Friday, March 29, 2013

Harm religion causes - does this count?

I know a lot of Westerners don't pay a lot of attention to the Eastern world, after all, they aren't white, are they?  But this is a story which should be seen around the world, especially here, where religious fervor can reach a fevered pitch sometimes.

In India, recently, a family of eight gathered together and performed a religious ritual.  Not unusual, not so far.

But this ritual had been repeated some 5100 times in the last five years, in an attempt to draw the presence of the god Shiva.  Not a ghost, not an image, but the real, physical god, and this ritual involved offerings of blood.  Real, human blood.  Drawn by syringe, fortunately, not sacrifice (hmm, maybe that's why it didn't work?) but still, one cannot fault the faith, here.

This time, the father had gathered the family, convinced that his constant rituals over the last five years would finally cause his god to appear before his family in person, to prove his faith and power, I'd suppose.  The problem is, it still didn't work.  No god.  Not even a wavering image, much less the real physical Shiva.

So, Pop went into the other room, brought out some candy, stuffed some unidentifiable substance into that candy, and fed it to his family.  In minutes, all but three of them were dead, including at least two children.

No, he didn't murder them out of some spite, they all apparently knew it was going to happen.  The whole thing was videotaped.  They all spoke and gladly spoke of meeting again in heaven, where two of them were to be united in marriage there.

Imagine!  Marriage in heaven, in front of your god!  What a wonderful attraction!

I think most of us would agree, this was a terrible tragedy.  So does the Times of India.  Probably so do most of the population of that country.  But some don't, some see these people as true believers, and maybe even envy them their good fortune.

Which is kinda the point.  99.99999999999% of the human race agree that this kind of faith is misplaced, tragic and simply wrong.  And also, most of us have different faith backgrounds, different beliefs and different ideas about how these this might work.

Kind of like Pascal's wager, isn't it?  Just writ large, taking into account ALL of the different religious versions out there, and that wager rapidly gets out of hand and looks like a poor bet.

THIS is why religion is dangerous.  It leads people to do what almost all of us would agree is something stupid.  Something hurtful, something tragic.  Yes, most people don't do this.

But the ONLY reason why these people do is because of religion.  There is no other reason, and there certainly are not any secular reasons why this would make sense.  Just because there are few actual numbers of people who go this far does not give the religious doctrines that cause it to happen a pass. If people today truly gave a damn and cared, they would, alter their religious doctrines and scriptures to prevent this from happening.

But nobody ever does, and that is why those of us on the outside blame the religion.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I wish the fight over equal rights would just go away!

"Go away", as in "become so normal and unremarkable that nobody ever thinks of it as an issue."

Sorry about that headline, but, you know, headlines should grab your attention.  If you are still with me, hey, it did!  Hang around, I've got something to say.

There are a lot of other things I wish would go away as a national issue, just like that.

Women's rights.
Racism, in the form of Immigration
the Debt.
The Deficit.

If you look at all of those issues, they have a couple of things in common.  First, they are all right wing issues.  Not hard, was it?  Second, they are all what we call "dog whistles".  Issues that, when called up, tend to excite the base and get them to the polls.

Third, they provide a distraction, moving the political conversation into paths of conversation with no solution, so those conversations can continue to hog headlines ad nauseum for one primary purpose:

Distract the voters from recognizing the fact that the Republican Party has no solution to the real problems this country faces - a high unemployment rate, rich right wing billionaires who want to buy the political process, and a political agenda by the religious right to bring religion to the fore in control of our lives, using the political process itself to emasculate that process.

Oh, and also the fact that the last item is a secondary goal of the Republican party, not a primary one.  Witness the fact that since a number of Republicans have come out in favor of marriage equality, the religious right has begun threatening to take their marbles and leave the Republicans to form their own third party.  A move that would cut the Republicans off at the knees by taking half their base along with it, guaranteeing Democratic wins for at least the remainder of this decade if not resulting in the destruction of the Republican Party as a viable national party.

Oh, as for you Democrats out there, you can stop chortling.

The recent re-election of President Obama and the right wing meltdown has hidden the very real issues that he will inevitably face if his problems with the Republicans ever get pushed to the back burner.  Issues that, if they don't, will devolve onto his successor, should he/she be a Democrat.

Things like the drone war.  Guantanamo and human rights violations under both Republican and Democratic Administrations.  Warrantless wiretapping.  The Patriot Act.

All these things started out as Republican initiatives, and in spite of fervent hopes by many Democrats, have continued under the Obama Administration as if they were his own idea.  The ONLY Republican initiative ended by President Obama was the torture thing.  Yeah, kudos to him, but he's still got people we tortured under lock and key in Cuba without trial as if the US government is not governed by the US Constitution on foreign soil.

I've got news for you.  It still is.  There are no indications that the Founders intended for that document's guiding principles of organization and delegated powers to end at the water's edge!  It also didn't specify that the protection of rights was limited to only American citizens, either.  Not to mention the International Agreements and Conventions we are probably violating every day we continue to hold those men.  It bothered me when Bush did it, and it bothers me worse now.

I won't pretend that these issues are simple.  They are not.  Obviously, the Guantanamo thing is complicated by the fact that if we do release some of those guys, they will go right back to plotting against us.  Yep, and the way we treated them did nothing to win their forbearance, either.  Had we refrained from torture and relied on standard, traditional methods of evidence gathering, we could have tried these guys long ago and disposed of the cases normally.

But we didn't.  We used torture to gather information, and even if none of the info we got that way is any good, it still taints the stuff we did get to prove our case, even if it was gathered normally.  In other words, if we try them in Federal Court, the courts will release these guys so fast, they'll break the sound barrier.

I do think that once we get some real progressives on the SCOTUS, those other things will collapse like a house of cards, and when they do, the Democrats had better have their ducks in order.

