60 Minutes story on homeless families

One in four American children now live in poverty. This report follows some who have been forced to live in cars and trucks. While the story is sad, what it reveals about the resilience of children, their ability to think positively and find ways to overcome their adversity, is heartening.

Inequality makes us less happy

Via reader Norm, I learned about a new study using brains scans that suggest that people are aren’t nearly as self-interested as some might think and that inequality makes people unhappy. “The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good — it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better.”

Womb raider

Oh that naughty Satan, always getting into mischief and going where he shouldn’t.

Recently The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic diocese of Boston, published a column in which the author Daniel Avila alleged that homosexuality is caused by Satan, saying that “The scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil” and “described homosexuality as a ‘natural disaster’ caused by Satan invading the wombs of mothers of LGBT children.”

This is yet another example of religious people using ‘scientific evidence’ to support their crackpot theories. Unfortunately the article does not address the really interesting question of how sneaking into women’s wombs helps Satan create gayness in children because that would help answer the age-old nature/nurture question. Does he do some pre-natal intervention and change the DNA? Or does he use subliminal messaging techniques on the embryonic mind?

The column caused a bit of a fuss with gay rights groups condemning it and the paper has since withdrawn the column saying that they did so because the church does not have a “definitive theory on the origins of same-sex attraction” and thus the speculation that Satan was behind it was a “theological error”. This is no doubt the topic of a future doctoral dissertation in some theological seminary. Avila also apologized for his theological errors and later resigned from his position as Policy Advisor for Marriage and Family with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I see progress here. When the Catholic Church has to withdraw, under pressure, an anti-gay column from its own official newspaper (whatever the excuse they give), that is a sign that human rights are advancing. Religion no longer gets a free pass on its crackpot theories to justify its bigotry.

It is quite extraordinary how much license religions are given. For example, some religious groups advocate beating children as young as six months in order to discipline them. A preacher named Michael Pearl has published a book To train up a child that advocates beatings, which he refers to as ‘biblical chastisement’. He has a website where he recommends using a flexible plumbing line that can be bought for a dollar at any hardware store and can be carried in your pocket and so is handy whenever you think your child steps out of line and needs a thrashing.

Of course, the author realizes that some of us may not be as enlightened as he is in interpreting what Jesus meant when he said “suffer little children” and on seeing a small child being assaulted with a plastic tube may try to stop it or report it to the authorities, so he recommends “Don’t be so indiscreet as to spank your children in public—including the church restroom.” On the plus side, he says that you can also use the beatings as a means to help children practice arithmetic.

I have told a child I was going to give him 10 licks. I count out loud as I go… Pretending to forget the count, I would again stop at about eight and ask him the number. Have him subtract eight from ten, (a little homeschooling) and continue with the final two licks.

This book has sold 670,000 copies and was implicated in the death of a child.

Late one night in May this year, the adopted girl, Hana, was found face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard; her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition, officials determined. According to the sheriff’s report, the parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs. The mother had praised the Pearls’ book and given a copy to a friend, the sheriff’s report said. Hana had been beaten the day of her death, the report said, with the 15-inch plastic tube recommended by Mr. Pearl.

The beating of children used to be common practice until we became more enlightened. In many countries corporal punishment is now banned entirely. But in the US, some religious people still think of it as a good, and even necessary, part of child rearing.

Curiosity landing

The Mars explorer named Curiosity was launched successfully on Saturday and is expected to land on the planet on August 6, 2012. Because Curiosity is a much larger object than previous explorers, engineers needed to develop a new way of giving it a soft landing and this new technique is causing some anxiety to mission scientists about whether the rover can survive the landing. Some of them refer to the final stages of the landing as ‘six minutes of terror’.

You can see an animation (made back in 2005) of what the landing should look like.

Here is a test run of the final stage done in the laboratory.

