Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Obama Is Wrong On Afghanistan

I've long been skeptical of Obama's support for escalating the war in Afghanistan. What can we possibly achieve there that would be worth the cost? I just don't get it.

Last week, Obama gave a rationale for the war which seems to be, frankly, dumb.

Here's Juan Cole:
President Barack Obama may or may not be doing the right thing in Afghanistan, but the rationale he gave for it on Friday is almost certainly wrong. Obama has presented us with a 21st century version of the domino theory. The U.S. is not, contrary to what the president said, mainly fighting "al-Qaida" in Afghanistan. In blaming everything on al-Qaida, Obama broke with his pledge of straight talk to the public and fell back on Bush-style boogeymen and implausible conspiracy theories.

Obama realizes that after seven years, Afghanistan war fatigue has begun to set in with the American people. Some 51 percent of Americans now oppose the Afghanistan war, and 64 percent of Democrats do. The president is therefore escalating in the teeth of substantial domestic opposition, especially from his own party, as voters worry about spending billions more dollars abroad while the U.S. economy is in serious trouble.

He acknowledged that we deserve a "straightforward answer" as to why the U.S. and NATO are still fighting there. "So let me be clear," he said, "Al-Qaida and its allies -- the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks -- are in Pakistan and Afghanistan." But his characterization of what is going on now in Afghanistan, almost eight years after 9/11, was simply not true, and was, indeed, positively misleading. "And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban," he said, "or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged -- that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can."

Obama described the same sort of domino effect that Washington elites used to ascribe to international communism. In the updated, al-Qaida version, the Taliban might take Kunar Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States. He even managed to add an analog to Cambodia to the scenario, saying, "The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan," and warned, "Make no mistake: Al-Qaida and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within."

This latter-day domino theory of al-Qaida takeovers in South Asia is just as implausible as its earlier iteration in Southeast Asia (ask Thailand or the Philippines). Most of the allegations are not true or are vastly exaggerated. There are very few al-Qaida fighters based in Afghanistan proper. What is being called the "Taliban" is mostly not Taliban at all (in the sense of seminary graduates loyal to Mullah Omar). The groups being branded "Taliban" only have substantial influence in 8 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, and only 4 percent of Afghans say they support them. Some 58 percent of Afghans say that a return of the Taliban is the biggest threat to their country, but almost no one expects it to happen. Moreover, with regard to Pakistan, there is no danger of militants based in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) taking over that country or "killing" it.

The Kabul government is not on the verge of falling to the Taliban. The Afghan government has 80,000 troops, who benefit from close U.S. air support, and the total number of Taliban fighters in the Pashtun provinces is estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. Kabul is in danger of losing control of some villages in the provinces to dissident Pashtun warlords styled "Taliban," though it is not clear why the new Afghan army could not expel them if they did so. A smaller, poorly equipped Northern Alliance army defeated 60,000 Taliban with U.S. air support in 2001. And there is no prospect of "al-Qaida" reestablishing bases in Afghanistan from which it could attack the United States. If al-Qaida did come back to Afghanistan, it could simply be bombed and would be attacked by the new Afghan army.

I started supporting Obama in early 2007 because of his outspoken and correct speech against the war in Iraq. I do not understand his position on Afghanistan.

Americans who aren't directly touched by the wars seem to have almost forgotten them in the wake of the economic crisis, but this issue is too important to stay on the back burner. How many more lives and billions of dollars must we lose in Afghanistan before we admit that there's really no reason for us to be over there?

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Gay, Closeted YU Student Speaks Out (Anonymously)

This is heartbreaking because it is so unnecessary:
Each of us has a challenge in the world, a roadblock on the highway of life that challenges us to become the best we can be. We are given these tests to help shape our character and to become masters of our desires, whatever they are. Whether the test is keeping Shabbat or learning afternoon seder between classes, we are all given a test in life. My own challenge keeps me up at night, preoccupies my thoughts during the day, and leaves me feeling like I am walking down a somber road in a lonely world: I am a religious Jew, living in the observant Jewish world, faced with the challenge of being a homosexual...

As a religious Jew, I have always put Torah values at the center of my beliefs. Never would I dream of trying to say that homosexuality is permissible; I know that there is something intrinsically wrong with such an act. That is certainly not to say, however, that it is not a challenge for me. Attraction, whether to a man or to a woman, is not something that one can control. The fact that I have certain desires – which I would purge from my life in a second if I had the ability – is something that I cannot change. They leave me with feelings of solitude, despair, depression, and, alas, excitement...

