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Robots Of The Oil Swamp

Sitting in the pondering place, I pondered this: Where does vegetable oil come from?

The answer, of course, is that plants make it.

We have an oil-based economy, and we're running out of oil. But that's just the "mineral" petroleum, the stuff that's prehistoric. What about the stuff that the plants make?

Sure, plants can't make enough. It would be just like some nay-sayer somewhere to point out the number of acres we'd have to plant in Canola in order to make enough oil to fuel a single fleet of city buses. They'd probably say it's not cost effective, and they'd probably be right. But what about bio-engineering? How does the Canola plant make it? Or the Hemp plant, or the Olive tree, or any other plant? And what's to stop us from bio-engineering an organism to do just that?

Plenty of things, I'm sure, but most of them are moral or entail engaging foresight, and western capitalism doesn't have much history of respecting moral reasons. Or of thinking beyond the end of the depreciation cycle.

In any case, it's true that plants are very good at processing natural materials into more complex and very different natural materials. For example, they can make oil from organic waste. Or from cellulose. But plants are clearly not efficient enough. To even begin to feed the demand for fuel and synthetic plastics, we would need to operate at fairly high levels of efficiency. Fields of canola, regardless of how verdant, would not cut it.

But foetid swamps full of bacteria just might. To get the volumes we need, we would need to use open spaces, like swamps. We could digest whole forests, whole biomes, of cellulose, turn them into swamps, to get the hydrocarbons we want.

Gaseous hydrocarbons or light alcohols would probably be better for generation purposes, to drive our fuel cells, but we'd still need long-chain petrochemicals to make plastic. So I could envision different "crops," including even some semi-refined plastics.

Some of those crops would be quite hostile to life. The biological processes would most likely generate some rather toxic byproducts. And at the point where this type of production becomes necessary, I have to wonder whether the people who did it would care. These would, after all, be people arrogant enough to farm oil in an open swamp. If the global climate is sufficiently broken, all care might be thrown to the hot, dry winds. Or the fuming, damp winds, as the case may be, as we loose our hydrocarbon-synthesizing organisms onto the world and let them digest its organic waste matter into fuels.

I could envision great, sealed cities on the edge of seething hydrocarbon swamps habitable only by the most adaptable of organisms, and tended by fleets of fragmentarily sentient fuel-cell powered robots. Eventually, the robots might form their own cities (or be organized into them by a retreating humanity), existing only to tend (and perhaps contain) their swamps.

These robot cultures would evolve; they would not remain static. Evolution would apply to them as it does to us. This is where the admonitions of the Singularitarians would apply, because eventually our machines, once we are no longer an active influence upon them, will have to find their own reasons for living.

Reality Behind a Canceled â??Realityâ? Show

According to a recent New York Times article ["Television Cul-de-Sac Mystery: Why Was Reality Show Killed?" by Jacques Steinberg, January 21, 2006), the reality of a show originally scheduled to air last summer proved to be too sensitive to some people.

Choreograph a TV series wherein families â??cast, at least partly, for being African-American, Hispanic, Korean, tattooed or even Wiccanâ? enter a contest to see who can win a big house in a Texas neighborhood of primarily Christian, Republican residents, and what do you get?

Canceled.

Ten days before the first episode was to be shown, ABC executives canceled "Welcome to the Neighborhood," saying that they were concerned that viewers who might have been appalled at some early statements made in the show - including homophobic barbs - might not hang in for the sixth episode, when several of those same neighbors pronounced themselves newly open-minded about gays and other groups.

GLAAD responded with mixed feelings about ABCâ??s decision. A gay couple, Stephen and John Wright, and their adopted son, Eli, had won the contest.

The New York Times also quoted representatives from two religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention, who now state that broadcasting â??Neighborhoodâ? might have complicated their support for the movie, â??Narnia.â? (ABC is owned by Walt Disney Company.)

Marketing maneuvers aside, there was a successful story behind the scenes. The Wrights won a new house and have standing dinners two nights of the week with two different neighborhood families. And neighbor Jim Stewart, an early antagonist, made a turnaround, not only by becoming a supporter of the Wrights, but also broaching his own sonâ??s sexuality with him for the first time. No one involved in the show initially knew that Mr. Stewart had a 25-year-old gay son.

Score a big one for a positive outcome in the real world.

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United Methodist Accountability

The United Methodist Church has called for Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq.

The board also issued a strong statement against torture, urging Congress to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate detention and interrogation practices at Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It is my hope and prayer that our statement against the war in Iraq will be heard loud and clear by our fellow United Methodists, President Bush and Vice President Cheney," said Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the UMC's Board of Church and Society. "Conservative and liberal board members worked together to craft a strong statement calling for the troops to come home and for those responsible for leading us into this disastrous war to be held accountable." [â??Sweet Victory: United Methodist Church Calls For Withdrawalâ? by Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation. November 1, 2005 (via Common Dreams NewsCenter)]

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney must be feeling all warm and cozy hearing their fellow United Methodistsâ?? supplication that those responsible for leading us into this war should be held accountable.

It is heartening to see liberal and conservative UMC members working together.

Perhaps they can continue to work together calling for those responsible for bigotry within the church to be held accountable.

