Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bombing Scare

Obviously all of us have heard that a Nigerian man (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) attempted to blow himself up and thereby destroy the airplane on which he was travelling on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

The chattering class of the right - like those who actually think of Fox News as actually reflecting anything even remotely similar to news - have since attempted to claim that Barack Obama is somehow to blame for this attempt, and further, that Obama's attempts to close Guantanamo Bay prison is therefore misguided (at best).

This is the basest form of sophistry. First, of course, Bush was tasked after 9/11/2001 with creating better inter-departmental cooperation. Based on numerous books, and including the sacrificial lamb treatment of the CIA by Dick Cheney (where he and the right-wing blamed the CIA for 'hiding' data from Cheney about Iraq, WMD, and yellow-cake) - the truth according to many at the DIA and CIA is that inter-departmental cooperation in 2006 was FAR worse than it was on 9/10/2001. Cheney insisted upon creating his own intelligence branch called the NEI located at the White House when he wasn't satisfied with the intel he got from DSA or CIA because it didn't support his and the President's desire to create a case for war with Iraq. Cheney, who essentially ran intel for the White House, had a running feud with the CIA and to a lesser extent the DIA for the majority of the Bush Presidency.

No matter, though, the fact that inter-departmental communication in fact was WORSE, that Bush failed at probably the most meaningful anti-terrorism task he should have accomplished (namely, information sharing which might have helped to stop something like 9/11 had it been in place) - no no, blame Obama. Just like they blamed Bill Clinton for secuirty breaches at Los Alamos - because after all he IS the Chief Exexutive, but when it occured in larger measure under Bush, well then, you couldn't POSSIBLY blame the President for the actions of underlings far down the food chain from him. The hypocrisy is laughable at best. Obama has only general capability to change leadership, not tone, and certainly not in less than a year is it possilbe to undo the harm created by dysfunctional intelligence service relationships fostered and festering for nearly seven years previously.

Then we go to GitMo - the argument here is that Obama is WRONG WRONG WRONG to consider locating the prisoners in Illinois, and WRONG WRONG WRONG to require trials for those still held because two of the planners of the recent attempt were ex-Gitmo detainees - unfortunately this ludicrous accusation fails to account for the following:

1. The people released were released because we lacked any evidence against them - I have no idea WHEN they were released, but it is HIGHLY likely it was during Bush's term - meaning, no policy change enacted by Obama lead to this attack.

2. Obama is obligated to follow the law (as Bush was but often failed to until threatened/ordered to by the courts) - this includes providing at LEAST military tribunal reviews for detainees. Without doubt, the men released were given a review, and in that review, insufficient or NO evidence was found to detain them and so they were released. Providing them a trial is of no relevance, because these men WEREN'T provided a trial, yet, they THEN WENT AND ATTEMPTED TO AID IN AN ATTACK - what does this say???

3. It says that when you flout the law, and hold people without charge for 4 and 5 years, they resent it - maybe the lesson then is - don't do that. Don't create MORE enemies thru unethical acts.

4. Finally, changing the location of the prison is totally unrelated to the fact that these two men helped in an attack - people are held securely within the United States all the time, people AT LEAST as heinous as these two - again assuming we actually WOULD have had evidence to hold them. Objecting to changing to a prison which isn't a. secret or b. was opened PURELY to skirt US law has nothing whatsoever to do with whether two men who were released from a prison subsequently attacked the US. We parole people, sometimes they commit other crimes - that's the price of a free society and unless we're going to jail people for life without trial - it makes no difference at all where the prison is. Further, it inreases the chance that guys like this Nigerian will decide to put a bomb in their pants and kill innocent civilians as a measure of retribution for what they perceive as our bad acts. Sometimes those perceptions are unbalanced and worthless, but we certainly shouldn't provide legitimate ammunition to their paranoid beliefs.

The worst part of all of this is that the righties know better than this. They KNOW this is pure sophistry and base lies. They know Obama really isn't to blame for these two people having been released, that it was done in compliance with directive from the Supreme Court - that if the two guys had been deemed truly dangerous based on their prior acts they'd still be in prison, and that it's also likely that we created our own monsters here - but they won't admit to that because then they'd be admitting to having erred in holding people in violation of basic human rights - AND they wouldn't get to WIN - the essential element - the argument that Obama somehow is weak on terror.

I think Barack Obama is foolish to stay in Afghanistan, but attempting to pin this on him is like blaming Harry Truman for World War II. The story below illustrates the incipid and vile reaction:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Gift of Life Versus the Right to Life

"Stupidity is also a gift of God, but one mustn't misuse it."
Pope John Paul II

1920 - 2005

"Tomorrow is no man's gift."
Sir Gilbert Parker, baronet, Canadian novelist, British politician

1862 - 1932

"Reason is God's crowning gift to man."
Sophocles, classical Greek playwright

496 BC - 406 BC

"The states are not free, under the guise of protecting maternal health or potential life, to intimidate women into continuing pregnancies."
Justice Harry A. Blackmun,
Roe v. Wade, 22 January 1973

My recent post, Soul Searching, was about the concept and definition of our souls, and how souls relate to our bodies. It addressed the differences between knowledge and belief. And from that premise it addressed abortion. If you have not read Soul Searching, reading it first is helpful in understanding what follows.

My friend Mitch Berg wrote a post, Half A Pound of Soul, on his blog Shot in the Dark in response. In that post, and the comments it elicited, some courteous, some hostile, were references to the right to life of the unborn. I respect the sincere conviction and the commitment to the life of the unborn, and the nurturing and protective aspects of character from which it originates expressed in those comments. Unfortunately not all aspects of the argument for the unborn are as noble.

The anti-abortion argument is that the unborn, not yet developed zygote is a potential human being endowed with a right to life. This "right to life" anti-abortion rights advocates insist supersedes the right of a woman to control her body; they assert a woman who becomes pregnant loses her rights to her own body and the right to her own self-determination.

The problem with their argument is - there is no such right, not legally, not ethically, not morally. Life is a gift, and as such it must be voluntarily given, not coerced by the force of law.

There is no "right to life" that requires one person to give their body or any part of their body to another to allow that other person to live. If a person needs a blood transfusion, or bone marrow, a kidney, or skin graft, and another person could provide it, if that other person declines, that is their right. No court will force them to provide the help of their blood, bone, skin or organs, even if their refusal means the person in need dies. No one would reasonably call it murder, manslaughter or homicide, however much they might deplore the death of the person in need.

Ironically, most of those who are most vocal in asserting a right to life insist that there is no right to the most basic medical care essential to survival; the right to life claims are a bit inconsistent in how that life is maintained and sustained. Women may be coerced, but never medical providers and insurers at the risk of diminished profits. Profits are de facto more important than any claim by the living to essentials that continue and extend life.

While pregnancy does not (usually) require a surgical procedure, like a blood transfusion, skin graft, or transplant, it does require the use of the mother's body through the placental connection to provide the nurture and support of the mother's organs in order to survive and grow during the nine months of gestation. For those nine months of pregnancy, a woman's body is no longer her own, and she is subject to the demands resulting from the developing fetus culminating in childbirth.

Anti-abortionists blithely deny the rights to women over their own bodies that are otherwise accorded every existing person by law, in favor of what they believe might be another person, a status for which there is NO consensus or compelling proof. These same people hypocritically in the same breath claim passionately that they support freedom, smaller less intrusive government, the right of people to make their own choices free of "nanny" laws for their own safety and health. They blindly refuse to see their own inconsistencies.

This irrational and unwarranted assertion of rights led me to re-examine how we define rights. The first phrase which came to mind was in the Declaration of Independence, specifically the United States' Declaration of Independence -- many other countries have their own, which along with the international Declarations make for interesting reading.

The wording that pertains here is the famous second sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness." To revisit school days Civics classes, what are 'inalienable rights'? Unalienable, also called inalienable rights, natural rights, or moral rights are considered universal as distinct from civil rights, statutory rights conveyed by positive law defined by government.

Except that nowhere is there anything like agreement acknowledging such a right to life in either so-called natural law OR positive law that gives one being the right, in order to live, over the organs or internal function, or nine months out of the life of another human being. The right to life as they espouse it does not exist; it is not a 'real' right. The right of women to their bodies, their months of living their lives, that IS a legitimate, recognized, established right.

