Sunday, October 26, 2008

SNL Reveals the Secrets of Don Draper

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How it needs to be done

Forgive me use of internet speak, but THIS:
Obama Pictures and McCain Pictures
see Sarah Palin pictures

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"Life" Protests

I always thought the pro-life protests in which women taped their mouths shut and wrote "life" over them were a little odd. I'm glad I'm not the only one:

Obama Pictures and McCain Pictures
see Sarah Palin pictures

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Freethinkers and Free Will

I recently stumbled upon an opinion in the Des Moines register that I found interesting. The author believes that atheists and agnostics cannot call themselves freethinkers. He has two arguments. The first relies on the fact that the first freethinkers were deists and unitarians. Um, so? Freethought is a manner of belief formation - which beliefs get formed are irrelevant to whether or not you are practicing freethinking. But this plea to history is not the author's main argument. His main argument is the following:

If everything transcendent is mere superstition, then your every thought is determined in minutest detail by a chain of natural cause and effect stretching back to (and beyond) the Big Bang. You can't be an atheist and call yourself a freethinker.

You are obliged to believe that you are nothing more than a machine, freewill is illusion, and your mind is a mere epiphenomenon, a dead-end byproduct of the chain of cause and effect.

Before I get started on this, two side notes - first, being an atheist, even one who embraces philosophical materialism, does not commit you to the claim that your mind is "a mere epiphenomenon". I wonder if the author even knows what an epiphenomenon is. Most (philosophically educated) philosophical materialists believe that "mind" is a description of certain functional system and that in our case this functional system just happens to be instantiated in a physical substrate - the brain. An epiphenomenon is a causally inert emanation of a system. Totally different.

Second, the causal chain does not extend beyond the big bang. Cause and effect are temporally bound - you can't have cause and effect absent of time. Time was a product of the big bang. So, no cause and effect "beyond" the big bang. (I understand that it is difficult to talk about the big bang using a language that is laced with temporal and causal connotations. My use of "product" with respect to the relation between time and the big bang is suspect. But at least get the facts straight)

Side notes aside, in a way, the author is correct that atheists and agnostics cannot be freethinkers, but not in the way he thinks. The thinking of most atheists and agnostics is not free - it is bound by the contraints of reason. This is obviously a constraint the author has not placed on his own thoughts, since his arguments are frought with fallacies (as was the one I just made. But that was for rhetorical force.) First, "freethinker" does not mean "possessed of libertarian free will". It means "one who forms beliefs on the basis of science and reason as opposed to dogma". Since the two terms are not synonymous, the author is equivocating. Even if he were correct that atheists cannot believe in libertarian free will, that doesn't mean that they can't be freethinkers.

Despite the fact that his argument as a whole falls flat on its fallacious face, I'd like to address his claims about atheists and free will. It is a common misconception about atheism that it automatically commits you to "hard determinism" - the idea that the author describes as our being "a dead end by-product of the chain of cause and effect" (although he's wrong about the dead end bit. Your thoughts, etc, are links in the chain). This is false for two reasons.

First, an atheist need not be a philosophical materialist. Since atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in a deity, it is entirely possible for an individual to be an atheist and still hold that there is something above the physical where libertarian free will resides.

Second, even for those of us who are philosophical materialists, it is possible to believe in libertarian free will. Developments in quantum physics have demonstrated that there is causal indeterminacy at the quantum level. If you believe that the causal indeterminacy at the quantum level translates to indeterminacy at the macro level (say, indeterminacy in which way the neurons in your head move), then you've got yourself some libertarian free will.

So, the author is wrong on two counts. Even if you don't believe in free will, you can still be a freethinker, and it is also entirely possible to be an atheist and believe that we have libertarian free will. I personally don't believe in libertarian free will, but that's just me. Other atheists are free to accept it.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bishops on Reducing Abortions

According to some Catholic Bishops, abortion rates cannot be reduced unless Roe v. Wade is overturned.

You might think that makes sense, but it's false. Guttmacher's statistics indicate that there is no correlation (much less causal relationship) between the legality of abortion and the number of abortions that occur in a country:

while it may seem paradoxical, a country's abortion rate is not closely correlated with whether abortion is legal there. For example, abortion levels are quite high in Latin American countries, where abortion is highly restricted. (In fact, 20 million of the 46 million abortions performed annually worldwide occur in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws.) At the same time, abortion rates are quite low throughout Western Europe, where the procedure is legal and widely available. Also, Eastern and Western Europe have the world's highest and lowest abortion rates, respectively, yet abortion is generally legal throughout the Continent.

