Friday, February 29, 2008

End of February Gem

Today is an uncommon day. Happens only every four years (except on the beginning of a century). Still, it is not as uncommon as the day in February president bush has in mind.

P.S. No, it's not a typo. It's just that I can spell bush anyway I please, the president won't know the difference (and not because he does not know about my blog, very few do.)

Smear and Fear

I was pleased to read this article by Naomi Klein, because it encapsulates my thoughts about the brouhaha surrounding the photo of Sen. Obama in traditional Somali attire.

Sadly, the mainstream media is too busy stirring lucrative controversy to draw the only logical conclusion from this example of racism. Thankfully, though, we have Naomi Klein's intellect to shine a light.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Trifecta From Intellectual Hell

Busy as I have been these last couple of weeks, I have not had much time to contribute original articles to the blog. Fortunately, Keith Olbermann has an uncanny ability to read my mind and to condense into 90 seconds my opinions about the intellectual dishonesty that conservative try to pass as honest and unbiased criticism of liberal ideas.

Suffice it to say that Jonah Goldberg has written a book called "Liberal Fascism". The title is, literally, all you need to know to understand the book and its author.

P.S. I thought the title was all you needed to know, but today, March 30, 2008, I actually found a very enlightening review by David Neiwert, who will enjoy my everlasting thanks for writing it, that explains quite why Goldberg's book belongs in the annals of ignorance, dishonesty, and ridicule by disemboweling the stupidity of Goldberg's arguments. It is, in short, a horrid piece of revisionist crap that only in a media world ruled by the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, the Drudges, the O'Reilly's could have found its way to a printing press.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Justice, Bush Administration Style

I would have called Gov. Siegelman's prosecution "justice, Republican style" if it were not for the fact that it disgusted some Republicans, too, such as former Arizona AG Grant Woods, one of the most vocal critics of the imprisonment of the former Alabama Governor.

In case you missed '60 Minutes' last Sunday, or if the owners of your local TV station are former business partners of George W. Bush and Republican donors, as the Bass brothers of WHNT are, and decided to black out the broadcast in your area...

(via Bradblog, and courtesy of CBS)

Now ask yourselves:

Do you really want to trust people like these with wiretapping your conversations (or, more likely, your congressman's) without a court order, or would you rather believe that this is just another example of the liberal media's dirty tactics against Saint George and Arcangel Karl?

Scoop! Early Election Results Here!

Courtesy of the Onion News Network, fake news with a taste of reality.

Diebold Accidentally Leaks Results Of 2008 Election Early

Friday, February 22, 2008

American Foreign Policy, Obama, and Fidel

Barack Obama has often been criticized for saying that, were he elected president, he would have talks even with representative of governments hostile to the United States.

In last night debate, he explained why he holds that conviction: because the refusal of the United States presidents and high-level officials to engage their peers in certain other countries only serves to exacerbate the view that American consider themselves superior to all others (a view that, sadly, many Americans do entertain), and can and will be used by those who hold ill will towards us to fuel their hostile agendas.

To those who think the Obama is wrong, and all others are right, I recommend this article (via Jon Swift). And since Jon Swift can be a veritable goldmine of wit, read this other article while you are at it.

A good weekend to all!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

God's Problem

Not my words. God's Problem is the title of the latest book by former Evangelical Christian and Distinguished Professor of Religion, UNC Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman. Listen to his interview on Fresh Air.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ugly RepUglyCon Tactics

Here is a splendid little article by Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker on the little, base, vile tactics of the Repuglycon party.

If they to stop calling the "Democratic Party" Democrat, I promise I will stop calling them Repuglycons.

Get ready! The Conmen Are Coming!

If you thought the only thing that can unite the right in the upcoming election was their hatred of the Clintons, think again. They can hate Obama, too, and smear him by comparing him to both Hitler and communists. I fear that the comparisons of Sen. Obama with dead Iraqi dictators (Hussein, anyone?), child molesters or the bogeyman are not far behind.

(Thanks to Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars for dissecting the deceitful and intellectually insulting logic of some on the right).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Introducing Snuggly, The Security Bear

Those liberals scaremongers will say anything to taint the stellar reputation of our beloved president and his righteous administration on the homeland security front. Luckily, cartoonist Mark Fiore brought Snuggly to the rescue with a cartoon that even your most liberal friends will understand.

Introducing Snuggly, The Security Bear in...
The Spies Who Love You

Why The Founding Fathers Were Wiser Than You Know

As a foreigner, I am always amazed by the unshakable belief that Americans have in the perfection of the United States Constitution. This belief is one of the few things that unite people across political barriers, which seem to have grown higher and wider. The Constitution, though, is perfect, and the wisdom of the Framers was such that no changes are needed. It is a widespread belief. A blind one, really, since most people have no idea what the Constitution says. Many even confuse the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence.

