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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Sunday, 15 October 2006
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
There were two Friday the 13ths this year - January and October. But this isn't that bad - Friday, September 13th, 2019, is the next year to contain a full moon on a Friday the 13th. That'll be a bad day for sure.

Any Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, except in Greece and Spain, where Tuesday the 13th is the bad day. It's more the thirteen thing - Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth guest to the Last Supper and all that. The day of the week matters less, though you will find fundamentalist Christians who carefully worked out that it was on a Friday the 13th that Cain killed his brother Abel, and on a Friday the 13th Eve chatted with that sneaky snake and completely ruined things for all of us forever. So it wasn't any Tuesday, you see. It was a Friday, and the 13th. And women always ruin things. Cosi fan tutti and all.

Of course thirteen is just a bad number, one that screws things up. There are twelve months in a year, twelve signs of the zodiac, and twelve gods of Olympus, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve apostles of Jesus. So thirteen just seems… strange. And people still avoid the number these days - more than eighty percent of high-rises just don't have a 13th floor. Most airports don't have a Gate Thirteen. Hospitals and hotels pretty much don't have a "Room 13" anywhere. If you visit Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is always 12 and a half. In France you once could find yourself one of those quatorziens (fourteeners) - available as a fourteenth guest to keep your dinner party from some unlucky fate, like deadly dull conversation or fistfights. That still may be a custom there. Who knows? But if you find yourself worried about Friday the 13th you can always try the standard folk remedies to make sure bad luck doesn't get you - climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

As they say, you could it look up. All of it falls under the heading of "useless information."

But what information is useless? On this month's Friday the 13th the Washington Post published this column by Jeffery Smith - headline "Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'" and subhead "President Wields Word More Freely as His Frustration Rises and His Influence Ebbs."

This is just a curious word count thing - or, as Smith contends, it means President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable." Given that's the same world the rest of us live in, this could be a problem. The man is very unhappy. Who knows what he's going to do about it?

The gist of it is this -
[A] survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.

In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.
And there are the usual suspects - the unacceptable includes rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions and all the rest, and now with things going in the weeds with North Korea and Iraq, and congress not getting much of anything done on any domestic initiatives, and all those polls with his approval ratings in the thirties all the time, he saying things are unacceptable more than ever. But it's his thing. Back in January he was telling a bunch of elementary school kids in Maryland that their recent scores on math and reading proficiency tests were "unacceptable." Now we're all the little kids - the whole world is the little kids who are just not doing the right thing.

Smith quotes Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist a CYNU, saying all this is in keeping with the president's apparent self-image as a Jeremiah, "railing against the tides" and saying what "people ought to be doing something about." Of course that's not the same as doing anything about anything, but it sounds serious and important. The president is supposed to be the world's Jeremiah? That's not in the job description, but it's what we got.

And Smith charts the widening targets here -
As a presidential candidate and in his early presidency, Bush was more apt to denounce domestic events. His assertions that school performance and achievement gaps between white and black students were unacceptable account for almost a third of his usages of that term since 2000.

Bush's targets expanded from 2003 to 2005 to include nine condemnations of "unacceptable" actions by Iraq and Iran, as well as the Social Security system and the administration's own response to the Katrina hurricane. This year, he has hurled the term "unacceptable" at actions by Iraqi insurgents and police, at supporters of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and at a U.S. law making the degrading treatment of detainees a war crime.
You see the frustration metastasizing. Steven Kull, a political psychologist who directs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes explains - some folks deal with failures "by intensifying an authoritarian posture and insisting that their preferences are equivalent to a moral imperative." Then they explode, of course, in some sort of tantrum. They can be a bit dangerous.

And there's this -
Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

Many foreigners think the United States is losing Iraq and are no longer in awe of U.S. military might, Naím said, and at home, Bush is so weak that Republican candidates are wary of appearing with him. "The world has noticed," Naím said. "What is happening is that a lot that was deemed unacceptable [by Bush] now has become normal and tolerable."
And what has become normal and tolerable is now unacceptable. And he's ticked off. Watch out.

And there's that other thing -
Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.
But grabbing people by the lapels and shouting at them to listen to you isn't the most effective rhetorical strategy. It's hardly a way to make friends and influence people. And the more you do it, hoping it finally works, the less it works. It's kind of obvious.

Kevin Drum puts it nicely here -
This is a symptom of what I find so mysterious about Bush's popularity: his speaking style always strikes me as irritated and angry, as if he's nearly ready to jump out of his skin in frustration that his audience just doesn't get it. Even though he keeps explaining it! And explaining it again! And again! What's wrong with you people?!?

This feeling is almost palpable, and it's the reason I don't understand why his supporters continue to find him attractive. Especially over the past couple of years, he seems increasingly angry, defensive, frustrated, and completely unable to understand why he can't control events around him. Conservatives recognize how feeble and embarrassing this looks when Bush pulls this schtick over something that even they understand is dumb (Kathryn Jean Lopez on the Harriet Miers nomination: "I hate this groaning-when-the-president speaks reflex I've had all week on this issue") but they don't seem to understand that to growing numbers of people he sounds this way all the time.

Listen, George: Being hectored just isn't a good way to people's hearts, and repeating the same words over and over isn't a good way to influence actual events in the world. Is it any wonder your approval ratings are stuck in the 30s?
Yep, and Jeremiah was a bore, and really tiresome. So was Hector.

But the president is a "hard-liner" and that's supposed to a good thing in this world full of wimps and defeatists, and with North Korea tests a nuclear weapon. But is he, really?

See this from DK over at Talking Points Memo -
Just yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, no less a Bush critic than Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, asserted that Bush's hardline on North Korea has failed.

I have no doubt that there are genuine hardliners within the administration who urged covert and overt military action against North Korea early in the President's first term, and certainly in response to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework. Every Republican administration is going to have its share of Curtis LeMays.

But those true hardliners have not prevailed in the internal administration struggle over whether the U.S. should lead with the carrot or with the stick. What has emerged as U.S. "policy" is inertia. No carrot. No stick. No nothing, unless cheap rhetoric about what is "unacceptable" counts for something.

There are quite reputable people in foreign policy circles, like former Defense Secretary William Perry, who have advocated much tougher measures against North Korea than Bush has adopted. Perry, for instance, proposed publicly earlier this year that the U.S. hit the DPRK's new ICBM with a U.S. cruise missile while it was still on the launch pad, before a test flight could be conducted.

The sad truth is that we have virtually no good options for putting the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle, and I am quite convinced that our military options at the moment range from bad to worse (and that the current Administration would be unable to competently execute any military option).

But in the same way that it is a mistake to conclude that the Clinton Administration offer of a carrot was a failure, it is a mistake to conclude that the stick has failed, too. Both may be needed in the future.

All that we can say with any certainty is that paralysis has failed to achieve our objective of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. And paralysis, if I may say, is unacceptable.
But the president talks a good game. He just imagines he's on the sidelines, when he isn't. Refusing to play and just screaming at those on the field isn't an option here.

And maybe the word count thing wasn't useless information after all. The man is stuck on the stunningly ineffective "Listen, that's unacceptable." It probably didn't even work with the elementary school kids. They almost certainly looked as appropriately shamefaced as they could manage (kids all know how to do that), then went home and played videogames, or did whatever they decided they wanted to do. The same thing happens with adults, minus the feigned shame. They just shrug. Whatever, George.

But the man can do some damage. And he doesn't like how things are - they are not at all the way he knows they are supposed to be. Reality is a problem. It needs to be fixed, of course.

Or it doesn't need to be fixed, as in this from US News and World Report, also, curiously, from Friday the 13th -
Some Republican strategists are increasingly upset with what they consider the overconfidence of President Bush and his senior advisers about the midterm elections November 7 – a concern aggravated by the president's news conference this week.

"They aren't even planning for if they lose," says a GOP insider who informally counsels the West Wing. If Democrats win control of the House, as many analysts expect, Republicans predict that Bush's final two years in office will be marked by multiple congressional investigations and gridlock.

