Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Insert Profanity Here.

Folks, I promise there is a blog post coming... eventually. Specifically a halloween special is coming. It really cries out for pictures to be included but, sadly, blogger's picture feature is misbehaving. So, until it starts working, we're stuck.

Something will show up eventually, even if "eventually" is "several weeks from now."

Sorry about the delay. If you're really jonesin for something to do... maybe try working? I dunno, it keeps me busy enough...

Monday, October 30, 2006

Wandering to and fro...

Well good morning loyal Total Drek fans. Interested in a post? Salivating over the potential for some extraordinarily crappy time-wasting writing from yours truly? Well, you're in luck! A long post ripe to obliterate time without measurable benefit is waiting for you!

Just not here.

Yep, I'm guest posting over at Marginal Utility again today. What is the topic of my latest missive? Well, it's the first in a series titled "The Dreadful Dick Dawkins," and discusses the hoopla over Richard Dawkins' newest book. More generally, it touches on issues of the relationship between theism and atheism. Look for the next installment on Wednesday and, with a little luck, the third installment this Friday. One or both of these will appear on Marginal Utility, assuming that the startlingly poor quality of my posts doesn't cause Tom* to kick my ass off his blog once and for all.

Keep your fingers crossed...

* I assume this is the way economists dress. Or, perhaps more accurately, it's more fun to imagine that I assume so.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Something Scary

It’s Halloween season! You wanna hear something really scary about politics and media? I saw it on Tucker Carlson the other day.

You remember Tucker.
He used to be the bow-tie conservative on Crossfire. Until they invited Jon Stewart on to dance like a monkey, and he refused. Instead, he told the truth:

STEWART: Here's just what I wanted to tell you guys.
STEWART: Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.
STEWART: And come work for us, because we, as the people...
CARLSON: How do you pay?
STEWART: The people -- not well.
BEGALA: Better than CNN, I'm sure.
STEWART: But you can sleep at night.
STEWART: See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations. And we're left out there to mow our lawns.
BEGALA: By beating up on them? You just said we're too rough on them when they make mistakes.
STEWART: No, no, no, you're not too rough on them. You're part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks.

They pulled the plug on Crossfire within the month.

Well Tucker’s got his own show now (“The Situation”), and it’s still all ‘theater’. He ditched the bow tie. Someone in marketing said “let’s go with sex appeal” and so now his shirts are unbuttoned and his hair is perfectly mussed. But he’s still gleefully hurting America.

The other day he had on a guest, a desperate Republican congressional hopeful named Paul R. Nelson, whose only claim to fame was having just used one of the more despicable attack ads I’ve ever seen. Anyway, here’s what it says.

With our service men and women facing death every day, what kind of Congressman would try to gut military spending?
(On Screen: Soldiers alongside a flag-draped coffin.)
The wrong kind. Ron Kind. That‘s right. Congressman Ron Kind has repeatedly voted to deprive our troops of the funding they need to fight for us. But Ron Kind has no trouble spending your money. He would just rather spend it on sex.
(On Screen: A Picture of Rep. Ron Kind with "XXX" printed over it.)
(sound effects: loon noises)
That‘s right. Instead of spending money on cancer research, Ron Kind voted to spend your money to study the sex lives of Vietnamese prostitutes. Instead of spending money to study heart disease, Ron Kind spent your money to study the masturbation habits of old men. Ron Kind spent your tax dollars to study something called the bisexual, transgendered and two spirited illusion [sic] Eskimos, whoever they are.
(On Screen: Images of soldiers in combat.)
Ron Kind even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia. Ron Kind pays for sex but not for soldiers. If Ron Kind had better priorities, you wouldn‘t be having to hear this. Ron Kind is out of touch and soon he‘ll be out of Congress.
I‘m Paul R. Nelson and I approve of this message.

I wanted to link to it so you could experience just how foul it was, so I went searching for a tape on line, and when I did, I realized that, despite the way Tucker made it look, Nelson did not produce this ad, nor was he the only one to use it. I found an almost identical ad used by Republican Vernon Robinson against Democrat incumbent Brad Miller: The only differences were the names of the candidates, a different announcer’s voice and a little extra word play on Ron Kind (= “Wrong Kind” -- get it?). Cute.

I don’t even know where to begin with the ad. There’s real irony in the flagged draped coffin image, given who actually got us in that war, who has poorly equipped the troops, and who has prevented the images of draped coffins being used by the media based on the premise that its demoralizing. (Stupifyingly Obvious Answer: the Republican administration!) But, as a social scientist, it’s the second part - the claim that Miller is spending money frivolously and lasciviously, as evidenced by suggestive descriptions of studies of sexuality - that really torked me.

Of course, as you’ve probably guessed, Miller and Kind were not in fact diverting money from body armor to their private stashes of porn. They voted to support the NIH (the National Institute of Health), and it’s the NIH that funds these studies, among many, many, many others. I learned from that 210 Republicans, back in 2003, no doubt as part of the War on (Sex? Science? Reason ?) Terror, determined they were better able than the doctors who run the NIH to determine what research is beneficial. So they proposed an amendment to the funding bill, specifically defunding 5 studies, including the 4 mentioned in Robinson’s/ Nelson’s ad. Miller and Kind were among 212 congressman (the slimmest of majorities) who voted down that amendment.
Here’s factcheck’s description of the studies they targeted:

"Vietnamese Prostitutes": This study was an effort to find a way to prevent the spread of AIDS. It was proposed in 2001 by the University of California San Francisco, to “describe drug use and HIV-related behaviors among Asian female commercial sex workers at massage parlors” in the area. The study was awarded $1,726,536 from Fiscal 2002-2004 according to NIH documents.

"Masturbation Habits of Old Men”: Masturbating was included as one part of a much larger study on how declining sexual function affects the quality of life of elderly men. The research would, according to the proposal summary, "provide the most comprehensive picture to date of the sexual behavior of aging men." The project was awarded in August 2001 according to NIH documents and had received $137,378 in funding by Fiscal 2002. It was proposed in response to a recommendation by the NIH to conduct additional research on aging and sexual function.

"Two-Spirited Aleutian Eskimos”: This grant didn't just deal with "Eskimos," it attempted to gain a national picture of homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender and "two-spirited" individuals in the American Indian and Alaskan Native populations. The term "two-spirit" refers simply to Native Americans involved in same-sex relationships, according to a definition posted on the North East Two Spirit Society’s website . The proposal envisioned 400 interviews about sexual risk and drug and alcohol use. Between fiscal years 2002 and 2006 the project received $2,368,017. According to the proposal submitted to the NIH the grant ends May 31, 2007.

"Teenage Girls": This grant actually proposed to study sexual arousal in 180 lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual "women," and makes no mention of "teenage girls" as test subjects as the ad claims. The proposal received $147,000 between fiscal years 2001 and 2002 but was not funded in fiscal 2003. [I also point out that 18 and 19 year olds are technically “teenagers”]

Notice that there’s nothing that connects these studies except the word sex. One is about the spread of disease, one is about aging and mental health, one is a gender study about targets of arousal, one is about psychological health of Native Americans. We definitely don’t want to know about such things. At least Republicans don’t. Like Mark Foley, who voted for the amendment while he wasn’t masturbating in front of his computer.

I remain incredulous that even the Republicans believe, as the ad implies, that Miller or Kind has been taking a prurient interest in the findings of this research. Ironically, the ad makes it clear that Robinson and Nelson and the rest of those who went sifting through research proposals for dirty science have been doing just that.

So in this bizarre and sociopathic attack on their opponents, Republicans have again dragged social and medical science into the muck. The implication is that there is no good reason (though plenty of naughty ones, snicker snicker) to study human sexuality, sexual behavior, or sexual response. Nevermind that each of these studies has been proposed and accepted as scientifically valid and socially beneficial by scientists at the NIH. In fact, given where the funding came from, they all are arguably beneficial to human health. Once again, Republicans are exploiting prudery to make people sick. I know I am.

