Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Weapons of Mass Consumption

Is society reaching the limits of material consumption?  Is it time to scale back consumerism and focus on the flourishing of human wellbeing over quarterly profits?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


(brief tutorial written by Danny Ledonne while camping at Dulles Airport on slow-ass Wi-Fi)

1) OUTLINE YOUR IDEAL GOALS: start by clearing assembling the "best case" scenario of all the items you want to accomplish.  If you fail to list them from the outset, you will never get them during negotiation.  (OBAMA EXAMPLE: start with single payer [i.e. government-run healthcare] instead of insisting it is "off the table" even as your own base of dedicated supporters advocate unrelentingly for it.)

2) ASSESS THE NEGOTIATING POWER OF THE OPPOSITION: How much leverage does your opponent have?  If you are in a weak position to bargain, be willing to concede much.  If you are in a strong position to bargain, be willing to concede little.  (OBAMA EXAMPLE: recognize your party held wide majorities in the House and Senate, rather than spending two years pandering to a group of stalwart ideologues who had a weak public mandate to do anything except attend Tea Party Rallies and appear on Fox News Channel.)

3) RECOGNIZE THE NEGOTIATION FROM YOUR OPPONENT'S PERSPECTIVE: What does your opponent want?  How much compromise are they willing to engage in to get it?  If you understand the mindset of the opposition, your own ability to negotiate becomes more effective.  (OBAMA EXAMPLE: realize most of these ass clowns are in "safe" districts wherein they can continue veering to the right without consequence and with little interest in your centrist positions.  They have demonized you in advance and want nothing to do with your ideas because they think you are a Marxist, a Muslim, a Kenyan, a liberal elite or somehow all of these combined.)

4) GIVE ONLY WHAT IS NECESSARY TO COMPLETE THE EXCHANGE: If your opponent hasn't asked for a particular concession, don't offer it without some modicum of exchange for your own agenda.  If you are in a position to bargain, you really have no need to concede your ground unless it is introduced as part of the negotiation.  (OBAMA EXAMPLE: your opponent already oppose gay marriage, already supports continued military occupation for imperial business ventures, already rejects broad environmental policy reform, already wants to extend tax cuts for billionaires, and already opposes even a public option in healthcare [let alone single payer]... so DON'T concede all of these positions to your opposition as though it will placate them on some other issue.)

5) AS THE COMPROMISE CONCLUDES, REMEMBER THE DESIRED OUTCOME: It can be easy to get muddled in the specifics of a deal, whether trading properties in Monopoly, swapping baseball cards, or running a massive bureaucracy into debt during an economic crisis caused by wanton fiscal malfeasance on Wall Street.  Keep principled, focused objectives in mind - these are the underlying fundamentals by which all your negotiations should be measured.  (OBAMA EXAMPLE: if your base is abandoning you, becoming disenchanted, and feeling alienated... it is because you seem to have forgotten why you were elected or how hard your constituents worked and continue to lobbied for these causes you claim to be representing as you appoint all the blood-stained foxes to guard the feather-strewn hen house).

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Legal Satyricon for ABA Journal contest!

Attorney Marc Randazza is a passionate First Amendment advocate, best known to me for his defense of the (hilarious) satire website that alleges Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990. Read all about it here.

Turns out Marc's blog, the Legal Satyricon is in the running for the first place in the American Bar Association Journal contest! If you enjoy free speech, or just find the PWNing of Glenn Beck to be hilarious, you should vote for Marc Randazza's blog! To vote you need to register here and then vote in the IMHO category here.

Marc thanks you in advance for your support. Glenn Beck doesn't, because while we don't think he raped and murdered a young girl in 1990, we are curious as to why Glenn has been so secretive about this issue...

"Thanks, kids, for remembering that when you're adults,
you will want to keep your First Amendment rights!"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Julian Assange - Heroes Are Hard to Find

It's no secret that I have been focused on Wikileaks for the past two weeks.  I believe so deeply in this moment of history and what it means for democracy, human rights, and the information age. What is happening here will be written about for decades to come.  This music video, the most recent in a series of current events media mash-ups I have created since 2005, is my culminating work on the subject.

"Great men, like great ages, are explosives in which a tremendous force is stored up. Their precondition is always, historically and psychologically, that for a long time much has been gathered, stored up, saved up, and conserved for them, in that there has been no explosion for a long time. Once the tension in the mass has become too great, then the most accidental stimulus suffices to summon into the world the 'genius', the 'deed', the great destiny. What does the environment matter then, or the age, or the 'spirit of the age', or 'public opinion?'" —Friedrich Nietzsche

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Celebrity" in Web 2.0

We have now entered a post-celebrity era - one in which a strange fellow named Keenan Cahill amasses enough YouTube viewership that 50 Cent appears in his webcam cover. The Internet has given the powerless a chance to be seen, all the while challenging the aesthetic dominion of the powerful.

