HELLO

Whether you're a fan of my OSCARBLOGGER site, or if you're just casting your way 'round the web, I hope you enjoy my new blog: WHISPERING IN A WIND TUNNEL. Here I will discuss issues of politics, religion, race, gay rights, gender, you know, the big stuff.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

BLAMING THE MEDIA


I've already mentioned here that the violent crime in America is going down; however, it's still a serious problem, with crime rates (both violent and non violent) ranking higher in the US  than in other industrialized nations.  Often when there's a violent crime, newscasters and commentators are quick to blame the media, and from violent movies to rap lyrics to video games,  pretend media violence is an easy whipping boy. (The NRA love to do this as a way to deflect any kind of new gun laws). Blaming the media is nothing new; in the 1930's the Catholic Legion of Decency was so outraged by Hollywood's "immorality" that a production code was put in place that dictated what could and could not be shown on screen.  In the 1950's rock and roll music that seems tame today, shocked the nation with its wild beat.  In the 80's and 90's  heavy metal and rap music would also come under fire, and now video games that are "teaching violence" to children are the current vogue target.
It's easy to see why people want to blame the media for violence; the media is so big, so unavoidable and influential, that it provides an easy target.  Add the fact that so few Americans have any control over the media as anything other than consumers, and attacking its effects on impressionable people, especially children, is an easy way to shift the blame for away from parents and onto something else.  There have been numerous studies done over the years about the effects of media violence on children without any conclusive proof. While it may appear that people with a violent nature may enjoy violent based entertainment more than others, it's really impossible to say whether the media creates the violent behavior, or if violent people are just drawn to media that suits their nature.  But the lack of proof hasn't stopped many concerned parents and media watchdog groups from pointing fingers.

This kind of thinking really reached a head in 1989 when the heavy metal rock band Judas Priest were sued by a family who claimed that a hidden subliminal message in one of their songs pushed their son and another young man into committing suicide.  Although the case was thankfully dismissed, it shows the absurd level that some people will go to to  blame a personal tragedy on something outside of themselves and their families.

They were, however, found guilty of having horrible fashion sense

People who attack the media are forgetting an important truth: sex and violence (or, put more gently, romance and adventure) have been a part of storytelling since the beginning of storytelling itself; they are  universal and dramatic parts of the human experience.  Nearly every story, movie or song ever written has an element of one of them.  Some of the most enduring works of art ever are filled with violent elements , from the play HAMLET, (often considered the best writing in the English language), ending with a stage full of dead bodies, to the huge wars described in the Iliad.
The inevitable question that arises is, if violent media causes violence in America, why doesn't it in other first world nations?  For good or for bad, America has the dominant media in the world; go to any European country and you'll see Hollywood movies playing in the theaters and America shows on their TVs.  So, they are absorbing the same horrible media that we are,  but they have lower violent crime rates.
Still not convinced?  Consider Japan; back in the 1960's the Japanese made cartoon shows SPEED RACER and GIGANTOR were brought over to the states for American kids to see.  Along with being dubbed into English, many violent scenes from the shows were cut before they could air in America.  So you had Japanese children growing up watching more violent TV shows than their American counterparts, and yet those Japanese kids were far less likely to grow up and commit acts of violence than the American kids.  And it should be mentioned that Japanese media in general is more violent than American media;  anyone who thinks America's media is too violent needs to watch some movies by Japanese film maker Takashi Miike (on second thought, don't!).  And yet, again, Japan has less violent crime than America despite watching more make believe violence than we do.

Don't say I didn't warn you....

So why is America more violent than most first world countries?  There is no easy answer to this; certainly some blame must go to our well entrenched gun culture that sees even the tiniest of gun control laws as an infringement on freedom.  But America also has a problem with non gun related violent behavior, so guns can't be the only culprit.  Perhaps part of it is our enormous economic inequality (we have the second highest child poverty rate in the first world, after Romania), combined with the competitive, capitalistic belief that getting ahead and fighting for every dollar is the American way.  It's difficult to say,  but blaming our violent society on the media is foolish at best and tantamount to censorship at worst.  Are there some things in the media that children shouldn't see?  Of course,  but the responsibility of controlling access to those things is up to the parents and guardians of those children and not society at large.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

KILL THE FILIBUSTER



Harry Reid, the Democratic majority party leader in the Senate, recently exercised what is known as the nuclear option, a process by which the filibuster rule (in which only a vote of sixty senators or more can allow a filibustered nomination or piece of legislation to proceed) can be superseded and instead a straight forward majority vote can be taken for passage.  This was seen as a big news story, and it was, but it was also inevitable.  The Republican party had used the filibuster so often and with such little regard for their status as a minority party that the Democrats really had no choice.
It's important to remember that the filibuster is never mentioned in the US constitution and that it was not even used in the Senate until 1837.  The rules of the procedure have gone through many changes over the years; once upon a time a senator had literally to speak non stop on the floor of the senate to keep a filibuster going (the 1939 movie MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON dramatically portrayed this with Jimmy Stewart's Senator Smith talking himself hoarse during a filibuster). Sadly, the longest filibuster on record was Strom Thurmond's  24 hour filibuster of the 1957 civil rights bill.

I paved the way for that jerk?


The big change came in 1975 when the Senate decided to allow any Senator to proclaim their intention to filibuster as enough to require a two thirds (60 votes) majority to pass a nomination or piece of legislation.  It was this creation of a virtual filibuster that sadly opened the floodgates, making it far too easy for any member of a minority party to slow down or kill the legislative process.  And sure enough, as the country has become more divided the filibuster has been used more and more.  In the Obama era, with the Republicans reflexive opposition of literally anything the president has tried to pass through congress, it's reached a crescendo.  The straw that broke the camel's back was when the Republicans used the filibuster to deny presidential judicial appointments to the Washington DC Circuit  Court not because they had objections to the nominations themselves, but because they felt that no more judges were needed to fill the vacancies.  It was a dare to Reid to use the nuclear option, and, after years of extreme obstruction, that's just what he did.
Hopefully, this will bring an end to this absurd practice that stands in the way of democracy and the importance of elections.  Remember, the constitution allows the president to appoint whomever he wants to be his cabinet members as long as they are approved by a majority of the Senate; the bottom line is that when a president is elected, he should be allowed to appoint like minded people to his cabinet, that's really the whole point of elections.  The Senate vote was intended mostly as a formality to prevent giving the president too much leeway.
The filibuster gets even more undemocratic when used against legislation.  Again, the constitution allows that a bill that is passed by  majorities  in the House of Representatives and the Senate and that is signed by the president, becomes a law.  I think that's how it should be; surely that counts as enough checks and balances on a bill without adding yet another obstacle for it to pass .  (And even after that passage, a law can still be challenged in the courts.)
 There is a fine line between necessary debate and compromise and outright gridlock, and giving the power of the filibuster to any member of the Senate promotes the latter over the former.  And, so I'm not a hypocrite, I'll go on the record and say that I think a bill that passes the House and the Senate and is signed by the President should be a law even if it's a law I don't agree with.  Again, part of the reason we have elections is to vote for candidates who will change laws passed by previous leaders.  Even if congress moves in the wrong direction, I think it should keep moving.  A congress that does nothing weakens democracy and makes voters cynical and less likely to vote, which again weakens democracy.  So put a stake in the filibuster's heart already.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A FEW WORDS IN DEFENSE OF OBAMACARE


