State-sanctioned murder

Reports are coming in that a US drone strike in Yemen has killed Anwar al-Awlaki. If confirmed, this would mean that the US government has murdered a US citizen purely on the orders of president Obama. The media are relaying the anonymous and self-serving claims of the intelligence community that al-Awlaki was a top al Qaeda operative, ‘seemed’ to have instigated attacks against the US, and was ‘reported’ to have had links with terrorist groups, and similar allegations. But all skirt the issue of the legality of this act, let alone its morality.

When the dust settles, what we are left with is the stark fact that the US president ordered and carried out the murder of a US citizen without any due process of any kind. He had no trial, no formal charges were made against him, no efforts to extradite him back to the US, nothing. Obama decided that al-Awlaki must die and he was killed by Obama’s agents. It has all the hallmarks of kings in medieval times ordering the beheadings of their opponents or mob bosses ordering hits on their rivals.

Back in 2002, another US citizen Kamal Derwish was killed in an airstrike in Yemen but back then in the bad old George W. Bush days, the government felt obliged to say that his death was collateral damage and that they were unaware that he was in the car that was destroyed. But with our Nobel Peace Prize winning, constitutional scholar president, even such transparent excuses are not required because many of those who were on the alert for abuses by Bush now seem quite comfortable if the death sentence is signed by Obama. Even before this event, Jonathan Turley said that the Obama presidency may be the most disastrous in our history for civil liberties. One can only shudder at what further abuses are in store.

What I would like to know is in what way the killing of al-Awlaki differs from the heinous crime of ‘killing his own people’ which was laid at the feet of people like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghadafi and which formed the basis of war crimes accusations against those two people and war against the countries they led.

Glenn Greenwald has more.

Sexism in the atheist community

It is fairly obvious that women are a minority in the atheist community. The high-profile atheists tend to be men, even though there are many women who are making important contributions to atheist thought. This naturally raises the question: Is the atheist movement sexist? Is the atmosphere at atheist gatherings hostile to women? Are female atheists overlooked when it comes to providing high profile platforms as conference speakers?

I ask this because of a long simmering controversy that began when Rebecca Watson, who writes at Skepchick, posted a YouTube video where she recounted her experience, as a woman at atheist gatherings, that male attendees at these gatherings tend to unduly hit on women. She had been on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2010 and gave an example of an encounter with someone in an elevator late at night after her talk who invited her to his room for coffee. She declined. It was a minor incident and she treated it as such but used it to give generic advice to men to not too readily assume that women at atheist gatherings welcomed such advances, especially if they had given no prior indication that that was the case. The segment that deals with this starts at the 2:45 mark.

What happened next was astounding. Watson received an enormous outpouring of vitriol, presumably from members of the atheist community who form the readership of the blog, calling her names and accusing her of all manner of things. The comments quickly crossed the border from sexism to outright misogyny. What was worse was that Richard Dawkins heard about her post and also chimed in, belittling her concerns, in the form of composing a sarcastic letter to a fictitious Muslim woman in an oppressive country like Saudi Arabia telling her that her dire situation was nothing compared to the hardships that American women faced being propositioned in hotel elevators. And Watson says that she still continues to receive abuse and that people devote entire websites to attacking her.

Dawkins’ response to Watson’s comment is remarkably obtuse but illustrates the danger that always exists when you start thinking that you are fighting ‘big battles’ and that ‘lesser’ battles don’t count. The fact is that different people are immediately affected by different things and thus may be aroused to action by different passions and comparing them is generally not productive. For example, the battle for wage equality for American women does not cease to be a valid cause merely because women in many underdeveloped countries experience enormous hardships. My own approach is that as long as you are fighting for justice and equality and basic human dignity and rights, one does not gain much by belittling the efforts of those who are not fighting the same specific battles as you are. We should avoid the temptation to give too much weight to ranking social justice struggles in terms of importance. Instead we should support each other in our different struggles, though we obviously have to choose where we devote our own energies.

For example, I think male circumcision is wrong because it violates the bodily integrity of a child and should not be allowed until the child is old enough to give informed consent. But I am well aware that female circumcision is a much worse practice and is given the more graphic but accurate label of female genital mutilation. Now there are some who would argue that people who oppose male circumcision and try to abolish that practice are wasting time on a relatively minor problem as long as the bigger problem of female circumcision still exists. There are others who are offended that people who oppose female genital mutilation are not equally vocal about abolishing male circumcision. Both these attitudes seem to me to be wrong-headed because they make the assumption that other people should care about the same things that you care about, and with the same intensity. The fact is that people who see a wrong done anywhere are perfectly entitled to take action against it and try and recruit others in their cause without having to justify why that cause is more worthy than other causes. My suggestion is that we should devote our energies to fight for what we believe in and not undermine those who believe in other causes, as long as they all promote justice.