@1:25 FTW! Did Keenan win a contest to meet 50 Cent OR did 50 win a contest to appear in the next BeenerKeeKee upload? All bets are off. The common YouTuber and the certified 8 times platinum rapper share the screen together. Just another day in Web 2.0.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hate E-mails with Richard Dawkins

Richard's British accent combined with classical music and a slew of vitriolic Christian hate mail is simply wonderful! "Right now, your destiny is all fucked up, you fucking atheist" is my favorite line.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Full Body Scanners

"What’s shocking is that a lot of research has been done with the folks at Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) that actually indicates that these scanners do not work. In fact, the safest airport in the world, Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv—their security experts rejected the scanners. The former head of security at Ben Gurion said you could get enough explosives through these naked body scanners to blow up a jumbo jet." -David Greenfield, New York City Councilman representing Brooklyn residents living in the 44th Council District.

With all the protests and inquires directed toward the TSA these days (source and source), we have quite a controversy, indeed!  But it might make an exciting horror film.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Uncovering urgent information about Barack Hussein Obama only reported by Fox News, one journalist heads to the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" to interview fellow Americans.  (I'm not a conservative journalist but I play one on TV).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

NPR firing chills free speech

I've volunteered at an NPR community radio station.  I regularly listen to NPR.  Heck, I have even been interviewed on NPR a couple of times.  But none of these facts diminish my sense of the chilling effect to free speech caused by the firing of Juan Williams (source).

Opining on Fox News cost
Juan Williams his job at NPR
In the larger context of the discussion on Muslim American stereotypes and the paralysis caused by political correctness, Williams' admission to "getting worried, getting nervous" upon seeing individuals in "Muslim garb" is a candid admission of personal anxiety (source).  Perhaps, given Williams' own writing on the African-American civil rights movement (source and source), his recent O'Reilly Factor admission of Muslim in-flight anxiety is a recognition of his own limitations, prejudices, and even bigotry.  Given the topic of the program, being the controversy on The View when two hosts walked off stage after blowhard Bill O'Reilly insisted on calling the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as "Muslim" (source), one can easily understand Juan Williams is describing the very act of classifying groups of people rather than recognizing individual beliefs or actions.  This subject is, of course, a difficult and nuanced one to approach; invariably it will arouse passionate debate and disagreement.

Which is why NPR's immediate firing of Juan Williams is all the more disturbing.  The national conversation on Muslim assimilation in America, from the misnamed "Ground Zero Mosque" to the right vs. wisdom of holding "Burn a Koran Day," is not always genial nor are the conclusions altogether obvious.  Regardless of one's perspective, an admission of personal anxieties as a commentator shouldn't cost one their day job as a reporter.  And while it is understandable to find Williams' comments offensive, the response to NPR's firing has been largely oppositional, as the Christian Science Monitor reports (source):
The fall-out from William’s dismissal has been sharp and swift, and it’s likely to continue.  On NPR’s web site, ombudsman Alicia Shepard reported that thousands of comments had caused the organization’s “Contact Us” form to crash.  “The overwhelming majority are angry, furious, outraged,” she wrote. “They want NPR to hire him back immediately. If NPR doesn't, they want all public funding of public radio to stop. They promise to never donate again. They are as mad as hell, and want everyone to know it. It was daunting to answer the phone and hear so much unrestrained anger.”
NPR schill Vivian Schiller
NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller has been true to her name, schilling for her organization and claiming that the recent firing was over a pattern of comments Williams has made rather than simply the latest controversy about Muslims on airplanes (source and source).  One might be inclined to believe this, I suppose, if only the timing weren't so blatantly in swift response to a particular statement.  Schiller insists there were no violations of Williams' First Amendment rights:
"Juan has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants. He does not have a First Amendment right to be paid by NPR for saying whatever he wants."
Of course, never mind that Juan Williams comments were made while appearing on Fox News, not NPR.  And never mind that Williams further contextualized his comments later in the same interview by maintaining that Muslim Americans should not be associated with violent Islamic terrorists.  For Schiller, these issues fall by the wayside to the larger battle between media personalities such as Glenn Beck, George Soros, and others.

Understandably, several conservative politicians, such as South Carolina senator Jim DeMint and the ever-opinionated Alaska-governor-drop-out Sarah Palin, have seized the opportunity to call for a defunding of NPR's public support through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (source).  Frankly, it's hard to blame them.  USA Today reports:
"DeMint said the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service, has received nearly $4 billion in federal money since 2001 and is slated to receive $430 million in the 2011 fiscal year.  The country is over $13 trillion in debt and Congress must find ways to start trimming the federal budget to cut spending," DeMint said in a statement. "NPR and PBS get about 15 percent of their total budget through federal funding, so these programs should be able to find a way to stand on their own. With record debt and unemployment, there's simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize a liberal programming they disagree with."

While the amount of funding is minuscule in the scope of the larger federal deficit, the need for NPR in the 21st Century media landscape is questionable - particularly as other progressive news programs such as "Democracy Now!" and cable news network MSNBC provide a left-leaning information perspective without the overbearing political correctness NPR regularly binds itself in.

