Nov 15, 2015

We Are All French Today. We Cannot Allow the Terrorists to Win.

The terrorist attacks in France demonstrate that we are still very primitive as a species, although we're not all on the same page or even time. Of course, we can disagree about everything, but we should be conducting ourselves in a more civilized manner by now. Alas, we have a long way to go before we eliminate violent conflict and improve the condition of life for humanity. But, what are those chains holding us back?

Exploitation, competition for resources, and a long history of conflict, make it harder to achieve peace and prosperity. Primitive ideas and religion make matters worse. This has to be acknowledged. Certain myths and belief systems must be given up if we are to progress; such beliefs our clearly outdated. Perhaps there was a need some time ago that the world, the universe was explained through myths and superstitions. It doesn't have to be today in the 21st century! 

The Paris terror attack has several causes. One is the religious faith of people who see western secular societies as the devil's playground. Such faith fuels their hatred and makes it easier to kill others and themselves. Another is the economic and political conditions in places where western imperial powers occupied lands and exploited the local populations. Wars--either started by the West or perpetually being fought on the ground in the Middle East--traumatize people and thus makes it easier to be radicalized. However, radicalism includes indoctrination and certain cultural traditions makes it easier to capture adherents. Despondent youth are prime recipients of such indoctrination. 

A cartoonist from Charlie Hebdo posted this
Rational thinking and a calm approach to problems isn't the norm in crisis situations. A prolonged crisis creates scars, harsh memories, and emotions of revenge as in the case of places that have been experiencing wars, famine, violence, and instability for generations after generations. Peace and prosperity, and feelings that life is getting better aren't created overnight. It takes time. Cultures and personal attitudes change when there's stability, affluence, and improving conditions for at least a generation or two.

At this point, though, we have to evaluate the situation without rushing to extremes and let anger--which is understandable after such a horror--dictate our reaction. Obviously, we want to maintain our open tolerant and diverse societies, but we have to be careful who we admit. This is not xenophobia, but I think a country has the right to limit entrance to those who don't share the established political and cultural values.

So, is this different than,say, what Saudi Arabia is doing? Absolutely! In Saudi, free expression is not allowed. Any critical remark earn you lashing and the death penalty as this barbaric regime employs totalitarian control over its sheepish people. In our world, however, free expression is encouraged even if it means criticizing everything and everybody. As long as it is peaceful and there's no incitement to violence. But, those who see membership in this society must accept these rules of conduct.

My thoughts (not prayers) are with the terror victims' families, their friends, and to the whole French nation.  I understand what they mean when people say, my prayers are with you, but we should not encourage this religious nonsense, because it impedes progress and peace.  

  . . 

Nov 10, 2015

Let's Make America Great... by Avoiding the Disastrous Proposals of the GOP Presidential Candidates

I've been watching a clown show, the GOP presidential candidate debate. I'm more appalled by the cheering of the audience when the candidates say something moronic. OK, anything Obama is bad, that's expected. But, they keep repeating economic and social nonsense. Why do they keep repeating such? Because certain narratives have long been used in our political discussion by the conservatives and haven't been adequately refuted by the liberals.

All of these GOPers are against government. They want to take our country back to the days before the New Deal--which they all hate--which lifted Americans out of poverty, especially the elderly that since then they have a safety net. Same with other basic and absolutely necessary goods and services we need to be an advanced country with a decent quality of life.

The problem with addressing the conservatives' arguments requires answers longer than bumper stickers. It requires some knowledge of American history. It requires an understanding of what a developed country is, and how the successful democracies have made life quality better. They have done almost the everything in the opposite of what our conservatives are advocating. If, as they say, progressive policies, which include a strong social safety net, is a recipe for disaster, why so may other countries have done so much better than the US in meaningful (and measurable) variables regarding the quality of life?

The GOP has been captured by people who keep repeating adages about how the absence of government, regulation & oversight, no consumer protection, no universal health care, no publicly-funded education, a super military (read: unlimited spending), a morality (theocratic) police, segregation, obsolete gender roles, etc, are what we need!  They have no positive proposal for using our government for making our lives better. Republicans hate the government when it provides social services and all sorts of benefits to the people. It's incredible that whatever they're proposing today, we've already tried it in the past.... and didn't work very well.

But, those clowns on the stage tonight are earning kudos points from an ignorant political base who like bumper sticker messages. Oh, yeah, "Make America Great Again"..... When was America (I assume it means the U.S.A.) great again, Mr. Trump, and please define greatness...  Oyvey.

Oct 13, 2015

It's a Race Between HR Clinton and B Sanders

As many of you, I'm watching the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, and judging by how the candidates present their case, it's a race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The other three aren't cutting it. They're not saying anything different that the activist base will turn to them instead of the two front runners. And, yes, the delivery matters.

