Dec 30, 2014

NYC Police Must Be Held to the Highest Professional Standards and Proper Decorum. Mayor de Blasio Must Take Control of this Vital Agency

A police officer who wears the uniform, employed and paid by the people has to be professional at all times, especially when present at official events. Many police have been turning their back to mayor Bill de Blasio, as they did when he visited the hospital where killed officer Ramos had been taken and later during his funeral. This behavior is totally unacceptable, unless you're a hot-headed officer who wants to play politics at a bad time and show disrespect to the whole community.

I'd go as far as to say that the police officers who engage in such behavior are not earning any respect; they're squandering the support of many in our community that they're sworn to protect. Oh, yes, it is their job to protect us without violating our civil liberties! If they don't like it, they should find another job. We should expel those few of their members who exhibit thuggish behavior, who do not want to be held to the highest professional standards--especially because we entrust them to use lethal force if necessary. They should do the job they're hired for not the job they might like. Of course, they perform duties that occasionally (or for a few, frequently, depending on their particular position in the force) puts them in harm's way. On the other hand, being a police officer isn't one of the most dangerous jobs, by far! They also get generous benefits, and retire earlier.

Of course, the killing of the two patrolmen, execution style, by a deranged individual is a very tragic incident. It doesn't represent the people who've been protesting police practices that result in death. Many may have participated in those protests, holding signs saying that, people's lives matter, no matter the color of their skins. And we expect the police to protect us, including when we protest--which is what the right of free speech is. We can hold the police in great regard but also criticize the wrong-doings. These two aren't mutually exclusive as the police union seems to think.

Mayor de Blasio acknowledged the right of the community to protest, that black lives matter, and that, in the past, he had a talk with his teenager, bi-racial son (who spots a big afro) to be smart about a possible contact with police. Isn't the latter a reality? That black men have been treated differently than other groups? So, acknowledging the obvious doesn't make the mayor out of line or disrespectful.

The police union portrays the officers are victims. They are not. They are employees in a democratic society that have to respect the law, and exhibit professional decorum. I think the mayor has to start taking names and show the police union who is the boss under our system of laws and elections. Outside their uniform, off duty, every police officer can turn their back to the mayor, protest, etc. But, they should not be allowed to be unprofessional from now on.  I also think that they have to be reminded the chain of command. They know how to follow orders and follow procedure. It's a language they understand and, if the mayor doesn't act soon, he'll lose control of the situation and of a vital agency of the city.


Dec 24, 2014

Happy Holidays 2014! Because Everybody Needs Good Cheers, Love, and Camaraderie!

The weather is dreary in the northeast this xmas. No white xmas. Actually I enjoy this season, but not for its commercial and religious aspects. The worst, for me, is the frantic shopping--which I don't do but can't escape the mobs. The other is the very annoying xmas music, everywhere all the time. Seriously, folks, how many times do you need to hear the same songs? Do you need them to get into the spirit of the holidays? Really? Oh, maybe this is the besieged fighting the war against xmas.

You know, xmas is based on pagan traditions, like Saturnalia, celebrations of the winter solstice, decorating trees, exchanging gifts, superstitions, miracles and what-have-you. It was the xtian church's attempt to insert its influence during this time, not because Christ was born in December--he was not. By the 17th century, the religious celebrations in December were dead. During the Victorian era, and later in the new colonies in America, a few people plus commercial interests brought xmas back. 

In the US, Washington Irving made up lots of stories about Pilgrims and other Europeans celebrating "traditions" during this time. Irving's satirical The Knickerbocker History was a made up story about the people in "new Amsterdam" (New York), but people took it as old history. Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol added to the aura. Nostalgia, search for new themes with the rapidly changing society due to industrialization. Queen Victoria brought the decorated holiday tree into people's houses and to the English-speaking world; German-speaking people and Scandinavians already had this tradition that dated back to pagan Rome! There were some who didn't like this new trend: The Puritans, first in Britain and then in New England outlawed xmas. This of course is in line with the xtian view that you don't celebrate birthdays but instead the day you die, since this is the moment you join God in heaven. All the saints are celebrated on the day of their death! St Nicholas died on Dec. 6th, by the way.

Now, how about this St. Nick? This guy must have been awesome, performing miracles like Jesus--raising the dead, walking on water (easy part), fixed the weather, brought peace on earth, and gave gifts to nice children who sat on his lap. The new and improved Santa (Claws) looks much different than the original model, but, hey, Sinta Claus and his "other half" Krampus aren't as jolly as our fat Santa.

I'm all for having fun, take time to spend time with friends and relatives, be extra nice to those around us, and live life every moment while creating meaningful memories. This is the meaning of the winter holidays for me.  I can't celebrate the birth of a deity who designed a flawed product, created and still allows so much misery and suffering. No decent deity, no benevolent father would offer such a horrible deal.

Dec 17, 2014

Ignorance Usually is not a Good Defense, Unless You're a Conservative (i.e., Jeb Bush) Running for Office and Appealing to Idiocy

"I'm not a scientist," it's the excuse many politicians use to avoid answering controversial questions, like climate change, evolution, age of earth, etc. Of course, most of us aren't scientists, but use the products of science every day. And, most of us are alive, because of science. We doubled human life expectancy in the last 100 years, cured diseases, reduced infant mortality (and mothers' mortality at childbirth), went to the moon, understand a lot more about the universe, and we made our lives more comfortable because of science. So, science works.