Regardless, the repercussions to NPR should be pronounced and longstanding.  I find Juan Williams to be a generally insightful voice in the national conversation and this sharp reprimand over a comment on a contentious issue only reveals a disquieting sensitivity police state at National Public Radio.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

QualiaSoup on "Lack of Belief in Gods"

YouTube member QualiaSoup frequently produces some of the most sound, rational arguments in audio/visual form.  His latest video, "Lack of Belief in Gods" goes far in "explaining the concept, refuting common objections and giving a number of reasons that atheists are sometimes 'fervent.'"  Enjoy:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sam Harris' Moral Landscape

For far too long, non-believers and religious skeptics have been dogged by questions not of fact but of value.  Most religious fundamentalists, and certainly religious moderates, claim that their faith is born not out of factual claims about their (outdated) religious texts but rather out of the ethical guidance their religion gives them.  Atheists, many religious practitioners allege, have no "moral compass" as they have no basis on which to substantiate their values.  While secular societies tend to be the least violent in the world, a common assumption remains that without an objective framework by which to evaluate ethical problems, atheists are lost in a sea of moral relativism.

source: 2009 Global Peace Index
And for far too long, scientists have taken explicit exception to the notion that their fields of study have normative implications.  Science, as Hume would argue, can only tell us what is - not what ought.  As a result, the public has rightly perceived moral questions as being outside the bounds of objective, secular inquiry - leaving only religious zealots to questions of good and evil.  While moral relativism may comfort many atop the ivory towers of academia, the intellectual battle for civilization fought on the grounds far below demands greater than the nuanced, subjective posturing of effete liberalism.

Along comes Sam Harris, a favorite author and lecturer of mine.  Having had the pleasure of meeting him and attending his presentation in person recently, I can say with sincere conviction that his new work addresses the problem of science and human values in a compelling, lucid way.  Have a quick glimpse at Harris' summary of his new book, The Moral Landscape, just released this month:

Of course, Harris' previous books - The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation - have become bestsellers and powerful manifestos of "The New Atheism" - a term applied to a handful of non-believers who have made it their stated mission to refrain from adhering to the social taboos and sacred cows of religious dogmatism any longer.  Recounting his experiences upon completing his previous books, Harris notes that few religious practitioners are eager to engage in evidentiary debates with him about the existence of Noah's Ark, Muhammad's ascension into heaven on a winged horse, or the specific whereabouts of Vishnu.  Rather, theists contend that these stories and the allegorical meaning behind them inform their lives and give them a sense of right and wrong.  Further, Harris discovered, most Americans in particular believe that atheists are the least trustworthy minority (source) because they have no singular source for their ethical intuitions.

With his newest book, Harris asks readers to imagine that all of human experience exists on a moral landscape - one in which peaks of happiness and valleys of suffering express individual and societal consciousness.  Utilizing a variety of academic and scientific disciplines, ranging as widely as physics and neurobiology to sociology and even philosophy, Harris argues that objective answers can be discovered to questions of morality.  Further, without such a framework, secular society will continue to be held hostage to the claims of religious superstition.

The beginnings of
a universal morality?
I believe Harris is suggesting a way forward in a globalized society, one in which the tribalism of religious belief can no longer stand for the best insights into human livelihood.  While too many ecumenical liberals are eager to concede their own convictions to the moral relativism of "every culture is defensible in its own way," Pakistanis are having their mosques bombed and population killed or maimed for being Shia or Sufi (source), Afghan girls are having their faces burned by battery acid for learning to read under Taliban rule (source), and the Catholic Church continues to believe that condom use in HIV-infested Africa is a greater moral problem than the institutional protection of their pedophilic priests (source and source). With The Moral Landscape, Harris outlines a rational system by which questions of value can be answered.  It is the tip of the secular morality iceberg, no doubt, but such a model is urgently needed in a world of increasing cultural confrontation.

It is easy for me to understand why Sam Harris is among the most important intellectuals of our time - and conversely why he is so widely threatened and harassed by religious fundamentalists and moderates alike.  Yet until the separate moral communities of religious tribalism - making genuinely incompatible claims about the nature and purpose of human identity - can be bridged through scientific reasoning and secular common ground, the moral landscape remains daunting and distant.  Harris' book is indeed a start.

A Greene Bumpkin for Senate

Alvin Greene is an incredible political fiasco the equal of which we aren't likely to see again for decades. He has no ability to speak intelligently; it is to the continued embarrassment of the Democratic Party that he is running for the Senate.  Every interview he does is like watching a public relations train wreck in slow motion.  Consider his latest attempt at communicating with the good people of South Carolina as to why he, and not Republican Jim DeMint, should be elected into the most powerful legislative body in the land:

Greene's entire campaign has been a sham the likes of which we have not seen since Putney Swope - and that was just a cult film from a bygone era!  Facing federal felony charges of showing pornography to an 18 year old student (source), Greene is an unemployed 33 year old veteran currently living with his parents.  With no prior leadership experience and questionable funding sources for his $10,000 Senate bid (smells suspiciously of elephant dung), Greene managed to win the primary against Vic Rawl without a campaign headquarters or advertising of any kind other than "word of mouth, mostly" (source).  Apparently, Greene's platform of "Yes, I'm unemployed so I know how you feel" was effective.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was because "Greene" appeared above "Rawl" on the primary ballot.

