Justifying universal and existence statements

My post on how we should implement the Year of Reason by asking religious people why they believe in god provoked quite a spirited back-and-forth in the comments section.

In the post, I said that there was no substantive reason that religious people could give in response to the question “Why do you believe in god?” and I categorized the likely things they would say under the headings Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, and Argument From Vague Feelings. I endorsed Sigmund Freud’s assertion that religion was a form of mass delusion since so many people believed in something for which there was no credible evidence whatsoever.
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Why journalists should not schmooze with politicians

A week before his inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of conservative columnist George Will (aka “the man who confuses pomposity with profundity”). Also in attendance were conservative and neo-conservative columnists Bill Kristol (aka, “the man who is almost always wrong”), David Brooks (aka, “the man who can be depended upon to say the most obvious things in the most banal way”), and Charles Krauthammer (aka, “the man who loves torture”).

This caused a stir in the pundit world. A few liberals worried whether Obama would be swayed by this group and abandon his policies and suddenly declare that more tax cuts for the rich, more torture, and more wars was the way to go. Conservatives worried that ‘their’ pundits would be charmed and won over by Obama and put away their knives and become lapdogs.

The very next day, Obama put these alarmed pundits mind at ease by meeting with a group of supposedly ‘liberal’ columnists (Andrew Sullivan, Roland Martin, Rachel Maddow, the Gene Robinson, the Boston Globe’s Derrick Z. Jackson, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Jerry Seib, Ron Brownstein, DeWayne Wickham and E.J. Dionne Jr.)

So in the world of politicians and elite media, everything was ok. That desirable quality of ‘balance’ had been restored. Rarely did you find the sentiment expressed that both events should never have happened.

I find the whole idea of journalists schmoozing with politicians distasteful. I don’t blame Obama or other politicians for doing it. Shrewd politicians love to cultivate social interactions with journalists because they know that they can use that access to reward and punish journalists and thus control them. John McCain was very good at this, even calling the media ‘his base’, and used them to advance his career before the relationship turned sour towards the end of his last campaign.

The people I fault are the journalists. They have no business having off-the-record, friendly, social meetings with the politicians they are supposed to be covering. The ideological labels attached to the participants are irrelevant. Journalists and politicians should never be friends.

I. F. Stone, one of the greatest journalists America has produced, refused to meet socially with politicians for very good reasons. This is what Stone said:

It’s just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, ‘Izzy, why don’t you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.’ Well, you know, you’re not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won’t pay any attention to you anyway. He’ll hold your hand, he’ll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you’re brighter than anybody else is — or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!

Victor Navasky writes of Stone that “although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.” How? Because as Stone said, “if you didn’t attend background briefings you weren’t bound by the ground rules; you could debrief correspondents who did, check out what they had been told, and as often as not reveal the lies for what they were.”

Contrast Stone’s attitude with that of the late Tim Russert, a truly awful journalist, who said at the trial of Scooter Libby, “When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it’s my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission.” As Dan Froomkin points out:

According to Russert’s testimony yesterday at Libby’s trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That’s not reporting, that’s enabling.

That’s how you treat your friends when you’re having an innocent chat, not the people you’re supposed to be holding accountable.

Glenn Greenwald describes how Richard Cohen excuses the actions of those politicians whom he considers friends, and adds:

Reflecting the vast diversity of our national media, Richard Cohen now joins fellow Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus, David Ignatius, David Broder and Fred Hiatt — as well as virtually every other Beltway journalist — in demanding that Bush officials not be prosecuted even if they committed felonies.

Why? Because they are all friends, the politicians, the journalists, and the powerful business interests, and they look out for each other.

Stone’s journalistic credo was summed up this way:

To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.

It is hard to fight for those things if you socially hobnob with those who commit the very injustices you are against.

This is why journalists should refuse all invitations to socialize with politicians.

POST SCRIPT: Asian stereotypes

The Daily Show takes the opportunity of the rumor that the awful Sajay Gandhi Sanjay Gupta (Thanks to Kural for the correction) may be appointed Surgeon General by Obama to let Asif Mandvi do a hilarious riff on Asian-American ambitions.