Of course they're all playing to the activist Democratic base, which is the one that will come out in the primaries. Therefore, there's lots of agreement on most issues. The peripheral issues aren't make or break for the people who will decide this primary race, and for more general election voters.

What I like:

BS: "Fraud is a business model" for Wall Street! Break up the humongous banks.

HRC is weak on dealing with Wall Street and big banks, but, she seems comfortable on stage and has command of the issues. Her performance will pay dividends, and if not against Sanders right away, it'll probably make Joe Biden's entry into the race less remote.

BS: If serious change is to happen, millions of people who aren't participating need to come out and vote. This is very true. Many Americans either don't see how politics in DC affect their lives directly or have given up. The system favors the insiders and the elites (usually the same group), but it can respond to popular pressure. The ballot can be an effective way to make the leaders understand what their priorities should be.

Most Americans don't understand our complicated political system. The media don't explain how things work. The candidates don't want to say that no matter what they promise, Congress has to go along. And, Congress isn't elected on a national ticket. Congresspeople represent their districts or states, not necessarily the interests of the country. So, it's very important that a president has the ability to convince--the people, the Congress, political parties, and the media. Popularity matters, but political capital must be spent quickly or it evaporates.


Sep 27, 2015

The Pope's Message Supports Many Progressive Causes.

Is the pope Catholic? Well, of course he is, even though he's challenging traditional conservatism in the church. OK, he says he believes in the devil and that exorcisms make sense. Plus, he's turning some really obnoxious people into saints. But, you know he's hitting a wall of criticism with the economic elites,  and the socio-political conservatives. He's also popular with the masses and the intellectuals who want the church to leave the dark ages and come forward. 

Obviously, a church has to be conservative in many ways, but religious dogma changes over time. What is practiced today in several important ways is not what the church did just a couple centuries ago. The Enlightenment and the formation of another heavyweight--the modern state--curtailed the influence of the church.

It's funny to watch the faithful complain when they taste what they had prescribed for others. Oh, the Xtians are persecuted, they shout. Like Ted Cruz and Mike Hackabee said coming to the defense of the Kentucky city clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses, because, heck, that's against her religion. Hey, have you heard of the Amish who works at the Motor Vehicle Dpt and refuses to register any ..machines of the devil? Haha.

But, we have to applaud the pope when he makes speeches that help move people in the right direction. The environment, health care, immigration, the income-wealth distribution, etc, are some of the issues championed by progressives. We know that some people and leaders aren't moved by rational arguments and facts when these come from their opponents. So, it's important to have someone they respect say these things. It moves the needle of our national dialogue in the right direction. Thank you, Pope Francis.

Aug 9, 2015

Paul Krugman's Observation is so ..Right: From Trump on Down, The Republicans Can't be Serious

Update, Aug. 11th: Those who thought Trump would implode after bullying everyone at the GOP debate and blowing lots of noisy hot air out of his.. orifices, new polls indicate the opposite, because, heck, the conservative base likes what Trump represents. The GOP leadership want to hide this ugly reality from the rest of America.

In the first contest state, Iowa, according to the latest poll, Trump leads the field at 19%, followed by Ben (who?) Carson at 12%.  In the second state contest and first primary, in New Hampshire, Trump jumped up by 7% to 32% [New Hampshire poll] after the debate. The second choice, Jeb Bush, dropped to 11%.

I think it's time for this blog to endorse Donald Trump for the Republican Party's nomination in 2016. I think Sarah Palin would be a great VP on the ticket with him. What? She's not running? OK, let's keep our eyes & ears open on this.....

Another excellent editorial by Paul K; it's worth reading it in its entirety. (see below)

The GOP strategists and party leaders aren't happy with the Donald because he's damaging and already damaged party with the mainstream (centrists and independents) voters. But, what Trump represents is the basis of the activist part of the Republican party. He's expressing views that, although deeply-held in GOP's heart, are not usually expressed when Republicans are seeking mainstream votes.  Don't believe me? Just read the national and state Republican parties' platforms. There, you find many abhorrent views that fly well with the conservative base but are sunk in the waters of where the rest of the country lives!

I often wonder how it's possible two people to see something in front of their eyes and form totally different conclusions. If it's about factual findings, then, I had believed, it'd be a simple matter of using logic and evidence to ascertain the facts. But, in reality this rarely happens, especially when something is deemed important by the individual!  People are greatly influenced by culture (including religion), ideology, and a personal sense of a comfort zone. The ideological part can numb the mind and make someone lazy to chew up and digest information. Conformity was rewarded. Venturing outside the comfort zone--into the discomfort of realizing you've made a mistake--wasn't/isn't desired either.

