Archive for November, 2015

A Venerable Holiday Tradition

November 30, 2015

The Holiday Season is here and coming with this joyous season are the various traditions we keep. Among the more venerable of these annual traditions are the handy lists of talking points provided by the Democratic National Convention and assorted left wing groups for the aid of young progressives who might want to ruin a holiday gathering with friends and family by starting arguments over politics.

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The holiday season is filled with food, traveling, and lively discussions with Republican relatives about politics sometimes laced with statements that are just not true. Here are the most common myths spouted by your family members who spend too much time listening to Rush Limbaugh and the perfect response to each of them.

These talking points are arranged by subject in the form of simple scripts to use in response to statements by a Republican uncle. These subjects include Obamacare, climate change, immigration, “equality”. and various presidential candidates. Thus if the Republican uncle says something like:

We should repeal Obamacare.

They provide a handy response.

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans who were uninsured a few years ago have coverage today — that’s more than 17 million people. If the ACA were repealed, millions of Americans would lose access to quality, affordable healthcare. And none of the Republican candidates for president have a plan to solve that problem.

There are smiley faces and frowny faces to ensure that the young progressive doesn’t become confused over which line to use.

I don’t know what someone is supposed to do if the Republican uncle departs from the script by using different arguments or answering the responses with facts of his own. For instance, the Republican uncle might note that if Obamacare has provided coverage for 1 in 3 uninsured Americans, this means that 2 in 3, a majority for the progressives who might not understand math, are still not covered, hardly a rousing success, not to mention that Obamacare co-ops in Oregon and Colorado have collapsed putting the future of the whole program in jeopardy. For climate change we have:

Climate change is just a liberal scare tactic.

And the response:

Why are conservatives more likely to believe that climate change is a conspiracy than to acknowledge what 97% of climate scientists-and the majority of Americans-believe? Climate change is real, and it’s man made. The Republican presidential field is living in denial.

He might point out that citing polls of climate scientists or the the general population is worthless unless you know how the poll was conducted, what were the precise questions were, how large was the sample size, etc. He might also point out that the same sort of dodgy statistical methods were used to generate the 97 % consensus as Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick, and given their past history of scientific malpractice and outright deception, there is no reason to believe anything that the proponents of climate hysteria have to say.

I don’t think that the people who have written these scripts have had very much real contact with their Republican uncles. They mostly seem to be set up to deal with strawmen or a liberal’s caricature of what a conservative might say. They have a section on  Jeb Bush. I have never heard any conservative who supports Jeb Bush’s candidacy. I am not really sure who wants him for president, except for a group of big donors who are RINOs.

I have to wonder what the actual point of all of this is. Surely they don’t really believe that someone’s Republican uncle is going to experience some sort of epiphany and conversion after hearing their Democratic nephew spout off a memorized script? Do they really imagine a life long conservative smacking his forehead and saying something like, “By God you’re right! I have been misled my whole life by Rush Limbaugh and Faux News but now thanks to you I see the light!”. Somehow I doubt it.

I suppose the real purpose this exercise is to build loyalty and conviction in the people who are already Democrats, by giving them a feeling that they are part of the team fighting for the right. The Democratic nephew can read through and recite these talking points that he already agrees with and feel that he is part of the struggle to bring social justice to America, even if he doesn’t manage to convince his Republican uncle. All sorts of organizations from cults to corporations like to use this sort of technique and I see it in fundraising e-mails from both parties; send money to us and be part of the fight.

I have a suggestion for any young progressive who might want to have a political discussion with his Republican uncle. Instead of reciting bite-sized talking points intended for idiots incapable of thinking for themselves, why not try listening to your Republican uncle. He might have good reasons for believing the things he does. If he is older, he might have life experiences more valuable and relevant than what you might read on the internet. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, you might still learn something and might be able to better understand why you believe the things you do. Try thinking for yourself for a change. Maybe you might both learn something.

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Thanksgiving

November 26, 2015

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

Some Thoughts on ISIS

November 22, 2015

There has been a lot written lately on what should be done with the growing threat of terrorism sponsored by the Islamic State and about Islamic radicalism generally. I don’t imagine I have anything significant to contribute to this discussion but here are some thoughts, for whatever they are worth.