Obamacare has had a rocky start, but I think things will get better, and that ten years from now, it will be generally accepted by the American public, and its name will be changed to simply,"the national healthcare system."   Now I should mention that I find the Affordable Care Act  far from perfect; like a lot of people on the left, I almost lost faith in the crazy days of the health care debate of 2009, when Republicans blustered (as they do) and Democrats dithered (as they do).  I almost threw up my hands and wrote it off completely when the public option portion of the bill was killed, reducing it to a plan that was originally floated by the conservative Heritage foundation, for crying out loud!
But then I remembered the wounds of 1992, when Bill Clinton attempts to reform health care resulted in such a resounding defeat that any real overhaul of the system was put on on hold for 17 years; I didn't want to see the same thing happen to Obamacare.  There is a saying, "the good should not die in the search for the perfect", and that exactly  describes my feelings about the bill; today, no child can be denied health care because of a pre existing condition, that's reason enough to be glad it passed.

And now the health care website is experiencing problems, with people being unable to sign in and get help; there are reports of Obama venting angrily at his underlings, while conservatives engage in schadenfreude.  Honestly, this does look bad, with the president's signature plan stumbling in a way that never should have happened; you would think that access to the some of the finest thinkers in the country would lead to a workable website!  Still, this isn't the first federal government plan to have trouble; under the Bush administration, the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan was seen as too unwieldy at first, but people eventually figured it out, and now there are no complaints.  So, mistakes aside, the government health care  web site will be fixed eventually.

"OK, so we shouldn't have used Commodore 64 to set up the website!  Can I go now?"

The other big problem is that some people have seen their health care plan ended, after the president said repeatedly is speeches that that wouldn't happen.  He recently apologized for this, and that's understandable, but there is something that's important to remember: the people who have had their plan ended only make up about five percent of the American public, and furthermore, those plans were ended because they did not live up to the basic standards set by the bill.  The bottom line is, many people will be able to get a new, better plan at a lower cost.  Is that such a bad thing?  Are there some people who have lost their plan and that are being forced to pay more for a new one?  Yes, but, while the numbers are certain yet, there appears to be only a handful of people that fall into this category.
Not only do I think that eventually Obamacare will be accepted, but I think it may be improved; call me a cock eyed optimist, but I think that eventually the goal of a single payer system (or Medicare for all) will be reached in this country, as more and more Americans become comfortable with a government run health care system.
Why do I think this is important?  Because I think that in any society, there are some things that should be run by the free market and some things that shouldn't be.  Selling TVs and computers is just fine for the free market, since paying less for a slower computer won't be a big problem for most consumers.  But some services are beyond the free market; for example, once upon a time in England, fire stations were run for profit; people would pay the fire station and get a plaque to hang outside their house.  If their house was burning down, the fire fighters would see the plaque and put the fire out, if there was no plaque, they'd let the house burn.  Not surprisingly, this horrible system was eventually put to an end in the nineteenth century,  and firefighters were paid with a central fund to put out all the fires. And, of course, the police department is also run the same way.  I think health care qualifies also as something that should be beyond the free market; let's face it,  the best way for a health care company to make a profit is to charge as much as possible and to provide as little service as possible.  To them, the perfect client is a healthy person who only occasionally goes to the doctor, never has any serious health issues, and who switches to Medicare once she's 65.  So not only do they reject people that they think may need their service, but they also look for any excuse to deny coverage to people in their system (the dreaded pre existing condition).  Quiet frankly, I think this is an untenable system in any civilized society, as bad as letting a house burn to the ground because it lacks the right plaque.
In closing, I would like to address the conservatives who honestly compare Obamacare to Communism with a simple question: Was Winston Churchill a Communist?  Churchill has often been seen as hero to Conservatives in America, with some poles even putting him over Ronald Reagan in their hearts.  Now Churchill was Prime Minister of England from 1940 to 1945 before being voted out.  In 1951 he returned to the office; in 1948, England's National Health plan had been put in place in his absence, and upon retaking office, he made no moves to dismantle it.  In fact, he allocated more funds to strengthen the popular program. Yes, he supported a National Health Care System.  That's right, according to the modern conservative view point in America, Winston Churchill was a no good red.

"Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains."


Saturday, October 26, 2013

CELEBRITY WORSHIP



Last July the world's media went into a crazy obsession over the birth of Prince George to Prince William and Kate Middleton; along with the usual celebrity watching organizations following each step of the birth with a microscope, even more legitimate news providers like CNN had camera crews staked outside the hospital to report to the world that, yes, a healthy young woman just gave birth to a baby that looks a lot like the thousands of other babies born that day all around the world.  Why do so many people care about the lives of the rich and famous?  Why are there so many magazines and websites dedicated to describing their lives in such minutiae?  What is it about them that fascinates us?

We often compare celebrities to gods, and with the worship and adulation they receive, along with the bubble of wealth and privilege they live in, the comparison seems apt.  They seem to reside in a world outside of ours, a world the vast majority of us will never get to see.
Now the adulation of certain exalted members of society (leaders, artists and athletes) seems to be something that stretches back thousands of years to the earliest human tribal societies, but I also think the roots of that adulation have another component: paganism.  With the exception of Hinduism, the world religions of today are monotheistic, but the majority of religions humans have practiced since our beginning have been polytheistic.  Is it possible that we have substituted our worship and attention of those many gods to our modern celebrities?
Here's an interesting example: in the ancient Greek myths, Zeus was the most powerful of all the gods, and yet what's the subject of most of the stories about him?  His womanizing!  Zeus was forever portrayed as sneaking out from under the watchful eye of his wife Hera to have sex with mortals.  Weren't those tales of a powerful god cheating on his wife the celebrity gossip stories of their day?  And just like today, these tales both exalted the gods while also pulling them down to our level, in much the same way we laugh at celebrity scandals but usually still wind up rewarding  them with money and fame.  I imagine that the ancient Greeks were probably amused by the stories of Zeus's philandering but they still worshipped him anyway.
 Nowadays, of course,  most people in America worship the Christian Judeo God, but that god is very different from the pagan gods of old, who were usually just more powerful versions of humans.  The Christian Judeo God is believed to be all powerful and perfect, so perhaps our fascination with celebrities provides a fix for that part of our brain that misses those ancient pagan gods with their more human foibles.
This may explain just why so much media is devoted to celebrity stories, (just as it also may explain why I, as an atheist, find celebrity gossip so dull!) and for the most part, the obsession some people have about the private lives of the famous is a fun way to spend one's free time.  Sleazy tabloids are a guilty pleasure, but a harmless one, for the most part.

Ah, read this or eat cotton candy, same thing.