But, I think it may be a personality trait on how to approach life. Being a conservative is natural, or at least it's how the vast majority of humans lived and experienced their lives. Captured by culture and in time. Very few ventured outside the norm. It can be argued that such approach made sense too. At the very least, blaze makers were not rewarded but they were rather persecuted, tortured, and killed. Group think was the norm. Of course there were divisions and big conflicts. Recently, I've been pouring over the religious conflicts after the Protestant Reformation. Yes, Martin Luther, Kalvin, and others brought about tremendous change, but much of it--and it took many generations to be evident--was unintended. The bloody religious wars pitted one religious faction against another, but in essence all sides hadn't been that radical--as they all held different versions of the same flawed illusion of a divine creator who insisted upon how we dress, what we eat, how we screw, how we kill our enemies, etc.

Now, how is it that most of us think Trump is someone who uses empty (though appealing) rhetoric. He said he didn't prepare for the first GOP debate last week. I believe him, because he doesn't have to be specific as long as he appears to know and uses generalities specifically addressing the concerns of the conservative base. Instead of responding to Megyn Kelly's question about his paleolithic views on women, he responds by personally attacking her and ..Rosie O'Donnell. That debate broke all viewership records for such debates other than presidential ones. Trump was tramp. The GOP leadership may not want him but if the activist base--those who show up during the Republican primary selection process--this is exciting.

The 2016 election, was supposed to be a showcase of the "new" Republican party. There's no incumbent running this time, so both parties have a chance to re-define themselves by showcasing their candidates. They're indeed doing so....

 Paul Krugman's editorial [link] in its entirety

This was, according to many commentators, going to be the election cycle Republicans got to show off their “deep bench.” The race for the nomination would include experienced governors like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, fresh thinkers like Rand Paul, and attractive new players like Marco Rubio. Instead, however, Donald Trump leads the field by a wide margin. What happened?

The answer, according to many of those who didn’t see it coming, is gullibility: People can’t tell the difference between someone who sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about and someone who is actually serious about the issues. And for sure there’s a lot of gullibility out there. But if you ask me, the pundits have been at least as gullible as the public, and still are.

For example, Mr. Trump’s economic views, a sort of mishmash of standard conservative talking points and protectionism, are definitely confused. But is that any worse than Jeb Bush’s deep voodoo, his claim that he could double the underlying growth rate of the American economy? And Mr. Bush’s credibility isn’t helped by his evidence for that claim: the relatively rapid growth Florida experienced during the immense housing bubble that coincided with his time as governor.

Mr. Trump, famously, is a “birther” — someone who has questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States. But is that any worse than Scott Walker’s declaration that he isn’t sure whether the president is a Christian?

Mr. Trump’s declared intention to deport all illegal immigrants is definitely extreme, and would require deep violations of civil liberties. But are there any defenders of civil liberties in the modern G.O.P.? Notice how eagerly Rand Paul, self-described libertarian, has joined in the witch hunt against Planned Parenthood.
And while Mr. Trump is definitely appealing to know-nothingism, Marco Rubio, climate change denier, has made “I’m not a scientist” his signature line. (Memo to Mr. Rubio: Presidents don’t have to be experts on everything, but they do need to listen to experts, and decide which ones to believe.)

The point is that while media puff pieces have portrayed Mr. Trump’s rivals as serious men — Jeb the moderate, Rand the original thinker, Marco the face of a new generation — their supposed seriousness is all surface. Judge them by positions as opposed to image, and what you have is a lineup of cranks. And as I said, this is no accident.

It has long been obvious that the conventions of political reporting and political commentary make it almost impossible to say the obvious — namely, that one of our two major parties has gone off the deep end. Or as the political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it in their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” the G.O.P. has become an “insurgent outlier … un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” It’s a party that has no room for rational positions on many major issues.

Or to put it another way, modern Republican politicians can’t be serious — not if they want to win primaries and have any future within the party. Crank economics, crank science, crank foreign policy are all necessary parts of a candidate’s resume.

Until now, however, leading Republicans have generally tried to preserve a fa├žade of respectability, helping the news media to maintain the pretense that it was dealing with a normal political party. What distinguishes Mr. Trump is not so much his positions as it is his lack of interest in maintaining appearances. And it turns out that the party’s base, which demands extremist positions, also prefers those positions delivered straight. Why is anyone surprised?

Remember how Mr. Trump was supposed to implode after his attack on John McCain? Mr. McCain epitomizes the strategy of sounding moderate while taking extreme positions, and is much loved by the press corps, which puts him on TV all the time. But Republican voters, it turns out, couldn’t care less about him.

Can Mr. Trump actually win the nomination? I have no idea. But even if he is eventually pushed aside, pay no attention to all the analyses you will read declaring a return to normal politics. That’s not going to happen; normal politics left the G.O.P. a long time ago. At most, we’ll see a return to normal hypocrisy, the kind that cloaks radical policies and contempt for evidence in conventional-sounding rhetoric. And that won’t be an improvement.

