What does it mean to say that depression economics has returned? Essentially it means that for the first time in two generations, failures on the demand side of the economy--insufficient private spending to make use of the available productive capacity--have become the clear and present limitation on prosperity for a large part of the world. (p. 182)

What we're going to have to do, clearly, is relearn the lessons our grandfathers were taught by the Great Depression. [...] Now that we're seen a wide range of non-bank institutions create what amounts to a banking crisis, comparable regulation has to be extended to a much larger part of the system. (pp. 189-90)

Encouragingly, Obama has declared an intent to learn those lessons:

"If Paul Krugman has a good idea, in terms of how to spend money efficiently and effectively to jump-start the economy, then we're going to do it."

Krugman is nothing if not full of good ideas; perhaps we now have an administration that is less concerned with ideology and more concerned with reality. Failure in the tasks before us would be catastrophic, and Krugman is one of the wisest voices we have.


links:
Krugman's website
Krugman's NYT blog
Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive

cool music day

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Today was an unusual day, in that I found out about two phenomenal musicians by reading other blogs. TA at Discourses tipped me off to vocalist Melody Gardot (website, Wikipedia). Here's a clip of her singing "Worrisome Heart:"

Cellist Zoe Keating (website, Wikipedia) was lauded enthusiastically by Wil Wheaton, and here's her song "Sun Will Set:"

links:
WNYC's Radiolab has a great feature on Ms Keating
For some more multi-tracking magic, check out "Slang," a solo piece by renowned bassist Jaco Pastorius. (website, Wikipedia)

Keyes on Obama

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The LA Times links to this YouTube video (h/t: Andrew Sullivan) where wingnut Alan Keyes spews all sorts of venom at Obama:

"Obama is a radical communist...he's going to destroy this country. We're either going to stop him, or the United States of American is going to cease to exist."

Keyes claims of Obama that "The man is an abomination" and brings up the tired old birth certificate myth, asking "Is he president of the United States?" Keyes goes on to opine that Obama's presidency--which he refuses to acknowledge--is "the greatest crisis this nation has ever seen" and expresses fear that "we're going to find ourselves in the midst of chaos, confusion, and civil war."

About Obama's economic plan, Keyes says "It's got to lead to the collapse of our economy, and it's going to."

What a maroon.

whither Watchmen?

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Although it won't hit theaters for almost two more weeks, Zack Snyder's Watchmen film is already polarizing fans of the graphic novel. Kevin Church says he won't see the movie, writing that "Watchmen is at its core a comic book, much like Citizen Kane is a movie:"

It uses its medium's strengths and weaknesses to the story's advantage throughout, doing things that can't work on screen, even if you take each and every panel from the book, carefully edit the voiceovers into it, and ensure that each line of dialogue is exactly as it appears on-page. I can go on and on about the technical aspects, but there's a more important element that's sitting at the core of my misgivings about this slick-looking piece of superhero cinema.

[...]

The more I see of the film version of Watchmen, the less I like it, and perhaps more importantly, the more I dislike what it represents: the dumbing-down of something greater for the sake of a false "authenticity" that's apparent only to those shallowest of readers of the source material. Zak Snyder may have a made a movie that's called Watchmen, features a cast of characters directly from the book, and liberally makes use of the book's contents, but I'll be very surprised if it has any of the original's heart.

I'm glad to see avid fans out there, proudly expressing their love for one of the best modern English-language novels, but the differences in Watchmen's story when it is adapted to a new medium don't desecrate the achievements of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. If anything, it proves that their creation has a strength akin to that of mythic archetypes, and can withstand the translation to film. A lesser tale--one that relied on gimmicks rather than solid storytelling--would not have survived. There will always be things that comics do better than films, and some of those are no doubt lost in Snyder's adaptation, but what remains still appears to be a compelling story--at least according to fellow fan Wil Wheaton.

Wheaton--whose geek cred is beyond question--was in the audience for MTV's "Spoilers" earlier tonight, and got to see the entire film. He called it "fucking awesome," and wrote:

Ultra-purists who are just determined to pick it apart will be able to find some things to be upset about, but I don't know why they're even bothering to see it, to be honest. Speaking only for myself, as someone who has read the book over and over again, there were maybe ... three ... things that made me go "eh," but I had to work really hard to get even that perturbed, because ultimately none of them mattered. In fact, when the movie was over, and I thought about the stuff they cut or moved around, I just couldn't get upset about it, because nothing happened that fucked with the story or the characters, at all. Zack Snyder's Watchmen is as close to a perfect film adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen as we were ever going to see, and when his super-ultimate-here's-everything cut comes out in the fall, I think it will be perfect. But what I saw yesterday is truly remarkable: a big studio movie adaptation of one of the most -- if not the most -- important graphic novels of my lifetime that not only didn't fuck it up, but brought it to life brilliantly.

I can't think of a better, more faithful, graphic novel adaptation, ever. Nothing else even comes close.


links:
Wheaton had some further comments in this MTV interview

Major Spoilers has a few clips that I hadn't seen before.

One of Dean Baker's remarks in his "Stop Baby Boomer Bashing" piece that I mentioned on Thursday needs a rebuttal. Baker wrote that the bursting of the stock market and housing bubbles will benefit younger workers:

The loss to the baby boomers is a gain to younger generations. They will, on average, be able to buy up the housing stock for prices that are 30 to 40 percent lower than what they would have faced three years ago. They will be able to buy the wealth of corporate America at a discount of more than 40 percent.

Not if they don't have the cash!

They can only "buy up" assets if they have money available to do so. The price of a house or a share of stock is irrelevant to younger workers who are often just scraping by--without savings, or lines of credit, or stable jobs, or healthcare...

This price deflation is great for the wealthy, though, who dream of a new gilded age. They can use their capital gains from the previous bubbles to buy up the homes, 401(k)s, and other possessions of the unemployed, bankrupt, and desperate families who can no longer maintain a middle-class lifestyle.

The young, who don't tend to have such assets, will likely not be benefiting from the fire sale.

TNR's Leon Wieseltier writes in "Love Me I'm a Liberal" that, despite two consecutive electoral victories, "The public has not yet broken the grip of the conservative discourse that has dominated America for a generation:"

Consider the insane headline on Newsweek's cover, "We Are All Socialists Now": an exclamation of its inner Hannity, as if the president is preparing to abolish private property or expropriate the means of production. All that is happening, comrades, is that our democratically constituted central government is acting to protect the whole of our economy by taking over, for a period, a part of our economy. But second natures, which are made more by culture than by thought, are not easily extinguished.

Except for an oversimplification of a Reagan quote--caught by Andrew Sullivan--Wieseltier's piece is excellent all the way to its conclusion:

Democracy is the most mentally arduous form of government. No other system stands or falls on the quality of the individual's opinions. The pressures upon the formation of opinion are staggering, and they interfere mightily with clear deliberation: as Habermas puts it, mass opinion is not yet public opinion. In an open society, therefore, it is the intellectual duty of the citizen to search for the warrant for his views, to raise opinions into beliefs by means of reasons, right reasons, reasons conceived in the bravery of arguments. This is the only way to resist the regimentations of demagogues and entertainers. The justification of belief is a human adventure. And discovering the reason is like discovering the sunrise.

