Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I'm a bit late with this one, but a couple of weeks ago the NPR show On the Media had an interesting interview about marriage — how it became both a civil and a religious institution, and when the current ideas about "traditional" marriage formed. (Surprisingly recently, as it turns out.) It also touches on why civil unions will never really be an acceptable substitute for gay marriage. Well worth a listen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Religion and morality

Religious conservatives are all worked up about some pro-atheism ads recently placed on buses by the American Humanist Association. The ads caused them to trot out the usual argument against atheism — the idea that morality can only come from religion:
"Codes of morality, of course, have always been grounded in religion. For those of us in Western civilization, its tenets emanate from the Judeo-Christian ethos. By casting this heritage aside, and replacing it with nothing more than the conscience of lone individuals, we lay the groundwork for moral anarchy." — Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League

"How do we define 'good' if we don't believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what's good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what's good, it's going to be a crazy world." — Tim Wildmon, American Family Association
This is one of those arguments that people just accept as true without thinking about it; to people of a religious background, it seems obvious. I don't think it stands up to scrutiny, however.

First of all, religion itself often follows the lead of conventional wisdom. The Bible has always been interpreted in ways that reinforce existing social prejudices. When slavery was considered moral, Biblical passages were used to support it. The same was later true of segregation. When Henry VIII found Catholicism too binding, he simply created a new church with a moral code that he found more palatable. Far from being a solid grounding for society's moral code, religion is in fact more often used to rationalize and defend a set of values society has already agreed upon.

It's also false to assert that, without a set of moral rules handed down from heaven, it's somehow every man for himself. Nowhere in the Bible does it say "thou shalt not cut in line," but try it at your local supermarket checkout and see what kind of moral outrage you generate. Every society has a moral code, and no central authority necessarily needs to provide it. In fact, societies nearly always adhere to certain moral absolutes, like a prohibition on murder, regardless of whether or not their culture includes commandments carved on stone tablets.

The argument that religion is necessary for morality is a particularly pernicious one because it leads to suspicion of atheists. In one Pew Research poll, 47% of Americans indicated they believed faith in God was necessary to be a good person, and 54% had a negative view of atheists. This all stems from the idea that humans are incapable of following any moral code unless it comes from a deity. I find this a depressing, cynical view of humanity; it's as if we're a bunch of children who can't be trusted unless they know their parents are watching them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Olbermann for gay marriage

As always, Keith says it so, so well.

I do not hate you (an open letter)

I got an e-mail from a longtime fan who is also a Mormon, who was deeply offended by my screed about Proposition 8 passing.

I did try to respond in a way that would walk the difficult tightrope of standing by my point and making it clear that my gripe was not with people like her, but I probably failed; I usually do in such situations.

But, to the rest of you, Mormons and everyone else, my gripe is never with you individually. I want that on the record. I mean, yes, as an atheist, I think what you believe is ridiculous and improbable, but there pretty much isn't a religion I don't think that about, which is how I wound up becoming an atheist in the first place. I'm not singling you out.

You know, I bet we atheists have to listen to more crap about our (lack of) beliefs than any other group. It's still considered basically okay, or at worst mildly offensive, to say horrible things about us, things you wouldn't dream of saying about even the most maligned religious groups in the country. I'm used to it, really.

So, to the woman I offended, well, I'm sorry I offended you, and I'm sorry for the crack about the underwear. But, it would seem you basically agree with me about proposition 8 passing. Understand that, whatever offense you felt reading a blog entry from a basically powerless person that said not-nice things about your church, it surely is nothing compared to the offense that I and millions like me felt when millions of supposedly decent and upstanding people voted like modern day George Wallaces last week.

And I suppose, what I want to know is, why doesn't that offend you more? Why aren't you livid with your church for having provided 40% of Yes On 8's funding, presumably the difference between passage and failure? You say you have gay and transgender friends...why are you, apparently, angrier with me for saying something you agree with in an intemperate way than you are with your church for doing something you seem to feel is a profound and terrible injustice?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why I think GM is worth bailing out.