"The Bush White House has had no relationship with Congress," said a Bush ally. "Beyond the Democrats, wait till they see how the Republicans – the ones that survive – treat them if they lose next month." GOP insiders are upset by Bush's seeming inability to come up with new ideas or fresh approaches. There is even a heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father.
This is very curious. There's no Plan B - no contingency planning. You just assume the best-case scenario, and ridicule as defeatist anyone who thinks there ought to be something in place if you're not greeted as liberators and showered with candy and flowers, so to speak. It's much like Iraq. It's that "reality is what we say it is" thing again. Or maybe all the new voting machines have indeed been rigged the right way, and Karl Rove knows it, and so does the president. Which it is - delusional denial of reality or some evil conspiracy to steal the election - doesn't matter much, really. Neither is very comforting.

And what's this "heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father?"

Something is up with that, as Thomas DeFrank explains here, regarding the events at the recent christening of the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, where the father (41) was with his son (43), and the rivalry was on full display -
For five years, the 41s have bit their collective tongues as, they complain, the 43s ignored their counsel. But as the war in Iraq has worsened and public support for the current administration has tanked, loyalists of the elder Bush have found it impossible to suppress their disillusionment - particularly their belief that many of 43's policies are a stick in the eye of his father.

… "Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word," a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. "Personally, I think he's dying inside."

… "Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts," another key 41 assistant said. "Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi [Rice] wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing."
So we seem to be caught in the middle of a battle between a father and a son, regarding which has a better grasp of reality. Lucky us. The president says, again and again, that we will accept nothing less than total victory in Iraq, and the Iraq Study Group, headed by his father's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, says that's not an option and best we can hope for is something else entirely, and the president refers to him as "Jimmy" Baker in the October 11 press conference, as if he's one of those ill-disciplined Maryland elementary school kids who hasn't been doing his homework. We're caught in the middle, and lots of people die. This is not good. It's almost… unacceptable.

Well, what's acceptable and unacceptable can get tricky.

There was an odd thing on the Sunday, October 15 talk shows. Two days after Friday the 13th, the pseudo-moderate conservative columnist David Brooks had this to say on MSNBC, on "The Chris Matthews Show," and he has great access to the White House -
Matthews: David, do you believe the President is looking for an out from his doctrinaire policy of staying the course?

Brooks: Not really, no I don't. I think they're looking at policy options. One of those options is trying to replace the current government which seems to be doing nothing. The second option is some sort of federation which – Joe Biden has suggested as separating Iraq. A third option and by far the least likely is going in with more troops. So there are all different three options… We have much less control over Iraq than we did two or three years ago…
Okay, we have less and less control there every day, but we will stay the course to total victory, and establish a legitimate elected democracy there, even if we have to toss out the guys they elected and replace them with the right guys, guys we know will slap folks around and get everyone to settle down. What? In establishing democracy, democracy is unacceptable?

It seems reality really is what you say it is. You have to pay careful attention to what this man says. It's not "useless information." And it may be time to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

Posted by Alan at 22:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006 07:13 PDT home

Friday, 13 October 2006
Why Are Unicorns Hollow?
Topic: God and US
Why Are Unicorns Hollow?
Richard Dawkins is that evolutionary theorist and science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Yep, they have one of those. And he first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which oddly enough introduced the term meme to us all, and started the whole field of memetics. There is one of those too. But the book was actually about something else - "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities." Our genes drive our behaviors - they're just working on replicating. And that even explains altruism. Of course altruism should be an unexplainable paradox to the Darwin folks - helping others costs precious resources and can even limit one's own health, and life. So it shouldn't have anything to do with Darwinian survival of the fittest and all. Others had said it was a group thing - individuals were doing what was best for the survival of the population or species. One of Dawkins' Oxford buddies, W. D. Hamilton, said altruism arose as a matter of kin selection - individuals behave altruistically towards their close relatives, as they share many of their own genes. Another fellow, Robert Trivers, had his theory of reciprocal altruism - one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation. Dawkins popularized all this and too it down to the gene level - natural selection is "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other" and that explains all behaviors. And other books followed.

But Dawkins is best known as an outspoken atheist and foe of "Creationism," which he has called a "preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood." As for religion in general, he has his credentials - Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, vice president of the British Humanist Association and a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland. He calls religion a "virus of the mind, and in 2003, the Atheist Alliance set up the Richard Dawkins Award in his honor. He has nothing but contempt for religious extremism - Islamic with its terrorism to Christian fundamentalist and its silliness. He's big on education and consciousness-raising as the main tools for opposing religious dogma. And he invented the term "Bright" to describe his side of things, a bit of improving the image of atheists. Lots of folks resent that, of course.

As for 9/11 and where were are now, he's said this -
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!
And he certainly stopped. He's through playing nice.

If one is to believe Wikipedia, Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya, had "a normal Anglican upbringing" and just never got the God thing at all. He began doubting the existence of God when he was about nine years old - the customs of the Church of England seemed "absurd" and had more to do with dictating morals than with God. Then he stumbled on evolution when he was sixteen, and that was that - evolution and science could account for the complexity of most everything in simply material terms, and no "designer" was necessary. And the rest is history. From 1967 to 1969 he was out here - assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. Then it was Oxford. The only other detail is the amusing fact that he met his third wife, Lalla Ward, through their mutual friend Douglas Adams, who worked with the woman on the BBC series "Doctor Who," before Adams became famous with the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" stuff. Adams and Dawkins think alike, and their irreverent Brit attitudes match. That's kind of cool.

But Americans never quite got the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thing - far too clever and too British. There was even the movie - and that bombed. And if they don't get Arthur Dent, they certainly don't get Richard Dawkins, and his actual first name is Clinton, which is really unfortunate. And he's an atheist.

We are a religious people. Consider this from Madison's Capital Times -
The main spokeswoman for a group supporting Wisconsin's proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions has little regard for the separation of church and state, which she calls a "fictitious wall."

"Speaking of it as if it has some kind of constitutional authority is completely bogus," said Julaine Appling, president of the Wisconsin Family Research Institute, at a debate Thursday at Edgewood High School.
So much for the constitution and that pesky first amendment that says the government cannot establish a state religion. The guys in Philadelphia way back when were just kidding? Well, they might have been.

And everyone knows Jesus hates gay folks, and the current House scandal is upsetting, so you find Cliff Kinkaid of the religious right of Accuracy in Media (they set the record straight, of course) saying this - "It's early in the probe, but we may be looking at emerging evidence of a homosexual recruitment ring that operated on Capitol Hill."

But Dick Armey, über-Republican, is getting worried -
Freedom is a gift from God Almighty, and we have a responsibility to protect it. Christians face a temptation to power when we are fortunate enough to have a majority of support in Congress. But government can never advance a faith that is freely given, and it is corrosive to even try.

... And so America's Christian conservative movement is confronted with this divide: small government advocates who want to practice their faith independent of heavy-handed government versus big government sympathizers who want to impose their version of "righteousness" on others through the hammer of law.
Yep, we all believe, but let's not get all crazy here.

Enter Richard Dawkins in a new interview - The Flying Spaghetti Monster - sure to stir things up even more. (As mentioned elsewhere, see this in these pages from August 2005 on this monster, with an illustration.) Now we have an interview conducted by Steve Paulson for SALON.COM - and it's long and nicely outrageous, and worth a careful read. Paulson says Dawkins is religion's chief prosecutor - "Darwin's rottweiler," as one magazine called him - and perhaps the world's most famous atheist. Speaking to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins once said, "I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." The occasion here is the publication of Dawkins' new book The God Delusion.

Here are some highlights.

Why he became an Atheist -
I started getting doubts when I was about 9 and realized that there are lots of different religions and they can't all be right. And which one I happened to be brought up in was an arbitrary accident. I then sort of went back to religion around the age of 12, and then finally left it at the age of 15 or 16.

So God and religion just did not make sense intellectually and he turned against religion because of that, of all things?

Yep -

Yes, purely intellectually. I was never much bothered about moral questions like, how could there be a good God when there's so much evil in the world? For me, it was always an intellectual thing. I wanted to know the explanation for the existence of all things. I was particularly fascinated by living things. And when I discovered the Darwinian explanation, which is so stunningly elegant and powerful, I realized that you really don't need any kind of supernatural force to explain it.
But isn't he really an agnostic? Well, if you wish -
Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.
There goes again, being all logical.

