August 2009 Archives

About a week and a half ago, details of former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's upcoming book revealed that he felt pressured into manipulating the infamous color-coded terror alert levels to support Bush's re-election efforts in 2004. Marc Ambinder wrote something at The Atlantic for which he was justifiably flamed:

Journalists, including myself, were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true. We were wrong. Our skepticism about the activists' conclusions was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence

He was justifiably criticized throughout the blogosphere for attacking "anti-Bush liberals'...gut hatred for Bush." Paul Krugman, for example, noted that author Ron Suskind:

" revealed many of the national-security scandals very early in the game -- and was discounted not because his reporting was weak, but because it was considered unreasonable to suggest that what was actually happening was indeed happening." 2004 the Bush administration already had an extensive record in many areas where fact-checking was easy, from budget policy to environmental policy. And it was clear from any serious analysis of that record that the Bush people consistently relied on lies and misinformation to sell their policies, consistently abused power for political gain.

Media skepticism was, when it occurred at all, misplaced--it was aimed in the wrong direction. Bush's conclusions--not activists'--should have received greater skepticism, as they certainly merited it. Krugman notes that "it's really sad that those who missed the obvious, who failed to see what was right in front of their noses, still consider themselves superior to those who got it right." Ambinder wrote in a follow-up--something of a mea culpa--that "I still think that some journalists were right to be skeptical of the doubters at the time. I think that some journalists were correct to question how they arrived at the beliefs they arrived at:"

"Gut hatred" is way too strong a term -- it's the wrong term -- to describe why liberals doubted the fundamental capacity of the White House to be honest about anything. It was ideological and based on their intepretation of a pattern of facts that, in retrospect, seems much more reasonable than it did.

Later, Ambinder corrected the original story somewhat, but added the claim that "[m]any of the loudest voices were reflexively anti-Bush." Counting myself as one of those voices, I agree with Krugman's response that "reflexively" is another overstatement:

Bear in mind that by the time the terror alert controversy arose in 2004, we had already seen two tax cuts sold on massively, easily documented false pretenses; a war launched with constant innuendo about a Saddam-Osama link that was clearly false, and with claims about WMDs that were clearly shaky from the beginning and had proved to be entirely without foundation. We'd also seen vast, well-documented dishonesty and politicization on environmental policy. Oh, and Abu Ghraib was already public knowledge.

Given all that, it made complete sense to distrust anything the Bush administration said. That wasn't reflexive, it was rational.

As noted in great detail by MediaMatters, the media "dismissed Bush terror alert skeptics as paranoid conspiracy theorists" Media outlets were filled with assertions of "cynicism and paranoia," alleging belief in "conspiracy theories" that were supposedly "the height of paranoia," while Tucker Carlson claimed that "what [liberals] really need is psychological help." Those of us who pointed out the Bush administration's numerous lies were automatically dismissed at the time--and even accused of pathologies such as "Bush Derangement Syndrome" by the conservative pundits who rule the mainstream media op-ed pages.

If only we as a nation had been willing to face reality in 2004--or even better, in 2000--who knows how much better shape we'd be in now?

The ACLU writes that "While the version made public today still contains heavy redactions, it does include newly unredacted sections and details of serious detainee abuse in CIA custody that were previously unknown." Time's Michael Scherer has "Five Important Revelations" about the documents, noting that "2004 report by the CIA Inspector General (CIA IG) that is highly critical of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program." Section 221 of the report notes that:

"The EITs [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] used by the Agency under the CTC [Counterterrorist Center] Program are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights." (p. 91)

In you're not interested in reading the still-highly-redacted full report, Glenn Greenwald has a summary of "What every American should be made to learn about the IG Torture Report" that includes the CIA's greatest hits: mock executions, threats made with firearms and power tools, threats of strangulation, threats to rape female family members and "kill your children." (Keep in mind that some detainees were actually tortured to death, so these threats were not always idle ones.) Greenwald's words to those who "blithely dismiss" these crimes are worth quoting at length:

(1) The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle -- all things that we have always condemend as "torture" and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies ("torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .") -- reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.

(2) As I wrote rather clearly, numerous detainees died in U.S. custody, often as a direct result of our "interrogation methods." Those who doubt that can read the details here and here. Those claiming there was no physical harm are simply lying -- death qualifies as "physical harm" -- and those who oppose prosecutions are advocating that the people responsible literally be allowed to get away with murder.

The ABC News article "Deaths, Missing Detainees Still Blacked Out in New CIA Report" observes that "Of the 109 pages in the 2004 report, 36 were completely blacked out in the version made public Monday, and another 30 were substantially redacted for "national security" reasons." Scott Horton writes in "Seven Points on the CIA Report" that the redactions clearly indicate that he trail hasn't been cleared all the way to the top of the trail: if not the White House, then at least Darth Cheney's undisclosed location. The NYT article "Report Shows Tight CIA Control on Interrogations" observes that:

Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program's parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee's daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis. From their Washington offices, they obsessed over the smallest details... [...] The detainee "finds himself in the complete control of Americans; the procedures he is subjected to are precise, quiet and almost clinical," noted one document.

The Rude Pundit notes that we still know that torture didn't work. How can we tell?

If there was a single, demonstrable instance of a correlation between threatening to power drill the nutsack of Abu al-Fuckingbadguywithamoustache and the prevention of a terrorist attack, that shit would be a new book in the right-wing Bible.

Amen to that--now bring on the special prosecutor already!


McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (New York: Knopf, 2009)

Like Usain Bolt breaking his own world records for the 100m and 200m in recent races, Christopher McDougall's Born to Run vaulted past the other volumes in my to-be-read stack as if they were standing still. A runner searching for an answer to his own running-related injuries, McDougall was led to investigate the Tarahumara people from Mexico's Copper Canyon, which is deeper--and several times larger--than the Grand Canyon:


The Tarahumara are distance runners, yet without the ailments that plague their contemporaries from modern consumer cultures: knee problems, plantar fasciitis, torn Achilles tendons...and without the expensive bells-and-whistles running shoes in which the rest of us are shod. When not barefoot, Tarahumara runners prefer minimalist sandals with soles made from strips of old tires. Running for sheer joy--regardless of footwear--is paramount, and McDougall identifies this as "the real secret of the Tarahumara:"

...they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. [...] Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. (p. 92)

Here's a great example of the joy of running, featuring American ultrarunner Scott Jurek side-by-side with Arnulfo Quimare of the Tarahumara:


McDougall provides ample and appropriate backstory on the main characters, some physiology and anthropology, and closes his book with the inaugural running of the 50-mile Copper Canyon Ultra-Marathon. The tale works so well because McDougall does such a great job setting up the cast of characters: the mysterious Micah True (AKA Caballo Blanco), Scott Jurek (website, Wikipedia), Barefoot Ted, and Jenn Shelton (see this Outside article).

Given the extreme physical demands involved, McDougall wonders whether ultrarunning is self-selective: "did it attract only runners with unbreakable bodies? Or had ultrarunners discovered the secret to megamileage?" (p. 79) He suggests that good biomechanical form is part of the answer, and footwear a common culprit: "running shoes may be may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot." (p. 168) Nike comes in for special opprobrium when McDougall writes that "Blaming the running injury epidemic on big, bad Nike seems too easy--but that's OK, because it's largely their fault." (p. 179)

Age, interestingly enough, is far less a problem for distance runners than one might expect. McDougall quotes Dr Dennis Bramble on the subject:

"We monitored the results of the 2004 New York City Marathon and compared finishing times by age. What we found is that starting at age nineteen, runners get faster every year until they hit their peak at twenty-seven. After twenty-seven, they start to decline. So here's the question--how old are you when you're back to running the same speed you did at nineteen?" (pp. 239-240)

McDougall estimated 40-45 years, but Bramble gave him an answer of 64 years old. This seemed rather high to me, so I investigated a little. The 2008 NY results showed that the fastest 19-year-old male finished in 398th place--and he was beaten by men as old as 58. I know what you're thinking: that's only one race. Table 1 on page 41 of Dan Tunstall Pedoe's Marathon Medicine (2000) was the most comprehensive list I could locate quickly, and it shows that the break-even age is about 39 or 40--more in line with McDougall's estimate. Masters runners should be encouraged--and inspired--no matter which figure turns out to be more accurate, as the drop-off in finishing times is a very gradual one.

Dan Zak at the Washington Post called Born to Run "an operatic ode to the joys of running," and I can't help but agree. There is much more I could write about McDougall's wonderful book and everything it has to say about running--but it's time to tie on my shoes and put in a few miles...or perhaps try going barefoot!