Ask an Atheist panel discussion

I will be on a panel Ask an Atheist, sponsored by the CWRU chapter of the Center for Inquiry. The event is free and open to everyone in the university and the wider community. Here is the announcement from the CFI president Lisa Viers:

Case Center for Inquiry would like to invite you to join us for our Ask an Atheist event. The Ask an Atheist event is designed to invite all members of campus to come and have an open dialogue with atheists, agnostics, and humanists who are willing to answer questions from the audience. Our goal for the event is to have people feel more comfortable having discussions about why and how nonbelievers came to their conclusions, and to foster an environment where we can all learn from each other as well as move beyond negative stereotypes that abound between believers and nonbelievers.

The event will be a panel/discussion with Dr. Mano Singham–director of UCITE, Dr. Bill Deal–from the Religious Studies department, Eric Pellish–president of Global Ethical Leaders Society, and Daniel Sprockett–a research assistant in the department of Dermatology.

We invite everyone to this event, and hope it will be a great success to be repeated by future CFI members.

And yes, pizza, snacks, and drinks will be provided.

Time: 7:00 pm
Location: Wickenden 322 on the Case quad

Bill Deal prefers to call himself a humanist rather than an atheist and perhaps the discussion will involve some exploration of the distinctions between the various labels for nonbelief in a god, including agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, secularist, etc.

What now for the Occupy movement?

The Occupy movement in many cities have been forced to fully or partially vacate their sites and people are wondering what’s next. Chris Hedges has been doing some excellent reporting on the movement and in a recent piece titled This Is What Revolution Looks Like he argues that the movement has exposed the bankruptcy of the oligarchy. The oligarchy thinks that by forcibly disrupting the demonstrations and evicting the encampments, they will destroy the movement and force the occupants to go back to meekly accepting the status quo.

The rogues’ gallery of Wall Street crooks, such as Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, Howard Milstein at New York Private Bank & Trust, the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase & Co., no doubt think it’s over. They think it is back to the business of harvesting what is left of America to swell their personal and corporate fortunes.

He says they are wrong.

The historian Crane Brinton in his book “Anatomy of a Revolution” laid out the common route to revolution. The preconditions for successful revolution, Brinton argued, are discontent that affects nearly all social classes, widespread feelings of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite, a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class, an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens, a steady loss of will within the power elite itself and defections from the inner circle, a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support and, finally, a financial crisis. Our corporate elite, as far as Brinton was concerned, has amply fulfilled these preconditions. But it is Brinton’s next observation that is most worth remembering. Revolutions always begin, he wrote, by making impossible demands that if the government met would mean the end of the old configurations of power. The second stage, the one we have entered now, is the unsuccessful attempt by the power elite to quell the unrest and discontent through physical acts of repression.

Hedges draws upon his long experience as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times to draw parallels between what is happening in the US and what he saw in crumbling despotic regimes elsewhere.

George Orwell wrote that all tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but that once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. We have now entered the era of naked force. The vast million-person bureaucracy of the internal security and surveillance state will not be used to stop terrorism but to try and stop us.

Despotic regimes in the end collapse internally. Once the foot soldiers who are ordered to carry out acts of repression, such as the clearing of parks or arresting or even shooting demonstrators, no longer obey orders, the old regime swiftly crumbles.

The signs of collapse are everywhere. It begins when bystanders, impressed by the stoicism and doggedness of the protestors, defect from their usual stance of neutrality or subservience to the state and ruling class and into the ranks of the protestors.

The process of defection among the ruling class and security forces is slow and often imperceptible. These defections are advanced through a rigid adherence to nonviolence, a refusal to respond to police provocation and a verbal respect for the blue-uniformed police, no matter how awful they can be while wading into a crowd and using batons as battering rams against human bodies.

Hedges wrote this on November 15 before the police actions that occurred at UC Berkeley and Davis. In Berkeley, 70-year old Robert Hass, a professor of poetry, former poet laureate and Pulitzer prize winner, couldn’t believe what he was hearing of police viciously beating students and hurriedly went with his wife to see if the reports were true. He described what happened to them when they found themselves face to face with police in the now familiar paramilitary riot gear assembled in riot formation.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm.

