Thursday, May 31, 2007

Barack Obama on Foreign Policy

For those who fear he has no substance.

Renewing American Leadership

He writes of ending the Iraq war, revitalizing the military, halting the spread of nuclear weapons, combating terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rebuilding our international partnerships, encouraging democracies, and restoring America's trust.

My impression is that he's a serious realist who will neither engage in unnecessary wars nor turn a blind eye to threats we might face. He recognizes that unnecessary wars, torture, and secret prisons do us more harm than good and that we need to focus on the actual threats -- nuclear weapons (especially with regard to Russia's stockpile) and al-Qaida.

There are no naive, untested theories about remaking the middle east in Paul Wolfowitz's image nor illusions that democracy can be imposed by a foreign power.

There's also no shying away from the fact that there are bad guys out there and that war is sometimes necessary.

I'm really pulling for Obama at this point -- I think he's America's best chance of not only righting the wrongs the Bush administration has done, but of returning America to the path of becoming a beacon of freedom and democracy, not senseless warmongering, torture, and secret prisons. All of the other Dems and probably all the Repubs except Giuliani will have better foreign policies than Bush's, but as far as I can tell, Obama's the only one who can really turn around our image. (Gore has a shot, too, if he gets in and isn't emasculated by the right.)

(HT: Andrew Sullivan, who focuses on how the antiwar Democratic "netroots" are worried that Obama is too hawkish.)

The Bush Administration Fights Against Private Mad Cow Testing

This is just crazy.
The Bush administration said Tuesday it will fight to keep meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow disease.

The Agriculture Department tests less than 1 percent of slaughtered cows for the disease, which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef. But Kansas-based Creekstone Farms Premium Beef wants to test all of its cows.

Larger meat companies feared that move because, if Creekstone tested its meat and advertised it as safe, they might have to perform the expensive test, too.

The Agriculture Department regulates the test and argued that widespread testing could lead to a false positive that would harm the meat industry.

A federal judge ruled in March that such tests must be allowed. U.S. District Judge James Robertson noted that Creekstone sought to use the same test the government relies on and said the government didn't have the authority to restrict it.

The ruling was to take effect June 1, but the Agriculture Department said Tuesday it would appeal effectively delaying the testing until the court challenge plays out.

Mad cow disease is rare enough that I can understand believing the costs of testing are perhaps not worth the risks. But to use the federal government to forbid private companies from testing their own cattle for a disease that's deadly to humans? That's just crazy.

Torture and the Nazis

All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing. --Edmund Burke (maybe)

Andrew Sullivan. Please read before commenting.


Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I'm not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - is term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What's the Deal with Halakha?

For the purposes of this discussion, halakha is the system of Jewish law followed by Orthodox Jews.

Andrew Sullivan has a provocative quote from a Dutch sociologist:
Are women more attracted to the life of a desperado than men?" asks sociologist Jolande Withuis in her essay "Suffer, fight, become holy" on radical women Muslims. She sees their motivation in the promise of complete devotion. "Faith offers radical women Muslims a 'total' identity that isn't limited to certain occasions and which is considerably more serious than anything else. It demands effort and renunciation, yet offers fulfillment and peace of mind. Boring or tiresome rules, such as covering oneself or not being allowed to eat certain foods, become a source of self-awareness. They are like anorexics, who derive satisfaction in overcoming hunger, even if it is harmful to their health. Correspondingly, these women occupy themselves to the point of absurdity in trying to determine whether things are 'haram' or 'halal' – and this occupies their time and gives them the pleasant feeling of pursuing a meaningful life.

I'm not that interested right now in the question this essay asks, but the part I've bolded jumped out at me. We current and former Orthodox Jews know many who seem obsessed with the following the letter of the law to an absurd degree. And even that's not enough for them -- they accept more and more stringencies upon themselves, going far above and beyond what is required by halakha. Why do they do this? What do they get out of it?

Ask them and they'll tell you that they are merely fulfilling God's commands or, if they are the more spiritual type, that paying close attention to the intricate details of halakha infuses every aspect of their life with meaning. I think that's probably a fair assessment, leaving aside the people with actual OCD.

In discussing why people become or remain religious, meaning generally comes in at the top of the list or in second, after community. I didn't fully realize until I read the above quote that meaning comes in two forms -- one, the overarching sense that the universe makes sense and that we are here for a reason, and two, that the feeling that every action we do can be meaningful.

When I tie my shoes, it has no real meaning, but when an Orthodox Jew of a certain mindset does it, following carefully the halakha which states you must put on the right shoe before the left, then tie the left before the right, it becomes a way to connect to a deeper purpose. Some people apparently find this very satisfying.

Is this a healthy way of living? Who am I to say? I'm pretty sure I don't have the personality type to find such absurd rules meaningful even if I did believe in God. ("Does God really care how I tie my shoes?" I asked as a kid when I first learned that rule.) The analogy to anorexia made by the author of the above quotes strikes me as unfair in the sense that anorexia is objectively dangerous and unhealthy, while I haven't seen any evidence that adherence to halakha is particularly bad for you. However, the idea that the obsessively halakhic Jew (or strict Muslim, etc.) is deriving psychological satisfaction from his actions and omissions is an interesting one albeit a bit obvious in hindsight.

