Obama Must Pick a Woman as VP Before McCain Does!

August 1, 2008

Before I head off for the weekend, let’s play some political “inside baseball!”

Resolved: Republican nominee John McCain would be incredibly silly not to choose a woman as his running mate. One of McCain’s biggest demographic targets this season are disgruntled Hillary voters, still bitter and still grumbling about (largely paranoid and self-serving) allegations of sexism during the primaries. A female running mate not only gives these fence-sitters a reason to vote for McCain, but it could even help to sour and upset them further.

That’s because Democrats are going to have to attack the Republican VP in some fashion. And no matter how fair and above-board these attacks are, they’ll still drudge up every bitter feeling about Hillary’s primary loss (ironically, those most eager to cry “sexism” are generally also those who treat women as so delicate that any attack on their character will be seen as sexist, despite the fact that male politicians rake each other’s character over the coals regularly). It’s a brilliant means of straight jacketing Democrats and dividing them against themselves.

Read the rest of this entry »


Church Killer Adkisson’s Reading List: O’Reily, Hannity, Savage

July 29, 2008

A few more details coming out about what Mr. Adkisson thought he was doing by showing up at a Unitarian church and opening fire with a shotgun.

According to the Knoxville police, Adkisson’s writings expressed that he believed the church was a legitimate target “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country’s hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets.”

The church apparently was once attended by his ex-wife at one point, where she no doubt was thought to have picked up or practiced many of the ideas that Adkisson found so detestable. And the Washington Post’s “On Faith” has more on his obsessions:

Adkisson, who had served in the military, said “that because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement he would then target those that had voted them in office,” the search warrant states. Among the items seized from Adkisson’s house were three books: “The O’Reilly Factor,” by television commentator Bill O’Reilly; “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” by radio personality Michael Savage; and “Let Freedom Ring,” by political pundit Sean Hannity.

All three of these books are, of course, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners partisan screeds. I don’t want to endorse the idea that these writers caused Adkisson to do what he did. But all three of them are books that a madman who hates liberals would find much resonance and comfort in, and nothing to make him think twice.

They don’t counsel thoughtful realism. They don’t endorse moderation or skepticism in their condemnations. They don’t really even acknowledge that liberals might be sincerely mistaken: they instead paint pictures of near-perfect perfidy, depravity, and treason that are destroying and undermining every principle of good society. If you take everything they say seriously (something I don’t think any of those authors actually do themselves), then it’s not hard to see how one could conclude that the stakes are high, and the enemy unredeemable.

None of them endorse mass murder, of course, and so these authors can legitimately disavow any responsibility for what Adkisson, and Adkisson alone, decided to do. But at least off camera, I hope these authors feel at least a tiny bit of regret for a missed opportunity. At one point, they had his attention, and yet so thoroughly failed to make him think twice about his hatreds.

Instead, they simply gave him a tune to sing along with in his desperation. Nothing but reinforcement in his obsessive belief that all the evils in his life stemmed from a single source. For these authors, the grossly uncharitable and uncompromising rhetoric of political shock-jockery was at least partly just theater. Rants that just sounded too good, and were too effective as political spin, to be slowed down with caveats or compromise.

But, unfortunately, at least one person wasn’t in on the joke.


Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

Read the rest of this entry »


Church Gunman’s Anti-“Liberal” Vendetta Confirmed, Note of Interpretive Caution

July 28, 2008

It seemed like a strong possibility from the moment the story broke, but apparently the recent gunman who attacked the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist chuch was, in fact, angry with the percieved “liberal” views of the people he gunned down.

Jim D. Adkisson, 58, ranted that “liberals and gays” taking jobs had prevented him from finding work. He wrote that he expected to keep shooting parishioners until the police showed up and killed him, Knoxville, Tenn., Police Chief Sterling Owen told a news conference.

I don’t think this sort of political violence is common, conventional, or particularly instructive when it comes to judging the character of any normal person on any side of the “culture wars.”

But it is a sad reminder that for some disturbed individuals, imbibing a sufficient degree of politicized character caricatures can make you lose sight of the real people standing in the way between you and your by-proxy “revenge” on whatever larger forces you’ve come to despise.

We’ll surely learn more about Jim Adkisson as time goes on, but whether his problems are psychological, environmental, or ideological, knowing that screwed-up people like him are out there should give us all pause when we feel the temptation of unequivocal condemnation. The vast majority of us can handle overblown political and cultural rhetoric without succumbing to sociopathy. But a scattered few cannot.