"Senator" Alvin Greene?
In an odd way, perhaps Alvin Greene's inarticulate, camera-clumsy demeanor and general "failure to launch" persona will garner votes in the general election.  In a year of ex-witches and Civil Rights Act hating candidates all throwing Tea Parties, such a political sideshow seems only to fit right in with the circus.  Nonetheless, it remains exceedingly hard for this blogger to conceive of how a bumpkin like Greene, with an IQ hovering precariously at room temperature, is fit to be a U.S. Senator.  Political pornographers will be studying this campaign disaster for years to come - especially since seasoned politician Jim DeMint will handily obliterate Greene in the general election next month.  It would all be so funny if only this were a surreal comedy instead of a political reality with high stakes and real consequences for millions of South Carolinians.

And for rhetorical effect, I will leave you with an archived excerpt of Greene's official campaign website - which itself resembles an amateur wasteland of digital shit that any second grader with a loose command of HTML could best.  In a funny way, website Greene says everything one needs to know about candidate Greene.

Yes, this really is the frontpage of Alvin Greene's official site.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Indigenous Peoples Day?

I distinctly remember the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the New World.  It was October, 1992 and I was sitting in elementary school learning a song about the virtues of Christopher's "discovery."  Even then, I was aware to some degree of the sham (and the shame) of the entire affair.  I knew, for instance, that:

  1. Columbus had no idea he would arrive at a new continent in the Western Hemisphere.
  2. He mistakenly assumed he was in India.
  3. Columbus had rather dubious motivations for trade route profiteering.
  4. Norse sailors (such as Leif Erikson) journeyed across the Atlantic centuries earlier.
  5. Columbus never landed on mainland America (named after explorer Amerigo Vespucci).

One of many common images critical of Columbus

So it is no surprise, then, that every year of my anti-establishment youth only grew my intense dislike for Columbus Day.  Not mentioned in my state-sponsored education was the growing indigenous movement against Columbus and the cultural imperialism and genocide of American natives that Columbus represented.  Yet when I discovered such a movement existed, I found intellectual camaraderie on this issue.

Simply put: Columbus Day should not be a federal holiday.  It has become a painfully outdated and increasingly menacing mark of cultural division in the United States.  I am not particularly in favor of federal holidays in general, of course, but if the role of government must include occasional recognition of particular historical figures, Christopher Columbus is an exceptionally poor choice.  While the biography of Columbus the man is not exceptionally bloody (source), the celebration of Columbus Day is hardly one of a navigator (who got lost and never found his intended destination).  Rather, Columbus Day is used rhetorically and symbolically to represent the expanse of European colonization generally and the establishment of the United States in particular.

Second perhaps only to slavery, the widespread massacre and subjugation of American natives is the darkest chapter of American history.  Surely slave trade moguls and plantation owners are undeserving of a federal holiday in contemporary America - so why should Columbus and the imperialism he represents be any different?  If not outright removed, Columbus Day should be replaced with "Indigenous Peoples Day" in recognition of the rich and diverse heritage that reverberated across North America long before European colonization.

UPDATE: October 9th has been designated "Leif Erikson Day" but remains obscure (source).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

French Government Unveils Threat to Freedom

As an atheist, I find the Pope's hat silly, the do-nothing Saturdays of Orthodox Judaism to be counter-productive, those magical Mormon underpants to be downright ridiculous, the fabricated Church of Scientology to be science fiction, and the Islamic dress code highly restrictive.  I would openly criticize any of these practices and have no plans to adopt them into my life.  However, I wouldn't so much as raise a finger to make any of these practices illegal and in fact would defend them were the U.S. Government to propose banning any of them.  I understand that in order to be free to live as the Godless person I am, I must allow others to be free - even if people like Rabbi Daniel Lapin believe that all atheists are "parasites" because "they benefit from society but contribute nothing to it" (source).  I defend the Rabbi's right to make such inflammatory generalizations.  And I'm free to say, "fuck him."

In France, freedom of religious worship is under attack - veiled by the guise of "secular foundations" and "national values."  Today, the French Senate has passed a total ban on "the burqa-style Islamic veil on public streets and other places" (source).  As someone who espouses a morality with secular foundations, I find this deeply alarming and would urge other non-believers to consider my position carefully.

Caught wearing a veil in France?
That's a 150 Euro fine, Mademoiselle. 
I find manifestations of Islamic law to be deeply counter-productive to freedom and equality, not the least of which being stoning women to death for adultery.  Is this really demanded by the Quran?  Does the Bible call for the stoning of infidels, homosexuals, and heretics?  It is clear that these books are open to interpretation, which is what makes them especially dangerous in the hands of the powerful.  But all that is immaterial because secular law recognizes that a particular religious dogmatism is not grounds for capital punishment (which I am universally against, but that's another post).