Jun 27, 2015

Let's Celebrate a Great Victory for Equal Marriage Rights for All People. Conservatives Are Still in Sodom and Gomorrah Time & Place

What a month it has been for progressive causes in the US; the latest is that people have a right to marry a person of their choice--a right that should have been recognized long time ago. It's definitely a victory for human rights as our country is inching to the 21st century while the conservatives are kicking and screaming.

A divided supreme court (5-4) finally took the reasonable path to expanding on a couple previous decisions and making same-sex marriage legal in the whole country. In the 1960s, the Loving v. Virginia case the high court established the right to interracial marriage. Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 had tried to preserve racial purity, as many states, primarily in the deep south, forbade interracial marriages.

There have been instances of horrible treatment of homosexuals in the US, but slowly a movement began to form and push on many fronts within America society. Look, LGBT people have been in every society throughout our human history; often they were oppressed into silence and denial of who they were. Societies have benefited, because such individuals contributed to arts, sciences, culture, politics, and every other domain you can think of. It was criminal to punish them for their nature and deny them their constitutional rights.

Almost to the day, 40 years ago, a police raid on a gay bar--the Stonewall Inn in the Village section of New York City--touched off days of violent clashes and riots, events that galvanized the gay community and it became clear to all progressives that this kind of treatment of the LGBT community had to change. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was a time of rapid change when important questions about the nature of American society were seen as a big challenge. Too much too soon--beginning with women arriving in the marketplace, civil rights for blacks, sexual revolution, political instability--usually triggers a counter-reaction. And, it did. It was the conservatives who pushed back and eventually dominated the highest levels of our political system for at least 25 years, from 1980 to the dawn of the 21st century.

A Long Arduous Road

But, even if progress can be slow, painful, and challenging, it usually marches on.

In 2003, the court struck down anti-sodomy laws in Texas v. Lawrence. Justice Kennedy--a Republican-nominated judge, but with a centrist (swing vote) flair--wrong both that majority opinions, then and last Friday.  In 2012, the same court struck down the DOMA, which had passed by Congress and signed into law by president Clinton in 1996, not so long ago as far as important laws go.

So, what happened? Well, one thing is that once Hawaii and Massachusetts passed laws allowing same-sex marriage, then it became apparent--in the eyes of the conservatives, which include Democrats and traditionalists--that giving rights to those who are entitled to but denied because of religious superstition, nothing bad happens! These two states and a couple dozen more than followed created more happiness and, surprise surprise, God didn't destroy them like Sodom and Gomorrah. Who knew, right?...

But, let's not forget what happened in 2008 and 2012, that is, the election of a Democratic president. We would not have had two liberal judges, Kagan and Sotomayor on the court today if it hadn't been for president Obama! You see presidents nominate judges to the supreme court and these judges aren't all the same in that they have a particular judicial philosophy. The conservatives--Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Roberts--voted against giving people the right to marry a spouse of their choice. The liberals--Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer--and the centrist Kennedy decided that it is a constitutional right in the US for adults to marry any person of their choice, and that every state not only has to recognize marriages from other states but every state must allow same-sex marriage!

A present for the conservatives
The conservatives, including the likes of Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts in their dissent proposed laughable arguments. It's incredible that Scalia and Roberts are considered intellectuals. If you look at their arguments they sound sophisticated bullshit, ignorant of historical framework, and the constitutional liberal democracy we're supposed to have here. 

For example, they say unelected judges shouldn't be undone the work of legislatures, referring to the state legislatures that had passed constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage. But, a liberal democracy that has enshrined rights in the federal constitution is not a pure democracy, whereas the majority can take rights from the minority. That was the old south, keeping slaves because, guess what, the majority thought it was fine and dandy! Rights are meaningful when they're given to the minority. Justice Elena Kagan stated that the US is not a pure democracy (majority rules on everything), but it's rather a constitutional (liberal) democracy!

Or, that activist judges [yes, them liberals.... because when conservative judges do the same activism (remember Bush v. Gore?) it's!] destroy what society wants in defining marriage! What kind of ridiculous argument is this? We've always redefined the institution of marriage. The cases listed above did just that. Oh, you mean the Biblical definition? [You didn't think religion had nothing to do with this argument, did you?] Well, the Bible sanctioned marriage between a man and several women, plus many more concubines (sex servants). Oh, and underage girls given as brides to usually much older men. We call such practice today rape and it's illegal.

In Obergefell v. Hodges [check this out, how Jim Obergefell became the face of the in front of the supreme court] the majority of the court agreed that the US constitution is a living document, applied to contemporary circumstances within the greater framework of its liberal democratic principles. The strict constructionists, like Scalia, believe it's a dead document, thus accusing activist judges of inventing stuff not explicitly stated in the constitution. This is, of course, a stinking bullcrap pile of an argument...