But there is a darker side to this, and that comes in the way people often give more credence to an argument that comes out of the mouth of a celebrity than the would if it came from a normal person.  For example, in 2006 Rhonda Byrne wrote a ludicrous new agey book called THE SECRET that posited that somehow, thinking positive thoughts could bring health and wealth to your door.  Byrne admitted that she got the idea from an earlier book, THE SCIENCE OF GETTING RICH (written by Walter Wattles in 1910), but she promoted it as something new and made a short promotional video to accompany the book.  It was her two appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show that really pushed the book into the stratosphere, making it an enormous best seller world wide as Winfrey gave her seal of approval to this pile of nonsense.  (In an ironic bit of timing, the book came out just two years before the American economy suffered a terrible crash; apparently millions of more people knowing the secret didn't help!)
I have a friend, a smart, college educated woman, who is a follower of Winfrey, and who once tried to defend THE SECRET  to me.  I pointed out that, like all good scams, the book started with something uncontroversial (its good to have a positive view of life) and then extended that into the ridiculous (nothing in life is chance).  I quickly showed that there is no way that THE SECRET could explain terrible events like the Holocaust, or horrible natural disasters.  Every time I almost convinced her, she would fall back on her unshakeable belief that because Oprah Winfrey said, it must be right; like a creationist denying evolution, she refused to accept what seemed to me to be the logical truth.  Even a smart person like her was so in thrall to Winfrey's celebrity that she countenanced no argument against it, a perfect example of celebrity worship gone overboard, in my opinion.  


The pretty face of crazy.


An even more frightening example arises when one considers Jenny McCarthy; once just another minor celebrity, in 2007 she announced that her son was diagnosed with autism two years earlier, and added that she believed that her son's vaccination shots were responsible for his autism.  She noted a scientific study written by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that made such a claim about vaccinations, ignoring the fact that his findings could never be duplicated by other researchers (in 2010 THE LANCET, the paper that he first published his findings in, officially retracted his study after discovering conflicts of interest in his research and outright falsehoods in his writing; not surprisingly, McCarthy still defended him.)
Now normally, a woman with no scientific education or training would be consigned to the far ends of the internet with the moon landing hoaxers  when she started spouting off  on something like this, but, just because of her celebrity, people listened as she gave more and more interviews and became the spokesperson for the anti science, anti reason, anti vaccination movement.  Sadly,  there are now thousands, perhaps millions of people in this country who believe her.  In doing so, they're reject all reliable research that shows no connection between vaccines and autism, even worse, they're refuting one of the great health stories of the modern age, with sicknesses like  whooping cough and measles eliminated from children's lives.  And the real world consequences of her beliefs are frightening, with a possible resurgence in such illnesses threatening children's health.  Perhaps worst of all, her speaking out has made her more famous than she was before, winning her a coveted spot on the afternoon talk show THE VIEW, where, sadly, she'll be sure to spew her crazy theories even more.  Really, is there anything more depressing than people giving more weight to an argument made by a know nothing celebrity than the counter argument made by scientists and researchers backed up with years of study?  Especially when that argument concerns the health and well being of children?  I don't think so.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

IT'S OVER

Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell


Finally, after 16 days of a government shutdown and mere hours before a potential economic crisis that could affect the economy of the entire world, the showdown has ended and the conservative wing of the Republican party has given up their crazy, quixotic and dangerous attempt to defund Obamacare by basically putting a gun to the head of the government.  With polls showing Republican approval ratings cratering, they had no choice but to concede. The resolution was as positive as possible, with Republicans only getting the most minor tweak of the healthcare bill (a small matter of eligibility) in return for their bullying tantrum.   How glad am I about this?  Can an atheist use the term hallelujah?

How extreme is the rightwing of the Republican party?  In the house 144 of them voted against ending the shutdown with only 87 supporting it, along with 18 members of the senate.  Yes, that's right, a majority of Republicans in the house voted to not raise the debt ceiling, something never done before in this country, which could plunge America (and possibly the world)  into another recession. Amazingly, some Republican congressmen and leaders have actually encouraged congress to not raise the debt ceiling, saying the effects would not be so bad, discounting the predictions of pretty much every economist in the country!  Thankfully, this wing of the party did not win out.

I should mention that certainly not all conservatives saw the standoff as a good thing; anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist said in an interview with The National Review: “they hurt people’s health care, they hurt the country’s economic situation and they hurt the Republican party. And a lot of congressmen and senators are not going to win because we spent three months chasing our own tail — or at least, parts of the conservative movement spent three months chasing their own tail.”   He certainly isn't the only one; is it possible that the Tea Party could split from Republicans and form a third party?  Right now they appear to be standing fast with their Republican leaders, but future divisions may fracture them.

From the start, it was hard to see just what the Republican's objective was; did they really think that the president would defund or delay The Affordable Care Act?  Or that he would negotiate government spending with a gun to his head?  Consider the precedent that would have set, with a minority party in congress always threatening the president with a shutdown for whatever they want.  Someday there will be another Republican president, how would conservatives feel then if Democrats in congress pulled the same trick?
During this whole debacle,  I couldn't help but be reminded of the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998; once again, an extreme wing of the Republican party pushed the country in a direction it didn't want to go in order to score political points.  Polls at the time showed that a clear majority of Americans did not think that president Clinton's lying about a sexual affair while under oath was worthy of impeachment, and furthermore,  there was no way that the two thirds of the senate needed in order to impeach would vote for it.  And yet the Republican house demanded it.
And just like during that earlier scandal, the rest of the world is looking at America and shaking their heads in wonder.  How could the government of the world's largest economy almost cause a world wide crisis?  In every other first world country there is government run healthcare, but in the US the president's attempt to use a market based system to provide care for the millions of Americans without it is denounced as (according to Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita) "one of the most insidious laws ever created  by man".

Say what, Todd?

While I'm glad this whole thing is over, the Republicans may have won on one level; this exhausting distraction has preoccupied the president, pushing onto the back burner important legislation like immigration reform (and wait until the conservatives start demagoguing that issue!).  Still, I'm hoping that this outburst will go down in history like Strom Thurmond's 24 hour filibuster of the civil rights bill in 1957; the last gasp of a breed of people that the country was swiftly leaving behind.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

IS FREE WILL AN ILLUSION PT. 4, CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR



The violent crime rate in America is dropping, a fact that many Americans may not be aware of.  The news media, especially local news broadcasts, often thrive on keeping viewers watching by scaring them, so violent crime stories tend to dominate their reporting. This is especially true whenever there's a horrible mass shooting;  while its natural for the media to cover such shocking stories, they unfortunately give the public an overblown view of how common violent crime is.  But, whether the public knows it or not, overall, violent crime rates have been dropping slowly but surely since the mid 1990's in the US.  Now, I'm not saying that violent crime is no longer a problem in this country (it is), or that America's violent crime rates aren't  higher than that of other first world nations (they are), but a decline is a decline.  Last year, for example, New York City had its lowest homicide rate since the early 1960's.
Obviously, this is good news. But what happened in the 90's to cause this drop?  And why didn't the economic collapse of 2008, which caused an increase in poverty and hard times for people, not result in an increase in crime, as one might expect?  There are a number of theories: politicians, especially conservative politicians, tend to play on people's fears to win their votes.  In the 90's, with the cold war over and the war on terror yet to begin, they turned to crime; in 1993 the horrific kidnapping and killing of a twelve year old girl named Polly Klaas in California led to the passage of the "Three strikes and your out" law, which mandated that criminals convicted of three felonies had to put away for life.  The passage of the law lead to more tough on crime laws on the local and federal level.  Before long the country's prison population began to swell, and that, along with an increase in the number of patrol officers on the street, inevitably has played a factor.  Others point to the fact that the illegal crack cocaine market began bottoming out in the 1990's, or that the general overall aging of the American population is the cause.  These theories all have merit, but the one that intrigues me the most is one that does not seem so obvious: lead reduction.
In the 1920's, lead was added to gasoline to smooth the fuel out and reduce knock and ping noises from car engines.  It was also used in paint to make it dry more quickly and seal more tightly.  While oil and lead companies deny that they were aware of the dangers of their products, those dangers were exposed in 1965 when Dr. Clair Patterson, a former member of the Manhattan Project, defied big oil companies and published findings showing the definite effects of exposure to lead fumes.  While at first controversial, his findings are now clearly seen as fact, and in 1973 the Environmental Protection Agency  began phasing lead out of gas, removing it entirely by 1986.  It was taken out of paint by 1978.  While there are still a few children today that sadly may be exposed, for the most part lead poisoning is a thing of the past.
The effects of lead fumes can be devastating,  especially on young children and the unborn fetuses of pregnant women; they range from reduced IQ to symptoms of hyperactivity and lowered impulse control.  It's that last effect that gives credit to the theory that getting the lead out has reduced our violent crime rate; it's no surprise that having normal impulse control is necessary, especially in young people, to avoid violent criminal behavior.  So in the 1990's when children born after the removal of lead began to reach the age in which they might commit criminal acts, they were less likely to do so.  It's also interesting to note that part of the reason that the violent crime rate in cities used to be much higher than in suburban areas had to do partly with a higher concentration of cars and lead fumes in narrow crowded city streets leading to higher lead exposure.



Also of interest is the fact that, along with the violent crime rate, the rate of teen pregnancy has also fallen in this country (and, like violent crime reduction, the media has underreported this good news).  This ties in nicely with the lead theory, because that lack of impulse control that exposure to lead fumes can cause also probably lead to teens engaging in unprotected sex.  So the drop in both violent crime and teen pregnancy is probably no coincidence.

So why hasn't the removal of lead gotten more attention from the media?  It's no surprise that the conservative media has ignored it; not only does it run counter to the idea that the best way to fight crime is increased prison sentences,  it's also a victory for the dreaded EPA.  Still, you would think that this story would have been picked up more, but it really hasn't.  Perhaps because it's a story that draws out mixed emotions: on the one hand, it's great to see violent crime reduced, on the other hand, it's hard not to get depressed when you consider thousands, perhaps even millions of children for decades being poisoned by the very air they breathed, consigned to lead lives of reduced intellect and criminal behavior through no fault of their own.  While we all like to think that people should be held responsible for their own personal behavior, given the effects of lead poisoning on children, one has to ask, how many criminals never really had a chance in life?  Once again, the entire concept of free will must be called into question.








Saturday, October 5, 2013

ATHEISM VS. AGNOSTICISM

Atheist, scientist, hero, heartthrob

British scientist and author Richard Dawkins is probably the most well known atheist advocate around today; he has devised a faith scale that ranks someone's belief or lack thereof in much the same way that the scale that Dr. Alfred Kinsey developed back in the 1930's ranked one's sexual orientation.  On the Dawkins scale, a ranking of one means you definitely believe in god, and a ranking of seven means you definitely don't.  The interesting thing is that Dawkins himself admits that he is only a six on the scale; in other words he allows that there is a slim possibility that god does in fact exist.  Does this make him an agnostic instead of an atheist?

The late historian Studs Terkel called himself an agnostic, which he defined as a "cowardly atheist".  While I may not be the bravest soul in the world (trust me), like Dawkins, I too call myself an atheist. Yet I can't completely disbelieve in god, I must admit that there is some chance, however small, that such a being is around (although, if it is, I have some very pointed questions for it!).   So should I call myself an agnostic?  I would gladly do so on one condition, and that is that every other living person in the world must admit that they too are agnostics.  The bottom line is that we all are, and that if no one is a seven on the Dawkins scale, than no one is truly a one either.
Oscar winning screenwriter William Goldman once described Hollywood as a place where "nobody knows anything", and really, isn't that the entire human condition in a nutshell?  Aren't all of us just stumbling around in the dark, blindly searching for answers that we will never really find until we die, (and even then they we may never know)?  Not one living person can truly say that they know exactly what will happen to them when they die.  I certainly don't know for sure, but neither do you.  You can have hopes, desires, beliefs, and faiths, but at the end of the day, as Goldman said, nobody knows anything.

"I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing"...
which proves, uh, nothing at all, really.


Right now there are several popular books written by people who have had near death experiences and claim that they have experienced an afterlife; but even the biggest defenders of those authors can't honestly say that the content of those books provides absolute proof.  Skeptics have pointed out that in a near death experience, when the heart stops beating and the brain loses oxygen, the brain begins to hallucinate, and that the experiences described by people who have been near death sound a lot like simple  hallucinations.  Not to mention the very real possibility that these people are just straight up charlatans who want the money and fame that comes from writing a popular book.   The success of these books prove nothing; their assertions are no better than those from people who say that they remember experiences from past lives.

Carl Sagan once told a great story: when he met the Dali Lama, he asked him what he would do if science could disprove all of the spiritual beliefs of Buddhism.  The Dali Lama admitted that there would have to be a real reconsideration of the faith, and then he leaned over and pointed out that it would be very hard for science to disprove reincarnation, and they both had a good laugh.  So here we see a perfect example of how strong the human desire is to hope for some kind of life beyond death, and also just how impossible it is to prove or disprove that.  And it should be observed that there are over a billion people in the world today (Buddhists and Hindus) who believe in reincarnation just as strongly as Christians believe in heaven and hell. So, when I say that I believe in the possibility of heaven and hell, I don't put it on a higher level than reincarnation.  They both seem equally crazy to me.

So what I'm saying is that I'm an agnostic in the sense that we all are; the pope, rabbis, priests, nuns, monks, whoever, none of us are sure.  And here's a good final example: "Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak", that quote is from the late Mother Teresa from a letter she wrote to the Rev. Michael Van de Peet.  If the one of the most revered and holy people of the twentieth century expressed doubt that could be called agnostic in nature, how can anybody be sure.  I'll say it again, nobody knows anything.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

IT KEEPS GETTING WORSE....


OCTOBER 2, 2013, SHUTDOWN DAY 2


So it's come to this: a full federal government shutdown, the first since 1995.  All because some members of the Republican party cannot accept that a piece of legislation passed by congress, signed by the president and upheld by the supreme court, is going into effect.  Amazingly, those Republicans seems thrilled by what's going on, and they're meeting with each other to pat each themselves on the back and boast over how "brave" they are.
As a crazy liberal, I honestly try to believe in the goodness of people and try to see their point of view, but the conservatives completely confound me here.  The shutdown of the government is costing the country $200 million dollars a day(at least), has thrown 800,000 government workers into temporary unemployment, and has threatened our still weakened national economy and possibly the world's.  Meanwhile, Obamacare is moving along anyway, shutdown or not.  What have they accomplished?  And how can they so proudly stand against extending health care to the tens of millions of Americans that don't have it?  Our healthcare system before Obamacare routinely allowed for healthcare providers to deny coverage for children with pre existing conditions; do they really want a return to that system?  Apparently so, because they've offered no alternative.

