How the Iraq war was sold

If you missed the excellent special episode of Bill Moyer’s journal Buying the War: How did the mainstream press get it so wrong? that was broadcast on PBS on Wednesday, April 25, 2007, you can see the 90-minute program online.

I would strongly urge that you watch the program. Those of us who followed the run-up to the war closely will not find any startling new revelations in the program but by assembling the information into one narrative, Moyers shows dramatically how the administration and Congress and the media colluded in misleading the country into the disastrous Iraq war. (See Justin Raimondo’s review of the program which adds useful information.)
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The new atheism-4: The new questions posed by the new atheists

Religious beliefs are ubiquitous and have been around for a long time despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence in support of the beliefs. As I have said before, the evidence asked for is not unlike the evidence required if someone says that there are three kinds of electric charge in the universe, as opposed to the two kinds that scientists currently believe in. You have to provide data to support that contention. If you don’t, people are perfectly justified in rejecting that position. To assert that a third kind of charge exists but it has no measurable and observable effect on anything is not a position that has any intellectual merit. And yet that seems to be precisely the kind of argument that elite religionists are making.

That is not the only kind of evidence that god could provide. Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 78) points to a website that asks why the people who claim that god heals people in response to prayers never seem to pray to have the limbs of amputees re-grow, even though salamanders routinely do this without any prayer. As the website says: “If we pray for anything that is impossible — for example, regenerating an amputated limb or moving Mt. Everest to Newark, NJ — it never happens. We all know that. If we pray for anything that is possible, the results of the prayer will unfold in exact accord with the normal laws of probability.”

Yet despite this lack of evidence, almost all societies at all times seem to have had some form of religious beliefs and observances and this naturally begs the question of why this is so. Religious people and theologians will answer that this is because god really does exist and people have sensed god’s presence in some way. This then requires an explanation of why, if there is a single god, there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that are quite different.

One commonly accepted explanation is that only one religion is right and the rest are wrong. This assumes that only one particular religious group managed to sense correctly the right nature of god. The catch, as we all know, is that each of the different religions believes that they are the truly special ones and there seems to be no way of determining which belief is correct.

But another explanation can be obtained by bringing social scientists and anthropologists into the picture, and trying to explain the divergence of beliefs in this single god in the light of historical contingencies. In other words, they argue that god’s presence is revealed to humans in such subtle ways that people interpret god in the light of their immediate social and cultural contexts, leading to different conceptions of the one god at different times and different places. Why is god so subtle in leaving clues instead of being direct? That is put down to inscrutability.

But one can easily come up with yet more alternative explanations. One (which I just made up in the course of writing this post) is that there isn’t just a single god but many gods, each competing for the allegiance of people on Earth. In other words, rather than one religion being right and all the others wrong, they are all right. The Jewish god, Christian god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and all the other gods that people worship are all separate entities, playing a game according to some rules they have agreed upon that results in the people on Earth, who are the ‘pieces’ in their game, competing as proxies to see which god is going to emerge the winner with the most followers.

This explanation explains quite a lot that a single god model does not. For example, take the problem of why bad things happen to good people. When people suffer for no discernible reason, this model could argue that it is caused by one god trying to make the believer in another god angry with their current god and shift their allegiance. This model would also explain why for most religions apostasy is one of the biggest sins and unquestioning faith and devotion are portrayed as great virtues, because all these things discourage people from switching allegiances and thus causing their god to lose the game.

It is often argued that religions can also arise even in the absence of any god because the notions of an all-powerful god and the existence of an afterlife are so comforting for those who fear death, that they have been tempted to invent a benevolent father figure and a life after this life. Or that religion arose because ancient people were trying to find explanations for the wonders of the natural world and the idea of a cosmic creator made sense to them. These kinds of explanations arise from the fields of individual and social psychology.

But such explanations for the existence of religion are not satisfying for those who look at it from the point of view of evolutionary biology because they come in response to the wrong question. For such scientists, it is not enough to suggest that religion came into existence because it satisfies psychological needs. Since the paradigm for them is evolution by natural selection, a satisfactory explanation would have to answer the harder question of why it was evolutionarily advantageous for those individuals who had predispositions for behaviors that result in religion coming into being to be preferentially selected over those individuals that did not. Saying that beliefs in god and the afterlife satisfy human curiosity and are comforting may be true but miss the point.

