Mar 26, 2008

America's Age of Unreason: When Matters of Faith Dominate the Social Discourse

Updated, 3/30/08, below

Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle!

When it comes to US politics, religion plays a big part, and, I guess, no one could be elected to a high office [well, maybe outside NYC, San Fransisco, etc] unless they profess their strong religiosity. Perhaps, it's not smart for me to start such a topic now, because this election should not be fought on who's a believer, i.e., who's on the side of the Christian God. Such a case would be a distraction at best. Seriously, unless the currency of understanding is reason & evidence, then not much can be discussed or minds changed.

Elections are not about educating the public on issues already decided in their minds. For, example, if you're convinced we're living in the end of times, with rapture around the corner, a political campaign isn't the appropriate time to talk you out of such a belief. Campaigns may inform on certain policy issues, but mainly they are a battle of ideas, of framing of the issues, and a candidate's personality & character. Rarely do they change any preconceived notions people have already formed based on an emotional decision.

I'm sure you know people who have an emotional reaction to an issue, thus forming an opinion, and then they look for any scraps of reason to support their view. The process of arriving at a decision is not important as much as how they feel about something. The scientific method & inquiry is the reverse of that. Here the process rules over the conclusions--which they follow based on evidence and reason. I'm in favor of such an approach to understanding the world around me, hence, my affinity for science & rational thinking.

However, there's a greater issue here about our national obsession with religion, and whether religious beliefs should guide our political actions. What happens in the US is actually the reverse than in most western European countries--where religion is mostly a private matter. Over there, atheists-agnostics actually are preferable to those who wear religion on their sleeves! Europeans think that an atheist/agnostic has no religious agenda to push and more likely to get on with the business at hand, for the state and the commonwealth. What a concept!

Often, many changes start slowly with a few voices, but it's important to stand up and be counted. I'm talking about maintaining a secular state here, not abolishing religion, but to stop the kind that wants to shove their brand down our throat. Yet, how can you deny that it is religion(s) that drive ignorance and
intolerance? No, not all religious people are like that, but their most extremist elements are in control overall. If nothing else, their rhetoric reveals their prejudice & ignorance. How much of the world's suffering today (and for most of human history) is not "reasoned" by, promoted by, and spread through religious dogma?...

In the US, several states have an anti-science stance today! Why is it so? Is it because the facts aren't available? Is it because science hasn't given us answers? Why is there such a dumbing down? Is truthiness (how we feel about issues) our best way to understand? I recommend Susan Jacoby's latest book, Age of American Unreason as necessary reading on this topic.

I'm talking about teaching our kids science--you know, those theories that are based on facts not wishful thinking or on any hypothesis not supported by reason or evidence!

One in three Americans considers themselves "born-again" Christian fundamentalist, many believing in eschatology (the world is coming to an end soon).... I don't know if you realize it, but when the majority of Americans believe that, for sure (or think it's a good probability), Jesus will return in their lifetimes it has an impact on our politics! When so many people believe the world is going to end with Armageddon, does it not influence what we plan for the future? Heck, we have to look ahead--what the next several generations of our children and their children will inherit from us. The environment, energy needs, human health, the conditions for sustainable living, etc., are all very important. And, the window of opportunity to avert disaster is closing.

In a free society everybody can say & belief whatever he wants. But, it is frustrating to see so much ignorance and prejudice in this 21st century. Perhaps we are still very primitive in our thinking and behavior. On many levels, humanity does not live in or experience the same universal age. The less we know (or want to know) the more conservative we are.... We tend to conserve ideas, beliefs, culture, behaviors--even if they're impractical or outright primitive--when we don't know how to deal with change, especially the rapid changes of modernity. The sense of identity an individual has is extremely important.... and, it's has a personal definition. The more secure and confident a person, the more likely to think about change!

So, maybe we have our answer to this: How come people don't leave their congregation when their religious leaders make incredible claims? Or, that God is so angry & vengeful that he destroys everything in order to punish sinners and several of his faithful alike? Why the Falwells, Robertsons, Dobsons, Hagees, and all the others who preach hate and stupidity still remain relevant in an advanced society like ours? Well, they're relevant because they have millions of blind followers behind them! Their coffers bulged from donations when they pronounced that God punished New Yorkers on 9-11, New Orleans with Katrina, etc, etc.... Absurd, yes, but it's normal that people hold contradictory ideas in their head.