The media enablers of content-free wingnuttery may fear the coming dawn, but their era of vampiric vapidity is drawing to a close.

viral video

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If you've ever wanted an explanation of the housing crisis that discusses collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps without using the word "tranche," designer Jonathan Jarvis has just the thing for you. In this ten-minute clip, he does an outstanding job of making our economic catastrophe almost...entertaining:

Dean (Plunder and Blunder) Baker wants us to "Stop Baby Boomer Bashing" by protecting Social Security and Medicare. He warns us that "[w]orkers are likely to be especially fearful about the prospects of getting their Social Security benefits now, due to an all out assault on the program financed by billionaire banker Peter Peterson:"

Peterson has spent much of the last two decades trying to cut Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits for the elderly. He recently contributed a billion dollars to a foundation bearing his name that is primarily committed to this goal.

Peterson's investment has paid off both in exposure from the media and, more importantly, attention from many members of Congress and their staffers. There are now dozens of senators, members of Congress and staffers running all around Capitol Hill crafting creative new ways to cut Social Security. Baby boomers are right to fear that Peterson and his crew will take away their benefits.

Baker's caution is echoed by The Nation's William Greider, who observes in "Looting Social Security" that an "impressive armada" of "Washington's leading think tanks, the prestige media, tax-exempt foundations, skillful propagandists posing as economic experts and a self-righteous billionaire" [Peterson] are arguing that there's no money left for retiring boomers:

These players are promoting a tricky way to whack Social Security benefits, but to do it behind closed doors so the public cannot see what's happening or figure out which politicians to blame. The essential transaction would amount to misappropriating the trillions in Social Security taxes that workers have paid to finance their retirement benefits. This swindle is portrayed as "fiscal reform." In fact, it's the political equivalent of bait-and-switch fraud.

Greider writes that "[t]o understand the mechanics of this attempted swindle, you have to roll back twenty-five years, to the time the game of bait and switch began, under Ronald Reagan." Here's his long version:

The Gipper's great legislative victory in 1981--enacting massive tax cuts for corporations and upper-income ranks--launched the era of swollen federal budget deficits. But their economic impact was offset by the huge tax increase that Congress imposed on working people in 1983: the payroll tax rate supporting Social Security--the weekly FICA deduction--was raised substantially, supposedly to create a nest egg for when the baby boom generation reached retirement age. A blue-ribbon commission chaired by Alan Greenspan worked out the terms, then both parties signed on. Since there was no partisan fight, the press portrayed the massive tax increase as a noncontroversial "good government" reform.

Ever since, working Americans have paid higher taxes on their labor wages--12.4 percent, split between employees and employers. As a result, the Social Security system has accumulated a vast surplus--now around $2.5 trillion and growing. This is the money pot the establishment wants to grab, claiming the government can no longer afford to keep the promise it made to workers twenty-five years ago.

Here's the short version:

Follow the bouncing ball: Washington first cuts taxes on the well-to-do, then offsets the revenue loss by raising taxes on the working class and tells folks it is saving their money for future retirement. But Washington spends the money on other stuff, so when workers need it for their retirement, they are told, Sorry, we can't afford it.

When noting the media's complicity in Peterson's "media blitz," Greider observes that "[m]ost reporters are too lazy (or dim) to check out the facts for themselves, so they simply repeat what Peterson tells them about Social Security." Gregory Clark writes in The Atlantic that the rest of us need not let their failures affect our ability to understand economic events:

The debate about the bank bailout, and the stimulus package, has all revolved around issues that are entirely at the level of Econ 1. What is the multiplier from government spending? Does government spending crowd out private spending? How quickly can you increase government spending? If you got a A in college in Econ 1 you are an expert in this debate: fully an equal of Summers and Geithner.

That's good news for the economic layperson, but rather less so for those who lean too heavily on the chattering classes for their understanding of the news.

Limbaugh logic

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Rush cited this John Adams quote on Tuesday:

20090219-limbaugh.jpg

and then went off on this tangent:

It's an interesting prophecy he had essentially here because the very people trying to undermine the Constitution because it's an obstacle to them are the very people that we put in power lately over the years, both at the state level, in some places the city level, and in some instances at the United States government level, the federal level, the Constitution is under assault by people who come find it restrictive and unpalatable. This is one of the great battles in which we find ourselves today. [emphases added]

Adams was not prophesying; he was stating an opinion (and a mistaken one at that) about the adequacy of the Constitution. With the Constitution's "no religious test" clause and the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause, the other Founders demonstrated that they knew otherwise. Adams recognizes that morality and religion are two separate entities, yet he fails to see that the second one is superfluous in addition to being supernatural.

Rush's comment about "the very people trying to undermine the Constitution" is curious because, although he presumably means liberals, he provides no examples. The only undermining of the Constitution I've seen lately has involved conservatives: faith-based initiatives, the Patriot Act, waging preemptive wars of questionable legality, torturing and murdering captives under extra-legal circumstances, warrantless wiretapping, and unprecedented efforts at secrecy to hide who knows how many other high crimes.

Limbaugh doth project too much, methinks.

Ann Coulter's pathetic screed "Why We Don't Celebrate 'Historians Day'" about Bush's low ranking among historians embodies virtually everything that's wrong with mainstream conservative punditry: cheap shots at liberals, excessive use of scare quotes, rampant anti-intellectualism, and factual errors.

Liberals may call him a "war criminal," but historians have inadvertently paid Bush a great tribute this week by ranking him as a "below average" president. [...] Whenever history professors rank you as one of the "worst" presidents, it's a good bet you were one of America's greatest.

Coulter calls FDR "preposterously overrated," but this contradicts her defense of Eisenhower as one of the greats:

Under President Dwight Eisenhower, the gross national product grew by over 25 percent and inflation averaged 1.4 percent.

Let's take a look at FDR's economic record, shall we? Information from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (XLS) actually shows a 47% GDP increase under Eisenhower--better than Bush, but not as good as Clinton. Under FDR, our GDP increased 274%, so he deserves that #3 ranking, right?

Information about the CPI from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (TXT) shows an average inflation rate of 1.4% for Eisenhower, much better than FDR's 2.6% rate. (OK, fine...we liberals can admit that he wasn't the best at everything.)

Coulter's lack of logical consistency is one reason why we don't celebrate 'Conservative Columnists Day.'

presidential travel

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Today I was greeted with this complaint:

"Obama's been flying around on Air Force One every day since he took office!"

Really?

That sounded like bullshit to me, perhaps straight from Rush Limbaugh, so I did a little checking. It appears that Obama has indeed been out of Washington a few times since the inauguration, although far from "every day:"

February 5: Williamsburg, VA

February 7: Camp David

February 9: Elkhart, IN

February 10: Fort Myers, FL

February 12-13: Springfield, IL; Peoria, IL; Chicago, IL

February 17: Denver, CO

Obama was in Phoenix today, for--what?--seven trips...most of which were related to the stimulus package. I haven't seen any data that would enable an apples-to-apples comparison between administrations, but here is a list of Bush's trips (vacation and otherwise) to and from his faux ranch in Texas. In light of the sudden (professed) concern for saving taxpayers' money, here's a House report on Bush & Cheney's 2002 campaign-related trips:

This report assesses the costs to the taxpayer when the President and Vice President travel for campaign appearances. It examines the costs that were borne by the taxpayer in 2002, the most recent election cycle in which there was no presidential election. The report analyzes the costs associated with presidential and vice presidential flights to campaign-related events on military aircraft. It does not take into account Secret Service costs, the costs of food and lodging for additional staff, the costs of backup or additional passenger planes that accompany the President, motorcade costs, or the costs of helicopter transport.

