February 2015 Archives

Mosul manuscripts

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Fiscal Times reports on rare books and manuscripts being burned in Mosul:

While the world was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, the people of Mosul were watching a different show. They were horrified to see ISIS members burn the Mosul public library. Among the many thousands of books it housed, more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts were burned.

Modern Iraq has, of course, seen its share of brutality:

During the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the library was looted and destroyed by mobs. However, the people living nearby managed to save most of its collections and rich families bought back the stolen books and they were returned to the library... [...]

Iraq, the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of agriculture and writing and the home of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Arab civilizations had never witnessed such an assault on its rich cultural heritage since the Mongol era in the Middle Ages.

Christian Science Monitor notes that "oppressive regimes have historically targeted libraries:"

According to UNESCO, the destruction of libraries and books in Mosul could very well be "one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history."

In answering the question "Why do terrorists target books?" CSM provides a depressing answer:

"Burning books is an attack on the culture, knowledge and memory, as we witnessed in Timbuktu recently," Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement Tuesday, referring to the destruction by al Qaeda-allied militants of libraries in Mali. "It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people," she said.

Massimo Pigliucci comments on Michael Shermer'smoral Flynn effect, remarking that "The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning" and asking, "Could it be that a liberal arts education, rather than specifically a scientific one, is more relevant, or at the least one of the crucial factors at play?" He explains the data

"among 20,000 young adults there was a positive correlation between IQ and liberalism. Data from the General Social Survey clarified the link in noting that the correlation involves classical liberalism of the Enlightenment kind, in which smarter people were less likely to agree that the government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor."

this way:

Ah yes, smarter people lean libertarian! But of course this is very likely an artifact of the fact that the survey in question was conducted in the United States, where Ayn Rand's novels are still, bafflingly, best sellers among the young. Do the same survey in Sweden, say, and you'll likely get that intelligent people favor social democracies. Heck, do it in China and I'm sure the smartest will favor a hybrid capitalist/autocratic system. And so on.

Pigliucci then delivers the coup de grace:

Michael concludes his essay by saying that "it's hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us." It is hard because we don't actually have the data to back up that claim. Shermer has quickly moved from the (actual) IQ Flynn effect to the (hypothetical) "moral Flynn effect," which has not been measured. In other words, we have seamlessly moved from (debatable) science to pure speculation.

In discussing social media and mourning, Slate uses Oliver Sacks' announcement of his own impending demise as an example of how "Facebook's culture of the like is actively making it harder to express negative thoughts and feelings." The suggestion is made that "the tyranny of the "like" button...may be changing the way we compose sad posts in the first place:"

Here, as in the case of Sacks' somber announcement, the sad is shareable only on the condition that it mask part of itself. Facebook allows us to be public about our sorrows, but to be heard they must sound some joyous note.

Research suggests that social media is uncommonly good at making us miserable. The irony may be that Facebook itself is also making us more reluctant to voice that misery.

Alfred McCoy's piece on the real American exceptionalism quotes proto-Neocon Carl Schmitt: "The sovereign is he who decides on the exception," and continues:

Washington is now well into the second decade of an endless War on Terror that seems the sum of its exceptions to international law: endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy. Yet these many American exceptions are just surface manifestations of the ever-expanding clandestine dimension of the American state. Created at the cost of more than a trillion dollars since 9/11, the purpose of this vast apparatus is to control a covert domain that is fast becoming the main arena for geopolitical contestation in the twenty-first century.

McCoy observes that "Until the creation of the CIA in 1947, the United States had been an innocent abroad in the world of intelligence:"

Although the CIA's authority for assassination, covert intervention, surveillance, and torture was curtailed at the close of the Cold War, the terror attacks of September 2001 sparked an unprecedented expansion in the scale of the intelligence community and a corresponding resurgence in executive exceptions.

Particularly notable are Bush's infamous "unitary executive," his oh-so-presidential declaration that "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass." [quoted in Clarke, Richard. Against All Enemies, p. 24], and his creation of "a supranational gulag of eight agency black sites from Thailand to Poland:"

Can there be any question that, in the decades to come, Washington will continue to violate national sovereignty through old-style covert as well as open interventions, even as it insists on rejecting any international conventions that restrain its use of aerospace or cyberspace for unchecked force projection, anywhere, anytime? Extant laws or conventions that in any way check this power will be violated when the sovereign so decides. These are now the unwritten rules of the road for our planet. They represent the real American exceptionalism.