Do I argue that a woman should be able to have an abortion at any stage of her pregnancy? No. At some point which we need to define by consensus, it should be presumed that by accepting the early stages of pregnancy there is de facto consent to it. After a reasonable stage of development - and I think the Roe v. Wade mark so far of the first two trimesters is reasonable, although it could fairly be made a shorter interval - abortion should not be permitted except for therapeutic reasons. At that point we do need to balance against a woman's right to her body the possible right of the more developed individual to continue that development to birth.

Not only do the anti-abortionists deny women the right to make decisions about their own bodies, they justify their attitude by claiming choice is for convenience, that it is the result of careless "partying" sex. They refuse to acknowledge those facts that are inconvenient to their position, such as the data provided by Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health which asserts that two thirds of the women seeking abortions are married and already have at least one child. An example provided in their December 2009 newsletter of a real case with the name altered for reasons of privacy was that of a 24 year old married woman who had a 7 month old son. When she became pregnant, although unplanned, she and her husband were enthusiastic about adding to their family. When it became evident that she was pregnant with twins, she and her husband were still enthusiastic. Further along in the pregnancy it became evident that both of the twins had a severe health problem, one that was likely to lead to either a miscarriage or still birth, and that if the twins did survive birth, they would suffer and could not possibly survive for more than a very short time - a matter of minutes.

When the couple sought an abortion rather than continue the pregnancy, it was denied under insurance coverage which classifies this procedure not as a therapeutic abortion, but an 'elective contraceptive procedure' which is not covered (and would not be covered under the proposed health care reform in Congress). Because of the anticipated complications, the procedure needed to be performed in a hospital, not in a clinic, which would ordinarily be adequate and less expensive. Uninsured, the abortion cost was prohibitive out of pocket; it would bankrupt the family. While continuing the pregnancy to term, with the resultant hospitalization for the complications of the health problem of the twin fetuses would be more than ten times the cost of the abortion procedure, but a greater part would be covered by insurance, leaving the family in less severe financial condition, but arguably more physically and emotionally distressed and with greater risk to the health of the mother - but not a life threatening risk.

The far less clear examples of real-life women seeking abortion, where women do take into consideration moral and ethical as well as practical and necessary reasons are in sharp contrast with those who anti-abortionists broadly characterize as women who simply are careless, even recklessly getting pregnant as a result of - as one commenter on SitD put it - "partying".

I don't think we can fairly characterize 2/3 of women who are married as having party sex. Nor do I have any reason to believe that the members of PRCH are practicing their profession in which they treat and advise women dealing in real life situations without ethical or moral consideration, whether the women are married or not. To dismiss women contemplating abortion, as a group, as lacking morals and ethics is effectively to advance an argument by unreasonably and unfairly demonizing the opposition to justify the opposing side.

I do not presume to assert that no woman anywhere has ever made a selfish, shallow decision regarding an abortion. Women are as capable of bad decisions as men are. I cannot claim that any more fairly than the anti-abortion faction can claim 'partying'. But in the face of support of physicians such as PRCH who deal with the problems of real, flesh-and-blood women daily, in the face of the real life women I have known who had or considered abortion, I adamantly cannot write them off as individuals who are without moral or ethical values, or as women who acted out of shallow convenience without regard for any life other than their own, as posited by some - many - anti-abortion rights advocates.

It is only if you can convince yourself that women cannot be trusted with the decisions about their own bodies, if you posit that women are inherently and significantly less moral and less ethical than anti-abortion supporters, that you can justify taking away the rights of women to control their reproductive choices. I do not believe that a compelling argument for that can be made.

I also reject the defining of human sexuality as solely for reproduction. I adamantly reject the definition of sex as something evil for which pregnancy is the punishment. And I reject the narrow definition that sex is only permissible in the context of marriage, and that anything relationship outside of marriage should be penalized. We live in an age where contraception makes possible a greater range of safe, sane choices. This is not at all the same thing as approving casual promiscuity. I cannot imagine sexual gratification without deep emotional commitment and trust, an act of intimacy where it is part of expressing a profound connection to another person whom you love. Obviously there are others who either find that gratification in one-night 'hook ups', individuals who are less averse to promiscuity.But that does not justify the conclusion that anyone who has sex outside of marriage (the remaining 1/3 of the women who seek abortion indicated by the statistics of PRCH) did so without attempting to practice safe sex.

One of the wisest men I have ever known - and a former lover of mine - who is now a professor of psychology in North Carolina at a Christian university made a very insightful point during our relationship that sex is almost never 'just' sex, that it parallels and mirrors the dynamics of the larger relationship between people, especially the relative inequalities in power. He pointed out that satisfaction and dissatisfaction, the degree to which partners achieve the sexual gratification of orgasm for example, and issues like the freedom to initiate sexual closeness and intercourse, are closely linked to issues of money, control, and a range of other domestic and relationship issues and conflicts. I would argue that women are sometimes NOT equal to their partners in saying no, in having 'no' respected.

I have been very privileged in my life to have men and women who influenced me in order to empower me, especially my mentors - most of whom have been men; probably more so than many women. I think most of the people in my life who have known me well would consider me a fairly feisty individual, a woman who is not shy about speaking up for herself or asserting herself. I can say no, and I take responsibility for my own reproductive choices. But that has not prevented me from having an experience where a man did not accept no, although it did not meet the standards for a prosecutable rape. Fortunately I did not get pregnant as a result, but it left me with a greater insight and compassion for the range of choices that women deal with in real life compared to abstract black-and-white notions about women and choice. My own experience especially taught me an appreciation that as a woman who came from comparative security and privilege, I have had greater empowerment than women who have not had those same advantages.

Every woman I know who is not still a virgin has had some variation of that experience; some more drastic than others. Every woman I know has admitted, among other women, to faking orgasm to please or placate a partner, and to having been pressured - even seriously coerced - into having unprotected sex at least once despite arguing with their partner about it. Every woman with whom I spoke prior to writing this piece had an example of sex that was nominally consensual within the legal definition but where women really had less than full choice.

I would argue to readers of Penigma that the better way to address the issue of abortion is not to take away choice, but to improve and expand it. Consistently where women have greater control of their reproductive choices and improve their social standing and participation, societies advance and improve. Where women receive education, societies advance and improve, in standard of living; in health for men, women, and children, including longevity; and economically. The solution to many problems, including abortion, is to empower women, not to dis-empower them. Not the least of the ways to empower women is to provide honest and factual health care information and availability, including contraception and comprehensive sex education. But without an overall improvement in empowerment, we can only have partial success with any specific improvement. That would include not demonizing women who have unwanted pregnancies as shallow, irresponsible, or immoral, without better justification. While on the face of it, this may appear counter-intuitive, consider that the countries which have traditionally had the greatest number of abortions performed are usually not those with the greatest freedom; they are typically the countries that have been the most repressive.

Addendum: for thoughts prompted by Pen in an off-blog conversation, thank you. A word I have heard thrown around the subject of abortion is 'convenience'. The allegation that abortion is 'convenient', when another life is 'inconvenient'. The premise of Sex-as-partying seems key to the presumption that someone who is pro-choice is shallow, selfish, and lacks reverence for life, and is therefore logically a person who would make a choice based on convenience rather than more ethical considerations. Convenience is sliced bread, indoor plumbing, an automatic transmission. Convenience is not a painful and invasive procedure that gouges out a woman's insides, at the risk of scarring or infection that could affect, even end, her chance to ever have children. Frederica Mathewes-Green said it best, when she wrote "No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg." That is somewhat different than convenience. As to disregard for life, of the women I know who are comfortable discussing their experiences - and not all are - I don't know of any of my own acquaintance who do not think about it from time to time. I am aware that there are women who have regretted their choice. But of the women that I know, there has been a very broad consensus that they made the right decision, affirming their decision with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to say they do not think from time to time, that if they had not ended that pregnancy, they would have a child that would now be 'x' years of age. They do. That does not suggest someone has acted without thought.

I do not expect to change the mind of anyone who is on one side of the controversy or the other. What I hope to do is to encourage greater respect for the decision making process, as a condition of ever hoping for consensus.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Curses! Foiled again! - Snidely Whiplash

"Yeah doctor. Our small tea bag group here in Waycross, we got our vigil together and took Dr. Coburn’s instructions and prayed real hard that Sen. Byrd would either die or couldn’t show up at the vote the other night.