Nope, I just don't get this mentality 

During the healthcare battles of 2009, many people on the left were disappointed by the way the president handled the negotiations, giving in too easily on things, like caving in on  having a government run public option for healthcare instead of having to choose one only  from private companies.  I, too, was upset about the losses, but I remembered how in the nineties president Clinton's healthcare plan was killed outright, and the saying that the good should not be lost in the search for the perfect seemed appropriate.  I also could see just how vehement the Republicans were in their opposition to literally anything and everything the president proposed.  I knew that they would fight him over this every step of the way and that passage of even a watered down bill would be extremely difficult, as indeed it was.
I said before that I just can't understand the conservative viewpoint on all this, but I must admit I almost have to admire it in its singleminded determination and sense of righteousness.  As a liberal with a decided lack of confidence and self esteem, I can't imagine being so assured and convinced about something.  Conservatives really seem to see themselves as on the side of good opposed to evil,  which can only be dealt with by not giving any quarter whatsoever.  References to god pepper their speeches, which seem to fall just short of calling liberals demonic. And so, the modern Republican party, which has just suffered through two presidential defeats and only holds a majority of one house of congress, still struts with confidence, refusing to compromise and telling themselves that John Mc Cain and Mitt Romney lost because they somehow weren't conservative enough.  After Barak Obama's reelection there was virtually no soul searching on their part, no realization that their party's appeal beyond older white men was rapidly fading; instead they dug in further continuing to use the filibuster in the senate and their majority in the house to promote gridlock.  And when fake scandals like Bengazi and the IRS didn't pan out for them, they decided to shut down the government to get what they want.  The last time the Republicans pulled off this kind of shut down was in 1995 under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, and they wound up losing seats in the house because of it.  Amazingly, they have appeared to have learned nothing from that experience, and here we go again.  Hopefully, the voters will respond in the same way as before, and that swaggering conservative confidence will appear more and more like the look of General Custer before he saddled up for battle.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A CRAZY SPECTACLE



Just a short time ago today, the United States Senate saw Republican senator Ted Cruz give an over 20 hour long, rambling speech to try and stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare).  In an earlier post (here), I wondered why the right wing in America are so much more right wing than any large political party in any other first world country.  I'm certainly not the only person to remark upon this (Thomas Edsall in the New York Times today had an editorial entitled "How did Conservatives get this Radical"), and, sadly, Cruz's speech today fit right into that idea (in the midst of his rambling he compared Obamacare to the Nazis and himself to the founding forefathers!).   And along with Cruz's speech,  there has been a ridiculous series of commercials attempting to scare young people out of getting health care.   And then there's the house of representatives...
Recently the Republican house passed a bill that would fund the government except for Obamacare. The bill is sure to die in the senate, and of course President Obama will never sign it, but the Republican party has shifted so far to the right that they'd rather push a bill with no chance of passage than admit that Obamacare will soon be law.
The tumultuous history of the Affordable Care Act is a long and rambling one, which featured numerous fights in congress and some screeching protests, along with some crazy rhetoric from the right (remember Sarah Palin literally saying that her handicapped son's life was threatened by death panels?).  But the important thing to remember about it is this: it is a bill that was passed by a majority in both houses of congress(without a single Republican vote) and was signed into law by the president, and it was then upheld by the supreme court.  As any 5th grade student of the US government will tell you, that's how bills become law.  Furthermore, Mitt Romney very specifically ran on a platform of overturning it, and he lost.  The law has survived every possible test, and yet the Republican party still acts like they can kill it instead of accepting it.  The word compromise simply seems to mean surrender to them.
The crazy thing about this is that the Affordable Care Act is far from radical; a real different plan would have expanded the popular medicare program, that covers senior citizens, to all Americans.  Something like what they have in every other industrialized nation.  Instead, it's a watered down plan that requires people to sign up for health care or pay a fine, with poor and middle class people getting some government aid to help pay for it.  It actually is similar to a plan first suggested by former Republican senator Bob Dole way back in 1993 as an alternative to then president Clinton's doomed health care plan.  The idea that it's some government take over of health care that will raise prices and destroy jobs seems absurdly over the top, if not out of the realm of possibility, but even Social Security, one of the most popular government programs ever, had to go through some tweaking after it was passed.  Hopefully Obamacare can also be improved if need be.

The issue of the house trying to defund the bill shows one of the real differences between the two parties in our country today, and why it's often so hard for Democrats to get things done even when they have one house of congress and the presidency.  This partisan contrast can be easily seen if one looks back to the year 2006; that year the Democrats took both the house and the senate in a stinging rebuke of President Bush and the way he was handling the war in Iraq, which was growing less popular by the day.  After taking over the house, there was some talk of the Democrats trying to defund the war in a manner similar to what the Republicans are now trying to do with Obamacare, but the Democrats realized that simply defunding the war and demanding immediate troop withdrawal, which could have resulted in a government shut down, would have been too radical a move.  Sadly, today's Republicans have no fear of being too radical.

It's possible that what we are seeing is the last gasp of the extreme right in this country, what with demographic changes working strongly against them as they struggle to appeal to anyone who isn't an old white man,  but if that's the case, I'm afraid it will be a long gasp.  For years the Republicans have often had an advantage in raising money from corporations and the wealthy (like the billionaire Koch brothers) and while more money does not always equal electoral  success, it certainly can help.  So, sadly, we may be seeing uncompromising extremists like Cruz shooting off their mouths for years to come.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

GENDER DIFFERENCES IN RELATIONSHIPS



I sometimes listen to a radio show on NPR entitled Philosophy Talk, and one time John Perry, one of the show's hosts, said something that really struck me: he pointed out that if male humans had not evolved to be the way that they are, the human race would have died out thousands of years ago.  But the more civilized that the world has become, the more their masculine ways have become a disadvantage.   For example, being physically aggressive was a good thing thousands of years ago when humans were competing for their survival with other species, in fact it was necessary for hunting food and fighting off predators.  But now we live in a world where over ninety five percent of all violent crimes are committed by men, and almost all violent behavior is frowned upon unless it's in response to other violent behavior.  It would appear that evolution needs to catch up to civilization.

Our primitive past also plays a role in our sexual and romantic relationships.  Again, thousands of years ago when we were fighting with other species for our very survival, certain tendencies arose; the bottom line for any species survival is to produce as many healthy offspring as possible.  Now consider that if a man has sex with a hundred different women in a year,  it's possible that he could impregnate all of them, whereas if a woman has sex with a hundred different men, she can only get pregnant once. So you can see why promiscuity in men was necessary to human survival, with healthy, strong men passing on those good genes as much as possible.  Today this manifests itself in the unfortunate stereotype of promiscuous men being haled as studs and promiscuous women being branded as sluts.  It also explains why men tend to avoid committed relationships more than women, and are more likely to stray when in one.  Evolution has just led men on average into wanting to have sex more often, and with more partners, than women.