And while we cannot reasonably hold people culpable for “inspiring” the unpredictably extreme acts of maniacs, I’d never want to come home to find that someone has gone on a rampage with my angry words inflaming his twisted heart and pouring out of his lips as he pulls the trigger. Morally responsibile or not, it’s still a chilling possibility that, I hope, makes us all think twice whenever we carelessly abandon rhetorical moderation. Whenever we seek, often for mere short-term political gain, to paint even a loyal and sincere cultural opposition as craven and unequivocally evil.

Not everyone who’s listening is in on the joke.

More on this, I’m sure, to come.

Update: Also sounds like wasn’t so hot on the Bible and Christianity either:

She said she was surprised by his reaction when she told him she was a Christian. “He almost turned angry,” she told the newspaper. “He seemed to get angry at that. He said that everything in the Bible contradicts itself if you read it.” She also said Adkisson spoke frequently about his parents, who “made him go to church all his life. … He acted like he was forced to do that.”

Though if he really had a vendetta against Christianity over the Bible contradicting itself and people being forced to go to church as kids, a UU congregation is just about the last organization any sensible person would want to target.


The Press is at Fault for McCain Campaign’s Funk? Absurd.

July 25, 2008

Polls demonstrate that the American populace, after being told for weeks by the press that the media is too soft on Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, agrees that the press really is too soft on Obama. But is mere media malfeasance really the major factor in Republican nominee John McCain’s recent woes? That seems a view remarkably divorced from reality: a cheap excuse that for some reason seems to be trumping common sense in this case.

Let’s just look at the major campaign threads from the past few weeks….

Read the rest of this entry »


Astronaut Claims UFOs Are Real, Government Conspiracy

July 24, 2008

Former Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell claims that aliens are already among us. And that they’re, like, real tiny-like.

Dr Mitchell, 77, said during a radio interview that sources at the space agency who had had contact with aliens described the beings as ‘little people who look strange to us.’

He said supposedly real-life ET’s were similar to the traditional image of a small frame, large eyes and head.

Chillingly, he claimed our technology is “not nearly as sophisticated” as theirs and “had they been hostile”, he warned “we would be been gone by now”.

Well, that’s good, I suppose. As a person of short stature and large head myself, I’ve always prided myself on having superior technology.

Anyhoo, the biggest claim he makes is that he’s actually been briefed by the government on the existence of aliens. Well… maybe:

“It’s been well covered up by all our governments for the last 60 years or so, but slowly it’s leaked out and some of us have been privileged to have been briefed on some of it.

“I’ve been in military and intelligence circles, who know that beneath the surface of what has been public knowledge, yes – we have been visited. Reading the papers recently, it’s been happening quite a bit.”

The phrasing makes this confusing: in one case he says that he was briefed on aliens, presumably by the government. That’s a pretty incredible claim. But very quickly it sounds like he’s talking about basically just reading some “papers” out in the public (newspapers? tabloids? peer-reviewed journals?) that he interprets as alien encounters. The former is pretty darn important: potential evidence of a real government conspiracy. The latter is just the same old, same old UFO-ologist conspiracy theory stuff. It’s a rather odd transition.

Of course, maybe he’s just confused: maybe he was just briefed on hypotheticals and speculative xenobiology, back when the government still thought it possible that there could be Predators hiding out on the dark side of the moon, and figured they’d better prepare astronauts for anything.

If this guy wants to maintain some credibility, he’s going to have to cough up a lot more details than what he’s claimed so far.


CBS Deceptively Edits McCain Interview?

July 23, 2008

If this pans out to be true, CBS will soon be answering to angry Democrats much in the same way it had to answer to angry Republicans over “Rathergate.”

At issue is an interview between Katie Couric and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. McCain is using the venue to tout his superior understanding and judgment on Iraq: a perfectly fair campaign claim. But McCain apparently went overboard and bizarrely credited the surge with an event that started happening two months before the US even started discussing having a surge.

In the final interview, however, this footage has been edited so that McCain answers a different question than he was asked, cutting out his mistake.

Read the rest of this entry »


Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.


Prospective DNC/RNC Convention Protesters Already Extremely Annoying

July 19, 2008

Oy vey. Drudge and other media sources are starting to profile some of the groups planning on turning the upcoming party conventions into three-ring freak circuses, and I’m already sick of these people. Here’s a sampling of the bounty of bombastic banner-waving boneheads who think that strutting around in the street with posters is an effective way to accomplish anything but some decent exercise:

“We are completely peaceful,” said Rob Weiland, a 37-year-old courier from Denver and member of the group We Are Change Colorado. “We follow the ideals of Ghandi.”

Spectacular. Except that Gandhi was opposing the sometimes brutal colonialist exploitation of an entire country. “We Are Change,” on the other hand, are a bunch of 9/11 conspiracy nuts with a website so full of rambling YouTube nonsense that it crashes my browser (warning: website may crash browser).