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. On the face of it, religion is at an evolutionary disadvantage because evolution prefers those organisms that use their time and resources wisely and efficiently to propagate their genes. It is hard to see how people who seem to want to spend their energy and resources building places of worship, and their time in worship, can have an advantage (in terms of natural selection survival) over other humans who use their time in more productive ways such as cultivating food or building better shelters or hunting prey.

This is why the entrance of natural scientists into the science-religion debate has shaken things up so much, because they are not only asking new questions, they are suggesting that they may soon be able to provide biologically-based answers to age old questions of then origins of morality and religion and consciousness.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: NPR host audition

I heard that NPR is having an American Idol style contest to find the next National Public Radio program host. A good friend of mine Daniel Steinberg has submitted an audio clip which you can listen to here and then rate him.

I listened and he has a terrific voice, very NPR-y. But even more important than that is that as a host Daniel (by training a mathematician but now diversified into many areas) would bring with him a sharp intelligence, wit, broad knowledge, a good humored approach, and common sense.

I hope you will listen and vote accordingly. To avoid ballot stuffing, there is a quick registration process to assign you a password before you can vote, but that was quick and painless and they do not ask intrusive personal questions.

The new atheism-3: What the new atheists are saying

(See part 1 and part 2.)

The peaceful coexistence model that has long been used to maintain peace between elite science and elite religion was reinforced by the National Academy of Sciences when the science-religion issue became heated during the heyday of the intelligent design creationism movement. In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the NAS said: “At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world. . .Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”
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The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says “[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief.”
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The new atheism-1: The times they are a-changing

The year 2006 may have seen the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between religious people and atheists. As I emphasized in my 2000 book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (from which I am excerpting certain passages here), the relationship between science and religion is very complex because the words ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are both umbrella terms that encompass a wide range of ideas and attitudes.

The changing relationships become easier to understand if we follow theologian Langston Gilkey and divide up each group into two: elite religion and popular religion, and elite science and popular ‘science’.

Elite religion is that which is believed by theologians and the more sophisticated members of mainstream religions. This group seeks to accommodate the knowledge created by science. It sees science and religion as describing two complementary areas of knowledge and tends to take scientific advances in its stride. Such people are comfortable with demythologizing the Bible and other religious texts and reinterpreting its knowledge in terms of recent developments in science. This group tends to have little difficulty seeing almost all the Biblical stories such as those of Noah and Moses (and especially the miraculous events) as metaphors and not historical. They believe in a god who can and does act in the world but how that happens is left unspecified and it is also left vague as to whether such interventions violate established scientific laws. Their religious beliefs are elastic enough that such people can absorb almost any scientific advance. That still leaves some problematic miracles at the heart of each religion (the resurrection of Jesus being one for Christians) that they are reluctant to demythologize, but in such cases refuge is taken by saying that science cannot disprove that it happened and so it could be true.

Popular religion, on the other hand, takes almost all its authority from religious texts and insists that all scientific knowledge must be interpreted to be consistent with these texts, since the latter are supposedly infallible. Fundamentalist religions of all stripes fall into this category. In the case of Christians, this group is likely to insist on the historicity of Noah, Moses, Jesus and all the other stories for which there is little or no corroborating historical evidence. For popular religionists, it is essential that the Bible and Koran and other religious texts be treated as scientifically and historically unimpeachable.

Elite science is that produced by the scientific establishment in universities and other research centers and published in scientific journals. Such science follows a strict methodological naturalistic philosophy, which argues that when investigating any phenomenon, we postulate as explanations only natural causes based on physical laws that lead to reproducible results. Elite science does not allow for the intervention of agents that can act arbitrarily in violation of natural laws as the explanation for any phenomenon.