My path is unclear and even though I still stand alone, I stand armed with the will to live another day and fight to keep my beliefs alive. No matter the support I get, I stand on trial every day of my life. I do not know where my future will lead, nor how I can change my feelings. I live with a sense of frustration, knowing the goal I want to reach but lacking the tools to arrive there. What must I do to be able to marry a woman? What must I share with my future partner? How can I even bring myself to tell her this hidden secret? I do not know if it is fair to ask someone to live with me under these conditions, or whether I will truly be able to be happy in such a relationship. All I know is that I want to one day make marriage to a woman work – to love her and have her love me back. I want to watch her walk down to the chuppah in the most beautiful wedding dress, with tears of happiness and joy in her eyes, as I know there will be in mine.

This is especially poignant:
I thank Hashem every day for the strengths He has given me. I thank Him for the rebbe He sent me, who, instead of rejecting me, stood by my side, helping me though the most awful time of my life. I thank Him for the stamina He gave me to fight a depression that nearly led me to commit suicide.

Hashem, or more accurately, the insane belief in Hashem and in the Torah as His word, is what probably caused that depression... and this poor kid is grateful that Hashem gave him the strength to fight it.

As I wrote in response to Apikores's post about this article, some men like women and some men like men. What is the big frickin' deal?

Here's the first paragraph of my response on the Commentator website. I assume it will be deleted, but I don't know their policy:
My heart goes out to you, not just because of your pain, but because your pain is unnecessary. You're so quick to dismiss your orientation as wrong and problematic -- how much time have you spent considering whether the Torah is wrong or problematic?

Previously: How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men To Do Evil.

Better Know a Kofer: A Series

Da'as Hedyot has begun a series of interviews with kofrim (heretics, like me) in order combat the stereotypes Orthodox Jews have about us (we're shallow, hedonistic sex&drug addicts with no morals.) The first interview has been posted:
The first kofer we're meeting in our new series, Better Know a Kofer, is Sara, a third year law student who lives in Michigan with her husband of five years, together with their young daughter and two pets. Sara is a former Bais Yaakov girl from a moderate yeshivish family who stopped being frum in her early twenties. She currently practices Elder Law in a free clinic and has worked in the past as a middle and high school teacher at Bais Yaakov.

I and most of the other commenters focused probably too much on the fact that Sara is now a (liberal) Roman Catholic, but isn't that the whole point of this series? All of us who left are different. There are as many reasons, and paths, as there are kofrim. Check it out.

Friday, March 27, 2009

How Smart Intellectuals Believe In Orthodox Judaism

Chana has a bizarre post today that I think explains one of the most confounding questions for us OTDers: how could smart, intellectually curious adults possibly believe that stuff?

The answer can be found in a paragraph she quotes from every Modern Orthodox intellectual's favorite rabbi, "the Rav," Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik:
The religious Jew accepts the entire Torah as a hok, both in regard to its immutability and also its unintellegibility... To be a loyal Jew is to be heroic, and heroes commit themselves without intellectual reservations. Only one who lacks the courage of commitment will belabor the "why"...

Do you see that? It's "heroic" to commit oneself to something admittedly unintelligible without intellectual reservations.

This is related to, but slightly different from the other technique I've identified that intellectual Orthodox Jews use to believe: compartmentalization. In compartmentalization, the intellectual simply chooses not to apply his/her full range of intellectual techniques to certain religious questions. (An example of compartmentalism is applying the techniques of textual criticism to the Talmud but not to the Bible, or using skepticism during one's day job as a scientist but not applying it to religion.) I've always understood compartmentalization as a technique people use when they are too scared to question their foundational beliefs.

But this is something different. This isn't turning away from the truth in fear, but rather turning away with pride. Somehow the Rav and many like him convince themselves that there is something noble ("heroic") about believing the unbelievable.

What should we call this technique? "Heroic denial?"

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reasons To Believe

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away -- Philip K. Dick

Brooklyn Wolf asks, Do You Really Require Proof?
I don't have any absolute proof, and, truth be told, I don't need any. Just by looking at the wonderfulness of nature, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, I am convinced that God exists. When I look at the universe and consider the possibilities that it either sprung into existence by itself or had help, I take "had help." Yes, it's only a gut feeling and yes, it falls far short of proof, but that's all I need to live my life. But I'm also honest about it. I know that it's not proof, and I state the same up front to anyone who asks. I don't require "solid proof" for my beliefs -- and, if you seriously consider what I said, neither do you.

This was my response:

"Proof" is the wrong word. What people need are reasons. For some people, the fact that they like Orthodox Judaism is reason enough to believe. For others, the fact that their parents and ancestors believe is reason enough.

And then some people just want to know what's TRUE, period. We don't want reasons to believe if those reasons don't help us believe what's true. We want to avoid the traps other minds fall into: denial, logical fallacies, and sheltering ourselves from people and ideas that might destroy our beliefs.