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Bogus exaltation of women

I was on a panel recently that sought to clarify any misconceptions that people might have about the various religious beliefs, or the lack of them. I was the atheist, and the other panelists consisted of people having backgrounds in Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Scientology, Catholicism, and Protestantism.

Each of us were asked to begin the session by speaking for a few minutes about what we felt were the biggest misconceptions. I said that when it comes to beliefs, it should be easy for everyone to understand what atheism is all about because everyone is an atheist. After all, religious people are atheistic about all gods other than their own, while those who call themselves atheists merely add one more god to that vast list of disbelieved gods, making a clean sweep of it. The reason we do so is for the same reason that religious people disbelieve other gods.

Atheists live by a very simple and commonsensical principle: There is no sense believing in something for which there is absolutely no evidence. Atheists disbelieve in the existence of any and all gods for the same reason we disbelieve in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy or the Loch Ness monster or unicorns.

During the question period, one student asked whether it was the case that some religions treat women as second class. The response of the religion panelists was, “Of course not!” It is a sign of progress that nowadays no one can openly and explicitly declare the superiority of one gender ort race or ethnicity over others. If they do believe such a thing, they have to practice a quiet hypocrisy.

The awkward fact is, of course, that many religions do not allow women to do many things that they allow men to do. I am not even talking the cruel, absurd, and rigid prohibitions that women face in some Islamic countries. Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, mainstream Islam, and Mormons all have restrictions on the role of women, especially in their religious rituals and even extending to their dress.

So how to reconcile this with the assertion that women are equal to men? The panelists gave various reasons and took an interesting tack. Some argued that the dress rules that highly restrict what women can wear in some religions arise out of general modesty rules that apply to both men and women. They also argued that women were biologically different, that they had a childbearing capacity denied to men and that as a result, their religions highly valued women because of the immense importance of the role of childbearing and motherhood in the life of any society. Hence, according to them, women actually enjoyed an exalted, not inferior, status in their religions. Because of the special and important role only they could play, women were encouraged to devote their full attention and energies to their superior biological role and leave the other supposedly minor stuff to men. In other words, all the restrictions imposed on them were not restrictions at all but should be taken as signs of how much women were valued. The rules had been created to allow them to play their superior role unencumbered by having to worry about other mundane things.

This is typical of the absurd logical knots that religions tie themselves into trying to incorporate universally accepted standards of equality in their fundamentally unequal doctrines. Their argument was so manifestly self-serving rubbish that it could have been demolished by even a middle-school level debater. Its advocacy by religious people shows the extent to which these religions are being squeezed as their outdated doctrines confront a modern world and modern values.

These religious people were trying to glide past the uncomfortable fact that the women in their religions had no choice whatsoever about their roles and were being forcedto accept their position based on ancient books written and interpreted by men.

There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to dress extremely modestly by covering herself from head to toe, or to stay at home and devote her life to bearing and raising children, or to not want to become a priest or similar religious leader. But there is a world of difference between making such a choice freely and being told that they have to do so, otherwise they will be expelled form their religious group or suffer an even worse fate.

Can anyone be expected to take seriously the suggestion that women in Saudi Arabia are exalted because they are forbidden freedoms that women elsewhere routinely have access to? We see where this kind of absurd religious thinking leads to when a Muslim cleric recently said that women should wear a veil that reveals only one eye because ” showing both eyes encouraged women to use eye make-up to look seductive.” The article goes on “The question of how much of her face a woman should cover is a controversial topic in many Muslim societies.” (my italics). Really? The only thing that should be controversial is the fact that this is even a question or a topic for discussion at all. It clearly shows the inferior status of women, because that kind of decision should be left solely to each individual woman to make freely without any pressure or coercion.

Any religion or society that does not allow women equal access to every single aspect of life that men have is a religion or society that treats women as second class. There is no denying that even if there are women in that religion or society who find their situation acceptable or even desirable and even become advocates of such restrictions being imposed on their fellow women.

I hope that bogus exaltations of women such as those offered by the religious panelists will be increasingly seen as the laughably ridiculous arguments they are.

POST SCRIPT: Who does god really talk to?

Turns out it is to Stephen Colbert.

