Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren to Speak at Obama's Inauguration

Matt Duss:
Pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20. While he is a recognizable celebrity and best-selling author, Warren also advocates a number of deeply anti-progressive views. He supported California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 and has likened gay marriage to polygamy and incest. He is strongly anti-choice, and has equated abortion to the Holocaust. Warren also supports the assassination of foreign leaders. Appearing on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes on December 3, Warren agreed with Sean Hannity’s assertion that “we need to take him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] out,” saying that stopping evil “is the legitimate role of government.” He added, “The Bible says that God puts government on earth to punish evildoers.”

Just revolting. Warren is well-known for emphasizing issues like environmentalism and social justice unlike Christian nuts who are 100% Republican partisans, which I suppose is a step in the right direction, but he's still a largely right-wing regligious nut. Aren't there enough left-wing religious nuts out there?

Republicans tried to convince us that Obama's attendance at Wright's church proved that Obama is anti-White and anti-American. That is and has always been a ridiculous argument. There is not a hint of evidence that Obama shared Wright's views and his tone could not be more different.

What Obama's attendance at Wright's church proved is that Obama's perfectly happy to associate with religious nuts when it proves useful politically. Maybe this sort of thing will help move Christians leftward. But it's not something I have an easy time stomaching.

Obama has responded to the controversy:
Mr. Obama himself responded to the growing controversy when prompted by a question during a news conference today designed to announce a trio of financial regulators. The president-elect stressed that he is a "fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans," but said it was also important for Americans to come together despite disagreements on social issues.

Mr. Obama said the inauguration would include people with a wide variety of viewpoints represented and "that's how it should be."

He also pointed out that he was invited by Warren a few years ago to speak at his church, despite his disagreement with Warren on those issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign has been about," he added.

If Warren opposed interracial marriages instead of gay marriages, I'm pretty sure Obama wouldn't be having him at the inauguration.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Single Greatest Problem in Orthodox Communities

Do you want to know why so many people leave their Orthodox communities?

It's because the communities engage in social shunning of anybody who doesn't fit in. It used to be that communities contained both ultra-Orthodox rabbis and people who drove to shul on shabbos. Talmud scholars and those who thought the whole Talmud was a bunch of nonsense. Those with OCD-levels of halakhic compliance and those who sometimes ate shellfish.

Now if you're different in any way, you're shunned. Orthodox Jews have gotten so terrified of exposing their children to anyone who they deem a bad role model that they just kick out everybody who's not perfect (by their standards.) And they do it to kids, too. In many right-wing communities, if you talk to girls on a Saturday night, you might as well be a crack dealer. They'll treat you the same way.

I have a friend who was suspended from a right-wing yeshiva for reading secular novels. Many friends in Israel were not allowed any secular magazines. A well-respected yeshiva allowed either a computer or a phone line, but not both. God-forbid a bochur accesses the internet.

Do you think it was like this in the shtetls of Europe? You think there weren't open apikorsim and people who worked on shabbos in the same communities as the greatest Torah scholars? There were. Talk to people who are old enough to remember.

My grandfather was from Lithuania. He was a rabbi from a long line of rabbis. He shook his head at this nonsense going on now with the know-nothing black-hatters who think everybody's got to be a certain way. He told one of them, a young up-and-comer more right-wing than most, "You know, it was never like this in Lithuania." The rabbi's answer? "This isn't Lithuania."

You want to keep kids from leaving? Let them have beliefs that aren't 100% Orthodox. Don't make them hide it, or be ashamed. Let adults voice their honest beliefs and questions and doubts. Even if Orthodoxy is correct, there's no way everybody in these communities believes the party line. Quit being the thought police. Show the kids that there are alternatives in life. You shouldn't have to be only one kind of person to live in your neighborhoods.

Want to keep kids off drugs? Don't dismiss the ones who don't fit in as "rejects" or "bad apples" and maybe they won't start hanging out with all the other "rejects" and "bad apples." Don't pretend marijuana's the same as heroin. Don't act like talking to girls leads to stealing cars. Don't denigrate women or girls who wear pants as if they are prostitutes.

You think halakha is the One True Way? Fine. Tell your kids that. Tell your neighbors. But you don't have to frantically hide your kids from everybody who thinks maybe God didn't write the Torah. You can disagree with homosexuality without kicking gay adults (even those with partners!) out of your neighborhoods and letting kids know that they'd better stay in the closet until they're old enough to get the hell out.

You guys are trying to create this ideal society where everybody does the right things and thinks the right things all the time, where "right" is defined so narrowly as to be impossible for at least 20-30% of your children. Grow the hell up and join the real world, where not everybody agrees with you and not everybody has to act exactly the same. I mean, the whole everybody wear black-and-white with the same kind of black hat is a parody of itself. This isn't a religion, it's a fantasy world.

This post inspired by G's post at Serandez.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bush and Rumsfeld Are War Criminals and Cowards


Authorization for torture at Guantanamo and in Iraq and Afghanistan came from the highest levels of government:
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) today released the executive summary and conclusions of the Committee’s report of its inquiry into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.

From the executive summary and conclusions (.pdf):
Senate Armed Services Committee Conclusions

Conclusion 1: On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.

Conclusion 2: Members of the President’s Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA’s interrogation program during that period.

Conclusions on SERE Training Techniques and Interrogations

Conclusion 3: The use of techniques similar to those used in SERE resistance training – such as stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, and treating them like animals – was at odds with the commitment to humane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Using those techniques for interrogating detainees was also inconsistent with the goal of collecting accurate intelligence information, as the purpose of SERE resistance training is to increase the ability of U.S. personnel to resist abusive interrogations and the techniques used were based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to elicit false confessions.

Conclusion 4: The use of techniques in interrogations derived from SERE resistance training created a serious risk of physical and psychological harm to detainees. The SERE schools employ strict controls to reduce the risk of physical and psychological harm to students during training. Those controls include medical and psychological screening for students, interventions by trained psychologists during training, and code words to ensure that students can stop the application of a technique at any time should the need arise. Those same controls are not present in real world interrogations.

...

Conclusion 13: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there. Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of Mr. Haynes’s recommendation that most of the techniques contained in GTMO’s October 11, 2002 request be authorized, influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity, and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

President Bush and his administration blamed the torture that went on at Guantanamo Bay on a "few bad apples" and let Lynndie England hang out to dry while he and Rumsfeld continued on their merry way.

England went to prison, as she should have. Why is Bush still sitting in the White House? Why is Don Rumsfeld a free man?

(HT: Andrew Sullivan, who has been relentless on the torture issue.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wearing the Frum "Costume"

Abandoning Eden used the word "costume" to describe how she was expected to dress at her parents' house (in this post) and I thought that was brilliant. For me, it's a simple matter of putting on a kippah but it still grates.

Have you noticed that Orthodox Jews think it's just basic respect to wear a kippah in their homes, but would never consider returning the favor by not wearing one in yours? Not that I'd ever ask someone to remove a kippah in my home, of course! We non-Orthodox don't need to engage in that sort of manipulation.

I've (implicitly) compromised with my parents as follows: if I'm going for a shabbat or yom tov meal, I will wear a kippah. If I'm going to frum relatives' home with them, I wear it. But if I go to my parents' house on a weeknight or something, no kippah. Everybody seems pretty okay with this situation (my parents are more tolerant than most Orthodox, luckily.) The only friction lately has been what happens if we go to a kosher restaurant together. Mostly, I've been sucking it up and wearing one so they don't have to stress about what the neighbors will think, but I hate doing it. Last time, I didn't bring one but my father brought one for me and I ended up putting it on.

But now there are two events coming up that I'm not sure about. One is an engagement party for me (and my fiancee, of course!) at their house, and the other is the wedding itself. (See How Orthodox Will My Wedding Be?)

I think I'm going to suck it up and wear it for the engagement party, which will have a lot of my parents' Orthodox friends, but it sucks to have to pretend to be frum, even just a little. I'll keep telling myself it's out of "respect," whatever that means. At the wedding, I'll wear it for the ceremony, which is Orthodox (again, out of "respect" for my parents) but I don't think I'm up to wearing it for the reception. And yet my parents' frum friends and family will be at the reception, too! My parents are going to warn everybody who needs warning that there will be mixed dancing (gasp!) and a band with a female singer (GASP!) so that should weed out the more sensitive folks already, but I'm still pretty sure my parents would want me to wear the kippah. But hey, it's my party, and I'm not wearing a damn costume.

