Friday, March 30, 2007

What I believe

So I was having an e-mail debate with some Christian dude. Mostly amiable by the standards of such exchanges. The specifics are unimportant here.

But, as Christians often do, he said this to me:

you have yet to clearly even state exactly WHAT you believe, although you've made rather clear what you DON'T believe.

I get this sometimes. Religious people think if you don't believe in Invisible Sky Man (I call God that; it sometimes really annoys people), you don't "believe in" anything. Apparently, if you don't hold any beliefs about the universe on insufficient evidence, this is a personal failing.

Anyway, I ended up going on for a while about what I believe. And it seemed worth publishing here, where more people can see it. So, without further ado...

I believe in reason. I believe in evidence. I believe a lot of human suffering is the product of too much credulity when it comes to ancient "holy books," and that we as a species would treat each other much better if we lived as if this life is all we get and we have to learn to share it with each other to everyone's benefit, rather than
thinking that some of us are going to be rewarded forever by invisible sky man and others of us will get our butts toasted like marshmallows for not choosing the right improbable, unproven things to believe.

I believe there is no God, just as I believe there is not an invisible, inaudible, intangible unicorn in this room with me, and for precisely the same reason. Except more so, because I believe "God" raises ethical questions the unicorn doesn't, in addition to being just as improbable (and, really, just as unnecessary for things to
make sense).

I believe that moral questions all come down to the question of suffering; I don't believe in inflicting it on any creature sensible enough to be able to suffer. I believe that "sin" is a destructive idea and that there's no such thing as a victimless "crime." I believe that, by being a gay pot-smoker, I am not hurting anyone, so there's nothing remotely unethical about either act.

I believe I know what's right and wrong much better than the people who wrote the Bible and imposed the death penalty for things like taking the Lord's name in vain, and probably much better than modern religious people who see it as just and right that God demands belief, offers no proof, and inflicts eternal torture on otherwise good people for failing to guess correctly. I believe the fact that the Bible openly endorses slavery, spousal and child abuse, and the murder of unbelievers demolishes its credibility as a source of morality, no matter what Jesus said on that mountain. I believe modern science, though imperfect, is a hell of a lot smarter than people tho thought pi equaled three and the earth was flat and the sun rotated around it.

I believe that people who think it's moral to "believe" are expressing a very empty idea. I believe that, despite your apparent disagreement with me on this score, "belief" is not a measure of intellectual depth. The ability to process ideas and evaluate them critically is the only measure of that. If you can come away from that process and still believe nothing, or at least nothing the Bible or the Koran can tell you, well, it just shows you believe when there's a reason to, and not just for the sake of belief.

I suppose you could call me a secular humanist. I believe this world is all we get, so it's in all our interest to get along with each other.

I also believe anyone who can read my comics and still have no idea what I believe in has read them completely wrong.

Digital Lynch Mobs
Internet Social Culture Considered Harmful

I'm a bit of a rarity among bloggers in that I read very few other blogs. I'm stating this as a sort of apology for bringing up a story that many of you have probably already heard, because it's through the oldest of old-media sources -- a newspaper's business section -- that I read about Kathy Sierra.

Kathy, according to the article, writes a blog about website design. She and her supporters got in an online tiff with supporters of another, rival blogger. Things escalated until Kathy received death threats and someone posted a website featuring a photoshopped picture of her being strangled with a pair of panties. Frightened, she cancelled a public appearance at a conference and got the police involved.

So much for the background information. I'm not writing this to discuss the specifics of this particular incident, but rather what's at the core of it -- a nasty little hairball that few in the "wisdom of crowds" camp are going to want to touch. Kathy's experience is not unique. It's not even uncommon. Blogs and internet forums seem to bring out the worst in people, bringing adult discourse down to the level of a grade school playground brawl. Partly this is due to the limitations of text. In one study, people had only a 50/50 chance of correctly descerning the emotional tone of an email message -- but they thought they had correctly interpreted it 90% of the time. The easy, but time-delayed, interaction on Internet forums also seems to cause people to trivialize the effects of their words -- "it's just the Internet" is an excuse I've heard often, as if verbal punches thrown in one medium sting less than those thrown in another. People with similar inclinations also tend to group together, and they reinforce each others' behavior. "The wisdom of crowds" quickly becomes "the viciousness of mobs."

The Internet has the potential to offer great benefits to society. Far-flung groups with common interests are able to link up and share information in ways that were never possible before. The actions of government and the press have become more open to scrutiny. People have become better informed. But all of this is threatened by the dysfunctional social culture the Internet fosters. Too often, it combines the personal attacks of a supermarket tabloid with the social dynamics of a lynch mob.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Those pesky monolithic terrorists

I was listening to the Ed Schulz show on Air America, just now. And there was this caller who had a beef with Ed, and with war opponents more broadly. This individual felt that--get ready for some complex and truly original thinking--we have to fight The Terrorists in Iraq, in order to avoid fighting The Terrorists here. (To add to the eloquence and nuance, the phrase "kicking their asses" was involved.)