What works actually it's the method of discovery, acquisition of knowledge, forming and amending scientific theories, and seeking the facts and the truth. Unfortunately, many Americans don't really understand what the scientific method is. There are several reasons for this. One is the strong influence of religion, which is much higher here than in other advanced countries. In addition religion has been meddling in education. Another reason is the failure of schools to teach what science and the scientific method is.

Education has to be knowledge, but what kind of knowledge? Memorization & repetition without understanding isn't the goal. Education, like science, should be a tool for knowledge. In this sense, it's more important how you thing than what you think about.

We may not be scientists but we must understand what science is and what it does. Democracy depends on the people's understanding of issues, engagement, and prudence. It's obvious that the quality of a system depends on the quality of the people involved. Ignorance doesn't serve the good political life--nor life in general.

"I'm not a scientist"

It's tiresome, to say the least, that leaders use this lame line. They are either ignorant or lying or both. If they're ignorant, they should recuse themselves from making public policy on issues they don't understand. They should stop promoting idiocy like, there's got to be two sides to the story, or teach the controversy, or there's no unanimity... Please, stop this nonsense. As leaders they should try to elevate public discourse by speaking carefully about science, the facts, and reality than by appealing the lowest common denominator.

Here's an ignorant person, a former governor of Florida and a member of the Bush clan, who is seriously exploring running for president of the U.S.


 Let the circus of the Republican/conservatives/tea partiers running for president begin. It'd be hilarious if it didn't have serious implications on our public discourse.

Dec 10, 2014

The System of Checks & Balances Failed Because Government Enablers Allowed the CIA (and not only) to Torture, Violate US & International Law

Update, 12/22/14: This excellent NYT editorial, "Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses" finds me in total agreement.
I just read that royalty watchers were stunned by a basketball star's touching her royal highness, the breeder of a future king of Britain. Horrors. What's next? Pitchforks, tar and feathers? Frankly, I don't understand why there's so much media coverage for such a banal scripted activities of some of the most boring people on this planet. Anyway, I guess people need a circus show.

Meanwhile, the US Senate released a report about the CIA's torture practices. Yeah, pretty bad stuff. Torture is illegal and--I know I'm trending into controversial territory--immoral. No matter how it's labeled--like "enhanced interrogation--it's barbaric, unworthy of a society that wants to claim it abides by the rules of law, international treaties it has signed, and a champion of human rights.

What's interesting, and buried in the report, is that torture did not produce actionable information. Of course, many of our own experts had said that many times in the past. The torturers copied the brutality of some of our enemies. I imagine that if we watched a movie of Americans being treated the same way by some foreign language speaking torturers, we'd be calling for the annihilation of those savages and their organizations or countries.

From the Think Progress site, here are 17 facts in the Senate's report on torture. By the way, this is just about the CIA. There were other US agencies, including the military, that used torture. Remember Abu Graib prison in Baghdad?  

Below are just some of the most damning findings from the Committee’s report:
1. Torture did not lead the CIA to the courier who ultimately helped capture Osama bin Laden.
“The most accurate information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti — facilitator whose identification and tracking led to the identification of UBL’s compound and the operation that resulted in UBL’s death — “obtained from a CIA detainee was provided by a CIA detainee who had not yet been subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques; and CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques withheld and fabricated information about Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.” [Page 379]
2. CIA personnel objected to torture techniques, but were “instructed” by the CIA headquarters to continue.
“The non-stop use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was disturbing to CIA personnel at DETENTION SITE GREEN. These CIA personnel objected to the continued use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques against Abu Zubaydah, but were instructed by CIA Headquarters to continue using the techniques…”Several on the team profoundly affected.. .some to the point of tears and choking up. [Page 473]
3. The two psychologists who helped the CIA create the torture techniques earned over $81 million.
“In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.” [Page 11]
4. Colin Powell was not briefed on CIA interrogation methods because he would “blow his stack”.
“At the direction of the White House, the secretaries of state and defense – both principals on the National Security Council – were not briefed on program specifics until September 2003. An internal CIA email from July 2003 noted that “… the WH [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.” Deputy Secretary of State Armitage complained that he and Secretary Powell were “cut out” of the National Security Council coordination process.” [Page 7]
5. The CIA used rectal feeding on detainees.
“At least five CIA detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. …Majid Khan’s “lunch tray” consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins was “pureed” and rectally infused. [Page 4]
6. CIA leadership refused to punish an officer who killed a detainee during torture session.
“On two occasions in which the CIA inspector general identified wrongdoing, accountability recommendations were overruled by senior CIA leadership. In one instance, involving the death of a CIA detainee at COBALT, CIA Headquarters decided not to take disciplinary action against an officer involved because, at the time, CIA… In another instance related to a wrongful detention, no action was taken against a CIA officer because, “[t]he Director strongly believes that mistakes should be expected in a business filled with uncertainty,” and “the Director believes the scale tips decisively in favor of accepting mistakes that over connect the dots against those that under connect them.” In neither case was administrative action taken against CIA management personnel.” [Page 14]
7. The CIA tortured innocent people.
“Of the 119 known detainees that were in CIA custody during the life of the program, at least 26 were wrongfully held. Detainees often remained in custody for months after the CIA determined they should not have been detained….Other KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] fabrications led the CIA to capture and detain suspected terrorists who were later found to be innocent.” [Page 485]
8. The CIA held an “intellectually challenged man” to use as leverage against his family.
“[A]n “intellectually challenged” man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” [Page 12]
9. The CIA intentionally mislead the media to “shape public opinion.”
“The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and senior CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program to select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA’s detention and interrogation authorities and budget.” [Page 8]
10. CIA officers threatened to kill and rape detainees’ mothers.
“CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee's] mother’s throat.” [Page 4]
11. The CIA dismissed information that wasn’t obtained through torture, even though it proved to be true.
“KSM’s reporting during his first day in CIA custody included an accurate description of a Pakistani/British operative, which was dismissed as having been provided during the initial “‘throwaway’ stage” of information collection when the CIA believed detainees provided false or worthless information.’” [Page 82]
12. CIA torture techniques included mock burials and use of insects.
“(1) the attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap, (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) waterboard, (10) use of diapers, (11) use of insects, and (12) mock burial.” [Page 32]
13. Some interrogators had previously admitted to sexual assault.
“The Committee reviewed CIA records related to several CIA officers and contractors involved in the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, most of whom conducted interrogations. The Committee identified a number of personnel whose backgrounds include notable derogatory information calling into question their eligibility for employment, their access to classified information, and their participation in CIA interrogation activities. In nearly all cases, the derogatory information was known to the CIA prior to the assignment of the CIA officers to the Detention and Interrogation Program. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.” [Page 59]
14. One interrogator played Russian roulette.
“Among other abuses…had engaged in ‘Russian Roulette’ with a detainee.” [Page 424]
15. The CIA tortured its own informants by accident.
“In the spring of 2004, after two detainees were transferred to CIA custody, CIA interrogators proposed, and CIA Headquarters approved, using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on one of the two detainees because it might cause the detainee to provide information that could identify inconsistencies in the other detainee’s story. After both detainees had spent approximately 24 hours shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, CIA Headquarters confirmed that the detainees were former CIA sources. The two detainees had tried to contact the CIA on multiple occasions prior to their detention to inform the CIA of their activities and provide intelligence. [Page 133]
16. The CIA tortured detainees in a dungeon.
“Conditions at CIA detention sites were poor, and were especially bleak early in the program. CIA detainees at the COBALT detention facility were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste. Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee. The chief of interrogations described COBALT as a “dungeon.” Another seniorCIA officer stated that COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique.” [Page 4]
17. The CIA spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the torture program.
“CIA records indicate that the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program cost well over $300 million in non-personnel costs. This included funding for the CIA to construct and maintain detention facilities, including two facilities costing nearly $X million that were never used, in part due to host country political concerns. To encourage governments to clandestinely host CIA detention sites, or to increase support for existing sites, the CIA provided millions of dollars in cash payments to foreign government officials.” [Page 16]