In fact, if you put a little thought into it, you realize that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to prevent what causes them - unwanted pregnancies. How do you prevent unwanted pregnancies? Birth control! And the data bears this out:

Abortion levels are high in countries where the desire for small families is strong but contraceptive use is low or ineffective. For example, in most of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, where desired family size has been small for many years, modern contraceptive methods were not generally available until recently. As a result, women relied on abortion—which was legal, safe and easily accessible—to regulate births. However, as contraceptives have become much easier to obtain in recent years, the situation has begun to change rapidly, and abortion rates in some of these countries fell by as much as 50% between 1990 and 1996.

Of course, the Bishops can't tell you that greater access to contraception will lower the abortion rate in the U.S. because they oppose contraception just as vehemently as they oppose abortion. When will these people let their conclusions be informed by the data? When will they assess the facts on the basis of evidence rather than their preconceived dogma?

Oh wait... they're bishops. Nevermind.

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Brave New Films on ACORN

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The "Real" America

After the recent comments made by Sarah Palin, Nancy Pfotenhauer, and Michelle Bachmann, I was ready to write out a long post about how this divisive understanding of our country was horribly misguided, insulting, and dangerous to the nation.

Thankfully, I didn't have to. Jon Stewart did it for me.

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Please Explain This To Me

The extreme right wing's justification for their opposition to gay rights has always confused me. I understand why they don't like gays. Their Bible tells them that homosexuality is "an abomination". Of course, it tells them this in the same book which also says that it is an abomination to eat shellfish or wear garments made of two types of fabrics. Putting that aside, though, it's clear what their justification is for thinking homosexuality is wrong - the bible tells them so.

They can't claim that people who do things they consider to be wrong should be denied equal rights, though. That's not how things work, so they've had to come up with anothyer justification for denying gay couples the right to marry - they claim that it is an "attack on marriage" or that they have to "defend the family". And I have to admit, I've always been very confused about that. How does allowing gay couples to marry hurt marriage or family? Seems to me it encourages marriage and family. This right wing position has always left me confused.

And now, I've got even more to be confused about, since apparently the right is now worried about more than gay marriage. Their new fear is increased penalties for hate motivated crimes against gays. Coral Ridge Ministries recently put this out:

Did you get that? Somehow, hate crimes legislation is a suppression of free speech. Last I checked, beating another human being and dragging him behind your truck isn't free speech. It's a crime. And all hate crime legislation does is give you a harsher penalty if the reason you committed the crime is hatred.

I'm not advocating the passage of hate crimes legislation (although I honestly don't see a problem with it), but I can't see any reason why such legislation would automatically lead to a "criminalization of Christianity". If hate crimes legislation passes, Fred Phelps will still be able to stand out on a corner with his hateful signs and spread his hateful message all he wants. The first amendment protects that right. And laughably, if the government did try to silence bigoted Christians, the ACLU would undoubtedly be the first to step up to defend their rights.

Hate crimes legislation is nothing more than a mandated increase in penalty for crimes that are committed out of hate. Now, honestly, is killing a gay person just because they are gay a tenet of Christianity? If it is, then it's a criminalization of Christianity. But since there are already laws against killing people, Christianity of that sort is already criminal. (Well, I guess maybe it could be a tenet of Coral Ridge's Christianity, but that's certainly not what Jesus would do.)

Can someone please explain this to me?

Oh, and incidentally, if hatred of gays is a tenet of "biblical morality", then "biblical morality" is bigoted. And it's not morality. Hate - true hate - is always immoral. This "biblical morality" that Coral Ridge Ministries is so keen on protecting is despicable. It teaches bigotry against homosexuals, women, adherents of other religions, and adherents of no religion. It condones slavery. Hell, it gives instructions for selling your own daughter into slavery. You want to believe that, well, go ahead. You want to preach that to the masses, well, go ahead. But don't expect a civilized society to cater to your bronze age world view.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colin Powell on the Election

There are very few high ranking members of the Bush Administration that I have even the smallest amount of respect for. The two I do have some respect for are Rice and Powell. I may disagree with them on many policy matters, but both are smart as whips. Powell especially seems to own something that many in the Bush administration lack - a moral compass (Rice seems to have one, but there is a magnet next to it). There are very few Republicans I would have voted for in this election. Powell would have been one of them.

As a result, I was very pleased to wake this morning to this:

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Religulous

I finally got the chance to see Bill Maher's new movie "Religulous". It was hilarious, but would probably only be so to the "choir".

Which "choir" am I talking about? Well, to give you an idea, there were only about 15 people in the theater at the 8 o'clock showing, including the five in my party. What did all the members of my party have in common? We are all atheist or agnostic, and I would bet a large sum of money that they other 10 people in the theater are as well.