Major findings include:

From January 1, 2002, through Election Day on November 5, 2002, the President and Vice President made a total of at least 83 campaign-related trips, involving at least 168 campaign-related stops, at an estimated cost of $6.5 million in flight expenses.

The report uses an operating cost figure of $56,518/hour for Air Force One, but observes later that this is not a comprehensive figure:

For example, a substantial additional cost of the trips involves costs associated with the Secret Service and other personnel that accompany the President and Vice President as "official" travelers.

Another additional cost is backup planes that accompany the President on domestic travel, and additional passenger aircraft that may accompany the President if the number of accompanying staff is significant. The President and Vice President also incur costs traveling between airports and campaign events in helicopters and motorcades. Further, the helicopters that transport the President and Vice President to and from the airport at the beginning and end of trips cost thousands of additional dollars per trip.

The report mentions a Washington Post article (unavailable at WaPo's website, but there's a copy here) that estimates the full cost of Bush's "59 out-of-town political events he had done this year as of last week." The article notes that his 2002 trips to fundraising events "cost something on the order of $ 15.7 million for Bush to raise $ 66.5 million" for the GOP.

I'm not suggesting that presidents don't need to travel for official business, but a large part of their travel is discretionary; perhaps conservative caterwauling about flight expenses could be avoided by more judicious use of jet fuel. (It is gratifying, however, to see their sudden concern for fiscal and environmental responsibility.)

As far as the Limbaugh connection, I investigated my hunch and found out that El Rushbo went on a mini tirade on Monday:

It's an amazingly active news day, despite the fact the president's on the third day of a vacation. This guy's taken more vacations than I have. [...] Obama is headed back to Washington today from Chicago, then he's flying to Denver tomorrow. I'd just think he'd stay in Chicago and go to Denver from there and save a lot of fuel and save a lot of carbon footprints. He's flying back to Washington. He's going to fly to Denver, sign the stimulus bill in Denver. He's going to head to Phoenix and save people's homes. It's a beautiful thing, folks. It's just absolutely wonderful.

Obama flies home to Chicago for the weekend, and Rush dares to make a comment about vacations? The same guy who had a little sex tourism scandal (vacationing in the Caribbean with some Viagra not prescribed to him) has forgotten not only his indiscretions, but also his buddy Dubya's infamously vacation-laden presidency. CBS noted that Bush visited his "ranch" 77 times (490 days total) and Camp David 149 times (487 days).

Not that Obama's perfect, but how about some perspective?

Dawkins on evolution

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In his inimitable way, Richard Dawkins reviews (h/t: Arts & Letters Daily)
Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, calling the book "outstandingly good:"

Coyne's knowledge of evolutionary biology is prodigious, his deployment of it as masterful as his touch is light. His coverage is enviably comprehensive, yet he simultaneously manages to keep the book compact and readable.

As enjoyable as Dawkins is when praising his fellow scientist, I enjoyed his smackdown of Creationist anti-science complaints of "arrogance" even more:

A scientist arrogantly asserts that thunder is not the triumphal sound of God's balls banging together, nor is it Thor's hammer. It is, instead, the reverberating echoes from the electrical discharges that we see as lightning. Poetic (or at least stirring) as those tribal myths may be, they are not actually true.

But now a certain kind of anthropologist can be relied on to jump up and say something like the following: Who are you to elevate scientific "truth" so? [...] Listen, anthropologist. Just as you entrust your travel to a Boeing 747 rather than a magic carpet or a broomstick; just as you take your tumour to the best surgeon available, rather than a shaman or a mundu mugu, so you will find that the scientific version of truth works. You can use it to navigate through the real world.

Mentions of "the real world" always come back to the fossil record, and--at the request of Bay of Fundie-- I'm posting this image:

20090217-wehavethefossils.jpg

Since today is Presidents' Day, there's no better time to look at the results of yesterday's CSPAN survey of historians (h/t: ThinkProgress) on presidential leadership.

The top three aren't too much of a surprise:

1. Lincoln
2. Washington
3. FDR

Dubya, however, didn't fare quite as poorly as expected. He was edged out at the bottom by Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Harrison, Harding, and Fillmore--finishing in a still-dismal 36th place.

Have a happy (ex-)President's Day, Dubya!

amazon.com

Night Music: The Art of P. Craig Russell, DVD, directed by Wayne Alan Harold (Ravenna, OH: Lurid Media, 2008)

Night Music: The Art of P. Craig Russell is a documentary focusing on my favorite comics artist, P. Craig Russell. (I'm sure you could ascertain my fannishness by my reviews of his work, especially this one.) I've seen all the promo clips that were posted online, including the more recent (and more polished) "PCR TV" series, but Night Music is still essential for Russell fans.

The DVD has a comfortably informal feel, although the room echo is occasionally bothersome. It's worth every cent, though, for its interesting glimpses into Russell's working methods, the art gallery in his home, and even a cocktail party featuring many of the friends and neighbors he has used as character models. The second bonus feature, a look at his recent adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman: The Dream Hunters, is one of the best parts of the DVD--I love seeing work in progress, especially when it is of such high caliber.

The original edition of the DVD has been discontinued, and replaced by an "expanded and updated" edition; the copy I watched for this review was a special edition purchased through Russell's website, with Russell's signature on this image along with that of director Wayne Alan Harold:

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[Note: This DVD has been on my to-review list since it arrived in September. Election season really played hell with my timeliness.]

amazon.com

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded (New York: Knopf, 2008)

Renowned neurologist Oliver (Awakenings) Sacks takes us on a tour of our innermost musical instrument: the brain. He discusses earworms (melodies that get "stuck" in your head), musical dreams and hallucinations, conditions such as amusia and synesthesia, and describes how musical abilities and appreciation are affected by various diseases (amnesia, Parkinson's, Williams syndrome, Tourette's, and Alzheimer's). In lesser hands, Musicophilia could have been a dry recitation of case studies, but Sacks is more than equal to the task of keeping his subject interesting by writing in a lively and informative manner.

His descriptions of the brain's anatomy are never overly technical, although a schematic drawing or two wouldn't have impeded his presentation. For instance, a comparative diagram would have further enlivened the passage where Sacks mentions the physiological changes in musical brains:

Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician--but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment's hesitation. (p. 100)

Here are several brief excerpts that give a sense of the book's sensibilities:

"In the evenings the rumbles and bells soften. They become grand, sonorous and deep. I hear a vast organ playing a slowly evolving dirge without a time or a beat. It has the solemn grandeur of an aurora...it fits the occasion, for my ears are dying. But they are playing superbly at their own funeral." (p. 69, Michael Chorost, writing about his deafness-driven auditory hallucinations)

Although a teaspoon of Mozart may not make a child a better mathematician, there is little doubt that regular exposure to music, and especially active participation in music, may stimulate development of many different areas of the brain--areas which have to work together to listen to or perform music. For the vast majority of students, music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.
(p. 102, on the much-hyped "Mozart Effect")

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. (p. 329)

I must thank Sacks for mentioning "Dido's Lament" ("When I Am Laid in Earth" from Act 3, Scene 2 of Purcell's Dido & Aeneas) in this book. The first recording I found, from the Harmonia Mundi label, was indeed a stirring rendition; its repetition has already worn grooves in my auditory memory.