McDougall articles and Q&A sessions:

"The Painful Truth About Trainers" (Daily Mail)

"What Ruins Running" (Boston Globe)

"The Men Who Live Forever" (Men's Health)

"Kick Off Your Shoes and Run a While" (NYT)

"The Myth of the Lonely Long-Distance Runner" (Time)

Q&A with Amazon

other sources:

"How Running Made Us Human" (Science Daily)

"Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo" (Nature)

"The Running Man, Revisited" (Seed) discusses the ER (Endurance Running) hypothesis

more Frank

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I applauded Barney Frank last week for this teabagger takedown, but the rest of his responses in this series of clips from the same townhall meeting are just as impressive:

If only we had more Congresscritters of Frank's caliber...

Medicare for all

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Thom Hartmann recently wrote a "Dear President Obama" letter suggesting that the "public option" be replaced with something simpler--a way for Americans under 65 to simply "buy in to Medicare:"

It would be so easy. You don't have to reinvent the wheel with this so-called "public option" that's a whole new program from the ground up. Medicare already exists. It works. Some people will like it, others won't - just like the Post Office versus FedEx analogy you're so comfortable with.

Just pass a simple bill - it could probably be just a few lines, like when Medicare was expanded to include disabled people - that says that any American citizen can buy into the program... [...]

This lets you blow up all the rumors about death panels and grandma and everything else: everybody knows what Medicare is. Those who scorn it can go with Blue Cross. Those who like it can buy into it. Simplicity itself.

As I mentioned a few days ago, though, it isn't true that "everybody knows what Medicare is," as 39% of Americans don't even realize that Medicare is a government program! Unfortunately, we liberals are in the position of having to correct conservative misinformation at every turn, and each legislative proposal practically requires an educational session. Hartmann is right in suggesting Medicare for all as a simple solution for a difficult situation; perhaps it is one that is also less open to misinterpretation.

In his remarks his morning, President Obama called the late Ted Kennedy, a recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, "the greatest United States Senator of our time:" "For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts." Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) has suggested that the healthcare reform bill should be renamed after his late Senate companion:

In his honor and as a tribute to his commitment to his ideals, let us stop the shouting and name calling and have a civilized debate on health care reform which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name for his commitment to insuring the health of every American.

A decade after he first introduced universal healthcare legislation, Kennedy said at the 1980 Democratic National Convention:

"For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Harold Meyerson eulogized Kennedy as "Keeper of the Liberal Flame" at American Prospect, in which that speech figures prominently. Barely a month ago, Kennedy recounted his four-decade effort for healthcare reform, and declared that:

...quality care shouldn't depend on your financial resources, or the type of job you have, or the medical condition you face. Every American should be able to get the same treatment that U.S. senators are entitled to.

This is the cause of my life.

A healthcare reform bill needs to be passed (without the support of Republicants if necessary) as soon as possible--and naming it after the Lion of the Senate is only fitting.

May his roar echo through the halls of Congress, and inspire them to action.

Johann Hari's Independent article on "Republicans, religion and the triumph of unreason" (h/t: Jim Downey at UTI) notes that "Since Obama's rise, the US right has been skipping frantically from one fantasy to another, like a person in the throes of a mental breakdown:"

It started when they claimed he was a secret Muslim, and - at the same time - that he was a member of a black nationalist church that hated white people. Then, once these arguments were rejected and Obama won, they began to argue that he was born in Kenya and secretly smuggled into the United States as a baby, and the Hawaiian authorities conspired to fake his US birth certificate. [...] No amount of hard evidence - here's his birth certificate, here's a picture of his mother heavily pregnant in Hawaii, here's the announcement of his birth in the local Hawaiian paper - can pierce this conviction.

Hari then asks, "How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality?"

It begins, I suspect, with religion. They are taught from a young age that it is good to have "faith" - which is, by definition, a belief without any evidence to back it up. You don't have "faith" that Australia exists, or that fire burns: you have evidence. You only need "faith" to believe the untrue or unprovable. Indeed, they are taught that faith is the highest aspiration and most noble cause. Is it any surprise this then percolates into their political views? Faith-based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational.

Paul Krugman notes a different example in this op-ed: the survival of Reaganomics. "Call me naïve," writes Krugman, "but I actually hoped that the failure of Reaganism in practice would kill it. It turns out, however, to be a zombie doctrine: even though it should be dead, it keeps on coming:"

So why won't these zombie ideas die?

Part of the answer is that there's a lot of money behind them. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something," said Upton Sinclair, "when his salary" -- or, I would add, his campaign contributions -- "depend upon his not understanding it."

Joe Klein writes at Time that "The GOP Has Become a Party of Nihilists," and "prevailing cravenness" has largely overwhelmed the principles they once espoused. In addition to the forces of religion and wealth helping to reinforce the status quo, the naked lust for power is another factor in their profusion of "outright lies:"

There are conservatives [...] who make their arguments based on facts. But they have been overwhelmed by nihilists and hypocrites more interested in destroying the opposition and gaining power than in the public weal.

Unreason, zombie doctrines, and nihilism--they've hit the trifecta!

Taking his cue from this Chicago Tribune op-ed by Steve Chapman, Bruce Wilson observes at Talk to Action that "After 5 Years of Legal Gay Marriage, MA Still Has Lowest Divorce Rate in US." Five years ago, I took aim at the Chicken Little conservatives' fears about same-sex marriage, writing that "One small state taking one small step toward justice and equality is hardly the precursor to disaster that their sky-is-falling screeds imply:"

Let's look at what won't happen as a result of Massachusetts' same-sex marriages: The earth won't stop spinning on its axis, civilization won't disintegrate, our culture won't self-destruct, and Provincetown won't be destroyed in a biblical rain of fire and brimstone - much to the reactionaries' chagrin. What will happen is an improvement in the legal status of gay and lesbian families - and a good example for other states to follow.

Wilson does a great job assembling some of the more ridiculous pronouncements of anti-marriage conservatives. They called same-sex marriage an "assault on marriage and the American family" that has "destabilized the basic institution of our society" and "represents the destruction of the world." They claimed that advocates of marriage equality "want to destroy the institution of marriage" and predicted that it will "undermine the institutions of marriage and family" and lead to not only "an explosive increase in family collapse," but "will destroy marriage. It will destroy the Earth."

You can't get much more apocalyptic than that...or more inaccurate. Wilson wonders "The real question is this - how long will it take for the truth to diffuse, out into wider society? Or will it ever?"

I am sometimes dismayed at the pace of progress, but I am optimistic that change is coming.

tweeting twaddle

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Over at Liberal Values, Ron Chusid notes this comment by Netroots Nation blogger Gina Cooper:

"While it is obvious the progressive blogosphere is superior, we are being out-organized on Twitter [by conservatives]."

Chusid observes that "This certainly makes sense," as Twitter's 140-character limit presents a larger rhetorical canvas than their usual sloganeering while still absolving them from proving any of their assertions:

In the blogosphere it is common to have posts with links to supporting evidence and the information is often open to debate in the comments and from other blogs. The blogosphere is the on line medium for those who have coherent arguments and the facts to back them up.

He goes on to explain how conservatives' simplistic "bumper sticker ideology" fails when applied to reality:

They simply ignore the facts whether dealing with Iraq, terrorism, economics, or science if the facts contradict their view points. [...] Foreign policy comes down to killing the "IslamoFascists." Economics is reduced to cutting taxes without any real thought as to what comes next. Immigration policy becomes a way to politely express their xenophobia and racism. Health care policy comes down to doing nothing and repeating the talking points fed to them by the insurance industry. Climate change can be ignored by ignoring the science.

Don't confuse them with the facts...

Jon Voight goes all wingnutty at the Moonie Times, where he asks: "Is President Obama creating a civil war in our own country?" Voight continues:

We are witnessing a slow, steady takeover of our true freedoms. We are becoming a socialist nation, and whoever can't see this is probably hoping it isn't true. If we permit Mr. Obama to take over all our industries, if we permit him to raise our taxes to support unconstitutional causes, then we will be in default. This great America will become a paralyzed nation.

H/t: Logan Murphy at Crooks and Liars, who points out that "The only people trying to start a civil war are the extreme, right wing fringe elements of our society," and asks:

How many Obama supporters have been showing up to town hall meetings with loaded weapons, shouting uncontrollably? How many Obama supporters are wanting to secede from the United States?

As for giving that "socialist" claptrap all the seriousness it deserves, check out the Facebook group "1 Million Strong Against our SOCIALIST Fire Departments" (h/t: Maryscott O'Connor at My Left Wing):

Most Americans never use the socialized services of the fire department. The Obama administration has been very clear about keeping the status quo when it comes to taxpayer-funded fire departments.

