Case Studies in Ignorance

April 7, 2008

#2 article on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

Did you hear about the state legislator who last week blasted a Lutheran minister during a committee hearing for spewing dangerous religious superstitions, and then attempted to order the minister out of the witness chair on the grounds that his Christian beliefs are “destroying what this state was built upon”?

Of course you didn’t, because it didn’t happen and would never happen. Not to a Christian, not to a Jew, not to a Muslim or to anyone who subscribes to any faith.

OK, so that’s a bit of an overstatement. Something like that would happen, but it would definitely cause outrage from many, many areas.

Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony. . .and told him, “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! . . This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God. Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

For the record, Rep. Davis attends Trinity United Church of Christ, the same place Obama attends. Someone please remind me why Obama (an otherwise an excellent candidate) should go to this church, or how he ever saw political benefit from being a member there?


Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


We Have to Choose

March 29, 2008

The picture on the cover of the new issue of The New Republic is a fascinating (and disturbing?) hybrid of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. However, this super-candidate can never be, we have to choose, and preferably soon.

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The Blank Faith

March 25, 2008

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Barack Obama’s religious beliefs are a sort of blank slate. People from different backgrounds look at him and come to strikingly different conclusions.

There are, of course, the crazies who think Obama is a wicked Muslim Manchurian candidate. A friend of mine was recently giving a campus tour to a prospective student and the student’s parents. They walked by a TV in a lobby showing Fox News (of course) and happened to ask my friend who she was supporting. She replied that she was an Obama supporter, and the mom leaned in and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Well, don’t you think it’s possible, just possible that he’s a plant from Al Qaeda?”

So there are those people. (I’m certain the child will choose my school)

Then are the sincere, likable evangelical Christians who are turning away from the GOP in favor of Obama. They see his religious expressions as more genuine than the professions of prior Democratic candidates, and like his rhetoric that incorporates their religious heritage into policy directions they are generally in line with. They are passionately pro-life and generally against gay marriage, but they are coming to question the Iraq War (if they ever supported it), they see poverty and climate change as moral issues, and they’re more likely to feel compassion than fear when considering immigration.

When I was a freshman, my school’s College Democrats sold 15 t-shirts and counted that a milestone. By this year (five years later) the student Facebook group supporting Obama has 150+ students. I chock this up to a combination of disillusionment with Iraq, feelings of being used by the right-wing-machine, and Obama’s personal appeal and newish approach to religion (at least for a Democrat). The only Hillary supporters I know here are two faculty members and a student from Guyana.

And another friend of mine is a self-described “third-generation secular humanist,” and she sees Obama’s faith in a different light:

Me: “Frankly, I miss the days when the Republicans were the ones associating and apologizing for the nutty religious leaders, and you knew the Democrats were pleasantly secular with a window-trimming of gentle religion for political purposes.”

Her: “Actually, I think Obama is only socially religious and doesn’t really believe in God. I’ve read his books, but I think a lot of that’s political; you have to do that to run for office.”

To each their own?


The Future of America

March 23, 2008

Is Multiracial. Americans, at least in the particular subculture I grew up in, though I suspect it’s a wider phenomenon than just in small conservative Southern towns, have rather simplistic, binary conceptions of race. That’s going to change, and Obama is, win or lose, a catalyst for that change.

“Mixed Messenger”:

I sometimes wonder what will happen in another 50 years. Will my grandchildren “feel” Jewish? Japanese? Latino? African-American? Will they be pluralists? “Pass” as Anglo? Refuse categorization? Will Hapa Nation eventually make tracking “race” impossible? Will it unite us? Or will it, as some suggest, further segregate African-Americans from everyone else? The answer to all these questions may be yes. Regardless, watching Senator Obama campaigning with his black wife, his Indonesian-Caucasian half-sister, his Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law and all of their multiculti kids, it seems clear that the binary, black-and-white — not to mention black-or-white — days are already behind us.

And a random note:

And don’t get my [Asian] husband started on why Tiger Woods — whose mother is three-quarters Asian and whose father was one-quarter Chinese and half African-American — is rarely hailed as the first Asian-American golf superstar.


The Language of Abortion

July 5, 2007

Fred Thompson

And again (with a little more detail)

Interesting how this will play out for the uber-conservatives I know who support him.

Here’s one with a (compassionate) quote from Barack Obama, made by a conservative Christian (enjoy the music from Jaws especially):

The amount of in-fighting between Christians on the issue of abortion can be truly vicious. This sort of clip reminds me again and again how Obama’s worldview is closer to my own than to the majority of self-proclaimed Christians I know.