I couldn't find the paper cited here:

Iversen et al. propose that "experience with the native language creates rhythmic templates which influence the processing of nonlinguistic sound patterns. This raises the question as to whether there might be correspondences between the speech patterns and the instrumental music of particular cultures. There has long been an impression among musicologists that such correspondences exist, and this has now been formally, quantitatively studied by Patel, Iversen, and their colleagues at the Neurosciences Institute. (p. 265; citing Iversen, J.R., Patel, A.D. & Ohgushi, K. (2004). Perception of Nonlinguistic Rhythmic Stimuli by American and Japanese Listeners. Proceedings of the International Congress of Acoustics, Kyoto.

although this later paper by the same authors follows in the same vein. The linguistic nature of music is a particularly intriguing one, and this book is studded with gems of similar brilliance. The greater one's appreciation for music, cognitively or emotionally, the more likely it is that Musicophilia will be appreciated. I recommend it highly to any musically inclined readers.


reviews:
Colin McGinn (NYRB)
Anthony Gottlieb at NYT
Michiko Kakutani at NYT

links:
Oliver Sacks (website and Wikipedia)
Musicophilia website
First chapter

Don Monkerud's AlterNet piece "Religion Crowds into America's Bedrooms" looks at the Religious Right's culture war against sex, and features an interesting quote from CUNY history professor Dagmar (Sex in Crisis) Herzog:

"Although the evangelical movement is contradictory and hypocritical, it's important to understand that it's pro-sex," says Herzog. "The evangelicals promise physiological orgasms, called 'soulgasms,' which combine psychological orgasms, a close emotional connection with the spouse, and the blessing presence of God in the bedroom. At the same time, they're homophobic and hostile to all sex outside marriage."

"The blessing presence of God in the bedroom?" Excuse me for asking, but wouldn't that transform two-partner spousal sex into a threesome? (I was puzzled, because except for Sex in Christ, I'd never seen even a slightly pro-polyamory attitude from the anti-gay, anti-adultery crowd...)

This situation might be even kinkier for Christian Trinitarian couples, for whom that "presence" would create a five-some. Apologetics may suggest that JC, Big Daddy, and the Spook are merely voyeurs, but--as Austin Cline points out--that would still be kind of disturbing in some situations:

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Happy Valentine's Day!

John (Why I Became an Atheist) Loftus has asked for suggestions for a "Bare Minimal Atheist Library" of a half-dozen books, and--as with any list-related endeavor--achieving brevity took me a fair amount of time. Here are the six books I would suggest--books which are not specifically atheist, but which are meaningful to me. They link religious beliefs to politics and science and sex, encourage curiosity, and foster critical thinking about so-called received wisdom:

Mikhail Bakunin God and the State

Richard Feynman Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character

Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Bertrand Russell Why I Am Not a Christian

Carl Sagan Contact

Theodore Sturgeon Godbody

For a slightly larger not-quite-minimal atheist library, I'd include these compilations:

Albert Camus The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays

Thomas Paine Collected Writings

There's much more to understanding atheism than the Four Horsemen, and Loftus has suggested some intriguing books--including his own. (So many books...)

happy Darwin Day!

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Today is Darwin Day--the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th of the publishing of his opus On the Origin of Species. Freedom from Religion Foundation recently put up some "Praise Darwin" billboards, and--while I think the word "praise" is inappropriate--they're certainly getting some media attention:

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In some less-than-encouraging news, the American educational system is failing--under pressure from creationist IDiots--to foster basic scientific literacy. According to a recent Gallup poll, "only 39% of Americans say they 'believe in the theory of evolution':"

...among those with high-school educations or less who have an opinion on Darwin's theory, more say they do not believe in evolution than say they believe in it. For all other groups, and in particular those who have at least a college degree, belief is significantly higher than nonbelief.

Darwin's theory has been at the forefront of religious debate since he published On the Origin of Species 150 years ago. Even to this day, highly religious individuals claim that the theory of evolution contradicts the story of creation as outlined in the book of Genesis in the Bible.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to find that there is a strong relationship between church attendance and belief in evolution in the current data. Those who attend church most often are the least likely to say they believe in evolution.

I wonder how many people actually understand the word theory in this context, and realize that it doesn't mean guess or hunch. Do they know that gravity is also a theory? (Perhaps they believe in "intelligent falling" instead...)


links:
Scientific American
Wikipedia

amazon.com

McGowan, Dale. Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion (New York: AMACOM, 2007)

amazon.com

McGowan, Dale. Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief (New York: AMACOM, 2009)

I've been reading McGowan's secular parenting blog "The Meming of Life" avidly ever since I read a pre-publication announcement about Parenting Beyond Belief, his first book on secular parenting. As he remarked in the preface to PBB, "There are scores of books on religious parenting. Now there's one for the rest of us." (p. x) With the release of Raising Freethinkers, there are now two for the rest of us.

Together, the essays in these two books cover both the theoretical (Parenting Beyond Belief) and the practical (Raising Freethinkers) aspects of secular parenting. There are plenty of reading suggestions, links, advice, and activities--perhaps too many to utilize in toto. Despite all the contributions to PBB that I enjoyed, McGowan's own essay "Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder" (pp. 220-5) is the book's highlight for me. These two passages show why:

Religious wonder--the wonder we're said to be missing out on--is counterfeit wonder. As each complex and awe-inspiring explanation of reality takes the place of "God did it," the flush of real awe quickly overwhelms the memory of whatever it was we considered so wondrous in religious mythology. (PBB, p. 222)

We must teach our kids to doubt and doubt and doubt not to "tear everything down" but to pull cheap facades away so they can see and delight in those things that are legitimately wonderful. How will they recognize them? It's easy--they're the ones left standing after the hail of critical thinking has flattened everything else. (PBB, p. 223)

McGowan's paean to Carl Sagan is especially appreciated, and I suspect that he and I could swap plenty of me-too stories about Sagan's wonderful Cosmos series. This later passage also caught my eye:

"There is another form of temptation even more fraught with danger," warned Saint Augustine. "This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us on to try to discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing, and which men should not wish to learn." (pp. 225-6, Amanda Chesworth, "Natural Wonders," quoting from Confessions, section 10.35.54)

The quote seemed rather familiar, so I pulled my Philip Burton/Robin Lane Fox translation of Confessions off the shelf. It casts that passage this way:

"It is for this reason [morbid desire] that men seek to examine the secrets of nature, which are beyond us; it does no good to know them, yet men desire nothing but to know." (PBB, p. 249)

It's a damning passage no matter how it is worded, and the religion-based "fearthought" approach (RF, p. 2) is in the starkest contrast to freethought's encouragement of critical thinking--which is amply demonstrated in each book by McGowan and his contributors. Nearly every essay had some resonance with me, even those with which I had some quibbles. For example, Jan Devor's "Secular Family, Religious World" had a phrase that didn't ring quite right:

If her friends are persisting [in inviting her to pray around the school flagpole] because they mean well and genuinely seek her companionship, they might simply need to be thanked for their good intentions and informed that her decision not to join them is final. (RF, p. 83)

The finality--for lack of a better word--of this suggestion flies somewhat in the face of McGowan's repeated statements to his children that "it's OK to change your mind" in the process of learning and maturing. I suspect that if this were McGowan's essay, he would have suggested something along the lines of "Thank them for their good intentions and inform them that she will come to them if her decision changes."