It is time to open the fire department up to private industry. We have the best fire departments in the world in the US, but that doesn't mean that anyone (even non-US citizens) should be able to dial up and have fires put out, etc. There are private companies (Halliburtion, Etc.) who could step in tomorrow and take over every fire department in America and charge the consumer directly.


"Better DEAD than fire truck RED."


This PPP poll reveals some interesting ignorance about government involvement in healthcare:

One poll question indicative of how difficult it is to gain public understanding on a complicated issue asked if respondents thought the government should 'stay out of Medicare,' something inherently impossible. 39% said yes.

Less surprising is how this misinformation is concentrated in certain segments of the populace. For example, stay-out-of-Medicare maintains a 62% majority among both McCain voters and Republicans. I've noted a few studies (see here and here for examples) that correlate misinformation with media consumption, and the current healthcare debate is merely the latest example. MSNBC's "First Read" points out that:

One of the reasons why the public appears so wary about Obama's health-care plans is due to all the misinformation out there. [...] When you have nearly half of the public believing that the government is willing to pull the plug on grandma, you're in trouble.

Ron Chusid singles out the right-wing media at Liberal Values, noting that "Poll after poll show that the more you watch Fox, the dumber you are:"

In this case we would be better off we really did have a liberal media in contrast to Fox. The media typically presents true statements from liberals along with misinformation from the far right and believes this is the way to provide balance.

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen also notes that "Fox News viewers are throwing off the curve:"

Fox News viewers would have done better, statistically speaking, if they had received no news at all and simply guessed whether the claims were accurate. Matters have clearly not improved.

It would take an unlikely twist of self-reflection, but at a certain point, Fox News and its audience might take a moment to ponder why these viewers are so wrong, so often, about so much. That almost certainly won't happen, of course, since they're not quite well informed enough to realize they're uninformed, but it'd be interesting to see what they came up with.

PunditKitchen features the punchline of one of my favorite jokes, as performed by the standup comedic duo of Lieberman and McCain:


chills and cellos

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The paper "Chills As an Indicator of Individual Emotional Peaks" (ht: Vaughan at Mind Hacks) noted that "chills [defined as "goose bumps and shivers"] are a reliable indicator of individual emotional peaks, combining reports of subjective feelings with physiological arousal" when listening to music. The authors studied 95 subjects who listened to a variety of selections from Mozart, Bach, and Puccini:

...chills were reported by participants of both genders, of all ages, and with virtually all levels of musical education. The influence of familiarity with the stimulus was tested in detail, confirming that familiarity with a certain piece has a strong impact on the frequency, and that, at the same time, a more intimate knowledge of the piece does not increase the number of chills significantly.

I can attest to the last point, using two of Shostakovich's compositions as examples. His "Festive Overture" is a dramatic and stirring piece, but it doesn't give me chills the way "Novorossiysk Chimes" does. Another interesting point was the study's observation that "neuronal circuits corresponding to networks activated during sex, food intake, and drug abuse are activated during chill episodes." Since the experience of music is that powerful, can Musicoholics Anonymous be far behind? (And if MA is to have the standard twelve steps, will they be in three bars of four or in some other meter?)

"I admit that I am powerless over Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D..."

"We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands." is how AAUP President Cary Nelson described the decision of Yale University Press to avoid the possibility of Muslim violence over illustrations of Mohammed in a forthcoming book on the subject by removing the illustrations. Nelson continued:

They [YUP] are not responding to protests against the book; they and a number of their consultants are anticipating them and making or recommending concessions beforehand.

In an action that parallels prior restraint on speech, Yale also refused to give the author access to consultants' reports unless she agreed in writing not to discuss their contents. Such reports typically have their authors' names removed, but a prohibition against discussing their content is, to say the least, both unusual and objectionable.

Christopher Hitchens noted at Slate that "there are people who argue that women who won't wear the veil have 'provoked' those who rape or disfigure them ... and now Yale has adopted that 'logic' as its own:"

The capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn't even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism--particularly Muslim religious extremism--that is spreading across our culture. [...]

What a cause of shame that the campus of Nathan Hale should have pre-emptively run up the white flag and then cringingly taken the blood guilt of potential assassins and tyrants upon itself.

Austin Cline noted that "One of the most persistent and annoying double standards which atheists have to face is the broad acceptability of religious expression in society vs. the stigma attached to any sort of atheist expression:"

Religious believers enjoy the expectation that they can talk about religion and inject religion into conversations any time, anywhere, for any reason. Atheists, in contrast, are rude and intolerant for even mentioning their atheism, never mind disagreeing with or objecting to what they hear from believers.

Cline discussed a recent letter to Judith (Miss Manners) Martin, annoyingly titled "Only the God's Honest Truth Will Do," that began this way:

I am an atheist, and this is occasionally the source of mild social awkwardness. Normally, of course, I do not broadcast my beliefs without solicitation, but occasionally I am asked where I go to church or invited to attend a service at another's church. [...] Somehow, the simple and direct, "I choose not to worship a deity," seems as inappropriate for casual conversation as questions about one's religious beliefs. I would greatly appreciate a simple and direct way to decline such an invitation and nip such questioning in the bud.

Her advice called his simple and innocuous statement of disbelief "pompous, and also challenging. You need only say casually, 'I'm not a churchgoer.'" Cline observed that this advice "leave[s] the impression that one may be a theist and perhaps even a Christian in a way that allows religious believers to talk about their religion as always." This is unacceptable, because such a course of (in)action may avoid the "angry atheist" accusation, but at the expense of keeping atheists in the closet, as Cline noted.

It's long past time for theists to recognize that their monopoly on civic discourse has come to an end, and they can no longer expect us to smile and nod at their expressions of religion while remaining silent ourselves. If religious belief is an acceptable topic of discussion, then be prepared to let non-believers join in on an equal basis; you may not like what we say, but that's not our problem--it's yours.

David Frum asks "Can We Get a Grip?" and notes that "Obama = Hitler analogies are spreading like wildfire on the political right," despite the fact that "the analogy seems so self-evidently crazy that it may baffle outsiders as to how any conservative, no matter how irate, could possibly imagine such a thing."

Rush Limbaugh claimed that "Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate," and opined that " the closest you can get to Nazism." (Not only has Rush been getting his history from Jonah Goldberg, he also demonstrates conservative projection nearly as well as Ann Coulter.) Frum continues:

Contra Rush Limbaugh, history's actual fascists were not primarily known for their anti-smoking policies or generous social welfare programs. Fascism celebrated violence, anti-rationalism and hysterical devotion to an authoritarian leader. To date, the Obama administration has fallen rather short in these departments. [...] Can we get a grip here? It is possible to express opposition to a president's policies without preposterous name-calling -- without diminishing and disparaging the unique experiences of those who did actually suffer from actual persecution by actual Nazis.

To that end, let's take a look at Michael Seitzman's "My Nazi Can Beat Up Your Nazi," where he notes that for Jews, "Nazi is our N-word:"

That's why it's not okay with us -- and shouldn't be okay with anyone -- to throw the word "Nazi" around unless you're talking about actual Nazis. It's definitely not okay to use it in a health care debate. In fact, put Nazi and doctor in the same sentence and you come up with one name and one name only -- Josef Mengele..." [...] You may not like Barack Obama, but calling him a Nazi makes you sound like a clown, an imbecile and an infant. And continuing to cry about America no longer resembling the one you grew up in only further proves the point that you got it backwards. It's America that did the growing up, and you're the one we no longer recognize.

update (8/19 @ 10:54am):
Kudos to Barney Frank for this response to a townhall questioner who asked him about Obama's "Nazi policies:"

When you ask me that question I'm going to revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question. On what planet do you spend most of your time?


As you stand there with a picture of the President defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis [...] it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

Flash cookies

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Flash can be a great technology in the right hands; in the wrong ones, it can be used for some rather questionable ends. This Wired News article on Flash cookies observed that "More than half of the internet's top websites use a little known capability of Adobe's Flash plug-in to track users and store information about them, but only four of them mention the so-called Flash Cookies in their privacy policies:"

Unlike traditional browser cookies, Flash cookies are relatively unknown to web users, and they are not controlled through the cookie privacy controls in a browser. That means even if a user thinks they have cleared their computer of tracking objects, they most likely have not.

What's even sneakier?

Several services even use the surreptitious data storage to reinstate traditional cookies that a user deleted, which is called 're-spawning' in homage to video games where zombies come back to life even after being "killed," the report found. So even if a user gets rid of a website's tracking cookie, that cookie's unique ID will be assigned back to a new cookie again using the Flash data as the "backup."

Adobe explains the use of the Website Storage Settings panel of the Flash Player Settings Manager here; the Better Privacy add-on is an option for those who surf with Firefox.