Update on the Trend in Iraq: Bad News

Last week, I posted this picture:

A few commenters focused on the fact that there seems to be a slight downtrend in the last few months and suggested that maybe the surge is starting to work. Unfortunately, it turns out that they were wrong. April and May were the deadliest two months for American troops since the start of the war.

Let us hope that Bush gets over his denial and the Democrats find their balls.

(HT: Stephen Pelz)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pictures of the Creation Museum

Via MetaFilter, pictures from Zachary Lynn. Unfortunately, Mr. Lynn didn't get any pictures of the scene where children and dinosaurs coexist, but the following picture made me smile:

(n.b. This was photoshopped to put the two signs together.)

Explicitly contrasting "human reason" with "God's word?" If these people had been in charge of my religious education, I would have been an atheist by age 8.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Adam and Eve in the Land of the Dinosaurs

The NY Times reviews the new Creation Museum, which opens next week in Kentucky.
Two prehistoric children play near a burbling waterfall, thoroughly at home in the natural world. Dinosaurs cavort nearby, their animatronic mechanisms turning them into alluring companions, their gaping mouths seeming not threatening, but almost welcoming, as an Apatosaurus munches on leaves a few yards away.

What is this, then? A reproduction of a childhood fantasy in which dinosaurs are friends of inquisitive youngsters? The kind of fantasy that doesn’t care that human beings and these prefossilized thunder-lizards are usually thought to have been separated by millions of years? No, this really is meant to be more like one of those literal dioramas of the traditional natural history museum, an imagining of a real habitat, with plant life and landscape reproduced in meticulous detail.

For here at the $27 million Creation Museum, which opens on May 28 (just a short drive from the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport), this pastoral scene is a glimpse of the world just after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, in which dinosaurs are still apparently as herbivorous as humans, and all are enjoying a little calm in the days after the fall.

It also serves as a vivid introduction to the sheer weirdness and daring of this museum created by the Answers in Genesis ministry that combines displays of extraordinary nautilus shell fossils and biblical tableaus, celebrations of natural wonders and allusions to human sin. Evolution gets its continual comeuppance, while biblical revelations are treated as gospel.

Outside the museum scientists may assert that the universe is billions of years old, that fossils are the remains of animals living hundreds of millions of years ago, and that life’s diversity is the result of evolution by natural selection. But inside the museum the Earth is barely 6,000 years old, dinosaurs were created on the sixth day, and Jesus is the savior who will one day repair the trauma of man’s fall.

It is a measure of the museum’s daring that dinosaurs and fossils — once considered major challenges to belief in the Bible’s creation story — are here so central, appearing not as tests of faith, as one religious authority once surmised, but as creatures no different from the giraffes and cats that still walk the earth. Fossils, the museum teaches, are no older than Noah’s flood; in fact dinosaurs were on the ark.

So dinosaur skeletons and brightly colored mineral crystals and images of the Grand Canyon are here, as are life-size dioramas showing paleontologists digging in mock earth, Moses and Paul teaching their doctrines, Martin Luther chastising the church to return to Scripture, Adam and Eve guiltily standing near skinned animals, covering their nakedness, and a supposedly full-size reproduction of a section of Noah’s ark.

There are 52 videos in the museum, one showing how the transformations wrought by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 reveal how plausible it is that the waters of Noah’s flood could have carved out the Grand Canyon within days. There is a special-effects theater complete with vibrating seats meant to evoke the flood, and a planetarium paying tribute to God’s glory while exploring the nature of galaxies.

Whether you are willing to grant the premises of this museum almost becomes irrelevant as you are drawn into its mixture of spectacle and narrative. Its 60,000 square feet of exhibits are often stunningly designed by Patrick Marsh, who, like the entire museum staff, declares adherence to the ministry’s views; he evidently also knows the lure of secular sensations, since he designed the “Jaws” and “King Kong” attractions at Universal Studios in Florida.

For the skeptic the wonder is at a strange universe shaped by elaborate arguments, strong convictions and intermittent invocations of scientific principle. For the believer, it seems, this museum provides a kind of relief: Finally the world is being shown as it really is, without the distortions of secularism and natural selection.


The heart of the museum is a series of catastrophes. The main one is the fall, with Adam and Eve eating of the tree of knowledge; after that tableau the viewer descends from the brightness of Eden into genuinely creepy cement hallways of urban slums. Photographs show the pain of war, childbirth, death — the wages of primal sin. Then come the biblical accounts of the fallen world, leading up to Noah’s ark and the flood, the source of all significant geological phenomena.

The other catastrophe, in the museum’s view, is of more recent vintage: the abandonment of the Bible by church figures who began to treat the story of creation as if it were merely metaphorical, and by Enlightenment philosophers, who chipped away at biblical authority. The ministry believes this is a slippery slope.

Start accepting evolution or an ancient Earth, and the result is like the giant wrecking ball, labeled “Millions of Years,” that is shown smashing the ground at the foundation of a church, the cracks reaching across the gallery to a model of a home in which videos demonstrate the imminence of moral dissolution. A teenager is shown sitting at a computer; he is, we are told, looking at pornography.

Barak Obama: The Reagan of the Left?

Mr. Sullivan attended an Obama event this week.

Here are some of his impressions:
The overwhelming first impression that you get - from the exhausted but vibrant stump speech, the diverse nature of the crowd, the swell of the various applause lines - is that this is the candidate for real change. He has what Reagan had in 1980 and Clinton had in 1992: the wind at his back. Sometimes, elections really do come down to a simple choice: change or more of the same?

