The Imperial Presidency marches on

Glenn Greenwald discusses how the doctrine that the president is unconstrained by either the Constitution or the Congress is being advanced even more vigorously, that “the Obama administration is arrogating unto the President the unilateral, unrestrained right to start wars in all circumstances, whether or not the U.S. is attacked.” And Obama’s defenders are using the same arguments they criticized when Bush’s defenders used them when he similarly ignored the constitution.

Greenwald adds:

Then there’s the notion that Presidents in the past have started similar wars without Congressional approval. That’s certainly true, but so what? The fact that an act is commonplace isn’t a defense or justification. That “defense” was also a common refrain of Bush followers to justify their leader’s chronic unconstitutional acts and other forms of law-breaking: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and FDR interned Japanese-Americans, so why are you upset that Bush is acting outside the law? The pervasiveness of this form of thought underscores the dangers of learned acquiescence: once a government engages long enough or pervasively enough in a certain form of criminality or corruption, the citizenry is trained to accept it and collectively ceases to resist it, even learns to embrace it. What Obama is doing in Libya is either lawful or it isn’t on its own terms; whether other Presidents in the past have acted similarly (and they have) is irrelevant.

One’s views on the desirability of the Libya war have absolutely nothing to do with whether Obama has acted legally and/or whether his theories of presidential power are valid. This, too, should have been decisively settled during the Bush years, when Bush followers invariably argued that Bush was justified in eavesdropping without warrants or torturing because of the good outcomes it produced (Keeping Us Safe) — as though Presidents have the power to violate laws or transgress Constitutional limits provided they can prove that doing so produces good results. The one and only safeguard against tyranny is that political leaders are subjected to the constraints of the Constitution and law (we’re a nation of laws or a nation of men, said Adams: you must choose). To argue that you’re supportive of or indifferent to lawless acts because of the good results they produce is simply another way of yearning for a benevolent tyrant (and is another way of replicating the mindset of the Bush follower).

Ayn Rand the moocher

Ayn Rand is a current favorite among the oligarchy and its serf-like tea party followers since she saw successful people as achieving things entirely on their own with no help from others or society, opposed all taxes as stealing by the government, called for the elimination of all government redistributive efforts, and attacked as weak those who need governments and others to help them in times of need. She called them ‘looters’ and ‘moochers’. The Randians are at the forefront of cutting government programs that do not benefit the oligarchy.

But a recent report reveals that Rand herself was a hypocrite. When she became ill with lung cancer late in life, she applied for and obtained social security and Medicare benefits under a different name name. It should not be surprising that she was a hypocrite and sought out government help when she needed it. They are all like that. Look at the way Wall Street rushed to the government for assistance when the financial system tanked. They only oppose government helping those who are not part of the oligarchy.

I have read only one of Rand’s books, The Fountainhead. I am aware that her magnum opus is Atlas Shrugged and it forms the basis for the Galtian fantasies of the oligarchy, but The Fountainhead was such an awful book that I have little stomach to read any other work by her, especially since they are so long. It was not only the politics of the book that I found objectionable but mainly her writing style which consists of characters who have no depth and are merely types, existing mainly to take positions and make speeches that advance her philosophy. Subtlety is not her strong suit.

Mission creep in Libya

We are witnessing the inevitable mission creep in Libya.

The original stated goal was to create a no-fly zone supposedly to prevent the Libyan government using their air power to attack innocent civilians. That quickly changed into destroying the Libyan air forces even while they were on the ground. Then the US-led NATO air attacks started targeting those Libyan forces that were fighting rebel forces and threatening to push them back. Then the air attacks started hitting those Libyan forces that were away from the fighting, even those in their barracks.

Now the air attacks are supposedly targeting munitions stores. We are also told that CIA operatives have been in Libya for several weeks already meeting with rebel forces and that Obama has authorized covert support for Libyan rebels, which likely means including supplying arms. This escalation in involvement has happened remarkably rapidly.

So what is going on? Obama says that Gaddafi must go but that regime change is not part of the mission. Taken at face value, what we seem to be seeing is the US acting as the de facto air force of the Libyan rebels, and slowly increasing its contribution to the war effort to balance ay success by Gaddafi’s forces. In other words, the goal seems to be to create either a stalemate or marginally tilt the balance in favor of the rebels.

What is the point of this? After all, a protracted civil war causes immense pain for ordinary people and results in the destruction of a country’s infrastructure, causing long term hardships.

And what if Gaddafi stays in power and his forces can withstand the current NATO campaign? The US is far too deep into the conflict now to allow that to happen. So expect to see the next stage of ratcheting up, with bombings of supposedly military targets in cities as a sign to the Libyan people who still support him that his government is incapable of protecting them and thus pressuring them into rising up against him and join the rebel forces. Then we will begin to receive the inevitable reports of a hospital or a school or a mosque or marketplace being hit, resulting in civilian casualties, which will of course be regretted as unfortunate ‘collateral damage’.

So we will end up with civilians killed, the very thing that the US action was supposed to prevent. No doubt the dead and their families will be pleased that they were killed by a ‘humanitarian’ military force rather than by their own government.

