Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I am now a postgrad

I hope its not by virtue of unreadable writing but I have been upgraded to postgrad level blogging.

Marcus Ross and hilarious irony

Marcus Ross has a phd in paleontology from the university of Rhode Island. The only problem is he is a young earth creationist who was granted that phd because he wrote a dissertation which disproves everything one would need to believe to be a young earth creationist. How he resolves the cognitive dissonance as reported in the NYT is the sweetest irony:

'At the conference I asked Ross whether he still believes what he wrote in his graduate thesis. His answer confirmed him as the product of the postmodern university, where truth is dependent on the framework: “Within the context of old age and evolutionary theory, yes. But if the parameter is different, portions of it could be completely in error.”

So now to justify their nonsense creationists are making common cause with the only group of intellectuals who can rival them in the dubious category of bullshit artistry, post-modernists. This isn't new. I wrote about a Harvey Mansfield column defending religion when he claimed:

Atheists today angrily hold religion to a standard of justice that the most advanced thinkers of our time, the postmoderns, have declared to be impossible. Some of those postmoderns, indeed, are so disgusted with the optimism of atheism that, with a shrug of their shoulders, they propose returning to the relative sanity of religion.

It is a bit of poetic justice that I get to watch religious people attempt to salvage dignity for their beliefs by allying themselves with nihilistic nonsense developed by people who don't share their beliefs, despise them, and who rarely offer anything but obscurantist gibberish. The liberal university may yet be a friend to religious conservatism.

Defending the meaningless

An article by Stephanie Coontz makes the case for less government involvement in marriage. I've long believed the entire controversy over gay marriage could be diffused if the government restricted itself to granting the only thing it should grant, civil unions. There is less opposition to gay civil unions and granting the attendant rights. The battle is over nomenclature but as Coontz points out the practices surrounding marriage have been subject to such historical flux that aside from the one aspect of it being between a man and a woman nothing else is consistent:

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illictly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, “mulattos,” Japanese, Chinese, Indians, “Mongolians,” “Malays” or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a “mental defect.” Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were “fit” to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.

But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors’ benefits with proof of marriage. Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees’ dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information.

The article also does me the turn of obliquely demonstrating how the current battle over marriage has nothing to do with control over what relationships we feel are competent to rear children. If it were then the those involving a partner who was a "drunk, an addict or a 'mental defect'" would also be prohibited. But I suspect this smacks too much of eugenics to be said aloud so as the number of groups we can vocally discriminate diminishes, conservatives focus on those still sufficiently loathed.

Every other tradition surrounding marriage has changed and this one will as well. And if we're to avoid the affront to good sense that is a marriage amendment, the government should simply stop issuing marriage licenses and restricting itself to granting recognition which has no relation to a shifting cultural institution over which it has never effectively exerted control and where it has, has usually reinforced the worst bigotries of the unwashed many.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mumbling like he's on drugs

McCain rehashes the same tired lines of the supporters of the War on Drugs but on thing intrigued me. He claims that in his state (AZ) first time drug offenders are sent not to prison but a rehab program where their progress as they come off drugs can be closely monitored. I don't think they should be sent to prison or to rehab or even paid attention to by the state, but the lack of effort these days on the part of Republicans to even try to reconcile their proposals with what have traditionally been called conservative principles is shocking. I do remember hearing that government programs of social reform and behavior modification cast a net a bit too wide (and expensive) for those of the small government, personal liberties, and individual responsibility cloth but evidently John McCain sees no dissonance with these principles and endorsing a program that welcomes first time, private users of senselessly illegal substances into the loving arms of state run, tax payer funded rehab. I am sorry but I don't think I could be called indifferent to my civic duties if I don't wish to pay to rehabilitate someone who never asked to be rehabilitated for using a substance that I didn't give to him. But alas being soft on drugs must mean you are soft on hippies or some other pariah group conservatives fear.

And another question: Why the fawning and utterly obsequious thanks to the police officer for... being a police officer? The cop spoke about three times as intelligently as McCain and I doubt needed his gold star of approval for his life's work. Is it impossible to disagree with someone without thereby impugning the dignity of everything about them? Or was McCain just attempting to use another opportunity to pander to talk-radio conservatives who gain life strength from paeans to those who carry guns like Mormons from goofy underwear? Because I really doubt the cop cared at all.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Those Ingrates in Darfur

How Can We Raise Awareness In Darfur Of How Much We're Doing For Them?

A tragic lack of gratitude.

I use only the finest vests for my martyr missions

Yes it is their religion. It is not poverty, not depression, not mental illness, and not the injustices imposed by the West. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to support terrorism. We've known this for a while but reluctance to seem intolerant and denounce one religion to the exclusion of others makes many silent. To all secular people suffering this malaise... psst: Their all laughably stupid, but they're not all as violent and crazy. Alan Krueger from Princeton synthesizes the data here well enough for me to read it on the bus ride home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

More abortion logic.

