Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We're Number One! We're Number One!

Yes, it's that time again. The Pew Forum released its annual survey of rational thinking and Vermont and New Hampshire, combined in the totals because of our small population, came out in first place.

Well, okay, if you want to get technical about it, that wasn't the way the Pew people viewed the survey. The way Pew asks the questions: Which of the 50 states has the most religious population? Since there are many ways to define "religious," there is no single answer to this question. But to give a sense of how the states stack up, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life used polling data to rank them on four measures: the importance of religion in people's lives, frequency of attendance at worship services, frequency of prayer and absolute certainty of belief in God. Mississippi stands out on all four, and several other Southern states also rank very high on the measures.

Although the Vermont/New Hampshire combo ranked at the bottom of the scale in the importance of religion in people's lives and certainty of belief in god, we were one from the bottom in church attendance (above Alaska, which may be assisted by the difficulty of transportation) and fourth from the bottom in frequency of prayer.

Still, those of us who favor rationality and evidence-based thought can take pleasure in Vermont's stellar performance. Keep up the good work, Vermonters!

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mr. Deity and the Magic, Part Deux

Lucy tries to match wits with the deity, but she finds that the contest is too unequal.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pink Stinks!

Okay, not necesarily the color itself, but the way mainstream society and commerce seem compelled to force girls to wear only pink, to set themselves goals of being princesses riding pink unicorns, and to grow up to be ornamental parasites like Paris Hilton.

Fortunately, there is a rejectionist movement. Pinkstinks is a campaign and social enterprise that challenges the culture of pink which invades every aspect of girls' lives.

Obviously it's possible to have sex role stereotyping without color coding, but in this case I would say that color coding is part of the language of sex role stereotyping.

And the results of sex role stereotyping? You might have an idea, but you might not know this:

[T]here is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception. What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine. And in a survey released last October by Girls Inc., school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight A’s and be the student-body president, editor of the newspaper and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” Give those girls a pumpkin and a glass slipper and they’d be in business.

Your turn. Get over there and see the non-pink role models, anti-pink clothes, and news stories about women that don't depend on being pink and girly.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mr. Deity and the Wrong Number

Once again, Mr. D. demonstrates his problems with modern telecommunications.

Oh yes, and he also channels Tiger Woods.

What the hell do we do now?

As a lobbyist I'm often in the position of trying to figure out an answer to this question: should we fight, and hold our for what we want, or should we take what we think is the best we can get now, even though it's a lot worse than what we want, and try to get more later?

This is the question that activists are addressing on the health care bill. On the one hand we have people like born-again Democrat Howard Dean and many posters at GMD, arguing that the bill is so bad that it would be better to kill it. On the other hand, we have Democrats and pundits who have been reliably progressive voices but are now being targeted as sellouts for supporting passage.

In evaluating this question, a number of other questions come to my mind:

1. The public option? Really? That's what we wanted?
It's not the only argument against passing the bill now, but the fight over the public option was what fueled much of the controversy through the summer and fall, and particularly the treachery of Joe Lieberman. We need to keep in mind, though, that the public option was always a weak compromise, a recognition that progressives can't get what we really want, single-payer, at least this time around. At GMD we've mocked Catamount Health, Vermont's version of the public option, but we recognize that even an inadequate program is better than nothing.
The public option was definitely an idea worth having, and so was Medicare buy-in. Still, it's a matter of displacement of our true desires that leads us to think the public option is something we need to fight to the death over.

2. We were never going to get anything close to what we wanted.
In these times we know that we need sixty votes in the Senate to get anything passed. In a controversy like this, where getting anything at all passed depended on getting the majority of a handful of moderate Republicans--Snow, Collins, Landrieu, Lieberman, and Nelson, none of whom really care about passing anything, means that the bill that passes will be a compromise of a compromise. That's the way life is and there's not much point in calling Reid and Obama useless, ineffectual losers because they can't get 100% of the votes in their putative caucus.