The suggestions on pp. 12-13 about provoking children's thoughts rather than simply answering their questions remind me of a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip:

20090217-calvinsdad.jpg

(There are several other C&H strips here and here that make similar points.)

As in PBB, McGowan's work in RF once again stands out among a strong field. Except for the heavy end-of-the-year bias, I like the following idea very much:

Why not let Sagan's Cosmic Calendar also generate some cool new humanist holidays? In the compressed cosmic year, the Milky Way came into being on May 1--so celebrate May 1 as Milky Way Day! September 9 is Sun Day, for obvious reasons. November 1 is Sex Day (evolution of sexual reproduction, 2.5 billion years ago). Kudos again to Friendly Humanist Timothy Mills for this one. (RF, pp. 166-7)

After reading several references to BeliefNet's Belief-o-Matic quiz, I finally took it. The top ten groups aligned with my views are:

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (93%)
3. Liberal Quakers (81%)
4. Theravada Buddhism (72%)
5. Neo-Pagan (70%)
6. Nontheist (70%)
7. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (68%)
8. New Age (60%)
9. Taoism (58%)
10. Reform Judaism (54%)

Throughout both books, McGowan and his contributors are very positive toward a variety of traditions, especially the freethought-friendly Unitarian Universalist Church--not the Moonies' Unification Church--which (as a former member) I appreciated. This open attitude will no doubt go a long way toward making these books palatable to religious moderate in search of god-free educational resources. If there are better collections of resources than McGowan's books, I haven't seen them yet--although my to-be-read list has grown substantially by adding many of the books he and his contributors have suggested.

disappointments

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On the day of Obama's inauguration, I observed that his administration was certain to be a disappointment in some ways. Well, a few such disappointments have cropped up already.

First, his economic package. Paul Krugman looks at Obama's failure to shepherd anything more substantial than a mediocre stimulus bill through Congress, noting that "this was his best chance to get decisive action, and it fell short:"

So has Mr. Obama learned from this experience? Early indications aren't good.

For rather than acknowledge the failure of his political strategy and the damage to his economic strategy, the president tried to put a postpartisan happy face on the whole thing. "Democrats and Republicans came together in the Senate and responded appropriately to the urgency this moment demands," he declared on Saturday, and "the scale and scope of this plan is right."

No, they didn't, and no, it isn't.

Second, Obama wants to expand one of the worst of Bush's domestic policies. DJ Grothe analyzes Obama's planned follow-up on Bush's faith-based fiasco:

As it now stands, Obama's expanded faith based initiative offers only more likelihood of division and church-state entanglements, civil rights violations and government funding of evangelism. It is a threat to a woman's right to choose, and supports the anti-gay and anti-woman conservative "pro-marriage" agenda. And it is naive about the impact of interfaith dialogue abroad.

Finally, the abuse of state secrecy. The ACLU provides an overview of reactions from bloggers and mainstream journalists to some cases in the news this week, and the Center for Constitutional Rights asks, "when will Obama roll back the illegal expansion of executive power he has inherited?" The administration's answer doesn't appear to be a good one, despite campaign promises to the contrary.

CCR's FAQ on state secrets provides a historical primer, with David Luban observing at Balkinization that "The state secrets privilege, used to cover up wrongdoing rather than to protect legitimate national security secrets, is an all-out assault on public accountability and, ultimately, on democracy:"

By now, it's well-known that the state secrets privilege was born in original sin. The 1953 case in which the Supreme Court established it, United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953), turned out, when documents were declassified nearly half a century later, to be a cover-up of gross negligence under a false assertion that the documents contained national security information.

Scott Horton writes at Harper's that:

Obama need not repudiate the notion of state secrecy. It was debated in the course of the Constitutional Convention and has been invoked by executives at least as early as the Jefferson administration. But roughly 90% of all invocations of state secrecy in court proceedings have occurred in the last eight years, a clear sign that something is terribly wrong in the Department of Justice. State secrecy should exist to protect the nation's military and diplomatic secrets, and those are the parameters which have governed its use since the time the Constitution was adopted. But state secrecy must not be invoked to keep materials secret because they would be politically embarrassing or harmful to individual politicians. And even more clearly, state secrecy must never be invoked to conceal evidence of a crime.

In the case of Binyam Mohamed, [...] the real basis for invocation of state secrets [...] is to obstruct pending criminal investigations and to preclude recovery by the victims of damages on account of the wrongdoing they suffered.

Glenn Greenwald writes (here and here) that, in terms of state secrecy, Obama's administration is:

...invoking the most abusive parts of the Bush theory: namely, that the privilege can be used to block the adjudication of entire cases (rather than, say, justify the concealment of specific classified documents or other pieces of evidence), and, worse still, can be used to prevent judicial scrutiny even when the alleged government conduct is blatantly illegal and, as here, a war crime of the greatest seriousness.

They're embracing a theory that literally places government officials beyond the rule of law. No minimally honest person who criticized the Bush administration for relying on this instrument can defend the Obama administration for doing so here.

[...]

It doesn't take much time or energy to understand why that instrument is so pernicious. It enables a Government to break the law -- repeatedly and deliberately -- and then block courts from subjecting its behavior to any judicial accountability, and prevent the public from learning about the lawbreaking, by claiming that its conduct generally is too secret to allow any judicial review. Put another way, it places Presidents and their aides beyond and above the rule of law, since it empowers them to break the law and then prevent their victims -- or anyone else -- from holding them accountable in a court of law.

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen writes a brief case study showing how misinformation travels through the right-wing media. The Hudson Institute's Betsy McCaughey wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg, and Benen traces her misrepresentations about the stimulus bill from Rush to Fox "News" and the WSJ and back to Rush again:

Remember, McCaughey got it wrong. Limbaugh and Drudge took the wrong information and exaggerated it further. Then Fox News took Limbaugh's lies, and stretched it even further still. That none of this is grounded in reality in any way was of no importance to any of these clowns. Untold thousands of Americans, who don't know better, get their "news" from these people, and have no idea they've been lied to.

Unless people get at least some information fro outside the mainstream (conservative, corporate) media monoculture, they will remain pawns in the Right's disinformation campaigns. Spreading their manure-like propaganda on America's political culture, as we were reminded again yesterday, sometimes bears deadly fruit. A parallel system of liberal think tanks and media outlets might be able to counter these systemic effects, but at risk of falling into a similar pattern of behavioral conformity and ideological rigidity.

What to do?


update (2:34pm):
MediaMatters has details on McCaughey's falsehood; as always, their reporting is excellent.

The right-wing terrorist who killed 2 people during a rampage at a liberal church in Tennessee has received a life sentence for his crimes. His manifesto (4 pages, PDF) reads like an under-educated version of the Unabomber's manifesto--not surprisingly, as they both hail from the same fever swamps of paranoia and hatred.

Lately I've been feeling helpless in our War on Terrorizm. [sic] But I realized I could engage the terrorists allies [sic] here in America. The best allies they've got. The Democrates! [sic] The democrates [sic] have done everything they can do to tie our hands in this War on Terror. They're all a bunch of traitors. They want America to loose [sic] this war for reasons I can not understand. It makes me soooo [sic] mad!

Irony alert! A few sentences later, he writes:

The worst problem America faces today is Liberalism. They have dumbed down education...

