Saturday, December 20, 2014

On Christians, atheists, and torture

By Frank Moraes 

I have this tendency to be most critical of the groups that I'm part of. You see this a lot in terms of my thinking about the Democratic Party. But I dare say you see it most of all with my thinking about atheists. And there is a lot to dislike about the modern atheist movement. I am an atheist in the Arthur Schopenhauer tradition. Much of modern atheism is intellectually vacuous. But as popular movements go, it is still pretty good. There isn't likely to be a mass movement that I have any less criticism of.

Probably the best aspect of modern atheism is that there is a strong current of humanism in it. I think it is the case that people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are admired despite being torture proponents, not because of it. What's more, I don't so much see myself as part of the atheist community in the sense that I read atheist blogs and go to atheist conventions. I see myself as a member of the growing numbers of people who just aren't religious. And by and large, this is a mighty fine group.

I found the recent release of the torture report as upsetting as it was unsurprising. So I was somewhat pleased to read Steve Benen's "This Week in God" today. Its focus was on a new Washington Post/ABC News poll on attitudes about torture. It confirms the results of a 2009 poll by Pew. As you've probably heard, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of torture. Of those polled, 59% were just peachy with what the CIA did; only 31% had a problem with it. Obviously, that was not what pleased me.

This poll subdivided people by their religious affiliations. So Benen put together the following graph that sums up the main categories:


Benen pointed out that people with "no religion" were pretty much the only group in the report that were against torture. I wish the numbers were better than they are, but they are far better than average. And the major Christian groups are all worse than average. It's disgusting, but again, unsurprising. It goes along with my primary complaint against modern American Christians: their religion is all culture and no theology. The one thing they absolutely believe is that people like them are "good" and people not like them (e.g., Muslims) are "bad." Thus they don't really care. After all, it's not like anyone is suggesting burning the evildoers alive. (Not that they would be against that either.)

As much as I'm pleased that we non-believers demonstrate more humanity than average, this information is profoundly disturbing. We are, after all, an almost 80% Christian country. And the only takeaway from that is that Christianity is "right" and that Christians are oppressed whenever someone says "Happy holidays!" to them. We live in a sad world.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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Friday, December 19, 2014

American torture: Gul Rahmân and Dick Cheney

By Infidel753 

I don't actually know who Gul Rahmân was, and neither do most Americans, which is unfortunate. One salient fact about him is known, however -- he was not a terrorist. Nevertheless, due to an error, he was apparently arrested on suspicion of being one. He later died under torture in CIA custody.

Take a moment to let that sink in. An innocent man died under torture, torture inflicted by Americans, as part of a program officially sanctioned by the American government at the time.

The horror of the situation goes beyond that, however.  Here is part of an interview with Dick Cheney, in which the case came up: 

CHUCK TODD: Let me ask you, what do you say to Gul Rahman, what do you say to Sulaiman Abdula, what do you say to Khalid al-Masri? All three of these folks were detained, they had these interrogation techniques used on them. They eventually were found to be innocent. They were released, no apologies, nothing. What do we owe them? 

DICK CHENEY: Well -- 

CHUCK TODD: I mean, let me go to Gul Rahman. He was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water, froze to death in C.I.A. custody. And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity. 

DICK CHENEY: -- right. But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield. Of the 600 and some people who were released out of Guantanamo, 30% roughly ended up back on the battlefield. Today we're very concerned about ISIS. Terrible new terrorist organization. It is headed by named Baghdadi. Baghdadi was in the custody of the U.S. military in Iraq in Camp Bucca. He was let go and now he's out leading the terror attack against the United States. I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent. 

CHUCK TODD: 25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released. 

DICK CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are -- 

CHUCK TODD: Well, I'm asking you. 

DICK CHENEY: -- you going to know? 

CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error? 

DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.