3. What's the alternative?
One concept in negotiation theory is BATNA, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. For our purposes, before telling our representatives to kill the bill we should think about what will happen if they do.
I don't see any likelihood that we will see anything approaching health care reform if this bill is killed in the foreseeable future. None of the conditions that are present now, or that are likely to come about in the future, are going to get any better than what we have now.
First, the politics aren't getting better. We have seen several Democratic representatives announce they are retiring, and there are a number of Democratic senators, including Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, and Arlen Specter*, who are in trouble and may not get reelected. This is consonant with the fact that the President's party typically loses votes in the off-year election; I don't see any signs that this won't happen in 2010.
Second, the economics aren't getting better. Whatever the costs of health care are now, and whatever we need to spend to cover those costs, they will only go up. This means that every year into the future will be harder to create a health care financing program than it is now.
Third is the fiscal situation. The Bush deficit, the costs of the bailout, and the costs of the war, are all combining to make federal budgeting problems worse in the next five years than they are now. We can wait for a recovery, but a strong recovery isn't likely to happen in the next five years.

4. Things in Congress are different now.
Changes in party alignment have made it harder to accomplish important things now than it was in the past. For many years people talked about the parties as "big tents". For most of the 20th Century both major parties tried to follow a big tent strategy, forming their parties out of ideological and regional coalitions. The Democratic Party included northeast liberals and southern racists; the Republican Party included western free-landers and northeast financial types who were not particularly committed to social issues.
This started to change with Nixon's Southern Strategy, a frank, and successful, appeal to southern racists; it continued through the 1980's under Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater with continued appeals to racism and religious intolerance, and is essentially complete today. The defections of Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter signaled the completion of the Republican purge of any but the most extreme conservatives.
This has not happened in the Democratic Party. Our party has always been more pluralistic, and has exercised less doctrinal discipline, than the Republicans, and the same is true today. The ideological range in the Democratic Party in 2010 is much broader than that of the Republicans, which means that it is easy for the Republican leadership to dictate the position of every member of the caucus, but it is not possible for the Democratic leadership to do the same thing.
An example from the past is instructive. The 1964 Civil Rights Act passed the Senate 73-27, and passed cloture 71-29 (at a time when 67 votes were needed to support cloture).
What is more interesting is the party breakdown. Democrats in the Senate supported the bill 46-21 and Republicans supported it 27-6. (This is what gives Republicans the support for their claim that it was the Republicans who actually passed the Civil Rights bill.) On both sides we see a tremendous amount of cross-party voting.

We don't see this today: the strongest wish for bipartisan support for this bill is that one or two Republicans, presumably one of the two senators from Maine, would support some form of health care reform. We now know that will never happen. It is unimaginable that we will ever see 27, or even 6, Republicans with the decency or political sense that they need to support something like reformed health care financing.

What does this mean? I suggest it means that we can't pass anything important without close to unanimous Democratic support. That also means that, as much as ever, if not more so, anything that comes out of Congress will have to be a huge compromise, and the negotiating or compromising parties are not the Democrats and the Republicans, because the Republicans are determined to block anything the Democrats, and particularly the Democratic President, want to accomplish. No, the compromise must be reached between the real Democrats and the right wing of the party.

That's what we have today.

I am not willing to say the bill should be killed because I don't see any chance of getting anything better than is before us now at any time in the next five, ten, or fifteen years. As my colleagues have pointed out, this is an extremely weak bill. Nevertheless, It's the best we're likely to see. It's our best chance to get something rather than nothing. It's only after we have something that we can start the equally important work of fixing it.

Oh yes--one other thing. I don't hold Reid responsible for not being able to get 100% of his nominal caucus to line up on health care. I do hold him responsible if he lets Lieberman keep his committee chairmanship and other positions of responsibility within the caucus.

Friday, December 18, 2009

You go, Al!

I was going to post this without comment, but then I went to TPM and saw a longer version of the clip, which included a statement from John McCain whining about how cutting Lieberman off destroys the "comity" the Senate stands for.