How hard did you pray because I see one of our members was missing this morning. Did it backfire on us? One of our members died? How hard did you pray senator? Did you pray hard enough?"

- transcript of the words of a distraught caller to C Span, identifying himself as 'Abraham', from Waycross, Georgia, addressing Senator Barrasso, Republican Senator for Wyoming, inquiring about the absence from a Health Care Reform vote of Senator Inhofe, Republican Senator for Oklahoma regarding the prayer 'attack' advocated by Senator Coburn and other Republicans

"Psalm 109: 8-9 Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow." (King James Bible translation) popular bumper sticker /t-shirt/button/mug/ tea party protest sign slogan popular with 'prayer warriors'

You tube link:

Luke 2:14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men." (King James Bible translation)

My first reaction upon reading these words, and watching and listening to the video was, naturally, horror. It is perhaps a comment on my character and personality that my second reaction, following shortly on the first, was laughter. Out loud laughter. Laughing at the photos of kind of tinged-with-horror-and-dismay laughter. (Caution - do not look at more than 10 pages of at one time, your eyes might bleed)

On the web sites of news sources and other blogs, there are comments from other residents of the fine state of Georgia, about their fellow citizens who are 'prayer warriors', including comments about their guns. I shared with ToE, 'off-blog' my next whimsical reaction, which was to envision all of the religious iconic art that I have seen over the years of Jesus Christ, hands raised in benediction..........or maybe he's just holding them up like that so the prayer warriors don't shoot him. Because if these devout gun toting Christians can miss the target with prayer, ya gotta wonder, how straight can they shoot?

I have not been able to verify that 'Abraham' is a real person, a member of a tea party group . Yes, there are tea party members who themselves from time to time use the term teabagger, but it did raise a question in my mind as to this being a hoax. So far, I have not been able to verify this as a telephone call from a genuine tea-party prayer warrior, or not. This call took place on December 20th. There has not been significant repudiation by any of his senatorial colleagues of these prayers against Senator Byrd, to date that I have been able to find, nor have I seen any claim by Republican senators or Congressmen either that the call was a fake or a hoax. This tentatively leads me to believe it is a real, legitimate person on the recording, and that it is not an isolated participant.

On a more serious note ---- and yes, with great effort, I can regain my self-control and look at the serious side --- this concerns me. I do not as a general rule ever wish to demonize my fellow-citizens. I do not wish to demean those who hold a different view point or political association. But there are reasons to take these people seriously; they are sincere, and they are prepared to act, possibly to act in ways that defy our understanding of reason, but act none the less.

It is not only their passion for personal fire arms that worries me. I am in favor of personal fire arms, and in favor of trusting that my fellow citizens are not dangerous morons with the kind of lunatic fringe personal beliefs that characterize domestic terrorists.

I am concerned and uncomfortable when what has for the most part been a mainstream, major political party re-embraces extreme right groups like the John Birch Society, a group which has not changed their position since they were properly expelled from the GOP back in the 1960's by people as diverse as William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater. Now they are co-hosting the right wing C-PAC event in February.

So, how many of these people are there? More than you might expect to find, including among a segment of our military, where they have access to serious weaponry. In the six months during which I have also been writing on PoliticusUSA, I have seen a steady increase in the comment section of people who self-identify as conservative or right wing calling for and/or predicting that our military was going to take over our government 'to save us', mostly, but not exclusively, in response to writing about birther activity.

Let me be clear. I do not for a moment consider these fringe lunatics to speak for all conservatives or people of the right, not at all. That would be stupid. But there is an increasing tolerance and acceptance of these views by those on the right who do not claim to share these views, in exchange for their support. This gives these extremists a legitimacy that they do not merit or deserve.

What kind of things am I calling 'crazy', besides the attempts at 'imprecatory' prayer assassination? Fears the US is preparing to turn over our sovereignty to the UN, as part of a 'one world government'. Specifically, ridiculous claims like foreign troops are secretly hidden throughout the United States in inaccessible areas of our national parks -- up to 1,300,000 troops. And as always there are devils and details, for example: there is a contingent of Russian tanks in the Great Smokey National Park, and Holloman Air Force Base has been given to the Russians; and Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas has been given to the Germans. Sounds crazy, like oh, say claims of FEMA re-education camps.

So, who are these fundies? One of the terms to describe their religious beliefs is "Dominion Theology", or theonomy, the belief that society, not only ours but throughout the world, should be governed by the biblical law of God, replacing secular law. There is 'soft dominionism' which asserts that the United States is a Christian nation (as distinct from a nation which includes Christians as one of the many practiced religions). Hard dominionism believes that events like the Iraq war and alliance with Israel promote the second coming of Christ and the 'end days'.

Dominionism is associated with 'the Family' also called 'the Fellowship', as in the Senators Inhofe, Coburn, Ensign scandal, the Chip Pickering scandal, and the Governor Sanford scandal. It is not a coincidence that those calling for imprecatory prayer belong to these and similar groups. Both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann have support from and ties to Dominion believers.

Having failed in the 2008 election cycle, and having now failed (so far) in completely stopping health care reform, the scary question is..........what next? More prayer? Or something more direct?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The myth of "Free Markets"

This post could be several hundred pages, but I'll try to keep it down to about four paragraphs.

Two days ago, the FAA under the Obama Administration mandated that should anyone be stuck on a plane more than two hours, they must be given food and water, and the lavatories on the plane must be operable and available. If they are stuck more than three hours, that the plane must return to the gate and off-load the passengers. Between Jan 2009 and June 2009, there were 631 incidents of planes sitting on the tarmack for more than three hours, so any of us who travel often deeply appreciate the change and probably even say, "FINALLY!" to the idea that this was a long-needed redress of an abusive and aggregeious practice by the airlines.

The reaction from the airlines was typical. One commented that this ran counter to the idea of getting the most flights completed, which was the 'goal' the commenter said they were required to meet.

And there's the rub, the fact is that airlines see you as a package, a breathing one sure, but a package to be deliverd, your comfort and convenience run a distant second (and third) to their completion of the contract to deliver you. They are happy to take the money because they need it to stay in business and the key element of that business is delivering you where you want to go - when is secondary, and your lost time and patience aren't really what they judge themselves by. They lose no money if you are angry, and unless you are an elite status passenger, they don't much pay attention to your complaints.

So here's the point - Obama acted in my opinion where Bush and the Republicans would not have. Bush would have made platitudes about letting the market correct the problem and that any 'regulation' here was overkill and unnecessary - as he so frequently did on a myriad of issues. This problem didn't start in 2009, and Bush certainly took no action during his 8 years to fix it, so I feel confident in saying he wouldn't have done anything - he had a pattern of worrying first about big corporate profits and worrying about anything else almost never. The problem is that Bush's canard is false - the market corrects only what the market can see - and the problem really are these:

1. Mostly, we consumers do not see or hear about major screw-ups or issues. Even if we do, we normally have short memories and go straight back to the company in question if it is offering the cheapest price/fare/whatever. In fact, like the cyanide laced Tylenol scare from the 80's, it is often the case that actions which AREN'T the fault of the company have more impact than those which are, because they get more press, and no one gets threatened with being sued for publishing the story. While we've all heard of the problems with flight delays, we've really only heard of a couple of incidents. I would bet only 1% of us knew that 631 flights sat on the tarmack longer than 3 hours during just the first 6 months of 2009.

2. Larger companies are better protected than smaller ones. All of us can access things like the BBB or Angie's List and inquire about a small company to some degree, plus we have word of mouth to discern a good product from a bad pretty often - however, as Exxon proved with the Valdez spill, often when dealing with big companies we have little to VERY little choice about doing business with the company in question. In the US 90% of the oil is delivered by 4 companies. Who among us knows which oil company services every station? The vertical monopolies make it virtually impossible to travel and not buy from Exxon. The same is true for airline travel. We COULD fly some other airline than that which most conveniently gets us to our local hub (or if we are lucky enough to live near a hub, then we COULD choose to not use the airline out of the hub), but the consequence is hours of additional flight time AND multiple stops thereby increasing our chances of a missed connection and other delays. In truth, we are close to captive to that airline because it is simply not economical to use another, either from cost or time, or both.