Look at the polls and forget ideology for a moment. What do Americans really want right now? Change. Who best offers them a chance to turn the page cleanly on an era most want to forget? It isn't Clinton, God help us. Edwards is so 2004. McCain is a throwback. Romney makes plastic look real. Rudy does offer something new for Republicans - the abortion-friendly, cross-dressing Jack Bauer. But no one captures the sheer, pent-up desire for a new start more effectively than Obama.

At a couple of points in his speech, he used the phrase: "This is not who we are." I was struck by the power of those words. He was reasserting that America is much more than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and Katrina and fear and obstinacy and isolation. And so he makes an argument for change in the language of restoration. The temperamental conservatives in America hear a form of patriotism; and the ideological liberals hear a note of radicalism. It's a powerful, unifying theme. He'd be smart to deepen and broaden it.

Read the rest.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007

Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt Became Friends

My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like.

A good reminder.

Larry Flynt: My friend, Jerry Falwell
But let's start at the beginning and flash back to the late 1970s, when the battle between Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, and I first began. I was publishing Hustler magazine, which most people know has been pushing the envelope of taste from the very beginning, and Falwell was blasting me every chance he had. He would talk about how I was a slime dealer responsible for the decay of all morals. He called me every terrible name he could think of — names as bad, in my opinion, as any language used in my magazine.

After several years of listening to him bash me and reading his insults, I decided it was time to start poking some fun at him. So we ran a parody ad in Hustler — a takeoff on the then-current Campari ads in which people were interviewed describing "their first time." In the ads, it ultimately became clear that the interviewees were describing their first time sipping Campari. But not in our parody. We had Falwell describing his "first time" as having been with his mother, "drunk off our God-fearing asses," in an outhouse.

Apparently, the reverend didn't find the joke funny. He sued us for libel in federal court in Virginia, claiming that the magazine had inflicted emotional stress on him. It was a long and tedious fight, beginning in 1983 and ending in 1988, but Hustler Magazine Inc. vs. Jerry Falwell was without question my most important battle.

We lost in our initial jury trial, and we lost again in federal appeals court. After spending a fortune, everyone's advice to me was to just settle the case and be done, but I wasn't listening; I wasn't about to pay Falwell $200,000 for hurting his feelings or, as his lawyers called it, "intentional infliction of emotional distress." We appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and I lost for a third time.

Everyone was certain this was the end. We never thought the U.S. Supreme Court would agree to hear the case. But it did, and though I felt doomed throughout the trial and was convinced that I was going to lose, we never gave up. As we had moved up the judicial ladder, this case had become much more than just a personal battle between a pornographer and a preacher, because the 1st Amendment was so much at the heart of the case.

To my amazement, we won. It wasn't until after I won the case and read the justices' unanimous decision in my favor that I realized fully the significance of what had happened. The justices held that a parody of a public figure was protected under the 1st Amendment even if it was outrageous, even if it was "doubtless gross and repugnant," as they put it, and even if it was designed to inflict emotional distress. In a unanimous decision — written by, of all people, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist — the court reasoned that if it supported Falwell's lower-court victory, no one would ever have to prove something was false and libelous to win a judgment. All anyone would have to prove is that "he upset me" or "she made me feel bad." The lawsuits would be endless, and that would be the end of free speech.

Everyone was shocked at our victory — and no one more so than Falwell, who on the day of the decision called me a "sleaze merchant" hiding behind the 1st Amendment. Still, over time, Falwell was forced to publicly come to grips with the reality that this is America, where you can make fun of anyone you want. That hadn't been absolutely clear before our case, but now it's being taught in law schools all over the country, and our case is being hailed as one of the most important free-speech cases of the 20th century.

No wonder that when he started hugging me and smooching me on television 10 years later, I was a bit confused. I hadn't seen him since we'd been in court together, and that night I didn't see him until I came out on the stage. I was expecting (and looking for) a fight, but instead he was putting his hands all over me. I remember thinking, "I spent $3 million taking that case to the Supreme Court, and now this guy wants to put his hand on my leg?"

Soon after that episode, I was in my office in Beverly Hills, and out of nowhere my secretary buzzes me, saying, "Jerry Falwell is here to see you." I was shocked, but I said, "Send him in." We talked for two hours, with the latest issues of Hustler neatly stacked on my desk in front of him. He suggested that we go around the country debating, and I agreed. We went to colleges, debating moral issues and 1st Amendment issues — what's "proper," what's not and why.

In the years that followed and up until his death, he'd come to see me every time he was in California. We'd have interesting philosophical conversations. We'd exchange personal Christmas cards. He'd show me pictures of his grandchildren. I was with him in Florida once when he complained about his health and his weight, so I suggested that he go on a diet that had worked for me. I faxed a copy to his wife when I got back home.

The truth is, the reverend and I had a lot in common. He was from Virginia, and I was from Kentucky. His father had been a bootlegger, and I had been one too in my 20s before I went into the Navy. We steered our conversations away from politics, but religion was within bounds. He wanted to save me and was determined to get me out of "the business."

My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.

He was definitely selling brimstone religion and would do anything to add another member to his mailing list. But in the end, I knew what he was selling, and he knew what I was selling, and we found a way to communicate.