General Motors has warned that without a government bailout, they'll run out of cash by the end of the year. The idea of government intervention has been controversial because, frankly, lot of people would like to see GM die. The conventional wisdom is that the company is poorly managed, builds poor-quality cars, and bet its future too heavily on gas-guzzling SUVs. There is (or at least was) an element of truth to all of these criticisms, but I think GM is worth saving. When I look at GM, I see a company that's on the verge of a major turn-around.

First, let me say that I'm not a natural fan of GM. My own cars tend to be strange little things made in places with hard-to-pronounce names, like Osnabrück or Trollhättan. I grew up in a loyal Ford family. (Those of you from Michigan will know what I mean by that.) But there's some pretty interesting stuff going on at GM.

First, let's talk about quality. While people still often associate the brand with the frankly awful cars they built in the 1970s and 1980s, their quality is much improved. In the J.D. Power 3-year dependability ratings, Cadillac beats both Toyota and Honda, and the award for most dependable mid-size car went to the 2005 Buick Century. The J.D. Power initial quality study awarded two GM cars, the Chevrolet Malibu and the Pontiac Grand Prix, top honors in their categories. The Cadillac CTS has been getting rave reviews from the automotive press; it was Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 2008.

Then there's all those SUVs. While GM deserves some criticism for pinning too many of its hopes on this segment, it wasn't quite as short-sighted as it might first appear. The leadtime for GM to develop a new car, from concept to production, is three years. Three years ago gasoline prices were only beginning their steep runup, and small cars weren't selling; cash-strapped GM could ill afford to do what Toyota was doing — selling hybrids at a loss — so it's not surprising they've had to play catch-up in that segment.

Most importantly, though, GM has been doing some amazing R&D work, which may have them poised to leapfrog ahead of the competition if they survive the next year. The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, for example — which I had initially dismissed as a PR exercise — looks to be close to production. Their experimental Equinox fuel-cell vehicle is, by all accounts, a polished and drivable vehicle that would be practical for day-to-day use if there were the refueling infrastructure to support it.

There's also the issue of what the failure of GM would do to our economy. In the short term, it would be a huge blow in terms of lost jobs, as well as lost pensions and health care benefits for retirees. In the long term, the loss of GM would probably be the beginning of the end for the U.S. auto industry, and that would be a major blow to our economic security. The recent financial collapse has shown the folly of basing an economy entirely on moving money around; countries are suffering in direct proportion to how much of their GDP comes from the financial industry. We need to remain a country that can make things. Cars are the most complicated mass-produced consumer products in existence, and a country that can build cars can build anything. The auto industry represents know-how we need to retain; the loss of it would inevitably lead to an engineering brain drain.

GM is an important part of the U.S. economy, and appears to be on the verge of turning itself around. They've made major changes already, but it takes a long time to turn around such a big company, and the one-two punch of high oil prices and an economic downturn will do them in before those changes can bear fruit unless the government gives them some short-term help. I think that's worth pursuing.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pity the conservatives

I actually feel a little sorry for conservatives, right now. They're deeply scared. Talk radio hosts and campaign ads have been telling them for weeks that the man we just elected president is a Socialist terrorist who will destroy our economy, take away all of our guns, and allow us to be nuked by Iran. They're afraid for their country right now. They also feel trapped. As liberals, if we're feeling panicky about the state of the nation, we can always fantasize about emigrating to Canada or any number of other liberal democracies. Conservatives have no such safety valve; I mean, where would they go that's more conservative?

A lot of them are also feeling a sense of shock. They really thought they would win. Right-wing news outlets were talking up McCain's chances of victory, and so was McCain himself. People whose news came only from those sources didn't see this one coming.

