Why I Don’t Always Trust Israel

Does Israel resort to war crimes, and then lie about it, to gain its ends? It has in the past. Which is why I have a hard time believing Israel’s claims now that it isn’t targeting schools and hospitals, which are UN-observed civilian refugee sites. That would be a clear and horrific war crime under international law and the Geneva conventions. I also have a hard time believing what they also in the same breath say (see previous link), that they actually are targeting those sites because they are storing rockets for Hamas. (Yes, those two claims directly contradict each other; yes, it’s absurd to think sites observed by UN personnel are storing rockets–in fact, they clear any rockets found at sites set up as refugee centers).

To get up to speed on this, read this and this and this.

Hamas, of course, is evil and insane, if ever those words had meaning. They lie and kill all the time, in vile ways and without any rational sense. They also try to manipulate the public with false claims. But this isn’t a claim coming from Hamas.

There is a difference between responding justly with necessary force to legitimate terror and danger, and using that legitimacy as cover for trying to get away with evils even greater than those achieved by the enemy you are answering. Because of the Christian Armageddon Lobby, Israel does get away with quite a lot, and getting a free pass is a form of power, and power corrupts. If Israel is beyond all criticism, then it can slip in any evil and play the same get-out-of-jail-free card. If they are allowed to get away with anything, then they will in the end do anything. (So do we. Consider Tuskegee.)

Why am I doubtful that Israel is telling the truth this time? Because neutral observers confirm it. And Israel has done this before. In the most appalling way. And I want to share with you the example I mean. You can’t understand the world without it.

As a historian, I wonder at all the things people don’t know about our own history, and yet history repeats itself when we don’t. So let me recount something you probably have never heard about. It will sicken you. Especially the most patriotic, ra-ra, pro-military folk among you. Yes, especially you. [Read more...]

Big Win! ‘Humanists’ Now Recognized by the US Army

Are you a nonbeliever in the US Army or know someone who is? Let them know you can now identify as “humanist” on dog tags and military records. Unfortunately the other four services still don’t allow this (absurdly), but you have a chance to change that if you or someone you know are serving in the other forces, because they can now make a request and cite the Army as precedent. And maybe those forces will change to recognize that humanists exist, too, and have the same rights as Christians, Jews, Muslims, or anyone else.

This is a major accomplishment by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (in coordination with the ACLU). An official “Religious Preference” is important to military personnel not only because it allows their beliefs to be recognized on equality with any other belief system (and be counted in military statistics), but also because it can affect which chaplaincies get created and funded (and other related rights, such as access to chapel facilities, and everything else the religious get in the military), which is crucial for men and women in the service, who need these things in ways ordinary civilians do not.

The religious have the right to counsel from a chaplain, for example, to discuss problems or seek moral advice, and this comes with several privileges–such as, conversations with a chaplain are confidential (whereas, for example, albeit perversely, conversations with a psychotherapist often are not, even though that increasing lack of confidentiality destroys the medical efficacy of therapy). Chaplains can also act as advocates throughout the chain of command (most important for adherents of minority belief-systems facing discrimination or being ignored, but again just to be on equality with believers: believers can avail themselves of chaplain advocacy; atheists and humanists should have that same right). Chaplains can also facilitate requests for access to literature or family communications on the front lines. Everything they do for Christians can and should be available equally to atheists and humanists. And getting humanism recognized is the first crucial step toward that goal.

The MAAF is working to have a humanist chaplaincy finally created in the military to serve the military atheist and humanist community. There is no reason for the military not to do this, other than prejudice and immoral opposition from religious leaders. In other words, discrimination. One way to ensure the military cannot claim to be a religious body is if it officially recognizes non-religious chaplaincies. That’s precisely why religious leaders oppose this. Even though it would be an expression of fairness and equality under the law. So this recent victory with the Army, [Read more...]

Consider the Poor

Alex Gabriel has produced an excellent summary of “10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion,” available at Alternet as “10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy,” tagline, “Life without God shouldn’t have to be a luxury.”

Anyone involved in decision-making for any atheist group, local or national (even if just as a voting or outspoken member) should bookmark that article, read it, and discuss it with their group’s leadership. That link is an excellent thing to have on hand and pass on to future leadership, too. I think it should be part of any org’s permanent toolkit.