I’m not going to spend my time making an argument for the beneficial nature of studying sex. It’s obvious, and no reasonable person thinks otherwise. Why would we want to be ignorant of something so central to human life? It wasn't too long ago Kinsey claimed we know more about the mating behavior of insects than we do about humans. When you open up your encyclopedia, you want something THERE, right? Right? Even Republican congressmen know this, and secretly, they agree. The truth is, they came up with the amendment in the first place just to be able to run these ads in the election.

My fear is that an ad like this, as crazy as it is, increases the likelihood that the NIH and other government funded foundations and institutes will be politically driven. What congressman wants to have an ad like this one leveled at him? Just to have your name and the words “prostitute”, “masturbation” and “genitals” appear together in an ad is enough to lose you a few percentage points, potentially. Is there going to be pressure on scientists and public health officials to spare politicians this fate by preferring studies that are neuter? Well, yes, if no one fights back.

But Tucker did not fight back for us. He had on this ridiculous congressional hopeful, played his little ad, and gave him a segment to say what he wanted to. Here’s the “interview”. Don’t read the whole thing, just peruse the hard-hitting bullet-like questions our veteran soldier of the Crossfire aimed at Kind (in bold):

CARLSON: Paul R. Nelson joins me now from Milwaukee to explain his ad. Mr. Nelson, I appreciate your coming on.
NELSON: Hello Tucker, thanks for having me on today.
CARLSON: Why do you suppose the congressman, your opponent has voted to get teenage girls to watch pornographic movies? What would be the point of that vote?
NELSON: Well Tucker, my reaction when I first saw this ad was probably the same as yours and maybe many of your viewers. This cannot possibly be true. And that‘s why we have put the amendment vote number, the NIH grant studies number on the ad itself. So people can do their own research and they can look at it again and again on our Web site at
CARLSON: But wait a second here. Studying the masturbation habits of old men? Explain that to me.
NELSON: Tucker, I have no idea why our federal government is funding this kind of nonsense. And that‘s exactly .
CARLSON: Is that an issue of concern in your district?
NELSON: I wouldn‘t expect, Tucker, that would be a big issue of concern in our district.
CARLSON: What about Vietnamese hookers? Do you have a problem with those?
NELSON: It isn‘t a matter of whether or not I have a problem with Vietnamese hookers.
CARLSON: I mean but is that a huge issue in the third district of Wisconsin? What about transvestite Eskimos. Is there a single one in your district?
NELSON: Not that I‘m aware of.
CARLSON: What is all this about and why are you running a campaign ad about it? I mean it seems so far out.
NELSON: Tucker, what we‘re talking about here is a gross waste of taxpayer money. And remember, we‘re also talking about funding our military. Ron Kind is a San Francisco liberal after the form of Nancy Pelosi herself. And we‘re just pointing out that Mr. Kind, instead of funding our military, my fellow marines who are fighting and dying in the war on terror even today as we speak, he is funding sex studies for these remote groups.
CARLSON: Not just so remote, also teenage girls watching porn. Who are the teenage girls and where are they watching porn?
NELSON: Well I would expect at any college frat party in America, you could probably find folks doing that kind of thing. But the point is here Tucker, these are the kind of waste of taxpayer dollars that has resulted in a $250 billion budget deficit this year.
CARLSON: To be fair, as you know, I‘ve looked at your Web site. And on the issues, I agree with you completely, incidentally. And I think you‘re wise enough to know, the Republicans are in charge and they can‘t control their spending either, I mean let‘s be totally honest here. Who are those mug shots? When you say the masturbating men, you have pictures of these two old guys. Who are those guys and did you get their consent before putting their pictures up?
NELSON: Those folks are folks at the ad agency. Certainly the verbiage of this ad came right out of the congressional record and I think with Mr. Foley and different ones in the Congress, we could have probably just taken mug shots of congressmen themselves. But we determined that might not be the best use of .
CARLSON: Is this spot helping?
NELSON: Absolutely. This spot goes to the heart of what‘s wrong in Washington, D.C. Why our money is being wasted by politicians, instead of being spent on legitimate uses. That‘s what we‘re pointing out in this ad Tucker. And frankly my opponent, Ron Kind, is terrified of this ad. He has even gone so far as to threaten litigation against television stations if we play this ad.
CARLSON: And has it been running?
NELSON: Absolutely. We‘ve been playing it in Madison, most recently, just because those folks appreciate it so much.
CARLSON: OK. Well, I sure appreciate your coming on. Paul R. Nelson, not a friend to transvestite Eskimos. But really the producer of one of the funniest ads I‘ve seen in a long time. Thanks very much.
NELSON: Thank you Tucker.

That last bit by Nelson is a gem isn’t it?

Could Tucker possibly be in the dark? If so, it’s egregiously irresponsible. It’s much more likely the case that he’s exactly what Jon Stewart accused him of being: a partisan hack. You can go on’s video site and watch Tucker in another segment chuckling with some other evil bastard (Bill Wolff) about the ad, suggesting that Ron Kind get out of the race and challenging him to come onto the program to answer these “charges”.

Tucker maintains an illusion of fairness and incredulity during the segment, but manages to make Nelson and his ad look reasonable. No one ever explains what these “charges” are really about -- no explanation of the NIH; no guesses at the potential usefulness of the studies; no skepticism about Republican aims; no mention of other candidates showing the same ad. It’s almost like Nelson has bought ad time. Actually, it’s exactly like that.

This kind of thing is may be typical of FoxNews, but this was MSNBC. Where is news? Where the Hell is the Liberal Media? How can you know whether you’re being informed by a news channel or deliberately misinformed? How much lying can you do without being known as a liar? How much of what you think you know is lies? Jon Stewart, please save us.
(And incidentally, where is the Lefty version of this soulless spinning? The Republicans are still light years ahead in misinformation, manipulation, and obfuscation.)

This marriage between politics and media has to be dug out and thrown in the sun so it can die, just like Crossfire died. The truth will set us free, won’t it?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Tales from Pre-School

My Sainted Fiancee and I have a friend, Stacie, who works at a pre-school. She recently related a tale to us that, frankly, deserves to be shared. The Scene: Stacie is in the pre-school talking with her student, Tim, in the morning before things get going.

Tim: Teacher! Miss Stacie! Miss Stacie!

Stacie: Good morning, Tim, how are you?

Tim: Good.

Stacie: Did anything exciting happen since yesterday?

Tim: I went to sleep...

Stacie: Did you have any dreams?

Tim: Yes.

Stacie: What did you dream about?

Tim: I dreamed I freed my people.

Stacie: ...

Stacie: You mean the four year olds?

For those who are wondering: I have some more interesting posts I'm working on, but just don't have time to finish them up. I'm going to be getting a CT scan of my head later on today, so I have to compress a lot of work into this morning. Hopefully we'll be back on track next week.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tales from the Office: Counterfactual Edition

The Scene: Drek, his Sainted Fiancee, and his Officemate, are on the way to get coffee. They're discussing a recent birthday party Drek and D's SF attended for a member of D's SF's church.

Officemate: So did you just go to tormet the UUs?

Drek: Actually, my Sainted Fiancee can tell you, but I'm very gentle with the UUs.

D's SF: You've got to understand, if Drek were going to belong to a religion, he'd probably be UU.

Drek: ...

D's SF: Of course, this would be some bizarre alternate universe.

Officemate: laughs

D's SF: You know, I was talking with Sheila the other day, and she's a Buddhist, but if she weren't buddhist, she says she'd be a UU.

Officemate: Well, that makes sense.

D's SF: And if I weren't a UU, I'd probably be Buddhist.

Drek: And you know, if I weren't an atheist, I'd be in denial.

Officemate: laughs

D's SF: Oh! Nice wordplay there.

Drek: Thanks. I was worried I wouldn't get it in there in time.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Here, there, everywhere...

As part of our ongoing blog-exchange pact, I'm guest posting today over at Marginal Utility in an effort to help cover for Tom's unavoidable and mysterious absence.

