College as a Disney World of Learning

(Talk given at Case Western Reserve University’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 21, 2009 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mortenson will be the speaker at the annual fall convocation to be held on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 in Severance Hall at 4:30 pm.)

As I read the book Three Cups of Tea, two stories struck me. One begins on page 202 and is that of the little boy Mohammed Aslam Khan who was sent by his father alone on a perilous journey downriver in frigid waters, all so that he might get a chance at an education. Despite all the odds against him, he not only survived the trip but got a good education and returned to the village to become an educational leader.

The other story is on page 31 where Mortenson describes his amazement when he saw eighty two children assemble by themselves and do their lessons on their own in the open, in the cold, some writing on the ground with sticks, since the village could only afford a teacher for three days a week, and on the other days they were on their own.

As Mortenson said, “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?”

Why were the people in that remote region of Pakistan willing to go through so much in order to get an education? Compare the situation in the US where learning is often seen as something to be avoided, and the complaints that some teachers get when they cover too much ground. When schools are closed or lessons cancelled due to some emergency, it is usually a cause for cheering amongst students. As a colleague of mine here said recently, education may be the only thing in the US where people actually want less than what they pay for.

There are of course classes, teachers, and students in the US where learning for its own sake is valued. But these are unfortunately few. But I do not believe that there is any fundamental difference between the children in those remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan and those in the US that explains this difference in attitude.

What may be true is that America suffers, if that is the right word, from too easy access to education. Schooling is fairly easily available and, at least in the K-12 sector, is free. A good analogy is with food, which is also freely and cheaply available in the US, when compared with other countries. And we waste and throw away vast amounts of it. I am sure your mothers pleaded with you to eat your vegetables, invoking images of starving children in China who would gladly eat with relish the food that you want to dump in the trash. Actually given the economic crisis in the US and the rapidly rising economic power of China, soon Chinese mothers might be pleading with their spinach-rejecting children to think of poor starving children in the US.

Students in the US, because of the ease and abundance of educational opportunities, have to be exhorted to take advantage of these abundant resources, just like they have to be coaxed to eat their broccoli, and this may be devaluing education in students’ eyes, because people tend to not value the things that are easily available.

This is why the story of the immense struggles and sacrifices made by the villagers that Mortenson worked with to build their schools is so inspiring. They realized that education is a precious gift to be cherished, not something whose availability can be taken for granted.

All of you are now embarking on four years of education here at Case Western Reserve University. Some people may tell you that college will be the happiest time in your lives. I disagree. In fact, it would be very sad if the happiest years of your life were over by the age of twenty-two. So I hope that you will have much happier times in the future.

But there is one aspect in which these four years will be a unique experience that you must take advantage of to the fullest. It is the one time in your life when you will be surrounded by people who want nothing else but to help you learn. The world-class faculty here, who are experts on all manner of things, will share their knowledge and expertise freely and willingly. Here you will get free access to incredible libraries full of books, journals, magazines, audio-visual materials, and newspapers, and to librarians who are positively eager to help you use them. And it is all available to you just for the asking. Once you graduate and go out, that opportunity is gone.

Of course, all this is not technically ‘free’ since you are paying tuition that, despite the extraordinary fund-raising abilities of our president, is still considerable. But the way to think of tuition fees is the way you would the admission price to Disney World or other amusement parks. It is not cheap to get in but once you are in, people try to get as much out of their time there as possible. It would be absurd to spend all your time sitting on a bench eating ice cream or surfing the web or sleeping.

You should have that attitude during the years you spend here. Think of Case Western Reserve University as the Disney World of learning. You have paid the admission fee in terms of grades and tuition. Now that you are in, rather than get by with minimal work, you should try to get in as much learning as possible, formally in classes, and informally in all the talks and seminars and casual discussions with teachers and fellow students. Once you develop that attitude towards learning, you will find that it is much more fun than roller coaster rides and with none of the accompanying motion sickness.

I am lucky in that I actually work here and take full advantage on a daily basis of the knowledge that is so freely available. And I would urge you to do the same. In fact, as soon as this program is over, and you have some free time, you should go over to the library and see what they offer, and you should go to all the museums that are right here in University Circle, as the first steps in a four-year adventure of learning.