You do hear about this stuff.  The memes do pop up every once on a while on Facebook, and articles do get written about them.  They are just overshadowed by the Republican dog whistles.

The Democrats had better get some ear plugs and stop listening to those dog whistles and start dealing with the real issues we face, or eventually, they will catch up with them, and the voters will not be kind.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Well, the arguments have been argued, now we wait.

Today, the SCOTUS heard the arguments for and against Prop 8, the California Proposition to ban gay marriage.

Justice Alito made a comment today, during the session.

"Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new. I think it was first adopted in The Netherlands in 2000. So there isn't a lot of data about its effect. And it may turn out to be a -- a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing, as the supporters of Proposition 8 apparently believe. 
"But you want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution, which is newer than cell phones or the Internet? I mean we -- we are not -- we do not have the ability to see the future. On a question like that, of such fundamental importance, why should it not be left for the people, either acting through initiatives and referendums or through their elected public officials?"
I thought the argument in support of overturning the ban was about equal protection before the law.  The Supreme Court does not have as part of its jurisdiction the consideration of whether a thing is good or not, but whether it is in accordance with the Constitution and past SCOTUS rulings.

The ultimate ability to decide the goodness or badness of a thing is the people's basic right to alter the Constitution if they see that thing as bad. In this case, a consensus of the population of this country is rapidly reaching the point where a majority of us see marriage equality as a good thing.

So, no, we don't want you to rule based in its inherent goodness or badness, we want you to rule according to the inherent rights of all Americans based on the Constitution.

Period, end of story.

Friday, March 22, 2013

We talk about freedom, but what is it?

The right wing likes to talk about freedom, and how it is guaranteed by the Constitution.  As Americans, we often take it for granted.

But what IS freedom?  What does it mean?  How do we exercise it and how is it protected?  More importantly, how is it abridged, why is it abridged and why is it that abridgment of some freedoms a good thing?

First of all, what it freedom?

The Constitution, in the Preamble, tells us that the Constitution exists "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...", but the Declaration of Independence says that we are endowed by our "Creator" (a very Deist term) "...with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

Hmm, lots of stuff there, but very little to be gleaned as freedom, per se.  Lots about rights, though!  It does, however, speak of liberty.

Merriam-Webster says about that:

1  the quality or state of being free:

  • the power to do as one pleases
  • freedom from physical restraint
  • freedom from arbitrary or despotic control
  • the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges
  • the power of choice
Aha!  Now we're getting somewhere.  When our founding documents talk about Liberty, it is freedom they mean!

Now, as we talk about these, the very first item here brings up a very good question.  If you are free to do what you please, what if the thing that pleases you doesn't please me?  Yep, things are getting a bit sticky already, aren't they?

Well, there's a very good quote that covers that one, "Your freedom to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose."  In other words, our freedoms are not unrestrained.  The Supreme Court has ruled that one's right to speak your mind is pretty unrestrained, as far as political speech is concerned, but, you cannot shout "fire" in a crowded theater, due to the imminent danger to life and limb represented by the panic and chaos unleashed by such a shout.  Other words, termed "fighting words", are similarly restrained under certain circumstances, due to the incendiary nature that utterance may have on others' minds and behaviors.  Again, the imminent nature of the danger is paramount.

So, no, you can't always do what you please!

How about being free from physical restraint?

Again, the rights of others are the major constraint on each of us.  We all have the freedom to move about both on our own property and in public spaces - but are restrained from trespassing on others' property, and the government has the power to control public spaces for such purposes as public safety, national security secrets, traffic control and so forth.

Break the law, and you'll find out about another aspect of physical restraint as well!  So, no, that freedom isn't unrestrained, either.

How about the freedom from arbitrary or despotic control?

Ok, that one is pretty clear, on the face of it.  The very nature of the Constitution is supposed to be proof against despotic control, isn't it?  Arbitrary?  Well, theoretically, yeah, but from a practical standpoint, government by nature can be arbitrary, and the fix for that, going to court, is expensive and tedious!  But, the right wing is adamant that freedom means free from government interference in our private lives.

Ok, the next one is a good one!  Positive enjoyment!  That's my bag!  Social, political and economic rights and privileges!  Yeah!  Well, then again, I AM white, Anglo-Saxon Protes... well, ok, I'm not Protestant, so let's toss that one out, but hey, nobody's perfect, right?

But wait.  There's a problem.  A very practical problem.  A lot of people are not what the majority of this country have traditionally seen as "normal" Americans.  Minority ethnic groups, minority religions, atheists, "foreigners"....and women.

The political right wing have traditionally been defenders of Conservatism.  Which is the defense of "the good ole' days" when the majority ruling group felt comfortably in charge, unrestrained, and able to define "freedom" in their own terms!

The days when gays had to be in the closet just to stay alive, blacks were free to live on the poor side of the tracks and were free to work in the poorest jobs available, hispanics were free to work anywhere they wanted, as long as it was limited to field or yard work and Asians were preferably just invisible.  Atheists were also supposed to be invisible, if not just a nasty myth.

And, of course, women.  Ah, women!  The flower of motherhood!  Yep, barefoot and pregnant was the preferred mode, kept in the kitchen, unless being "pampered" as an expectant mother.

Which brings us to Choice.  You know, the choice women have never had until the Twentieth Century came along and gave them the power of the vote, release from the restraint of needing a husband to own property and the freedom to divorce.  The freedom of contraceptives which gave them the freedom for the very first time to have a career outside of the home and away from the overpowering control of hubby.

You know, all those hard won freedoms the right wing want to take back?

Freedom is not an arbitrary word defining something nebulous or hard to come to terms with.  It is at the very heart of our founding documents, both of which mention Liberty as one of the most important things we went to war with Great Britain to obtain and built a new form of government to protect.

It is something which must be constantly under guard, and is also something constantly being re-defined, from generation to generation.  It is so important that the most important freedoms were enshrined in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, to restrain the government from violating them.