And there you have it. Leave aside the consensus, among most who understand the issue, that torture almost never produces reliable or useful information. Cheney has "no problem" with using torture even though a quarter of the victims were innocent, even though at least one innocent person (and I certainly don't believe he was the only one) died under torture. This is a former Vice President of the United States, but the words coming out of his mouth sound better suited to Lenin or Himmler.

Cheney justifies the use of torture on the basis of the 9/11 attack, which was indeed a horrific atrocity. The problem is that almost every regime we have ever condemned for using torture could advance a comparable argument. North Vietnam, for example, lost a lot more than 3,000 innocent civilians to American bombing during the war in which it tortured John McCain. There are certain lines which a civilized state doesn't cross, even under that kind of provocation. Such standards are what distinguish us from a communist dictatorship or a fascist gangster-state.

Or used to.

McCain, the only Republican to really distinguish himself honorably in the wake of the torture report's release, understands this. The many members of his party who continue to defend the program and attack its detractors do not.

And this means that I owe some people an apology. In the past I've been very critical of bloggers who compared the Republican party to the Nazis. I believed that they were weakening a strong case against the Republicans by making an absurdly overblown comparison. Yes, there is much evil in the Republican Party, but comparing them to the Nazis was going much too far, offensively so.

Those bloggers were right. I was wrong. Not that the Republicans are guilty of everything the Nazis were guilty of, of course, but if a politician of Cheney's stature can defend torture, even torture of the innocent, and if a broad range of political figures from the party can continue to support that position, then yes, they are straying onto the same ideological turf.

These people have no idea what they've done. This program, and the continued defense of it by a major part of our political establishment, have done damage to our country's moral authority and global standing that can probably never be repaired.

A lot of ordinary Americans don't yet understand it either. As commenter Tommykey observed in response to last weekend's link round-up over at my blog: 

Of course, my Facebook feed was filled with people posting pictures of the Twin Tower burning with captions like "Waterboarding is fine with me" or some variations of approval for torture juxtaposed with a picture of 9/11, as if that automatically justifies it.

And, of course, from Pakistan to Morocco there are probably millions of people reading the revelations of the torture report and thinking, "Terrorist attacks on the United States are fine with me -- now."

(Cross-posted at Infidel753.)

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Obama's bad bet on Republicans

By Frank Moraes

Last weekend, Jane Mayer wrote about "Torture and the Truth." I know that many people are thinking, "Torture! Again?! That's so last week!" Actually, this article is not about torture. But the truth of the matter is that, for me, torture will never be so last whatever. It's not that I ever thought that the United States was lily white, but I was appalled when Cheney started talking about the "dark side" and people began to discuss when torture might be okay. From grammar school on, I always thought that the willingness to torture was the prime thing that separated the "good guys" from the "bad guys." So I'm never getting over this. But that's not what I'm going to discuss here.

In Mayer's article, she discussed how Obama blew the response to this issue. By leaving it for so long to be dealt with by the Senate, he allowed it to become just another partisan issue. She quoted political science professor Darius Rejali: "It's becoming a lot like the death penalty." (I find this terrifying; I really do think that the Republicans have devolved into nothing short of fascism.) But it isn't like the issue was off the table. Mayer explained that in early 2009, pretty much all of Obama's advisers were in favor of "the formation of an independent commission." It wasn't done. "Obama, however, said that he didn't want to seem to be taking punitive measures against his predecessor, apparently because he still hoped to reach bipartisan agreement on issues such as closing Guantánamo."

I recently quoted Garry Wills's "The Problem With Obama." In it, Wills said that Obama is so keen to maintain continuity that he often (usually?) does the wrong thing. I think that is at work here. But there is a political aspect here as well — one that gets to the heart of why Obama was exactly the wrong president for this period. He was so eager to placate to stop people from attacking him as a foreign radical. And what he got for that was absolutely nothing. And that will continue going forward.

Can anyone doubt that if Ted Cruz is elected president in 2016 he will prosecute the previous administration for any actual scandal that turns up? The Republicans — almost twenty years ago when they were a hell of lot more reasonable than they are now — impeached a president because he lied about an affair with an intern. I'm not even convinced that if the Republicans control all of Washington in 2017 they won't continue on with their Benghazi and IRS fake scandal-mongering.