The struggle for fundamentalist Islam to integrate in Europe is well-documented and ongoing; conflicts from building code violations for minarets to refusal of a Muslim woman to unveil at security checkpoints are becoming increasingly common.  Is the Islamic call to prayer over loudspeaker at the crack of dawn a public disturbance when most non-Muslims are trying to sleep?  Should non-Muslims wear ear plugs or should Muslims keep their outdoor prayers to a speaking voice between dusk and dawn?  Often, the best solution between "community standards" and "individual liberty" is not clear.  But in this recent case in France, I believe the circumstances are unequivocal: whatever we think of a woman who - in a country with a secular government - chooses to wear a burqa, it indeed must be her choice and remain free from government intervention.  She is harming no one, in any way, by wearing a burqa.  The assertion of "national values" is a fantasy of collectivism; any civilized modern society should recognize cultural pluralism.

With a French Senate vote of 246 to 1, it would appear as though this issue isn't even controversial in France.  "National values," apparently, exclude a certain style of dress.  What's next?  Language?  Culinary preparation?  It is estimated that less than 2,000 women would be affected.  Yet when it comes to personal freedom, the role of government is to uphold the rights of the minority even in opposition to a widespread majority.  This is not private property where one can simply elect not to visit, these are public streets in which wearing a veil will be a crime.  As with all laws that infringe on civil liberties, this one will have unintended consequences beyond Islam:

  • What if I want to wear a veil because I recently underwent surgery or had a debilitating accident?
  • What if I am wearing a costume or wish to demonstrate and use this veil as a form of protest?
  • Heck, what if I simply don't feel like showing my face while walking down the streets of Avignon?

Under this proposed law (which now has one month to be reviewed by a special group of bureaucrats calling themselves the "Constitutional Council"), all of these reasons would ostensibly be outlawed, as well.  Indeed, no reason should be necessary for one to dress however they please.  While I would go as far as to make a case for public nudity, I would at least hope that - on the opposite end of the spectrum - free individuals can choose how much of themselves they wish to cover in public.

The best case one might be able to make for this very bad law comes from a well-meaning Muslim woman from Algiers:
"How can we allow the burqa here and at the same time fight the Taliban and all the fundamentalist groups across the world?" said the president of Neither Whores nor Submissives, Sihem Habchi. "I'm Muslim and I can't accept that because I'm a woman I have to disappear."
While her point about oppressive Islamic regimes such as the Taliban are well-taken, what Sihem Habchi fails to comprehend is that this law effectively targets Muslim women and subjugates them in exactly the same way but in the opposite direction.  One "primitive" society mandates that women wear a burqa, another "enlightened" society mandates that women cannot wear a burqa.  Until governments respect a woman's right to choose (in this and many other areas), these are merely coercive means to different ends.

I believe in secular values and would be greatly pleased to wake up tomorrow and find that religious dogmatism, from the divine totalitarianism of the pedophile-protecting Catholic Church to the misogynistic practices of Sharia law, has disappeared from the social landscape.  Nonetheless, such an outcome can only be achieved through moral means - those which are free from violence or threats of violence (which all government law essentially represents).  To legislate a mandatory dress code - be it a theocratic or secular one - is antithetical to the path toward liberty.  France's proposed law should upset us all.

Because first they came for the veiled women, but I said nothing because I'm not a veiled woman...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Le Sexoflex - Twincest

From time to time, I just have to highlight some of the more memorable and irreverent content I find online.  Given that this video has been vastly under-viewed (a mere 1,300 in the past 3 months), I simply must showcase it.  Where else can one find a music video that combines homosexuality, incest, pixel art, and embroidery?  Shockingly brilliant.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fundamentalists, Free Speech, and You

There is an old Chinese curse that goes something like, "may you live in interesting times" (source).  This blog is predicated upon the notion that we have indeed been afflicted by this ancient proverb.  Few issues bring forth the preponderance of surreal ideological juxtaposition than the 9/11/2001 terror attack in New York City does.

Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center
 in Gainesville, Florida
Take just one example among many: Christian Evangelical Pastor Terry Jones and his forthcoming "Burn a Koran Day," being held on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 WTC attacks (source).  Online and in person, I have defended this pastor's right to burning the Islamic holy book, as it is protected speech.  Indeed, as core "political speech," courts have held that such a demonstration deserves the highest protection.  While the burn permit for this protest has been refused by the city of Gainesville, I would also argue that, so long as the Qurans and the site are lawfully owned, the property owner has a right to burn these books regardless of local bureaucratic opposition.  Of course, I might also argue that the burning of any book, a favorite activity of churches over the centuries (source), is almost inherently counter-productive and flatly anti-intellectual.  But that is just reason #1680 as to why I am an anti-theist.  I am willing to criticize book-burning in general but nonetheless defend the right of any individual or group to burn any book.