3. It is extraordinary for any regulatory agency to actually act to stop a company from doing something improper. They may cajole - they may even ask them to modify their actions, but they very very rarely actually make them stop, to wit, Credit Default Swaps and subprime lending. The FDIC WAS in fact telling banks these were risk laden, but they did NOT stop them. As a consequence, it is only thru events which are catastrophically damaging to the market that large companies actually fall victim to the market.

No, too often the dirty little secrets of failed audits, Sarsbannes Oxley violations, Enron type malfeasent abuse of the California energy market, are simply NOT in the public eye, and even when they are, it's not like we get to REALLY chose to shop elsewhere, certainly not easily.

Our government is increasingly in the thrall of big business - and I applaud Obama for taking a stand - but to think that the market would have fixed this rather obvious problem is naivete' at best. Regulation is, as in this case, often the reasonable reaction to abuse - and saying that all or most of it is unnecessary is mostly just playing into the hands of those who do not want to play nice.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Across the 'Great Divide'

Recently on a friend's blog, there was an exchange over Sarah Palin and other conservative / right wing women. We were addressing the qualifications of women who are influential in politics, either as a politician or a potential candidate, or as a person who is politically influential as a writer or broadcaster with a significant audience of viewers or readers, and the kinds of criticism they receive.

My friend took the position that all conservative women are bashed by liberals, unfairly, and that there is some sort of monolithic group of equally significant individuals who were apparently treated badly for no other reason than their conservatism.

I argued, or at least attempted to argue, that there was no such monolithic group, that the individuals under discussion were widely dissimilar in both qualifications and abilities. I characterised for example Gretchen Carlson, from my post "Dumb Like a Fox", as a beautiful, talented, intelligent and well-educated woman, with a better vocabulary than she demonstrates on television. In the course of the comparison, I contrasted Carlson's degree with honors from Stanford with Palin's multiple lesser college and community college education, and with Michele Bachmann's undergraduate and graduate degrees. I also contrasted Obama's academic credentials with those of the conservative women; Obama's accomplishments exceeded those of all three women.

My intent in examining the education of these women, and Obama, was to demonstrate both their evident intelligence, and what they had done to prepare themselves through education for subsequent careers and impact on the world. I respect accomplishments where some degree of distinction was achieved. I was widely insulted for valuing education, and told that this was not important, because there are other measures of accomplishment, and because the degrees were something accomplished years ago.

I was called 'a snob' for appreciating academic distinctions, and for viewing the women in question as different and not all the same.

I also compared the credentials specifically of Obama and Palin in elected office, noting that Wassilla had a population of less than 6,000 when she was mayor; while Obama when elected to the state Senate of Illinois had a constituency of more than 210,000. As Senator for Illinois, Obama represented a state of more than 12,800,000 compared to Palin governing Alaska with a population of a little over 680,000. Because she held, however briefly, executive office, my friend and his supporters argued Palin was more qualified, and Obama was unqualified because he had only served in the legislative branch of government.

Now, my intent in looking at the relative populations and at academic accomplishments was to begin a comparison with things that could be quantified in some way, degrees was one measure of accomplishment, the size of relative constituency another. Quantifiable comparisons appealed to me as a means for objective rather than subjective evaluation on a topic where subjective views seemed to me to be given too much importance.

At no point did I assert that there were no other valid kinds or measures of accomplishment. And at no point did anyone ask me if this was my only criteria for comparison or why I chose to begin with quantifiable measures.

Now, personally, I don't happen to believe that the activities of a mayor of a tiny town of 5,000+, which is managed by a professional manager instead of the mayor IS a valid qualification for claiming executive experience. Nor do I see a great deal to admire in the administrative or executive career of a governor who spends a good part of her term on the campaign trail or promoting herself instead of serving as governor, before quitting.

I fail to see how academic accomplishments cease to be valid accomplishments over time, as if they had an expiration date. Certainly if the academic accomplishments are the base from which a person proceeds to have a noteworthy career after graduation, they would seem to be worth consideration.

I also fail to see how a career in the legislative branches of government, where the bills are proposed and laws passed on which the executive branch subsequently acts in governing, makes an individual somehow less competent or knowledgeable about how government works, or negates abilities to act as an executive, either in elected government or the private sector. I would argue, rather, that there are a number of areas where there is considerable overlap.

But I stopped, deciding not to continue to try to disagree as objectively as I was able, with people whose minds were closed, and whose reaction to holding a different view was insulting accusations rather than open minds and courtesy. Trying to explain myself didn't seem worth the effort; no one seemed to care. In their defence, I did characterize Palin as an individual I found trivial and superficial, using a very innocuous term, 'popsie'. That was like waving a red cape in front of an angry bull to Palin fans.

The course of the discussion, more than the subject itself, has been kicking around in my mind. As we approach the end of the calendar year, with its sentiments of peace on earth and good will to all, that failed discussion seemed antithetical to the season.

If we cannot listen to each other, or read each other's words, with an open mind and without antagonism and insult instead of attempting to understand, if there is no room for benefit of the doubt that someone might have something worthwhile to contribute........what do we have remaining?

Are the words of all of us writing in the blogosphere only to preach to the choir, are we only addressing those who already agree with us? Is there nothing left to learn from or to offer to each other? And perhaps most of concern to me, is there no point to trying to seek out fact to inform all that matters what we want to believe, instead of what really is true?

Can there be no meeting of minds?

Following this failed attempt at discourse came an invitation to me through the Penigma2 email account, from a new web site,, from an editor whose job is to seek out writers who have something of substance to contribute. I was invited to write for OpEd on the basis of my recent post about Tim Pawlenty. OpEd intends to provide not a single point of view, but a range of views, in one location to appeal to readers who don't want just one side of current events.

It was a compliment to be asked to contribute; and it was encouraging that someone else found enough reason to promote different points of view to set up this new website.

With the consent of Pen, and ToE, I have recently added OpEd to the list of linked blogs on Penigma; OpEd informs me that Penigma will be added to their list of linked blogs in turn.

I have tried to look at my frustration in a constructive way, to see what I can learn from it first and foremost for my own thinking and conduct, because I have no control over anyone else. I am persuaded to let go of some of my frustration, and not to be discouraged, but to try to continue to do my best to find a factual basis for my thinking, wherever that may lead. Perhaps most of all, I'm going to try - call it my new year's resolution for 2010 - to be more open minded myself, and more receptive to the views of others, and to really pay attention to those views to be sure I understand them before leaping to conclusions too quickly.

I hope those who enjoy Penigma will join me in that resolution.

Wishing all of our readers a safe and joyous occasion, whichever holiday you may celebrate. Join me as well in celebrating today - Winter Solstice - the day of the year with the longest period of darkness and the shortest period of daylight. The joy is in knowing there will be increasing light tomorrow and each day after. Blessed be.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The winner of the 2009 Lie of the Year contest by, by popular vote, is.......SARAH PALIN for her Death Panel comments!!!!!

I would offer my congratulations, but I'm not sure that congratulations are quite what one should properly offer for a "win" of this kind. Of the nearly 5,000 votes in the contest, Palin won with a "resounding a 61%" of the vote.

Runners up, in order were:

Glenn Beck for his comments about John Holdren, forcing abortion and sterilants in the water, with 12.3% of the vote;

Orly Taitz with 8.7% of the vote, for claiming Obama's Kenya birth certificate;

President Obama, with 7.1% of the vote, for "preventive care" saves money;

Joe Wilson, with 5.8% of the vote, for "you lie" re insuring illegal immigrants;

Michele Bachmann, with 3.1% of the vote, for her quote about page 92 of the Health Care bill;

Joe Biden, with 1.7% of the vote, for his statement about sneezing in an airplane;

Nita Lowey, with 0.5% of the vote, for her statement about the Stupak amendment

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And the Winner of the 2009 Lie of the Year Contest IS....

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”
Adolf Hitler
German Chancellor, leader of the Nazi party,

"I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.”
Henry Louis Mencken
American humorous Journalist & Critic of American life


“People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.”
Malcolm Muggeridge
British Journalist, Satarist, Spy,

1903 - 1990

Between December 9th and December 16th, one of my all-time favorite sites,, held open voting for their year in review "Lie of the Year" contest. This contest is a great look at both the issues that were important in 2009, and the people who were the faces of those issues. Those competing are so worthy, that picking just one is a terribly difficult decision. (I would have included Ben Bernanke, but oh well.....they didn't ask me.)