A theater filled with 15 non-believers. We knew what we were going to see. And we got what we wanted. Maher practices the Michael Moore technique of crash interviews with all sorts of different religious folks, and he's not shy about expressing his views or asking difficult questions. The comedy often comes from the interviewees themselves, as when a U.S. Senator admits that you don't have to pass an I.Q. test to get into the Senate. Occasionally, the laughs are provided by text or images being spliced into the footage that call out the irrationality or outright craziness of the answers Maher is receiving. The film is sometimes shocking to the sensibilities, and sometimes employs a little silliness, but all of that comes together to provide nearly two hours of laughs, giggles, and gasps at what one of my friends called "the stupid."

Maher's pull-no-punches style would make most religious individuals fume rather than laugh. I can't imagine a devout Christian or Muslim or Scientologist sitting through the whole film unless they were paid to review it. Their core beliefs are raked over the coals, although not on an intellectual level. Maher isn't trying to convince the non-believer; he's ridiculing religious belief. He's pushing a boundary that most in this country insist must not be crossed. That is intolerable to most, if not all, believers. But it's an important task. If we, as a society, are every going to finally evaluate the truth of religious claim on a grand scale - that is, if we are ever going to grow up and examine our beliefs in an honest way, we must first take them off the pedestal they have been placed on. For too long religious beliefs have been given a special position in which they receive no scrutiny and they are not forced, as other ideas are, to brave the brutal gauntlet of the marketplace of ideas. It's time that we put religious beliefs through the same scrutiny, intellectual and otherwise, that all other belief systems must face. That is obviously one of Maher's key goals in this film.

Most of the film is dedicated to clever mockery of religion and some interesting inquiry about the approaches we take to religious belief (particularly Islam). It isn't until the end that Maher's second goal becomes apparent. The last ten minutes of the film are a brutal reminder of the power that religion can have, and the risk we take in allowing it to continue to drive those in power. It was a bit too much for me, to be honest, but I suppose that is exactly what Maher wants, since it is clear that he is attempting to move the non-religious to "come out" and make their own voices heard.

Well, I'm already doing my part. Are you?

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Quick and Dirty

There are exams to be graded, papers to be critiqued, and Bill Maher movies to go see, so I'm a little behind on posting. Here's a few things to tide you over.

The Clintons have come out of their hole to campaign for Obama. It's about time. I'm not one to latch onto conspiracy theories, but I did have moments where I wondered if the Clintons would rather win in 2012 than turn this country around now.

Europeans have presented a relatively unified front on handling what is now a global financial crisis. What a mess this is. Since our banking systems are so interconnected, though, maybe European action on this will help us even if we can't get our act together.

Sarah Palin latches onto one part of the ruling against her while ignoring another. She (rightly) claims that she was cleared of illegally firing Monegan, but neglects to address the finding that she abused her power. The McCain campaign is undoubtedly praying that this will go away, and so far the MSM seems to be answering their prayers.

On a positive note, Connecticut courts have recognized legal gay marriage. Gotta love this quote:

“Once again, you have four unelected judges by a slim margin doing what the people don’t want,” said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family

Hmm... see, last I checked, constitutional rights (state or federal) aren't a matter of popular consensus. I'm reminded of that tagline from high school government class: "Majority rules, minority rights."

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bill'O - The Early Years

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Lewis Black Makes My Point

Lewis Black is hilarious, at least in part, because he channels our rage for us. In writing this post, I was reminded of a bit of Black's stand-up, and I thought I would share. If you can't handle profanity, I would advise against watching the clip. I would also advise a thicker skin, because you're missing out on a lot of fun.

Lewis Black on "America is #1" (and also on milk)

And, if you liked that tidbit, here's the whole show:

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Monday, October 6, 2008

By Request: The Elegant Argument for Abortion Rights

A silent but much treasured reader has requested that I post on the so-called "Elegant Argument" for abortion rights. Since I'm terribly pleased to have any readers, much less requests from them, I'm happy to oblige. So here goes:

First, don't ask me why they call it the "Elegant Argument". I've no idea. As far as I'm concerned, all logically valid arguments are elegant, so I see no reason to claim special status for this one.

By any name, the Elegant Argument for abortion rights is, to my mind, the strongest argument for said rights. Before we can get into, though, a few things have to be made clear up front. First, for the purposes of the argument, we'll be assuming that a fetus is a person with all the rights that you or I have as persons. The question of whether a fetus is a person is often viewed by people on both sides of the debate as the central issue. As we're about to see, the issue of personhood is actually irrelevant to the abortion debate.