In November, Yale University Press will be releasing a book entitled The Cartoons That Shook the World on the Mohammed cartoons that Muslims rioted over (citing prohibitions against pictorial representations of their prophet) when they were published by the Dutch newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. It's an intriguing subject--one which I wrote about at the time here and here--but Patricia Cohen's NYT piece on the book points out a crucial omission by the book's publisher: the actual cartoons themselves!

Religion scholar Reza Aslan not only withdrew his blurb from the book, but also said that "to not include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic," and asked, "what kind of publishing house doesn't publish something that annoys some people?" Ibn (Why I Am Not a Muslim) Warraq observes:

We do not need the Ayatollahs when we have our own publishing housesdoing the work of censorship, and thereby betraying one of the main principles of democracy: freedom of thought and speech, which Yale should be proudly defending. And also, thereby, emboldening religious fanatics: threats work, is the lesson they will draw from Yale's disgraceful behaviour.

and asks:

Are we to submit all our books to Muslims before we publish them? Why are Muslims' sensibilities more important than anyone else's? What of the sensibilities of the rest of us? What about the claims of Clio-the Muse of History? What about the Truth?

Heaven forbid that readers--if potential rioters can actually be called that, most likely being unacquainted with any books but one--ever encounter an opposing idea or a contrary opinion hiding beneath the covers of a book from an academic press! They would rather have us all hiding under covers of a different sort, worried about trespassing upon their taboos and offending their delicate sensibilities. If I were designing this book, the cartoons would be prominently featured and this would be the frontispiece:


(Gustave Doré's illustration of Mohammed, his body rent open as punishment for being a "disseminator of scandal and of schism," from Canto 28 of Dante's Divine Comedy)


Wikipedia provides a refresher on the cartoon controversy

Among many other places, the cartoons are online here

Harper's featured a great article entitled "Drawing Blood" by cartoonist Art Spiegelman

update (10:20am):
This Danish site has more images of Mohammed including the cartoons and alternate versions of that scene from Dante.

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen looks at some hero worship on the Right: a woman named Katy Abram who harangued Arlen Specter earlier this week with her fears about "the systematic dismantling of this country" and the US "turning into Russia." Abram stated that "the root of this frustration" is fear over increased taxation of her family's small business.

Abram, a talkshow tyro who was subsequently on Hardball (see this clip), was asked why universal health insurance was so frightening to her. When the Hardball host suggested that she should support the repeal of Medicare and Social Security as also being scary socialist programs, she waffled ("I hate to say yes or no") and stammered "There are programs in place that the Founders did not want to have here."

The host denied Abram's claim "a couple of years ago" she heard Obama say, "it may take 5 or 10 years, but we will move to a single-payer [system]," but Abram was correct. Check out PNHP (Physicians for a National Health Program) for a 2003 video of Obama addressing the AFL-CIO:

Benen notes that Abram, while not misinformed enough to be the second coming of Sarah Palin is being celebrated by the Right:

Katy Abram is a sympathetic figure who has become a "hero" to conservative lawmakers and television personalities, despite the fact that she doesn't really know much about public affairs, public policy, economics, or history. The right is extremely effective at misleading folks like Abram, which in turn helps shape public policy debates.

Mocking Katy Abram doesn't address the underlying problem -- if Americans agree with her, their side wins, and conditions for all of us in the United States get worse. It doesn't matter if someone thinks she's dumb; it matters a great deal whether her confusion holds the country back.

update (8/17 @ 1:54pm):
Priscilla at NewsHounds has some comments about Abram's "barely coherent, tearful and rambling litany" of right-wing talking points and her false claims of being a political neophyte.

Emily Yoffe at Slate (h/t: Patrick Appel) asks:

Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling? Thank dopamine.

Yoffe writes that "We are so insatiably curious that we gather data even if it gets us in trouble:"

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. [Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak] Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

The serendipity to be found in a hyperlinked online environment (Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, your poison) is enough of a reward to keep us locked in a cycle of seeking that next bit of information. We ignore our friends at the party, continually looking over their shoulders for that circulating tray of canapés--although we know that we can gorge ourselves on apps and remain unfulfilled.

Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably--as e-mail, texts, updates do--we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."


If humans are seeking machines, we've now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious.

An endless search for novelty and unpredictability--that sounds like Internet addiction, all right. Like rats pressing that magic lever over and over again, we keep clicking and clicking and clicking...

Paul Krugman's "Republican Death Trip" compares the Clinton-era Right to today's birther/deather/teabagger Right. The imbecility of "Charlton Heston is MY President" bumperstickers, after festering for several years, has re-emerged as the kind of credulous conservatism "that eagerly seizes on every wild rumor manufactured by the right-wing media complex:"

This opposition cannot be appeased. Some pundits claim that Mr. Obama has polarized the country by following too liberal an agenda. But the truth is that the attacks on the president have no relationship to anything he is actually doing or proposing.


The truth is that the factors that made politics so ugly in the Clinton years -- the paranoia of a significant minority of Americans and the cynical willingness of leading Republicans to cater to that paranoia -- are as strong as ever. In fact, the situation may be even worse than it was in the 1990s because the collapse of the Bush administration has left the G.O.P. with no real leaders other than Rush Limbaugh.

wingnut wonderland

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A two-part Esquire piece on the wingnut fringe has author John Richardson asking two questions: "When Did Americans Turn into a Bunch of Raving Lunatics?" and "What Really Happens When You Demand the President Produce His Birth Certificate?"

Early this spring, I spent two very long days traveling around Kentucky with Orly Taitz, one of the leading "birthers" in a nation full of them. So I can tell you with confidence [...] that this is much, much crazier than most people imagine -- and alarmingly in sync with the "tea parties" and wild accusations of socialism that seem to define the current "conservative" opposition.

Obama's opposition, as Richardson observes, lies at the intersection of multiple strains of conservative conspiracy-mongering: a wingnut wonderland of secessionists, survivalists, gun nuts, militia members, birthers, deathers, and teabaggers. He mentions all sorts of Chicken-Little conservatives who are worried about all sorts of non-existent threats: an American KGB, FEMA re-education camps, martial law, "microstamping on shell casings," "terrorist training camps spread across the US," foreign ownership of US voting-machine software, and "train cars with shackles" ready to transport "patriots" to secret cemeteries.

Richardson refers to Orly Taitz--an easy target, to be sure--as the "queen of the 'birthers,' who brings outrageous thinking to a whole new level." Taitz is "extremely concerned about Obama" because "he is extremely dangerous:"

I believe he is the most dangerous thing one can imagine, in that he represents radical communism and radical Islam.

As Richardson wrote of the wingnuts in general, "they were willing to believe anything bad that anybody said about Obama, no matter how or implausible or unfair. It was pus exploding from a wound." It's an unappealing analogy, but not an inaccurate one; their ridiculous and desperate animus toward Obama indicates more about them than they would like to admit.

Unless she's been hiding a considerable fluency with the English language, this post on Sarah Palin's Facebook page simply cannot be her work. As noted by Tengrain at Mock, Paper, Scissors, it has too many positive traits: coherent thoughts, complete sentences, and even--gasp!--footnotes!

If the same ghostwriter also writes her upcoming memoir, it might actually be a readable book. (That's readable, not believable!)

update (2:24pm):
The Cajun Boy writes at Gawker that "whoever composed this particular note is everything that Sarah Palin is not: thoughtful, patient, dedicated, thorough, and rational, traits that any casual, non-delusional observer of Sarah Palin would never, ever associate with her:"

So who's writing Sarah's Facebook notes? Hell, your guess is as good as mine. Meg Stapleton perhaps? Bill Kristol? An intern? The person ghostwriting her forthcoming book? Who knows! But whoever it is, their being enlisted to perform these services is obviously part of a diabolical plan to rehabilitate Palin's image as a staggering dipshit. However, they really should have eased into it, because it's just way too obvious that Sarah Palin did not write the note that was posted to her Facebook page tonight. Period.

Obama's Health Insurance Reform townhall yesterday afternoon, in conjunction with a "Reality Check" page on the White House website, was good enough for Washington Monthly's Steve Benen to call Obama "President Mythbuster." Obama did indeed debunk many of the myths that have been manufactured about the healthcare bill: it's not "government-run healthcare," there is no rationing, there are no "death panels," and the goal isn't to drive private insurers out of business.

FactCheck corrected Obama on one point: he claimed "we have the AARP on board," but they have not endorsed any specific bill. As the AARP's COO Tom Nelson stated:

While the President was correct that AARP will not endorse a health care reform bill that would reduce Medicare benefits, indications that we have endorsed any of the major health care reform bills currently under consideration in Congress are inaccurate.

