Consonant-Level Links

March 10, 2007

See the above post (soon) for an explanation of the motivation of this roundup’s theme. But for now, suffice is to say that people with 500 hits a day need links more than people with 5,000.

Kristjan Wager delves into John Hawkins’ dishonest column in greater detail than I did; he not only looks at the study in question and shows how the numbers compare with Hawkins’ point, but also proposes a hypothesis explaining the observation.

Jessica Dreadul links to two reproductive rights-themed news pieces, one about Chile’s lowering of the age barrier to parental consent to emergency contraception and another about an attempt to prevent pharmacists from arbitrarily denying women in Georgia EC.

On The Politburo Diktat, there’s a long, engaging thread about the war on Iraq and whether the US is irrevocably doomed and has nothing better to do than cut and run.

Shelley reports a breakthrough in research into curing hearing loss. While her lab is trying to cure deafness by infecting ear cells with benign viruses, another lab has achieved results by directly compensating for a deficient protein.

Bean notes that one group of people in the US who are especially impacted by the nastiness of the prison system are the mentally ill, who are often tortured with solitary confinement.

Fight the RIAA

March 9, 2007

Gordo has an important post about how the mafia the RIAA is using the Copyright Royalty Board to put independent music stations out of business so that the only music available will be this produced by an RIAA record label. The CRB has adopted the RIAA’s suggested royalty levels, 0.08 cents per listener per song effective retroactively from 2006, which often works out to a higher number than a webcasting station’s total income. Worse, this figure is slated to rise sharply, reaching 0.19 by 2010.

Radio Paradise‘s Bill Goldsmith notes, “This royalty structure would wipe out an entire class of business: Small independent webcasters such as myself & my wife, who operate Radio Paradise. Our obligation under this rate structure would be equal to over 125% of our total income. There is no practical way for us to increase our  income so dramatically as to render that affordable.”

And Radio Paradise is perhaps the most-successful webcaster in its class!  For most operators, this rate looks as if it would be >150-200% of total revenues.

Save Net Radio is circulating an online petition to Congress to repeal this stifling nonsense. Make sure you sign it.

Why the US Needs Prison Reform

March 8, 2007

Bean’s post about one of the fringe benefits of the prison-industrial complex – namely, that inmates are counted in the census for reapportionment purposes even though they can’t vote – leads me to the subject of prison reform in the US, which I haven’t addressed yet even though I should have.

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world – about 700 per 100,000 people, give or take. Now, you’d think that it’s what’s deterred crime, causing the US to have a survey crime rate half of 23%, while the USA’s incarceration rate has increased by more than 50% since 1991 and gotten about the same reduction in crime.

Looking at the actual breakdown of inmates suggests that the USA could easily slash its prison population. A significant percentage of admissions is for drug offenses; indeed, about 9% of new admissions are for mere drug possession without proven intent to sell. Including people who are counted as drug dealers even though they are not – two college students sharing a joint are considered to engage in dealing – yields an even higher figure.

It gets worse. Black people comprised 17% of drug users and 37% of drug arrests in 1998. In general blacks use cocaine more than whites, but the margin is far lower for powder cocaine than for crack cocaine. And, as you can imagine, sentences for crack cocaine are harsher: a 1986 law set the minimum amount needed for a mandatory sentence at 500 grams for powder cocaine versus 5 for crack.

Almost all people sent to prison would be in the workforce and likely unemployed if released. The US has a labor force of 153 million, so adding 2 million inmates to the number of unemployed increases the unemployment rate from 4.6% to 5.9%. Among blacks, the labor force’s size is 17.5 million, so adding 900,000 black inmates increases their unemployment rate from 8%, lower than the white rate in France and Germany, to 13%. Although the USA still has a better black-to-white unemployment ratio than the comparable minority-to-white ratio of every European country I’ve checked, much of it derives from throwing black people to jail, where they don’t enter unemployment or labor participation statistics.

Not surprisingly, black civil rights groups consider prison reform an important priority. And not surprisingly, everyone else doesn’t. For white conservatives, disenfranchising large numbers of black people whose sole crime is private use of a substance Congress believes it has the right to tell people not to use is a good way of holding power. Once that dynamic is in place, they can rationalize giving ex-felons the right to vote as just a Democratic ploy to get more votes.

White Democrats, in turn, have mostly given up on doing anything for black people. The Clintons have spearheaded the technique of talking the talk and then supporting harsher drug laws that benefit nobody; sadly, Obama is so bad at black politics that Clinton is once again the black people’s candidate despite having done nothing to earn their support.

One of the fringe benefits of having a large prison-industrial complex in the US is that once incarceration rates come down to sane levels, a lot of the overcrowding problems, which contribute to insanely high rates of prison rape (by one estimate, 21% of male inmates experience sexual assault, of which 7% experience rape). Of course, another contributor to prison rape is the cultural attitude that doing anything for inmates is weak on crime.

When you think about it true, cruelty toward criminals isn’t required for being tough on crime. It’s after all how things work in foreign policy: typically, the best results come from policies based on diplomacy rather than naked aggression. It’s the same with crime. Giuliani credits New York’s crime drop to his broken windows policy, but in fact that drop started several years earlier, correlating with Dinkins’ assuming office and implementing less glamorous programs, such as community policing. No harsh sentences are needed; increasing arrest rates is what deters criminals.

This already produces several components of the high incarceration rate of the US, all of which can be manipulated to reduce it to normal levels without increasing the crime rate.

First, the drug war doesn’t do anything good. Drug abuse is a public health problem, not a crime. That’s how people who snort superglue or drink excessively are treated; why are cocaine and marijuana treated so differently? Dealing is something else, but unless you can catch the people who actually run the show, there’s no point; unfortunately, the US seems intent on not doing that.

Second, 10-year sentences should be reserved to very serious criminals. If you’re not a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist, a serial violent offender, or an important crime boss, you shouldn’t get more than a single-figure sentence. Even if you take an economic view of crime wherein criminals respond to harsher sentences, it’s not linear. There’s a huge jump between 0 and 1 year, which is far greater than the difference between 7 and 8. The difference between not getting arrested and getting arrested and not prosecuted is likely to be greater than the difference between getting 7 years and getting 8 years.

Third, the two most serious crimes, murder and rape, are in most cases committed by someone known to the victim. As such, they respond better to policies aimed at defusing volatile situations, such as gun control, encouraging women to report rapes, and programs aimed at reducing domestic violence, which comprises 14% of all serious violent crimes and 35% of serious violent crimes committed by non-strangers.

Fourth, the justice system should be reformed to allow accused people the resources needed to mount competent defense. Public defenders who fail to clear a person later shown to be innocent should at the minimum face a hearing in which they’re likely to be disbarred if they fail to pass a reasonable person standard; this is true regardless of any plea bargain. Similar standards should apply to DAs who keep prosecuting people they know to be innocent. Furthermore, public defenders’ salaries should be increased in order to encourage promising lawyers to not always take the prosecution’s side in criminal trials.

Some of the problems inherent in the justice system are problems of the common law system. The overreliance on plea bargains, which encourage innocent people to plead guilty if they have incompetent counsel, creates an assembly line justice system. But that’s mostly a question of counsel competence, when it comes right down to it. What’s more, if it’s considered good enough to throw a criminal who pleads guilty to jail for 5 years, it should be good enough to throw him for 5 years if he pleads not guilty and is convicted. Punishing people for exercising their right to a fair trial isn’t very consistent with civil liberties.