I was displeased with Ed's reply. I mean, Ed was right--he said something like "I don't except the simplicity of fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here." But to me, Ed failed, as liberals and media people always seem to fail, to challenge the rather insidious framing at work here. Namely, the idea that it is possible, in any meaningful way, to talk about "The Terrorists."

As if The Terrorists were some single monolithic entity. With a single set of goals, a single leadership. Who just happen to be fighting us in Iraq right now because it's convenient, but attacked us here on 9/11 because we weren't in Iraq right then so they had to come all the way here and kill us, but because now we're conveniently located in Iraq they can just go there and try to kill us, which is why The Terrorists haven't attacked us here recently.

Let's, for now, leave aside the fact that, even if it were true, this would be an absolutely reprehensible rationale for the continuation of the occupation. (These are the people who "support our troops" the most? Their argument boils down to using the troops as bait so they can get blown up instead of us.) It almost doesn't matter, because it's not true. In fact, it's a deeply stupid and childlike view of the situation.

There is no entity called The Terrorists. On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered an attack by 19 hijackers trained by, and acting in the name of, Osama bin Laden's then small and relatively centralized group, al Qaeda ("the base," in Arabic). At the time, al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, the secular dictator of Iraq, weren't even on speaking terms. So, we invaded Iraq, because they allegedly had some weapons (which it turns out we probably should have known they didn't even really have) that some day they might decide to give to al Qaeda. Except by then it wasn't even just al Qaeda, it was The Terrorists people kept mentioning.

So now, we find ourselves occupying Iraq and battling an insurgency that employs terrorist tactics. Now, by definition, that makes the insurgents who are employing these tactics "terrorists." But they employ terrorist tactics in pursuit of a political/military goal--they want the United States out of Iraq. (And presumably each individual group wants to take its place ruling Iraq.)

Reprehensible? Well, yes, terrorism is. I would argue war is, too, even if it is sometimes unavoidable. But that in absolutely no way makes The Terrorists a single group with a single set of aims. The issue is, admittedly, clouded by the fact that one of the insurgent groups in Iraq has renamed itself "al Qaeda in Iraq," but understanding that they are still a separate group from bin Laden's, with separate aims, is no harder than understanding that Jerry Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis are two different people, or that the Pittsburgh Pirates do not actually plunder ships. (The media have done an absolutely terrible job of stressing the point.)

Now, for all I know, al Qaeda's goal, in attacking us on 9/11, was to kill Americans. Nothing more or less. (Which is why there were Islamists who disapproved of the attacks as counterproductive.) That is legitimately something to worry about, and to take steps against, which is why I (and something like 90% of the country, including most liberals) was on board with invading Afghanistan in 2001. I didn't think we were left with much choice.

Iraq, though? Iraq posed no American any measurable threat in March of 2003. Saddam Hussein was a nasty dictator, like many in the world, but he wasn't going to come kill Americans just to kill Americans. And now, the insurgency we're fighting there isn't killing Americans just to kill Americans. It's killing Americans to try to make them leave Iraq. The insurgency is largely homegrown; it's estimated that well over 90% of its members are Iraqis. Given this, it's ridiculous to imagine that the only reason these people are not coming and killing us here is that our troops are nearby.

Terrorism is not an affiliation. It's a tactic. Why is this so hard to understand?

I mean, it's as if, in 1941, we had reacted to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor by declaring a "War on Aerial Bombing." And, after a brief and incomplete invasion of Japan, had turned our attentions to some other country that had nothing to do with the attack, but which we'd wanted to invade for a long time. Let's say France. And justified this attack on the grounds that, since France has planes, we're continuing the War on Aerial Bombing by invading them, and who knows, even if the French aren't themselves Aerial Bombers right now, they do have planes and bombs, and they might some day give planes and bombs to Aerial Bombers, and we can't wait for the threat to come to us!

And then, when the French used aerial bombing as a tactic in resisting our occupation of France, 1940s Dick Cheney would say "see? This proves that The Aerial Bombers who attacked us at Pearl Harbor have now chosen to fight us in France, and we have to keep it up or else it validates The Aerial Bombers' strategy, and they'll come bomb us over here!"

Talking about The Terrorists is just as absurd. To believe it makes any sense, one must ignore the obviously different goals of the Iraqi insurgents, who want our occupation to stop, and al Qaeda proper, which...hell, I don't know, something much more evil, probably death for death's sake followed by 72 black-eyed virgins. My point is you can't lump them together and remain within the bounds of informed logic. To do so, you more or less have to see the whole world as good guys vs. bad guys, and the bad guys are all under Skeletor's command and doing evil for the sake of evil.

