Monday, January 31, 2011

Shocker from Florida

Dave Weigel at Slate is reporting a real bombshell. A federal judge has struck down the entire health care reform law about which there has been so much political quarrelling over the past two years.

Judge Roger Vinson of the Northern District of Florida has ruled that because the individual mandate part of the law, the part that requires each person to purchase insurance, is unconstitutional, and because that part of the law cannot be severed from the rest of the law, the whole thing must be declared unconstitutional.

This is enormously significant news. If the ruling withstands appeal, the last two years, during which the Democrat party essentially invested all of their energy, focus and political capital to get this bill passed, and which effort ultimately cost them a historic defeat in last November's election, was all for nothing.

It's obvious that Judge Vinson ruled on the law's merits and not on what he wished were the case. Here's what he said:
Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void. This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications. At a time when there is virtually unanimous agreement that health care reform is needed in this country, it is hard to invalidate and strike down a statute titled "The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act."
And also this:
It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place.
Health care reform was the one thing President Obama could claim as a genuine accomplishment going into the 2012 campaign season. Now it appears that he has nothing. Events can change that, of course, but right now the Democrats must be feeling pretty empty.

Presidential Snoozer

Watching President Obama go through the motions in his State of the Union speech last Tuesday night made me think that if he could bottle his presentation he could make a fortune selling it to insomniacs. I know that it certainly gave me a serious case of the drowsies.

In light of recent events in Egypt the SOTU speech now seems almost irrelevant, but I want to share Peggy Noonan's take on Mr. Obama's snoozer just the same because she says so much that's worth reading.

Ms. Noonan is a former speech writer herself and currently an op-ed writer for the Wall Street Journal. I've copied her column in its entirety because the link is temporary, and the column may be replaced by her next piece soon. Here's what she says about Mr. Obama's speech:
It is a strange and confounding thing about this White House that the moment you finally think they have their act together—the moment they get in the groove and start to demonstrate that they do have some understanding of our country—they take the very next opportunity to prove anew that they do not have their act together, and are not in the groove. It’s almost magical.

The State of the Union speech was not centrist, as it should have been, but merely mushy, and barely relevant. It wasted a perfectly good analogy—America is in a Sputnik moment—by following it with narrow, redundant and essentially meaningless initiatives. Rhetorically the speech lay there like a lox, as if the document itself knew it was dishonest, felt embarrassed, and wanted to curl up quietly in a corner of the podium and hide. But the president insisted on reading it.

Response in the chamber was so muted as to be almost Xanax-like. Did you see how bored and unengaged they looked? The applause was merely courteous. A senator called the mood on the floor “flat.” This is the first time the press embargo on the speech was broken, by National Journal, which printed the text more than an hour before the president delivered it. Maybe members had already read it and knew what they were about to face.

The president will get a bump from the speech. Presidents always do. It will be called a success. But it will be evanescent. A real moment was missed. If the speech is remembered, it will be as the moment when the president actually slowed—or blocked—his own comeback.

The central elements of the missed opportunity:

• An inability to focus on what is important now. The speech was more than half over before the president got around to the spending crisis. He signaled no interest in making cuts, which suggested that he continues not to comprehend America’s central anxiety about government spending: that it will crush our children, constrict the economy in which they operate, make America poorer, lower its standing in the world, and do in the American dream. Americans are alarmed about this not because they’re cheap and selfish but because they care about the country they will leave behind when they are gone.

President Obama’s answer is to “freeze” a small portion of government spending at current levels for five years. This is a reasonable part of a package, but it’s not a package and it’s not a cut. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who called it “sad,” told a local radio station the savings offered “won’t even pay the interest on the debt we’re about to accumulate” in the next two years. The president was trying to “hoodwink” the American people, Mr. Coburn said: “The federal government is twice the size it was 10 years ago. It’s 27% bigger than it was two years ago.” Cuts, not a freeze, are needed—it’s a matter of “urgency.”

• Unresponsiveness to the political moment. Democrats hold the White House and Senate, Republicans the House, the crisis is real, and the next election is two years away. This is the time for the president to go on the line and demand Republicans do so, too. Instead, nothing. A freeze.

• An attitude that was small bore and off point. America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we’ll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we’ll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we’ll get our fiscal life in order, we’ll save our country. Right?

Nah. We’ll focus on “greater Internet access,” “renewable energy,” “one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” “wind and solar,” “information technology.” “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.” None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer. The administration continues to struggle with the concept of priorities. They cannot see where the immediate emergency is. They are like people who’d say, “Martha, the house is on fire and flames are licking down the stairs—let’s discuss what color to repaint the living room after we rebuild!” A better priority might be, “Get the kids out and call the fire department.”

• Unbelievability. The president will limit the cost of government by whipping it into shape and removing redundant agencies. Really? He hasn’t shown much interest in that before. He has shown no general ideological sympathy for the idea of shrinking and streamlining government. He’s going to rationalize government? He wants to “get rid of the loopholes” in our tax code. Really? That’s good, but it was a throwaway line, not a serious argument. And he was talking to 535 representatives and senators who live in the loopholes, who live by campaign contributions from industries and interest groups that pay protection money to not get dinged in the next tax bill.

On education, the president announced we’re lagging behind in our public schools. Who knew? In this age of “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” every adult in America admits that union rules are the biggest impediment to progress. “Race to the Top” isn’t the answer. We all know this.

As for small things and grace notes, there is often about the president an air of delivering a sincere lecture in which he informs us of things that seem new to him but are old to everyone else. He has a tendency to present banalities as if they were discoveries. “American innovation” is important. As many as “a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.” We’re falling behind in math and science: “Think about it.”

“I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories. . . . I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans.” But our deterioration isn’t new information, it’s a shared predicate of at least 20 years’ standing, it’s what we all know. When you talk this way, as if the audience is uninformed, they think you are uninformed. Leaders must know what’s in the national information bank.

He too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I’s out of his speeches. We called his edits “I-ectomies.” Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does “I implants.”

Humor, that leavening, subtle uniter, was insufficiently present. Humor is denigrated by serious people, but serious people often miss the obvious. The president made one humorous reference, to smoked salmon. It emerged as the biggest word in the NPR word cloud of responses. That’s because it was the most memorable thing in the speech. The president made a semi-humorous reference to TSA pat-downs, but his government is in charge of and insists on the invasive new procedures, to which the president has never been and will never be subjected. So it’s not funny coming from him. The audience sort of chuckled, but only because many are brutes who don’t understand that it is an unacceptable violation to have your genital areas patted against your will by strangers.

I actually hate writing this. I wanted to write “A Serious Man Seizes the Center.” But he was not serious and he didn’t seize the center, he went straight for the mush. Maybe at the end of the day he thinks that’s what centrism is.
And here's Ramirez summing up in one picture everything that's wrong with both the speech and the President's agenda:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Be Careful What You Hope For

Americans need to be careful what we wish for in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world where massive protests are threatening to topple even well-established regimes like that of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

Many of these Arab nations are ruled by authoritarians and despots who've been little concerned about the plight of the Arab people and the people have had enough (parenthetical question: Why aren't the Palestinians rebelling against Hamas?). The protestors are demanding more freedom and democratically elected governments. They want, to put it succinctly, what Arabs living in Europe and the U.S. have.

Americans are sympathetic to these desires, but here's the problem. Almost always revolutions initiated and led by democratic reformers at some point get co-opted by ruthless, brutal factions, and what starts out as a revolution for freedom winds up as a tyranny worse than the one it replaces.

This was the pattern throughout the twentieth century in the communist revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere. It's what happened in Iran when the Shah was deposed and the mullahs took over, and it's what very well could happen in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has entered the fray. The Muslim Brotherhood is the group that sired al Qaeda and has inspired Islamic extremists around the world.

Mubarak's government was oppressive, but he was not interested in war with Israel and worked with the U.S. to prevent those who wanted to bathe that region in blood from realizing their dreams. He was also an ally in the war against terrorism. He was a good friend to the U.S. but not so much to the masses of his own people.