You've heard already about the comments Obama's pastor made and the hoopla that ensued. What's the problem here? Rev. Wright didn't say anything remotely worse than what those bigots I mentioned above have been saying all along. [see sidebar on the Hagee endorsement of Sen. McCain and the latter's elation for such!] Obama handled the situation well enough. Here's a good article by linguist & activist George Lakoff on this. Here's Wright's comments: video

The problem is with those people who are so convinced that they know the mind of God--what he wants and stuff--and are ..hell-bent in killing others in his name! It's rather unsettling to me that the religious fanatics here have so much influence on public policy--in a very negative way.

America and those successful countries where humans have achieved liberty and a higher standard of living owe their success largely on the conditions and the socio-econo-political environment. The three "Tees" are necessary: Tolerance, Talent, and Technology. Now assuming these are good things to have and maintain, the question is, what are we doing about protecting and enhancing those conditions that made us great? Or, are we so weak to buckle when we face the various crises and give up those conditions that made us great?

Think of the present--what's going on in our country--and of the future, where we're headed, where our children will be. Then watch this video. Hopefully, if you haven't done already, you'll stand up and oppose ignorance and intolerance!

UPDATE, 3/30/08

If there was a choice between Xenu, or those who support sacrificing young virgins to the sun god, and Sen. McCain, I'd choose the latter. But, to my relief, there are much better choices this year. Of course, this election is about the direction of the country. I'm a progressive liberal, and my the choices I make reflect what's pragmatic and what party, or politician comes closer to my beliefs.

Pragmatism, scientific approach (instead of voodoo), are some of the qualities I'm looking for in a US president. I understand that before someone wins the nomination and even the general election they have to say things they don't believe, especially in the case of religion. But, what do you make of the following?

* McCain supports Bush's policy: preach abstinence only; no other methods of contraception and/or counseling. [NYT, March 16, 08]. He takes advise from Dr. Coburn--the Rep. Senator from OK--who advocates the death penalty for women and doctors involved in any abortion under any circumstances! And, thus, McCain supports the stupid policies that don't work regarding sexually-transmitted diseases. Like saying in Africa, AIDS is bad, but condoms are worse!

* McCain is happy to have the endorsement and support of Rev. Hagee. [check this video]

* McCain wants to take America back to the 16th century. [Is this video evidence of his major flip-flop?]

Mar 17, 2008

A Sad Anniversary for a Costly War That Has Made us Poorer & Less Safe

From "Mission Accomplished" to Mission Impossible. Deception meets incompetence: A deadly combination!

It has already lasted longer than World War 2, five years today and counting. This week in 2003, president Bush gave an ultimatum to Saddam and promptly invaded Iraq. By doing so, he misused the opportunity of the century to unite the world against terrorism after 9-11, and make the US a leader and a defender of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights! Mr. Bush made the US & the world less safe; he gave more power to the extremists in the Middle East, and surrendered the moral high ground.

We've lost at least 4,000 soldiers according to the official count, but this includes only the combat deaths in the battlefield. Those killed in accidents, diseases, suicides, or died in hospitals weeks later, are not part of this count. We also have at least 30,000 injured, many so severely that they'll always be dependent on others & long-term medical care. Of course, the numbers climb to hundreds of thousands if we include non-Americans! [do they count?...]

The monetary cost estimates vary. The Iraq War Counter here shows the actual expenditures so far. It does not include long-term health care for the 30,000 plus injured veterans, or the interest on the borrowed money [you knew we didn't have the money for this war, didn't ya?], or the wear/tear/replacement of military equipment, or the Pentagon's annual budget of $500 billion, and the $500,000 paid to the families of those killed in action. It doesn't include the indirect taxes & costs Americans are paying because of the skyrocketing of the price of oil.

The estimated cost per month in 2008 is $12.5 billion. Don't listen to those
neocons that say this money is pumped back to our economy. Yes, it's our government doing the spending [talking about welfare for big corporations, some of which don't pay any taxes], but it's about priorities for the stuff we need--spending to benefit the commonwealth! As an example, for the projected costs in 2009, this money is enough [more than enough if we actually reform the health care system] to pay for the health care of 41 million Americans!

Or, New Yorkers will be responsible for $12.5 billion [not including the future costs as described above] in 2009. With this money we could do some of the following:

  • 2,306,150 People with Health Care, or
  • 2,040,679 Scholarships for University Students, or
  • New Elementary Schools, or
  • 4,369,925 Children with Health Care, or
  • 144,842 Elementary School Teachers
Since the beginning up to 2007, New Yorkers' share of the cost is $41 billion. For that money [not including long-term costs as described above], we could have done some of the following:

  • 7,545,445 People with Health Care, or
  • 2,153 New Elementary Schools, or
  • 14,297,868 Children with Health Care, or
  • 2,153 New Elementary Schools, or
  • 6,676,857 Scholarships for University Students
When you go to vote this November don't forget those who supported the war and still maintain a stupid attitude of "stay the course!" Just as a reminder, this is what they told us, and they haven't yet apologized!