But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university’s Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.

There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.

Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.

The strange case of disappearing color in films

If I walk into a room where someone is watching a film on TV, I can always tell immediately whether the film is a recent one or from a few decades ago, even without clues about the actors. But I would not have been able to explain how I knew this.

It turns out that it is due to the fact that films now look different in the color palette that they use. In earlier days the colors in films were more natural and often quite lush and vibrant and ranged over all the hues. Photographing color is tricky and apparently directors in days gone by paid close attention to the colors that appeared on screen to prevent any jarring effects. But with modern films, it is possible to manipulate color in the post-production phase and thus less attention is paid to this aspect of filmmaking photography.

The trend in modern color films is to drain the colors out and impose a kind of subdued bluish tint. This article gives examples of the change. Look at the stills from some old and new films and you will see immediately what I mean.

Why did this happen? This article explains that with the ability to digitize film and manipulate its color, film makers have during the post-production phase deliberately set about to created the somewhat drab look that is now so ubiquitous.

You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land? Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal. And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will “pop”, and sometimes even vibrate. So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to “pop” from the background. I mean, people are really important, aren’t they?

And so we now have this teal-orange dominance in modern films. Although I had not read these articles when I posted the item about old and new film trailers, those two trailers illustrate this point quite nicely.

Reading your brains

A new study reports that fMRI machines can roughly reconstruct the images of film clips that test subjects have been viewing.

What I found interesting was that the reconstructed images, while retaining the general shape of the original, seemed to replace the details with what to me seemed like the details of another image.

Brave Saudi women

It looks like scores of Saudi women are challenging the absurd ban on them driving and are willing to bear the barbaric punishment for doing so, which consists of a lashing. I am not sure if any woman has actually received that punishment or whether fear of international embarrassment has prevented the government from actually carrying it out.

The seductive appeal of the mega-rich politician

During the 2008 presidential election and for a brief time during the current election, there was a boomlet of support for billionaire mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and for windbag Donald Trump to run for president. They were part of an enduring pattern in American politics in which some people yearn for a rich man to ride in and save the nation. The thinking seems to be that since they are so rich, they must be smart and competent and also do not need to seek funding from big money sources and can thus be independent and not beholden to ‘special interests’.

A couple of decades ago, H. Ross Perot was the person that elements of a desperate nation turned their eyes to. The Perot phenomenon was a puzzle. Not the man himself, who seemed to be typical of the kind of person who has spent his life acquiring great wealth, used his subsequent power to push people around, and now, in the twilight of his career, wants more power, a bigger stage, and a greater share of the limelight. Nor is it puzzling to observe people with such blatantly autocratic tendencies constantly talking about how much they want to do ‘what the people want’. This kind of hypocrisy is so common in public life that it only causes surprise to the most naive of political observers. No, it is not Perot the person that was the enigma. It is the question of why so many millions of people, both in the 1992 presidential campaign and again in 1996, found him so attractive as a leader, just as they do Bloomberg or Trump now.

There is a possible explanation, one that is inspired by a typically lucid essay written by George Orwell over seventy years ago, titled simply Charles Dickens. Orwell analyzed the politics of Dickens as revealed in his writings. He pointed out that Dickens “attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.” In that sense, Dickens “was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel”. And yet, Orwell points out, Dickens managed to be a ruthless critic of many venerated aspects of English society without becoming personally disliked, becoming an English institution himself in his own lifetime. “Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody'” Orwell notes. How could this happen?
Orwell answers his own question by pointing out that Dickens’ real subject matter in his novels was that of the urban middle class, not the working class. While his protagonists suffered enormous hardships, Dickens seemed to imply that their problems were mainly due to the qualities and personalities of the people with wealth and power who controlled the institutions that impinged on his protagonists’ lives, and not because of the structure of the institutions themselves. In other words, Dickens’ criticism of society was almost exclusively moral, not structural. Orwell summarizes Dickens’ message as simply: If people would behave decently, the world would be decent.

Orwell supports this thesis by pointing out that the happy endings in Dickens’ books were largely achieved by the timely arrival of a wealthy person who solved all problems by scattering money around to the deserving. Dickens never seemed to explore the possibility that the institutions themselves, by their very nature, might tend to favor the rise of people with the very qualities he deplored. Dickens also ignored the question of how the rich benefactors who finally saved the day could remain so prosperous if they flouted the laws of the currently operating economic system by giving pay raises and gifts all around.