Guess I need to have a talk with the folks.

Short Story About a Hasidic Girl

Author Rachel Ament emailed me a link to a very good short story she wrote called I Am a Criminal. She says it's "very loosely" based on stories told to her by neighbors in Boro Park. Excerpt:
Tamar opened the door to her apartment, pulled me inside with a hug.

“Baruch Hashem! Baruch Hashem!” she cheered. She led me to the dining room table where we played Gin-Rummy with Chinese playing cards. She held her fan of seven cards real close to her face. “Masha, stop looking,” she kept saying. Her mother soon entered with a casserole dish in hand, steam waving from its crust and her six or seven kids took their seats at the table. I took a seat diagonally across from Menachem, looked at him every now and then using only the corner of my eyes. He had grown into an attractive man, that Menachem. His face was quite youthful, all rounded edges, nice copper eyes that turned green in bad lighting. The only problem was his mouth which was rowed with these huge splint-sharp teeth. Teeth for a rodent, my mama once whispered to me with a laugh.

I didn’t want to stare at him so I tried to find something else to do with my eyes. I looked at my arm hair. I looked at the dog. I looked at Tamar, who was cutting her potato kugel into the shape of a star, swinging at the crust with these grand, seesawing motions, like she was sawing wood or something. She was no doubt about it soliciting for attention.

Tamar,” I finally gave in, “What are you doing?”

“Its just, well you know… kugel,” Tamar’s face grew serious. “It's just so ugly, it's like...orphan mush. I’m just trying to make it more attractive.”

“You are so mental,” I said.

“She really is,” Menachem said, staring at his plate, already regretful. As he should have been. Menachem was a frum boy, mind you, and was weeding his way into conversation between two girls, one of whom was not related to him!—surely this meant our great solar system had kicked out of orbit. Surely this meant the planets were suddenly rotating the sun in the broken-wheeled motions of the hora instead of in its usual clean circuit. I mean surely.

My father once said that sins happen in clumps. You bee-bee-gun a bird for pleasure, enjoy the thuggish feeling of watching feathers blasting with blood and you begin killing animals higher up the kingdom. Shoot to the top, so to speak. I guess the same phenomenon was happening with Menachem. He began talking to me with longer and longer sentence and it was not long before he had curled his upper lip behind his gumline and smiled at me. It wasn’t some shy smile either but a giant comedian performance smile toppling over with all sorts of chemicals and romantic implications. I even spotted a matching wink in his left eye.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

New Blog for OTDers

Margo, Off The Derech, and I are starting a new invite-only blog for people who were once Orthodox and now are not and those currently making that transition. It's invite-only so we have a place to discuss things without worrying about how Orthodox people will respond.

If you're interested in joining as a reader or as a contributor please email one of us so that we can add you.

Monday, December 08, 2008

How The Orthodox See The Rest Of Us

I just love the window Beyond Teshuva provides into the Orthodox mind. The bloggers are so excited about Orthodox Judaism and so unable to examine themselves that they are utterly honest about the mental gymnastics necessary to sustain Orthodox beliefs.

Here's Ron Coleman on how seeing non-Orthodox people on Facebook strengthens his belief in Orthodoxy:
The other side: And that brings me back to a point related to my first one. The more I am exposed to what’s out there, whether it is among my former friends, associates and classmates who “look me up” or vice versa or among new people that I meet, the better I feel — by far — about the decision I have made about how to live my life. I cannot stress how much more valuable this is to me than the finger-pointing homilies in frum literature, periodicals and classrooms about the emptiness of gentile or non-frum Jewish lives. I see people whose lives are pathetic or sad, yes. I encounter a very distressing number of photographs of people of both sexes in their twenties, not life’s losers but professionals and prospective professionals, who are comfortable posing with alcoholic beverages hoisted in the air, as if life were just one drunken binge. This could go into the “dignity” point above, and it is a sad thing to see. But I also see people with rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives, professionally and, by all indications, personally, and nothing — not a thing — makes me want to switch places with them. The overall effect for me is one of chizuk, reinforcement.

Two points:

First, the Orthodox Jew will find "chizuk" (a decidedly religous idea -- the non-religious don't need "chizuk") wherever he looks, because he can interepret what he sees however he wants. If non-Orthodox people are pathetic or undignified, it makes him glad to be Orthodox. But then again, if non-Orthodox people lead "rich, full, interesting and accomplished lives," it makes him... glad to be Orthodox.

Second is the smug judgment of others. Coleman writes about people posing with drinks in their hand as if that were self-evidently undignified and a sad sight to see. Note that this has no foundation whatsoever even in Orthodox Judaism, which encourages the use of alcoholic beverages specifically to enhance the joys of the Sabbath meal (and of holidays and weddings, etc.) and nowhere opposes responsible drinking outside of those occasions. He attributes his priggish attitudes to Orthodoxy, and it gives him more chizuk by declaring Orthodox people superior.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Um, Yeah. It Is a Recession.

It was obvious to anybody paying attention that we were entering a recession back at the beginning of the year. Anybody except the conservatives, of course, who maintained that it was all a big media conspiracy to make Bush look bad.

Here's Ezzie, who likes to claim I don't understand economics, in January of this year:
A great piece in today's Wall Street Journal discussing why the chances of a recession are extremely low, and showing just how well the economy is actually doing.

Excerpt from the piece, which is called -- I'm not kidding -- "The Economy Is Fine (Really)" :

It is hard to imagine any time in history when such rampant pessimism about the economy has existed with so little evidence of serious trouble...

Models based on recent monetary and tax policy suggest real GDP will grow at a 3% to 3.5% rate in 2008, while the probability of recession this year is 10%. This was true before recent rate cuts and stimulus packages. Now that the Fed has cut interest rates by 175 basis points, the odds of a huge surge in growth later in 2008 have grown. The biggest threat to the economy is still inflation, not recession.

Yet many believe that a recession has already begun because credit markets have seized up. This pessimistic view argues that losses from the subprime arena are the tip of the iceberg. An economic downturn, combined with a weakened financial system, will result in a perfect storm for the multi-trillion dollar derivatives market. It is feared that cascading problems with inter-connected counterparty risk, swaps and excessive leverage will cause the entire "house of cards," otherwise known as the U.S. financial system, to collapse. At a minimum, they fear credit will contract, causing a major economic slowdown.

For many, this catastrophic outlook brings back memories of the Great Depression, when bank failures begot more bank failures, money was scarce, credit was impossible to obtain, and economic problems spread like wildfire.

This outlook is both perplexing and worrisome. Perplexing, because it is hard to see how a campfire of a problem can spread to burn down the entire forest. What Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently estimated as a $100 billion loss on subprime loans would represent only 0.1% of the $100 trillion in combined assets of all U.S. households and U.S. non-farm, non-financial corporations. Even if losses ballooned to $300 billion, it would represent less than 0.3% of total U.S. assets.

Beneath every dollar of counterparty risk, and every swap, derivative, or leveraged loan, is a real economic asset. The only way credit troubles could spread to take down the entire system is if the economy completely fell apart. And that only happens when government policy goes wildly off track.

And please don't miss the conclusion:
Dow 15,000 looks much more likely than Dow 10,000. Keep the faith and stay invested. It's a wonderful buying opportunity.

Here's the same author explicitly blaming the media for the "false pessimism about the economy."

At the time, I responded to Ezzie like this:
So Ezzie, if in a year or two it becomes obvious that we are in a recession, do you promise to give up the WSJ? :-)

He didn't answer then. I wonder if he'll answer now:
The National Bureau of Economic Research said Monday that the U.S. has been in a recession since December 2007, making official what most Americans have already believed about the state of the economy .

The NBER is a private group of leading economists charged with dating the start and end of economic downturns. It typically takes a long time after the start of a recession to declare its start because of the need to look at final readings of various economic measures.

The NBER said that the deterioration in the labor market throughout 2008 was one key reason why it decided to state that the recession began last year.

Employers have trimmed payrolls by 1.2 million jobs in the first 10 months of this year. On Friday, economists are predicting the government will report a loss of another 325,000 jobs for November.