The sexiest man alive in 1989 was almost 70


Evolution has led to another unfortunate stereotype: that men age better than women.  Almost from the very beginning, movies have matched older men with younger women romantically, with little protest from audiences (Fred Astaire used to say that as he got older, his leading ladies got younger).  Again, this is due to evolution and human reproduction: putting it simply, the main reason men and women are attracted to each other in the first place is the animal instinct to produce offspring.  Even if you don't want to have children, your unconscious mind is pushing you that way, and women, unlike men, lose their natural fertility as they get older.  Generally speaking, a woman past the age of forty is not likely to get pregnant without fertility treatments.  And while men at that age do see a reduction in their overall sex drive, their ability to reproduce remains, and there are men in their sixties still fathering children.  So the sad spectacle of the older man divorcing his wife for a younger trophy wife is based on human evolution.
And it has added an interesting wrinkle to women's desire also.  In their highly entertaining book SEX AT DAWN, authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha point out that in the distant past, promiscuity may have had an advantage for women too.  It's safe to say that, centuries ago, the infant mortality rate was very high, perhaps as much as %50.  Humans, unlike so many other animal species, spend the first few years of childhood being completely helpless and reliant on adults (compare a human baby to a newborn zebra that's up and on its feet within minutes of birth).  And a woman nursing a child needed help from others, usually men, to bring her food.  Now, if there are more than one man in the tribe who think that they may be the father of a child, then there'll be more than one man feeling obliged to help feed and protect that child, and its chance of survival will increase. So in the days before paternity tests, women's promiscuity may have also played a role in our survival as a species.

You should really read this

So should we just throw up our hands in defeat and say that all marriages are doomed?  That evolution has led us  too far away from monogamy for it to ever succeed?  Of course not, (although open relationships in marriages can work in some cases).  The nice thing about humans is that our brains are big enough that we can resist instinctual urges.  Consider, for example, that humans, like our distant relatives the chimpanzee,  have been omnivorous from the beginning.  And yet there are millions of people that are vegetarians and vegans, and they're perfectly happy to avoid the animal instinct of eating meat.  So long term monogamous relationships are possible, because, as we all know, humans are both animals driven by instinct, and something more.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

THAT MOST CONTENTIOUS ISSUE



Abortion is, of course, the single most contentious issue in the US today because it's so straightforward; either you believe that life begins at conception or it doesn't, that every abortion ends a life or not.  But  I do believe that there are more complexities to the issue than people  often consider.
I myself am pro choice, I support abortion on demand for the first three months of pregnancy, and then after that in certain cases (according to The New York Times, 98.5 percent of all abortions take place in the first five months of pregnancy).  This puts me on the side of the slight majority of pro choice Americans.  But I do have some sympathy for the anti abortion stance, because when life actually begins seems to be difficult to pinpoint, and personal feelings come into play. Although I think some anti arbortionists want to punish women for having sex without wanting to have children, I have met some  who honestly do believe that a fetus is alive and therefore worthy of protection.  There's even a group that calls themselves "feminists for life", yes, an anti abortion feminist group! So the issue is not always clear cut.
But for the anti arbortionists, I would like to make this logical hypothetical point: let's say that the Christian fundamentalists get exactly what they want in America, a constitutional amendment banning all abortions without exception.  Can they really honestly believe that that would end abortions completely in this country?  As we can see from the war on drugs, making an activity illegal hardly brings an end to it.  All that would happen is that American women who can afford it would travel to another country to get an abortion, and poor women would go to back allies and get dangerous illegal abortions.  In the days before the Roe vs. Wade ruling, states where abortion was illegal had numerous cases of women being badly injured or even dying from such unsanitary abortions, and there's no reason to doubt that this problem would return if abortion were made illegal.
Furthermore, there is contradiction from anti abortionists that angers me: one of the main reasons that women give for getting an abortion is economic; raising a child is expensive, and many women just can't afford it.  And knowledge of that expense comes from experience, tellingly, sixty one percent of women who get abortions already have at least one child. So if money is a large part of why women get an abortion, why is that so often the most outspoken anti arbortionists are the first to demonize single mothers, to call women on welfare moochers, and to cut food stamps and medicaid?  A stunning seventy six percent of families that get food stamps have at least one child, but that doesn't stop congressional Republicans from trying to gut the program in the name of "fiscal responsibility" and "ending dependency".  The anti abortionists seem to want it both ways: if a woman gets an abortion she's an evil murderer, if she goes on welfare, she's a lazy leech on society.   How can a group care so much about unborn babies and then so little about poor children? Ardent anti arbortionist Ronald Reagan once referred to people on medicaid as a "faceless mass waiting in line for a handout", robbing poor people (including children) of their very humanity.  Many anti abortionists say that they support adoption instead of abortion, but if every woman who got an abortion put that child up for adoption instead, our adoption centers would be flooded, many of the children would never find homes, and they would wind up being raised by the same government that conservatives claim to hate so much.

And why do so many anti arbortionists support making it harder for women to get access to birth control?  Many say that health care plans should be able to opt out of offering birth control for "moral reasons"; even worse was George W Bush's plan of abstinence only sex education.  The absurd notion that if we just tell children not to even think about sex until marriage then they won't have any denies not only reason, but human biology.  It's just plain common sense: less unwanted pregnancies equals less abortions, so why can't the US grow up and teach proper birth control methods as part of sex education, like other industrialized nations with lower teen birth rates do?



Although I obviously disagree with the Catholic church on this issue, I will give them points for consistency; unlike Christian fundamentalists, the Catholic church supports expanded aid to the poor, and pays for many charitable organizations.  In  fact, in the last presidential election, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Catholic, proposed a budget that slashed government aid to the poor, that was condemned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.  So not all anti abortionists demonize the poor, just some of them.

Here's another point I'd like to make: Christians assert that god created all of us in his divine image and that we are his blessed creation.  Now if god knows and sees all, then surely it must be able to see into the future, and therefore it must have known that eventually humans would create the ability and desire to have abortions.  If god hates abortion, why did it create us with the ability to perform them?  Surely a supreme being could have created humans in such a way as to make abortions physically impossible.  But it chose not to.  Why?  Was this a design flaw in its creation?  Why would god allow humans to have abortions and then send its holy messengers on earth to attack it?  Isn't that a mixed message?



Trying to change people's minds on this seemingly intractable issue may be a fool's errand, but I hope I least have made some points that might provoke some thought for anti abortionists.  And for those of you who do want to overturn Roe vs. Wade, I would plead with you to at least tone down the angry rhetoric, which has lead to violence against clinics and doctors.  Killing people is never the answer, and it makes a mockery of your so called "pro-life" stance.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

EMOTIONAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST GOD

God(feel free to substitute George Burns or Morgan Freeman)


When making the case for atheism, many atheists use logical, scientifically based arguments.  Things like displaying the science of carbon dating and fossils to prove evolution, or the history of world religions to point out that belief in all powerful beings are not new to the human race can be persuasive to some, but faith, by its very definition, is not based on reason or logic, and therefore can often resist such arguments with ease.  I once heard a Christian fundamentalist say that fossils were put in place by satan in order to make humans question creationism; while this statement seems laughable to me, it perfectly shows the lengths that the faithful will go to defend their beliefs and how difficult it is to counter against such beliefs when they are so strongly held.
So why not make arguments against god that are based not on reason or science, but that instead play on emotion?  Here are some I like to make: the concept of heaven and hell as reward or punishment is one that runs through the Christian faith.  On the surface, it seems like an understandable and even pleasant idea: why shouldn't good people be rewarded by going to a perfect place forever, and why shouldn't the Adolf Hitlers and Joseph Stalins of the world get what's coming to them?


