Thursday, August 17, 2006

The poor who?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a post that essentially said that America doesn't devalue the lives of Muslims, per se, but rather devalues poor people of all religions, nationalities, creeds, and colors. A rainbow of indifference, if you will.

Now, there's scientific proof.

Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychologist has been studying the psychological mechanics of stereotyping, and she presented some of her findings at a special panel at the ASA conference this week. She posits that all people are initially evaluated first on a scale of "warmth" (basically how good someone is), and then on a scale of "competence" (how able they are). She constructed a two-dimensional space using these measures and demonstrated where certain identities (e.g., "Jew", "homeless person", "executive") fell, according to empirically determined popular belief.

You'll recognize that certain identities are resident in the High-warmth, High competence area: athletes, astronauts, actors, etc. Others are to be found in the High-warmth, Low competence area: old, the disabled, children. In the Low-warmth-Low competence area are typically homeless, criminals, and the poor (given that we universally attribute wealth to competence). The Low-warmth, High-competence area includes corporate leaders and 'preppies'.

So, it turns out that when we think about people, in general, we think of them differently than objects. We mentally empathize - we intuit what they're thinking and we try to respond to that -- this is the essence of social interaction. And when we do, a fairly particular spot in our brains is noted to be active. Now, I'm not a neurologist, and I didn't note the name of this part, but it's pretty small, dead center, and toward the front of the brain. It fires when a person falls off a chair, but not when a book does. It's an indicator that people are psychologically important and unique to us, which shouldn't be surprising.

What is surprising is that when we're viewing images of people from the Low-warmth, Low-competence quadrant of Fiske's graph, it doesn't fire.

How about that.

In other words, people who we don't feel any warmth toward and who are not considered someone of consequence, we dismiss as people. We, in a sense, withdraw that special privilege of humanness from them, treating them the same way we do books, chairs, and bobo dolls.

And, as social psychologists have long said, we all pretty much agree on where certain people types fall on these scales. In fact, there's fairly little variance across world cultures: we all see the poor, unwashed masses, the mentally ill, and the incarcerated in this way. And that in a sense explains our actions (or inactions) toward them. We don't empathize - we don't try to feel their pain, we don't wonder what they're thinking, and we don't worry about them.

The truth is that this isn't a specifically American thing. Everybody does it across the world, and largely to the same populations. Even those who inhabit that "low-life" quadrant probably share these social definitions. Perhaps this means they withdraw empathy from their compatriots and even from themselves. They come to live in a world of objects, without humanity.

I want to stress that science's ability to place a particular thought or emotion in a particular spot in the brain does not make that thought or emotion any less socially based. There is no biological or evolutionary necessity to dehumanize. It is a socio-cultural convention, one that we permit when it is convenient.

As Americans, perhaps, though, we have a special responsibility to recognize this. Since we have such power to affect the lives of people all around the world, it is our incumbent responsibility to work against the tendency to treat the rest of the world as objects. Not only morally, but practically, because those who are treated as inhuman are liable to act that way. Could this possibly underlie any of the discontent in the (poor) Muslim world?

I don't know if there is a practical personal limit on empathy, but I'm pretty sure we haven't reached it.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Judge for yourself

I just want to point something out about my last post. I am not in fact advocating demeaning sex with deities. I personally have no desire to engage in any group sexual activities with any supreme beings of any kind (that I know of), and I'm fairly sure most gods would be uncomfortable with that scene. In fact, I'm tempted to withdraw my invitation, just so there aren't any awkward confusions in the etherworld or wherever the Trinity hangs.

A careful reader, however, will note that the vulgar comment in my last post came as part of an "if" statement, and therefore, logically, the initial condition must be fulfilled before the statement takes effect. In other words, if God is NOT fraudulently claiming to be the embodiment of good, then He need take no offense. Now, if He is in fact an evil lying bastard (note, again the 'if' here), then I submit that I should be able to insult him as much as I want to. Until He strikes me down, of course.

Some will take this as audacity, nonetheless. And this is my point. I believe that human beings have the right - even the responsibility - to judge "God," just as the governed may judge the governor, and children, when grown, will judge the parent. I am a free being with free will and the ability to determine for myself what is wrong and right, beautiful and ugly, worthy and worthless; and I decide who will have my support and my love based on their actions and my appraisal of them. God is no different. If God were to behave in respectable ways - if He is kind and wise and merciful, if He is loving and accepting and righteous - then He would get my respect and my allegiance. If He does not - if He is ruthless and destructive and pitiless, if He is petty and intolerant and selfish - then He would deserve and receive my scorn and opposition. How can a reasonable person say otherwise?

Do you ever wonder about the evil minions? Do you ever ask where those guys in the matching uniforms in some Bond villain's cave came from and why they are working for the local evil megalomaniac? I think of them as just "followers." They follow their leader (typically to their own deaths) without asking whether what he's doing is right and supportable. They help build the death rays, they launch the doomsday missiles, and they fight the heroes, somehow never allowing themselves to question the morality and the effects of what they're doing. Usually, they pay a high but deserved price for it. Perhaps they don't think it's their place to do so. Maybe they were brainwashed somewhere along the line into thinking that whatever their master did was right, no matter what it looked like. I guess it's "faith" of a kind.

Or maybe it's fear - fear of repercussions from a vengeful #1, or fear that if they look too close and ask too many questions, they'll be noticed and the other minions won't ride with them in the little automated cars.

How many people in mankind's history have been minions in this way to false gods and destructive leaders of all kinds? How does one EVER know whether one is following the right one or not?

Well, I submit that we each must decide this using our internal compass of right and wrong - fairness, equity, compassion, and justice. And that our leaders - our gods - are thus subject to the judgment of the people, every bit as much as the people are subject to the judgment of any god or leader. In fact, we all have the duty to judge in this way, lest our leaders think they can impose their will on others and take over the world for their own selfish reasons.

I will not be anyone's minion that I have not known and judged for myself to be a benevolent and beneficent leader. If he were rather destructive and venal, even if he were to bring an army to throw against all who oppose him, opposing him would be the moral thing to do. Joining his army would make me as guilty as he - even if all my friends joined too. And even if he had the power of a god and claimed to have created our ancestors from dust and ribs, this would not change.