However, other problems in the US have nothing to do with the common law system. Mandatory minimums are a recent innovation of politicians who are more interested in looking tough on crime than in being tough on crime; as such, they can be safely scrapped. Elected DAs are under immense pressure to convict; Britain and Canada do just as well with appointed prosecutors.

And fifth and finally, giving black people harsher sentences should be considered racial discrimination. The military lets minorities complain of discrimination or harassment, and, if the complaints check out, punishes the offending officer or at least blocks his promotions. The same rules should govern the justice system. Judges who discriminate in sentencing and lawyers who discriminate in jury selection don’t belong in court. Racial disparities go beyond laws; the same law is applied more harshly against black people, both in sentencing and in the decision to incarcerate.

Incarcerating more people is not the solution to anything. Abortion is something that should be made more rare if only because it’s a less pleasant experience than using birth control. But incarceration is not merely unpleasant, but a serious loss of liberty. It should be reserved for when it’s necessary rather than for when a politician wants to tell racist constituents that he’s cruel to black people.

Once Fascist, Always Fascist

March 4, 2007

Lindsay has an important story about how Iraq’s trade unions, a secular democratic interest group that was against Saddam Hussein back in the day, are under attack from both insurgents and the US. The immediate cause of this is a straightforward power struggle involving privatization; Lindsay says,

It is not surprising that Iraqi trade unions leaders have been targeted by both insurgents and occupying forces. Iraqi unions have undergone a resurgence since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. However, union power is a potential threat to both fundamentalist clerics and the international corporations seeking to privatize Iraq’s oil industry.

The US-backed Iraqi government approved a sweeping new privatization package for Iraq’s oil industry last Monday. Labor leaders were shut out of the negotiations leading up to the new hydrocarbon law.

One of the characteristics of totalitarianism is its destruction of every civil society structure that could make an alternative to the state and the one party. Authoritarianism tends to leave a few allied structures in place, such as a properly conservative church or mosque, but unions are always targeted for liquidation.

This holds even in authoritarian socialist states. There were no independent trade unions in the Soviet Union. Even Hugo Chavez, a budding authoritarian socialist leader, has had power struggles with the unions, which he’s trying to coopt despite their constituting allies in his fight for a more socialist Venezuela. It goes without saying then that non-socialist forms of authoritarianism, including the religious one that’s building up in Iraq, will be anti-union.

On May 1st, 1933*, Nazi Germany celebrated Labor Day and Hitler promised the workers he’d be their ally. The next day he raided their offices, destroyed them, and established in their stead a single employer-side trade union.

This goes beyond things like whether unions should be established by a secret ballot or by a card check. The freedom of association is a civil liberty that is really on a par with free speech and privacy in being one of the few that enable all the others. It’s what underpins civil society and much of free enterprise. It’s also a very unglamorous civil liberty, since the union raider appears to affect far fewer and less public people than the censor or the eavesdropper.

The US can’t even keep up the act that Iraq is a democracy. Forget insurgents, who are upfront about wanting to establish a Shi’a theocracy (let’s face it, the Sunnis aren’t winning the civil war). The US itself is actively trying to dedemocratize Iraq, just like it has so many other third-world countries over the years.

Eternal Night

March 3, 2007

My book, Eternal Night, is finally edited in such a way that it’s readable. Before I send it to publishers, though, I’d like to run it by anyone here who’s willing to read it and comment on it. Please don’t post it publicly; I want to try publishing it on dead trees. If you think it’s bad, say so. Frankly, I think “You shouldn’t ever write fiction again” is more useful advice than “oh, it’s good” with no specifics.

As a reminder, the plot is about religious nationalism, defined loosely by Dominionism in the US, Islamism in the Islamic world, Hindutva in India, and so on. As Dominionists threaten to win the 2020 Presidential election in the US, in which case they’ll be able to pack the Court and roll bills through an obsequious Congress, the protagonist is drawn into large-scale conspiracies to keep them out of the White House.

This eventually becomes a political pissmatch between a secular liberal and multiple religious fundamentalists attacking him on various grounds… and at the same time, an Islamic superstate and a Catholic one are coalescing in the Middle East and Latin America respectively, and China and India are turning to naked aggression to fulfill their national ambitions.

Any takers?

Immigration Political Scorecard

March 1, 2007

Hat-tip to Lindsay: Amy Taylor of DMI Blog reports the position of each American Presidential candidate on immigration so that you don’t have to. I’ve only read the positions of the six serious candidates – honestly, Tom Tancredo’s position doesn’t matter since even if he wins the primary, he’ll lose the general by a Goldwaterian margin – but they don’t sound that different from one another.

All candidates, except possibly Romney, say they support giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, after they pay a fine. They differ on the details somewhat, but the differences are small. On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the most restrictive that’s acceptable in American politics (e.g. Tancredo) and 10 is the most permissive (e.g. Kennedy), I’d say the gamut ranges from 5 to 9. And, mind you, the scale could easily expand; a Le Pen-style racist would be about a -5, while I’m about a 20.

Clinton follows her husband in being a hardliner on enforcement issues; she supports a mandatory ID card as a means of cracking down on illegal immigration. At the same time, on welfare-related issues she’s consistently taken a pro-immigrant stance, cosponsoring an act that would consider long-term residents who are in the US illegally as legal permanent residents and supporting a bill that would grant them in-state tuition (7).

Obama supports tough enforcement and in fact broke a promise not to vote for any enforcement-oriented bill that did not include a legalization component. In addition, he supports a guest worker program, but at the same time acknowledges its shortcomings and proposed an amendment that would require employers to pay everyone the prevailing wage regardless of immigration status (7).

Edwards talks about immigration as a labor issue, as he does on all other issues. He publicly rejected the notion that illegal immigrants suppress American workers’ wages. He also supports unionization as a means of helping illegal immigrants. On the other hand, he’s far vaguer than even Obama, and tends to underplay the issue (7).

Giuliani has repeatedly praised immigrants’ economic contributions. As Mayor of New York, he opposed an anti-immigration bill in 1996; more recently, he supported the more conciliatory Senate immigration bill over the punitive House version. On welfare his record is mostly positive; he had the City sue the federal government to restore welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. On the other hand, he has an anti-immigrant record on language issues, including bilingual education, and talks about the issue in terms of security just like Edwards does in terms of labor (8).

McCain clearly distinguishes between people who overstay their visas and terrorists. Together with Ted Kennedy, he introduced the conciliatory Senate bill mentioned above. He’s against the security fence, but prefers alternative high-cost gadgets to seal the US-Mexico border. Speaking to the AFL-CIO, he said that illegal immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want (9).

Romney supports the fence, and as Governor of Massachusetts supported requiring local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. He has said nothing about issues like a guest worker program or a path to citizenship. Conversely, he supports increasing the rate of legal immigration, which the US throttles (5).

Tuesday Night Links

February 27, 2007

Echidne examines the consequences of shrinking government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. She looks at what spending cuts have done to the FDA, which is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago (link). I don’t want to blow government out of proportions; I just want to increase it to the size that I can ride the subway without being infected with cholera, eat uncooked chicken without getting salmonella, and walk under a shed without worrying about the possibility of a collapse.