So what did I blog about? Oh, nothing much. Just a brief discussion of Dick Cheney's explanation for the war in Iraq. Turns out it's not so much about weapons of mass destruction, or regime change, or even fighting terrorism. It's about making sure other people don't call the U.S. chicken. So, basically, our foreign policy is a sub-plot from "Back to the Future."

We're doomed.

Head on over and check it out. It may not be amusing, but at least it's words on a page. And that's enough for me.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Fear will keep them in line- fear of this battlestation."

Star Wars fans such as myself recognize the title of this post as the line uttered by Grand Moff Tarkin* in discussing the Death Star. He was asserting that in the absence of an assembly, the Emperor could use fear to maintian political control of the galactic empire. And, in all honesty, he has a point, since a weapon that can detonate an entire planet is fairly persuasive.

This line is also what ran through my head when I read this news about the newest iteration of U.S. space policy.** I will allow the article to summarize:

The US has claimed "dibs" on the Universe with its new space policy. The document, signed by President Bush, was released on a Friday, just before a long weekend in the States. This, in itself has caused a bit of a stir, but not more so than the tone and content of the document.

In it, the US government allocates itself rights to access and use space without anyone else getting in its way. It also sets security at the heart of the space agenda, frequently citing its right to use space as part of its national defence.

Significantly, however, it does not commit to restrict, or even to join talks about restricting the development of space-based weapons. This is despite a UN vote last year in which 160 nations voted in favour of such talks.

The first bullet point outlining the principles of the programme sets the tone for the rest of the document:

"The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity. Consistent with this principle, 'peaceful purposes' allow US defence and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests."


The document then warms to its military theme. The first fundamental goal of the programme is not given as being to explore the solar system or better understand the Universe, but:

"[To] strengthen the nation's space leadership and ensure that space capabilities are available in time to further US national security, homeland security, and foreign policy objectives."

So, it appears that the ongoing militarization of U.S. culture is being extended, once again, to space. We're heading back into the days of the Strategic Defense Inititative and when the U.S. seriously considered placing nuclear missiles on the moon as a retaliation weapon against the Soviet Union.***

Realistically I have only limited objections to placing weapons in space. Sure it's dangerous and raises tensions but, that said, once you have ICBMs and hydrogen bombs, additional weaponry starts to become icing on the cake. I have to admit, a military space program might well help develop the technologies necessary for peaceful, productive use of near-Earth space. Since I think we as a species will have to expand to other worlds and, eventually, star systems if we are to survive, I'm generally in favor of such technology. Finally, we just can't beat the costumes that will come with such bold leadership.

No, my real issue with this is as follows: we have no serious adversaries on the state level. We're (relatively) friendly with Europe, China doesn't have the capability to reach us except with ICBMs.**** Russia is effectively bankrupt and the Arab world isn't exactly a military powerhouse. No, the folks we have to fight right now are, at best, decentralized terrorist cells operating both in rural areas of rogue states***** and within our own cities. So, can someone tell me exactly what fucking good orbiting particle beam weapons and kinetic bombardment systems are going to do against that? What are we going to do, level a block of New York because a terrorist cell MIGHT be set up there? More to the point, what possible use would orbital weapons be for fighting groups that really demand the use of infantry and deep-cover agents?

There might be a lot of things we could do with this expanded presence in space, but I don't think any of them have to do with fighting terrorism.

What's the real purpose then? I'm not sure- but I'm fairly certain I'm not gonna like it.

* Yes, that is his actual title.

** I think this space policy will strike Tom in particular as unexpected and ill advised.

*** No, seriously, this was discussed. We also thought about nuking the moon as a demonstration of our power. That reminds me of something, come to think of it...

**** Which is, frankly, enough.

***** Whatever the hell a "rogue state" is in a world of unhindered U.S. unilateralism.

As a side note: Special thanks to Bookmobile for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Unusual get-out-the-vote strategies...

I could post something interesting* today on the relationship between government and religion, but I don't think I will. I have a lot of grading to do and, unfortunately, I really should get some of it done sooner rather than later.

But, to entertain you a little, please enjoy this example of an unusual approach to whipping up support from the Republican base.

I had no idea at all that Condi could dance like that! Although, maybe the boots should be been a clue.


* Well, insofar as any of my posts are actually interesting, as opposed to a way to waste time.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death

In their apparent quest to achieve a state of perfect irony, the Republicans have produced a mountain of laughably inauthentic policies and statements, like the “Clear Skies Initiative,” the ‘Healthy Forest Initiative,” “No Child Left Behind,” the “Patriot Act,” and "protection of marriage". But none is more central to their party identity or more questionable than their claim to be pro-life.

As you all know, “pro-life” is short for anti-abortion, which the Republicans certainly are, and they have for a long time made a lot of political gravy out of this. They’ve used this hot-button issue to drag a lot of people into their party, even when contrary to their own economic interests. This is the same view that compels Republicans to stand against the use of stem cells in research and that caused an extended session of congress to try to prevent the death of Terry Schiavo.

But the labeling of Republicans as “pro-life” has perplexed me, because to my eye they are far more pro-death than pro-life. Republicans of course, overwhelmingly support the use of the death penalty, despite knowledge that it has no suppressing effect on crime. And it’s Republicans who have consistently been the most belligerent in foreign policy, and who still most support the war in Iraq that has resulted in the deaths of perhaps 100,000 Iraqis.

It’s Republicans who oppose HPV inoculation, even though we know HPV causes cancer. It’s Republicans who oppose sex education, even though we know it saves lives by informing kids about condom use and disease prevention. It’s Republicans who want to prevent people from giving water to Mexican illegal immigrants who may be dying in the desert.

And it’s Republicans who support deregulation of industry and diminishing the number and power of watchdogs on big business, which necessarily leads to greater pollution, less safety, and less care. And at the same time, they support the limiting of penalties when businesses do get caught harming others (this is called “tort reform”). They also oppose universal health care.

Ah, yes: the culture of life. This seems to amount to political mobilization against abortion and against pulling the plug. So, Republicans are for the “life” of human fetuses and the “life” of human vegetables, and not much else.

Now, I respect the idea of a culture of life. If someone really felt that human life itself is the greatest good, then I could understand their anti-abortion and pro-vegetable stance. Even maybe their squeamishness about stem cell research. These are all colorably a taking of life. But since these pro-lifers are so often also pro-deathers, their credibility is shot, in my eyes.

Everybody agrees “life” is a good thing. It’s all really a balancing issue, really. What would you exchange lives for? Wars for freedom from tyranny? A highway transportation system? Fireworks? Each of these claims lives, but we do them anyway because the benefit presumably outweighs the costs. Even while supporting abortion rights, most pro-choice liberals are unhappy with the extinguishment of potential life that is an abortion. However, liberals weigh this against factors that are extremely important to them. They find that this risk of harming life is outweighed by the protection from the back alley coat-hanger afforded by legalized abortion; the potential of saving girls from parenting burdens they are unprepared for (and will probably be forced to bear alone and without state aid); and more generally, for the emancipation of women as a whole from sexual oppression and repression that results from fear of pregnancy. This is perhaps not entirely a culture of life either (though they clearly have more a claim to such a title than the Republicans), but perhaps rather a culture of liberation.

Republicans are by no means less willing to forfeit lives for principles. Republicans seem to believe that when you are morally impeachable, you deserve whatever harm you receive, including sickness, rape, and death. They have no problem with forced suffering as a punishment for immorality (in their judgment, of course). If you’re a criminal, a homosexual, an illegal immigrant, a citizen under an unfriendly regime, or a fornicator of any kind, any punishment is just.

My view is that the only way to explain the party line on issues of life and death is that Republicans and their ardent supporters are in fact a culture of retribution. It’s that Old Testament crap they’ve taken to heart. You know, there’s a lot of retribution in the Bible. People get punished for worshipping foreign Gods, for looking at one’s father nude, for having the wrong kind of sex, for creating graven images, for looking back on the destruction of an evil city, and in Job’s case, for nothing much at all (though not as often for murder, war, incest, slavery, bigamy, or fraud). Entire cities and peoples were punished with destruction and death for the behavior of a few. If you’re not careful, you could get the idea that punishment is a good in itself. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” after all. The point is, that for religious Republicans, this issue of the punishment of miscreants outweighs their inclinations to support life. I’m convinced for this reason, they are typically anti-abortion not because of the life they may save (which they will ignore once it is born unless, in its 90s, it goes on life support), but because having and caring for a baby is the just deserts for a young slut who was sleeping around out of wedlock. They do not want her to avoid her just retribution.

