April 2009 Archives

100 days roundup

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There were so many "100 Days" pieces that I couldn't finish reading them all yesterday. While I was generally positive about Obama's first 100 hours in office, his first 100 days have been more of a mixed bag. For example, the Center for Constitutional Rights sees Obama's first 100 days as "Small Glimmers of Hope, but Little Real Change," and Wired gives Obama "High Marks for Science, Low for Privacy."

PolitiFact's Obameter is tracking Obama's progress on fulfilling his campaign promises, which looks like this:

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(click for details)

Project for Excellence in Journalism's "Obama's First 100 Days" observes that "President Obama at this point in his presidency is more popular than were either Bush or Clinton" and notes that "press coverage tend[s] to follow favorability ratings." FactCheck's Brooks Jackson looks at "100 Days of Spin" from both Obama and the Right. MediaMatters discusses "100 Days of Myths and Falsehoods" about Obama's first 100 days, and also looks at "numerous patterns of conservative misinformation."

John Hawkins at ClownHall lists "20 Great Moments from Obama's First 100 Days," the hyperbolic hyperventilation of which is derided as "douchebaggery" by Bay of Fundie (just for the record, I think that's unfair to feminine hygiene products). Steve Benen analyzes the Right's list of 100 Obama "mistakes" from the New York Post, and comes to this conclusion:

In some instances, the New York Post just makes stuff up, relying on rumors and bogus conservative myths. There were "reports" the Vatican disapproved of the administration's proposed ambassadors -- the reports were wrong -- so that's an Obama "mistake." The Post falsely said Obama's inauguration cost "triple" Bush's, and that's Obama's "mistake," too.

Ironically, the Post ends up making the opposite of the intended point. If Obama's brief tenure in the Oval office has been "error-prone," shouldn't the conservative paper and its conservative contributors come up with actual mistakes, instead of a bunch of made-up stuff?

Don't get me wrong, Obama has made real errors, some more serious than others. In some key civil liberties areas, the administration has been misguided. In reaching out to congressional Republicans on the economic recovery package, the president made some tactical mistakes that led to a weaker bill. Nominating Judd Gregg for the cabinet was a genuine mistake. And whatever genius thought it was a good idea to give British Prime Minister Gordon Brown some DVDs -- discs that don't even work in England -- was clearly not thinking.

But the fact that the very silly New York Post couldn't come up with a real list with credible errors actually makes me feel better about Obama's first few months, not worse.

Good Magazine has an interesting (and large!) infographic that aligns Obama's first 100 days with presidents back to FDR. No "100 days" retrospective would be complete without this image from "GOP's First 100 Days:"

20090430-gopfirst100days.jpg

David Broder's WaPo piece calls on Obama to "Stop Scapegoating" Bush's torturers, but Broder does little other than offer scare quotes around the word torture and impute things like "populist anger" and "an unworthy desire for vengeance" onto those of us who recognize that the law was broken--and who expect those transgressions to be investigated and prosecuted. His use of the word "scapegoat" in the title and in this passage

But having vowed to end the practices, Obama should use all the influence of his office to stop the retroactive search for scapegoats.

suggest that Broder is unfamiliar with the origin of the word "scapegoat" (from Leviticus 16):

The scapegoat was a goat that was driven off into the wilderness as part of the ceremonies of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in Judaism during the times of the Temple in Jerusalem. [...] Since this goat, carrying the sins of the people placed on it, is sent away to perish, the word "scapegoat" has come to mean a person, often innocent, who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes, or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes. (Wikipedia)

Absent the crucial factors of innocence and distraction, the investigation and prosecution of war crimes is in no way "scapegoating" torturers and their enablers. At Harper's, Scott Horton has a few words about Broder's apologetics, writing that "There's hardly a truthful statement to be found anywhere in Broder's column:"

Since I am an advocate of accountability, and Broder presumes to question my mental health, I'll offer a personal response. I have no interest in vengeance or retribution, but I have a strong interest in upholding the rule of law and in stopping torture. Unlike Broder, I do not consider the law to be a political plaything but rather a repository of our highest values. The United States has a series of criminal statutes which apply to this situation and which were violated. Further, the United States signed a very important international convention under which it promised to open a criminal investigation into any credible allegations of torture. At this point there is a uniform consensus that the United States is in breach of its treaty obligation. (A matter of indifference to Broder, apparently). Moreover, its conduct is sending a clear message around the world: the prohibition on torture is a trivial matter which can be defeated by a tyrant in any corner of the world. All he needs to do is hire a lawyer and have him issue an opinion that when he tortures, it's completely lawful.

During the Clinton impeachment era, Broder was indignant about mendacity ("We don't like being lied to," Washington Post, 2 November 1998), but he's all too willing to excuse far worse when the liars are fellow conservatives. Glenn Greenwald delivers the coup de grace to Broder's screed, observing acidly that:

People who bear culpability in the commission of destructive and criminal acts always oppose investigations and accountability -- i.e., what they'll call "looking backwards" or "retribution." They're the last people whose opinions we ought to be seeking on that question.

Frank Rich's NYT column on the banality of Bush's White House evil notes that "there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus 'intelligence' from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding:"

...we must acknowledge that our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it. But we also must contemplate the possibility that it did so not just out of a sincere, if criminally misguided, desire to "protect" us but also to promote an unnecessary and catastrophic war. Instead of saving us from "another 9/11," torture was a tool in the campaign to falsify and exploit 9/11 so that fearful Americans would be bamboozled into a mission that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The lying about Iraq remains the original sin from which flows much of the Bush White House's illegality.

At Washington Monthly, Hilzoy notes the armchair-psych slurs and asks "who died and made David Broder Sigmund Freud?"

If we care about the rule of law, and about the idea that ours is a country of laws, not of men, then we should investigate those who break the laws, especially when they hold high office. The Presidency is a public trust, not a license for criminality.

Not any more, it isn't...

If FailBlog isn't in your RSS feed reader, it really should be. Here's an interesting image of comparative anatomy:

20090429-missingbone.jpg

(One could say that an important bone isn't visible...)

Also recommended for those need-a-laugh moments are:
LOL Theist
Pundit Kitchen
(The Customer Is) Not Always Right
the "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks

Greta Christina tackles the "I'm-not-religious-but-I'm-spiritual" trope, writing that "I don't think unorganized spirituality holds any more water than conventional religious beliefs:"

If being "spiritual but not religious" really does mean thinking of yourself as being in touch with the special sacred things beyond this mundane physical world... then I think that shows a piss- poor attitude towards the mundane physical world.

The physical world is anything but mundane. The physical world is black holes at the center of every spiral galaxy. It is billions of galaxies rushing away from each other at breakneck speed. It is solid matter that is anything but solid: particles that can't be seen by even the strongest microscope, separated by gaping vastnesses of nothing. It is living things that are all related, all with the same great- great- great- to the power of a zillion grandmother. It is space that curves, continents that drift. It is cells of organic tissue that somehow generate consciousness and selfhood.

When you take the time to learn about the mundane physical world, you find that it is anything but mundane.

This reminds me quite a bit of Penn Jillette's "This I Believe" essay, where he wrote that disbelief "informs every moment of my life:"

I'm not greedy. I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it's everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day. [...]

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

Laurie Goodstein's NYT article "More Atheists Shout It from the Rooftops" (h/t: Friendly Atheist) is a nice piece on the coming-out-of-the-closet stage of the freethought movement:

More than ever, America's atheists are linking up and speaking out -- even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words "I Believe" (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.

I disagree with Goodstein's statement that "nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy," because I see the "causes" that motivate atheist activism as primarily obtaining civil equality and respecting the separation of church and state. That said, I appreciated her comments on our movement's diversity of belief and attitude, and especially enjoyed her remark that the Pastafarians are "highly literate in the Bible and religious history."

One news article like this isn't going to persuade flocks of theists to re-evaluate atheism, but there's no denying that it's a step forward for public awareness. I'm glad that we've reached the point where a mainstream journalist can write about atheism without mentioning the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens).

Kudos to Goodstein and the NYT!

Faux News spokesdick Sean Hannity glossed over his earlier bluster about volunteering to be waterboarded last night, calling the torture method "dunking somebody's head in water:"

I encourage everyone to visit Waterboard Hannity for Charity and pledge money to our troops and their families; the publicity may encourage Hannity to grow a pair and follow through on his promise.


View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map

(h/t: Adam Pash at LifeHacker)


update (5/5 @ 9:20am):
An updated map can be found here.

While getting heckled by Charles Grodin last week, torture apologist Sean Hannity offered to be waterboarded for charity; Keith Olbermann called Hannity's bluff and pledged to donate $1000 per second if Hannity actually has the stones to do it:

"For every second you last, a thousand dollars -- live or on tape, provided other networks' cameras are there. A thousand dollars a second, Sean, because this is no game. This is serious stuff. Put your money where your mouth is, and your nose. Oh, and I'll double it when you admit you feared for your life, when you admit the horrible truth -- waterboarding, the symbol of the last administration, is torture."

Christopher Hitchens wrote last year about the experience of being waterboarded, and concluded "Believe Me, It's Torture."

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it "simulates" the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning--or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure.

[...]

I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

I give Hitchens full credit for his investigatory zeal and journalistic credibility; the possibility of Hannity exhibiting either seems quite remote.

Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA; website, Wikipedia) writes about "The Need to Roll Back Presidential Power Grabs" at NYRB. Specter proposes mandatory Supreme Court review of Bush's warrantless wiretapping cases, supports citizens' lawsuits against telecoms that participated in those spying cases, and he plans to reintroduce legislation to limit the legal impact of presidential signing statements. He concludes:

I doubt that the Democratic majority, which was so eager to decry expansions of executive authority under President Bush, will still be as interested in the problem with a Democratic president in office. I will continue the fight whatever happens.

I hope he's wrong--but if he's not, I hope his fight is more successful than it was under Bush.

Andrew Sullivan reminds us that Reagan signed the UN Convention Against Torture. Sullivan highlights articles 1 and 2

...torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted [...] No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

but this part of article 3 is just as damning:

No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

Extraordinary rendition, anyone? Sullivan asks a few questions that I reckon the Bushies will do just about anything to evade answering honestly:

Just ask yourself: reading this language and knowing that president Bush ordered the waterboarding of a man for 83 times to get evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, is it really a matter of debate whether the last president of the United States is a war criminal? How is one able to come to any other opinion? [...] Why are we still debating this?

Texas governor Rick Perry's pathetic talk of secession was handled by 538's Nate Silver here and here. In the second piece, Silver floats the suggestion (with legal support) that Texas be divided into five separate states--and examines the electoral consequences of a not-so-Lone-Star state.

No matter which party would gain an advantage among the five Texases, it would certainly turn out better than the last time Texans decided to commit mass treason.