Second, we must keep in mind that there is a clear distinction between what is morally correct and what is legally permissible. It is entirely possible for someone to have a legal right to do something immoral. The homophobe who gets on his soapbox and condemns gays is doing something immoral, but he has every right to do it. It may very well be immoral for you to refuse to help a relative in need by giving him a few bucks. But you have every legal right to refuse. The distinction between the legal and the moral is important to keep in mind, because the elegant argument for abortion rights is an argument for a legal right. It says nothing about the moral status of abortion in general or of any particular abortion.

Alright, enough with the preliminaries. There are three main premises to the elegant argument: (1) There is an inherent human right to bodily autonomy (2) When the right to bodily autonomy is being violated, it is legally permissible to kill in order to stop the violation (3) An unwanted pregnancy constitutes a violation of the right to bodily autonomy. We'll take each of these in turn.

There is an inherent human right to bodily autonomy.

The right to bodily autonomy - that is, the right to dominion over our person - is so basic that we take it for granted. But the best way to see that we have such a right is by noting that certain actions which we take to be violations of a right have the one thing in common - a violation of our control over our own person. Think about the following case for a moment: you go in to the dentist for, say, a surgery on your gums. He puts you under for the surgery, and when you awake you discover that he pulled a perfectly healthy tooth. Let's say he's got a collection, and he thought yours would make a nice addition. You're still alive, and you're experiencing no pain. Still, you've been wronged, haven't you? The dentist has violated your rights. In fact, we're inclined to say that he's violated you. But what right has he violated? Not your right to free speech. Not your right to trial by jury of your peers. Not even your right to life. You're still alive, after all, and were in no danger of death. You might be inclined to say it's your right over your property. But there is something more to it than that. If the dentist happily gave you your tooth to keep, you wouldn't be deprived of your property, but a violation has still occurred. And we'd feel the same if a different doctor came in during your oral surgery and poked around in your insides, but didn't take anything out. Why? Because you have a right to bodily autonomy - you have a right to say what happens to your own body, and other people can't just do whatever they like to your body without your consent.

These doctor cases are pretty clear cut cases of a right to bodily autonomy, but the right is even clearer in cases of rape. A rapist is most certainly violating the rights of his victim. But what right? None of the standard rights seem to apply. If the victim is not killed, there is no violation of the right to life. And no property is taken. The whole act of rape consists in using another individual's body without their consent. And that is only a violation of rights if we possess the right to be free from non-consensual use or manipulation of our bodies.

When a violation of the right to bodily autonomy occurs, it is legally permissible to kill in order to stop the violation.

Imagine the following (now rather famous) scenario. You wake up one morning to find yourself hooked up to another person. You are immediately told that the person you are connected to is a famous violinist who has a fatal illness. He needs to be hooked up to you, you are told, for the next 9 months so that he can use your body as a filter and nutrient provider. After 9 months he'll be healed and the two of you can go your merry ways. The music appreciation society had looked high and low for someone who would be compatible with the violinist, and just in the nick of time, they found you, seemingly the only person who can keep the violinist alive. Last night, while you slept, they hooked you up to the violinist, who is unconscious and knows nothing of the situation. Here's the question: do you have the right to unplug yourself from him? Note, the question is not "Is is the right thing to do?" or "Would it be wrong of you to unplug him?" The question is "Do you have the right to unplug him?"

If the case is too abstract to get your intuitions going, then just imagine a woman being raped. She has kicked and screamed and bit and hit and done everything she possibly could to get her assailant off her. She's even managed to get ahold of a rock which she's being hitting her assailant with, but nothing short of killing the rapist has managed to get him to stop. Now, does the rape victim have the right to use that rock to kill her attacker to get him to stop? Most people have a very strong intuition that she does.

What these cases are supposed to do is to draw out your intuitions as to whether or not an individual can use deadly force to stop a violation of their right to bodily autonomy. Now, obviously, if the rape victim could get her attacker to stop by using something less than deadly force, then we'd be a bit hesistant about claiming that she could legally kill her attacker. But if she's in a position in which they only way to stop the violation of her right to bodily autonomy is to kill the person doing the violating, then our intuitions tell us that she has the right to do so. Note that I said "person". The rapist is a person, and he has the same rights as any other person - including the right to life. The right to life is not a right that is forfeited by committing this particular crime. We do not execute rapists, we merely put them in jail. Despite his right to life, however, it seems that the rape victim has the right to kill him in order to end his violation of her right to bodily autonomy. Note, too, that it doesn't matter if the rapist is unaware of what he is doing. A rape victim has just as much right to kill a sleepwalking rapist or a clinically insane rapist or a severely mentally handicapped rapist. What matters is not what the rapist does or doesn't know or intend but rather the violation of the victim's right to bodily autonomy.