This the day after the Republicans brought all proceedings to a halt, including the extension of funding for the military, by forcing the clerk to read the entirety of Bernie Sanders's single-payer amendment. On that occasion Sanders had the good grace to withdraw his amendment in order to facilitate progress on the overall bill.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Atheists on TV

Any TV watchers out there?

I admit that we do watch television in our house. Even network television, and even sitcoms.

One show that I've caught, and actually enjoyed, lately, is the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. I know it sounds stupid, but bear with me a bit.

It's not perfect. After all, it does portray scientists as socially backward, maladapted, and immature, and in these times of hostility to science, who needs that?

On the other hand, I've just seen two episodes that address, at least obliquely, the question of science and religion. Take last night's episode, for example. Our favorite nerd-scientists were sitting around the Christmas tree preparing for the holiday, when the question of whether it makes sense to decorate the tree comes up. Sheldon, the main nerd-scientist, has a suggested ornament for the top of the tree: a bust of Isaac Newton, whose birthday is December 25, which his friend points out is Newtonmas.

On an earlier episode Sheldon mocks his mother's reliance on prayer, pointing out that her praying for what she wants gets her nowhere.

It shouldn't be surprising. These guys are scientists, so it's precisely to be expected that they would be atheists. On the other hand, since atheists appear to be the least common minority group represented in television programming, any atheist sighting is a welcome change.

Do you read the Wall Street Journal?

I never have, but I am frequently told by people who do, even liberals or leftists, that there is a clear distinction between the Journal's right-wing editorial pages and it's balanced, objective news coverage.

No more.

According to a story in yesterday's Times,

The Journal’s top editor, picked Gerard Baker, a columnist for The Times of London, as his deputy managing editor. Mr. Baker is a former Washington bureau chief of The Financial Times with a great deal of expertise in the Beltway. The two men came of age in the more partisan milieu of British journalism.

According to several former members of the Washington bureau and two current ones, the two men have had a big impact on the paper’s Washington coverage, adopting a more conservative tone, and editing and headlining articles to reflect a chronic skepticism of the current administration.

I can't say I'm surprised. Truly, I was always skeptical of the idea that the Journal was a good, objective paper over the years. Now, with the takeover of the paper by Rupert Murdoch, there is no room for doubt.

Mr. Baker, a neoconservative columnist of acute political views, has been especially active in managing coverage in Washington, creating significant grumbling, if not resistance, from the staff there. Reporters say the coverage of the Obama administration is reflexively critical, the health care debate is generally framed in terms of costs rather than benefits — “health care reform” is a generally forbidden phrase — and global warming skeptics have gotten a steady ride.

Romenesko reprints the response from the editor of the Journal, but the perspicacious reader will spot a non-denial denial, no?

The news column by a Mr David Carr today is yet more evidence that The New York Times is uncomfortable about the rise of an increasingly successful rival while its own circulation and credibility are in retreat. The usual practice of quoting ex-employees was supplemented by a succession of anonymous quotes and unsubstantiated assertions. The attack follows the extraordinary actions of Mr Bill Keller, the Executive Editor, who, among other things, last year wrote personally and at length to a prize committee casting aspersions on Journal journalists and journalism. Whether it be in the quest for prizes or in the disparagement of competitors, principle is but a bystander at The New York Times.

If there were some inaccuracy in the Times story you'd think he'd point out where it is, wouldn't you?

That's what I thought.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Christmas Spirit

Everybody I know likes to give at least some money to charity during the Christmas season. Or, to be a little clearer, everybody I know believes that they should give to charity and finds it rewarding to do so. If you're coming here I suspect that one of your life motivations is to make the world a better place.

In my family we decided years ago to concentrate our giving on the Heifer Project, a charity that helps provide food relief, economic development, and self-sufficiency to people in impoverished regions around the world. They have a catalogue that describes what they do and what your contribution buys, so you can give geese, pigs, honeybees, or even big animals like heifers, llamas, or water buffalo. They even have a project specifically targeted to help women, who make up the vast majority of impoverished people around the world.