Ezra writes about free trade; although he has populist sentiments, he’s fairly pro-trade. In a heated argument between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, he comes down clearly on DeLong’s side after Faux dodges a legitimate question about free trade’s positive effects on China. Ezra takes Faux to task for ranting about Chinese domestic economic policy for being bad for the poor. Why impoverishing China by slapping tariffs on it will cause its government to change its policy when similar sanctions against other countries have miserably failed is beyond me.

Samhita asks whether it can truly be called feminist empowerment when women in Pakistan protest the demolition of illegally built mosques. The people on the comment thread tend toward realizing that, to quote EG, “Women are a huge segment of the population, and no social/political/religious movement would succeed without any support from women. But that doesn’t make the movement inherently feminist.”

Jenny explains why it’s not a feminist duty to support Hillary Clinton. Just like I don’t accuse anyone who opposes Obama of hating black people and anyone who opposes Richardson of hating Hispanics, so do I oppose allegations that opposing Clinton is something sexist. The proper feminist or antiracist or pro-gay or pro-atheist thing to do is support a candidate based on real issues, regardless of gender/race/sexual orientation/religion. Feminism doesn’t exist to empower Hillary Clinton, but to empower the 3,249,999,999 women who aren’t so powerful as to have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world.

Lindsay writes about the difference between the left-wing American blogosphere and the right-wing one. While the left-wing blogosphere seeks to turn itself into part of the Democratic Party, featuring a motley crew of policy analysts, movement activists, fundraisers, and screamers, the right-wing blogosphere only engages in scalping of the type Donahue did to Amanda.

Ruchira reproduces an article about Tehran that seems to strike the correct chord in depicting the city as highly cultured and developed and at the same time suffering from a fundamentalism problem. This isn’t Kandahar or even Baghdad we’re talking about, but a modern city that doesn’t have many ingrained problems a revolution won’t solve.

Brent notes that Mitt Romney is hardly the only person in the US who thinks atheists can’t be Presidents. A clueless law professor at Colorado University rants about atheists from about every imaginable angle, including coming out in support of Romney’s bigotry. Brent takes him to task for spouting inanities about atheists’ morality.

Skatje takes down arguments for preserving the Pledge of Allegiance so that you don’t have to. Hitting the nail right on the head, she says, “An oath of loyalty is something you see in totalitarian regimes, not something you’d expect in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In a classroom with children from as young as age five robotically chanting at a flag every morning, I’d also expect a big silver screen on one of the walls. I’ve already written about nationalism. Submission and obedience to a government is another leg of it.”

Tyler rants about excessive moderates who in order to look centrist compare atheists to fundamentalists. Unlike Tyler I don’t care enough for Dawkins to get agitated when someone does a hatchet job on him, but I do care enough for reality to see that atheism is as extreme as fundamentalism to the same degree that supporting full racial equality is as extreme as apartheid.

The Gay Rights Vote

February 26, 2007

Via the Daily Dish: it appears as if the gay rights vote is no longer in the Democrats’ pockets. Jason Kuznicki of Positive Liberty has a long post about the rank failure of the Human Rights Campaign to do anything effective, which has gotten to the point that it doesn’t even identify itself when it calls supporters asking for donations. In contrast, he says, the free market has been tremendously successful.

“Conservative” corporate America just keeps on getting things right, both in their sales pitches to us and in the way that the big corporations are all rushing to offer equal treatment to gays and lesbians. Do you want an example of capitalists working to help minorities, while the government and the nonprofit sector both lag behind? Look no further. (Hosted, ironically enough, by the same HRC that doesn’t manage nearly so well with its own gays and lesbians…) If current trends continue, gays and lesbians may well be the test case that proves that employment nondiscrimination laws aren’t really necessary at all — take any sufficiently developed capitalist economy, free it from public or private coercion, and the profit motive may just be enough to end discrimination all by itself.

Obviously, some anti-discrimination laws are necessary, especially when passing is difficult or impossible. In the comments, Kuznicki suggests that this is the case: responding to a commenter who complains that HRC is not doing anything for transgendered people, he says that,

The stigma against transgendered people is vastly stronger, so much so that at times nearly the entire institutional weight of society is against them. When this happens, the case for government intervention is far more powerful.

My actual point isn’t about how important anti-discrimination laws are. I tend to follow the mainstream gay rights movement in the US in considering legal equality – military service, adoption, marriage – to be the most important gay rights issue. Rather, it’s about the fact that the Democratic Party has been allowed to take various socially liberal groups, including gays, atheists, and pro-choicers, for granted.

It’s a good thing that there exist libertarian gay rights activists who support the Republicans on most issues. It’s C. S. Lewis in reverse: gays, atheists, pro-choicers, etc., have the most influence when they constitute significant factions within both political blocs. Political parties don’t like to spend political capital on anything, except perhaps their leaders’ pet issues; they’d rather accumulate it, and with it, get more power. Activists who can say “If you screw us, we have another party to turn to” are invaluable for any agenda. It comes naturally to moderates, but not so much to groups like gay rights activists.

Instead, the left is acting like Dobson and tries to squash any non-Democratic support for gay rights. As Pam notes, when Republican State Representative Dan Zwonitzer helped kill an anti-gay bill in Wyoming and passionately called for equality, the HRC ignored him. Never mind that he gives Pam teeth when she tells the Democrats homophobia is a vote loser; he’s a member of the wrong party, so he must be shunned.

The 2008 election is a good opportunity to marginalize the Dominionist vote within the Republican Party. The Dominionists say they like none of the Republican primary candidates; Giuliani, Romney, and McCain are too liberal for them, and the lightweights and darkhorses all have some personal purity issues (Brownback is pro-immigration, Huckabee raised taxes, and so on). Giuliani in particular offers cultural liberals a tremendous opportunity to return the Dominionists to a position of political irrelevance.

Of course, it’s conversely a good opportunity for the Dominionists to establish a foothold within the Democratic Party. This is especially troubling since of the three serious Democratic Presidential contenders, the one who’s the most fundamentalist is also the one who’s the most electable.

Still, both parties have significant contingents that will do their best not to allow this switch to happen. Make no mistake about it, it’s a political fistfight; pro-choicers and gay rights activists just have to be better at it than the religious right in order to ensure that the Democratic Party does not make room for Dominionists. If Clinton were more electable or less conniving it would make sense to support her, since she actually cares about keeping abortion legal; unfortunately, she’s neither. But for what it’s worth, whenever some left-wing Dominionist makes an offer – “Sacrifice women and gays and atheists and we’ll vote for you” – a good start would be to point out that Independents aren’t into that kind of sacrifice.

Apply for Asylum in the US, Be Thrown to Jail Together with Your Kids

February 23, 2007

The US is the land of freedom and opportunity, as long as you’re not an asylum seeker. Lawmakers who’re more concerned with making sure absolutely no third-worlder gets in unless he really has to than with respecting basic human rights passed legislation to imprison asylum seekers and their families pending trial. Just on the off chance you’re not the type who clicks links,

In fact, nearly half of [Hutto Prison’s] 400 or so residents are children, including infants and toddlers.

The inmates are immigrants or children of immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. Many of them are in the process of applying for political asylum, refugees from violence-plagued and impoverished countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Somalia and Palestine. (Since there are different procedures for Mexican immigrants, the facility houses no Mexicans.)

In the past, most of them would have been free to work and attend school as their cases moved through immigration courts. “Prior to Hutto, they were releasing people into the community,” says Nicole Porter, director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. “These are non-criminals and nonviolent individuals who have not committed any crime against the U.S. There are viable alternatives to requiring them to live in a prison setting and wear uniforms.”

