Friday, October 31, 2008

Don't worry, be happy?

Yesterday, I began to read Philip Roth’s 2007 novel, Exit Ghost, and today I read in “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” on Judith Warner's New York Times blog, “Domestic Disturbances”:
The excitement/disappointment cycle of the past two elections has taken a toll on many Democrats. Some have undergone a kind of progressive self-numbing. Their brains could register only so much outrage before they became desensitized and began to rewire themselves to adapt. Oliver Stone’s bizarrely inert new movie “W” exhibits just that kind of circuits-overloaded mental compromise.
    Philip Roth, on the other hand [emphasis mine], in last year’s novel Exit Ghost, painted a brilliant portrait of the fallout of too much political heartbreak. Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, a near shut-in, decides, post Bush v. Gore, (an election he describes as “perfectly calculated to quash the last shameful vestige of a law-abiding citizen’s naiveté”) to cut himself off from all awareness of politics, precisely in order to shut out any future glimmers of hope.
    “Having lived enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century,” Zuckerman says, “I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of a child – the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult.”
Like Nathan, I have damped my own emotions and don’t experience any of the euphoria that might otherwise accompany the highly probable prospect of a Democratic victory on November 4. I’m too shy of potential euphoria’s being dashed yet again, defensively steeling myself for the long-shot possibility of needing to practice another four years of adaptive stoicism.

But a friend of Warner’s advises her:
“You may as well enjoy the anticipation,” she said, “Because it may be all that you’ll get.”
Warner accepts this advice and recommends it for us:
...whatever happens, those of us who are tired of experiencing the “despising without remission” that Zuckerman was moved to flee in the Bush years are entitled now to a tiny moment of elation.
    And we’d better grab it.
I’m not sure my heart is up to it. It’s so scarred from these years of political desecration, I don’t think I’ll feel all that euphoric even if Obama and Biden win by a landslide. Domestic and international prospects are daunting. We’re not going to see dramatically better days for a very long while yet. Anything but stoicism seems naive.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why Barack Obama Is Winning

Why Barack Obama Is Winning," by Joe Klein, Time Magazine, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

"McCain will have no trouble in Missouri"

A news article this morning on NPR ("Joplin May Be Reddest Corner in Missouri," by Linda Wertheimer) investigates how likely it is that the bellweather state of Missouri will again "pick the president." Only once in a century have Missouri's electoral votes not gone to the candidate who became president. (Missouri went for Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kevaufer in 1956.)

Polls currently show the Democratic and Republican tickets running neck and neck over Missouri as a whole, but apparently not in Jasper County. At about four minutes into Ms. Wertheimer's article, we're treated to this frank admission by a shop owner in Joplin, who says that "McCain will have no trouble in Missouri":
He's against abortion, anytime, and he's also, he's against same-sex marriages. Those are very important things to me. The country can go broke, and those things, those morals still stand. If you've got a moral country, God will be with you.
I don't need to parse this for people who can actually think, but if I needed to I might mention, for starters, that "belief in God" confers no moral advantage. In fact, it could weigh against God (if God existed), that the Bible allows itself to be interpreted the way this benighted Missourian interprets it. Also (if I were to mention one more thing), haven't we had enough of people who decide their vote on single issues? "The country can go broke, but..."
..."under God" MUST be mandated for our pledge of allegiance.
...homosexuals MUST not be permitted to marry.
...Roe v. Wade MUST be overturned.
...taxes MUST be lowered.
...the Ten Commandments MUST NOT be removed from our courthouses.
By the way, in my list of labels at the bottom of this post, I didn't choose the labels for how they would sort with respect to which labels would follow "Democrats" and "Republicans." Just turned out that way.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Be prepared to fight for your right to vote

With so many Americans in the McCain/Palin camp showing themselves to be red-hot rednecks, we well-behaved, hopeful Americans need to be ready for what might unfold on Election Day. We haven't forgotten the debacle in Florida eight years ago, or the serious findings of vote theft and disenfranchisement in Ohio four years later (see Robert F. Kennedy, Jr's Rolling Stone article, "Was the 2004 election stolen?"). It is impossible to doubt that similar things will be tried this year. After tolerating an illegitimate "president" Bush for eight years, it would be heart-breaking (and nation-destroying) to endure four more years of such "leadership."