The Guardian reports that the dust cloud at the center of the Milky Way tastes like raspberries and smells like rum (h/t: Charles Mudede at Slog):

In the latest survey, astronomers sifted through thousands of signals from Sagittarius B2, a vast dust cloud at the centre of our galaxy. While they failed to find evidence for amino acids, they did find a substance called ethyl formate, the chemical responsible for the flavour of raspberries. [...] Curiously, ethyl formate has another distinguishing characteristic: it also smells of rum.

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I was hoping for a gin & tonic, but at least it's not flat beer at a frat party.

Paul Krugman writes about "Reclaiming America's Soul" from Bush's torture regime:

America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. "This government does not torture people," declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

[...]

...the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract "confessions" that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It's hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn't, now declare that we should forget the whole era -- for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions -- not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn't about looking backward, it's about looking forward -- because it's about reclaiming America's soul.

In this follow-up, Krugman calls the media failure a defining moment:

The Bush administration was obviously -- yes, obviously -- telling tall tales in order to promote the war it wanted: the constant insinuations of an Iraq-9/11 link, the hyping of discredited claims about a nuclear program, etc.. And the question was, should you stand up against that? Not many did -- and those who did were treated as if they were crazy.

For me and many others that was a radicalizing experience; I'll never trust "sensible" opinion again. But for those who stayed "sensible" through the test, it's a moment they'd like to see forgotten. That, I believe, is the real reason so many want to let torture and everything else go down the memory hole.

Digby writes at Hullabaloo about being unable to understand the apologists:

I know this is obvious and I'm sure that it's been asked many times. But can someone explain to me how these wingnut freaks can live with the dissonance in their heads when they say in one breath that the Bush administration was absolutely right to employ torture, secret prisons and indefinite detention and in the next breath scream like banshees that Obama is the second coming of Hitler and Stalin, the two most infamous purveyors of torture, secret prisons and indefinite detention of the 20th century? The only way they can explain this is if they believe that Hitler's worst crime was raising taxes and Stalin was a good guy except for the onerous regulations on business. (And now that I think about it, that's exactly what they do believe.)

Another thing that's making me scream incoherently at the television to the point where my cat is hiding in the closet: how can the party that brought the government to a screeching halt just ten years ago over alleged misconduct in the presidential pants now threaten to bring the government to a screeching halt again if anyone investigates potential war crimes? It's quite clear that the only "rule of law" these people care about is one that says you can't lie about your sex life. Maybe if the Department of Justice could find a smoking blow job in the OLC we might get to the bottom of all this.

This WSJ article on "Bloggers for Hire" observes that today in America "there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers:"

Already more Americans are making their primary income from posting their opinions than Americans working as computer programmers or firefighters. [...] The best studies we can find say we are a nation of over 20 million bloggers, with 1.7 million profiting from the work, and 452,000 of those using blogging as their primary source of income. That's almost 2 million Americans getting paid by the word, the post, or the click -- whether on their site or someone else's.

Maybe someday...for now, I'm content to be an amateur.

Kevin Drum observes how the Right's sudden penchant for moral relativism is all about protecting the Busheviks:

When the subject has anything to do with sex, the right in America is the party of moral absolutes. We know what's right, we know what's wrong, and even if there's a price to pay we can't shirk our responsibility to set a proper example and do the right thing.

But when the subject is torture, suddenly it's all about carefully weighing the costs and benefits. Having an honest debate about how far we should go to protect ourselves. Understanding the context of what happened. It's just not possible to flatly say that waterboarding and sleep deprivation and stress positions are barbarisms unfit for use by a civilized country. It's much more complex than that.

Funny how that works, isn't it?

Drum's piece reminded me of Andrew Sullivan's take on the GOP minions' sudden concern with domestic spying:

If Republicans do it, it's patriotism. If Democrats do it, it's dictatorship.

What else but hyper-partisan blindness can explain their blowjobs-and-black-helicopters hysteria under Clinton, their eight years of silence under Dubya's depredations, and their sudden lapse into Obama-phobia and cries of liberal fascism?

I mentioned Madeleine Bunting's complaints about "The New Atheists" earlier, and Austin Cline rebuts her argument here. Bunting asks "What other system of belief has collapsed at such spectacular speed as British Christianity?" and Cline answers:

If Christianity really were so important and necessary, why would it collapse "at such spectacular speed"? Religious apologists like Madeleine Bunting are in a difficult position because they feel a need to defend something which, by their own admission, is faring very badly. Part of Bunting's problem is her blindness to her own sense of privilege: only a person who grew up assuming that Christianity is something everyone should learn about would be concerned and shocked at lots of people being ignorant about it.

How many of the people in the same poll would be able to say much about Jewish or Muslim holidays, never mind Hindu or Buddhist holidays? Far fewer, I'm sure, but I'm equally sure that Bunting wouldn't care. In Bunting's world, only Christianity is worth learning about -- at least in Britain -- because only Christianity is important. That's an privileged perspective and now that it's in serious decline, she has a hissy fit.

Bunting's frame seems to be that change is scary and that her loss of privilege is catastrophic. As far as making an actual argument, though, she comes up rather short; her inconsistencies point to a weakness in her position. Austin Cline also asks if atheists are "generally angry," and concludes that this stereotype "can be an important means by which a privileged class holds on to its privileges" by "convincing the minorities that there is something wrong with them for wanting equality:"

They are, for some reason, expected to simply accept the status quo in order to avoid rocking the boat, upsetting people, etc. It's the duty of minorities to keep the peace -- a peace built on violence and oppression -- but not the duty of the privileged to respect the values of equality, liberty, or justice.

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Levitin, Daniel. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006)

Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music "is about the science of music, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience--the field that is at the intersection of psychology and neurology." (p. 11, Introduction) As such, some of its passages are strongly reminiscent of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia:

The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. (p. 188)

Levitin's insights are often stronger due to his work as a musician and producer before getting into neuroscience, and he uses his experiences with rock and pop artists to illustrate his points. When Levitin notes that "The Police made a career out of violating rhythmic expectations," (p. 111) this would have been a good place for Levitin to mention "Murder by Numbers" and its quirky 2-against-3 pattern during the drums-and-vocals intro; I've never heard a 12/8 time signature done quite like that, at least not in a pop song. Sting's post-Police solo career has also been marked by rhythmic adventurism: "Straight to My Heart" (7/4) from Nothing Like the Sun, "Seven Days," (5/4) "Love Is Stronger than Justice," (7/4) and "St Augustine in Hell" (7/8) from Ten Summoner's Tales and "I Was Brought to My Senses" (7/4) from Mercury Falling are prime examples.

Those who were intrigued by Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, myself included, may disagree with Levitin's rather harsh assessment of modern classical music:

Contemporary "classical" music is practiced mostly in universities; it is listened to by almost no one; it deconstructs harmony, melody, and rhythm, rendering them all but unrecognizable; it is a purely intellectual exercise, and save for the rare avant-garde ballet company, no one dances to it either. (p. 257)

Your Brain on Music is filled with great anecdotes, one of which was perhaps the inspiration for his next book, The World in Six Songs:

He [John Pierce, former Bell Labs VP] knew about my previous career in the music business, and he asked if I could come over for dinner one night and play six songs that captured all that was important to know about rock and roll. Six songs to capture all of rock and roll? I wasn't sure I could come up with six songs to capture the Beatles, let alone all of rock and roll. The night before he called to tell me that he had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn't need to cover that.

Here's what I brought to dinner:

1) "Long Tall Sally," Little Richard

2) "Roll Over Beethoven," the Beatles

3) "All Along the Watchtower," Jimi Hendrix

4) "Wonderful Tonight," Eric Clapton

5) "Little Red Corvette," Prince

6) "Anarchy in the U.K.," the Sex Pistols (p. 49)

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Levitin, Daniel. The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (New York: Dutton, 2008)

In The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, Levitin proposes to tell a larger story--with six categories of songs instead of six individual songs. He writes that this book "is the story of just how music has changed the course of human civilization, in fact, the story of how it made societies and civilizations possible:" (p. 39)

Music, I argue, is not simply a distraction or a pastime, but a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language, large-scale cooperative undertakings, and the passing down of important information from one generation to the next. This book explains how I came to the (some might say) radical notion that there are basically six kinds of songs that do all of this. They are songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. (pp. 3-4)

Levitin discusses each type of song in turn and praises the persistence of art-making under horrific circumstances,

Our drive to create art is so powerful that we find ways to do it under the greatest hardships. In the concentration camps of Germany during World War II, many prisoners spontaneously wrote poetry, composed songs, and painted--activities that, according to Viktor Frankl--gave meaning to the lives of those miserably interred there. (p. 18)

but misses a chance to discuss Quartet for the End of Time, which Olivier Messiaen composed during his time at the Stalag VIII-A camp. The quality of Levitin's observations suffers as he strays into other areas. For example, his remark that "One can argue that among the most significant events in all of human history was the invention of monotheism" is correct, but the tangent that follows is error-laden:

Monotheism transformed the dominant worldview from one in which events happened for no apparent reason (at the whim of capricious gods) to one in which there existed a logic and order in things (according to the plan of the one true God). The laws of nature and natural processes were seen as the product of a rational, intelligent being. The advent of monotheism put an end to child sacrifice (which was ubiquitous in the pre-monotheistic world) and ushered in an era of logic. This swiftly led us to the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and science. (pp. 221-2)

That's an interesting timeline--it ignores (polytheistic) Greek contributions to science and glosses over the period when monotheism was actually dominant: the thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire known as the Dark Ages. Christian dogma and dominance eventually began to weaken with the Renaissance's rebirth of classical knowledge, leading to the Age of Reason (early 17th century) and the Enlightenment (18th century), but crediting monotheism with the successes of science and civilization--while denying its culpability for the millennium that "quickly" passed under its rule--is ludicrous. The idea that the "capricious whims" of polytheism's gods were transformed in any real sense by monotheism is also untrue. A single god's ways are no less mysterious than those of many gods, as myriad Biblical examples of Jehovah's capriciousness demonstrate.

Outside of that lapse, Levitin's Six Songs is a solidly enjoyable book--although it doesn't quite live up to its predecessor Your Brain on Music.


links:
Your Brain on Music website
Levitin's paper "Life Soundtracks: The Uses of Music in Everyday Life"

more Reich

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This NPR All Things Considered story discusses Steve Reich and his Pulitzer; it also links to a seven-minute excerpt from "Double Sextet."

NPR quoted a critic who referred to Reich as "a man who may be America's greatest living composer," and I was wondering who else might be in contention with him for that honor. Wikipedia has a nice list of American composers, but I would only consider John Adams, Elliott Carter, and Philip Glass to be in Reich's league.

Michigan Messenger talks about a corporate-citizenship effort from Dow Chemical (h/t: Ed Brayton at Science Blogs):

Despite advisories that warn people to avoid contact with river sediments and consuming locally caught fish, thousands are expected to participate this weekend in a Dow Chemical-sponsored walleye festival along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers, where the watershed has been contaminated with harmful dioxin and other toxic substances.