There is, I think, a reason why bodily autonomy wins over life in this conflict of rights. The right to life is important. But without the right to bodily autonomy, the right to life is nothing more than a right to breathe and eat. In the absence of the right to bodily autonomy, an evil doctor could put you in any number of terrible states, but as long as you weren't technically brain dead, he wouldn't have violated your right to life. In a way, the right to life is best justified by appeal to the right to bodily autonomy, and this is especially true when you consider that your life just is the continued functioning of your body (this is true even if you believe in an immortal soul). If you don't have dominion over that body, then why would you have a right to it's continued functioning?

An unwanted pregnancy is a violation of the right to bodily autonomy

The first two premises usually aren't that controversial. Most everyone sees that there is a right to bodily autonomy, and most everyone agrees that it is legally permissible to kill in order to end a violation of that right (when killing is the only way to end the violation). It's this third premise that strikes up controversy.

We'll start with something clearly uncontroversial. The relationship between a pregnant woman and the fetus is one in which the fetus is using the woman's body. That seems clear enough. Remember, though, that the only way one person's use of another's body is a violation of the right to bodily autonomy is in the absence of consent. In the case of sexual intercourse, for example, consensual sex is not a violation of anyone's rights. It is only when one party does not consent that we have a case of rape. For an unwanted pregnancy to be a violation of the pregnant woman's right to bodily autonomy, then, it must be the case that the pregnant woman did not consent to the pregnancy.

In cases of pregnancy resulting from rape, it is clear that there no consent on the part of the woman. If you accept the first two premises, you automatically accept that abortion is legal in cases of rape.

It's cases of consensual sex that cause controversy. After all, the common pro-life quip is "The woman had a choice. She chose to have sex." Behind this line is a claim that consent to sex is automatically consent to pregnancy. But it's not clear that this is the case. It seems possible to draw a distinction between responsibility for an outcome of one's action and consent to that outcome. If someone drive recklessly, knowing full well that reckless driving leads to accidents, they are certainly responsible for the accident they get into. But did they consent to it? Similarly, I smoke cigarettes (yeah, yeah, I know. Bugging me about it won't get me to quit any quicker). I know that smoking causes cancer. If I get cancer, I am completely responsible for it. But, at least from a subjective standpoint, I don't believe I'm consenting to cancer. Nor do I believe that the person who eats McDonalds on a regular basis, knowing how fattening the food is, consents to getting fat. They are responsible for it, but I don't believe they consented. Similarly, an individual who engages in sexual activity knowing that it may cause pregnancy may be responsible for the pregnancy, but that doesn't mean they consented to it.

This becomes clearer when we add in the factor of "birth control". Imagine that I know there is a prowler about in my neighborhood, and I know that this prowler is going to try to get into my house any way he can. By continuing to live in the neighborhood, I knowingly put myself in a situation in which it's likely that the prowler will get into my house. Now, if I foolishly leave the window open, and the prowler comes in, I'm certainly responsible for his being in my house. To my mind, I didn't consent to his presence. But maybe your intuitions run differently. But what are your intuitions if I put bars up on my windows. If the prowler still gets in, have I consented to his being there? I don't think I have. After all, I've done something to prevent his presence, and this seems inconsistent with consent, even of the tacit variety. Similarly, in cases in which a woman engages in sexual activity and uses contraception, if she does conceive, it seems odd to say that she consented to the pregnancy.

Even if you don't by the foregoing lines of reasoning, and you hold firm that consent to sex is consent to pregnancy, when it comes to bodily autonomy, consent can be withdrawn. If a woman consents to sexual activity initially, her initial consent is not equivalent to consent to the entire act. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. And if a woman were to withdraw her consent mid-coitus, continuation of the act on the part of her partner would constitute rape. By analogy, then, even if a woman initially consents to pregnancy by consenting to sex, she may withdraw her consent at any time.

The Conclusion

Alright, so, to sum up, individuals possess an inherent right to bodily autonomy. If the right to bodily autonomy is violated, an individual may legally kill to effect cessation of that violation. And an unwanted pregnancy involves a violation of the right to bodily autonomy. It follows, then, that a woman may legally kill the fetus - even if it is a person - to effect cessation of the violation of her right to bodily autonomy.

Note that one may only kill if this is the only way to cease the violation of their right. That means that if we someday come up with a way for a woman to be rid of a pregnancy without killing the fetus, then it may be the case that abortion would no longer be a legal option for terminating the pregnancy.

And remember that this argument is only about the legality of abortion. It says nothing about whether or not it is moral. This is why it is entirely possible for people to think that abortion is wrong, and is a tragedy, and also think it is a legal option for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy.