One reason for the appeal of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East that doesn’t seem to get much attention is that the recent history of the Islamic world, particularly at its Arabic speaking core is largely a history of repeated failure. Generally, the Middle East has had a very difficult time adjusting to the modern world. With the exception of Israel, which doesn’t really count since it is a Western transplant, the countries of the Middle East are backwards and poor with repressive, corrupt governments. They produce almost nothing the rest of the world wants in trade, except for oil. They contribute little to the progress of science and technology. Their militaries may be well equipped with purchases from the United States and Russia, but they are ill trained and not very effective, particularly against any Western power. It must be very humiliating, since Islam promises that the Muslims are the best of men who enjoy Allah’s favor, to see the infidel West enjoying success and prosperity while they languish in poverty and powerlessness, especially for proud, young men.

This may be part of the reason there is so much hatred of Israel among the Arabs. Israel is in the same part of the world, has much the same resources and geography though without oil, and even some of the same culture among the Jews from the Middle East, yet Israel is a vibrant, prosperous country that has contributed far more to the world than one might expect from a country of its size, more than the entire rest of the Middle East combined. There might be a good deal less hatred of Israel if Israel were just another third world sewer.

It is not that the Muslims haven’t tried to modernize. For most of the twentieth century,

various Muslim countries have attempted modernize, secularize, and westernize themselves, with varying degrees of success. Kemel Ataturk in Turkey, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the Communists in Afghanistan, and others such as Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi all tried to transform the states they ruled. Unfortunately, these Muslim leaders picked up all the worst ideas that the West had to offer,  such as socialism, communism, militant nationalism, and others, combined with traditional Middle Eastern despotism created nothing but a series of  repressive failed states. Modernization and westernization didn’t seem to work. It is not too surprising that many people began to believe that the Middle East was going in the wrong direction. . Maybe the failure of the Islamic world was due to them abandoning the ways of Islam.Maybe instead of becoming more Western, they should become more Islamic. One by one these secular dictators have fallen, to be replaced by Islamic rulers. Turkey is something of an exception since it has long had the forms of democracy if not always the realty. However Ataturk’s secular legacy has been increasingly challenged over the last decade with the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party.

It is also worth noting that all these twentieth century efforts to modernize the Middle East were largely the top down efforts of a small, educated, westernized elite and enacted by force, while the more religious and traditional majority have been indifferent or actively hostile to efforts to modernize and westernize their countries. It doesn’t seem as if the westernized elite spent much time or effort trying to educate or change the minds of the masses in the Islamic world nor to try to achieve some sort of synthesis between Islamic and Western values. They have remained nominal Muslims while trying to undermine the influence of Islam in the people’s lives. It should not be surprising that the majority of people throughout the Middle East have tended to resent these efforts as an attempt to force an alien, irreligious culture on them. To make matters worse, the secular modernization efforts don’t seem to have worked. Countries like Egypt, Iraq or Iran have not become as wealthy and powerful as Western nations despite any attempts at westernization. The Westernized elites and despots have failed them.

Considered this way, the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East is not really that different from the revolts against the elite in the West. ISIS and al-Qaeda are not that different in principle from the TEA Party in the United States or the UK INdependence Party in Britain or any of a number of other populist movements throughout the West. ISIS and the TEA Party both seek to revive a former greatness by going back to fundamentals. What makes all the difference is that Tea Partiers study the constitution and run for office. Radical Muslims study the Koran and engage in terrorism. What makes this difference? In the West, we have learned to settle our differences more or less peacefully. In the Middle East, they seem to have not.

It is often said that the Middle East is a tribal society and that is the cause of so much violence in the region. Maybe, but the West is tribal too. Look at a map of any major city in the United States and you may still find neighborhoods labeled “Chinatown”, “Little Italy” or the like, a relic of the days when immigrants came and settled among people of their own nation, or tribe. Every human society is prone to factions. Why is it that in the West the tribes have somehow managed to learn to live in peace and even to blend together while in the Middle East old hatreds continue for generations to the detriment of the common good?