But as a result of increasingly stringent immigration enforcement policies, today more than 22,000 undocumented immigrants are being detained, up from 6,785 in 1995, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Normally, men and women are detained separately and minors, if they are detained at all, live in residential facilities with social services and schools. But under the auspices of “keeping families together,” children and parents are incarcerated together at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, as it is now called, and at a smaller facility in Berks County, Penn. Attorneys for detainees say the children are only allowed one hour of schooling, in English, and one hour of recreation per day.

“It’s just a concentration camp by another name,” says John Wheat Gibson, a Dallas attorney representing two Palestinian families in the facility.

In addition, there have been reports of inadequate healthcare and nutrition.

If you’re brave enough to venture to the comment thread, which features such gems as “The violence is here because of illegal aliens” (and still the 1990s saw both a massive influx of illegal immigrants into the US and a drastic drop in crime), go help Jenny respond to the xenophobes.

There’s certainly a big chunk of the population everywhere that sees foreigners as less than human. Forget unfounded statements like “Liberals are only about the right of icky people to do icky things”; the real outrage about liberals is that they support the right of people of the wrong nationality to have basic human dignity. Ironically, a US population that by and large believes in offering illegal immigrants legal status – in Texas it’s 59-35 – has no trouble with treating immigrants like subhumans.

Although this attitude isn’t restricted to the US, in the US it’s worse than in most other areas of at least the developed world. People in Germany and France and Norway watch American movies, travel to neighboring countries often, and have friends from more than one country. In the US outside a few big coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles, a person can live his whole life not knowing that there exists a world outside US borders. It’s The Gods Must Have Gone Crazy on a larger scale.

It’s of course not ignorance alone that has produced this. Israelis, who know very well that there exists a world outside their country, abuse foreigners all the time, for example by needlessly strip-searching at the airport. But Israel is somewhat of a special case; evidently, Germany, which is overall a lot less into immigrants’ rights than the US is, doesn’t commit those atrocities, or at least hasn’t in 60 years.

More Fascism

February 20, 2007

Two important pieces of news, one about civil liberties in the US and one about the impending war on Iran, juxtapose nicely with one I said earlier about the two characteristics of fascism.

First, the DC Court of Appeals ruled that Guantanamo Bay detainees are not allowed to challenge their detention, and that in general the right to challenge any detention doesn’t extend to anyone who’s not a US citizen. If I stop posting for a few days straight, you know where to find me.

The 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dismisses hundreds of cases filed by foreign-born detainees in federal court and also threatens to strip away court access to millions of lawful permanent residents currently in the United States.

It upholds a key provision of the Military Commissions Act, which Bush pushed through Congress last year to set up a Defense Department system to prosecute terrorism suspects. Now, detainees must prove to three-officer military panels that they don’t pose a terror threat.

And second, the US is expanding the circumstances in which it will bomb Iran. In principle, the circumstances are very limited – if Iran is proven to produce a nuclear weapon, or if it is proven to directly cause a massive attack on US troops in Iraq. In practice, the circumstances for the war on Iraq were proof that Saddam had WMD…

[Link] The BBC’s Tehran correspondent France Harrison said the news that there are now two possible triggers for an attack was a concern to Iranians. She added that authorities insisted there was no cause for alarm but ordinary people were now becoming a little worried.

Earlier this month, US officials said they had evidence Iran was providing weapons to Iraqi Shia militias. At the time, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the accusations were “excuses to prolong the stay” of US forces in Iraq, the BBC reported.

If a fascist bill passes without anyone making a fuss, is it still in effect?

February 20, 2007

In October, I wasn’t that concerned with Bush’s torture and habeas corpus revocation bills because it only codified existing infractions, which nobody did anything about anyway. But now the New York Times has an editorial that shows why I should’ve been verbally shelling the administration.

A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night. So it was with a provision quietly tucked into the enormous defense budget bill at the Bush administration’s behest that makes it easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law.

The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a president’s use of the military in law enforcement to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights.

I’m usually skeptical of attempts to connect many different ideological components that happen to go together in a current political alliance. I haven’t read The Wimp Factor, but my general impression of it, based on Bora and Amanda‘s reviews, is negative.

Still, the link between the two most obvious characteristics of fascism – domestic disdain for civil rights and foreign belligerence – is unimpeachable. It appears in mainstream political science in the form of the democratic peace theory, and features prominently in mainstream psychology of fascism. This isn’t some crackpot theory that the left likes only because it flatters its anti-fascism. Warmongering isn’t correlated to authoritarianism by accident the way either is to support for capitalism; the two have a longstanding political and ideological link.

The article describes a bipartisan bill to repeal Bush’s law. If it becomes a priority, it could signal that the window of opportunity of totalitarianism in the US is closing. However, I don’t think it will be a high priority for the Senate leadership. After all, the Democrats could have filibustered the bill indefinitely in October on the grounds that the people should get a chance to vote based on it.

Out of the three requirements for totalitarianism – motive, means, and opportunity – opportunity is the easiest to assail. The motive tends to be longlasting; neoconservatives have been around since the 1960s, and Dominionists since the 1970s. If 9/11 had happened ten years earlier, they’d have passed the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Bill under George Bush Sr. The technological means are here to stay and only get stronger.

There really are two ways of making totalitarian politics less likely to succeed. One is to make the ideology behind it less fashionable. Call it the return of pre-9/11 politics, triggered by the catastrophic failure of the United States to pacify Iraq. That route is unlikely, since it requires a clear political alternative, which doesn’t presently exist.

The other is to directly close the window of opportunity, which is based on fighting back. People don’t generally support authoritarianism, unless it can connect to them by capitalizing on the failure of liberalism to deliver or on traditional values, in descending order of importance. Here Democrat-style spinelessness falls under the rubric of failure to deliver.

Europe is Getting Tough on American Abuse

February 16, 2007

Update: I forgot to link to the relevant story.
In the wake of the release of a European Parliament report about the CIA’s use of European territory for illegal operations including kidnapping of innocent civilians, an Italian court has just indicted 26 CIA agents in an ongoing investigation of a kidnapping that occurred on Italian soil. The New York Times reports,

Despite the indictment, issued by a judge in Milan, it is unlikely that any of the Americans will ever stand trial here.

All the operatives, which included the top two C.I.A. officials in Italy at the time, have left the country. Moreover, Italy has not requested their extradition, and if it did, there seems little chance the Bush administration would agree.

But the indictment nonetheless marked a turning point in Europe, where anger is high at the secret American program of “extraordinary renditions” that whisked away terror suspects in contravention of the law after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The Italian investigation is less solid than the German one for several reasons. First, Prodi is under fire for not requesting extradition; such a request would be purely symbolic because no US President, much less Bush, would approve it. Second, the Italian justice system’s reputation could be better. And third, there are specific reports of irregularities in the investigation, including wiretapping Italian agents.

But still, despite the natural slowness of such investigations, the message is clear: the United States is not above international human rights laws.

What Clinton understood and Bush doesn’t understand is that American power isn’t monolithic; the US needs the cooperation of its allies to be able to achieve anything. Under Clinton, the CIA would have found ways of kidnapping those people that wouldn’t trigger a counterreaction from Germany and Italy. Bush would have none of that, because of his notion that his power shouldn’t be limited by anything, up to and including political reality.