That includes the States, brought under the aegis of the Constitution's restraints by the Fourteenth Amendment.  You know, the States which have been busily taking back the essential rights of women that the Twentieth Century gave them?  The States which have gone to great lengths to constrain abortion rights which were guaranteed under Roe Vs. Wade and would, if they could, take contraception as well, which would lead to the loss of so many other freedoms women have enjoyed as a result of.

Yeah, that's what this is all about.  Freedom, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness.

And a conservative Party which would take all of that away to redefine this country back to what it was over two hundred years ago.

Indentured servants.  Slaves.  No middle class, no birth control, no divorce, no reproductive rights at all.  All of the economic rights and privileges reserved for the wealthy and the white landed men.

Even if I were religious and fit their definition of the ruling class, I don't think I'd be comfortable there.

I don't think most Americans today would either.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Let's talk death. Penalties, that is...electric chairs, lethal drugs.

The death penalty has been a hot button issue in this country for just about as long as I can remember.  Certainly since the 60's.  I grew up in Texas, and down there, it's popular.  Texas has officially killed more people annually than some cities have murders annually.

On June 25, 1790, the United States executed its first inmate.  U.S. Marshall Henry Dearborn coordinated the hanging of Thomas Bird in Massachusetts. Dearborn spent five dollars and fifty cents for the construction of a gallows and a coffin.

Since that time, opposition to the death penalty has been slow but steady.  The first inkling was the softening of statutes into different degrees and categories, but later:

Starting around 1833, "public executions were attacked as cruel. Sometimes tens of thousands of eager viewers would show up to view hangings; local merchants would sell souvenirs and alcohol. Fighting and pushing would often break out as people jockeyed for the best view of the hanging or the corpse! Onlookers often cursed the widow or the victim and would try to tear down the scaffold or the rope for keepsakes. Violence and drunkenness often ruled towns far into the night after 'justice had been served.'
Many states enacted laws providing private hangings. Rhode Island (1833), Pennsylvania (1834), New York (1835), Massachusetts (1835), and New Jersey (1835) all abolished public hangings. By 1849, fifteen states were holding private hangings. This move was opposed by many death penalty abolitionists who thought public executions would eventually cause people to cry out against execution itself. For example, in 1835, Maine enacted what was in effect a moratorium on capital punishment after over ten thousand people who watched a hanging had to be restrained by police after they became unruly and began fighting. All felons sentenced to death would have to remain in prison at hard labor and could not be executed until one year had elapsed and then only on the governor's order. No governor ordered an execution under the 'Maine Law' for twenty-seven years." 
Michael H. Reggio "History of the Death Penalty," (accessed Dec. 16, 2009)
By the twentieth century, electricity and gas were in use around the US as a more humane means of execution.

The last public execution occurred in 1936, and several botched executions gave the issue some concern, but the real opposing movement to the death penalty didn't begin until 1955.

On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the death penalty unconstitutional as administered:

"In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 29, 1972 that in all cases before the court, the death penalty as administered violated the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments. Of the five Supreme Court Justices, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall were alone in declaring the death penalty unconstitutional as a form of punishment entirely. Justice Brennan was sweeping in his indictment, claiming the death penalty was unconstitutional for any crime, any person, using any method. All five justices concurred on the grounds of arbitrariness. Specifically, Justice Stewart proclaimed that the decisions were randomly made as if 'being struck by lightening.' At the same time the death penalty was declared random, it was also declared discriminatory in its application...
The Furman decision invalidated the death penalty statutes in several states. Thirty-five states responded to this ruling, not by abolishing capital punishment, but by using Furman as a guideline for developing a constitutionally acceptable statute. During this moratorium, hundreds of sentences were commuted to life imprisonment."
In subsequent years, numerous States have revamped their death penalties to adhere to the new ruling and have continued to execute inmates.

In April, 2012, Connecticut abolished the death penalty, and this week, the Maryland legislature voted to abolish the death penalty as well.  Of course, the issue isn't over - it still must be passed by the House of Delegates and be signed by the Governor, who has promised to sign it.  He has written a most interesting article about his reasoning in a post here.

Maryland would be the 18th State to abolish the death penalty if it succeeds.

My own personal problem with the death penalty is outlined pretty well by the governor:
Between 2000 and 2011, an average of 5 death row inmates were exonerated every year. In Maryland, between 1995 and 2007, our state’s reversal rate for the death penalty was 80 percent.   (emphasis mine - CA)
By 1999 the city of Baltimore had become the most violent and drug addicted city in America. Through all the preceding decades of rising violence, the death penalty was on the books and did absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening. Effective policing, expanded drug treatment, smarter strategies, new technologies to solve crime and target repeat violent offenders — these are the things that work to drive down violent crime.
Just as the death penalty did not prevent Baltimore from becoming the most violent city in America in the 1990s, it also contributed nothing at all to Baltimore’s historic reductions in crime over the last decade.
Nor has the death penalty had any positive impact on our more recent statewide success in Maryland, in driving down violent crime and homicides to three-decade lows. 
Every dollar we throw at maintaining an ineffective death penalty is a dollar we are not investing in the strategies and tactics that actually work to save lives.
 I would add that the most disturbing part of the problem is this:

Capital punishment is not a deterrent, it is not fool-proof, it is administered with great racial disparity, it costs three times as much as life without parole, and there is no way to reverse a mistake when an innocent person is wrongly convicted.
 Personally, I have always argued that it would be a deterrent if it were more swiftly administered, but with the current system having such flaws that make it so racially unbalanced, I see no way to fix that problem any time soon!

The topper is the absolute refusal in many jurisdictions by prosecutors and often courts to allow DNA evidence after the fact to overturn a conviction, allowing sloppy police work and often sheer racial animosity to keep the condemned on death row.