Read the rest of this entry »


Double standard: Andrew Sullivan on Catholic Wafer Controversy

July 14, 2008

Blogger and liberal Catholic Andrew Sullivan was a hearty defender of the infamous Danish cartoons that depicted and poked fun at the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But now, the sacred cow is, er… on the other foot, or something. Sullivan Sullivan tells a very different story when it comes to the recent hubbub about PZ Myers merrily threatening to desecrate Catholic communion wafers:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a “goddamned cracker” isn’t about free speech; it’s really about some baseline civility. Myers’ rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

“Atheists and agnostics” is just another word for “some people,” and yes, people can be bigots, especially towards groups of which they are not a part. Whether or not you think Myer’s jab is bigoted or not depends quite a bit on whether you think attacking and parodying beliefs can be a form of bigotry or not. I’m open to the argument that it can be in some cases.

But I’m not so open to the argument that it’s bigotry when done against Catholics, but not when basically the same thing is done against Muslims.

Sullivan, however, thinks he can dig his way out of this double-standard:

Thanks for the defenses. My objection to PZ Myers – even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn’t want him punished in any way – is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I’d happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.

But Sullivan’s distinction here is nonsense. In Islam, creating images of their prophet is inherently very much a form of physical denigration, no different than physically denigrating a consecrated wafer (in this case, oddly, by NOT destroying it!), or improperly treating a written name of God is for some observant Jews. All of these are, of course symbolic acts done to unfeeling objects, and it is a matter of religious belief as to whether it causes any real harm to anything other than people’s feelings or not.

Sullivan’s definition of “legitimate purposes” is also a form of special pleading. Myers and the Danish cartoonists were both seeking to mock religion for precisely the same reasons: to puncture presumptions of special authority in matters metaphysical. Either you think that’s a legitimate purpose or not: but you can’t have it both ways depending on how much you like the target.

I certainly think it fair to object to these sorts of showy, trolling criticisms as unproductive, or rude, or aggressive. But as even Sullivan’s readers have pointed out, the same can be said about people, himself included, attacking or making fun of Scientology. If it were really “about baseline civility” as Sullivan claims, he’d treat this incident as a case of reconsidering his own bigotry when it comes to anything but Catholic doctrine, rather than trying to pin it exclusively on Myers.

Update: Commenter Terry points out that Sullivan’s concern for the desecration of the host is potentially problematic for him. For any number of reasons, if Sullivan himself has taken communion in what his church could consider a state of sin (i.e. unrepentantly defending and/or engaging in gay sex), then he himself would have desecrated the Host.

Dueling Hypocrisy Update: Andrew Sullivan still hasn’t addressed his own lame defense of his cartoon blasphemy apologia, but he has thought to check in on PZ Myers’ take, and implies that Myers wasn’t as enthusiastic about bashing Muslim beliefs as he was about Catholics. But Sullivan is pretty clearly quote-mining here. Myers says immediately after the supposedly damning quote:

So on the one hand I see a social problem being mocked, but on the other—and here comes the smug godless finger-wagging—I see a foolish superstition used as a prod to mock people, and a people so muddled by the phony blandishments of religion that they scream “Blasphemy!” and falsely pin the problem on a ridiculous insult to a non-existent god, rather than on the affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens. Religion in this case has accomplished two things, neither one productive: it’s distracted people away from the real problems, which have nothing at all to do with the camera-shy nature of their imaginary deity, and it’s also amplified the hatred.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any less willingness to attack sacred beliefs here. Myers’ reservations were, if you read his post, mainly about his feeling that the cartoons traded in racial stereotypes of what he saw as a powerless minority.


Jesse Jackson’s Gaffe Helped Obama? I Don’t Get It…

July 10, 2008

Can anyone seriously explain to me why Jesse Jackson’s accidentally overheard remarks about Obama will help Obama in the polls, as nearly every media outlet seems to be claiming as if it were an obvious outcome?

Here’s two different supposed political experts on the matter:

“It reinforces Obama’s effort to present himself as an advocate of responsible personal behavior, a position that Republican candidates like to secure as uniquely their own,” Rozell said.

“Obama should give Jackson and O’Reilly an award for helping his campaign with white voters,” Schultz said.

I don’t get it. How is this supposed to work?

Imagine yourself the stereotypical “white voter” these guys seem to be imagining. What does this incident suggest to you other than that African American voters and leaders are politically divided, beneath the surface? Is that supposed to make you feel good, or something? Why is the fact that someone talked about cutting off Obama’s nuts, and Obama, obviously, doesn’t like the idea very much, supposed to change anyone’s opinion about anything or anyone?