The debate on issues like this quickly leave the legal orbit of what is Constitutional and float around aimlessly into what is "moral" - which of course is up for rhetorical grabs.  To be sure, this makes for a much more interesting (albeit less defined) debate, inviting many subtle positions on the issue.  Concepts such as religious tolerance, hate speech, Sharia Law, Biblical truth, the oft-repeated conservative "Christian Nation" mantra, and ecumenical values of effete liberals are tossed about.  In the end, it is unlikely that anyone's mind is really going to be changed as a result.  While the television camera can capture light more easily than heat, issues like this seem to generate the exact opposite.

In Afghanistan: protest ignited by a proposed protest.
Pastor Jones now carries a .40-caliber pistol for his own safety, having been advised by the FBI that such a demonstration will generate foreseeable danger for the Pastor's personal safety.  He claims to have received over 100 death threats already, and I have no reason to doubt this.  What if only 1% of these 100 people make good on this threat?  There is little surprise that Pastor Jones is working from his deep conviction in his own imaginary God rather than rational self-preservation.  When your chief role model is a martyred man, born of a virgin and who rose from the dead, any delusional action is possible.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is attempting to minimize the perception that Pastor Jones and his followers represent mainstream American views toward Islam.  A demonstration in Kabul has already been held protesting the upcoming event (recall that "Burn a Koran Day" is itself a protest) (source).  Yes, this protest included the burning of a Pastor Jones effigy as well as the American Flag (friendly reminder: this is also Constitutionally-protected activity).  As General David Petraeus hinted, "Burn a Koran Day" is likely to further endanger U.S. troops occupying Afghanistan and Iraq (source).  But then again, if men with guns were setting up military checkpoints in your country and killing your neighbors with Predator Drones, any excuse will do...

Free speech is a sacred concept in the project for civilization, and one that is poorly-understood in many circles of the world.  The notion that "you don't have a right not to be offended" is, despite the frank parlance, a complex idea.  Respecting the right to expression of those one disagrees with can be downright difficult, yet defending their freedom to express such views is paramount - even and especially around a controversial subject matter such as religion.  Pastor Jones' actions may be ill-advised but I will nonetheless defend his right to burn Harry Potter books, the Quran, or the flag of his choice.  So long as this is his property, it is none of our business what he does with it.

A decommissioned missile that "Ground Zero Mosque"
protesters are driving around the proposed
Islamic community center site
Which is why, for the exact same reason, I believe the Park51 Project (woefully mis-characterized as the "Ground Zero Mosque") should be defended by all liberty-loving people of the world.  This Islamic community center, which includes a 9/11 memorial and is two blocks away from the World Trade Center site, is private property which has been legally obtained by the Cordoba Initiative at an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory building (source).  And forget what Fox News is ginning up about "terrorist money" being used to fund this site; this is inflammatory nonsense and further none of our business because private organizations have no obligation to disclose their financial records to city governments.

That one would object to the demonstration against the Quran or the construction of the Islamic community center is the central problem.  It would seem that, all too often, people are inclined to support free speech they support and rally against the expression of ideas they disagree with.  Perhaps it is the visceral reaction to an opposing point of view, perhaps it is the insecurity one might feel about their own views that they would wish to prevent competition in the marketplace of ideas.  Simply put: the most civilized act any American can do is respect the private property rights of the Cordoba Initiative in lower Manhattan; the most thoughtful response any Muslim can have to Pastor Terry Jones is respect his right to freedom of expression.

In response to its publication, Muslims inevitably
proved this cartoon's point by blowing things up!
So why is this much easier said than done?  Two words: religious dogmatism.  Islam clearly has a deep cultural problem in the West; many Muslims wish to enjoy the liberty of a pluralistic society but often cannot tolerate criticism of their own faith.  The 2005 Danish cartoon controversy illustrates this problem more dramatically than any other (source).  While many Islamic leaders regularly criticize Western culture (including dress, music, secular government, and the liberty of women generally), criticism of Islam itself sets off a powder keg of violence - (not so) ironically best illustrated by the cartoon in question.  While the publication of this cartoon in  Jyllands-Posten did harm to no one (except for violating that imaginary "right not to be offended"), offended Muslims were responsible for the death of over 100 across the Middle East and massive destruction of embassies, businesses, and other forms of "Western Imperialism."  Sure, Christians were upset when Andres Serrano dunked a crucifix in urine (source)... but at least no one died.

Christ is pissed!
The fountainhead of this animosity, against Muslims and Christians alike, is rooted in the divisive nature of religious fundamentalism itself.  And by that, I really mean religion itself, because "religious moderation" effectively amounts to diluting the acidic bath of dogmatism with some neutralizing secular values and reasoned discourse.  These Holy Books are themselves fundamentally at odds and with irreconcilable differences to one another.  Pastor Terry Jones understands this better than most; he is convinced "Islam is of the Devil" (source).  Surely nothing less would compel him to risk his life in demonstrating this.  Similarly, Sayyid Qutb, cited by many as the intellectual father of radical Islamic Jihad and its modern outgrowth in the form of Al Qaeda, drew his disdain for Western culture from his own faith (source).