It gets better:

Liberals are evil, they embrace the tenets of Karl Marx, they're Marxists, socialist, communists.

Maybe when you're done working out in the prison yard to beef up your punk self, you can visit the prison library to do a little reading. Maybe someday you'll realize that you're full of shit. You might even grow a conscience somewhere along the way.

About the Unitarian-Universalist Church, he writes:

Don't let the word church mislead you. This isn't a church, it's a cult. They don't even believe in God. They worship the God of Secularizmz. [sic] These sick people aren't Liberals, they're Ultra-Liberals.

Thank you.

This is a collection of sicko's, [sic] weirdo's, [sic] + homo's. [sic]

But at least we understand punctuation.

Those people are absolute Hypocrits. [sic]

And spelling.

They call themselves "Progressive." How is a white woman having a niger [sic] baby progress? How is a man sticking his dick up another man's ass progress? It's an abomination.

Your racism and homophobia are duly noted.

I'm protesting the DNC running such a radical leftist candidate. OSama Hussein OBama, YO Mama. [sic] No experience, no brains, a joke.

No brains? That sounds like the last president.

Dangerous to America. Hell, he looks like Curious George!

Yep, that's the last one all right:

20090210-bushorchimp.jpg

I couldn't get to the generals + high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chickenshit liberals that vote in these traitorous people.

Would those be the same "chickenshit liberals" who, upon seeing an armed madman storming their church, risked their own lives to end his rampage? Who's the chickenshit in this scenario: the armed conservative doing the ambushing, or the unarmed liberals who stopped him?

I'd like to encourage other like minded people to do what I've done. If life ain't worth living anymore don't just kill yourself, do something for your Country before you go. Go Kill Liberals.

Apparently, murder is an acceptable method of resolving political differences in wingnut world. I wonder: will his cellmates adhere to the same philosophy? Will they appreciate his comments about miscegenation and ass-fucking?

I owe a tip-of-the-hat to Sara at Orcinus, who wrote this about Adkisson's "chickenshit" remark:

The right wing has, as usual, grossly underestimated our courage and our commitment. The members of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist quickly and effectively disarmed and captured this man within seconds after he opened fire. Adkisson expected fear; what we got was determined resistance. It's why he's still alive today, and why more UUs aren't dead by his hand. The TVUUA congregation should be our enduring example of liberal grace under fire.

high-wire act?

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In this WSJ op-ed, (h/t: Pat) jazz musician Eric Felten puts the inaugural quartet's taped performance in a larger context than my criticisms, by citing other examples and writing that "the fear of risking mistakes has led musicians to deny who they are as performers:"

Any live performance is a high-wire act, and the wire can be wobbly. Nowadays, it seems that -- when it really counts -- musicians are willing to put the wire on the pavement and walk along it as if they were doing something just as daring as the real thing.

But far worse, the emphasis on technologically assisted perfection is at odds with a human conception of artistic beauty. "In all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty," wrote the 19th-century British critic John Ruskin. "To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality." Which is exactly what happened at the Capitol grandstand: An opportunity for glorious exertion and vitality was missed.

I'm all for the idea of "glorious exertion" in sports--think of a marathon on a humid 100°+ day, or the Tour de France in a deluge--but the arts often have a different character. I don't begrudge a musician for wanting to perform under optimal conditions, when doing so in adverse conditions would mean a substandard performance.

Felten focuses too much on the moment and not enough on the music. What we should be celebrating is the fact that those four musicians played that piece of music at a startlingly high level of artistry--breathing life into the notes on the page. Giving in to the demands of the moment would have meant foregoing a sublime performance and settling for a merely satisfactory one. Are we to judge art by its end result, or by the number and size of obstacles overcome?

The winner of The Nation's "Retire Bush" contest was announced in today's issue:

George W. Bush should host a revised version of the TV reality show The Biggest Loser, on which corporate executives compete weekly for the most colossal management debacle. The winner gets a $200 million severance package and a presidential pardon.

20090209-retirebush.jpg

I guess it's time to reveal my submission. After toying around with this

Dubya plans on being a product tester for a prominent pretzel manufacturer.

and this,

Never has the gulf between "should do" and "will do" seemed so unbridgeable. Bush should do time after leaving office; instead, he'll probably go back to clearing brush at his faux ranch.

I submitted this one:

After leaving office, Bush will join Laura in promoting literacy with this slogan: "Reading comprehension means understanding a PDB as well as The Pet Goat."

Congratulations to the winner and the runners-up!

As an aid to everyone who's taken an Econ 101 textbook off the shelf in an attempt to better understand the various competing economic stimulus proposals, here's a chart from a July 2008 report by Mark Zandi:


20090208-bangforthebuck.gif

Of course, Republicans failed to push through their tax-cuts-only amendment, even though permanent tax cuts are among the least effective stimulus measures...talk about being blinded by ideology. (Fortunately, they're no longer in control.)

Republicans only seem to care about sensible fiscal policy when they're opposing Democratic spending--even though spending is more effective than the GOP's one-solution-for-every-problem tax cuts. (See their vocal support for Bush's budget-busting tax cuts--which were almost twice as expensive as Obama's stimulus package--here and here. And don't even get me started on the $3 trillion cost of Bush's Iraq misadventure; that's a millstone that will be hanging around all our necks of the rest of our lives.)

links:
money supply
spending multiplier
unemployment

I've harped on misuse of the word socialism before, but Newsweek's latest cover story "We Are All Socialists Now" is probably the most egregious example I've seen. (The authors were playing on the Milton Friedman quote "we are all Keynesians now," often misattributed to Richard Nixon, but really--if they don't know what the word means, why are they using it?)

20090208-newsweek.gif

Jillian at Sadly, No! rips the entire journalistic profession a new one over this continued--and deliberate?--refusal to do a few minutes' research to find out what the word "socialism" actually means. Her artful deployment of sarcasm is an inspiration to me:

...nothing that Barack Obama - or, indeed, any Democrat - has proposed in response to our current economic crisis is in any way, shape, or form even the slightest bit "socialist". "Socialism" is a word that actually means something. I know this is hard for you to understand, mostly because the gaps in your education caused by your total functional illiteracy have led you to believe that "socialism" is some sort of diabolical swear word that means something like "baby-raping" or "kitten-eating".

[...]

Learn to read. Then when you come back actually able to process basic written information, we'll have a conversation about your total lack of contextual knowledge about the world around you.

a death knell?

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Sam Tanenhaus' cover story at TNR, "Conservatism Is Dead," is a sobering look at contemporary conservatism. Tanenhaus writes:

After George W. Bush's two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that failed, in large part, because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive "culture war" waged against liberal "elites."

[...]

What conservatives have yet to do is confront the large but inescapable truth that movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead. And yet they should, because the death of movement politics can only be a boon to the right, since it has been clear for some time the movement is profoundly and defiantly un-conservative--in its ideas, arguments, strategies, and above all its vision.

Tanenhaus reaches back to Burke and Disraeli, but focuses mainly on the Buckleyite conservatism of the past 50 years. He sees the current intra-party conflict as being fought between "those who have upheld the Burkean ideal" and "movement conservatives" who are:

...committed to a revanchist counterrevolution, the restoration of America's pre-welfare state ancien regime. And, time and again, the counterrevolutionaries have won. The result is that modern American conservatism has dedicated itself not to fortifying and replenishing civil society but rather to weakening it through a politics of civil warfare. [...] Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy--"statist" social programs; "socialized medicine"; "big labor"; "activist" Supreme Court justices, the "media elite"; "tenured radicals" on university faculties; "experts" in and out of government.