The New York Times reports, in today's editorial, "Sorry, I Can’t Find Your Name," that
Republicans have been pressing for sweeping voter purges in many states. They have also fought to make it harder to enroll new voters. Voting experts say there could be serious problems at the polls on Nov. 4.
    When voters die or move to a new address, or when duplicate registrations are found, a purge is necessary to uphold the integrity of the rolls. New registrations must also be properly screened so only eligible voters get added. The trouble is that these tasks generally occur in secret, with no chance for voters or their advocates to observe or protest when mistakes are made.
    A number of states — including the battleground state of Florida — have adopted no match, no vote rules. Voters can be removed from the rolls if their names do not match a second list, such as a Social Security or driver’s license database. But (like the U.S. mail) lists of this kind are notoriously mistake-filled, and one typo can cause a no match. In Ohio, Republicans recently sued the secretary of state, demanding that she provide local officials with a dubious match list. As many as 200,000 new voters could have been blocked from casting ballots. The Supreme Court rejected the suit, but Republicans are still looking for ways to use the list on Election Day.
The editorial warns us to be prepared to fight for our right to cast a ballot and recommends that voters vote early if their state permits it. "Any voter who finds that their [sic] name has disappeared from the rolls will then have time to challenge mistakes."

The editorial concludes [emphasis mine] that
If voters find on Election Day that their names are not on the rolls, they should contact a voters’ rights group like Election Protection, at 1-866-OUR-VOTE, or a political campaign, which can advocate for them. They should not, except as a last resort, cast a provisional ballot, since it is less likely to be counted.
    There is a desperate need for reform of the way voting rolls are kept. Until then, election officials, voting rights advocates and voters must do everything they can to ensure that all eligible voters are allowed to vote.
I plan to vote early myself, as many, many Americans are doing—they're that angry1 and that concerned. I'm hearing that the lines for voting early are getting pretty long, but they're surely a good deal shorter than what we'd experience on November 4 if we haven't voted (or attempted to vote) before then.

By the way, the comments from Times readers on today's editorial are extremely moving.
  1. A friend tells me that some white people in her neck of the Pennsylvania woods who still use the n-word are so mad they're going to ignore Mr. Obama's skin color and vote Democratic...if they're not prevented by one or another dirty trick.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rare...or frequent but not long-lived?

Richard Dawkins, in the penultimate chapter of his 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable, addresses the general question about how and to what extent life may have arisen in the universe.
...[O]ur island planet in the universe has never, so far as we know from properly authenticated accounts, been visited. More significantly, for the last few decades we have been equipped to detect radio communications from far away. There are about a million stars within the radius that radio waves could reach in a thousand years. A thousand years is a short time by the standards of stars and geology. If technological civilizations are common, some of them will have been pumping out radio waves for thousands of years longer than we have. Shouldn't we have heard some whisper of their existence by now? This is not an argument against life of any kind existing elsewhere in the universe. But it is an argument against intelligent, technically sophisticated life being spaced densely enough to be within easy radio range of other islands of life. If life when it starts has anything other than a low probability of giving rise to intelligent life, we might take this as evidence that life itself is rare. An alternative conclusion to this chain of reasoning is the bleak proposal that intelligent life may arise quite frequently, but typically only a short time elapses between the invention of radio and technological self-destruction. [emphasis mine; p. 284]
Why necessarily technological self-destruction? Technology provides only the means, but not the motive. To me, the most striking thing about our technological age is that technology coexists with a prevalent tide of religiosity. There are a few minds who contributed to the pivotal discoveries and inventions that led to present-day technology, but there are so many more minds still stuck in animism and tribal animosity. If a nuclear device were detonated anytime soon, the chances are that it would be set off by religious zealots.

The "rise of intelligent life" is more the rise of the potential for intelligent behavior than of its actual realization in significant numbers of "intelligent beings." The sad reality of pervasive unintelligent behavior is well illustrated by the 2008 political season in America.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lapping onto the food chain

The photograph below is Slide 5 of 7, "Nature’s Born Phlebotomists," from Natalie Angier's article, "A Taste for Blood," in today's New York Times.