There's too much need for any of us to think we're doing more than scratching the surface, but I have no doubt that Heifer is one organization that really makes a difference in people's lives.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Four years old

Nothing fancy today. Just writing to note that today is the fourth birthday of Rational Resistance.

Feel free to paw through the archives. I think some of the posts still hold up to repeated viewing.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Activists force DEA to remove lies about marijuana from web page

Activists get the DEA to remove obsolete information from its website claiming that the American Medical Association (AMA) still opposes medical marijuana.

However, a week after the announcement of this historic reversal, the DEA still hadn’t removed mention of the AMA’s old, anti-medical-marijuana position from its website.

So, the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of cops, judges and prosecutors calling for the legalization and regulation of all drugs, created an action alert asking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to order the DEA to scrub the bogus statements from the web.

After just one day of emails from activists, the information disappeared.

Now, if we could only get them to delete the more fundamental lies about marijuana, like it's dangerous, it's addictive, it kills you, it causes you to use other drugs . . .

Sunday, December 06, 2009

"The Last Man" by Roy Zimmerman

Everyone is familiar with John Kerry's Congressional testimony in which he said:

We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?...

This song sure isn't subtle, but it makes the same point. Whatever you may have thought about the decision to go into Afghanistan, it is clear that our presence serves no purpose there now, and can be expected to lead to no beneficial result.

So who gets to be the last man (or woman)?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Wish in one hand . . .

I link to an AP story because this case of rampant stupidity is just irresistible.

You may have heard of the couple who headed up to the mountains for this year's Christmas tree. Nothing too unusual about that. After all, many of us who live in the north like to cut our own tree. In this case, however, the couple seemed bent on setting a new record for stupidity.

First, last year when they did this, they got lost in the woods. If that happened to you, maybe your strategy this year would include "Don't get lost". Instead, they packed blankets and bottled water for the event that they would get lost, which they apparently viewed as an inevitable part of the process.

The couple also ventured into the Siskiyou Mountains near the California border last year, but got lost. They were better prepared this time, bringing two maps, a cell phone equipped with GPS, three blankets and 24 bottles of water. They purposely drove their all-wheel-drive, but didn't take chains or food.

But that's not the best part. Here's a view to their strategy once they did get stuck in the snow.

Jennifer Lee said she spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday praying while her husband worked to free the car. She thought of her kids, ages 8 to 18, and what kind of Christmas it would be for them without their parents.

Early Thursday morning, a newly determined Keith Lee changed strategies, rocking the car forward instead of backward, putting rocks underneath the tires, and filling in the ruts from behind.

"Suddenly the car just shot forward," he said. "Then we backed down the hill. I had my wife spot to make sure we went in some real deep ruts that looked like some truck had turned around a couple days earlier."

Do you think they would have gotten out faster if she'd prayed harder? Or maybe god was distracted helping his favorite teams beat the spread on the Thanksgiving football classics.

Next year's strategy: more bottled water, food, and extra people to pray when they get stuck.

Liam Clancy dead at 74

This is sad news. Like many people of my generation, my first introduction to folk music was through the Clancy Brothers, who brought Irish music to a mass audience in the United States.

Now Liam Clancy, the last of the brothers, has died.

There's a lot to tell about him, but here's something I never knew: he and Bob Dylan were friends.

Liam Clancy lived in Greenwich Village, where he befriended another young folk singer, Bob Dylan. They dated a pair of sisters, Mr. Clancy told interviewers. Recalling that time in an interview on Irish television two years ago, Mr. Clancy said that he, a Roman Catholic from rural Ireland, and Mr. Dylan, a Jew from a small Minnesota town, shared an important quality.

“People who were trying to escape repressed backgrounds, like mine and Bob Dylan’s, were congregating in Greenwich Village,” he said. “It was a place you could be yourself, where you could get away from the directives of the people who went before you, people who you loved but who you knew had blinkers on.”

Mr. Dylan told an interviewer in 1984: “I never heard a singer as good as Liam ever. He was just the best ballad singer I’d ever heard in my life. Still is, probably.”

Follow the link and enjoy the video.