When our country must sacrifice, our leaders should do their best to see that this burden is widely shared not based on the shoulders of the least privileged, nor should war be one of choice and an opportunity for a transfer of wealth. Patriotism shouldn't be defined by long & hyperbolic speeches but rather by doing what's best for the commonwealth.

Patriotism is standing up for the truth, and questioning our government. Patriotism is to defend those conditions and civil liberties that have made our country great--not by becoming more like our enemies! Patriotism is to go to war on a necessity (not on a choice based on deception & lies) and when doing so to give our soldiers what they need to accomplish their mission!

Lastly, we have to be honest among those of us who oppose the Iraq war. We are against it because it was a very bad mistake from the beginning, not just because this administration is criminally incompetent. The disaster that ensued is obviously another important reason to end this war, but unless we look ourselves in the mirror and examine the causes that led us into this incredibly costly expedition, we will repeat such a horrible mistake again.

Please visit the following links for a better perspective on the war

Iraq Memorial on line ( Family testimonies on the human costs of the war.

The architects of the War--Where are they now? Good question..

Faces of the Fallen. See our dead soldiers' faces, names and brief bios.

Mar 16, 2008

A Story of Bears, Bulls, and BS. Or, How the System Really Works.

It's Spring break, but I'm already planning my next week's classes! See what some free time does to me... (looking for trouble). It's fun, coming up with stories and exam questions..

Class exam: Analyze the concept: socializing the risk and privatizing the profit. Include examples. You should also reference the ideological framework as to the role of the state (gov) in a modern capitalist system. Does the marketplace need the government to operate, or does the latter function as an impediment to the former?

Now, the following is a story I just made up but will use in class to ease the students back into rigorous learning, and, of course, to ..indoctrinate them.

Once upon a time, there was a small club of friends who dined and played (golf, bridge, etc) together no matter what happened in the world. They were considered wise men by their peers, and had advised other people to be aggressive in their investments--normally with other people's money!

They all made millions in salaries & bonuses, because they deserved it--and because a small group of their peers agreed that those who move lots of money around have lots of stress. Money always shows how much a person is appreciated was the dictum.

There are certain story tellers who convinced the majority of the village people that welfare--often called, the social safety net--for the working & indigent classes is a very bad thing. They also said that the government is a necessary evil and that, for our sake, it should be so small as to be drowned in a bathtub... Private companies, usually after huge over runs of the original estimate, would provide the bathtub and the taxpayers would gladly buy it.

On the other hand, assisting the hard-working and money-making businesses (ie, corporate welfare) was is a good thing they told us. The preferred to be mum, retreating in the quiet of the backrooms as they made their deals. After all, who needs all those statistics, numbers (oh, the horrors of ..math), and the legaleze--all very boring. Who could argue against this: American companies are patriotic and would never deliver inferior products, waste taxpayers money, put any American in danger, and charge us higher prices through no-bid contracts. The free market would never allow that, would it?

Those who have more money, wealth and power got even more money & legal benefits since apparently they deserve it. They owed their success to their own efforts alone, something like pulling their own bootstraps. Of course, they needed bigger tax breaks too! They had more expenses you know!... End of this little story.

So to better understand all this, I brushed up on Adam Smith recently. I had to discuss his ideas in class too--Moral Sentiment, and Wealth of Nations. I understand that profit is the engine of capitalism. Smith said something about competition and how it's good for the marketplace, but measures had to be taken to prevent predatory markets and companies. Ah, well. I'm sure the modern capitalists and those in power know that.

I also read, Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston, and watched him on Bill Moyers Journal. [here's a clip on YouTube]. I suggest you check those short videos. Very informative. Anyway, I'm wondering why we those who demonize the (our) governmnet often turn to it for help & salvation when they screw up?

Do you have an answer?

Mar 11, 2008

The Sordid Story of Governor Elliot Spitzer: Being a Moral Crusader Can be Hazardous...(to the public and to themselves)

Clean shaven but not as clean as he presented himself in the past. The governor saying he was sorry for being untrustworthy [3/11/08].