Popular ‘science’ does not limit itself to methodological naturalism but allows for the action of supernatural forces. Such people find no difficulty believing in superstitions, horoscopes, astrology, telekinesis, witchcraft, and so on, and have no trouble believing that there could be some substance to the claims of astrologers, parapsychologists, fortune tellers, spoon benders, mind readers, faith healers, and the like. The idea of widespread existence of supernatural forces of all sorts does not strike such people as implausible. (The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, “Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.”)

I hate to assign the label ‘science’ to what are such blatantly unscientific beliefs but feel obliged to follow Gilkey’s terminology completely, and it does provide a kind of symmetry in terminology. But I will try to remember to put it in ironic quotes to remind us that all these beliefs are not really science in any sense of the word that a scientists would accept.

So what is the status of the relationship between the four groups?

Popular ‘science’ and popular religion have never had any real problems with each other methodologically. After all, they both are willing to accept the intervention of supernatural agents in everyday lives, in violation of the laws of science. For example, creationists mix their popular religion about god specially creating species with ideas about a 6,000 year-old Earth, which they try and justify using popular ‘science’, which essentially means rejecting much of accepted science and creating ad hoc theories and fitting evidence to reinforce beliefs that are based on religious texts. What differences there are between popular ‘science’ and popular religion lie along moral dimensions. Fundamentalist Christians might dislike and oppose witchcraft, but that is because they think the latter is ‘evil’, the product of a ‘bad’ supernatural agent, not because they think that the idea of witchcraft itself is preposterous.

Elite religion has had an uneasy relationship with popular ‘science’. Elite religion is embarrassed by the notion that god, which for them is a sophisticated concept, would be compatible with other supernatural agents that go running around interfering with the laws of science on a daily basis. But they cannot come down too hard on popular ‘science’ because the only way to consistently do so would be to unequivocally rule out the action of all supernatural agents, which would put themselves too out of business. Once you have accepted the existence of at least one supernatural agent, you have pretty much lost any credibility to oppose any others. So this prevents elite religion from expressing a full-throated denunciation of popular science.

Elite and popular religions tend to get along better. Most large religious denominations encompass both kinds of believers and try not to antagonize any segment. So, for example, even though clergy are likely to know that very little of what is contained in the Bible and other religious texts is historically true (See here and the links therein), they are likely to not emphasize that fact to their congregations. While most people start out as children as popular religionists, if they begin to develop doubts about the historicity of the great flood and the like and ask questions, their priests and parents are likely to concede privately that it is acceptable to not believe in the literal truth of the events portrayed in the religious texts, because they are metaphors of a higher and deeper truth. Thus people who begin to question are slowly edged along the road to elite religion.

Elite science has been in conflict with popular ‘science’ and popular religion for some time now and this situation is likely to continue since the principle of methodological naturalism is a non-negotiable divide. One either accepts it or rejects it as a working hypothesis. Elite science rejects astrology and the like as frauds perpetrated on the gullible. The methodological naturalism that is characteristic of elite science does not allow the intervention of supernatural agents. Thus believers in popular science and popular religion are hostile to elite science because the latter does not allow for supernatural agents as explanations for anything.

All these relationships have been fairly stable for the last few centuries. It is the final remaining relationship, between elite science and elite religion, that is currently undergoing some serious upheaval and sparked the intense science-religion debates that we are currently experiencing, and will form the subject of future postings.

POST SCRIPT: New secular student group at Case

A group of students have taken the initiative to create a Case chapter of the Campus Freethought Alliance. The organizer is a student named Batool who can be reached at bxa21(at)case.edu if you would like more information about the group. I have been asked to serve as the group’s advisor and have accepted.

The CFA’s mission can be found on its website.

The Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization uniting freethinking, skeptic, secularist, nontheist, and humanist students and student organizations. Its purposes are:
-To encourage freedom from superstition, irrationalism, and dogma.
-To further the acceptance and application of science, reason, and critical thinking in all areas of human endeavor.
-To challenge misrepresentations of non-religious convictions and lifestyles.
-To create a campus community for freethinkers and skeptics.
-To cultivate in ourselves — and others — a sense of responsibility to, and compassion for, humanity.
-To counter all forms of religious political extremism.
-To defend religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
-To defend individual freedoms and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of race, sex, gender, class, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.
-To unite freethinkers, skeptics, and humanists and consolidate campus resources to these ends.