There is no “pro-life” party: it’s another euphemism that historians will chuckle at. All these issues of “life” come down to the relative values of liberation on one side and retribution (for liberation) on the other. The basic struggle between Liberal and Conservative philosophy played out in flesh.

Friday, October 20, 2006

In misery, there is always hope.

Some of you may be aware that we're presently in the tail end of ramadan, a holy month for muslims. Some of you may also know a little something about the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest place* in Islam and a site of considerable devotion during ramadan. You may even be aware that, given that al-Aqsa is in Jerusalem and that the Israelis are frankly a little afraid of letting hordes of muslims in, there's been a serious effort to prevent young muslim men from coming to pray. The fear is that they may combine their trip with a little terrorism, much like we combine conference travel with tourism. The effort to bar their entry, however, has brought its own share of problems:

Last Friday Israeli forces used tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse Palestinians whose anger and frustration at entry restrictions erupted in disturbances at several checkpoints around Jerusalem.

Yet, in all that, what you probably haven't seen is the best contender for Picture of the Year that will never, ever, win a prize:

After everything that's happened, I am struck by the simple humanity of a muslim man helping an Israeli soldier back to his feet.

Any religion that argues that man is inherently evil has clearly, in my view, failed to grasp who, and what, we are:


* You've gotta love a religion that can actually rank the holiness of locations with that much detail.

As a side note: Special thanks to the Total Drek Middle-Eastern Correspondent for passing this along.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Slag, Meet the Democrats

This evening I went for a first-ever experience: I spent two hours volunteering for the state Democratic party. This post is dedicated to any of you that might have considered political volunteering, but are nervous about it. I was very nervous too, but it was just fine.

I showed up at my local union hall, and I was greeted by a very nice volunteer coordinator, who explained what I would be doing - calling voters to ask them who they were voting for in the upcoming state elections. Eek. The human mind was not made for cold calling.

The coordinator explained how to work the autodialer phone system. It would dial numbers for me, and I would ask my questions. I told her that it was my first time volunteering, and she reassured me that it really does get easier with time. Also, and this was something that made me feel much better: If people are rude on the phone, YOU CAN HANG UP ON THEM. You can also press *6 to record them as a "person was rude" number. Presumably this option engages an automatic message that calls them at 2 A.M. and plays the Macarena song.

Here was what I was supposed to say:

Slag: Hello, my name is Slag. I'm a volunteer with the medium-sized eastern state Democratic party. I have just a few questions for you this evening, if you have a moment.
Person: OK.
Slag: Who will you support for U.S. Senate, Democratic candidate Good Democrat or Republican candidate Evil Republican?
Person: Good Democrat.
Slag: And will you support the Democratic candidate for Governor, the Lesser Evil?
Person: The Lesser Evil.
Slag: Thank you very much for your time. Have a good evening.

That was how it was supposed to work, anyway. Here was the most common actual outcome:

Slag: Hello, my name is Slag. I'm a volunteer with the medium-sized eastern state Democratic party. I have just a few questions for you this evening, if you have a moment.

Here is another common response:

Slag: Hello, my name is Slag. I'm a volunteer with the medium-sized eastern state Democratic party. I have just a few questions for you this evening, if you have a moment.
Person: Sorry, I don't have time to talk.
Slag: Thank you, have a good evening.

Here were some other responses:

Thanks, but I'm a Republican.*

I'm not a U.S. citizen. I'm not allowed to vote.

I don't speak English.

I got not a single rude phone response in the entire two hours of calling people. Lots of hangups, which I completely expected, but no one was rude. It reaffirmed my faith in humanity.

So, if anyone wants to volunteer for the Democratic party**, I recommend the experience.

*Yes, even the Republicans were not rude, and even said thanks. I feel better about the world because of it.
**Or the Republican party, if you wish and are a sad, bitter husk of a human being

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

This is new...

I find that in the years since I began blogging, I occasionally blog in odd places and under strange circumstances. I have written from the ASA convention center, I have written from a crowded airplane waiting to take off, and I have written while watching the State of the Union. Perhaps I'm not trying to blog from every state, like Jeremy, but I'm racking up quite a strange list.

And now I can add to it. Thanks to the wonders of wireless routers, which now largely blanket my department and much of my campus in juicy broadband, I am actually blogging while administering a test to my undergraduates. No, seriously.

It's an interesting experience, actually. I'm about four feet away from the front row- specifically, from my student Jeanne* who appears to be feeling the strain, but is not freaking out. I'm pleased because she's quite studious and doesn't need to freak out. This is in stark contrast to Margaret over yonder, who is plenty bright but, apparently, refuses to study or attend class. Obviously, this calls her brightness into question, I know.

This is always an interesting time for me and my students. On the one hand, tests are usually times when I can get random things accomplished that don't require my full attention- you know like blogging. This is somewhat relaxing for me. On the other hand, while my students generally seem to find me to be approachable and friendly, they often describe my tests as being less pleasant experiences. As a result, they get anxious and, seeing as how I can sense that, it makes me a little anxious too. I usually spend the class period half out of my mind with worry that I made it too easy, or too hard, or too complex, or too long, or even that it's littered with typos. So, really, testing is an ordeal for us all. For my students it begins days before the exam and finishes in class. For me, it begins during the exam and ends days later when I finish grading. And ironically, despite all of the conflict between instructors and students, we really do go through the same agony around test time.

I joke about undergrads from time to time... sometimes harshly... but the truth is, I really like my students. Guys, if any of you ever read this, please know that a lot of your instructors (including me) really like you. Some classes we may even love. We often sweat bullets watching you trying to answer questions and feel miserable when we see you answering the wrong thing.

Hang in there. We're on your side, even if it doesn't always seem like it.

* Names changed to protect the innocent.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I expect to see one of these in class any day now.

Yesterday Jeremy graced us with his thoughts on a t-shirt by Abercrombie & Fitch. These shirts have generated a certain amount of discussion and are, indeed, quite remarkable. So what are they? Well, I don't have a picture of them for you, but I do have a picture of a shirt with the same slogan.

Now, I could comment on a lot of things here. I could point out that this is demeaning to women but, hey, we all know that. I could observe that this is bizarre in that the woman wearing such a shirt is more or less participating in stereotyping herself, but we all know that too. I could even observe that they're a little funny- and they are- in a sad and frighteneing kind of way.

But, instead, I think I'll just engage in a small spot of turnabout:

It may not be the kind of sexual equity I was hoping for but, hey, it's a start.

Monday, October 16, 2006

And the winner is...

Last week in a post I asked a question, "What television drama has a name that would also serve as the name of a porn version?" This question was more than just a way for me to have some cheap laughs, or an invitation to audience participation. It was part of a contest, the prize for which is a post on the subject of the winner's choosing.

The response to this contest was, if not overwhelming, then highly amusing. And, as it happens, among the many fine entries, we have a winner! We also have a runner-up, which was so entertaining in my view to be deserving of particular recognition.

So who was our winner? Well, none other than "Another Sociologist," whose entry, "Grey's Anatomy," was dead on target. For those who aren't familiar, Grey's Anatomy is a drama on ABC that follows the adventures of one Dr. Meredith Grey and, in the process, makes Chicago Hope look like Will-fucking-Shakespeare. In any case, given that the major plot point at the moment appears to be a three way romance and dreams about threesomes, I think we've got a clear winner. Hell, for that matter, we could just adopt the existing title screen unchanged for the porn version. Now that's convenience! Congratulations, "Another Sociologist," I owe you a blog post! Since I know who you are, feel free to drop me an e-mail and place your request whenever you're ready.