Bush’s blatancy is as always his downfall. The CIA breaks the law countless times every day, but only when it does so in such a blatant way do local governments take enough of an interest to derail it. And only when the US has already squandered its support in the world do those governments take the step of indicting CIA agents.

In a way, Bush is the quintessential American. The American view of international politics is that respect for human rights is for lesser nations; Bush’s view of national politics is that respect for the Constitution is for lesser people. Where Clinton minimized the American proclivity for hotheadedness in policy, Bush exaggerates it.

I’m not naive enough to think American abuse is going to end just because Europe is starting to indict CIA agents. CIA abuse has a long history that includes openly flouting US law, to say nothing of foreign laws. And saying “I think the US should be limited by international law” in the US is like saying “I’m pro-American” in any other country. However, this investigation helps things a little bit if only because it creates a link between committing atrocities and losing the world’s goodwill.

Tuesday Small Hours Links

February 13, 2007

There are so many good links from the last day or two.

Jessica Dreadful breaks another abortion ban story from South Dakota, this time with exceptions for rape and incest in order to make the bill more palatable. But even then, the rape and incest exceptions are created with the most draconian restrictions possible.

[Link] The bill would allow rape victims to get abortions if they report the rapes to police within 50 days. Doctors would have to confirm those reports with police; doctors also would have to give blood from aborted fetuses to police for DNA testing in rape and incest cases.

The Commissar explains exactly what is wrong with the Bush administration’s accusations of Iranian support for Iraqi militants. Instead of trying to doubt the intelligence that was used to gather the conclusions, he shows why the conclusions themselves are implausible.

At the recent US military briefing about the Iranian mortar shells given to Iraqi Shiite militias, it was reported that these super-bombs have killed 170 US troops since June, 2004. I’m sure that Shiite IED’s have killed American troops in Iraq. How many overall? If the Iranian EFP’s have killed 170 Americans, what fraction is that of the total.


Of the 553 (82+471) where the sect of the attacker can be reliably inferred, 15% of these deadly IED attacks were committed by Shiites. Extrapolated to the full set, that would be 144 overall. That’s right. Only 144 Shiite-IED related deaths since June 2004.

Ezra has a three part series on the horrors of prison rape. While he doesn’t use the wonky style we all know and love, his posts still come off as very strong. He notes,

According to the Justice Department, “[in] 2005 there were 3,145 black male sentenced prison inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,244 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 471 white male inmates per 100,000 white males.” This is important. The relative infrequency with which white Americans enter prison, particularly for extended periods of time, surely effects the political urgency of prison reform. Indeed, it’s likely the reason overall legislation pushes in the other direction — towards overcrowding and longer sentences and less rehabilitation.

Brent reproduces a letter about the invisibility of atheists in the US. Since atheists are impossible to immediately discern from theists, bigoted Christians can get away with assuming that everyone in their lives who is a good person shares their religion. Based on that, he urges atheists to come out publicly.

First, misconceptions about us abound because of this invisibility. People don’t realize that we are their doctor, their teacher, their spouse or the nice guy that just held the door for them. The only face of naturalism a person is likely to see is a militant one. Is there any doubt that the image of naturalists would improve overnight if politicians, stars and athletes would come out?

d of Lawyers, Guns and Money comments on a statement by Bill Kristol about Obama that makes Joe Biden look like the second coming of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass all rolled into one. Kristol says Obama would’ve supported pro-slavery politicians in the 1850s. d notes,

When Kristol suggests — wearing his arrogant smirk like a badge of honor — that Barack Obama “would have been for Douglas in 1858,” he seems not to know one important historical fact. According to the laws of Illinois in 1858, Barack Obama would not only have been incapable of voting for Stephen Douglas, but he also would not have been allowed to enter the state in the first place. In 1853, Illinois passed one of the most restrictive black codes in the so-called “free north.” Blacks from other states were permitted to remain in the state for ten days; if they did not leave, they were subject to arrest and temporary enslavement — they would be sold to bidders who would be entitled to their labor until the mandatory $50 fine had been worked off. If the offending individual remained in Illinois after his or her release, the fines increased by $50 increments for each subsequent offense.

In her latest basic concepts post, Shelley turns to prions, the proteins that cause mad cow disease. Although they are proteins rather than organisms, they have the capability to mess with existing proteins in a way that makes them infectious in a way.

The protein that prions are made of is found throughout the body normally(called PrPc), although what their non-disease function is is not yet known. These proteins are encoded by the PRNP gene, and mutations in this gene are responsibly for inherited prion diseases. The disease-state prion protein is called (PrPSc) and is resistant to proteases which would normally denature a protein and render it harmless. The theory of how prions become infectious to other proteins is detailed below.

Abbas reproduces a letter by Waleed Hazbun, a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut. Hazbun describes the city,

Walking down the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut I think to myself that more cities across the Arab world should feel this way. Even as the city is re-dividing itself politically and police and security forces stand watch over public spaces, key buildings, and the residences of leading politicians, Beirut remains a urban, cosmopolitan environment. By invoking this term I do not refer to the fancy shopping districts with Euro-American name brand shops, the haut-hipsters hanging out a Starbucks (or even the much cooler De Prague), or the late night dancing parties going on at the trendy clubs. Beirut is a costal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a show case ‘modern’ city built next to a museumfied medieval era ‘madina,’ like Tunis nor an artificial metropolis emerging out of a desert landscape due to royal patronage or the flows of petrodollars. It is more like Istanbul and how cities on coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alterative reality.

Also on 3QD, Dhiraj Nayyar writes about the parallels between India and the US. India is aspiring to global superpower status, complete with economic domination and massive exportation of culture. But the social problems of the US pale in comparison with those of India.

Can India possibly claim to be superpower, the new emperor, just because some of it’s corporates are taking over firms abroad. Corporate might hasn’t turned into well-being for the majority of the people who still languish in poverty, illiteracy, hunger: basically dismal human conditions. Even possessing a few nuclear weapons doesn’t change this fact. And if half a country’s population cannot read, feed or cloth itself, what does that say about the empire? Even the American empire seems hollow when it is estimated that one in six people in the US is functionally illiterate, a large number of them live in poverty, where poverty is often a function of race, and where hurricanes like Katrina leave the mighty government fumbling for solutions.

Tyler expresses skepticism of much-hyped developments in quantum computing. In principle, quantum computers can factor integers in polynomial time, compared with exponential time for normal computers. In practice, constructing a quantum computer is about as feasible as fusion power at this stage. Tyler explains,

An actual working 16-qubit quantum superconductor that can overcome decoherence and the ubiquitous errors that plague any effort to build a computing device on quantum principles would be quite an achievement. It would indeed be interesting to do a full scale quantum computation, perhaps actually executing the Shor factoring algorithm. But A.) 16-qubits isn’t going to cut it and B.) they’ve been ominously reserved about releasing any results for professionals and academics to evaluate. And needless to say, with the grandiose proclamations the folks at the company have made, I’m skeptical.

Zuzu rips into the third chapter of Dawn Eden’s book, The Thrill of the Chaste (the parts Zuzu quotes sound as unintelligent as the title).

The chapter opens with a description of a continuing education course on “Living Single.” Dawn reads the description — which is all about helping people confidently navigate the single world, whether they’ve never left it or are re-entering it — and all she sees is “lack.”

She would, wouldn’t she?