I still get to be his judge. As do you.

So, if the doomsday Christians are right, and God is coming to rapture their self-absorbed, callous, tiny souls before inflicting massive pain and sorrow on the rest of us- if He is responsible for the contradictions and confusions in the bible, and yet expects people to have used it and it alone for “salvation” like some grand puzzle master– if He really gave us physical senses and rational thought but demands that we ignore both under pain of hellfire- if He really condemns homosexual expressions of love, but has nothing particularly negative to say about slavery- if He is the one who made me stub my toe because I imagined my friend naked, but allows the Pizarros, Pol Pots, and Torquamadas of the world free passage- if He is the one washing away entire towns of people with floods, the bad with the good and the old with the young, because the average piousness had fallen below the damnation point - if He really is the one helping the Yankees into the world series every damn year, the doomsday Christians are just His evil minions, and I will fight them all while I have strength left.

That’s the ‘god’ I insulted. And that guy can still bite me.

If that’s not your god, then we’re fine. And let me just suggest that this just may be your fight too. You have to judge for yourself.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Armageddon lovers and their posts


Woweewow wow.

I just noticed that I had 14 comments (and counting?) for my post on the sad and inexcusable Christian preoccupation with Armageddon. And other than my new favorite blogger beepbeepitsme and my old favorite blogger Drek (and probably Ghost Dancer), it's pretty much a circle of loonies and simpletons with death wishes. No offense.

Did none of you even read my post? I urged you to start thinking about how you can prevent catastrophes of the human kind. But people are apparently much more interested in making noise and feeling important.

Let me point out that the total number of comments I've received for my eleven posts on media control, war atrocities, gender politics, baseball, free speech, gay marriage, the value of life, Iraq, and Emperor George I is 3. But that stuff isn't important. It's just the real world.

Let me also point out that Christians of various stripes have been expecting the world to end literally since the death of Christ. The prophecies are purposefully vague so that EVERY age will look like the end days. Every war might be THE war. Every leader could be the antichrist. But they've somehow always been wrong. And they will always be wrong. But there’s always the next time! That’s how it keeps the faithful faithful.

And the people of every age are just as provincial and self-absorbed as the people of this age (though you guys have less of an excuse). Notice how everybody thinks the prophecies refer to the current and the local, no matter when and where they are? Why the heck should the bible predict Katrina and Rita (which were in the U.S and were recent), but not the millions of other storms that have occurred since the writing of the bible in Bangladesh, Yemen, and the Ivory Coast? Why should the world and its god revolve around you? Why not some Korean grandmother?

It's the same reason we wear our lucky sweatshirt and cross our fingers when our football team plays on T.V. We think we our own behavior is actually crucial to distant events unconnected events, and that our wishes (if we love our personal invisible friend in the sky enough) will matter more than everything the athletes and coaches (and the equally religious fans on the other team) want and do. Admit it – you think that, don’t you.

And for Christ's sake, if the bible warnings are God's way of showing his love, why is it so cryptic, so confused, so indecipherable that even his fanatical servants can't agree among themselves what the hell it means. "I love you mom. So, if you can find the secret phrase hidden in this word search, I won't shoot you in the face with the rest of the family."

If it were somebody else's religious book saying this crap, you'd giggle in their faces.

I know you've all taken the oath to ignore logic and be a zombie here. You believe that god put us in a world with rules and laws, but that when we learn them, we can't use them: rather we should believe every literal (English) world of some recent translation of a translation of a collection of copied copies of copies of manuscripts written by mentally suspect religious hucksters and ecstatics from over 1500 years ago. You go ahead and do that. But don't quote your version of that old horror novel at me. And don't you dare tell me you're the one taking the high ground. Especially if you're the narcissistic do-nothing devils bringing about these 'prophecies' yourself anyway.

If god comes and he does not agree with me on this, then he's a fraud, and he can lick my balls while Jesus blows me.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


I just heard Libby Dole tell us that Iraq was the central battle in the "War on Terra". As any fan of science fiction or Latin knows, this is a frightening mispronunciation. On the other hand, maybe it's the one Bush has really been fighting all this time. In fact, the evidence supports this interpretation. The Bush cabal has usurped control of the U.S. military and has led the entire world deep into the first stages of global conflict. In many ways Bush really has taken on the world, too, by flaunting public opinion and human decency. Of course 30% of the American public still approves of Bush's foreign policy. Who the HELL are they? I have a guess.

This brings me to this weeks hot topic: the end of the world. Pundits have all week been spuriously opining in response to questions like “Are we on the verge of WWIII?” People are starting to use words like Armageddon and End Times in the present tense. As if 'WWIII' wasn't scary enough. There's some hill in Lebanon that people are saying IS the place this word refers to. And of course, Israel is attacking near it. Aha! That was prophesied! Another little window to open on our "countdown to the apocalypse" Advent calendar.

Many are looking at the real-world death, suffering, and war and getting that "here we go!" feeling of being just barely over the edge of the roller coaster's first hill. Throw up your hands and scream. We're descending into the end days....wheeeeeee!


And, even sicker, some of them believe they're so right(eous?) that they'll be 'raptured' and not even have to watch all the rest of us go through the foretold horrors. How nice. Convenient, even, I would say.

I'm starting to believe.

I mean, no - I don't believe for a minute that the authors of Daniel and Ezekiel and Revelation actually had foreknowledge of anything. Their "prophecies" read exactly like the horoscopes and cold readings of a million mystics and con artists since. "A beast with seven heads will arise" Oh, my! How...inexplicable. Could it be the G-7? No, now they're the G-8. Or maybe it’s the seven horses in the Preakness. Or the year 2007. Or the 6 people and one dog that attended my homeowners' association meeting last month.

My point is, we humans are programmed to try to find meaning where there is none (that cloud looks like an alligator!) Unfortunately, this makes it relatively easy for many of us ‘find’ the meanings that we deeply want to find (that cloud formation is a sign that my alma mater of Florida will win this week!). And because people are so desperate for some meaning to exist, they readily accept meanings suggested to them by those with agendas of their own. Sadly, evil, selfish, and power hungry ‘prophets’ regularly convince others of their insights by the force of their conviction and charisma. It's pathetic, really. (How many times has Pat Robertson been wrong in his predictions? But he still has a tv show. Praise the Lord!) Karl Rove understands all this too well.