We see that people with Muslim parents tend to believe in Allah and people with Jewish parents tend to believe in YHWH and we realize that people who believe for the kinds of reasons that we believed basically believe whatever they want to believe.

So we become skeptics. We set out to find what's true. And we steel ourselves to face the truth even if we have to give up some cherished beliefs and even if accepting the truth means that our families and friends and communities might reject us.

I'm not saying this makes us better people, or more healthy psychologically. I'm sure the psychological reasons for believing what our communities believe evolved for a reason. What I am saying is that we're more likely to believe in what's true.

If you'd rather believe what your loved ones believe and what your parents believed and what lets you live in an Orthodox community, you should probably stick with whatever it is that lets you do that. If you want to know what's true, become a skeptic.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Pope on Condoms in Africa

Pope Benedict XVI: condoms make Aids crisis worse
While en route from Rome to his first stop, Cameroon, the Pope said that the condition was "a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."

Speaking on board his official plane, the pontiff insisted that the Roman Catholic Church is in the forefront of the battle against Aids, advocating sexual abstinence and fidelity within marriage as a way of fighting the disease.

How many additional people are going to get sick and die because of this idiot and his religious dogma? A million?

EDIT: A commenter points me to this article quoting the director of AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies saying that the Pope is right.

I apologize for my questions above if this correction holds up. Can anyone who knows more about the subject weigh in?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Newsflash: Media Still Really Really Not Liberal

What with Democrats owning the White House and Congress and the media being allegedly liberal, one would expect the debate over the most important issue of the day to be slanted heavily to the left. It's not, because the media are not liberal but incompetent, offering "two sides" of any debate without any perspective on whether those two sides have anything remotely to do with the truth.

The Democrats and most economists believe that the economy requires a stimulus package. Obama, being a moderate kind of guy, chose a moderate number for the size of the stimulus, as compared to the numbers suggested by economists. The Republicans, on the other hand, staked out an insanely far-right position: a spending freeze. (A freeze? Holy crap, we dodged a bullet in the last election. What if McCain had actually followed through on the Hooverian rhetoric?)

So the media, incompetent approval-seekers that they are, dutifully accepted those two positions as representing opposite ends of the spectrum and has presented them as such. The result is a "debate" wildly skewed towards the right.

This happens on many issues. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, the right staked out the "we must invade" position, while the left took to a moderate "let's wait and see" position. So the media dutifully framed the debate that way, effectively making the new center the "we'll probably invade soon, but we'll pay a little lip service to waiting first."


One major sin of news coverage, especially on TV, is the way certain points of view just get excluded from consideration — even if many of the best-informed people hold those views. Most famously and disastrously, the case against invading Iraq was just not heard in the months before the war.

And still it happens. According to the invaluable Media Matters, the idea that the Obama stimulus plan might be too small — a view held by many well-known economists — basically went unreported on broadcast news during the stimulus debate. Out of 59 broadcasts addressing the plan, only 3 mentioned concerns that the plan was inadequate. And it’s actually even worse than that: one of those three involved Harry Reid talking about longer-term goals on health and education — and one of the other two was me.

Meanwhile, it’s rapidly becoming clear that yes, the plan was too small.

The future of our economy is at stake. And it's at risk because the Republicans are better at framing the debate and the media are too cowed to correct for it.

Obama should have opened with a 1.3 or 1.5 trillion dollar package, with almost no tax cuts. The Republicans would have stuck to their extreme, and the media would have framed the debate so that a $750 billion stimulus with $300 billion in tax cuts appeared to be the moderate, centrist position it is. And who knows? We might have even gotten a stimulus big enough to fix things. Now we just have to hope.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Jon Stewart Takes On Santelli and CNBC

Does a better job than I did.

Idiot right-wing pundits who are paid to know what they're talking about got this 100% wrong. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT WRONG. But do they lose their jobs? No. And they have the chutzpah to rant about homeowners, many of them who relied on these idiots for advice, getting bailed out?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Nixon on Archie Bunker, Gays, and Marijuana

This is hilarious, if you can forget for a moment that this man was President of the United States and that tens of millions of Americans probably still agree with him. But we're supposed to believe opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with homophobia. Uh-huh.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Here's a partial transcript I found:

Then, inexplicably, Nixon turns to a prime-time show he had just watched on CBS and how they "were glorifying homosexuality."

"A panel show?" asks Ehrlichman.

"Hell, no," responds Nixon.

Haldeman knows to what his boss refers. "No, it's a regular show. It's on every week," says Haldeman. "It's usually just done in the guy's home. It's usually just that guy, who's a hard-hat."