When political leaders we support make serious mistakes, we have to ask for accountability. I supported Eliot Spitzer for governor of New York. He was a progressive and much, much better than the alternatives presented to us--when he ran as state Attorney General and later for governor. But, he betrayed the public trust by putting himself into a compromising position. He exposed himself to what he had previously described as "organized crime," money launderers, and human traffickers who could--who knows--demand special favors from him.

He also may have broken the law by using campaign funds to pay for sex. The so-called Mann Act [a century-old law regarding ..transporting women for immoral purposes; this was before women got the right to vote] could be invoked in this case against him. His moral failure and his betrayal of his wife is something he has to deal with in private, and it shouldn't be of public concern, except that it affects all of us. I understand human frailties, but when you ask for the public to entrust you with lots of power, you have an added responsibility to be clean.

People enter in all sorts of private arrangements and relations with spouces and friends. I'm not judging that and I don't really care about it. But, Mr. Spitzer also happens to be my governor, an elected public official who should be an example of a good public servant. He has failed on this account. We don't deserve this. His private actions were utterly reckless for a chief executive of a great state.

Yet again, I'm always rather suspicious with anyone who self-describes himself as a moral crusader. It bothers me when they want to appear as "holier than thou." Often they have something to hide as well. It was just a short time ago when Spitzer was going after prostitution rings and part of his rhetoric was how women were being exploited by their bosses and rich customers! How ironic.

It shows great arrogance to be on a public crusade while he was privately violating the very ideals, principles,and possibly laws, he was promoting in public! It takes a big hypocrite to do that.

If I believed in divine justice, I'd say he had this coming, but it serves him right to fall on his own sword. When a politician (or any leader) is telling us a story, he better have his facts straight and that he's not hiding anything in the closet.

You can take this as a free political advice. If you're trying to tell a story of how ethical or moral person you are, make sure you are indeed! Otherwise, campaign on competency, the "economy, stupid," charisma, vision for the future, etc. Don't carry the Bible in public while partying with the devil in private! The devil leaks the story, eventually...

Mar 5, 2008

Reading the Political Tea Leaves and Seeing Good News!

Just a few things to clarify following the results from Texas, Ohio, R. Island, and Vermont.

  • The Democratic contest goes on and this is good for the eventual nominee. It gives him/her the opportunity to set the agenda on the issues and get more public exposure. They learn to fight tough (something they'll need against the Repubs in the Fall), and they get more time to be vetted of issues now that by the time the general election comes around "it's old news."

  • The dreaded phone call in the middle of the night could be coming from Bill Clinton calling. Yeap, definitely you need the right person on the other end of the phone line. I suppose part of the advertised experience was hanging around the phone to ring as the First Lady.

  • Reminder to Sen. Clinton: A Democrat won those big & important states you're talking about. Your supporters, (and Democrats of all stripes for that matter), will support the eventual Democratic nominee. You'll endorse him and campaign with/for him, right? Democrats have come out in greater numbers than the Republicans even in the so-called red states. That's good news, no? And, it's Obama who brings greater numbers of newcomers & crossovers. In Texas for example, the Democratic primary voters yesterday exceeded John Kerry's total vote in that state in 2004!

  • Both Obama and Clinton beat McCain in national polls. Obama does better though. This lead can be solidified unless the Dems make it ugly and manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

  • The spilled blood will fade by November. I'm counting on the short memory span and the lack of serious attention by most Americans right now, so unless someone is sent to the hospital, all the bruises will be healed by Nov. 4th.
Guess who's arguing for a third Bush term?

I and others have been crunching the numbers and it seems that Sen. Clinton will not be able to catch up to Sen. Obama's delegate count, even if Michigan and Florida get a re-do. This is because, unlike the Repubs (winner-take-all system), the Dems have a more proportional system, so Clinton will have to be scorring 70% or better in the remaining contests to rise to the top. Obama will win several remaining states and he only needs to keep it close in the ones he'll lose.

Now, the super-delegates will play an important role, but I can hardly see them voting as a block to overturn the elected delegates' verdict. The worst-case scenario would be a repeat of the 1980 Dem convention and the ugly fight between Carter & Kennedy. Unfortunately, both contenders won't give up their fight if they believe they're a few delegates short of winning the nomination. But, I don't see this happening.

Finally, I think it's the Repubs that have the bigger problem. They're not unified and they're not excited about their nominee and their prospects in the general. The vast majority of the Dems (especially outside the small groups of the party activists) like both remaining candidates, and will coalesce behind the nominee. After all, there's a much bigger price out there and they're hungry for it!