Don't get me wrong.  I do believe that some people are so unremittingly evil and have done such horribly bad things that they really should be executed.  I'd rather spend more to kill them than to keep them alive in such cases, and I do believe that society has a right to use the power of the State to do so in extreme cases.

But given that it is a penalty that cannot be reversed once applied, we'd damn sure better be right, and today, in virtually every State, we just aren't.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What this guy what I mean.

I've had a hard time explaining my opposition to the Roman Catholic Church to some folks, who just don't understand my opposition to the hierarchy, not the people.

So, I am going to try one more time, but this time, I've got somebody else to help me put it in better terms, and perhaps those who have misunderstood can better see my points.

So, here goes.  This article, by Andrew O'Hehir, at Alternet, is entitled, "Is Pope Francis a Fraud?"  It sounds rather sensationalist, and to a degree, I suppose it is.  The money quote for that sensationalism is this:
Fox believes that the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, departed so far from both the letter and spirit of Vatican II — which should have been viewed as the authoritative teachings of the church — that they should be considered “schismatic,” or illegitimate.
That is, indeed, a sensational argument, and it has undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows!

But where this article illustrates my points begins here:
Fox argues, in essence, that the Schillebeeckx doctrine means the official church no longer exists or, to put it another way, that the power of the church has been diffused and now belongs to everyone. “What it means is that every cardinal, priest and bishop anointed in the last 42 years is illegitimate. What that means to the Catholic in the pew is, ‘Hey, there’s no one looking over your shoulder!’ If you’re trying to live out the principles of Vatican II, combined of course with the Gospels, that’s what the church is. The church is the people.” 
I was raised with this as the point of a church.  A church isn't the preacher or his boss - it is the people who gather together in harmony of belief.  And yet,
In the Vatican councils, they defined the church as the people, not as the hierarchy. Under these last two popes, it’s all about the hierarchy.” 
Emphasis added by yours truly.  THIS is my point, and this is why I oppose the RCC of today, and criticize it.  The agenda of the current leadership of the church has nothing to do with the welfare of the people who make up the church, who support it by their presence every time they go to Mass or who drop their money into the collection plate as they do.  Their agenda is all about maintaining the past.
Fox insists that he’s not alone in believing that the authoritarian reign of the last two popes represents a kind of illegitimate intra-Catholic coup d’├ętat. He says he got the idea from the late Edward Schillebeeckx, a prominent liberal Dutch theologian and Dominican priest who managed to remain inside the church, at a private lunch in the late 1990s. “He told me, ‘I and many other European theologians feel that the present papacy’ — that would have been John Paul II — ‘is in schism.’
Put another way,  and I repeat in part:
Fox argues, in essence, that the Schillebeeckx doctrine means the official church no longer exists or, to put it another way, that the power of the church has been diffused and now belongs to everyone. “What it means is that every cardinal, priest and bishop anointed in the last 42 years is illegitimate. 
For me, if the church had gone this way, the only argument I'd likely have with it is the fact of its belief in the supernatural, which is a whole 'nother conversation:
Fox imagines a grassroots-based, decades-long popular uprising within the church, one that would install female priests and openly gay priests and married priests, would reclaim the spirit of Vatican II and ultimately render the repellent and backward hierarchy irrelevant.
But that isn't what has happened.
That’s a lovely idea too, but in the meantime we have the realities of political power, and a new pope with a soft spot for dictatorship and a hatred of gays at the reins of a decaying right-wing junta with especially fancy uniforms.  
And so, I continue my criticism of the church as I see the opportunity, not as a criticism of the people who are the real church, but of the decaying right wing junta with especially fancy uniforms.   I criticize them, not simply because of their clinging to old fashioned conservative ideals of a bronze age religion, but because the specific policies, such as anti-contraception, anti-abortion and misogynistic views of women, are harmful not only to women, but to the entire world in which they have such outsized influence.

Repeating here, once again, I criticize ANY religion which pushes these kinds of policies, and that does include any of them who do so.  Most do, or at least have extremist factions which do.  To the extent which their dogma and theology allows and supports such interpretations, even if considered extremist, I also include that theology in my criticism.

To those who believe such theology, whilst cherry picking the nice stuff and rejecting the less attractive, I will accuse you of supporting the bad guys, because by the fact of your admitted belief, you legitimize their belief of the bad parts.

If some day, the religions of the world begin to purge their religiously sacred texts of the violence, misogyny, intolerance and hatred that infuses them as leftovers from a less tolerant period of human history, I will applaud them and sit back and begin to relax a bit, for that purging will reject and denounce those parts and the people who believe in them.

But don't think that will stop the extremists, they'll just keep on keepin' on, because hatred is all they know.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Not a European Pope, but kinda sorta maybe...

Born in Buenos Aires of a father who was an Italian railroad worker.

So, yeah, he was born in the country and raised there, but he's got Italian blood, so at least that settles the bigots in the church who couldn't abide the idea of a "foreign" pope of hispanic blood, but were increasingly under pressure to select a non-European Pope.

So we still have yet to see a non-white pope.

To his credit, he's a Jesuit, who are known for their vows of poverty and caring for the downtrodden the poor and the less fortunate.  I mean, this guy even took the bus and cooked for himself!

But he fits the conservatives' requirements, as he is strictly anti-gay, so I would assume he also fits the anti-condom, anti-birth control etc., misogynistic ideals of the conservatives as well.  We shall see as time goes on.

I mean, ONE DAY?  The food at these conclaves must be getting really bad, or somebody was missing their Facebook fix...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Selection has begun!

Well, the College of Cardinals has started their conclave to elect a new Pope.

This may be interesting, historically, as the Holy See isn't the only absolute monarchy to elect its head of state.

Past elective monarchs include:

Holy Roman empire

These were all ancient examples, of course, and there are few examples of such today, as only Malaysia and The Kingdom of Cambodia elect their monarchs in our modern world.  Feudalism is a dying form of government.