And he's asked about the link between being logical and intelligent and an atheist - isn't that elitist?
It's certainly elitist. What's wrong with being elitist, if you are trying to encourage people to join the elite rather than being exclusive? I'm very, very keen that people should raise their game rather than the other way around. As for citing the evidence, a number of studies have been done. The one meta-analysis of this that I know of was published in Mensa Magazine. It looked at 43 studies on the relationship between educational level or IQ and religion. And in 39 out of 43 - that's all but four - there is a correlation between IQ/education and atheism. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Or the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist.

Yeah, yeah, but what is so bad about religion?

That question sets him off -

Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant. Plenty of people never get exposed to the beauties of the scientific explanation for the world and for life. And that's very sad. But it's even sadder if they are actively discouraged from understanding by a systematic attempt in the opposite direction, which is what many religions actually are. But that's only the first of my many reasons for being hostile to religion.

… I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die - anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed - that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that. Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically - the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York - all in the name of faith.
But, but, but… there are peaceful religion. And here he concedes -
You certainly need to distinguish them. They are very different. However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children - sometimes even indoctrinating children - to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith. Now, the faith of these moderate people is in itself harmless. But the idea that faith needs to be respected is instilled into children sitting in rows in their madrasahs in the Muslim world. And they are told these things not by extremists but by decent, moderate teachers and mullahs. But when they grow up, a small minority of them remember what they were told. They remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue. And it only takes a minority to believe what it says in the holy book - the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran, whatever it is. If you believe it's literally true, then there's scarcely any limit to the evil things you might do.
That's not much of concession, but then you have to decide what to teach the kids -
I would say that parents should teach their children anything that's known to be factually true - like "that's a bluebird" or "that's a bald eagle." Or they could teach children that there are such things as religious beliefs. But to teach children that it is a fact that there is one god or that God created the world in six days, that is child abuse.

… Children ask questions. And when a child says, "Why is it wrong to do so and so?" you can perfectly well answer that by saying, "Well, how would you like it if somebody else did that to you?" That's a way of imparting to a child the Golden Rule: "Do as you would be done by." The world would fall apart if everybody stole things from everybody else, so it's a bad thing to steal. If a child says, "Why can't I eat meat?" then you can say, "Your mother and I believe that it's wrong to eat meat for this, that and the other reason. We are vegetarians. You can decide when you're older whether you want to be a vegetarian or not. But for the moment, you're living in this house, so the food we give you is not meat." That I could see. I think it's child abuse not to let the child have the free choice of knowing there are other people who believe something quite different and the child could make its own choice.
So much for Jesus Camp and the next generation of Christian warriors.

And as for science and religion coexisting and getting along together - the moderate American compromise view - where science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions and we all get along -
I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion - supernatural religion - would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

But, but, but… science doesn't say anything about why we're here, and religion does. Doesn't that count for something?

Paulson flat-out asks him, what he, as an atheist, sees as our purpose of life.

Ready? Here it is, the answer to the BIG QUESTION -

It's not a question that deserves an answer.

… If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that's a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn't mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.

… There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't - even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer - what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?
As you recall, the comic version of this response, is the answer to the BIG QUESTION ABOUT EVERYTHING in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - after the long search and all the adventures it was… 42. It'll do. If you're going to make things up, or say it was written by someone three thousand years ago and seven translations deep, one thing is as good as another.

This is followed by a great deal on the war between the intelligent design folks and the scientists - our new Scopes trails in Pennsylvania and Kansas - and it's amazing, but it comes down to this -
There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist's way is to see it as a challenge, something they've got to work on - we're really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There's something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label "religion" to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we're not really arguing. We're simply using a word, "God," for that which science can't explain. I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It's simple confusion to say science can't explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that's confusion. And it's pernicious confusion.
Yeah, but why should we even worry about such things?

When the book was first published in the UK the previous month, Joan Bakewell, explained in The Guardian -
These are now political matters. Around the world communities are increasingly defined as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and living peaceably together is ever harder to sustain. Champions of each faith maintain its superiority to the rest. Recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI show the man in his true colors: an absolutist pointing up with intellectual precision the incompatibility of Islam and Christianity. He did this long before he was Pope, writing the declaration of John Paul II that all religions other than the Catholic faith were defective. Since his election he has demoted efforts at rapprochement with Islam and, on a visit to Auschwitz, failed to address the papacy's collusion with Nazism. The Pope is, of course, held to be infallible by the Catholic Church. Islam's response to all this - "if you dare to say we're a violent religion, then we'll kill you!" - compounds not only the idiocy of rival dogmas but also the dangers. Islam's sharia law invests the law of the land with its own religious and often brutal priorities. Apostasy is punishable by death, as is homosexuality. Christian observance is put under increasing pressure.

Dawkins is right to be not only angry but alarmed. Religions have the secular world running scared. This book is a clarion call to cower no longer. Primed by anger, redeemed by humor, it will, I trust, offend many.
It will certainly do that on this side of the pond.

And why are unicorns hollow? The answer is clear - 42, of course.

Posted by Alan at 22:50 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006 23:08 PDT home

Thursday, 12 October 2006
Explaining Things
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Explaining Things
It's kind of like the 1951 season of I Love Lucy. Ricky Ricardo: "Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do."

But it wasn't 1951 out here in Hollywood - it was Wednesday, October 11, 2006, in DC, and it was a presidential press conference everyone knew was coming. Sunday evening the North Koreans has announced they had tested a nuclear weapon, and maybe they had. The president had vowed that would never happen and he had said he knew how to keep it from happening, as no one before him had a clue. But somehow they did it. And the war after the Iraq War was spinning out of control, our casualties mounting, the Iraq forces useless or corrupt, some dispute about how many Iraqi civilians had died so far - thirty thousand or twenty times that number - and no political settlement among the sectarian parties and their respective death squads at all possible, as far as anyone could tell. The House scandal still raged, with it becoming clear the Speaker of the House had either ignored all the warnings that a gay house member had been messing with the sixteen-year old pages for years, so he could keep that seat Republican, or the Speaker was dumb as a post - with other House members scrambling to say they knew and had known and did say something and someone else had dropped the ball, so it wasn't their fault. And the polls were showing the evangelical Christian right was rapidly bailing on the Republicans, and the majority of the country on the war - not buying the latest central rationale at all, that we were fighting them there so we would not have to fight them here, as it goes now.

There was certainly "some 'splainin' to do."

The official transcript of the press conference is here, but it doesn't capture the president practically shouting at the reporters, or his curt dismissal of the civilian casualty study. It was cleaned up considerable, for clarity. And the event was discussed for several days.

It was even discussed out here in this silly town, in the Los Angeles Times, where you got this the next day - the lead editorial suggesting the man was insulting our intelligence -
At his news conference Wednesday, President Bush expressed not once but three times his view that if the U.S. does not defeat the terrorists "over there" in Iraq, it will have to fight them here in the United States. This crude formulation is tiresome and insulting to Americans' intelligence.

"I firmly believe that the American people understand that this is different from other wars because in this war, if we were to leave early, before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here," Bush said. This conjures up improbable images of Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents stuffing bomb-making manuals into their backpacks and booking flights to LAX while U.S. troops march out of Baghdad.

There are good reasons not to withdraw from Iraq hastily. But Bush's assertion about a good offense being the best defense undermines his own credibility.

… Bush is right to say that Al Qaeda would crow at an American "defeat" in Iraq. Indeed, anti-American elements around the world would surely take great satisfaction in any U.S. humiliation. But his equation of withdrawal with defeat, of leaving the Iraqis to manage their own affairs with handing a victory to terrorists, is simplistic in the extreme. Sooner or later, the U.S. military will leave Iraq. A sober and thoughtful national debate could illuminate how best to accomplish that.

The deliberate repetition of a shameless canard just before an election does not contribute to this thoughtful debate. Indeed, Bush's formulation could lead to a false sense of complacency. Fighting the terrorists "over there" does not necessarily make us safer "over here." This is not to say that there is no relation at all between Iraq's fate and the threat of terrorism to the U.S. But the relationship is not as simplistic as the president describes it. Pretending these two issues are part of the same problem trivializes them both.
Of course this is not exactly a brave editorial stance to take - it's a bit mainstream now. Still such thing need be said, just to remind people there are other ways to look at things.