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On the FEMA, Brownie, and the Suitability of Email for Critical Communications

Anyone in the corporate world knows that keeping up with email (or voicemail) can be a problem. I'm not talking about spam; I'm talking about ordinary business-related emails. During peak times like product implementations, I've occasionally gotten hundreds of non-trivial emails per day for up to several weeks at a time. In situations like that, sometimes, things get ignored. But if you are any good at your job at all, you find ways to prioritize those emails to ensure that the genuinely important ones don't get ignored.

That job gets much easier if someone summarizes all the really important stuff for you into one email. As someone did for Michael Chertoff and Michael Brown. Every day.

Some people don't get it. In emailed responses to NPR's interview with FEMA official Leo Bosner, several writers complain about the unsuitability of email as a means to communicate vital information. Email boxes get filled up with junk, they reason; Leo Bosner should have picked up the phone. One correspondent even argued that Bosner is the one who should be blamed, for his own dereliction of duty in relegating something so important to a mere email.

They're right about this much: Email can be a poor medium for reliably communicating vital information on an ad hoc basis (though certainly no worse than voice mail). But they also betray a profound lack of understanding of institutional processes and chains of responsibility.

And they make some basic assumptions about the email that they should not be making. This wasn't ad hoc. It was standard procedure. This is the way it was supposed to work.

And here's the really important thing: This wasn't just any email. It was an email that Chertoff and Brown got every day, and that they needed to read, and to understand, every day. That email was their job, writ fine: Know the danger, and be prepared to act. The danger was there; they knew about it; they did not act.

What this might in fact reveal is that there's a poor prioritization in practice. As a friend is fond of saying, "If everything is top priority, then nothing is." So it might reveal that there were too many top priority things in that memo.

But more likely, it reveals a criminal lack of attentiveness to job responsibilities on the part of Chertoff and Brown, as suggested by an earlier report. Critical places like FEMA are not places for political functionaries on the lookout for résumé padding. They're places for serious people who are willing to wear their pagers to bed and never ever turn off their Blackberries. That's what their subordinates -- people like Leo Bosner -- would do.

Roberts and â??Rule of Lawâ?

Jesse J. Holland reports (ABC News):

Roberts tried to reassure Democrats that he would use the "rule of law," not his personal beliefs, to judge cases that come before the high court.

I learned about using the â??rule of lawâ? in a college business law course. What one personally considers as â??fairâ? or â??humaneâ? is not relevant in deciding a case by â??rule of law, â? according to my instructor at the time, a female lawyer with strong personal convictions about protecting womenâ??s rights.

At least I knew what her views were. What are Robertsâ??s opinions about abortion rights? Itâ??s one thing to claim to not be an ideologue, but another not to divulge oneâ??s opinions about certain matters.

Robertsâ??s views on abortion rights remain unexpressed. And his beliefs would be important to many people. Rules are overturned on occasion, after all. Roberts has said he tried to avoid making any commitment about any case that may come before the court. Do his current views about a subject equate to some kind of commitment? Of course, the issue of abortion rights is a volatile one right now. At the very least, even expressing views on this charged subject might smudge his very carefully polished figure of servant of the law and his avowal of having no agenda.

Excuse me while I get my sunglasses and fall to my knees. I am blinded by the bright light of a mysterious, white knight, right out of a textbook, it seems.

What exists behind this radiant image remains to be seen.

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The Rise of the Militarised State, Redux

There was a point in last night's speech that struck me, that I haven't heard anyone else mention -- the part where the president said this:

I also want to know all the facts about the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The storm involved a massive flood, a major supply and security operation, and an evacuation order affecting more than a million people. It was not a normal hurricane -- and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it. Many of the men and women of the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the United States military, the National Guard, Homeland Security, and state and local governments performed skillfully under the worst conditions. Yet the system, at every level of government, was not well-coordinated, and was overwhelmed in the first few days. It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces -- the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice. [emphasis added]

This is interesting in two ways:

  1. First, it can be seen as dodging responsibility. "It was not a normal storm", perhaps, but what would be "normal"? And doesn't it matter that all the qualified emergency management professionals knew what it would be like and understood the risks it posed?
  2. Second, because the final statement just simply isn't true. If FEMA had not been gutted by the Bushites, there's an excellent chance that the worst atrocities of the New Orleans floding, at least, would have been averted. Properly proactive officials at FEMA and DHS could have exercised their existing levels of authority to substantially ameliorate the impact. That they didn't says nothing about the level of authority they did have -- it only says that they didn't care enough to use it.

What I see happening already is Bush reframing the issue in terms of rigid, top-down corporate hierarchies like the ones he learned about in Harvard's b-school in the 1970s. In the current context, that means "to solve the problem, send in the Army", because the 1970s Harvard b-school model for corporate organization is based on military-style hierarchies.

Ironically, the US military establishment would most likely no longer support that analysis. They've spent much of the past thirty years trying to open up their command structures (to the degree that it's feasible given their mission) and re-instill the sense of initiative and dedication that are necessary for morale in tough going.

The relationship of business to the military, at least in America, is curious and interesting. In the run-up to the Second World War, the Army was particularly ill-prepared: Poor discipline, entrenched corruption in the enlisted ranks, poor organization. Business models and metaphors contributed to the reorganization. Through the course of the war, men like Robert Macnamara introduced systems theory and other b-school concepts into the management hierachy. The result was the Vietnam-era Army that failed its soldiers and its nation in no small part through hubris and arrogance and lack of attention to detail.