The huge success of Dickens’ books, even in his own lifetime, shows how appealing is his view of the world. It provides a simple explanation for society’s problems and, more importantly, provides hope that things could be improved quickly, provided the appropriate well-intentioned rich man shows up. The timelessness of that message was nowhere better illustrated than in the enthusiasm that billionaire H. Ross Perot generated. Journalists breathlessly reported on Perot’s activities and people all over the country responded enthusiastically to his candidacy. What is interesting is that the support for Perot came before people had even heard exactly what his message was or what he planned to do for the country. Somehow, that did not seem to matter. Perot, an inexhaustible fount of homespun phrases, was going to ‘look under the hood, figure out what was wrong, and fix it.’ It was that simple.

In many ways, Perot then and Bloomberg now fit the model of the classic Dickens savior, the rich person whose possibly dubious methods of acquisition of wealth are conveniently obscured by the haze of time. Perot liked to be portrayed as a disinterested rich man who was appalled by the way the country was run and simply wanted to make everything right and was willing to use his own money to do so. Even his lack of experience in politics and government was seen as a plus. Given Orwell’s analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that many members of the middle-class seized on his presence in politics as the one that provided the most hope for them. If Warren Buffett were twenty years younger, you would see likely similar enthusiasm for him to run for president too.

Ultimately, the most significant aspect of the periodic upsurges of enthusiasm for Perot then, and Bloomberg and Trump now, may be that they provide a measure of the number of voters who feel left out of the system, fearful for their future, and yet unable to see that the root cause of their problems lie with the nature of the institutions of power and the kind of people they nurture and produce. For such voters, the search is still going on for Dickens’ good, rich man, untainted by the evils of the system, who will solve all their problems.

Interfaith dialogues and projects

Religions view each other with either condescension or suspicion. This can make for contentious public discourse and, as we all know, frequently escalates into open hostilities. In order to avoid having things get out of hand, one periodically finds attempts by well-meaning people who think that the problem is due to religious people being ignorant of other religions, and that if they understood each other better they would recognize enough similarities and deep commonalities to defuse the antagonisms. And so we have the emergence of ‘interfaith’ movements.

In the past, such movements brought together only people from different religions but in recent years, there is growing recognition that skeptics are a significant part of the population and so the umbrella has on occasion been extended to include them as well. But the label ‘interfaith’ poses a bit of a problem because once you include skeptics, you are no longer talking about faith-based organizations anymore. Atheists shun the word faith because its most common usage is associated with religious faith, which is the acceptance of beliefs that lack any evidentiary support and are even counter to evidence. In fact, the less the evidence in support of a religious belief, the supposedly more admirable that belief is. This is absolutely counter to the rational evidence-based approach promoted by skeptics. But I cannot think of a good word that would accommodate both faith and anti-faith groups.

These interfaith programs usually take two forms. One consists of dialogues to get different religious groups together to share information about what they believe and to clear up any misconceptions that others may have about them. I am all for increasing the general awareness about religious people’s beliefs. In fact, I think that the academic study of the world’s religions (as opposed to religious education that seeks to indoctrinate children about one particular religion) is a proper part of a school curriculum. I think skepticism and skeptic organizations can play an important role in such discussions, once we overcome the problematic ‘faith’ label.

The other kinds of programs often involve getting different religious organizations to work together on some community projects. Although well-meant, there is something fundamentally odd about such interfaith projects. Let’s face it, each religion thinks that it alone is true and all the others false. They are incompatible at a fundamental level. You cannot have real equality between religions simply because of their divergent truth claims.

These kinds of interfaith projects basically involve asking religious groups to set aside their religious beliefs in order to do worthwhile projects that have nothing to do with religion. So unlike in the case of interfaith dialogues where talk about religious beliefs is explicitly encouraged, when it comes to interfaith projects, people are expected to suppress their differing beliefs but simply work for the common good.

There is nothing at all wrong with that except why bring in the faith aspect at all if you are asking people to then suppress it? Why not invite people to take part in community service and challenge projects for their own sake simply because they are good things? You can send the invitation out to all organized groups (including religious ones) to publicize to their members or to even take part as a group but leave the issue of faith entirely out of it. The goal of getting differing religious groups to stop fighting and killing each other is surely a good thing but that does not have to be coupled with worthwhile non-religious projects.

What does religion add to such community projects, unless religious groups are taking part to show how virtuous they are because of their religion? (In my college days, I was a member of a Christian student group that used to get involved in community service projects and some of the more evangelical members of the group used the occasion to proselytize, basically telling the poor non-Christian people we helped “Look at us! We are doing good works because we are Christians so why don’t you become Christians too!” Even though I was a devout Christian in those days, this would drive me up the wall.)

My concerns apply only to the interfaith part of such projects. The other diversity elements such as including intercultural or interethnic groups suffer from no such contradiction since being a member of one ethnic or cultural group does not necessarily imply that one thinks that other ethnic or cultural groups are inferior. It is understood that these are mere accidents of one’s birth and thus not obstacles to true equality amongst them. In fact, secular democracies are based on that idea.