DEER TICK: This tick, which is the size of a pinhead when it starts searching for a bloody meal, is responsible for about 20,000 reported cases of Lyme disease each year in the United States. [caption from the Times article, Photo: Clouds Hill Imaging]
I chose this photograph because of all of the deer ticks that my wife and I have picked off ourselves (and off our poodle) after being in various fields and woods of North Carolina's Piedmont Forest. We are grateful that, so far, none of us has contracted Lyme disease (or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever).

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fiery writing on the wall

On Thu, Oct 16, 2008 at 5:07 PM, my friend Edwin wrote me:
"Joe the Plumber" says he has no plumbing license.
    Does no one in the McCain camp have a computer? Has no one there ever heard of Google? This company that has two employees, the owner and himself, I doubt has ever made $250,000.
    As I watched the debate I thought of a college that was going broke and all the heads gathered around the table trying to come up with a plan that could save the day. The door opens and the coach runs in shouting about how fired up the team is and how he believes they could get a bowl bid. Two guys get up from the table and give him a high-five while the others look at them like they've lost their minds.
    I miss the 60's. It was more fun watching this stuff on drugs; now it makes me want to cry.
    I see the light at the end; let us hope it's not a train.
I share Edwin's sense of foreboding. Despite the high hilarity afforded us by the crumbling McCain and preposterous Palin (whose pronouncements can be distinguished from those of Tina Fey only because Fey refrains from becoming incendiary), I can't shake off a terrible sense of doom. That McCain could be proud (or claim to be proud) of the Americans who come to his and Palin's rallies and jeer at The Other (the questionably brown man with the suspect names) is not just desperate, it is ominous, like fiery writing on a wall. My local morning newspaper reports that those very people cheered maniacally yesterday afternoon at a Palin rally within fifty miles of where I sit to write this. Oh, America.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Learning experience

"Are you sorry?" I asked the young head cashier at a local home improvement store. She had just straightened out my $25 discount coupon on a purchase of over $300 for building and gardening materials. I was getting set to build a raised planting area my wife wanted in the back yard.

Over half an hour earlier, the computer at checkout had rung up only about a $10 discount, seeming to have applied a miniscule percentage discount to each item as it was rung up. The head cashier had had to refund everything one at a time, then re-enter all the items a different way before applying a straight $25 discount, as the coupon called for. The first time she did this she didn't seem to believe the results, so she called another cashier over and they redid the whole thing before concluding that she'd done it right the first time.

I'd grown a bit grumpy standing around for all of this (and for three or four telephone interruptions the head cashier had handled while she was straightening out my discount), occasionally looking through the entrance doors at my 16-year-old Honda, which had six 6"x6"x8' timbers and four 2"x8" timbers tied on top and, in the trunk, six bags of top soil, four bags of mushroom compost, and two dozen 18" pieces of rebar. Plus, I was already pretty tired and would still have to come back to the store two or three times to collect thirty more bags of top soil and twenty-five bags of pea gravel that I hadn't room for on this trip (my Honda is a passenger sedan, not a pickup truck). I expected her to tell me at the end that she was sorry for everything. But all I heard as she handed me the receipts was, "Thank you."

So I looked her in the eye and asked, "Are you sorry for all of the trouble I've been put to?"

"Oh no," she said, "it was a learning experience."

Considering this astounding obtuseness, I must have looked stunned for a moment. I told her I appreciated her helping me, she'd been put to a lot of trouble too. But could I talk to the store manager?

She fetched a manager, and I told him what had happened and how long it had taken. I told him that the first cashier and the head cashier (who was there to hear this part) had been very good to help me, but this sort of thing shouldn't happen in this store. I'd been a customer of the chain for twenty years. Surely they could set up their computers to handle their official coupons, and not reqire their cashiers to spend half an hour re-entering things by hand.

The manager had been listening patiently to my account. He said he was sorry about everything, but he paused, seeming to be waiting to see where I was headed.