That error aside, Obama deserves kudos for holding a genuine townhall meeting on a contentious issue--and for doing so without resorting to the Bush-era tricks of screening attendees by party membership, ejecting anyone with contrary t-shirts or bumper stickers, and pre-screening questions.


Berg, Geoffrey. The Six Ways of Atheism: New Logical Disproofs of the Existence of God (2009)

Geoffrey Berg's apparently self-published book The Six Ways of Atheism claims to provide a half-dozen "New Logical Disproofs of the Existence of God," but I question both their utility and the uniqueness at various points. His "disproofs" are as follows:

1: The Aggregate of Qualities Argument
2: The Man and God Comprehension Gulf Argument
3: The 'God Has No Explanatory Value' Argument
4: The 'This Is Not The Best Possible World' Argument
5: The Universal Uncertainty Argument
6: The 'Some of God's Defining Qualities Cannot Exist' Argument

I really wanted to like this book more than I did, but it's more of a softcover soporific than anything else I've read since Augustine's Confessions. Although diametrically opposed to Augustine's tendentiousness, Berg's Six Ways is just as tedious; nearly the only thing missing is an explication of how many angels are not dancing on the heads of a pin. The casual reader should become acquainted with Theodicy, the Problem of Evil, the Euthyphro Dilemma, and Occam's Razor before digging into this book.

The website Six Ways of Atheism has a "Responses & Reviews" page listing Phil Groom's review at Christian Bookshops. Daniel Florin's review at Unreasonable Faith commented on the book's pretentious subtitle, New Logical Disproofs of the Existence of God:

Bullshit. People have been hashing out the logic of God's existence or non-existence for centuries. It is extremely unlikely he would have new logical "disproofs" for God's existence, especially if they are "simple."


I hope he fired his publicity agency for making him look like a self-important moron.

Reading Six Ways is far from being a wasted effort, though, as it demonstrates the need for an editor for anyone considering self-publishing a book. For example, see Berg's uncredited restatement of Euthyphro's Dilemma here,

So if there is no absolute standard of good and bad, God cannot then be a morally worthy entity because God cannot then point to standards of goodness since they ultimately do not exist and so are existentially meaningless. In that case God cannot legitimately be worshipped as a moral example, since there is ultimately no morality of good or bad to be an example for. (p. 91)

as well as this claim:

Neither the question who created God nor Occam's Razor Law is original to myself. The originality I can claim in this particular argument is in combining the two concepts and in generally questioning 'the explanatory value' of the concept of God. (p. 63)

The lack of explanatory value was perhaps most famously expressed by Laplace's reply to Napoleon, stating that he omitted god from his theories because "I had no need of that hypothesis." Later, Berg demonstrated simply laziness in this passage:

Not being a computer expert, I am not entirely sure how computers work. However I suspect that thought computers are more reliable than humans and their memory bank of events does not dim with distance in the same way that human memory does, they must hit some barrier or limit in what they can conceive of. (p. 113)

Why not find out how computers work? Berg hardly needed to become an expert in order to learn the basics, and thus improve the statement of this particular argument. The author's astounding arrogance is instructive, as being of the sort usually reserved for theists who claim to know the mythical mind of the universe's creator:

Perhaps in the end I will even be credited with helping to destroy belief in the concept of God through putting forward these logical proofs that God should not be believed in. (p. 170)

If Berg were religious, he'd probably be a cult leader; as an atheist, he's more of an eccentric crank.

Hawking speaks

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In the pages of The Guardian, Stephen Hawking has a few words about the Investor's Business Daily claim that his life would be "essentially worthless" under the UK's National Health Service:

"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," he told us. "I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived."

Something here is worthless. And it's not him.

(h/t: Ed Brayton)

update (9:32pm):
I just listened to Rachel Maddow call the IBD editorial "a tremendous avalanche of fail." Bravo!

John Dean has an interesting post about his late friend Ron Silver, who continued reading (amid spending time with family and friends) while slowly dying from esophageal cancer. Silver enjoyed "big history" books, which helped him "place his interest in government and politics in better perspective." As Dean writes, "Big history is a relatively new approach which examines human history in wide frameworks:"

Big history was introduced in the late 1980s by scholars like David Christian, who make a powerful case that to understand human history, we must look beyond our borders and our species and our planet to "the whole of time." Accordingly, many big history writers begin with the Big Bang, tracing, examining, and compressing the historical record from the beginning to the present as they probe for insights.

Dean listed a few "big history" books (Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, among others) and asked readers to email suggestions of books that belong in that company to him. I glanced over my shelves looking for a appropriate contributions. Buckminster Fuller's Critical Path has a similar scale and scope to the books Dean lists, and perhaps Julian Jaynes deserves a spot on the list for the implications of his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; I might also include Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, although it only covers five centuries of history.

I've read good things about various books from historians William McNeill, Paul Johnson, and Daniel Boorstin--but just haven't gotten to them yet.

In a follow-up to his piece about how deficits saved the world, Paul Krugman wrote "Averting the Worst" on how we backed away from the precipice of complete collapse. "So it seems that we aren't going to have a second Great Depression after all. What saved us? The answer, basically, is Big Government:"

Probably the most important aspect of the government's role in this crisis isn't what it has done, but what it hasn't done: unlike the private sector, the federal government hasn't slashed spending as its income has fallen. (State and local governments are a different story.) Tax receipts are way down, but Social Security checks are still going out; Medicare is still covering hospital bills; federal employees, from judges to park rangers to soldiers, are still being paid. [...]

In addition to having this "automatic" stabilizing effect, the government has stepped in to rescue the financial sector. [...] The point is that this time, unlike in the 1930s, the government didn't take a hands-off attitude while much of the banking system collapsed. And that's another reason we're not living through Great Depression II.

Last and probably least, but by no means trivial, have been the deliberate efforts of the government to pump up the economy. [...] All in all, then, the government has played a crucial stabilizing role in this economic crisis. Ronald Reagan was wrong: sometimes the private sector is the problem, and government is the solution.

Krugman also asks, "aren't you glad that right now the government is being run by people who don't hate government?" and Washington Monthly's Steve Benen notes that "There was an obvious course, and Obama and congressional Democrats took it:"

Republicans were the one standing in the middle of the road, insisting Dems were going in the wrong direction. They had it backwards.

Worse, even now, Republicans think they were right -- right about Bush's tax cuts, right about deregulation, right about Obama's recovery strategy, right about the spending freeze. It's not enough that they've been wrong every step of the way; they also fail to learn from their mistakes.

DougJ at Balloon Juice observes that "the fact that sane, mainstream economic decisions actually worked won't help Obama politically as much as they should:"

There's no way he can land on aircraft carrier and declare "Mission Accomplished" on the economy. And, no matter what happens with the economy, we're going to hear a lot of TEH STIMULUS DIDN't STIMULATE.

Oh, for the days when the media would drop to their knees over a cheesy presidential photo-op...

This Investor's Business Daily article goes beyond both simple stupidity and the mere mendacity of Palin and her pals in making an assertion that is diametrically opposed to the truth. Not only does IBD repeat Betsy McCaughey's end-of-life counseling hoax, they also manufactured a really bad example of healthcare rationing:

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

A big h/t to quarkscrew, who nails IBD better than anyone else I've read:

Stephen Hawking has of course been taken care of by the British National Health Service his entire life, including over 50 years of treatment for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which has a mean survival rate in the US of about 5 years. At 67, he is the longest surviving ALS patient in the world, and gives every indication of being good for several more productive years.

With fact checking like that, I don't recommend following investment advice from these people.

update (8/11 @ 2:53pm):
Rather than admitting an error, the IBD editors have removed any reference to Hawking from the op-ed. This note now appears atop the page:

Editor's Note: This version corrects the original editorial which implied that physicist Stephen Hawking, a professor at the University of Cambridge, did not live in the UK.

Ed Brayton looks at the poor track record for "Right-Wing Dystopic Predictions:"

While listening to the right wing throw a hissy fit while claiming that Obama is planning to send disabled kids and old people to the gas chambers in the name of healthcare efficiency and grind them up into soylent green, a question suddenly occurs to me: Has the right wing ever been right when they've predicted some dark dystopic future?

He lists a few fears that didn't come to pass--the despotic New Deal, the decades-long Communist conspiracy, the UN's new world order--but there are plenty more tunes in the Chicken Little conservative hit parade: Reagan's warning about the tyranny of Medicare, Clinton's tax increase that wrecked the economy, the annual "War on Xmas" that feeds Christians to the lions every December, ACORN's massive election fraud every two years, and our current paranoia over death panels and our slide into socialism.

Brayton has asked an intriguing question, but I don't think conservatives will like the answer.