If Mubarak resigns it could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on who takes over. If it's the Muslim Brotherhood, which it very well may be since they are organized and likely, despite their claim to have renounced violence, to resort to it, then Egypt will be the next Iran. Worse, if Egypt is taken over by the extremists, the rest of the Arab world will probably topple like dominos.

I don't think we should hope that Mubarak survives, rather I think we better hope that if he falls he's replaced by people who are willing to continue his opposition to extremist terrorism and war while keeping their boot off the throats of the people. History, though, gives us little reason to be optimistic that this will happen.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Best and Worst on Immigration

NumbersUSA is a group concerned about immigration policy, particularly illegal immigration. They've graded nine potential presidential contenders, including President Obama, on their declared positions on various immigration-related issues.

It will probably not surprise anyone that President Obama comes out with the lowest grade in the group, but it may surprise some that not faring much better are Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. The top score was a C+ which they gave to....well you should go to their website to find out.

Re: Poverty in America

Several years ago we put up a post titled Poverty in America that captured the interest of a reader who came across it while browsing the archives. She sent us the following thoughts:
I would have to say that I agree with this post for a number of reasons, as well as a few of my own personal viewpoints on the issue. I have very strong feelings about this, and they may sometimes come across as harsh and un-caring, but I can justify very strongly why I feel this way. In my opinion, the government of this country is too lenient on the welfare system. People have become dependent on the government to support them, and have lost all desire to achieve anything on their own. I believe that it is too easy to get welfare benefits, and there are too many ways to cheat the system.

Personally, I have a few family members who I have seen my entire life cheating the system. My aunt, for example, has a drug and alcohol addiction, and has never held a job a day in her life. She asks why she should get a job when the government gives her almost $2000 a month in food stamps, cash assistance, and disability to not work. In a way I see her point...I work full time and pay for my education (with no help from the government), and I make barely $1200 a month. She has to go to monthly psych visits, which is also paid for by the government, and tells them that she has a problem and can't function in the "real world". But knowing her personally, I know that she can, she just doesn't want to and lies so that she can continue to get support. This is just one of many examples that I can think of.

I also work in retail, so I see the abuses of the system there every day. Almost every customer that walks through the door has an access card in their wallet. I am not exaggerating. Probably 99%. I see them pull out cash from the ATM with their cash side of the benefit card to buy things like cigarettes and lottery tickets, and then use their cards to buy a soda. It frustrates me so much! I don't think that it is fair that MY tax money goes to these people so that they can make poor choices and buy cigarettes and lottery tickets, but can't afford to buy food. Why should I have to pay for their poor life choices? I watched a lady one time spend over $100 on lottery tickets in an hour, and then use her access card to buy a soda. Ridiculous!

Because of these reasons, and probably countless other examples that would probably take up 30 pages, I feel that the welfare system should be completely modified, if not eliminated altogether! If they need help, then they need help. But I think that they should monitor the people who receive help more carefully to determine if they actually need it in the first place, and while they receive it. I also think they shouldn't let them purchase "convenience" items (such as gourmet coffee and smoothie drinks like they do where I work), cigarettes, and lottery tickets.

If they can afford that kind of stuff, then they shouldn't need help to begin with. I also think that they should limit the food they can buy to healthy choices. I see people every day come in and buy nothing but junk food...what is the point? So that in 10 years when they are obese from poor eating habits and have cardiorespiratory disease from smoking the government can then pay for their health care? It seems like an endless cycle.

The bottom line is that these people will never have the desire to better themselves if the government continues to support them. They will do what is necessary to get by and that is all. After all, why work and get an education when you will always have a paycheck no matter what? Why worry about using condoms when the government will support any child born without a father? Why worry about anything at all when you know that all of your needs will be taken care of, leaving you to not have to work hard to support yourself or your family? Many of these people come from families that have been that way for a long time, and they learn from their families that they don't have to work hard. So they don't.

The reason I have such strong feelings about this issue is because, like I said before, I have a few members in my family that are on welfare and abuse the system. I could have easily gone down that same path, but I didn't. I made a choice to better myself and to work hard, and I feel that if I can do it, then anyone can.
The reader chose to remain anonymous, but I think she speaks for a lot of Americans who are just fed up with pulling a wagon full of people who refuse to get out of the wagon and help.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Journalists Fib

Here's a shocker: Some journalists just make stuff up. Journalist Mike Evans had reported that he had spoken with Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie and that Abercrombie had told him that there was no birth certificate for Barack Obama anywhere to be found. Now Evans has been forced to confess that he "misspoke" - the current euphemism for "told a whopper".

Here's the story:
A celebrity journalist now claims he misspoke when he said last week that Hawaii’s governor told him he was unable to find President Barack Obama’s original birth certificate after a search of state and hospital archives. Mike Evans told on Wednesday he was remorseful and embarrassed that he appeared to have given the impression that he had discussed the search for Obama’s birth certificate with Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Evans, who says he has been a close friend of Abercrombie since the 1980s, appeared on Minnesota’s KQRS radio last week and said he’d been told by the governor himself that Obama’s birth certificate was nowhere to be found. Evans told KQRS on Jan. 20:

"Yesterday, talking to Neil's office, Neil says that he searched everywhere using his powers as governor ..... there is no Barack Obama birth certificate in Hawaii. Absolutely no proof at all that he was born in Hawaii."

But that’s no longer Evans’ story.

“Only this I can you tell you is 100 percent fact: that Neil never told me there was no birth certificate,” Evans told Fox News. “I never talked to him.”

On the morning of Jan. 20, Evans says he accidentally told KQRS that he’d spoken directly with Gov. Abercrombie about the Obama birth certificate.

“I was on 34 radio stations that morning. That was the only station where instead of saying ‘the hospital said there’s no birth certificate’ I misspoke and said Neil said that,” Evans said. “I misspoke and I apologize for that. I apologize to Neil.”

Evans says he first noticed the story on Jan. 18, when he was reading an online article with the headline, “Hawaii governor can't find Obama birth certificate.” The article cites an interview with a former Honolulu elections clerk who says records of Obama’s birth could not be found at either Honolulu hospital.

“Halfway down the story it said the long form certificate was not on file at the two hospitals,” Evans said. “It says the hospitals say there’s no birth certificate and says Neil says he couldn’t find it.”

Evans said he continued reading other reports online, including one that quotes a former Honolulu election official as saying no hospital has been able to find Obama’s original long form birth certificate.
This story is a little confusing, but evidently, the hospitals have said they have no record of Barack Obama's birth, but, contrary to what Evans had earlier reported, the Hawaii governor who was on a mission to find the darn thing never said there was no such document. He has, though, admitted to failing in his quest for this holy grail.

But that aside, how can anyone "accidentally" tell a radio station that he spoke to the governor about anything, let alone something as contentious and serious as documentation of the president's citizenship and eligibility to serve?

There's a moral to this unfortunate story: Just because you read it in the papers, heard it on the news, or saw it on television doesn't mean it's true.

Seeing What's in it

Over at Hot Air John Sexton reports that the number of waivers granted by Health and Human Services to businesses and unions who have requested exemptions from the Health Care Reform law (Obamacare) has shot from 222 to 729 in one month. Over two million people are now exempted from the program.

Sexton explains the reason for these waivers:
This ever-expanding list of waivers is the direct result of ObamaCare raising the annual benefit caps on certain health plans. Obviously, a plan with higher annual limits is potentially more costly than one without them. The money to cover the difference in premiums has to come from somewhere. Without the waivers, it will come from the employers who are forced by law to upgrade to the more expensive plan. In other words, the 729 organizations who have received waivers are not seeking refuge from an unintended consequence, but from the costs associated with one of ObamaCare’s features. The real question is what these businesses will do once the waiver program comes to an end.
By requiring insurance providers to raise the benefit levels that they're obligated to provide to their clients in a year, Obamacare in effect forces the providers to raise the premiums they charge. This means that businesses and unions who pay part or all of their employees' insurance have to pay more for their employees. That means that these businesses will have the following options: cut costs elsewhere, lay people off, or opt not to take on new employees.