But the bulk of the news conference concerned North Korea, not Iraq. And here we were asked to look at things a new way. Perhaps the policy toward North Korea's nuclear development work - don't talk directly with them and make a lot of threats - had no worked, but it was a really good policy, and what happened wasn't the fault of the policy. It was classic "not my fault" as explained in the Washington Post here -
President Bush asserted yesterday that the administration's strategy on North Korea is superior to the one pursued by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, because Clinton reached a bilateral agreement that failed, while the current administration is trying to end North Korea's nuclear programs through multi-nation talks.

Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the accord and now dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said it is a "ludicrous thing" to say that the Clinton agreement failed. For eight years, the Agreed Framework kept North Korea's five-megawatt plutonium reactor frozen and under international inspection, while North Korea did not build planned 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. If those reactors had been built and running, he said, North Korea would now have enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear weapons.

By Gallucci's account, North Korea may have produced a small amount of plutonium for one or two weapons before Clinton came into office - during the administration of Bush's father - but "no more material was created on his watch." When Clinton left office, officials saw signs that North Korea may have been attempting to create a clandestine uranium enrichment program, but nothing was definitive.

Such a program would violate the Agreed Framework. When the Bush administration decided it had conclusive proof of that enrichment in July 2002, it confronted North Korea and terminated fuel oil deliveries promised under the Agreed Framework. In response, North Korea evicted the inspectors, restarted the reactor and retrieved weapons-grade plutonium from 8,000 fuel rods that had been kept in a cooling pond. Intelligence analysts now think that, before Monday's apparent nuclear test, North Korea had enough plutonium for as many as a dozen weapons.
But he really did say this - "One has a stronger hand when there's more people playing your same cards." That was the better policy. He won't be appearing on Celebrity Poker anytime soon.

And you could say Bush "basically played into Kim's hands, substituting empty tough talk, no agreement and unfettered nuclear programs by North Korea for a somewhat flawed agreement which impeded North Korean proliferation efforts for eight years." But that would be unkind.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry was unkind -
The Agreed Framework did not end North Korea's aspirations for nuclear weapons, but it did result in a major delay. For more than eight years, under the Agreed Framework, the spent fuel was kept in a storage pond under international supervision.

… While this test is the culmination of North Korea's long-held aspiration to become a nuclear power, it also demonstrates the total failure of the Bush administration's policy toward that country. For almost six years this policy has been a strange combination of harsh rhetoric and inaction.
But it is supposed to work better than just putting things off for eight years

Digby at Hullabaloo offers an interesting comment -
That is just one very bizarre aspect of their black and white thinking that leads to such things as their ridiculous posturing on North Korea in which no interim agreement (like that achieved by Clinton with the Agreed Framework) is countenanced because they will only accept a permanent solution. I suppose one could say that this might be a useful way to run a kindergarten, but real violence in the real world is something that should always be punted if at all possible. This is not because of a general moral revulsion toward violence, although that should certainly be a factor. Nor is it simply that to delay would save lives "in the short term." It's because we cannot tell the future. Kim Jong Il could die from a heart attack. A short term cease fire in Lebanon could have given everyone a chance to catch their breath and perhaps recognize that escalating the war was indefensible. Anything can happen. A break from violence creates a possibility that it won't start up again. A crazy dictator delaying the development of a nuclear bomb opens up the possibility that he won't develop one.

I realize that Bush and his pals think that their "enemies" are nihilistic at best and animals at worst. But they are humans and humans are always subject to change from within or without. The idea that it is "useless" to put off something like a war or a nuclear showdown until tomorrow when you can have one today (or put off a ceasefire 'til tomorrow when you can have one today) is beyond stupid or irresponsible. It's sick.
Maybe so, but we are told again and again stability in and of itself is dangerous, really. It's never permanent, and these guys go for permanent fixes, even when you get neither a temporary nor a permanent fix. It seems to be the principle of the thing. It must have something to do with "thinking big." Too bad it doesn't work.

But what happened, or didn't, in North Korea may be a good thing, as Mark Kleiman suggests here -
I had a conversation with two foreign policy heavyweights, both of whom had opposed the invasion of Iraq, just after the North Korean test. They agreed that, if the U.S. weren't so completely tied down in Iraq, the Bush Administration might well be moving toward a military confrontation with the North Koreans, which they thought would likely have catastrophic consequences. As it is, the project is almost transparently impossible, and the generals and admirals are undoubtedly more willing to speak up than they were three years ago.

It suddenly struck me that those of us who supported the War in Iraq have finally found our alibi! By keeping the Bush Administration tied down in Iraq, we helped prevent war in Korea. Think of it as the "flypaper strategy."

Convincing? Maybe not. (After all, if we weren't tied down in Iraq, the North Koreans might have been deterred from testing their bomb.) But that's our story, and we're sticking to it.
It's a joke, folks - maybe. It is, if anything, an odd sort of silver lining.

And everyone needs a joke. At the news conference the president did his quip and jab at the reporters and what they were wearing that day, and in the Post Dana Milbank comments -
It was about the only fun Bush had all morning. North Korea is exploding, Iraq is imploding, and congressional Republicans are self-destructing. Reporters weren't about to let the president forget about that, even if he looked natty in his gray suit and dark-blue tie.
In fact, one reporter, ignoring the natty gray suit and dark-blue tie asked a killer question - "Do you ever feel like the walls are closing in on you?"

Not nice. No wonder the man seemed angry and a tad incoherent. Think cornered animal, or something.

And people noticed, like Michael O'Hare here -
This morning's press conference was one of the scariest public events of the last few years. Bush appears to be crumbling before our eyes; I can't believe they let him out in the condition he displayed. His responses were rambling and unfocused, stringing together irrelevant bromides and half-thoughts, the discourse of someone not getting any sleep. His response styles were even more alarming, bouncing from whining about all the hard decisions he has to make; to a sort of sneering impatient condescension, with which he explained simple falsehoods as though to children and as though they were obviously true; to the recital of incompletely rehearsed talking points, cut up into phrases and reassembled at random; to his familiar fake-macho pronouncing style. There was a round of joking about reporters' clothes that just made him appear clueless about the importance of the North Korean bomb and the collapse of his party's electoral prospects, completely tin-eared in the context of the event. One response after another headlined a simple unexplained and unembroidered refusal to hear facts, from poll results to the new estimates of Iraqi deaths. And the word unacceptable apparently means "if it continues, I will say it's unacceptable, but louder, so watch out!"

Bush has always been a man who knows a few simple things, to assert if not to act on coherently, and who is not in the business of increasing this stock. Now those are one-by-one turning out to be silly, bad guidance, or just vacuous, and his handlers are coming up empty giving him lines and tricks to get through the week. The man is not only in desperate straits but, what is new for him, beginning to recognize it. It was a really chilling spectacle; we're all in a bad situation here. It's not good for anyone that the president becomes a humiliating occasion for ridicule, a midget drum major prancing on the sidelines, beating out a rhythm no-one else is keeping, while the band breaks up into chaos on the field.
Remove the marching band metaphor and you get Josh Marshall here -
Just listening to this press conference, I'm really surprised his handlers had him hold this sort of appearance. His statement was a long meandering catalog of his policies - a bit confused, with various defenses, none that great. Just in terms of effective communication, I would have thought they would have had him hit a few basic points - international threats, make tax cuts permanent, etc. But my gut tells me anybody on the fence at this point would not feel reassured or heartened by what the president is saying.

On North Korea, needless to say, he fibbed about the basic issue, elided the key points. We'll see if the press teases out what he ignored and misstated. He let the Agreed Framework lapse. The excuse is alleged (and probably true) uranium enrichment research, which wouldn't have come to fruition for many, many years. The result was ramping back plutonium production which has now already created a bomb. The president's boast is that his failed negotiations have more participants around the table.