Alex discusses the reasoning behind it on his blog here at FTB: [Read more...]

Show Your Support for Atheists in the Military!

Rock Beyond Belief is this weekend, the first ever atheist rally on a military base, in response to all the Evangelical rallies on military bases. It’s common for atheist groups to be banned from military facilities; Christians can have clubs and meet on base, atheists can’t. This is just one of many ways atheists are discriminated against in the military. If you want that to change, one thing you can do is show up to be counted at this weekend’s rally. A large show of numbers will demonstrate that atheists have support and clout and aren’t just a tiny fringe group they can stomp on and ignore. It’s at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Saturday (31 March 2012) from noon to 8:30pm. Directions, how to get in, and everything you need to know is on the event’s website (linked above). And it’s free to all. You do not have to be military to go.

As a veteran myself, I’ve blogged about the importance of supporting atheists in the military before (veterans and active duty should all join the MAAF: see my blog Atheists in Foxholes). The military is pretty much the last place where the government freely and openly treats atheists as second class citizens, and violates the separation of church & state regularly by giving unqualified support to Christian movements, activities and organizations. It’s all a bit scary really. I know posting about this just a few days before the event may seem a bit last minute, but the organizers asked for one final push to make sure as many people show as we can get, and I’m happy to oblige. Make the time, make the last minute arrangements, visit even for a little bit. If you can. And maybe it will make a difference.

Red Tails

Lucas’s new film is good but not excellent. There were elements of it that disappointed me. But it may be worth your support anyway. Here’s why…

Red Tails is a movie just released honoring the Tuskegee airmen, an often unrecognized unit of black fighter pilots in WWII. For those who don’t know the backstory, George Lucas (sort of?) wrote and produced it, and has been working for over two decades to try and make this film happen, because studios just weren’t interested (he ended up paying for it himself, and it wasn’t cheap). Why? Because, he was told, a film with an “all black cast” was assumed to be a loser at the box office, especially in the foreign market, and thus not worth the investment a major film like this requires.

Sikivu Hutchinson, writing for Black Skeptics here at FtB, gets you up to speed on this fiasco in Jim Crow Hollywood 101. Although one of the deciding factors causing studios to reject the film was apparently their belief that an all-black action film would flop in the foreign market, so it’s not just the fading ghost of Jim Crow America, but also the rest of the “We Used to Love the Atlantic Slave Trade” Western World and “Why Is Their Skin a Weird Color, What Are They Aliens?” Eastern World (oh, and I suppose we ought to add the “We Can’t Afford to Buy Your Stupid Movies Because of Your Agrosubsidies, Dumb Asses!” African market and the “We Have Our Own Action Movies With People of Color in Them, Thank You” Indian market, and so on, but I’m not a studio exec so I don’t know what supposed data they were looking at).

Other WWII Films to Compare

As for myself, I thought the movie might be awesome just because it was a WWII action flick; the fact that it was about the Tuskegee airmen was just a cool bonus. I was a little unsure, though, because ever since the 80s WWII movies either suck (Pearl Harbor, anyone?) or are beyond excellent but, as one might say, kind of dark. Das Boot, Schindler’s List, Valkyrie, Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Basterds, Miracle at St. Anna, are all superb films, some are brilliant on almost every measure. But they aren’t exactly ra-ra, “heroes rock!” action flicks. Yes, Basterds had a bit of that (and some would say a bit too much of it, and that on the “um, that didn’t happen” side, but let’s be honest, we all love a good revenge fantasy now and then), but overall even that film was, let’s be honest, dark. So can we have more feel good WWII films? Sure, people die even in those. Sad things happen. It’s war. But the overall feel is not “excuse me while I go shoot myself,” but more in the “yay!” category.

Once upon a time we had those movies, albeit often wildly fictional: Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, Force 10 from Navaronne (all had a token black guy…who duly got killed; except in Force 10, where he’s only mortally wounded, demonstrating real progress in racial relations; until you notice he wasn’t depicted on any of the promo film posters, despite being Carl Weathers, hardly a nobody…). And of course there have been plenty of WWII-set pieces…that had nothing much to do with war per se. Like Victory, two of the Indianna Jones films (Raiders and Last Crusade), The Keep … (notice we are descending into even wilder fiction here). But they also used to write really heroic, sometimes even delightfully comic, WWII movies that, I have to say, would never get written today for some reason. I’m thinking of flicks like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Father Goose, and Operation Petticoat.