As I mention a whole lot around here, I'm not that ideological. I'm a pragmatist. That's why I gave the Democrats a pass on the CRomnibus. But there is a huge difference between knowing what is possible and pretending that you live in a world of fairies and elves where you can have all the candy you want. And that was certainly the world that Obama used to live in. And to a significant, but reduced, degree, I think he still does.

Politics is about power. Smart power. It isn't about rubbing your opponent's nose in his defeat. In fact, providing face-saving concessions to your enemies is a big part of correcting wielding power. (This is something that the United States is famously bad at internationally.) But it is not about cajoling. All Obama's efforts to entice and prove that he is a moderate (by our far-right-skewing system) have only hurt his efforts to get things done. If he had called for a single-payer health-care system, he would have been called a socialist. So he didn't call for a single-payer health-care system, and he was called a socialist.

Well played, Mr. President!

Afterword

For the record, I know that the reason we couldn't have a single-payer health-care system is because of all those Blue Dog Democrats — like Obama himself! I should point out, however, that the vast majority of those conservative Democrats were swept out of office in 2010, so I don't really know what they thought they were buying. And that was as predictable as anything in politics. Conservative Democrats get elected in nominally red districts. Outside of a wave, Democrats won't get elected there, so they are sure to lose the next time. So they might as well stand up for liberal policy.

(This is assuming that they believe in liberal policy. And I have to admit that I just don't know anymore.)

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Exodus story reveals Bible's dishonesty

By Marc McDonald 

Although some might be loath to admit it, many educated adults (even non-fundamentalist Christians) are aware that the Bible is perhaps not the best source of history.

I mean, how many people still take the story of Adam and Eve seriously any more? But I suspect that most people are still unaware of just how totally wrong the Bible is as far as anything remotely approaching real history.

This wouldn't be that big a deal, except for the fact that so many people take the Bible very seriously as a profound book of wisdom. The massive and growing population of Fundamentalists continue to believe the Bible is nothing less than the divinely-inspired, inerrant Word of God.

But the Bible is profoundly wrong in its historical accuracy. The Exodus story (now the subject of a big-budget Hollywood movie by Ridley Scott) is a good example. Some people might question certain fantastic aspects of the story (like the parting of the Red Sea). But I think most people accept that there must be at least a kernel of truth to the story's main points (such as that there really was once a big enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt). Many people continue to believe that this has been confirmed in the archaeological record.

But there's a big problem to this belief: it's simply not true. Nothing in the Exodus story has ever been confirmed by any serious archaeologist, despite long quests to try to confirm anything remotely related to the Bible story.

The fact is, even many Bible apologists have quietly abandoned their quest to try to confirm the Exodus story. The problem is that there is simply not a shred of historical evidence that any of this really happened. Forget wild tales like the parting of the Red Sea -- there isn't even the slightest bit of evidence that there was an Exodus captivity in the first place.

This whole story is a fairy tale. The fact is, the story of Exodus is one big lie. And if this well-known Bible story is a lie, then, really, how truthful is any aspect of the Bible?

The Bible is a dishonest book, period.

A lot of agnostics spend their time attacking the absurdities, contradictions and sheer nonsense of the Bible's philosophical teachings. But if they're trying to convince believers, they're wasting their time. The Bible is so vague and archaic that the sort of people who take it seriously are never going to be dissuaded via that approach.

What agnostics should be doing is attacking the historicity of the Bible itself. People should be aware of just how many of these Bible tales lack the slightest shred of historical evidence to support them.

It's time for humanity to move beyond the fairy tales, nonsense and superstition of absurd books like the Bible.

In much of Europe, this is already taking place. Sadly, in America, large numbers of people continue to take the Bible seriously (and try to ram their twisted beliefs down the throats of other people).

(Cross-posted at BeggarsCanBeChoosers.)

