Early eyes

A new article published today in Nature finds fossil evidence that fairly sophisticated eyes had evolved as early as 515 millions years ago, around the time known as the Cambrian explosion.

There were no fossil bodies found attached to the eyes, but the eyes probably belonged to a shrimp-like creature.

The disastrous Middle East policies of US and Israel

Henry Siegman makes in more detail the point that I made recently, that the US and Israel are pursuing policies that will lead to disaster in the Middle East.

Lawrence Davidson says that the rising numbers of Israeli Jews who are leaving or planning to leave that country permanently is a sign that they too are concerned about the future. The ones who remain are amongst the most fanatically religious and ideological. He adds, “This is what happens when any group gives itself over to a doctrine, be it racial, religious or political, which destroys all notions of common humanity. That is what the prevailing ideology of Israel has done.”

Test your Bible knowledge

Reader Chris sent me this link to 50 questions about the Bible. He got 26 right and he thought I would do better. Alas, I got only 25 right.

Where I think I went wrong was with my method of guessing for those questions that I did not know the answers to. I followed the recommended strategy for answering any multiple-choice tests and avoided the outlier options. But it often turned out that what I thought was too crazy to be true (even for the Bible) was in fact the right answer. So I was punished for giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt

What makes a government legitimate?

Currently in the US the willingness to mount a sustained protest against injustices is usually lacking. Even the tea party movement, while very vocal, did not take to the streets on a continuous basis. The closest we came to that in recent days was in Wisconsin when there were continuous protests at the state capital against the laws eliminating collective bargaining for public employees. For a while those mass protests spread to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Why didn’t they take root and spread?

Part of the reason is the fact that in the US voting is still perceived as a viable mechanism for change. This gives the government in power a legitimacy that people are unwilling to challenge. Many people in the US are wary of change that comes about through mass mobilizations in the street because of the sense that elected governments are more representative of the views of the population than crowds of demonstrators, however large.

This raises the question of what makes a government legitimate. One could argue that a government that gets into office as a result of a vote of the people has a presumptive claim to legitimacy, while authoritarian governments that seize and retain power without a vote of any kind are presumptively illegitimate. Those countries that have a tight grip on almost every aspect of their people’s life and can intimidate them into submission (such as North Korea and Burma) are clearly seen as illegitimate.

But things are not that simple. After all, many authoritarian governments (such as in Zimbabwe) conduct elections. Even Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had ‘elections’ that he regularly won by a landslide. Such elections are hardly free and fair since the rulers monopolize the media, restrict, arrest, or otherwise threaten their opponents, rig the ballot boxes, and so on. So the legitimacy of a government ultimately rests on something more subjective, whether large numbers of people in a country feel that their government is legitimate and is responsive to their needs. In Egypt, people clearly felt that it did not, and were willing to challenge it.

In the US, elections are also rigged but not in an obvious way. Here it is done by creating a system in which money rules. The extremely long election season, the dominance of two parties that are merely factions of a single pro-war/pro-business party, a media dominated by corporate interests, the important role that television advertisements play, all conspire to make the ability to raise large sums of money the most important criterion for getting elected to high office, and effectively rules out anyone who wants to challenge the oligarchy. The legitimacy of American governments can be questioned but the abuses are not as yet blatant enough to cause vast numbers of people to take to the streets and demand change.

Conversely, some authoritarian governments that do not hold elections may have more claims to legitimacy than those that do. Take for example China. It is undoubtedly an authoritarian government. It too controls the media to some extent, arrests dissidents, and cracks down on too much open dissent. With its huge population it should be possible to get millions of people into the streets to protest against the government if they felt strongly enough. But the people have not as yet done so, suggesting that they are not as yet willing to challenge the government’s claim to legitimacy.

So how does one measure the legitimacy of a country’s government? The above discussion suggests that one important measure is the ability to mobilize sufficient numbers of people to challenge the government on important issues, people who are willing to risk arrest, beatings, torture, even death for their rights and by doing so are able to inspire enough people to join in the protests that they paralyze the government and even make the military, the ultimate power, hesitant to move against them.

In Egypt, the demonstrators inspired the organized worker trade groups to join them in the later stages and this was an important step in delegitimizing the government. Currently in Greece there have been ongoing protests against the government’s austerity measures that are being forced on the people because of pressures from the IMF and France and Germany as a condition for getting aid that will eventually go to the banksters to bail them out of the crisis they were largely responsible for in the first place. The Greek trade unions have joined the protestors and are calling for general strikes.

The attempt to create a sustained mass protest beginning on October 6 that I wrote about yesterday is an attempt to relight the fires that flickered briefly in Wisconsin. The oligarchy in the US and its representatives in the US in the Democratic and Republican parties have been successful so far in their policy of divide and rule by pitting ordinary people against each other, public sector workers against private, whites against ethnic minorities, blacks against Hispanics, and so on. They will try to create such divisions again among the October 6 movement participants.

In the US, organized labor is often part of the Washington establishment and not eager for a confrontation in the streets and so they tend not to throw their support wholeheartedly into mass movements that they cannot control or which do not serve their narrow interests. This may change in the US as workers find themselves squeezed between losing their jobs overseas and facing cutbacks in wages, benefits, and public services at home. Sandy Pope, a 55-year old woman, is an insurgent candidate running for the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, wants to make that union more independent of the Washington establishment.

But in the US, it is the unorganized and diverse middle class, even though getting steadily impoverished, that is the most significant group. How they respond to the protests will be a significant factor in its success. If the tea party groups ever realize that they have far more in common with the October 6 groups than with the oligarchy they have chosen to side with, then we might witness the beginnings of a real movement for change.

Update on the Gaza peace flotilla

It looks like the Israeli government is nervous about the peace flotilla leaving Athens for Gaza and has been involved in some clumsy efforts by front groups to stall or stop it.

One effort involved raising bureaucratic objections with the Greek government, claiming that the boats were not properly insured.

Then a video that tried to discredit the flotilla organizers by claiming that they are dupes of Hamas and discriminate against gays has been exposed as a hoax and is suspected to have been produced with the aid of the Israeli government.

‘American Spring’ in the fall?

Although it seems to have stalled somewhat, the ‘Arab Spring’ of mass movements that resulted in the ouster of the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threatens the despotic regimes of Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen is undoubtedly inspiring. It shows that sheer people power, the willingness of large numbers of unarmed people to mount a sustained challenge to the rulers, can result in significant change. (In the case of Libya, the uprising was armed and the intervention of the US and NATO into the conflict means that we can no longer consider this as part of the Arab Spring but more along the lines of a civil war with outside involvement.)

It might be wondered why these kinds of mass demonstrations worked in those countries when similar mobilizations fail in the US. After all, we saw repeated massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq with hundreds of thousands of people marching on Washington, and the Bush-Cheney regime went ahead with that war anyway.

The difference is that in the US these demonstrations are for a single day, usually a Sunday, and after it people go back to their normal lives. The government knows this and can just ride out the event. In the Arab countries, it was the willingness of people to make the demonstrations permanent, to stay day after day, risking arrest, injury, and even death, that caused a crisis for the authorities. It showed a commitment and determination that inspired more and more people to join them.

This fall there will be another attempt in the US to mobilize people in the streets but it will not be the usual one-day demonstration. On Thursday, October 6, which is the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, a broad coalition of people and groups representing a wide spectrum will attempt to organize a demonstration at the Freedom Plaza in Washington DC which is located between the White House and the Capitol building. This movement is basing itself explicitly on the one in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and similar to that, the groups pledge not to leave until their demands are met. They are seeking commitments from at least 50,000 people willing to occupy the square permanently.

Will it happen? And will this work to bring about real change? It is in the nature of mass mobilizations that they take on a life of their own and it is hard to predict how things will turn out. Syndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall, who has long been critical of the high level of political apathy in the US, is hopeful:

I used to work for Democratic candidates. I was a campus activist. I marched in protests.
But, in the 1980s, I quit politics. I was fed up. The Left was impotent and inept. They didn’t want to change things. They were content with theater. Bad theater at that: dorks on stilts, boring speakers, stupid slogans, the same old chants. “The people, united, will never be defeated!”

Except—we were defeated. We didn’t even fight.

Our protests were poorly attended. The media ignored us. And we always lost. Even the Democrats didn’t care about us or our opinions. By the time Bill Clinton won in 1992, the progressive wing of the party was good for one thing: voting Democratic.

Along with millions of others, I drifted away.

Now, finally, for the first time in decades, I am excited.

We can change everything. Here. In America. Now.

The idea behind October 6th is simple: to recreate Tahrir Square two blocks away from the White House.

“We are not packing up and leaving this time,” says Tarak Kauff, one of the October 6th organizers. “We are preparing to stay as long as we possibly can or until some basic demands are met. If we are driven out, we will return.”

In other words, clear your calendar for the 6th, the 7th, the 8th…however long it takes for the Obama Administration to yield to key demands, including immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the other wars. Participants are being asked to sign a pledge to attend at http://october2011.org.

I am not sure how the government will react if there is a huge permanent presence in Washington right under its nose. Will it arrest large numbers of people in an effort to disperse them? Will it send in riot squads and tear gas and beat up the protestors? The government now has coercive powers far exceeding those it had when it unleashed violence on the demonstrators in Chicago in 1968. And if it does use those repressive powers, how will the general public react? Will they side with the government or will they support the protestors? Or will they change channels and watch American Idol?

We should be realistic. Political consciousness in the general public seems to be mired between apathy and obsession with the trivial. But there is a chance that this might catch on because the underlying economic conditions are so brittle. Even if this event does fizzle out, that is no reason to despair because what we are seeing is a qualitative and positive shift in strategy. By focusing on the successful climaxes of earlier mass movements (equal rights for women, civil rights in the US, Indian independence), we mistakenly think that simply being in the right was sufficient for victory. We forget that those successes were built on the foundation of many earlier failures. We have to remember that for future generations to succeed, we have to be willing to fail and not be discouraged. As I. F. Stone put it so well:

“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

New article

The latest issue (July/August 2011) of the British magazine New Humanist has an article by me that tries to clear up the confusion about the distinction between atheist and agnostic. I received my print copy today and my article may be available online next week.

New Humanist is published by The Rationalist Association and is a highly entertaining mix of short and long form articles, cartoons, columns, and interviews, written in a cheeky, lively, and exuberant style, with plenty of eye-catching graphics.

New peace flotilla on its way to Gaza

A 10-ship flotilla of boats seeking to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza is setting sail from Athens any day now. NPR had an account of the flotilla on today’s morning news show.

Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker is among the fifty or so Americans planning to be on one of the boats. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern is another and he writes about the real possibility of a repeat of the violence that Israel unleashed on the Mavi Marmara a year ago when it was part of a similar flotilla.

Of course, when it comes to Israel, the US government abdicates its role of trying to protect its own citizens. Recall the way it did not protest when a US citizen Furkan Dogan was killed by Israeli forces on the Mavi Marmara. Hillary Clinton seems to be giving the green light for Israel to attack the flotilla and the US State Department is warning Americans taking part in the flotilla that they may be prosecuted.

Israel initially warned any journalists on the flotilla they that they would face a ten-year ban on entry to Israel, presumably to discourage them so that there could be no independent reports of what may transpire. But they later rescinded that order.

Jon Huntsman’s 2016 strategy?

In yesterday’s post I said that Huntsman’s entry into the Republican race did not make much sense in terms of 2012. But if you think beyond the 2012 elections and look to 2016, it may be a smart move. For starters, few outside Utah have heard of Huntsman and name recognition is important in winning elections. By running now, even if he loses, by the time 2016 campaign starts he will be seen as a familiar face. John McCain, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all had losing runs for the Republican presidential nomination before they later succeeded, and the latter two then went on to win the presidency on their first try.

Furthermore, the first time you enter the national political scene by running for major office, you face a sudden scrutiny of your past life, both personal and professional, that can throw up awkward information that needs to be explained away and distracts from your campaign. Just ask Sarah Palin whose family life and career became the stuff of soap opera. Since the media craves novelty, it is good to get all that baggage out of the way early on when the stakes are not so high, so that it becomes old news by the time the races that really matter come around. So running in 2012 allows Huntsman to see what is the worst that can be thrown at him.

But the most important factor is the general political dynamic at play. The economy is not doing well, unemployment is high, and the nation is draining its resources by waging three increasingly unpopular wars. These factors would normally doom an incumbent president running for re-election. George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 when conditions were not nearly as bad as they are now. But the Republican party is not in a position to take advantage of this prime opportunity because the tea party movement, although it is splintering into factions and is likely to become irrelevant soon, still has enough residual strength to wield veto power over the 2012 nominee and seems determined to want a true believer as the Republican candidate. Bill Clinton was able to win in 1992 by being a political chameleon and seizing the political center (in addition to being aided by Ross Perot’s independent candidacy) but the Republicans now seem determined to only nominate someone whose swears allegiance to a long list of right wing extremist positions.

The supposedly serious elements in the Republican party who have been alarmed at the unserious direction the party has taken seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that the party nomination will go to someone who is either just plain nuts or is not nuts but has to take so many nutty positions to win the nomination that his candidacy is doomed in the general election. This seems to be the fate of Mitt Romney, whom I pick to be the eventual 2012 party nominee based on a simple but reliable political model which is that the candidate with the most money wins.

Obama winning re-election in 2012 may be viewed with horror by the Republican base but not by the oligarchy. The serious elements in the Republican party realize that Obama’s policies on all except some social issues (like gay rights and abortion) are highly congenial to the oligarchy, so they can easily live with him. I see the medium term strategy of the Republican party traditionalists being to concede the 2012 election to Obama and focus on finding someone for 2016. The expected defeat in 2012, especially if it is a rout that drags down Republican candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives, will hugely diminish the influence of the tea party leaving the so-called ‘adults’, currently marginalized, in a position to regain control.

So after the 2012 debacle, expect the Republican party to blame the loss on too much adherence to the tea party agenda and to look for an ‘adult’ to be their next candidate, someone who is anti-abortion (which will continue to remain non-negotiable for the Republican party) but is not locked into an increasingly unpopular anti-gay and anti-science agenda, someone who is pro-business and for lower taxes and will look after the interests of the wealthy but can also appeal to a broader constituency simply by not appearing to be a nutcase. In short, an anti-abortion Republican Obama. Someone like Jon Huntsman.

So based on that rather convoluted analysis, here is my prediction. Most likely Romney will gain the nomination by being a faux loony, being pushed into that losing position by a semi-loony (Tim Pawlenty) and real loonies (all the rest of the current field except Huntsman), and will then handily lose the presidential election. This will be followed in 2016 by the party selecting a more ‘adult’ candidate.

A Judge’s Dilemma

I received the following joke from my sister that I thought was worth sharing:

In a small town, a person decided to open up a brothel, which was right opposite to a church. The church and its congregation started a campaign to block the brothel from opening with petitions and prayed daily against his business.
Work progressed. However, when it was almost complete and was about to open a few days later, a strong lightning struck the brothel and it was burnt to the ground.
The church folks were rather smug in their outlook after that, till the brothel owner sued the church authorities on the grounds that the church through its congregation and prayers was ultimately responsible for the destruction of his brothel, either through direct or indirect actions or means.
In its reply to the court, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection that their prayers were reasons for the act of God. As the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the paperwork at the hearing and commented, “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this case, but it appears from the paperwork, we have a brothel owner who believes in the power of prayer and we have an entire church that doesn’t.”