Bruce Schneier's paper "Surreptitiously Weakening Cryptographic Systems" (PDF) observes that "It is somewhat obvious, but still worthwhile, to say that we need better metrics and design principles for usability of cryptographic tools," and makes "the following pragmatic suggestions:"

First, vendors should make their encryption code public, including the specifications of protocols. This will allow others to examine the code for vulnerabilities. While it is true we won't know for sure if the code we're seeing is the code that's actually used in the application, it nevertheless forces saboteurs to surreptitiously substitute implementations. This raises the bar and forces the owner of the system to outright lie about what implementation is being used. All this increases the number of people required for the sabotage conspiracy to work. The community should target creating independent compatible versions of cryptographic systems. This helps check that any individual one is operating properly.

This excerpt from Robert Scheer's new book They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collection Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy discusses some practical aspects of our eroding privacy, noting that "with the sudden dominance of the Internet--which has come upon us worldwide and with more crushing, and yes, liberating consequences--we have been overwhelmed with the illusion that surveillance and freedom are compatible:"

That is because the culture of the Internet, driven by its core economic model, has succeeded in equating privacy with anonymity. In reality, that is not the case. Privacy is a matter of individual choice as to what to reveal about one's behavior to others, whereas anonymity, in the modern commercialized celebrity-driven world, is assumed to represent a harsh societal dismissal of individual worth.

That is how the sociology of social networks is working against us. "Unfortunately, with the sudden dominance of the Internet," he writes, "we have been overwhelmed with the illusion that surveillance and freedom are compatible:"

That is because the culture of the Internet, driven by its core economic model, has succeeded in equating privacy with anonymity. In reality, that is not the case. Privacy is a matter of individual choice as to what to reveal about one's behavior to others, whereas anonymity, in the modern commercialized celebrity-driven world, is assumed to represent a harsh societal dismissal of individual worth.

This fear drives many to act against their own privacy interests. "The public's willingness to voluntarily--nay, enthusiastically--sacrifice privacy is fueled by a very modern fear of being ignored in a culture where the most observed are the most valued:"

Privacy was traded for the convenience of shopping. The trade-off generally seemed harmless as long as it remained in the commercial sector. There was the presumption that the relationship with a particular search engine or social networking site could be ended whenever the intrusive reach bothered a consumer.

However, that all-too-convenient assumption was rudely shattered with the leaks from Snowden. They revealed the previously unknown government agency vacuuming up and analyzing data privately collected by corporations like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. [...] The result is that our privacy and hence our freedom has been plundered with abandon. Our most private moments are now captured in exquisite detail by a newly emboldened surveillance state--resulting in a shutout of democracy.

Thom Hartmann explains why the Right is obsessed with brainwashing your kids, and observes that "it's our history of progressive change that makes Conservatives hate accurate depictions of our past:"

Just think about Social Security, The New Deal, freeing the slaves, or child labor laws... all represent great turning points in our nation that progressives made possible. The fact is, our entire history - from our revolution to healthcare reform - is filled with progressive accomplishments, and it's hard to sell the Conservative brand to people who know that history.

Despite that reality, conservatives' preferred version of history looks like this:

("Ronald Reagan Riding a Velociraptor")

Republicans' "spreading attack on public education is far more sinister," Hartmann writes, because getting away with laws like the Patriot Act, or with claims that there isn't a right to privacy in the Constitution, can only succeed via ignorance. His example here is worth following at length:

In his dissent in a 2003 Texas sodomy case, Thomas wrote, "just like Justice Stewart, I 'can find [neither in the Bill of Rights nor any other part of the Constitution a] general right of privacy,' or as the Court terms it today, the 'liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.'" [...]

Privacy, in short, was a word that wasn't generally used in political discourse... [...] Instead, the word of the day was "security," and in many ways it meant what we today mean when we say "privacy." Consider, for example, the Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...."