I mean, her whole life, she’s felt lacking, and though she’s changed her strategy, her goal is the same: get married. Thing is, as she does so many times, she breezes right by the point. The course is designed to alleviate some of the social pressure that single adults feel to be in a couple, that they are in fact lacking something. It’s designed to help people understand that they don’t need to be in a couple to have fulfilling lives. But Dawn just sees the course as evidence that women are mired in a pathetic, pop-culturally-dictated “single lifestyle” that is all about lack — that lack being, of course, lack of a man and lack of God.

Finally, Bora collects all Darwin Day posts in one big link post. I haven’t had time to look at them yet, but you should.

Generic Issues

February 7, 2007

1. I intended to dedicate this day to Giuliani, not McCain. So here it goes: Giuliani had nothing to do with the drop in crime in New York. The blue dot is when Giuliani’s predecessor, Dinkins, assumed office. The red dot is when Giuliani assumed office.


(The data comes from here)

2. Tyler blogs about a right-wing nut who complains that Israel is recognizing gay marriages performed in other countries: “The pro-family official’s concern, he explains, is that Israel’s acceptance of same-sex marriage will give ammunition to its Islamic enemies and fuel their propaganda.” Tyler notes that this is just the Dinesh D’Souza strategy of saying that conservative values are good because the terrorists hate liberal values.

My own comment on that is that the greatest number of Palestinian terrorist attacks is on settlers, who are fairly religious, and on targets in Jerusalem, a conservative city. Attacks on liberal Tel Aviv are the most spectacular, but while half of Israel’s Jewish population lives in Tel Aviv metro, far fewer than half of Palestinian attacks are on Tel Aviv metro.

3. Hat-tip to JD2718: Ray of Education and Technology rips into the Wall Street Journal, which decided to resurrect the meme that public school teachers work 7 hours a week. Based on calculating the number of hours they spend teaching, it arrived at an hourly pay figure of $34/hour. Based on calculating the actual number of hours they work, including teaching, staff meetings, and grading, $15/hour is closer to reality.

Also due to JD2718, the NYC Department of Education’s fetish for small schools combines the worst features of small schools and large schools. Ordinary small schools have their own buildings and are self-contained enough to teach 400-500 students independently. New York’s small schools share the same building with other schools, so they have to coordinate things like bells; a better way to describe them would be large schools supervised by committee.

4. Wal-Mart’s dreadful history of discriminating against women is finally resulting in a trial. Wal-Mart isn’t even denying that the discrimination exists, but instead tries weaseling out of a class action lawsuit and says individual women should sue individual stores.

In a way this is significant beyond Wal-Mart, because the company’s ridiculous claim that it “did not have a policy of discriminating against women” can help underscore a strict liability doctrine in civil rights cases. A corporation is responsible for making sure it’s an equal opportunity employer; if it isn’t aggressively punishing managers who discriminate, it’s exposed to class action lawsuits. It’s just how states are responsible for making sure their militaries don’t murder civilians when occupying a foreign country.

5. Hamas and Fatah are negotiating in Mecca. They’ve been negotiating for a while; while their leaders are talking to each other about how to forge a unity government, their foot soldiers are killing each other as well as any civilians who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

China and Aid

February 6, 2007

That a lot of people miss that the Western emphasis on human rights in foreign policy is simply an advanced form of realpolitik is understandable. That Hu Jintao not only is among the people who miss that but also tries to deliberately spite that policy by giving direct aid to the Sudanese government to build a new Presidential palace is less understandable.

One of the most tragic consequences of the clash of civilizations theory is that it portrays current practices as inherent cultural notions. But the West has only imposed sanctions on regimes that violate human rights after World War Two, and especially after the Cold War. Before then, its central foreign affairs dogma was the same idea of strict national sovereignty that China’s trying to work from now.

What changed the West is obvious. But even after World War Two, realpolitik dominated American foreign policy. There was a significant contingent of liberals who wanted a greater emphasis on human rights in foreign affairs, but they were weaker than the moderates and conservatives, who favored political realism.

“They’re oppressing their people” remained a good way to get the people on board foreign adventures, but that isn’t a Western democratic notion. Arabs who aren’t Palestinians feel no particular affinity with Palestinians, and yet respond positively to propaganda campaigns based on Israel’s abuse of Palestine.

The processes that then caused the West to do something about a few human rights violations abroad were more about political pressure than about altruism: South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Bosnia. Elsewhere, it had no trouble doing nothing, as in Rwanda, or actively supporting totalitarians, as in Afghanistan.

Liberalism isn’t the only universalizing ideology. Communism, Islamism, Dominionism, and fascism are just as universalizing. Democratic governments are unlikely to be hostile to other democracies; not coincidentally, democracies try encouraging other countries to be democratic in order to protect themselves. Governments always treat exceptions to the rule as hostile political systems: the US overthrew social democracies in the Cold War, Stalin boycotted communist regimes that didn’t toe his line, and fascists only apologize for allied fascist regimes.

In other words, China’s foreign policy is based on the same idea as this of the US or the EU: support allies, increase your global influence, and protect your political system. The EU does this by promoting democratization in Eastern Europe; China does this by protecting authoritarian regimes.

The other contention in the article, the one about the Western approach to development, is more about competence than about ideology. The Western notion that economic development opens up the political system just doesn’t work. Singapore and the Gulf states have Western European GDPs per capita.

Normally, the mechanism that’s supposed to work is economic aid tied to political reforms. In that, China’s aid to the palace indeed shows the Western idea doesn’t work. The way to get allies is by subsidizing the leaders’ extravagances, and only giving the people enough welfare to discourage them from rebelling. That’s how American machine politics worked, how Islamist welfare works, and how Chinese aid works.

Doing anything useful to people with direct aid is impossible. The closest thing in modern history that came close to it and worked is the Marshall Plan, which also involved close economic cooperation and unilateral removal of American tariffs on European goods. The Soviet Union was offered aid but refused it, precisely because of the economic cooperation it entailed.

Direct aid is just charity: it’s a money sink that keeps people one step ahead of famine but doesn’t let them develop. Unfortunately, the main alternative to it is IMF-style restructuring, which doesn’t even do that. In contrast, a better form of development aid would concentrate on three things, two of which are unfortunately off the mainstream radar and one of which is practiced only on the limited basis.

The first is import replacement. Countries develop by having cities that replace imports and are productive enough to be able to absorb technological unemployment by redirecting the people to new kinds of work. Rural areas never develop; they just bleed people to the cities, as new technologies cause long-term unemployment.

The second is requiring governments to invest in productive infrastructure. Saudi Arabia will start developing the day Ghawar hits peak production. As long as it can invest in oil instead of in people, it can keep its population too poor and uneducated to revolt. This can be achieved mostly by a combination of technological developments that bypass problematics countries like Saudi Arabia, since it’s impossible to sanction resource-rich countries successfully. The Iraq sanctions only strengthened Saddam’s domestic power.

And the third is to promote democracy the right way. The Polish and Georgian models, which involve widespread delegitimization and NGO-induced grassroots liberalism respectively, work. The Iraqi model, which involves military invasion, doesn’t. The US doesn’t need to spend a cent of aid to democratize Iran. Five years ago, it needed to invest in some pro-democracy NGOs; today, all it needs is to stop engaging, in order to ensure the level of regime support remains abysmal.

There is no lesson to learn from China’s aid to Sudan that concerns the West’s conception of aid. The only lesson to learn is about the perennial intra-liberal debate: how does one turn a depressed dictatorship into a prosperous liberal democracy?