Trust me, you will never regret it.

POST SCRIPT: The story of Genesis as told by Eddie Izzard

Much more interesting than the original. Makes more sense, too.

The health care debate-14: The ‘death panels’ of the insurance companies

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

Wendell Potter used to be the head of corporate communications of CIGNA, the highest public relations position of one of the largest health insurance companies. That position gave him a special insight into how the health insurance industry actually works and the very different way they present themselves to the public. At some point the contradictions became unbearable for him. He could not take it anymore and left his position and since then he has been spilling the beans about how the insurance companies really operate, how they put profits before any other consideration, and make money from the misery of sick people by denying them care in their time of need.
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The health care debate-13: The US falling further behind

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

I have pointed out repeatedly that the US lags badly behind other developed countries in the quality and cost of the health care it provides its people. And all indications are that the US is going to fall further and further behind as other countries adopt universal health coverage based on the single-payer model.

President Obama keeps saying that if we were starting from scratch, a single payer system would be the best option, but that given the existing situation of an employer-based private health insurance system, it would be too disruptive. This is just an excuse for protecting the interests of the drug and insurance industries. After all, Medicare was introduced in 1965 and within one year, by July 1, 1966 19 million seniors were enrolled in it, almost all of the nearly 20 million people over the age of 65 at that time (see table 2-1, page 9), and there were no major problems in that transition.
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The crying game

On Tuesday, I wrote about my discussion with the Cleveland Freethinkers group. Today I want to spend some time on the issue of the Christian woman at the meeting who, right in the middle of a lively discussion on the relative merits of the accommodationist versus the new atheist positions, suddenly and tearfully interjected an extended statement about her strong belief in Jesus based on some unspecified personal experience.

While we were sympathetic with her and treated her outburst gently, it is precisely this kind of reaction that is used by religious believers to shut down criticisms of their beliefs. I am not suggesting that this was a devious plan of the woman in question. In fact, I think she was being genuine and spontaneous. But it is symptomatic of the problem of frankly discussing religion. Religious people have become so used to their views being given undue deference that they cannot deal with having them clinically analyzed and thus become upset.

When someone tearfully says in the midst of a rational discussion on science and religion that “I truly believe that Jesus is my savior” or gives as the basis of some crackpot belief (like the Earth is 6,000 years old) that this is what his faith tells him is true, and is clearly upset because the rest of us are not taking such beliefs seriously, what are we supposed to do? What has been expected of us in the past, and which is what I am afraid that the accommodationist position encourages, is to treat such outbursts as either a sensible contribution to the conversation and try and soothe the person’s wounded feelings or change the subject to avoid having to contradict someone’s sincerely held beliefs, thus effectively ending the discussion. This is precisely how religious beliefs have shielded themselves, by expecting us to accommodate the emotional beliefs and feelings of religious people, and treating them as things that cannot be directly challenged.

What we should really do when people say such things is say something like “Good for you! But what you sincerely believe in the absence of any credible evidence is not really pertinent to this discussion, so let’s move on, shall we?” In essence that is what the Cleveland Freethinkers group eventually did, although they took some time to do so because initially it was taken aback and spent some time trying to cater to the feelings of the Christian and not hurt them

The philosopher Richard Rorty grappled with this same question in a 1994 essay titled Religion as Conversation-stopper that I wrote about earlier. Rorty says that the silence that usually accompanies someone’s fervent statement about their religious beliefs “masks the group’s inclination to say, ‘So what? We weren’t discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don’t bother us with matters that are not our concern.’ This would be my own inclination in such a situation.”

I think that is precisely what happened at the Freethinker’s meeting. The Christian’s outburst hijacked the discussion away from general policy to solicitousness for her feelings. Most of us clearly felt that the Christian woman’s testimony was not relevant but struggled to find ways to tell her so without making her cry even more, thus taking time away from the main focus.

What happened is the religious equivalent of what has been sarcastically referred to within the feminist movement as the ‘white woman’s tears‘ phenomenon, “the tendency of race and gender discussions among feminists to be derailed by white women into the pain the discussion is causing non-POC [person of color].” It is elaborated on in this poem by Native American poet Chrystos in the context of internal struggles within the feminist community.

