The shape of things to come

I tend to be generally optimistic about progress in almost all areas of life. For example, I think we are making progress on important areas of social values. We have seen huge improvements in attitudes on race and gender and it is only a matter of a short time before equal rights for gays will also be taken for granted. The rights of animals are also increasingly being respected. Compared to even just a century ago, we have made tremendous advances in expanding the circle of those we think worthy of treating justly.

On the religious front too, the prognosis is good. I think the decline of religion is irreversible. We may never be able to eliminate religion completely but relegating it to irrelevancy is likely although that will take time and pockets of religious fervor will continue to exist. I think that religion will end up like astrology, something that never goes away but becomes largely harmless, with those who take it seriously being looked upon with amused indulgence.

When it comes to the environment, I have mixed feelings. While there is some serious concern about the degradation we have caused, I think that there is still hope that it can be turned around and that we have not passed the point of no return.

The one exception to this generally sunny outlook is when I turn my gaze to the economic and political situation in the US. Here I think the future looks very bleak indeed and I see nothing but disaster in store. The rapacious looting by the oligarchy, the domestic war being waged to further impoverish the poor and middle class, the interminable and multiplying foreign wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the semi-war in Pakistan, and possible soon-to-be wars in Iran and Syria), coupled with a political system that seems increasingly disconnected from reality, have created the conditions for collapse.

The US ruling class elite are in a state that is typically found during the last gasp of an empire: greedy, wasteful, bloated, hypocritical, contemptuous of the needs and feelings of the mass of people, arrogant in its view that its military supremacy will enable it to meet all challenges, and unmindful of the rot that is eating away at the foundations of the republic

I occasionally get the question as to what we should do to reverse this trend. To be quite honest, I don’t know that we can. I feel like we are on a massive ocean liner headed straight towards a reef. Although the speed does not seem to be that great, the sheer momentum of the massive vessel is such that there is nothing that can be done to stop or reverse its direction in time before the crash occurs, even assuming that the people on the bridge commanding the vessel (i.e., the oligarchs) want to do so. The only thing to be done is to alert people so that they can brace themselves for the impact and prepare them to start anew picking up the pieces and repairing the damage.

What form the crash will take and what the fallout from the crash will be is something that I cannot foresee, just as I cannot predict what will emerge from the rubble. Post-collapse situations, like post-revolutionary ones, are highly unpredictable and their direction can be swayed by relatively minor events. What we can say for sure is that many people are going to be hurt.

When the crash will occur is also hard to predict. What keeps civilized societies functioning is the social compact that persuades people to voluntarily obey certain norms of behavior with the expectation that others will too. When that compact is seen as being ignored with impunity by some people, you breed general contempt for the norms and open the door to chaos. When people see how the ruling class loots in open contempt of the general expectation of having responsibility for the greater good, they begin to wonder why they should subject themselves to those norms. The symptoms of impending trouble are a rising level of social unrest consisting of grumblings, protests, demonstrations, strikes, vandalism, and even rioting as people begin to realize how bad things are, how bleak their own futures are, and start to take the law into their own hands.

The warning signs are so obvious that I cannot believe that the oligarchy and its political and media lackeys do not see them. I think they do, which is why the looting has reached such reckless levels. In the excellent documentaries Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2006) and Inside Job (2010) you see the top people on the inside realizing that the situation is unstable and too far gone to remedy, that the crash is coming, and trying to make as much money as possible and escape while they can, destroying the lives of millions of people in the process. It would be a big mistake to think that the corruption was confined to just the institutions depicted in the films. They are merely indicators of a rot writ large.

In watching the Enron documentary, what struck me was that the key perpetrators of that fraud were actually prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail. Chairman Ken Lay (a close friend of the Bush family) was found guilty in 2006 and faced 20 to 30 years in prison but died before sentencing. Chief Executive Office Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in jail and fined $45 million. Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow was sentenced to six years in prison and fined.