So, that's it. The elegant argument for abortion rights. If any ethicists are reading and find fault in my description of the argument, please let me know.

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Obama's Terrorist vs Palin's Secessionist

You may have heard about Palin's latest jab at Obama. Dragging up something that was already hammered to death during the Democractic primary race, Palin has accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists". Here's a video of Palin's comments and the CNN Truth Squad's assessment of her claims:

Now, forget for a moment that this charge is super weak. I found it rather interesting that Palin would make these comments given that she's risking bringing up her husband's association with the Alaska Independence Party. She claims that Obama sees the U.S. as imperfect enough to "pal around with terrorists". One has to wonder how imperfect she thinks the U.S. is, since she's married to a secessionist. Apparently, I'm not the only person who had this thought.

All of this, of course, is terribly stupid. So why would they even bring it up? I think I can answer the question of why Palin would drag this clump of mud out of the closet, in spite of the political risk. The McCain campaign is desperate for anything to hurl at Obama that might turn the conversation away from the economy. Why do I smell desperation? Well, first, the McCain campaign has conceded Michigan. Second, according to the Princeton Election Consortium, (great site, by the way), as of 8 a.m. this morning, if the election were held today, Obama would take 353 electoral votes and McCain would take 185. 270 electoral votes are necessary to win. By any standards, that's a landslide. When the economy is the main issue, voters tend to trust Democrats over Republicans. Add to that an unpopular war and a Republican administration that is despised by some 70% of Americans, and you've got a serious problem if you're McCain. I predict that we'll see a lot of mud being slung in the next few weeks. The McCain campaign is going to have to do everything it can to divert attention away from the issues and slime Obama if McCain is going to have a snowball's chance in hell of winning this election.

Of course, that's no reason for complacency. We all know how effective Karl Rove style politics can get. I'll be stuffing envelopes and sporting my campaign button nonetheless. But I might just do so with a little more hope.

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Meet Sam

I'd like to introduce you to this guy I know. His name is Sam. He's really rich, but he's one of those rich people who makes a ton of money and yet can't live within his means. He spends way more than he makes and is in debt up to his eyeballs.

Not only is Sam rich, but he's also the biggest, strongest guy on the block. He's made of muscle, knows martial arts, streetfighting, you name it. He's handsome too. He's a smart dresser and a salesman at heart. He can sweet talk with the best of them.

So Sam's got a lot going for him. He's rich, good looking and strong. He knows it too. As a matter of fact, Sam likes to talk about how strong he his. He likes to talk about how all the girls want to be his girl and how all the guys want to be him. He's always boasting about how he's the richest, strongest, smartest guy on the block. He talks about how great he is with his family and friends. He talks about how great he is just about everyday at work. Sam thinks there is something seriously wrong with you if you don't think he's great too. In fact, Sam thinks he's so great that he wants everyone to be like him, and he can be a little pushy when he tries to convince people to do it his way. His family often gets dragged along for the ride, but other people can find it rather annoying. Sam doesn't understand that, though. He sees himself as the richest, strongest, smartest guy around. How could he be wrong?

Well, richest and strongest he is, but Sam's not necessarily the smartest guy on the block. He has his moments of genius, to be sure, and he's had a lot of really great ideas in his time. Sam used to spend lots of energy learning about science and politics and technology. When he was younger, he always had the best science projects and the smartest answers to the teacher's questions. Now, though, Sam doesn't have a lot of time for science. In fact, he's not sure he believes most of it, since it conflicts with his religious beliefs. And while he still likes to learn about technology, he's gotten behind on the latest advancements. Every once in a while, he'll crack a book about history or politics or economics, but it's just not important to him anymore. Nor is it important to Sam to learn about what's going on outside his own neighborhood. If the economy in another neighborhood were bad, Sam wouldn't know it. If the neighborhood crosstown had been taken over by warring gangs who were killing innocent bystanders in the crossfire, Sam wouldn't know it. And even if he did, he wouldn't really care, as long as it didn't impact him.

Don't get me wrong, there are people in Sam's life that are important to him. He's got some siblings that matter to him, though he doesn't pay too much attention to their personal lives. He's got a mom who dotes on him, though he doesn't pay her much mind, but his relationship with his father is strained. He tries desparately to be nothing like his father, and his father is often dissapointed or flat out fed-up with his antics. He's always been there to help his family, though, and he'd be there in a flash if they ever needed him again.