But the idea of human life being a test, one in which we are freely allowed to choose between the moral and the immoral and are duly rewarded or punished,  falls apart when one examines the realities of the world.  For heaven and hell to really work, every person would have be born into a similar life situation, and share a similar life span.  That would be the only way for there to be a just judgmental system applied to every person in the world.  But that just isn't the case: every year, all around the world, millions of children are born into lives of poverty and hardship through no fault of their own.  Many of those children will grow up and violate the laws of their country and human morality in general as a means to get out of that poverty.   Are they completely at fault and deserved of eternal damnation?  Many of them would never have broken the law if they were born to a family of reasonable means, so how can their lives be seen as test when the odds of them passing it have been stacked against them?  And then there are children who are born to a family that provides for them reasonably, but who are horribly abused as children.  Sexual or physical abuse can leave life long scars on them.  If a boy is born into a family where violent behavior and abuse are the norm, can he really be blamed for growing up to be a violent person?  How much free will does such a person have?

And then there's the question of geography; many Christians maintain that eternal paradise can only be achieved through being Christian or converting to it.  But what if you are born into a part of the world with a completely different faith?  There are around nine hundred million Hindus in the world today; if a person is born into a community of Hindus, lives his entire life as a Hindu and never converts to Christianity, why would a just and fair god punish that person with eternal damnation? What if he led a good and moral life?  What if he never even heard about Christianity?  Would a murderer who embraces the Christian faith in jail be allowed into heaven before a Hindu who led a good honest life?

And let's face it, their gods look cooler

And then there's the tricky question of lifespan.  To lead a moral life, one has to live long enough to be able to consciously make moral choices.  And the sad fact of the matter is that every year, all around the world, millions of children die before reaching the age of five through starvation, dehydration, disease and other factors.  None of these children led a long enough life to make moral decisions, so  how can they possibly be judged?
Even worse, why does god allow so many innocent children to die in the first place?  God is supposed to be loving and caring, and yet where is god in the face of sudden infant death syndrome(SIDS), a condition that causes thousands of tiny babies all around the world to just stop breathing?  Here are completely blameless children who have never even had the chance to commit a sin; why would a benevolent god let them just die needlessly?  If god truly has control over everyone and everything in the world, and has deep love for all the people in it, why can't it prevent those innocent babies from dying?  If a supreme being can't be bothered to save the lives of newborn babies, then what good is it?  Is that a god worth praying to?   At the risk of being noble, I would gladly trade my middle aged life to save the life of just one of those babies dying from SIDS.  But I can't.  Why not?
I have personally used this last point about SIDS when debating the existence of god with religious people I know, and I have yet to receive an answer that is satisfactory to me.  One person said that all those babies were going to grow up to be the next Adolf Hitler, but that raises more questions than it answers (If god intervenes to stop the next Hitler from growing up, why didn't it stop the first Hitler?  And how could thousands of babies grow up to be the next Hitler?  How many Hitlers can there be?).  Most just shake there heads and admit that it's a tough question, and indeed the concept of god allowing the suffering of the innocent is one that theologians have grappled with for years.  To me the answer is simple: the idea that there is a wise, caring and loving all powerful being that guides us, listens and responds to our prayers and that wisely judges us is an attractive one on the face of it, but, when one honestly looks at the deep, unfair inequities of the world, the likelihood of such a being actually existing becomes minuscule.  That is, of course, entirely my own opinion.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

IS FREE WILL AN ILLUSION? PT.3, LOVE


"I always knew the boy I love would come along/and he'd be tall and handsome, rich and strong
/now that boy has come to me/but he sure ain't the way I thought he'd be"
                                               
                                           -From "The Boy I Love" by The Crystals

So I've already discussed whether on not religious belief is controlled by free will here and whether or not political beliefs are here.  But what above love?  That complex emotion that so many works of art have explored and celebrated; surely we must have free will when it comes to love.  Right?
Well....
Human beings are animals, and like all animals, the drive to reproduce is one of our most powerful instincts next to eating and drinking.  Often, the rules of attraction are changed by this reproductive instinct; a recent study of female strippers found that for certain times every month they made substantially more more money than at other times.  A quick study as to why this happened found that they made more money during their time of ovulation than not; it appears that during the height of fertility, women undergo subtle but definite physical and behavioral changes that make them more attractive to men.  Conversely, women themselves have been found to be attracted to different kinds of men at different points in their monthly cycles, with more classically masculine features being more attractive to them at their most fertile times.  So just being attracted to someone in the first place could just be a question of timing.

Ok, not always


And not only are all animals driven to reproduce, they are also driven to have the healthiest possible offspring.  Now when a woman has a child, she passes on a large number of traits, one of them being the natural antibodies that we all need to ward off sickness.  But a child only gets half of those antibodies from the mother, the other half comes from the father.  For a child to get a good full set of antibodies, there shouldn't be any overlap; that is, the half coming from the mother and the half coming from the father should mesh into one full set.  But how exactly does a woman find a man with the proper set of antibodies?  Asking for a blood test is far from romantic.

In 1995 Swiss researcher Claus Wedekind did a study to find out: first, he picked a random group of young men and an equally random group of young women. Then, he had blood tests done to determine which women should be reproducing with which men to have the healthiest possible children.  Then he had the men wear the same shirt for a week without showering or bathing, and he made sure that they exercised and got sweaty in that shirt.  Finally he took those shirts to the women and had them smell them (I know this sounds gross, bear with me) and say which shirt smelled the sexiest to them.  As you might imagine, the results were spot on; that is, the shirt that came from the man that a woman should have a child with smelled the sexiest to her.  Like many other male animal species, men put out a naturally occurring pheromone that attracts certain women to them.  This explains what's going on when a woman says, "I don't know what it about him that attracts me, he just has a certain something."  We know now that that something is a pheromone.  This really explains a lot; look at online dating, often a woman will look at a picture of a man, find him attractive, like his written profile, and then loose interest upon meeting him in person. Or conversely, reluctantly agree to go out with someone that she finds herself immediately hitting it off with.