Wow.
Wow, indeed. And most the startling thing was what he said about the new study that civilian Iraqi casualties were far higher than anyone had guessed, which would be this - "I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to - you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate." It's seems we're testing their limit for such tolerance, and they're handling it fine - pretty much. We're asked to be amazed at how much death these odd foreign folks can tolerate. He finds it very curious. Who'd have guessed? And we're told they can take it. They're funny that way. And then someone blows up another of our Hummers.

And looking at the video, and not reading the transcript, one senses that the president's performances are becoming more incoherent and more hostile -
… as if he's at war with the world and the facts that come with it.

He has difficulty completing a sentence without interrupting it himself. He speaks in bursts, blurting out short sentences. He stammers, struggling to get words out, or repeating syllables, although this doesn't show up in the transcript."
Examples -

"And my point - and then I - as I mentioned in my opening statement, we, once again, had North Korea at the table - this time with other parties at the table l and they agreed once again…"

"And I appreciate Jimmy Baker willingness to - he and Lee Hamilton are putting this - have got a group they put together that I think was Congressman Wolf's suggestion - or passing the law."

"Terry. I mean - you're not Terry. You're Steve."

In this comment we're told to watch the video where "he shouts at reporters asking about the level of violence and waning support for his policies." It is a bit painful to watch - "Bush looks like a guy ready to jump out of his own skin at times."

But will people let it slide? Maybe they will, but here the Middle East scholar Juan Cole wonders if, as Iraqi civilian casualties climb, the we makes plans to keep 140,000 troops in Iraq until 2010, will the public in either country permit it?

That's an interesting question, which presumes anyone has any choice in the matter at all. But let us assume they do. What are the facts at hand?

There's that new study published in the Lancet - done by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and published on Wednesday, This one estimates that "excess deaths from political violence" after our 2003 invasion fall somewhere between 420,000 and 790,000. The president a year ago said he'd heard some estimated the number of Iraqis killed since his invasion at 30,000, and dismissed these new findings as "not credible." Other public health researchers in the field, however, said there was nothing wrong with the methodology, and this might be so. United Nations estimates of three thousand deaths every month from political violence, and the Pentagon gives much lower figures, not counting certain events, like suicide bombings and mortar fire. It all depends on how you're counting. But Cole notes there is some agreement - "More Iraqis than ever before are killing one another in the midnight 'war of the corpses' that leaves the capital and some other cities littered with cadavers in the morning." The argument about the actual figures may be pointless. None of it is good.

And there was that Reuters report - Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker said Wednesday that as he projected the needs of the armed services, he had to plan on there being 141,000 of our troops in Iraq through 2010. He was very careful to say that he was making no predictions about what might happen in Iraq, and that keeping fifteen full combat brigades there for so long "was not a foregone conclusion." But he had to plan for that. It was just the prudent thing to do, given the circumstances.

We do have to fight them there so we don't fight them here, but Cole differs. Other matters are more important -
The U.S. military in Iraq is trying to hold the country together by main force, as though it were putting tape on a patient who had been eviscerated. But every day the country loses more of its structural integrity, as sectarian killings pile up and car bombs and assassinations by Sunni Arabs provoke vicious reprisals by Shiites or Kurds, depending on their original target.

Over the past week, Shiite-Sunni tension escalated further. The assassination on Monday of the brother of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni fundamentalist, was widely seen as a blow against the process of sectarian reconciliation promoted by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sunni Arabs, already chafing under U.S. patrols and search-and-seizure missions, were further angered on Wednesday when a quorum of 140 members of the Iraqi Parliament passed a law allowing the formation of provincial confederacies, a move the Sunni Arabs had opposed. The law is a step toward a unified Shiite megaprovince in the south. The willingness of Shiite politician and cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite bloc in Parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, to pass the law in the absence of the Sunni Arab delegates telegraphed the contempt in which Sunnis are held by the new national elite.

Politically speaking, with the bloodshed mounting, can the U.S. military stay in Iraq at its present levels for an additional four years? More than half the American public now considers the invasion a mistake. And some 80 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. to leave - some 120 parliamentarians signed a motion to that effect. What will happen if crowds come out in the tens of thousands across Iraq to demonstrate against further American occupation? At what point will Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual guide of the Iraqi Shiites, issue a decree or fatwa demanding an American departure?

The car bombings and other violence in Iraq are often blamed on the United States by angry Iraqi mobs. They view the growing sectarian violence as the result of an American attempt to divide and rule. Given what polls in Iraq are telling us about the unpopularity of U.S. troops in the country, given what public health experts are telling us about the inability of those troops to stem the growing tide of sectarian killings, and given the waning support for the whole Iraq enterprise among the American public, the rationale for keeping so many ground troops in Iraq has come increasingly into question. Whether they will remain in such numbers until 2010 is no longer a military decision. It is a political decision that will jointly be made by the United States and Iraq.
Nothing is easy here. We've stirred up a hornets nest. It was supposed to be easy - install Paul Wolfowitz's college buddy from the University of Chicago to create a pro-Western, pro-Israel Arab democracy and come on home. It turned out to be more complicated. There is certainly "some 'splainin' to do."

And now Brits want to bail. Britain's new Chief of the General Staff says it's time to leave Iraq, embarrassing Tony Blair no end, and he's not even retired, like our disgruntled generals. He's the equivalent of our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and we get this -
"Let's face it, the military campaign we fought in 2003, effectively kicked the door in." Sir Richard Dannatt added that any initial tolerance "has largely turned to intolerance. That is a fact."

Sir Richard, who took on his role in August, also said planning for what happened after the initial successful war military offensive was "poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."
Tony cannot keep his guys in line. Everything seems to be going in the weeds. Explaining it all away is going to be hard.

And the third element in the news, the evangelical Christian right rapidly bailing on the Republicans, is going to call for some really fine tap-dancing. Lucille Ball could do that when asked. Politicians should be able to do the equivalent, and the times are calling for that on this front too.

The devout folks won't read Steve Paulson's new interview with Richard Dawkins - The Flying Spaghetti Monster - "Why are we here on earth? To Richard Dawkins, that's a remarkably stupid question. In a heated interview, the famous biologist insists that religion is evil and God might as well be a children's fantasy."

They don't care about such things. (See this in these pages from August 2005 on this monster, with an illustration.)

They might care more about the new book by David Kuo, the man who worked as second in command in the president's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, documenting that Bush administration officials pretty much shined on the faithful for political gain, and behind their back called them "ridiculous," and "out of control" and just plain "goofy."

This has been covered on MSNBC, on the Keith Olbermann show "Countdown" of course. The producer, Jonathan Larsen, explains here, and you can watch the Olbermann segments if you wish, Wednesday, October 11 here and Thursday, October 12 here.

Andrew Sullivan here -
The use and abuse of religion is at the core of the corruption of the current Republican party. I know I've been saying this for a while now, but here's someone who knows it from the inside. David Kuo worked for the Bush administration's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives from 2001 to 2003. Like John DiIulio, he realized eventually that it was all about politics and using the faith of evangelicals to maintain the political power of Republicans.
Jonathan Larsen -
More seriously, Kuo alleges that then-White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use the office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly 'nonpartisan' events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races.

According to Kuo, "Ken loved the idea and gave us our marching orders." Among those marching orders, Kuo says, was Mehlman's mandate to conceal the true nature of the events.

Kuo quotes Mehlman as saying, "... [I]t can't come from the campaigns. That would make it look too political. It needs to come from the congressional offices. We'll take care of that by having our guys call the office [of faith-based initiatives] to request the visit."
Sullivan -
Memo to faithful evangelicals: you get entangled with Caesar and you'll regret it. Conflate politics with religion and you do mortal damage to both.
Digby says that's wrong. The whole thing us about money and power -
The glue that holds it together is the business of evangelism. Those followers who give their money to these churches and organizations that sell Republicanism as a religious brand might as well spend their money at WalMart. They're buying the same thing. It's tribal identity but it isn't religious and it isn't moral.

It's time everybody recognized that so we can deal with it honestly. These so-called religious leaders (and it's not just the national leadership, it's the whole hierarchy) are not dupes. Sure Rove and the rest call them nuts. But the leadership and the party know they are essential to each others' continued status, even if they spar over who's their daddy. The truth is that they are all elites who have the same goals - power.

