Friday, September 24, 2010

The Perfect Tea Party Candidate

Christine O’Donnell is the perfect Tea Party candidate. She is uncompromisingly committed to her evangelical ideology, she is oblivious to all scientific and historical knowledge that conflicts with her ideology, she believes it is her duty defend liberty by forcing others to conform to her superior values, and she flaunts her ignorance as if it is a virtue.

Consider her attempt to smear Obama over the media’s use of the word "czar" to describe the dozens of appointed advisors all presidents rely upon. She actually said, “Article 1, Section 9 says no title of nobility should granted by the United States, there you go. I would say to President Obama that czar is a title of nobility and therefore unconstitutional.”

To metaphorically challenged O’Donnell, “czar” could only refer to certain eastern European monarchs. Christine seems unaware that "czar” has been used in American politics and culture for over 180 years to refer to individuals with broad administrative powers. It can be used mockingly or affectionately. For example, calling the Commissioner of Baseball the “baseball czar” is affectionate. Calling him “Czar Selig” is mocking. It was often used in the press to describe presidential advisors in the 1930s and 1940s. It became popular again during the Nixon administration and has been widely used by pundits since then. Nixon himself used the word, although most presidents avoid it. To be fair, grandstanding over the use of the term is not limited to Republicans. In a complaint brought by Democrats against the Bush administration (which had 32 “czars”), the GAO ruled that use of the phrase “drug czar” in government publications “does not constitute unlawful self-aggrandizement.”

Ms. O’Donnell’s public statements about the use of this term demonstrate 3 things about her: she hates Obama, she doesn’t understand metaphors, and she is deeply ignorant of American law, politics, and cultural history.

Consider her abstinence only approach to sex education and sexual conduct. In 2002 on Donahue she said “Condoms will not protect you from AIDS.” In 2003 when asked if she would have teenagers stop having sex she said, “Yeah. Yeah…I'm a young woman in my thirties and I remain chaste. Come on. It's unrealistic to think they're just gonna do it anyway.” In 2006 on Fox she said “People aren't bad. When did humans become a bad thing? Why is it that we have to, you know, stop people from getting pregnant?” In 2007 she argued on Fox News against age appropriate comprehensive sex education and said it is up to the parents to decide what their children are taught.

She can believe anything she wants, and mocking her beliefs is unprofessional and a logical fallacy. But her beliefs would be a disaster as a basis for public policy. We have thousands of years of evidence, from virtually every culture, that abstinence doesn’t work for large portions of the population (95% in the US, including certain prominent religious Republicans). That is an undeniable fact of life. Today we can measure things like teen pregnancies and STD rates that show exactly how ineffective it is. In addition, we know exactly how effective condoms are in preventing the spread of AIDS. We know exactly how many abortions, unplanned pregnancies, and STDs can be prevented by comprehensive sex education. Of course, many conservatives think using actual measurements when debating public policy is mind trick of the intellectual elites, but public policy must be guided by facts, not myths, and must promote public health, not personal moral philosophy.

By insisting on abstinence only sex education O’Donnell puts her own sexual obsessions ahead of public health. O’Donnell wants to control people’s lives rather than empowering them to make their own choices, a common trait of the authoritarian conservative personality.

Consider her stance on abortion and the sanctity of life. She is against abortion even in cases of rape or incest. She has said “I pledge I will always vote in favor of life ..." Her campaign web site says she "Strongly believes in protecting the sanctity of life at ALL stages."

This is a difficult issue for many people. I have enormous respect for anyone who opposes abortion because they really do respect the "sanctity of life at ALL stages". Such a person is rare. Most people use this argument as an excuse to prevent other people from making their own choices, but are quick to abandon it when convenient. If you believe the sanctity of life overrides all other concerns then you must

  • Oppose the death penalty,

  • Reject unnecessary wars and military campaigns that slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,

  • Support programs proven to reduce abortions, including compulsory comprehensive sex education and condom dispensers in all high schools and youth centers, and

  • Support universal health insurance rather than let nearly a thousand people a week die from lack of health care.

O’Donnell believes we should win in Iraq but can’t define what win means. She thinks we shold consider invading Iran. She has not, that I am aware, expressed any concern for the civilians we have killed. She supports only abstinence based sex education, and opposes dispensing condoms. She wants to repeal the “government provided” health care (actually she means the Affordable Care Act regulating private insurance) by removing all government restrictions on health insurers (so called free market reform), leaving even more Americans without health insurance.

On every one of those issues she rationalizes abandoning her pledge to “always vote in favor of life.” Like most authoritarian conservatives O’Donnell is incapable of recognizing the inherent contradictions of her positions.

Consider her absolute unwillingness to compromise. In 1998 when asked whether or not she would lie to Nazis who showed up at her door during WWII and demanded to know if she were hiding any Jewish people in her house. O’Donnell refused to even entertain the notion of concealing the truth from Nazis because “you never have to practice deception…A lie, whether it be a lie or an exaggeration, is disrespect to whoever you’re exaggerating or lying to, because it’s not respecting reality…I believe if I were in that situation, God would provide a way to do the right thing righteously. I believe that!”

This is a well known dilemma which has been debated for decades, without resolution, amongst ethicists who argue passionately for both sides. We cannot fault Ms O’Donnell for her choice for there is no “right” choice. Those siding with O’Donnell are generally absolutists who believe there is an inviolable commandment against lying and there is never any room for compromise on this point. That’s what’s relevant when evaluating Ms O’Donnell’s bid for public office. Logicians have proven that in any logical system which is internally consistent it is always possible to create unresolvable questions (or in this context, questions for which there is no right or wrong answer). Because our population consists of a multitude of different viewpoints, priorities, and philosophies interacting in complex ways, public policy is rarely a black and white situation. Without compromise government would come to a standstill and there would be no end to factional bickering.

Many conservatives, like Ms O’Donnell, reject compromise as weakness and believe the country will not survive if our laws do not conform to their religious beliefs.

Christine O’Donnell is the perfect Tea Party candidate: an ideologue who refuses to acknowledge facts that contradict her dogmatic beliefs, who values emotion over logic, who sees every thing in black and white, who is blind to her own contradictions and obsessions, who is incapable of compromise, who believes she has a sacred duty to dictate how others should live, and who hates Obama.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Conservatives Embrace Their Ignorance

“Czar” as a pejorative term in American Politics

All presidents must choose a slate of Cabinet Secretaries and dozens of other administrators. The press and pundits, on both sides of the aisles, have long referred to these officials as “czars”, but presidents, at least since Nixon, rarely use the term themselves.

I cannot find is a single example of Obama actually using the term “czar”. I can find dozens of Republicans and pundits denigrating Obama because of his czars. I can find dozens of commentators complaining that Obama czars are proof he has a hidden agenda to turn America into a socialist nation, that his czars prove he is an arrogant despot, and that this is unprecedented in US history. I can find lots of proof that most Republicans are either deeply ignorant of American history and culture or are hypocrites playing on their constituents’ emotions.

The word czar comes from the title “Tsar” once used by certain Eastern European monarchs. In America it has been used metaphorically by the media to describe appointed positions with broad powers over an organization. It is not an official government title.

The term “czar” was used as early as the 1800s to criticize political opponents. In the 1830′s, Andrew Jackson sought to eliminate the Second United States National Bank and its president Nicholas Biddle. In supporting Jackson, the Washington Globe labeled Biddle “Czar Nicholas”, comparing Biddle’s control of the currency to the iron fisted rule of Russia’s Nicholas I. Andrew Johnson was ridiculed with the title of “Czar of the Amerikas” for perceived mishandling of reconstruction. In 1890 the Republican Speaker of the House earned the nickname “Czar” for strong arming through rules changes.