As for the Pope, since the 19th century, the interregnum, or as the RCC calls it, the Sede vacante has varied in length.  For each of the following Popes, here is the length of the interregnum before his election:

Pius VII         207 days
Leo XII         39 days
Pius VIII         49 days
Gregory XVI 63 days
Pius IX         15 days
Leo XIII         13 days
Pius X         15 days
Benedict XV   14 days
Pius XI         15 days
Pius XII         20 days
John XXIII 19 days
Paul VI         18 days
John Paul I 20 days
John Paul II 18 days
Benedict XVI 17 days

So, the chances are the we may see a new pope in just a few days, or this could drag out for the better part of a year.  I am sure that this has been picked apart ad nauseum by the press, and to tell you the truth, I just can't bring myself to read about it that much.

Not that I don't care.  It isn't, of course, my primary care or even in the top ten, but given that the man who is finally chosen will determine the course of that organization for the next ten years at least, and possibly beyond, if he is young enough, yes, that is enough to make me give a damn about who the man finally chosen is and what his politics will be.

My fondest hope is that they inexplicably choose a fairly liberal Pope who will at least halt this slide to the right and fanaticism of the past two, but to hope for that is, I think, futile.  The conservatives do still seem to have a fairly solid grasp on the reins of power in that body, and likely will for some time to come.

In a way that is bad news, since it signals the continuance of the strident opposition of the RCC against all progressive movements around the globe.

It is good news from the perspective that such strident conservatism will most likely continue the loss of victi... er, members as time goes by.  This is only the beginning, and it can only mean good things for folks like me in the future.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The new slave class - exposed.

This isn't really news.

America's prison systems have been using convict labor for a long time, but recent, supposedly more enlightened times were supposed to have given them better working conditions, better pay and a choice of jobs.

Not any more, apparently.  The group known as ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, has changed all that.

At the Union Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Florida, inmates from a nearby lower-security prison manufacture tons of processed beef, chicken and pork for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a privately held non-profit corporation that operates the state’s forty-one work programs. In addition to processed food, PRIDE’s website reveals an array of products for sale through contracts with private companies, from eyeglasses to office furniture, to be shipped from a distribution center in Florida to businesses across the US. PRIDE boasts that its work programs are “designed to provide vocational training, to improve prison security, to reduce the cost of state government, and to promote the rehabilitation of the state inmates.”
Yes, for twenty cents an hour!  Twenty cents an hour! Less than a quarter an hour, less than $2 a day.

In the United States of America.  Forced labor.  This amounts to little less than slave labor.

This is detailed in an article in The Nation, published as far back as August 1, 2011.  And the problem is getting bigger with every new inmate!

I think we need to rethink the US' record on human rights.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Spam hits the Congressional Record!

The news media got all excited the other day when Senator Rand Paul decided to stand up and filibuster for what turned out to be one of the longest filibusters in Senate history against the nomination of John Brennan as the CIA Director because he apparently decided to stand up and do it the old fashioned way by talking and talking and talking...all that talking, of course, being entered into the Congressional Record since he really did say it all on the Senate Floor.

Funny thing, though, the subject of his talking wasn't Brennan, or the CIA or the price of tea in China.  It was all about drones!  He was taking the position that he said that the President had claimed the right to be able to kill American citizens on US soil with a drone.

A ridiculous assertion on the face of it, as the very thought of such is appalling to any red blooded American who has even a passing exposure to the US Constitution in something approaching a civics class.

Nevertheless, that was Paul's rant, daring the President, and then, when Eric Holder answered his rant with a letter exposing his rant as false, Paul claimed victory anyway and walked away!

Now, we've got evidence that the whole thing was just a scam - Congressional Spam, if you will!  It seems that Rand Paul has issued the following fund raising letter!  Preplanned, no less!

Now, I'll be one of the first to say that I'm a bit queasy over the idea that the President can, without any due process, just declare any US citizen a dead person anywhere in the world, even outside the US.  It does make me uncomfortable.  i'd like to see some oversight on that one from a court of law.  The US does have a secret court system expressly designed for such top secret things as wiretapping our enemies, and I can see these courts expanded for this purpose, with some provision for some kind of "devil's advocate" to force better justification and oversight of evidence.

But to use the floor of the US Senate as a patsy for the setting for a fund raising letter in such a cynical manner is too much.  It's common practice to use one's positions on various subjects and speeches in the Congress as fodder for fund raising, but to hold up the nomination of a well respected nominee for the purpose of building media attention for a fund raising effort is just one or two steps over the line.

At least for me.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Rally! Protest march against the US Air Force Academy tomorrow!

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) is sponsoring a rally tomorrow in Colorado Springs to protest the US Air Force Academy's refusal to remove an anti-gay jewish web site link from their own site.

Go read about it here!

They've put up an awesome billboard to tell you about it!

I know that most of you don't live in Colorado Springs.  I don't either, but if I did, I'd be standing out there with Mikey!


Just photos tonight.  These are some photos of the house I grew up in, in Lake Jackson, Texas.  The owners were extremely gracious in allowing us to go inside and to take some photos in the backyard.

The place is surely smaller than it was years ago...

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Snow Day! Let's talk Politics.

I was struck by an article today about the Florida Governor, Rick Scott.

We had a lot of fun poking fun at the guy in the election, and excoriating him for his anti-democratic voting laws, among other things.

But, this article notes that in recent weeks, he has made some surprising 180 degree turns on several subjects, including the ACA and Medicaid expansion.  One thing he cited as a reason (one of several, he said) for changing his mind was his mother, who died last year.  Apparently, they were poor, and poor enough his mother at least considered putting him up for adoption at one point.

One of the comments to the article was a terrible recounting of his past actions in favor of the Tea Party, and saying that nobody should believe his turnabout, etc., etc.