Anyone watching this clash of ideologies unfolding from Mars would rightly conclude that mixing 1st Century beliefs with 21st Century weaponry is a recipe for the end of human life on Earth.

So what solution is there, then, when the liberal democratic values of free speech are trumped by deep religious division?  Unrepentant non-believer Christopher Hitchens argues that "the taming and domestication of religious faith is one of the unceasing chores of civilization" (source).  So long as the shared values of liberty are undermined by the sacred cows of religious dogmatism, he argues, such controversies will continue to escalate to violence - believed to have been sanctioned by "God" / "Allah."  Hitchens writes:
"Those who wish that there would be no mosques in America have already lost the argument: Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size. The only question, then, is what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam it will follow. There's an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it's very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. Those who pretend that we can skip this stage in the present case are deluding themselves and asking for trouble not just in the future but in the immediate present."
It should be instructive that the most vocal and violent opposition (source) to the Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan are from Christians and that Christian Pastor Terry Jones is organizing "Burn a Koran Day."  It should also be of little surprise that no single act prompts more violence by Muslims than a demonstration against Islam.  So long as anyone is admonished to uncritically support religious faith - being such engines of division and brutality, and so long as criticism of faith (Islam, Christianity, or any other stripe of irrational dogmatism) prompts death threats and intimidation, freedom and liberty are threatened for everyone.  While "militant atheism" is a popular term of derision for Hitchens and other outspoken secularists like him, the genuine militant barbarism - directed against mind and body - is that of theism.

So let us all draw Mohammed (source), let us all be De-Baptized (source), and let us all remember that we share a single, fragile planet and needn't delude ourselves with religious fantasies any longer.

Monday, September 6, 2010

End Prohibition ... of Prostitution

The recent controversy over Craigslist's removal of "adult services" has raised larger questions over how, if at all, prostitution can be prevented in the United States (source).  The issue at hand, of course, is how prostitution can be minimized by preventing "legitimate sites" from offering these services.

What about Google?  A quick Google search of "Washington DC escort services" reveals a plethora of websites (some quite upscale) that offer commercial sex - thinly-veiled as "companionship."  The essential question becomes this: how many resources are Americans willing to spend in order to prohibit the "oldest profession?"  Moreover, who are we kidding when we believe that the demand for sex will ever diminish to the point where there is no longer a market for it?

A quick primer on prohibition in general: when a government prohibits a product or service, the demand for this service doesn't go away; the market is driven underground, devoid of regulation and often fraught with all the problems that one would expect to find in a black market.  Violence, coercion, organized crime rings, even slavery and murder. This Craigslist incident, in addition to being about increased censorship of the Internet, is really about the absurd degree to which some Americans are willing to enforce the prohibition of commercial sexual services.

Prostitution should be legal in the United States.  The number of countries decriminalizing commercial sex has been on the incline for decades (source).  Some legal experts (including, yes, women) have argued for the end to the prohibition of prostitution, citing a variety of health, safety, and worker's rights improvements that a legal sex industry would bring (source).  And ultimately, along with the erroneously-named "war on drugs" (which is really a "war on people"), illegal prostitution continues to grow the police state and serves only to prosecute victimless crimes.  In the words of attorney Alan Dershowitz after the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal (source):

"I feel that this is a America-only story that we have to put in perspective. You know, big deal, 'married man goes to prostitute!' In Europe, this wouldn't even make the back pages of the newspaper. It's a uniquely American story. We’re a uniquely, you know, pandering society and hypocritical society, when it comes to sex."

Indeed.  Until we are honest enough with ourselves to admit that women (and men) should have a right to self-ownership - which includes everything from drug use and abortion rights to prostitution and end of life termination - we will have a difficult time claiming to be the "land of the free."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Day The Lorax Went Postal

In Silver Spring, Maryland - just outside Washington, DC, a man named James Lee took three people hostage at the Discovery Channel headquarters (source).  After what was no doubt a tense situation, Montgomery County police shot and killed Lee.  Of course, after so many recent headlines of former employees "going postal" at their old offices, one might assume this was the cause of the incident.  In hard economic times, we tend to see people at their worst.  Foreign terrorism or a randomly-disturbed individual are, unfortunately, also familiar themes.  Yet these were not the axes that James Lee had to grind.

James Lee's MySpace photo

Lee's wide ranging, rambling demands of Discovery Communications, released in full (source), center on the cessation of human population growth, ending the glorification of war, promoting broader appreciation of biodiversity, and dismantling the capitalist economic system.

In particular, Lee cites a passage from Daniel Quinn's "My Ishmael" - a 1997 novel from a trilogy about a telepathic ape who communicates with humans about the future civilization and planet Earth.  Ishmael concludes that modern humans are "Takers" who consume nature and replace it with "Mother Culture" (social norms, economic systems, religious values) that espouse continual human destruction of the environment.  I read this book with great interest years ago (having read the original "Ishmael" for a undergraduate level ecology course). The author is quite conscious of human population limits on the environment, as stated in a 2007 interview (source):

"So it continues to be seen that it is completely inevitable that our population must continue to grow to 8 billion, 10 billion, 12 billion. If this happens, I'm afraid I see no hope for our species. This disastrous trend... is reversible; but only if people in general come to understand that it MUST be reversed, for the sake of our own survival."