Similarly, "liberty" was also understood, in one of its dimensions, to mean something close to what today we'd call "privacy." The Fifth Amendment talks about how "No person shall be... deprived of life, liberty, or property..." and the Fourteenth Amendment adds that "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property...."

And, of course, the Declaration of Independence itself proclaims that all "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Oliver Sacks

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Oliver Sacks announced that he has terminal cancer, remarking that "I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying:"

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

Melancholy thought it is, his eloquence provides my Quote of the Day:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

NCRM wonders, is Vladimir Putin worth $200 billion?

Bill Browder is the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund and asset management firm with offices in the UK and Russia. He formerly was Russia's largest foreign investor - and he formerly supported President Vladimir Putin.

But now he says Pres. Putin is the richest man in the world, with a net worth of $200 billion.

On a Saturday CNN show, Browder told Fareed Zakaria that "the first eight or 10 years of Putin's reign over Russia, it was about stealing as much money as he could:"

And some people, including myself, believe that he's the richest man in the world, or one of the richest men in the world, with hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth that was stolen from Russia.

The Right's love affair with Putin will likely increase along with his bottom line--after all, isn't that their pre-eminent sign of moral worth?

In an essay adapted from his book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, Michael Shermer asks, are we becoming morally smarter? He explains the Flynn effect of increasing IQs over time, with a caveat that "results in areas such as information, arithmetic, and vocabulary have nudged only slightly upward over the past half-century when test taking became ubiquitous:"

Instead, the increases have occurred almost exclusively in the two subtests that most require abstract reasoning (and are least sensitive to education and practice): similarities and matrices.

The section called similarities asks questions such as "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?" If you answer, "Both are mammals," says Flynn, you are thinking like a scientist in classifying organisms by type-an abstraction. If you said, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits," you are thinking concretely, imagining a tangible use for a dog. Matrices are abstract figures that require determining a pattern and then deducing the missing piece...

Flynn and his colleague William Dickens suggest that the increases in reasoning abilities may have started centuries ago with the industrial revolution, which required certain cognitive abilities not needed in a predominantly agricultural society. [...] In 1900, Flynn says, only 3 percent of Americans had cognitively demanding jobs-professional occupations in management, medicine, the law, and the like. That figure climbed to 35 percent by 2000 and continues ever upward.

Our improved ability to reason abstractly may also be the result of the spread of scientific thinking-reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism. Thinking like a scientist means employing all our faculties to overcome our emotional, subjective, and instinctual brains to better understand the true nature of not only the physical and biological worlds, but the social world (politics and economics) and the moral world (abstracting how other people should be treated) as well.

He then posits that "Abstract reasoning and scientific thinking are the crucial cognitive skills at the foundation of all morality:"

Today, the moral arc of the universe may be bending in the right direction, in part because of something like a "moral Flynn effect," a term coined by the psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. [...]

It's hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us. Their attitudes about race and gender sure seem morally moronic to us today, but does that mean in another half century our descendants will look at us with equal moral dumbfoundedness? Surely we've learned some things that will carry civilization forward and that are grounded in relatively permanent principles, such as equal rights for everyone. I believe we have.

He concludes on the hopeful note that "We can bend that moral arc even more."

WEIRD thinking

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H/t to Crooks and Liars for mentioning a new University of Virginia study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, about holistic-vs-analytical thinking:

Holistic thought more often uses intention and the perception of whole objects or situations, rather than breaking them down to their parts - such as having a general feeling about a situation involving intuition or tact.

Analytic thinking styles tend to look at the parts of a situation, and how they work together toward the whole. This involves "slicing up the world and analyzing objects individually, divorced from context," Talhelm said.

Studies show that analytical thinkers predominate in Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies (termed "WEIRD" societies in 2010 by a team of cultural psychologists at the University of British Columbia). But they make up only about 15 percent of the world's population.

So in a WEIRD society, such as the United States, analytically thinking liberals are "extreme Americans," Talhelm said, in the sense that they are particularly disinclined to think in the style of a vast majority of the rest of the world, including their holistic-thinking conservative countrymen.

There is value in both ways of thinking, Talhelm said. Intuitive thinking likely is the "default" style most people are born with, while analytical thinking generally must be learned, usually through training, such as in Western-style school systems.