For conservatives and religious zealots in particular, the Constitution is almost a religious document: an unquestionable source of wisdom, guidance, and justice. For them, belief in perfection becomes absolute reverence. Ask them to justify their belief, and you will be attacked immediately for being unpatriotic, for daring to question the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who—more than 200 years ago—were all wise and all-knowing, almost god-like, when they gathered to set the rules of the game for American democracy. Dare to ask them if they know any other nation’s Constitution, and how it stacks up to that of the United States, and you will be looked at with a tinge of xenophobia. The Constitution’s perfection is not up for discussion. Period.

The only amendments that these conservative Constitutional zealots would consider are of a restrictive nature: a marriage amendment to define that marriage is the union of a man and a woman (no equality for homosexuals); an amendment declaring America a Christian nation (essentially relegating atheists and followers of other faiths to second-class citizen status). In so doing, they ignore the historical fact that most Amendments to the Constitution have led to the expansion of people's rights, rather than to their limitation (the notable exception being the 18th Amendment, which briefly instituted prohibition). They maintain that, in deference to the infinite wisdom of the Framers, we should use no less than the strictest interpretation of the Constitution, and that presidents should appoint only constructionist judges to guard against liberals, who have no respect for authorial intent.

How could anyone, I wonder, have such faith in the absolute perfection of a document authored by human beings at the end of the 18th century? Not that the Founding Fathers were not an enlightened bunch in their day, but perfect? Didn’t they write Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which explicitly states that no attempt to prohibit the importation of men (slavery) should be made at least through the year 1808? So I started doing some research.

Did The Founding Fathers Have Delusions Of Perfection?

My first objection to such fanaticism for the Constitution and, with it, the myth of infallibility of the Framers, stems from logic: If the Founding Fathers were as wise as Americans think they were, would they have assumed perfection for themselves? I hardly doubt it. Wisdom has a way of showing up hand in hand with humility. Arrogant people are seldom wise (we have some shining example of this fact in the present day White House), so it seems to me that a necessary requirement for superior wisdom is a superior sense of one’s limits. I highly doubt that the Founding Fathers would have such an elevated opinion of themselves to admit no possibility of improvement to the nation’s founding papers. And in fact, I found a quote to support my hunch:
No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation… Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.

An opinion so distant from the infinite wisdom of the Founding Fathers could only have been written by a flaming liberal: probably a Kennedy under the influence, right? Look the quote up: Thomas Jefferson wrote it in a letter to James Madison. Incidentally, Madison replied:
It would give me singular pleasure to see [this principle] first announced in the proceedings of the U. States, and always kept in their view, as a salutary curb on the living generation from imposing unjust or unnecessary burdens on their successors.

Contrary to what conservatives would have you believe, Jefferson was not alone in his interpretation that the Constitution should be regarded, and was intended by the Framers, as a living document:
The warmest friends and best supporters that the Constitution has, do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but they found them unavoidable and are sensible, if evil is likely to arise here from, that remedy must come hereafter; for in the present moment, it is not to be obtained; and there is a Constitutional door open for it, I think the People (for it is with them to Judge) can as they will have the advantage of experience on their Side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments which are necessary [as] ourselves. I do not think we are more inspired, have more wisdom, or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. (Emphasis added).

That quote is from another champion of un-American sentiment: your first President, George Washington.

What Imperfections?

In their truly great wisdom, the Founding Fathers knew that the Constitution would be imperfect. For example, they could not have known that the day would come in the history of the nation when 17% of the population would elect a majority of senators. That day has arrived. They could not agree on the prohibition to own slaves, so they left the prohibition in place at least through the year “one thousand eight hundred and eight”, but they could anticipate that future generations would amend this horrible wrong. They might not have been able to name the day when women would be allowed to vote, but they deferred to the wisdom of generations to come and bequeathed to them a system of clear instructions for amending the Constitution. They could not have known that the day would come when a president would interpret the constitution in such a way that would grant him the power to wage perpetual war under a single resolution of Congress, or that he would use the Constitutional prerogative of signing statements to challenge more laws than all other presidents combined, a practice so extensive that it earned the censure of the American Bar Association. That is precisely why they provided the power for future generations to improve the Constitution, so it could address unanticipated issues.