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Don’t leave Obama alone!

Irish orator John Philpot Curran said in 1790 that “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” This has since been abbreviated to “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” and attributed to many people, including Thomas Jefferson. Those who supported Obama during the campaign should take these words to heart. People have to be extra vigilant when their preferred candidate wins because that is when people let their guard down, thinking that the winners will look after the interests of those who put them into power.
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Why bloggers are more interesting than newspaper columnists

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog and as is my custom I want to reflect on the nature of blogging and, briefly, my own blog.

When I began, I never thought that I would write so much. I have written over a thousand posts and a million words. I also did not anticipate the form that it would eventually take, which was a cross between op-ed type essays and long form articles that I broke up into multi-part series with each episode an op-ed sized chunk. One such series of posts formed the basis of a book The Case of God v. Darwin: Evolution, Religion, and the Establishment Clause that will be published later this year and some others will form the basis of future books and articles.
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Infantilizing people

One of the extraordinary features of the last decade is the extent to which people have accepted as necessary or even desirable the most appalling crimes done by the government. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, torture, sending people secretly to authoritarian countries to be tortured, warrantless wiretaps and other invasions of privacy, have now become seen as ‘normal’.

How was this achieved? By political leaders inflating the threat of terrorism in the US, making people terrified, and then acting as if those same leaders alone can protect us provided we give them all the power they ask for to do so. In effect, we have seen the steady infantilizing of people, not unlike a father who terrifies a small child by telling ghost stories so that the child looks up to him even more for protection.

One of the symptoms of this strategy is that one frequently hears the statement by US political leaders, especially Bush and Cheney, that they are taking this or that action to ‘protect the American people’. As a consequence of the drumming of this message, ordinary citizens often say in interviews that they expect the president to ‘protect’ them and that this is his main job.

I find this kind of language to be extremely distasteful due to its highly patronizing and condescending nature. It baffles me that so many people say that they are grateful to president Bush for ‘protecting’ them from another terrorist attack. It seems to me that this is sign of an infantile disorder, where people feel the need for a father figure to keep them safe from real and imagined threats.

During the campaign, one of the refreshing things about Obama was that he seemed to treat the American people like they were adults, and this was especially so in his speech about race delivered in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright episode. But now Obama seems to have picked up on the Bush-Cheney disease, saying in an interview on ABC’s This Week (Sunday, January 11, 2009) that “My number one priority every single day that I wake up is how do I make sure that the American people safe.”

Obama should stop not lose sleep over my safety. I do not need or want him to ‘protect’ me or to ‘keep me safe’. I just want him to run a lawful, constitutionally based government and adopt policies that improve the welfare of people, especially those who need it the most.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the government should not be in the position of providing public security. One of the most important roles of a government is to ensure that people have services that protect them from violence against their person and from crime and fire and flood and other calamities, and that they can call upon those services as needed. The leaders of a nation also have a duty to defend the nation from hostile actions by nations that seek to conquer any or all parts of it.

I am also not opposed to some supposedly ‘anti-terrorist’ measures like taking off your shoes and not carrying liquids through airport checkpoints. I think that some of these things are excessive and annoying and promote fear and anxiety (which may actually be their main purpose) but they are not gross violations of civil liberties or constitutional rights, which are the things I am most concerned about.

But those are not the kinds of things that Bush-Cheney (and now I fear Obama) seem to mean when they say they must have the tools to ‘protect the American people’. What they are doing is trying to conflate two separate things – the normal expectation that people have that they should be safe from everyday crime, with the heightened fear that they will be at the receiving end of a major catastrophe at the hands of mass murderers,

These political leaders are implying that if they are not allowed to be able to use torture and all the other things I listed above, then the next thing you know, al Qaeda or similar groups are going to detonate a nuclear weapon in downtown Cleveland

No one has suggested that these murderous groups have the remotest intention of taking over the US. No other country, however strong, has the remotest chance of ever subjugating the US or has expressed any intention of doing so. It would be insane to even try. If there is a threat to US dominance of the world at all it will come from within, because of economic collapse due to corruption and looting by its own elites and the financial sector, to expensive and unnecessary wars, and the neglect of basic infrastructure and services.