I always kicked his ass about his crazy ideas and the things he said. Every time I'd call him, I'd get put right through, and he'd let me berate him about his views. When he was getting blasted for his ridiculous homophobic comments after he wrote his "Tinky Winky" article cautioning parents that the purple Teletubby character was in fact gay, I called him in Florida and yelled at him to "leave the Tinky Winkies alone."

When he referred to Ellen Degeneres in print as Ellen "Degenerate," I called him and said, "What are you doing? You don't need to poison the whole lake with your venom." I could hear him mumbling out of the side of his mouth, "These lesbians just drive me crazy." I'm sure I never changed his mind about anything, just as he never changed mine.

I'll never admire him for his views or his opinions. To this day, I'm not sure if his television embrace was meant to mend fences, to show himself to the public as a generous and forgiving preacher or merely to make me uneasy, but the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning that famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Problem of Evil: Top 12 Arguments

Via the Friendly Atheist, a list of the top 12 "excuses" for the existence of evil in a world created by God, created by August Berkshire of Minnesota Atheists and Atheist Alliance International. I find the problem of evil to be the most compelling argument against (a personal) God's existence as it's pretty much the only one that doesn't depend on Occam's Razor. I cannot reconcile the existence of natural disasters and other evil "acts of God" with any God I'd want to worship.

Anyway, here's the list:

If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, then why is there evil in the world?

For the sake of argument, I will concede the harm that humans do is a misuse of our free will, for which God cannot be blamed (although a good case can be made that a loving god would have stopped Hitler).

That still leaves us with genetic birth defects, genetic and acquired diseases, and natural disasters.

Here are “The Top Twelve Excuses” religious people use to attempt to explain away the horrible behavior of their god.

(1) Unknown greater good - The first excuse is that God must commit or allow some evil to occur to accomplish an unknown greater good.

But doesn’t that limit God’s knowledge and power? Doesn’t that say that God couldn’t think of a better way to accomplish his goals other than torturing innocent people?

(2) Evil is really God’s love - The second excuse is that what we perceive as “evil” is really an example of “God’s love.”

However, this is a definition of love we cannot comprehend because it is exactly the opposite of what we define love to be. Therefore we can’t know that “God’s love” is really love – we have to take someone’s unconvincing word for it.

If disease is an example of God’s love, shouldn’t we all try to get as sick as possible? Are doctors violating “God’s will” when they try to cure disease?

(3) Evil is needed to appreciate the good - The third excuse is that without evil we wouldn’t appreciate what’s good.

But couldn’t a god just give us an appreciation of what’s good? Why should we have to be tortured to appreciate the good?

Disease and natural disasters seem like wanton cruelty on the part of God. Without disease and natural disasters we could still be left to struggle with good and evil in terms of moral dilemmas and human actions.

(4) Blame the ancestors and blame the victim - The fourth excuse is that all evil that happens to us is our fault, either directly, or because of Adam and Eve.

This is known as “blaming the victim.” Typically, a victim of abuse believes that the more he or she is punished, the more he or she is loved.

But what did an innocent baby ever do to deserve a birth defect?

And what kind of justice is it that blames children for the sins of their long-dead ancestors?

(5) Evil is necessary for free will - The fifth excuse is that without evil we would have no free will and would be robots.

But what do birth defects, disease, and natural disasters have to do with free will? Do sick people have more free will than healthy people?

God has supposedly created a heaven where there is no disease. Are the people in heaven robots?

(6) The devil did it - The sixth excuse is that God isn’t really responsible for evil in the world, a devil is.

But who created the devil? And isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful? Can’t he stop the devil?

(7) Evil doesn’t last very long - The seventh excuse is that our miserable time on Earth is brief compared to an eternity in a wonderful heaven.

So what? Is that any excuse to torture people?

(8) Evil is necessary for compassion - The eighth excuse is that evil is necessary for us to learn compassion.

But if God wanted us to be compassionate, why didn’t he just make us that way? Why this sadistic scheme of torturing innocent babies to instill compassion in their parents?

(9) Suffering builds character - The ninth excuse is that suffering builds character.

While building character may sometimes require effort – such as helping others, studying, and sportsmanship – none of these threatens our lives.

And what kind of character is a baby supposed to be developing, who is born with a birth defect so severe that she will only live a few days?

(10) God is testing our faith - The tenth excuse is that evil is God’s way of testing our faith, like Job was tested in the Old Testament.

If this is true, what sense does it make to impose a “loyalty test” on an infant who dies from disease or natural disaster?

(11) The Creator is always justified - The eleventh excuse is that God is morally justified in tormenting people because he created them.

But this confuses the right to torture someone with the power to torture someone.

Do the parents who create a child have a right to torture that child? Does might make right?

(12) Evil necessary to prove God’s existence - The twelfth excuse is that the existence of evil proves the existence of God, that without a God-given sense of good and bad, we would not be able to identify some things as evil in the first place.

But can’t an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving god come up with a better way to prove his existence than by torturing us? Why not just reveal himself?

Conclusion - God has run out of excuses. He is either incompetent, indifferent, or cruel. Another way to reconcile the facts is to conclude that gods don’t exist at all.

Additional comments - If you had the knowledge and power of a god, would you have created birth defects, disease, and natural disasters? If not, then you are nicer than the god you believe in. This god should be praying to you for moral advice, rather than the other way around.

Would you take a syringe full of malaria and inject it into someone you love? And yet that’s exactly what God does to people he claims to love, using a mosquito as the syringe.