No, I don’t believe in prophecy, but I'm starting to believe that the world is really headed for exactly the kinds of events that believers will say Revelation describes. (That is: fire, brimstone, war, plague, death, suffering, wailing. The works.) This is the future that Bush’s policies are knowingly or unknowingly driving us toward. But of course, it isn’t the work of any god. It is ours alone, because we allow it.

The horrible irony is that the whole thing is quite literally a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's these good Christians that have most brought these events about. It's they who voted for Bush and the Neocons - twice - and continue to be his power base. It's they who made reason, facts, and objectivity anathema, allowing a government to ignore science and scholarship and say things like "we are not part of the reality-based community". It's they who protect Bush from criticism and ignore every flaw and error. These believers do what they're good at - they believe. They believe despite facts, despite rational thought, despite the world falling down around them. It's called "faith"; and when placed in the wrong person, or the wrong interpretation of the world, it's utterly destructive. It's the same mind set that fuels the Muslim fundamentalists that are at war with the U.S. The exact same.

Now, the really depraved thing is that this doesn't bother a lot of fundamentalists. Something about the fact that horrible suffering and death is predicted in the bible makes some Christians happy with its prospect. They have such a poor connection to their fellow human beings, such a selfish, self-righteous, self-important attitude, that they're completely happy to abstractly sacrifice lives, hopes, and happiness of any number of others on the fool's bet that they will be soon getting their personal paradise. This certainly isn't Christian as I understand the term (in the manner of Christ), even from a believer's point of view. It’s selfishness and pride, nothing more.

It’s long been said that Bush and his followers see their role as actively bringing about the prophecies. Let me suggest that if indeed God has an Apocalypse in mind, he doesn’t need your help to bring it about, nor your advice about its timing. And he hasn’t asked for it. As a matter of fact, He might very well be expecting you to heroically resist its arrival out of Christian mercy right up until the end. Don’t you think that sounds more like the God who sacrificed his only Son for humanity? Let me ask you... are you praying for the Apocalypse to come or praying for it to be avoided? Are you ready for forgiveness, compassion, and sacrifice, or are you secretly glad the nonbelievers will soon be tormented so you can sanctimoniously give them an “I told you so” while waving your copy of “Left Behind” at them?
The world is moving to war. What are you doing to prevent it? To allow the suffering and destruction that's coming to the world because of your own personal hopes is the height of Christian hypocrisy. What are you doing to save the world from destruction? Are you repudiating this false prophet of a leader? Are you calling for America to turn the other cheek and display mercy and love to the Arab world?

Normally, I don’t get so deep into religious argument: it’s ultimately futile. But we’ve come to a precarious point politically. Much of Christian world - and maybe our president as well - is turning into a fatalistic Doomsday Cult, and the movement is growing. Unfortunately unlike most of the other doomsday cults in the past, they have enormous political power, and that makes them incredibly dangerous, because it’s our day they’re dooming.

From my point of view, whether the biblical prophecies are accurate or not, any who callously help to bring about the destruction of life is my enemy and the enemy of humanity. And this includes those who watch and do nothing. We are only in the End Times if we allow it to be so. This post is a plea to all people of sense and good will to let their voices be heard, a call to arms against the venomous ideas of apocalyptical politics, and a reminder that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The value of a life

It's been way too long since I posted here. I apologize. I think I'll try for a little less length and a little more frequency. Starting now.

So the topic today is one of they many interesting factoids I've heard lately about current islamic opinion. I've heard it said that many in the Islamic world believe that the West - and America in particular - does not value the life of a Muslim as much as the life of a Christian (or a Jew).

They've come to this conclusion, having watched the U.S. invade and occupy Iraq apparently without due concern for the life, human rights, and safety of the Iraqi people. And now they hear the president rally behind Isreal's war in Lebannon, apparently comfortable with the loss of Muslim life that gets in the way. We have a policy, and we are willing to pay a cost to acheive it, so long as that cost is primarily borne by the (Muslim) population and our gas prices don't go too high.

But I want to tell Muslims - from the heart - that this perception is simply untrue, and it is offensive and disturbing to hear this. We don't value Muslim life differently than the lives of people of other faiths. As evidence of this, I offer U.S. foriegn policy. The U.S. has been happily complicit with genocides of people of all faiths around the world. True, the people of Darfur are Muslim, but the Rwandans were mostly Christian. The Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge were Buddhist. We have gladly supported regimes who have brutally repressed and murdered their own population, whether Catholic, Buddhist, or Animist. Just look at central America. No, the truth is the reason we ignore the misery of most Muslims is simply that we value the lives of the poor less than the lives of the wealthy. The people of poor countries, especially the lower classes and the native peoples, are vast unwashed masses to us.

Every week seems to bring some natural disaster that wipes out hundreds or thousands of impoverished people like ants. We feel powerless to prevent such things. And we don't need to care about them so long as we don't have to look at them. And that's what we do: we ignore the misery and poverty of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and those who practice native religions alike. How can we be expected to care much about such people, anyway, if they don't care enough about themselves to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (What? They don't have shoes? That's no excuse!).

Note our response to the misery of our own poor in New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The government was utterly leisurely in its response to that calamity, even though it occurred right here at home because it - as most disasters do - primarily affected the underclass. The devoutly Christian underclass.

So I say this to the Muslims in Iraq and Lebannon enduring daily violence, sorrow, and fear, which American policy facilitates: just be glad you're not also black.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Punditry and the facts

I'm so tired of watching dueling spinmeisters on my tv. When's the last time you saw someone consulted on any of the issues who really tried to be objective? –who wasn’t vomiting forth talking points and playing party-defense like a linebacker?—and wasn’t getting away with it? (of course, I omit the only truly objective mainstream news outlet: NPR, which, of course, isn’t on tv. PBS has had its moments.)

The entire system is culpable here. Neither party thinks we have the attention span or the wherewithal to actually understand the issues, so all policy initiatives and stances are boiled down to a slogan and a smear, or they’re buried.