One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

What popular movements have is a process of ebb and flow. Because they are loose and unorganized and lack money, they tend to occur in waves, with periods of dormancy in between. The key question is whether subsequent waves build on the previous ones and get larger.

When you see elderly and ‘respectable’ people, members of the class that would normally favor law and order and ally themselves with the oligarchy and against the rabble in the streets, willing to switch sides and put their own bodies on the line, you are witnessing a sea change.

Teenager faces down Kansas governor and school principal

High schooler Emma Sullivan refuses to apologize to the governor of Kansas Sam Brownback for criticizing him on Twitter. The governor’s staff apparently scours the internet for unflattering things about him and noticed her tweet and reported her to her school principal who, rather than stand up for Emma’s free speech rights (after all, if making fun of a politician isn’t allowed by the First Amendment, what is?) demanded that she apologize.

You knew from the beginning that this could not help but end badly for Brownback and so it has. He is now forced to apologize for his staff over-reacting. The school district has also backed off in its demand for an apology.

Once again, I think that this is a victory for the internet. Emma received a lot of support from the blogosphere and it may have helped her stand firm against the bullying.

Way to go, Emma.

Iowa faith forum

Susan Jacoby has a nice article on the Iowa debate last Saturday that turned into a faith fest, where many of the candidates competed to demonstrate their personal sufferings. She asks, rightly, why we should care about their personal tribulations in selecting a president.

Boo-hoo, gentlemen. Having endured the ordinary vicissitudes or the extraordinary and unfathomable tragedies of life and having sought the help of whatever God in whom you believe has absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the nation’s highest office. An atheist would face the same tragedies without invoking God’s help and that, too, would have nothing to do with his or her fitness for the presidency.

The Iowa forum was a triumph of the union of psychobabble and public religiosity that has come to dominate American politics.

Honest candidates, men and women of genuine virtue, do not present their own suffering as a qualification for public office.

Christians have this bizarre notion that suffering is somehow a good thing, that we are better for it, rather than as something unfortunate to be overcome as best as one can. These people are steeped in the Christian mythology of sin and suffering followed by redemption as the way to become a better person and they want to impose that form theocratic thinking on the country.

Shopping as a reality TV-based competitive sport

Well, another Thanksgiving holiday has come and gone and we get the usual reports of the shopping madness that has become customary. This year thankfully there do not seem to have been any actual deaths caused by crowds stampeding to get items, though shoppers at one place did ignore or step over a dying elderly man on the floor. (Incidentally, Kevin Drum says that ‘Black Friday’ got its name for darker reasons than the one that business public relations flacks have managed to foist on the public.)

But there have been shootings as people tried to rob shoppers of their purchases. There were also reports of riots in which police were called to quell unruly crowds and used the now-ubiquitous pepper sprays to disperse them. The report below also said that police picked up and slammed a grandfather to the ground in a store, thinking that he was a shoplifter. Why is such force necessary, even if their suspicions turned out to be correct?

Black Friday Brawl at Buckeye Walmart: MyFoxPHOENIX.com

A disturbing escalation was that of a shopper who, probably inspired by recent police actions, brought her own pepper spray and used it to disable her competitors for Xboxes and other high-demand items. She apparently escaped with her spoils but later turned herself in. Given the mentality of such shoppers, I worry that next year more people will copy her example or even escalate it, maybe bringing truncheons to fend off rivals or use tear gas and even tasers.

I have been trying to understand the mentality of these shopping melees. I can understand people in war-ravaged or famine-stricken areas rioting to get at meager relief supplies of food and water. But an Xbox is without doubt a luxury item, not a necessity, however much people may desire one. I have no idea how much an Xbox costs or what the sale price was but I find it hard to imagine that it was the size of the savings that drove someone to actually pepper spray her fellow human beings. After all, look at the scene below where people fought each other to get waffle irons that were on sale for $2. It is bizarre to think that people are willing to forego elementary courtesy and consideration towards others for waffle irons.