Yes, the article does recount how he endorsed the TP in his first year.  Don't forget, the TP was in its ascendancy then, and it was, in a lot of places, fairly popular.  Such things attract politicians, as they carry votes they need to win.  Today, not so much, and Scott's popularity ranking is basically in the toilet.

Accordingly, he is going around endorsing the Medicaid expansion he has decided for, early voting periods and several other much more center of the road positions he was against last year.

Horrors!  The man changed his positions!  He must be a - gasp! - flip-flopper!

Actually, I can admire a man ((or woman) who can reasonably tell the voters that circumstances - and the voters - have changed his/her mind about something.  A person who cannot or will not change their mind upon encountering either new information or hard and fast opposition is called a hard liner and is usually too stubborn for anybody's good.

Don't get me wrong, someone who changes their minds to follow however the wind blows whether from new information or not is nobody to follow either, but there is a difference here.  One can be a principled person with reasonable beliefs and be able to change one's mind upon being presented with new information or upon being persuaded by someone else with a good argument.  That is a good thing, and is something every politician should be encouraged to do.  It's called being a good skeptic with an open mind.

The main thing I want to talk about is that we have, supposedly, a democracy.  It is a representative form of government that is technically a federal system.  The representatives are elected to represent their constituents' interests in a body we call a Congress, or a legislature.  The President and VP are also elected to represent us in their Federal and centralized positions.

In this kind of system, instead of being sent there to represent themselves and their own interests, they are supposed to represent ours.  Yes, we like principled people with strong morals, but - and this is a big but - we expect them to do what WE want them to do, not what monied interests would pay them to do or what they want as members of a political party in opposition to our wishes as their constituents.

So, when a politician stands up and supports positions that are different from previous policies he has taken and those new positions are obviously popular ones, why do we tend to look down on that person?  Isn't that what we expect them to do?  Especially a sitting Governor!  If he is asked by a reporter, "Did you take these positions to get re-elected?" I would fully expect him to answer honestly, "Yes!  I did, because these are the things that are important to my constituents and I want to do what is good for them!"  That is an honest answer, and one I would be impressed to hear.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Delusional? Try flat crazy!

I've written a lot in the last year about how crazy the tallywhackers in the Republican Party can be.  I even created a label called Just Plain Crazy just to collect all of them in one place!

But today, I do believe they've set a new record.

Though ACORN has been shut down for some time, House Republicans are still trying to defund it. 
A provision in a short-term budget bill introduced by the House Appropriations Committee would cut funding to the group, which advocated for low-income families, but was stripped of all federal funding in 2009 and shut down in 2010.
I'd always figured that Republicans have a short memory, but I didn't realize that it was this short!

The Huffington Post reports: 
Nevertheless, Section 510 of the latest legislation, introduced by House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), reads: “None of the funds made available in this Act may be distributed to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) or its subsidiaries or successors.”
If you never realized just how badly the Republicans hated ACORN, this should give you a clue.

A clue which, unfortunately, the Republicans seemed to have missed...

Monday, March 04, 2013

Excuses, excuses...

I have tried, in the past, to pull my "punches" when talking about Catholics and the Church regarding the recent scandals making the news.  I've tried to make the point that every person who walks into any organization, much less a church, and does business with it or follows its principles in an active and cooperative way is usually seen as supporting that institution.  Support, in this case means that one generally believes in what the group stands for and supports its activities.  Another way to say it is to note that one condones the group's actions and the actions of the people who run it.  I've tried to keep from saying what I really think, just to save some hurt feelings.  But I can't any longer.

Now, an argument I've run into repeatedly by Catholic apologists and/or supporters is that the "evil" men who have been caught up by the recent sex scandals are just that - evil men - and are acting on their own against the teachings of the church.  So, no evil intent accrues to the church itself.

I beg to differ!

A perfect example is the now retired Cardinal Keith O'Brian and the accusations against him by a former priest and three priests regarding his actions over thirty years ago.  There are plenty of people who will say that the accusations are old and stale, that the man's entire career should be taken into account instead of just a few unfortunate incidents decades ago.

I have the feeling that if the man was brazen enough three decades ago to solicit sex from other priests, albeit younger and more vulnerable than he, that it probably wouldn't take much to find a few more perfectly willing partners along the way, if not even a few more unwilling ones.  Sexual predators, whether gay or straight, do NOT stop preying on the vulnerable, especially when they keep getting away with it!

Let's face it - the culture of the priesthood of the RCC is a rarified one, almost 1800 years old with traditions and ways of doing things that are undoubtedly all their own.  The truth about that organization is one mentioned in the ABC News tonight - it is a feudal monarchy.  Each man in that hierarchy represents a rank in that hierarchy that begins with the lowly priest and ends at the top with the Pope, and the Cardinals are, as they are described - the Princes of that church.

Within that culture, they are the law within their own demesne, second only to the Pope, who is known to keep his hands out of the Cardinals' affairs to a remarkable degree.  They answer to no one, and their power over their underlings is absolute.  Absolute, because the Church has always chosen to claim that it and it alone, is above secular law.

And when people consider themselves above the law, they begin to do strange things.  The recent scandals expose what kinds of things they will do.

Rape young children.
Buy the services of those who sell their bodies for cash.
Engage in homosexual activities even as they condemn that lifestyle in public.

To top it off, the men who run that hierarchy control all that.  What, you don't think that each Cardinal doesn't know the sexual proclivities of his priests?  They live in a culture in which the higher officials control every aspect of the lower ranks' lives.  Everything!  It would be a wonder if they failed in just this one narrow subject, now wouldn't it?  After all, that knowledge is power, since the official line of the RCC is one of celibacy, the knowledge that one's underling is engaging in forbidden fun is power over that person, allowing the knowledgable boss to control that person absolutely, by being able to destroy that person's career in a heartbeat!