Part of the appeal of Islamic radicalism, as well as the original appeal of Islam in Mohammed’s time, is that it promises to surmount these petty differences between tribes and nations carved out from colonial empires and create a united kingdom under the rule of God. No doubt many Muslims feel that the disaster began when the Islamic community began to fracture into competing sects and empires. In the twentieth century, there was a strong pan-Arab nationalist movement promising to unite the Arabic people. If Arab nationalism didn’t unite the Middle East, perhaps Islamism might.

I don’t think it is very useful to blame one president or another or one policy or another for the rise of ISIS. Something like ISIS would have happened regardless of what we have done. It is tempting to believe that a superpower is the cause of everything that happens in the world but much is beyond our control. The cultural attitudes and societal trends that have led to present conditions have been occurring for a very long time and much depends on how the people in the region resolve, or fail to resolve their problems. Ultimately, we cannot solve their problems for them.

The West has had a violent, tumultuous history on its path to to liberty and democracy, and perhaps some parts of Europe have not quite completed the journey. It took periods of terrible bloodshed, the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century and the World Wars of the twentieth century to make Europe what it is today. It maybe that the Middle East must go through a generation of bloodshed to convince the people to live in peace. If so, than the only thing we can or should do is leave them alone to fight it out, taking care that the conflicts do not spill over outside the Middle East. It  may also be that allowing a generation of Muslims to live under an Islamic State is the only way to sour them on the whole idea. The people in Iran do not seem to be very enthusiastic about Islam these days. They have lived under their own Islamic State and they are sick of it. We would like to think that we can solve the world’s problems, but maybe this time we can’t . Maybe the best we can manage is to protect ourselves and hope for the best.

 

Paris

November 15, 2015

Once again the civilized world has been attacked by barbarians, this time in Paris. I suppose that once again we will have the usual reactions, politicians promising action while carefully refraining from mentioning the religious ideology that inspired this attack, vague condemnations of the work of violent extremists while never noting just how high the actual percentage of the followers of the Religion that Must Not Be Named might be considered “extremists”. The left will, in fact already has, placed the blame squarely where it belongs, the racism and Islamophobia of the right. If only the extreme right in Europe and America were not so hateful, those nice Muslims would live in peace. There will also be the usual round of anti-terrorism rallies and candle light vigils, prayers  and Facebook widgets to express support for France and the rest of the silly, sentimental exercises to show how sad we are over this tragedy.

How about we do something different this time? How about we take action to stop these attacks from happening? To start with, would it be too much to expect for the political leaders of Europe, especially Angela Merkel to reconsider the policy of allowing tens of thousands of refugees from Syria into Europe. This may be the compassionate thing to do, but under current circumstances in the Middle East, it may not be the sensible thing to do. It does not take a tactical genius to realize that masses of people streaming into Europe provides an excellent opportunity to smuggle in operatives. There is no easy way to differentiate between refugees and terrorists and no way to guarantee that even Muslim not currently linked to terrorism might not get religion someday with deadly results.

Can we also at long last admit that we, the civilized world that is, have a problem with Islam. Not violent extremism or radical Islam, but with Islam. It is true that only a small minority of Muslims are actually terrorists and it may even be that only a minority of Muslims support terrorist acts as happened in Paris, though public opinion polls suggest otherwise, but the numbers do not matter. The problem is not individual Muslims who have the same mixture of good and evil as any other population The problem is with Islam. Islam, more than any other religion, justifies violence, particularly against the outsider in its scripture, theology, and doctrines. Yes, Christians, Jews, etc.  commit violence and may even use religion to justify their actions. Yet they will not get the same sort of support from their religious leaders and traditions that a Muslim who commits violence might. A Christian who bombs an abortion clinic and kills people will find himself denounced from every pulpit in the country. Even the most zealous pro-life activist will reject his actions. A Muslim who bombs a nightclub or shoots a theater full of hostages will all too often find himself celebrate as a holy martyr in mosques around the world. The moral equivalency between Islamic terrorism in our time and atrocities committed by Christians, in defiance of Christ’s teachings, in centuries past, which is being ceaselessly offered by progressives ignorant of both history and religion simply is not valid. Islam is a problem in the same way that Nazism or Communism was, a violent ideology deeply hostile to our democratic, liberal values. Yes, there are a great many good Muslims, just as their were a great many good Nazis and Communists, but they are still following an evil belief system.