The political implications are intriguing:

When Talhelm and his colleagues matched thought styles with political leanings of participants, they found that the liberals tended to be analytic thinkers and the conservatives holistic thinkers.

The study "Liberals Think More Analytically (More 'WEIRD') Than Conservatives" is succinct:

In five studies with more than 5,000 participants, we found that liberals think more analytically (an element of WEIRD thought) than moderates and conservatives [and that] liberals and conservatives in the same country think as if they were from different cultures. Studies 4 to 5 show that briefly training people to think analytically causes them to form more liberal opinions, whereas training them to think holistically causes shifts to more conservative opinions.

Salon's Elias Esquith notes with dismay that "years of failure have not loosened austerity's grip on much of the West; the appeal of the economic philosophy to its proponents seems to operate beyond the level of simple reason." Pointing out that "austerity is complete horseshit," Esquith discusses Mark Blyth's book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea and calls it "necessary reading:"

Simultaneously functioning as an economics explainer, a merciless polemic, and a penetrating history, Blyth's book offers a clear insight into austerity's lineage, its theories, its champions and its failures.

In an interview, Blyth calls the financial bailout "a class-specific put option:"

The people at the top get their assets bailed; the government says, Oh my God, look at all that spending! It's out of control! We need to cut policemen and fire brigades and healthcare and various public services.

But what does one have to do with the other? Well, the people at the top who get their assets bailed, you're not going to tax them, as Obama just found out with his college proposal. So what do you have to do? You have to take it from those who have very little already. [...] That's total bullshit.

Likewise, Blyth pegs the ubiquitous "saddling our grandchildren with debt" line as the "complete horse shit!" that it is.

"done talking"

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Tiffany Willis is done talking to most of her conservative friends and neighbors, frustratedly explaining that "Being a Southern girl, I have more than my share of right-wing friends, neighbors, and family members -- and some of you have in recent years crossed the line into nut-jobbery:"

I'm disappointed and disturbed to see intelligent and/or educated people who are willfully ignorant. But while it does change my opinion about you on some level, more than anything I'm embarrassed for you. It hurts me to see you post conspiracy theories on your Facebook timeline, only to have them debunked with a quick Snopes link. It hurts me to see you expressing unapologetic and blatant racism and ignorance. It absolutely tortures me to see you being on the wrong side of history on so many issues.

Although I'll always love you guys, I have had to quit -- for my own sanity and for the sake of our relationships -- attempting to engage in intelligent conversation about politics and social issues with most of you.

From calling undocumented immigrants "illegals" and "aliens," supporting revisionist history, and lying about "freedom of religion" to caring more about guns than children's lives, supporting voter suppression and gerrymandering, and embodying racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, their worst behavior might well be why they "love war, death, and destruction:"

Because 'Murica. Because you think this somehow makes us superior. We may be militarily superior, but we are ethically inferior.

Even when confronted with the lies, now confirmed officially, that got us into the Iraq war, you don't care. You like for America to be the world's largest terrorist organization and the world's most formidable bully.

She thanks those conservatives who are capable of "disagreeing with me without belittling my very existence," but one wonders how small a proportion that is.

BuzzFeed's interview with Obama is notable for a number of seemingly candid exchanges.

BuzzFeed News: If I can move on to the Affordable Care Act. We reported yesterday that the office supply store Staples is -- I'm sure this is an issue you've heard about before -- is telling its workers that it will fire them if they work more than 25 hours a week. A manager had told a worker we talked to that "Obama's responsible for this policy," and they're putting these notices on the wall of their break room saying that. I wonder what you'd say to the CEO of Staples, Ronald Sargent, about that policy?

Obama's response is great:

I haven't looked at Staples stock lately or what the compensation of the CEO is, but I suspect that they could well afford to treat their workers favorably and give them some basic financial security, and if they can't, then they should be willing to allow those workers to get the Affordable Care Act without cutting wages. [...] ...but when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers' wages, shame on them.

Moving on to marriage, this exchange is even better:

BuzzFeed News: David Axelrod wrote in his book that you hated and weren't good at, he said, "bullshitting" about your position on marriage in '08. Why did you feel you had to do it?