The NBER also looks at real personal income, industrial production as well as wholesale and retail sales. All those measures reached a peak between November 2007 and June 2008, the NBER said.

I'm just positive that the WSJ and its readers will critically examine the reasons for their grievous errors and will radically adjust their understanding of economics. Maybe they'll let even pick some economists based on merit instead of ideology.

Yeah, right.


EDIT
: Here's Paul Krugman, also from January of this year, in that liberal rag The New York Times, two weeks before the WSJ spin-job:
Suddenly, the economic consensus seems to be that the implosion of the housing market will indeed push the U.S. economy into a recession, and that it’s quite possible that we’re already in one.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Premarital Sex: Risk vs. Reward

Last month, I wrote that I support responsible and safe unmarried teen sex. Of course my Orthodox readers responded negatively, with various reasons, but one argument jumped out over and over again: it's just too risky. And there are serious risks, of course, ranging from simple hurt feelings to unwanted pregnancies to STDs.

But what about the benefits? It should be obvious to everyone that many or most teens desperately crave sex. And it's not just a fantasy that can't be matched by reality -- teenagers who have sex rarely decide that they don't like it and it's not for them. Sex is actually a really enjoyable thing, especially when you're an adolescent. I mean, duh, right? But religious people never talk about that side of the equation.

Part of the problem is that they're usually talking about other people. It's easy to declare something not worth the risk when you don't get to enjoy the rewards. People who love smokers generally want them to quit more than the smokers themselves do -- smoker-lovers have to live with the risk of their loved one's illness and death but they don't get any enjoyment the smoker gets from puffing on his cancer sticks.

The same thing is true with teen sex. If you have a sexually active teenager, you're not going to get much pleasure out of that idea unless you're unusually capable of enjoying another person's happiness even when it grosses you out. But you do feel every risk as acutely or more acutely than your teen does. Chances are that you'll be approximately as upset as she is if she gets pregnant or contracts an STD, but only she will get to enjoy the sex. So to you, the proposition is all risk, zero reward. The choice is clear.

But what about your daughter? Do you really have the right to make that choice for her? Well, yes, of course you do if she's young enough to not understand or appreciate the risks involved. Teens really are more impulsive than adults, and they have a tendency to underestimate risks. But doesn't there come a point where they get old enough and rational enough that you've got to let them make that choice for themselves?

It's not like there's a right answer and a wrong answer. Is driving a car to your friend's house in the next town worth the slight risk of death and dismemberment that accompanies driving on the highway? Is eating a charred hamburger worth the risk of cancer? Should we abstain from dessert because who can eat just one cookie? We make decisions like these every day, and there are no right answers. Some questions (Is the potential reward of injecting heroin of unknown purity worth the risk?) seem easier than others, but all ultimately come down to personal preferences.

Some neurotics refuse to shake hands because they're scared of germs and some rock stars plan to party hard and die young. I'd probably prefer my kid be the neurotic than the rock star, but should that really be my choice? Ultimately it's his life and his body. All I can do is make sure he really understands the rewards and the risks and hope he makes a decision that I'm happy with. But why should my desire to have grandchildren trump his desire to have as much sex and drugs possible even if it kills him?

So back to teen sex. (Come on, Google hits!) Is there any pleasure in life comparable to having sex as an adolescent? I'm thinking no. I'm sure religious people and others will say that getting married or having a child is somehow more enjoyable, and I'm positive that someone somewhere has argued that learning Talmud is better, but overall, it's got to be one of life's chief pleasures.

And it's not just a shallow pleasure, although it is that as well. Sex (I'm using the term broadly -- i.e., in the non-Clintonian sense -- now) plays an integral role in relationships that boys and girls start having in their teens. Orthodox Jews would have you believe that relationships that don't lead to marriage are worthless at best and downright harmful at worst. I don't think that's true. While some relationships are harmful (just as some marriages are) one of life's more sublime pleasures is having intimate relationships with other human beings.

So what if puppy love tends not to last? Am I somehow worse off for having had a few relationships before I met my fiancee? I don't think so. And what if it'd turned out that a high-school relationship blossomed into a life-long marriage? Who would be better off if I'd avoided entering into it because my parents were scared that dating leads to sex and sex leads to babies?

So let's stop looking at just one side of the equation. Obviously if we were talking about a pill that produced no benefit of any kind but carried a tiny risk of pregnancy and/or STDs, nobody should take that pill. But we're talking about sex. Sex is really, really fun. And it's the glue in a lot of meaningful relationships. So you've got to balance that against the risk. And it's really not fair to make that decision for someone else when you stand to get hurt by the risks but share no part in the rewards. That's just selfishness masquerading as concern.

Previously: Memories of an Orthodox High School Romance.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Atheist Advertising Coming to Washington D.C.

Taking Atheism for a Ride Around Town
If you sometimes find yourself praying for a seat on a crowded Metrobus, some atheists have a message for you: Don't bother.

They would say that, wouldn't they? Prayer's not their thing. And starting Tuesday they'll be bringing their unique brand of holiday message to area commuters. Advertisements will begin popping up on Metrobuses in the District that read: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."

At a news conference at the National Press Club yesterday, members of the American Humanist Association -- one of the country's leading atheist and agnostic organizations -- explained what they're up to.

"Our message is that all of us can have moral values as a natural result of who we are as a species and who we have become as a civilization," said Fred Edwords, the association's director of communications. "Each one of us knows what it means, generally, to be ethical."


And apparently I missed this story:
Jan Meshon was at the news conference. He helped organize the placement of billboards on Interstate 95 and the New Jersey Turnpike that read: "Don't believe in God? You're not alone."


Sunday, November 09, 2008

How Religion Causes Good Men To Do Evil: Gay Marriage Edition

There's been a lot of talk about how African-Americans disproportionately voted against gay marriage in California while simultaneously voting for Barack Obama. It's true that they did vote against it disproportionately -- 70% to 30% -- but focusing on race misses the point. The driving factor, of course, is religion. African-Americans just happen to be more religious than whites.



84% to 16%. Wow. That beats even the "White Republicans" demographic, which went for prop 8 by 82%-18%.

Previously: How Religion Causes Good Men To Do Evil, Parts One and Two. Mormons Dominating the Fight Against Gay Marriage.

Friday, November 07, 2008

NEWSWEEK: How He Did It

I've only read chapter 1 of 7 so far, but this story about the campaign looks pretty interesting.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama, the Jews, and Israel, Part II

Sometimes it's just funny how far removed from reality the Republican talking points are. As you may recall, Republicans have been trying to push the message that Obama is bad for Israel and has a long, scary pattern of associating with anti-semites.

Today he chose Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Emanuel is an Orthodox Jew. His father is Israeli. During the first Gulf War, Emanuel was a civilian volunteer in Israel, rust-proofing brakes on an army base in the north. He supported this Bush's Iraq war, too.

What an Israel-hating anti-semite that Obama is.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Emotions of Today

I'm excited and giddy. I was proud to vote for Obama. I'm glad to be part of history.

It's not just about the first black president, although that's a huge milestone. It's about the conquest of hope over fear. I realize that sounds trite, that to Republican ears, it's just propaganda. But it's true. We're kicking out the man who ran as a uniter but acted as a divider, a man who seized the moment of unity after 9/11 to push for a war that was unnecessary and counterproductive.

We're kicking out the "if you're not with us, you're against us" guy and voting against the candidate who believes that there are "pro-America" parts of America and presumably "anti-America" parts of America. We're rejecting the team that divides America into "real" (i.e. Republican) and "fake" parts.

We're ridding government of people who think government cannot be effective and do their best to fulfill that prophecy. We're getting rid of an administration and a party that thinks talking to the enemy is a sign of weakness and that derides domestic opposition as traitorous and sympathetic to terrorists. We're getting rid of an administration that thinks habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions are inconveniences. We're getting rid of an administration that authorized torture.

We're voting for the party of science rather than dogma. The party that recognizes a healthy economy requires regulation rather than one that adheres to extremist theories of laissez-faire economics. The party that didn't try to turn the justice department into a branch of the Republican party.