Nov 9, 2014

Republicans Won Big. They Do When People Don't Vote!

Now that the dust has settled, we're looking at a bright couple of years of Republican leadership in Congress. Finally most of the gridlock will dissolve, because the Democrats must compromise now--as the American people demanded through this election. We may be witnessing a new conservative wave, a take-back-America from the clutches of the libruls. Sure.

Well, fear and anger won over hope and change. Most of the people who voted don't understand how our government works--or why it doesn't. The obstructionists were rewarded, because the president did not appear to deliver. The Democrats were in retreat; they didn't want to own even the good things, like improved economy (especially considering where it has been), and millions of citizens got health care coverage while medical costs are going down over all. If you don't own or explain the good things you've done, then the voters will not choose you because you claim your opponents are worse!

Republicans Win When People Don't Vote

It's very interesting to see where the votes came from. When fewer people vote, the GOP has the advantage. No wonder why they try to make it harder to vote. The charge of "voter fraud" (despite their efforts to prove it) is without evidence. But, millions of American citizens are barred from voting, because they may not have the required identification. In Texas, the state college ID isn't good enough, though a gun license is!

Where Democratic governors and legislatures have made voting more accessible, greater numbers show up. In Oregon some 70% did, even in this midterm election, whereas about half of that number is the norm in the country. Ideally elections should fall either on a Sunday or make them a federal holiday. Open up early voting, and same-day registration on election day. There's no fraud of people voting when they're not supposed to, or for others. There's election fraud though when citizens are disenfranchised.

In the last presidential election, about 120 million voted. In this one, about 70-80 million did. This makes for a different composition of the electorate. White men, especially over 45, prefer the GOP by big margins. Women over all prefer the Dems. Hispanics and younger people also prefer the Dems, but they don't vote in big numbers, not in off-presidential elections. 

Unfortunately, many Americans are either alienated by the complicated and gridlocked system, and they don't see how an election like this one matters to their life. Several of my friends and relatives failed to vote; most of my college students didn't either. They weren't even paying attention. Up until a couple weeks before the elections, polls indicated that perhaps most Americans didn't even know there was an election whereas the whole 435 House of Congress and 1/3 of the Senate, plus governors, and local officials were on the ballot!

We have a double-think condition in which we can hold two contradictory ideas in our heads as equally valid. We brag to the world that we have the best democracy, free press, abundant freedom, etc. But, we also admit that the system is broken, or that is not responsive to the average citizen, or that the game is fixed favoring the rich & powerful, or that our vote doesn't really mean anything. 

Progressive Direction

Despite the giddiness of conservatives, the country is on a progressive path. Of course there are/will be some bumps along the way, but just remember what has been happening in the last 20 years. Indeed, even in this election, where more Republicans showed up to vote, lots of progressive ballot initiatives passed easily--like increase in minimum wage, actions favorable for the environment, abortion rights (against embryonic personhood), legalization of marijuana, etc. There are clear majorities for sensible immigration reform (includes legalization of undocumented with a path to citizenship), health care, gender rights, same-sex marriage, homosexuals in the military, and many other progressive views are now are mainstream. No, America isn't going back to the dark ages. There's no taking it back, especially given the views of the younger Americans--those under 45.