News or Links, Take Your Pick

February 4, 2007

Guestblogging on Ezra Klein, Ankush notes that Edwards is even more of a waffler than he comes off in Ezra’s interview. He notes that Edwards blames the war on intelligence failure, and rebuts,

Today, I’d like to see a presidential candidate grapple with the questions that should be raised about why so many politicians — including, if you supported the war on the basis of WMDs, you — were so wrong when it was far from inevitable. What do you plan to do about promoting and reconciling dissent within the intelligence agencies? How should a President seek out conflicting viewpoints and process the contradictions? What should be the default presumptions when, as is often the case, you have very little intelligence to work off of? Are you concerned that Washington is dominated by a fairly homogeneous, vaguely hawkish group of foreign policy types, many of whom aren’t particularly good at what they do? In essence, why were you wrong in interpreting the evidence about Iraq and what do you plan to do in order not to be wrong the next time?

Edwards’s claims that the intelligence was irretrievably tainted and that everyone was wrong about the wisdom of war — claims which, to be fair, are frequently made by many, many other politicians and pundits — are so demonstrably false as to be borderline offensive. I appreciate his sincerity about his regret over the tragic costs of this war, but, so far as evaluating one’s participation in bringing this disaster about, expressing such regret is quite literally the least you can do.

A few days ago, Hamas and Fatah set a record by holding their fire for a whole day. But as the second day of quitting smoking chocolate coffee indiscriminate violence is always harder than the first, it didn’t work out very well, and Palestinian civilians are living in fear again.

Gazans have long been accustomed to violence. But until recently, the fighting was between local militants and Israeli forces, and the lines of battle were clear.

The last few weeks of fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen have taken on a different feel. Gunfire can erupt at any time, poorly trained fighters shoot at random, and the target isn’t always known.

Rudy Giuliani is still not “in it to win,” but is saying there’s a “good chance he’ll run.”

He has emphasized his steady hand dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. However, his moderate stances on gun control, abortion, gay rights and other social issues could be liabilities for him in a GOP presidential primary that includes hard-core conservatives as a central voting group.

For instance, in November, South Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex unions.

“The fact is I appeal to conservative Christians the way I appeal to everyone else,” Giuliani said at a news conference. “I don’t think you have separate appeals to people.”

Giuliani is right. A very big constituency in the South includes people who think it was a mistake to give black people civil rights; Giuliani has a lot to sell them. Another big constituency hates it when non-conformists have free speech; Giuliani can placate them, too. Before Southern conservatives had God, guns, and gays, they had blacks. has a compilation of information about the HPV vaccine, which Texas Governor Rick Perry has just made mandatory for all girls aged 11-12.

Tony Blair is not only a lame duck Prime Minister, but also under immense pressure to quit now rather than in the summer. It’s not the brown-nosing of Bush or the religious fanaticism that turned the people off, but a corruption scandal involving cash for honors.

The ICM survey for the Sunday Express found that 56 per cent of the public want him to go now rather than wait for his planned summer departure.

The poll found that 43 per cent of Labour supporters feel it is now time for him to step down.

The survey also reveals a loss of trust in the Blair regime with some 66 per cent believing that evidence relating to cash-for-honours allegations has been covered up by people in Downing Street.

Victoria Brittain notes that there is such a thing as Islamic feminism, and that it has achieved several successes in rolling back discriminatory laws in Muslim-majority countries.

Embattled Muslim women, suffering the burdens of the worst cultural attitudes to rape and adultery enshrined in medieval laws in Pakistan and Northern Nigeria; or the sexual violence and rolling back of their rights, unleashed by the war in Iraq; or the targeted killings of women activists in Afghanistan, are turning for help to Muslim women’s groups. From those in Morocco and Malaysia, in particular, the skills of self-help training, experience of long legal battles, linking scholars and activists, are in great demand.

At government policy levels some, Islamic women activists’ campaigns are having successes large and small in some surprising places: Morocco’s Moudawana (religious personal statute laws differing from civil law) have recently been revised after 30 years of struggle; in Turkey’s Ministry of Religion there is a cautious beginning by some scholars to work on the highly sensitive area of questioning the historical basis of the hadith (sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet) which seem misogynist; and in Indonesia’s rural areas teaching materials are being revised.

The Democratic Party is waffling about abortion, as its candidates deemphasize it more and more in order to appeal to Dominionist voters.

Day believes it is the beginning of getting some voters back into the fold. “If I had a nickel for every person who came up to me and said ‘I used to be a Democrat and I’d come back if they changed their stance on abortion,’ we’d be back to a 290 majority like we had in the 1970s.”

Day’s analogy is correct but incomplete. If the Democrats appeal to Dominionists, they’ll be back to a 290 majority in the House like in the 1970s; and like in the 1970s, they’ll have Southern conservatives hold key committee chairmanships that they’ll use to push the entire party to the right.

Skatje writes about homosexuality and the religious nuts who have a problem with it.

You let your bible tell you to shun gays, but you don’t pay attention when it tells you to shun women on their period? The bible says a lot of ridiculous things. You shouldn’t take the “unnatural affections” being a sin bits any more serious than the parts where it says to dash your enemy’s children against rocks or stone disobedient women to death. The reason I figure for including the part about homosexuality in the bible is the same reason they include various sorts of washing, staying away from dead bodies, etc. At the time these things were written, they didn’t know about bacteria and how disease works. They just knew that if you did such and such, you’re less likely to become ill. Anal sex can be unsanitary without the proper precautions. Back then, it was probably a good idea not to stick that there. I’m also undoubtedly sure that homosexuality is mentioned because the bible is notorious for disapproving of things that are different or unusual. Not very good justification though. Don’t let the bible tell you to hate stuff, ‘kay? Use your own head.

The best quote comes from commenter Azkyroth, who mocks a theistic commenter who confuses “canon” with “cannon,”

Also, “canon” is the official Christian doctrine; “cannon” are what they’ve been using to spread the canon since the cannon was invented.

Hat-tip to Robin: Timothy Garton Ash responds to Pascal Bruckner, who accused him of being an Islamist apologist after he criticized Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names. I list below some of his misrepresentations and inaccuracies, with a few weblinks for the curious.

Pascal Bruckner speaks in the name of the Enlightenment, but he betrays its essential spirit. The Enlightenment believed in free expression, without taboos. Because I disagree – courteously, precisely and giving clear reasons – with the views of a woman of Somalian origin, Bruckner does not hesitate to imply that I am a racist (he calls me “an apostle of multiculturalism,” then describes multiculturalism as a “racism of the anti-racists”) and a sexist (“outmoded machismo”, “the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes”). This is exactly the kind of blanket disqualification that he himself criticised in an article in Le Figaro entitled “Le chantage a l’Islamophobie,” (reprinted from Figaro here) deploring the way any critic of Islam is (dis)qualified as an Islamophobe racist. Except that here he is the blackmailer. Voltaire would be ashamed of him.

Freedom from Religion

February 4, 2007

Revere writes about a religion panel on CNN that berated an atheist family that got ostracized when it complained about officially-sanctioned prayer in public schools, and concluded that freedom of religion doesn’t exist. The money quotes from the panel are,

Hunter: I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they’re being imposed upon. I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools. I would rather there be some morality in schools. But they did that because an atheist went to court and said their child — don’t pray.

Schlussel: Listen, we are a Christian nation. I’m not a Christian. I’m Jewish, but I recognize we’re a Christian country and freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.