When good people do bad things

Amongst Catholics, it had long been thought that “children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, but the church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians have long taught, however, that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God.”

However, it seems that concerns have been raised about this because of the growing number of children who now die without being baptized. (I am not exactly sure why this is seen as a bigger problem now than before. Is there a finite amount of space and thus overcrowding in limbo?) Anyway a recent news report says that the Catholic Church has appointed a high powered International Theological Commission to study this problem (really) and now thinks that there is “reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven.”

All Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin. This asserts that all people are sinful by their very nature because they are born that way and thus must seek forgiveness to achieve salvation. I had rejected the idea of original sin at a very early age, even when I was still religious in other ways. The idea that newborn babies are sinners struck me as just too preposterous to be taken seriously. Furthermore, since I had never accepted the Genesis story as being literally true, the ‘fall from grace’ which is supposed to be the source of original sin and is depicted in the famous story of Eve tempting Adam with fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, could not have occurred anyway, making the whole idea very dubious.

For me discussions about the nature of limbo (or even its existence) and the importance of baptism of infants for salvation are utterly pointless, similar to questions concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But such questions have serious consequences in the lives of real people. Richard Dawkins describes the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara in his book The God Delusion (p 311-315), which he takes from another book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer.

Edgardo was a boy born to Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy who, as an infant, had a fourteen year old Catholic nanny. When the baby got very sick one day, the nanny panicked and thought that he was going to die. Not wanting him to end up in limbo, she discovered that anyone (not just priests) could baptize anyone else by sprinkling water and muttering the appropriate words, and she did so to Edgardo in order to save his soul. Edgardo recovered, however, and many years later, the news that he had been baptized came to the attention of church authorities and since a baptized child was legally considered to be a Christian, it was considered intolerable for Edgardo to be brought up in a Jewish home. So in 1868 the papal police, acting legally under the orders of the Inquisition, seized the six-year old boy and brought him up in a special home used for the conversion of Jews and Muslims.

His distraught parents naturally tried everything they could to get their child back but it was to no avail. In fact, the church was bewildered that anyone would even make a fuss about this. After all, the child was now a Christian by virtue of having been baptized and the church thought that being brought up in Christian environment was best for the child. A Catholic newspaper in the US even defended the Pope’s action as taken on behalf of the principle of religious liberty, “the liberty of a child of being a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew. . . The Holy Father’s protection of the child, in the face of all the ferocious fanaticism of infidelity and bigotry, is the grandest moral spectacle which the world has seen for ages.”

Although Edgardo’s story was highly publicized, it was by no means unusual at that time and this is what makes the whole thing so bizarre. It was apparently routine for well-to-do Jews to hire Catholic nannies, and this kind of surreptitious baptism and taking away of children from Jewish parents had happened before.

This immediately raises the obvious question of why Jews, although aware of this potential problem, would take the risk of hiring Catholic nannies instead of Jewish ones. The reason, it turns out, is that since observant Jews are prohibited by their religion from doing a vast number of routine tasks on the Sabbath, having Catholic servants enabled them to get things done without offending their own god. So the risk of losing a child was seemingly outweighed by their sense of obligation to follow their own god’s rules.

But even after the abduction of their child and when all their efforts to get him back through other means had failed, Edgardo’s parents still had one sure-fire remedy, and that was to agree for themselves to be baptized. Even if they did not believe in the Christian god, if they had agreed to have water sprinkled on themselves and the ritual words spoken, they would get their child back since they would now be considered Christian by the church. But they refused to do this, out of loyalty to their own Jewish god. As Dawkins says: “To some of us, the parents’ refusal indicates wanton stubbornness. To others, their principled stand elevates them into the long list of martyrs for all religions down the ages.”