Meanwhile, American business was being reshaped on a more hierarchical, more military model. In other words, the two trends were mutually reinforcing. As the American military system failed in the 1960s and 1970s, so the American systems of business organization failed in the 1970s and 1980s.

George W. Bush was out of the loop both times. His dabblings in business in the '70s and early '80s were mostly in non-representative areas like oil wildcatting; his "successes" were in non-representative areas like real estate and professional sports. He has no actual experience with business success; he doesn't know that successful businesses don't work by enforcing rigid top-down hierarchies.

Ending Impunity

Norman Solomon of AlterNet writes about â??Ending the Impunity of the Bush White Houseâ?:

The man in the Oval Office is fond of condemning "killers." But his administration continues to kill with impunity.

"They can go into Iraq and do this and do that," Martha Madden, former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said Thursday, "but they can't drop some food on Canal Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, right now? It's just mind-boggling."

The policies are matters of priorities. And the priorities of the Bush White House are clear. For killing in Iraq, they spare no expense. For protecting and sustaining life, the cupboards go bare.

The problem is not incompetence. It's inhumanity, cruelty and greed.

Solomon calls for us to create maximum pressure for an organized, adequate rescue effort, at the same time demanding political accountability.

That means depriving Bush, Cheney and their congressional allies of the power they ruthlessly enjoy. And that means ending their impunity, so that truth has consequences.

In case anyone needs any more examples of â??truth,â? the One Thousand Reasons website provides a venue for articles documenting failures of the Bush administration. You can even post your own editorial, should you be so inclined.

Consequences depriving cruel power unequivocally demand following through on warnings. Anyone who has raised teenagers knows the importance of standing oneâ??s ground. Empty threats fall on deaf ears. And unfortunately we have an administration that conjures up its own truth without much heed to consequences.

Itâ??s time to plant our feet firmly and demand accountability, even as weâ??re drenched with recent events. We donâ??t need any more reasons, do we?

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The Decline of FEMA in the Rise of the Militarized State

"No-one cares about disasters until they happen. That is a political fact of life... "
-- David McEntire, who teaches emergency management at the University of North Texas, quoted in a Reuters story on Yahoo News

Guns matter much more than butter to the Bushites.

For its size, I suspect there are few government agencies that have been more effective than FEMA. They moved fast, and when they said "boo!" people jumped. They were so effective that they even get a footnote in the conspiracy literature (with a little help from Wired Magazine and Chris Carter).

Well, make that "were more effective." That was then, of course -- before the most conservative US administration in over a century got a blank check to reorganize government agencies in the light of their own perceived priorities. And those priorities were much more focused on human-driven risks than on natural ones. (And anyway, the only "natural" cause of anything is God. Right?)

Now, this week in New Orleans, we see how little attention anyone really pays to FEMA now that they're several steps down in the Federal Homeland "Security" bureaucracy. But (of course) I think there's more to it; I think it boils down to the fact that schoolyard bullies don't get nearly as much enjoyment out of helping people recover from disasters as they do out of blowing people up and shooting them. That could just be why, now that there are lots of looters in the streets, the President's got the Army all over it.

Thought for the moment: Katrina as God's Punishment on the Poor

Question: How do you tell if someone is going to get help after hurricane Katrina?
Answer: Find out if they were actually in the hurricane. If so, probably not.

I've been thinking about something. There's a very important and simple difference between the people who are getting help and the people who are not: The ones who are getting help were able to drive to safety; the ones who are not, were stuck in harms way.

Put another way: If you're middle class, the probability is that you're getting help; if you're poor, the probability is much higher that you're not.

Very soon after Katrina hit on Monday morning, there were hundreds of Army and National Guard trucks en route to the Gulf Coast, loaded with MREs and fresh water. Where did they go? Why, they went where the refugees were: Places like Baton Rouge.

But they didn't go to New Orleans. Obviously, it would have been harder to get in to New Orleans, but you would think they'd be prepared to mobilize a few Blackhawks and Chinooks to airlift in a few palettes of drinking water and MREs to those highway flyovers poking up above the floodwaters. (That is, if those Blackhawks and Chinooks weren't half a world away enforcing a schoolyard-bully foreign policy.) But no: Instead, they went to places that already had a functioning infrastructure, where, though it would have meant some hardship, locals would have doubtless chipped in to help.

The semiotics of this aren't that simple, of course. There's already an undercurrent of discontent at the idea that people who made the "choice" to stay in a place like New Orleans need to be taught a "hard lesson". (You don't need to look to the web for this -- just keep your ears open.) And then of course there's the symbolism of washing away "Sin City South" in a deluge. Anyone still there, must be part of the mess that God wanted to wash away.

WHINSEC Whitewash

Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) is the new name for the School of the Americas (SOA), a Defense Department military training facility at Fort Benning. Why bother changing the name?

Continuing scrutiny, including protests and lobbying efforts of the SOA Watch, might have something to do with the name change and PR campaign.

But while WHINSEC proponents talk about democracy and human rights, there are activists who donâ??t buy what appears to be a whitewashing effort,... activists like Clare Hanrahan, who, though imprisoned for their protesting efforts, continue to speak out against injustice.

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Will the Real MSM Please Speak Up?

The neo-conservative cabal has gotten back into gear and mobilised its counter-attack, as evidenced by this report from ABC affiliate KGO:

This week Simi Valley California Gold Star wife Melanie House flew to Idaho for a protest and then flew to Crawford.