Subbing for Andrew Sullivan, Robert Wright observes that "the people who are trying to sabotage [healthcare] reform by telling mind-boggling lies about its hidden rationing agenda seem, in fact, pretty content with rationing"--they just outsource the rationing to the insurance industry:

Well, if you view income as a gauge of a person's productivity in society--and God knows there are Republicans who do--then the quality of health care is already correlated with "productivity in society." Obama's plan, by making health care more affordable to lower income people, would make that less true.

This is just another way of making a point already made by Peter Singer in response to less delusional concerns about the possibility of rationing under Obama's plan: we already ration health care; we just let the market do the rationing.

The wealthy will always have access to healthcare, and the various proposals would merely redress that imbalance by assisting the rest of us in obtaining it. Wright links to Peter Singer's "Why We Must Ration Health Care," which points out some obvious but often-ignored facts:

Health care is a scarce resource, and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another. In the United States, most health care is privately financed, and so most rationing is by price: you get what you, or your employer, can afford to insure you for.

Southern Beale (h/t: Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars) has an example of a real-world "death panel"--one that's all too common in the world of free-market healthcare--"be[ing] told that your mother's insurance policy will only pay for 30 days in ICU:"

You can't imagine what it's like to be advised that you need to "make some decisions," like whether your mother should be released "HTD" which is hospital parlance for "home to die," or if you want to pay out of pocket to keep her in the ICU another week. And when you ask how much that would cost you are given a number so impossibly large that you realize there really are no decisions to make. The decision has been made for you. "Living will" or no, it doesn't matter. The bank account and the insurance policy have trumped any legal document.

If this isn't a "death panel" I don't know what is.

So don't talk to me about "death panels" you heartless, cruel, greedy sons of bitches, who are only too happy to keep the profits rolling in to the big insurance companies while you spout your mealy-mouthed bumper sticker slogans about the evils of socialism. You don't even know what socialism is. You don't know what government healthcare is. You have no fucking clue about anything except that you lost the last election and you're pissed off.

Well-attended and boisterous townhall meetings would ordinarily bode well for citizen involvement in politics, but violent incidents at several recent healthcare meetings--Tampa and St. Louis for example--are the work of agitated mobs trying to shut down the political process rather than contribute to it. Jeffrey Feldman writes at FrameShop about the Tampa townhall:

Americans trying earnestly to gather with their neighbors and engage in discussions about health insurance reform should beware of every account they read that depicts town hall disruptions as generic, two-sided violence. Beware, because these descriptions are false.

The health insurance reform debate in this country is not a fight between two violent sides. It is a peaceful discussion that right-wing mobs are trying to stop and prevent. [...] Those peaceful town hall meetings were not invaded by protesters from every political stripe. They were invaded and attacked by one specific kind of group: mobs of organized, right-wing agitators wielding a strategy of disruptive escalation: shouting, then fist waving, then pounding on glass.

Remember: the last time we let a mob of Florida Republican operatives disrupt the political process, we got saddled with Pretzeldunce Chimpy McFlightsuit in the White House. If they shut down townhalls by shouting down every option but the status quo, US healthcare will never get any better. Here's a video of a GOP front group spokesperson likening Obama's healthcare plan to the Nazis' Final Solution. Logan Murphy wrote at Crooks and Liars about the "hostile calls and even death threats" being delivered made to SEIU union members, and this AP article talks about others being made to our elected officials. This is the sort of lunacy that Paul Krugman called "something new and ugly in "The Town Hall Mob:"

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they "oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care." Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don't know that Medicare is a government program probably aren't reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.)

WaPo's Steven Pearlstein notes that Republicans are "Propagating Falsehoods" to derail healthcare reform, but some in the media are actually beginning to call them out for it. For example, Newt Gingrich was on ABC's This Week defending Palin's "death panel" paranoia (see Crooks and Liars and ThinkProgress for the video and transcripts). George Stephanopoulos repeatedly noted that the "death panel" fears are "not in the bill," but Newt was undeterred by the facts. My favorite part is when Howard Dean schooled Newt on what actually happens in medical offices:

I've practiced for 10 years. My wife is still practicing. Never once did I have a Medicare bureaucrat tell me what I could or couldn't do for a patient, but all the time we have bureaucrats from the insurance companies calling up and saying, "We're not going to cover this, and we're not going to pay for that, and we're denying coverage of that."

Both PolitiFact and FactCheck have debunked the elderly-euthanasia claims, but that won't matter to the "deathers," who are probably busy fashioning ever-more-elaborate conspiracy theories as we speak--and selecting the victims of their next riot.

cheap laugh

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Today's cheap laugh is about the intestinal side effects of Alli, one of those shit-yourself-slender products, courtesy of Gin and Tacos (h/t: konopelli at My Left Wing). Here's a taste (no pun intended!) of how G&T parodies Alli's side effects :

Such effects may include oily spotting


Eating fats leads directly to "oily" "spotting." So, in essence you will be a car with no muffler. The fats will bypass your digestive tract entirely and dribble out your ass like a leaky faucet. It will be like Chinese Water Torture for your underwear. In fact we can guarantee that the fat will go from your fork to your boxers in less than 5 minutes.

loose stools

Remember taking solid craps? Yeah, forget about that. With Alli at your side and in your system, it's nothing but mudbutt from now on.

and more frequent stools that may be hard to control.

We want to emphasize that you won't just have to go more often. You literally won't be able to stop it. No pinching-it-for-a-minute-until-I-find-a-bathroom. Just pure, raw power. Your ass will be like Buckingham Fountain. We're trying to downplay this, but I think you get the picture: the first time you take Alli and have a tablespoon of alfredo sauce, the structural integrity of your o-ring is going to be tested and most likely compromised.

The GOP's grim reaper bullshit has a new spokesmodel: Sarah Palin. Facebook (h/t: Eric Kleefeld at TPM) is her preferred method for disseminating this particular mendacity:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Of course, there is no "death panel," which would be "downright evil" if it actually existed, and "level of productivity in society" shouldn't be in quotes either--unless she's quoting from another Republican bullshitter...because it's certainly not in the bill she's writing lying about.

update (8/8 @ 12:57pm):
Steve Benen is all over this at Washington Monthly, writing that Palin's lie "might the stupidest thing ever written about health care policy:"

Just two weeks after she implored journalists to "quit making things up," Palin has manufactured the idea of a "death panel" out of thin air. [...] What's more, for Palin to write such a statement for public review makes clear that she's either conspicuously unintelligent or she thinks her followers are idiots. Either she believes her own vile nonsense or she assumes her audience is foolish enough to believe patently ridiculous attacks.

Either way, Sarah Palin is a national embarrassment, and she's getting worse.

TV pitchman Billy Mays' death was partly due to's too bad he didn't have any DetoxiClean!


Ron Chusid at Liberal Values noted "the degree to which the conservative movement has become a delusional cult can be seen by the manner in which they fall for conspiracy theories claiming that Barack Obama is not an American citizen" and recommended Alex Koppelman's "Handy Dandy Guide to Refuting the Birthers" piece at Salon. In it, Koppelman debunks the following eight myths:

  • Obama wasn't born in the U.S.
  • Obama can't be president because his father was a British citizen
  • A Kenyan birth certificate for Obama, showing he was born in Mombasa, has been discovered
  • Obama's grandmother said he was born in Kenya
  • Hawaii allows parents to get birth certificates for their foreign-born children
  • Obama traveled to Pakistan using an Indonesian passport
  • Obama hasn't released his birth certificate
  • If Obama would just release his birth certificate, he could end all this

Koppelman wonders if Obama should give in and request that Hawaii officials release the original paper document:

Shouldn't he? Maybe not. He's already released a completely legal form of proof of his birthplace; to cave in to the Birthers' demands now would legitimize them.

I think that, by giving this faux (and Faux News) controversy all the attention it deserves--none--Obama has made a shrewd decision. The birthers are wasting time and energy creating forgeries and promoting conspiracy theories, and looking ever more ridiculous doing so. Meanwhile, Obama remains above the fray--a very presidential place to be.

For a lighter take on the birther mentality, check out this birthday card expose from Sean Kelly (h/t: HuffPo):


Erin at Unclutterer mentioned a genuinely useful piece from the Moonie Times: "Closing the book on a bad read." Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University who finishes one book out of every five to 10 he begins, is quoted as suggesting that "We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels:"

"If I'm reading a truly, actively bad book, I'll throw it out," he says. His wife will protest, but he points out that he's doing a public service: "If I don't throw it out, someone else might read it." If that person is one of the many committed to finishing a book once started, he's actually doing harm. [...] "We're also making markets more efficient," Mr. Cowen says. "If you can sample more books, you're giving more people a chance."

My fellow bibliophiles may find the concept of discarding books to be anathema, and Beatrice's Ron Hogan has more agreeable advice:

"Don't slog your way through books just so your reading list will conform with other people's ideas about what's hot or what's smart. Find the books that compel you from first page to last."