And just as the Michigan Department of Community Health is warning that children and pre-menopausal women should mostly avoid eating river fish including walleye because of contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxin, organizers of the festival say they plan to donate walleye fillets to a local food bank.

As the Dow slogan says:

"Living. Improved Daily."

I don't know which makes me queasier: the walleye, or the irony.

OLC torture memos

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The ACLU has posted PDFs of the Bush OLC torture memos released last week, and notes that under Bush the Office of Legal Counsel "became a facilitator for illegal government conduct, issuing dozens of memos meant to permit gross violations of domestic and international law." As the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer writes, these memos:

...authorized interrogators to use the most barbaric interrogation methods, including methods that the U.S. once prosecuted as war crimes. The memos are based on legal reasoning that is spurious on its face, and in the end these aren't legal memos at all - they are simply political documents that were meant to provide window dressing for war crimes.

As described by the NYT, "the four memos give an extraordinarily detailed account of the C.I.A.'s methods and the Justice Department's long struggle, in the face of graphic descriptions of brutal tactics, to square them with international and domestic law." Liliana Segura discusses the memos at AlterNet, calling them "the smoking gun for the sadistic crimes of the Bush administration." At FDL, Christy Hardin Smith makes the comparison to Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, and Hilzoy draws an even worse parallel at Washington Monthly--to Orwell's 1984. Andrew Sullivan notes the contradiction at the heart of Bush's torture. "[T]he Bush administration," writes Sullivan:

...wanted to do two things at once: to declare to the world that freedom is on the march, and human rights are coming to the world with American help, while simultaneously declaring to captives that the US has no interest in the law, human rights, accountability, transparency or humanity. They wanted to give hope to all the oppressed of the planet, while surgically banishing all hope from the prisoners they captured and tortured.

Sullivan stops just short of calling Orwell the patron saint of Bushism:

As Orwell predicted, the English language had to disappear first. The president referred to waterboarding prisoners as "asking them questions." Bringing prisoners' temperatures down to hypothermia levels was simply an "alternative set of procedures." The entire process is "enhanced interrogation."

Referring to waterboarding as "swallowing a little too much water" is the same type of euphemism, designed to evade the reality of torture. Interestingly, some details survived the redaction process to reveal the name of a ghost detainee. ThinkProgress cited a ProPublica article identifying a detainee named Hassan Ghul:

According to the memo, Ghul was one of 28 CIA detainees at the time who had been subjected to the agency's "enhanced interrogation techniques." Specifically, the memo says he was subjected to "facial hold," "facial slap," "stress positions," "sleep deprivation," a technique called "walling," in which a detainee's shoulders are repeatedly smashed against a wall, and the "attention grasp," in which the detainee is placed in a choke-hold and slapped.

So it appears we now have evidence Ghul was in a CIA prison. Where he is today is still a mystery.

While some things have been revealed, others have been obscured. Jeffrey Kaye at AlterNet calls the memos "full of lies," observing that:

...even an initial cursory look at the August 1, 2002 Bybee memo on the "Interrogation of Al Qaeda Operative" shows that the memos were written in bad faith, were meant to deceive, and utilized a memorandum by Jerald Ogrisseg that explicitly warned against using at least some of the techniques (waterboarding) that were approved by OLC.

I'm confident that other researchers will find much more wrong with the recently released OLC memos. Their extremely poor quality and their misrepresentations of medical and psychological information make them very hard to imagine using as the basis of "good faith" representations for those CIA interrogators for whom Attorney General Holder granted immunity, i.e., those "who acted reasonably and relied in good faith on authoritative legal advice from the Justice Department that their conduct was lawful, and conformed their conduct to that advice..."

I suppose a lot rides now on how you define "authoritative legal advice."

Even more rides on how determined we are, as a nation, that justice must be pursued and criminals punished. Our moral standing depends on it, as does the honor and integrity of the White House. Obama's statement on the memos is here, and he calls this moment "a time for reflection, not retribution:"

I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. [...] The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.

Obama is likely afraid of being accused of "playing politics" if he supports an investigation, and is equivocating on that basis. Ironically, by allowing political concerns to influence his actions, his is effectively playing politics by attempting to remain above the fray. The only way, paradoxically, to avoid partisanship is to support the necessary legal action. Glenn Greenwald writes about our obligation to prosecute the torturers, citing statutory evidence (the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention, the Nuremberg Charter, all given force of law by the Constitution) before throwing the gauntlet before those who would defend the Bush torture regime:

If, as Barack Obama proclaimed yesterday, "the United States is a nation of laws" and his "Administration will always act in accordance with those laws," isn't it the obligation of those opposing prosecution to justify that position in light of these legal mandates and long-standing principles of Western justice? How can they be reconciled?

Andrew Sullivan observes how the Bushies used extra-territorial means to a most despicable end--pretending that their torture was beyond the law:

It's right there in Steven Bradbury's memo of May 30, 2005:
By its terms, Article 16 [of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment] is limited to conduct within "territory under [United States] jurisdiction. We conclude that territory under United States jurisdiction includes, at most, areas over which the United States exercises at least de facto authority as the government. Based on CIA assurances, we understand that the interrogations do not take place in any such areas.

So no torture happened and the US broke no treaties.

That is such a cynical and self-serving legal interpretation that I am at a loss for words; IANAL, but does that strike anyone else as being unusually mendacious--even for the Busheviks? Scott Horton writes at Harper's that "the instrumental role played by these memos...satisfies the prerequisites for a criminal charge against the memo writer under section 2340A [see USC §2340-2340A here], conspiracy to torture:"

The preparation and issuance of these memoranda were criminal acts, and the relevant level of mens rea likely emerges from the dialogue surrounding their issuance. [...] The torture memoranda were written to enable torture and with the full expectation that it would happen. They are, therefore, documents that evidence criminal conduct. But the full dimensions of the criminal dealings remain substantially obscured. It's time to start unwinding the torture tango, through a process that involves both a special commission of inquiry and a special prosecutor.

On the international front, Spain has gone through another reversal. After initial hints about indicting the Bush Six, Spain's AG rejected requests to prosecute the torturers,

Mr Conde-Pumpido said that if there was a legitimate reason to file a complaint against the six accused, "it should be done before local courts with jurisdiction, in other words in the United States".

but the Center for Constitutional Rights notes that judge Baltazar Garzon is still pursuing a criminal investigation:

CCR Executive Director Vincent Warren said, "It is gravely disappointing that we must rely on European countries like Spain to hold U.S. officials accountable for war crimes. This is a golden moment for the current administration to appoint a special U.S. prosecutor and break with the illegalities of the past."

CCR Vice President Peter Weiss, an expert in international human rights law, said, "It was the lawyers who flashed the green light for torture with their mendacious made-to-order opinions. They therefore bear the primal guilt for the torture which occurred."

The torture may have stopped, but it's not truly over until justice has been done. These crimes need to be investigated--and prosecuted appropriately. Greta Christina writes that justice is a necessity:

The fact that these crimes were politically motivated and done on behalf of the government doesn't make it less important that we prosecute. It makes it more important. Much, much, much more important.

There's another word for what Obama is so dismissively calling "retribution" or "laying blame." That word is "justice." [...] Obama is wrong. We need to bring torturers and war criminals to justice. And we need to start doing it now.


American composer Steve Reich has won a Pulitzer Prize for his composition "Double Sextet."

Reich's publisher Boosey & Hawkes has an article on his Pulitzer here, with an article about "Double Sextet" here and a nearly two-minute snippet here. (No performance of the composition appears to have been released yet.)

Congratulations!

NYRB's Mark Danner has written a follow-up to his previous article (see my comments here) on the Red Cross report on torture. (The ICRC report is online here.) Danner writes about the Bush/Cheney "politics of fear," and their longevity in our national discourse despite torture's illegality:

Both "torture" and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" are declared illegal under the Third Geneva Convention, to which the Supreme Court ruled in June 2006 that--President Bush's February 2002 memorandum notwithstanding--the United States in its treatment of all prisoners must adhere. They are also illegal under the Convention Against Torture of 1984, to which the United States is a signatory, and illegal under the War Crimes Act of 1996 (though the Military Commissions Act of 2006 makes an attempt to shield those who applied the "alternative set of procedures" from legal consequences under this law). What is more, as the report concludes,
The totality of the circumstances in which the fourteen were held effectively amounted to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty and enforced disappearance, in contravention of international law.

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press--to its "stenographic function" and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official--that the former vice-president's insistence that these interrogations were undertaken "legally" and "in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles" continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that "the United States does not torture" is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously.

Also discussing the Red Cross report, Jane (The Dark Side) Mayer was interviewed at AlterNet. She observed that "it's clear that the CIA -- and I think you'd have to guess the Department of Defense -- lied to the Red Cross:"

They told the Red Cross when it visited Guantanamo [in 2002] that it had seen all of the detainees. But what the report says is that some of the detainees -- some of the high-value detainees -- realized when they were finally sent to Guantanamo in 2006 that they'd been there before. They were there. And yet the Red Cross was not allowed to see them. The Red Cross was told they'd seen everybody.

So the CIA and DOD lied to the Red Cross. There were some hidden prisoners in Guantanamo. That's an overt act; lying to the Red Cross, hiding prisoners from them.

The addition of another crime to the Busheviks' tally should surprise no one after they've gotten away with so many high crimes for so long--and that's part of the problem. The Faux News dead-enders can only keep justice at bay when the citizenry doesn't speak up. I urge everyone to sign this ACLU open letter to AG Eric Holder, demanding that he appoint a special prosecutor and investigation into Bush's torture regime, so this whole sordid mess doesn't get swept under the rug permanently.

last hurrah

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Frank Rich's "The Bigots' Last Hurrah" from the NYT dissects the ridiculous "Gathering Storm" anti-marriage ad and its place within contemporary politics. Rich writes that, as easy as it is to mock NOM, their ad "nonetheless bookmarks a historic turning point in the demise of America's anti-gay movement:"

What gives the ad its symbolic significance is not just that it's idiotic but that its release was the only loud protest anywhere in America to the news that same-sex marriage had been legalized in Iowa and Vermont. If it advances any message, it's mainly that homophobic activism is ever more depopulated and isolated as well as brain-dead.

[...]

It is justice, not a storm, that is gathering. Only those who have spread the poisons of bigotry and fear have any reason to be afraid.

Speaking of mockery, Queerty posted the "Ten Best Responses to the 'Gathering Storm'" ad; here are my three favorites:

One of the most nauseating details of last week's OLC memos (on which I'll have more later) is emptywheel's observation at FDL that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was waterboarded 183 times in one month. (The NYT notes that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times.) And the Bushies are still claiming that this is an effective intelligence-gathering technique? It sounds more like a particularly barbaric variety of sadism to me.