Politifact is one of the best fact checking sites on the web, a project of the St. Petersburg Times newspaper. A 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, the purpose of the project, as stated on their web site, is "to help you find the truth in American Politics". Editors and reporters of the Times do the fact checking on "statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups" and then rate them on their truth-o-meter. Ratings on the Truth-O-Meter range from True through a spectrum of partially True all the way to False, and the ultimate bad rating and my personal favorite, because fact-checking American Politics just wouldn't be complete without it, for statements where a mere rating of false would be simply inadequate: "Pants on Fire". Politifact is adamantly non-partisan in their fact checking, so while readers may delight in seeing those who hold opposition figures accountable for their statements, readers should also be prepared to see statements made by figures they may endorse or support given equal scrutiny.

So, who are the candidates for the 2009 Lie of the Year award? (drum roll please!)

In no particular order

Joe Biden, for:
"When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft."
April 30, 2009,
the Today Show.
Rated Pants on Fire.

Barack Obama, for:
"Preventive care saves money."
September 9, 2009,
speech to a joint session of Congress.
Rated False

Joe Wilson, for:
"You lie!"
September 9, 2009
speech by Obama to a joint session of Congress,
(re health care reform would not insure illegal immigrants)
Rated False

Nita Lowey, for:
"An amendment to the House health reform bill puts new restrictions on women's access to abortion coverage in the private health insurance market even when they would pay premiums with their own money."
November 7, 2009,
speech from the House floor
Rated False

Sarah Palin, for:
"Seniors and the disabled will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his beaurocrats can decide, based on a subjective judgement of their level of productivity in society, whether they are worthy of health care."
August 7, 2009,
message posted on Facebook.
Rated Pants on Fire

Glenn Beck, for:
"John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in the drinking water to control population." July 22, 2009
Fox News cable television, Glenn Beck program
Rated Pants on Fire

Orly Taitz, for:
"A birth certificate shows Barack Obama was born in Kenya."
August 2, 2009
lawsuit attachment
Rated Pants on Fire

Michele Bachmann, for:
"Page 92 of the House health care reform bill says specifically that people can't purchase private health insurance after a date certain."
October 30, 2009,
Fox News cable television interview
Rated Pants on Fire

So hard to choose, it is so very hard to choose.......

And the winner is..........?

Unfortunately, Politifact did not provide a date for announcing the winner, only that the results will come soon. While readers wait for the announcement, they can browse the Politifact web site which is conveniently organized with Truth-O-Meter findings by persons, rulings, subjects, Pants on Fire rulings, and Health Care. There is a file devoted exclusively to Barack Obama, as well as an Obameter, Joe Biden has his own file as well. Glenn Beck and Michael Moore have their own files as well. TheObameter, worth a look for those who want to determine for themselves if the President gave himself a fair grade for his first year, is divided into headings for All promises not yet rated, All promises in the works, All promises stalled, Broken promises, Obama compromises, and for any topic not covered in those headings, By subject. Politifact is tracking 500 Obama promises, a prodigious undertaking. The site also has sections on people, and pundits.

Staff writer and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan is the Politifact reporter posting the story and presumably also the results to the Politifact web page. Her bio on Politifact indicates she has worked for the St. Petersburg Times since 2005, and holds a Masters degree from Columbia University School of Journalism. She has previously been a researcher at the Tampa Tribune and a business reporter for the Mobile, Alabama Press-Register.

I hope she posts an announcement soon; the suspense is brutal! Well, maybe it is not quite such suspense, for those who are the candidates for this distinction; I imagine they'd be happy to wait indefinitely. One last point: according to Politifact, as regards a difference of opinion covered in a previous article here on Penigma, relating to the Stupak Amendment, let me acknowledge that Politifact supports the position espoused by Thoughts of Eternity, and not the position I expressed. I like to admit it when I'm wrong. Well, I don't exactly LIKE it, but I try to do it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Proper Law

President Obama has advocated reallocating TARP money which has been returned by various banks to instead be spent on jobless programs. The President has advocated that Congress should change the TARP law to allow for this use.

I strongly disagree with the President - not because jobless benefits aren't needed, but rather because his first responsibility is to maintain faith with the people of this country. TARP (or Troubled Asset Relief Program) dollars were designed to keep teetering banks afloat by relieving them of their so-called toxic assets - assets like Credit Default Swaps and other forms of real estate Derivatives. Presidents Bush and Obama both assured us it was necessary to avoid economic calamity. Considering how manifestly juxtaposed both men were politically, when two people of such disparate views advocate the same thing, I tend to think they are putting aside political strife and that it probably was true, we needed to act.

That said, if banks which took money now say they no longer need it, and are returning it to relieve themselves of oversight or limitations on pay or for whatever reason, then the money should simply go back into the general funds and be used to limit/reduce the debt for this fiscal year NOT be redirected at the whim of the President and Congress. One of the key distinguishers *supposedly* between Bush - who would call up down - such as saying we were bringing about regime change in Iraq if Iraq changed it's mind about WMD inspections - and Obama, was that Obama promised to NOT pass bills in the middle of the night, not try to sneak things (like say, yellow-cake in Niger) by us. This looks like the same old games, and it's wrong.

The proper way to pass a law is to do just that, propose the law for it's intended purpose, argue it, vote on it, and if it's passed, sign it. If we need another $300B in jobless benefits, then promote that, gain public approval, be transparent, and move forward. Do not burden the public with more debt without their explicit and direct consent as represented by their representatives arguing the point on the floor of Congress on its own merits and then agreeing to fund it. That's how it is properly and fairly done, and no other way.

Dumb Like a Fox

"With foxes we must play the fox."
Thomas Fuller, English clergyman
1608 - 1661

"I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other."
- Napoleon Bonaparte, French emperor and general

1769 - 1821

"'Men have forgotten this truth,' said the fox. 'But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French novelist
1900 - 1944

Jon Stewart ripped into Fox News for posting a graphic in response to the hacked emails of climate change scientists about their use of statistics in support of global warming. Stewart seized on the idea that Fox News and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson might not be as stupid as she seems on the air.

The graphic, reporting misleadingly the figures about public opinion from a Rasmussen poll, showed responses to this question:

"Did scientists falsify research to support their own theories on Global Warming?"

The question results posted were:

59% Somewhat Likely
35% Very Likely
26% Not Very Likely

If you are able to do the math, as Stewart is, that adds up to 120%, which implies that there was some cherry picking of figures going on here to create an intended impression. I have no idea how many viewers typically check the math on news, or pseudo-news, programming; but I would suspect that most viewers are focused on the commentary more than on fact checking what is in front of them on screen.

Now while the statistics are not over a line with that 120% listed as the total underneath - and yes, this becomes important later on! - the voice over wording does add the numbers together. “About 60% of you say Somewhat Likely, 35% say Very Likely. So you got 90, you got a lot of people right there thinking it is likely, although 26% say Not Very Likely."

Apparently Fox talking heads have to read their graphics to their viewers, and it would seem that where you have that talking head in this case doing the math, he stops himself when he realizes how the figures in the graphic add up. He doesn't point out that if 94% disbelieve scientists falsify global warming, then you can't have another 26% believing they haven't. Instead, he switches in mid-sentence to "you got a lot of people right there thinking it is likely (falsified research).

Now apart from the condescension inherent in the graphic which assumes no one watching will catch the math discrepancy (to use a nice word for it), and apart from the implied misrepresentation of the information that is in the Rasmussen poll - they do better math than this - is the unintended irony pointed out by Stewart that this is Fox news "massaging" the data in a story that is about scientists possibly misrepresenting their data. Pot. Kettle. Black and blacker.

Wearing his usual dyspeptic expression of dismay as he contemplates the graphic and then looks into the camera, Stewart wryly observes, “So in attacking scientists for falsifying data to support their theories on global warming, you've cited a poll that adds up to 120%. This is, ah.......what's known in the business....what's known in the business as perfection."