What The Preamble Tells Us

As you might know, there is a sizable number of conservatives (and libertarians) who believe that the role of the government, as defined in the Constitution, is to administer justice and secure the nation, and that everything else should be left to the free market. Does the Constitution corroborate this interpretation? We can start right from the Preamble, which says:
We the People of The United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Sure enough, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility and providing for common defense are stated goals in the Preamble. There is no mention, however, of the role of free market in a democracy. So where do conservatives get the idea that the government should not play a role in the social development of the nation? Or that the government should not play a role in regulating free enterprise? In fact the Preamble clearly states that one of the goals of the Constitution is to “promote the general Welfare”. It seems to me that programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, HUD, a national transportation system, a publicly-funded healthcare system, laws that regulate our interaction with the environment, workers rights laws, and so on, might very well fall under the umbrella of promoting the general welfare, don’t you think? When considering that the Preamble was written by 18th century men, it seems the Founding Fathers had a fairly progressive view of the role of government in society. Progressive enough to make promoting general welfare a part of the Constitution, without any mention of a preferred economic theory by which such welfare could be achieved.

I am starting to think that perhaps the ability of some conservatives to claim that they know the authorial intent of the Founding Fathers is inversely proportional to their actual knowledge of it.

The Genius Of The Constitution, in Jeopardy?

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Founding Fathers was the separation of powers achieved by establishing three branches of government. While the case has been made that nowhere in the Constitution the explicit phrase “separation of powers” can be found, authorial intent can be assumed based on extant writings by the Founding Fathers. For example, it was Jefferson who said in 1784:
All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body [in the Virginia Constitution of 1776]. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. 173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one. [Emphasis added]

Madison reaffirmed these concepts in Federalist Paper #47, when he said “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” A further explanation of the concept of the separation of powers (which according to some did not go far enough) is clearly and extensively enunciated in Papers 47-51.

In light of such positions, one naturally wonders if the Framers’ would not have questioned the wisdom of granting presidents the power to appoint justices for life, which they did, when President Bush was able to successfully appoint Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts to the Supreme Court, with the help of a Republican Congress that made it possible to rubberstamp even the president's most ideologically charged decisions, such as those two appointments were.

The role of Judiciary as a safeguard against abuses of power by the Executive or the Legislative branch relies on the political independence of the appointees. But for a year, until voters decided to reverse the Conservatives' monopoly on the three branches of government that the appointments of Justices Alito and Roberts had brought into effect, checks and balances were for all effects and purposes voided, a temporary but rather undesirable situation nonetheless, one that could have lasted longer, with dramatic and long lasting consequences.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

A Constitution so rightly revered deserves to be actively known, not just arbitrarily interpreted by those who stand to gain the most from a fixed interpretation of it that does not leave room for the scientific and social progress that the Founding Fathers would have been proud to be a part of. The unholy alliance of social conservatives and moral conservatives goes against the spirit of freedom, justice, and enlightenment that the Framers had written into the constitution. Their message is not so much “Revere the Framers". It is “Do not question authority”, “Do not question the textual interpretation of the Constitution, just as you would not question the word of God”. That seems precisely the opposite of what the Framers’ had in mind.

Alexis de Tocqueville prophesized that “…the concentration of power and the subjection of individuals will increase amongst democratic nations ... in the same proportion as their ignorance.” Unfortunately, most Americans know little or nothing about the Constitution nor about the men that bestowed it on the nation. Thus, they are susceptible to the claims of those who claim to have an intimate knowledge of the Framers’ authorial intent, but are quick to neglect when it does not suit their ends.

There is ample evidence that the authorial intent of the Founding Fathers was exactly the opposite of what strict constructionists say it is: The Constitution is not, and was never meant to be, a perfect, immutable, petrified tablet, containing a truth revealed to America by a higher authority. That honor is reserved for figures much less enlightened and complex, like Moses. The Founding Fathers indicated on several occasions their opinion that they did not assume that the Constitution should never be changed. They left open the possibility that it would be changed, and were certain that it would indeed need to be changed. They were wise enough to understand that they could not anticipate future developments or improvements in the state of knowledge, and they would not have wanted to hold future generations hostage to their ignorance of what they could not anticipate. They were, in fact, much wiser than strict constructionists like Justices Scalia or Rehnquist give them credit for. That is what you need to keep in mind when ultraconservatives, neocons, and religious zealots confront you with the idea of authorial intent and textualism.

So let me remind you of a quote that Thomas Jefferson delivered, which underscores the importance of standing up to false prophets and of not voluntarily surrendering authority to those who claim it solely based on their presumption of knowledge or powers they don’t have: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical.” Had he said that today, President Bush would likely have declared him an enemy combatant. And what’s worse, our ignorance would make it possible.

Recommended Reading

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

If I had a penny...