On the other hand, I'm going to enjoy the show as more crazies joined the ranks of the Congressional Republicans. The incoming majority leader, McConnell, will now squirm because those who he really dislikes are going to poop in his party--Ted Cruz, Mark Rubio, Rand Paul, Joni Ernst, and a few other gems. I'd advise the Dems not to filibuster and let the Republicans expose themselves for the extremists they are. Why, they should begin impeachment proceedings too.

Government has been broken because of Republican obstructionism. No compromise was good enough for them to like the Dems or this president. The latter didn't understand this. There's isn't much the two sides can agree on, so even with the Dems retaining the Senate nothing major would have come out in the "lame duck" years of Obama's term. One notable would have been to confirm more judicial nominees; now they have to wait until the next president takes office in January of 2017.

If I had a secret hope it'd be that president Obama feels liberated after this. He won't be running for reelection and since he was an unwelcomed guest at the Democratic campaigns, he could do the right thing and fight for progress, and show some gaddam leadership. But, lip service won't do.

Oct 27, 2014

Ten Years of Liberal Citizen Blogging

Ten years ago, I was working for the Kerry campaign in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the battleground state, and all the calculations came down to winning this state would mean winning the presidency for either candidate. We know what happened.... another 4 years of Dubya. I still feel the disappointment of the night of the election, being behind in the numbers game and by dawn it was all over.

Ten years ago, I started this blog, when blogging was in its infancy. Many of us back then blogged under a nickname--I was Andros. Many of those pioneers who continue today have kept their nickname--Atrios, Kos, Digby, etc. It's been quite a trip, I have to admit. Lately, I was remiss in posting, due to a variety of circumstances, but I do want to continue for as long as I have interest in politics.

I remember saying, back then, that there would be an escalating clash between modernity and conservatism, between science and religion, and I hoped that progress would prevail. In some ways we've progressed in this time frame. I wouldn't have imagined electing a black man president, or same-sex marriage, and health care reform all within in a decade.

Unfortunately, the Republican party has moved even further to the conservative side, catering to the tea party and other wingnuts, and the electorate is about to reward the GOP for its obstruction in Congress. It's really amazing that the Republican party platform on most major issues is so extreme and is not supported by the majority of the American people, yet the Repubs will most likely retain control of the House and probably capture the Senate as well.

If it weren't for the 6 year terms Senators are elected for, I'd say let the GOP control the whole Congress to see what more of a disaster they could bring us. The most important power the president may have--on everyday politics--is the power to convince. Leadership depends on style, not only ideas and academic discussions. We progressives voted for Obama twice, and we are very happy that he beat McCain and Romney. However, Mr. Obama has also been a huge disappointment, because of the lack of leadership. He is not a very engaged president. He's articulate but he isn't a hands-on leader.

Perhaps--not holding my breath--Obama will feel liberated after these midterm elections and really push for sensible policies in his last remaining two years. Why not? He's got nothing to lose except shrinking approval ratings. I hope he will not leave as a defeated, faded leader like his predecessor. There are lots of important issues he could focus on--like the environment/climate change, and immigration.

At any rate, politics is a reflection of a society and a means to get things done. The quality of politics, the quality of our democracy, our polity depends on the quality of the people involved. We'll keep watching, debating, keeping liberalism--our own American version--alive.

A big thank you to all the readers of this blog over the years. Some time ago, I disabled the comments section as too many trolls visited and I didn't have the time to edit, delete, or reply. I know that many blogs allow them as a way to keep higher traffic numbers; I'm not concerned about numbers these days, but I miss the discussion of the early days, so I'll enable the comments option again and see what happens.

Thank you for the company dear fellow liberal citizens.

Aug 20, 2014

Stop the Militarization of Law Enforcement and the Brutalization of our Society.

There's a saying, the treatment or medicine should not be worse than the disease. We don't have to go to extremes to find safety and establish a decent, pluralistic, open, democratic society. We don't need to carry guns everywhere to guard against someone who's armed with bad intent. We don't need to be locked up, or locked down to be secure. The safety of the solitary confinement is undesirable. 

America the home of the brave should not be a militarized zone. America the land of the free should allow free speech even if it's part of a demonstration. Yes, liberal democracy can be inconvenient at times. It's the price we pay for such. Same with free speech--you will be offended; you will be exposed to stuff you don't like, you don't agree with, or even to hate speech. But, there are huge advantages to a liberal society...

The following video contains graphic violence. The police shot dead a man who's apparently distraught. What makes it appalling is that the police first lied about what actually happened, and secondly they were very trigger happy. This is what I call very excessive violence that many police are prone to. This must change. We should not allow our society to be militarized and brutalized!

As far as the recent events whereas the police have shot or mistreated people that led to protests, there's a justified outrage. I want to believe that most police are decent human beings, but there are many who are just tools; many that need lots of training--in sensitivity and skills. These law enforcement tools need to be taught that their job is protecting the public, our institutions, people's liberties, and our civil rights. They're hired to do a job that does not include combat duty. They should be dressed for the job they have not the job they may want. What's up with the military camo outfits? This is not the jungle or the desert! This is not warfare. Isolate the violent elements and deal with them appropriately, like police do in any country that wants to be civil and democratic.

What's up with the tanks, mine-resistant vehicles, machine guns, snipers, and use of brutal often lethal force? It's abhorrent. I resent going to a block party, a county fair, 4th of July fireworks, and other public event only to be greeted by military police with all sorts of heavy equipment. Why small peaceful towns all over the country that have a few dozen police officers need SWAT teams and military equipment? The Homeland Security Dpt [by the way, what an awful name this is] was the creation of a hysterical nation, a belligerent neocon administration and a immature Congress. I doubt more than a handful of people actually read the Patriot Act which was voted and signed summarily into law.