As for the runner-up, the anonymous poster who suggested "The Unit" gets points for being unbelievably funny. Sorry, anonymous, you don't get the prize (and I couldn't really award it to you if you wanted me to, since it's hard to confirm anonymous posting) but if you want to guest post, I think that can be arranged as a sort of consolation prize.

And thanks to everyone who entered: you're sick and twisted and, for that, I love you all.*

And if all of that doesn't satisfy your daily need for procrastination, check out the Warbler's fine weekend post. It's provocative, it's about religion and politics, and it deserves a read.

* Okay, love is a strong word. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, "I hate you all dramatically less than I do most people."

Sunday, October 15, 2006


The Onion did an article back in 2004: “America’s Liberals Suffering from Outrage Fatigue. I remember laughing knowingly.

That was 2 freaking years ago, and if it was true then, well now we’re in an outrage coma. I can only remember the last 5 or so outrageous evil things that the administration has done against my will, or the media have done to numb our minds, or the “conservative” loudspeakers have said to poison or confuse us. How many black deeds have sprayed us with their blood and bile for a while and are now forgotten? Remember the Healthy Forest Initiative? Remember the looting of Iraqi museums? I’ve lost count. I wish I had started a list.

Like Pat Buchanan calling defrocked pedophilic Congressman Foley a “flamer” and explicitly equating those who marched in Boston’s gay pride parade (including Nancy Pelosi) with promoters of NAMBLA.

Like congress absolving Bush of legal responsibility for the laws he broke by authorizing torture.

Like knowing that at this very moment I am funding someone to beat the shit out of a brown person who may or may not know something and may or may not be guilty of something and who may or may not ever understand why him.

Like the people who want to “defend” marriage by preventing non-married couples from sharing health insurance. In Jesus’ name.

Like the mumblings that we’re mobilizing for a war with…Iran.

Like hearing that “the economy is doing well” just because gas prices are 20 cents lower now than 6 months ago or the stock market is up, given that the debt has more than doubled in the past 6 years. And I’m thinking that this bill will come due as soon as the Democrats take over.

Arrrgggghh! Sigh.

I don’t know what to do any more. Meditation? Quaaludes? Driving a fork through my skull with a bottle of Kahlua?

Do you think there will ever be a modicum of justice? Will any of these harms be undone? Will truth come out? Will we learn from this?

There’s a lot of blame to go around, but I’m coming to think the one of the biggest culprits may simply be religion. Now, I was never a religious person, myself, but I had always entertained the idea that religion helped society -- that it provided a moral grounding for the potentially amoral and pointed a way to a better world. I’m fairly sure that’s not true anymore, overall. I mean, I’m sure there are good religious people, but that’s really irrelevant to whether religion itself is good. Religion is more the problem than the solution, today. Am I wrong? Maybe it’s time we gave the whole thing up.

It’s religion that teaches people not to question things and that “faith” is good, thus allowing the liars to go on lying. Religion condemns people for how they live and love, and demonizes sexuality, but supports war and torture. It’s religion that denies science and global warming, letting the planet fry. It’s religion that sponsors “Jesus camps”. It’s religion that repeatedly subverts the power of women. It’s religion that spawned al Qaida’s terrorists. Allah akbar! And religion that spawned Bush’s ruling elite. Praise Jesus!

Maybe worse, religion lets good people think they are fulfilling their duties to be ‘good’ by doing entirely useless, even selfish things-- like praying, like being virginal, like spreading the word. (Will you at least pick up a freaking hammer?!?) It’s quite clear that God saves and destroys in ways entirely indistinguishable from random chance and unrelated to human desires, needs, wants, or hopes. Even if you believe in a great big invisible friend in the sky, for all intents and purposes, we’re on our own down here, to create or destroy, love or hate, kill or heal and deal with the outcome. It’s only self-absorption and myopia that can cause one see otherwise, and religion seems to promote that too.

For what it’s worth, I’m aware that not all religions or religious people hold themselves allies of Bush or are selfish judgmental pricks. But that doesn’t get them off the hook. It seems to me that the less commendable religious branches have kind of taken over. I keep hearing people condemning Muslims for not condemning the acts of their more fundamentalist brethren. “Where are the moderate imams?” people say “Why don’t they make their voices heard?” Well, where are the moderate ministers and pastors? I’ve barely heard a peep. Why aren’t they on TV explaining how Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson have distorted the real message of Jesus? Or are they, in fact, more interested in their own souls than in the fate of the planet.

Maybe I’m being unfair. There’s blame to go around, surely. I haven’t really done anything much either. I don’t even know what to do other than try to vote for a party that will hold some people accountable, even if it’s only a function of partisan payback. To be sure, there are a lot of churches that do many good deeds: soup kitchens, food drives, relief efforts, etc., but I’d hazard a guess that good people would find new institutions to accomplish these things if religion were left behind. I’d join one of those.

Challenge: Are any of you religioso as outraged as I am? What are you doing about it? How has your religion made an impact? Does religious good outweigh religious evil? Show me I’m wrong about religion and I’ll proselytize for your church in my next blog.

Friday, October 13, 2006

What's in a name?

Back in college I needed to work to earn some money and so, like many of my fellow students, I held down a part-time job. Now, I didn't have one of those jobs that you might expect of a young intellectual. I didn't take a job at a coffee shop, or a book store, or shelving texts in the library. No, I obtained "gainful" employment at my local Blockbuster Video.

Now, it's important to know a few things about this place. The main one is that Blockbuster is a fairly shitty employer. The regulations on employee behavior are extremely strict and, in many ways, almost impossible to adhere to. While there is a very nice free rental policy* the remaining store regulations make Stalin look like a hippie. That said, the next thing you need to know is that my manager** frankly barely cared about store rules and basically let us do whatever as long as customers were served and the work got done. Finally, you need to know that all blockbuster employees are disgruntled. I mean really disgruntled. We virtually came that way, actually, right out of the box. The reasons for this are pretty simple: in any given contact with a customer, the best you can hope for is that nothing goes wrong. If anything deviates from script, however, it will likely provoke an angry response from the customer. Some examples include:

"I don't have a late fee! That's wrong!"

"What do you mean I can't use this coupon that expired six months ago?!"

"Your late fees are absurd! Let me tell you something... [ten minute lecture on a corporate policy I have no control over]"

And so on. Oh, we had our ways of taking revenge. One thing that everyone should know is: do not argue with a videostore monkey when (a) it is a busy Saturday night with a packed store and (b) the argument has to do with the price of the softcore porn you're trying to rent. Trust me when I say this will not work out favorably for you.

In any case, since any deviation from the boring routine meant getting yelled at, all blockbuster employees very rapidly became exceedingly disgruntled. All that said, we still had an amount of fun, and one of our favorite games was trying to convert the names of real movies into their pornographic equivalents. Thus, the classic Goodwill Hunting becomes "Goodwill Humping," Saving Private Ryan becomes "Saving Ryan's Privates," and The Empire Strikes Back becomes "The Empire Strikes Crack."****

Now, some movies actually seemed to have titles that were already perfect for porn. One such film was Snatch.***** Another was the Nick Cage film 8mm, although I confess we didn't want to know what fetish that one would cater to. It is a case like this that inspires my blogging today. Recently I've had the opportunity to watch a television drama presently airing that has a title that is absolutely perfectly suited for use as a porn title. I mean it's just fabulous- you could use the exact same title for porn and it wouldn't seem out of the ordinary. This amused me so much, ex-videomonkey that I am, that I wanted to share it with all of y'all. However, it would be too easy just to tell you.

So, instead, I'm having a contest: guess what show I'm referring to. The person who gets it right is entitled to one free post by me on a subject of your choosing. I've done this before with reasonably good results, so your prize should be at least mildly entertaining. You have until Monday the 16th of October when I will reveal the answer.

Good luck, and have fun!

* If I recall correctly, you could rent three movies a week for free. You could not, however, use this for new releases unless the movies had arrived, but not been placed on the shelves.