Article 2, Section 2, clause 1 of the US constitution: "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States...".   Hmm, so then who should be in charge of the US Air Force then?

Let's salute this important moment in our history for civil rights and liberties. In the words of president Obama,

“This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are truly treated as equal, we are more free.”

However, we still have a presidential race developing. This decision will further expose the bigotry and backwardness of the Republicans. Already their candidates (and not only) are talking about how to reverse this ruling. Unfortunately for them, the country has moved while their party has regressed further into the dark ages. Let's not stop pointing this out, because quality of life issues aren't only based on economics but on law and culture as well.  

 The Supreme Court's Opinion as Written by Justice Anthony Kennedy

"Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations."

The swinger on the high court, justice Anthony Kennedy. His vote proved crucial in the 5-4 decision
"As all parties agree, many same-sex couples provide loving and nurturing homes to their children, whether biological or adopted. ... Excluding same-sex couples from marriage thus conflicts with a central premise of the right to marry. Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life. 

The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples."
"In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. 

The Constitution grants them that right."

Jun 21, 2015

After the Charleston, SC, Massacre, David Hume's ..Religion Comes to Mind...*

Today, many people are bowing in prayer, especially in Charleston, SC, after the massacre, whereas a lone gunman killed nine people in church who were praying to God. Any decent person is saddened by this kind of immoral act. Innocent lives lost always emotionally traumatize individuals and societies as a whole. Decent human beings would act to prevent such injurious acts if they could.

Today, there are lots of speeches expressing sorrow but also a belief in God. I find it truly amazing that what almost any person would do as a matter of decency is not done by God, and yet God is given only the good credit, never the bad. This is the behavior that hostages or people drenched in fear (like those under brutal totalitarian regimes) exhibit.

Actually, the speeches that urged us to be even more faithful in the face of a great tragedy are offensive for they ask me to suspend reason and dictate that I must feel the of God and whatever else groupthink purports

Being faithful--accepting even the most incredible--is being able to accept anything without evidence or reason. This is like the worst virus of the mind, and this is exactly what religion is. It has a fail safe too; challenge it and it turns the faithful into a more defensive and close-minded person!

Oh, free will, they reply. Really? First, the grand designer created humans with certain attributes, including the bad ones. Why should a defective product's actions be harmful to me? Where;s my free will?  Why don't I get godly protection? To live my life the way I see it most rewarding without harming others of course! And, how about natural disasters and diseases that regularly kill millions of humans? If anyone wants to argue about free will a short trip to the local hospital should make them wonder why children (even babies) have cancer and other deathly diseases.... But, of course, this is not about using reason to understand--instead we're being asked to use our head to bow slavishly. Using faith to numb the mind and to accept horror, immorality, death, and suffering as part of the designer's great plan, should not be the practice of thinking people nowadays.

So, please, let's mourn those who die, let's help the world be a better humane place, and let's stop this nonsense about bowing our heads to an imaginary deity, who's either incompetent or impotent and thus cannot stop evil, or who doesn't really care when evil happens. 

“Epicurus's old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”   ― David Hume

*David Hume on Religion

Jun 13, 2015

“If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” Carl Sagan

Free expression is desirable until someone gets offended, but the essence of free speech is that being offended shouldn't be a barrier to speech, because this is a sure way to kill true dialogue, debate, and, yes, revision. Primitive, traditional, conservative societies have the greatest penalties (social and legal) against the new, the different and progressive. Most people in history and all societies until very recently--and this is not universal even in the 21st century--have been conservative.

If only the cartoonists applied their magical powers wisely...
Yes, there's value in preserving stability. It's comforting to know what to expect even if this isn't optimal. How, then, does a person become progressive? How does he/she is willing and able to entertain the abstract? The abstract in the sense of something that has not been tried yet.

I think most, not all, people conform to their surroundings. In evolutionary terms, this is an advantage. Adapt or perish. Yet, this is not quite obvious, or the advantages of change may not be easily understood. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is true but limits innovation and change. Not all change is good, and there are risks, however, we wouldn't have the advances we enjoy today if we stuck to the old ways.

I've talked about this several times before and it's one my favorite lectures in my politics classes: Being progressive or conservative can be described as a disposition. It's the first "gut reaction" people have to a new idea or a new situation. Of course, there can be a mixture of attitudes as many people have a variety of strong opinions about important issues. The fundamental attitude though is very strong.

Social and political change does happen. Why? And, who initiates it? Historically, it's been leadership that has moved the masses. Religious, political, economic leaders have shaped public opinion, morality, and behavior. In a democracy elected leaders reflect the public sentiment and they act as delegates. They should also act as trustees--in the interest of the country, which on occasion may not be what the people want to hear. Good leaders are those who take the country in a progressive direction, whereas the lives of the common people improve.