But Stewart doesn't stop there, because Fox didn't stop there with the realization of it's first talking head that there was a problem. Fox wanted to push their skewed view, damn the data. Stewart went on to note in sarcastic understatement, "The only way you could, perhaps, top this Sundae, is with a couple of nuts completely ignoring the mathematical impossibility in front of them to further solidify their talking points du jour." He refers to the comment that "In the spirit of fairness, I believe that question was asked before these emails were revealed, so that poll number may actually be different now." As one of the other talking heads elaborates, "Substantially higher?", and is answered "It might be, yes.". This is followed with "Close to100% now?" and derisive laughter on the Fox news set in the clip. Or maybe it was nervous laughter from talking heads who realized they were lying through their teeth and might get caught at it if someone did the math.

Yeah, now it might be up to 130%, or maybe even 150%, or 200%, depending on who at Fox News is doing the graphics and cherry-picking data.

Stewart continues in his observations on Fox News with "Yeah, actually, actually, in the spirit of fairness, we should mention that this, this Rasmussen poll had a margin of error of monkey-bleeped-ridiculous."

Ah, but ya gotta love Stewart, he doesn't stop here either. He goes on to rip Fox, calling them out on their badly slanted so-called news coverage, so opposite from their espoused motto of "fair and balanced" news. He rightly (pun intended) labels their approach "passive-aggressive wonderment", providing a sarcastic exaggeration of their reasoning. Speaking as if he were a Fox News commenter, he said "Isn't it interesting that Obama gave a speech in Berlin? You know, Hitler used to speak in Berlin."

He then segues with the comment "We begin to believe that the organization may be a tad disingenuous. Now I believe that Gretchen Carlson may be another example of this." Stewart focuses his attention specifically on talking head Gretchen Carlson, whom I have followed since her early days, before her career in the media. Carlson is yet another right wing beauty pageant queen, this one from the Minnesota.

Stewart pans Carlson for her persona on Fox and Friends as "a troubled mom, who is just trying to make sense of this crazy, modern country we've got. Like when Hugo Chavez referred to Obama as an ignoramus." In a clip of Carlson, she states "I just wanted to see how much of an insult it was to be called an ignoramus. Since I didn't know what it meant, I just googled it."

Let me interject here that Minnesota, where Carlson grew up, has a pretty decent and competitive educational system in the public schools. As a product of that same educational system, I can assure readers we were taught a respectable vocabulary, including words like ignoramus. And when we genuinely don't know the meaning of a word - as contrasted with Carlson's statement here - we were taught how to use a dictionary, not just reliance on search engines like Google. I found the notion that Carlson isn't familiar with this word to be even more improbable than Stewart found it.

The clip of Carlson continues with her stating "For all of you out there who don't know what ignoramus is, like me..." This is a blatant case of Carlson dumbing down her real intellect and education. I don't know what is more offensive here, her deception, or the assumption that she has a stupid audience to whom she has to pander. Now, without looking it up, I knew - as I assume readers here would know - that ignoramus is more usually used to mean ANY ignorant person. Carlson however defines it more specifically, on Fox News, as "It's an ignorant lawyer. We all know Barack Obama IS a lawyer".

Carlson is not actually wrong either. If you research the word, it derives from the Latin, ignorare, which translates "to be ignorant". There was a play titled "Ignoramus" waaaay back in 1615, by the English playwright G. Ruggle who used the word as a name for a character. That usage also derives from the legal terminology, "a grand jury's endorsement upon a bill of indictment when evidence is deemed insufficient to send the case to a trial jury" according to the American Heritage Dictionary. Carlson is, to borrow a phrase from my grandmother, "dumb like a fox" (pun intended). Carlson feigned her own ignorance purely as a device to interject the relatively obscure connection between the word ignoramus and lawyers. I admire the appreciation of language inherent in researching the background of the word done by Carlson; heck, it's the kind of thing I enjoy doing. I just wouldn't pretend to be stupid to introduce the information, or assume my audiece wouldn't appreciate the details, or misrepresent the actual more typical usage of a word.

Stewart picks up on this playing dumb by Carlson, when he goes on to mimic her, speaking in falsetto, "I mean I'm no fan of Chavez, but Obama IS a lawyer." In his own voice, Stewart continues "and of course all that talk about money and business just confuses the heck out of the old girl", going on to mock Carlson's pretense that she didn't understand the economic term "double dip recession'. Continuing in the falsetto as if he were Carlson, Stewart says "So it turns out that double dip means that Obama is not taking us all out for ice cream, but leading the country to an economic disaster."

He similarly excoriates Carlson over pretending to be unfamiliar with the word Czar when Stewart says "How do you get a job on television if you appear to be one of those people who need to pin their address to their coat so a stranger can help them find their way home? Unless, unless...unless...unless you are just dumbing yourself down to connect with an audience that you think sees intellect as an elitist flaw."

Noting "But that would be easy to check", Stewart gives the results of googling Gretchen Carlson, he notes that she was valedictorian of her high school, and went to college at Stanford, graduating with honors, then spending time abroad studying at Oxford, "not the Mississippi one, the Europe one."

Stewart then continues on about Carlson's talent competition performance as an accomplished classical violinist, when she won the 1989 Miss America pageant. He sarcastically observed "Of course, if she entered today, she'd probably just dress up like Raggedy Ann and sing "My Funny Valentine"."

Stewart ends his segment on Carlson and Fox News with "Gretchen, Baby, come back! You don't have to stash your IQ in an off shore account. Just 'cause you're on the couch with Jack Tripper and Janet doesn't mean you have to pretend to be Chrissy. So I don't want to have to turn you on tomorrow and see you are actually surprised that the Interior Secretary is in charge of the outside stuff. From now on, I want to see you give it 120%."

Ya gotta love Jon Stewart. And you have to wonder why it is that Gretchen Carlson, a woman who is beautiful, talented, intelligent, and poised has to pretend she is less educated and less knowledgeable, less competent than she is, in order to appeal to the viewers who are the bread-and-butter audience of Fox News. Can't Gretchen be accepted as well by the right if she appears on camera as the person she really is? It suggests feminists still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Not so very 'Minnesota Nice'

"In truth, politeness is artificial good humor, it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue."
- Thomas Jefferson

I am ashamed to learn that there was an embarrassing incident at the Mall of America at the Sarah Palin "Going Rogue" book signing.

A man from this area (allegedly) threw two tomatoes, apparently with the intent of hitting Palin with them, or at the very least intending to disrupt her book signing event. The tomatoes were thrown from an upper level balcony, landing some 10 feet away from Palin, spattering two law enforcement officers.

I have not been able to find any accompanying statement to this man's actions that might explain the motives for his misconduct. It is not clear if he was against something relating to Palin, or if he was possibly a fan who had become disgruntled with the lines. There were some reports of individuals who were unhappy with their wait, however, until a motive becomes clear it is more plausible this was a man who disagreed with one or more of Palin's positions.

If political opposition was the cause, I would hope that anyone who has respect for our political processes and traditions, or who has a sincere regard for civil discussion and reasoned differences would join me in repudiating this man's behavior. Heck, join me in repudiating it for whatever reason --- there is NO good reason for this kind of behavior, no justification.

It is an embarrassment to a state known for "Minnesota Nice" to have this occur. I can only hope that the person who thought it was clever to lob those tomatoes will get a good, large dose of Minnesota justice for those actions, and that the subsequent justice might receive as much attention as his actions.

To former Governor Palin, from those of us here in the Minnesota blogosphere who DO care about civil discourse, however much we might on occasion take issue with you -- I hope you will accept our apologies for this rude treatment. We do not support or condone it; it was wrong. It is not representative of the kind of people most of us are.

The words polite and politic appear very similar; but they derive from different root words historically. Despite the differences in derivation and meaning, the two should be more synonymous in our conduct, whatever our place in the political spectrum.

What's Love Got to Do With It?

The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn't mean that God doesn't love heterosexuals. It's just that they need more supervision. ~Lynn Lavner

War. Rape. Murder. Poverty. Equal rights for gays. Guess which one the Southern Baptist Convention is protesting? ~The Value of Families

What are you trying to protect heterosexual marriages from? There isn't a limited amount of love in Iowa. It isn't a non-renewable resource. If Amy and Barbara or Mike and Steve love each other, it doesn't mean that John and Mary can't. ~Ed Fallon

In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation. ~Simone de Beauvoir

The plague of mankind is the fear and rejection of diversity: monotheism, monarchy, monogamy and, in our age, monomedicine. The belief that there is only one right way to live, only one right way to regulate religious, political, sexual, medical affairs is the root cause of the greatest threat to man: members of his own species, bent on ensuring his salvation, security, and sanity. ~Thomas Szasz

Minnesota Public Radio's station, KNOW, recently broadcast an interview with Paul Landskroener on the subject of gay marriage. Landskroener is the clerk of the Twin Cities Friends Meeting (St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN). The religious group, perhaps better recognized by the name "Quakers", is one of a handful of Quaker Meetings nationwide that has made the decision to stop signing the marriage certificates for opposite-sex couples until the state of Minnesota legalizes gay marriage.