ABC7's Mark Matthews: "Can you tell us if you're getting help in airfare to come down here?"

Melanie House: "What difference does that make?"

There is real reluctance to talk about who's paying, and the P.R. machine that's promoting Cindy Sheehan, but not everyone here is completely comfortable with it.

Perhaps it's merely my own subjectivity talking, but it seems to me that there's a real reluctance to talk about who's paying for and calling the shots with the P.R. machine that's promoting the ends of the neo-conservative cabal. I can't recall many discussions in the MSM about who funds right-wing "popular efforts." In this piece, there's some token attention to balance, but only about four of the piece's twenty-nine paragraphs are devoted to considering who funds the Republican counter-efforts -- and those paragraphs are buried at the bottom of the pyramid.

Some outlets do try to play fair. NPR, for example, points out [listen] that the President's counter-campaign has been mobilised in states where he has a strong base of support, and in front of hand-picked ("reliably friendly, mostly-military") audiences. But then, much as the punditocracy would like us to believe otherwise, NPR is not part of any usefully-defined "main-stream". Unless, of course, someone wants to explain how they could be part of the mainstream and part of the fringe at the same time. (Hint: There's a way to do it. But it might require that you tread on some intellectually slippery ground.)

It's frightening enough that the Bush regime are willing to do this to shape public opinion; it's even scarier when you start to become convinced (as I did a long time ago) that our President believes that the hand-picked audiences represent a real cross-section of American views.

"I've met with a lot of families," the President has remarked. "She doesn't represent the views of a lot of families." (Which of course means that she still could represent the views of a lot of families, since "a lot" does not imply "a majority." But I digress.) Now, he could be speaking with painful literalness. Parse out the sentence: It literally states only that a lot of people don't agree with Cindy Sheehan. Big news. A lot of people don't agree with the manufacturer's contention that Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches are wholesome food and not candy. (They're called "good parents.")

I fear it's more sinister -- or at least, more frightening -- than that: George W. Bush does not expose himself to contrary opinions unless he's compelled to, and it's hard to compel the President of the United States to do anything.

But again, I digress. The point is this: People who believe in the existence of a leftist media bias really need to do two things: First, start listening, really listening, with an open mind, to the news; second, come to understand that "leftist" is not synonymous with "stuff I don't like."

Really, I suppose the second should come first. It's kind of a necessary step before you can understand that people on the left hate some of the same stuff that people on the right hate: Crime, lying politicians, moral turpitude, callous disregard for human life, just to be going on with. But since the rightist positions have been almost wholly co-opted by religionistic moralists (and this is nothing new, by the way), every message that people on the right get tends to come in black and white terms: You are with us or against us. You love Jesus, or you love child pornography. You back the President, or you hate America.

It's a simplistic portrayal, sure; but the people in charge of trying to drive that portrayal like it that way. It's easier to manipulate people if you have hot-button terms arranged into superficially simplistic (and thus, ambiguous) statements. That most people don't adhere to these positions when you really start to look at their positions, kind of testifies both to the effectiveness of the technique (after all, people act in great numbers to support these simplistic ideals) and to the stubbornness of human intellect (after all, people still don't believe it entirely, once you cut through the ambiguity to get to their actual opinions).

Secret Greetings

If you have an unpleasant visceral reaction to discussion of greeting cards and/or â??secret loversâ? (a.k.a. liars and cheats), read no further.

What do greeting cards have to do with infidelity? In todayâ??s Detroit Free Press, Susan Ager writes about â??Secret Lovers Collection,â? a new â??line of greeting cards for people who must hide their secret loves from their public partners.â?

Okay. How many of you tried that above link to â??Secret Lovers Collectionâ?? I know you were just curious, as was I, but maybe you had better luck accessing the site than I did? â??The page you are looking for is currently unavailableâ? popped up when I tried. Must be a lot of inquisitive people out there.

There was a time when â??secret loversâ? were not so secret. And surely not all cultures and religions share the same moral rules even today. Partners in arranged marriages might have even liked each other, if they were fortunate, but romantic trysts were not necessarily uncommon or unexpected outside the marriage, that union designed to bring children into the world, continuing the family line.

Just yesterday I was dusting off some old genealogy papers my father had given me. Dad used to tell us kids that we were â??pebblesâ? of the Rock, since William Brewster, our ancestor, was one who had endured the Mayflower trip. Oh, and Iâ??m sure we had our share of tree branches weighed down with horse thieves and other reprobates, as does everybody else. Leafing through the papers, it became very obvious that there were philanderers, too, and some were connected to Mary Wentworth, Brewsterâ??s lovely, religious wife. Maryâ??s line was not without some colorful characters like Henry II of England and his wife and proponent of courtly love, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a powerful woman, whose activities provoked Henry to imprison her for 15 years. Considering all the children, including illegitimate ones, fathered by Henry II, there are almost certainly lots of descendents not even aware of their relation to this promiscuous ancestor. And to be sure, if I have a monogamy gene, I most likely didnâ??t inherit it from this not-so-loyal royal.

Whether or not a human monogamy gene even exists, the â?monogamy geneâ? found in the meadow vole is broken down into three parts â?? lust, romance, and attachment. And these components donâ??t always work together.