I blame reality TV for this development. I think what we are seeing is people shopping as if it were some kind of reality show of the kind seen on TV with themselves as contestants and in which the prizes are the goods on sale. The winners are those who snag the best deals and can then boast to their friends about it. And just like the shows, people are encouraged to do whatever it takes to ‘win’. One person reinforced this view by going so far as to describe the pepper-spraying woman as a ‘competitive shopper’, a benign euphemism for a person with a mean attitude to life.

The stores and the media feed this mentality, relentlessly hyping their sales with their publicity about the limited numbers at low prices and midnight store openings and the like, all contributing to a race-like mentality. Apparently after Walmart opened its stores at 10 pm on Thanksgiving, the sales in various sectors of the store begin at different times, with the items kept in pallets covered in plastic that are then removed at the sale time. It does not take a genius to predict that this will cause trouble as crowds of shoppers cluster around the pallets, salivating as they wait for the bell or whistle or whatever that signals that the race has begun.

On the one hand, one can dismiss this as the aberrations of a few people who have lost their sense of proportion. And as long as the numbers remain small, we can perhaps ignore it. But I worry about what the increasing numbers of people who are willing to shove aside, trample, and pepper spray their fellows in order to get at merchandise that they could well do without tells us about ourselves. It is not a good sign when the social fabric of concern for their fellow beings is torn apart in the desire to get some bauble.

I have little sympathy for those people who are choosing to subject themselves to bodily harm and insults to their dignity in this way. The people I feel sorry for are the low-level store workers who have no choice but to be there and risk getting hurt in the scrums. Because the stores are opening at midnight on Thanksgiving or, in the case of Walmart, even earlier, these workers do not get to enjoy the holiday. In these hard times, some may welcome the opportunity to get extra hours of work at overtime rates (at least I hope they get that) but I am sure there are many who would much rather forego that to spend a quiet holiday with their loved ones. There is even a petition to the Target department store company to ‘save Thanksgiving’ by not having these midnight openings.

I hope it catches on.

Tribunal finds Bush and Blair guilty of war crimes

Via Glenn Greenwald, I learn that the seven-member Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal in Malaysia, that was headed by that country’s former prime minister and had an American law professor as one of its prosecutors, found George W. Bush and Tony Blair “guilty of “crimes against peace” and other war crimes for their 2003 aggressive attack on Iraq, as well as fabricating pretexts used to justify the attack.” Greenwald further says that the tribunal

was modeled after a 1967 tribunal in Sweden and Denmark that found the U.S. guilty of a war of aggression in Vietnam, and, even more so, after the U.S.-led Nuremberg Tribunal held after World War II. Just as the U.S. steadfastly ignored the 1967 tribunal on Vietnam, Bush and Blair both ignored the summons sent to them and thus were tried in absentia.

The tribunal ruled that Bush and Blair’s name should be entered in a register of war criminals, urged that they be recognized as such under the Rome Statute, and will also petition the International Criminal Court to proceed with binding charges. Such efforts are likely to be futile, but one Malaysian lawyer explained the motives of the tribunal to The Associated Press: “For these people who have been immune from prosecution, we want to put them on trial in this forum to prove that they committed war crimes.” In other words, because their own nations refuse to hold them accountable and can use their power to prevent international bodies from doing so, the tribunal wanted at least formal legal recognition of these war crimes to be recorded and the evidence of their guilt assembled.

A different panel of this same tribunal will hold hearings on the charges of torture against Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others.

Boy, are those Malaysians dense, thinking that the Nuremberg principles were meant to be applied impartially to everyone. Don’t they realize that war crimes can only be committed by those whom US presidents declare to be enemies of America? US presidents, their allies, and any one who acts under their orders can never be guilty of war crimes, whatever they do. How hard is it to understand such a simple rule? Those Malaysians must be pretty stupid.

It is worth reading the whole Greenwald piece, as he is also one of those naïve people who believes in the rule of law.