Red Tails: Bad News First

I name all of these so you’ll know what my point of reference is as far as what counts as a really good WWII flick (don’t make too much hay out of any omissions; there are tons of classics I haven’t seen). Red Tails doesn’t make this cut. And that’s mostly because George Lucas wrote it (the credits say two other guys did, but on The Daily Show he described himself writing it, and IMO either he did, or clones of him did, because it’s very Lucasy). George Lucas is kind of a shit writer, IMO, and the worst when he tries to write “for kids.” He talks down to kids. He apparently thinks kids are stupid. When I was watching Red Tails there were several scenes were I was pulled out of the film because of some stupid dialogue he’d put in (or allowed in, if he was just supervising the script; indeed the very first lines of the film will worry you as far as their dumbness…all I can say is, it gets better…mostly). Later I realized why that stupid, unrealistic dialogue was in there: he wants parents to take their kids to go see this movie, and he thinks kids are too stupid to follow realistic dialogue (as my wife said to me afterward, the opposite is the case: she learned how to speak and understand better by watching as a kid movies that were written for adults; but this is a guy who thinks kids loved Jar Jar Binks).

Still, there were really only three or four scenes that were that bad. The rest was at least decent, especially when the black performers were on screen (the cast is not devoid of white people, it just doesn’t have any in lead roles). But here I think the rest of what was wrong with this movie is that the director (Anthony Hemingway) kind of phoned it in whenever he was shooting white cast members. In almost every scene with a white person in it, their performance sucked. It looked like he always printed the first take, when a real director would stop and tell them, “Okay, you’re delivering your lines fine; now perform the lines. Okay, take two…” In contrast, the black actors performed solidly throughout, even R&B singer Ne-Yo, who was great, producing one of my favorite characters and adding something different to the film I’m sure would have been lost if they’d gone with someone else.

(I should also add my usual peeve about all contemporary cinema, that I’m sick of the over-use of CGI in movies today; it’s lazy and unconvincing and destroys most of the awe movies once could produce. I liked it back when we actually made movies, and not cartoons that we try to pass off as movies. But this is a minor point. I know it’s unrealistic to expect some real movie magic and actual aerial stunt work, especially when he wasn’t even getting funded properly, but I really do want to see real movies again some day. So, complaint registered. Moving on…)

Red Tails: Now the Good News

It’s a decent work of historical fiction that’s fun to watch in the classic sense. You will learn a lot about what went on and what they accomplished and how they were perceived at the start of the war and how that changed by the end of it, which is all in broad outline accurate. There’s humor and heroism. And it’s miles better than any crap film like Pearl Harbor. Note that I can’t compare Red Tails here with the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne, which covered the same unit, not only because I haven’t seen it (although now I am inspired to), but because it was not a studio released film; indeed, the fact that it was not is an example of what’s wrong with Hollywood (and accordingly, as I don’t have premium channels like HBO, I had never heard of it until researching this post today).

So what about Red Tails? Should you see this movie, and encourage others to as well? Your call. But let me play advocate: (a) it’s at least an okay movie (7 out of 10, and from me that’s saying something since most films these days don’t even rate a 5 for me); and (b) it will teach you shit about history you might not have known but would love to learn. And I don’t just mean the issues (or for some uninformed people, even mere existence) of black combat pilots in WWII, but, especially cool for a historian of technology like me, the fact that the Nazis invented jet aircraft and fielded a fleet of jet fighters during the war, and we had to fight them with ordinary prop planes (maybe someday I’ll blog about one of my old pastimes, weapons tech, and the fact that pretty much everything we fight with now was invented by the Nazis, including the automatic assault rifle, shoulder-launched rocket, and guided missile…and yes, jet fighters), and (c) it will flip the bird at the white-ass studio execs who wouldn’t pay for or to distribute this film because “no white people are in it.” They think white people won’t go see it because they aren’t in it (and it’s always supposed to be about us, see).