Monogamy gene or not,... lust, romance, and attachment arenâ??t always apparently working together in every human marriage or union either. It seems that humans are complex and their relationships sometimes even more so. Not every relationship fulfills lust, romance, and attachment ideals conceived by trusting partners who may unwittingly be ignorant of their own as well as their mates' predispositions. What if one partner entirely equates lust with romance and the other partner doesnâ??t? What if one partner views sex as a function necessary for propagation, but has no romantic interest in the other partner who desires it? Do the partners conceive of fidelity in terms of sexual or emotional commitment, or both? Or is adherence to certain familial duties the only expectation? Most people believe in honoring trust relationships, but what exactly is being trusted? Sometimes peopleâ??s expectations donâ??t match reality.

So, now we have greeting cards available for those who feel a need to hide lustful or romantic liaisons with people other than those to whom they are otherwise attached,... for better or for worse.

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Intolerance of Intolerance

Now is the time for intolerance, not sappy, do-your-own-thang tolerance. Intolerance of intolerance, that is.

One, big happy world we are not -- unless one is viewing through encrusted eyes, blowing sand from their nostrils as they burrow their head further into the depths of ignorance.

Nor will a vacation from earthly reality with meta-insulation of a rigidly controlled environment make things hurt any less for those outside the counterfeit boundaries.

Itâ??s time to join others in our own productive ways, don the gas masks, and poke a lot of holes in the fake reality, allowing the stale, harmful vapors to dissipate.

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Gagging on Right Wing Truth

In May, when Moyers spoke to media reformers about his show on PBS, he concluded that accusations of bias are inevitable when journalists do their jobs. "We intended to do strong, honest and accurate reporting, telling stories we knew people in high places wouldn't like," he recalled. "The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party became. That's because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth." [â??Muzzling the Muppetsâ? by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, July 14, 2005 (via Lynne -- thanks)]

Of course, the radical right does have its own version of â??truth.â? So, offering critiques counter to the enigmatic right wing sense of reality would ensure damnation.

I applaud those who venture to unearth the copious forms of creative bullshit produced by some programmed specialists in our administration and media.

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London is Burning

I'm having flashbacks. I managed to miss the Madrid attacks, or maybe there's just something in the circumstance of the moment that makes it hit me harder this morning. But I'm feeling a little numb right now. All I can think about is how convenient this will be for people who want to lock things down still more and more....

I'm not so worried about Britain; they've faced this kind of thing before, though it's a long time since they had to deal with it at this volume. And they're tougher (for lack of a better term) than we Americans, I think, about the preservation of their freedoms. They have a deeper understanding of the compromises involved and required to ensure "security". But that's a whole longish essay in its own right.

Co-ordinated attacks -- six bombs in five locations. [Correction: Four blasts, three of them deep in London's oldest tube tunnnels.] It's not like an IRA hit, and my small, cynical voice says the IRA could get some good PR out of this by pointing out that they often gave a heads-up and didn't try to hit in more than one place. But my contingency-planner's brain thinks that those IRA hits will have caused their emergency response to be cleaner, more efficient.

And while I'm numbed, I'm thinking also: What will be made of this by a people who've been taking casualties from terrorists, off and on, for more than thirty years? (Or, if you stretch your imagination to the Colonies, longer than that.)

Will there be instructive contrasts with Madrid (where they'd also been taking terrorist assaults for decades), and with the United States (where we largely make do with crime)?

Genes and Family Values

Susan Ager challenged â??family valuesâ? in her Detroit Free Press article, â??Family values meet reality,â? this past weekend. So, what family values would she be speaking of?

Ms. Ager writes:

The news this week was troubling for those who cite family values as their top priority.

First, scientists proved that changing a single gene could transform fruit flies from heterosexual to homosexual.

Then we learned that while military recruitment is sliding, divorces among soldiers are soaring.

Fruit fly sexuality and fizzling military marriages may seem unrelated. But both reports are unsettling for those who'd rather everyone and everything just behave, for God's sake.

Ah, â??for Godâ??s sake.â? Would that behavior be the same espoused by organizations such as American Family Association,... the organization that does â??Absolutely Not!â? advocate hatred toward homosexual people, at the same time the association seeks to â??expose the misrepresentation of the radical homosexual agenda and stop its spread though our cultureâ? because the Bible says to love our neighbor. Huh? I wonder how that would weigh against gay and lesbian ideas for family values.

And speaking of family values meeting reality, Iâ??d much rather hear about possible future implications surrounding the genetically tinkered fruit fly research than be handed a current reality check about the worldwide impact of Bush family values.

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Torture and Public Outcry

Slate recently offered an excellent, yet disturbing, â??primer on American interrogation,â? â??What is Torture?â?.

In the conclusion:

The real legacy of American interrogation practices, post-9/11, is that practices and justifications that should have been reserved for the worst of the worst (assuming we could know who they are) began to be used indiscriminately. In the eyes of the government, they began to seem almost normal. The effect has been to turn America from the world's leader on many issues of international human-rights law into the world's tyrant.

The last paragraph of the conclusion was unsettling:

It is not true, as many in the Arab world believe, that the United States has embarked on a reckless campaign of torture and abuse of its Arab prisoners of war. But what has happenedâ??a slow slide from coherent, consistent standards for interrogation and treatment of prisoners to a sometimes ad-hoc, occasionally brutal search for information at all costsâ??should warrant public outcry. That it has not suggests either that this shift doesn't interest us because it affects outsiders, or that we no longer consider torture or near-torture to be beyond the bounds of civil conduct.