"That's right, he's a hard-hat."

"He always looks like a slob."

"Looks like Jackie Gleason," says the president of the United States.

Haldeman, playing amateur TV critic, assists with word that "he has this hippie son-in-law and usually the general trend is to downgrade him and upgrade the son-in-law, make the square hard-hat out to be bad."

"But a few weeks ago," he continues, "they had one in which the guy, the son-in-law, wrote a letter to you, President Nixon, to raise hell about something. And the guy said, `You will not write that letter from my home!' Then said, `I'm going to write President Nixon.' Took off all these sloppy clothes, shaved and went to his desk and got ready to write his letter to President Nixon. And apparently it was a good episode."

"What's it called?" asks Ehrlichman.

" `Archie's Guys,' " says Nixon, referring, of course, to "All in the Family."

"Archie is sitting here with his hippie son-in-law, married to the screwball daughter," Nixon relates. "The son-in-law apparently goes both ways. This guy (enters). He's obviously queer, wears an ascot, but not offensively so. Very clever. Uses nice language. Shows pictures of his parents. And so Arch goes down to the bar. Sees his best friend, who used to play professional football. Virile, strong, this and that. Then the fairy comes into the bar."

Nixon feels compelled to tell his chums: "I don't mind the homosexuality, I understand it . . . Nevertheless, goddamn, I don't think you glorify it on public television, homosexuality, even more than you glorify whores. We all know we have weaknesses. But, goddamn it, what do you think that does to kids? You know what happened to the Greeks! Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo. We all know that so was Socrates."

"But he never had the influence television had," Ehrlichman says, apparently referring to Socrates.

"You know what happened to the Romans?" says Professor Nixon. "The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They (had sex with) the nuns, that's been goin' on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell, three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That's what's happened to Britain, it happened earlier to France."

"Let's look at the strong societies," says Nixon. "The Russians. Goddamn, they root 'em out. They don't let 'em around at all. I don't know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, immorality are the enemies of strong societies. That's why the communists and left-wingers are clinging to one another. They're trying to destroy us. I know Moynihan will disagree with this, (Atty. Gen. John) Mitchell will, and Garment will. But, goddamn, we have to stand up to this."

"It's fatal liberality," declares Ehrlichman, ever the sycophant.

"Huh?" says Nixon.

"It's fatal liberality," says Ehrlichman. "And with its use on television, it has such leverage."

Nixon asks Ehrlichman to consider northern California. "You know what's happened."

"San Francisco has just gone clear over," says Ehrlichman.

"But it's not just the ratty part of town," says Nixon. "The upper class in San Francisco is that way. The Bohemian Grove (an elite, secrecy-filled gathering outside San Francisco), which I attend from time to time. It is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine, with that San Francisco crowd. I can't shake hands with anybody from San Francisco."

Nixon finishes things off by turning into an observer of ladies' fashions.

"Decorators. They got to do something. But we don't have to glorify it," says Nixon. "You know one of the reasons fashions have made women look so terrible is because the goddamned designers hate women. Designers taking it out on the women. Now they're trying to get some more sexy things coming on again."

"Hot pants," says Ehrlichman.

"Jesus Christ," murmurs the president.

"Nonmaterialist Neuroscience": The New Creationism?

Neuroscience and the soul, via Andrew Sullivan:
A new challenge to the science-religion relationship is currently at hand. We hope that, with careful consideration by scientists and theologians, it will not become the latest front in what some have called the “culture war” between science and religion. The challenge comes from neuroscience and concerns our understanding of human nature.

Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. Yet as neuroscience advances, it increasingly seems that all aspects of a person can be explained by the functioning of a material system...as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained.

Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?

By raising questions like this, it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. “Nonmaterialist neuroscience” has joined “intelligent design” as an alternative interpretation of scientific data.

I predict religions will react in the familiar pattern: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Denial: Those stupid atheist scientists don't know what they're talking about. Did you hear about that one fMRI machine that was configured improperly?! And just a little while ago, scientists were arguing that the mind was located in the heart! Man, scientists are so dumb.


Bargaining: Okay, maybe there's something to this whole neuroscience thing. But it can't measure everything, and we can still squeeze a non-material soul into the gaps!

Depression: Sigh. Looks like neuroscience was right. I guess life is meaningless and without purpose.

: Of course there's no nonmaterial soul. "Soul" is just metaphorical. Everybody knows that. Praise Jesus!

Fundamentalists will of course stay in the denial and anger zones for a long time, apologists in the bargaining, XGH in the depression, and liberal theologians will enter acceptance a generation or two before the rest.

Atheists, of course, are ahead of the game. The typical atheistic response is "Duh!"