That is precisely the response that we new atheists get when we criticize all forms of religion, moderate and fundamentalist. When we do so, the feelings of religionists are hurt and they start to cry. Not literally of course in the case of sophisticated religious moderates, because that would look obviously whiny and pathetic. Instead they cry in a metaphorical sense, by leveling the charge that the new atheists are ‘contemptuous’ of other people’s beliefs or ‘militant’ or ‘rude’ or ‘extreme’ or ‘shrill’ or ‘strident’ or ‘obnoxious’ or similar epithets.

These charges are rarely backed up with concrete examples of such alleged bad behavior or language, or that it is any more common than the disdain with which atheists are routinely portrayed by religious people. Their function is once again to seek to shift the discussion away from the credibility of religion and to soothing the wounded feelings of the person claiming to be aggrieved by the allegedly harsh rhetoric against religion, and to make the new atheists apologetic and on the defensive. The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo has something to say about this.

jesusandmo2.jpg

Sorry, but new atheists have caught on to this crying game rhetorical gambit and it is not working any more. This does not mean that we will simply dismiss those who get upset but it is not going to mute us. The new atheists are here to stay and will continue to make their critiques of religion because the fact that science and religion are incompatible is backed by an overwhelming preponderance of evidence and logical arguments in its favor, while religious apologetics and theology is becoming increasingly desperate in its special pleading.

Religious moderates are just going to have to suck it up and deal with criticisms of their beliefs like adults.

POST SCRIPT: The Thinking Atheist gives us The Story of Suzie

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

The health care debate-12: Money talks

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

Despite all the manifest advantages of the single-payer system, why is it not even discussed seriously in the decision-making bodies of government? To pose the question is to answer it. It is because the current US system is so bad that its supporters must prevent public discussion of obviously better rivals if it is to survive. The current system is the emperor that has no clothes.

Rich and powerful people either benefit directly from money that they get from the private, profit-seeking health industry (like those who work in the industry or the politicians who get big contributions from them) or have the money to get good treatment. It is these same people who protect the interests of the drug and insurance companies by refusing to even consider a single-payer system. These people use fear to keep others in line, raising downright dishonest fears of shortages, queues, rationing, lack of choice, etc if any reform should occur. They have even started upping the ante on their craziness, saying that with health reform we will start killing all old and sick people.
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Dealing with religious believers

Last Friday I was invited to speak to a group of Cleveland Freethinkers. I chose to speak about the new phase of the science-religion war. The old phase dealt with opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools and ended (more or less) with the drubbing that the intelligent design creationism forces received in the Dover trial in 2005. (Shameless plug coming up! My new book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom deals with this war and will appear in September.)

The new war is between two groups who were on the same pro-evolution side in the old war, the so-called ‘accommodationists’ (those who either believe that science and moderate forms of religion are compatible or that even if incompatible, the incompatibility should not be pointed out for fear of offending the sensibilities of moderate religionists) and the so-called ‘new atheists’ (those who think that science and religion are incompatible and have no hesitation in saying so).

The accommodationist position is nicely satirized by the cartoon below from the website Jesus and Mo, a terrific comic strip that features Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses as buddies and roommates conniving to foist their religions on their respective believers, and sometimes engaging with an unseen atheist barmaid. You really should visit the site regularly because it wittily captures much of the absurdity of religious apologetics.

jesusandmo1.jpg

After speaking for about 20 minutes or so explaining what this science-religion war entailed and advocating for the new atheist approach, I opened up the floor for discussion and a lively one ensued, debating the merits of the two approaches with arguments given in favor of both sides.

Then, in the middle of the discussion, a woman who had hitherto been quiet spoke up and said that she had listened to everyone and that it was clear that most (if not all) those present were skeptics of some sort but that she herself was a devout Christian who had been through much personal trouble (she implied that some of that involved recovery from a serious illness) and that she believed in Jesus and the Bible and had been blessed by him, and that all of us too should realize that we too had been blessed by him. She was clearly emotionally invested in what she said because she started to cry and had to wipe away tears several times.