The big losers are the followers who are being sold a cheap bill of goods by both the Christian Right leadership and the Republican Party. Maybe some day they'll wise up but it's a tall order. It means they have to lose faith in both their church and their party and I wonder how many of them have that in them. It would be a terrible disillusionment.

There's a vacuum to be filled in the evangelical leadership by preachers and leaders who eschew worldly, political power for its own sake. It remains to be seen if anyone steps up to claim it - and whether the sincere believers are not just "red team members" but true Christians who will reject the Elmer Gantrys who have been playing them for fools.
And this won't help - Karl Rove personally threatened Mark Foley, the congressman who likes sixteen-year-old teenage boys so much, when he tried to retire last year. He wanted out. They needed the seat. He stayed in.

But the Republicans want and need their religious base. And the religious base wants in on politics, which leads to this question, Damon Linker debating Ross Douthat on the matter -
Why is it not enough that the United States be a good and decent country among good and decent countries? Why is it not enough for you and other pious Christians to enjoy the freedom to worship and pray and proselytize in peace? Why, despite your own better judgment, do you so steadfastly resist seeking your salvation outside of politics? Why do you insist on identifying the fate of your soul with the fate of your country?

You may well be right that, at least at this moment in our nation's history, you have more of our fellow citizens on your side of this dispute than I have on mine. But that is precisely the problem - for American religion no less than America's politics.
They don't see it as a problem, and anyway, they hate them gay folks. And their guys in Washington, up until now, were on their side. Now it's all confused.

And the gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan sees the confusion -
The creepy predations of the closet-case Mark Foley may have some silver lining. They may force into the open a simple fact, reiterated by Tucker Carlson. Most Washington Republicans have no problems with openly gay people. Many of them have sons and daughters who are gay, including the epitome of conservative Republicanism, Dick Cheney. Dennis Hastert has gay staff. Rick Santorum had an openly gay staffer. They have no problems with gay people. And yet their party platform is vehemently opposed to treating gay people as equal citizens or as full members of their own families. This cognitive dissonance is only kept afloat by the closet, and the lies, euphemisms, and avoidance mechanisms that keep Republicans from facing this issue honestly. Maybe the revelation that Republican Capitol Hill is full of gay people may finally force them into a reckoning. The GOP has to respect gay people and grant us full equality, or they have to join the forces that regard us as anathema to stable society, a threat to the family and all potential child molesters. They cannot continue to have it both ways.

I know no better illustration of the contortions of the right than Jon Stewart's recent interview with Bill Bennett. I've always had civil relations with Bennett; and he has never shown any personal animus. But when I read his writing, it is filled with fear and loathing of gay people as an alleged threat to the very families we love and belong to. So which is it, Bill? The same goes with someone like Pat Buchanan, who has always treated me with great affection and respect. And yet, in print, he regards my commitment and love for my fiancé as a danger to civilization. At some point, these people are going to have to decide. And now is as good a time as any.
Yep, there's some 'splainin' to do" - on so many fronts.

Posted by Alan at 22:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006 06:32 PDT home

Wednesday, 11 October 2006
A Day Off
Topic: Photos
A Day Off
No commentary this day. A visitor from Pittsburgh needed to see the beach, so it was off to Santa Monica for the day. This is not where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio, not at all. And it looked like this -

The beach at Santa Monica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lens flair, a very odd kite, the Pacific, the sand, and a trash can -

Kite over the water at the Santa Monica pier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All American values, all in one place, under the pier -

Hot dog stand under the Santa Monica pier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That odd kite - rotating cylinders - with the Santa Monica range way out there…

Kite over the mountains at the Santa Monica pier


Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
home

Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Heroes and Villains - It's Somebody Else's Fault
Topic: Perspective
Heroes and Villains - It's Somebody Else's Fault
Mutual Recrimination Day - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - and it's either the start of a new national holiday, or a continuation of how things work, given human nature.

But now we could have greetings cards - "You know, _________ was not my fault at all, but really the fault of _________." You just fill in the blanks and drop it in the mail. Cards purchased by Republicans would have the second blank already filled in, with Bill Clinton's name. Cards for purchased by Democrats would have, in that space, George Bush or Dick Cheney. The graphics present a problem, of course. What best conveys "You're a fool and have it all wrong?" A smirking Garfield-the-Cat, for the Democrats who send a card? Jesus sitting on a rock, head in hands, weeping, for Republican posters? Einstein shrugging in disgust, for the Libertarians? Ralph Nader grinning, for the anarchists to send? Hallmark can work out the details.

But this particular Tuesday it wasn't greeting cards. Someone was to blame for North Korea testing their first nuclear weapon, especially after the president had vowed for several years he'd never let that happen. North Korea was a charter member of the Axis of Evil, and those three nations were top priority. The test may have been a fake or a failure, but that was hardly the point, as David Sanger of the New York Times points out -
North Korea may be a starving, friendless, authoritarian nation of 23 million people, but its apparently successful explosion of a small nuclear device in the mountains above the town of Kilju marks a defiant bid for survival and respect. For Washington and its allies, it marks a failure of nearly two decades of atomic diplomacy.

North Korea is more than just another nation joining the nuclear club. It has never developed a weapons system it did not ultimately sell on the world market, and it has periodically threatened to sell its nuclear technology. So the end of ambiguity about its nuclear capacity foreshadows a very different era, in which the concern may be not where a nation's warheads are aimed, but in whose hands its weapons and know-how end up.
Yep, it's a mess. So it was time for finger-pointing, and not with greeting cards.

You can click here (Crooks and Liars, the database of record) for a video clip of Republican Senator John McCain publicly declaring the whole business was Bill Clinton's fault (in Windows Media Player or QuickTime format). The man was weak.

Or you can get the gist from Reuters -
"I would remind Senator (Hillary) Clinton and other critics of the Bush administration policies that the framework agreement of the Clinton administration was a failure," McCain said in a statement, referring to a 1994 deal under which North Korea agreed to halt work on a plutonium-based nuclear facility, partly in exchange for free fuel oil deliveries.

"The Koreans received millions of dollars in energy assistance ... and what did the Koreans do? They secretly enriched uranium," McCain said.

"We had a carrots-and-no-sticks policy that only encouraged bad behavior. When one carrot didn't work, we offered another."
We should have hit them with a really big stick back in the late nineties - carpet bombing or something nuclear of our own. Yeah, they would have wiped out several hundred thousand of the folks in South Korea and tens of thousands of our guys stationed there - but they wouldn't have the bomb now. Actually he just says Clinton should have spent a couple hundred billion or two on an anti-missile system, so Bush wouldn't have to be futzing around with one now that doesn't even work yet. The man was just weak, and stupid.

Of course, not shopping for any greeting card, Hillary Clinton shoots back -
A missile shield alone cannot protect us from the Bush-Cheney Administration's incompetence in their approach to Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and it is unfortunate that Republicans such as John McCain continue to blindly defend their failed policies for partisan gain rather than exercise true leadership. Five years after 9/11, President Bush has allowed the "Axis of Evil" to spin out of control. Our Iraq policy is a failure. Iran is going nuclear and North Korea is testing nuclear weapons. President Bush's foreign policy failures have made America less safe, not more so, and it is time for a new direction.
So THERE, you fool.

There must be an election coming up.

But there's more -
Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are firing back at criticism of how the former president handled North Korea.

Republican Senator John McCain had some tough words for Senator Hillary Clinton's criticism of the Bush administration's policies. McCain said "her husband's administration" came up with a framework agreement that was a "failure."

But the William J. Clinton Foundation calls it an "unfortunate" attempt to "rewrite history to score political points." Their statement says under Clinton's watch, the North Koreans never conducted a nuclear weapons test.

His wife's spokesman says this is no time to "play politics of the most dangerous kind" with the North. He also blames the Bush White House for doing nothing to stop the North.
So the logic is that they never had a bomb on Clinton's watch, and on Bush's watch they do. Who's the bigger fool, as if it matters now?

And then there's this curious exchange on CNN's Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer goading Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -
RICE: We have been through bilateral talks with the North Koreans in the 1994 Agreed Framework, it didn't hold. They…

BLITZER: That was a mistake the Clinton administration…

RICE: No. I will not blame anyone for trying. I just know that the 1994 agreement, of course, didn't hold. The North Koreans cheated.