That's a heck of a position for a "jobs president" to put businesses in.

Actually there's another option for employers, one that is probably the intent of Obamacare: drop employee health care coverage. This would drive employees who can't get care through their employers into government provided insurance, a single-payer system, like many European countries have. It would probably also drive insurance companies out of business.

When the President assures us that we'll be able to keep our current insurance under Obamacare I'm sure his aides in the White House are all snickering.

Before the vote to pass this bill last year, then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi perplexed people of common sense everywhere when she told us that we had to pass the bill in order to see what was in it. Well, now we're seeing what's in it, and, just like seeing what's in a sausage, it isn't pretty. That's why the GOP and, I suspect, a lot of moderate Democrats, want to see the thing repealed.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Confronting the Data

A Pennsylvania high school has decided that the statistics can no longer be subordinated to ideology. Black students, particularly males, are failing in disproportionate numbers and putting them in classes with whites and Asians isn't helping. McCaskey has decided to initiate a pull-out program just for African-American students wherein for a small portion of the day they'll be mentored by a teacher of the same race and gender. Here's part of the story:
A high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is defending its decision to segregate its students by race and gender. The scheme, at McCaskey East High School, separates black students from the rest of the school body, and then further breaks it down into black females and black males. The separation is only for a short period - six minutes each day and 20 minutes twice a month - but it naturally drew criticism for bringing back the awful memory of racial segregation. Today the school's principal defended its policy.

Bill Jimenez said the school noticed that black students were not performing as well as other students, and that research had shown that same-race classes with strong same-race role models led to better academic results.

Mr Jimenez admitted that no other students were divided by race at the school, but he added that academic data dictated the school take a different approach with its black students.

He told 'One of the things we said when we did this was, "Let's look at the data, let's not run from it. Let's confront it and see what we can do about it".'

The idea came from Angela Tilghman, an instructional coach at McCaskey East. She said statistics had shown about a third of McCaskey's African-Americans scored proficient or advanced in reading on last year's Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, compared with 60 per cent of white students and 42 per cent of students overall.

In mathematics, only 27 per cent of black students scored proficient or advanced.

She said research had shown that grouping black students by gender with a strong role model could boost both academic achievement and self-esteem.
There's more about McCaskey's experiment at the link.

Actually many high schools with a substantial minority population are already segregated to some extent. Walk into any AP or honors class and you'll be confronted by a sea of white and Asian faces. The few black students in the classes will be mostly female. Walk into the low level and remedial classes and you'll see a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic males.

I don't know why this is, but I don't buy the traditional explanation that it's due to poverty, or racism, or inadequate funding, or any of the other facile explanations that we're often given.

Nor do I understand why whites and Asians can learn from teachers of any race or gender, but blacks, or at least black males, can only learn from other black males. There's a very serious problem in all of this, and, in my opinion, political correctness has crippled efforts to find out exactly what it is. In fact, political correctness has stood in the way of helping black male students for two generations, because it has made people reluctant to speak frankly about the problem, and it has prevented those who are concerned about it from positing any cause other than those - racism and poverty - which are promoted by the left.

Ever since political scientist Charles Murray and Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein were excoriated by liberals for their 1994 book The Bell Curve, which showed that black students underperformed on assessments of IQ, serious scholars have shied away from suggesting any causes and solutions to this crisis that did not have the left's stamp of approval. Consequently, a large number of African American students have passed through our schools for fifty years with only minimal benefit.

We should applaud Principal Bill Jimenez for "confronting the data and not running from it."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Good and Evil

David Kahane diagnoses the real reason why there's so little civility in our politics. Conservative troglodytes simply won't submit to their liberal betters and yield to their higher wisdom and goodness. Addressing his epistle to the benighted right, Kahane, who, in case you can't tell, is actually being facetious, opens with this (pardon the language):
His Exalted Majesty Barack Hussein Obama II, Lord of the Flies, Keeper of the Hoops, and Protector of the Holy Cities of Honolulu and Chicago, is right. It’s time for a new tone. A kinder, gentler tone, just like the one Daddy Bush was talking about right around the time he tried to upend Saddam Hussein back in the day. A tone of sweet reasonableness, of civility in the way we interact with each other, an Athenian level of discourse that would make Pericles proud.

If only you bastards would let us do it.

Taking my cue from such exemplars as Reps. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, I’m talking about a whole new way to look at political speech, one that combines First Amendment protections — which of course we could not possibly respect more — with a living-and-breathing constitutional view that above all prizes personal responsibility for public utterances, lest some wingnut loon or right-wing goon be driven into a homicidal fit of rage by Sarah Palin’s recipe for moose stew.

In other words, shut the hell up.
The rest of his column is pretty good. Give it a read. Meanwhile, savor the irony of Chris Matthews berating conservatives for an entire segment of his show for their lack of civility then in the next segment slurring tea-partiers with the much-cherished "nazi" insinuation.

I should point out that there's nothing wrong, at least in my opinion, with calling someone a nazi, or a racist, or a liar provided one offers solid evidence to support the charge. If the allegation is made without giving any explanation as to why the charge is justified then the claim is irresponsible, uncivil, and detestable. If one engages in such behavior while at the same time criticizing others for doing the same thing then that individual is either risibly inconsistent or, if consciously aware of what he or she is doing, shamefully hypocritical.

People like Matthews seem to do this a lot, but I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that I don't think they're aware of it. It's just that they have, or seem to have, a subconscious conviction that the political right is inherently evil and the left is inherently good. Some liberals see everything within this interpretive matrix, and without even thinking about what they're saying they just assume, without the need for evidence even faintly occurring to them, that anyone who is upset with liberal economic and social policies must have evil motives, if not be completely racist or sympathetic to nazi ideology.

Let's not be afraid to call things as they are, but if doing so is unflattering or insulting then we have an obligation to justify the charge. Otherwise it's just childish name-calling.

Inciting Violence

Liberals are rightly upset by an article in a conservative magazine in which a prominent tea party leader declares that in order to bring about real change tea party members should resort to violent riots:
“Local protests have to accumulate and spread — and become more disruptive — to create pressures on national politicians. An effective movement of the Tea Party will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece. . . .”
Liberal opinion shapers are pointing out that since the riots in Greece have been violent, and people have died, the Tea Party is inciting violence and should be condemned by all Americans along the entire length of the political spectrum. Such recommendations coming from prominent leaders are incredibly irresponsible, it is justly noted, and will lead us down the path to social chaos. The tea party will have blood on its hands.

We can all agree that good, sensible people should condemn this kind of rhetoric and dissociate themselves from anyone who utters it. Encouraging violent protest has no place in our politics nor in our country.

Sadly, though, liberals haven't shown much evidence that they're actually upset by the call for violence, perhaps because it didn't appear in a conservative magazine, and it wasn't a tea party spokesperson who uttered those words. They were spoken by Francis Fox Piven, an editor at the leftist magazine The Nation in an editorial on December 10th of last year. The quote is accurate except that she used the word "unemployed" where I substituted "Tea Party".

Piven is a leading socialist intellectual who has been said to have been influential on President Obama's political development. Since Piven is a lefty, though, the media has been pretty quiet about her call to emulate the riots in Greece. Somehow the call for violent riots, a call that would be loudly, energetically, and correctly condemned if it had emanated from the right, is considered righteous when coming from the left.

Good thing for Ms. Piven she isn't Michelle Bachman urging her listeners to be "armed" with information on pending legislation, and "dangerous" to their political opponents. If she were, the media would have committed the journalistic equivalent of water-boarding on her by now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sick Joke

A gentleman by the name of Richard Belfry has a website called "Jesus Hates Obama". Mr. Belfry had sought to sponsor a 30 second Super Bowl ad that depicted bobble-head versions of President Obama and a scowling Jesus and I don't know what all else and don't much care. Fox declined his proposal so, mercifully, the ad will not appear.

Mr. Belfry insists his meme that Jesus hates Obama is all a joke:
Belfry said he's sold more than 70,000 Jesus Hates Obama T-shirts out of the back of his car and through word of mouth since the company launched in 2009.