The group was taken aback by this unexpected turn of the conversation and gave her the floor to let her fully have her say. They did not challenge or contradict or even interrupt her. When she was done with her extended comments, several people gently said that they could understand where she was coming from but that she should realize that the kinds of personal experiences that were meaningful to her may not be equally so to others who sought more empirical evidence for their beliefs.

After some time, the conversation returned to its original focus of which approach one should take, the accommodationist or the new atheist, and in the process we discussed what light, if any, might be shed on this topic by scientific theories such as quantum mechanics and the indeterminancy principle.

Although I claim to be a new atheist, I too did not directly challenge the devout Christian’s beliefs, which might seem to make me an accommodationist in practice. But there is really no contradiction. As I have explained before, there is a difference in the way that one deals with people’s religious beliefs in the private sphere and in the public sphere. I have no hesitation in the public sphere, which includes public talks like my initial remarks to the Cleveland Freethinkers group, of saying that I think that there is no rational basis for believing in god. I can be, and often am, quite uncompromising in my critiques of religion, not indulging in the polite fiction that some religious beliefs are credible or that the beliefs of religious people have some sort of immunity from criticism. But in the private sphere, which is what the discussion became when the Christian spoke to me and the rest of the group about her deeply held personal beliefs, one has to handle things differently.

In this particular case, the public/private line was not easy to draw because the group was about 30 people seated in a room in an informal setting. But I think the group as a whole was able to navigate that line, which speaks well for their sensibilities. I think the devout Christian was made to feel at ease and even welcome, even as it was clear that most of the people did not share her beliefs. But there is a disturbing undercurrent to such emotional outbursts by religious people that I will address in a fresh post later this week.

The Cleveland Freethinkers is a lively and friendly group that, as you can see, welcomes and accepts people with all kinds of beliefs. You can learn more about their meetings here.

POST SCRIPT: Why are there four conflicting gospels?

God tries to explain to Jesus how there came to be four different scripts for the part Jesus is to play on Earth.

The health care debate-11: The Brits fight back

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

I have written before of my direct personal experience with the British National Health Service (NHS) and can report that it was wonderful, helping me tremendously when I was seriously ill, entirely free of charge.

As people should know, the NHS is a truly socialized medical system in which people are treated free, doctors are government employees, and hospitals are directly run by the government, although there is a private system overlaid on top of it. It is like the VA hospital system in the US. But even though I think that the socialized model of the NHS is admirable, I think it would not be a suitable model for the US and that the single payer systems of France or Canada would be better.

Part of the strategy of the health care reform opponents has been to lie shamelessly about the systems in other countries in order to make the current terrible system in the US look good in comparison. They are helped in this effort by the fact that most people in the US have no idea what people in other countries have and so believe the distortions. In addition, the people in those countries are not bothered to combat this propaganda, even if they have heard of it. After all, what does is matter to them if foreigners malign their health care? Their attitude seems to be that they are quite happy with what they have and if Americans want to continue to wallow in ignorance, let them.

But once in a while, things get taken too far and the attacks o insultingly unfair that the people in those countries get riled up and rise to defend their system. This seems to be happening with the recent attacks on the British NHS.

One of the triggers was a recent editorial in the Investor Business Daily that tried to give support to the hallucinations of the deathers by suggesting that in the NHS people are ranked according to their usefulness when getting treatments. The editorial said:

The U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) basically figures out who deserves treatment by using a cost-utility analysis based on the “quality adjusted life year.”

One year in perfect health gets you one point. Deductions are taken for blindness, for being in a wheelchair and so on.

The more points you have, the more your life is considered worth saving, and the likelier you are to get care.

In order to drive their point home, the editorial then went on to give what it clearly thought was a killer example of the ghastly results that ensue from such a system.

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

It was clear that the writers were under the impression that Hawking, easily the most famous living scientist and the victim of a degenerative motor neurone disease that has steadily eroded his abilities until now he can only move a finger or two, was American and was able to survive and even flourish as a productive scientist because he was being treated in America.