Could that be true? No public outcry?

I was heartened to read Thomas Friedmanâ??s outcry, "Just Shut It Down," yesterday in The New York Times:

Why care? It's not because I am queasy about the war on terrorism. It is because I want to win the war on terrorism. And it is now obvious from reports in my own paper and others that the abuse at Guantánamo and within the whole U.S. military prison system dealing with terrorism is out of control. Tell me, how is it that over 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody so far? Heart attacks? This is not just deeply immoral, it is strategically dangerous.

Defining torture is important. But, while weâ??re examining facts, we should keep in mind that world sentiment is not always rational or patient. Whether or not it is true, â??as many in the Arab world believe, that the United States has embarked on a reckless campaign of torture and abuse of its Arab prisoners of war,â?... that belief alone can generate a powerful, destructive force. And now, when even our allies are writing about out of control interrogations, itâ??s time to take action, not just notice.

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Thought for the Moment: Eisenhower on Social Security

"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952 [courtesy Amy]

... which is why, of course, the Bushites will never admit that's what they want to do. They aim to set the systems up to fail without their having to take any action. Clever bastards. Stupid, perhaps; but clever.

Mature Content Warning: This Program Might Make You Think

Before Nova this evening, there was a "mature content" warning.

Nova tonight discussed an ongoing controversy regarding the origin of the original human inhabitants of the Americas. In brief, it discussed the long-standard "Clovis-first" theory in the light of new archaeological finds, conjectures based on analysis of tools from ice age Europe, and evidence from analysis of mitochondrial DNA.

In short: About as hard-science as archaeology gets. Finding the bones, finding the tools, big-time.

During the entire program, there wasn't a single bare breast, not a single blue word or phrase, not one mention of gay marriage or even a hint of sexual liaison (aside from the implication that the ancestors of modern native americans might have, you know, reproduced).

So why the mature content? Is it, perhaps, that they're scared that some religious fanatic might point out that when you're talking about things that happened 15,000-20,000 years ago, you're pretty much assuming that the world is older than 4,000 years -- hence insulting all the KJV Baptists in the Nova audience?

By contrast, consider any random episode of Law & Order: Elevator Inspectors Unit, or CSI: Sheboygan, wherein you're likely to find references to "last meals" of semen or violent sexual deviance. I don't recall ever seeing a "mature content warning" before either of those shows. Ever. But then, they don't challenge the Dog-given age o' the universe....

Most Of The People, Some Of The Time, Redux, Etc.

"Judicial activism" is a funny term. It seems that now, when Judges behave conservatively (as in, conserving clearly delineated constitutional rights), that's "activism" -- especially if it requires that the judge point out the simple Lincolnesque truth, that it's possible to fool most of the people for long enough to get a really dangerously sweeping proposition passed into law.

Case in point: Nebraska's version of the boilerplate "Defense of Marriage" act has been struck down as federally unconstitutional in two distinct and sufficient ways: It "creates a significant barrier to the plaintiffs' right to petition or to participate in the political process" and "imposes significant burdens on both the expressive and intimate associational rights" of gays, lesbians, and potentially anyone who wants to form a legally binding association that's not a state-sanctioned "marriage" between a "man" and a "woman."

Like, say, shacking up. Or signing a palimony agreement. Between straights.

The Neo-Calvinists and their fellow-travellers keep talking about the fact that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support the measure "defining marriage as between a man and a woman" after being barraged with highly charged advertisements and exhortations from the (real or virtual) pulpit for weeks to months. What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support a measure that they clearly did not understand. They didn't understand, for example, that it would radically restrict the rights of foster parents, unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners, persons in power-of-attorney relationships, non-custodial parents, and so on.

What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" got conned.

If it weren't for the fact that it would require abrogating the US Constitution, I'd be inclined to let Nebraska, Kansas and the rest of the virtual bible-belt just slide back into the dark ages. Politicized evangelism has far, far greater potential to destroy this nation than racial issues have had at any time in the last 40 years. Racial issues have at least been constrained: By notions of decency (no mainstream white could use the "N" word without censure), and by commonly-held economic desires (almost everybody wants the American Dream, and almost everybody is willing to see that, even about classes of people for whom they have contempt). Religious issues are not so constrained: When it's a religious issue, your opposition is evil, pure and simple -- believe that, or be damned. End of discussion. Please leave the church by the side door, so you don't soil the earth your neighbors have to walk on.

But [un?]fortunately, we do all have to live together in this country. We don't get to let them live in the mediaeval hell they seem determined to create. Not the least reason being that the virtual belt isn't limited to big square red states -- it harms people in places like Michigan and Connecticut who've never done any harm to anyone by being so immoral (or so unfortunate in their sexual orientation) as to dare to co-habitate without the benefit of state-sanctioned marriage.

So we don't get to let them sleep in the bed they've made. But we don't have to let them make us sleep in it, either.

Marla Ruzicka and Public Relations

Norman Solomon at AlterNet likes to dig, expose, challenge. He especially wonâ??t be intimidated. He recently encouraged tough coverage of the new popeâ??s policies. And today he questioned the upshot of Marla Ruzickaâ??s involvement in Iraq.