"I'm really disappointed," I said. "I'd like some satisfaction."

He asked me if I was planning more purchases at the store. I said I had no particular purchase in mind, but my wife and I were always coming in. After all, we were home owners. He took a small card out of his shirt pocket and asked me for my name. I told him and he wrote something on the card and handed it to me. He said I'd receive a 10% discount for a checkout made within a month. And, again, he said he was sorry about my trouble.

I trust that the young cashier heard enough of this to learn something further from her experience. Customers whose shopping doesn't go well need a little sympathy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

McCain's reward

McCain'll go back to the Senate beaten and bruised,
Defeated, derided, disgraced, and defused,
    No longer tall,
    Ignored by all
But Joe Lieberman—still piqued, heart-eating, confused.

Inspired by Comment #25 on today's article by Jim Rutenberg, "New McCain Ad Slams Obama on Ayers, Economy," in The Caucus, The New York Times Politics Blog. RMC's comment began:
...last memories of McCain will be a dirty, desperate, hate-filled campaign that couldn't argue the issues. What a pathetic way to send off one's legacy.

He will soon be back at the Senate, weakened and beaten and bruised [emphasis mine].

"weakened and beaten and bruised"

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

After the debate

Within an hour of last night's presidential debate, the following three comments (#8, #9 and #10) were posted on the editorial, "Politics of Attack," in The New York Times. They sort of say it all:
11:16 p.m. McCain visibly became more and more desperate this evening during the debate against a more articulate and poised Obama. McCain stuttered, breathed heavily, and repeated the same phrases over, and over, and over again. The last several weeks have clearly worn him down, and now he's making a last ditch effort. Mr. McCain, you're too old for this.
                    — Emily, Pennsylvania

11:21 p.m. The other night, an audience member shouted to McCain that Obama is a "terrorist." McCain smiled. Then, where Palin was speaking to a different audience, a member shouted "kill him"* when she mentioned Obama—and she smiled. (MSN videos captured these incidents. [I could not verify this.])

What is going on here??? I am tempted to go get a bumper sticker made, "Restore Decency—Elect Obama."
                    — Darster, Birmingham

11:23 p.m. McCain looked old, stiff, and graceless in the debate. He was condescending, snide, and sarcastic. In contrast, Obama looked vital, strong, graceful and was very, very articulate and eloquent. He certainly went on the offensive but did it without coming across as disrespectful. He of course did not look or behave like the terrorist Palin/McCain have been trying to turn him into. He makes them look like mean-spirited fools with their pathetic character attacks.
                    — AJBF, New York City
* From the Times editorial:
Ms. Palin, in particular, revels in the attack. Her campaign rallies have become spectacles of anger and insult. "This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America," Ms. Palin has taken to saying.

That line follows passages in Ms. Palin's new stump speech in which she twists Mr. Obama's ill-advised but fleeting and long-past association with William Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground and confessed bomber. By the time she's done, she implies that Mr. Obama is right now a close friend of Mr. Ayers—and sympathetic to the violent overthrow of the government. The Democrat, she says, "sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

Her demagoguery has elicited some frightening, intolerable responses. A recent Washington Post report [possibly "Unleashed, Palin Makes a Pit Bull Look Tame," by Dana Milbank] said at a rally in Florida this week a man yelled "kill him!" as Ms. Palin delivered that line and others shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.

Mr. McCain's aides haven't even tried to hide their cynical tactics, saying they were "going negative" in hopes of shifting attention away from the financial crisis—and by implication Mr. McCain's stumbling response.

We certainly expected better from Mr. McCain, who once showed withering contempt for win-at-any-cost politics. He was driven out of the 2000 Republican primaries by this sort of smear, orchestrated by some of the same people who are now running his campaign.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Realist's reply to a poll on Sarah Palin

I’ve been asking people if anyone they know has owned up to liking Sarah Palin (as a candidate). So far, only one person has owned up. In fact, he told me he “LOVE[S] Sarah Palin!” [exclamation mark his] (That besotted, he may hang out with the likes of David Brooks and William Kristol.)