Those were the good old days. It seems so quaint that at one time people actually went to jail for major financial crimes. The oligarchy soon put a stop to that nonsense. Now they control the government and the regulatory agencies so thoroughly that no one risks going to jail for using their big institutions to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Despite the massive scale of malfeasances during the financial debacle of 2008, as far as I am aware not a single person went to prison. The only people who are prosecuted are relative small-timers like Bernie Madoff who make the mistake of swindling other rich people.

We now have a class of people who seem to believe that they have immunity from any legal consequences for their financial actions. That should tell us all we need to know about how bad the situation is.

What do atheists do in a crisis?

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was brought on to some Fox news show to address this question in the context of hurricane Irene. His advice to everyone: Act like atheists and prepare, without wasting your time appealing to some deity to save you.

In the process he showed up the host and one other guest as total idiots.

Way to go, David!

(Via Pharyngula)

Rabbi Yehuda Levin should get an R-rating

It looks like Judaism has its own share of anti-gay crazies who claim that there is a direct connection between earthquakes (like the one last week that touched DC) and homosexuality. That is the message from a rabbi named Yehuda Levin who quotes god saying in the Talmud thusly: “You have shaken your male member in a place where it doesn’t belong. I too, will shake the earth.”

Really? The Talmud has our old buddy Yahweh actually saying things like that?

I wonder what nifty quote he will dig out to explain Hurricane Irene, especially since it is hitting New York City, home to many ultra-Orthodox communities.

I still don’t get why god metes out these crude and indiscriminate punishments that affect gays and non-gays alike. God seems to be somewhat scatterbrained and lack focus. Why not simply send in some divine drones to kill just the people he hates?

The obsession with gas prices

I have always been a little puzzled by the obsession in the US with the price of gas. From as long as I can remember, the price of gas has been reported regularly in the news, even when the prices were not fluctuating. NPR news reports on the national average of gas prices on a regular basis. Michele Bachmann has even vowed that she will bring gas prices down to $2 if she is elected president though she does not say how. (Plunge the country into a deep recession? Invade all the oil producing countries?)

Why, among all the commodities, is the price of gas singled out for special mention and monitoring?

I understand that the price of gas influences the price of other things and so is perhaps a proxy for inflation but surely the cost of living index would be a better gauge? I also understand that this is a car culture. When my mother used to write letters (remember those?) to me from Sri Lanka, she would always quote the price of bread and coconuts as indicators of the cost of living. Maybe because it was because she did not own a car and besides, gas prices in Sri Lanka were controlled by the state.

Perhaps gas is focused on here because it is perhaps the only thing that we buy regularly in isolation. When it comes to other staples like bread or milk, which would serve equally well as rough indicators of the cost of living, they are usually bought in conjunction with other groceries and so their price variations do not stand out. Also, gas stations are everywhere and they post their prices in huge signs so you cannot avoid being aware of them.

If you were ask me the price of bread or milk, I probably could not tell you even though I buy them every week. This is because I have no choice but to buy these staples and can afford to, so there seems to be no point in agonizing over their prices. But I do know the price of gas, even though the same conditions apply.

Dead pope’s blood to reduce crime?

Catholic theologians tend to be a pretty sophisticated bunch. How can they possibly reconcile themselves to their church when the Vatican does things like this?

A vial containing the late pope John Paul II’s blood will soon be winging its way to Mexico in a bid to help bring down crimes rates in the largely Catholic country, Vatican Radio reported Wednesday.

Several vials of blood were taken from Pope John Paul II during the last days of his life in 2005. They have since taken on the aura of holy relics, with Catholic faithful invited to venerate them.

That’s not all. The Vatican is also going to display vials of his blood for people to venerate.

There’s something truly creepy about the Catholic church’s obsession with the actual flesh and blood of dead people.