Obama: Well, you know, I think David is mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue. I always felt that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy the same rights, legally, as anybody else, and so it was frustrating to me not to, I think, be able to square that with what were a whole bunch of religious sensitivities out there. So my thinking at the time was that civil unions -- which I always supported -- was a sufficient way of squaring the circle. That, OK, we won't call it "marriage," we'll call it "civil unions," same-sex couples will have the same rights as anybody else, but the word "marriage" with its religious connotations historically would be preserved for marriages between men and women. Where my evolution took place was not in my attitude toward same-sex couples, it was in understanding the pain and the sense of stigma that was being placed on same-sex couples who are friends of mine, where they'd say, "You know what, if you're not calling it marriage, it doesn't feel like the same thing. Even if you gave me the same rights, the fact that I'm being treated differently or the love that we feel is somehow segmented off, that hurts." It was because of those conversations that I ended up shifting positions, that civil unions, in fact, were not sufficient rather than marriage. But I think the notion that somehow I was always in favor of marriage per se isn't quite accurate. What I was in favor of is making sure that...

BuzzFeed News: Despite that old questionnaire? [The one I mentioned here.]

Obama: Well, yeah. The old questionnaire, you know, is an example of struggling with what was a real issue at the time, which is how do you make sure that people's rights are enjoyed and these religious sensitivities were taken into account? You know, these are the kinds of things you learn as you... move forward in public life: that sometimes you can't split the difference. That sometimes you just have to be very clear that this is what's right. And what I'm very proud of is to see how rapidly the country has shifted and maybe the small part that I've played, but certainly my Justice Department and others have played, in this administration in getting to where we need to be.

Salon calls Obama's remarks dubious,

Fending off charges of crass calculation, Obama framed his erstwhile position as a good-faith effort to marry his commitment to gay equality with a respect for religiously-based opposition to same-sex nuptials.

and remarks that, "The bullshitting, it seems, continues:"

Obama could acknowledge that for years, he concealed his true views on marriage equality in an effort to skirt political controversy. That would represent a concession to a serious moral failure, but it would have to be weighed against Obama's laudable legacy as the president who signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; the commander in chief who repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell; the first sitting president to back marriage equality; and the first chief executive to ban federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Well, he's still a politician...

vax exemptions

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TPM's Catherine Thompson examines religious exemptions from vaccinations, noting that they persist "despite research showing that virtually no organized religion declares an opposition to vaccinations:"

Religious waivers have been widely exploited by vaccine skeptics throughout the U.S. because applicants aren't actually required to show evidence of faith-based objections to vaccinating their children. Anti-vaccine groups even go as far as to teach parents how to game the religious exemptions.

Vaccine waivers have come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, as a major measles outbreak that began in California's Disneyland park spread to 17 states. California is among 20 states that have laws that go beyond religious exemptions and allow parents to cite a "personal belief" or philosophical objection to vaccines.

"State officials must trust that the parent is acting on a sincere or truly held belief," and this varies greatly across the country:

California led the pack in total non-medical exemptions for the 2013-2014 school year with a whopping 17,253 waivers for kindergartners, followed by Michigan and Texas with over 6,000 and 5,000 waivers, respectively. Florida, which grants only religious exemptions, still reported nearly 4,000 waivers for the grade.

Just two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, restrict vaccination exemptions to parents who have a medical reason for not vaccinating their children. Last week, West Virginia legislators stripped language from a bill that would have granted a religious exemption.

States beyond California are now rushing to curtail personal belief exemptions in light of the latest measles outbreak, too. But even if they do, it's clear that vaccine skeptics will still have a workaround to obtain a waiver.

Should Confederate veterans be honored as veterans? That's the question posed by Mike LaBossiere, prompted by an "interesting controversy" in Florida:

Three Confederate veterans, who fought against the United States of America, have been nominated for admission to Florida's Veterans' Hall of Fame. The purpose of the hall is to honor "those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida." [...]

According to Mike Prendergast, the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the three nominees in question do not qualify because the applications to the hall did not indicate that the men served in the armed forces of the United States of America.