For the media’s part, a fight is always more attention-grabbing than an insightful, productive discussion, so they fulfill the role of the kid in junior high who said “did you hear Jason called you a fag?” and then stand back to watch. They have less and less interest in actually informing anyone, anyway--information would make us slightly more resistant to the fearmongering and infotainment that is their bread and butter. And maybe less likely to buy their sponsor's products.

Pundits and personalities have largely taken sides in the Washington all-out power struggle, which gets them lots of face-time (see above) and plenty of opportunities to plug their next book. It also ingratiates them to a party power elite, which I assume has its own perks.

All too often, it's not even a real contest of ideas--it’s all a dance. They know the other guy (and the host) is in the same game they are, and they know already what they’ll say. They all agree to worship the gods of charisma and showmanship, rather than wisdom or sorrow. And they agree to confine their conversations to the topics-of-the-day: those 4 or 5 issues that are temporarily somehow at the top of everyone’s agenda at once, until the president holds a press conference to change the subject. They spar, they smile, and they agree to disagree. Then the host says “when we come back…gas prices- are they too high?” immediately after which we are urged to by a Hummer.

So I sit there sometimes screaming at my tv: “that’s so misleading!” “That’s not what you said last year!” “That’s been debunked!” “that makes no sense!”, “you can’t possibly believe that!” and of course “you bald-faced, mothercountryfucking rat-bastard liar!” among other less kind things.

All cynicism about the media aside, there’s very little a show host, or any intellectual opponent, can do about much of the spinning (read “lying”) that goes on. They don’t have access to the facts at their fingertips to counter every warping of reality that comes out of people’s mouths. And, even if they do, there’s no arbiter: no matter how right one is, it’s still he said, she said. And the bell can’t be unrung.

So, now, having liberally cursed the darkness, I’m going to light a candle. My solution to this problem is a new talk show format:

Pop up Punditry!

Ever see MTV’s Pop up Video? Or Blind Date?

I Imagine watching Cheney on some show talking about how responsible the big oil companies really are, but with a thought bubble above his head: “I know cuz they’re all good buddies of mine…and the president…and the Saudis.” Or to have a streamer across the bottom saying “VP panders to special interests in 3..2..1” Or just a little animated Cheney head guzzling gas from the pump.

Established facts and unbiased statistics could be added to the screen at the appropriate times to support or contradict the speaker: “Actually, Iraq never attacked the U.S., 19 Saudis trained in Pakistan did”. Talking points could be pointed out as they are given (an inset picture of 3 other people saying the same line, “democrats want to cut and run”, one after the other. Logical flaws could be highlighted and simplifications could be stretched out to their logical conclusions. Current promises could be contrasted with past acts. A dollar sign covered banner could inform us about how much money a relevant interest group spent on someone’s campaign. The real-world implications of knee jerk positions could be depicted (like war casualties when someone hypes military action). Like having The Daily Show's Jon Stewart sitting next to you while you watch.

I’m sure you could find a way to do it so it’s fair and not mean spirited, although I’m not sure I’m the one to do that in my present mood. I honestly think the Washington community are such media-crackwhores that they’ll jump at the chance to do such a show, even if they were made to look foolish. How could that show not get ratings?!? It might even force them to be considered, factual, and consistent. But maybe not.

If you’ve got any pop-up punditry fantasies, share them.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Thanks Drek

This is just a heart-felt shout-out to Drek at Total Drek for introducing my little blog to his massive and discriminating audience. Drek is my blogging inspiration, and if he thinks I'm worth a look, then I conclude I must be doing something right. I'll try to keep it up.

If anyone is reading that isn't a fan of Drek, I urge you.... nay, I command you to get yourself to Total Drek and once and for all learn how to unmuddy your thinking and arrive at the hosed-off facts. Well, to be fair, only half the posts do help you do this... some just talk about hooters.

And if my site name seems inexplicable, let me show you the inspiration. He's a local bird here and a rarity in the U.S. I'm not sure why his face is red, but it might have something to do with the Bush administration.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Free speech and media consolidation

Speaking of speech---

I've long been dismayed by the increasing consolidation of media. And now it's apparently about to get worse.

Currently nearly all our news and entertainment is provided by a tiny group of megalopolies:

I bring this up today because I just received a call to the barracades by I reproduce their important statement of the issue below:

The Federal Communications Commission is once again taking up the issue of media ownership and deciding how media ownership rules should be changed. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has warned: "They screwed it up once. Believe me, they're 100 percent capable of screwing it up again."
That's why it's crucial for the public to weigh in now. Here's what's at stake:
Big Media stifle viewpoints: If a corporation like News Corp. can buy multiple media outlets in a single city or town, it gains immense influence over what information is available. Consolidated corporations strip local newsrooms of staff, while pushing aside competing points of view. That means less diversity of voices and a narrower range of debate.
Big Media don't serve local communities: In exchange for their free and exclusive use of the public airwaves, broadcasters such as Sinclair are supposed to serve the public interest. Yet they frequently ignore important local issues, pander to sensationalism, provide biased coverage of elections, and stifle diverse viewpoints.
Big Media ignore diversity: Corporate media conglomerates like Tribune Company are more concerned with profits than responsible programming. Coverage of issues important to people of color, the working class and rural citizens are squelched or ignored because these people aren't advertisers' target audiences.
Without ownership limits, giant national corporations can buy up local stations and newspapers, eliminate diverse, local and independent programming. If the FCC is serious about fostering localism and diversity, it must enact protections against consolidated corporate ownership.
For decades, the biggest media companies have had the ear of the FCC and Congress, while the public has been ignored. As the FCC rewrites is ownership rules and Congress debates legislation that will shape the entire media system for years to come, it's time our policymakers listened to the public, not just the corporate lobbyists.

I would add another problem to this trend, recalling the freedom of speech issues in my last post: Big Media is destructive to democracy itself.

Big media has become a two-headed monster (democrat vs. republican?), but is really only a single subculture. Though the two heads are opposed on many issues (appearing to exhibit diversity) they agree on more things than not. Both are centered in New York and Washington and run by a relatively small group of people who know each other. Both are run by huge corporations with corporate and conservative interests. This is why they present all arguments as between the democrats and the republicans, why third parties are always dead before they start, and why populist movements are a thing of the past.