It would be worth it to prove them wrong. I’d certainly hate to find them feeling “vindicated” by the movie’s failure. Because studio execs are neurophysically incapable of registering a film’s quality at all, they won’t realize it failed (if it even does) because of the writing or directing, so they will think it’s because no white actors were in the lead parts. It’s this stupid false inference that has driven practically the whole industry since 1980. That’s why when one studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, every studio comes out with a hybrid talking vampire shark movie, because “obviously” that’s “in” now (rather than judging what to do based on whether a script is actually just good).

Next Move

If, however, you rankle at paying to see merely average movies just to learn stuff and support a cause, but you want to see what was actually the first all-black-lead WWII action movie, then rent Miracle at St. Anna (directed by Spike Lee). That got panned by the critics (mostly because Spike Lee didn’t direct it like a “Spike Lee” film, as critics had pigeonholed him, but actually demonstrated his skill and versatility as a director and made something quite different), and fans of “constant action” war movies hated it because it had a lot of boring “talking” and “emotion” and shit, and other people hated it because it was a little confusing and requires you to actually follow everything and be intelligent. But it actually rates as one of my top most favorite WWII films (in the “dark” category, that is), rivaling even Saving Private Ryan.

Why? Well, you might get it if after watching it, you have the balls to then watch it again, now knowing what happens and thus what all sorts of things really meant earlier in the film (the imaginary-friend scene with the boy in the barn will make you cry…once you know what was really going on in that scene). And if you have an eye for the decisions a director makes (editing, getting performances from the actors, where to put the camera) and just overall matters of quality (not much CGI here). It will also teach you about history (a central atrocity that occurs in the story is actually a true story). And it has literally the most intriguing opening scene of any war movie ever made (yes, even beating Saving Private Ryan). I know one critic who said it sometimes played too much into black stereotypes, but in fact it demonstrates how blacks themselves in the 1940s could play with those stereotypes, while some of them were based on cultural realities of the time, and in fact you actually get as much diversity of character among the men as you would in any “all white” WWII film (so if you don’t notice that, then you are the one obsessing on stereotyping…and I wonder if that was kind of Lee’s point).

Anyway, that’s an excellent film, and thoroughly anti-Lucasy (which does mean, not for kids). But what I want now are good, action-fun WWII films. Like Inglorious Basterds with an all-black infantry unit; or Operation Petticoat style antics in an all-black motorpool unit near the front lines (“When the air raid started he just took off. All he said was ‘In confusion, there is profit!’” … if you didn’t just laugh, you either have no sense of humor, or you haven’t seen Operation Petticoat recently; one of those is easy to remedy). Why not? The potential would be awesome. If you want to see that happen, though, you may have to start small and go see Red Tails. Then studios will start listening to pitches for similar films, and inevitably something awesome will get made that never would have otherwise.

In other words, maybe we should make Red Tails the next hybrid talking vampire shark movie.

Obama the Ominous Tyrant (or Not)

Did Obama sign a law granting the Presidency power to detain American citizens indefinitely without trial? No, he did not. This is yet another manufactured story from the irrational left, which simply ignores the actual facts, like so many a Tea Partier would. I have always advised people not to trust the media implicitly but to check their facts whenever they say something that seems incredible. Like that a liberal Democrat like Barack Obama would sign into law such an act. Bush, maybe. But Obama? That’s an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. Newspapers and the Daily Show don’t rate as such (as much as I love the Daily Show, they ironically trust the mainstream media too often; I say ironically, because their raison d’être is practically, or precisely, not to do that).

And in this case I can advise a very specific rule (and this applies just as well to my recent blog on regulatory law) or anything else in politics: read the damn law. It’s not like it’s a hardship to find and read the exact text of our laws. Even bills still being debated and voted on are available for free, online. Our nation has set up a whole website just for you to be able to do that (it’s called THOMAS, a project of the Library of Congress). You can search it for bills by number or title or even keywords. If you did that in this case (say, by starting from a story online about this supposedly appalling, tyranny-creating bill), you’d find the bill’s status page (H.R. 1540 was the final version), and from there discover the full text of the version passed by the Senate (and signed into law by the President). (You can also download a PDF version of the physical bill). The relevant section is section 1021 (page 265ff. in the PDF).