But, if it's clear what the right is against, what exactly has it been for? This question has haunted the movement from its inception in the 1950s, when its principal objective was to undo the New Deal and reinstate the laissez-faire Republicanism of the 1920s.

He quotes Garry Wills' observation that "The right wing in America is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of 'conserving' an actual order it does not want to conserve." (Hence the term 'reactionary,' which is perhaps the most accurate appellation for them.) By the Clinton era, the movement had fallen apart:

The right, which for so long had deplored the politics of "class warfare," had become the most adept practitioners of that same politics. They had not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement--the Reagan Revolution--above their civic responsibilities.

It is here that I turned to Andrew Sullivan's "Conservatism Lives!" response. Sullivan, a thoughtful conservative who has long disidentified conservatism from its Bushevik manifestation, looks at the Bush wreckage and sees a "contrast between partisan Republicanism in the past forty years and the classical conservative temperament, originating in Burke, and celebrated by Kirk and Hart." This GOP partisanism, exemplified by "the executive power theories of the Bush administration and the attempt to use the constitution for social policy," are called "repellently unconservative" by Sullivan.

He writes, "the core conservative insight is the distinction between ideology and politics, between theoretical and practical wisdom," and notes that "this ideological calcification...has killed conservatism as a coherent governing philosophy." However, Sullivan believes that conservatism survives in unlikely quarters:

I did see Obama as a more conservative - because more pragmatic - option in the last election. And his temperament, his patience and his civility all appeal to the conservative not blinded by partisanship or ideology.

Sullivan concludes with this:

I do not agree with the headline on Sam's piece "Conservatism Is Dead." I do agree that the current conservative movement deserves to die; and that the Republican party deserved the massive defeats it just received. But I do not believe the conservative temperament in politics can ever truly die. it is part of human nature, nurtured to a degree of sophistication in Britain and America that is too useful to lose. I see more of it in the Obama administration right now than I do either party in Congress. This is a conservatism of no party or clique. But it is conservatism.

more stimulus

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As imperfect as the Democratic stimulus package is, a backlash is being manufactured against it; for example, see MediaMatters' debunking of the myths here. Thers writes at FDL that the stimulus bill presents an "existential crisis" to conservatives:

The stimulus bill is making "conservatives" run around like screeching idiots for two reasons. It is of course their default mode. More importantly, though, if the bill works -- even if it just kinda-sorta works -- then what do they have left of their dogma? If it can be shown that the government can actually do stuff like "fix problems," then there's no just point to conservatism. [...] All "conservatism" is, at root, is vapid sloganeering about how "government doesn't work." It's easy enough for them to "prove" this when they're in charge, as they've so spectacularly demonstrated. But what if someone can come in after them and run the place competently?

I would say that this is partially incorrect--to the extent that conservatives do believe that government does work sometimes. It works to fund the military-industrial complex, and to scare the populace into supporting its use and thereby justifying its cost; it works to keep the intricacies of various international and domestic affairs secret; it works to obscure the levers of power (and their use) from our sight by drowning our attention in scandalously trivial sensationalism.

Jobs are evaporating at 600,000 a month, and the rising unemployment only exacerbates our problems with home foreclosures and government budgets. Do we really want to let the GOP insist that we rearrange the deck chairs while they scurry onto the lifeboats? Economist Paul Krugman, writing in a NYT op-ed, notes that "It's hard to exaggerate how much economic trouble we're in:"

Count me among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. [...] It's time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation's future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge. [emphasis added]

20090206-taxcuts2.png

Limbaugh is hardly the only wingnut to be on the wrong side, as Joe Conason reminds us at TruthDig:

It is worth recalling that the last time Congress debated these fundamental questions came during the winter and spring of 1993, when Republican members unanimously rejected President Bill Clinton's first budget. Back then, Dick Armey, a Republican representative from Texas and former economics professor, warned that Clinton's proposed increase in the top tax rate would lead to economic disaster. Those predictions were echoed by every right-wing politician and talking head and soon was proved utterly wrong by the historic growth rates of the Clinton years.

Now we hear Armey offering the same kind of predictions about the Obama stimulus plan--and he is treated as a sage rather than a dolt who bet the ranch on his ideology and lost.

parallels

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Mike (The Progressive Revolution) Lux writes at OpenLeft that "the parallels between now and our biggest economic crisis of the past, the Great Depression, are remarkable:"

In both cases, conservatives had been in power for a while and had radically de-regulated the financial sector, lowered taxes dramatically for the wealthy, pushed down wages and incomes for working class and poor people, and done little investment in infrastructure, education or technology. As a result, the economic health of the country was based more and more on speculative bubbles rather than the solid foundation of a prosperous and expanding middle class, and those speculative bubbles crashed, sending America into a massive financial crisis.

Common sense would suggest that conservatives, seeing that their grand free market theories had led to this disaster would admit that what they had been doing hadn't worked. But common sense has never been a strong feature of conservative thinking; it wasn't back in the 1930's and it isn't today.

20090206-taxcuts.png

The American people voted for change at both the Congressional and Presidential levels, but change always threatens the conservative status quo and the entrenched powers, the landed gentry and their media enablers. Although their system has failed yet again by leading us into the current crises, they yelp loudly that we must not tinker with its structure, we must not correct its shortcomings, and--above all--we must not want our government to be for the people as much as it is of and by them.

They are wrong.

Again.

Let's not let them forget it this time.

Whacko fundie Fred Phelps led another of his infamous anti-gay demonstrations at a Kansas high school. His group contained all of fourteen bigots while the counter-demonstration (h/t: Andy at Towleroad) numbered in the hundreds:

20090206-counterprotest.jpg

The threat of Phelps' diatribes energized the student body:

...according to student Jake Davidson, there is a Gay and Straight Alliance at the school and students elected a homecoming king in 2007 who was openly gay. "Everyone is equal whether you're gay or straight," said Davidson, a 16-year-old junior from Leawood and an organizer of the student protest.

"It's really cool that everyone wants to be involved and take a stand against this. It doesn't surprise me that everyone wants to help out." [...] "It's pretty much all anyone has been talking about this week," he said.

It appears that the Phelpsian fundies are losing the battle to shame our LGBT youth into the closet, and scare their straight allies into silence. Check out the photo gallery for more encouraging images of the future of equality in America.

Here's part of a typical ignorant-about-secularism letter-column rant that I recently read:

In the October 2008 issue of First Things Magazine, a point was made that a disturbing emergence of profound anti-humanism is growing like a virulent cancer out of the secular mindset. The writer went on to state that the increasing misanthropy is the hallmark of many of today's self-consciously secular political and social movements. These people would rather see the total abolishment of all animals in medical research - even if that research would add to the flourishing of mankind.

These unsupported assertions were largely unquoted passages from a letter (not an article) printed in First Things, as a response to this review of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. However, the original letter-writer's piece was less about making a point than expressing an opinion--one that that tried (and failed) to link environmentalism, abortion, assisted suicide, and animal testing to some sort of cancerously misanthropic secularism that nowhere resembles what exists in the real world.