Bush-Cheney exploited the fears of a terrorist attack to gain compliance for acts that violate the laws and constitutional safeguards and basic human rights, on the basis that such violations are needed to ‘protect’ us from some shadowy external threat. What they were saying is that beyond the normal levels of protection that people enjoy and that can be provided within the parameters of laws while still preserving long-accepted standards of civil liberties, there is another level of protection that can only be achieved by violating those rights for some people, purely on the basis of suspicion. What the government is doing is similar to the protection racket run by mobsters.

I do not need or want this extra level of protection, whether it is from Bush, Cheney, or Obama. The national security state, which is what we have now, is an evil thing that must be dismantled. I would rather take my chances with a terrorist attack than see the systematic dismantling of the long-standing, hard won protections of habeas corpus, the right to a speedy and fair trial, freedom from torture or the fear of torture both here or abroad, freedom from arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, and freedom from the invasion of privacy.

I do not believe that we can be totally protected from internal or external terrorist threats and we pay far too high a price in seeking to do so. We should resist being infantilized by political leaders who are seeking to increase their own authoritarian powers by promoting such fears. We must realize that there are some threats that we have to learn to live with if we are not to see the complete abandonment of the civil liberties and freedoms we have long taken for granted.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart looks at this protection racket

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Obama and Russia, Cuba, and the neoconservatives

Jim Lobe reviews some articles and the book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons by Jacob Heilbrunn who speculates on what the neoconservatives, those instigators and cheerleaders for the disastrous policies of Bush-Cheney regime, will try to do now:

It speculates on the internal splits that the neo-cons are going through as a result of the political campaign and Obama’s victory, and the possibility (I would say probability) that at least one major faction — headed by people like Robert Kagan, David Brooks and even David Frum — will seek to forge an alliance with liberal interventionists, presumably led by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton (although Susan Rice also fits the bill), in the new administration, much as they succeeded in doing during the Clinton administration with respect to Balkans policy. As I’ve written before, the two movements have similar historical origins (inspired in major part by the “lessons” — “never again” — they drew from Munich and the Holocaust) and tend to see foreign policy in highly moralistic terms in which the U.S. and Israel are “exceptionally” good. While I don’t agree with everything in Heilbrunn’s analysis, it offers a good point of departure for watching the neo-cons as the Age of Obama gets underway.

As I wrote yesterday, the most immediate foreign policy issues confronting the Obama administration involve Iraq and Afghanistan. On other issues, the residual effects of neoconservative and cold war politics is likely to constrain Obama to continue to follow their agenda, at least for a short while. So far he has taken very much a standard pro-war establishment stand. We will have to observe whether the neoconservatives have any success in infiltrating the Obama administration and influencing its policies in the long run.

For example, during the campaign Obama was absurdly belligerent towards Russia on the Georgia/South Ossetia issue. After first making a fairly reasonable statement calling for restraint on both sides, under pressure he resorted to the required anti-Russian belligerence, blaming Russia (on August 9) for “aggressive actions” while sidestepping the provocations of the Georgian president.

What the pro-war one party state demands is that Georgia be portrayed as this plucky little democratic, innocent, western-friendly country that was suddenly attacked without provocation by the big bad Russians, and Obama belatedly but dutifully got on board with the program. However, as was clear from the beginning for anyone who read outside the mainstream media in the US, this picture was far too simple and that Georgia, far from being purely an innocent party, suffered from the actions of their own reckless president. As always, the unpalatable truth leaks out later in dribs (November 7) and drabs (November 17) long after the strong false but initial impressions have been created.

Governments and public relations professionals know how easy it is to manipulate public impressions if you have first crack at shaping the news. In an article (An Orwellian Pitch: The inner workings of the war-propaganda, LA Weekly, March 21-27, 2003) in which he analyzed the way that lies were used to rush the public into invading Iraq, John R. McArthur quotes Peter Teeley, George H. W. Bush’s press secretary when he was vice president, who explained it this way: “You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it.” If it happens to be untrue, “so what. Maybe 200 people read [the correction] or 2,000 or 20,000.”