When a person is being watched and loses a sense of privacy, he is changed; he does not behave as a free person. When people demonstrate and are treated like criminals by law enforcement, democracy suffers. When the whole society is militarized and brutalized civil liberties/rights wither.

I was asked by a reporter recently to comment on the events in St Luis. I reiterated the points I'm making here in this post, plus I added that many people don't seem to separate events. Robbing a store is a thuggish act, a criminal behavior, but as long as it's no life-threatening there is not need to use lethal force to a) protect or recover property and b) to stop the perp by killing them.  Apparently the idiotic leaders in MO thought that by releasing a video of a person stealing stuff from a convenience store makes it easier to pull the trigger! Watch the video above, from another recent incident, and tell me why the trigger-happy police had to kill that person.

I also don't approve of the looting. Undoubtedly there are some individuals who thrive in mayhem and exhibit unlawful if not violent behavior. Some find the opportunity to personally profit. But, I can understand the rage when confronted by military force or brutalized by the police. I've seen it and experienced it first hand during the Occupy movement. There's no shortage of tools, poorly trained, and/or psychologically unfit law enforcement that sadly are allowed to do what they want not what their job is. This has to stop now.


Aug 12, 2014

Religion Guides Conflict in the Middle East. Solutions are Better Achieved when Religion is Put Aside!

Why people take important actions or why they choose to believe certain myths is fascinating to me. Often it's not about evidence and reason, but it's about culture, purpose, and wishful thinking. If it were about reason and ascertainable facts, there would be lots more consensus on reality!

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague about the role of religion in the many conflicts in the Middle East. I argue that religious beliefs dictate to a great extent what's been happening there. This is not to say that there aren't other causes and factors, but if the participants were not religious, I bet they'd behave much differently. There wouldn't be a Jewish state or dreams of a caliphate or that God clearly has taken sides in the conflict and rewards his believers. 

More traditional societies are more affected by religion. Modern states, especially the ones that have adopted liberalism, have been increasingly separating church-state; not so the regimes in the Middle East, though Israel is the only state that has strong elements of a secular democracy. Unfortunately, the Israeli government caters too much to the conservative Orthodox, who are motivated by strong religious dogmas. But, the vast majority of Jews don't take their Bible too literally. Like most Xtians have already done so. It would be reprehensible, and immoral--according to our modern sensibilities--to act as the Bible prescribes, especially in the Old Testament. Apparently many Muslims are still very fundamentalists and are in favor of theocracy.

As to the latest conflict, there's no easy or agreeable timeline of responsibility. Several peoples live in small contested land for thousands of years. The Balkans used to be like this, but it was easier to form countries with fixed borders. There were wars, exchange of populations, genocides, and religious conflict. But also there was more room to move and adjust the borders. Palestinians, Jews, and Christians all lay claim to this relatively small parcel of land in the Middle East.  Hamas began to fire rockets into Israeli civilian territory a few weeks ago. We have to ask, why did Hamas do so and what did they hope to achieve?

Those rockets couldn't seriously hurt Israel but certainly did provoke a violent reaction. Hamas knew that lots of innocent Palestinians would die if Israel retaliated--which it did. Are we closer to a solution today? I wonder. I am not excusing Israel's heavy hand, before and during the war. Let's say, however, that Hamas was in charge--with a big military force--and there was a Jewish minority. I don't think it'd take much guessing as to how Hamas would deal with the problem. 

I took the trouble to pour through Hamas' Chapter (Covenant). There isn't one paragraph that doesn't mention religion. The whole point of it is to eradicate the Jewish population from Palestine and establish a strict theocracy! A few days ago, NPR had a story about a young Hamas fighter who was killed. His mother kept saying “praise God” and that her son asked her to “pray for him” (before any mission). He had saved a few thousands of dollars “to get a bride” and if he was killed before that he asked his mother to spend the money on a hadj to Mecca! Praise God. This is a motivating factor for so many people. If they’re convinced that God is on their side and they’re going to heaven, especially as martyrs, even if it means killing infidels or fellow Muslims who don't have the correct version of God….

ISIS--the fanatics from Syria who have spread in Iraq is a prime example of religious lunacy. ISIS' public executions, the practice of a barbaric understanding of religion, and the fanaticism of its fighters is so extreme that even Al Qaeda rejected them. ISIS rose because those crazies are well armed, and financed, so such people tend to do well against corrupt, inefficient states, armies, etc.  If ISIS were smarter, they should copy Hezbollah, go into territories and instead of absolute terror they would improve the lives of citizens by providing needed services the Syrian or Iraqi state hadn’t. Now the US is using air strikes to push them back.

There are stark differences between those who recognize no limits to their armed struggle--anything goes at any price--and those who have the power but recognize restraints. For me at least this is important. Furthermore, I do not like theocracies of any kind. Humanity deserves better. Like I. Kant said sometime ago, this can be an age of enlightenment.... but only if we want it, because we choose to leave our immaturity behind.

Jul 2, 2014

Another Case Where Religion Poisons Everything. Plus, Supreme Calculatons are in Order

So, let's be clear: The conservatives, guided by religion, do not like birth control, at least not through a medical plan for women. Men, oh sure, they can have their pills for erections and whatever. The SCOTUS just decided (5-4 conservative majority) that a "close-held" company (most Americans work for those) can discriminate on the bass of their religious idiocy. In other words, imposing their religious views [primitive, non-scientific or reality-based] on the rest of us. 