But here's why I’m back to log. To report the following reply to my poll question:
None of my friends or acquaintances has expressed admiration for Sarah Palin. I think it’s only in the last 3 weeks that I’ve been convinced Obama will win. She’s pretty obnoxious, accept she’s sort of like an unreconstructed high school cheerleader type, breathlessly optimistic and impermeable to reason or facts. I suspect she does a better job in Alaska and doesn’t pontificate on junk she doesn’t understand. It’s hard to believe any serious, conscious person with a high school education or better would think she could possibly be qualified to be president. The interview with Katie Couric was devastating; it’s weird that they still let her come out in public, but she’s a quick study and bounced back to perform acceptably in the debate with Biden: i.e., she appeared, answered questions, usually managed to talk in sentences [sic], repeated herself with variations (kind of like modern jazz or Ravel’s Bolero), and didn’t faint or pee in her pants. All Barack’s campaign should do is run various videos [of] her trying to answer several of Couric’s questions, then ask: Do you want this person up at 3 a.m. trying to decide our nation’s future?

Boldest comment yesterday

Comment #518, by HPLeft of Brooklyn, New York, on William Kristol’s October 6 New York Times op-ed piece, “The Wright Stuff”:
The phrase “God damn America” goes back at least as far as William James, a far greater intellectual than anyone in Bill [Kristol]’s failed but dangerous movement, in the aftermath of revelations of US atrocities in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. To criticize America when it is responsible for wanton acts, the kind that Reverend Wright likely has first-hand knowledge of, is the soul of patriotism. In contrast, to spin away responsibility for crimes against humanity and democracy, as Kristol and his like do every day, is the soul of treachery.
HPLeft was referring, I suppose, to the concluding paragraphs of Kristol’s column:
I pointed out [on the phone to Palin] that Obama surely had a closer connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than to Ayers—and so, I asked, if Ayers is a legitimate issue, what about Reverend Wright?

She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that—with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave—to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”

I guess so. And I guess we’ll soon know McCain’s call on whether he wants to bring Wright up—perhaps at his debate with Obama Tuesday night.

I asked at the end of our conversation whether Palin, fresh off her own debate, had any advice for McCain. “I’m going to tell him the same thing he told me. I talked to him just a few minutes before I walked out there on stage. And he just said: ‘Have fun. Be yourself, and have fun.’ And Senator McCain can do the same.” She paused, and I was about to thank her for the interview, but she had one more thing to say. “Only maybe I’d add just a couple more words, and that would be: ‘Take the gloves off.’ ”

And maybe I’d add, Hockey Mom knows best.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Comments are no longer being accepted"

This morning and the other day, for the first times, I noticed the statement, "Comments are no longer being accepted," posted atop the comments section of a couple of op-ed pieces in The New York Times. I saw the first one on Friday, the morning after the vice presidential debate, warning any further readers from trying to comment on David Brooks's op-ed piece, "The Palin Rebound." Brooks's piece was so mind-bendingly, fawningly complimentary to Palin's showing in the debate that I felt an urgent need to ask Brooks whether he'd been smoking dope. Alas, after searching all over for the place to comment, I saw the notice.

And this morning I saw the notice again, above William Kristol's equally fawning piece, "The Wright Stuff." Within only a few hours, enough ridicule had already been heaped on each of these right-thinking gentlemen, thank you. Enough is enough!

The only question is:
Did Brooks and Kristol throw in the towel themselves, or did their editor call the fight to protect their dignity and their possibly injured ability to meet the paper's deadline for their next pieces?
I don't remember how many comments Brooks had suffered before further comments were disinvited, but Kristol (or his editor) threw in the towel before even 200 comments had been posted.

While it's fun to wonder who stopped the fight and precisely why, I regret that "Comments are no longer being accepted" meant what it said. Even still fairly early this morning, I was already too late to ask Mr. Kristol whether, for example, Palin hadn't bewitched him? (Her voodoo pastor's incantation was intended, presumably, to protect her, not people on whom she herself might practice.)