Heck, it doesn’t even change my opinion about Jesse Jackson: the fact that people use crude, hyperbolic and aggressive language when talking in private about factional politics should surprise and outrage absolutely nobody. Except, of course, me being outraged that everyone from Obama’s campaign to FoxNews is pretending it’s a big deal.

Finally I would think that the very fact that the media is insisting that this gives Obama a chance to “look better” in front of voters should itself dampen, or even negate, that very effect. “Sistah Soljah” moments work only insofar as they seem immediate and authentic, and after the first, real Soljah moment, none really do anymore. Especially if the media telegraphs the whole thing in advance.

In my opinion, the only person who’s benefited from this incident is, amazingly and improbably, Al Sharpton, who had a uncharacteristically reasonable comment:

But the Rev. Al Sharpton admonished Jackson and cautioned against dividing black voters.

Obama “is running for president of all Americans, not just African-Americans,” he said. We “must be careful not to segregate Senator Obama and impose some litmus test that is unfair and unproductive.”


Lazy Obama Editorial: Luke Boggs Phones It In

July 10, 2008

Conservative writer Luke Boggs was apparently so busy with other things this week that he decided to create his latest opinion column via cookie cutter. The result? The paint-by-numbers predictable “Obama’s frequent regrets may make us sorry.”

It’s a standard recipe in the world of political hit-pieces:

  1. take the latest random minor controversy about an enemy candidate.
  2. Claim that it’s part of a larger pattern demonstrating deep insight into a key character flaw.
  3. Use that flimsy premise as a free-associating excuse to repeat, for the 8000th time, every other gaffe or controversy you can think of from the past several years, just in case readers have forgotten all the other columns that have been written bemoaning each of them in loving detail.

If it almost seems to write itself, that’s probably Boggs and his ilk on both sides of the partisan divide have already written it and things like it a million times over.

In this case, the free association that ties everything together is “regret.” Boggs wants us to believe that there is something significant and unusual about Obama regretting things. It’s a crude fiction: pretending that Obama is more likely than any average person, or any average politician, to regret decisions (all leading to dramatic concluding fantasies of promised presidential pratfalls). It’s an especially silly premise in the current political/media environment, where the cycle of gaffe to controversy to apology/regret plays out with a new story for each candidate nearly every week.

But in trying to prove his point that Obama is almost pathologically regretful, it doesn’t take long before Boggs turns to what might be the new standard in utterly vapid, meaningless columnist drivel: the Google search hit comparison.

So what jumped out at me was how quickly Obama regretted his decision. And that, in turn, made me wonder how often the senator has regretted other choices. Answer: pretty often. (Googling “Obama” and “regrets” yields more than a million hits.)

In addition to demonstrating ignorance of how search engines work and the confounding factors, Boggs is so lazy that he didn’t even control his “study.” “Obama regrets” indeed nets 1,150,000 hits. But “McCain regrets” gets 902,000 hits, almost as many. Mitt Romney only has 79,200 regrets, making it truly a tragedy for America that he lost the Republican nomination. “Bush regrets” nets 2,370,000 (handily beating Obama, despite Boggs’ claim that Bush has a laudable lack of regret).

Boggs should get extra points for making Obama’s children the random jumping off point for his rant, while at the same time purporting to lecture nameless “humorless activists” for criticizing Obama’s decision to allow them an interview. How dare anyone accuse someone of exploiting children for political gain when he’s doing it!

As I’ve argued before, most people are wasting their time when they pretend that they can actually judge what the psychological or personal character of any given public figure is “really” like. Media snippets, scandals and sound bytes are not exactly deep wells of objective or comprehensive insight. The commentariat simply finds some simple, emotionalized caricature for each figure and then constantly reinforces it with selection bias and forced interpretation. But it’s rare that the initial slate of traits they pick has much merit, or really sets the candidate so far apart from any other.

And that’s just the regular journalists. Pretending that an outright partisan like Boggs can perform objective psychological analysis on someone’s character right in the midst of an election is even more ridiculous.

The sensible standard is simply to figure out whether a candidate’s political stances, party, and/or what he’s likely to do in office, all fit what you want out of the next 4 years. Treat attempts to pigeonhole politicians on anything but their political history and proposals with extreme skepticism, if not blanket disdain. Of course, if everyone approached politics that way, people like Luke Boggs, who trade in sub-rational “psychological analysis” instead of real policy debates, wouldn’t have a place in the funnypapers. Or, at the very least, they wouldn’t be able to meet their deadlines, now forced to put some real, time-consuming thought into policy analysis.

Update: According to Google, Boggs himself has only 26,300 regrets. But at least for the moment, this very post tops the results list.