Fighting slavery and for civil rights hasn't been popular always; same with defending free expression that may be to the dislike of the majority. But, such a progressive approach makes for a better society--a society whose values now include many of the things were thought as radical, offensive, dangerous.

Modernity presents many challenges to authoritarian/totalitarian regimes, since technology gives people options to access to information and the outside world. Comparing conditions and realizing that liberal democracies have many advantages, indeed offer better life conditions than closed societies, is an eye-opener. It does take time to truly transform a society since culture (including religion) and the people's sense of identity are very strong, especially among people who aren't very cosmopolitan and educated.

Regimes that maintain (or try to) an iron fist over their people are limiting access to information & technology. It's a losing battle, in my opinion, though many people will suffer as those regimes eventually wither. Now, here's a big question: when will those non-democratic regimes wither? Similarly, is liberal democracy the ultimate destination? I think the answer depends on the existing conditions. 

Competition for limited resources, strife of all kinds, danger, sickness, lack of education, are the root causes of making a culture/society that is not open, less charitable, less secure, and more afraid.  All this is not a good foundation for liberal democracy. I also think that liberal democracy evolves over a long time. This type of a regime isn't the same as democracy--where people decide by majority, but who may also not be tolerant of the "other" and of minorities.

In the 1990s, people got arrested for producing or selling rap music to adults. In times of crisis, questioning the government, or the majority's group-think can still get people in trouble. Some states want to prohibit abortion, even access to birth control. As an adult, who should be in charge of your own body? Should you be able to use it anyway you want? Without harming others, of course. Should you have the power to check out (die) on your own terms? Should you have the right to hallucinate by means other than religion?

Barbarism Thrives in Saudi Arabia

Here's a country that in the name of religion remains barbaric if we judge it by the policies and practices of its government. It's the antithesis of liberal democracy, but it's also an international pariah in terms of harsh treatment of minorities, women, homosexuals, political dissenters, and those who practice ..witchcraft. 

Raif Badawi has been arrested and convicted to seven years in prison, a hefty fine, and 1,000 "severe lashes" for promoting liberalism. His web site, Free Saudi Liberals, is considered treacherous, insulting, and threatening to a society of the Dark Ages. The sham Saudi supreme court just upheld his conviction and now it's up to the new (old bag) king, if he wishes, to pardon or alleviate this sentence. Saudi Arabia should be reminded, every time and everywhere, how barbaric it is. [Here's the NYT editorial on the Badawi case]

May 26, 2015

A Meaningful Memorial Day to Remember.... But, What are We to Think of War?

I've been reading stuff on World War 1 and listening to Dan Carlin's podcast, Blueprint for Armageddon, as an unintended preparation for Memorial Day. What a wasteful, violent, ignorant, primitive species we are if you are to look at the way we slaughter each other. The history of the Great War (WW1, until... the 2nd WW came to eclipse it) is fascinating in many respects, and I do recommend learning about it. A good book on the subject is G.J. Meyer's  World Undone. Another great read is Peter Hart's The Great War. Both authors include testimonies and stories with lots of details about specific battles from the point of human experience. 

It's not enough to say, for example, that in the battle or Passchendaele (Belgium, WW1) there were 700,000+ casualties. It must be explained many of the generals didn't care for casualties as long as war of attrition was decided in their favor. They didn't even know the conditions of the battlefield. The wholesale massacres ordered by the leaders on all sides, the bravery of common soldiers (but also their insanity to fight in such a war), and how they died must be described in all its gruesomeness. Questions like, how many lives is an objective worth? Who is going to die for this and that?

War is a complicated affair, and it reveals lots of human traits--both cultural,  mental, and innate. Tragedies in their own right, created by leaders, circumstance, and people caught up in them. WW1 is also a time when warfare is changing for good and for ever. It's no longer man's physical might, face-to-face endurance test, and in relative smaller groups. The new technological advances have made machines (yes, including the "meat grinder" of the time, the machine gun) change everything. Unfortunately, the generals and war planners aren't ready for this. They still rely on tactics, wear old uniforms (many in bright colors, no helmets, with swords and bayonets), and many other obsolete ideas and practices.

Even the great masses of people on all sides of the conflict have a romantic view of combat, nationalism & patriotism, and war is something exciting for the boys to partake. The vast majority of accounts on all sides view the impending war as a romantic exercise. However, war now is becoming massive beyond any historical precedent. Never before humanity witnessed so vast armies clashing with the resulting carnage. The battle of Antietam--the bloodiest single worst case of casualties, of some 6,000 deaths and 20,000 injured in American history--is nothing compared to battles where  40, 50, 70 thousand soldiers would perish.