As do all subcultures, they quickly come to a consensus view of events and of the world. It’s astounding how quickly all the channels agree on “the story” --how they choose what to cover and how to present it-- each by following the others.

Certain things become true; some things are presented as important, or as good, or as scary…and others not. Remember Howard Dean’s “scream”. I was watching the news that day – people didn’t know what to make of it at first: no one had in memory seen a politician that energetic and forceful. But a few folks who were already anti-Dean said it was embarrassing, and those on the fence were swayed to that view, and within the day, the story was “Dean’s craziness”. No one took polls of the community – no one asked how it played at the event itself, or what the people in Ohio or Colorado thought of it. By the end of the day though, Dean’s presidential hopes were over, and the rest of the country – who might have had a different view in another context – had taken their cue from the media, and were laughing at him.

It is clear that when a single subculture has that kind of power over politics, democracy is at risk. Further, it becomes a target for cynical manipulation. Enter Fox News, influencing all media with their hard right-wing spin. (Remember how they all followed Fox in calling the 2004 election for Bush?)

The minority views – the voices of dissent, the new ideas, the regional perspectives, the third parties, the unknown stories -- are increasingly marginal, creating a public that is less and less aware of the complexities of the world and further disillusioned, impotent, and apathetic about politics. This is indeed a recipe for democratic disaster.

So, I urge everyone to make their voices heard on this issue. At the least, go to this website and send their letter to the FCC:

Monday, June 26, 2006

Free speech and expensive speech

Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy, and Sclalia. Get used to this bunch. The'll be making all the decisions from now on. Per their habit, the Supreme court conservatives interpreted the Constitution differently than the liberals yesterday. And, as usual, it’s in a way that seems to dampen democracy. Yesterday's decision was that a Vermont law that limited campaign spending unconstitutionally restricted freedom of speech. This supports and expands the fundamental finding of an earlier case (Buckley v. Valeo), which stands for the principle that the government cannot limit by law how much someone may spend in a campaign. The logic is that spending money is necessary to speak, so limiting the amount of money spent will limit speech. There is more to this idea than is immediately apparent, but ultimately it fails.

Of all the types of speech protected by the first amendment, the most important is - and ought to be - political speech. Political speech is the essential ingredient of democracy: the exchange of political ideas and information upon which the electorate can judge candidates and policies. Political speech has long been considered a specially protected class of speech, and this makes the Vermont law is potentially problematic.

But the Vermont law does not truly impede free speech. There are three important points to make about this.

First, the spending caps are not content based. Inhibiting certain ideas (like the image of a burning flag, e.g., or the policy of drug legalization) is clearly a ruinous path that the Constitution does not (yet) allow. This law does not do this. Even if a candidate reaches his or her spending limit, he or she can still talk about anything he or she wants. The government of Vermont cannot prefer one candidate to another or apply the law selectively based upon what is being said.

Second, the proposed law does not actually limit what the candidates can say or where or how long they say it. It is a cap on spending, not on speech itself. Given the platform, the candidate can continue to be quoted in the press and continue to shout from the rooftops.

Of course, freedom of speech implies more than the absence of a hand over one's mouth. Clearly, freedom of speech would be useless if the government could control the ability of others to hear it. Certainly, we do not want to allow governments to have access to a mute button. Is capping someone's spending akin to using a mute button? No, it’s volume control.

Certainly, the more money you spend, the more people will "hear" you. But the volume of speech isn't the same as speech itself. Imagine a city park in which two candidates are bellowing into bullhorns. Who will be heard? The one with the biggest bullhorn. And thus, candidates become locked into an arms race for the best means of amplifying their speech, until they are drowning out all others. Certainly, for their own peace of mind, the community has a right to tell them to keep the noise below a certain level, even if that means fewer people will "hear" them. By doing so, too, the community allows other voices to be heard, voices that don't have such powerful megaphones. As I see it, that's what the Vermont law does - decrease the size of bullhorns. Having freedom of speech has never implied freedom to drown others out. This is why airwaves with finite bandwidths are parsed and allocated by the government. If done in a fair way, limiting speech volume actually allows more speech.

But there is a third, more fundamentally disturbing issue here for democracy. In this sense, the Vermont law is actually a boon to free speech. The Supreme Court here ignores the problematic effects of income inequality. If we truly regard money as speech, we are acknowledging a system where some people have more ("free") speech than others. Is this democracy? In the market of goods and services, capitalism assumes that the more you want or need something, the more you’ll pay for it. The more something is desired, the higher its price. Thus the cost of something is a measure of its value to the buyer, ostensibly allowing goods and services to be allocated where most wanted. As we know, this isn’t actually the result; the cost of something to you is always relative to your wealth.

So, is this how we should allocate speech? The more you want to speak, the more you’ll spend; thus, in a world of finite ears for each message, those who spend the most should obtain access to the most ears. Is it contrary to the First Amendment to spread speech around to those without money? Are poor people simply less interested in exercising their rights to free speech?

I say no. Just as poll taxes prevent the democratic process, so does tying speech to wealth. For the very reason that political speech is a special class of speech protected from government meddling, it should also be protected from the vagaries of the market and the monopolization of the rich. Free speech must not give way to fee speech.

Of course, that's not the way the Supreme Court's new majority sees it.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Gay marriage, politics, and meaning

Here we are again near an election, and thus here we are talking about the issue of gay marriage. Republican rabble rousers in congress view this as their ace in the hole. People tend to get pretty emotionally involved in the issue, and this draws more prudes out to the polls. And, of course, prudes vote republican.

But "prudery" is too simplistic an explanation for the majorities in states across the country that voted in 2004 to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. Gay marriage is a new idea for many people, one that challenges - perhaps even ‘attacks’ - some fundamental beliefs and values they hold. It is, thus, not surprising that they sometimes react emotionally with discomfort, disgust, fear, and even outrage. And they are entitled, I suppose. Emotional reactions, however, rarely make good policy, particularly in this cynical age.