We humans spend a lot of time mopping up after God’s mistakes. Some say that God works through us. But the reason we have to do “the Lord’s work” is because “the Lord” isn’t doing it himself. And if we’re doing the work, shouldn’t we take the credit?

There is much unnecessary cruelty in nature. For example, when one male lion replaces another in a pride of lions, he kills the cubs of the previous male lion. Yet this type of behavior does not occur in other species. Thus, if a god designed this system, he is not above a little wanton cruelty from time to time.

Yes, many religious people do kind acts of charity. But why? Too often the answer seems to fall into three categories, which turn out not to be altruistic at all:

1) To use the recipient of aid as a pawn to bribe the helper’s way into heaven or avoid hell (or to achieve a higher reincarnation).

2) To use kindness to convert more people to the helper’s religion, because religions cannot be sustained by evidence and thus need as many like-minded people as possible to prop them up and quash self-doubt.

3) To attempt to maintain credibility in their religion by covering up the embarrassingly poor job done by their god, by claiming they are agents of God.

For those religious people who are kind for the sake of kindness, without reference to a god, that’s exactly what secular humanism is.

Bible Quotes - “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lamentations 3:38)

“When disaster comes to a city, has the Lord not caused it?” (Amos 3:6)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell Has Died

I learned a few things reading his wikipedia biography today.

I knew he was terribly homophobic, but I didn't realize he had been a segregationist in the 60s (he referred to the Civil Rights movement as the "Civil Wrongs" movement) as well as a supporter of apartheid in the 80s.

Although many of my religious readers are angered by the analogy between gay rights and black rights, Falwell's life provides another datapoint that the two are more similar than gay rights opponents might like to admit. Here's Falwell on Brown v. Board of Education:

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made…. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

Falwell was the founder of the so-called "Moral Majority" movement, which was perhaps the beginning of the Christian Right voting bloc and prominently included Pat Robertson whose law school boasts 150 alumni in the current Bush administration.

Falwell was not an irrelevant religious nut -- he had friends in high places. Bush 41 spoke at the commencement ceremony of Falwell's Liberty University in 1990 while he was president, referring to Falwell as "a loyal friend." Falwell was a huge supporter of Bush 43, who called him personally when Falwell was hospitalized in 2005. Karl Rove delivered the commencement address in 2004. John McCain famously delivered a commencement speech at Liberty last year after having publicly criticized Falwell in the past.

Falwell represented much of what's wrong with American politics, American religion, and, most notably, the intersection between them. I take no joy in a man's death, but let us not forget that the backwards ideology he spent his life representing continues to thrive in 2008.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pleasure vs. Happiness

Louie of Everything is Pointless wants to know why most of us aren't allowed to have a device implanted to directly stimulate our brain's pleasure centers:
A woman of indeterminate age lies on a narrow cot, a giant bandage covering her skull. At the start of the film she seems locked inside some private vortex of despair. Her face is as blank as her white hospital gown and her voice is a remote, tired monotone.

"Sixty pulses," says a disembodied voice. It belongs to the technician in the next room, who is sending a current to the electrode inside the woman's head. The patient, inside her soundproof cubicle, does not hear him.

Suddenly, she smiles. "Why are you smiling?" asks Dr. Heath, sitting by her bedside.
"I don't know … Are you doing something to me? [Giggles.] I don't usually sit around and laugh at nothing. I must be laughing at something." "One hundred forty," says the offscreen technician.

The patient giggles again, transformed from a stone-faced zombie into a little girl with a secret joke. "What in the hell are you doing?" she asks. "You must be hitting some goody place."


Today, medical technology allows such electrodes to be completely implanted into the human body, including a battery pack the size of a book of matches. But these are a rarity, used only in very specific and extreme cases. Not even victims of intractable neuropathic pain or depression are permitted to have their pleasure centers wired. Individuals with happiness deficits are instead treated with drugs, which are both more and less invasive, depending on how you look at it. Medications don't involve holes drilled into the skull, but they do act upon the entire body, causing a host of unwanted chemical side-effects. Often they also result in a lifelong expense.

Some bioethicists feel that ESB technology should be made available to everyone, protected by the "pursuit of happiness" clause in the Declaration of Independence. Are there dangers in having euphoria just a click away, all the time? Would it be bad thing to have intense orgasmic pleasure at the push of a button?

It seems clear that the pleasure center of the brain evolved to guide our actions and to motivate us, by rewarding us when we do well. This is evidenced by the fact that the primary activity that living things have evolved to do– to mate and reproduce– brings more pleasure than any other natural means (of course I'm referring to the mating part). Therefore, it may be that a pleasure-giving device would detract from our ambition and good judgment. Some people also worry that individuals who are raised without unhappiness and heartache would lack the "character" that makes us human. There is also the concern that most rewards decline in value after prolonged exposure, and some claim that this sort of technology would slowly erode a person's ability to feel good.

But these are all guesses, there is no way to know for certain how a human might change in response to such technology. One could also point out that many people never tire of other stimulations such as sex or pleasurable foods, and that while many people will naturally partake of those pleasurable activities a lot at first, most will gradually moderate the usage to times when it is most needed or appropriate. But nothing would stop an ESB-wired person from taking a day off work, putting a brick on the button, and enjoying an afternoon of bliss. As an added benefit over sex and chocolate, this technology isn't likely to result in unwanted pregnancies, disease, or weight gain.

From a philosophical perspective, the existence of such technology is fascinating. For the first time in human history, we can call hedonism's bluff, as it were. Some would, no doubt, accept such a machine and stimulate themselves for the rest of their lives. Perhaps in some of my darker moments, I'd be tempted as well.

There's something unsatisfying about the idea of pure pleasure on demand, though. I'm no puritan, but the kind of pleasure offered by this machine seems shallower than the happiness that we can sometimes achieve the old-fashioned way -- happiness that includes within it notes of sorrow and pain the way chocolate includes the bitter and the sweet, sex combines tension with release, and great movies make us laugh and cry.

Of course, scientists could eventually create a device which perfectly mimics the experience of a life perfectly lived. What if I could feel at the touch of a button the complete inner experience of a person at the top of the world, whether that person is a grandfather surrounded by family or the man currently having the best sex in the world? Is a perfect life experienced artificially better than an imperfect one honestly lived?

There are obviously a lot of implications in this line of thought as to how we should lead our lives. I'm fascinated to hear everybody's comments.

Friday, May 11, 2007

General Petraeus Writes Letter to Troops Opposing Torture

Via Andrew Sullivan, who writes:
It's a stunning letter. And it's one of the most important letters to come from a senior military official in a very long time. The very fact that it is necessary reveals the extent of the damage that Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney have done. But the fact that it is addressed to every servicemember in the field from their commander in the field shows that honor is not dead in the US military, and that repair is possible. Marty Lederman is right to detect some political interference. I suspect that Cheney insisted on inserting the word "frequently," to insist that torture is not always useless and unnecessary. But Petraeus is finally doing what no one has yet done in this war: he is asserting the immorality, illegality and dishonor of torture and abuse from a position of authority. It has taken six years to hear that clarity again, after the shameful stain of this president's record.

The letter:
10 May 2007

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen serving in Multi-National Force—Iraq:

Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we—not our enemies—occupy the moral high ground. This strategy has shown results in recent months. Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate attacks, for example, have finally started to turn a substantial portion of the Iraqi population against it.

In view of this, I was concerned by the results of a recently released survey conducted last fall in Iraq that revealed an apparent unwillingness on the part of some US personnel to report illegal actions taken by fellow members of their units. The study also indicated that a small percentage of those surveyed may have mistreated noncombatants. This survey should spur reflection on our conduct in combat.

I fully appreciate the emotions that one experiences in Iraq.

I also know firsthand the bonds between members of the “brotherhood of the close fight.” Seeing a fellow trooper killed by a barbaric enemy can spark frustration, anger, and a desire for immediate revenge. As hard as it might be, however, we must not let these emotions lead us—or our comrades in arms—to commit hasty, illegal actions. In the event that we witness or hear of such actions, we must not let our bonds prevent us from speaking up.

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk”; however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual (2-22.3) on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published last year shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.

We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. We are engaged in combat, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly, and we must be violent at times. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also all human beings. Stress caused by lengthy deployments and combat is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign that we are human. If you feel such stress, do not hesitate to talk to your chain of command, your chaplain, or a medical expert.

We should use the survey results to renew our commitment to the values and standards that make us who we are and to spur re-examination of these issues. Leaders, in particular, need to discuss these issues with their troopers—and, as always, they need to set the right example and strive to ensure proper conduct. We should never underestimate the importance of good leadership and the difference it can make.

Thanks for what you continue to do. It is an honor to serve with each of you.

David H. Petraeus
General, United States Army

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mother of a Gay Son Responds to Anti-gay Venom

Via the Gay-ex-Choosid, a letter from a woman in Vermont:

I've had enough of your anti-gay venom

Vermont debate brings out the haters
Sunday, April 30, 2000
For the Valley News

As the mother of a gay son, I've seen firsthand how cruel and misguided people can be.

Many letters have been sent to the Valley News concerning the homosexual menace in Vermont. I am the mother of a gay son and I've taken enough from you good people.

I'm tired of your foolish rhetoric about the "homosexual agenda" and your allegations that accepting homosexuality is the same thing as advocating sex with children. You are cruel and ignorant. You have been robbing me of the joys of motherhood ever since my children were tiny.

My firstborn son started suffering at the hands of the moral little thugs from your moral, upright families from the time he was in the first grade. He was physically and verbally abused from first grade straight through high school because he was perceived to be gay.

He never professed to be gay or had any association with anything gay, but he had the misfortune not to walk or have gestures like the other boys. He was called "fag" incessantly, starting when he was 6.

In high school, while your children were doing what kids that age should be doing, mine labored over a suicide note, drafting and redrafting it to be sure his family knew how much he loved them. My sobbing 17-year-old tore the heart out of me as he choked out that he just couldn't bear to continue living any longer, that he didn't want to be gay and that he couldn't face a life with no dignity.

You have the audacity to talk about protecting families and children from the homosexual menace, while you yourselves tear apart families and drive children to despair. I don't know why my son is gay, but I do know that God didn't put him, and millions like him, on this Earth to give you someone to abuse. God gave you brains so that you could think, and it's about time you started doing that.

No choice
At the core of all your misguided beliefs is the belief that this could never happen to you, that there is some kind of subculture out there that people have chosen to join. The fact is that if it can happen to my family, it can happen to yours, and you won't get to choose. Whether it is genetic or whether something occurs during a critical time of fetal development, I don't know. I can only tell you with an absolute certainty that it is inborn.

If you want to tout your own morality, you'd best come up with something more substantive than your heterosexuality. You did nothing to earn it; it was given to you. If you disagree, I would be interested in hearing your story, because my own heterosexuality was a blessing I received with no effort whatsoever on my part. It is so woven into the very soul of me that nothing could ever change it.

For those of you who reduce sexual orientation to a simple choice, a character issue, a bad habit or something that can be changed by a 10-step program, I'm puzzled. Are you saying that your own sexual orientation is nothing more than something you have chosen, that you could change it at will?

If that's not the case, then why would you suggest that someone else can?

A popular theme in your letters is that Vermont has been infiltrated by outsiders. Both sides of my family have lived in Vermont for generations. I am heart and soul a Vermonter, so I'll thank you to stop saying that you are speaking for "true Vermonters."

You invoke the memory of the brave people who have fought on the battlefield for this great country, saying that they didn't give their lives so that the "homosexual agenda" could tear down the principles they died defending.

My 83-year-old father fought in some of the most horrific battles of World War II, was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart. He shakes his head in sadness at the life his grandson has had to live. He says he fought alongside homosexuals in those battles, that they did their part and bothered no one. One of his best friends in the service was gay, and he never knew it until the end, and when he did find out, it mattered not at all. That wasn't the measure of the man.

You religious folk just can't bear the thought that as my son emerges from the hell that was his childhood he might like to find a lifelong companion and have a measure of happiness. It offends your sensibilities that he should request the right to visit that companion in the hospital, to make medical decisions for him or to benefit from tax laws governing inheritance.

How dare he? you say. These outrageous requests would threaten the very existence of your family, would undermine the sanctity of marriage.

You use religion to abdicate your responsibility to be thinking human beings. There are vast numbers of religious people who find your attitudes repugnant. God is not for the privileged majority, and God knows my son has committed no sin.

The deep-thinking author of a letter to the April 12 Valley News who lectures about homosexual sin and tells us about "those of us who have been blessed with the benefits of a religious upbringing" asks: "What ever happened to the idea of striving . . . to be better human beings than we are?"

Indeed, sir, what ever happened to that?

I Made the JIB Finals!!

Unfortunately, I'm getting killed in this round. Go save me here and here!

(Not that DovBear isn't a great blog, but skeptical? Come on. :-)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Al Sharpton on Mormons

And as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyways. So don't worry about that -- that's a temporary... uh, that's a temporary situation.

YouTube, via Andrew Sullivan.

Yes, Reverend. Mormons don't really believe in God. They're just a group of closet atheists (gasp!) attempting to win good Christians over to the dark side.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Single- and Double-loop Learning as Applied to Religion

LeisureGuy refers to Chris Argyris, a Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and his notions of "single-loop learning" and "double-loop learning." LeisureGuy smartly applies Argyris's ideas to the mainstream media and I'd like to do the same for the ways that we think about the world.

First an introduction to the terms:
Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on ‘techniques and making techniques more efficient’ (Usher and Bryant: 1989: 87) Any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective. Double-loop learning, in contrast, ‘involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies’ (op. cit.). In many respects the distinction at work here is the one used by Aristotle, when exploring technical and practical thought. The former involves following routines and some sort of preset plan – and is both less risky for the individual and the organization, and affords greater control. The latter is more creative and reflexive, and involves consideration notions of the good. Reflection here is more fundamental: the basic assumptions behind ideas or policies are confronted… hypotheses are publicly tested… processes are disconfirmable not self-seeking (Argyris 1982: 103-4).

Here is their illustration of the difference between the two techniques.

I've taken the liberty of modifying the chart to discuss beliefs:

I believe that most Orthodox Jews (and other traditionalist groups) engage only in "single-loop" learning. For example, given the assumptions that God is good and God wrote the Torah, they reasonably conclude the Torah is good. Fine. Here's where it gets interesting. Some piece of data comes along that appears to contradict the conclusion the Torah is good. To reference my previous post, I'll use the example of the Torah commanding the stoning-to-death of adulterous women. Most Orthodox Jews will not question the assumptions that God is good and God wrote the Torah. They will instead go back to the interpretation stage and find a way to reconcile the new data with the old assumptions.

There's nothing about single-loop learning that makes it necessarily incorrect. In fact, if we didn't use it most of the time, we'd never be able to get anything done. However, there is a great danger to depending on it to the exclusion of double-loop learning. If one of our assumptions happens to be false and we don't know it yet, we can waste a lot of time and make a lot of incorrect conclusions if we stick to single-loop learning.

It can be scary and disorienting to question one's assumptions but it's clear that sometimes it's the only way to reach a correct conclusion. I think that people who leave their faiths (or join faiths!) for intellectual reasons are more willing to ask themselves the hard questions. (Or, in some cases, life's events practically force them to ask the hard questions.)

If we're interested in the truth and in good results, I think we must frequently do a sanity check on our underlying assumptions (to the degree we are even aware of them.) Then again, if we aren't concerned with the truth and are happy with the results, it might be reasonable to not look at those assumptions. Perhaps it's unfortunate for those of us who care more about what's true than about what's useful.

Even if we don't habitually question our assumptions, I think there are some warning signs that we are engaging in single-loop learning when double-loop learning is called for. For example:
  1. We are having great difficulty coming to reasonable conclusions. (e.g. my husband loves me and he beats me so his beating me must be a form of his love.)
  2. We can reach satisfactory conclusions, but the interpretation is so convoluted that it strains credibility. (e.g. the epicycles in the Ptolemaic system of geocentrism.)
  3. We finds ourselves having to do a lot of interpretation too often. (e.g. my child would never use drugs and his strange behavior today was because he was stressed out. And the same was true yesterday and the day before that and the day before that...)
In my opinion, thinking Orthodox Jews should stumble upon these warning signs quite frequently. Just off the top of my head, I can think of an example for each of these. The problem for believers in an omnipotent and good God who causes destructive "acts of God" (tornadoes) or allows large-scale human evil (Holocaust, Rwanda) falls under #1. The day-era argument for a literal Genesis falls under #2. And the totality of Orthodox Judaism falls under #3. (For example, any Orthodox Jew active on the skeptic blogs has had to satisfy him- or herself with separate interpretations for the age of the universe, evolution, biblical authorship, the lack of evidence for an Exodus, etc. instead of the single, simple, and obvious (with a different assumption) interpretation that the Bible was written by imperfect men.)

I guess this is all just a fancy way to describe Occam's Razor, but coming at it from a new direction is pretty interesting.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Stoning in the Torah and in Reality

The rabbis hardly ever allowed executions. This stuff doesn't apply any more. I understand that. What I can't understand is how people can worship a Being they believe wrote, dictated, or inspired the following verses:

דברים פרק כב
כג כי יהיה נער בתולה, מארשה לאיש; ומצאה איש בעיר, ושכב עמה. כד והוצאתם את-שניהם אל-שער העיר ההוא, וסקלתם אתם באבנים ומתו--את-הנער על-דבר אשר לא-צעקה בעיר, ואת-האיש על-דבר אשר-ענה את-אשת רעהו; ובערת הרע, מקרבך

Deuteronomy 22:23-24. If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

The moment a teenage girl was stoned to death for loving the wrong boy

A 17-year-old girl has been stoned to death in Iraq because she loved a teenage boy of the wrong religion.

As a horrifying video of the stoning went out on the Internet, the British arm of Amnesty International condemned the death of Du’a Khalil Aswad as "an abhorrent murder" and demanded that her killers be brought to justice.

Reports from Iraq said a local security force witnessed the incident, but did nothing to try to stop it. Now her boyfriend is in hiding in fear for his life.

Miss Aswad, a member of a minority Kurdish religious group called Yezidi, was condemned to death as an "honour killing" by other men in her family and hardline religious leaders because of her relationship with the Sunni Muslim boy.

I watched the video. (You can find it in this thread if you want.) It's horrible. The poor girl is cowering on the ground stripped to her underwear and a bloodthirsty mob is screaming (I assume) for her death as she is brutally murdered.

Maybe you think God didn't mean these verses literally or that they don't apply now. But how can you worship him if he even wrote them? How can you believe that they weren't written by people much like today's Muslim (and Yezidi?) extremists when their actions fit in so closely with the Torah's words?

It's to the rabbis' credit that this sort of "justice" was never common among the Jewish people, at least since Talmudic times. Still, they shouldn't have had to "reinterpret" the text or explain why it no longer applies. It should never have applied and it should never have been written.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Candidates on the Issues

According to this test, here is how the candidates match my personal "ideal" candidate:
1. Theoretical Ideal Candidate (100%)
2. Barack Obama (80%)
3. Dennis Kucinich (80%)
4. Joseph Biden (72%)
5. Hillary Clinton (72%)
6. Wesley Clark (70%)
7. Al Gore (69%)
8. Christopher Dodd (68%)
9. John Edwards (68%)
10. Bill Richardson (63%)
11. Mike Gravel (54%)
12. Elaine Brown (50%)
13. Ron Paul (49%)
14. Kent McManigal (41%)
15. Rudolph Giuliani (29%)
16. Tommy Thompson (25%)
17. Mike Huckabee (25%)
18. John McCain (18%)
19. Mitt Romney (17%)
20. Chuck Hagel (15%)
21. Sam Brownback (10%)
22. Tom Tancredo (10%)
23. Fred Thompson (9%)
24. Jim Gilmore (8%)
25. Newt Gingrich (8%)
26. Duncan Hunter (6%)

In reality, these are my current preferences, in order:
1. Obama
2. Edwards
3. Gore
4. Clinton

Focusing solely on the issues doesn't take into account whether I believe someone would be an effective president (Kucinich) or would, for example, lead to an even more divided country (Clinton, through no fault of her own.)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Are There Any Prominent, Stable, and Moral Atheists?

Jewish Philosopher posed a question today which troubled me:

Can anyone find an example of a single prominent atheistic leader who was kind, honest, and sober and had a stable family life?

I'm honestly stumped. Every prominent atheist I can think of has divorced

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mea Culpa

The people who complained about my last post were right. Random put it particularly well:
the questions are not aimed at the average religious believer - they're aimed at the average atheist, to reassure him of his intellectual superiority over us superstitious halfwits.

I'm going to try not to further contribute to the us-vs-them mindset. Making fun of the opposition, whatever the subject, serves only to alienate. I myself get angry when other bloggers stereotype liberals or atheists or any of the other labels I sometimes describe myself with. So thanks for calling me out.

(And a special thanks to sckorefil, who contributed greatly to this thought process in an online chat.)