As the news media are filled with celebrations, memorials, parades, speeches, and all sorts of events around Memorial Day in the US, one thing is clear to me, that most of the wars are unnecessary and don't serve the interests of the vast majority of the people. I am not a pacifist, but neither a chicken hawk--the worst kind of bellicose. Sometimes it's necessary to fight to preserve a way of life, to stop aggression, save lives, advance civilization. But, it has to be a necessity not a choice; not the 1% chance Dick Cheney would take to send other people to die for stupid theories, and interests of the elites.

We see veterans today that have fought in ill-conceived wars, based on faulty judgment, if not outright lies. It's very difficult to say this, because how can you tell a veteran that they were simply used (abused) as a pawn in an unnecessary war, that they didn't fight to defend the homeland, or even defend freedom and export democracy?

Wars are very expensive too. It's not just the cost of buying, using, and replacing war machines, and troops. First, how do you place a monetary value on someone's life? Second, the costs of the injured (physically and mentally) last decades. The burden of all these costs, especially lives lost, are disproportionally borne by the lower classes. I also think that a militarized society--even a democratic one like ours--is greatly influenced when it gears itself for war, or is in perpetual state of alert. (This topic deserves a discussion on its own)

In all the coverage I've seen on this Memorial Day and in the past, the emphasis has been on recognizing the service and sacrifice of those who have served or are serving in all the armed forces. This is fine. Yet, it would have been good to hear something along these lines:

  • While having the best armed forces, peace and diplomacy should be our default mode
  • An army of peace (humanitarian missions) is often much more effective than a war army
  • Foreign policy based on human rights
  • Lives matter. Don't sacrifice our troops.
  • Preserving and enhancing human dignity and humane treatment should be standard US policy
  • Let's continue to remember the dead and the war survivors, but let's make it about the living, and the good life; this would include fewer expressions (and monuments) glorifying war.

May 1, 2015

Intellectual Honesty and Our Defective Politics

As I'm writing this, May day celebrations and demonstrations are taking place in many countries, where millions of people are basically asking for a better life. Now, of course the definition of a better life is not agreed upon--especially when it involves very different cultures--but, yet, there are common desires, like to have a long, healthy life, economic opportunity that leads to meeting human needs, freedom from oppression, choice, etc. The good life is desirable.

When we disagree about something, at least we have to agree on what we're actually talking about. Agree on reality first, before we evaluate the arguments for and against. It's OK for people to have different values and priorities. For me, for example, leisure and individual liberty is more valuable and a higher priority than money and material possessions. Although, I do need money and possessions to have a good life. This is true for everyone, even if the threshold varies depending on time, place, and subjective conditions.

Paul Krugman writes in this New York Times editorial that intellectual integrity matters; acknowledging mistakes, and having an open mind. Wanting to know the truth, the facts, should be a priority, but it isn't--not in the political, not in the economic, and even in the personal universes. Indeed, people get comfortable with an idea, a situation, an image, and then resort to confirmation bias, which becomes an ordinary response that often isn't even noticed.

I normally don't republish long quoted articles, but this one by Krugman deserves a longer mention. Go to the NYT page to read in its entirety.

The 2016 campaign should be almost entirely about issues. The parties are far apart on everything from the environment to fiscal policy to health care, and history tells us that what politicians say during a campaign is a good guide to how they will govern.

Nonetheless, many in the news media will try to make the campaign about personalities and character instead. And character isn’t totally irrelevant. The next president will surely encounter issues that aren’t currently on anyone’s agenda, so it matters how he or she is likely to react. But the character trait that will matter most isn’t one the press likes to focus on. In fact, it’s actively discouraged.

You see, you shouldn’t care whether a candidate is someone you’d like to have a beer with. Nor should you care about politicians’ sex lives, or even their spending habits unless they involve clear corruption. No, what you should really look for, in a world that keeps throwing nasty surprises at us, is intellectual integrity: the willingness to face facts even if they’re at odds with one’s preconceptions, the willingness to admit mistakes and change course.
And that’s a virtue in very short supply.
Times like these call for a combination of open-mindedness — willingness to entertain different ideas — and determination to do the best you can. As Franklin Roosevelt put it in a celebrated speech, “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
What we see instead in many public figures is, however, the behavior George Orwell described in one of his essays: “Believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.” ......

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for an end to ideology in politics, because that’s impossible. Everyone has an ideology, a view about how the world does and should work. Indeed, the most reckless and dangerous ideologues are often those who imagine themselves ideology-free ....

The press, I’m sorry to say, tends to punish open-mindedness, because gotcha journalism is easier and safer than policy analysis. Hillary Clinton supported trade agreements in the 1990s, but now she’s critical. It’s a flip-flop! Or, possibly, a case of learning from experience, which is something we should praise, not deride.