And that will set the stage for the final step, sending in US troops or surrogates from other countries or mercenaries.

Russian Television tallies the real cost of America’s many wars.

The oligarchy’s war on the rest of us

The Daily Show points out that even paying no taxes at all is not enough for the oligarchy.

Stephen Colbert reports on the attacks on working people by state governments. The state governments want to roll back all the benefits and protections that labor unions have given us, and allow employers to have unfettered power over their employees. Collective bargaining has been the way that individuals who have no economic or political clout could gain some bargaining power.

Michael Moore on The Colbert Report points out that just 400 people in America have more wealth than 150 million. And that is still not enough for them. They want to have as much as 250 million and are aided in their greed by the federal and state governments that they have bought, and the dupes amongst the tea party crowd who have no idea that they are being used as fodder for the further enrichment of the oligarchy and will be tossed aside as soon as they have served their purpose.

The country has long been engaged in a one-sided class war that has been waged by the oligarchy on the rest of us. Now people are beginning to fight back as the nakedness of the greed and power grab becomes apparent.

Protecting sacred books

Apparently the British government is thinking about granting certain books protected status that can result in the prosecution of people for the burning defacement or disrespect of such books, after a 15-year old girl in England was arrested for ‘inciting religious hatred’ after burning the Koran. It is wonderful that in the US we have the First Amendment to protect us from this kind of legislative foolishness, at least so far.
One wag has decided to seek protection under this proposed law for the book Classical Electrodynamics by J. D. Jackson and gives very cogent reasons why it deserves it.

I totally agree. In the first year of physics graduate school, taking a course in which ‘Jackson’ (as it was informally and affectionatley known) was the required textbook was a rite of passage for every student. We all struggled with its difficult problems in order to understand the laws of electrodynamics. After that ordeal, we all ended up revering that book and instinctively go back to it when we encounter any problem in that area of physics. What Jackson says on any issue is considered definitive.

If that does not make it a sacred book, I don’t know what does.

The god of the apps

A rabbi named Adam Jacobs has offered what he says is “A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence.” And what would that be?

It is that because we have not explained (as yet) how life originated, it can only be due to god. Yes, that same old stale argument, the god of the gaps, gets recycled yet again, this time in the form of the mysterious and supposedly inexplicable appearance of DNA and RNA.

This is pathetic. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who is now head of the National Institutes of Health, rejects that argument because he has a sufficiently good knowledge of biology to realize that we are making great progress in solving that problem and that any religious person who bases his or her faith on that particular piece of contemporary ignorance is just asking for trouble.

In his book The Language of God, Collins says:

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life’s origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction… [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

Despite Collins’s plea, the god of the gaps will never go away because it is only argument that religion has, since there is no positive evidence for god and every other argument for god has been shot down. In fact, Collins himself is being disingenuous because he too resorts to using the god of the gaps argument except his gaps are different from those of Jacobs’.

Most skeptics now know how to effectively deal with the god of the gaps argument, using the recent advances in science. A recent article in the New York Times says that in order to help believers deal with the strong criticisms they are now facing, some people have developed apps to help believers with rejoinders. Yes, really.

Sean McDowell, the editor of “Fast Facts” and some textbooks for Bible students, said he has become increasingly aware of a skill gap between believers and nonbelievers, who he feels tend to be instinctively more savvy at arguing. “Christians who believe, but cannot explain why they believe, become ‘Bible-thumpers’ who seem dogmatic and insecure about their convictions,” he said. “We have to deal with that.”

“Nowadays, atheists are coming to the forefront at every level of society — from the top of academia all the way down to the level of the average Joe,” added Mr. McDowell, a seminary Ph.D. candidate whose phone app was produced by the B&H Publishing Group, one of the country’s largest distributors of Bibles and religious textbooks.

I don’t think that atheists are ‘instinctively more savvy at arguing’ as McDowell claims. It is that atheists have all the facts, evidence, reason, and logic on their side so that arguing with a religious believer should be a slam-dunk, once you have grasped the basic ideas. What the new atheists have done is put all those things in the hands of the general public. Religious believers’ arguments, by contrast, are based on ignorance (the god of the gaps) or involve plays on words, such as trying to exploit the ambiguity of the word ‘theory’ or whether atheism is a ‘belief’ like religion and thus requires just as much ‘faith’ as belief in god.

So if you are debating religion with a believer and he keeps looking at his smart phone, it may not be that he is checking his text messages. He may be seeking rejoinders.

The article says that atheists are also developing apps to counter the religious apps. So let the app wars begin!

Is the president a lousy negotiator?

Paul Krugman is a politically savvy man so it surprises me that even he thinks that the reason that the Republicans and the oligarchy are getting their own way so easily on fiscal issues is because Obama is a lousy negotiator.

As I have said over and over again, the Democrats negotiating strategy is to betray the middle and working classes that support them and give the oligarchy as much as they can while acting as if they were forced into it or were outmaneuvered. Since even people like Krugman and other liberal commentators seem to have bought it, it means that they have succeeded.