The writer points out that "Fighting in defense of slavery and against the lawful government of the United States would seem to be morally problematic in regards to the veteran part of the honor," but also suggests a workaround:

It could also be argued that since the states that made up the Confederacy joined the United States, the veterans of the Confederacy would, as citizens, become United States' veterans. Of course, the same logic would seem to apply to parts of the United States that were assimilated from other nations, such as Mexico, the lands of the Iroquois, and the lands of Apache and so on. As such, perhaps Sitting Bull would qualify as a veteran under this sort of reasoning.

Confederate soldiers should be derided as traitors--just like late-eighteenth-century Loyalists shouldn't be honored as Revolutionary War heroes.

Bringing the treason-in-defense-of-slavery issue up to the present day, Rmuse declares that Republicans are traitors:

It is likely that throughout America's short history, except for the traitorous Confederacy, no group of individuals has exhibited the characteristic betrayal of a traitor more than conservatives in general, and Republicans in particular. What makes their actions all the more despicable is that their traitorous actions are founded on racial animus for one man; and allegiance to foreigners [TransCanada, by way of the Keystone XL project] and one tiny segment of the population [the 1%, of course]. [...]

The constitutional betrayal [from 2011's threatened debt default] garnered America's first credit downgrade in history and a ploy they came precariously close to repeating in 2013 when they shut down the government by betraying their Constitutional mandate to legislate for the "people's general welfare;" all over their opposition to Americans having access to affordable healthcare. It was a betrayal of their fellow citizens, and their oath to uphold the Constitution that tasks them to pass legislation, not shut down the government or threaten a credit default. Over the past six years, Republicans have shown that their allegiance to the Constitution is as non-existent as their allegiance to this country or their fellow citizens.

When partisanship is elevated over country, what else could be expected?

killers for Christ

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In writing about killers for Christ, Raw Story's David Ferguson mentions how easily Obama "raised hackles on the Christian right this week" with a rather simple observation:

"Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," said the president. "Slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Ferguson also notes that "Conservatives greeted this assertion with their usual unflappable calm and equanimity, which is to say, of course, that they pretty much all started screaming and soiling themselves at once." From the Fourth Crusade to the KKK, from the Holocaust to anti-choice violence, the author reminds us that "those are just a few examples, kids:"

So, the next time someone tries to tell you that Islam produces the only violent religious extremists of the world, ask them how Dr. Tiller's widow probably feels about that, or the survivors of Eric Rudolph's murderous rampages. Praise Jesus and pass the ammunition!

Meanwhile, wingnuts ignore both historical and contemporary evidence and claim that the number of Christian victims would be zero. Here's Fox's Eric Bolling asserting that no non-Muslims have ever killed in the name of their religion:

"Reports say radical Muslim jihadists killed thousands of people in the past few months alone...and yet when you take Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, whatever, their combined killings in the name of religion -- well that number would be zero."

TPM writes that "It's not clear whether Bolling was referring to the total number of people killed in the name of religions other than Islam in the past few months or in general:"

But even if Bolling was referring to that narrower time frame, there was at least one planned attack in the United States with reported ties to Christianity that he overlooked.

Law enforcement officials believed that Texas resident Larry McQuilliams, who was gunned down by police in November while trying to burn down a Mexican consulate, was planning a broader attack against churches and government buildings. Investigators searching McQuilliams' van found a copy of the 1990 book "Vigilantes of Christendom," which is linked to a Christian sect called the Phineas Priesthood that holds racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.


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John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, asks why are so many Americans in prison?

Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be. If he's right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.

Here are some passages form the interview:

OK. So if it's not the drug war, and it's not harsh sentencing laws, what is it? What do you think caused the prison boom?

You need to break the question into two periods. Because there's a time between 1975 and 1991 when you see this dramatic rise in crime, and the prison population went up as well. And then there's a more interesting period, between 1991 and 2010, when crime steadily declined, yet prison populations kept going up. [...]

Why would that be?

What appears to happen during this time--the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that's available--is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the '90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. [...] the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

...the real growth in the prison population comes from county-level district attorneys sending violent people to prison. [...] What makes it very hard is that the person we really need to target now--whose behavior we need to regulate--is the district attorney, and the district attorney is a very politically independent figure. He's directly elected, and he's directly elected at the county level. So there's no big centralized fix.