McClay's response to the letter decried "the sheer perversity and self-destructiveness of militantly secular antihumanism" and "the sheer lunacy that lurks on the fringes...of the environmental movement," but his eloquent rhetorical flourishes do little to disguise the hollowness of his arguments. He could have written "I don't understand atheism and I'm afraid of secularism" and saved us all the trouble of perusing his anti-secular screed.

Neither McClay nor the two letter-writers can hold an argumentative candle to Austin Cline, who observed in "Godless Politics: A Political Manifesto for Godless Atheists" that secularism "forces one to ignore religious demands that one accept ideas and ideology on faith:"

All that is left is the use of reason, empiricism, and science. They may be used imperfectly or with prejudice, but ultimately they are the only means by which good solutions to our human problems will be found. If politics is to mean anything and be a force for good, it must be focused on finding practical solutions to human problems and in this, both theism and religion can hinder as much as help.

atheism's plight?

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Gary Habermas discusses "The Plight of the New Atheism" (h/t: John Loftus at Debunking Christianity) by way of criticizing "two representative volumes of the New Atheism:" Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation.

Habermas complains that "many of the New Atheist arguments are long on rhetoric and short on substantive arguments against religion," but I would counter that many theist arguments are short on substantive arguments for religion--which is a more significant problem, as they are the ones who need to make a stronger case. After all, if their arguments were better (meaning more convincing or better supported by evidence) then we atheists would be far fewer in number.

He also complains that "generally, these authors virtually never develop any of their arguments or push them to specific conclusions that might challenge religion:"

Never is an argument stated rigorously, or in a logical step-by-step manner. Rather, as we have noted throughout, they are content simply to rabble-rouse and leave their case to the non-specialists who will join them in unison, in what must sound to them as a joyful ranting.

As any beginning philosophy student knows, a syllogism is worthless when a premise is unsupported; this is exactly the problem with religious apologetics, which makes all manner of god-friendly assumptions en route to proving...nothing. How, then, is their joyfully noisy ranting--no matter how artfully structured--supposed to convert us when it rests on a foundation of sand?

I had expected better of a university professor, until I realized that he's from Falwell U.

Corporations that have received bailout funds may have been publicly shamed into foregoing their luxury jets and canceling their luxury vacations, but they still don't get it. While laying off hundreds of thousands of workers per month, upper management is whining about proposals to limit their pay to $500K per year--and they're still committed to keeping everyone else's wages low by preventing unionization.

For example, see Bank of America's involvement in anti-union efforts. The story was broken last week, but I thought I'd post part of it since I haven't seen much of it in the mainstream corporate media:

Three days after receiving $25 billion in federal bailout funds, Bank of America Corp. hosted a conference call with conservative activists and business officials to organize opposition to the U.S. labor community's top legislative priority.

Participants on the October 17 call -- including at least one representative from another bailout recipient, AIG -- were urged to persuade their clients to send "large contributions" to groups working against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), as well as to vulnerable Senate Republicans, who could help block passage of the bill.

[...]

Bank of America's role in the EFCA fight is a bit murky. The company, as stated by an official there, hosted the call for the purposes of equity research, meaning that their goal was to represent the opinions of clients and not the bank itself. But their involvement in an effort to drum up support for defeating the labor-backed legislation, so soon after getting bail out funds from the federal government, left a bad taste in the mouth of some union officials.

"Bank of America is now not only getting bailout money. They are lending their name to participate in a campaign to stop workers from having a majority sign up [provision]," said Stephen Lerner, Director of the Private Equity Project at SEIU. "The biggest corporations who have created the problem are, at the very time, asking us to bail them out and then using that money to stop workers from improving their lives."

As I was wondering whether we've crossed the line from plutocracy to kleptocracy, I came across Chris (American Fascists) Hedges' article about our current economic/political situation. Hedges is afraid that "It's Not Going to Be OK," and predicts "a long period of precarious social instability:"

At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is dying. Our economy has collapsed.

Hedges uses Sheldon Wolin's concept of "Inverted Totalitarianism," which--although nearly six years old--is a presciently pessimistic take on our situation:

Thus the elements are in place: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.

What is at stake, then, is nothing less than the attempted transformation of a tolerably free society into a variant of the extreme regimes of the past century.

Is that enough of a downer for one day?

PZ Myers linked to this animation that has had me chuckling all evening:

20090203-teapot.jpg
[the site is getting hit pretty heavily, so be patient...]

If you don't get the whole teapot thing, see here; for the Duchamp reference, check this article. The UK atheist bus campaign is here.

To generate your own slogan, go here. This is mine:

20090203-bus.jpg

science advisors

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This cartoon from The Oregonian's Jack Ohman (h/t: Sheril Kirshenbaum at The Intersection) made me smile:

20090202-ohman.jpg

The lead sentences of this AP article read:

American voters shifting to secular parties

The biggest Christian party in the US once appeared to hold all the political sway: control of the heartland, the backing of influential clerics and a foot in the government with ambitions to take full control.

But the days of wide-open horizons could be soon ending for the Supreme Republican Religious Right Council...

Oh, never mind...I inadvertently substituted Christian for Shiite, and Iraqi for US. Why do so many people recognize secularism as a positive factor when it's overseas, but not here at home?

Iraq, again

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I was recently involved in a discussion on Iraq (semi-involuntarily; it was a better option than listening to more Rush Limbaugh) and was faced with the claim that "everyone knew there were WMDs there," followed by "I wonder where they all went." I responded that, in fact, the alleged Iraqi WMDs were known to be illusory before we invaded.

Some books published before the war were quite clear about the absence of WMDs--most notably Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt's War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and Michael Ratner's Against War with Iraq: An Anti-War Primer--but much of the information was unavailable from the mainstream media until years afterward (books describing the Bush administration's misuse of intelligence are legion, but I would recommend Craig Whitney's The WMD Mirage, along with Scott Ritter's Frontier Justice and Iraq Confidential.

One of the examples I used--which was greeted with disbelief--was Colin Powel's famous exclamation "I'm not reading this bullshit" before his infamous UN speech:

On the evening of February 1, two dozen American officials gathered in a spacious conference room at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va. The time had come to make the public case for war against Iraq. For six hours that Saturday, the men and women of the Bush administration argued about what Secretary of State Colin Powell should--and should not--say at the United Nations Security Council four days later. Not all the secret intelligence about Saddam Hussein's misdeeds, they found, stood up to close scrutiny. At one point during the rehearsal, Powell tossed several pages in the air. "I'm not reading this," he declared. "This is bulls- - -."

(Source: US News & World Report, 1 June 2003)

As an example of the Busheviks' message discipline, the "mobile production facilities" lie attributed to Curveball and was re-inserted into Powell's speech after being removed. In 2005, far too late to do any good, Powell publicly admitted his errors on 20/20:

He told Walters that he feels "terrible" about the claims he made in that now-infamous address -- assertions that later proved to be false.

When asked if he feels it has tarnished his reputation, he said, "Of course it will. It's a blot. I'm the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It's painful now."

As far as Iraq's actual pre-war capabilities are concerned, the "Key Findings" of the Duelfer Report clearly state that "Iraq's WMD capability...was essentially destroyed in 1991."

"Maybe they're in Syria," indeed.

It's frustratingly difficult to discuss issues such as the Iraq invasion with someone who isn't aware of Charles Duelfer and the eponymous Duelfer Report, doesn't know who Hans Blix or Scott Ritter are, or what UNMOVIC (UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) is.

Too much Fox, perhaps?

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