Barack Obama isn't perfect. He's opposed to gay marriage and supports faith-based initiatives. He's young and relatively untested. I'm skeptical of his push for more troops in Afghanistan. But he is smart and open-minded and willing to fight for people who need fighting for.

If he does nothing but roll back the previous eight years of tax cuts for the rich, disastrous foreign policy, and cronyism in government, it will be a huge improvement. But if he listens to the experts -- not the partisan "experts" as Bush did, but the real experts who follow the truth wherever it leads -- he might just be able to lead us through the economic meltdown and get us back on the right path. He might be able to disentangle us from Iraq and then, I hope, from Afghanistan. He will certainly make sure that literally millions of Americans will get health care they desperately need and otherwise would not have gotten.

But also he will restore our image in the world. Colin Powell said that "it's killing us" abroad that Americans have been calling Obama a Muslim and an Arab and implying that either one would disqualify a man from the presidency. Before George Bush, (many) people everywhere looked to America as a beacon of freedom and diversity and tolerance. Now we're more famous for war and torture and Guantanamo Bay.

But how many kids named "Hussein" are there growing up in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Pakistan and the Palestinian territories who are going to see the U.S. elect a man named Barack Hussein Obama -- despite those Republicans who wield his name as a weapon -- and realize that all the terrible things their parents and teachers say about America are not true -- that we really are a land of opportunity and tolerance and meritocracy? And how many black kids have heard over and over again that they can be anything they want to be, but haven't been able to really believe it?

Republicans like Sarah Palin and Ronald Reagan have used John Winthrop's phrase "The Shining City Upon A Hill" to describe America. I love that (and am reminded of Judaism's notion of being a "light unto the nations") and I think we have that potential. The last few years have been a little darker and a little lower than most of us would like. Obama's election can makes us shine bright again.

These photos of Obama, by the way, are great.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Credit Where Credit is Due: Charlie Crist

I'm becoming a fan of Republican Governor Charlie Crist. I mentioned him a while back for pardoning Richard Paey, a man who was jailed for taking pain medication that he had been prescribed. Now I find out he extended the voting hours in Florida even though it will almost certainly help the Democrats and he has endorsed John McCain.

Why did he do it?
At a hastily arranged news conference, Crist said the right to vote is sacred and that "many have fought and died for this right." He said he consulted a leading Democratic legislator, Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, before issuing his order, and that Gelber knew of a similar order issued by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002 that dealt with helping voters deal with new equipment. (Buzz audio here.)

As to the perception that more early voting helps Democrats, Crist said: "This is not a political decision. This is a people decision."


Kudos to Gov. Crist for actually putting country (or state) ahead of politics.

Bill Maher and Mike Huckabee Discuss Religion

Sunday, November 02, 2008

GOP Jews Who Cry Wolf

If you keep calling people antisemitic and darkly warning of new holocausts for no good reason, people are going to stop listening to you.

This is a mailer being sent out by the Republican Jewish Coalition in Pennsylvania:



And this is John McCain's deputy communications director Michael Goldfarb:



Thankfully, most Jews see right through them. We're overwhelmingly supporting Obama:

Saturday, November 01, 2008

It Just Doesn't Get Any Simpler Than This



It's no coincidence that Mormons are leading the charge against gay marriage in California. They aren't big fans of interracial marriage, either. As late as 2001, the official website of the Mormon Church "discouraged" interracial marriage. And of course black people were not allowed to be Mormon priests until 1978.

Curiously, that page is no longer on their website.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kay Hagan's Disappointing Response to Dole's Anti-Atheist Ad

Kay Hagan responded to the despicable Dole ad which insinuated that she consorts with atheists and is one herself. Unfortunately, her response does not include a defense of the Godless Americans PAC or of atheists in general, but is merely an impassioned defense of her Christianity.

She head-fakes towards defending American atheists, but then pulls it back:
At their core, Americans aren't Democrat or Republican, red or blue – they're Americans, plain and simple. We ALL love our country, and we all value the role of faith in American life.

Shame on anyone who says differently.

No, Senator Hagan, not all of us "value the role of faith in American life." Some of us value the role of reason, of compassion, of a million other things. But one does not have to be a theist to be a good American or a good politician.

The Atheist Ethicist worries that politicians are going to be extra-careful in the future to avoid appearing anywhere with atheists.

Does this whole episode imply that groups like Godless Americans do more harm than good? Maybe, but maybe not. You've got to be out of the closet before people start accepting you. At least we're discussing the issue.

This is reminiscent of John McCain "defending" Obama when one of his supporters referred to him as an Arab: "No, ma'am. He's a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements wiamth." Um, Arabs can be decent "family men" as well, and even citizens of our great country. So can atheists. And even people without families can be decent, while we're at it! At least McCain can argue (although he hasn't) that he didn't intend to imply otherwise -- he was speaking live and everyone makes unfortunate statements by accident. Kay Hagan's non-defense of Godless Americans came in prepared remarks, and her statement that "we all value the role of faith in American life" was explicitly anti-atheist.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Elizabeth Dole Campaigning on Anti-Atheist Bigotry



Note that it's not even Hagan's voice at the end saying "There is no God." They just want you to think that. Because no atheist should ever be allowed in office, of course.

Donate to Kay Hagan.

Previously: National Republican Senatorial Committee Anti-Atheist Ad

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Religion and Teen Sex

From The New Yorker:
Last year, Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, published a startling book called “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers,” and he is working on a follow-up that includes a section titled “Red Sex, Blue Sex.” His findings are drawn from a national survey that Regnerus and his colleagues conducted of some thirty-four hundred thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds, and from a comprehensive government study of adolescent health known as Add Health. Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical. The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents—seventy-four per cent—say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. (Only half of mainline Protestants, and a quarter of Jews, say that they believe in abstinence.) Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them. (Jews most often cite pleasure as a reason to have sex, and say that an unplanned pregnancy would be an embarrassment.) But, according to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their “sexual d├ębut”—to use the festive term of social-science researchers—shortly after turning sixteen. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier.

Another key difference in behavior, Regnerus reports, is that evangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception. This could be because evangelicals are also among the most likely to believe that using contraception will send the message that they are looking for sex. It could also be because many evangelicals are steeped in the abstinence movement’s warnings that condoms won’t actually protect them from pregnancy or venereal disease. More provocatively, Regnerus found that only half of sexually active teen-agers who say that they seek guidance from God or the Scriptures when making a tough decision report using contraception every time. By contrast, sixty-nine per cent of sexually active youth who say that they most often follow the counsel of a parent or another trusted adult consistently use protection.


American evangelicals toe a strict ideological line that is counterproductive. Shocking.

For the record, I support responsible and safe premarital sex, including among mature teenagers. We should teach all teens how to use contraception, including emergency contraception. It would probably be a good idea for all parents to promise not to punish any kids who come to them for help getting to a doctor to get emergency contraception, just as many offer to pick their children up from parties they aren't supposed to be at if they get in trouble, no questions asked.

Abstinence-only education does not work. Teaching kids that sex is dirty and sinful is not just wrongheaded and out of date but counterproductive as well.

Via the Friendly Atheist.

(Previously: Abstinence Only Sex Ed, including some facts you might not know if you went to a school without good sex ed.)

Religion and Politics: Brainwashing in Action

The blog Beyond Teshuva is a group blog comprised of people who are becoming or have become Orthodox Jews. I find it fascinating not just because it's a mirror-image of those of us who go the other direction, but because of how it provides an unusually clear window into the brains of people making that transition.

In today's post I'm Having Trouble Shedding My Democratic Values, a guest contributor finds him/herself troubled:
Like many Baalei Teshuva I was raised in a community that was mostly Democrat and now find myself in a mostly Republican voting Orthodox community. Although I have voted Republican in some previous Presidential elections, I still believe in many of the values and ideas that the Democrats represent.


If Orthodox Jews support McCain and he supports Obama, he assumes the problem is with him. "I'm having trouble shedding my Democratic values," he says. Not, "Why do so many Orthodox Jews support McCain when it seems to me that they should go for Obama?"

There's a part of him that rebels against the conformity: "I’m not sure why I have to be apologetic because I am considering voting Democrat and find that some of their policies resonate with me." But still he says he's "having trouble shedding [his] Democratic values."

He's not primarily interested in finding the truth. He wants to be convinced either that his new community is right about voting Republican or that the community is not as Republican as it seems.