After the Russian Revolution deposed the czars, the term lost its connection to harsh despots and took on a gentler tone. When Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed commissioner by the baseball owners in 1919 to clean up the sport following the Black Sox Scandal, headlines proclaimed him the new Baseball Czar. Soon other sporting authorities were also called czars as were many other organizations administrators.

In the 1930s and 1940s it was used less congenially to describe the multitude of positions Franklin D. Roosevelt created by executive order to manage the wartime economy. In 1944 the Republicans requested the creation of a “food czar” to control wartime pricing and distribution. By the end of the war the term was also being used to describe some Cabinet appointees after their powers were expanded by Congress. However, the term became less popular after the war ended.

The term became popular again in the 1970’s with the creation of the Energy Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency during Nixon’s presidency. Nixon said the heads of these agencies would have “absolute authority” in their respective areas and compared them to dictators. Thus they became popularly known as the “energy czar” and the “drug czar” in the press. Since then the term has been widely used by the press and by pundits to describe government and non-government appointees: terrorism czar, cyber-security czar, oversight czar, intelligence czar, and war czar are just a few of the terms used in the press to describe people in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

By 2003 the Office of National Drug Control Policy began using the term “drug czar” in official press releases. Democrat Henry A. Waxman, and others, suggested that this was an unconstitutional granting of a title of nobility. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that “"the law does not bestow that title on the ONDCP Director.” The GAO concluded that “ONDCP's use of the term "Drug Czar" to describe the Director of ONDCP does not constitute unlawful self-aggrandizement".

The word “czar” has long been used by American political commentators to describe appointed officials whose broad powers bear a superficial resemblance to 19th century Russian autocrats. Although its usage has crept into the language of both Democrat and Republican officials, its use is metaphoric, and it is not intended as a title of nobility.

Republicans have tried every way possible to belittle and marginalize Obama and his presidency. Their willingness to manipulate people’s emotions by pretending that Obama is the first president to have a stable of “czars” advising him is just one more example of the cynicism of the Right and their overwhelming need to attack Obama at every turn. The web sites that demonize Obama for appointing advisors are full of people who have no knowledge of American political history before Reagan. And they know very little of history since then.

As we know, the authoritarian conservative personality is psychologically incapable of understanding how reprehensible their behavior is. They have no hesitation over viciously attacking Obama. They aren’t the least bit embarrassed about publicly displaying their depth of their ignorance. And they have no ability to acknowledge any fact that contradicts their agenda to destroy an American president.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why Fear Mongering is Working for the Republicans and What You Can Do About It

Why Fear Mongering is Working for the Republicans

In 2006 John Dean, former Nixon White House counsel, in Conservatives Without a Conscience, wrote about the rise of authoritarianism in the Republican Party and how that positioned them to benefit from fear among the voters. His argument is both persuasive and prescient given the sustained Republican effort to scare white voters since Obama was elected in 2008.

According to Dean the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 brought a surge of authoritarians into Congress and the House Republicans became even more focused on authority than in the past. Furthermore this culture has slowly migrated to the Senate over the years. This authoritarian structure is one reason Republicans more frequently vote as a unified bloc compared to Democrats.

Social scientist John T. Jost examined data from 44 years of studies on the attitudes of over 22,000 conservatives. He concluded that conservatives have a heightened psychological need to manage uncertainty and threat. He found the primary motivators of political conservatives are fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, overreaction to threats, and a disposition to dominate others. Additional work (esp. by Bob Altemeyer) describing authoritarian personality traits found the following characteristics are common (and admired) among those who are disposed to follow authoritarian leaders:

  • Uncritically accept statements and acts of perceived authorities

  • Willing to subsume their conscience to the goals of authority figures

  • Aggressive and bullying on behalf of authority

  • Inclined to control others through punishment

  • See the world as a dangerous place that needs them to protect morality

  • Believe themselves to be more moral and upstanding than others

  • Hostile to many minorities yet unaware of their prejudices

  • Conventional, narrow minded, mean spirited, and dogmatic

  • Often contradictory or inconsistent and unaware of their inconsistencies

  • Lack of self-awareness of these traits

Since Obama’s election the Right has raised one alarm after another, most aimed at arousing fear among white voters, as Rachael Maddow has so artfully discussed. It has been alleged that Obama was conspiring with the UN to take our guns away, that he was preparing concentration camps to lock up anyone who resisted or for indoctrinating our youth, that he wants the economy to fail so he can declare an emergency and proclaim himself king, that he’s going to raise taxes to create a socialist/welfare state for blacks, that health care reform would create “death panels” to cut short the lives of the feeble and elderly. These tales are cunningly crafted to raise the anxiety of a public already struggling with the floundering economy.

And it has worked spectacularly well. At the recent politicized 9-11 Memorial rallies there were signs expressing fear and outrage at every one of those false issues. The corporate funded Tea Party movement (Taxed Enough Already) plays on resentment over taxes and fears about government spending. (In fact Federal income taxes are now the lowest they’ve been in 60 years, and US taxes are among the lowest of all industrialized nations.) People are upset, fearful, and angry. Thousands have attended Tea Party rallies. Republicans outnumbered Democrats at the polls in mid-term primaries this year for the first time in 70 years (yet overall participation was amongthe lowest ever). The anger over false and imagined dangers has reached such a fever pitch that there is open talk of armed rebellion (the 2nd amendment solution) if the Tea Partiers don’t prevail at the ballot box.

The tidal wave of manufactured anger is so powerful that even moderate Republicans, who have spent a lifetime serving our country honorably, have been cast aside. Other Republican leaders have failed to condemn the excessive claims and seditious comments, either because they agree with them or because they believe they can ride this wave to power in November. I have asked every Republican I know to repudiate the “by ballot or bullet” slogans, but so far not a single one has done so. As we have seen, authoritarian personalities are incapable of seeing how these ideas conflict with their own principles and our Constitution.

What can progressives do in the face of this dangerous national trend of using fear to drive people toward fascist-like authoritarianism? Although there is evidence that some conservatives can be made aware of the consequences of their actions and the harm their lack of critical self-examination can cause, this is a slow process. We do not have time to re-infuse respect for reason into Conservatism.

We can use the ballot box. We need to talk to progressives and independents and show them how important it is to keep the liars and fear merchants, and those who use them to satiate their own lust for power, from taking over America. Progressives are a diverse group with many reasons to be dissatisfied by the pace of progress the last 2 years. But, when judging candidates this fall, don’t compare them to your ideal or to your list of unfinished priorities. Compare them to the alternative. Remember, if only one out of a hundred Florida Democrats had brought someone else to the polls with them in 2000, then Gore would have won. Our challenge is great, but if one in 10 of us brings another progressive with them to the polls in November it will make a huge difference. In most states there is still time to register people, so find like minded people and get them registered.

Voting is not enough. If it matters to you, then do something about it. The corporate interests behind the Tea Party will be spending massive amounts to affect the elections this year. I know times are tough, but it is very easy to donate money these days. Even if all you can give is $5, do it. Every dollar helps, and campaigns count the number of contributors as well as the total dollars.

But there is more you can do.You can volunteer, even if only for an hour or two. It’s easy. They’ll train you, and it can often be done from home. You can write letters to editors, show your support with signs and bumper stickers, and talk to your neighbors. I’ll even send you a list of talking points that use Tea Party buzz words to support progressive ideas. You can make a difference. YES YOU CAN.

Freedom isn’t free. We have to work at it. It is up to us to keep fear and ignorance from taking over our government this fall.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Conservative Values and States' Rights

Why Don’t Conservatives Respect States’ Rights?

States’ Rights are always a major component of Republican platforms and policies. At least that’s what they say. But they repeatedly abandon States’ Rights when it is convenient for the cause du jour.