Personally, I realized the world was a bit more complicated than that, that good was seldom pure and that even evil had a generally rational set of goals within its own framework, when I was still in elementary school. Ironic, isn't it, that when these people took over, we were told the "grownups" were back in charge?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The pendulum swings back

Paul Krugman's column today begins, 'Remember how the 2004 election was supposed to have demonstrated, once and for all, that conservatism was the future of American politics? I do: early in 2005, some colleagues in the news media urged me, in effect, to give up. "The election settled some things," I was told.'

That statement took me back. In 2004, I believed it. I couldn't see how re-election of Bush could represent anything but the American public making a major, long-term shift to the right. He was so transparently worse than his opponent that it seemed his re-election could only mean that people felt so strongly about his ideology that they were willing to overlook his other flaws. I believed so strongly that the country was moving to the right that I started investigating emigrating to Canada.

Of course, it's clear now that, more than anything, people were frightened. Bush's campaign played off people's fears of terrorism, manipulating them into believing that only he could keep them safe. Krugman goes on to point out that Republican support is declining rapidly. It would be easy to lay this at the feet of Bush, citing his unpopularity, but polling data suggest the Republicans have a more serious problem -- people are rejecting their ideology. 43% of us now believe government should provide more services, even if it requires higher spending. A whopping 69% of us believe the government should be providing universal health care.

Some of this is simple demographics. The Baby Boomers are aging. They know they're rapidly approaching a stage in their life when they'll need more health care. David Frum wrote about this last May, suggesting with obvious regret that the Republicans had probably missed their opportunity to shrink the size of government.

All signs point to the Republican party heading for some time out in the wilderness. Important Republican figures seem oblivious to the trends above, believing that what the party needs is to return to its core, conservative ideology. But the public has seen the results of those values and has no stomach for them; they want a moderate Republican party.

I always suspected the pendulum would eventually swing back, but I thought it would take decades. I'm heartened to see it already beginning to come around with a vengeance.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

More inconvenient truths

So Al Gore testified today to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science and Technology, and the Senate environment and Public Words Committee.

(I know...real grabber of an opening sentence, huh?)

Gore's 10 recommendations:

1. An immediate "carbon freeze" that would cap U.S. CO2 emissions at current levels, followed by a program to generate 90% reductions by 2050.

2. Start a long-term tax shift to reduce payroll taxes and increase taxes on CO2 emissions.

3. Put aside a portion of carbon tax revenues to help low-income people make the transition.

4. Create a strong international treaty by working toward "de facto compliance with Kyoto" and moving up the start date for Kyoto's successor from 2012 to 2010.

5. Implement a moratorium on construction of new coal-fired power plants that are not compatible with carbon capture and sequestration.

6. Create an "ELECTRANET" -- a smart electricity grid that allows individuals and businesses to feed power back in at prevailing market rates.

7. Raise CAFE standards.

8. Set a date for a ban on incandescent light bulbs.

9. Create "Connie Mae," a carbon-neutral mortgage association, to help defray the upfront costs of energy-efficient building.

10. Have the SEC require disclosure of carbon emissions in corporate reporting, as a relevant "material risk."

Now, we can debate the merits of each of those ideas individually, and, in fact, we should. And that's the whole point. These are serious proposals on a serious issue from a very smart person who is passionate about that issue, to be considered seriously.

I've said this here before: Al Gore has been one of my personal heroes since I was 13 and read his book Earth in the Balance. I always loved that he was unabashedly wonky, and that he chose to apply it on an issue that really mattered. It seemed to me that we needed more people like him in national politics. Over the years I've disagreed with Mr. Gore about any number of things--his advocacy for NAFTA comes to mind--but I still admire him enormously and think he'd have made a great president.

And watching Al Gore behave like a serious, intelligent adult, I can't help thinking back.

Back to the 2000 election, when the wonky, intelligent, serious Gore was trivialized by the media for two years, pundits harping on his clothing choices, challenging his masculinity and his American-ness, and making up phony quotes they could use to make fun of him. Meanwhile, the genuinely trivial lightwight running against him was welcomed by the press with all the warmth of a schoolchild with a crush. Ha ha, look at that nerd over there, they seemed to say. Isn't he a great big boring dork? Do you really expect us to spend time with HIS clique at D.C. cocktail parties for the next four years? Puh-LEEEEZE. George W. Bush is soooo much more fun. And that's the only important qualification for the most powerful job on the planet.

Two years later, when Bush was conning us into a war with easily-refuted claims about Saddam's aluminum tubes and mobile weapons labs and unmanned drones and chumminess with Osama bin Laden, the press rolled over and printed every word he said uncritically, and mocked anyone who dared to dissent as, oh so ironically, "unserious." And that included Al Gore.