The flip side of that power is that once exposed, one runs the risk of public ruin oneself!  Just ask Cardinal Mahoney about that one...

I know that much of this is, officially, supposition.  I cannot prove any of this.  But this kind of activity is known to have existed in monarchial systems throughout history, and the known history of the church exposes similar kinds of Machiavellian maneuverings in the past.  There is no reason to believe that today's church authorities are any different than their predecessors.  Absolute control is absolute control.

Keith O'Brian is a perfect example, because for thirty plus years, he has been able to act out his fantasies, suppress its exposure and publicly excoriate people who are publicly acting out what he does in private.  The word hypocrisy is really too mild a word for that kind of perfidy and yet, at the same time, this man controlled, absolutely, the lives of the priests and other authorities below him.  He controlled the administrative apparatus, the human resources system, the theological apparatus that held the entire church of Scotland together!  You cannot tell me that his actions over the years were simply accidental, that he really didn't mean to hurt anyone or act in a hypocritical manner.  No, his actions can only be purposeful and deliberate.  You can bet your bottom dollar his bosses knew all about it too.

Does the word credibility mean anything these days?

In a very real way, these men ARE the church.  The people who they minister to may be the body of the laity, but they answer to and are bound by the word of those august men in red and black when it comes to matters of the soul and the word of god.

They teach kindness, love and helping the poor, all the while literally controlling a system that allows child abuse and not only tolerates sexual predatory practices against their own members, but publicly denounces gays who openly practice what they do or tolerate in secret.  All things which are officially denounced by the very theology they teach to their laity.

Yet, countless rank and file Catholic laity ignore these things, calling their religion a "way of life" as if that excuses their willingness to look the other way as if each scandal is a solitary and isolated thing that bears no relation to the overall organization that has housed and nurtured those scandalous activities for centuries.

No.  You cannot continue to treat these things like a hidden family scandal caused by the lone black sheep.  These men are not only the men who control your church, but they set the doctrine of that church.  It is within their power to change anything about that doctrine they wish, and they have the power to admit all and end it with the stroke of a pen.  But they do not.  They prevaricate and try to continue to stall until the public forgets and it all blows over.

Yes, they have taken some actions to allow some positive policies at the lower levels to protect children and handle the abuse cases better.  I am sure that there may be more that I am unaware of.

But it came after the exposure of their activities to public scrutiny and public condemnation.  None of the admissions of abuse have been wiling, open and unforced.  As a result, thousands of Catholics have left the church, and more are undoubtedly considering whether they can stay in light of the continuing scandals.

These are the people I can feel some compassion for.  They have the strength to admit the truth and the gumption to realize that their continued support for the church allows it to keep dragging its feet.

I am tired of hearing that these are evil men and each case is an isolated one that sheds no culpability on the church itself.  Yes, they ARE evil, but if they are and their actions are evil too, then how can the church escape that taint?  How can one believe a hypocrite - once his hypocrisy is exposed, nothing else he says or does has any credibility.  Even where he is supposedly acting rationally and in total compliance with policy, how can one keep from wondering how much more he has lied about?

I am sorry if this hurts some feelings, but I cannot and will not stay silent in the face of apologies which soft pedal the issues.

As a writer, if I do not write things which make some people uncomfortable or even angry, I have failed at my job.  If you're feelings are hurt, it isn't my fault, I have no control over the feelings or the thoughts of others.  I can only write what I see and feel to be true from my perspective.  If all I write is stuff you agree with, why write at all?  We could just go have a beer and denounce the evil bastards we disagree with.

But that wouldn't make you think about it, would it?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Half a world away, religion is causing horrendous harm.

I've written about the harm I see religion causing, and have, in the past, focused on religion in the US, with mere mentions of other religions elsewhere.

But here is something going on half a world away that is a perfect example of several things I've written about in the past.

First, an illustration of the direct harm religion causes, just because it exists...
Second, it illustrates that, indeed, there ARE atheists in Islamic countries...
Third, it shows the kind of enlightenment that Islam is just now being introduced to...
Fourth, it illustrates that our own problems with radical Islam are not a prime focus of radical Islam...

There is a secular struggle going on in Bangladesh as I write this.  This is being revealed by Taslema Nasreen on her blog No Country for Women on Freethought Blogs.  Her blog post is called, appropriately enough, Secular Uprising in Bangladesh.

Pardon the long winded quote:

Most people protesting at Shahbag and demanding the death penalty for Mollah were born after the 1971 war following which East Pakistan gained independence from Pakistan, forming the nation of Bangladesh. However — thanks to secular writers and artists, who strove to keep aflame the emotions and perceptions associated with the ‘71 war, through books, plays, films and performances — these protesters are by no means ignorant about the genocide carried out during the war by the Pakistan Army, along with local religious militias affiliated with the Islamist outfit, Jamaat-e-Islami. After Islamization started in earnest in Bangladesh during the mid ’80s, many of these protesters have also witnessed how Islamists murdered progressive people, violated people’s human rights, oppressed women, and tortured non-Muslims in the name of Islam. After decades of maintaining silence, their patience has worn thin; they have finally started to rise in rebellion against the status quo. As more people joined the crowd, they have started demanding death penalty for all tried and convicted war criminals. 
A Bangladesh tribunal recently sentenced Abdul Kader Mollah, a Jamaat-e-Islami leader, to life imprisonment for his war crimes, but the Shahbag crowd could not be happy with this verdict. Based on previous experience, they are apprehensive that Mollah would be released if the political party-in-opposition, a known ally of Jamaat-e-Islami, were to win the next election. 
It is important to remember that in present Bangladesh, not all Islamists are war criminals; however, all war criminals are Islamists – who, at one time, did not want the separation from Pakistan, a country based on Islam. The Shahbag movement gained interest for me when some protesters started demanding a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as on all the religious schools, banks, clinics and other amenities that were created with money collected from Middle Eastern Islamists, whose express desire was to turn the erstwhile-secular Bangladesh into a country of Islamists.
As you can see, sooner or later, even in very religious parts of the world, us secularists will get impatient and start marching in the streets.   Pay attention to the parts I have bolded and underlined.  That is the harm religion causes.  People who specifically want to make a country into a religious bastion are almost always willing to kill, torture and oppress those they don't like to get what they want.