Rudy Giuliani on public funding for abortion (you can bet this one will end up in campaign ads for pro-life Republicans if it hasn’t already!):

And finally, Hillary‘s response on reducing the number of abortions (with some odd sidetracking, like saying ‘the free market has failed’–wtf?, but overall good):


Obama’s Father’s Day

June 19, 2007

Eugene Robinson has a brief but excellent piece on TruthDig about Obama’s speech for Father’s Day. Fatherhood is, of course, a major theme for Obama, who’s own black father was absent. If you haven’t already read Dreams from My Father, I highly recommend it.

When anyone runs for office, the question of motivation immediately and inevitably (as it should) rises to the surface. Is Obama talking about black men and responsibility because he cares, or to appeal to the white voter base that’s wondering just how black he is? Robinson wonders too:

Is Obama speaking to African-Americans, or is he really trying to reach those whites who believe that most of black America’s problems are self-inflicted? I’m paid to be skeptical, but I think something much deeper than political calculation is involved here. One revelation that comes with spending time with politicians is that they actually have core beliefs. To cite one example, John Edwards may be a multimillionaire but I can’t doubt his sincerity when he talks about poverty. I’ve seen him volunteer in a soup kitchen without first summoning the television cameras. He grew up poor, and the experience has never left him.

One can care about an issue and also use it for political advantage. This is what we as voters actually want–for candidates to spend time talking about issues that happen to be both important to us and meaningful to them. I like this man more and more.

Obama grew up without his black father. It doesn’t take a psychologist to discern the impact this absence had. He has explained it himself in his books, at considerable length. He talked about it Friday in the fatherhood speech, saying that his mother—struggling to raise two children as a single parent—at times needed to rely on food stamps to make it through the month. He also spoke with admiration of his wife Michelle’s father, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis yet supported his family by going to work every day at a water filtration plant, “even when he had to rely on a walker to get him there.”

And Obama also pointed out some economic undercurrents I hadn’t really though about:

There’s nothing startling about Obama’s analysis of the macroeconomic forces that contribute to the problem of absent black fathers. Blue-collar jobs that once paid well and offered security, such as his father-in-law’s job at the plant, have largely disappeared. “In the last six years, over 300,000 black males have lost jobs in the manufacturing sector,” Obama said. The forces of globalization are inexorable. Inner-city schools don’t prepare students to compete in today’s economy.

In general I like globalization because I see it bringing jobs to the poor in the developing world. I understand that there’s an effect on blue-collar workers in the United States, but I tend to see protectionism as a short-sighted and inefficient solution. We have to get those workers better jobs, not set up artificial barriers to their jobs going to more cost-effective, equally-needy overseas workers. But I’m certainly torn by the affect the current situation has. Notably, Obama recently had a minor political gaff that served to bring the outsourcing issue back onto the table for the Democratic candidates. And what does Obama–former overseas resident (Indonesia) that he is–say?

“While it’s not possible to stop globalization in its tracks, what we can do is make sure we have a government that’s looking out for our workers,” Obama said. “We can do more to create a government that’s creating quality jobs here in America, and we can do more to create a government that’s helping workers who lose their jobs.” In Newton, Obama spoke before about 300 people and promised to increase federal grants and job training programs to communities dealing with job losses.

I’m down with that.


Obama Girl

June 16, 2007

I’m not sure if this is good press, but it’s certainly amusing.


The Debate (II)

June 4, 2007

Awesome question on Pakistan. Hurray for random history professors in the audience.

Many of these hypothetical situations are ridiculous. Kucinich handled the question about assassinations well. I don’t his answer is very politically wise, but it’s the best thing to say.

Hillary really tries to turn everything back to being Bush’s fault. This certainly plays well to the liberal base, but it doesn’t always make sense.

Biden is really extraordinary on foreign policy. On Sudan: “They have forfeited their sovereignty by committing genocide.” Amen brother. He and Richardson are talking sense on Darfur, and on Africa.

There’s a lot of hand raising going on. Wolf Blitzer is a blithering idiot. And Hillary called him on it.

Chris Dodd: Boycotting the ’08 Olympics in Beijing if China doesn’t get tough with Sudan is “going too far.” Bullshit.

Biden is too angry to be a good politician, but he gets things right.

Obama rocks on talking about American moral legitimacy as a world leader.