Republican legislators (following the lead of George Bush and his Washington buddies) have recklessly fanned these phantom flames into political hoopla; in their attempts to pretend they have something in common with their constituents, they have declared their intention to “protect marriage.” To do so, they have gone to the extraordinary lengths of campaigning for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as man-woman, and specifically disallowing any legal similarities with non-married partnerships. Why a law? Because it is the only tool in their irrelevant toolbox. But even those who feel strongly that same-sex couples not marry should not support a law to ban it.

Amid all the posturing, grandstanding and exploiting of emotions, I have yet to hear anyone in power say anything practical about this issue. I ask this simple question of those of you who currently support these legislators: What, in concrete terms, would you ask the government to do in the name of the “protection” of marriage? As I see it, ‘marriage’ is three things, only one of which is any of the legislature’s business.

First, it’s a state of mind. By getting married, we proclaim our commitment to ourselves, our partner, and all our friends and family. It implies devotion, responsibility, and enduring love. Gay couples have been doing this for a long time, and their friends and family have long acknowledged their marriage. If you abhor the "idea" of gay marriage, you are, of course, individually free not to recognize someone's marriage, but the government simply has no jurisdiction over what a couple feels or believes. There are no legal means to outlaw this state of mind: no constitutional amendment or law can ever stop anyone from feeling or believing they are married and acting in accordance. Thus, if this is the point of friction, no legal or political solution is posible.

Second, it’s a religious institution. All churches typically sanctify some kinds of marriages, and abhor others. But, happily, in our country, the government does not prefer any one religion’s ideas to another’s. We all have the freedom to perform whatever religious rituals or ceremonies we want to, and that is a matter between our church, our God, and ourselves. There are today churches that will and that do sanctify marriages between homosexuals: they conduct ceremonies, bless intentions, and pronounce the participants married. The politicialns (and the rest of us) will not – should not - can not - prevent it. It’s Amendment #1 – the freedom of religion. So, obviously, this isn’t what gay marriage prohibitionists are talking about, either.

Third, and most germane to this discussion, marriage is a contract with the state. We get a marriage license from Arizona, and that entitles us to a legal status and a number of perks. Apparently, this is what the brouhaha is all about. When any “protection of marriage” legislation does pass, the result is not fewer gay couples, fewer loving commitments, or less gay sex; the result is only the withholding of certain concrete legal conveniences to gay couples.

So…I ask again: exactly which state-given benefit must be saved at all costs from the non-heterosexual? The right to visit a partner in the hospital? To file a joint tax return? To inherit without a will? To make medical decisions for each other? To jointly adopt? Which of these rights/privileges is at issue…which is the right you feel so deeply belongs, by nature, exclusively to heterosexuals? My guess is that none of these are really the issue in good people’s minds.

My own conclusion is that this ‘debate’ is really a social-linguistic debate, not a legal or political one - it isn’t about the legal reality of marriage at all. It’s a proprietary argument about the very word “marriage.” Conservatives are in essence saying, “It’s my word – it applies to my relationship - and you can’t use it!” But - it must be clear by now -such concerns can never be really addressed by governmental action. Congress simply has no power to legislate the meanings of living words. Partisans should be calling their local dictionary, not their local representatives. Why not a constitutional amendment to restrict the use of "uncle" to referring only to the brother of one's parent (or the husband of one's aunt), rather than just a family friend? Or a law that distinguishes between shoes and sandals? These are issues that are up to Webster and to each of us in our own lives and our own communities.

So, here we are. A proposal has been made to address a social concern with entirely inappropriate – and potentially extremely harmful – remedy. There’s lots of rhetoric and bombast, and plenty of hot air and smoke. People argue about what marriage "is", and try not to let their fear and disgust of homosexuality show through on tv. And nobody– not our pundits, not our state legislators, and not our president – is saying anything relevant to the actual proposed legislation. I wonder why that is. I guess you score more political points through simplistic, hot-button proclamations and mean-spirited, exclusionary lawmaking than by actually doing something.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

American Empire

I have an audacious question, and I hope someone will answer it and ease my mind. What is the essential difference between our unprovoked invasion of Iraq and Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Russia’s of Afghanistan, or Saddam’s of Kuwait? For most Americans, it is that we invaded with good intensions: we wanted to help the Iraqi people, not dominate them. We wanted to remove a threat in Saddam and thereby let the Iraqis have their country back. We would liberate them, then we would go on our way. But what if this basic story is all a lie, like so many other things our government has told us? I still don’t want to believe that - it would mean that we are not, in fact, as I always proudly thought, a moral nation.

Randy Rhoads was talking about U.S. plans in Iraq today on Air America, and her conclusions are devastating. She noted that U.S. presidents don't pay unannounced visits on truly sovereign foreign countries, and that this indicates that Iraq is not truly sovereign, nor, according to Randy, will it ever be. As evidence of this, Randy points to the enormous (bigger than the Vatican, she says), multibillion dollar embassy we're building in Baghdad, and the 12 "enduring" military bases we have built throughout the country.

Sadly, I think she's inescapably right. My best read of the facts is that the neocon-led administration planned long ago to attack, conquer, occupy and control Iraq as the first stage in their plan to politically and militarily dominate the middle east and create American hegemony. And, of course, they followed through with this plan (having conveniently been handed 9/11 as a spark), leaving sorrow, devastation, loss, and chaos in their wake for us and for Iraq. They do not mean to ever give up control over the country or, by extension, the region. None of the imperatives, the fears, or the reasons that have been made public to justify the action and offset the tremendous human and monetary costs were genuine, in the final analysis.

In fact, I think I was naïve to think that we ever were planning to leave. When, since the Mexican War, have we left a country we entered without being driven out forcibly? We’re still in Cuba, still in Japan and Germany, still in most of Europe, still in much of the Pacific, still in Korea. I’m not saying that our influence in these places is evil overall, but it is influence nonetheless - the implied threat of force if someone gets out of line. It is a silent occupation that is felt in many hidden ways (say, perhaps in pressure to allow “rendition” or hidden CIA sites when a country’s people oppose it).

You can bet this conclusion is what drives the insurgency in Iraq. In the initial months of the war, I couldn’t understand why an Iraqi insurgency developed at all when we were there to help them. It was their fighting paradoxically that was keeping us there. Were they crazy, or evil? Did they just “hate freedom”. A more reasonable interpretation is that they suspected what Bush’s plan was all along, and they didn’t want to have U.S. military might installing a puppet government and using their country to intimidate Iraqis and others. What if they were right to do so?