Speaking of barbarism, does everyone remember Daniel Pearl? Charles Lemos talks about his friend Danny at MyDD:

I have always wanted to meet Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for I have a number of questions to ask him. You see, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed one of my closest friends, Daniel Pearl. [...]

In thinking about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the fact that he was waterboarded 183 times in the month of March of 2003, I cannot but express how this denigrates everything that Danny stood for. In waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, we have descended to the level of that butcher. We have proved that we are no better than them and I refuse to believe that. The West has a moral obligation to live up to the ideals that Danny Pearl embodied.

Andrew Sullivan urges vigilance in uncovering the details of Bush's torture regime, and notes the need for accountability:

One of the disadvantages of relying on a torture-regime for the facts about the torture they have been practising is that they have an interest in lying. And the job of a journalist in these matters - especially after the torrent of deception that came out of the Bush White House - is to exercise skepticism about the government's claims. [...] The US is a banana republic if this stuff is allowed to go unpunished. A banana republic with a torture apparatus.

DST clock

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I've always hated the clock-touching idiocy of Daylight Savings Time, which would be solved by this clock from Yanko Design (h/t: Geekologie):

20090419-dstclocks.jpg

Too bad it wouldn't work with a minute hand...

In the face of conservative outcry over the DHS report on right-wing extremism, Janet Napolitano issued a response noting that "We are on the lookout for criminal and terrorist activity but we do not - nor will we ever - monitor ideology or political beliefs." David Neiwert writes that the DHS report "is perfectly accurate in every jot and tittle" and "couldn't be more clear:"

It carefully delineates that the subject of its report is "rightwing extremists," "domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups," "terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks," "white supremacists," and similar very real threats described in similar language.

Nothing about conservatives. The word never appears in the report.

Noting that DHS released an earlier report on left-wing extremism, Glenn Greenwald observes that the Right is now reaping what they sowed during the Bush era:

...the political faction screeching about the dangers of the DHS is the same one that spent the last eight years vastly expanding the domestic Surveillance State and federal police powers in every area. [...] All of the enabling legislation underlying this Surveillance State -- from the Patriot Act to the Military Commissions Act, from the various FISA "reforms" to massive increases in domestic "counter-Terrorism" programs -- are the spawns of the very right-wing movement that today is petrified that this is all being directed at them.

[...]

This is all as laughable as it is predictable. Just a couple months out of power and they have suddenly re-discovered their fear of the Federal Government and their belief in the need to limit its powers.

Over at Hulabaloo, dday suggests a coherent course of action for conservatives:

If they had any intellectual honesty at all, maybe they'd work with civil liberties groups to dismantle the national security state and put an end to the threat of concentrated power in the hands of the few. But they won't, because they're perpetual victims and rage addicts who just want to feel oppressed by their enemies.

Someone should really come up with a name for that affliction.

"overcollection"

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The Lichtblau/Risen NYT article on NSA spying contains the worst euphemism I've seen in quite some time, referring to the agency's warrantless wiretapping as the benign-sounding "overcollection" of data:

The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews.

Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the N.S.A. had been engaged in "overcollection" of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic...

[...]

The overcollection problems appear to have been uncovered as part of a twice-annual certification that the Justice Department and the director of national intelligence are required to give to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on the protocols that the N.S.A. is using in wiretapping. That review, officials said, began in the waning days of the Bush administration and was continued by the Obama administration. It led intelligence officials to realize that the N.S.A. was improperly capturing information involving significant amounts of American traffic.

Lichtblau and Risen also report that "in one previously undisclosed episode, the N.S.A. tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant:"

The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact -- as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 -- with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman's conversations, the official said.

The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some intelligence officials about using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Any guesses as to which Congresscritter was being spied upon?

unraveling GOP?

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Drew (The Political Brain) Westen writes at HuffPo that the GOP's "ideological foundation" is "fundamentally incoherent," as the party consists of "five discrete strands and interest groups that couldn't coexist:" libertarian conservatism, social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, national security hawks, and the racist/xenophobic South.

Eclectic Radical redraws the boundaries somewhat here, and notes when discussing the fundies "a mode of thought that sounds silly to those who do not share it:"

...one can be absolutely opposed to full civil rights for all citizens and still call one's self a libertarian if one accepts that liberty and Christianity are the same thing! Social conservatives of this stripe share the same economic ideas as Libertarian and Fiscal conservatives, and tend to accept the 'government is evil' mantra of Libertarian conservatives in all aspects of their lives except for their right to persecute those who believe differently from themeselves. Frequently, they believe themselves to be the persecuted minority, the evil secular world is punishing them for their righteousness!

Despite the Right's ideological divisions, they still share their paranoia, persecution complex, and sense of aggrieved entitlement. Whether that will again be a winning formula at the ballot box seems increasingly unlikely.

Buffy at Gaytheist Agenda linked to this Colbert Report video mocking the National Organization for against Marriage's "gathering storm" ad:

I'm glad to see mainstream mockery of the original ad's paranoid melodrama, and Colbert is just the guy to do it:

There's a storm gathering...a giant gay storm.

With rough winds blowing in from the East.

And even rougher winds blowing from the West.

Before long, the winds will be blowing each other.

And I am afraid.

Colbert even got in a dig at NOM's "rainbow coalition" remark...they're really tone-deaf in their use of connotation-laden words--tea-bagging, anyone?

I should really watch The Daily Show more often.

Intelligent Life has a great piece on writer and proto-blogger Andrew Sullivan. There's a lot of biographical information there, but the analysis of Sullivan's writing--and his debt to Michael Oakeshott--made it worthwhile. Bypassing doctrinaire accusations of "flip-flopping according to political expediency," Sullivan was "the first well-known writer to become a blogger--and played a key role in smelting the form:"

Just as Michel de Montaigne played a crucial role in developing the modern essay, Andrew Sullivan will be remembered as pioneering the form of the blog. The now-ubiquitous blog style--short, pithy, personality-inflected posts, offered often--was begun by him. [...]

He pioneered blogging as a form where a writer can "think out loud". He believes it suits an Oakeshottian temperament: like his favourite philosopher, it is radically provisional, always aware of its own limits in time and space, and always poised to have to correct itself in light of new evidence.

Sullivan comments that "the epistemologically conservative defense of classical liberalism - the Oakeshottian riddle - is the place I ended up by a process of elimination and a few years of care-free study:"

Such a conservative liberalism pushes at times against an emotional impulse to correct injustice and punish cruelty, but this tension is an adult one and I see no reason to abandon it now.

And what I love about the free-form unfinishedness of blogging is its capacity to embrace these various strains, sometimes one, sometimes another, in response to a fluid world and an evolving soul. To do it alongside others, however, is the real joy of this medium - with fellow bloggers and writers and above all readers. For Oakeshott, the ideal human interaction is conversation; and I know no form better designed for it than this one. And so I am, in a way, lucky to have stumbled upon this idiom in this time and place because it suits me, and teaches me, and reproves me in ways no other can, and allows contradictions to become internal and external conversations.

Sullivan's excellent essay on blogging is here, and his blog is here at The Atlantic.

Media outlets have been too busy talking about the teabaggers to note any corporate fiscal shenanigans, but the NYT observed that Goldman Sachs' first-quarter profit of $1.8 billion was due to "hid[ing] a lot of losses in not-so-plain sight:"

Goldman's 2008 fiscal year ended Nov. 30. This year the company is switching to a calendar year. The leaves December as an orphan month, one that will be largely ignored. In Goldman's earnings statement, and in most of the news reports, the quarter ended March 31 is compared to the quarter last year that ended in February.

The orphan month featured -- surprise -- lots of write-offs. The pretax loss was $1.3 billion, and the after-tax loss was $780 million.

Would the firm have had a profit if it had stuck to its old calendar, and had to include December and exclude March?

Barry Ritholtz wrote of this maneuver that "the word Chutzpah simply does not do it justice," but TPM had this comment on the scandal.

While this was initially reported as a sneaky losses-hiding tactic, Morgan Stanley did it too -- it's part of the emergency classification switch that changed the two investment banks into "bank holding companies" and enabled them to borrow cheaply from the Fed last September.

I wonder what those balance sheets will look like in the second quarter...will the banks come begging for another round of bailouts?

amazon.com

Strunk, William & E.B. White. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000)

At less than 100 pages in length, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style doesn't take long to read; absorbing its lessons, however, requires a great deal of time and effort. Generations of writers have used Elements as a resource, and Geoffrey Pullum at the Chronicle of Higher Education observes (h/t: Arts & Letters Daily) that today "is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released." However, Pullum is quite critical of Elements and notes that he "won't be celebrating:"

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

Pullum refers to The Elements of Style as an "overopinionated and underinformed little book," calls the authors "grammatical incompetents," and blames them for grammar having been "stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century:"

Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy. Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations.

[...]

The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.

I found Elements to be quite useful when I was in grade school, but--as with any such beginners' guide--it is of decreasing utility as a writer's voice begins to emerge. Pullum writes that "the grammatical advice proffered in Elements is so misplaced and inaccurate that counterexamples often show up in the authors' own prose on the very same page." Rereading the book with a careful eye, I noted an error that Pullum didn't mention. Page 19 advises writers to: "Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion," but page 56 provides just such an example from the authors themselves: "Such usage is not incorrect but is to be guarded against."

My original paperback copy was useful enough that I purchased a nicer hardcover edition (4th Edition, 2000) as a more permanent writing reference guide. Since there doesn't appear to be anything new about the 50th Anniversary edition other than a $5 price increase, I can't recommend it over the previous edition--although it remains a useful guide despite being "overopinionated and underinformed."

Does anyone have suggestions for a style guide somewhere between the brevity of Elements and the mind-numbing exhaustiveness of The Chicago Manual of Style?

Here's an interesting cartoon that has appeared in two different versions: this one from the Institute for Humanist Studies

20090416-orchestra1.jpg

and this one from the website of artist Nick Kim:

20090416-orchestra2.jpg

I think the pun works better in the second version, as a one-liner in the style of "Far Side."

Austin Cline writes a two-part piece on theists' dismissals of atheism here and here. This part of a comment from "David" that Cline analyzes

Many without having read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, or Christian mysticism, assume to know what Christianity is.

reminds me of an old Richard Dawkins line:

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." (Fortune, 4 October 1999)

To extrapolate David's reasoning, wouldn't he require himself to be well-versed in the various Sutras of Buddhism, in the Vedas of Hinduism, the Qur'an and Hadith of Islam, the Avesta of Zoroastrianism--not to mention the Tao te Ching, Analects, and Dianetics--in order to dismiss all the religions in which he disbelieves?

Part of Cline's response to David has a strong resonance for me, as it illustrates another of my pet peeves:

Assuming that atheism is "a compound of arrogance and fear" is not a "rational" dismissal of atheism. Why? Because it dismisses atheism based upon presumed psychological attitudes of atheists. It totally neglects any actual arguments made by people against theism or in defense of atheism.