Sam's got some friends that matter to him, too, though usually it's because they have something to offer him. Sam's definitely the sort of person who will become friends with you because you have a big screen T.V., even if he doesn't really like you. As soon as he's got his own T.V., though, he'll drop you like a bad habit. He does have one really special girl in his life - Izzie. And when I say special, I mean really special. Sam gives Izzie practically anything she wants. Fancy dinners, nice clothes, spending money. You name it. Any guy so much as glances at Izzie the wrong way, and Sam will launch into a tirade of threats and insults. He's not beyond handing out a severe beating on her behalf.

In fact, Sam's not shy about using violence for any number of reasons. Sometimes it's called for, but sometimes it's not. One time, a guy he didn't like moved in next door to his parents, and so Sam marched right over and got into really nasty fight with him. Surprisingly, he didn't win. I guess that happens when you take on someone who's not strong, but has a ton of endurance. Eventually, the fight isn't worth it anymore, especially when you're wailing on someone because you don't like their proximity to your parents. This other time, some jerk who didn't like Sam very much vandalized his house. So Sam found him and beat him up and then he beat up another guy who was just an innocent bystander. Even when he's not beating people up, Sam will often threaten violence to get his way. He's not beyond a bribe, though, either, if that'll get you to go along with him.

Now that you've met Sam, let me ask you something. What do you think of him? Do you think he's the greatest guy in town? Think about how other people might react to someone like Sam. How do people view someone who constantly blows their own horn? How do people react to someone who uses their size to push people around? How would you feel about Sam if you didn't like Izzie?

Have you figured out who Sam is? When I took international relations in college, we were often helped along in our studies by thinking of countries as individual people. I had a habit of taking this metaphor too far, envisioning the U.K as our Mama and France as our Papa, with the U.K's old colonies being our sisters and brothers. Now that the election looms, and the bells of nationalism are tolling, the metaphor returned to me. Heather Wilson's recent comments about Barak Obama (video below) got me thinking even more. What if U.S. were a person? How would other people view it? Not too well, it seems to me. No one likes an arrogant bully.

Now, of course I understand that the U.S. is not a person. But why should people be held to higher standards than countries? And why should we expect people in other countries to view us any differently than they would view an individual who thought and behaved in the same way? Why shouldn't people in the U.S. question the character that their country is displaying in the same way that we think someone like Sam should examine his own character?

In her comments, Wilson implies that liberals, including Obama, think that it is the U.S., and only the U.S., that is the problem. That is a strawman. No one is saying that the problems of the world all rest on American shoulders, and no one is claiming that it is only the behavior of the U.S. that is problematic. Such a view is obviously false. But it is just as false to hold, as Wilson seems to, that the U.S. isn't doing anything wrong at all. That position is not one of patriotism; it's one of blind nationalism.

Wilson insinuates that when people like Obama criticize certain aspects of their country, that makes them unpatriotic. But it's not unpatriotic to question the direction your country is heading. It's not unpatriotic to note that your country has faults. It's not unpatriotic to want your country to be better. In fact, it seems to me that one of the most patriotic sentiments you can have is the desire to make your country better, and one of the most patriotic things you can do is work to improve your country. But you can't improve what you won't recognize as imperfect.

I don't think that the U.S. is a force for good in the world at the moment. Our collapsing economy is going to drag the economies of other nations down with us. We're involved in two wars. One of those wars was completely unjustified and has resulted in destabilizing an already volitile area of the world. The other war could have ended in the capture of Osama Bin Laden after the initial fall of the Taliban had it not been for a pissing contest between Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet. Instead we're now killing civilians in air raids (and, contrary to what Sarah Palin says, it's not irresponsible to tell the truth). We're fretting terribly over Iran, not because they are anywhere near close enough to nukes to be a serious threat to us, but because Isreal is scared now that our decimation of Iraq has handed regional hegemony to the Iranians. The one place where we should have boots on the ground, or at least diplomats at a table - Darfur - is almost completely off our radar screen. How can we be a force for good in the world when we can't even send a few planes to Africa to help stop a genocide? How can we be a force for good when we have broken our word, violated the Geneva Convention and have taken to torture and extraordinary rendition? How can we be a force for good when we refuse to fund family planning programs that actually work to stem the tide of the African AIDS epidemic?

I am a patriot, not because I think my country is a force for good, but because I want my country to be a force for good. I am a patriot, not because I think my country is great, but because I want it to be great. Wilson's attack on the patriotism of liberals in general, and Obama in particular, misses the mark. True patriotism isn't expressed in hollow platitudes about pride in country or blanket statements about how great we are. Loving your country isn't enough to make you a patriot. True patriotism finds expression in those who can see how great their country could be, and love it enough to try and make it that way.