I could probably pare my shelves of a hundred or two volumes without losing anything especially valuable--from either a financial, literary, informational, or sentimental sense--so perhaps it's time to enrich the stacks at some of my local libraries.

This NYT piece on the muted feud between Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann alleged an unacknowledged "reconciliation" between the hosts that:

...showcased how a personal and commercial battle between two men could create real consequences for their parent corporations. A G.E. shareholders' meeting, for instance, was overrun by critics of MSNBC (and one of Mr. O'Reilly's producers) last April.

In a piece at Salon, Glenn Greenwald reacted strongly to the story's suggestion that "GE is using its control of NBC and MSNBC to ensure that there is no more reporting by Fox of its business activities in Iran or other embarrassing corporate activities, while News Corp. is ensuring that the lies spewed regularly by its top-rated commodity on Fox News are no longer reported by MSNBC:"

There are many reasons why our establishment press exists to do little other than serve the interests of the political and financial establishment and to mindlessly amplify government claims. The virtual disapparance of the line between large corporate interests and journalism ... is certainly one of the leading factors.

His update here notes the problems resulting from GE's CEO Jeffrey Immelt "essentially being blackmailed by News Corp.:"

...we will continue to report on GE's corporate activities unless you bar Keith Olbermann from criticizing Fox and O'Reilly. And now, Immelt has succumbed to those threats and ordered Olbermann to cease reporting on Fox. There is simply no doubt -- none -- that this happened. That is the reason that O'Reilly's name has not passed Olbermann's lips since June 1 -- because GE, petrified of further reporting by Fox of its corporate activities, has barred Olbermann from doing so.

Steve Benen at Washington Monthly has a clip from Olbermann's Monday night show, wherein KO announced his "Worst Person in the World" awards: the bronze went to NYT reporter Brian Stelter, the silver went to Bill O'Reilly, and the gold was awarded to Rupert Murdoch. That doesn't sound much like a true to me, although Olbermann didn't mention the controversy on his program last night.

In light of Greenwald's investigation, Jane Hamsher questions KO's credibility at FDL. David Sirota at OpenLeft decries "the corruption that is destroying journalism:"

Indeed, the fact that the Olbermann-O'Reilly personality feud was presented as the "big" story - and not the General Electric intervention - is a tacit confirmation that corporate-media symbiosis has become such an assumed part of journalism, that many journalists themselves don't see it as any kind of problem, much less news.

In a later post, Sirota was bluntly critical of any KO fans who might be tempted to overlook this story:

You may like Keith Olbermann (as I do), but if your love of Keith Olbermann makes you refuse to defend/demand respect for independent journalism, then you ought to consider how fucked up your value system really is. Loyalty to an individual over loyalty to principles is the definition of cultism. MSNBC partisans insisting that we should ignore General Electric's manipulation of the news out of deference to Keith Olbermann's supposedly infallible awesomeness are at best being intellectually dishonest, and at worst endorsing in precisely the kind of propagandistic pro-censorship sycophancy that is at the heart of this scandal.

poly panic

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At Practical Polyamory, Anita Wagner noted some backlash to that recent Newsweek piece that put polyamory "front and center" in the culture war. Robert George's "Gay Marriage, Democracy, and the Courts" in The Wall Street Journal was the site of the attack, wherein George wrote that the "showdown over the legal definition of marriage" is "a raucous battle, but democracy is working." I would observe that same-sex marriage was a fringe idea when Hawaii made the first big splash in 1993; last fall, it came close to winning voters' approval in California--and will likely be a nationwide reality sooner than we think.

Far from "invalidat[ing] traditional marriage laws" or "redefining marriage" as George claimed, the recognition of same-sex marriages (and poly ones, eventually) strongly parallels the Loving v. Virginia anti-miscegenation ruling. George falsely asserted that "The definition of marriage was not at stake in Loving:"

Everyone agreed that interracial marriages were marriages. Racists just wanted to ban them as part of the evil regime of white supremacy that the equal protection clause was designed to destroy. [emphasis added]

However, the Loving case actually demonstrates the lack of agreement on the validity on mixed-race marriages:

Mrs. Loving and her husband, Richard, were in bed in their modest house in Central Point in the early morning of July 11, 1958, five weeks after their wedding, when the county sheriff and two deputies, acting on an anonymous tip, burst into their bedroom and shined flashlights in their eyes. A threatening voice demanded, "Who is this woman you're sleeping with?"

Mrs. Loving answered, "I'm his wife."

Mr. Loving pointed to the couple's marriage certificate hung on the bedroom wall. The sheriff responded, "That's no good here."

(Source: New York Times)

George's focus on procreative sex (or, as he puts it, "bodily unity of the kind that sometimes generates new life") as the defining characteristic of marriage is irrelevant to his same-sex animus, as myriad childless couples--by whatever cause or choice--demonstrate. Andrew Sullivan asks pointedly, "if non-procreative sex can consummate a heterosexual marriage, then why not a homosexual one?"

Indeed, George's procreation argument actually undermines his position on polyamory: Wouldn't more people in loving relationships tend to increase the probability of children? He also seems worried that "this week's Newsweek reports more than 500,000 polyamorous households in the U.S." Since the 2010 Census will be tabulating the number of same-sex households, the data may well yield some numbers on poly households.

George opines that "it is the people, not the courts, who should debate and decide" marriage issues, but a minority's civil rights shouldn't depend upon majority approval. I would be happiest if marriage wins by referendum, and barely less glad to see it recognized legislatively--but judicial means have often been in the forefront of protecting civil rights in the face of prejudiced resistance, and should work equally well in support of marriage equality.

A far less substantive critique of polyamory is Colleen Raezler's piece from the right-wing website NewsBusters. Raezler suggests that the poly family described by Newsweek "sound[s] creepy," but there's nothing backing up her aversion. When Raezler brings up children, as was perhaps inevitable, her argument gets even shakier. She mentions a 2004 Heritage Foundation study, but didn't provide a link to it--probably because it does nothing to support her case. The study in question not only doesn't mention polyamory at all, but is completely irrelevant: it's actually about "protect[ing] mothers and children from domestic abuse and violent crime."

Even worse is Bill O'Reilly's "it's all over the place" polyamory panic over the web sitcom "Family." His continual references to ducks, goats, and turtles makes me suspect that more troubling issues than sexual harassment may be at work in the psyche of BillO. As for the other poly opponents such as Robert George, who can say?


Grayling, A.C. Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

A. C. Grayling's Meditations for the Humanist exercises not only his own talent for aphorisms, but also those of the many notable writers and thinkers whom he quoted and paraphrased. In just the first two dozen pages, Grayling cites--among others--Burke, Cervantes, Emerson, Euripides, Goethe, Mill, Montaigne, Plato, Rilke, Schopenhauer, Seneca, Shakespeare, Socrates, Sophocles, Voltaire, and Wilde. In the wrong hands such a breadth of sources could prove disorienting, but Grayling manages it well.

The author's antipathy toward theism is noted early on, when Grayling observes that "some will take offence at the inclusion of religion in this category [Foes and Fallacies]:"

If all espousers of religion behaved like Quakers or shared the views of Theraveda Buddhists, there would be little to quarrel with in religion save its supernaturalistic beliefs. But religion for the greater part has been, and still remains, an affliction in human affairs, and cannot be omitted from discussion of the considered life.

(p. ix, Introduction)

Freethinkers may most appreciate the middle of the book (pages 99 through 141) where Grayling covers Christianity, Sin, Repentance, Faith, Miracles, Prophecy, Virginity, Paganism, Blasphemy, and Obscenity. My favorite passages come from this section:

...religious morality is not merely irrelevant, it is anti-moral. The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease. The churches' obsessions over pre-marital sex and whether divorced couples can remarry in church appears contemptible in the light of this mountain of human suffering and need. (pp. 102-103)

This [the response to the AIDS epidemic in contemporary America] is a dispiriting tale, but although it is not a new one, it reminds us that of all the diseases that afflict humankind, religious moralities are among the worst. (p. 110) the name of our ignorance. As real knowledge and mastery advance, there is diminishing need to invoke supernatural agencies to explain the world. (pp. 121-122)

Blasphemy is a destructive idea, a dangerous, subjective catch-all used by superstitious people to deny others their liberty of thought. [...] ...blasphemy is a healthy phenomenon because it is a sign of free speech, and demonstrates the maturing of society from one level of belief and practice to another. (p. 137)

There is much thought-food here, to ruminate upon and to savor.

Those uncommonly generous birthers decided to give President Obama a spectacular present for his birthday--another forged Kenyan birth certificate! (They really shouldn't have...)