In essence, our political system has also shackled those of us outside the prison walls, preventing us from easily solving the problem.

fear of science

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Abdul El-Sayed (professor of epidemiology at Columbia) is concerned about America's deadly fear of science:

Since 2000, measles cases in the US have been attributed largely to travelers bringing the disease into the country. In recent years, however, measles has become increasingly common, with the number of cases climbing above 150 in 2013, and then jumping to 644 last year - the most cases recorded in a single year since the late 1990s. This year already appears likely to top that record.

The upsurge in cases can be explained largely by the increase in the number of unvaccinated children. Americans are learning the hard way that scientifically baseless skepticism about the safety of vaccines is extremely dangerous.

Well, some of us are learning; others appear to be ineducable:

Even after panicked claims that vaccines cause visible conditions like autism were proved to be nonsense, they remain more compelling than the threat of a disease that people have never seen or do not remember. [...] Parents argue that vaccination, like all other decisions about how to raise and care for their children, should be their choice. But, when it comes to vaccination, one family's poor judgment can mean sickness or even death for another's.

This conclusion is my Quote of the Day:

The scientific method is perhaps the greatest arbiter of truth humanity has ever devised. We must trust in it to help make sense of an uncertain world, and to help us determine how best to nourish and protect our children and ourselves. When parents are allowed - or, worse, encouraged - to choose fear over science, we all pay the price.

blaming bias

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Blaming the liberal media is a perilous tactic, explains National Journal. Rand Paul's story of "normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines" is a prime example. He later tweeted a selfie and crowed: "Today I am getting my booster vaccine. Wonder how the liberal media will misreport this?" The NJ responded by beating this old warhorse:

One recent study found that, since 2004, far more employees at newspapers and in print media donated to liberal candidates than to conservative candidates.

How about the donations made by corporations? How about their lobbyists? Employees aren't represented on K Street, making the number of small donors much less important compared to the larger ones. Still, NJ complains that cries of bias "can be an effective strategy:"

But it's one that only works for so long. Blame the media once or twice and you're a righteous crusader. More than that, and you start looking like the Boy Who Cried Media Bias.

They've been doing it since the Nixon era, and it still appears to be working.

whine and ruses

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TNR calls Rand Paul very dangerous in 2016, particularly on the economic front. His 'Audit the Fed' in particular is "a terrible idea:"

First, the Fed already is extensively audited by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and even private sector auditors like Deloitte. Each week, the central bank also releases its balance sheet and even has an interactive guide of its balance sheet available for further explanation.

However, the GAO and OIG audits exclude a few parts of the Fed's policymaking, including transactions by the Federal Open Market Committee. Paul's bill removes those exclusions and requires "recommendations for legislative or administrative action" from the Comptroller General. Sounds innocuous, right? It's not. That would significantly damage the Fed's independence, which exists so that politicians cannot influence the central bank for their own political purposes. In other words, "Audit the Fed" would lead legislators to interfere with monetary policy matters and put the entire economy at risk.

Paul's gold-fueled inflation hysteria is even more "profoundly misguided""

In terms of current policy, goldbugs, as they are often called, think the Fed's recent decisions--its zero interest rate policy and bond-buying program--will cause skyrocketing inflation and reduce what you can buy with dollars. Those warnings look more foolish by the day. Inflation over the past year was just 0.7 percent, 1.3 percent if you remove volatile food and energy prices. Inflation expectations for the next 10 years are also very low. You would think that these low inflation rates would convince Paul and his followers to rethink their economic theory [but] Paul's economic ignorance doesn't end there. [...]

As long as he's in the Senate, that doesn't really matter. He can spout his nonsense without having any effect on the Federal Reserve. But if he became president, he would be responsible for choosing the next Fed Chair when Janet Yellen's term expires in 2018 and for nominating board members to the FOMC. That doesn't give Paul unlimited power, since the Senate would still have to confirm his nominees. But as president, Paul would be the leader of the GOP, with an even greater ability to dictate its position on monetary policy and convince Republican senators to support his nominees.

At least on the economy, that makes Rand Paul by far the most dangerous candidate in the 2016 field.