If this admission is still too politically incorrect to make, then can we at least admit that it is better to be considered an islamophobe than to be dead and that protecting the lives of people living in Europe and America might be more important than protecting the tender sensibilities of those who might want to kill them. Whatever is done, we need to be clear in our minds that we are at war with people who want to destroy us and unless we start taking the threat seriously, a lot more people are going to lose their lives.

 

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Veterans Day

November 11, 2015

Today is Veterans Day. This day began as Armistice Day, November 11 1918 being the day that Germany signed the armistice that ended World War I. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day in 1919 to celebrate the courage of the men who fought and died in that war. The day was changed in 1954 in order to honor the veterans of all the wars of America.

I don’t have anything else to say except Thank You to all of the veterans who have served your country. You are better men and women than I am.

 

Ben Carson and Evolution

November 9, 2015

I got this meme off of Facebook. I think it originally came from the left-wing blog Daily Kos.

Carson Evolution

Why is this an issue in any presidential campaign? Since the duties of the President of the United States do not include teaching a science class, how is any candidate’s opinion on the theory of evolution particularly relevant? I would be more concerned with a candidate’s opinion on the theories of Marx than of Darwin. Marx’s ideas have contributed to the murder of millions and has caused more misery than any opinion on evolution ever has, yet candidates with ideas derived from Marx never seemed to be questioned by the media. The fact that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist or that Barack Obama had as mentors such left-wing Marxist radicals as Bill Ayers and Frank Marshall Davis seem to me to be of far more concern than Dr. Ben Carson’s thoughts on evolution.

I suppose that the people at Daily Kos would argue that Dr. Carson’s beliefs about evolution disqualify him for the presidency because they show that he is anti-science. If that is the case, that Carson really is against science, what do they imagine he will do as president? Cut all funding for research? Insist that universities that accept federal funds teach creationism? Even if he wanted to do this, and there is no indication that he did, President Carson would find it very difficult to impose creationism on the scientific community. The President of the United States is not a dictator, at least not yet, and cannot single handedly control the education policies of the entire country. I think that science is safe from a president who does not believe in evolution.

But is Ben Carson really anti-science? For that matter are creationists really anti-science? They certainly do not believe that the theory of evolution is a valid explanation for the origin and adaptation of life on Earth and they disagree with current ideas about the age of the planet and the universe, but is this being anti-science? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the definition of science is:

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Science can also mean “an organized body of knowledge on a particular subject”, so one might argue that Dr. Carson and creationists  are not knowledgeable in the sciences of biology and geology but that is not the same as saying that they are anti-science in the first sense. In fact, hardly anyone is actually anti-science in the sense of being against the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world. Even people people espousing wildly unscientific ideas try to assume the mantle of science. Creationists like to say they have scientific evidence for their position, even when it really boils down to, “The Bible says it”. Disbelief in evolution does not necessarily imply disbelief in the scientific process.

The real importance of evolution to the left does not seem to be its status as a scientific hypothesis subject to falsification but as a means to differentiate between the elite intellectual elite and the bitter clingers in flyover country. To them, belief in evolution is a sign to show that you are on the right side of science and history. It, along with climate change is sacred knowledge, not to be questioned or doubted. By demonstrating a disbelief in evolution, Dr. Carson shows that he is lacking in intelligence and should be disqualified from the presidency.

The irony here is that Dr. Ben Carson is probably a good deal more intelligent and educated than the person who put together that meme. He is certainly more accomplished, being a gifted neurosurgeon. It is even possible he is more scientifically knowledgeable, even about evolution. I wonder how much that that person who created that meme really knows about the theory of evolution or can explain why it is accepted as an explanation for the development of life by nearly every scientist knowledgeable in the relevant fields. I would guess that he believes in evolution because it is what was taught in school and that it is what all of the smart people believe. Well, that is not the same as actually investigating the matter for oneself and actually trying to understand why a given theory is believed to be true. You don’t get to give yourself credit for being in the intellectual elite for simply remembering what you learned in school twenty years ago and you don’t get the right to sneer at people better than yourself.