It will take them a while to realize that Obama isn't a tenth as radical as they've been led to believe. You're going to see a lot of unhinged, intolerant ranting from the right for the next couple of weeks. It's best to pay it no mind. These people are venting because they're afraid of the imaginary monster the right-wing pundits have constructed and labeled with a nametag that says "Obama." I'm sure there will always be a strong, seething anger, like was directed at Clinton, because conservatives fundamentally believe that Democrats have no legitimate claim to power. The current level of venom, however, is not likely to last.

Memo to California

Or, specifically, to those Californians who just voted to snatch marriage rights away from a gay population that had had it for several months:

What the fuck is wrong with you?

You're supposed to be this bastion of progressive ideals, California. You're supposed to be our version of Texas. You're the biggest blue state in the country, for god's sake.

Granted, that reputation has always been a bit overblown--you do contain the most conservative county in the United States, and you gave the nation Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bob Dornan. And two of your last three governors have been Republicans.

But still. You're California. And you were, until yesterday, at the vanguard of the great civil rights issue of our time.

And it didn't have to be that way. Last summer, "no on proposition 8" was leading by a whopping 17 points. Clearly you had no problem back then with letting your gay neighbors have basic civil rights.

But then, the Mormons showed up.

The Mormons, politically last seen stopping the Equal Rights Amendment from making it into the federal constitution. Thanks a fucking lot, Joseph Smith. I'm starting to think we ought to just let them have polygamy on the condition that they stay out of everyone else's damn business until the end of time. That, or we just let Utah secede and try to forget it's there.

But even at that, you did not have to listen to them. I mean, let me get this straight: you're all for letting your gay neighbors continue to have the same rights you have, but then a bunch of out-of-state busybody religious assholes in magic underwear show up and start shrieking "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!!!!11!1!!1" and you actually find this persuasive?

I repeat: what the fuck is wrong with you?

I guess I should have expected it. You are, after all, the same voters who, five years ago, tossed out a governor you'd reelected less than a year earlier, in favor of Conan the Barbarian, whose entire campaign consisted of cheesy movie and SNL quotes.

It would seem that your entire political memory consists of whatever ad you saw on TV ten minutes before you went to the polls. Whether it made any fucking sense or not.

Give Governor Conan his due, though. He was against this. Maybe I underestimated him. But I think it's more likely I overestimated all of you.

There's also the sheer idiocy of a ballot initiative process that allows constitutional amendments to be introduced by absolutely anyone and pass by a simple majority vote. The entire point of constitutional government is to prevent passing whims of the electorate to be enshrined in stone if they cross certain lines, and to protect vulnerable minorities from the tyranny of the majority. You know, like protecting, oh, say, gay people from the panicky whims of idiots who listen to Mormons.

I know you're incapable of thinking long-term, or you wouldn't be so malleable, but I assure you, you had an opportunity to be thought of as a visionary state on civil rights, and you threw it away to join the historical company of the Jim Crow south. Congratulations.

Seriously. What the fuck is wrong with you?

The 44th President of the United States

Our long national nightmare is over.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

If you haven't voted already, this would be the time to go do it. Even if you're in a state that's not likely to swing the presidential race, there are a lot of important Senate and House races, not to mention local ballot issues, which may have a more direct effect on your daily life than the presidential race ever will.

A quick last round of predictions from various sites:

  • Electoral Vote is predicting 353 electoral votes for Obama, 174 for McCain, with 11 tossups. Their predicted Senate is 58 Democrats, 42 Republicans, and their predicted House is 249-184 with 2 tossups.
  • FiveThirtyEight.com, a new site for this election, is predicting 346.5 for Obama, 191.5 for McCain. They're predicting a 98.1% chance of an Obama win. For the Senate, they have 57.1-40.9.
  • Intrade, a political prediction market, will have trading open all day. But as I write this, they're predicting 364 electoral votes for Obama, 174 for McCain. 10 shares of Obama-to-win are selling for $93.50, up $2.20 from yesterday, and 10 shares of McCain-to-win are selling for $7.40, down $1.80. (Shares in the winner will pay out $10 per share, so people investing in McCain stand to make a considerable return if he wins.)

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