Not that similar questions hadn't already been asked by the hundred and eighty some commenters who'd gotten through. Like #23, by LGG of Orange County, California:
It's so heartening, Bill—may I call you Bill?—that you are so concerned with Obama's now-renounced pastor and church affiliation. I have no doubt, then, that you will as vociferously investigate and report upon Palin's associations with Muthee, the African witch hunter.

Curious, isn't it, that we get 24/7 coverage of Wright's inflammatory comments, but one has to go to Yyoutube to see Palin being exorcised of witches by Muthee. Why is that, do you think? The clip of Palin being exorcised is certainly not a fake as evidenced by the fact that the pulpit upon which Muthee stands and behind which Palin stands is identical to that which multiple other clips show Palin speaking from when addressing her church's congregation. Things that make you go "Hmmmm."

10-7 Flash

I see that the number of comments on Kristol's column has now reached 525, which indicates either that several hundred comments were still being "moderated" (approved for posting) when the spigot was turned off...or that the floodgates were reopened, the editor maybe having decided that Kristol deserved comments like, say, #523, from Peter in Indiana:
Oh, Bill, there you go again, looking to the past instead of to the future! (By the way, did you happen to ask Palin about McCain's association with that economic terrorist, Charles Keating, or her own association with the witch-exorcizing priest? Or is sauce for the goose not sauce for the gander?) Here you are, being bamboozled by some pretty-face, Gidget-goes-to-Washington type who talks outside of both sides of her mouth, whose talk (when it's possible to understand it) is mostly vacuous, who spouts off baloney about the Constitution's take on vice president (but fails to comply with a Constitutionally valid sub poena), and your take is that the drivel is mostly the fault of her handlers instead of her inherent lack of understanding. Even the latter is a sign of the classic Republican who yaps about accountability and responsibility except when it comes [to] them—then it's always someone else's fault.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A reverse slam dump?

Last Tuesday, for the sake of continuing political entertainment, I expressed the hope that vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin not be dumped but remain on the ticket through Election Day. Indeed, her stand-up routine Thursday night (i.e., she didn't fall off the stage) allayed my apprehension, and we’ve since been treated to her statement, after reading in the paper that McCain had decided to give up Michigan, that she wants to go there and try to turn the tide, and to her statement, reported this morning, that Obama has palled around with terrorists.

The front page where I read about the alleged palling around also informed me that in Alamance County, North Carolina, 5,203 new voters have registered since last November 1, and Democratic registrations have outnumbered Republican 2,660 to 679. The proximity of the two news items of course made me wonder whether Palin had heard the news from Alamance County and hoped to play Moses here too.

But in this morning’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Frank Rich, in his column, “Pitbull Palin Mauls McCain,” suggests that nevertheless Palin may very well be “dumped”—but not in the way you may be thinking.

After enumerating a number of particulars about “Mr. Past, poor old John McCain,” Rich asks,
So how can a desperate G.O.P. save itself? As McCain continues to fade into incoherence and irrelevance, the last hope is that he’ll come up with some new game-changing stunt to match his initial pick of Palin or his ill-fated campaign “suspension.” Until Thursday night, more than a few Republicans were fantasizing that his final Hail Mary pass would be to ditch Palin so she can “spend more time” with her ever-growing family. But the debate reminded Republicans once again that it’s Palin, not McCain, who is their last hope for victory.

You have to wonder how long it will be before they plead with him to think of his health, get out of the way and pull the ultimate stunt of flipping the ticket. Palin, we can be certain, wouldn’t even blink.
The “wouldn't even blink” was a reference to earlier paragraphs about how Palin had responded to Gwen Ifill’s question how the two vice presidential candidates would govern “if the worst happened” and the president died in office. Without hesitating or even blinking, Palin said “that as a ‘maverick’ she’d go her own way.”

I think she winked, though.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Comment of the day on last night's debate

One of many such comments on an editorial in today's New York Times:
October 3, 2008 12:01 am

Biden was brilliant! Knowledgeable, precise and on the ball. Palin read her reading points and did some joe sixpack improv, along with a few winks. I found that really sleazy and disturbing. What was she doing? Trying to pick up the American public?