The truth of course is that Hawking is British, was born there, lives there, and has been treated by the NHS all his life so that even now at the age of 67 he continues to work. As Hawking himself responded, “I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”

The ignorance of the editorial writers was greeted with hoots of derision both here and abroad and in response they have removed the offending sentence about Hawking claiming it was only a factual error about citizenship, without acknowledging that what was considered by them to be an example in their favor is actually a counterexample that destroys their case that the NHS is a soulless, uncaring, bean counting system.

Faced with this embarrassment, perhaps the deathers will take a cue from the birthers and challenge Hawking’s British citizenship. After all, has anyone actually seen his original birth certificate? And shouldn’t he also produce documentation that he lives in the UK and was treated by the NHS? The latter might be difficult since that system doesn’t drown sick people with mountains of bills and other paperwork like the private, profit-seeking health insurance industry in the US.

As a result of the Hawking fiasco, more stories about the virtues of the NHS are emerging from people fed up with the lies. Read about how the NHS helped an American living in the UK with his tragic experience when his child was born with serious problems. And here’s another story from someone recounting the way his father’s kidney disease was treated was treated:

The National Health Service paid for the installation of a dialysis machine plus all the necessary plumbing and renovation of a room in his home so that he could use the machine three times a week rather than travel to the hospital in London. The cost was enormous and there is no way my parents could have afforded it. His quality of life for his last years was improved beyond recognition. I don’t recall any bureaucracy or fuss: the entire decision was the doctor’s. After he passed away the NHS paid for the disassembly and removal of everything too. (my emphasis)

And here’s yet another another story about an American woman who was treated first in the US (where her case was dismissed as being purely psychosomatic) and then, since she later became a student in the UK, was correctly diagnosed and treated by the NHS for what turned out to be a serious illness that required chest surgery plus post-operative care. Her father continues:

Recently, we flew back to New York to consult with perhaps the world expert on Myasthenia. After reviewing her symptoms and treatment he declared that the doctors in Scotland were doing all the right things. He then asked how much this cost. He had a bit of a hard time understanding that the cost was exactly zero. By the way, I spent about two months paying various bills associated with that one visit to his office. Quite a contrast I’d say. (my emphasis)

Defenders of the NHS have also taken to Twitter to spread their message.

The British government has been hesitant to vigorously correct the falsehoods that are being spread here:

As myths and half-truths circulate, British diplomats in the US are treading a delicate line in correcting falsehoods while trying to stay out of a vicious domestic dogfight over the future of American health policy.

But others are stepping up:

The degree of misinformation is causing dismay in NHS circles. Andrew Dillon, chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), pointed out that it was utterly false that [Senator Edward] Kennedy would be left untreated in Britain: “It is neither true nor is it anything you could extrapolate from anything we’ve ever recommended to the NHS.”

Defenders of Britain’s system point out that the UK spends less per head on healthcare but has a higher life expectancy than the US. The World Health Organisation ranks Britain’s healthcare as 18th in the world, while the US is in 37th place. The British Medical Association said a majority of Britain’s doctors have consistently supported public provision of healthcare. A spokeswoman said the association’s 140,000 members were sceptical about the US approach to medicine: “Doctors and the public here are appalled that there are so many people on the US who don’t have proper access to healthcare. It’s something we would find very, very shocking.”

Again, it should be emphasized that the British NHS is far from perfect. But its shortcomings and the complaints about it stem not from the nature of the system itself but the fact that the British government does not put enough money into it. Many people do not realize that the per capita public health expenditure in the UK is less than the US public (not total) health expenditure alone (i.e., what the US government spends just on Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA).

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert and Howard Dean discuss health care

Howard Dean is a good spokesperson for single payer systems and the public option.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'President Obama’s Health Care Plan – Howard Dean
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The deathers get routed in Cleveland

On Wednesday evening, Marcia L. Fudge, Ohio’s congresswoman for District 11, held a town hall meeting for her constituents. These events, once staid and even boring exercises in democracy, have recently become notorious for the groups of vociferous opponents of health care reform who have stormed them, armed with a strategy formulated by the health care industry and its Republican Party allies to shut down meaningful discussion on this important issue, intimidate elected representatives, and give the impression that those who oppose reform are more numerous and care more deeply about their point of view than those who support reform efforts such as single-payer.
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Here come the nutters!