I'm livid and dejected when I think that Bush and his administration have turned the U.S. into an expansionist military empire in my name. I don't want to believe this is true, but I am at a loss to make the facts make sense otherwise. I am horrifyingly no longer sure that what our brave troops are fighting for is justifiable or noble, however noble the troops themselves are. The rest of the world is not so torn, though. Today millions of world citizens who had once thought of us as a power for good in the world now think this is not so. World opinion perceives that the U.S. is now the greatest current threat to world peace.

If we are really the nation we purport to be - that we hope to be - , we can’t ignore this. We must conclude our government has manipulated and taken advantage of our fear and our trust. It is our responsibility as moral, patriotic, idealistic Americans to make sure that those who have perverted our country’s image, and soul are stopped, exposed, and brought to account. Otherwise, I fear that this war will go down in history as the beginning of an era of American empire hostile to the principles it once stood for.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bush and advice

Bush’s new leaf

How many of you were caught off guard by President Bush’s plan to gather his advisers to “review” the Iraq mess this week? If Bush and his team have shown anything during their term in office, it’s that they don’t listen to anybody but themselves (and ‘God’). On decision after decision, they have acted without listening to generals, scientists, advisers, history, democrats, the citizens, the world, and the facts. The Iraq invasion, our disaster policy, the social security and Medicare debacles, their appointments at nearly every government position, and numerous other policy decisions are directly attributable to a small group of Neocon advisers, oil & military corporations, and the religious right political machine. Their government is a cabal.

So what is going on? Have they realized the error of their ways? Is God not speaking to Bush anymore, and he has determined to rely on his own savvy? Has reason prevailed? Of course not. Don’t be naïve. I hoped that such a thing would happen, too -- but that’s how the con artists get you - by helping you believe what you want to believe anyway (“If you help me sequester $1,000,000, I’ll send you half. All you have to do is give me your bank account number.”). Snap out of it.

Today, even more shocking news: Bush, instead of attending the meeting at Camp David takes a surprise dramatic trip to Baghdad! An on-the-ground “look ‘em in the eye” fact-finding mission. Right. Now he needs facts? The facts he can find only by personally taking an expensive, dangerous trip right into the heart of the storm.

There was an old Saturday Night Live sketch with Phil Hartman (a comedy god) as Reagan that comes to mind. Hartman shows Reagan as the doddering grandpa with the disarming quip that we all knew… but as soon as the press leaves, he springs into action - his real personality, we find, is aggressive and commanding. He explains his new “Iran-contra” plan to his aides like a general to misbehaving troops. But he’s interrupted by his press secretary - there’s a photo op with a girl scout now - Hartman curses and says “this is the part of the job I hate”, but dons his idiot persona again to do the picture, and makes a cute remark. Then he yells “back to work” and he screams his orders around some more. The skit was hysterical - because it was utterly unbelievable that he could have had that kind of command. On the other hand, there was a nugget of truth - he couldn’t possibly be as clueless as he played.

Bush is the same way, I think. But here, rather than have Bush show command and aggression, the skit would show him being supremely rational, inquisitive, subtle, and insightful - a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Imagine Bush with his magnifying glass. He’s having conversations with political leaders and judging the manner of their speech and the subtle way they bend forward or blink. Ah! He thinks. “Now I begin to understand this man! By the color of the dust on his robes, I can tell that he’s from the northern Tigris valley, a date producing region. As is well-known, the recent date crops have been decimated by a date fruit fly, which the growers have not been able to prevent because of their hibernation behavior. The pitch of this man’s voice and the age of his shoes tells me he’s under economic strain - probably from his family farm. Tell Condi to have her people slip an insecticide allotment to the power broker deal. I’ll signal this to him by remarking on the development of beta-lamadine X, the new fruit fly treatment they’re working on at M.I.T. Now, sir - it’s your move!”

What do you think? That must be what he’s doing there, right? Using his expertise to understand the political problems better and drag us out of this quicksand pit. Right?
Am I being too cynical to suggest that in fact, both these political events are just a show - a stunt? That, in fact, per usual, the administration already knows what they’re going to do, but that they find it useful to make people perceive they’re going through the motions of rationality and empiricism. Thus when they announce their move, however strange and pernicious it appears, it will be seen to have been arrived at after long and careful thought.

If I’m right (and I am), then some new development is near (perhaps they’re getting ready to stand down some portion of troops - perhaps to send more). And that move is just as ideologically based, just as wrong, and just as poorly planned as all their other moves.

If you weren’t careful, though, you might get the impression these event were a bold policy action. The talking heads on the news is portraying these events as genuine, rather than as staged. “Bush flew to Baghdad today to learn all he can and take advantage of the window that Zarqawi’s death has opened.” Why take this on faith? Is there any indication that the administration has changed its way of doing business? Is there any reason to believe that the president is really, finally, listening - and that his eventual policies will be drawn from the wisdom of the sources he has consulted? I just can’t see it.

No, what we have is a press that has devolved into a propaganda machine. They are so desperate for news - any news - to fill their 24-hour cable schedule, that they are glad to accept any compelling story, true or not, as long as they can say they didn’t know it was false at the time. So, the government feeds them - giving them something to talk about for a day. Just don’t look too deep. How can you fill a segment on “The Situation Room” with “a government spokesperson is fictionalizing again about the administration”. No - better just to play along. The government is really just another columnist today. Or more aptly, a reality show - and Karl Rove is a writer. It’s just entertainment. Bread and circuses, baby.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Baseball boring?

With the World Cup getting underway, a friend of mine posted this question on our fantasy baseball site:

For Discussion: Baseball More Boring than Soccerby: Gulf Plains Drifter
Jun 10 7:07am

In 1994 I went to some World Cup games in Dallas with a friend of mine from Senegal. We didn't have anything to do Saturday night so we went to a Texas Ranger game. My buddy fell asleep in the third inning and woke up only long enough to stand up and yell at the crowd behind us: "how can you watch such a boring game!" In 1997 I was roomates with a German student at UofA (I'll see him next week at the WC in Germany). He is a huge basketball fan and also a big soccer fan. We watched games all the time. I got him to sit down and watch a baseball game once. He got antsy with how slow the play was, couldn't believe that a game lasted 3 hours, and at one point when a player stepped out of the batter's box and the announcer said "the batter calls time" my roomie jumped out of his chair and shouted: "Time out! Time out from what!" Discuss.