This post is not intended to condone Lee's violent actions or even his rather naive and delusional demands.  Taking hostages at gunpoint rarely results in a productive petitioning of grievances.  In this case, it just left the hostage-taker dead.  It is also highly unlikely that Discovery Channel, driven by demands for ratings and sensational programming, would ever take the critical, sobering position that human population growth is unsustainable and widespread measures should be taken to curb further population explosion.

Then the Lorax said, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND
But are James Lee's beliefs about human civilization "crazy?"  Recall the Dr. Seuss fable, "The Lorax" (full video here) in which a small creature emerges from a deforested landscape to "speak for the trees."  Before we put James Lee's short-lived infamy out of our minds and busy ourselves with other affairs, we might do well to ask ourselves: on behalf of how many extinct species, how many decimated old world forests, and how many polluted oceans might Lee be speaking?

Before we label that which we find abhorrent to be "crazy," as was the case with the 1995 Unabomber manifesto "Industrial Civilization and its Future," (full text here) penned by Theodore Kaczynski, we should stop for a moment. Overpopulation remains a very real concern on many levels - from limited resources such as drinkable water and arable soil to dwindling supplies of cheaply-extracted petroleum (source).  Not to mention, of course the Sixth Extinction, a broad and far-reaching holocaust of plants and animals caused by the actions of humans beings (source).  These are not imagined problems; their threat to life on Earth (human and non) are undeniable by serious people.

At the recommendation of a friend, Lee read Daniel Quinn's books in 2006 and began an ill-conceived campaign to change Discovery's programming in 2008, resulting in his arrest (source).  A psychiatric evaluation concluded Lee was mentally fit - though perhaps less than realistic about how to persuade television executives.  Nonetheless, in his own delusional way, James Lee was attempting to create widespread awareness of these issues through media.  Among the more salient passages, Lee writes:

"The world needs TV shows that DEVELOP solutions to the problems that humans are causing, not stupify the people into destroying the world. Not encouraging them to breed more environmentally harmful humans. 
Saving the environment and the remaning species diversity of the planet is now your mindset. Nothing is more important than saving them. The Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Elephants, Froggies, Turtles, Apes, Raccoons, Beetles, Ants, Sharks, Bears, and, of course, the Squirrels. 
The humans? The planet does not need humans."
Yes James, of course the squirrels.  And while the planet does not need humans, humans do need this planet.  If anything positive is to come of this frightening hostage situation today, let it be that of the Greek mythology of Cassandra (read more about this here).  Sometimes, having an acute perception can drive one crazy.  While Jame's Lee's actions were completely indefensible, his underlying perception of human overpopulation and environmental destruction wrought by narrow pursuits of profit warrant serious consideration.

"In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines." —George Dyson, "Darwin Among the Machines"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

P.Z. Myers: Speaking truth to absurdity

This is a fascinating presentation about the value of education as a provocative, challenging experience. If science education is to flourish, it requires an unwavering commitment to rational discourse and principle; social and religious mores have no place in this environment and P.Z. illustrates how avoiding theological offense leads to institutional paralysis and fails the teacher as well as the student.
Speaking truth to absurdity: Why science education needs vocal atheists.

PZ Myers is a biologist and
associate professor at
University of Minnesota
P.Z. Myers has been told many times that atheists are scary, and that they frighten moderate god-believers away from science ... and that it would be better to mute the expression of their views on religion in order to promote science, rather than godlessness. However, that atheism is a product of an honest appreciation of the evidence, of the logic of science, and of the folly of magical and superstitious thinking. 
The reason that atheists need to speak out even more loudly is that it is the only view that is true to the science, and that serves an even greater mission than science education: the encouragement of critical thinking in all matters in the populace. Besides, religion is just plain goofy.

          Part 1/4

          Part 2/4

          Part 3/4

          Part 4/4

Why I'm starting a blog

Many people have noted that I post frequently on my Facebook page about various news articles, controversies, and other material I find interesting or relevant.  In some ways, I have been using Facebook solely for this reason (and, you know, to play games of Scrabble and make crass, self-important remarks on other people's posts).

To this end, it has become increasingly obvious to me that starting a blog is a more effective, publicly accessible way to share these posts.  After a novel suggestion from a good friend today, I decided creating a blog is better late than never - especially if the world is coming to an end in 2012!

Readers will find that I am openly vocal with my views, yet I champion Artistotle's sentiments when he wrote, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."  So in this sense, I want to make sure divergent perspectives cross my path, as well.

Reviewing my areas of interest, I post most frequently on American culture - particularly in areas of science, religion, and politics.  Occasionally I will wade a bit further outside my comfort zone.  Please enjoy.  For the time being, we are all stuck on this Pale Blue Dot with the opportunity to learn and grow together - or at the very least leave one another free to live their own lives as they see fit.  And that's where I would like to start this off: