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.