So what’s the state of intellectual integrity at this point in the election cycle? Pretty bad, at least on the Republican side of the field. Jeb Bush, for example, has declared that “I’m my own man” on foreign policy, but the list of advisers circulated by his aides included the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, who predicted that Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, and shows no signs of having learned from the blood bath that actually took place.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell no important Republican figure has admitted that none of the terrible consequences that were supposed to follow health reform — mass cancellation of existing policies, soaring premiums, job destruction — has actually happened.

The point is that we’re not just talking about being wrong on specific policy questions. We’re talking about never admitting error, and never revising one’s views. Never being able to say that you were wrong is a serious character flaw even if the consequences of that refusal to admit error fall only on a few people. But moral cowardice should be outright disqualifying in anyone seeking high office.

Think about it. Suppose, as is all too possible, that the next president ends up confronting some kind of crisis — economic, environmental, foreign — undreamed of in his or her current political philosophy. We really, really don’t want the job of responding to that crisis dictated by someone who still can’t bring himself to admit that invading Iraq was a disaster but health reform wasn’t.

I still think this election should turn almost entirely on the issues. But if we must talk about character, let’s talk about what matters, namely intellectual integrity.

Apr 25, 2015

Wars, Genocides, Natural Disasters, Pain and Sorrow, are all Part of the Human Condition as the Creator Intented

This week, many people are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks. Should we care? Should we do anything about when similar events take place around us? What can we do? Is sensitivity enough? How about when an intervention is not possible for a variety of factors? These are all hard questions to answer. 

The largest Armenian church in Turkey today is St. Giragos which is also a cultural center since succeeding Armenian generations in Turkey have converted to Islam, either forced or in order to blend it and survive. This is by itself a lesson on the spread of religion.

A conservative (religious, social) would point out that humans are governed by "original sin," which basically means that humans have a bad quality in them--the "bad seed" can be seen religiously or symbolically. Therefore, the individual shouldn't have unlimited choices when it comes to morality and social mores. People don't know what is in their best interests. But, the fundamental question still remains, who designed humans? If it's evolution, then human nature evolved to adapt to the environment; scarcity of resources can result in "us versus them" behavior. But, if the grand creator is the designer of humans, then he has to be given credit for what his children do while he doesn't interfere.

When the Ottoman empire had practically collapsed, the Young Turks decided to ethnically cleanse the remaining territory as a way to preserve their country. So, intentionally, even enthusiastically they proceeded to exterminate the minorities. Not surprisingly, imams (religious leaders) instructed the uneducated and god-fearing populous that it was OK to kill Armenians, and generally all Xtians. Not all Turks participated in the genocide, but the idea of creating a nationalistic Turkey was the consensus. 

The Greeks in Asia Minor would later have the same fate, though the circumstances were different after the 1919-1922  war. Kemal Attaturk's army and the nationalists cleared Asia Minor of Greeks, and solidified the current borders of Turkey. War is dehumanizing; it can turn good people into savages. Religion can do this too. Yet, there are many stories of people from both sides that sheltered their neighbors from persecution and death. Humanity also has a brave, kind, altruistic, loveable side.

This morning, a big earthquake killed thousands of people in the Nepal region. Unlike war that can be seen as man-made, natural disasters, parasites, diseases that kill millions more aren't man-made. OK, maybe the adults deserve to die, because somehow the divine has deemed death is their punishment. But, how about babies, little children, the innocent? If all of them deserved to die, perhaps because they'd grow up to be sinners, then how about free will, choice, own volition?  All religions are big on people having to demonstrate their goodness. Otherwise it'd be pointless. A defective person would only do bad things; no choice, therefore, no personal responsibility.

This kind of intellectual pondering has no place in religion. Not if ideas, positions, moral stances are to be arrived by reasoning and rationality. Religion is divinely inspired, thus it cannot possibly be the creation of men, who don't have the capacity of infinite knowledge and wisdom. A few chosen ones are given the divine message in secret. The problem with this method of divinity is that even if we accept the message how do we know its true source? The gods have chosen to give conflicting messages to different peoples over the millennia. This is a conundrum for me. Any cursory comparative review of the religions shows how different they are, especially the farther apart on this globe they began. Proximity of start-up religions have similarities because people are influenced by each other. 

When there's unbearable sorrow, it's natural to seek comfort, a gleam of hope, somewhere, anywhere. Religion and the cultural associations it entails, provides such. When you lose so much, perhaps a loved one, you may seek comfort by an imaginary deity, that in the afterlife all this suffering will be gone, if, of course, you obey divine law. It's a bargaining, an almost foolproof construct, bathed in fear and sorrow.

But, what still amazes me is that after a big tragedy, where millions of people suffer horribly and die, almost all of them deeply religious, and the deity just sits up there observing and doing nothing, well, this is perversely wicked, immoral, unkind, and evil.