While a recognized religion, Quakers, or Meetings of Friends as they are also known, do not ordain ministers. Marriages are conducted by couples reciting their vows in front of the congregation, after which witnesses sign the marriage certificate. In the context of this new decision, the signature of a Justice of the Peace or Judge or other officiant will be required to make the ceremony legally recognized. The Quakers have been holding wedding services for both same sex and opposite sex marriages, despite the lack of recognition for those same-sex wedding ceremonies.

After a three year period during which this new decision was considered, this group of Minnesota Quakers made the decision that this form of protesting the lack of gay marriage recognition was consistent with how they perceived the will of God.

Some Meetings of the Friends feel that not recognizing gay marriage is unjust. Others do not. There is much less centralization within the Society of Friends, each local group sets their own policy. A web site for an Ontario group, Religious, addresses the range of positions held by the local meetings which are similar to the range of positions professed by other Christian denominations regarding homosexuality and bi-sexuality.

For example, according to the web site, as far back as 1963 in the UK, British Quakers published the book "Towards a Quaker View of Sex" embracing the position that God can be present in any relationship "where there is a measure of selfless love", and the Westminster UK Quakers accepted the view that God loves all people regardless of their sexual orientation, and that sexuality was God-given.

In the United States, the Hartford, Connecticut Quakers as far back as 1986 issued a statement recognizing both same-sex and heterosexual celebrations of marriage, and in 1988 the Beacon Hill Quaker Meeting of Massachusetts also issued a statement in support of recognizing same-sex marriage ceremonies. The Beacon Hill Quaker Statement says, in part,

"Mindful that only the heterosexual couples among us currently have the right to legally sanctioned marriages and its privileges, the Meeting asks Friends, and particularly couples preparing for marriage, to examine how best to respond and bear witness to the inequalities still present in the system."

The Quakers in Madison issued a statement, "Madison Affirmation on Homosexuality and Christian Faith", declaring they believe homosexuality was "neither a sickness or a sin", and finding that "homosexual persons have been condemned and mistreated by the followers of Jesus Christ".

In New Zealand, the Aotearoa Quaker Meeting in 1995 similarly pledged "to seek formal ways of recognizing a variety of commitments, including gay and lesbian partnerships." That statement also asserted the beautiful words "Love has many shapes and colors and is not finite. It cannot be measured or defined in terms of sexual orientation,"

Other Quaker groups just as emphatically do NOT share this view of marriage and sexual orientation. In 1992, the Evangelical Friends Church Mid America Meeting affirmed an opposing position, comparing homosexuality to adultery, condemning both. They issued the statement, which included the view "Homosexual activity, like an adulterous relationship, is clearly condemned in the Scriptures." and "We as Evangelical Friends believe that sexuality has moral implications unlike race, gender, and or national origins."

Although certainly 'Mid-American' here in Minnesota, the Friends Meeting of the Twin Cities has sided with their co-religionists in Madison, Wisconsin rather than the position of the Evangelical Friends.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Soul Searching

"A blow to the head will confuse a man's thinking, a blow to the foot has no such effect, this cannot be the result of an immaterial soul. "
- Heraclitus of Ephesus
pre-Socratic Greek philosopher
535 - 475 BCE

"Whatever that be, which thinks, which understands, which wills, which acts, it is something celestial and divine; and, upon that account, must necessarily be eternal. "
- Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero)
Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer and orator, politicl theorist & constitutionalist, linguist & translator,
106 BC - 43 BC

"For it is unknown what is the real nature of the soul, whether it be born with the bodily frame or be infused at the moment of birth, whether it perishes along with us, when death separates the soul and body, or whether it visits the shades of Pluto and bottomless pits, or enters by divine appointment into other animals."
De Rerum Natura (I, 113)

- Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus),
Roman poet and philosopher
99 BC - 55 BC

"The soul, which is spirit, can not dwell in dust; it is carried along to dwell in the blood." [Lat., Anima certe, quia spiritus, in sicco habitare non potest; ideo in sanguine fertur habitare.]Decretum (IX, 32, 2)
- Saint Aurelius Augustine (Augustine of Hippo),
philosopher and theologian, early latin church founder and saint
354 -430

"Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. "
"I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am."
- Rene Des Cartes
French philosopher, mathmetician, and physicist
1596 - 1650

"But whither went his soul, let such relate
Who search the secrets of the future state:
Divines can say but what themselves believe;
Strong proofs they have, but not demonstrative:
For, were all plain, then all sides must agree,
And faith itself be lost in certainty.
To live uprightly then is sure the best,
To save ourselves, and not to damn the rest."
- John Dryden
Poet Laureate, play write, literary critic, translator,
member of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement
of Natural Knowledge (aka 'the Royal Society')
1631 - 1700

"One certainly has a soul; but how it came to allow itself to be enclosed in a body is more than I can imagine. I only know if once mine gets out, I'll have a bit of a tussle before I let it get in again to that of any other. "
~Lord Byron, poet and member of the Royal Society
1788 - 1824

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy (ĭ-pĭs'tə-mŏl'ə-jē)n. The branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.
[Greek epistēmē, knowledge (from epistasthai, epistē-, to understand : epi-, epi- + histasthai, middle voice of histanai, to place, determine; see stā- in Indo-European roots) + -logy.]e·pis'te·mo·log'i·cal (-mə-lŏj'ĭ-kəl) adj., e·pis'te·mo·log'i·cal·ly adv., e·pis'te·mol'o·gist n.The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

In the great debates over health care reform specifically, and more widely on the subject of abortion, the argument returns to the premise that abortion is wrong because of the belief independent individual life begins at conception, including the presence of a soul. Representative of that is the greater than usual number of quotations, including the definition and origins of 'epistemology', because of its relevance to my examination of the topic. I had many more, including Plato and Aristotle, Einstein and Jung, and a variety of theologians, which I pruned to the current several here.

I have read widely on the subject of our human soul and spirituality, and listened to many different voices pontificating ther dogma on the subject in the course of satisfying my own curiosity. The identification of a special essence, a special quality, that we generally term a soul exists across a wide range of cultures, around the world and across the span of our history. The identification of what we call 'soul' exists in the religious beliefs of the most primitive of cultures across the spectrum to the most sophisticated societies, as we define them by technology and science, literacy, political development, affluence, and a plethora of other criteria (take your pick).
All of which strongly suggests the existence of something we as humanity define, more or less, as our souls. This breadth of recognition might suggest some sort of consensus, some unanimity of understanding, a clarity and agreement on definition, right?

Not even close; as always, there are details rampant with devils, lots and lots of little devils.

There is no consensus across history or across the geography of our planet on any single specific aspect of that essence we name souls. We don't agree on what it is; we don't agree on when it is inside of us; we don't agree on the origins. We don't even fully agree on whether or not the soul is immortal or eternal; some believe that the soul can die, others that it grows as the body grows, with experience. We don't agree on how, where, and from whom our souls derive. We don't agree on who or what possesses a soul.

The Christian tradition is contradictory. The roots of early Judaism posited that animals, at least some animals, had souls, as do other religious and spiritual traditions. In Islam, the belief is that the soul enters the body of a fetus in utero after 40 days. Not 90 or 180 days, not 30 minutes, and not at conception; they are quite definite on the 40 day figure. But then, in the Islamic faith, not only humans have souls either. Djinn and angels also have souls in that faith's traditions. In the Druidic tradition, and in many other traditions (the many irreverent verses of "Give me that old time religion" are playing in my head) so do some trees and other inanimate objects.

Ethnocentrically, most of the people I know (but not all by any stretch) would argue for accepting only the more conventional and recent Judeo-Christian notions of souls. So.....that simplifies the concept entirely right? Hardly. Not only is there no consensus, if you ask the question not when is the soul first present, but rather when was the soul first present in the earliest human body, it presents an entirely different range of questions to be answered.