 

 

The Spanish Civil War

November 2, 2015

Like most Americans, I never knew very much about the Spanish Civil War. Outside of Spain, it mostly seems to be seen as a sort of prelude to World War II; the first battle of the epic struggle between Fascism and Democracy. In the movie Casablanca, that Rick fought on the Loyalist side in Spain was a quick way to indicate that he had, at least at one time, been on the side of the good guys.

At first glance, this impression seems to be true. The Spanish Civil War did begin as a military insurrection against the democratically elected left wing government of Spain. The Nationalists under Francisco Franco were backed by Fascist Italy and Germany who saw the civil war as an opportunity to test new weapons and tactics. A closer examination quickly shows that the issues surrounding this war were much more complicated than this simple view. For one thing, since the democracies such as France and Britain were determined to remain neutral in this conflict, the Republican government of Spain had little choice but to turn to the Soviet Union for help. This help came with strings attached, the Soviets hoped to increase the influence of the Communist Party in Spain and ultimately to create a Socialist dictatorship controlled by the Communists. On the other hand, there were never very many Fascists, or Falangists as the Spanish Fascists were named, in Spain until just before the Civil War. There was an increase in membership of the Falangist Party as the conflict began, mostly as a reaction to the apparent attempts by the left wing parties to convert Spain into a Soviet state. Franco himself never had much use for Fascist ideology and by the end of the end he had subordinated the party to his personal rule.

As for democracy, the truth is that neither side really supported the idea. The Right, whether Falangist, monarchist, or conservative, was frankly authoritarian in outlook. They were prepared to play the game of running in elections, but they didn’t much care for the process. The Left seemed to not understand the whole purpose of democracy is too allow the people to choose their rulers. They believed that they were on the side of History and Progress and thought of elections merely as a way to confirm their mandate. When a right-wing coalition won the elections in 1933, the left demanded that the vote be invalidated, not on the grounds of any evidence of fraud or irregularities, but simply because the wrong people had won. When they won the next elections, they began to rig the system to make sure they wouldn’t lose again. This refusal to follow the Spanish constitution, along with a threatened purge of the military caused the military to rise up against the left-wing government, beginning a terrible civil war. Neither side were the good guys, or even altogether the bad guys.

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Stanley G Payne makes this clear in his account of the war, titled, simply enough, The Spanish Civil War. Payne gives a clear and coherent account of the years leading up to the war and is remarkably even-handed in assigning responsibility for the mistakes in policy that caused the war. Payne gives a good chronological account of the military history of the war as well as dealing with the policies each side developed to fight the war and to remake Spain according to their competing ideals. Both sides committed atrocities, and Payne is again even-handed in giving accounts on the inevitable horrors of war, alway worse in a civil war. He also explores why Franco and the Nationalist eventually won control of Spain and the motives of the countries that sought to intervene in the war.

The one thing that most struck me while reading through this book is that the Republicans really should have won this conflict. In 1936, when the fighting actually began, they controlled most of the territory of Spain, including the richest and most productive regions. They were considered the legitimate government of Spain internationally and they held the capital. They also controlled about half the navy, most of the air force, and even much of the army.  The Nationalists began the war as a few disgruntled army officers, mostly stationed in Morocco. How did they end up winning? They did get a lot of support from Germany and Italy and this did make a difference early in the war, but it seems the one advantage the Nationalists had over the Republicans was that they early became unified under a single leader, General Francisco Franco. The Republicans were divided between various factions including liberals who wanted some sort of social democracy, more doctrinaire socialists and communists who wanted to use the existing government to make Spain into a socialist state, and the radical communists and anarchist who wanted a revolution, not to mention nationalist Catalans and Basques. This division made it difficult for the Republican government to develop any sort of coherent strategy for winning the war, and the more extreme left-wing elements of their coalition, especially their anti-religious stance, frightened many Spaniards into supporting Franco as the lesser evil. They were probably correct, Franco was a dictator who crushed dissent after winning the war, but he probably didn’t cause nearly as much misery for the Spanish people as a Soviet backed Communist dictatorship might have, and Franco, at least, had the good sense to keep Spain out of World War II and he was inadvertently responsible for restoring democracy to Spain by arranging for King Juan Carlos to take power after his death. Franco was the least bad option for Spain at the time.

Franco and a young Juan Carlos

Franco and a young Juan Carlos

 


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