Previously on Beyond BT: What am I Allowed to Believe?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Itzhack Perlman on Gay Marriage



When it's your kid they're talking about or someone else you know and love, the answer is obvious. If live in a community where gay people have to stay in the closet until they leave (I'm looking at you, Orthodox Judaism and Mormonism) maybe it's not so obvious.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mormons Dominating the Fight Against Gay Marriage in California

Andrew Sullivan's been following the story:
In California, this letter was sent to every congregation in California with direct instructions that it be read last June. Money quote:

The Church’s teachings and position on this moral issue are unequivocal. Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan for His children... Local Church leaders will provide information about how you may become involved in this important cause. We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman.

And it's working:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has mobilized followers to give an estimated 77% of donations to support California's proposed marriage ban.

Californians Against Hate released figures Tuesday showing that $17.67 million was contributed by 59,000 Mormon families since August to groups like Yes on 8. Contributions in support of Prop. 8 total $22.88 million. Additionally, the group reports that Mormons have contributed $6.9 million to pass a a similar law, Proposition 102, in Arizona.

"It is a staggering amount of money and an even more staggering percentage of the overall campaign receipts," Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate said in a press release. "The Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has hijacked the campaigns in both California and Arizona, where voters face constitutional amendments to end same-sex marriage."


You can counter a little of this evil by donating to the good guys.

This seems like something we atheists should mobilize on -- and even better if we can get our liberal religious friends to do so as well. Unfortunately, it might already be too late.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Atheist Bus Advertising Campaign in Britain



My first reaction to this was negative. Advertising that there is no God strikes me as no less obnoxious than advertising that Jesus loves you or that the Rebbe will be back soon. On the other hand, religions do in fact advertise, so maybe it's better to provide atheistic ads to counterbalance them.

In any event, I always get a little thrill when I see an atheistic sentiment expressed in public. For all the popularity of Dawkins et al, reminders that not everybody in the world is religious are too rare.

XGH is Back Again

In an event that should surprise no one who knows him, XGH is back with a new blog: Modern Orthoprax.

XGH is a closet atheist/agnostic who continues to live an Orthodox life. He is probably the most popular blogger of his kind. His original blog inspired my own.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Elsewhere: Universal Health Care, Regulations, and Capitalism; David Foster Wallace

  • Matt Haughey argues that universal health care might be good for capitalism:
    Everyone I know that freelances or works a day job and wishes they could quit and follow their dreams of launching a company complains about the lack of healthcare. Whenever I used to talk about freelancing at tech conferences, the first question was always about healthcare coverage. I've heard that in places like Berlin where you don't have to worry about where your healthcare is coming from or how much it costs, up to 35% of working age adults are freelancers. It may sound crazy and anti-capitalist to consider healthcare for all, but if we flipped a switch tomorrow and everyone had health coverage I swear a million small businesses would launch overnight. I know lots of people that keep a job just to get healthcare that are wasting their creative talents because they had a cancer scare or were born with a defect or otherwise are deemed uninsurable on their own.

  • In a similar vein, Yglesias points to an example of regulation improving the market.

  • Via Kottke, an excerpt of a sort-of biography of David Foster Wallace, and an interview with the author of that biography.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

National Republican Senatorial Committee Anti-Atheist Ad



Wow. That big powerful atheist lobby is going to get you! And obviously, no North Carolinians could be atheists or agree that "Under God" should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Your Republican Party, ladies and gentleman. They can't win on the issues, so they paint the opposition as Other.

Kay Hagan is running against and winning against Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. Donate to her here, to the Obama and the DNC here, and to The Godless Americans PAC here.

Colin Powell After His Endorsement

Powell's endorsement of Obama was not a big surprise, but I was impressed with how sharply he spoke against McCain's campaign tactics:



The attempt to paint Obama as Other, as less American, as a "socialist," as someone "who thinks America is so imperfect that he pals around with terrorists" is lower than I thought McCain would ever sink. And that's not even getting to the attempts by others to paint him as an Arab or a Muslim, as if those would be good reasons to vote against a candidate even if they were true. I hope that Obama's (landslide?) victory will put an end to that kind of politics for at least a generation.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE Endorses Obama!

The Chicago Tribune endorsed the Democratic candidate for president for the first time in its 161-year history:
On Nov. 4 we're going to elect a president to lead us through a perilous time and restore in us a common sense of national purpose.

The strongest candidate to do that is Sen. Barack Obama. The Tribune is proud to endorse him today for president of the United States...

On Dec. 6, 2006, this page encouraged Obama to join the presidential campaign. We wrote that he would celebrate our common values instead of exaggerate our differences. We said he would raise the tone of the campaign. We said his intellectual depth would sharpen the policy debate. In the ensuing 22 months he has done just that.

Many Americans say they're uneasy about Obama. He's pretty new to them.

We can provide some assurance. We have known Obama since he entered politics a dozen years ago. We have watched him, worked with him, argued with him as he rose from an effective state senator to an inspiring U.S. senator to the Democratic Party's nominee for president.

We have tremendous confidence in his intellectual rigor, his moral compass and his ability to make sound, thoughtful, careful decisions. He is ready.


The change that Obama talks about so much is not simply a change in this policy or that one. It is not fundamentally about lobbyists or Washington insiders. Obama envisions a change in the way we deal with one another in politics and government. His opponents may say this is empty, abstract rhetoric. In fact, it is hard to imagine how we are going to deal with the grave domestic and foreign crises we face without an end to the savagery and a return to civility in politics...

The Republican Party, the party of limited government, has lost its way. The government ran a $237 billion surplus in 2000, the year before Bush took office -- and recorded a $455 billion deficit in 2008. The Republicans lost control of the U.S. House and Senate in 2006 because, as we said at the time, they gave the nation rampant spending and Capitol Hill corruption. They abandoned their principles. They paid the price.

We might have counted on John McCain to correct his party's course. We like McCain. We endorsed him in the Republican primary in Illinois. In part because of his persuasion and resolve, the U.S. stands to win an unconditional victory in Iraq.

It is, though, hard to figure John McCain these days. He argued that President Bush's tax cuts were fiscally irresponsible, but he now supports them. He promises a balanced budget by the end of his first term, but his tax cut plan would add an estimated $4.2 trillion in debt over 10 years. He has responded to the economic crisis with an angry, populist message and a misguided, $300 billion proposal to buy up bad mortgages.

McCain failed in his most important executive decision. Give him credit for choosing a female running mate--but he passed up any number of supremely qualified Republican women who could have served. Having called Obama not ready to lead, McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. His campaign has tried to stage-manage Palin's exposure to the public. But it's clear she is not prepared to step in at a moment's notice and serve as president. McCain put his campaign before his country...

McCain calls Obama a typical liberal politician. Granted, it's disappointing that Obama's mix of tax cuts for most people and increases for the wealthy would create an estimated $2.9 trillion in federal debt. He has made more promises on spending than McCain has. We wish one of these candidates had given good, hard specific information on how he would bring the federal budget into line. Neither one has.

We do, though, think Obama would govern as much more of a pragmatic centrist than many people expect.

We know first-hand that Obama seeks out and listens carefully and respectfully to people who disagree with him. He builds consensus. He was most effective in the Illinois legislature when he worked with Republicans on welfare, ethics and criminal justice reform.

He worked to expand the number of charter schools in Illinois--not popular with some Democratic constituencies.

He took up ethics reform in the U.S. Senate--not popular with Washington politicians.

His economic policy team is peppered with advisers who support free trade. He has been called a "University of Chicago Democrat"--a reference to the famed free-market Chicago school of economics, which puts faith in markets...

When Obama said at the 2004 Democratic Convention that we weren't a nation of red states and blue states, he spoke of union the way Abraham Lincoln did.

It may have seemed audacious for Obama to start his campaign in Springfield, invoking Lincoln. We think, given the opportunity to hold this nation's most powerful office, he will prove it wasn't so audacious after all. We are proud to add Barack Obama's name to Lincoln's in the list of people the Tribune has endorsed for president of the United States.


Read the whole thing.