If I had a penny for every proof submitted by the makers of Expelled! that Intelligent Design is a scientific theory, I'd be... broke. Read more, ladies and gentlemen, in this blistering denunciation of ID thinking, via Pharyngula.

Monday, February 11, 2008

PZ Myers on Atheism and Discrimination

PZ Myers, who runs the blog Pharyngula, makes this interesting point about atheism in politics:
as an atheist in America, I have never had the opportunity to vote for any candidate in any election who was willing to admit to disbelief. (Think about that—as a group, we lack representation in our government, but it's the other side that is always claiming discrimination.)

He also makes some interesting points about Obama in this post.

Mirror Mirror Of Our Health

I am Italian, so I have direct experience with socialized medicine, and I do not understand why Americans are so repulsed by the concept. Perhaps it has to do with how they were brainwashed to associate any word that starts with the letters *social* with communism and repression. In any case, I would never trade Italy's socialized healthcare for America's.

In Italy, I never had to fear that I would have nowhere to go in times of need. When I went to the doctor, he took time for a thorough visit, instead of rushing me through as happens here in the U.S. I had the utmost confidence in the opinion of the doctors and the professors that visited me. And healthcare never cost me a penny, except for a small co-pay for visits and medicines.

The system is paid for by tax dollars, so everybody contributes in proportion to their income (which is a form of providing “for the least of them”). Private insurance provides supplemental healthcare for those who can afford it. It is a fact of life that money buys power, and Italy is no different in that sense. But those who choose to buy private insurance are not exempt from paying taxes for healthcare.

I know that all is not well with the way healthcare works in Italy. There are structural delays, not enough hospital beds in certain areas, waiting lists for non-life critical care (in the case of transplants or other critical care, some Italians go to private clinics or abroad, so they do not have to wait). It is not a perfect system, but fears of rationing are greatly exaggerated. (The U.S. healthcare system is not perfect either, and stealth-rationing occurs in the form of those who are not insured and cannot afford to pay.)

Things changed when I moved to America.

I have never felt as depressed, angry, and helpless as when I was sick after coming to America. I had no health insurance and my wife was a temp. We did not have health insurance not because we thought we did not need it or because we wanted to spend money irresponsibly. We did not have health insurance because we could not afford it. We went without health insurance for 5 of the first 7 years in our marriage (which, to an extent, suffered because of it). The one time I had to go to the emergency room, for something that luckily was not serious and which took one hour to investigate, I had to pay $350 out of pocket (in 1993), on wages of $750 a month. I am glad to report that I have had a good job and good health insurance for many years now, but rest assured that I understand the plight of those who don’t, in a country that relies on people being covered by insurance companies.

So now you understand why, when you say that almost everyone has access to healthcare, my nerves are raw. Everybody has access to healthcare, but too many are uninsured and choose not to use it or get stuck with a bill they cannot afford. Either way, the monetary and psychological costs of people who should see a doctor or go to a hospital, but cannot afford to and choose not to, is incalculable, not the mention the public health risks for the rest of the population.

From my standpoint, Americans have an overinflated and unjustified sense of pride in their healthcare system. This is the fault of free-market insurance advocates and of those who believe them when they say that taxes are already high enough and that socialized medicine would make matters worse. To them I say this: I agree that taxes are high enough (for the middle-class), but you don't need to raise taxes on everyone, only on the wealthy, and/or you can shift your national priorities, so that instead of waging war because you can, you wage it because you have to. And instead of inflating military budgets, you can shift funds to services that make people lives' better, instead of destroying them. That is what civilized nations do. And in so doing, they probably need less money for defense (fewer enemies) and have more money for everything else. Instead, in America I pay a lot of taxes, AND I have to BUY my own health insurance.

A country that spends so much money on defense (twice as much as the European Union combined and more than ten times as China) but does not have universal healthcare is not a shining example to the world. A country that cuts taxes for the very wealthy and does allows loopholes for corporations to escape taxes, while anyone has to go without healthcare is not the beacon of freedom, democracy and justice that it would have its citizens and the rest of the world believe. It is certainly not a model to follow or to export to the rest of the world, and its conviction in its superiority flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary. On healthcare, America needs to stop asking the mirror to confirm its belief in its superiority and take a good look around. It might learn something healthy.

Recommended Reading

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Supreme Court Abortion Argument In The Upcoming Election

If you are in favor of the reversal of Roe v Wade, you think that Supreme Court appointments are paramount. Indeed they are. Unfortunately, conservative justices will issue other rulings that will do much harm to America. You will say that it does not matter, that anything the court does will be outweighed by the importance of reversing Roe v Wade. It will save the lives of 1.21 million children, won't it? No, it won't.
Assume a Republican appoints a conservative justice, and that justice is instrumental in reversing Roe v Wade: What will really happen? The reversal of Roe v Wade will transfer the power to legislate on abortion back to the states. Liberal states will NEVER ban abortion. They would rather secede, and might very well do it. Some conservative states may try to ban abortion, and many states already have laws that make it near impossible to have an abortion, but an outright ban goes too far for most Americans, including me and at least the good citizens of South Dakota, who in 2006 rejected an attempt by the legislature to do just that. Women who live in states where abortion is all but illegal will still get it in states that allow it. Those who cannot will find a way to end the pregnancy anyway. At what cost?

The likely answer is that a conservative Supreme Court will also be instrumental in limiting the rights of individuals versus corporations, for example in the area of workers rights, or equal pay for women. It will limit the right of individuals to appeal against corporations by reforming tort law (not all lawsuits are as frivolous as corporate America would have you believe). It might extend the power of the president over congress in times of war. It may reverse some of the desegregation laws that have an impact on the quality of education for inner city students (this has already been done, by the way, by the current right-leaning Supreme Court). It will likely limit state's powers to demand cleaner air and water for their citizens. It will rule in favor of more media deregulation and on, and on, and on…

Abortion is a fundamental issue for many voters. The problem is that no judicial appointment alone will end abortion. But it might put a stop to progress in the lives of those individuals who have had the fortune/misfortune to make it out of the womb already. Think well before you vote, and before your principled, one-issue-above-all stand wreaks havoc on the nation.

Recommended Reading

Beyond Abortion

Once again, everyone on this blog talks about abortion, and candidates' views on abortion, as if abortion were the only true measure of a president's (or a politician's) morality and the direction in which he or she will take the country from a moral point of view. This is false, and it hurts the cause of those who would like to see abortion be reduced (it won't be eliminated, even if Roe v Wade is reversed).
Regardless of George Bush's personal views on abortion, and of how his nomination of SCJs Alito and Roberts may play out in the long run, I cannot think of any administration that has done more to destroy every other aspect of collective morality and social justice in my lifetime. I think of what victims of Katrina had to endure and of how many people needlessly died because, however keen Mr. Bush's sense of morality may be on abortion, he had no sense of urgency about the role of federal government in providing help. (He may be excused for having such a detached view of the tragedy. He is his mother's son, and it was his mother who said, "[...] so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them" about the evacuees in the Houston Astrodome). His appointment of incompetent cronies to posts of high responsibility, even those that had national security implications, was immoral. His rush to war with Iraq was immoral, costing billions and lost lives. His promises of bringing to justice anyone involved in outing Valerie Plame (whatever you think of her role in the CIA) were empty (he rushed to commute Scooter Libby's sentence) and immoral. His budgets were immoral (as many, even some Evangelicals, contend). His favoritism towards oil companies in shaping energy policy was immoral, and dangerous for national security. And I could go on and on.

Yes, Mr. Bush's views on abortion are different (in name) than Mr. Clinton's were. But even under President Clinton abortion steadily declined, as one would expect to happen in times of economic prosperity and confidence in the future, regardless of Monicagate and the blue dress.

I share, to a point, all of your views on the importance of reversing abortion, just not through legislation only (which ebbs and flows) but through education. But, as Dr. Groothuis put it, politics operates in the realm of the possible, not of platonic ideals. Therefore it is important that people learn to see the whole picture, instead of a detail, as important as it might be. Without a big picture view of morality, the changes we can bring into effect will be short-lived and easily reversible.

Look at things from another perspective: whatever you think of Barak Obama (I am not too sure about Hilary Clinton myself), he seems reasonable and open to different ideas. He seems more interested in effecting positive change, than he appears to be attached to an ideology. Think about the good he could do, the unity he could foster, the peace and prosperity he would strive to bring about, and pray that he sees the issue of abortion for what it really is. Why, write to the White House and let him know. Without enmity, with grace.

Voting for McCain, would not be the disaster that voting for eight years of Bush under false pretenses has been. His views on abortion are generally (not entirely) pro-life (he does not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade in the short term, while in the past he said he supported a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, which is an appalling view of what issues the constitution should address), he supports an expansion of federal stem cell research funding, he is hawkish in foreign policy, and would wage permanent war against those he perceives to be a national security threat without qualms for innocent lives lost (which are a byproduct of every war). Historian and informal McCain advisor Niall Ferguson said of him that if the U.S. has an imperialist class, then John McCain sits at its head.

I beg you to consider all of the above when you vote. Evangelicals alone, Christians alone, cannot change the course of this nation on abortion. Public opinion often matters more than politics. You need everyone on board if you want to accomplish permanent change. But every time you speak of morality as if abortion was the only issue that matters, you alienate many who, like me, see morality in a broader sense, and you ultimately hurt the cause that is so important to us all.

Recommended Reading

Adding It Up

Hope For A More Peaceful U.S.

I am not a religious person myself, but it is nice to see that not all Christians in American are war-mongering neocon fanatics...

See The Cost Of The War, Words, Not War, With Iran (free registration required), to begin with.

Of course, you knew it already, but in these times, it is nice to see examples of Christians who take a different view of the world than the conman in chief.

Our Sentiments, Exactly!

Jon Stewart on Romney, mercilessly accurate. Particularly from 3:10 on.

It is funny, because I have seen accusation levelled at Obama for his overinflated rhetoric. Thank God the rhetoric on the right is eloquent and carefully measured, as evidenced not only by Romney, but also by Huckabee and recent dropout Rudy Giuliani.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Expelled! The Bill-o Interview

Falafel King Bill O'Reilly intervied Ben Stein about Expelled!, the movie on the "persecution" (sic) of religious scientists who dare to speak against evolution. Classic Falafel Bill-o drivel (on par with the war on Christmas, to give you an idea.

Watching this interview of Ben Stein by Bill O'Reilly is amusing and maddening at the same time. In less then five minutes, the two, combined, make so many false and/or misleading statements that it is hard to keep count.

To begin with, Stein says that Darwinism is a relic of the age of imperialism, as if that disqualified the validity of the theory by association or by suggesting that it is an old, tired theory that needs to be supplanted by something new. He goes on to say that it is a great theory but that it does not answer the question of how life began. Of course, evolutionary theory was never intended by Darwin to give an answer to how life began, but as a comprehensive description of the mechanisms by which new species appear on (and old species vanish from) our planet.

Moving on, Stein says that while Intelligent Design may be wrong, it is an attempt to fill the many gaps in Darwin's theory. Of course, the fact that there are currently gaps in evolutionary knowledge no more requires Intelligent Design for help than gaps in our knowledge of astrophysics require the help of astrology. Evolutionary theory is capable of providing solutions to unanswered questions, much has it has done for 150 years. Should it fail or be subverted, it will be at the hands of another scientific theory, not by Intelligent Design.

Next, Bill O'Reilly baits Ben Stein by saying that people like Cristopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and others will accuse Ben Stein of being "a primitive, [...] an intellectual deficient, [having] no right to intrude upon the American secular culture by bringin up that there may be a creator...". While to my knowledge such accusations have yet to be leveled, Stein takes the bait and... switches to an issue of first amendment rights. This is a classical fallacy of ID. The right to propose and speak of Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory does not extend to the right to say it in science class, once it has been shown (as it has been) that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, but the latest transformation of a god of the gaps theory, a fundamentally religious theory. As GB suggests in his post, perhaps it can be discussed in an anthropology class, in a philosophy class, or in a theology class, but it certainly does not belong in a science class. In those forums, other theories of the origins of life can be entertained, including those that originate in Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam (and, why not, Pastafarianism, since its adherents will certainly make an incontrovertible demand for equal time).

It is fascinating to hear Ben Stein lecture (Fox) viewers on how societies progress, by free inquiry, in his role of spokesman for religion (the basis, despite to claims to the contrary, of Intelligent Design), which has a mixed record in promoting free inquiry and in stifling it.

O'Reilly and Stein gang up on scientists and atheists who have been on O'Reilly's show for their inability to give a definitive answer to the origins of life; once again they confuse the issue of the origin of life with evolutionary theory, a stale tactic of opponents of evolution.

The interview concludes with a restatement of the movie's idea that religious scientists are being persecuted. I guess I will have to wait to see specific cases portrayed in the movie before I express my views on the subject, but it is common knowledge that many cases of alleged persecution have been largely exaggerated by their victims.

Recommended Reading

Expelled! And Deservedly So!

I wrote the following reply (rather humorous, I like think) on a friend's blog, but I thought I would repost it here for your benefit, my readers. It refers to the upcoming mockumentary called Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed, which pits Ben Stein and Intelligent Designers against the scientific community, guilty, according to the film's producers, of stifling dissent about alternative theories to the theory of evolution. That, of course, is junk.

Emmzee, I am glad to report that you misread me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify the intended meaning of my observation:

If holocaust deniers have found the way to raise enough money for their largely unpopular cause, it is not surprising that IDers will be able to raise tons of money to portray themselves as victims in a cause that is far more popular among mainstream Americans than denial of the holocaust.

That is what I meant and that is what I should have said. If the original phrasing led you to believe that I put Intelligent Design on par with the holocaust, I apologize.

However, for accuracy's sake, I should let you know that while my statement about holocaust deniers and IDers might have been unclear, Ben Stein was actively out tying Darwinism and the holocaust.

In a NY Times article titled "Scientists Feel Miscast in Film on Life’s Origin", published on September 27, Stein said that he thinks Darwinism leads to racism and genocide. If Stein had his way, the article reports, the documentary would have been called 'From Darwin to Hitler." I'll accept your apology on behalf of Mr. Stein.

How people like Stein can tie Darwinism, which teaches common descent with ethnic cleansing (if we descend from a common ancestor, the very concept of race and racism vanishes), has always been beyond me. The Origin of The Species, unlike--say--the Old Testament, does not contain any invitations to mass murder or ethnic cleansing, so Stein's position is certainly disconcerting to me.

As for your thanks for dismissing the film without having seen it (nor, I admit, the trailer), you are welcome, and you are right. But I did not express my sentiment about it in total ignorance of the mockumentary's contents. Opinions on it, from sources that I consider more reputable than both Mr. Stein or the Discovery Institute, are readily available, and provide enough ground for a negative initial impression of it. Here is one such opinion. And here is a review by someone who has actually seen the movie and has not signed the non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements that came with the invitation to see the movie.

In any case, a movie with the tag line of "No Intelligence Allowed" shows its attitude towards those who disagree (unintelligent?) quite eloquently, before the first image has even hit the retina. Nor did the movie make any effort to represent the views of religious scientists (for example Francis S. Collins, he of the Human Genome Project) who believe that ID is not a legitimate scientific theory and that the extent of the controversy about the theory of evolution is largely exaggerated by the Discovery Institute. Scientists like them, according to IDers, are too keen on maintaining their academic funding, and too careful not to upset the establishement, to speak out in favor of ID.

In other words, according to IDers there is no overwhelming majority of Christian scientists who think that ID is junk science (or, better yet, no science at all), just a large number of sheepish scientists (first) and Christians (second), ready to serve godlessness in the name of fame and power. Perhaps if Mr. Stein had had his way, he would have included them in the movie after all and portrayed them as a bunch of Dr. Mengeles, with a chuckle!


Recommended Reading

Monday, February 04, 2008

Thought Control

Watch this video. I found it on bradblog.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Healthcare: Myths, Rights and Duties

While healthcare is on everybody's minds, and on every candidate's lips these days, few seem capable of finding their way out of the house of mirrors built by opponents of healthcare reform. So here is a list of common myths and disingenuous arguments against serious reform, and how to handle them.

1) The "consumerism" argument in support of market-driven healthcare

Some, and president Bush is one of them, maintain that the government should stay out of healthcare and let "consumers" and providers negotiate access to and cost of healthcare services. The other part of the "consumerism" argument that the president often makes, is that people have no incentive to save under the current system. In his mind’s wonderland, people have no incentive to shop around for better healthcare. We need better consumers, and we need to entrust them with making savvy decisions.

Beside the obvious fallacy and dishonesty of equating "consumers" and patients, something that only a person of the president's deviousness and intellect is capable of doing, the obvious flaw in this argument is that the provider (doctor or hospital) and the payer are not one and the same. The patient has no one to negotiate with. The patient can only choose an insurer or a plan. The current healthcare system, much like the political system that gave birth to it, is built on the illusion of choice. There is nothing to choose from or negotiate, and real choice is limited by cost considerations, so that many people end up choosing not the plan they want, but the one they can afford.

Have we fallen so low as a society that we are ready to accept a system in which people get the healthcare they can afford? For a nation that claims its Christian superiority at every opportunity, it seems a mighty low standard. Brother’s keeper anyone?

2) The "let doctors and patients decide what is best" argument

This argument, which is similar to the previous one, is either disingenuous, ignorant, or both.

Those who make it apparently assume that under the current system patients and doctors are free to decide what is best for the patient, without any external interference. In fact, the opposite is true. Doctors and patients do not get to decide. The insurer decides. The news is full of stories of people who have *died* because an insurer has postponed, or altogether denied, life-saving medical care to patients. If you have seen Michael Moore’s Sicko (if you haven't, it's to everyone's detriment), you certainly remember such examples. Here's one that recently made the news, about a 17 year-old girl who died after being denied a liver transplant.

And while some doctors and hospitals do pro-bono work, this is neither acceptable nor sufficient.

3) The "best healthcare in the world" argument

Advocates of the status quo argue that the quality of healthcare services in the United States is the best in the world.

This depends on a number of variables. First of all, the qualification of best depends on what you are measuring. For example, if by best we mean the level of technologically and scientifically advanced healthcare, then perhaps the "best of" argument passes. If, however, by quality one means the median level of care received by patients in the United States, then that claim is, at the very least, highly dubious, if not altogether false.

This argument also fails to account for the price we pay, as a society, for the incredible number of people (15%) without coverage, which we subsidize through higher insurance costs and through Medicaid; and it does not begin to account for the even higher number of people who are underinsured, meaning that they think they have sufficient coverage, until they find out otherwise, when the insurer denies payment for services or needed care.

4) The "free-market does it best" argument

Proponents of free-market healthcare assume that, all things being equal, private companies provide a better service than the government.

This is a devious argument, because under certain types of governments it can be true. For example, many people have gotten the impression that the government should not be engaged in disaster relief, given its performance in the days preceding and following Hurricane Katrina. But that picture suffers from the initial bias that the administration injected against principles of good government.

During his seven years in power, president Bush has seemed hell-bent on dismantling effective government agencies. In many cases, he slashed their budgets. Often he assigned incompetents to lead them. Social services and programs, in particular, have been "outsourced" to faith-based organizations (thus funneling money to natural supporters of the president’s party). And, wherever possible, he reassigned their duties to private companies under no-bid contracts that give no assurance that the chosen company was the best for the job, or the one that could do it most cost-effectively.

The simple answer to this argument lies, as is often the case, in facts. For example, administrative costs for Medicare and Medicaid patients are, typically, lower than comparable costs in the private sector, even when making allowances for disparities in what counts as an administrative cost in different public v. private healthcare. Not to mention the large costs that the private healthcare industry (doctors, hospitals, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, etc.) passes on to "consumers" (patients, as I still like to call them), for example marketing and advertising costs.

Another inconvenient, but not less truthful fact is that the industry claim that costs are high as a function of research costs is largely exaggerated. In fact, the general public subsidizes the cost of medical research which is often conducted by government agencies, or by universities under government grants. And patient outcomes, costs being equal, are often worse for U.S. patients than for patients in many foreign countries, in spite of the fact that per-capita medical expenditures in the United States are higher than in other countries, often double or higher. Do you feel twice as well as the French do? You would like to think so. I highly doubt it.

And, finally, my favorite argument to dismantle.

5) The "personal freedom argument" against universal healthcare

This argument usually relies on this, or a similar premise: "Why should a twenty-year old have to pay for health insurance he does not need? He would rather spend money on booze, or travel, or pretty women, and he should be able to do so instead of contributing to a mandatory system.

This is such an infantile argument, that it hardly deserves an answer. I will give you the only answer you will ever need, so you can silence those that make this ignorant argument, or go on your way to the liquor store, airport, or local strip club: I have no children. Why should I have to pay school taxes for somebody else's children to go to school?

If you answered this rhetorical question with "Exactly", you are a moron and you should have to buy health insurance on principle, as punishment for your stupidity, while the rest of us get it through a government-run plan.

Opponents of healthcare reform have many arguments like the ones above, and many more yet to use against you. Don’t let their arguments sway you.

They will use Reagan’s famous scare words "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help" to convince you. Tell them that your idea of good government is neither Reagan's nor Bush's government. It is the government of The New Deal or of The Great Society.

They will level accusations of socialism against single-payer proponents (look up "corporate socialism", and learn about "the privatization of profit and the socialization of risks and misconduct" for your rebuttal. Then, make them do their homework).

Finally, they will make you believe that we are in a fight for freedom. They will make you believe that anything short of letting the free-market govern itself is tantamount to surrendering your freedom to the government. Really? Just ask yourself, and them: What freedom? The freedom to be excluded from coverage, or to pay higher premiums for pre-existing conditions? The freedom to keep your health coverage for eighteen months after you lose your job, if you can afford it? The freedom not to leave your current job because a job you would prefer has worse benefits?

Remember: Access to quality healthcare has nothing to do with freedom. It has everything to do social justice and with rights. Not individual rights, but collective rights, rights of all people:

  • The right not to live in fear;
  • The right to be treated equally, regardless of income, as far as your health and the health of your family is concerned;
  • The right to have undeniable access to healthcare for you and your family;
  • The right not to become a slave to a credit card company or to a bank, or an employer when you, your spouse or your kids fall seriously ill.

Rights that you and I do not have. Yet.

There's going to be an election, soon. You have the right to vote, and the moral duty to do so.

Recommended Homework

The Choice

George Lakoff has a very interesting opinion on what separates Obama from Hillary Clinton.

Definitely worth your time.
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