Hobby Lobby's owners are part of the conservatives who want to chip away at the ACA ("Obamacare") and claim that birth control for women violates their religious belief. This may be the case, but there are all sorts of protections and laws regarding employment, workers' rights, public health, etc. Once a business owner decides to hire a worker, the latter has (should have) unalienable rights. Oh, by the way, Hobby Lobby does business in China, abiding by Chinese law. Hey, profits may take precedent in an officially godless-atheist country.

There are lots of crazy beliefs in religion. Customs, edicts, and made-up stories that govern people's lives, but this should be in the private domain. There's that separation clause in the US constitution about church-state relationship. The Bible has bans on pork, working on Sabbath, "unnatural" fibers for clothes, crustaceans, and what have you. The Mormons ban coffee and alcohol and I hear regular underwear. Scientologists believe the only way to be purified is to be hooked up to a machine and go through church cleansing, because, heck, all your problems are from the evil spirits occupying your body. Others don't accept modern medicine, etc. Obviously, we can't have public health policy and health care based on these religious beliefs. 

Yes, it matters that we have a science-based approach to public health! Oh, those pesky ascertainable facts that shoot holes into religious doctrine. An advanced, dare say, an enlightened society should allow for individual choice, including practicing willful ignorance, but there should be a religious grounds for public policy. You don't believe in vaccinations, blood transfusions, or that homosexuals shouldn't have any rights? Go back to your cave and practice those beliefs on yourself.

Let me repeat something else for the millionth time: Elections have consequences. Presidents choose all the federal judges, including the Supremes, and the Senate confirms them. Global warming? Half of the Republican governors--the state executives--are climate change deniers! The Republican party in Congress is mainly anti-science. You think this has nothing to do with public policy?

Supreme Calculations

Right to the point: Justices Ginsberg and Breyer should retire as soon as possible. We progressives really appreciate their tenure at the Supreme Court. But, they're old and we cannot afford to have them replaced by a Republican president. Ginsberg is 81 and Breyer 75. Most Supremes hate the label "judicial activists" but they all are! Both sides have advanced particular ideologies and priorities via the bench. The constitution, the laws, actions by government and individuals are up to interpretation. It's not black & white. They all read the same texts, hear the same arguments in court, yet they often reach different conclusions, because of their different judicial philosophies. 

The Senate has become crazier, more conservative (usually it's the same thing). The Republicans have managed to put the most road blocks to presidential initiative in modern times.  GOP Senate leader M. McConnell once declared that his utmost priority was to make Obama one-term president, to make him fail at everything he tried to get through Congress. There are many scenarios that show the GOP winning the US Senate in this mid-term election. Do you think, McConnell will be more or less likely to accept a liberal nominee to the SCOTUS?

The Republicans are more disciplined and will be more arrogant if they fare well in this election. In 2010, before the GOP won the House, Elena Kagan who enjoyed "bipartisan support" (we kept hearing), got only 5 Republican votes! Three of those senators (Lugar, Snowe, Gregg) are gone now. The establishment (old wing) of the party is under attack from the tea party and even arch-conservatives, including McConnell, have been challenged from the right! Who in the Senate, or the House would commit treason by dealing with the Dems or a Muslim black socialist in the White House?

Perhaps we could reverse the conservative majority in the SCOTUS. After we strengthen the liberal side by getting the replacements for Ginsburg and Breyer, we could await the retirement of Scalia and Kennedy, both at 78.

Many of the good changes we've seen in our country have come from the legislative and the judicial routes. We have to keep this in mind, thus we should never forget to vote or be political activists. Elections have consequences! (I think I've said this before).   And, yes, there are calculations.

Speaking of calculations, I want to see a Democrat win the next presidential election even if she's a centrist corporatist, because at least there will be improvement at the margins. Otherwise, it'll be steam ahead.... er, back to the dark ages.  Look, I agree with what Bill Maher said recently, that "Hillary should go away." The fact is that she won't. There was no doubt that she'd run. I don't know of anyone who'd be told that polls show a great chance of becoming president of the US and they don't run. I hope Mrs. Clinton has a primary challenger, like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) or Bernie Sanders (I-VT). 

I also don't think that Hillary wants to promote a particular agenda. She wants to appear presidential, win favors from all over the political spectrum. Since she was the NY Senator, Mrs. Clinton has not been ahead of any important issue, like gays in the military, same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, and many other issues progressives like. She has led from the rear! Hopefully, she won't appoint conservatives to the supreme court.

In my state of NY, I'm excited to see that Gov. Cuomo will most likely be challenged for the Democratic nomination in September. He's been a corporatist centrist. One of his recent choices was to pick a very conservative as his running mate. So, yeah, let's support Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu--who were robbed of the nomination of the Working Families party recently.

PS>Some polls show that men are split on whether there should be a religious exception on birth control, but among women, there's a clear majority against restrictions. This can be a mobilizing factor in the midterm elections--which are decided by who shows up to vote. 

Jun 19, 2014

Informed Opinions are Based on an Understanding of the Facts But Only if You Want So!

Update, 6/23/14:
John Oliver has a great take on Dr. Oz selling magical cures, people's priorities, and corrupt politics. 


It's still amazing--perhaps it shouldn't be give the conservative (primitive) ideology that has influenced our education--that so many Americans don't believe in science, you know, ascertainable facts! Just recently there was another poll that close to a majority of our brethren in the US believe that God designed humans in their present form, which of course means they don't believe in evolution.