Am I imagining it or does there seem to be a sudden upsurge in the number of people who seem to be disconnected with reality? To elaborate, is there an increasing number of vocal and visible people who are believe strongly in some crackpot idea despite the complete lack of plausible evidence in favor of their belief?

Into this category I put those who believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old and that evolution did not occur. Also included are the so-called ‘truthers’ (those who think that the events of 9/11 were planned and executed by the US government or that they had advance knowledge of it and yet allowed it to happen), and the ‘birthers‘, those who think that Obama is not a natural born citizen of the US and is thus ineligible to be president. And then we have the ‘gunners’, those who are convinced that Obama is going to take away their guns and enslave them. They have been forming militias and stocking up on weapons and ammunition ever since the election, presumably to prevent the military takeover of the country under the orders of Generalissimo Obama.

It is not surprising that this kind of paranoid climate would encourage individual nutcases like the Baptist preacher who is asking god to put a hit on Obama. Some have even gone on murderous rampages as a result of their beliefs

The health care reform debate has spawned yet another group of crackpots, called the ‘deathers’, who roam town hall meetings and yell about how the health care reform plans currently under consideration will result in government bureaucrats deciding who will live and who will die, and that they seek to kill off old people and anyone with any defects. This is quite an amazing level of delusion

The fact that there exist a sizable number of people who believe in each of these things is not surprising. I have long felt that there is no proposition, however crazy, that you cannot persuade up to about 20% of Americans to take seriously, simply by using spurious arguments that seem to have a veneer of plausibility, along with ‘evidence’ consisting exclusively of vague references to ‘they say’ or ‘I read somewhere’, with the source never specified. For example, a survey finds that 23% say ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ to the question of whether they believe Obama was born in the US. (Among Republicans, the figure is an incredible 58%!)

It is quite likely that there is strong overlap amongst all these groups, given their common basis in irrationality, so that the total number of believers may not be that much larger than the number that believes in just one of them. But given the rapid proliferation of such groups, it may be useful to adopt an umbrella label of some sort that covers everyone. How about the ‘nutters’? Tom Tomorrow describes the weirdness of these people in a recent cartoon.

These people are helped in their paranoia delusions by prominent politicians, who should know better, reinforcing their beliefs. A report says that Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) said “spoke of a “socialistic elite” – Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – who might use a pandemic disease or natural disaster as an excuse to declare martial law.”

Then there is the ever-reliable serial exaggerator Sarah Palin. On her Facebook page she says the following about health care reform: “And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Her statement has no connection to reality. Can she really be so stupid and ignorant as to believe this? Can she really not know that the proposed health reform legislation does not say anything of the sort? Or is she cynically deceiving and exploiting her followers? In addition, she once again shamelessly uses her baby as a political prop when it suits her purposes, while whining that her family should be off limits.

(To make it worse, Palin uses for support Minnesota Republican congresswoman Michelle Bachman, a person with an Alan Keyes level of craziness. Deciding which of Bachmann’s statements and actions is the loopiest is not easy, but my favorite was when she warned that Obama was thinking of abandoning the dollar as the US currency.)

Stephen Colbert gives his take on the death panels.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Death Panels
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As I said earlier, some greedy geezer seniors are prominent among the deathers who are trying to whip up anger against health care reform with their insanities, perhaps in order to preserve their own government-run Medicare health privileges. Christopher Beam writes: “To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for seniors to be concerned about reform. Seniors already have universal health care in the form of Medicare. There remains the possibility that a broader universal plan will drain resources from a program they like as it is, thank you very much.”

The Daily Show has some thoughts on the motivation that drives these people.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Healther Skelter
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So what is making these people so unhinged? Is it the thought that any Democratic president must necessarily be evil, and that a black one has to be the anti-Christ? Could they be that unhinged? It is strange because Obama is not even a liberal. He has kept and even increased the secrecy practices of the Bush regime, he is not planning a total pull out of Iraq any time soon (if ever, which I doubt), he is rapidly escalating the US war in Afghanistan, he has done little to advance gay rights, he has refused to close down the torture prisons that the US runs in other countries or to forbid the policy of extraordinary renditions, he is not prosecuting the lawbreaking torturers of the Bush regime, he has continued policies friendly to Wall Street in general and Goldman Sachs in particular, he has undermined support for a single-payer health care system, he continues the violation of human and constitutional rights such as habeas corpus, and so on.