It was not only Ruzicka's warmth and charm that endeared her to American generals in Baghdad and policymakers in Washington. It was also the reality that her work came to be understood as pragmatically helpful to the war effort.

Marla might have considered her work to be practical, focusing on helping people, â??Iraqi victims and loved ones,â? not â??the war effort.â? Vulnerability now and again accompanies altruism.

Five days after Ruzicka died, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin wrote: "Civilian casualties are an inconvenient stain on the story line of Iraq liberation." The column went on: "Ruzicka understood that helping civilian victims is not just the right thing to do, but also is militarily essential." When Iraqi civilians die from Pentagon firepower, the deaths stir emotions "that will make young men think about attacking U.S. soldiers."
[...]
This spring, before and after her death, Ruzicka's work was instrumental in exposing the fact that -- contrary to Washington's longtime claims -- the U.S. military has been quietly documenting many of the Iraqi civilian deaths caused by the Pentagon's forces. Is the emergence of this information a step in the right direction? Yes. But at the same time, media spin promotes the illusion that the U.S. war effort in Iraq is becoming evermore compassionate and life-affirming. Such story lines are good public relations for a massive U.S. military operation that continues to injure and kill more Iraqi people.

Bottom line: War is repulsive. And there will always be those who think that civilian deaths are an unfortunate byproduct of what they ultimately feel to be a Worthy Cause. There also will be those who donâ??t choose to wrap Marlaâ??s memory in pro-war propaganda. They will view her on her own terms, as a woman who purposely did not take a stand on the war, and as someone who said she wanted to do â??the right humanitarian thing.â?

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Remaining Marla

Over the past few days I have seen many descriptions of Marla, including those likening her to an angel or a saint. Neither of those words do her justice. She was driven by a passion I have never encountered before, and she had a boundless heart. But she was also consumed by extreme lows as well as highs, tears along with laughter. In discussing plans for a book, she wanted to be depicted as the rich and complex woman that she was. But she would quickly remind me that the families' stories were most important. So, she wasn't a saint, but she possessed saintlike qualities.

[Jennifer Abrahamson on Slate]

I'll bet you a magnet Support Our Troops sign that the Tillman story will continue to have legs far longer than Ruzicka's.

[Neologian on MeFi]

Somehow I doubt it.

I'm sure that Neologian hopes for better, of course, and he'd have good cause to. Marla's story is the kind of thing that deeply inspires people who are willing to commit their entire lives without the possibility of external reward. Pat Tillman arguably did the same thing, but there's a different quality to his committment. Marla could have gotten out at any time -- she just had to go to he airport and go home. She never gave up, though. Her legacy (like Tillman's for that matter) should be that effort and sacrifice are not pointless.

At the very least, Marla's memory has a better chance of remaining true to "Marla" than Pat Tillman's does of remaining true to "Pat". Both have been or will be remade into whatever their admirers want/need them to be. But where Tillman's personality was exposed to small groups of a fairly limiting nature (his family, the men in his unit), Marla forcefully projected hers across strata of society, across cultural boundaries, across domains of experience -- and, not insignificantly, across airwaves. All without apparent loss of committment.

Which makes the Coulteresque feeding frenzy at LGF and Teh Freep all that much more pornographic.

Footnote, for now: I woke up to Ivan Watson's story about Marla on NPR on Monday morning. I've been thinking about it off and on ever since.

Ethics: Partisan or Bipartisan?

Rep. Joel Hefley (Republican) and Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (Democrat) are making â??a challenge to ethically challengedâ? (Houston Chronicle, April 16, 2005). In an effort to restore bipartisanship in the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, they are cosponsoring a resolution to repeal decisions that were â??made without consulting the House minority and were passed on a straight party-line vote.â? Joel Hefley was recently removed from the ethics committee by Speaker Hastert.

Hefley and Mollohan sent a formal reprimand to Tom DeLay last year. DeLay then chose to conveniently misrepresent the committeeâ??s findings. Now that same committee is being compromised by ethics as characterized by a right wing Republican minority.

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Who Needs A Majority When You've Got Righteousness?

Forget about resisting the tyranny of the majority. We're past that. Right-wing Republicans are looking to lock in the tyranny of a minority.

People in both parties, but most notably currently prominent Republicans, are saying there's still hay to be made on the Schiavo case. Democrats say that it can be used to galvanize opposition to the planned Republican takeover of the judiciary branch. Republicans say that it 'energizes the base' -- where the definition of "base" seems to be "hard-core right-to-life Evangelical Christian Republicans." The most wildly exaggerated numbers I know of put that at about 25% of the American population.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, on Morning Edition this morning [RealAudio], says they're both wrong: That if there had really been an opportunity there, smart Democratic legislators would have jumped on it; and that, furthermore, Republicans had gone too far. "You know, there is a difference between energizing your base, and having your base push you off the edge.... Was it that we needed to prove to the middle, the middle of American politics, that we were willing to go someplace place that they didn't want us to go? How many times can you do that and still be successful politically?"

Republican lion and Episcopelian minister John Danforth agrees. He notes that "traditional Republicans" have complained about the courts going too far. "Most republicans would have said, 'We think that the courts go too far.' Now, it turns out that it's Republicans who are saying that we want the courts to go very far, but in our direction, and I just think that's wrong."