But notice that it is specifically the atheists who primed and got this movement going.  They DO exist in Islamic countries, and they ARE sometimes willing to risk their lives to oppose such brigandry.

As for enlightenment,
It is very alarming that the word ‘atheist’ is being considered as a filthy, obscene word in Bangladesh, and the liberal people refrain from doing anything in support of the freedom of expression of atheists. They must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well; in their mind, they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion. If the Shahbag movement can’t make people understand this simple but necessary idea, then real change would never occur, even if some old criminals are hanged. I know that even the atheists at Shahbag would say, the time for this idea has not arrived yet. However, I earnestly hope that people would soon evolve, and be enlightened enough to realize that there is no real difference between the Islam of the 7th century and the Islam Jamaat-e-Islami practices to this day.
THIS is the prime focus of Islamic radicalism, the opposition to and the destruction of, the new and more enlightened movements within their own religion, themselves empowered by the modern world's new and open information networks through the Internet, allowing even the most oppressed people's to see and understand that their way of life and the old outmoded ways are not being practiced everywhere and their leaders' words of condemnation about those different ways of life are indeed, lies.  This is why they oppose us, because we are the source of those differing ways of life and that open information network that threatens their hold on their fellow Islamists and the monopoly they are used to having on information distribution!

But make no mistake about it, we are merely a sideshow to their prime purpose:  fighting against an Enlightened Islam.  They know that such an enlightenment is the beginning of the death knell for religion everywhere.  They may be uneducated by our standards, but they are most certainly not stupid.

I strongly wish that the main stream media in the First World would publicize this.  It is a perfect example of what the Islamic struggles are really all about, that it really isn't all about us, and it certainly isn't about the Second Coming in the Middle East.

It IS about the struggle between educated people and uneducated religious fanatics and just how much religion the world needs.

Maybe that's why they are trying hard to ignore it.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Feds make better workers, yes, we do!

Today there was an interesting article in the Washington Post about Federal workers and the sequestration, if it occurs.

A lot of folks, understandably, are worried about their jobs and possible furloughs. One guy went so far as to inform his handyman that a planned build-in of shelving in his livingroom would need to be put off or canceled if the sequestration occurred.

Now, I don't know exactly how to think about it myself, but we've been told by management in my agency that we shouldn't worry about furloughs. FDA is, we are told, is committed to dealing with that loss of funds in other ways, such as cutting back on contracting. Personally, I find that not just comforting, but as a kind of payback, as the widespread contracting out of government functions in the Bush years put a lot of government people either in real fear of their jobs or really did move some folks out into private industry. This gives us an a opportunity to stick it to the Republicans and their private contractor buddies while smiling and obeying the latest Republican madness.

Great job, guys, thanks!

On the other hand, I really, really hate what the Republicans have done to the reputation of Federal workers. Back in my mother's day, when she worked for the Commerce Department and then Social Security then the FAA, being a Fed was a good thing to be.

Of course, the pay was nothing to write home about, but the leave and other benefits were really good, and one couldn't beat the retirement plan. Job security was also a huge draw, and especially if one was a veteran, it was almost impossible to get fired.

Of course the down side to that last was that a few bad apples set an example that the Republicans used to smack us down and make up a stupid myth about lazy Feds who never work, get overpaid and can't get fired, no matter how bad our work.

Look, folks, I've got news for you, even back then, you COULD get fired, if you did something that violated several hard and fast rules, and even if your problem was just bad work, they could simply make your life hell until you just decided it wasn't worth it. Few people have the intestinal fortitude to put up with what a Federal Manager can do to make an employee's life hell.

Which is why the vast majority of Feds don't screw around. Of course, the main reason why is what I know to be dedication. Nobody goes into Federal service to get rich. Hey, if you can work your way up into a senior level position, yes, the pay is nice, but not everybody can do that, and for many it takes literally years to do. It isn't known as a senior level for nothing! But most of us are simply dedicated to doing a good job, because that's why we are here. Many of us chose the agency we work for because we believe strongly in the mission of the agency. I've known and now have coworkers who regularly work an extra 4 - 5 hours a day at times, and a lot of folks take their laptops home and work at email at home so their hours in the office are more productive.

A lot of positions in some agencies mean long days and sometimes weeks away from home on the road, working. Inspectors in the FDA, as junior level workers, spend up to three weeks out of every month on the road. Senior level inspectors mostly do just one. Seniority is nice! I am sure that other agencies have similar arrangements for some jobs.

Some Feds do work that puts them in the line of fire of people who don't much like this country. They put their lives on the line most every day. Some Feds make sure your drugs are safe and effective, others keep your meat safe to eat. A lot of Feds patrol the borders of this country and get shot at regularly. Others spend long boring hours in cubicles doing the inevitable paperwork that keeps a large organization going.

I'll be honest, I've known, in the almost 40 years I've worked for the Federal Government, maybe one or two people that would fit the stereotype the Republicans complain about. The rest, almost completely fit the opposite profile, honest, hard working, dedicated and very very good at what they do. I also know that at least one of the bad workers got fired, shortly after she got hired. That was back in the early 80's, after Carter's reforms.

So, please, don't be down on Feds. We are just like you, honest, hard working, and trying to make ends meet. We've got families, kids and college bills along with the same kinds of daily and monthly expenses you do.

Remember Greece? Remember what austerity did to Greece?

You really, really don't want to see that here.