Wow. What's next, The Wall Street Journal? FOX News? Maybe if they knew him as well as The Chicago Tribune does.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Washington Post Endorses Obama

No surprise, but worth reading:

THE NOMINATING process this year produced two unusually talented and qualified presidential candidates. There are few public figures we have respected more over the years than Sen. John McCain. Yet it is without ambivalence that we endorse Sen. Barack Obama for president.

The choice is made easy in part by Mr. McCain's disappointing campaign, above all his irresponsible selection of a running mate who is not ready to be president. It is made easy in larger part, though, because of our admiration for Mr. Obama and the impressive qualities he has shown during this long race. Yes, we have reservations and concerns, almost inevitably, given Mr. Obama's relatively brief experience in national politics. But we also have enormous hopes.

Mr. Obama is a man of supple intelligence, with a nuanced grasp of complex issues and evident skill at conciliation and consensus-building. At home, we believe, he would respond to the economic crisis with a healthy respect for markets tempered by justified dismay over rising inequality and an understanding of the need for focused regulation. Abroad, the best evidence suggests that he would seek to maintain U.S. leadership and engagement, continue the fight against terrorists, and wage vigorous diplomacy on behalf of U.S. values and interests. Mr. Obama has the potential to become a great president. Given the enormous problems he would confront from his first day in office, and the damage wrought over the past eight years, we would settle for very good.


Read the whole thing.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Paul Krugman Wins the Nobel Prize; and Democratic Economics

From a review of Krugman's work, Tyler Cowen:

He is cited for trade theory and, appropriately, location theory and economic geography. He could have been cited for his work on currency crises as well. Here are the most basic links on Paul, it is hard to know where to start. I have to say I did not expect him to win until Bush left office, as I thought the Swedes wanted the resulting discussion to focus on Paul's academic work rather than on issues of politics. So I am surprised by the timing but not by the choice.

Here's Krugman's NYT column from today; there is so so much on him and by him. Here is his blog. Here is a short post-prize interview. He has been influential in pushing the United States toward a bank recapitalization plan. Here is Krugman on video, from just the other day, talking about the crisis and how bad it might get. Krugman, of course, also called the housing bubble in advance.


And here's Yglesias on what this might mean for the public's perception of economics as it relates to politics:

One hopes that this will open doors for a somewhat broader public understanding of what the field of economics is all about. In the public debate, my sense is that “economics” tends to be understood as mostly comprising a series of very simple models indicating the desirability of laissez faire (make it more expensive to hire workers by raising the minimum wage and the level of employment will go down — supply and demand, economics 101, QED) that leave it somewhat puzzling as to how this is even a field in which people do PhD-level research. That, of course, isn’t right as you can see from The Economist’s poll of economists or John McCain’s struggle to find 100 economists who’ll back up his campaign’s assertions.

Meanwhile, Krugman has become known to a wide audience as a left-of-center newspaper columnist. The fact that he’s a credentialed economist has always been well-known, but the point that he’s actually a really well-regarded economist is not all that well-understand. But a Nobel Prize is something people understand. It doesn’t make his political pronouncements the word of God, of course, and there are Nobel Prize winning economists on the right as well. But it does underscore the fact that very many people who really and truly know what they’re talking about think the progressive approach to economic and social policy is the way to go.


Personally, I'm skeptical. (Big surprise, right?) Conservatives (I'm looking at you, Ezzie) will continue to insist that liberals/progressives/Democrats just don't understand economics. The Nobels are biased. The academy is biased. Income growth is significantly higher under Democratic presidents by lucky coincidence. The stock market is almost twice as good under Democratic presidents (and that's not including this month's crash!) by lucky coincidence. Etc. The whole world is conspiring to hide the fact that Republican economics would work, really, if ever they just got a fair shake. You know, just like "real communism" would.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Yom Kippur Thoughts of the Day

Two thoughts:

The Meaning of Yom Kippur

I just had a discussion with a fellow ex-Ortho about what Yom Kippur means to us now. For him, it's an opportunity to act like it's just a normal day and to not let any of the brainwashing he went through as a kid make him feel guilty. For me, it's kind of like a happy day where I get to remember each year where I have come from and what I don't have to do any more.

God as Big Brother

Imagine that we atheists are right that God does not exist.

That means that billions of people all over the world are teaching their children that an imaginary being is following them everywhere they go and watching everything they do, even listening to their thoughts, and he's going to judge them for all of it. And they behave differently because of this belief. They whisper words of thanks and prayer and feel guilty when they have a "bad" thought and try to be good little boys and girls all the time and sometimes they think they hear him talking to them. And most of them go their whole lives believing that. It's an amazingly creepy feat of social engineering and behavior modification.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Obama in 2007 on the Mortgage Crisis

March 22, 2007

Dear Chairman Bernanke and Secretary Paulson,

There is grave concern in low-income communities about a potential coming wave of foreclosures. Because regulators are partly responsible for creating the environment that is leading to rising rates of home foreclosure in the subprime mortgage market, I urge you immediately to convene a homeownership preservation summit with leading mortgage lenders, investors, loan servicing organizations, consumer advocates, federal regulators and housing-related agencies to assess options for private sector responses to the challenge.

We cannot sit on the sidelines while increasing numbers of American families face the risk of losing their homes.

And while neither the government nor the private sector acting alone is capable of quickly balancing the important interests in widespread access to credit and responsible lending, both must act and act quickly.

Working together, the relevant private sector entities and regulators may be best positioned for quick and targeted responses to mitigate the danger. Rampant foreclosures are in nobody's interest, and I believe this is a case where all responsible industry players can share the objective of eliminating deceptive or abusive practices, preserving homeownership, and stabilizing housing markets.

The summit should consider best practice loan marketing, underwriting, and origination practices consistent with the recent (and overdue) regulators' Proposed Statement on Subprime Mortgage Lending. The summit participants should also evaluate options for independent loan counseling, voluntary loan restructuring, limited forbearance, and other possible workout strategies. I would also urge you to facilitate a serious conversation about the following:

* What standards investors should require of lenders, particularly with regard to verification of income and assets and the underwriting of borrowers based on fully indexed and fully amortized rates.

* How to facilitate and encourage appropriate intervention by loan servicing companies at the earliest signs of borrower difficulty.

* How to support independent community-based-organizations to provide counseling and work-out services to prevent foreclosure and preserve homeownership where practical.

* How to provide more effective information disclosure and financial education to ensure that borrowers are treated fairly and that deception is never a source of competitive advantage.

* How to adopt principles of fair competition that promote affordability, transparency, non-discrimination, genuine consumer value, and competitive returns.

* How to ensure adequate liquidity across all mortgage markets without exacerbating consumer and housing market vulnerability.

Of course, the adoption of voluntary industry reforms will not preempt government action to crack down on predatory lending practices, or to style new restrictions on subprime lending or short- term post-purchase interventions in certain cases. My colleagues on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs have held important hearings on mortgage market turmoil and I expect the Committee will develop legislation.

Nevertheless, a consortium of industry-related service providers and public interest advocates may be able to bring quick and efficient relief to millions of at-risk homeowners and neighborhoods, even before Congress has had an opportunity to act. There is an opportunity here to bring different interests together in the best interests of American homeowners and the American economy. Please don't let this opportunity pass us by.

Sincerely,

U.S. Senator Barack Obama



HT: Andrew Sullivan

Friday, October 03, 2008

Religulous: A Review

Religulous was funny and entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying. Like Borat by the same director, most of the humor comes at the expense of the unsuspecting, the unprepared, and the ill-equipped. Maher debates with some people so out of their league that I just felt sorry for them. Rather than being an argument against religion, the movie too often feels like an argument against basic stupidity.

I liked the film better when he chose worthy targets like the Vatican astronomer, who spoke more eloquently against creationism and Biblical literalism than Maher does, and a Catholic priest who as far as I could tell holds approximately the same religious beliefs as I do. His conversation with scientist Francis Collins was far too short and Collins didn't get a fair shake. I would have loved to see a movie that just focused on those people.

Some of the unintelligent people he interviewed did not gain my sympathy, as they are in positions of power and deserve to be exposed. Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Alabama comes off especially badly, and there are a couple of pastors (and one man who claims to be the Second Coming of Jesus) who seem like they're in it just for the money and prestige.