Wilson Attacking Obama's Patriotism

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

First Reaction - Biden v. Palin

Credit where credit is due - Palin didn' totally suck. Kudos to her for surviving the debate and actually getting in some good jabs.

That doesn't mean that the true Palin colors weren't present. As far as mistakes go, she falsely claimed that the commander in Afghanistan didn't say that the surge tactic wouldn't work there. He did. She also got his name wrong. It's McKiernan, not "McClellan". And then there was that completely nonsensical answer on nuclear proliferation (and yes, Sarah, it's "NU-CLEE-UR" not "NU-CU-LAR"). I seriously have no idea what she said on that. It was a flashback to the Couric interviews.

But, given the low expectations that I, and everyone else, had, she did decently. In fact, she reminded me a lot of another republican - George W. Bush. She repeated over and over and over again the lie about Obama's tax policy and his votes on taxes. She lied about the McCain/Palin position on "oversight". We need more oversight, she says, despite the fact that McCain is fundamentally opposed to any economic regulation. Now, if you are against regulation, okay. That's a position that has rational support. But don't lie about it. Then she touted her "executive experience" as a governor and business owner. You know who else had that sort of executive experience? Good ol' dubya. But she did manage to do the politician's dance and spit out the right platitudes at the right time. I didn't expect her to manage it.

As I said to my roommate as the interview progressed, I preferred it when I could laugh at her stupidity and almost pity her. Now I'm scared, because it turns out that she has views. Views that are deadly dangerous. The thing that scared me most? She believes that the constitution gives flexibility in the power of the VP. That's Cheney's view of the vice presidency. In the spirit of Biden, let me say that again, THAT'S CHENEY'S VIEW OF THE VICE PRESIDENCY. Coming from someone who has already shown her bonefides as a politician who abuses power, that's not good.

I think Biden won, but Palin made a very good showing.

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Palin's SCOTUS Gaffe

To her credit, the problem was not that Palin couldn't name any SCOTUS case, it was that she couldn't name one other than Roe that she disagreed with. That's still pretty sad. She doesn't disagree with Kelo? Dredd Scott? Plessy v. Ferguson? I'm pretty sure she disagrees with Planned Parenthood v Casey. You'd think for such a staunch pro-lifer, she could have named that one.

Here is a comparison of Palin and Biden's answers on the question:

Now, I have to say that I disagree with part of what Biden says about Roe. Getting close to a consensus in a heterogeneous society is not the job of SCOTUS. They are there to interpret the constitution, and it doesn't matter what the great mob of our "multicultural society of religious people" has to say.

By the way, what about us non-religious people? Don't we count? Of course we don't. Doesn't matter which side of the aisle you are on, you're never gonna stand up for the 15% of the population who have no religion. And atheists? Ohh boy. We don't even deserve to have our voices heard. Sorry, it just really stinks when there is no political party that will give you a voice. It gets annoying having to vote for people who at best act as though you don't exist and at worst think that you are a scourge upon the earth that must be destroyed. Oh well.

Also, apparently Biden's conservative friends haven't actually read the bill of rights. If I was him, I'd tell them to go read the 9th Amendment and then get back to me.

So I'm not perfectly happy with Biden's answer. But Palin's answer is much, much worse. What worries me most about Palin's exchange with Couric isn't that she can't name a SCOTUS case she disagrees with. That shouldn't be the least bit shocking to anyone who has been paying attention. Anyone who hasn't been watching Fox news knows that she's at least one standard deviation below 100. There is only so much information she can fit in that tiny brain of hers, and I'm sure remembering the crazy names she's given to her ever expanding brood probably takes up a lot of storage space already. And keeping an eye on Putin's head probably requires significant intellectual effort.

Rather, what bothers me is that Palin's answer on Roe seems to indicate that she doesn't understand how our system is supposed to work. She thinks abortion is a states issue. Okay. But then she says there is a right to privacy in the constitution, but individual states can best handle the will of the people on that issue. Um... Sarah, honey, if there is a right in the constitution, then the states can't decide to deny it even if it is the will of the people in that state. The Bill of Rights is there to protect our individual rights from the federal government, and the 14th Amendment expands that protection such that it guards us from state action as well. Welcome to the United States of America, Gov. Palin. If you actually want to rule this country, I suggest you figure out how it works first.

Now I'm really interested to find out what her view of the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban is. If abortion is a states issue, then the federal government has no business passing laws about it, and so Palin should oppose that ban on the basis of her federalist principles. Something tells me, though, that she has no opposition whatsoever to the ban.

I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the debate tonight. In case you didn't notice, my pickup switch has been moved from "Cold, rational argumentation" to "Mean, sarcastic argumentation". This should be fun.

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