My belief is that boring-ness isn't a quality of any thing, in itself. We call something boring when we don't see the significance of events and we thus aren't invested in the outcome, simple as that. The game of baseball is a series of "situations", that allow an informed, invested person to anticipate, worry and hope. If you're not a fan of baseball, you don't percieve the nuances of each situation: you don't know,e.g., that Player x, who is in a slump and was last night's goat and is mostly known for his miraculous ninth inning home run in a playoff game two years ago, is up against the opponent's dominant power closer, batting lefty, which is his good side. None of that is apparent. So it's just another batter facing just another pitcher. Same as the last one. How boring. And if you're not invested in the story that's being played out - if you don't have a team you're rooting for and characters that you care about, who cares if the guy gets a hit or get's struck out. You don't have to have constant activity to hold your interest. In fact, we can span long gaps in activity with anticipation. (Ever see "Deal or No Deal"? There's literally NOTHING to that game objectively except for anticipation - but it can keep people "interested" for an hour!). In fact, soccer, with it's constant play, is thought to be boring by many Americans new to the game. Ironically, they say "nothing happens", meaning that they don't perceive the importance of the events in the game up until the rare goal. To their unpracticed eye, this constant activity is no activity. So, my answer to the question is neither game is boring - Drifter's friends are.

Women and children first

Five times this week, when describing one of this world’s many atrocities, I learned that some number of innocent people were unfairly killed - “including women and children”. The idea is, I guess, to underline the amount of indignation to be felt - the level of the atrocity. This wasn’t an ordinary atrocity: this one was worse - it harmed the women and children.

Now the death of a child is particularly sad. By definition, children have had too little time in this world, and their death robs them of more of their lives than killing an adult does. Further they are more innocent and, so, more good in a sense, which offends our sense of justice: that good things should happen to good people. “Including children” makes sense to me.

But why mention the sex of the victims? What is the importance of noting that among the dead were some that had ovaries? This addition assumes and proclaims something about the essential qualities of men and women. It suggests that, relative to women, the men either deserved their fate more (they were not as good or pure) or were more able or responsible to endure it (they were not as weak). This belief - given we have no real information about the actual victims - relies on some problematic stereotypes.

It presumes, apparently, that women, like children, lack the moral independence to be partisan or malicious and lack the strength to endure the hardships of the world. Both these assumptions are categorically false. Women love and fight for their lives, their families, and their countries, although they are culturally sometimes limited in their ability to act. Women, too, are no less physically or mentally tough than men; this fact is often noted when we stereotypically describe their endurance during childbirth and their tenacity in fighting for their children. And it must be noted that there is no amount of human strength that is relevant against a bomb blast or a shower of bullets. What’s the difference between men and women in this context?

If I were female, I’d be livid every time I hear “including women and children”. It categorizes women essentially as children. The presumption behind this is that women, like children, are dismissable- that they would not fight for their rights or their countries. Women, like cattle, will serve any master. Is this true? It is so long as women believe it is.

It also demands male role expectation. Men are expected to be fighters, and thus they apparently must be prepared to accept harm. This is part of “being a man”. Given this, when harm comes to them, our conscience is not as shocked. In other words, maleness makes one a more natural target of violence. Crime statistics, by the way, confirm this: men are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime. These sentiments are spurious and pernicious. They simulateously approve of violence to men and dismiss the power and greatness of women.

Men, seen in this way, even when they are non-partisan "innocents", are potential future enemies. In other words, we are, at least relatively, justified to take the life of a man. In a Macchiavellian sense, when we're not sure who to kill, first kill the men. By taking this view, we devalue the humanity, goodness, and potential of a man, drafting him as an unwilling participant in the war of all against all. By repeating the phrase, we remind our listeners that - for a man - it's kill or be killed.

Imagine saying "24 died in the resultant fire, 16 of which were men who hoped for a better future for their families."

The better solution, of courfse, is to ignore sex altogether. How about "12 bystanders were killed by the blast, including 4 teachers and a firefighter." or "Of the 105 slaughtered innocents, 60 were parents, and 11 grandparents." Strange, perhaps, but these comments would at least have relevance, and they might cause us to remember that these people were part of a community, a family, a fabric of life.

We should all be upset by these news reports who think to play on and reaffirm our stereotypes - including women and children.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Atrocities in Iraq

I’m saddened and frustrated at the apparent atrocity in Haditha, Iraq. I know that (now that the apparent cover up has failed) there will be individuals held to account. But I think this will miss the issue entirely. Blaming the troops for this - or for abu graib - or for any of the thousands of other hairtrigger accidents, retribution beatings, mistaken identity arrests, and collateral harms over the past few years that our soldiers could sadly not avoid - is ultimately useless. The real criminals are the ones who’ve forced these scared, untrained 18 year-olds with guns into this confusing, *hot*, pressure cooker for years under the political guise of “helping” the Iraqis, whom they don’t know or understand. Even when armies WANT to help - even when they TRY to help… the potential for tragedy is always there. We who send troops overseas have to accept this reality and this responsibility.

We must stop sending our armies around the world believing that they are precise, controlled, moral instruments. I have lots of respect for all our troops and what they've had to endure, but regrettable, and even illegal acts are - tragically - not as aberrant as the media makes it seem. That’s a part of war that no amount of care and technology and moral righteousness can get around. War is messy, nasty, heartbreaking, horrifying stuff, despite the best intentions and the most patriotic talk.
Our response, though, to these events when they are brought to our attention is exasperatingly naive. It's like being appalled when a football player makes an late hit: after all, it’s against the rules. But everybody involved knows it’s part of the game, and it's impossible to play football without it happening now and then. When we pretend these terrible events aren’t part and parcel with war, like penalties are a part of sports, we simply make it easier for our leaders to commit our troops to more situations like Iraq - and be “shocked” when more mistakes happen. Supporting a war without acknowledging its reality is the real crime.