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Why go on?

By Capt. Fogg

There's really no point, is there? I mean, I've been protesting and griping and occasionally exulting about things for over 50 years and although it sometimes seems I've been on the right side, sometimes on the winning side, the wins have been so slow to grow into anything and the losers so able to readjust their stories to define the losses as wins that perhaps it doesn't matter. Even angels have to fear the sticky epithets falling on the guilty and the innocent, fear to tread on the right and the wrong because right and wrong can't be discerned through the fog of politics of any denomination. Descriptions mean nothing when our language, our history, our morals are written in water and change with the tide. We are not saved by works, but damned at random.

I don't believe in protests any more. I don't believe in elections. I don't believe in the public's ability to pay attention, to be objective, rational or enlightened enough to do anything but make noise and make it all worse. If we actually feel we've been allowed anything like good government, it's often really that we've been thrown a bone to distract us from seeing that the chuck wagon has rolled off  with dinner. Take the amazing fact that Congress passed a budget rather than shutting down the country they pretend to love. Reading it you may feel like the patient who learns his illness is gone, but there's a disturbing spot on his lungs. The spot, the shadow, the tumor, the poison pills, are riders you won't hear about, unless the Fox decides they can blame them on Obama.

And of course the president will have to support it else we hear more of the chorus of "he's a tyrant, an emperor ignoring the will of the people" even though there can't be a whole lot of "the people" who approve of allowing a huge increase in the amount of money one can contribute to the Republican Party (up to three million for a married couple) and of allowing a return to the reckless bank chicanery with exotic derivatives that caused the recent recession. After all that protest and demonstration and passion! Should we just admit there's no way to control the course of events that involves democracy? 

And of course I've always been told that I hated America, because I opposed a whole shooting gallery of things, like the war in Vietnam or segregation or torture or the end of probable cause or forfeitures without due process. I hated America, it's said, for warning that paying  for our most expensive and lengthy war with tax cuts for the wealthy wouldn't work. I hated America for making a fuss about My Lai 4, for the abomination of HUAC. I hated it for not hating enough.

Perhaps now, with the voice of evil, Fox News host Andrea Tantaros claiming that the only reason we finally admit to illegal and immoral practices like torture, is that Obama wants you to think America isn't awesome, with the ability of  war criminals to define their crimes away, perhaps now I can decide that, yes, I really do hate this evil empire. This abomination of a country that dares screech about FREEDOM but won't let you leave, won't let you live abroad and wants to make you pay U.S. taxes even if you're a foreign national and don't live in the U.S. -- unless you're a corporation of course. I have to oppose it. I can't do otherwise.

No, the center isn't holding. 

Yes, I'm a fool for protesting, for blogging, for hoping. I can't change minds or anything else and even if I did, our country is a runaway train anyway because people do not vote, corporations do. It's a runaway train because no one can do anything without the permission of  the ruling party. Even old John McCain who lost an election because he had to pretend his masters weren't evil, because he had to run with that Alaskan millstone around his neck must hate America for trying so eloquently to hold it to a moral standard higher than the Spanish Inquisition. It brought tears to my eyes. Misery makes strange bedfellows indeed.

Are there enough of us to rebel, to force the money grabbers, the tyrants out of the government? Of course not, and not only because only the worst of us vote. We can't unite because we truly are a small-minded, self-absorbed, uncompromising, and gullible group of fractious fools, and because it's too late anyway and it's all our own fault. The enemy is us. It always has been.

(Cross-posted to Human Voices.)

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Friday, December 05, 2014

#CrimingWhileWhite

By Carl




As you may know, one of the responses on social media like Twitter and Facebook to the tragic grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, as well as to the countless stories of police abuse of power specifically against black men and boys, is for white people to contrast the treatment by cops.

The theme is for a white person to post their worst crime that they got away with, then attach the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite.

For blacks, a similar trope of #AliveWhileBlack calls for a person to post the most dangerous encounter with either the cops or a white person that they survived.