I've received my share of "you're arrogant/angry/smug/sarcastic" accusations, along with other conjectures about my mental and emotional state, but I'm still waiting for a factual rebuttal about...well...pretty much everything. I get some "you're wrong" comments, but when I play the Missouri card and say, "show me," all I hear is...crickets.

If you believe homosexuality is unnatural, then prove it.

If you believe atheists are immoral, or religion is necessary (or even useful), then prove it.

If you believe Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim socialist, or we're a "Christian nation" slouching toward secular fascism, or liberals are establishing re-education camps, then--you guessed it--I'll want to see some proof.

I'm tired of listening to condescending pronouncements that aren't supported by facts, and I no longer have either time or patience for the right-wing rumor mill and its plague of fallacious emails. Show me the data (and source it) or I'll emulate Christopher Hitchens ("what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence," Slate, 20 October 2003) and apply a topical solution of mockery until the rhetorical rash dissipates. Greta Christina expresses a similar frustration here:

I am sick unto death of non-believers being treated like sad lost sheep or wounded birds. I am sick unto death of my atheism being treated like an illness to be cured. I am sick unto death of my atheism being treated like a tragedy. [...] My atheism is not a source of weakness or sadness. In fact, it is a source of great strength and joy. I was able to leave religious belief when I became strong enough to stop hanging onto ideas simply because I found them comforting, even though they weren't supported by any good evidence. I was able to leave religious belief when I was able to say that the joy of this life is enough, and that I don't need to believe in an eternal after-life to find more than enough meaning and happiness in this ephemeral one.

Along a similar line, Daylight Atheism responds to Madeleine Bunting's complaint about "the New Atheists' foghorn voices:"

An atheist who is proud to be so, and who speaks their mind honestly and frankly, will always be judged as disrespectful by theists whose only goal is to silence us.

DA also rebuts Bunting's claim that "By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are 'cruder, less tested, less instructive':"

It's true that any replacement for religion will be "less tested". But that statement implies that religion has been tested and has passed. Much the contrary, we atheists believe that religion has been tested and has failed. The reality is that we atheists are not thoughtless iconoclasts, tearing down the altars of religion without thought for the consequences. We've made the decision to attack religions precisely because we've concluded that the hate, intolerance and division they cause is too high a price to pay for whatever comfort they offer. We believe that we can find sources of meaning and goodness that work just as well, without all the baggage that religion brings.

It's not as if we atheists are cast adrift when we discard religious dogma. We do have a few things to help us understand ourselves and our place in the universe: anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, the arts, biology, chemistry, cosmology, ecology, economics, engineering, ethics, geology, history, literature, mathematics, philosophy, physics, poetry, politics, psychology, and sociology. Compared to those, the chapter-and-verse mindset comes up rather short.

On the suggestion that the "classic Christian view" is "more realistic" than the secular one, Matt Taibbi writes that if one teaches "any normal kid the Bible and what he's going to get from it is not a 'realistic' view of the world but a disturbing series of questions to ponder:"

Like for instance, what does it mean when my own parents tell me, with a straight face, a story about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son? You're a little kid, listening at bedtime in your pee-jays to the story, expecting that Abraham is going to tell God to go fuck himself because he loves his children so much, and be rewarded for doing so. Instead it's exactly the opposite, the father in the story is rewarded for being willing to carve his innocent son up with a knife, the moral of the story somehow being not that God is an insane murderous psychopath, but that God is just and wise and should be obeyed. When the story is over, Dad tucks you in to bed and says he'll see you in the morning. Now that's realism for you.

I'll take reality over that sort of "realism" any day.

Nate Silver at 538 discusses this Rasmussen poll on preference for capitalism or socialism as an economic system. Silver notes that "support for the two economic systems varies by income level:"

20090415-socialism.png

Among Americans making $20,000 a year or less, capitalism leads socialism by only 8 points, 35-27. Confidence in capitalism then rises steadily with income, such that among the wealthiest Americans, it has a 57-point lead on socialism (68-11).

It's not surprising that the wealthy tend to prefer capitalism--after all, it's working out for them quite well. The fact that it's not doing such a good job for everyone else indicates a systemic problem. As Harold Meyerson writes at the Washington Post, there is also an age-related disparity:

Twenty-somethings are more open to socialism -- or social capitalism -- than 30-somethings not only because they never lived through the Soviet threat but because the economy, during the years in which deregulatory policy and Wall Street financialization were at their height, hasn't worked very well for them.

I have two points to make about this poll. First, as noted by Rasmussen:

It is interesting to compare the new results to an earlier survey in which 70% of Americans prefer a free-market economy. The fact that a "free-market economy" attracts substantially more support than "capitalism" may suggest some skepticism about whether capitalism in the United States today relies on free markets.

Second, Rasmussen also notes the conflation of our current plutocratic corporate-welfare state capitalism with a more free-market flavor of capitalism:

Rather than seeing large corporations as committed to free markets, two-out-of-three Americans believe that big government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors.

It would be revealing, I suspect, to see economic opinions correlated with economic knowledge, perhaps along these lines:

Please choose the most correct definition of socialism:

[ ] Whatever policies are supported by Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

[X] A system where the public owns the means of production and determines the distribution of goods.

[ ] Whatever policies are opposed by talk radio and Fox News.

Ron Chusid at Liberal Values also discusses this poll:

I've often mocked the attacks on Obama for being a socialist because the attacks are so blatantly untrue. This turned out even worse than expected for the right. With the policies of the right being so unpopular and with Obama's tremendous popularity, many Americans see any label attacked to Obama as favorable. Claiming that Obama is a socialist wound up making socialism a more favorable-sounding word as opposed to tarnishing Obama's reputation.

Heckuva job, Bushies. The Nation's John Nichols writes about the "GOP Fairy Tale" of socialists taking over Congress, contrasting plutocratic reality with the corporate media's scare tactics:

Washington, D.C., is overrun with banking, insurance and investment firm lobbyists - just about all of whom have contributed generously to [Spencer] Bachus [R-AL] and his colleagues on the financial services committee. These guardians of the "free market" devote their every waking hour to assuring that Congress will keep the bailout bucks flowing to Wall Street. So far, they have proven more than a match for those fiscally-responsible Americans who argue that, instead of enriching the speculators, we ought to be cracking down on them.

[...]

As it is, the last actual Socialist Party member to serve in the House was Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger who left office in 1929, after having been elected a half dozen times. [...] Even those who disdain socialism ought to recognize that Congress would be well-served by the addition of a few more members who are inclined to question the bankers that Spencer Bachus -- a leading proponent of the Wall Street bailout -- keeps handing blank checks.

As the Catholic Archbishop Don Helder Pessoa Camara once observed, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Socialism is the Right's favorite (undefined) scare word, now playing the role once filled by the equally misunderstood communism. While we're distracted by teabaggers and scare tactics, we're being plundered by the plutocrats. Chris Hedges writes that we must "Resist or Become Serfs:"

America is devolving into a third-world nation. And if we do not immediately halt our elite's rapacious looting of the public treasury we will be left with trillions in debts, which can never be repaid, and widespread human misery which we will be helpless to ameliorate. Our anemic democracy will be replaced with a robust national police state. The elite will withdraw into heavily guarded gated communities where they will have access to security, goods and services that cannot be afforded by the rest of us. Tens of millions of people, brutally controlled, will live in perpetual poverty. This is the inevitable result of unchecked corporate capitalism. The stimulus and bailout plans are not about saving us. They are about saving them. We can resist, which means street protests, disruptions of the system and demonstrations, or become serfs.

His dystopian vision is a stark comparison to Weimar Germany:

A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to simpletons like Sarah Palin to loudmouth talk show hosts, who we naively dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. The elites, the ones with their Harvard Business School degrees and expensive vocabularies, will retreat into their sheltered enclaves of privilege and comfort. We will be left bereft and abandoned outside the gates.

Scott Horton writes about the "Bush 6" (Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Doug Feith, and William Haynes) torture case:

Spanish prosecutors have decided to press forward with a criminal investigation targeting former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five top associates over their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo...

[...]

The Bush Six labored at length to create a legal black hole in which they could implement their policies safe from the scrutiny of American courts and the American media. Perhaps they achieved much of their objective, but the law of unintended consequences has kicked in. If U.S. courts and prosecutors will not address the matter because of a lack of jurisdiction, foreign courts appear only too happy to step in.

This sort of investigation may be the best we can hope for in the absence of a Truth Commission.

I wrote about the disappearing night sky last year, which this image reminds me of quite strongly (h/t: Jason Kottke):

20090414-nightsky.jpg

How amazing it would be to see something that wondrous every night, just by looking up...

2M4M

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I owe a big old tip-of-the-hat to Buffy at Gaytheist Agenda for mentioning this great web coup:

The anti-marriage group National Organization for Marriage got themselves all torqued up over progress on marriage equality and decided to launch a campaign called "2 Million 4 Marriage," which they abbreviated "2M4M."

The irony is here.

Some pro-marriage folks decided to jump on this, and there is now a website at 2M4M.org called "Two Men for Marriage."

20090414-2m4m.jpg

They have a delightfully sarcastic response to NOM's insipid "Gathering Storm" ad, and they reposted the great email list of "Ten Reasons Gay Marriage Is Wrong:"

1. Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.
2. Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.
3. Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.
4. Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn't changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can't marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.
5. Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Brittany Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.
6. Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn't be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren't full yet, and the world needs more children.
7. Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.
8. Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That's why we have only one religion in the world.
9. Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That's why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.
10. Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven't adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans

Kudos all around!


update (6:43pm):
Shoot the Messenger has another parody (h/t: Rude Pundit).

Rebutting some reactions to his Newsweek cover story, Jon Meacham writes in "Faith Isn't Under Fire" that:

Some have read the piece (or, I suspect, the cover line) as an attack on Christianity, which it is not and which would, in any case, be an act of self-loathing, since I am a Christian, albeit a poor one. Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But "Christian America" is something else again.

Priscilla at NewsHounds notes some of the Faux News hysteria over the article:

Fox News's Christians seem to be quite threatened by the article as they frequently allude to it being an "attack" on Christianity. It would appear that they haven't read the article because it is nothing of the sort. [...]

The article is interesting and well written. It's thoughtful and doesn't deserve to be summarily dismissed, in simplistic terms, as "an attack on Christianity." But then, the Fox Nation does love simplicity and it's easier to be told what is "bad" than actually come to one's own conclusion. One assumes that the Fox Nation doesn't even read Newsweek and they certainly won't now because it's been deemed unsuitable by the militant Christians on Fox News. [...] But this type of exegesis is a little too nuanced for the Christian Fox Nation which likes to be told who and what to hate. Onward Christian soliders, marching for Fox News.

Atheists understand quite well that not all Christians are Christianists, but that is perhaps too subtle a distinction for the Faux legions. Any critical analysis of their sacred cows is framed as an attack, which helps both to reinforce their persecution complex and their dismissal of all non-sycophantic media outlets as secular progressive enemies--although most of them are neither secular nor progressive.

How many of them have actually read past the headline?

Blackbeard Down

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Back in January, Johann Hari wrote about the Somali pirates at The Independent (h/t: Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars), pointing out that the mainstream corporate media have greatly over-simplified the situation. Hari observes that "behind the arrr-me-hearties oddness of this tale, there is an untold scandal:"

The people our governments are labelling as "one of the great menaces of our times" have an extraordinary story to tell - and some justice on their side. [...]In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since - and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

[...]

This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia - and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".

No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters - especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But in a telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali: "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas."

Charles Lemos provides some context at MyDD, and this UN report has even more detail:

Somali waters have a high potential for fishing. As a result, the Fisheries and Marine Resources Minister has indicated that a study by his ministry had shown a large number of foreign vessels illegally fishing in Somali waters and serious pollution caused by vessels discharging toxic waste. Heavily armed foreign boats have often tried to exploit the breakdown of law and order in Somalia since the overthrow of President Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991 by fishing in the rich Somali waters, thus depriving coastal communities of resources. (p. 133)

[...]

Somalia is one of the many Least Developed Countries that reportedly received countless shipments of illegal nuclear and toxic waste dumped along the coastline. Starting from the early 1980s and continuing into the civil war, the hazardous waste dumped along Somalia's coast comprised uranium radioactive waste, lead, cadmium, mercury, industrial, hospital, chemical, leather treatment and other toxic waste. Most of the waste was simply dumped on the beaches in containers and disposable leaking barrels which ranged from small to big tanks without regard to the health of the local population and any environmentally devastating impacts. (p. 134)

Hmmm...does fishing in waters contaminated by nuclear waste strike anyone as a particularly bright idea?

20090412-lq6-crimes.jpg

The sixth issue of Lapham's Quarterly, "Crimes and Punishments," looks at the legal and societal aspects of our criminal justice system--and seems to examine heroic criminals more often than villainous ones. The sidebar "Killing Time: Books written in prison" (p. 107) got me thinking about how often our heroes are criminalized as they stand for justice while opposing the law. This requires, of course, the sort of disunity between justice and legality that has ensnared giants of our intellectual and moral heritage from Socrates and Galileo to Martin Luther King Jr.

As always, the LQ selections cover an impressively wide span of human history and geography; just to stick with the beginning of the alphabet, "Crimes and Punishments" has Primo Levi writing on Auschwitz, Saul Levitt about Andersonville, and the enforcement of Sharia in Afghanistan. Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" would have been a good lead-in to MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," and Camus' "Reflections on the Guillotine" a fine companion to Orwell's "A Hanging," but I nonetheless appreciated the editors' choices.

For the second issue in a row, one of the essays is an absolute delight. Michael Dirda's reconsideration of Aeschylus' trilogy The Oresteia (consisting of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides), which he called "the greatest of all the Greek tragedies," has added another Penguin Classics volume of the Greeks to my reading list.

Such is the magic of Lapham's Quarterly.

This year's Blog Against Theocracy began on Friday and continues through today; I strongly recommend visiting the site and reading the contributors' essays.

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The theocratic specter of religion in politics haunts many of today's most contentious issues, from presidential remarks and same-sex marriage to revisionist history and our changing religious composition --to mention a few that I've written about just this past week. We would be ill-advised to ignore the still-powerful Christianist movement despite the increasing number of unbelievers and the presence of a non-fundie in the White House.

David Brooks' "The End of Philosophy" at NYT is more substantive than his usual fare, aside from his claims about the primacy of emotion over reason. Brooks claims that the "emotional approach to morality [...] challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning."

Hilzoy notes at Washington Monthly that "the research Brooks cites does not show what he seems to think it does, since the question how we make moral judgments on the fly is not, and does not answer, questions about the role of reasoning in morality." Heather Mac Donald writes at Secular Right that "With all respect to David Brooks, this claim, in an otherwise lucid column, strikes me as nonsensical:"

The new atheists are arguing not against the view that morality is innate, but that it is the product of formal religious teaching. It is the theistic and theocon worldview that is challenged by what Brooks calls the "evolutionary approach to morality," not the skeptical one. It is the theocons who assert that unless society and individuals are immersed in purported Holy Books, anarchy and depredation will rule the world.

[...]

As for non-believers' purported faith "in the purity of their own reasoning," I have no idea what Brooks is talking about. The new atheists are not on an intellectual purity crusade; they see the whole of human thought as evidence of the richness of the human mind. They embrace the gorgeousness and grandeur of music, art, and literature as a source of meaning and wisdom.

At CFI, John Shook writes that "Brooks decides that we don't need philosophy, at least where morality is concerned. Unfortunately Brooks is no philosopher, making unwarranted inferences to overreaching conclusions:"

We may let those called out as "new atheists" defend themselves. Speaking on behalf of humanists, who have been working on intelligently designed ethics for over four hundred years, I defend ethics as necessarily practical, as essential to anything deserving the name of civilization. Specialists in ethics can be caricatured as "high priests" and philosophy always makes for an easy fun target. But everyone does ethics, some better than others, and we all need help. Life makes philosophers of us all, and sooner than you think.

So go ahead and dismiss rational thinking about morality, David Brooks. Meanwhile, us thinking humanists will keep on doing what we've been doing all along--helping people figure out how best to achieve the good life together.

Jon Meacham's "The End of Christian America" article is Newsweek's current cover story, and he adopts a reasoned tone about the increasing percentage of unbelievers, writing that "The decline and fall of the modern religious right's notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life." Meacham's interview with Southern Baptist president Albert Mohler, however, is considerably less positive:

"A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us," Mohler wrote. "The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture." [...]"The post-Christian narrative is radically different; it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority," he told me.

Mohler is hardly alone, as Meacham notes:

Fearing the coming of a Europe-like secular state, the right longed to engineer a return to what it believed was a Christian America of yore.

In many respects, however--such as homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion--Christian America has been failing in comparison to the bogeyman of a "Europe-like secular state." (See the Journal of Religion and Society study "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies," which I discussed here.)

One suspects that a primary reason behind promulgation of the "Christian nation" mythology is a desire on the part of Christianists to maintain the special privilege of their "binding authority" over how the rest of us live our lives. Meacham's observation that "The American culture of religious liberty helped create a busy free market of faith: by disestablishing churches, the nation made religion more popular, not less" certainly points toward the Right's terror over losing the war of ideas.

When Meacham gets into the ever-contentious debate over religion in the public square, he notes that, "American public life is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious but an ever-fluid mix of the two." Contrary to the conservative caricature, secular liberals are not demanding that religion be removed from public life--see the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief for examples--but instead want government to remain neutral on religious matters.

People bring their worldviews and philosophies--derived from whatever source--along with them everywhere they go. Faith, being neither universal nor provable, is unsuitable for governance of others--only of oneself. The loss of their special privileges may not seem like neutrality to Christianists, but their persecution complex should not dictate policy.

Obama's "we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation" statement has precipitated a great deal of wingnut whining (see David Limbaugh's piece at ClownHall and Jon Rowe's rebuttal) John Nichols brings the snark at The Nation, writing that "Constitutional rewritemen Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly disagree, as does noted historian and Biblical scholar Chuck Norris." Rob Boston observes that "Obama's remarks in Turkey reflect the best of Jefferson's thinking and rebuke people like Gingrich, Bauer and O'Reilly:"

The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. Nothing in the Constitution grants Christianity favored status. In fact, Article VI bans religious tests for federal office, and the First Amendment bars laws "respecting an establishment of religion" while protecting "the free exercise thereof" - for all faiths.

The contrast between the Jeffersonian Left and the Christianist Right could scarcely be more starkly drawn, as Boston observes:

How many times have you heard Fox News Channel blowhard Bill O'Reilly rail against "secular progressives"? Gingrich, O'Reilly, et al, believe "secular" is a dirty word because they insist on conflating it with hostility toward religion. It's not. In fact, the idea of government neutrality on questions of theology is the platform upon which religious liberty rests.

Over at Washington Monthly, Steve Benen asks, "is there anything even remotely controversial about what the president actually said?"

We have a secular constitution that established a secular government. Our laws separate church from state. No religious tradition enjoys official sanction over any other. Of course we're not a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation.

The usual argument is that most of the U.S. population is Christian. That's true, but irrelevant. Most of the U.S. population is white -- does that make the United States a "white nation"? We also hear arguments that most of the Founding Fathers were Christians. That's also true, but also irrelevant. Most of the framers were also men -- does that make our country a "man's nation"?

It's time to retire this old conservative canard. I'm glad to see Obama help out.

Benen is correct that the "Christian nation" myth is long overdue for a trip to the glue factory, but myths--by definition, due to their ability to survive as memes without factual support--are kept alive due to the needs they fulfill. As the central cherished myth of Christianism that links religious beliefs to a desire for power through controlling government and society, their revisionist idea of a "Christian nation" is no less tenacious through being repudiated by the President a single time. (Or a dozen times, or a hundred, or a thousand...just ask Religious Right Watch, Jon Rowe, Rob Boston at Americans United, or Frederick Clarkson at Talk to Action.)

Without erasing the secular achievements of the Founders and over-writing them with myths, though, Christianists would be unable to claim the US as "Christian" in anything but a numerical sense. For all their pretend patriotism and faux reverence for the Founders, the Christianist Right deeply resents and fears our secular nation--especially now that they're worried about losing control of it. In his book Eternal Hostility, Frederick Clarkson writes that they would just as soon erase the Founding altogether and return to the Puritan era:

"Although the United States was the first nation in history founded without the sanction of an official God or an official church, the national ethos of religious pluralism and equality is under attack. It is an attack rooted in struggles between advocates of democratic values and the established theocracies of 17th and 18th century colonial America. Much of the contemporary Christian Right is looking back to what their religious and political ancestors lost when the Constitution was ratified - now they seek a different outcome." (pp. 3-4)

They failed to create a theocracy then--let's hope that their losing streak continues.

I might need one of these signs for my car (h/t: Bay of Fundie):

20090410-godlessliberal.jpg

David (Eliminationists) Neiwert writes about right-wing rhetoric getting "nuttier and nastier" and notes the following from a recent gun show in Tennessee:

Deja vu from 1994, when I was regularly attending militia meetings, all over again: The president-bashing. The gun fetishizing. The paranoia. The unstated old bigotry. And sometimes, all of them would come together at once.

[...]

But this time, there's a difference. This time, they're not just getting whipped into a paranoid frenzy by their fellow paranoids, which was generally the case in the 1990s, with a few exceptions -- namely Rush Limbaugh. In their latest immanation, the old Patriot movement is getting stoked by a whole slew of ostensibly mainstream conservatives broadcasting daily and constantly on mainstream news media.

Neiwert discusses the usual culprits (Glenn Beck, Dick Morris, Michael Savage, the Freepers, Rush, and Sean Hannity) before quoting a wingnut whackjob who shies away from both "civil war" and "civil disobedience" before dumping this load of manure:

I am simply pointing out that if the shooting ever does start in earnest, the blame can be laid squarely on the doorstep of those leftists whose mendacity, bad faith, criminal tactics and violent rhetoric will have contributed so much to the perversion of our democratic form of government and the destruction of our individual rights.

Let's unpack that, shall we? He's pre-absolving his unpatriotic compatriots for their violent fantasies by blaming "leftists" for exactly what the Busheviks did when they controlled Washington:

mendacity
bad faith
criminal tactics
violent rhetoric
perversion of our democratic form of government
destruction of our individual rights

With a change in administration, the Right's projection, paranoia, and persecution complex have all reached delusional levels. I'd be less worried about their mental health if their love for firearms didn't so often involve killing other people.

tea-baggers

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With tax day fast approaching, I guess it's appropriate to mention the tea bag movement (no, not those tea-baggers...the wingnut kind). Bob Cesca is puzzled by the movement's contradictions, writing that "unless I'm mistaken, the basic idea of the tea bag revolution is to protest against government bailouts and in favor of tax cuts for the wealthiest five percent of Americans:"

Ultimately, the tea baggers (can I call them that?) appear to be against allowing the Bush's tax cuts to expire. Strangely, they also appear to be against President Obama signing into law the largest middle class tax cut in history. They're also against helping middle and working class "losers" keep their homes. (By the way, your neighbor's mortgage is your problem. Just watch your property values plummet as soon as there's just one foreclosure on your block.)

This series of Obama policies, they say, portends tyranny in America. Of course none of the policies of the Bush administration were considered tyrannical by many of the current tea bag leaders. You know the list of Bush trespasses. The illegal searches and seizures, the illegal electronic eavesdropping and torturing. The suspension of habeas corpus, the record deficits, the doubling of the national debt and so on. None of that was tyrannical. But allowing the tax cuts for the wealthiest five percent to expire is absolutely the vanguard of totalitarianism.

Cesca also mentions that the Revolutionary-era Tea Party was precipitated by a corporate tax cut (for the East India Company)--and notes that those protestors didn't ask for a permit from the crown to air their grievances.

The AP is reporting that (h/t: underpants at DU) on Obama's efforts to make White House events gay-friendly:

The White House is allocating tickets for the upcoming Easter Egg Roll to gay and lesbian parents as part of the Obama administration's outreach to diverse communities. [...]

White House officials said that tickets for Monday's Easter Egg Roll event were distributed to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations, but did not specify how many or to which ones. Representatives from Family Equality Council, Human Rights Campaign, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and other groups confirmed they were invited and encouraged to have their members participate.

Conservatives complained three years ago that LGBT parents bringing their kids to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll was a "political statement," but it was their demands for exclusion and second-class citizenship which were truly political statements. It's nice to see that we've moved beyond them.

Crooks and Liars has a great "Wingnuts Gone Wild" video of Jon Stewart, discussing the Right's hysterical reactions to Obama. Stewart played clips (from Faux, of course) of their Henny Penny cries of "tyranny" and fears of "re-education camps," and then mocked their contradictions:

"So not only is Obama a total pussy who's gonna let Europe run roughshod over us, he's also an iron-fisted tyrant who will crush anyone who doesn't bend to his will."

(I didn't say it was coherent, but consider the source...) C&L transcribed more of Stewart's remarks about their fears:

Yes, tyranny. A.K.A. our democratically elected President. You know what guys....I think you might be confusing tyranny with losing. And I feel for you because ah...I've been there. A few times. In fact one of them was a bit of a nail biter. But see, when the guy that you disagree with gets elected, he's probably going to do things you disagree with. He could cut taxes on the wealthy. Remove government's oversight capability. Invade a country that you thought should not be invaded but that's not tyranny. That's democracy.

See now you're in the minority. It's supposed to taste like a s#%t taco. And by the way, if I remember correctly when a disagreement was expressed about that President's actions when ya'll were in power I believe the response was "Why do you hate America?". "Watch what you say." "Love it or leave it." "Suck on my truck nuts."

.....

For god's sake guys. You've been out of power for ten f*%#ng weeks. You've got a mid-term election in twenty months. Pace your rage!

I don't think they need to pace themselves; after all, they never got tired of running around screaming hysterically about the sky falling for the full eight years Clinton was in office. Why would they have less stamina now?

We all know that progress is often slower than we would like, and is rarely without setbacks; the path toward recognition of same-sex marriage is no different. Some bigots in Iowa are planning to institute an anti-marriage constitutional amendment to override their Supreme Court's approval of same-sex marriage--and the Prop H8 battle in California is still ongoing. Vermont's governor vetoed a same-sex marriage bill yesterday, but it was overridden by the state Senate and House this morning:

Moments ago, the Vermont House voted 100-49 to override the marriage bill veto! The House vote, which followed the Senate voting 23-5 this morning to override Gov. Douglas's veto, means that Vermont becomes the first state to OK marriage equality through the legislative process.

Today Vermont joins Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa in allowing gay and lesbian couple to legally marry.

In another encouraging sign, Nate Silver posted an analysis at 538 last week:

I looked at the 30 instances in which a state has attempted to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage by voter initiative. [...] It turns out that you can build a very effective model by including just three variables:

1. The year in which the amendment was voted upon;
2. The percentage of adults in 2008 Gallup tracking surveys who said that religion was an important part of their daily lives;
3. The percentage of white evangelicals in the state.

These variables collectively account for about three-quarters of the variance in the performance of marriage bans in different states.

So, what does his analysis ("Marriage bans...are losing ground at a rate of slightly less than 2 points per year.") tell us?

The model predicts that by 2012, almost half of the 50 states would vote against a marriage ban, including several states that had previously voted to ban it. In fact, voters in Oregon, Nevada and Alaska (which Sarah Palin aside, is far more libertarian than culturally conservative) might already have second thoughts about the marriage bans that they'd previously passed.

By 2016, only a handful of states in the Deep South would vote to ban gay marriage, with Mississippi being the last one to come around in 2024.

Progress!

private shame?

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A risqué billboard ad has gotten a New Zealand fundie group all a-flutter, as the UK magazine The Freethinker notes (h/t: Barefoot Bum):

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A company that associates people praying in church and sex toys is quite simply out to offend.

Remigius, one of the Freethinker commenters, almost made me do a spit take:

This advertisement has really got me angry. Though I accept that there are some sad, sick people who derive a perverted pleasure from such an unnatural act, I feel that this should be kept as a private shame and not plastered over public billboards.

Just how would you explain such behaviour to a child?

"Er, well Timmy, you see some people like to go into an, um, large room and, er, talk to an, er, imaginary zombie. I don't know why they do it but they do..."

Bravo!

amazon.com

Walker, Brian. The Comics: The Complete Collection (New York: Abrams, 2008)

If you're looking for a single-volume encyclopedia of comic strips, Brian Walker's The Comics: The Complete Collection is a value of monumental proportions. In conjunction with the original publisher, Borders re-released his two previous books (The Comics Before 1945 and The Comics Since 1945) under a single cover late last year--and copies can still be found on their discount racks for $20. This is a giant brick of a book (9" x 12", nearly 700 pages, and over 7 pounds) with some phenomenal content; since the original hardcovers retailed for $50 each, this book is quite the bargain...don't miss it!

Walker begins with Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid in the 1890s, and his decade-spanning chapters hit every comic strip of note from there through the twentieth century and up to a handful of post-9/11 strips. The Bill Blackbeard/Martin Williams Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics is the only book I've seen that comes close to covering what this volume does, but the Smithsonian volume was more focused on artwork and was only half the length of Walker's Complete Collection.

Walker reprints Sunday strips at full-page size and dailies at 4 per page; he rarely shows a series of strips in continuity, as that would leave someone's work on the cutting room floor. There is quite a variety of reproduction: some strips are shot from newsprint, some are black-and-white line art, some are recolored, and a few--only a few, sadly--are hand-colored originals. The extraordinary varieties of style and genre displayed in this book are probably all but inconceivable to those readers who only know the thin, pallid fare that occupies today's comics pages.

RC Harvey's review calls Walker's book "one of the best books on its subject ever" and says "get yours while they last." I whole-heartedly agree.

As reported by Raw Story, Obama pointed out today (h/t: PZ Myers at Pharyngula) that the US is not a Christian nation:

"...one of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

See this video, just after the 3:30 mark:

Christianist revisionists are no doubt already complaining about secularist bogeymen, but they should familiarize themselves with some historical facts about our founding. Let's start with the Treaty of Tripoli, which is especially relevant here:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,- as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims],- and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Scott Horton writes at The Daily Beast that "Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era:"

A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to "go nuclear" over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration's abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration's darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.

[...]

"There was no 'direct' threat," said the source, "but the message was communicated clearly--if the OLC and OPR memoranda are released to the public, there will be war."

Anonymous Liberal writes that "the motivation for this threatened filibuster is almost surreal in its degeneracy:"

It has nothing whatsoever to do with the nominees themselves and everything to do with preventing the further public embarrassment of Bush administration officials who authorized illegal torture techniques against detainees. This is apparently what animates the modern GOP.

I also find it interesting that the one thing that would get the GOP to use the filibuster is their desire to protect Bush-era war criminals--I think that says rather a lot about what their party has become. AL is absolutely correct that Obama should release the memos and call their bluff; the crimes they're protecting have no place in a civilized nation. Glenn Greenwald explains the situation and sounds the skeptical note that "It's unclear whether the claims of Horton's source are true:"

It sounds more like a responsibility-shifting excuse than anything else -- a way of blaming Republicans rather than Obama officials for the failure to disclose these memos -- but it doesn't matter in the slightest if the claims are true. There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to continue to conceal these memos, and the fact that the GOP will stomp its feet and obstruct nominees doesn't come close to constituting an excuse for ongoing concealment.

[...]

The only conceivable reason for wanting to keep these memos secret is to avoid the deep and justifiable embarrassment the U.S. will feel upon placing before the world documents that explicitly authorized war crimes at the highest levels of our government, and thereby avoid what will inevitably be the increasing political pressure -- domestic and international -- to investigate and prosecute the war criminals. Those who authorized these tactics knew full well that what they were doing was wrong.

Disregarding the expenditure of political capital, openness is the right path to take--does Obama have the courage to walk it?

In the face of ubiquitous orchestra budget cuts, today's "Non Sequitur" hits a little too close to home for those of us who like our live music to be large and loud:

20090405-beancounterconcerto.gif

(I suspect that Mahler's Eighth Symphony might lose a little of its impact when performed this way...)

remiss, redux

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Here's the follow-up to my "I've been remiss" post about book reviews. That one covered the end of 2008, and this one contains reviews from 2009:

Gene Stone: The 12-Step Bush Recovery Program

Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers

Farah Jasmine Griffin & Salim Washington: Clawing at the Limits of Cool

Dale McGowan: Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers

Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia

Paul Krugman: The Great Unraveling, The Return of Depression Economics

Naomi Wolf: The End of America

Naomi Wolf: Give Me Liberty

Alan Wolfe: The Future of Liberalism

Lloyd & Mary Morain: Humanism As the Next Step

I'll try to do a better job of staying on top of these in the future.

The striking down of Iowa's same-sex marriage ban as discriminatory (obviously) by the Iowa Supreme Court has drawn predictable complaints from the wingnuts. There's plenty of bigoted blather about people marrying houseplants, but the best example of GOP (Good Old Paranoids) persecution complex may be this rant from Rod (Crunchy Cons) Dreher:

This morning, I had breakfast with some guys, including a lawyer. We weren't aware of this decision, but we talked about this issue. The lawyer said that as soon as homosexuality receives constitutionally protected status equivalent to race, then "it will be very hard to be a public Christian." By which he meant to voice support, no matter how muted, for traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and marriage. To do so would be to set yourself up for hostile work environment challenges, including dismissal from your job, and generally all the legal sanctions that now apply to people who openly express racist views.

Anonymous Liberal calls him on it, asking: "is it possible to be more oblivious?"

Dreher is lamenting the fact that as the law progresses toward recognizing the rights of homosexual people, it will become increasingly hard to be publicly intolerant of homosexuality. Dreher thinks it's getting hard to be a "public Christian" in this country. [...]

I find it more than a little pathetic that Dreher and his friends feel that they can't be "public Christians" without going out of their way to advertise their disapproval of homosexuality. First, there are millions of Christians in this country who have no problem at all with gay marriage or homosexuality generally (indeed, there are many gay Christians). But more importantly, since when is expressing disapproval of homosexuality a key part of being a "public Christian"? What about going to church or singing Christmas carols or celebrating Easter or (gasp!) volunteering your time to help those less fortunate? Aren't those pretty effective ways of being publicly Christian? Is gay marriage really going to make it any harder to do any of those things? We still do live in a majority Christian country after all, and I have a feeling that will continue to be the case even after we start treating gay people like full citizens.

Amen!

Perhaps in an attempt to make up for their ludicrous "We Are All Socialists Now" cover story, Newsweek put economist Paul Krugman on this week's cover:

20090329-rabbikrugman.jpg

Krugman's scarf seems almost rabbinical, as if he were an OT prophet trying to guide the administration through the wilderness--which, in a sense, he is...from the left:

Paul Krugman has all the credentials of a ranking member of the East Coast liberal establishment: a column in The New York Times, a professorship at Princeton, a Nobel Prize in economics. He is the type you might expect to find holding forth at a Georgetown cocktail party or chumming around in the White House Mess of a Democratic administration. But in his published opinions, and perhaps in his very being, he is anti-establishment. Though he was a scourge of the Bush administration, he has been critical, if not hostile, to the Obama White House.

His position on the economic spectrum (slightly to the left the centrist Obama administration) may finally be getting some recognition on the heels of his well-regarded books. I'm happy to see Krugman's presence in the mainstream media helping to nudge the Overton Window leftward a bit, although it has been dragged a long way to the right over the past few decades, and much work is needed to return it to the center of American political opinion.

Andrew Klavan's insipid "Limbaugh Challenge" deserves much mockery for claiming (with great "certainty") that liberals "[ha]ve never listened to Rush Limbaugh:"

On further questioning, it always turns out that by "heard him," he means he's heard the selected excerpts spoon-fed him by the distortion-mongers of the mainstream media. These excerpts are specifically designed to accomplish one thing: to make sure you never actually listen to Limbaugh's show, never actually give him a fair chance to speak his piece to you directly.

Klavan's rant is full of "scrawny chested" liberals complaining to their "second spouse" (not that I'd expect conservatives to understand--let alone appreciate--polyamory) about Rush, and apparently we're also "self-deceiving:"

You're not tolerant of a wide range of views; you are tolerant of a narrow spectrum of variations on your views. And, whatever you claim, you still haven't listened to Rush Limbaugh.

Why are you afraid to spend a couple of hours listening to Limbaugh's show and seriously considering if and why you disagree with him?

You're a lowdown, yellow-bellied, lily-livered intellectual coward. You're terrified of finding out he makes more sense than you do.

Here's my Quote of the Day from Klavan, notable for its bold aroma of bullshit:

I listen to Limbaugh every chance I get, and I have never heard the man utter a single racist, hateful or stupid word.

Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting takes this claim apart:

As someone who has been talking about racist, hateful and stupid Limbaugh remarks since the mid-'90s, and co-author of FAIR's book The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, Klavan's charge that Limbaugh critics don't listen to his show is a familiar one. In dozens of appearances on conservative radio shows to talk about our book, it was rare that I was not confronted with this now-hackneyed charge, even though I have been listening to Limbaugh for 25 years, starting with his local show on Sacramento's KFBK.

As for Klavan's claim that Limbaugh doesn't say racist, stupid or hateful things, FAIR's book documents scores of Limbaugh statements fitting those categories... [...]

At this late date, no one who's listened to Limbaugh can honestly say that he doesn't say racist, hateful or stupid things. Which raises the possibility that Klavan doesn't actually listen to Limbaugh, at least with any real care. But what's the L.A. Times' excuse for publishing nonsense which has been debunked in its own pages for at least two decades?

The mainstream (corporate, largely conservative) media still has airtime to sell, and they'll pimp for Limbaugh as long as the dittoheads keep tuning in. I don't know what rationale they have for publishing Klavan's crap, though, as the following is clearly meant for him:

20090402-nicebigcup.jpg

In other news, Rush is leaving New York due to "stupid, punitive, massive tax increases." Jon Stewart says, "I guess there's one more thing I want to say to him:"

If you're heading out from Uptown, take 42nd Street west to Ninth Avenue. make a left, go down four blocks, Lincoln Tunnel's on your right, and you know what? Here's my EZ-Pass. Get the f--k out of here.

20090401-lq5-eros.jpg

The fifth issue of Lapham's Quarterly covers the subject of eros, quoting from Sappho, the Song of Solomon, the Kama Sutra, and de Sade. As always, the selections are intriguing. Following Plato's Symposium with Proulx's Brokeback Mountain may have been a tad gauche, but part of LQ's interest lies in exactly that sort of juxtaposition.

The selection from Chapter 7 of The Song of Solomon (p. 34) is especially interesting--not because it's obscure, but because of a certain word substitution. Read this verse:

7:2 Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies.

Now ask yourself: Does a woman's navel produce liquor, or any sort of intoxicating liquid? No? Not only is navel clearly a blue-nosed substitute for vagina, this passage also implies cunnilingus due to the use of liquor as the choice of metaphoric liquid. Skeptic's Annotated Bible lists some other veiled Biblical references to oral sex, also from the same book:

As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. Song of Solomon 2:3

Come ... blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
Song of Solomon 4:16

For some reason, I don't remember those passages being discussed in my Sunday School class. This sentiment from Ben Franklin (p. 45) also gets very little attention from fans of the Founders:

"And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement. (from the 1745 letter "Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress")

In another of those moments of serendipity that I seem to have with every issue of LQ, the entry from Lucian (pp. 48-9) mentioned that he wrote a critique of Stoicism--but did not name it. I found the dialogue in question (Hermotimus, included in this collection of selected dialogues) and--given my interest in the subject--it's now on my reading list. The title character of the dialogue, a Stoic of twenty years, says:

"Henceforth, if I meet a philosopher on my walks (and it will not be with my will), I shall turn aside and avoid him as I would a mad dog."

LQ's end-of-the-issue essays don't usually stand up to the historical material, but this time one of them does. Francine Prose writes a smart summation in "Eros Between the Covers:"

"Like many distinctions, the border separating the erotic from the pornographic has been blurred and redefined not by some natural evolution of culture and language, but by capitalism's imperative to help the consumer readily locate the product he wants to buy. [...] What's been lost in the process is the broader meaning of the Greek word eros, and erotic, which have always included the sexual but have also suggested the mysterious, even metaphysical, connection between sex and life, sex and pleasure, the origin of life and the celebration of life." (p. 208)

My award for best April Fools' Day prank product goes to ThinkGeek for their delightful Tauntaun Sleeping Bag (h/t: Bill Day at GeekDad):

thinkgeek.com

I'm not sure which is better: the mini-lightsaber zipper pull, or the intestine-patterned lining...bravo!

(For any non-Star-Wars-fans in the audience, Wookieepedia explains both the Tauntaun and its importance in The Empire Strikes Back.)

Sexist and NSFW, but funny (h/t: Geekologie):

Anonymous Liberal writes about "spen[ding] a lot of time reading conservative blogs today, mostly to gauge their reaction to Obama's auto bailout announcement," and observes that "at least with respect to this issue...the majority of conservatives are engaged an imaginary debate with fictitious opponents:"

I'm always amazed by how willing conservatives are to believe their own lazy caricatures and, as a result, how completely and utterly they fail to understand the actual motivations and beliefs of their political opponents. The reality is that liberals in this country -- including Obama -- have absolutely no desire whatsoever to nationalize private enterprise.

[...]

The notion that there is anyone of significance on the American left who still believes in anything approaching genuine socialism is pure fantasy. That debate, to the extent it ever really happened in this country, was settled a long time ago. What we're dealing with right now are differences of opinion regarding how best to manage the failure of a number of major companies. It's not a debate about socialism vs. capitalism; it's a debate about methods of damage control. But many conservatives have so deluded themselves with their own propaganda that they're not even capable of following the conversation any more. So instead they spend all day indulging in paranoid delusions and debates that have no relevance to current events. It's a sad spectacle.

Indeed.

Earlier this week, the Boston Globe broke the story that, through the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the Bush administration has handed Obama yet another ticking financial time bomb:

Just months before the start of last year's stock market collapse, the federal agency that insures the retirement funds of 44 million Americans departed from its conservative investment strategy and decided to put much of its $64 billion insurance fund into stocks.

Switching from a heavy reliance on bonds, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation decided to pour billions of dollars into speculative investments such as stocks in emerging foreign markets, real estate, and private equity funds.

The article notes that financial analysts are concerned that "large portions of the trust fund might have been lost at a time when many private pension plans are suffering major losses:"

...they warn about a "perfect storm" scenario in which the agency's fund plummets in value just as more companies go into bankruptcy and pass their pension responsibilities onto the insurance fund. Many analysts say it is inevitable that the agency will face significantly increased liabilities in coming months.

Paul Krugman wrote yesterday in "Dow 36,000 and Your Pension" that "the Bush administration, like many conservatives, was under the spell of the following pseudo-syllogism:"

1. The stock market captures the essential spirit of capitalism.
2. Capitalism roolz!
3. Therefore, stocks will go up.

The PBGC mess is only an 11-digit problem, so why worry?

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