** Which is to say, the guy who was manager when I was hired. He left partway through and our new manager was a man*** recently promoted to manager by corporate who, consequently, tried to enforce the rules more stringently. This proved rather challenging for him.

*** Actually, for those who are interested, the new male manager had previously been the female assistant manager of a different local store. My then-girlfriend had known him when he was a she. Nice guy.

**** Yes, we were very bored. Oh, so very, very bored.

***** Seriously, people, that is the last time I ever type "snatch" into google images. There is some scary shit on those there interwebs.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The reality on the ground.

We academics are sometimes scolded for being too abstract- too disconnected from the realities of life. This is a tendency that is, if anything, magnified by the nature of blogging. While blogging is certainly a way to connect with people outside of academia, it also divorces us entirely from material reality. On the internet, it is said, nobody can tell you're a dog. Likewise, on the internet, ideas are the main currency. Well, that and poorly spelled profanity.* Oh, and porn. In any case, we sometimes get so wrapped up in our ideas and principles that we can forget how things work out in reality.

Recently, I found that this tendency was usefully combatted by the one, the only, Plain(s)feminist whose blog is both fascinating, and far too infrequently updated. In any case, she recently brought two peculiar cases to my attention: a group of pro-lifers threating violence against pro-choice activists** and a woman who is blogging about trying to obtain legal emergency contraception. The second story is described in more detail at the disturbingly named coathangers at dawn and deserves a read. It's interesting both because emergency contraception turns out to be very difficult to obtain (particularly if you are unmarried and not a victim of rape) and because the verbal response of elements of the pro-life movement to this blogger are every bit as combative as the threats of violence described by the Plain(s)feminist. For example, please enjoy this selection of the comments our e.c. needing woman has received:

you dumb slut

you fucking retard

Ha ha, you're a dirty whore



Your life is fucking worthless you goddamn slut

Please kill yourself now bitch

I hope you feel good about murdering your kid whore

Indeed, delightful.

And if that isn't enough to keep you going for the day, there's an additional post where the Plain(s)feminist raises an interesting question: in all the debate over whether or not homosexuals should be permitted to marry*** we seem to have missed the central issue of why certain rights should only come with marriage in the first place. This is, indeed, a valid question. Why should we privilege a particular social institution instead of simply acknowledging that people should have the ability to visit loved ones and obtain health insurance regardless of marital status? Certainly, marriage should automatically confer a presumption of certain rights, like inheritance or child-custody, but there are many other benefits of marriage that could legitimately be spread a bit wider. Speaking as someone who is currently engaged**** I obviously view the institution of marriage at least reasonably favorably, but it doesn't diminish the act of marriage if many of the rights are given to the unmarried as well.

So, head on over and read for a bit. It'll be a nice break from the philosophizing that happens a lot on these blogs and, if you're lucky, you might even learn something!

Oh, and yes, this does mean that Plain(s)feminist is being added to he Blogroll. I would congratulate her on that, but I really doubt that being praised by me is a sign of any particular genius. I mean, seriously, have you read this blog? I'm an idiot.

* e.g. "Ha ha, u faggort!"

** "And Jesus did say, 'None may come to the father except through me, and if you try, I'll kick your motherfucking ass.'"

*** Permitted to marry other homosexuals, anyway. As the Plain(s)feminist rightly points out, they're marrying right now to obtain the benefits of marriage.

**** To a very charming woman I might add.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Nobel Prize mystery

With this week's announcement of the Nobel Prize in Economics, the U.S. has completed a sweep of all the science prizes. Four prizes went to six people, all six Americans by birth, working in America. The prizes were:

Medicine: Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, for discovering how to turn genes on and off using RNA
Physics: John Mather and George Smoot, for discovering the variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation
Chemistry: Roger Kornberg, for studying the basis of transcription (how RNA passes genetic information in cells)
Economics: Edmund Phelps, for reinterpreting the relationship between inflation and unemployment in macroeconomic policy

This completes the first American sweep of the science prizes since 1983. The Literature prize will be announced tomorrow at 7 A.M. Eastern time; the Peace prize will be announced on Friday at 5 A.M. Eastern time. You can follow the announcements live on

Congratulations to all the prize recipients. Congratulations also to U.S. science funding agencies (especially the National Science Foundation), which must be enjoying seeing the work they funded and the nation they work for receive so much global recognition.

The thing that bothers me is this, though: how is it that a nation that sweeps all four Nobel Prize categories can have a public that knows so little about science? Why do almost half of people claim not to believe in evolution (as if evolution were something to be believed in, rather than something to be discovered and understood)? Why do a great number of Americans not know that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth, and not by varying distances from the Sun?

Is American scientific knowledge and understanding really the province of a few highly trained specialists, and not reaching the majority of the population? That would be sad. It doesn't help that there are powerful institutions in religion, government, and industry that want people not to understand science, but that doesn't seem like a fully satisfying explanation. Any other ideas?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bleeding the beast.

Some folks in the audience may have heard of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the traditional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that, frankly, has more in common with the Taliban than with any of the major established religions of the U.S.* Particularly, many of you may have heard of the FLDS as a result of the recent arrest of their leader Warren Jeffs on charges of, among other things, having sexual relations with a minor. While notable in many respects, Jeffs is reputed to have as many as ninety wives despite that fact that polygamy is technically illegal in the United States. I say technically because Jeffs is not just the leader of the FLDS church, he's also the de facto dictator of Colorado City, Arizona, which is densely populated by members of the FLDS church. So, in Colorado City, the law is effectively what Jeffs says it is. As discussed in a book by Jon Krakauer, and in a recent movie, the FLDS of Colorado City engage in a rather fascinating practice they refer to as "bleeding the beast." This is a practice wherein FLDS members deliberately defraud the United States government by filing erroneous claims for public support, in the process imposing a significant burden on tax payers. Their reasoning is that, since the U.S. government is a heathen government, they are doing god's will. Doubtless the significant material benefits of this policy serve as an additional, if less public, inducement.

I'm sure that to many of you this policy is objectionable in the extreme. For a religious group to use the traditional protection afforded to religion in the U.S. to both flaunt the law and defraud the taxpayers is vile. That in so doing they perpetuate serious violence against women is appalling. Speaking as a southerner, I have to admit that there are times for negotiation and times to send in federal troops to put down a rebellion, but that's a discussion for another day. Today, we're discussing this nasty little bit about "bleeding the beast," and we can all be pleased that it's only lunatic fringe groups like the FLDS who are engaging in it.

But, then again, maybe we can't be quite so sure. An article recently appeared in the New York Times that discusses a little known result of the push for Faith-based initiatives: the ongoing trend for religious organization to be exempt from any government regulations whatsoever. Consider, if you will:

At any moment, state inspectors can step uninvited into one of the three child care centers that Ethel White runs in Auburn, Ala., to make sure they meet state requirements intended to ensure that the children are safe. There must be continuing training for the staff. Her nurseries must have two sinks, one exclusively for food preparation. All cabinets must have safety locks. Medications for the children must be kept under lock and key, and refrigerated.

The Rev. Ray Fuson of the Harvest Temple Church of God in Montgomery, Ala., does not have to worry about unannounced state inspections at the day care center his church runs. Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements, which were tightened after almost a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed day care centers in the state in two years.

The differences do not end there. As an employer, Ms. White must comply with the civil rights laws; if employees feel mistreated, they can take the center to court. Religious organizations, including Pastor Fuson’s, are protected by the courts from almost all lawsuits filed by their ministers or other religious staff members, no matter how unfairly those employees think they have been treated.

Indeed, exemptions that were meant to protect churches from discrimination and oppression are now being expanded, or reinterpreted, to protect churches from things like "health codes" and "safety standards." It is, as a result, perhaps not so surprising that Kent Hovind has fought simple zoning ordinances for so long. No, in truth, the only surprise is that local government has proven so strong in its determination to enforce the law. Sadly, failure to do so in the case of services like child care facilities is likely to prove less humorous, and more tragic:

Ms. White, whose licensed program, Auburn Daycare Centers, has become nationally accredited during her tenure, understands how demanding the state requirements are. Her centers in Auburn have to comply with them, down to the specific toys required for each age group.