In the fall of 2002, Gore gave a speech on Iraq which was, in hindsight, one of the most prophetic pre-war statements made by any public figure. He said, in part, "I don't think that we should allow anything to diminish our focus on avenging the 3,000 Americans who were murdered and dismantling the network of terrorists who we know to be responsible for it. The fact that we don't know where they are should not cause us to focus instead on some other enemy whose location may be easier to identify."

The whole speech is worth reading. And how did the press and the major pundits react? Almost universally, they derided Gore's speech. As "vile." As "dishonest." As "almost entirely free of facts." I believe it was Charles Krauthammer who suggested Gore had "gone off his medication."

It was the 2000 election coverage on steroids. Gore, the serious policy-minded person who had examined the facts and come to a conclusion that would prove correct, was mocked and trivialized in print. George W. Bush, the deeply unserious person with delusions of grandeur who was drunk on power and approval and marching the country into an unnecessary and disastrous war on laughably flimsy evidence, was treated as a great big serious leader.

As Milhouse Van Houten once said, "nerds are smart." Well, yes, Al Gore is a nerd. Good for him. More nerds should have more power. Popular C-student frat types should be the ones who get called "unserious." But I've been forced to conclude that the national press corps is mostly staffed with people who were nerds in school, were deeply scarred by the experience, and in their adulthood unconsciously make up for it by kissing up to the jocks of the political world, and smugly deriding the nerds.

It's their chance to be cool, and the fact that this has major policy implications for hundreds of millions of people seems not to register. This is why people who cover politicans should never, ever be allowed to socialize with them. They end up forming the same cliques they did back in prep school. And we all suffer.

Albert Gore, Jr., is a truly great American. George W. Bush is as unsuited to high office as anyone who has ever been president. The choice the media made in 2000, and for years after, tells you everything you need to know about their coverage of political figures. It's tragic. And it's a very bad thing for America.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Small signs of progress

On my drive to work this morning, I caught Thom Hartmann interviewing a representative (whose name I failed to catch) of the Timothy Plan, a Biblically-focused mutual fund. The Timothy Plan refuses to invest in companies that they believe promote pornography, abortion, or homosexuality. Major companies they've denounced include Wal-Mart and the Ford Motor Company.

Thom brings right-wing guests on the show quite frequently, and the result is almost always a frustrating round of sparring that creates more heat than light. In this case, though, buried in the debate was an interesting concession. The Timothy Plan representative said, at one point, that they don't screen out companies just for providing domestic partner benefits, because if a company is providing health benefits to its other workers it's "only natural" that they'd extend them to homosexual employees as well. This appears to represent a quiet shift in position. The Timothy Plan used to declare openly that they steered clear of any employer who was providing domestic partner benefits. A check of their website today shows a lot more vagueness. While their screening standards state that they screen out companies that provide financial support "promoting or supporting the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or trans-sexual lifestyle," domestic partner benefits are not mentioned specifically.

Slowly but surely attitudes are changing, even among the religious right.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Getting Bush right

Gen. Wesley Clark says, in an interview with Amy Goodman, that the Bush administration had already decided ten days after 9/11 to invade Iraq, and a few weeks later had drawn up plans for war with seven different countries over a five year period:

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a replay in what happened in the lead-up to the war with Iraq -- the allegations of the weapons of mass destruction, the media leaping onto the bandwagon?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Well, in a way. But, you know, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly twice. What I did warn about when I testified in front of Congress in 2002, I said if you want to worry about a state, it shouldn’t be Iraq, it should be Iran. But this government, our administration, wanted to worry about Iraq, not Iran.

I knew why, because I had been through the Pentagon right after 9/11. About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, “Sir, you’ve got to come in and talk to me a second.” I said, “Well, you’re too busy.” He said, “No, no.” He says, “We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq.” This was on or about the 20th of September. I said, “We’re going to war with Iraq? Why?” He said, “I don’t know.” He said, “I guess they don’t know what else to do.” So I said, “Well, did they find some information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?” He said, “No, no.” He says, “There’s nothing new that way. They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq.” He said, “I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments.” And he said, “I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”

So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” -- meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office -- “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

What's really been frustrating about the Bush era, to me, is that it seemed like all the information you needed to know that these people were incompetent, dishonest ideologues who had been bent on war with Iraq for over a decade was available from way before Bush even took office. And yet, reporters, the group of people allegedly most qualified to find that information, spent years portraying Bush first as a likable aw-shucks guy who was surrounded by Very Serious Advisers, and then as a steely-jawed, capable commander boldly leading his country in a necessary direction.

Much has been made of the fact that people who were right about the war don't get enough credit. Personally, I think that's even truer of people who were right about George W. Bush. We endured years of being mocked as extremist, knee-jerk "Bush haters" even in the mainstream press. But we were right, and they had blinders on, and now that that's widely understood, we deserve an apology.

Not that I'm waiting up nights for one.

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