BLITZER: Is there any evidence that what the Clinton administration did helped North Korea build these bombs?

RICE: Oh, I think North Korea has been persistent and has been consistent in pursuing this nuclear weapons program for decades. Now, it is going to have to be fought. And the international community is speaking with one voice very loudly, because the North Koreans crossed an important line when they proclaimed that they had conducted a nuclear test.
Oops - she didn't get the White House memo about Mutual Recrimination Day. Karl Rove will have to spank her (no, get that image out of your mind right now, pervert).

And it went on -
North Korea's claimed nuclear test Sunday capped six years of failure by the Bush administration, a U.S. think tank said Tuesday.

"By virtually every measure, Bush's North Korea policy has been a failure," the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by President Bill Clinton's former chief of staff John Podesta said Tuesday.

When the current president took office, "North Korea had produced enough plutonium under President George H.W. Bush for 1-2 nuclear weapons. Today, the country possesses material for 4-13 nuclear weapons. If North Korea unloads another batch of fuel, it may have enough nuclear material for 8 to 17 nuclear bombs by 2008," the CAP said in a statement.

Sunday's test was simply the culmination of the "Bush administration's haphazard diplomacy in Northeast Asia over the past six years," said the CAP's Joseph Cirincione, an expert on non-proliferation issues.

Cirincione said that the Bush administration had failed to produce a strong and consistent policy on North Korea because of an "internal argument about whether to negotiate with the country or try to plot its collapse."

The CAP said the current president and his team "ramped up the rhetoric" about North Korea and included it in an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran in the president's 2002 State of the Union address. However, "When North Korea responded by expelling international inspectors and unsealing its nuclear facilities, the Bush administration had no effective response," the CAP said.
Well, they did call them more names. That's something.

Anne Gearan of the Associated Press tries to detangle all this here (emphases added) -
North Korea's apparent nuclear weapons test may bear out the warnings of Bush administration hard-liners that the reclusive regime can never be trusted, but it also forces an examination of whether the silent treatment those same hard-liners have given North Korea for years has backfired.

Convinced that the Clinton administration got conned when it offered carrots to the North Koreans, the Bush administration has offered mostly sticks. The White House has firmly withheld the biggest carrot of all - direct, one-on-one talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

The United States is the power North Korea most fears and is the foil for the propaganda that helps keep the communist regime afloat. The North says it needs nuclear weapons, and missiles to deliver them, to counter U.S. aggression. The United States is also the nation the North would most like to talk to, for both the prestige that direct talks could bring the regime and the security promises the talks might produce.

One interpretation of this week's test holds that it is North Korea's latest and most alarming attempt to get Washington's attention. But the United States has insisted on talking to North Korea only with four other nations at the table, including China and South Korea, the two countries that Pyongyang relies on most for its economic survival. That, the U.S. argues, makes it harder for the North to walk away from negotiations. "The United States tried direct dialogue with the North Koreans in the '90s, and that resulted in the North Koreans signing onto agreements that they then didn't keep," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during an interview Tuesday on CNN.
Okay, the idea is North Korea wants to set up a confrontation with the United States and direct talks would be foolish - that gives them what they want. Se we insisted on talks "only in the awkward company of four other nations" - they get no chance to play the heroic David to our mean and stupid Goliath. South Korea, Japan, China and Russia are sitting there, so that's not possible. Well, it's a theory.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, our top negotiator for North Korea - "The North Koreans would like to make this about the United States, and I prefer that the Chinese and the South Koreans and the Japanese are saying the same thing to the North Koreans today that we are saying."

Fine, but North Korea just won't attend any six-way talks now, and haven't for a year or more, and they just worked on the bomb instead. So much for that theory. Six years ago Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first ranking US official to meet with Kim Jong Il. And what was going on then?

In any event, the AP item reviews all the events since then - Colin Powell saying we'd continue the Clinton face-to-face approach, as that held great promise, the South Koreans cheering, then Powell being publicly rebuked by the president and having to eat his words. He was humiliated and the South Korean government embarrassed, and voters changed things there. Cool.

And now Colin Powell gets his revenge, sort of. Heather Wilson, from New Mexico, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee and a retired Air Force officer, comes out and says this - "I feel strongly that there is nothing wrong with straight, tough talk with countries that are not our friends. I think that there is an argument that says doing this in a bilateral way sends a much stronger message."

So Powell sighs and old-fashioned one-on-one diplomacy - even with Iran and Syria - is being urged by all sorts of folks, even James Baker, Bush's father's man and head of the Iraq Study Group. The AP notes - "Drawing a bright line against engagement with bad guys has the value of purity. But it also leaves little room to negotiate - there is no fallback position and any shifting of position, as US. did earlier this year on Iran, risks being painted as capitulation."

Yep. You get painted into a corner - but you are pure, of course.

And there's the damned logic of the facts, as Josh Marshall points out here -
The bomb that went off yesterday was made with plutonium, the same stuff that was off-limits from 1994-2002. In all likelihood some of the same stuff that was on ice from 1994-2002.

To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks the North Koreans are close to having enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon that way. And it's not even completely they were ever trying to enrich uranium.

So Clinton strikes deal to keep plutonium out of the North Koreans' hands. The deal keeps the plutonium out of reach for the last six years of Clinton's term and the first two of Bush's. Bush pulls out of the deal. Four years later a plutonium bomb explodes.

Clinton's fault, right?

There's certainly an argument to be made that you don't make agreements with parties you don't trust, like the North Koreans. And perhaps President Bush would have had some leg to stand on if he'd pulled out of the Agreed Framework and replaced it with something better - either force or a better agreement. But he didn't. He just did nothing for four years. Now we have plutonium, probably uranium and actual bombs. And according to McCain, it's all Bill Clinton's fault.
But what about purity? Doesn't that count for something? About thirty percent of the electorate still thinks so.

And then there's this final kick in the teeth, from Iran, of the original Axis of Evil -
Iran on Tuesday distanced its own nuclear dispute from the North Korean crisis, reiterating its claim that it opposes nuclear weapons.

While analysts abroad speculated that Tehran could be emboldened by North Korea's defiance, comments from officials and the media put the emphasis on the different paths taken by the two countries. Tehran, they stressed, remained committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

… Tehran insists its nuclear experiments are designed for the production of energy but western governments suspect the Islamic Republic is intent on developing nuclear weapons. The US and European governments are now seeking to raise the pressure on Iran through gradual sanctions at the UN Security Council. But in the Iranian press on Tuesday some commentators warned that undue US pressure on North Korea had backfired.

Jam-e Jam, a conservative daily, blamed Washington's "unilateral, expansionist military policies" for the collapse of the six-party talks over Pyongyang's atomic programme.

The reformist paper Etemad-e Melli said the "west should have known intimidation and threats would be not only inefficient but would also push a country's resources towards an end with little benefit for its people."
Ouch. That hurts.

But at least the war in Iraq is going well, or not as badly as folks say, or you have to look a the long-term big picture and see that even if it's tough now it really is a fine war, or something.

Except there's this -
Mr. Bush clearly faces constraints as he seeks to address the public concerns about Iraq that have shrouded this midterm election: 83 percent of respondents thought that Mr. Bush was either hiding something or mostly lying when he discussed how the war in Iraq was going.
Eighty-three percent? Yipes. This requires a massive PR blitz.

And there's staunchly pro-war Ralph Peters in the New York Post saying things like this -
If Iraq's leaders stop squabbling and lead, and if Iraq's soldiers and police fight resolutely for their constitutional state, we should be willing to stay "as long as it takes." But if they continue to wallow in ethnic and religious partisanship while doing as little as possible for their own country, we need to leave and let them face the consequences.

Give them one more year. And that's it.

... Make no mistake: Were our nation directly threatened, our ground forces would surge to respond powerfully and effectively. But as far as Iraq goes, they've given their best. They're willing to die for our country. But we should never ask them to give their lives to postpone a political embarrassment.