— Observer, Australia

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Somebody Bush is smarter than

Quote of the day

Bush is a stupid man but he’s smarter than the people who voted for him twice.
—Bill, in a comment on Timothy Egan's blog article, "The Legacy," in yesterday's New York Times.

In your face

After timidly experimenting with a couple of insipid titles for yesterday's post, I finally settled on the more in-your-face title, God didn't vault Adam and Eve to the top of the mountain, which by the way prefigures the first paragraph's reference to the jehovahs, who insist that Adam and Eve were real people.

But is the title I finally settled on too in-your-face? An op-ed column reprinted in today's Burlington, North Carolina Times-News by Miani Herald "Pulitzer Prize-winning" columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. contains an apology for asking of Sarah Palin last week, "Does she really take the parable of Adam and Eve as literal truth?" Pitts writes now that that column
unleashed a flood of e-mails from people angry that I had demoted the Christian creation story [Christian?!] to the status of parable [sic] and suggested by implication that anyone who believes it is, as one reader put it, a "fool."
After apologizing (Pitts has to try to keep all of those readers; he's a paid columnist, after all), he tries to regain his self-respect:
Let me be clear: I don't believe the Bible's account of creation. Never have. Leaving aside Darwin [why? afraid of offending yet more of those valuable readers?] and taking the story on its own merits, there are still holes in it big enough to walk a dinosaur through. Not least of which is the conundrum of how, short of incest, humanity reproduced itself if there was only one family on earth.
    And had I framed my question more narrowly—Does Sarah Palin really want the Bible story of creation taught in schools?—you'd be reading no mea culpa here. Science classes are for science and faith is not science. Nor, in a pluralistic society, does anyone have the right to impose faith on someone else.
    But I didn't pose a narrow question. Instead, I airily dismissed a belief which, in and of itself, hurts no one, marginalizes no one, and is a fundament of faith for millions.
    That was needlessly...disrespectful. It also was arrogant. Which is, oddly enough, the one trait of the lately resurgent atheist movement that vexes me....
Then, after maligning atheists, too, for a paragraph, he steps back in a sort of apology to them!
In fairness to atheists, though, I've always suspected that was a reaction to the equally irksome arrogance some religious conservatives—let the Rev. Jerry Falwell stand as avatar—have exuded upon the rest of us for 30 years.
Poor Leonard Pitts! The guy's trying to please everybody, but is surely pleasing only the most complaisant.

An unfortunate consequence of trying to please everybody is that Pitts fools himself into thinking that a religious belief can be "in and of itself" and (therefore) "hurts no one [and] marginalizes no one," and should (therefore) be given a bye because it "is a fundament of faith for millions." But there is no such thing as a religious belief "in and of itself." A person's basic beliefs affect everything. They affect what parents want taught in schools. They affect how people vote—or whether they vote (jehovahs, I'm told, abstain). They affect whether people sign up to detonate themselves in a crowd.

It's important to believe things because you know they're true (and not otherwise)..

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

God didn't vault Adam and Eve to the top of the mountain

Richard Dawkins, after referring in his 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable, to "any number of Jehovah's Witnesses tracts [that] make the mistake of treating Darwinian natural selection as [a random process]," goes on to say:
To this day, and in quarters where they should know better [I don't think he's referring to the jehovahs here!], Darwinism is widely regarded as a theory of "chance."
    It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to eternity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic improbability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints, and the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed, going round the back of Mount Improbable and crawling up the gentle slopes, inch by million-year inch....
    The height of Mount Improbable stands for the combination of perfection and improbability that is epitomized in eyes and enzyme molecules...
    ...As we have seen, to invoke chance, on its own, as an explanation, is equivalent to vaulting from the bottom to the top of Mount Improbable's steepest cliff in one bound. And what corresponds to inching up the kindly, grassy slopes on the other side of the mountain? It is the slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of random variants that Darwin called natural selection...It was Darwin's great achievement to discover the gentle gradients winding up the other side of the mountain. [pp. 77-79]
This argument (from Chapter 3) is made more elaborately in Dawkins's most recent book, The God Delusion, which I recommended in January, when it came out in trade paperback format.