Freedom of religion means that one has the right to practice one’s religion, within reasonable legal parameters. Choosing to eat kosher food falls under freedom of religion; stoning unchaste women doesn’t. That right appears in every liberal democratic constitution I know of, along with freedom of speech.

Freedom from religion means that one has the right not to have another religion imposed on him. This is somewhat fuzzier, since a lot of religious restrictions have ostensibly secular purposes. But even then, it’s usually possible to tell intuitively what violates freedom from religion and what doesn’t. Requiring all women to wear hijabs does, as does pressuring children to pray in public schools. Having no non-kosher restaurants in the neighborhood doesn’t.

That freedom is just as legally enshrined as freedom of religion. Sometimes, it’s enumerated explicitly in a constitution. At other times it’s not, but is inferred from other freedoms: freedom of speech, privacy, freedom of religion, and so on. In the US there is no explicit guarantee of freedom from religion, but there is a guarantee of the closest principle, separation of church and state. That ensures the state may not impose religious restrictions that have no clear secular purpose.

We can bicker about what “secular purpose” means, but usually the best appeal is to the justifications people give for a restriction. Restrictions on abortion or stem cell research are often motivated by religion, but justified by appealing to a secular principle. The same applies to some obscenity laws, especially those about the media. In contrast, bans on homosexuality and sodomy laws are almost exclusively justified by talking about God, which makes them impositions of religious values on the general population.

In principle, it’s possible to have freedom of religion without freedom from religion. In practice, it never happens. When there’s a sufficiently strong state religion, it always uses its power against other religions. Saudi Arabia doesn’t content itself with legislating the Shari’a; it also forbids Jews and Christians to establish houses of worship. In the West, Christian fundamentalists are at the forefront of the movement to turn Muslims into second class citizens.

Illiberal people tend to have an annoying tendency to see things in terms of power rather than of liberty. It makes them sound realist, but in fact they aren’t. Instead of seeing the world as it is, they deduce that what happens in realpolitik is a good moral compass. People seek unlimited power; therefore, our group should seek unlimited power.

Talking about one’s freedom to have a public school impose one’s prayer on everyone is dishonest. It’s not a question of freedom but of power, since the essence of that power is to deny freedom to others. Christian parents who use their power to enforce Christianity on atheist children are looking for freedom to the same extent as white families that prohibit blacks from living next door.

Germany Stands Firm on Civil Liberties

February 1, 2007

A German court issued warrants for the arrest of 13 people who kidnapped an innocent German citizen and detained him in a CIA secret prison.

Prosecutors in Munich said the suspects, whom they did not identify, were part of a C.I.A. “abduction team” that seized the man, Khaled el-Masri, in Macedonia in late 2003 and flew him to Afghanistan. He was imprisoned there for five months, during which, he said, he was shackled, beaten and interrogated about alleged ties to Al Qaeda, before being released without charges.

His ordeal is the most extensively documented case of the C.I.A.’s practice of “extraordinary rendition,” in which terrorism suspects are seized and sent for interrogation to other countries, including some in which torture is practiced.

“This is a very consequential step,” August Stern, the prosecutor in Munich, said in a telephone interview. “It is a necessary step before bringing a criminal case against these people.”

Naturally, the United States will actively try to derail the investigation. The International Criminal Court, whose authority it won’t accept, deals with far graver matters than the kidnapping and torture of one innocent civilian. A country irresponsible enough to believe its isolationist sense of national pride is more important than human rights won’t cooperate with any such investigation.

However, Germany has been a possibly unwitting enabler to many of the USA’s atrocities; the CIA uses Frankfurt Airport as well as the US base at Ramstein as hubs for its activities. The warrant can dragoon the federal government of Germany to be less cooperative, making it harder for the CIA to kidnap people. In addition, that and an older Italian warrant for the arrest of 25 CIA agents will make it harder for those agents to move around Europe.

Venezuelan Democracy, RIP

January 30, 2007

If I didn’t know better, I’d say Hugo Chavez is trying to prove Hayek right. For years he managed to ram through economic reforms while maintaining the integrity of Venezuelan democracy. But democracy appears to be too inconvenient for him now.

Venezuela’s congress approved a request by President Hugo Chavez for the power to make law by decree for 18 months, opening the way for an overhaul of the country’s economic and political life.

Lawmakers unanimously approved the request in a televised vote.

Chavez has pledged to use his new power to nationalize “strategic” companies in the telephone, electricity and oil industries, establish new taxes on second houses, boats and luxury goods, and eliminate more than 100 municipalities.

The more time passes, the more Chavez looks like a mongrel hybrid of John Birch, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. He has Birch’s paranoia, Giuliani’s autocratic personality, and Bush’s respect for democratic institutions. A long time ago, I was disturbed enough by his rhetoric alone to compare him to Argentina’s Juan Perón. At the time, the people I was talking to told me it was nonsense because Perón was never a democrat, while Chavez was. My record of being right on Iraq in 2003, Lebanon in 2006, and now Venezuela in 2007 makes me scared that I’m also right about the entire world in 2020-21.

Outrage Links

January 25, 2007

Lindsay has an ongoing series on Julie Amero, the teacher who is facing jail time because some spyware showed porn to her students. She has an article up on the Huffington Post about it, and a further explanation about why Amero didn’t immediately closed the offending windows.

Steve Gilliard embeds a video of someone who needs a Queer Eye makeover singing “God hates fags.” Personally I was most bothered by the line, “With a man you shall not lay.” It wasn’t the implicit sexism, but the use of “lay” when “lie” is needed (hat-tip to Bruce).

Jenny writes about the history of lobotomy, which was to treat for every psychiatric condition, real or imagined. Lobotomies have a specific purpose: to remove damaged brain tissue. Psychological problems aren’t usually about damaged brain tissue, but rather about overall chemical imbalances. To quote Simon on Firefly, “Why anyone would cut into a healthy brain…”

Skatje complains about nationalist hysteria, as manifested in the American notion that the US flag should have rights (which, incidentally, Clinton is happily flip-flopping on). Skatje comments, “Nationalism terrifies me. A country should never come before human rights. If that’s not a step towards a fascist regime, I don’t know what is. To add to my disgust, America packages nationalism as a virtue called “patriotism.” They’re more or less synonymous, but patriotism is a euphemism.”

Skatje’s dad PZ writes about a political science professor who’s under fire because she sent people an email from her university account asking to “put together a Team Franken.”

Echidne notes that the State of the Union address included lengthy references to freedom in a Middle Eastern context, without saying a single word about the USA’s role in destroying Iraq, or Israel’s role in increasing the sympathies for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Tyler posted a picture of himself. If that’s not outrage, I don’t know what is.

Jill stumbled upon a site for the vanguard of a Christian version of the Taliban‘s dress code for women. Discussion topics on the website include the importance of modesty, the need for women to make sure men don’t sin, and micromanagement to ensure that no behavior, including turning heads, causes men to sin.

On My Left Wing, There Is No Spoon is writing about the Republican threat to filibuster the minimum wage increase in the Senate. My first response is, “How the hell is Reid unable to get cloture on a bill that passed the House 3 to 1?”. My second is the same as There Is No Spoon’s: “I have absolutely no problem with watching the GOP bring Speaker Pelosi’s incredibly popular 100 hours legislation to a dead halt in the Senate by filibustering the one most popular piece of that agenda.”