... Iraq is not yet lost, but it's harder every day to be optimistic. It's still too soon to give up - we must have the fortitude to weather very dark days. But we also need the guts to recognize when it's time to cut our losses. In Iraq, the verdict must come in 2007.
Well, aside from the fact a whole lot of our guys have died in the last three years to postpone a political embarrassment (think about it), Kevin Drum suggests here we may have a different strain of conservatism that's also soured on the war -
These guys basically think the Iraqis haven't shown much gratitude for the favor we did by invading them, and if that's the way they feel then the hell with them. I've heard this more than once from distinctly non-elite conservative acquaintances.

So what does it mean? George Bush says he's going to stay in Iraq even if Laura and Barney are the only ones left supporting him, and that may be exactly where he finds himself before long. Liberals of even the hawkish variety abandoned him long ago, and both the center-right and the isolationist right are now following right behind. When James Baker III makes it official with whatever he recommends after the election, it's just going to be Laura, Barney, and Bill Kristol left baying at the moon, and not much of anyone else.
The festivities of National Mutual Recrimination Day were in full swing.

And it was hard on that day to not see something was wrong, whoever you sent the card to, as in this -
Iraqi police found 60 bodies dumped across Baghdad in the 24 hours until Tuesday morning, the apparent victims of sectarian death squads blamed for escalating violence that threatens to pitch the country into civil war. A bomb placed under a car outside a bakery in the mostly Sunni southern Baghdad district of Doura exploded at midday, reducing the shop to rubble and killing 10 people, many who had been queuing outside to buy bread, police said.
And there was this -
A U.S. ammunition dump on the southeastern edge of Baghdad caught fire late Tuesday, setting off at least a half-dozen thunderous explosions and several smaller ones that rattled windows across the city.

Despite the size of the blasts, no casualties were reported, Spc. Jennifer Fulk, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said early Wednesday. There was no information yet on the cause of the fire, Fulk said.

An insurgent group called Al Fataheen Army took credit for the damage in a posting on an Islamic forum used by various insurgent groups in Iraq.

The group said it had attacked the base with several missiles at 11:55 p.m., but that timing cast suspicion on the claim. The explosions, which could be felt throughout the city, had begun about an hour earlier.

The same group claimed responsibility for attacking U.S. camps in northern Iraq on Sunday.

… An unknown number of troops from the 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas, were at Forward Operating Base Falcon when the base's ammo dump began to explode.

A military statement said the fire began at about 10:40 p.m. and ignited tank and artillery shells and small arms ammunition.

The fire, clouds of smoke and flashes from the ammunition detonating could be seen for miles.
And there was this -
A barrage of about 20 blasts rocked districts across Baghdad on Tuesday night, police and witnesses said.

Reuters reporters counted more than 10 explosions in the space of a few minutes.

The blasts began around 11 pm.

Police and witnesses reported explosions in the mainly Sunni areas of Doura, Sulaikh and Amiriya and Sadr City, a stronghold of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

… Flares were fired into the night sky in the area of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified compound in central Baghdad that houses the Iraqi government and the US embassy.

Earlier, police said they had found 110 bodies over two days in a city in the grip of a vicious sectarian war. Security officials said they had gathered the bodies of 60 murder victims from the city's streets on Monday and 50 more on Tuesday, and the United States military confirmed the deaths of two more of its own soldiers.

… As night fell, a suicide car bomb killed two Iraqi soldiers in northern Baghdad and an improvised explosive device killed two police in the south.
Some recriminations for getting us into this, and for almost four years of things on the ground getting worse by the hour, might be in order. Do you have to trust your president that things just aren't this bad? Or do you send the card?

Maybe it's just the press. They report the bad news. They're ruining things.

See Jane Arraf, NBC's Baghdad correspondent, here -
Some readers and viewers think we journalists are exaggerating about the situation in Iraq. I can almost understand that because who would want to believe that things are this bad? Particularly when so many people here started out with such good intentions.

I'm more puzzled by comments that the violence isn't any worse than any American city. Really? In which American city do 60 bullet-riddled bodies turn up on a given day? In which city do the headless bodies of ordinary citizens turn up every single day? In which city would it not be news if neighborhood school children were blown up? In which neighborhood would you look the other way if gunmen came into restaurants and shot dead the customers?

… Day-to-day life here for Iraqis is so far removed from the comfortable existence we live in the United States that it is almost literally unimaginable.

It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like being stalled in traffic, your heart pounding, wondering if the vehicle in front of you is one of the three or four car bombs that will go off that day. Or seeing your husband show up at the door covered in blood after he was kidnapped and beaten.

I don't know a single family here that hasn't had a relative, neighbor or friend die violently. In places where there's been all-out fighting going on, I've interviewed parents who buried their dead child in the yard because it was too dangerous to go to the morgue.

Imagine the worst day you've ever had in your life, add a regular dose of terror and you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like every day for a lot of people here.
Any recriminations in order?

And what about this, from a Baghdad blog, on the sectarian murder of a family friend -
When my father returned from his work today and heard the news, he immediately went to the balcony and sat all by himself, saying nothing, looking at the sky, I was afraid to look at him, and I experienced a cold shudder of sadness and molten anger.

I do not know Tariq al-Hashimi personally or his family relatives, but I know my father, and I know the sort of people he hangs out with. In the place where I come from, a religious person meant a guy who knew his rights from his wrongs, a person you could trust, a person who could never lie or steal; my father never scolded me for my guitar-playing or forced me to wear certain things ever, and he has the sign of praying (a patch of changed skin on the forehead that results of much praying when the forehead touches the ground) on his face. The people who he hung out with were good, honest people, people you could really love, people of virtue. NOT the extremist, life-hating, vengeful caricatures Muslims have been cornered into, nor are they the pro-Baathist dictator scum Sunnis in Iraq have often been shoe-horned as.

Whenever I would go into a mosque and sit down after prayer I would feel the peace engulfing me, a calamity and understanding that becalms one outside the cyclone of life outside, the constant searching for meaning and answers ... the tough-guy posturing and the struggle for bread.

But now these people are exterminated, exploited and destroyed in this meaningless Wahabi vs Rafidhi war.
Any recriminations in order? Or does this kid just not understand what Secretary Rice called the birth-pangs of a new Middle East?

Okay, let's not think about it. Let's think about the recent sex scandal in the House. The leadership knew about the predator and did nothing? Oh my. These guys are the "values" people. What up with that?

Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews discuss that on MSNBC here (Crooks and Liars, the database of record) - in Windows Media Player or QuickTime format -
CARLSON: It goes deeper than that though. The deep truth is that the elites in the Republican Party have pure contempt for the evangelicals who put their party in power. Everybody in…

MATTHEWS: How do you know that? How do you know that?

CARLSON: Because I know them. Because I grew up with them. Because I live with them. They live on my street. Because I live in Washington, and I know that everybody in our world has contempt for the evangelicals. And the evangelicals know that, and they're beginning to learn that their own leaders sort of look askance at them and don't share their values.

MATTHEWS: So this gay marriage issue and other issues related to the gay lifestyle are simply tools to get elected?

CARLSON: That's exactly right. It's pandering to the base in the most cynical way, and the base is beginning to figure it out.
Major recriminations coming. As they say on the battlefield - INCOMING!

On the other hand, Cliff Kincaid, of Accuracy in Media, has a different thought. The "values people" - Hastert, DeLay, Cunningham - are just fine. But they've been had - "House leaders permitted homosexuals to infiltrate and manipulate the party apparatus while they publicly postured as friends of family values and traditional marriage. The facade is now in ruins."

Ah, those sneaky gay guys with the show tunes and all - they corrupted the good guys. The evangelical Family Research Council says the same thing here - a gay Republican cabal is secretly blocking the religious right agenda on Capitol Hill. They got to Hastert, poor fellow.

Hastert got the message and had a private prayer meeting - one on one with one of the godly, and evangelical preacher who Josh Marshall points out here was once caught faking his own leper colony for fun and profit - the same guy who "takes credit for getting Charles Taylor to step down as Liberian dictator and other international hat tricks."

What can you say to that? "You know, _________ was not my fault at all, but really the fault of _________." How do you even begin to fill in the blanks?

The November election will be about filling in all the blanks in all these items.

Posted by Alan at 22:45 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 11 October 2006 07:59 PDT home

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