Maher makes no pretense at being fair or balanced. He selectively edits, adds subtitles, and stitches in funny shots from other movies for maximum effect. His primary tool is ridicule, and while that may be the only reasonable response to something like the tenets of Scientology or the talking snake from Eden, it's a tool he goes to a little too often. The documentary is at its best when he lets the craziness speak for itself, like his tour of the Institute for Science and Halacha in Israel, which creates gadgets to exploit loopholes in the laws of Shabbos.

The section on Islam in this film is not funny or novel. Instead of mocking the ridiculous beliefs as he did with other religions, he focuses on the violence and hatred, which everybody is already aware of. There was only one part of the Islam section that worked -- a conversation with an intelligent and moderate Muslim woman who had some trouble defending the hateful and violence-inciting verses of the Koran. This was the only part of the movie where I thought Maher successfully took down a religious moderate.

The end of the movie is basically a juxtoposition of believers wishing for the end times and a montage of truck bombs and nuclear explosions. I found it unsatisfying and too simplistic, although there is obviously a large grain of truth there.

It is something of a thrill to see an anti-religious movie on the big screen, and to be with an audience that was mostly approving. Only once before, at a Richard Dawkins event, have I been in a room with so many open non-believers. It's a cool feeling.

Chana in The YU Observer on Transexuality and Tolerance

Chana, she of the brilliant writing and beautiful soul, has written a good article in Yeshiva University's Observer called To Understand Is Not To Condone. She credits me for the title.

Much of this issue of The Observer is a reaction to the furor that resulted from the news that Professor Joy Ladin, previously Jay Ladin, was returning to work as a woman.

Although Ladin's transformation is understood by most Orthodox Jews to be a violation of halakha (Rabbinic law) Chana argues that they are still obliged to show her understanding and compassion:
I have decided to explore the issue of transsexuality and transgenderism within this paper. I have specifically decided to explore it within the context of the Orthodox Jewish community. There are many questions. Is it permissible or impermissible to transition as an Orthodox Jewish transsexual? If one does so, does he retain the status of his original sex, or that of the one he currently physically presents as? How are Orthodox Jews to treat such a person? And perhaps most importantly for us, in terms of our desire to understand, what does it mean to be an Orthodox Jewish transsexual? What is such a person like, and what does he feel? There is no doubt that we must follow the Law, whatever the Law proclaims. But that does not mean that we must blind ourselves and refrain from understanding exactly what it is we do when we practice that Law. It is upon us to understand the struggles and the pain of our fellow Jew, to love him and to wish we could help him, and indeed, to do so in any way possible within the Law.

To understand a person is not to condone his actions. To understand a person is to tell him you appreciate his pain, and realize that he walks in darkness. You understand his natural desire to be accepted by others, and perhaps to have his sins dubbed mitzvot. You understand this desire because you have felt it yourself. This understanding is separate from what you will actually do, the Laws you will keep, your comprehension of that Law, and of the Halakha. To understand is to exercise compassion toward another, to the extent that it is possible. One who understands another person's situation, and who realizes that this person acts out of honesty, not malice, that he acts to preserve himself, not to aggravate or horrify others, could not possibly act cruelly toward him. For he would realize that this person is similar to himself, and to laugh at this person, or deride him, is to deride himself. We are one people, and we share one heart and one destiny. It is upon us to exercise our understanding, compassion and kindness whenever it is possible, in the same way that we would like to be judged in that manner when we too fall. The Halakha is our final master, and we bow to it. Yet we do so with heavy hearts, because if there were a way to help our brethren, we would desire to do so.

I applaud Chana for going as far as possible within the confines of her religion to stand up for Ladin. She'll probably take some hits for it at YU, but maybe her article will cause the students to show a little more compassion and a little less judgment.

Still, though, Chana remains within the confines of her religion. She cannot declare that a man becoming a woman is a moral choice because she cannot go against clear statements by Orthodox rabbis and even the Torah itself. The most she can do is call for compassion by pointing out that we are all sinners.

But transsexuality is not a sin. Changing your clothes and even your body to reflect the gender you identify with harms nobody and is a standard medical treatment for gender identity disorder. The Bible and the Talmud were written by men living in an earlier, less scientific time, not by the all-knowing Creator of the universe who probably doesn't even exist.

I've written before about How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men to do Evil. Compassionate Orthodox people like Chana are trapped between what they probably know is right (in this case, to understand AND to condone) and the law they believe comes from God.

Sometimes I feel guilty trying to convince people like Chana that their mostly deeply-held religious beliefs are factually incorrect. I don't always want to be the kid telling his friends that Santa doesn't exist. But other times, I see good people constrained by out-of-date moral dogma and I want to do everything I can.

VP Debate Reaction

Palin

Palin did much better than I expected and, admittedly, far better than I'd hoped. I was hoping she'd do so badly that the race would be over. That did not happen. Unlike Couric, Ifill did not (and could not, according to the rules as I understand them) press her for an answer when she was non-responsive, so she could just filibuster when she didn't (I assume) have a pre-scripted answer or just deliver an answer to a different question. So there were no deer-in-the-headlights moments, although that's a pretty low standard. She did not to my mind exhibit detailed knowledge of any topic and I'm not sure how her admission that she wasn't going to necessarily answer all the questions will go over.

I thought the message that she is an expert in energy policy was a strong one, especially for low-information voters who may take her at her word for it and not realize it's not actually true. Voters might think it's okay that she doesn't know foreign policy or Supreme Court history if they think she has a different area of expertise.

I'm not sure how her folksiness will play. To me, it seemed like she was trying too hard. I watched it with my (liberal) fiance and Palin was driving her nuts. Some of her folksiness was so over-the-top I have trouble believing that many women will fall for it. "Did she just wink at the camera?!" was one thing I said out loud.

The only real gaffe I noticed was that she kept referring to our military leader in Afghanistan as "McCellan." (It's McKiernan.) I myself couldn't recall the name, although I knew immediately that it was not McClellan. Biden didn't call her on it, although he was a little conspicuous about not using his name. I don't think it was an important mistake, but it may become one, depending on how it plays out.

Regarding the substance, I think she was (perhaps unknowingly) dishonest. The line about Obama voting for taxes on families making $42,000 a year is a lie that was debunked long before the debate. Her speech about being tolerant of gay people was nice, but I wish someone had asked her whether she agreed with McCain's vote against the Employee Non-Discrimination Act.

Biden

I thought Biden did great. His most important task was to assure older white voters that Obama is ready and not a scary Muslim or something, and I think he did that. He was also quite charming and even chivalrous and he did not do anything that could be perceived as being sexist or disrespectful of Palin. His thousand-watt smile may do to older white women what Palin's looks to do men of all ages.

The moment where he choked up will be remembered, and I think that combined with the fact that his son is going to Iraq, may soothe the worries of some voters about the Obama/Biden foreign policy. It was also a great reminder that Sarah Palin isn't the only candidate in the race with a family.

Biden did an excellent job of emphasizing the middle class. He gave a strong defense of progressive taxation with an implied attack on McCain's trickle-down economics, and his mentions of Scranton and his home town appeared genuine and may have established him as a "real" person in the minds of middle-class watchers. I think his explanation of McCain's health care plan was devastating as well.

He didn't have any major mistakes or gaffes. I laughed out loud when he said "Bosniaks," thinking it was a mistake, although apparently he used the term correctly. (It is the correct term for the ethnic Muslim in Bosnia, as opposes to the Serbs and the Croats.) And I was shocked when I thought he said he supports gay marriage, but he later clarified and said he does not. (Needless to say, I strongly disagree with Obama and him on that stance.)