Dawkins uses this story to make a telling point. Every person and institution in this sorry episode was a ‘good’ person, in the traditional sense that they were acting according to the highest ideals of their religion. The nanny was trying to save the child from limbo. The church honestly seemed to believe that it was in the best interests of a Christian child to be brought up by and amongst other Christians. Edgardo’s parents were trying to observe their religion by hiring a Catholic nanny (despite the known risks) so that they could faithfully observe the Sabbath. And in not agreeing to go through even an insincere baptism, they were acting to avoid incurring the wrath of their own Jewish god because he is well known to be a jealous god who gets really angry at any form of allegiance to other gods, even the Christian god. Presumably the parents sincerely felt that their god would not understand and forgive a baptismal charade, even though their motives for agreeing to a phony baptism would have been unimpeachable.

These were all ‘good’ people, not setting out deliberately to do evil. They were all acting very devoutly according to their own religious lights. But the net result of their actions was evil – a family torn apart and a child deprived of the love and companionship of his parents.

This sad story illustrates better than any other the truth of Steven Weinberg’s statement: “Without [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins and Bill O’Reilly

You can see the clip of the exchange here. O’Reilly basically said that because he believes in the Christian god, what he believes must be true. He also said that the tides going in and out, the sun rising and setting, all could not happen without god. In short, he trots out all the simple and fallacious arguments that should be familiar to readers of this blog.

Political tone-deafness

You would think that experienced career politicians would have some sense of how to avoid saying things that gratuitously insult people. And then you read things like this:

Former Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson told Jewish activists Monday that making money is “part of the Jewish tradition,” and something that he applauded. 

Speaking to an audience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington D.C., Thompson said that, “I’m in the private sector and for the first time in my life I’m earning money. You know that’s sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that.” 

Thompson later apologized for the comments that had caused a stir in the audience, saying that he had meant it as a compliment, and had only wanted to highlight the “accomplishments” of the Jewish religion.

Much attention has been focused on Thompson’s casual invocation of the stereotype of Jews as being focused on money and being surprised that his audience did not receive it as a compliment.

But there is another offensive idea in this passage that I hear repeatedly and which has not been remarked upon, and that is his assumption that people who occupy high government office don’t make any money worth speaking of, and only begin to do so when they leave government service and enter the private sector. Surely most people would find this offensive? After all, this person was the governor of a big state and also the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. In both those jobs he would have been paid a salary and obtained perks that almost everyone else in this country can only dream of. But for Thompson and others like him, that is nothing. And what is worse, they act like they have sacrificed on our behalf when they take on these high paying jobs.

Yes, it is true that they probably make much more money when they move to the private sector and exploit the contacts they developed while working in government. But what they get paid as high government officials is still not peanuts and it is a slap in the face to those who earn much less to act as if it were nothing.

Very, very few people will make as much money as Tommy Thompson in either of the two jobs whose salary he disdains. Surely he cannot be oblivious that he earns more than the vast majority of Americans, and when compared to the rest of the world, where poverty is rampant, must rank in the very top tier of income earners. So how is it that a career politician like Thompson can be oblivious to the effect of his words?

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich provides another example of obliviousness. He recently caused a fuss when he seemed to imply that Spanish was the language of the ghetto. He then tried to make amends by saying (in Spanish) that what he was really trying to say was that you really needed to learn English if you want to succeed in America.

Really? He thinks that this is news to people? Gingrich painfully spelling this out indicates that he thinks that Hispanics are too stupid to have figured this out by themselves. Of course everyone in America knows that knowledge of English is necessary to advance in almost any aspect of life. The real issue is why this knowledge and awareness does not always get translated into concrete action.

I similarly cringe when politicians preach to children that success in school will lead to better lives. Do they think that these students don’t realize this? Have they never talked to these children? Have they never read any of the research on what students’ views on education are? Children know that high levels of education usually results in a better standard of living. They just don’t act on this knowledge. Again, the real question is why their awareness does not manifest itself in appropriate actions.

And then there is John Edwards. Here he is, from a very poor family background, running for president on a platform that is about the two Americas, the rich and the poor, and the need to be sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate. And then he goes and gets a $400 haircut, for which he has been roundly criticized.

How is it that experienced politicians do not realize how such words and actions might rub people the wrong way? Perhaps it is because they have no real conception about how most people live. Thompson’s world, the people he hangs out with, is probably that of corporate CEOs and other wealthy people and that is the kind of money that he thinks he too deserves to earn. Gingrich’s world is that of successful English speakers who cannot conceive of why other people might not aspire to be like them. John Edwards probably moves among people for whom such expensive haircuts are standard. Laura Bush apparently spends $700 to get her hair done, so I am guessing that these people don’t go to Best Cuts.

None of these things necessarily reflect on how well they might perform in office and should not be overanalyzed. But they do indicate a curious obliviousness to how they might be perceived.

If they really moved around with the people they claim to represent, they might not speak or act so objectionably.

POST SCRIPT: Must-see TV for media watchers

Bill Moyers has a special that examines the media’s complicity in selling the Iraq war under false pretenses. It airs on PBS stations on Wednesday, April 25 at 9:00 pm (check your local listings).

Editor & Publisher says of the program:

The most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq will appear next Wednesday, a 90-minute PBS broadcast called “Buying the War,” which marks the return of “Bill Moyers Journal.” E&P was sent a preview DVD and a draft transcript for the program this week. While much of the evidence of the media’s role as cheerleaders for the war presented here is not new, it is skillfully assembled, with many fresh quotes from interviews (with the likes of Tim Russert and Walter Pincus) along with numerous embarrassing examples of past statements by journalists and pundits that proved grossly misleading or wrong. Several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admit the media failed miserably, though few take personal responsibility.
. . .
Phil Donahue recalls that he was told he could not feature war dissenters alone on his MSNBC talk show and always had to have “two conservatives for every liberal.” Moyers resurrects a leaked NBC memo about Donahue’s firing that claimed he “presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
. . .
At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.
. . .
The program closes on a sad note, with Moyers pointing out that “so many of the advocates and apologists for the war are still flourishing in the media.” He then runs a pre-war clip of President Bush declaring, “We cannot wait for the final proof: the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Then he explains: “The man who came up with it was Michael Gerson, President Bush’s top speechwriter.

“He has left the White House and has been hired by the Washington Post as a columnist.”

You can see Bill Moyers being interviewed by Bill Maher and a preview of the program here.

The serious business of comics

I don’t know what it says about me but the section of the paper I read most carefully is the funny pages. While I can zip through the rest of the paper quickly, gleaning the gist of articles by quickly scanning and skipping, I slow down and read carefully every word in the comics, even the ones I don’t find funny.

I have always taken newspaper comic strips seriously. The papers in Sri Lanka when I was growing up did not have the multipage spreads that US papers have but they had enough comics to whet my appetite for the genre and I became an addict, faithfully reading them every day to this day. In those days there was a greater proportion of ‘serious’ strips, daily serialized versions of comic book stories. I recall The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Tarzan, which I enjoyed at that time, in addition to the gag strips (Mr. Abernathy, Bringing Up Father) which were not that funny. Peanuts was the exception, being consistently high quality, with Hi and Lois being fairly good.
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Reacting to other people’s tragedies

Perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with is how to respond when tragedy strikes other people.

When tragedy strikes you personally, then any response by you is fine and no one else has the right to tell you how you should feel and what is appropriate behavior. I find it strange when others sit in judgment and look on disapprovingly if someone does things that they themselves would not do in a similar situation. For example, Elizabeth Edwards’ decision to continue with her life just as it was before her cancer struck again was her right to make and should not have been second-guessed by anyone. She said that the only alternative was preparing for death and she rejected that option.
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The Virginia Tech tragedy

What was your reaction when you first heard the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech? When someone in my office told me around noon on Monday that about twenty people had been shot dead on that campus, my first reaction was that this was probably another case of someone snapping under the pressure of something or other and setting off on a killing spree.

One thing that did not occur to me, despite the fear-mongering that has gone on under the guise of the so-called ‘war on terror’, was the possibility that this was a terrorist attack. After all, these kinds of killings happen periodically in America, though admittedly this was on a larger scale than usual. Although I checked the internet for news, I have long realized that you should never take seriously the initial news reports that emerge from such chaotic and fast-moving situations.
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