Bad economics is, of course, endemic on the Right. In an interview with George Stephanopolous, Ted Cruz explains that trickle-down economics doesn't work (only 35 years too late!) by pointing out that "the economy is doing great ...for the wealthy:"

The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogues, earn a higher share of our income than any year since 1928. [...] But I'll tell you, hard working men and women across America are hurting.

Ben Carson thinks that the 47% are lazy or something (apparently, the phrase 'working poor' hasn't made its way to his ears):

For those who are not poor, there is a four letter work that works extremely well, it's called w-o-r-k, work. [...] The government is not there to give away everything and to take care of people.

Sounds like he could use a refresher course on the source of the phrases 'domestic tranquility,' 'common defense,' and 'general welfare,' but he'd rather stumble backward to 2012:

Romney talked about the 47 percent. He made one major mistake. He assumed that they all had the same mentality. They don't. A lot of people in that 47 percent are very anxious to experience the American dream. What they are looking for is the right mechanism, the pathway out. This is what we have to provide for them, and that's going to include fixing the economy, which is not going to be that difficult to do, quite frankly.

It would be even easier without Republican obstructionism--but he's campaigning to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it. It's all part of the Right's inequality ruse:

There's no denying that the U.S. economy is in much better shape than it was six years ago. But contrary to the conventional wisdom, the primary reason the Obama era has been so difficult has always been political rather than economic. It wasn't because of a bad economy that Wall Street paid no price for throwing the world into recession; and it wasn't because of a bad economy that Washington spent years doing nothing as unemployment rose, household wealth plummeted, infrastructure deteriorated and wages flatlined. [...]

No, those mistakes and others were the fault of American politics. More specifically, they were a result of our politics' devolution back to Gilded Age-style plutocracy, and Washington's ever-increasing tendency to focus on the issues that matter to the 1 percent at the exclusion of anything else. [...]

[Jeb] Bush thinks any law that "subtracts from [economic] growth" should not even be discussed. But if that's your inclination, the chances that you're also someone who worried about inequality before Republicans began using the issue to bash Obama are vanishingly small. In fact, it's more likely that you've spent most of the Obama era the same way as other conservatives and libertarians: dismissing inequality's importance, or denying its existence.

Saudi secrecy

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Over at Smirking Chimp, Eric Margolis discusses the resurgence of the long-rumored Saudi-9/11 connection:

This week, allegations of Saudi involvement reignited as one of the men convicted in the 9/11 plot, Zacarias Moussaoui, reasserted the allegations. Moussaoui, who is in US maximum security prison, charges senior Saudi princes and officials bankrolled the 9/11 attacks and other al-Qaida operations. He may have been tortured and has mental problems.

Among the Saudis Moussaoui named are Prince Turki Faisal, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, two of the kingdom's most powerful and influential men. Turki was head of Saudi intelligence; Bandar ambassador to Washington during the Bush administration.

The story goes back to Afghanistan and Iran, but lingers on American "infidels" occupying the holy Saudi Arabian peninsula, which Margolis calls "no chimera:"

There are some 40,000 American "technicians" and "contractors" in Saudi serving the oil industry and military. US forces in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Diego Garcia overwatch Saudi Arabia. There are secret US bases in Saudi. Israel is a secret ally of the Saudi royal family.

The Saudi royal family is protected by the America's CIA, FBI, NSA, and military intelligence.

Although "the reasons for the 9/11 attacks have been all but obscured by a torrent of disinformation and hysteria," he writes, "the attack was clearly an attempt by Saudi dissidents to strike back at US domination of their country:"

The attackers were quite clear in their reasons: to punish the US for supporting Israel and oppressing the Palestinians; and for its "occupation" of Saudi Arabia and keeping a tyrannical regime there in power.

The hushed-up Saudi information isn't official Saudi complicity--but a desire to sweep a well-funded insurgency under the carpet.

Yes, men and funds for the 9/11 attacks likely came from Saudi Arabia; yes, the royal family knew about this - after the fact - but remains mum to this day; yes, Washington knows the Saudi princes knew, but remains mute and keeps trying to censor Part 4 of the damning 9/11 report. Too many senior US officials and legislators have been on the Saudi payroll.

Plummeting oil prices haven't helped--yet--and neither has political change:

The change of ruler in Saudi has so far made little difference. The song remains the same. But behind the scenes, pressure is growing.

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