Some earlier forgeries are online here, and David Weigel at Washington Independent explains some of the forgery indicators in the current document, shows its suspicious resemblance to an Australian birth certificate,
and looks at the possibility of the bogus document doing "real, irreversible damage" to the birther movement.

At About's Urban Legends, David Emery highlights the "two fatal flaws of the birther movement:"

one, their blatantly inconsistent and prejudicial standards of evidence -- i.e., they're perfectly willing to accept (and circulate) unsourced photographs of an unvetted document as "proof" of foreign birth, while dismissing out of hand a state-issued, state-validated U.S. birth certificate; and two, what the foregoing reveals about their true motives -- i.e, despite their protestations, they have no interest whatsoever in truth, accuracy, or "protecting" the U.S. Constitution, but are bent, rather, on delegitimizing Obama's presidency at any cost and by any means possible. [emphasis added]

I couldn't have said it better.

Those claims about mandatory end-of-life counseling and euthanizing the elderly in America's Affordable Health Choices Act are--big surprise!--manufactured mendacities. Joe Conason identified conservative columnist Betsy McCaughey as the primary culprit behind the hoax, which has been thoroughly debunked by MediaMatters:

On July 16, Betsy McCaughey falsely claimed that the House health care reform bill would "absolutely require" end-of-life counseling for seniors "that will tell them how to end their life sooner." Since then, numerous media figures have echoed McCaughey's claim -- even after the falsehood was debunked and McCaughey herself backtracked.

McCaughey asserted that Section 1233 of the bill "compels seniors to submit to a counseling session every five years ... about alternatives for end-of-life care," and will "pressure the elderly to end their lives prematurely." As noted by MediaMatters, the AARP called the rumors "rife with gross -- and even cruel - distortions," and PolitiFact stated that "McCaughey isn't just wrong, she's spreading a ridiculous falsehood." The usual suspects in the conservative corporate media had no qualms about spreading ridiculous falsehoods, as long as they were political useful; Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, Faux News, and the Moonie Times all repeated McCaughey's lies.

BAGnewsnotes posted this incredible photo from a demonstration on the 40th day after the assassination of Iranian protester Neda Agha Soltan:


This BBC interview with Neda's mother (h/t: David Neiwert at Crooks and Liars) is both wrenching and hopeful:

I want you, on my behalf, to thank everyone around the world, Iranians and non Iranians, people from every country and culture, people who in their own way, their own tradition, have mourned my child... everyone who lit a candle for her - every musician, who wrote songs for her, who wrote poems about her... you know, Neda loved the arts and music. I want to thank all of them.

I want to thank politicians and leaders, from every country, at all levels, who remembered my child.

Her death has been so painful - words can never describe my true feelings. But knowing that the world cried for her... that has comforted me.

I am proud of her. The world sees her as a symbol, and that makes me happy.

Quote of the Day:

"You can blow out a candle But you can't blow out a fire. Once the flames begin to catch, The wind will blow it higher"

(Peter Gabriel, "Biko")

Jessica Bennett's Newsweek article "Only You. And You. And You." on polyamory (h/t: Polyamory in the News) observes that the burgeoning poly movement is "enough to make any monogamist's head spin. But the traditionalists had better get used to it." The polyamory community has chosen their name wisely: using polyamory instead of polysexuality puts the emphasis where it belongs--on love rather than on sex--although opponents will strive to misinterpret even that.

The article is very even-handed for a mainstream media outlet, and its conclusion will likely prompt cries of anguish throughout family-values land:

...perhaps the practice [of polyamory] is more natural than we think: a response to the challenges of monogamous relationships, whose shortcomings--in a culture where divorce has become a commonplace--are clear. Everyone in a relationship wrestles at some point with an eternal question: can one person really satisfy every need? Polyamorists think the answer is obvious--and that it's only a matter of time before the monogamous world sees there's more than one way to live and love.

Over at FDL, masaccio wrote that "It's Time for the Rich to Pay Back Those Tax Loans:"

Everyone knows that tax cuts in times of deficits are just loans. Eventually they have to be paid back. We can do it with tax hikes, or by running surpluses, or by cutting expenditures, but they have to be paid. Otherwise, we run up our interest expense, and crowd out private borrowers. For years, the US has been running huge deficits (except for a year under Clinton), all the while cutting taxes for the rich.

The rationale for those tax cuts was that rich people would use that money for investment in productive enterprise, directing it as only they with all their personal brilliance and their genius advisors can do. Then there would be all these new jobs in these new industries, ordinary people would have income and there would be capital gains and more taxes paid, so the tax cuts would pay for themselves. This absurd theory had the obvious outcome: staggering increases in the national debt.

The borrow-and-waste Republicans are too busy screaming about the small fraction (about 10%) of this year's deficit that can actually be laid at Obama's feet--they'll never take responsibility for Bush's 90%, or the huge debt that was run up by Reagan/Bush.

This Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll asked a question that is controversial in certain circles:

"Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America or not?"

The demographics of the Birthers are not surprising: they are southern, (23% no/30% not sure) and Republican, (28% no/30% not sure), and/or over 60 (17% no/14% not sure). Washington Monthly's Steve Benen also noted the geographic disparity:

I was especially surprised by the regional breakdowns. In the Northeast, West, and Midwest, the overwhelming majorities realize the president is a native-born American. But notice the South -- only 47% got it right and 30% are unsure.

Outside the South, this madness is gaining very little traction, and remains a fringe conspiracy theory. Within the South, it's practically mainstream.

The Honolulu Advertiser reported on Tuesday that "Hawai'i's Health Department confirmed yesterday that it has President Obama's original Aug. 4, 1961, birth certificate in storage," but this will likely have no effect on the Birthers. Ron Chusid notes at Liberal Values:

It is doubtful that this will convince those who believe Obama is not an American citizen. Conspiracy theorists can always come up with a new argument since they are not bound by reality and they typically consider any source of contrary information to be part of the conspiracy.

Their minds are made up...

update (6/29/2010 @ 2:27pm):
Kos has uncovered statistical anomalies in the data provided by Research 2000 (see here and here) and writes "We were defrauded by Research 2000, and while we don't know if some or all of the data was fabricated or manipulated beyond recognition, we know we can't trust it."

Paul (Hackers & Painters) Graham has a new essay on how workplace meetings affect various groups of people. "One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they're on a different type of schedule from other people," writes Graham:

There are two types of schedule, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.

Graham notes that "there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers:"

They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started. When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. [...]

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there's sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.

To answer the "why can't you geeks just multi-task like everyone else?" question, I'll refer to Charles J. Abaté's article "You Say Multitasking Like It's a Good Thing" from The NEA Higher Education Journal. Abaté deflates three myths of multitasking, the first of which is the claim that multitasking is a time-saving strategy. He notes that, according to the Journal of Experimental Psychology experiments published as "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" (Rubinstein, et al.), "people who multitask actually prove more inefficient than people who focus on one task at a time" because:

...the interruption of one task requires us to remember where we stopped, so that when we return to this task we can resume the activity. The same is true, of course, for the alternate task(s). [...] ...the time lost while the brain continually reorients itself during the stop-and-go process increases with the complexity and relative unfamiliarity of the tasks, and takes longer when the switching period is extended over a longer time period. In short, multitasking proves less efficient than performing the same tasks one at a time.

As noted in the Rubinstein study, "Task alternation yielded switching-time costs that increased with rule complexity... [...] It appears that rule activation takes more time for switching from familiar to unfamiliar tasks..." In other words, novel and complex tasks suffer more from being part of a multitasking workload--exactly the point that Graham makes in his essay. Attempting to repeatedly switch focus onto and away from a demanding task--by scheduling meetings during the time we're trying to write code, for example--carries a performance penalty.

In trying to do too much, we are actually getting less done.

Christopher Hitchens has the best commentary on the Gates incident in "A Man's Home Is His Constitutional Castle," observing that "I can easily see how a black neighbor could have called the police when seeing professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. trying to push open the front door of his own house...[a]nd I can also see how long it might take the misunderstanding to dawn on both parties." That recognition prompts Hitchens' central point--which cannot be overemphasized--that "whatever [Gates] said to the cop was in the privacy of his own home:"

It is monstrous in the extreme that he should in that home be handcuffed, and then taken downtown, after it had been plainly established that he was indeed the householder. [...] It is the U.S. Constitution, and not some competitive agglomeration of communities or constituencies, that makes a citizen the sovereign of his own home and privacy. There is absolutely no legal requirement to be polite in the defense of this right.

Hitchens concludes: "Professor Gates should have taken his stand on the Bill of Rights and not on his epidermis or that of the arresting officer, and, if he didn't have the presence of mind to do so, that needn't inhibit the rest of us."

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