Recently I re-read a book I found very influential, "Guns Germs and Steel" by Jarod Diamond, a book about the comparative development of different societies, the how and why some developed greater technology and sophistication and others did not. Diamond covers the migrations of populations from Africa into the other continents on our planet, and briefly addresses the progression of what we know about Australopithecus Africans, through homo erectus, homo habilus, and homo sapiens. He addresses the development of and competition between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon "man". So........who had souls? Did the Australopithecus, Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon? If you reject the science of evolution in favor of creationism, were the individuals whose remains we have discovered not at the very least been created by God as well, and therefore have souls too? Were they human enough?

I remember I was in elementary school the first time I saw the images of the Lascaux cave paintings; I thought they were beautiful. There are theories which equate the earliest origins of cave paintings and figural art, like the Willendorf 'venus' and the Hohle Fels 'venus', and the various cave paintings around the world, as indicative that our progenitors had developed the beginnings of religion and abstract concepts. The artistic figures were contemporaneous with the earliest formal burial customs (that we know of) which suggest belief in an after life, the beginnings of faith in something greater than ourselves. While there is not complete agreement in the significance of these paintings and sculptures, the overwhelming majority of the sculptures are female, and appear pregnant (although all of the figures, male, female, child, and animal from this period are included in the term 'venus'). There is a large segment of the experts who believe that the figures are indicative of a belief in one or more deites, especially some sort of fecund earth godess from whom life originates, and in belief that we are in the same general form as our deities.

In analyzing the progress of our species, who won, and who lost disappearing into history, Diamond further pursues the pressures and influences which resulted in our cultural and technological differences. He compares factors such as the difference in spacing the birth of children between nomadic peoples and settled/ sedentary societies, including the practices of contraception and abstinence, abortion and infanticide, and even castration of a percentage of male infants, as necessary to their survival as individuals, and as a group, because their way of life could not support or move more than limited numbers of people.

Someone, on another blog not so long ago accused me of "loving baby killing". The truth about me is far from that, and yet it was posited to me that the individual who made that statement was 'highly principled', the implication I took from that was that if I disagreed I must be less principled. I do not assume from the actions taken out of necessity for survival these earlier groups of people, who some would no doubt dismissively term 'dirt worshipping heathen', were enthusiastic about their options - that they loved killing babies, or that they were immoral or unprincipled.

Understanding and taking control of our reproduction is an important part of what differentiates human society from animals. The use of abortifacients is common to the earliest human medical knowledge, everywhere on the planet, at every time in human history. The ideology that abstinence will be practiced sufficiently that no other form of controlling reproduction is needed, is folly; it denies our history, it denies who we are, it denies the importance of the urge to reproduce that is inherent t0 human survival. I have pursued a certain interest in these materia medica used in humans and other species, as part of a larger interest in the area of reproductive science. They are found on every continent except Antarctica.

But it is not only a study of theology, history, literature, philosophy, art, archeology, anthropology, the history of medicines (primarily but not exclusively botanicals) that informed my thoughts on this subject. Besides the time spent in performing castrations and semen collection, and various efforts helping other species bring new life into the world, I've spent a good few hours in front of microscopes. I find semen fascinating; I have counted sperm in samples and evaluated it for the three "M"s - morphology, motility, and morbidity. I have differentiated mature sperm from immature (the immature have larger heads in relation to the tails). It never fails to inspire in me a sense of awe at the vigor and vitality of the stuff.

When I first had the opportunity to examine healthy semen under a microscope, observing the extent of the almost vibrating movement, I made the inadvertant comment that it was surprising that with all that motion observable under the microscope, it should tickle when you touch it. The response of the supervising professor was coffee expelled nasally; and another student observing that it did tend to explain why men seemed to scratch certain parts of their anatomy so often. (We were an all female group, otherwise we might have been more prudent in our observations, out of concern for making any male colleague uncomfortable.)

Nature is wasteful and redundant; it exists and thrives through excess. For every ova fertilized by a single spermatazoa, many millions fail. (I will skip expounding on capacitation and activation, on the presumption that not everyone shares my fascinaion.) An unknown and unknowable number of gametes - fertilised ova - fail to implant or otherwise fail to thrive. No count is kept of the women who only discover they were probably pregnant at some point only when their doctors happen to note the change to their cervix. No one can know how many more women are similarly affected by failures to implant or spontaneous abortion who do not have regular medical care that includes pelvic examination. That every failed embryo has a soul is to me incomprehensible; that every possible embryo equates to a fully developed human is even more unreasonable.

Beyond those failures of conception developing to term in vivo are those in vitro. Not only have we mastered the art and science of test tube babies, but we have cloned human embryos from human skin cells, and grown skin cells from foreskin. Those efforts are in pursute of creating pluripotent stem cells for research and therapeutic treatments. If we need more skin for skin grafts, we grow that from the circumcised foreskins of infants; about 4 acres of skin can be grown from a single foreskin (and like embryos, they can be frozen for storage).

The one constant for the development of any embryo to maturity, regardless of origin, is the requirement for it to be implanted in a woman in order to gestate. That fact suggests to me that women have a significance, an importance, that is greater in the consideration of reproduction than the value of any embryo, up until a sufficient cellular differentiation to survive independently. Further, I would argue that in the undifferentiated cellular state, as reflected in the first quotation from Heraclitus, that there is a lack of individuality as evidenced by a lack of neurological tissue - the lack of a brain, which seems an essential quality of being a human individual.

No embryos, of any species, have ever grown entirely in vitro. Do those embryos, those clumps of relatively few cells, largely undifferentiated, which are not implanted, which instead are frozen or discarded, all have fully equal souls to the rest of us, regardless of how the conception occurred? Some would say yes, many would say no. The reality is that people believe what they choose to believe; no one has proof, no one definitively KNOWS. The soul is the subject of belief, but it is not demonstrable, tangible, provable; it is at most a theoretical construct in which we decide to believe - myself included.

There are those in our society who would impose their beliefs on others. People who believe they know better than everyone else what is correct, who feel they need to enforce their beliefs on people who cannot be trusted to think for themselves, who cannot be allowed to believe differently. They demonize anyone who disagrees with them. They are willing to penalize them, sometimes to a draconian degree. They are willing to interfere with and disrupt the direction of people's entire lives, all the while congratulating themselves on their supposed moral superiority. Many of those same people are willing to enforce their views on all aspects of human sexuality on others, no matter how ignorant and uninformed by fact those views might be, or how fraught with unsupported assumptions.

They do not and cannot admit that someone could hold a different point of view that is valid or legitimate or moral based on different information or on different beliefs. This is the height of intolerance and hubris, and antithetical to the concept of separation of church and state, imposing a view that is both fundamentally religious and spiritual in nature, and specific to one or more religions at the expense of equal respect for other religious or moral beliefs, or the views of those who choose not to embrace any religion.

My friend and colleague here, ToE, wrote a while back in the comment section to something else I'd written, a sentiment I've heard expressed by many others:" when a woman makes a choice to engage in sexual relations, she bears equal responsibility for making sure that she does not become pregnant, and if she does, then she became pregnant because she chose to become pregnant or chose to not take suitable precautions against it." With the greatest respect and friendship for my friend and colleague, and for those others who share the view expressed in his statement, this is an oversimplification for the many and various circumstances under which women have sex. Some of those circumstances are less voluntary than others; some pressures are powerfully subtle and insidious, and women often are not always in control of those decisions because of disparities between men and women.

I cherish, respect and value those men I have known who care deeply and protectively about women and about children, including those not yet born. That protective concern is one of those qualities most essential (imho) in differentiating men from those who are merely male. Likewise, I believe a concern for nurturing others is similarly an important quality in women. So clearly, while I may differ in my point of view, unlike those who are vehemently judgemental of those who differ, I do value those who are in disagreement with me.

But in conscience, I cannot disagree with them any less intensely, or agree to the disruption and alteration of peope's lives they would so blythely impose. It is a matter of integrity, and of the most profound morality, to acknowledge the difference between what we know and what we believe, and to respect that each and every one of us deserves to act according to our respective conscience. It is one of the most profound principles in the founding of this country.