I'd like to think that both Danforth and Fabrizio are right, in their own ways. Danforth's view implies a basic belief that people ought to be morally consistent: That means ought to be consistent with the end, not merely contributory to it. Further, he's clearly a real believer in a pluralistic society. Fabrizio states his view in pragmatic terms, with the clear underlying assumption that it's normal for a nation to be comprised of people with differing views. (If you can dictate people's views, you don't need to worry about being "successful politically.")

But they're both wrong, at least in pragmatic terms. The Republican train is being driven by people who don't see a problem with means that are contrary to the end, or with the idea that the nation ought to bend to their will. Voices of moderation, even when conservative, are no longer welcome. They get in the way of the program, which is to let the Republican Party (by which they mean the intensely activist religious right component) install hegemonic control over American discourse.

Their will is a holy will, after all. Whether it's all the same religion is another question; all that really matters is that one (the religion of power and capital) can be translated into the ends of the other (semitic absolutism, as manifest in right-wing American Christianity).

New Terror Threat: Unitarian Jihadis

Can you actually wage jihad for tolerance? John Carrol @ SFGate "reprints" the manifesto of the Unitarian Jihad [fwd courtesy Amy]:

We are Unitarian Jihad, and our motto is: "Sincerity is not enough." We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm. Get a dog, or comfort someone in a nursing home, or just feed the birds in the park. Play basketball. Lighten up. The world is not out to get you, except in the sense that the world is out to get everyone.

Brother Gatling Gun of Patience notes that he's pretty sure the world is out to get him because everyone laughs when he says he is a Unitarian. There were murmurs of assent around the room, and someone suggested that we buy some Congress members and really stick it to the Baptists. But this was deemed against Revolutionary Principles, and Brother Gatling Gun of Patience was remanded to the Sunday Flowers and Banners committee.

It would be funnier if powerful and highly educated men didn't believe that there's some kind of "anti-christian conspiracy", or think that judges who have the integrity to make objective judgements are just asking to be shot. Those folks should try being a non-christian for a while, and see what that feels like.

What Is Neo-Calvinism?

In a nutshell: Neo-Calvinism is Smith's and Weber's Iron Cage. Except that instead of holding the Neo-Calvinists, it restrains the lesser beings that would trouble them -- namely, the poor.

More prosaically, "Neo-Calvinism" is the idea that the rich are more morally worthy than the poor. Their wealth does not confer virtue -- rather, it signifies it. It is the most potent and dangerous of several modern Capitalist sects, because it unifies moral righteousness with an ideology of power.

Calvin, along with notable reformation successors like Martin Luther, believed that a person's salvation was predestined: God (being infallible, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.) had determined in His own time that you or I should be saved or damned. Nothing that we do in our lives can affect that; the decision is already made. In pure Calvinism, this doesn't let you off the hook for moral behavior, because moral behavior is said to be an indicator of your fate.

So good people are good not because they do good things, but because God said they were. "Goodness" is merely an indicator.

As is prosperity. Wesley once famously lamented that as Methodists lived good lives (rising early, working hard, practicing thrift and sobriety), they tended to prosper -- which had the unfortunate side effect of causing them to focus on that worldly prosperity.

Neo-calvinism essentially forgets about God, and makes commerce itself the religion. Prosperity is still a signifier of moral worth -- but instead of being a secondary signifier, it's primary. It indicates stronger character, superior "fitness." It's a close kin to Greedism, but it's more powerful because it marshalls concepts like virtue and fairness to its service. It's related to Objectivism -- and I daresay most Objectivists are Neo-Calvinists -- but it permits a spiritual dimension that can be lacking amongst Randians.

Neo-calvinists are everywhere, all around us. Wherever you find someone who cries "It's not fair!" when they notice that the wealthy pay proportionally greater taxes than the poor, you have found a Neo-Calvinist or one of his fellow-travellers.

Day of Silence

Wednesday, April 13, the 2005 Day of Silence takes place.

From dayofsilence.org:

The Day of Silence, a project of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in collaboration with the United States Student Association (USSA), is a student-led day of action where those who support making anti-LGBT bias unacceptable in schools take a day-long vow of silence to recognize and protest the discrimination and harassment -- in effect, the silencing -- experienced by LGBT students and their allies.

From alliancedefensefund.org:

The Day of Truth is scheduled for April 14, 2005. This is the day after GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educational Network) will sponsor the "Day of Silence." GLSENâ??s Day of Silence encourages students to remain silent throughout the day and not respond to teachers or school administrators. It is part of their overall strategy to change how our society perceives homosexual behavior. But the Day of Silence is a misnomer, because what is truly being silenced is the Truth.

Truth, with a capital â??T.â? Iâ??m not going to discuss that topic here, but I can relay a few facts. Thatâ??s with a small â??f.â?

At local schools in my community, fact is that not only students (who have been given consent by school administrators to observe this day), but also many teachers voluntarily remain silent in an attempt to protest discrimination and harassment. Participating teachers design creative silent lesson plans. And there are others who are sympathetic, but for various reasons are not able to participate by remaining silent.

Another fact is that some anti-gay protesters already exercised discrimination and harassment in their version of a â??day of truthâ? last week at an anti-gay demonstration in Rohnert Park, CA.

Exercise of free speech notwithstanding, itâ??s also a fact that I donâ??t understand how â??a day to stand up for Godâ??s truthâ? by way of repulsive, bigoted expression has any place in a public school (school administrators confiscated offensive sweatshirts on campus), let alone in a religion that promotes love.

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