I understand that many perceptions, beliefs, and even actions are not reality-based. Perhaps we should stop pretending that most people can be convinced by reason and evidence. They are not--at least not right away if at all. Otherwise, lots of our contemporary debates should have been settled long time ago.

But, people like wishful thinking. They are, at best, misinformed, or, at worst, they practice willful ignorance. Even some of my educated friends are victims to scams and faulty logic. But, there are personal needs that cannot be satisfied by reality, so the alternative is to seek remedies in an alternative universe. I do understand this human need, but I really despise the con artists, most of which are ruthless exploiters and profiteers, like the mediums, faith/crystal healers, voodoo peddlers, religious quacks (any other type, really?), and tellers of secrets, "they (special interests, government, etc) don't want you to know."

Popoff For Jesus

Although some victims do see the light, many don't, even when the scammers are exposed, on national tv nevertheless. Case in point: Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn, Kevin Troudeau, Silvia Browne, James Van Praagh, and many others.

Oprah has had her share of promoting pseudo-science. I think she probably means well but she has a responsibility since she has convincing power. She should not mix entertainment with public health issues. Remember Dr. Oz? Well she made him famous, and now this guy has been making tons of money peddling bullshit. He was admonished during his Congressional testimony a few days ago--where he admitted that his claims (for all sorts of products) had no scientific proof. In other words, they did not work!.

It's very wrong to give bad advice to patients. It's unethical to to create or support anyone's delusions. As it is wrong to tell someone that their schizophrenia is due to demonic possession. It is wrong to tell cancer patients that standard medicine is toxic and there's an easier "natural treatment" that's miraculous! I once had a close friend who went through this, and it was (still is) very painful.

There's no "alternative medicine." What works is medicine, which includes standards of measuring the effectiveness of a remedy/procedure. The so-called "alternative medicine" has no such standards, and it's mostly make-believe and anecdotal. It actually can be very dangerous. I abhor those who sell such bullshit to sick people who are desperate for a cure. 

"Both Sides?"

Finally, open-minded people may have big holes in their heads that their brains fall out. Of course, there has to be debate and examination of the evidence. Any better argument and evidence must be accepted--always, with the door open for amendment. This is the scientific method. 

However, when it comes to education, to a professional opinion, a best-judgment call, it can't be "everything goes!" Not everything has equal value. As a teacher I would be failing my professional duty to say, some people believe the earth is round, some people are flat-earthers!  Likewise for a doctor to say, this medicine is effective x% but there are those who think a voodoo doll is just as effective. Rubbish.

The willfully ignorant or those who a conservative agenda say,  "we should teach the controversy"! OK, I don't expect much more from them. Seriously though? Taught in school as what exactly? Alchemy with chemistry? Voodoo with medicine? Astrology with astronomy? This bullshit isn't appropriate, not in an advanced country that values education and science. We shouldn't be teaching ignorance! This can be a deal breaker. There's only one science: It's a tool for understanding. It employs, reason, inquiry, theory that can be amended, predicts, explains; it deals with facts as best we can ascertain them. Science is NOT dogmatic, doesn't have to satisfy gods, kings, or personal wishes..

Jun 10, 2014

In Politics, Non-Optimal Choices Can be Acceptable. After All, Democracy Depends on Consensus

I had an interesting conversation with colleagues during lunch today and at least one said that they won't vote for Hillary Clinton should she run for president. Some of the reasons cited was that she's openly for big business, that she didn't do anything while at the State Department, and that it's not appropriate to have an oligarchy of the Bushes and Clinton.

Well, I get all that, but in a democracy--as many times in life--we, personally, don't have the ideal choice. We may not have great choices either. We often take the "lesser of the two evils" and it makes sense, especially when one is truly evil, as I believe any serious Republican contender has been in my lifetime and will be in 2016.

Plus, elections have consequences as they can steer the country in a certain direction, elevate certain priorities, and articulate ideas. Successful policies, despite their flaws, convince people about their merits. Let's not forget, many people are conservative--can't imagine in the abstract or analyze ideology. There are many narratives out there. Sure, leadership matters, and that's why we have so many people choosing the ridiculous and want a society more fit for the Dark Ages. However, once they see that, say, Obamacare is generally good, that same-sex marriage doesn't destroy a state, etc, they accept it.

In the same light, I don't think most people readily accepted the ideas of the Enlightenment, of liberalism, or of civil rights for everyone. But, once those took hold (often imposed by elites like Jefferson, Madison, et al), people accepted them. We can see this today in our own country, from state to state--different sub-cultures with very opposing views on, say, gun control, religion, sex, political parties choice, etc. This also shows that most issues aren't decided on their merits, on evaluating the facts, because otherwise we wouldn't still be debating whether humans are responsible for global warming, evolution (and science in general), and the age of the Earth!

In yesterday's NYT, C. Blow's oped titled, "Religious Constriction," makes a similar point about the religiosity of our citizens--highest among affluent countries. You have to look to Greece, Italy, and the oil-rich Gulf countries to find higher religiosity. I maintain that--for most domains, issues, ideas, morality--if religion informs opinion then, most certainly, it's wrong, and imprudent. It is precisely because such opinions are held by so many of our citizens that we don't see the progress we could get nor do we solve many of our own problems.


I have to give another shout to a favorite, Paul Krugman, who he recently wrote [link] along the same lines of my argument:

"The fact that climate concerns rest on scientific consensus makes things even worse, because it plays into the anti-intellectualism that has always been a powerful force in American life, mainly on the right. It’s not really surprising that so many right-wing politicians and pundits quickly turned to conspiracy theories, to accusations that thousands of researchers around the world were colluding in a gigantic hoax whose real purpose was to justify a big-government power grab. After all, right-wingers never liked or trusted scientists in the first place.