As in many states, these regulations were a response to conditions that had put young lives at risk. In Alabama alone, almost a dozen children died in day care facilities in the two years before the state began upgrading its licensing requirements in 2000.

Ms. White said the root problem in Alabama is that there is not enough state aid for working families who need good day care. But given the state’s limited resources, she said, it seems unfair that subsidies are available to unlicensed centers as well as licensed ones — a view shared by the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama, which has lobbied for greater financing and universal licensing.

Some churches in Alabama have voluntarily obtained licenses. The Rev. Paul B. Koch Jr., of First Christian Church in Huntsville, whose day care center is licensed, thinks licensing for such programs is appropriate and raises the quality of care. “But the Christian Coalition is still strong in Alabama and this is an issue for them,” he said.

Perhaps as John Giles, President of the Alabama Christian Coaliation, says pastors and congregations are adequate "quality control," but I frankly doubt it. This is not least because we're seeing evidence that the consciences of religious professionals are insufficient:

In 1997, George Bush, who was the governor, pushed through legislation that exempted faith-based day care centers and addiction treatment programs from state licensing, allowing them to be monitored instead by private associations controlled by pastors, program directors and other private citizens. Other laws enacted on his watch steered more state financing to these “alternatively accredited” institutions.

Fewer than a dozen child care centers and about 130 addiction treatment programs took advantage of this new alternative, according to subsequent studies. But several of these later became the focus of state investigations into complaints of physical abuse. A study by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a nonprofit research organization that opposed the faith-based initiatives, found that “the rate of confirmed cases of abuse and neglect at alternatively accredited facilities in Texas is more than 10 times that of state-licensed facilities.”

In spring 2001, the Texas Legislature quietly allowed the alternative accreditation program for day care centers to lapse.

Indeed: quality control so nice, they had to put it on ice. Now, I'm annoyed at all this for the reasons that are probably obvious. I'm annoyed that the absence of regulation is putting people, particularly children, at risk. I'm annoyed that the myth that religious belief makes people morally superior is being codified into our laws. I'm annoyed that the wreckage produced by this debacle will have to be cleaned up eventually and, when it is, religious personalities will not hesitate to decry governmental intervention. But, mostly, I'm pissed because this is just another example of "bleeding the beast," and it's an example cloaked in the language of persecution:

In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide “war on religion” that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

Some of the exceptions have existed for much of the nation’s history, originally devised for Christian churches but expanded to other faiths as the nation has become more religiously diverse. But many have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized “earmarks” benefiting other special interests.

An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.


As religious activities expand far beyond weekly worship, that venerable tax break is expanding, too. In recent years, a church-run fitness center with a tanning bed and video arcade in Minnesota, a biblical theme park in Florida, a ministry’s 1,800-acre training retreat and conference center in Michigan, religious broadcasters’ transmission towers in Washington State, and housing for teachers at church-run schools in Alaska have all been granted tax breaks by local officials — or, when they balked, by the courts or state legislators.

These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services — police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens. The total cost nationwide is not known, because no one keeps track.

It's not just that religious organizations are free of regulations intended to protect the citizenry, it isn't even that they're free to run operations that compete with honest private business, it's that we as taxpayers have to support them as they do it. John Marshall argued that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and so I understand and support the exemption of religious organizations from federal taxes. I think it's reasonable to provide some protection against fiscal attack even if I, personally, have very little positive to say about religion itself. The protection of religion inherent in the U.S. constitution has likely been critical to the relatively low levels of religious violence the U.S. has experienced** and as such I am grateful for it. That said, however, there are limits to the reasonableness of such protections. Is it critical to the practice of Christianity that a church have a fitness center for members? Is it an unnecessary infringement on religious rights that childcare workers be required to have adequate training? Is it oppressive to demand that facilities reach some minimal level? I think not.

Moreover, if we consider the Marshall doctrine carefully, we see a darker side. If the power to tax is the power to destroy, then the expanding exemptions for religious organizations mean expanding taxes for non-religious organizations. How can a private company compete with a rival who is not only untaxed, but whose tax burded is shifted onto others? If John Marshall is right, then religious organizations are well on their way to taxing the non-religious into oblivion.

I think that the many different stains of religion present in the U.S. can get along with each other and with the more secular among us, but the only way that will happen is if all organizations play by the same rules. Right now, it's obvious that playing by the rules isn't the goal of many churches. I'm a fan of religious freedom, though, so that's okay. If you belong to a religious group that wants to hold meetings in unsafe buildings, to care for children with poorly trained individuals in inadequate facilities, and to subject addicts to barbarous and ineffective treatment, well, that's your choice.

But don't ask me to pay for it, and don't tell me I'm oppressing you if I don't.

* The Taliban comparison, just to be clear, refers to the FLDS. I have nothing in particular against mainline LDS, which is to say, no objections to it specifically that I don't have to virtually all organized religions. Yeah, I know: I'm so generous.

** Of course, I really mean sectarian violence here. We've had more religious violence than you can shake a stick at over the centuries, but relatively few religious wars. So far.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Congratulations North Korea!

The world is a dangerous place. There are hundreds of countries, every one of which has an army poised to attack your home! Maybe they're coming to "spread democracy," maybe they're coming to "liberate the people," maybe they're trying to acquire some "lebensraum," and maybe they're just "batshit crazy," but one thing is certain: they are coming.

As the leader of a sovereign nation, you have to find a way to safeguard your people or, failing that, preserve your mad rule. How? How can you accomplish such an objective when so many nations are more powerful than you are? How can you defend yourselves against superpowers, and earn respect on the international stage?

Friends: we have the answer. We here at Nukular Diplomacy, LLC., have developed a fool-proof* plan for protecting yourselves from the dreaded foreign devils. Just follow our simple 4 step program:

(1) Threaten to develop nuclear weapons.
(2) Begin researching nuclear weapons.
(3) Produce nuclear weapons.
(4) Threaten your neighbors with hot atomic death at the slightest provocation.

This winning strategy is already being employed by client North Korea, who is on the verge of recognition as a responsible world player for the simple reason that, with nuclear weapons, the international community doesn't have a fucking choice.

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I just read Warbler's post, though I guess Slag and I talked about it yesterday. He was saying how depressing it was that, yes, all of this is true. It reminds you of all that, of V for Vendetta and 1984, and for that matter, how many of these people Warbler talks about hijack the word "Orwellian".

There is nothing I have to add to the previous post other than this:

"our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have"
(Orwell, "Reflections on Ghandi")

This terrible thing that is happening to America, not strictly my country, belongs to us all; and in that sense the issue is universal.

So then what? Doesn't that mean something should be done? Surely something constructive can be done with all this anger? Anybody want to join their local Democrats? Or if you aren't into political action, or if like me, you feel that political involvement is not appropriate for you, then look at social jusice. If you are religious, then now is the time to stand out, and represent those who aren't conservatives, and who are active. Or maybe you want to look into more general social activities. It doesn't matter. I can give you plenty of tips.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

American idealism

Hi Drekkers. I should probably just introduce myself this week and make a few jokes, but there’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I wanted to hear your thoughts.

I’m a disillusioned American.

You’re probably aware that there has been some flap recently about U.S. treatment of foreign prisoners. There was an abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and the Red Cross report that suggested this was the norm rather than the exception. There is Gitmo, at which we’re holding hundreds of people captured in Afghanistan and Iraq indefinitely without trial and “interrogating” them. There is the attorney general’s memo suggesting the Geneva Conventions are “quaint”, and there is the public discussion about whether “water-boarding” and other such practices really amount to “torture”. And there was the president admitting that we have been keeping anonymous people in secret prisons around the world and responding “so what?” when asked about them. A horrifying and deflating list. At least to me.