From the LA Times, Gary Wills has a column raising some some of the objections to the anti-abortion crusaders that I've made here. He adds a few insights from science, Aristotle, and Aquinas. I reproduce here in full:

Abortion isn't a religious issue
Evangelicals are adamant, but religion really has nothing to say about the issue.
By Garry Wills

November 4, 2007

What makes opposition to abortion the issue it is for each of the GOP presidential candidates is the fact that it is the ultimate "wedge issue" -- it is nonnegotiable. The right-to-life people hold that it is as strong a point of religion as any can be. It is religious because the Sixth Commandment (or the Fifth by Catholic count) says, "Thou shalt not kill." For evangelical Christians, in general, abortion is murder. That is why what others think, what polls say, what looks practical does not matter for them. One must oppose murder, however much rancor or controversy may ensue.

But is abortion murder? Most people think not. Evangelicals may argue that most people in Germany thought it was all right to kill Jews. But the parallel is not valid. Killing Jews was killing persons. It is not demonstrable that killing fetuses is killing persons. Not even evangelicals act as if it were. If so, a woman seeking an abortion would be the most culpable person. She is killing her own child. But the evangelical community does not call for her execution.

About 10% of evangelicals, according to polls, allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest. But the circumstances of conception should not change the nature of the thing conceived. If it is a human person, killing it is punishing it for something it had nothing to do with. We do not kill people because they had a criminal parent.

Nor did the Catholic Church treat abortion as murder in the past. If it had, late-term abortions and miscarriages would have called for treatment of the well-formed fetus as a person, which would require baptism and a Christian burial. That was never the practice. And no wonder. The subject of abortion is not scriptural. For those who make it so central to religion, this seems an odd omission. Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount -- or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.

Lacking scriptural guidance, St. Thomas Aquinas worked from Aristotle's view of the different kinds of animation -- the nutritive (vegetable) soul, the sensing (animal) soul and the intellectual soul. Some people used Aristotle to say that humans therefore have three souls. Others said that the intellectual soul is created by human semen.

Aquinas denied both positions. He said that a material cause (semen) cannot cause a spiritual product. The intellectual soul (personhood) is directly created by God "at the end of human generation." This intellectual soul supplants what had preceded it (nutritive and sensory animation). So Aquinas denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen. God directly infuses the soul at the completion of human formation.

Much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception -- that it is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for defending or condemning abortion. Even popes have said that the question of abortion is a matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason. Well, the pope is not the arbiter of natural law. Natural reason is.

John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, once wrote that "the pope, who comes of revelation, has no jurisdiction over nature." The matter must be decided by individual conscience, not by religious fiat. As Newman said: "I shall drink to the pope, if you please -- still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterward."

If we are to decide the matter of abortion by natural law, that means we must turn to reason and science, the realm of Enlightened religion. But that is just what evangelicals want to avoid. Who are the relevant experts here? They are philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists. Evangelicals want to exclude them because most give answers they do not want to hear. The experts have only secular expertise, not religious conviction. They, admittedly, do not give one answer -- they differ among themselves, they are tentative, they qualify. They do not have the certitude that the religious right accepts as the sign of truth.

So evangelicals take shortcuts. They pin everything on being pro-life. But one cannot be indiscriminately pro-life.

If one claimed, in the manner of Albert Schweitzer, that all life deserved moral respect, then plants have rights, and it might turn out that we would have little if anything to eat. And if one were consistently pro-life, one would have to show moral respect for paramecia, insects, tissue excised during a medical operation, cancer cells, asparagus and so on. Harvesting carrots, on a consistent pro-life hypothesis, would constitute something of a massacre.

Opponents of abortion will say that they are defending only human life. It is certainly true that the fetus is human life. But so is the semen before it fertilizes; so is the ovum before it is fertilized. They are both human products, and both are living things. But not even evangelicals say that the destruction of one or the other would be murder.

Defenders of the fetus say that life begins only after the semen fertilizes the egg, producing an embryo. But, in fact, two-thirds of the embryos produced this way fail to live on because they do not embed in the womb wall. Nature is like fertilization clinics -- it produces more embryos than are actually used. Are all the millions of embryos that fail to be embedded human persons?

The universal mandate to preserve "human life" makes no sense. My hair is human life -- it is not canine hair, and it is living. It grows. When it grows too long, I have it cut. Is that aborting human life? The same with my growing human fingernails. An evangelical might respond that my hair does not have the potential to become a person. True. But semen has the potential to become a person, and we do not preserve every bit of semen that is ejaculated but never fertilizes an egg.

The question is not whether the fetus is human life but whether it is a human person, and when it becomes one. Is it when it is capable of thought, of speech, of recognizing itself as a person, or of assuming the responsibilities of a person? Is it when it has a functioning brain? Aquinas said that the fetus did not become a person until God infused the intellectual soul. A functioning brain is not present in the fetus until the end of the sixth month at the earliest.

Not surprisingly, that is the earliest point of viability, the time when a fetus can successfully survive outside the womb.

Whether through serendipity or through some sort of causal connection, it now seems that the onset of a functioning central nervous system with a functioning cerebral cortex and the onset of viability occur around the same time -- the end of the second trimester, a time by which 99% of all abortions have already occurred.