Mythic hero films

When I was a teenager in Sri Lanka, there seemed to be a never-ending supply of adventure films involving bare-chested muscular heroes (usually played by body builder Steve Reeves) portraying mythic characters fighting evildoers and monsters. The films had titles like Goliath and the Barbarians, Ursus, Hercules, Hercules Unchained, and Hercules and the Three Bears (ok, I made the last one up). These films were made in Italy and the actors’ lines were badly dubbed into English. The films were low-budget and cheesy, and although they and made for some campy fun, one quickly grew tired of them.

By the time Arnold Schwarzenegger came along, I had no desire whatsoever to revisit that genre and in fact have not seen a single film of his. I will not see the current remake of Conan the Barbarian either, but I found Stephen Whitty’s review to be hilarious.

When the US government takes advantage of Sharia law

Sharia law is a system of justice based on Islam as defined in that religion’s sacred texts. Like any system of justice based on religion, it is intolerant, cruel, obsessed with sex, and incompatible with our modern understanding of what makes for a humane society. For example, “Within Sharia law, there are a group of “Haram” offenses which carry severe punishments. These include pre-marital sexual intercourse, sex by divorced persons, post-marital sex, adultery, false accusation of unlawful intercourse, drinking alcohol, theft, and highway robbery. Haram sexual offenses can carry a sentence of stoning to death or severe flogging.”

There has been some hysteria in the US about the creeping threat of Sharia law being imposed in the US, and the claims that Barack Obama may be a secret Muslim are part of this paranoia. Twelve states have even proposed legislation to ban it, although the First Amendment would make these superfluous since it would rule out any laws that seek to advance the interests of any one religion.

But despite this anti-Sharia feeling, what people may not be aware of is that Sharia law is what the US used to enable CIA agent Ray Davis to escape trial and punishment for murder in Pakistan.

You may recall the case in which Davis was captured after gunning down two men in a crowded city. The US demanded that he be released immediately while the Pakistan government said that he had no alternative but to go through the legal process. The US government and the media kept the public in the dark about the facts of the case.

Then to everyone’s surprise, Davis was suddenly released and quickly spirited out of the country. How did that happen? Because the US took advantage of Sharia law in which a person accused of a murder can be released if the family members of the victim pardon him in exchange for ‘blood money’, which is what happened in the Davis case. The Pakistani government has confirmed this.

Shaukat Qadir, a retired senior Pakistani military officer, explains the deal that was struck.

It appears, therefore, that the deal struck between the military leadership included a shut down of CIA’s HUMINT operations in Pakistan, retaining only ELINT, Davis would ‘sing’, within limits, of course, and only then could Blood Money be negotiated for his release. And the US would be bled in that final deal also so as to ensure the safety and the future of the immediate families of both Davis’s victims.

At the height of the debate on the question of Raymond Davis’ immunity from trial for murder, this writer emphasized that Pakistan could not release him without a trial. A trial took duly place and, in accordance with prevalent law in Pakistan, the next of kin of the deceased young men, pardoned Davis in return for ‘Blood Money’. However outlandish this law might seem to those peoples whose countries have their based on Anglo-Saxon principles, such is the law in Pakistan and so there was nothing underhand in what transpired.

Alexander Cockburn says that reports have emerged that “a price tag of about $1.5 million per family was been paid, with US citizenship for a dozen or more members of each family, with job guarantees for those of age and education opportunities guaranteed for children – more than they could ever dream of and sufficiently tempting for them to pardon Davis. Money in sufficient quantity rarely loses its persuasive powers.”

So there you have it. Sharia law was used by the US government to enable Ray Davis to escape punishment for his crime. But don’t expect the wingnuts to make a fuss about it.

France taxes the rich

What is looked upon with horror in some circles in the US is viewed as perfectly reasonable in France.

The French government is to impose an extra tax of 3% on annual income above 500,000 euros (£440,000; $721,000).

It is part of a package of measures to try to cut the country’s deficit by 12bn euros over two years.

The tax increase came after some of France’s wealthiest people had called on the government to tackle its deficit by raising taxes on the rich.

See, that wasn’t so hard was it?