BTW, one thing in this bill that no one reported on, which I think might actually be the most important thing in it, is that it eliminated [in section 541] the old UCMJ provision that allowed service members to rape their own wives: that’s right, the law used to define rape as any of a list of awful things done to a woman except one’s wife (explicitly: it said wives can’t even in principle be the rape victims of their own husbands). No shit: the very first line of this law read: “Any person subject to this chapter who commits an act of sexual intercourse with a female not his wife, by force and without consent, is guilty of rape and shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.” So you can force your wife to have sex with you without her consent. Nice. In this new Act, signed by Obama, the phrase “not his wife” is now deleted. The new law has also eliminated the bizarre assumption that only women can be raped and only men commit rape, by substituting “person” for all gendered terms.

But enough on that digression (what does the press care about advances in women’s rights?). Let’s get to the supposedly “tyranny creating” part of the law. That’s the part that enumerates the President’s options for how to treat enemy combatants, which this law says [in section 1021(c)] “may include” military trial, civil trial, deportation to another country (it thus technically authorizes rendition, although there may be other laws limiting that), or “detention under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force” (which we all know means forever; and yes, the Supreme Court has certainly proved it doesn’t care about such obvious Doublespeak: as those of us know who were appalled by the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Mickey Mouse law that establishes “indefinite extension” of all copyrights, in order to forever protect Disney’s ownership of Mickey Mouse among other things, in defiance of the U.S. Constitution which mandates copyrights exist for only “limited times”; the court argued that “indefinite” does not mean “forever” because Congress might set a limit in future; yeah, right…fuck you, Supreme Court). Okay, back to the main point…

First, the law specifically says [in section 1021(c)(1)] that such “indefinite detention” without trial must be in accordance with “the law of war” (which consists of a number of treaties governing the treatment of POWs and enemy combatants, which treaties include requirements for the legal review of the detainee’s status). So it’s not just any detention willy nilly with no rules whatever. Second, the law says [in section 1021(b)] that the only people who can be thus detained are those who have been significantly involved in perpetrating the 9/11 attacks or physically aiding and abetting Al Qaeda or the Taliban (with whom we are formally at war).

Several bloggers and pundits have casually ignored these facts. But still, one can balk at the idea that now the President has the power to indefinitely detain without trial even American citizens, without even having to prove they did anything, just by claiming they did. Technically that’s not true, as we are obligated by treaties to allow detainees to challenge such claims made against them, even granting them trials; and tribunals must decide a person’s status, the President can’t just decide that. But still, allowing American citizens to be treated like enemy or even unlawful combatants would still be a shocking erosion of American legal and constitutional rights. It’s just that this law doesn’t do that.

Because the same law says [in section 1021(e)] that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities, relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.” Those few pundits who actually notice this section, claim it is “vague” and insufficient to protect our rights. They are full of shit. This is not vague. This is what lawyers call broad language. It is total and sweeping in scope. It says nothing in this section. That means nothing. Nada. Zip. Not one thing. End of story. And what is an existing law or authority pertaining to American citizens? Oh, I don’t know, let’s mention the fifth amendment, the sixth amendment, the eighth amendment (indeed even the ninth amendment). The most important of which is that no citizen may be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” which includes “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

Since this National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 explicitly says nothing in it can ever be construed “to affect” those laws, nothing in it takes away any rights from any American citizens. So why is everyone claiming it does? Because they are so dogmatically lost in the storyline that facts don’t matter to them anymore? Because they blindly trust what people on TV tell them and don’t go read the law for themselves even though it’s absurdly easy to do that? You tell me. (And before you say, like some already have, that “the Patriot Act” already gave the President the power to detain American citizens indefinitely without trial, go read it first and state the section where it says that; good luck finding it.) Because of all this nonsense, Obama had to add a completely unnecessary signing statement saying he wouldn’t do what the law already prohibits, simply to satisfy these nutheads. I only hope you weren’t one of them. If you were, then as a responsible skeptic, it is my hope you’ll do better next time.

In the meantime, myth debunked.