In a post in 2005, I gave several examples of this lying technique in action. Uri Avnery points to some new examples in the current Israeli assault on Gaza

An example of this process surrounds the most shocking atrocity of this war so far: the shelling of the UN Fakhura school in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Immediately after the incident became known throughout the world, the army “revealed” that Hamas fighters had been firing mortars from near the school entrance. As proof they released an aerial photo which indeed showed the school and the mortar. But within a short time the official army liar had to admit that the photo was more than a year old. In brief: a falsification.

Later the official liar claimed that “our soldiers were shot at from inside the school”. Barely a day passed before the army had to admit to UN personnel that that was a lie, too. Nobody had shot from inside the school, no Hamas fighters were inside the school, which was full of terrified refugees.

But the admission made hardly any difference anymore. By that time, the Israeli public was completely convinced that “they shot from inside the school”, and TV announcers stated this as a simple fact.

So it went with the other atrocities. Every baby metamorphosed, in the act of dying, into a Hamas terrorist. Every bombed mosque instantly became a Hamas base, every apartment building an arms cache, every school a terror command post, every civilian government building a “symbol of Hamas rule”. Thus the Israeli army retained its purity as the “most moral army in the world”.

Governments that lie take careful measures to prevent independent voices from gaining access to the news. In the case of Gaza, until yesterday Israel prevented journalists from entering Gaza, even defying the order of its own Supreme Court to allow them in. As a result, the only independent news sources are from Al Jazeera and from individuals, such as this eyewitness report from an Irish human rights worker that details in horrifying detail the terror and destruction that Israel has inflicted on the people of Gaza.

The morgues of Gaza’s hospitals are over-flowing. The bodies in their blood-soaked white shrouds cover the entire floor space of the Shifa hospital morgue. Some are intact, most horribly deformed, limbs twisted into unnatural positions, chest cavities exposed, heads blown off, skulls crushed in. Family members wait outside to identify and claim a brother, husband, father, mother, wife, child. Many of those who wait their turn have lost numerous family members and loved ones.

Blood is everywhere. Hospital orderlies hose down the floors of operating rooms, bloodied bandages lie discarded in corners, and the injured continue to pour in: bodies lacerated by shrapnel, burns, bullet wounds. Medical workers, exhausted and under siege, work day and night and each life saved is seen as a victory over the predominance of death.

BBC reporters now allowed in say (and the videos show) that parts of Gaza looks like it has been hit by an earthquake with entire neighborhoods flattened and bodies still buried in the debris. The killing of a well known doctor’s daughters in their own home is another example of the horror inflicted on the people of Gaza.

But the Israeli government knows that by limiting first access to the news to its own sources, by the time the truth emerges and makes it into the mainstream press, it has had time to shape public perceptions in ways that are hard to correct.

This is why you have to be skeptical of the statements made by any political leader or government, especially in the immediate aftermath of some major event. They are not trying to inform you, they are trying to shape perception in their favor, and using the fact that they are the ones with immediate access to the media to distort the truth.

The only foreign policy area where there is some hope for quick improvement with the Obama administration is with Cuba. The tide seems to be turning as far as Cuban-American sentiment goes towards Cuba. The older hard-line anti-Castro embargo supporters are dying off and the younger generation wants to create normal relations. This may enable the cautious Obama to open channels towards that country, which has suffered so cruelly from the sanctions, without suffering loss of domestic support. Cuba’s president Raul Castro has offered to hold direct talks with Obama and I hope he accepts.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on Bush’s final media blitz – clueless to the end

Is there anyone less capable of being reflective than Bush?

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What to expect from the Obama administration on domestic issues

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I want to muse on what we might see in the coming years.

There has been considerable hand-wringing amongst some liberal supporters of Obama about the people he has selected so far for his administration, since many of them are warmed over Clintonites and other establishment types. But I have not been really surprised. As I have said repeatedly, Obama is a cautious and centrist politician. He is definitely not a progressive, even though some progressives read into his words and campaign more than what he actually said he stood for. The willingness of so many people across the political spectrum to think that Obama represents them is probably a measure of how fed up they are with Bush. Obama is seen as not-Bush and that is enough for them.
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