Conclusion

All in all, Biden was the clear winner if we are to judge them by the same standards, but Palin will probably be held to the low standard of "she didn't humiliate herself and her party," which she succeeded on. I thought Biden seemed much more real and Palin appeared to be trying too hard to be folksy, but we'll see how that plays with the undecideds. Between Obama's serene and competent performance last week and Biden's charming one today, I think they may have sealed up the older white Democrats who may have been skeptical about voting for a relatively young Black man. I doubt Palin convinced anyone she's ready to be the backup president, but she at least stopped the hemorrhaging. In the end, the debate probably won't have a strong effect on the election.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What if there were no God? Politically conservative and liberal Christians imagine their lives without faith

Interesting:
A sample of devout Christian adults, ranging widely in political orientation, described what their lives (and the world) might be like had they never embraced faith. Politically conservative Christians (also scoring high on right-wing authoritarianism) tended to imagine a life deficient in impulse control, wherein unrestrained sexual and aggressive urges, addictive behaviors, and human selfishness undermined the social good. By contrast, politically liberal Christians (also scoring low on right-wing authoritarianism) imagined an empty and barren world, devoid of the emotional intensity that makes life worth living. Gender differences were also observed, but they did not interfere with the relation between political orientation and the narrative themes. In accord with theoretical writings regarding normative and humanistic ideologies, the findings suggest that, at least among American Christians, political conservatism may entail a fear of, or strong sensitivity to, the prospects of conflict and chaos, whereas political liberalism may entail an equally strong fear of, or sensitivity to, emptiness.

Via Razib.

I've noticed the conservative fear of an anything-goes world without God, but I'd never associated a fear of an empty, meaningless world with liberals in particular.

It does seem to fit nicely into George Lakoff's model (YouTube) of the two parental metaphors that underlie conservatism and liberalism in America: that of the strict-father family and the nurturant-parent family. Take away the strict father for conservatives and we're Sodom and Gomorrah. Take away the nurturant parent for liberals and we're at a loss for what we should do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Repost: This is Your Brain on God

Holy Hyrax's recent post made me dig up this old post:

It seems that I'm doing a good portion of my blogging these days in the comments section of other people's blogs. In particular, I've been having some interesting discussions with Mark at Pseudo-Polymath.

This morning, I wrote a comment I'd like to post here as an entry.

Mark posted about an experience Catholic writer Richard John Neuhaus had:

It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining room moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two "presences." I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences — one or both of them, I do not know — spoke. This I hear clearly. Not in an ordinary way for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: "Everything is ready now."


Mark correctly points out that many people throughout history have described similar experiences. He then goes on to imply, however, that such experiences provide evidence for religion:

But, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the other world religions all depend crucially on revelation as part of their history as well as their perception who is God and what does He want with Man.


Mark believes that skeptics think "no experience of Theophany is valid. That every one of the millions of experiences of this sort are all fraud or insanity (temporary or less so.)" Since Neuhaus's account appears to be neither fraudulent or evidence of insanity, therefore, it must reflect a legitimate revelation experience. Therefore, there is some evidence for the supernatural.

In my response, I point out that there are other options besides insanity and fraud, and in fact there are more convincing explanations for such experiences than supernatural entities:

I don’t think you quite understand my position on what you call "revelation." I believe, as do you, that such experiences as Neuhaus’s happen. I further believe, as do you, that they happen to people who are sane.

I disagree on the cause of such phenomena. The Wired Article This Is Your Brain on God describes an experiment in which researchers direct electromagnetic fields towards the temporal lobes in certain patterns and generate what you would call a revelation experience:

I’m taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada’s Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His theory is that the sensation described as “having a religious experience” is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain’s feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a “sensed presence.”

Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use - Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the presence as one’s grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.

It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn’t shy about defining our most sacred notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.


We’ve known for millenia that our minds are tricky things. There are scores of drugs which affect our perceptions and beliefs. If you drop some acid and see your chair talking to you, would you consider it revelation?

Furthermore, the various testimonies of people who’ve undergone such “revelations” contradict each other. Some see Mohammed — you, as a Christian, wouldn’t believe that to be a legitimate revelation experience, right? The most you could say is that there is some truth to the experience, but the person is interpreting it according to his or her own worldview.

Well, why not take it one step farther and say that everybody who undergoes such an experience is interpreting it according to his or her own worldview? Neuhaus experienced two presences and heard a sentence. He added the interpretation of who the presences were and what the sentence meant.

Surely Neuhaus was on medication and was in an unusual medical condition as well. The whole thing could have been an unusually lucid dream. For all I know, the two figures could have been a real doctor and a nurse saying that everything was ready for a procedure.

Once, when my middle-aged, normally sane father was in the hospital, he woke up from a nap convinced that he had to rush to the nearby university during the Final Four game because he was on their basketball team and they needed him desperately. Another time, free from sickness or medication, my father had a strong premonition that he was going to win the lottery. Normally a skeptical person who had never bought a lottery ticket in his life, he rushed out to buy one. He didn’t win.


I ended my comment there, but I'd like to post a few more excerpts from the article, which you should read in full:

Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.

Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."


Here's the author's description of his own experience:

When the door closes and I feel nothing but the weight of the helmet on my head and the Ping-Pong balls on my eyes, I start giving serious thought to what it might be like to "see" God, artificially produced or not. Nietzsche's last sane moment occurred when he saw a carter beating a horse. He beat the carter, hugged the horse while sobbing uncontrollably, and was then carried away. I can imagine that. I see myself having a powerful vision of Jesus, and coming out of the booth wet with tears of humility, wailing for mercy from my personal savior.

Instead, after I adjust to the darkness and the cosmic susurrus of absolute silence, I drift almost at once into a warm bath of oblivion. Something is definitely happening. During the 35-minute experiment, I feel a distinct sense of being withdrawn from the envelope of my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness, a deep sensation of waking slumber. The machines outside the chamber report an uninterrupted alertness on my part. (If the researchers see the easily recognized EEG pattern of sleep, they wake you over the speakers.) Occasionally, I surface to an alpha state where I sort of know where I am, but not quite. This feeling is cool - like being reinserted into my body. Then there's a separation again, of body and soul, and - almost by my will - I happily allow myself to drift back to the surprisingly bearable lightness of oblivion.

In this floating state, several ancient childhood memories are jarred loose. Suddenly, I am sitting with Scott Allen on the rug in his Colonial Street house in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1965, singing along to "Moon River" and clearly hearing, for the first time since then, Scott's infectiously frenzied laughter. I reexperience the time I spent the night with Doug Appleby and the discomfort I felt at being in a house that was so punctiliously clean. (Doug's dad was a doctor.) I also remember seeing Joanna Jacobs' small and perfect breasts, unholstered beneath the linen gauze of her hippie blouse, circa 1971.

Joanna was my girlfriend when I was 14. When I was sent off to boarding school, she and I recorded cassette tapes to one another. As a teenager, Joanna was a spiritual woman and talked a lot about transcendental meditation. Off at boarding school, I signed up and got my mantra from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right around the time Joanna dropped me to move on to a tougher crowd.

If I had to pin down when I felt this dreamy state before - of being in the presence of something divine - it would be back then, in the euphoric, romantic hope that animated my adolescent efforts at meditation. That soothing feeling of near-sleep has always been associ-ated with what I imagined should have happened between Joanna Jacobs and me. Like the boy in James Joyce's The Dead, Joanna was a perfect memory - all the potential of womanly love distilled into the calming mantra-guided drone of fecund rest.

I'm not sure what it says about me that the neural sensation designed to prompt visions of God set loose my ancient feelings about girls. But then, I'm not the first person to conflate God with late-night thoughts of getting laid - read more about it in Saint Augustine, Saint John of the Cross, or Deepak Chopra.

So: Something took place. Still, when the helmet comes off and they shove a questionnaire in my hand, I feel like a failure. One question: Did the red bulb on the wall grow larger or smaller? There was a red bulb on the wall? I hadn't noticed. Many other questions suggest that there were other experiences I should have had, but to be honest, I didn't.

In fact, as transcendental experiences go, on a scale of 1 to 10, Persinger's helmet falls somewhere around, oh, 4. Even though I did have a fairly convincing out-of-body experience, I'm disappointed relative to the great expectations and anxieties I had going in.

It may be that all the preliminary talk about visions just set my rational left hemisphere into highly skeptical overdrive. Setting me up like that - you will experience the presence of God - might have been a mistake. When I bring this up later with Persinger, he tells me that the machine's effects differ among people, depending on their "lability" - Persinger jargon meaning sensitivity or vulnerability.

"Also, you were in a comfortable laboratory," he points out. "You knew nothing could happen to you. What if the same intense experience occurred at 3 in the morning in a bedroom all by yourself? Or you suddenly stalled on an abandoned road at night when you saw a peculiar light and then had that experience? What label would you have placed on it then?"

Point taken. I'd probably be calling Art Bell once a week, alerting the world to the alien invasion.