The Democrats behavior is perfectly understandable if you bear this simple rule in mind: When it comes to any policy that the Democrats say they espouse but which hurts the interests of the oligarchy, the Democrats do not want a strategy that will win, they seek one that will lose.

The death of the afterlife

In February, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris debated rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson on the topic “Is there an Afterlife?” The moderator was Rob Eshman. The 97-minute debate can be seen in its entirety here and a summary by Landon Ross who attended it can be read here.

It was an interesting debate. Hitchens and Harris are seasoned debaters and seemed very much at ease. Wolpe is quick-witted and has a good sense of humor and an engaging manner but Artson had a pouty expression that is off-putting and he seemed to not be happy at being there at all but made a couple of good points. Although the two rabbis (especially Wolpe) got some applause, most of it was reserved for sallies by Hitchens and Harris, despite the fact that the venue of the debate was the American Jewish University, which should have given home field advantage to the rabbis.

Ross’s summary captures the main points and I want to focus on a couple of things. Harris pointed out that the idea that we have some form of consciousness that separates from our bodies and floats off intact after we die is simply not tenable in the light of modern science. We know from studying people who suffer brain damage that different types of damage to different parts of the brain result in changes in people’s personalities. Apart from the normal changes in brains (and thus personalities) as we age, brain tumors or diseases like Alzheimers can dramatically accelerate that process. So when we die, what exactly is it that continues into the afterlife? The personality/soul that we had at the moment of death, even if it is terribly debilitated? Or some earlier form of it? And if the latter, how does the soul reconstruct itself at the point of death into another earlier, and presumably better, form? At what age does this soul decide, “OK, that’s it. I am going to stay this way and make my escape when the body dies.” Or does it mean we have two souls, one that grows along with us and dies with us, and the other that at some point reaches perfection and goes into hibernation and awakes just when we die?

In fact, if you believe that life begins at conception and the soul enters the body at that time, then the afterlife is going to consist mostly of the souls of miscarriages, which occurs in about 15-20% of recognized pregnancies, or the souls of fertilized eggs that didn’t even get implanted, which occurs about 30-50% of the time.

The same problem arises for those who believe that our physical bodies are resurrected after death, either immediately or at the second coming of Jesus. Which body? If it is the body at the point of death, then the afterlife is going to have a bipolar distribution in ages, with almost everyone being either very old or very young, mingling with lots of fertilized eggs. The remaining few bodies will likely be ravaged by disease or mutilated because of some terrible catastrophe. When evangelist Billy Graham was asked what we will look like in heaven, he said that when we are resurrected we will have glorious bodies that never grow sick or old. Does this mean that heaven looks like Fort Lauderdale during spring break? This hardly solves the problem since it is not clear when we were at our best. Is it when we were children? Young adults? Older adults? Who gets to choose how we look? (I should add that Harris did not go into nearly as much detail as I am on this question.)

The two rabbis are sophisticated people so the approach they took was quite predictable. They disavowed all aspects of religion that most people believe in, effectively becoming what I call ‘religious atheists‘, insisting that they believe in something supernatural while rejecting any concrete form of that belief. Whenever Hitchens and Harris dissected some religious belief, the two rabbis would immediately respond by saying that “That is not what I believe” and that they agreed with the criticisms, while at the same time avoiding stating clearly what they actually do believe. They wandered around in what I have called the fog of religious language. Artson went so far as to say that his god was not omnipotent and was powerless to overturn the laws of science and only had the power of persuasion! Judaism seems to be particularly malleable when it comes to beliefs about god and the afterlife, allowing for far more official disavowal of what we commonly understand than Christianity or Islam. It reminds me of the joke that so many Jews are secular that the Judaic creed seems to be “There is but one god and we don’t believe in him.”

For example, Artson said how the thought of seeing his grandmother again in the afterlife gave him great comfort. Then a little while later, when he was asked whether he believed in an afterlife in which he and his grandmother would exist as recognizable people, he backtracked, saying that after death we would exist as packets of energy and of course, no one could deny that energy exists! How he, as one packet of energy, would recognize another packet of energy as his grandmother was the key question left unexplained. I think that Hitchens and Harris either did not want to skewer him or felt that his absurdity was self-evident. I must say, though, that I get annoyed when people invoke scientific concepts in such a facile way to gloss over the problems with religion. At least no one brought up that perennial favorite, the uncertainty principle as the loophole by which god evades detection, for which I was thankful.

This debate illustrates why religion is faltering so badly. Its most sophisticated apologists are on the ropes. They know enough of science to realize that the traditional beliefs of their faith traditions are completely incoherent and simply do not stand up to scrutiny. They are thus forced to abandon the concrete core beliefs of the vast majority of their fellow believers while being unable to offer anything in return except content-free metaphors that are meant to parry the criticisms of atheists while presented to the gullible religious folk as deep insights. The creator of Jesus and Mo accurately captures the deliberate ambiguity that is being explopited.

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Religion is now brain dead. It has lost any intellectual power that it may have had in pre-modern days. Its body, in the form of religious institutions, is still functioning but just barely and is on life support. And it has no soul that will live on after its death.