So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed."

Mar 26, 2014

The Supreme Court to Decide Whether Birth Control Can Be a Religious Exception. In Other Words, Conservatives Still Have a Problem With Sex.

Conservatives are challenging "Obamacare," again, arguing for religious freedom, so an employer whose religion is anti-birth control should not have to provide such as part of health care coverage. The Supreme Court will decide whether there should be an exception. Conservatives on the SCOTUS and around the country hope to shoot another hole into "Obamacare." I'll refrain from evaluating how "religion poisons everything" as the late Christopher Hitchens used to say, but apparently this lunacy has no end. It's such a distraction, and a waste of resources.

Apparently, conservatives believe they have a shot at the Supreme Court. Why? Because this court is rather conservative. Why? Because elections have consequences. Elect Republican presidents and senators and that's what you have. You get judges like Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Roberts, who make important decisions about our lives. Yes, if you live in this society, what happens at the Supreme Court, the executive and legislative branches does matter!

Side note: in this midterm election year, it'll pivot around turnout, more specifically what groups show up to vote. I'll have another post on this later.

Justice Elena Kagan, you've got to love her. She stuck it to Scalia. If he's to be consistent with his own previous statements, he should vote against the motion for the religious exception on birth control case. During oral arguments, she said that religious-based exceptions to neutral laws could lead to anarchy!

 "Your understanding of this law, your interpretation of it, would essentially subject the entire U.S. Code to the highest test in constitutional law, to a compelling interest standard," she told Paul Clement, the lawyer arguing against the mandate for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. "So another employer comes in and that employer says, I have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws; and then another employer comes in, I have a religious objection to minimum wage laws; and then another, family leave; and then another, child labor laws. And all of that is subject to the exact same test which you say is this unbelievably high test, the compelling interest standard with the least restrictive alternative."

Of course it's Scalia who has argued that our entire civil code, judicial and political, indeed our entire civilization is based on the Judeo-Christian moral code--as, of course, is clearly laid out in the Bible.  On another side note: Did you hear about the Xtian church in NYC that advocates applying this law, stoning homosexuals to death? And, did you hear that a lesbian knocked on the church's door and asked them to stone her to death? Apparently the person who answered the door said they were out of stones so she should come back another day!

To be fair to this church, the Bible indeed prescribes death by stoning for a variety of moral trespasses. Ah, the "good 'ol days" when the Lord ordered genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, subjugation of women, pestilence, floods, etc.  

Did you hear that many Xtians are upset about the movie Noah? They said that Hollywood's fiction is not what happened. Bill Maher has a response:


Mar 12, 2014

Popular Science Shows Up Big with Cosmos 2014--A Much Anticipated and Needed Story of Our Existence!

I watched Cosmos when I was very young and loved it to the point that I used a tape recorder to capture the audio so I could listen to the fascinating information again and again. There was so much information that I needed more time to comprehend. This was some 30 years ago, beyond the lifespan of my cheap tapes, which I've long lost. It's amazing how much more we have learned since then or in the last 50 years.

Carl Sagan popularized science, because he knew how to explain it. The current host of the 2014 series, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was inspired by Cosmos and Sagan to become an astronomer, and he's great at explaining and inspiring. Of course, it's by purpose they chose to host this new Cosmos series on the Fox network, because they're trying to reach the scientifically illiterate or those on the fence. I can see that happening with a few people who aren't willfully ignorant, because the latter have already made an emotional choice to be blind to science and evidence-based world.

Dr. Tyson, who's an agnostic, tries hard to reach the Bible readers without dismissing their unscientific views. Listen to this interview on WNYC; 
this interview  aired after the premier of Cosmos. He says it's OK to have faith and read the Bible but not as textbook. Well, good luck with that. I won't ask, if the Bible is full of contradictions, ignorance, and dead wrong about the cosmos, then how could it be God's word? Never mind...

I think it's good to introduce some scale of the cosmos, time & space, because, perhaps, people could wonder whether the creator of the universe cares about what clothes we wear, whether we perform circumcisions, what we eat on what days, etc. The universe was not made for us nor are in the center of it all. 

Amazing facts

The universe is about 13.8 billion years old. Let's compress this time into 1 year.

  • Jan 1:big bang. It takes about 200 million years to "cool down" so stars and galaxies can form.
  • Jan 10. New stars; Jan 13 small galaxies; March 15-our own Milky way. Star stuff recycled. 
  • Plus, 6 "months later" (6 billion yrs) on Aug 31-our own sun is born. Same month the Earth is formed
  •  Sept 21st, life (not human) appears in earth.  
  •   Nov 9th life was breathing, moving, eating, responding to environment. Microbes. Sex.  Tiktaalic [see link] moves from see to land (transitional fossil). 
  • Dec 28th:  Flowers 
  •  Dec 30th Dinos extinction, rise of mammals. 
  • Dec 31st, 9:45 new year’s eve…. Africa. Bipedalism. 

        Last hour, last day: humans appear at 11.59, 46’’  

    • 11:59 30,000 years, first cave paintings!  Read the stars, seasons.
    • 10,000 years ago. Agriculture. Middle East. First stable societies.
    • 14 seconds to midnight: humans;  
      6,000years ago: writing! Save our thoughts. 5’’ ago Jesus, 3’’ Mohammed, 1’’ ago science!!!
  • In the last 14’’ seconds –all we know about humanity.
  • Last second= recorded history! All the civilizations, all the ideas, art, science, wars, tribes, leaders, religions, technology, you and I, etc…