Many of the people we’ve captured have apparently fallen into a legal interstitial black hole. They are not from any national army, and they are not American citizens. So they don’t come under U.S. criminal law and they don’t come under military law. Up until recently Bush found this confusion pretty advantageous: legal rights are pesky things. Most of them have ‘suspected links’ with terrorist organizations or insurgent groups, so why take any chances by letting them go? Also, Bush wanted to squeeze these guys, and there was no law that seemed to apply well enough to tell him he couldn’t do it. He took it upon himself not to allow these guys to have any of the cushy constitutional protections real Americans enjoy, like the right to a speedy trial, the right to be able to confront witnesses and have access to evidence that might demonstrate one’s innocence, basic procedural due process, or apparently the right to remain silent.

Enter a guy named Hamdan (reputedly Osama Bin Laden’s driver). After years of purgatorial incarceration, he actually got his case heard and filed a writ of habeus corpus: a challenge to his incarceration. Habeus corpus is the only means in our legal system a prisoner has to convince someone that he doesn’t actually belong there. Well, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court where the sane 5/9 of that body miraculously told the president he was not King -- that he could not strip people of rights simply by virtue of his war powers -- that he would need something from Congress called a “law.” ( Mr. Hamdan, for his part, was reportedly blown away that a guy like him could be so fairly treated in America.

Well, luckily for us he’ll be the last foreigner to have that experience -- Congress has leaped to the president’s rescue! Republicans proposed a new detainee law to clear a few things up:
--First, it declares that Bush and his government are not guilty of war crimes for their policies on “enemy combatants” up to now and in the future, no matter how bad they are. That was nice of Congress, wasn’t it?
--Second, it prohibits “enemy combatants” from ever using habeas corpus again. They got burned once - obviously that can’t be allowed. There are some similar procedures in military court that remain intact, though.
--Third, it creates a military court for “enemy combatants” that does pretty much exactly what the president wanted to do in the first place.
--Fourth, --- are you ready? -- it allows the president himself to determine who is and who isn’t an “enemy combatant”. Both citizens and noncitizens, here and abroad. Are YOU an enemy? Only the president knows.

I’m sure you can tell by my tone that I’m not in favor of these measures. Well, I was in the car last week and there was nothing on NPR I wanted to listen to, so I started scanning A.M. for some talk. I ran across a broadcast of Senator Patrick Leahy’s speech on the floor of the senate during debate over this detainee bill, and I was stirred by some of the rhetoric. He said things like

“This Administration, for all its talk of strength, has made us less safe, and its proposal before us today is one that smacks of weakness and fear. Its legislative demands reflect a cowering country that is succumbing to the threat of terrorism. I believe that we are better than that. I believe that we are stronger than that. I believe that we are fairer than that. I believe that America should be a leader in the fight for human rights and the rule of law.”

Statesmanship, I’m thinking. Well put. A principled statement concerning fundamental human rights and our national identity. No one can disagree with these sentiments.

Then the voice of the show’s host snickers in and says something like “See? I’m playing this because I want you to see how out of touch the liberals are. This is what they really believe! I’m not lying. This is what these guys actually think! I just wanted you to hear for yourself how much they hate America.”


I’m not exaggerating here. That’s almost word for word what he said. It turns out I was listening to one of the myriad local right wing spinslinger shows and this speech was being played as an example of what’s WRONG with the democrats and liberals. I am still profoundly distressed upon hearing this. I’ve been struggling to understand how this could be.

Now, we know “rights” are universally popular when used in the first person (“our rights”), but have always been somewhat suspect in the third person (“their rights”). This is doubly the case for people we don’t like. It’s certainly distasteful to champion the rights of neo-Nazis or accused wrongdoers, for example. But I always thought doing so was a fundamentally American thing. Has it honestly become Republican dicta that human rights are un-American?

I remember something my late Grandfather once said. He was reading a newspaper article about the arrests related to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and he was angry. Now, Grandpa lived in Bergen County, New Jersey. He could see the WTC from his kitchen window, and this had a visceral impact on him. He was not in my memory a violent person, though he was not a careful speaker either, but he said one of those knee jerk angry things you hear a lot: “they ought to shoot those people”. “Assuming they’re found guilty in court,” I added. I was angry too, and I didn’t feel motivated to argue against such a punishment, but I was concerned that we not leap to judgment. My Grandfather’s response surprised me, though: “they don’t deserve a trial!”

I found this tautology frustrating and a little bit frightening. How can we proclaim what they deserve until we have a trial to determine their guilt? More importantly, perhaps, how can we hand out Constitutional rights or withhold them based on a person’s perceived character? It’s only because we apply them to everyone that we can be sure they apply to us, right? Well, my Grandfather was too scared or angry to acknowledge this. Perhaps that’s what’s driving current Republican policy: fear and anger.

But, I’m beginning to think there’s more to it than emotion -- I mean, democrats are scared too. I’m wondering if those on the Right see America as a fundamentally different thing than I do, and I wonder how long it’s been so. The Right, I am coming to realize, lives in an ‘America’ of dirt and water and with few ideals grander than self-preservation. Sure, they wave the flag and they talk about American pride, but what do they think ‘America’ is, in the end? It’s the ground we live on, the people we know, the history we learn. Love it or leave it, they say. And that to me is sad.

Despite the constant self-congratulatory rhetoric (You are the heroes!), America and its people are largely unexceptional. Our land is lovely and varied, but so are many other lands. There’s really nothing innately right about the people here, either - there is no prized attribute we have that other peoples elsewhere lack. In fact, we are largely thick-headed, self-obsessed, gluttonous, and frivolous. We have not shown ourselves to be either more good, more smart or more brave: everybody in the world is communal in the face of tragedy; everybody meets and tackles adversity in ingenious ways; everybody wants a better life. We have had more success and wealth than most, but if that is so, it is not because of us.

And that’s where I think the Right and I part ways. My America is not made of mud and rocks, or even individuals, it’s an experimental flight of ideals. America is the first country formed on the principle that a government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. Whereas other nations were inseparable from their ethnic makeup and their historical boundaries and rulers, my nation is essentially state of mind - a set of principles that we adhere to: ideas of equal rights and equal opportunity and democratic authority. We are America in a sense to the extent we succeed in bringing such ideals to be.

Needless to say, the fundamental expression of this American gamble is the Constitution, and especially its Bill of Rights: a list of limits on the power of the majority and its government to oppress the minority. The Constitution is a structural feature that has repeatedly prevented us from falling prey to those base instincts of xenophobia and selfishness and thus ceasing to become what our ideals demanded. Thus we deem these listed rights as especially American, though we did not invent them. We revel in our “freedoms” as guaranteed by this document. “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free,” says a popular, if oddly unambitious country song.

America holds a promise, as well. We are America to the extent we fulfill this promise. If the people are truly in charge, then the people can use their government and accomplish good. America has done an extraordinarily large share of this, and does so even now, though much of the rest of the world, too, has democratized. And we have at times worked to promote or support the freedoms we love as rights for people we don’t know around the world. In the minds of most Americans, we are righteous: when we fight, we fight for freedom or for justice, not oil, or dominance, or land.

Of course, this is not always true in reality. We have also selfishly been responsible for the pain and oppression of others. People have bullied and murdered in our name, and our armies have been used for greed as often as for good. But these acts of America are not American to me. One can love America and hate the acts of its government.

So maybe when this rightyradio yahoo and all the other “conservatives” say liberals like me and Sen. Leahy hate America, maybe they’re onto something, in their myopic, simplistic way. There is much about my country I do hate. I am offended by many of our government’s policies (though I am in favor of some); I am embarrassed by many of our national acts (though I am proud of others). I hate that we torture, bully, invade, and exploit others, which are by definition un-American acts. I hate the current government and some of the people who support it, who make my country into a parody of itself. But I don’t hate America. I hate that my country is becoming less and less like what America ought to be. What are we without our ideals? Just another hunk of land.

By the way... the law passed.

I wonder, at what point in the successive abandonment of our ideals do we say that the great American experiment is a failure and take our place among the other billiard balls in the Machiavellian billiard table? Would our president be sad to hear the news if we did?

Thanks for tuning in on Sunday. Thanks Drek. I promise I'll make the next one shorter.

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