It seems sophomoric, particularly as most of the white folks end up posting things like shoplifting or driving while drunk, even getting pulled over by the cops and being sent on their way with just a ticket or worse, a warning.

As I was writing mine up (which was a little harder to figure out. I ended up settling on smuggling Cuban cigars into the States, altho there was all that public sex,) the realization of the power of this hashtag meme hit me:

See, I could smoke a joint in public. I could walk around stoned or drunk out of my gourd. I could steal a Playboy from a newsstand, or smuggle a cigar in my coat, or duck down an alley because I really had to pee, and I could do all this in front of the cops and you know what? I'd never be suspected of committing any kind of crime, and moreover, never even be subject to arrest much less a potential date with death.

My brothers and sisters of colors can't say that, they don't have that guarantee that even if they "behave themselves" -- which I'm betting they hear as "Be good little darkies," because how patronizing is it for white folks to tell black folks how to live? -- that even if they are model citizens and speak slowly and carefully and in modulated tones to a cop, they won't be arrested. They won't be thrown into a chokehold.

There's no guarantee they won't be shot. If the African American or Latino version of me ducks down an alley and a cop sees him, the cop isn't thinking that the guy just needs to pee really badly, and he's going to follow that Carl, and bad things are going to happen.

If a cop sees me standing there, back to the street, legs wide, he's going to assume I'm taking a leak and turn away, because the devil you don't know. If he sees the darker version of me, he's going to look down and see if there's something worth investigating, and even if he decides there's nothing more than an urgent call of nature, he may still decide to primp his statistics and arrest the guy.

If I'm driving too fast, the cop will pull me over and while he won't be completely relaxed until he's reached my car and ascertained I'm just a moron -- and yes, I've had cops yell at me to remain in my vehicle or keep my hands in view -- if this happens to the minority Me, he's not even going to relax once he's got my license and registration in hand.

It's a stunning realization once you start to put it in perspective, this imbalance in treatment by law enforcement officers. And here's the thing that I really want to stress: these are not random cops who are deciding to let me go while harassing a black man or Latino. In some instances, they really are all but KKK members (I know, I've dealt with a few NYPD brass who with a straight face will call black and Latinos "thugs and gang-bangers.") In most instances, these are the good guys who swear they aren't racist but who have had an institutional racism drummed into their heads from day one that a dark skinned man is scary and even subhuman.

The worst part is, they're right, they aren't really racist until they are out on the streets "To protect and serve". They forget the second part of that and are overzealous in the first. And that has to stop. And that's going to take all of us to read those hashtags and realize we have to link arms and stand up.

(crossposted to Simply Left Behind)

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanks

By Carl


I know, I've been one poor correspondent, and I've been too too hard to find, but that doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind...

2014 was a tough year for everyone. I feel grateful and fortunate that I skated past a lot of crap but what I did endure was enough for two years. 

I'm still not working but I have enough to live on. I haven't really pursued a job but then I've been working on other projects around my world.

I'm grateful to the Smithsonian for using seven of my photographs this year. I'm grateful to the Ocean Conservancy for using one to promote sustainable fisheries. I'm grateful to my old employer for being more than fair with me on my way out the door, and for the friends I made while in his employ. 

I'm grateful for my health and my extended family, which grew a little this year in the Old Country. I'm grateful for those closest to me who helped me bridge the gap from miserable job to the quietude of self-employment. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have stopped out and gotten some of the kruft out of my personal life: you know, the kipple that builds up because you get home from a job too tired to fix this, paint that, build the other. 

I'm grateful for the advice I've been gifted with and the motivations put in front of me. We all need a carrot or a stick and I'm pleased to say that I've eaten more carrots than splinters.

And finally, I'm grateful for you, gentle reader. Often, I'll see echoes of something I've written in some of the strangest places and I know that, while I have a tiny readership, you are influential. I feel good about you and about my contributions to this blog.

Thank you, all. And Happy Thanksgiving.

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