We should not be that surprised. As cartoonist Tom Tomorrow points out, Obama has made vague promises into an art form that enabled his starry-eyed followers to read into his speeches what they wanted to hear and thus believe he was far more liberal than he really is. As a reality check, this website keeps a scorecard on Obama’s promises. Sam Smith also keeps tabs on Obama.

So why are these people so angry about his presidency when he is really not opposed to their interests in any fundamental way, just making changes in the margins? I do not believe that their anger is completely artificial, although powerful interest groups are definitely bankrolling and urging these groups on. Is it as simple as racism, that these people cannot stand the prospect of white people not having exclusive control of the power structure, even if the minorities who replace them pursue pretty much the same policies?

The Daily Show has some thoughts on the racial fears that seem to be driving at least some of these people batty.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Reform Madness – White Minority
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POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the level of current discourse

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Healther Skelter – Obama Death Panel Debate
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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Daily Show
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Political Humor Spinal Tap Performance

YouTube nostalgia: Barney Miller

I hardly ever watch TV anymore, mainly because I cannot stand the constant commercial interruptions. This used to bother me less in the past and I used to watch a lot more when I was in graduate school and have fond memories of many shows: comedies such as M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Soap, Newhart, Alice and dramas like Lou Grant and Trapper John

Recently I stumbled on another old favorite TV show on YouTube. Someone had posted clips of Barney Miller, and I have been enjoying them online. And the bonus is that there are no commercials, which more than compensates for the poor quality image.

Barney Miller was in many ways an unusual comedy that ran from 1975-1982 and although not a huge hit, it developed a loyal following. It was set in a police precinct in New York’s Greenwich Village and featured the precinct captain Barney Miller and his team of around three or four detectives, and one uniformed officer constantly striving to be promoted to detective.

The show was different in that there was no glamour or action at all. Everything took place in the small and grungy squad room and the adjoining private office of Miller. All the main characters were male and there was little or no romantic or sexual comedy, although some of the characters had relationships that were occasionally referred to but remained off-camera. There was no slapstick or broad humor. It was all low-key. It also had an unusually long opening sequence before the credits kicked in.

In most comedies there are quirky characters with exaggerated and easily labeled characteristics (the dumb, the smart, the oblivious, the eccentric, the greedy, the ambitious, etc.), and the rest play the straight roles that the others get laughs off. But in Barney Miller none of the series regulars were particularly weird, although they each had distinctive personalities and were well-developed characters, and the interactions between them provided a lot of the humor. None of the characters had standard tics or mannerisms or tag lines. There were no obvious eccentrics (a la Kramer in Seinfeld) or doofuses (Joey or Phoebe in Friends) or exceptionally dim people (Coach or Woody in Cheers). In Barney Miller, all the regulars were normal and played, in effect, the straight part and were the foil for the oddball characters that wandered into the precinct room in each episode. These people were usually petty criminals, drunks, vagrants, neighborhood residents and shopkeepers, and so on, and how the detectives dealt with them provided the humor.

In many TV comedies, you get cued mirth (either in the form of a laugh track or a live audience) where there is uproarious laughter for even the lamest of jokes or when characters did some standard shtick they have done hundreds of times before. I find that really annoying. In Barney Miller, the show’s writers did not insult the audience with exaggerated canned laughter. It was subdued and realistic, corresponding more closely to what was called for, sometimes just a chuckle.

Here is one episode, called “The Psychic”, to get a taste of what the show is like.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Most sit-coms periodically fall victim to having a “special” episode where they get preachy about some issue and try to give a “message” full of “meaning”, and in the process forget to be funny. Seinfeld was a notable exception. Barney Miller did not fully escape the temptation but when it did try to send a “message”, it managed to do so briefly and with a light touch, as in this clip about bigotry.