Opponents of abortion like to show sonograms of the fetus reacting to stimuli. But all living cells have electric and automatic reactions. These are like the reactions of Terri Schiavo when she was in a permanent vegetative state. Aquinas, following Aristotle, called the early stage of fetal development vegetative life. The fetus has a face long before it has a brain. It has animation before it has a command center to be aware of its movements or to experience any reaction as pain.

These are difficult matters, on which qualified people differ. It is not enough to say that whatever the woman wants should go. She has a responsibility to consider whether and when she may have a child inside her, not just a fetus. Certainly by the late stages of her pregnancy, a child is ready to respond with miraculous celerity to all the personal interchanges with the mother that show a brain in great working order.

Given these uncertainties, who is to make the individual decision to have an abortion? Religious leaders? They have no special authority in the matter, which is not subject to theological norms or guidance. The state? Its authority is given by the people it represents, and the people are divided on this. Doctors? They too differ. The woman is the one closest to the decision. Under Roe vs. Wade, no woman is forced to have an abortion. But those who have decided to have one are able to.

Some objected to Karl Rove's use of abortion to cement his ecumenical coalition, on the grounds that this was injecting religion into politics. The supreme irony is that, properly understood, abortion is not even a religious issue. But that did not matter to Rove. All he cared about was that it worked. For a while.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Answer!

The answer to the question on which I ended my previous post, via Matt Yglesias:

The problem is exacerbated by a dramatic drop-off in U.S. expertise on Pakistan. Retired American officials say that, for the first time in U.S. history, nobody with serious Pakistan experience is working in the South Asia bureau of the State Department, on State's policy planning staff, on the National Security Council staff or even in Vice President Cheney's office. Anne W. Patterson, the new U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, is an expert on Latin American "drugs and thugs"; Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is a former department spokesman who served three tours in Hong Kong and China but never was posted in South Asia.

Its Cheney's influence. This kind of needless incompetence and cronyism populated Rajiv Chandrasekeran's book Imperial Life in the Emerald City like baseball hats at a frat party. Putting incompetents in places of high power has become quite the leitmotif: Remember Michael Brown, Harriet Miers, L. Paul Bremer, Rumsfeld, Karen Hughes and of course Alberto Gonzalez and his minions from Pat Robertson's Regnet University Law School.

Follow the Money!

The New York Times has an article detailing how the US's continued aid of Musharraf in light of his recent dissolution of just about every legal barrier to the establishment of a military dictatorship and declaration of a state of emergency, conflicts slightly with the Bush administrations rhetoric about spreading democracy.

Well, in the same story it appears that we never did actually support democracy in Pakistan:

While the total dollar amount of American aid to Pakistan is unclear, a study published in August by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated it to be “at least $10 billion in Pakistan since 9/11, excluding covert funds.” Sixty percent of that has gone to “Coalition Support Funds,” essentially direct payments to the Pakistani military, and 15 percent to purchase major weapons systems. Another 15 percent has been for general budget support for the Pakistani government; only 10 percent for development or humanitarian assistance.

We always supported a stronger Musharraf, and wanted above all for him to stay in power as an ally in the GWOT. They know this too:

They would rather have a stable Pakistan — albeit with some restrictive norms — than have more democracy prone to fall in the hands of extremists,” said Tariq Azim Khan, the minister of state for information. “Given the choice, I know what our friends would choose.

Its had some interesting results too. Osama Bin Laden is now registering an approval rating of 46 percent to Musharraf's 38, and leader of the secular opposition party Benazir Bhutto (a woman of all things!) is at 63. I would like to speak to someone who can make sense of a Muslim country where the electorate is split in large chunks between a theocratic fascist, a military dictator, and a female proponent of secular democracy (though I admittedly don't know Bhutto's agenda in great detail). I would be even more interested n speaking with someone who knows why we should keep pumping massive amounts of money to a leader whose commitment to our cause has been flaky, and whose help in it has been, thus far, useless.(Al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain ensconced in the mountains)

Andrew Sullivan has a bad memory

Consider Sullivan's sneer at what Chomsky says at about 5:00

in light of this post from Sullivan today, about John Podhoretz and torture, where he gets florid to a degree I've not yet seen, saying;

severe mental or physical pain or suffering

This standard has been the case since the Second World War. The argument that no permanent or even temporary physical injury means no torture is a canard, once deployed by the Nazis. Here is their defense of "enhanced interrogation" in 1948:

Most of the injuries inflicted were slight and did not result in permanent disablement.

The US rejected such cant and condemned those guilty of using the Bush-Cheney methods to death. It tells you all you need to know about some neoconservatives that they now side with the arguments of the Gestapo against the arguments of the US to defend their own willful ignorance and power.

So Chomsky is preaching nonsense for merely making the suggestion in 2004 that the Bush administration be subjected to prosecution for war crimes over their conduct of the war in Iraq but Sullivan now can imply that they deserve to be put to death? I'll grant that it has been 3 years and he is prone to changing his tune but this is Romneyesque considering the gravity of the treatment he is suggesting for Bush and Co.

Friday, November 2, 2007