He said he was shocked by Fox's decision [to decline his Super Bowl ad].

"They don't realize it's a joke," he said.
I can't imagine how Fox manages to miss the humor in Mr. Belfry's kneeslapper. Nor can I tell which is more discouraging - that someone would sell this sort of junk or that so many people would buy it. One thing I think it is safe to say about both Mr. Belfry and his customers - none of them know much about the man whose entire life was not only apolitical, but much more important, was focused on teaching us to love even those we consider our "enemies", political and otherwise.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Busy Place

Jason came across this fascinating video and forwarded it to us. It compresses into one minute 24 hours of global air traffic as viewed from a geosynchronous satellite. The video translates the aircraft's transponder signal into a light signal. It looks like one of those videos of cytoplasm streaming through a cell. Take a look:
The globe is a busy place.

Oh, Boy

Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie promised when he took office last month that he was going to put the "birther" controversy to rest once and for all by producing President Obama's long-form birth certificate, the only official record of birth. We commented at the time that this was an extraordinarily foolish move. The birther movement had fallen into senescence and had become largely a target of ridicule. If, however, it turns out that the governor, who thought he was helping the president, can't make good on his promise then he's simply going to breath new life into the doubts and create a lot more headaches for the President.

Now it seems that just that has happened. The Governor was asked recently how his search for the elusive document was going, and he had to admit that he just can't find the darn thing.

Here's the UK Daily Mail (Where's the American press on this, anyway?):
Pressure was mounting on Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie today amid increasing confusion over whether President Obama was born there. Abercrombie said on Tuesday that an investigation had unearthed papers proving Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961.

He told Honolulu's Star-Advertiser: 'It actually exists in the archives, written down,' he said.

But it became apparent that what had been discovered was an unspecified listing or notation of Obama's birth that someone had made in the state archives and not a birth certificate.

And in the same interview Abercrombie suggested that a long-form, hospital-generated birth certificate for Barack Obama may not exist within the vital records maintained by the Hawaii Department of Health.
In other words, Mr. Obama may not be able to prove that he really was born in the U.S. Birthers should tread carefully, though, warns Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh smells a devilishly clever plot afoot to discredit Mr. Obama's enemies. According to Limbaugh it works like this: The certificate really is there but Abercrombie is pretending that he can't find it in order to tempt some big name Republicans to start making hay about the issue. Then, presto, Mr. Abercrombie deftly pulls the certificate out of a hat, as it were, and make the Republicans, who had been accusing Mr. Obama of being an illegitimate president, look completely stupid.

Could be. Or maybe he's just determined to make himself look like a blundering dolt by reminding people of the controversy, by promising to end it and only making it worse, and thereby making life miserable for the President. Mr. Obama must be wondering right about now why anyone who has friends like Mr. Abercrombie would ever need enemies.

UPDATE: The WaPo reports that state officials have informed the Governor that the law prevents them from releasing the mysterious documents without the consent of the person they document. The President has refused to cooperate so it looks like Mr. Abercrombie is back where he started and the birthers remain unmollified, unrefuted, and undaunted.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Moral Abolitionism

Richard Garner is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Ohio State University. He's also a moral abolitionist. To find out precisely what that means read what Professor Garner says in the piece below excerpted from an essay in Philosophy Now:
Free thinkers and skeptics throughout history have entertained the suspicion that morality is a mistake, a scam, a fiction that we make up; but few others have welcomed this idea with open minds. Recent discussions of the topic can be traced to the work of the philosopher John Mackie, who defended his ‘moral error theory’ by criticizing a widely held understanding of morality called ‘moral realism,’ the belief that morality is something ‘real’ that we discover, not something we have made up.

Mackie called his own view ‘moral skepticism,’ but he was unskeptical enough to open his 1977 book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong with the ‘dogmatic’ assertion that “there are no objective values.” Just as atheists claim that the beliefs of theists about the objective existence of a god are in error, moral error theorists claim that the beliefs of moral realists about the objective existence of moral rules, prohibitions, virtues, vices, values, rights, and duties are also in error, and for the same reason – what they are talking about doesn’t exist.
In other words, if God doesn't exist morality is a sham because there's nothing to ground it, a claim with which we entirely agree, and have been stressing at Viewpoint for the entire seven years of our existence. We've repeatedly called upon atheists to either admit that their talk of moral duties is nonsense or to give up their atheism (the preferred solution) and embrace theism.

Garner, unfortunately, chooses the first path. Citing the work of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens he dismisses belief in God as out of the question and acknowledges that morality is an illusion (he calls this the moral error theory, i.e. it's an error to believe that there are objective moral values and duties.). Since morality is an illusion we should abolish moral discourse from our lives to the extent that we can (moral abolitionism):
So what must we do if we want to abandon morality, even temporarily? It is useless to ban ‘evaluative’ words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘ought’. Such words have far too many morally neutral and perfectly unproblematic uses. It is not these words that cause trouble, but the use of any word in that special way that implies objective values or objective moral rules that are independent of human decisions, desires, agreements, or demands. But if abolishing, or even restricting, morality involves more than changing our vocabulary, what does it involve? How do we even get started?

First we can just take some time to observe ourselves in the act of making moral judgments and to notice what happens when the thought that someone is evil or deserves to suffer arises. Eventually we will be ready to try keeping some of those thoughts to ourselves. This itself is an accomplishment, but it is not yet to suppress the thought. For that we need to learn how to reject moral judgments that pop into our mind. We can neutralize some of them by displacing them with non-moral thoughts, such as the thought that we could be biased, or mistaken about some detail, motive, or prudential calculation. Or we could remind ourselves that we are conducting an experiment to see if we can back away from moralizing without all Hell breaking loose.

As (and if) we move in the direction of moral abolitionism, we will see that we are in no way limited in our ability to express and communicate our attitudes, feelings, and requirements. Instead of telling others about their moral obligations, we can tell them what we want them to do, and then we can explain why. We can express annoyance, anger, and enthusiasm, each of which has an effect on what people do, and none of which requires language that presupposes objective values or obligations. The moral abolitionist is equipped, as we all are, with habits, preferences, policies, aims, and impulses that can easily play the roles usually assigned to moral beliefs and thoughts.
Garner is at least a lot more consistent than the New Atheist writers he cites who deny that God exists but who nevertheless think they can still cling to the traditional moral assumptions inherited from their fathers.

Even so, Garner appears to be under the sway of his own set of illusions. He seems to think that we can avoid "all hell breaking loose" if, when people behave cruelly or selfishly, we can wag our finger at them and angrily inform them that they're doing something of which we don't approve. I doubt many will find that very compelling. Moral suasion, the attempt to convince people that their behavior is wrong because it violates God's law and as such is under divine sanction, is, in Professor Garner's world, to be replaced by attempts to convince people that they're offending good manners. What Jared Loughner did in Tucson isn't "evil", according to the moral abolitionist, it's just something that most people didn't like much and wished he hadn't done. But if this is all we can say about Loughner's crime then we're trivializing it.

It may not be obvious, but what Professor Garner is endorsing is the sort of thinking that leads to a might-makes-right view of ethics. Since there are no rights and wrongs, no objective values or obligations, each person is free to do whatever he has the power to do. This is the promised land of liberation from the shackles of religion that the New Atheists are so excited about, but it is, in fact, the fast lane to its own hell. Their enthusiasm is rather like the zeal people have historically shown for tyrannies while those regimes were still in their nascent stages. It's not until all the implications of their ideology are developed and the strong man rises to the top and commences his slaughters that the people realize what a horror they had been abetting, but by then it's too late.

If God does not exist then indeed morality would be an illusion, but breaking free of that illusion, as Professor Garner proposes, leads only to holocausts, gulags and Gomorrah. The consequences of atheism are literally dreadful.

There's much more to Garner's article at the link. It's worth reading as a good example of where atheism, followed consistently, leads one.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Who's Poisoning the Rhetoric?

In the wake of the Tucson murders we've been subjected to a relentless barrage from the left-leaning media of accusations that conservatives had fostered a climate of hate in this country that made such horrific acts of violence all but inevitable. Despite the seriousness of these charges and their ceaseless asseveration, precious little in the way of plausible and specific evidence has been adduced.

On the other hand, finding examples of hate speech on the left is about as difficult as finding sand on a beach. It's simply a matter of turning on the television or radio to a station that carries a liberal talk show. Here are a few examples gleaned form the airwaves by the Media Research Center:
Conservatives Want to Kill Barack Obama: “I really think there are conservative broadcasters in this country who would love to see Obama taken out.” (Ed Schultz)

Conservatives Are Terrorists: “Do you not understand that the people you hold up as heroes bombed your goddamn country? Do you not understand that Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are as complicit of the September 11, 2001 terror attack as any one of the dumbass 15 who came from Saudi Arabia?” (Mike Malloy)

Conservatives Want You to Die: “If, in fact, the GOP doesn’t like any form of health care reform, what do we do with those 40 to 60 million uninsured?...When they show up in the emergency room, just shoot ‘em! Kill them!...Do we have enough body bags? I don’t know.” (Montel Williams)

Conservative Congresswoman Would Have Liked the Holocaust: “[Representative Michele Bachmann is] a hatemonger. She’s the type of person that would have gladly rounded up the Jews in Germany and shipped them off to death camps....This is an evil bitch from Hell.” (Mike Malloy)

Dick Cheney Eats Babies: “Cheney, by the way, looks very ruddy. I couldn’t get over that. Like, he must have feasted on a Jewish baby, or a Muslim baby. He must have sent his people out to get one and bring it back so he could drink its blood.” (Mike Malloy)

Dick Cheney Should Die: “He is an enemy of the country, in my opinion. Dick Cheney is an enemy of the country....Lord, take him to the Promised Land, will you? See, I don’t even wish the guy goes to Hell, I just want to get him the hell out of here.” (Ed Schultz)

Rush Limbaugh Should Die: “I’m waiting for the day when I pick up the newspaper or click on the Internet and find that he’s choked to death on his own throat fat, or a great big wad of saliva or something, whatever. Go away, Limbaugh, you make me sick.” (Mike Malloy)

Michele Bachmann Should Die: “So, Michele, slit your wrist! Go ahead! I mean, you know, why not? I mean, if you want to — or, you know, do us all a better thing. Move that knife up about two feet. I mean, start right at the collarbone.” (Montel Williams)
Each of these kind thoughts sprung from the enlightened lips of a progressive Democrat.

Then there was the Democrat congressman from Tennessee named Steve Cohen who evidently didn't listen to President Obama's speech in Tucson the other day. On the floor of the House he called Republicans liars, compared them to nazis, and managed, not unsurprisingly, to sound a little addlepated while doing it:
This sort of thing has been spilling forth from liberal sources for decades, but few on the left have been interested in holding their fellow lefties accountable for it. They're much more avid about condemning Sarah Palin for offering her followers the advice, "don't retreat, reload". One would think from the howling at MSNBC and other left-wing bastions this past week that she was actually passing out ammo to Jared Loughner at the Tucson Safeway.

To his credit Anderson Cooper at CNN held Cohen's feet to the fire in this interview:
Maybe reasonable people on the left side of the political spectrum are beginning to recognize the virulence of much of the rhetoric that emanates from their fellow liberals and are becoming embarrassed by it. That would be a good thing. For too many, though, the rule they follow is, if conservatives put crosshairs on a political map it's despicable, virulent hate speech. If liberals say the things quoted above it's bold, robust political dialogue. Some rule.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Academic Charade

Hot Air tips us to a pretty depressing article in USA Today. At least it'll be depressing if you're shelling out $30,000 to $40,000 a year for your kid's college expenses:
Nearly half of the nation's undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges don't make academics a priority, a new report shows. Instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research than teaching younger students, who in turn are more tuned in to their social lives, according to the report, based on a book titled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Findings are based on transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students' critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.

After two years in college, 45% of students showed no significant gains in learning; after four years, 36% showed little change.

Students also spent 50% less time studying compared with students a few decades ago, the research shows.

"These are really kind of shocking, disturbing numbers," says New York University professor Richard Arum, lead author of the book, published by the University of Chicago Press.

He noted that students in the study, on average, earned a 3.2 grade-point average. "Students are able to navigate through the system quite well with little effort," Arum said.
Other details from the book included the following:
•35% of students report spending five or fewer hours per week studying alone. Yet, despite an "ever-growing emphasis" on study groups and collaborative projects, students who study in groups tend to have lower gains in learning.

•50% said they never took a class in a typical semester where they wrote more than 20 pages; 32% never took a course in a typical semester where they read more than 40 pages per week.
A graph accompanying the article indicates that typical students spend 75% of their time either socializing or sleeping and only 7% of their time studying. The graph indicates that students spend 9% of their time in class but even that time is often spent sleeping or surfing the web on their laptops.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that there are so many schools competing for students from a shrinking demographic pool, now that the boomer generation has passed, so schools are admitting a lot more applicants that really have no business going to college. When schools dilute the intellectual quality of their student body they invariably dilute the expectations they have of those students and that, in turn, dilutes the academic standards to which those students are held.

This, I fear, sends a subconscious message to students that the school is not really serious about academic rigor, that the school and the student are engaged in a kind of kubuki dance wherein the student pays his money, puts forth a modicum of effort, and the school for its part grants him a degree at the end of the performance.

College for many is not a place for the cultivation of the life of the mind or to achieve excellence in some academic discipline. Rather, it's a place one goes to purchase a credential that will give one entree into the job market. Both sides maintain the pretense that the top priority, at least for the school, is intellectual development, but both sides also realize that in fact they're involved in a protracted business transaction. And along the way college provides lots of opportunities for fun and frolic.

Thankfully, not all schools have bought into this model, and not all instructors in the schools which do go along with the charade, but it does seem to be an overall trend.

Hundreds of Dead Babies

Haven't we often been told over the years that we must keep abortion legal because if we don't women will be seriously harmed and even killed in "back-alley" abortions? It appears that legalizing abortion is no guarantee that back-alley butchers won't still be plying their grisly trade:
A West Philadelphia abortion doctor, his wife and eight other suspects are now under arrest following a grand jury investigation.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 69, faces eight counts of murder in the deaths of a woman following a botched abortion at his office, along with the deaths of seven other babies who, prosecutors allege, were born alive following illegal late-term abortions and then were killed by severing their spinal cords with a pair of scissors.

“I am aware that abortion is a hot-button topic,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “But as district attorney, my job is to carry out the law. A doctor who knowingly and systematically mistreats female patients, to the point that one of them dies in his so-called care, commits murder under the law. A doctor who cuts into the necks severing the spinal cords of living, breathing babies, who would survive with proper medical attention, is committing murder under the law.”

Gosnell is facing charges of murder in the third degree for the death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar. Mrs. Mongar died on November 20, 2009, when she was overdosed with anesthetics prescribed by Gosnell. He is also facing seven murder charges for the deaths of infants who were killed after being born viable and alive during the sixth, seventh, or eighth month of pregnancy. Gosnell is also facing numerous other charges.

Gosnell is suspected of killing hundreds of living babies over the course of his 30-year practice. However, he is not charged because the records do not exist.

DA Williams said Gosnell made approximately $1.8 million in one year alone performing the procedures.

Four of the suspects, some improperly licensed according to officials, also face multiple counts of murder for allegedly killing the newborns. All of the suspects are now behind bars after warrants were served overnight.

A search of Gosnell’s office, called the Women’s Medical Society, revealed that bags and bottles holding aborted fetuses were scattered throughout the building. Jars containing the severed feet of babies lined a shelf.

Gosnell, a family practioner, was never certified as an OB/GYN. He is accused of re-using unsanitary instruments and performing procedures in filthy rooms. Some of the rooms had litter boxes and animals present at the time of the operations.

Investigators also said Gosnell allowed unlicensed employees, including a 15-year-old high school student, to perform operations and administer anesthesia.

The grand jury investigation revealed that, for over two decades, government health and licensing officials had received repeated reports about Gosnell’s dangerous practices. However, no action was ever taken, even after the agencies learned that Mrs. Mongar had died during routine abortions under Gosnell’s care (see related story).

Dr. Gosnell, who has practiced in the West Philadelphia neighborhood for decades, is also the target of a federal grand jury investigation into illegally prescribing prescription drugs. Investigators say during a search of his home, they found $240,000 in cash.
Lots of questions present themselves in the wake of these horrific discoveries: It appears that the Pennsylvania health authorities knew what was going on, or should have, and did nothing to stop it. Why? Because abortion is a "hot-button topic"? Because abortion is such a precious "right" that nothing must be allowed to limit it, not even the horrors perpetrated in the offices of Dr. Gosnell? Will the derelict bureaucrats in the Pennsylvania state government be prosecuted or at least fired? Why does the DA sound so apologetic about having to prosecute this monstrous man? He sounds like he's enforcing a law that he doesn't personally like and wishes he could ignore.

Finally, why isn't this shocking story getting more play in the media? Gosnell could well be the worst serial killer in American history. Is it that his victims were mostly infants and we've reached the point where we're ambivalent about killing infants? Is it that if they made too much of this people would be reminded that our President twice voted in the Illinois senate to make infanticide legal in precisely those situations in which Gosnell committed it? Surely if it had turned out that Gosnell was a Republican or tea-partier the media would be all over it.

Anyway, I imagine the P.Z. Myers' of the world are wondering what all the fuss is about.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Death of Moderation in Pakistan

For those who may have missed the story let's recap:

Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian which, apparently, in some parts of the Muslim world, relegates one to the status of an untouchable. Mrs. Bibi was working in the fields of Ittan Wali, a village 60 miles west of Lahore, when agricultural workers picking berries with her protested that she had been asked by a landlord to fetch water for them to drink.

The other workers refused to touch the water bowl because Ms. Bibi had carried the container.

“Suddenly she saw men and women walking towards her with angry gestures,” Mr. Masih, a laborer, said in a telephone interview. “They started beating her and shouting that she had made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad.”

A mob then dragged Ms. Bibi to a local police station, where she was jailed and charged with blasphemy.

Subsequently, she was sentenced to death and has been in jail for more than a year. The sentence has not yet been carried out, at least not on her. The governor of the province, a brave Muslim by the name of Salmaan Taseer, petitioned the country's President on her behalf and criticized the draconian nature of the blasphemy laws. Mr. Taseer was promptly shot 20 times in the back by one of his bodyguards as retribution for his enlightened views.

The assassin's name was Mumtaz Qadri. Mr. Qadri, one might think, would be seen as the Pakistani equivalent of Jared Loughner, but that's not how things work in Pakistan. Sarah Topol at Slate reports that Mr. Qadri is in fact considered a hero among the Pakistani masses:
In the busy commercial market of Rawalpindi, Islamabad's twin city, the narrow alleyways of cloth dyers, jewelers, and shoe peddlers are crammed with shoppers. At a roadside food stall, men sitting at small, rickety tables warm themselves with steaming cups of chai.

Amid the swirling chaos on a frigid Sunday afternoon, everyone at the makeshift tent unanimously agrees: Mumtaz Qadri, the 26-year-old security officer who killed Punjab's governor, Salman Taseer, is a hero.

"It was the perfect action," says Malik Khan as he flashes me a thumbs up, "any Muslim would do the same thing." The bundled-up patrons clustered around us nod in agreement. And they aren't the only ones; I've been hearing the same refrain all afternoon as I traversed the bustling market.

This weekend in Karachi, 50,000 people came out in support of the blasphemy law Qadri was supposedly defending when he shot Taseer more than 20 times in the back.
As Christopher Hitchens notes in another article at Slate Mr. Taseer was murdered not for committing blasphemy himself but for criticizing a law that forbids it for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Little wonder that Muslim moderates are reluctant to confront the extremists. Debate with such people is not conducted on the level of ideas but in terms of who is most willing to murder his opponent. On that level the extremists certainly win.

Meanwhile, Asia Bibi continues to languish in prison for the crime of being Christian. That's not the official charge against her, of course - she is accused of slurring the Prophet - but anyone who has seen the movie The Stoning of Soroya M. knows how such accusations work in that part of the world. Nevertheless, even if it's true that she uttered something defamatory about the revered figure, sentencing her to execution for the offense certainly suggests that the Pakistani judicial system has a long way to go before Westerners see it as anything but barbaric.

Moral Darwinism

Tom Gilson reviews Benjamin Wiker's excellent book Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists and in the review makes this trenchant observation:
The Western world’s moral battles are not just differences of preference or opinion. They are the result of living in different worlds entirely. One of those worlds is built on an unsupported and unsupportable set of faith statements about the nature of reality, concocted not from evidence but in support of a particular moral view, which is in turn closely associated with what is believed to be our condition after death. It is a view that extends far back into antiquity but remains enormously influential in spite of modern-day scientific findings to the contrary. The rival world, the one that is forever at odds with the one just described, is that of the Christian theist.
Gilson goes on to write:
That is the point of Benjamin Wiker’s book. Unlike what I have just done (almost inexcusably, for those who would be inclined to disagree mightily with it), Wiker supports it with three hundred pages of historical and philosophical evidences.

The first world is that of Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC). Thousands of years after his death, Epicurus remains astonishingly contemporary as the father of philosophical materialism and what is today known as scientific reductionism.
It's been some years since I've read Wiker's book (it was published in 2002), but I remember being impressed with it's scholarship and his fascinating account of the millenia-long dance between the worldviews of materialistic naturalism and Christian theism. From Epicurus to the philosophes of the French Enlightenment to the progeny of the European Enlightenment into the 20th century naturalist thinkers have struggled to offer people the possibility of ethics without God.

The project has been an utter failure, but, as Nietzsche has Zarathustra proclaim, the masses have yet to fully grasp the consequences of the death of the God they have "slain". Too many moderns still labor under the illusion that God is not necessary for morality, that man's liberation from the faith of his fathers frees him to live by the higher and purer lights of human conscience and reason. When the scales fall from their eyes, when they realize as Nietzsche did, that reason and conscience give no foundation or basis for the belief that we have objective moral duties, what then? Will they reject materialism and embrace faith or will they reject faith still and follow the logic of materialism in its spiraling descent into moral nihilism?

I urge readers interested in understanding why materialism and Christianity are ethically immiscible to read Gilson's post and, even more, to read the book itself which can be ordered at our favorite bookstore. Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists is a college course all in itself.

Thanks to Bradford at Telic Thoughts for pointing us to Gilson's review.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Crosshairs, Truthers and Birthers

CNN reports that 56% of Democrats believe that Sarah Palin's crosshairs map was at least partly responsible for the Tucson shooting. This sounds ridiculous to most reasonable people, but we should remember that 61% of Democrats either believe that George Bush knew in advance of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers or are not sure.

This indication of loose marbles rolling around in the collective Democratic psyche should be kept in mind the next time an MSNBC host or newspaper columnist makes sport of the fact that some on the right are skeptical of Mr. Obama's provenance.

At least there's some reason to wonder where the President was born. There's no reason to believe that Sarah Palin had anything to do with Mr. Loughner or that George Bush had anything to do with 9/11. Sadly, some people don't need reasons.

Atheism and the Status of Newborns

Atheist biologist P.Z.Myers is considered one of the top 25 most influential living atheists. Myers has recently stated that he does not regard newborn babies as fully human nor as persons.

This rather unsurprising admission has given vjtorley at Uncommon Descent the idea for what I think is a brilliant challenge. After identifying the twenty five most influential living atheists he poses this series of questions to them:
(a) Do you believe that a newborn baby is fully human?

(b) Do you believe that a newborn baby is a person?

(c) Do you believe that a newborn baby has a right to life?

(d) Do you believe that every human person has a duty towards newborn babies, to refrain from killing them?

(e) Do you believe that killing a newborn baby is just as wrong as killing an adult?
He poses these questions, and invites those twenty five most influential atheists to respond because, he says, the world has a right to know the practical consequences of atheism.

Indeed. I don't know how many of them will take up the challenge (There are more details at the link, including a clever set of responses he offers in anticipation of questions people are likely to have), but I doubt many of them will. As atheists the answers they would give if they were honest would appall most people. Of course, as atheists, nothing obligates them to be honest.

Anyway, the value of vjtorley's challenge is that it gets the atheist's cards out on the table. The quality of an idea is judged, at least in part, by the fruit it bears. Let's see what most atheists think about whether it's okay to kill newborn babies and then, if there's a trend, let's see if we can discern a correlation between the trend and the philosophical assumptions of atheism.

Read the rest of vjtorley's proposal and see if you agree with his prediction of the answers that most atheists will give to his questions.


Multitudes of Americans suffer from a condition called tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears, or, for some, an unrelenting hissing sound like that of steam escaping from a kettle. There's no cure, but researchers have been working on finding effective treatments. Now comes word of a development that may offer hope to millions of people who live with this maddening affliction every moment of every day of their lives:
Scientists have found a way to ease chronic ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus, by stimulating a neck nerve and playing sounds to reboot the brain, according to research published Wednesday.

There is currently no cure for tinnitus, which can range from annoying to debilitating and affects as many as 23 million adults in the United States, including one in 10 seniors and 40 percent of military veterans.

Scientists believe the disorder is caused by hearing loss or nerve damage, to which the brain tries but fails to adjust.

"Brain changes in response to nerve damage or cochlear trauma cause irregular neural activity believed to be responsible for many types of chronic pain and tinnitus," said Michael Kilgard of the University of Texas, co-author of the study in the journal Nature.

"We believe the part of the brain that processes sounds -- the auditory cortex -- delegates too many neurons to some frequencies, and things begin to go awry," he said.

To fix that, researchers used rats to test a theory that they could reset the brain by retraining it so that errant neurons return to their normal state.

In rats with tinnitus, they electrically stimulated the vagus nerve, which runs from the head through the neck to the abdomen, in combination with playing a certain high-pitched tone.

When stimulated, the nerve can encourage changes in the brain by releasing chemicals such as acetylcholine and norepinephrine that act as neurotransmitters.

Rats that underwent the pairing of noise and stimulation experienced a halt to the ringing sounds for up to three and a half months, while control rats that received just noise or just stimulation did not.

An examination of neural responses in the auditory cortexes showed normal levels in the rats who were treated with the combination of stimulation and sound, indicating the tinnitus had disappeared.
The rest of the article can be found here. For the sake of the millions of people who are afraid they'll go insane if they can't stop the noise, let's hope the procedure works.

Monday, January 17, 2011

More on King's Letter

In an earlier post I encouraged readers to spend some time on this Martin Luther King day reading his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to fellow clergymen who had criticized him for leading disruptive, non-violent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in the early sixties. In case you don't have time to read the whole thing, I offer here one of my favorite sections of the letter written on April 16th, 1963:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
What King wrote may seem to many of us today to be simple common sense, but to people in the south in the 1960s the argument he laid out in the letter was like an earthquake shaking their conscience and rousing them from an injustice that was all around them but of which many were so habituated that they were insensible to it.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

For sheer rhetorical power Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech is hard to beat, but perhaps his best polemical effort was his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In terms of sheer moral force MLK's "Letter" is one of the great documents in American history.

On this day when we commemorate his life, It might be appropriate to urge our readers to invest some time reading his message, which he wrote to his fellow clergymen to explain why he, himself a clergyman, was engaged in civil disobedience. It will doubtless do more to help us understand this man than anything else we could do in ten or fifteen minutes.

A copy of the letter can be found here.

I'm sure you'll agree that it was worth your time to read.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

American Witch

Jared Loughner is an atheist, truther, and doper. He liked movies, philosophy, and English class. So what was the influence on him that pushed him to murder? Was it his atheism, a trait almost all nihilistic killers share in common? Was it his paranoia, a trait many truthers share in common? Was it the violent movies he watched with his friends?

To listen to Chris Matthews and a host of other media talkers, it was evidently none of these. Rather, it was a graphic that Sarah Palin used that showed crosshairs superimposed on congressional districts targeted for Republican victory. Or it was Michelle Bachman's call for opponents of certain legislative proposals to be "armed and dangerous", i.e. armed with information and dangerous adversaries in the arena of ideas.

This is a wonderful example of what logicians call the fallacy of False Cause: Because A precedes B therefore A must be the cause of B. Every time you breath someone in China dies, therefore your breathing must be the cause of their deaths. It's a pretty dumb argument, but it's what we've heard from liberals over and over again since the shootings a week ago.

There's no evidence that Loughner had ever even heard of Sarah Palin, no evidence that our political discourse was even on his radar screen, but no matter. Palin's "violent" imagery must have played a role in Loughner's demented crime, because, well, we hate Sarah Palin, we need to stop Sarah Palin, so like Orwell's character Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984, everything bad that happens must be blamed on Sarah Palin.

If Loughner had killed his victims two years ago the media talkers and scribblers would be scrambling to outdo each other in coming up with reasons why it was George Bush's fault, but Bush is no longer a threat and Palin is so she can expect to excoriated for anything bad that happens in the nation and perhaps even in the world. It's doubtless just a matter of time before some left-wing website comes up with a way to blame her for the devastating floods they're having in Australia.

I suggested in a post yesterday that Palin is demonized because ideologues bereft of compelling ideas need a devil to hold up to their minions like a pinata for them to take their frustrations out upon. But there's another possibility. Perhaps, buried in our collective psyche is an atavistic fear of powerful women that impels the mob to impute devilish powers to certain of them.

After all, our media is doing to Palin something very similar to what people in the Middle Ages did with women they despised - they accused them of being witches and burned them at the stake. If a woman had cross words with a man and misfortune subsequently befell the man he might allege that she had cast a curse upon him, and if the poor woman couldn't prove that she did no such thing, off to the stake she would go. The contemporary secular left is still living in the Middle Ages. Their logic is much the same as that of those who once accused women of witchcraft. Palin is guilty until proven innocent.

Some on the left have even admitted that there's no evidence that Loughner was aware of anything Palin did or said, but she's held responsible nonetheless for his deed because she has created a climate of "hatred and violence". No one can offer a plausible account of how she has done this, exactly, nor can they show that Loughner was somehow influenced by the alleged climate, but everyone just knows it must be so. In other words, Palin's a modern day witch and needs to be punished.

About the only difference between the treatment this woman receives from the folks at MSNBC and the treatment many women suffered from the mobs of the Middle Ages is that today the law prohibits them from burning her alive.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Devil Incarnate

The more the left tries to demonize Sarah Palin the more grotesque they make themselves look. The lefties at at Politico are all aflutter over Palin's comparison of the liberal slander of conservatives in the wake of the Tucson tragedy to a "blood libel". The reaction on the left was the sort of thing you might see if you threw a snake into a cage full of monkeys.

It was yet another occasion for an irrational, mean-spirited stomping of Ms Palin. Doesn't she know, they sniffed, the historical resonance of "blood libel" (For those like me who had to look it up, it was the charge against Jews in medieval times that they were using the blood of Christian children for certain religious rites)? How dare she apply this term in any other context than the one in which it arose? How dare she insinuate that conservatives are being slandered like medieval Jews? She should be "publicly shunned". Etc.

So Jim Geraghty at NRO did some research and found numerous instances of people on both the left and the right using the term, including Andrew Sullivan who, as if wishing to make himself the very exemplification of hypocrisy, is among those deriding Palin for using it. None of the examples Geraghty cites elicited any outrage from anyone, but then none of the examples involved Sarah Palin. It's just different in the left-wing fever swamps when Sarah Palin says it than when they say it.

It'll be an interesting research topic for future historians and psychologists to explore exactly how it was in 2010 and 2011 that people with impressive IQs became so completely stupid when the topic was Sarah Palin.

Nora O'Donnell of MSNBC sought, on this morning's Morning Joe program, to explain the media fascination with Palin. She said that apart from her extreme (!?) right-wing views it's partly because Palin is a Republican woman which is a political oddity. O'Donnell asserts this despite the fact that currently there are four female GOP governors - twice as many as the number of female Democrats in that office - five women in the U.S. Senate, and two dozen Republican women in Congress. How many Republican women must there be in elective office before Ms O'Donnell thinks they're not unusual?

Mark Halperin on the same program a couple of days ago faulted conservatives like Palin for pushing back against the onslaught of vitriolic rhetoric coming from the left in the wake of the Tucson killings. Halperin opines that conservatives should just "turn the other cheek" when liberals smear them.

Sure. When a conservative woman is accused by liberals of being an accessory to the murder of a nine-year old child and five others she should simply sit there and allow the accusers to defame her in whatever manner they wish regardless of how dishonest and vile it may be. A woman should know her place, the thinking seems to be, and besides, to speak up and refute the accusers will show the world that they're actually either lying or are incredibly stupid. Either way they'll look very bad, and since they're liberals we certainly can't have that.

Jacob Weisberg at concedes that conservatives like Palin didn't actually cause the Tucson atrocity, which is certainly kind of him to admit, but they're to blame for it anyway because they oppose Obama's policies, or something like that.

The more important question, though, is why people, especially at MSNBC which is obsessed with the woman, hate Sarah Palin so much. Perhaps it's for the same reason that the Iranians and other dysfunctional states often refer to the U.S. as the Great Satan. They need a devil in order to keep the mind of the rank and file off their abject misery.

Likewise, the left needs a devil in order to focus the hatred of their troops (oops, sorry for the violent metaphor) on something other than their ideas and policy proposals, because liberal ideas simply don't survive the scrutiny they receive when they're the focus of our political discussions. The left can't convince people to vote for them on the basis of their ideas so they seek to turn people's attention instead toward some conservative devil and convince people by sheer repetition how evil the devil is. Now that Bush is gone Palin happens to be the devil closest at hand.

It seems absolutely crazy and irrational, I know, particularly since Ms Palin is neither a declared candidate nor a front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2012, but what other explanation could there be?

Well, maybe there's another. I'll bounce that theory off you tomorrow.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Didn't Take Long

The President himself hit all the right notes in his speech at Tucson last night, but apparently his call to refrain from using the tragedy as an opportunity to seek partisan advantage has gone unheeded by members of his own party. Within hours of the President's address at the memorial service for the slain and wounded, an address in which he wisely admonished us to make sure that our discussions and debates about this tragedy not be "on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle", Democrats were criticizing Republican House Speaker John Boehner for not making the trip to Arizona.

Oh, well. The comity was nice while it lasted.

What's Wrong with this Article?

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer writes a compelling piece at The Philosopher's Magazine urging us all to do more to save suffering children in the third world. There's just one problem.

Before we get to the problem, though, read Singer's lede and his conclusion:
Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. It would be wrong – monstrous, in fact – to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

Yet while we all say that it would be wrong to walk past the child there are other children whose lives we could save just as easily – and yet we don’t. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that nearly 9 million children under 5 die each year from causes related to poverty. That’s 24,000 a day – a football stadium full of young children, dying every day (along with thousands of older children and adults who die from poverty every day as well). Some die because they don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia – diseases that don’t exist in developed nations, or if they do, are easily cured and rarely fatal....

As people with more than enough, we have a moral obligation to help those who, through no fault of their own, are living in extreme poverty. It’s not hard to do.
Do you see anything wrong with what Singer's arguing here? Here's a hint, Singer is an atheist.

On what conceivable grounds does Singer base his assertion that it would be "monstrous" to ignore the drowning child? On what grounds does he insist that we have a moral obligation to help those living in poverty?

What Singer and other atheists often do is piggyback on the Christian belief that a duty is imposed upon us by God to help the poor. He appeals to that sense of duty, tries to reinforce it and get us to live up to it, but at the same time he rejects the existence of the only being which can be a source of the duty - God.

For thinkers like Singer, allowing the child to drown offends his own personal value system (which is a little odd inasmuch as the man is famous for advocating infanticide), but his value system is an arbitrary set of preferences that apply to no one else unless they, too, choose to have the same preferences. When he says that it's monstrous to allow the child to drown all he's saying is that he doesn't like such decisions and he wishes people wouldn't make them. What he can't say is that the decision is objectively wrong.

When he speaks of a moral obligation we all have to help the poor he's talking nonsense - rather like saying we all have a moral obligation to like blue more than green. If moral values are merely matters of personal taste how could one man's preference possibly be obligatory for another man?

Atheists are somewhat like con-artists. They talk about objective moral values and duties and hope that no one will ever ask them to explain how there can be such things in a world in which there is no transcendent moral authority. Then, having hung these values in mid-air, so to speak, they turn around and chide Christians for believing that moral values are rooted in the Creator of the cosmos.

A famous example of the irrationality of this is the story of atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell who had been expounding his view that there are no objectively binding moral values. Then, mere minutes later, he was fiercely denouncing to his listeners a man he described as a "scoundrel".

It's sheer nonsense to claim that in a world without God anything at all could be morally "monstrous" or that we have an obligation to help people we don't even know. It's disingenuous for a non-theist to employ moral language that only a theist can rationally use. Even so, despite the irrationality of it all, atheists are fond of cloaking themselves in the mantle of reason while lecturing the rest of us on our moral obligations. We shouldn't let them get away with it.

Saving Our Cities

During the 60s and 70s many of our cities devolved into cauldrons of crime, poverty, and terror. Heather MacDonald at City Journal argues, in a column that everyone concerned about the poor and the condition of our cities simply must read, that the decay of our communities and the demoralization of our people were not accidents. They were the result of the adoption by policy-makers of a nest of liberal assumptions about human nature and sociology that the experience of three decades of urban life have amply demonstrated to be manifestly false.

MacDonald opens her column with this:
Conservative ideas are responsible for the two great urban-policy successes of the last quarter-century: the breathtaking drops in crime and in welfare dependency since the early 1990s. You’d never know it from members of the opinion elite, however, who have rarely recognized these successes, much less their provenance.

So let’s recapitulate an epic battle about the foundations of social order, a battle that had not just a clear winner but also a clear loser: the liberal policy prescriptions for cities that many opinion makers and politicians still embrace. New York has been at the center of this battle because so many of the bad ideas that wreaked havoc on cities hatched there. Fortunately, so did many of the antidotes.
What were those bad ideas? MacDonald elaborates:
Liberal urban policy was based on several core assumptions. Number One: multigenerational poverty was the result of structural forces—above all, of rapacious capitalism and racism. It could never be the result of bad decision-making or a deficit of personal responsibility. Number Two: though men were still, alas, required for conceiving a child, they were purely optional for raising one. (Corollary: the role of illegitimacy in creating and perpetuating poverty could never be acknowledged.) Number Three: low-wage work was demeaning and pointless. It was better to receive a monthly welfare check than to labor at an entry-level job. Number Four: crime was an understandable and inevitable reaction to economic injustice and discrimination. (Corollary: the police could not lower crime; only government social programs and wealth-redistribution schemes could.)

Together, these four conceits composed the most dangerous idea of all: that the bourgeois values of order, self-discipline, and respect for the law were decorative afterthoughts to prosperity, rather than its very precondition.
In the balance of the essay, which I would love to post in its entirety if only it wouldn't violate blog etiquette, MacDonald talks about how city governments finally realized that ideas that sounded good in college classrooms had failed in the crucible of real life. After billions of dollars were wasted and thousands of lives lost, liberalism was shown to be an utter disaster.

Whatever you had planned for the next five minutes put it on hold, go to the link, and read MacDonald's article. Nothing could better illustrate why conservatives believe liberal nostrums should be avoided like they were carrying HIV.