Remember Terri Schiavo? She was the Florida woman who suffered extensive brain damage after cardiac arrest. After years in a coma, with over half her brain atrophied, and with every competent physical examination concluding that she would never recover, her husband sought to keep his prior promise to her by ending her life with dignity. But her parents were unable to let go of their daughter and mounted a protracted legal challenge. These end-of-life medical issues have always been under state jurisdiction (a States’ Right). Nevertheless, national Republicans sought to use the family’s suffering for political gain. Time and a again they sought to interfere with the Florida courts’ orders. Senate Majority Leader William First, a trained physician, declared on the basis of a picture, and without actually examining her, that Terry was not brain dead. The publicity the right raised caused a siege around the hospice caring for Terry, disrupting the dignity of all their dying patients. Congress passed a law usurping the right of the state of Florida to decide this issue. Bush cut short his vacation in Crawford to sign the legislation. In this case the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, and the family was finally allowed to end their suffering.

In 2000 States’ Rights were once again a prominent part of the Republican presidential campaign. With the very close vote in Florida unsettled, the Republicans raised a pitched battle to control the recounts. The constitution is very clear that it is up to the states to determine how presidential elections are conducted and how to cast their electoral votes (Artilce II: “…Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct”). Congress has passed some procedural rules to assist the states in submitting their results in a timely and orderly way. Fearing that they could lose the election, the Republicans did not hesitate to appeal to the Supreme Court. The Court, stacked with Republican appointees, repeatedly ruled in Bush’s favor. Their final ruling dictated how the state was to proceed, ignoring the clear language in the constitution that leaves these decisions to the states. Meanwhile the Republican publicity machine imported agitators and whipped supporters into such a riotous frenzy that election boards had to suspend recounts out of concern for public safety. A proper recount was prevented and Bush declared the winner. The irony is that once the ballots were reviewed calmly (long after Bush was inaugurated) it became clear that Bush did, in fact, receive the most votes. So it wasn’t really necessary to for the Republicans to throw State’s Rights (and due process) under the bus.

During the health care debate of 2009 the following phrase was repeated over and over by Republicans and Tea Partiers: “allow health insurance companies to sell policies across state lines.” I suspect not one person in ten knows what this means. It is, in fact, a covert assault on States’ Rights. There are dozens of nationwide health insurance companies which sell health insurance in every state. Every state has the right to determine the minimum requirements for policies sold in their state. For example, some states require that all health insurance policies sold in their states must include a specific minimum amount of coverage for mental health treatment. Other states may have a different minimum or may not include this requirement. That’s one reason there are differences in the price for minimum coverage from state to state. The Republican language “allow companies to sell policies across state lines” is an attempt to force all states to reduce their requirements to those of the least restrictive state. It is also an attempt to undermine health care reform by reducing coverage, not improving coverage. It is a particularly cynical example of Republican denial of States’ Rights.

From gay marriage to abortion rights to zoning decisions for religious buildings, the Right puts its political agenda ahead of States' Rights time and again. The belief that Republicans protect States’ Rights is as false as the myths that Republicans are champions of small government (every Republican administration has proposed and implemented new federal programs, bureaucracies, and spending) or that Republicans are fiscal conservatives (every Republican administration has expanded the growth rate of the federal deficit while Democrats have slowed it).

A Conservative Idea We Can All Agree With

Stop The Elitist Wealth Transfer Program

We were told that other people would spend our money more wisely than us. We were told that they would use it to create jobs and make us all better off. We were told it would expand our economy. But it hasn’t happened that way. The Reagan-Bush tax cuts transferred over a trillion dollars from the middle class to the wealthiest 3% of Americans. 95% of Americans have seen their income stagnate since the Reagan and Bush “tax cuts” increased the tax burden on the middle class. Meanwhile the wealthiest have seen double digit increases in their earnings and the economy has floundered. A robust and prosperous middle class is the backbone of our economy. Reagan and Bush have proven that “Trickle Down” does not work, and it is time to return to tax policies that benefit all Americans, not just the wealthy elites. This chart shows the average increase in income for different groups under Republican and Democratic administrations.

Source: Larry M Bartels. Chart by Catherine Mulbrandon,

Clearly Democratic policies benefit all Americans while Republican policies primarily benefit the wealthiest.

The following charts show how the growth rate of the economy has fallen since the Reagan-Bush tax cuts were introduced in the early eighties (Top Marginal Tax Rates only apply to that part of income that exceeds $20,000 per week).

Source: The Rag Blog

Notice the downward trend in GDP growth under Republicans from 1980 to 1992 as money moved out of the middle class. Clinton stabilized the economy but could not generate significant growth because of deep reductions in the purchasing power of the middle class. The Bush tax cuts created an artificial bubble, but it accelerated the transfer of wealth from the middle class which assured its subsequent collapse starting in 2004. Clearly, tax cuts to the wealthiest wage earners actually slow economic growth. The wealthy invested selfishly in high risk, artificial instruments (i.e. derivatives) that did not create jobs. They did create the financial bubble which, when it finally burst, left the middle class burdened with debt.

This transfer of wealth has also enormously increased the power of the wealthiest Americans. The wealthy are using their money to control the political debate in this country. The elites funnel millions into campaigns for politicians who will make sure that the top 1% will continue to earn 80% of the income in this country. They control the media so well that a majority of the people are unaware that Obama has reduced taxes for 95% of Americans. The alleged grass roots “Tea Party” was created by, and is controlled by, wealthy elites using sham organizations with populist sounding names to hide the true source of their funding. Tea Party participants repeat what they have been told - that taxes are excessive and out of control - and are unaware that the US has one of the lowest overall tax rates among industrialized nations.

It is time to restore balance, reinvigorate the middle class, and make sure the richest earners contribute fairly to the system that creates their wealth. Incomes at the highest levels actually increase faster under a balanced system that benefits all Americans equally.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is “Right to Life” an Ethical Position or a Political Tool?

I have enormous respect for those who oppose abortion because they truly accept that the sanctity of life overrides all other arguments. Very few people actually live up to this standard. In my experience, most people who use the sanctity of life as a rationale to oppose abortion readily abandon it when it is politically expedient to do so.

Those who truly embrace the sanctity of life as the overarching argument oppose the death penalty in all cases. Yet most Right to Lifers are able to rationalize that their definition of justice or their ideas about deterrence take precedence over the sanctity of life. Or they turn logic upside down by claiming executions confirm the sanctity of life! We know innocent people have been executed, that it is applied unevenly to different races, and there is no clear, uncontested evidence that the ritual killing is a more effective deterrent than less drastic measures. Some people believe the Right to Life does not apply to some types of people convicted of some crimes.

When the US invaded Iraq, a sovereign country that was not an immanent threat to the US, it used military techniques that were bound to kill innocent civilians. Estimates are that between 100,000 and 300,000 innocent civilians have died as a result of this US war of choice. President Bush, who is a Right to Lifer when it is convenient, refused to count, or even acknowledge, the civilian casualties. Some people believe the sanctity of life does not apply to civilians in countries whose government might remotely be a threat to the US.

Although there have been hundreds of deaths in US mining disasters over the past 30 years, few occurred in unionized mines, because unions put the safety of miners first and will walk off the job if safety rules are not followed. Some mine owners spare no effort to keep unions out of their mines and give generously to politicians who work to weaken safety regulations and inspections, leading to hundreds of needless deaths. Many Right to Lifers support the mine owners’ efforts to avoid safety regulations. Some people believe the sanctity of life is less important than profits.

Anti-abortionists have passed dozens of laws to try to reduce abortions. All these laws are aimed at controlling or humiliating pregnant women. None of them empower women to prevent pregnancies. Laws require women to view anti-abortion literature, to undergo (and watch) invasive procedures for viewing the fetus, to have their sexual history posted on line, and to inform their parents if they are under 18. These laws, at best, produce only a short term reduction in the number of abortions. Interestingly, there is virtually no emphasis on making fathers responsible for supporting their children or posting their sexual history on line.

Study after study after study has shown that comprehensive sex education reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases (some of which are deadly). Sincere Right to Lifers will support mandatory

Comprehensive sex education classes as a requirement for high school graduation,
Condom dispensing machines in all high schools and youth centers, and
Public service ads promoting responsible sexual behavior on prime time TV.

These measures would prevent far more abortions than all those coercive measures combined. Yet some argue that parents have the right to control what their children are exposed to, or what they are taught about sex, and so they object to mandatory sex education. Others argue against these programs because teenagers engage in sex earlier after such programs (about 6 months earlier on average). Some people believe that the right of parents to control their children is more important than saving lives and preventing abortions.

The vaccines against the human papillomavirus (HPV) help prevent cancers associated with HPV infection and therefore save lives. To be effective it must be given before exposure to HPV, which essentially means before the onset of sexual activity. Some argue against giving this vaccine to their children because it may give the appearance of encouraging sexual activity or promiscuity. Some people believe the sanctity of life does not apply to women whose sexual life offends them.

If you condone ritual killings because they might deter crime, or you condone the slaughter of thousands of innocent people because of a remote threat to the US, or you believe the rights of parents to control their children’s education is more important than preventing pregnancy, death, or disease, or you would deny the HPV vaccine to girls because you think it is immoral, then you have no right telling a woman she can not decide to have an abortion. You are a hypocrite who ignores the sanctity of life when it is inconvenient to your politics. And you have no decency if you humiliate women for making choices you disagree with.

The sanctity of life argument fails completely in those cases where the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Even when medical science knows that both mother and fetus will die without an abortion, or where treating the mother will kill the fetus, some people insist that it is unethical to sacrifice the child to save the mother. Many reasonable people accept that there is a strong ethical argument for choosing the course that preserves the most lives.

There are those who insist that if people obeyed their particular religion’s sexual edicts (no sex outside marriage, only for procreation, or what ever), then there would be no STDs or abortions. While technically true, this is a deeply flawed argument because it denies human nature. Throughout human history societies have had sexual taboos, and in every society those taboos are frequently and repeatedly violated. Sex is a powerful, innate biological drive. As the Victorians and Shiites proved, suppression only leads to obsession. Even in societies that proscribe the death penalty for behavior deemed deviant, people still transcend the rules. No one has a right to deny opportunities to women because of their own religious sexual beliefs.

An abortion is a terrible ordeal and an extremely difficult choice for a woman to make. As a society we are hypocrites if we do not preserve the right of women to make that choice, but we must also do everything we can to empower women to avoid the necessity of that choice. Failure to do so is a failure to honor the sanctity of life.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How Republicans Became Politically Correct Supporters of Islamic Supremacy

The doomsayers are right: The End Is Near! How else can we explain Rush Limbaugh becoming a proponent of Political Correctness and the Republicans, en masse, allying with Islamic Supremacists?

The essence of Political Correctness (PC) is the concept that some speech is so offensive to certain self-absorbed individuals that it must be suppressed. The self-proclaimed right to not be offended supersedes the constitutional guarantee of free speech. I, along with Rush and many people on the political Right, have long ridiculed this concept. For example, when students in Gilroy, CA wore American flags and made provocative comments during Cinco de Mayo celebrations, many of us defended their actions.

But many people defend PC when it comes to religious beliefs and feelings. Even those who ridicule PC when it is invoked by Liberals have been critical of actions that raise religious ire(from Bill O'Reilly, to Gary Nodler, to British Midland Airline). In most European nations it is a crime to promote Holocaust denialism. Many countries have passed or reaffirmed anti-blasphemy laws. Where were the protests, among the Right, when people were jailed for publishing articles claiming the Holocaust was a hoax? Who complained when publishers backed out of book deals because some Muslims said they’d be offended by the book? Why wasn’t News Corp secretly underwriting the costs for protests against Ireland’s new blasphemy law?

Since 1999 Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Islamic Council have been pushing the UN to adopt an anti-blasphemy law. Their proposed resolution would outlaw any speech or action deemed offensive to Islam. When other religions complained, it was broadened to include offense to other religions as well, but its primary objective is to make any criticism of Islam illegal. The US has opposed this resolution, as must all freedom loving people.

For perspective, here are some of the things Muslims in the West find offensive:
• Walking dogs in front of a mosque
• Public swimming pools not segregated by sex
• Eating in front of Muslims during their Ramadan fast
• Publishing books tracing the historic evolution of the Koran

On September 11, 2001 a group of political zealots carried out terrorist actions against the US to further their political goals. They were Muslims who believed their political agenda was consistent with their religious beliefs, but their action was a political action against the perceived mistreatment of Muslims and US/Israeli policies. It a great national shame that our violent, knee jerk response to these events has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims, has played into the hands of our enemies, and has inspired more Jihadists than al-Qaeda ever could.

Now our Republican zealots are embracing Political Correctness by objecting to a planned Muslim Community Center in Manhattan because its location, 6 blocks from the former World trade towers and 2 blocks from the edge of “Ground Zero” is offensive to some people. If this building is blocked by such sentiment it will boost the efforts of the Islamic Supremacists to outlaw all speech and actions that are deemed offensive. The Wahibiists couldn’t find a better ally in their quest for dominance than the Republican party. In fact, given that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns 10% of News Corp (FOX), and FOX has beaten the drum to make this a national story, this is clearly a conspiracy to trick Americans into supporting the Wahibiist goal of elevating “freedom from offense” to a human right that transcends all others.

Nowhere in our Constitution are American’s rights suspended because exercising them would be offensive or unpopular. Vigorous defense of rights in such situations is what makes us a strong and vibrant country and an inspiration to most of the world’s people. A true American response to this building is to embrace it while still exercising all our freedoms around it. We can walk our dogs in front of it. We can proselytize to their patrons, and wear bikinis or dress in drag while at it. We can put up signs and murals critical of Islam. We can hold religious events in the streets around it. The Westboro Baptist Church can picket it, if they like. This is America.

But we must not give in to hatred and bigotry. And we must not fuel the Islamic Supremacist’s campaign to silence criticism of their beliefs.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mosque of Intolerance

Certain extremists, with the help of the media, have created a controversy over plans to expand a Moslem community center a couple of blocks from the former World Trade Center. Although these groups are unabashedly Islamophobic, a large part of their argument is that building an Islamic center that may be partially visible from a few locations on the upper floors of the commercial buildings that may be built on the “hallowed ground” of the 9/11 site will be offensive to some people. It is claimed that the proponents are being insensitive to the feelings of the families of the 9/11 victims and Americans in general. There is a reason this argument resonates with a large numbers of political pundits, the media, and the population as a whole (70% of Americans oppose the project).

There is an increasingly contentious debate about how far society and individuals can or should go in regulating speech and behavior that is deemed “offensive” by some group. Fatwas against authors, violent attacks on cartoonists, laws against head coverings, laws against holocaust denial, and demonstrators at military funerals have all forced upon us a public debate about to what extent, if any, do people have a right to restrict acts they find offensive. A surprising number of people, across the political spectrum, believe that speech should be restricted if it might hurt someone’s feelings. I, and others, believe that no one should be silenced because others are offended by what they say or do.

The later half of the century saw an explosion in “Conspiracy Theories”. By distorting and filtering facts and torturing logic and reason, a core of rabid believers could be created for any idea, no matter how absurd. The government is covering up the truth about UFOs, JFK’s assassination, and Elvis’ death, don’t cha know. Certain Christian and Islamic fundamentalists began promoting the idea that the Holocaust never happened, that it was a made up story by the Jews to take over the world. The Holocaust deniers published books to support their fantasies. They made speeches and gained supporters. Their denials understandably offended many people. Ultimately laws were passed throughout Europe making it a crime to publish or make public speeches promoting the denialist claims. These laws are an affront to the concept of freedom of speech, and they play into the hands of religious fundamentalists.

When Salomon Rushdie published his fictional work “Satanic Verses”, some Moslem clerics were so outraged that they issued a fatwa calling for his death. This sent Rushdie into hiding and greatly increased sales of a mediocre work. It offended some Moslems because he dared to discuss the the Koranic verses that cause so many problems for the Moslem apologists (the ones where Mohamed appears to be channeling the devil, not Gabriel). Incredibly, many people in the West criticized Rushdie for going too far and offending Moslem sensibilities, rather than staunchly defending free speech and freedom of expression. Moslems point to the European laws against holocaust denial to support their outlawing of Rushdie’s fictional work.

When Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published a cartoon showing Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban the Islamic world was worked into a frenzy of offense by a few clerics (who lied and manipulated the crowds by including drawings they made up in the list of allegedly offensive publications). Their outrage caused the cartoons to be far more widely circulated. Many people were killed in the riots that followed. Many western news outlets, including Fox news, cowardly refused to republish the offending cartoon because they didn’t want to offend Moslem sensibilities.

In 2004 filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death following a fatwa against him because he produced a film ("Submission") critical of the Islamic treatment of women. Since that time the publishing of numerous books and articles about Islam have been cancelled or delayed because the publishers were threatened by groups claiming the work was offensive. Authors have been arrested and beaten. The western press, including Fox, have either not reacted to this outrageous suppression of freedom or supported it in the interest of avoiding offense.

Now we have an Islamic group preparing to build an Islamic community center two blocks from the 9/11 site. It may be partially visible from the new buildings at the 9/11 site once they are completed. Some people find this offensive, and islamophobe Pamela Geller has been exploiting feelings about 9/11 to generate opposition to the Islamic center. Yet the proponents have refused to validate that offense by changing their plans. It is understandable that all those groups and individuals who have kowtowed to Islamic sensibility over the past dozen years are now upset because the Moslems refuse to reciprocate. The refusal to yield to their offended feelings is, I am sure, what infuriates the center’s opponents the most.

Perhaps now they understand that it is very bad policy to have speech and actions limited by any group’s emotional reactions. People do not have a right to not be offended by someone else’s speech (or dress, or activities). This is be a virtually impossible goal since someone is bound to be offended by almost anything. Many atheists, for example, are offended by public display of crosses. Does that mean they should be banned in public? Of course not.

If the accomodationists want to match the radical Islamists for intolerance, they could respond to the proposed Islamic Center by making veiled threats about “2nd amendment” solutions and picketing at the site carrying pictures of Timothy McVeigh.

Here’s how I would respond: Erect a billboard (or paint a mural on the side of a building) in full view of the center, and between the center and the 9/11 site, with Kurt Westergaard's cartoon of Mohamed on it. It would be a great lesson in tolerance for everyone. Maybe some of those organizations that opted for accommodation in the past would help support it…

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner (1914 - 2010)

Martin Gardner has died.

He was my introduction to critical thinking. When I was in high school I looked forward each month to his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American magazine. He used puzzles and games to teach complex subjects and make math fun.

He had an amazing career. Despite never taking a math course after high school he became proficient in many mathematical techniques. He single handedly made mathematical puzzles popular and taught generations of Americans to think logically. I learned many problem solving techniques from Gardner’s columns and books.

His reviews in Scientific American also introduced me to some of my favorite books and authors and to Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Douglas Hofstadter, who I learned of from Gardner, said “He is totally unreproducible -- he was sui generis -- and what's so strange is that so few people today are really aware of what a giant he was in so many fields -- to name some of them, the propagation of truly deep and beautiful mathematical ideas (not just 'mathematical games', far from it!), the intense battling of pseudoscience and related ideas, the invention of superb magic tricks, the love for beautiful poetry, the fascination with profound philosophical ideas (Newcomb's paradox, free will, etc. etc.), the elusive border between nonsense and sense, the idea of intellectual hoaxes done in order to make serious points (for example, one time, at my instigation, he wrote a scathing review of his own book 'The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener' in 'The New York Review of Books', and the idea was to talk about the ideas seriously even though he was attacking the ideas that he himself believed in), and on and on and on and on. Martin Gardner was so profoundly influential on so many top-notch thinkers in so many disciplines -- just a remarkable human being -- and at the same time he was so unbelievably modest and unassuming. Totally. So it is a very sad day to think that such a person is gone, and that so many of us owe him so much, and that so few people -- even extremely intelligent, well-informed people -- realize who he was or have even ever heard of him.”

James Randi, who I learned of from Gardner, said, “That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so. He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with….He was such a good man, a productive and useful member of our society, and I can anticipate the international reaction to his passing. His books – so many of them – remain to remind us of his contributions to us all. His last one was dedicated to me, and I am just so proud of that fact, so very proud…It will take a while, but Martin would want me to get on with my life, so I will."

Richard Dawkins, who I learned of from Gardner, said, “Martin Gardner (1914-2010) was one of the great heroes of the American sceptical movement. He also helped generations to enjoy the fascination of mathematics, in his long-running 'Mathematical Games' column in Scientific American. During his last year I was privileged to visit him, in his retirement home in Norman, Oklahoma. He was old and frail, but immensely lively, and brimming with youthful intelligence and curiosity. His room was filled with puzzles and illusions, with which he delighted in teasing me.”

We have lost a bright light and he will be missed. The world is a better and wiser place because of him.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Exposing the Climate Change Lies

Maybe you’ve seen the headlines:

Is it true? Have the 95% of climate scientists who believe the Earth is warming due to human activity been lying to the public, or are they simply incompetent and untrustworthy?

It was Mark Twain who noted, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Actually, it’s the global warming deniers that have been lying and deliberately deceiving the public. Science is a messy process, and it’s complicated. There are disagreements, errors, and personality conflicts. But science has self correcting methods to work through our human imperfections and arrive at the only accurate descriptions we have of the real world. Let’s look at the truth behind the headlines.

The hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit clearly show an attempt to prevent the publication of some papers the email author believed were wrong. Questioning each other’s work is an inherent part of the scientific system. Scientists expect, and encourage, critical, but dispassionate, analysis of their work from other scientists. Sometimes it becomes personal, however. The stolen emails reveal an ugly personality clash and unscientific animosity between researchers. The emails show that scientists are subject to human failings, but they do not show the suppression of scientific results. Not only were the two papers discussed in the emails published in scientific journals, they were also included in the IPCC’s report.

When scientists answer questions they are often very careful and use exact meanings to their words. This tendency can be exploited by global warming deniers to distort scientists’ meanings by carefully wording questions to them. That’s what happened when Phil Jones appeared to deny there has been evidence of warming since 1995. Climate data such as average annual temperature is highly variable. Statistical techniques, such as least squares fits, have to be used to show the real trends in the data (scientists even have techniques for measuring how “reliable” an apparent trend is). Global warming deniers know that, even though there has been measurable warming since 1995 (0.12 degree Celsius per decade) the “reliability” of the trend is low. That’s why they specifically ask about warming since 1995, not 1994 or any other year from which the “reliability” is much higher. The global warming deniers are being dishonest because in the same interview in which Phil Jones admitted the warming trend since 1995 does not meet the 95% confidence test, he repeatedly said he believes the evidence for human caused global warming is real and overwhelming. But all the global warming deniers reported was the one statement about uncertainty in the limited interval from 1995.

When Mark Siddall et al published a paper in Nature Geosicience estimating much lower sea level rising (7 - 82 cm) from global warming than other estimates, the global warming deniers praised it (links now missing or broken) and claimed it showed that the other scientists were being alarmists (despite the fact that its publication disproved their claim that alternative view points are never published). As is often the case in science, however, some scientists found a flaw in Siddall’s analysis. When they communicated their findings to Siddall, he acknowledged his error. When he corrected his analysis and recalculated he found that his estimates were far too low, so he retracted his paper. Note that he voluntarily retracted his paper because his new calculations showed much greater sea level rising than his original paper. Yet the paper’s withdrawal was touted by global warming deniers as proof of their denial of warming, exactly the opposite of the reason the paper was withdrawn.

Does satellite data show that the Greenland ice sheet has not shrunk in area? Yes. But the mass of the ice sheet is a function of both area and thickness. The satellite data in this report cannot measure thickness along the coast, as the report authors clearly stated in the original paper. For some reason these facts are missing from this report. Multiple other methods have clearly shown that the ice sheet is thinning at the edges and is losing mass. So once again the Global warming deniers misrepresent what a scientific report actually says and completely ignore all contrary evidence.

Global climate change is a complex subject which is being actively investigated by experts using tried and true methods to tease out the truth. Time and again we have seen that those who are not scientific experts, and who are committed to defending predefined conclusions, have misled the public by misrepresenting the science. Global warming is a great challenge. The Global warming deniers are pessimists who see only the negative consequences and have no faith in the ability of the US to rise to the challenge. Global warming is actually a huge opportunity. Those who rise to it will develop new resources, processes, and techniques. The Global warming deniers, by creating confusion and doubt, are delaying that progress and making it more likely that we’ll be buying technological solutions from other countries rather than selling them to the world.

Global Warming Denier Crock of the Week

The difference between climate skeptics and climate deniers

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nobody Says Science Knows Everything

Disclosure: what follows was only partly written be me. Most of it was kludged together from other writers I cut and pasted from the internet over the past year. Unfortunately I have lost track of the original authors.

Nobody says science knows everything, but it is the only reliable way to know anything.

Mathematicians long ago proved that science can never know everything (Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem). Yet today, some theologians, new agers, and under informed pundits attempt to discredit science by pretending that science claims that it can know everything, proving only that they don’t know much at all about science or knowledge.

Few will admit that they prefer their religious account over its rivals because it's a better story than all the others - they always argue that their story is true. Yet the silly christian apologist who spouts something facile along the lines of "I believe in the genesis account because it is such a magnificent and awe-inspiring story" is really saying "I think that magnificence and awesomeness of narrative are what determines the truth value of a hypothesis".

We still follow the age-old quest. We still seek after the truth. But over the centuries we've developed and discovered ever more effective methods to determine what is true. Those methods are now called science. We have sharpened, refined and regularized how we approach the quest, and it has paid massive dividends. Not only are we closer to knowing what the world is really all about, we know a lot more about what it means to know, and how certain we can be in any of our knowledge.

Science is the only “way of knowing” that is self-reflective, that applies its methods to itself, that measures its own performance and uses the result to improve itself. If a religious story’s revealed truth conflicts with reality it is the apologists job to explain away the conflict, not to measure it and use it to improve the utility of the story. Acupuncturists never measure pain response vs. needle depth or position and publish updated pressure point maps. Applied kinesiologists explicitly deny the muscle changes they feel subjectively can be measured objectively. And so it goes with every system of knowledge that rejects natural laws.

Yes, scientific narratives should replace supernatural narratives in the minds of mankind - though they should replace them not because they are better stories but because they are actually true. We can still retain the religious narratives, ghost stories, and magical tales as evidence of the workings of the human mind and the history of cultural diversity, but in a very real sense they have failed utterly to do the job they were created for - explaining how the universe came to be the way it is and guiding us in getting the most from it as we build our lives.

The religious, new agers, psychics, and ghost whisperers will claim that gods, spirits, and ghosts exist outside the natural world (Steven Gould's non-overlapping magisteria). I'll concede the point. Science can only deal with the natural world, and it is the only reliable tool we have for examining the natural world. The supernatural, by definition, is not part of the natural world. Science is silent on anything and everything that is separate from the natural world. You can say anything you want about supernatural agents and realms, and science will not, cannot, contradict you. The problem is that sooner or later supernaturalists make statements about the natural world: prayers and/or spells work, ghosts can communicate with the living, the mind can move material objects, Tarot cards can predict the future, etc. Anything that affects the real world is subject to scientific investigation. And science, despite many efforts, has failed to verify a single effect that is not explained by natural means.

It is not true, as many supernatural apologists claim, that science is blind (close minded) to evidence that contradicts its laws and theories. The questioning of itself is a hallmark that distinguishes science from all other endeavors. Finding contrary evidence and proving existing models wrong is an acheivement that makes careers and advances knowledge. The same people who claim science is closed minded also claim that science is unreliable because it is always changing. It can't be both, and the fact that it is constantly improving by adapting to new evidence is one source of its great success in explaining the natural world.

Nobody says science knows everything, but it is the only reliable way to know anything.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Actions Have Consequences

A partial listing of Arizona based companies:

Best Western HQ Phoenix

CSK Auto HQ Phoenix
  • Shucks Auto Supply
  • Checker Auto Parts
  • Kragen Auto Parts
  • Murray’s Discount Auto Stores

Cold Stone Creamery HQ Scottsdale

Dial Corporation (soap) Headquarters Scottsdale

Discount Tire Company. (America’s Tire Company) HQ Scottsdale

Fender Musical Instruments HQ Scottsdale AZ

Giant Industries HQ Scottsdale (gas stations in NM, CO, AZ)

Go Daddy HQ Scottsdale

Harkins Theaters HQ Scottsdale

KPX (Tractors, backhoes, wood chippers) HQ Phoenix AZ

Kroger HQ Tolleson

  • Fry’s Food And Drug Stores
  • Smiths Food and Drug
  • Fry’s Mercado
  • Not connected to Fry's Electronics

Mesa Air Group HQ Phoenix

  • Mesa Airlines
  • Go!
  • Freedom Airlines

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro HQ Phoenix

Pet Smart HQ Phoenix

Ping Golf HQ Phoenix

Poore Brothers (potato chips) HQ Goodyear AZ

  • Boulder Canyon
  • Crunch Toons
  • Tato Skins
  • Bob’s Texas Style
  • T.G.I. Friday’s potato chips
  • Burger King onion rings
  • Cinnabon Cookies

Shamrock Foods/Farms (multiple brands) HQ Phoenix

Taco Time Restaurants (Kahala Corp) HQ Scottsdale

U-Haul. HQ Phoenix

US Airways. HQ Tempe

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Radical Republicans

Republican leaders this week in New Orleans continue to describe Obama and the Democrats in inflammatory hyperbole. Having lost repeatedly on the issues they have regressed to name calling, a tactic enthusiastically received by the activists driving their agenda. Since the party has abandoned the center and is courting the extreme right wing, even fellow Republicans look like radical socialists. Here are some examples of Republican policies and programs to which today’s Republicans would say “Hell, No!”

Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty Richard Nixon 1972: Recognizing that such systems decrease stability and security, Nixon negotiated the treaty that banned general deployment and all testing of defensive systems against ICBMs. In his first term he lobbied Congress for funds to develop an ABM system, but it was only a ploy to bring the Soviets to the table.

Proposed giving Soviets US military technology, Reagan 1982: To advance his goal of anti-missile defenses, which violated the ABM treaty, he argued that creating an effective shield for all nations would make the world safer. Therefore, he argued, sharing anti-missile technology with the Soviets, as compensation for abrogating the ABM treaty, would create a word wide shield that would make ICBMs obsolete.

Created Environmental Protection Agency by executive order, Richard Nixon 1970: Prior to the establishment of the EPA, the federal government had no comprehensive structure to regulate the pollutants which harm human health and degrade the environment. The EPA was assigned the task of repairing the damage already done to the natural environment and to establish new criteria to guide Americans in making a cleaner, safer America.

Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, Ronald Reagan 1981: Reagan often talked of his desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons. The US had over 6000 nuclear bombs and warheads, and the Soviets had a similar amount. That’s far more then would ever be needed under any imaginable scenario. Reagan continued the process of negotiating weapons reductions started by Nixon (SALT talks)

Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, GW Bush 1991: Removed 80% of strategic nuclear weapons then deployed. Among the provisions was the chopping up of 365 B52 bombers and leaving the hulks in the desert for Soviet satellites to verify.

Savings and Loan bailouts, GHW Bush 1989: Spent $124 billion bailing out failed S&Ls without raising taxes or cutting other programs to pay for it. Despite campaigning for reducing bureaucracy, Bush created a new federal bureaucracy to regulate S&Ls..

Nominated the most liberal supreme court judge (Stevens), Gerald Ford 1975: Of course, Stevens was considered a moderate on that court. The court has now shifted so far to the right of Stevens that he has openly expressed his astonishment at their decisions and written scathing dissents.

Nominated the most activist justice on the Supreme Court, GW Bush 1991: Clarence Thomas voted to override the clause in the Constitution that gives states exclusive right to conduct Presidential elections. He was the only justice who agreed with the Fourth Circuit that Congress had power to authorize the President's detention of US citizens who are enemy combatants.

All these Republican presidents sought the office because they wanted to serve their country. Once they sat in the Oval Office they put their country ahead of their party’s ideology and pursued policies to make the country more secure and to improve the lives of all Americans. Obama has clearly done the same. His centrist policies have found critics on both ends of the political spectrum. Those who claim he is a radical socialist out to take away our liberties, confiscate our property, and sell us into slavery are either misinformed or cynically putting their own ambitions ahead of our country’s welfare.

A few other “radical” Republican ideas and programs: Nixon proposed universal health care and allowing people to buy into Medicare. Gingrich et al proposed universal health insurance coverage and limitations on exclusions to counter Clinton’s healthcare plan. Mitt Romney implemented universal health care in Massachusetts. While GHW Bush was setting new records for annual deficits, every Republican, led by Newt Gingrich, voted against the Debt Reduction Act of 1993 (which eventually produced the budget surplus GW Bush gave away). Reagan and Bush reduced taxes, while increasing spending, thus doubling the annual deficit. And don’t forget Reagan granted amnesty to illegal aliens.

Calling the opposition "radicals" or "socialists" or "dictators", and using terms like "Armageddon" or "the end of democracy" is not a rational technique. It does not present any argument and seeks to denigrate the opposition while avoiding discussion of the real issues. It may "excite the base", but it does not appeal to the moderates and independents. It is time for all Americans to say, "Hell, No!" to such divisive rhetoric.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Be Careful What You Ask For

What do the census, medical marijuana, Obama’s presidential campaign, and Republican court challenges to improved health insurance have in common? They are all examples of the old adage “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

The constitution requires Congress to enumerate the population every 10 years in order to establish congressional districts. By 1880 the US population had grown so large that it took 7 years to complete the census. Realizing that the 1890 census might not be completed before 1900, the Census Department invested in technology to speed the “enumeration”, which lead directly to the punched card reader, mechanical tabulation machines, and, eventually, computers. By the 1980’s another problem arose. It was clear that the census was missing a large number of citizens, particularly minorities in the inner cities. This meant that the cities were losing representation and dollars for Federal programs. By then reliable statistical techniques had been developed that would enable the census to get as accurate a count as they desired without actually counting every person. Hopwever, Republicans strongly opposed every effort to use statistical techniques, insisting that the wording in the constitution meant that only people actually counted could be included in the census. They made Obama’s nominee for the head of the Census Bureau promise not to use statistical techniques in 2010.

Fast forward to 2010. A large, emotion based, reactionary movement within the Republican ranks are resisting returning census forms. Return rates in Texas, for example, are running about 30% below the national average. If this trend continues Republicans could actually lose congressional representation. The undercount could easily be modeled and corrected statistically, but the Republicans have ruled out such techniques. Be careful what you ask for.

The Democrats fielded two strong candidates for the presidential nomination in 2008. It was a long and hard fought campaign that wasn’t settled until just before the convention. Many expected the financial strain and factional divisions of this hard fought battle to weaken the winner and divide the party, making it easier for Republicans to win in November. Some pundits on the right suggested people should change registration to vote in the Democratic primaries in order to extend the fight and weaken the party.

Obama understood that the Democrats failed to win in 2004 because they blamed their loss in 2000 on Republican tricks rather than understanding their own failures and mistakes. Therefore his campaign focused on honest analysis of their failures in order to correct their mistakes. For example, the Obama campaign thought they had an excellent get-out-the-vote plan for the NY primary, but Clinton won. Analysis showed that too many Obama supporters had not made it to the polls. This lead to improved methods for getting voters to the polls. In many such ways the long primary struggle actually strengthened Obama’s campaign. In November he received a record number of votes and won by the widest margin in decades. Be careful what you ask for.

In 1996 California legalized medical marijuana. Several other states followed. The Bush administration, despite its alleged concern for state’s rights, refused to acknowledge the right of states to set their own standards for medical care. They prosecuted individuals for medical marijuana use and successfully defended their policy in the Supreme Court (Gonzales v. Raich et al). The majority of the court, all Republican nominated judges, ruled “The Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail…[N]o form of state activity can constitutionally thwart the regulatory power granted by the commerce clause to Congress.” The court held that this applies even if Congress is factually wrong about the classification of marijuana.

In 2010 Democrats passed sweeping reforms to improve health insurance coverage. The Republicans had stated that defeating this reform would be “Obama’s Waterloo” and made a pitched battle to derail this initiative, rather than guide and improve it, because defeating Obama, rather than governing, was their primary focus. Despite their effort the initiative received 60 votes in the Senate to end debate and was passed by a majority in both chambers in accordance with all rules and laws. Due to strong resistance from the right a single payer insurance system was never included in any of the proposals. Instead of imposing a universal system paid through payroll deductions Congress mandated Americans choose a private insurance plan.

The Republicans immediately initiated legal challenges alleging that the bill violates the commerce clause of the constitution. As we have seen, the Republican packed Court has already strongly upheld the right of congress to regulate commerce. The Republicans argue that by imposing penalties on individuals for not purchasing insurance this act exceeds the authority the court has allowed. If this argument prevails, then Congress could simply pass a single payer plan much like mandatory Social Security, which has already passed court challenges. Be careful what you ask for.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

True Americans

We are Americans first. This simple principle is at the core of the strength and stability of our government. We are Americans first and Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or Wicans, or Asians, or Baptists second. We argue passionately for our causes, because we want what we think is best for our country. We argue civilly amongst ourselves because we know our opponents also want what’s best for our country. That’s why we can accept the results of our elections peacefully without bloody riots or disruptive protests and strikes. At least, that’s how it is supposed to work.

Running for national public office is not easy. It takes long hard hours away from home and loved ones. It means the constant glare of media attention, debates in which every word can be misconstrued, and, often attacks on ones character or ambitions. And the winners get to be away from home for long stretches of time doing often thankless tasks. These are great sacrifices that our representatives make because they care deeply about our country, and about us. Some become seduced and corrupted by the trappings of power, but most are honest hard working people who believe that their work will make this a better country. They are not evil people out to take away our liberties, confiscate all our property, or sell us into slavery.

We sometimes lose sight of that fact. Negative campaigns, attacking an opponent’s character or lifestyle or beliefs rather than promoting one’s own ideas, has been an effective campaign tactic since the earliest days of the republic. If you can convince the voters that your opponent is the devil incarnate they won’t ask about that tattoo on your own forehead. Usually, after the election, we forget all that, shake hands, and get on with governing. It is a sad fact of politics that, at least since FDR, there are always a few who believe any current occupant of the White House is the antichrist.

Demonizing the opposition can have disastrous consequences. The Nixon White House was mired in an escalating and unpopular war. The people running Nixon’s re-election campaign actually believed that if the Democrats won the election they would surrender to the communists, confiscate our property, and sell us all into slavery. Thus they felt that they were justified it trampling our freedoms by bugging the Democrats’ phones (along with other illegal disruptive tactics and “dirty tricks”). Ultimately Nixon was forced to resign over his role in obstructing the investigation into these very un-American activities. Nixon achieved many great things, but his presidency was destroyed by zealots battling imaginary devils.

Following the 2000 elections many Democrats blamed their loss on an evil Republican conspiracy led by the “Bush crime family” that stole our rights and sold us into slavery by designing ballots to confuse Democrats, preventing black people from voting, rigging vote counting machines, and corrupting the courts. By failing to focus on their own errors and miscalculations, and by not making a clear case for their policies and plans, the Democrats lost again in 2004.

In 2008 many people passionately believed that Obama was an evil person out to take away our liberties, confiscate all our property, and sell us into slavery. Although these claims were soundly rejected by the American people, a vocal minority still cling to those paranoid beliefs. They stated publicly, without a hint of shame, that they hoped Obama’s plans to improve the economy failed. They chose to not cooperate at all with governing America so that Obama’s presidency would fail. Throwing America under the bus like this is outrageous behavior from people who claimed to represent “real” Americans during the campaign.

Despite the concerted efforts of the Obamaphobes to stifle debate, intimidate supporters, and confuse the public, Democrats passed sweeping health insurance reform. This bill was debated for a year. It was passed with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, as required by law and Senate rules. It was then passed by a majority in the House and in accordance with all House rules. It was done so by a Democratic majority elected sixteen months ago along with a Democratic President who campaigned daily on health care reform, and who received the most votes in the history of American elections and won by the widest margin in decades.

The opposition is irate because their plans to destroy Obama’s presidency failed. They said this plan takes away our liberties, confiscates our property, and sells us into slavery. They said this bill was “rammed down our throats”. They lied that their ideas were not sought or included. They equated passing this bill with “Armageddon.” (I hadn’t realized that everyone gets health insurance at Armageddon. Maybe Armageddon isn’t that bad. I’m sure the churches will be glad to hear the good news.) The Obamaphobes reacted with language filled with violent metaphors (but they didn’t mean actual violence, wink, wink). One crank made a direct call for violence. Sadly, a wave of violence ensued. Real Americans do not act this way, they condemn such language and acts unconditionally, and they do not blame the victims, or mention them in any way, while doing so.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Arguing with the Willfully Ignorant

Human knowledge is vast, and we are all ignorant about a great many things. We strive to give our citizens a broad education so we all know at least a little about many subjects, but there are limits to our knowledge and experience. Most people are aware of their limits and respect the insight that comes from specialized study and training in a particular subject. As we grow and learn we develop ideas about how the world works. Many of us learn to modify those ideas if we acquire new knowledge that contradicts those ideas. This is a fundamental principle of the scientific method, which has proven to be the most effective and reliable method of “knowing” ever developed.

But some people, once they have acquired a little knowledge, lose all humility and think their “common sense” is all they need to make their way in the world. This often results in very rigid ideas about the world, people, and politics, based on a simplistic view point that ignores or denies conflicting facts and ideas, and with a distain for informed opinions (false “elitism”). It is both sad and pathetic when these people make a public spectacle of themselves by arguing on subjects they clearly know very little about. I call them the willfully ignorant (WI).

Arguing with them is extremely frustrating. They are often misinformed or grossly under-informed, yet stubbornly reject any knowledge that conflicts with their opinions or “common sense”. They often have no clue how little they know or how wrong their facts are(Dunning-Kruger Effect). They believe their conclusions follow logically from their premises (which themselves are often false) even though they can’t identify the most basic logical flaws in any argument (I once received an email from a WI which contained 8 different logical errors in a single sentence). They rarely acknowledge when their logical or factual errors are exposed. They ignore it and repeat the error, change the subject, or attack you for contradicting them. No matter how thoroughly you present your case they are unlikely to concede the argument or acknowledge any flaws in their thinking. In fact the WI often state that there are no facts that could change their opinion.

This makes debating a WI a futile exercise. Nevertheless it can be personally rewarding if you consider it a chance to hone your own argumentative skills. If it is a public discussion you also have the opportunity to educate the bystanders. Do not get emotionally involved. Stay detached and logical, even if they attack your character and intelligence. Remember that you are unlikely to change their mind, but you will be more convincing to others if you stick to facts and reasoned argument.

Stay focused on one or two points. Changing the subject is a common technique to avoid acknowledging factual or logical errors. Do not let them move on until they admit they were wrong or they defend the point.

Do not let them put words in your mouth. A common tactic is to twist something you said into something different (or to “assume” or “imply” you said something you didn’t) and to then refute that. This is known as a “straw man argument”. It may be an innocent mistake, but is often a deliberate and dishonest tactic.

Be ready to challenge the “argument from ignorance” where the arguer’s ignorance of some fact is used to “prove” their point. For example, “Since you can't prove what that light in the sky was, then it must be aliens from Planet X.” If you don’t know what it was you have no reason for concluding what it was. Or, “You must be in favor of carbon caps since I don’t know anyone who believes in global warming that doesn’t.” That’s straw man and argument from ignorance combined – the WI are certainly resourceful. The fact that you are ill informed does not prove anything except your own ignorance.

Be on the lookout for contradictions. My favorite is a non-biologist stating the since Darwin did not get a degree in biology then his biological theory can’t be valid. If we accept that flawed premise (only people with biology degrees can formulate biological theories) then the speaker herself (a non-biologist) cannot judge the validity of a biological theory. Contradictions are common, but often subtle.

Finally, do not attack the person’s character or intelligence. Stick to the facts under discussion, even if they start calling you names. Attacking the person rather than his arguments is known as the ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem attacks can be brutal and a strong emotional reaction is understandable. But take a deep breath, confine your remarks to the observation that a personal attack does not negate your facts, and restate the point they were trying to avoid.

Remember that you are unlikely to sway a person whose conclusions are based on deeply held beliefs, myths, or opinions rather than on facts and logic. But if your goal is to refine your own arguments and beliefs or to convince others of the validity of your position, these guidelines will help you succeed.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What's Behind the Open Carry Movement

As the 2008 election neared and the magnitude of the rights’ impending defeat became apparent, the extremist rhetoric reached a strident crescendo including all the usual tactics - the fear mongering, the guilt by association, the character assassinations, the questioning of the opposition’s loyalty, patriotism, and even citizenship. The NRA spent $15 million telling people that if Obama was elected he was going to take their guns away. These tactics failed to arouse a public unusually focused on the real issues. The right’s frustration at their withering influence was apparent on blogs and openly expressed at public campaign rallies.

Obama won the election. He formed a generally centrist government with mostly competent, experienced people in his cabinet. None of the radical consequences predicted by the extremists came to pass. Ayers wasn’t put in charge of homeland security, the White House wasn’t turned into a mosque, and not a single effort was made to take away guns from law abiding citizens. The extremists, already emasculated by their resounding defeat, were further deflated when their apocalyptic predictions could not stand up to reality.

As momentum built for the Democrats’ signature legislative effort for health insurance reform, many on the right found renewed vigor by banding together and drowning out open and honest discussion at the “Town Hall” meetings. Some people got off openly displaying their weapons at these emotionally charged events. This created some controversy, which aroused them even more. As word spread the “open carriers” membership swelled and they began to hold rallies where they could strut their manhood in public. They are deliberately controversial in the hope of producing a backlash against them, thus validating their failed predictions. Unfortunately, they are having some success.

Debating them is not likely to be productive because they are out to make a point, not to engage in rational argument. It is all about them feeling better wearing their manhood on their hips, and their feelings are immune to facts and reason. Rather than erecting barriers to their manly love fests, which will only validate their point and swell their egos, we should laugh at them and ignore their movement until it dies a "little death" on it's own.