So am I saying that the best way for a woman to find the right mate is to go to the gym and walk by all the men on stair masters until she finds the one that smells the best?  Well, love is obviously a more complicated emotion than that, although that may be a good start.  But there's an added wrinkle to the whole pheromone thing: the researchers did a second version of the sweaty shirt study, but this time all the young women in the study were using birth control pills.  Since the pill fools a women's body into thinking its pregnant already, she is no longer instinctually looking for a mate, and a result, when picking the sexiest shirt the chances of it being from the ideal man to reproduce with were no better than chance.  This has lead to some interesting theorizing: the birth control pill was first introduced to women in 1960, and shortly thereafter divorce rates began to skyrocket.  It would appear that often a single women would be on the pill, be attracted to a man, marry him and then go off the pill to have children, and then discover that once she's off the pill she's no longer attracted to him.  Sadly, a positive invention like the birth control pill may have wound up having an inadvertent negative side effect.



Now again, human relationships are complicated things, and narrowing down a complex emotion like love entirely to pheromone release seems to cheapen it; the higher rate of divorce since 1960 may have as much to do with the creation of no fault divorce in 1953 and women's increased economic independence as it does with the creation of the pill.  Human beings are both animals and something more because our sense of reason and knowledge gives us analytical skills beyond any other animal (that we know of), and all of those skills come to play in our pursuit of and happiness in romantic relationships.  So I like to think that free will does play a factor in love, but just how much of one is difficult to say.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

ARE WOMEN FUNNY?



It never fails to amaze me that even here and now in 2013 there are still some men who flat out say that women are never funny.  How many examples does it take?  Anyone who knows movie history knows  that there have been funny women in movies right from the beginning, (like star/director Mable Normand, pictured above), not to mention TV, radio, and stand up.  To give one of my personal favorite recent examples, Tina Fey gave a master class in comedy timing on the recently ended show 30 ROCK (which she also created), which was awarded with multiple Emmys and Golden Globes.  And yet the comments still often pop up, perhaps most notoriously in 1998 when actor/director Jerry Lewis emptied an entire theater during an interview in which he said "A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world."  Yikes.

Wait, we're letting this guy say who's funny?

As a child interested in comedy,  I remember enjoying Lily Tomlin's THIS IS A RECORDING  album as much as my Bill Cosby and Steve Martin albums, not to mention liking the many TV sit coms built around funny female characters.  Surely I wasn't unusual. So why is this still an issue?
Even if we accept the common sense notion that women can be just as funny as men, one simple fact does remain: there are more men trying to funny than women.  That is, a random list of stand up comedians will be about 60-70% male, and it's the same with comedy writers, producers, etc.  Again, why is that so?
One thing about a sense of humor, is that, like being athletic, it's something that must be developed over time; comedians, it has been discovered, are almost always not first born children, and humor and charm are something they initially develop to steal away parental attention from their older siblings. (The great comic performer Steven Colbert is the youngest of a family of 11!)  And then the development of that humor often continues when they begin being interested in members of the opposite sex.  And that's where the difference really lies; talk to almost any male comedian, and they will say that they used their sense of humor to attract girls in high school and college.  As Fran Lebowitz put it  in the  2007 Vanity Fair WHY WOMEN AREN'T FUNNY by the late  Christopher Hitchins, "The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying that a woman is pretty."  That's really it in a nutshell; men are judged more by their intellect than women are, and being funny is a easy way to display that intellect to prospective girlfriends.  In survey after survey women list "having a good sense of humor" as more important in a possible mate than men do.  There's even an interesting exception that proves the rule, when you look at some of the best known female stand ups you see Lily Tomlin, Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O'Donnell, Paula Poundstone and Wanda Sykes,  who are all lesbians, and who, like heterosexual men, developed a sense of humor to attract women.  So the theory holds.

Wanda Sykes


And now to end this post with a personal note; when I was a young boy I often used humor to amuse my parents and I was obsessed with comedy albums, and I would often memorize  my favorite bits from Monty Python or Steve Martin and repeat them back to my friends.  In high school I definitely used humor as a way to get the attention of girls.  At around the age of 21 I started doing open mike nights in the San Francisco Bay Area; while I would never say that I was great, I did alright, with some pretty strong moments, and I eventually reached the level of open mike night host.  But then, after about three years of trying, almost over night I lost my confidence onstage.  In fact, all of my more masculine personality traits, like self esteem and aggression, were clearly diminishing.  (And in my case those traits were never particularly pronounced in the first place).  I stop doing comedy because I just didn't feel that I could hack it anymore; while I still liked to joke around, continuing on stage seemed far too difficult for me. Years later I discovered that I have a benign tumor that formed around the time I stopped doing comedy, and which reduced my testosterone production to about half of that of a normal man.  This would probably explain why after stand up  I wound up working in traditionally feminine jobs like day care worker and nanny.  (I'll let you decide whether or not going from comedian to nanny was a lateral move or not).  So, while I certainly think that women can be just as funny as men, in my case, becoming less masculine led to me being less confident in my  ability to be funny, and therefore masculine confidence may play a factor in this issue.  It did for me.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

WHY NO FEMALE PRESIDENT YET?

Julia Gillard


Earlier this month the New York Times ran an editorial on Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia; sadly, the latter part of her reign resulted in many blatantly misogynistic attacks on her by political enemies, and when she tried to call these attacks out, she was accused of igniting gender wars by the press (not unlike what conservative commentators said about President Obama when he publicly commented on the Trevon Martin case).  While it's a shame this woman had to suffer through such hostility (how bad did it get?  according to the Times, a local menu offered "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail — small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.”),   on the other hand, at least she was able to pave the way for other women, as she herself put it, “What I am absolutely confident of is that it will be easier for the next woman and for the woman after that and the woman after that, and I’m proud of that.”  (On a side note, I'd also like to point out that Gillard is a childless, unmarried atheist, which means, woman or not, she wouldn't get be able to get  anywhere near the White House in America!).

There are currently 82 women in the US House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate, the highest numbers ever for women in congress.  But as a percentage of women in elected national office, that  number makes  only around 19%, putting America at a measly 70th. when compared with the rest of the world when it comes to female representation in national elected office.



And then there's the presidency, again, compared to other industrialized countries, the US lags behind, and even many third world countries like India and Nicaragua  have elected women as presidents or prime ministers.  The US has had only two serious female candidates for the office of Vice president in its history: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, both of whom, of course, lost.  And then there's Hillary Clinton, who came close to beating Barak Obama in the Democratic primary in 2008; it looks like she will run in 2016, and if she does, she very well may break the hold that men have had on the White House.
But why does that hold exist?  Why has no woman ever served as President in this country?  Is there something unique about America that causes it to reject the notion of a female president?  I think so: first, there's the issue of religion.  I've already mentioned before that America is the most religious first world country, but it's not just that, it's also the country where religious fundamentalism is at its most powerful. Evangelical Christians make up around 25% of the country's population, but they hold majorities in some states, and groups like The Christian Coalition and The Family Research Council still have a strong influence on the Republican party, especially in the South.  So we have people who believe in the inerrant word of the bible influencing politics in this country, and as anybody who has read it knows, the bible is chock full of misogyny; whether its authors were ancient shepherds or God almighty, one thing is for sure, the book is a product of its time, and that was a time when women were second class citizens at best.  
The sexism of the bible begins in the very first story, with Eve biting the forbidden apple first, and being cursed by God thusly (Genesis 3:16) "In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."  This continues in other parts of the bible, such as (I Timothy 2:12) "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man." And (Ephesians 5:22) "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord."  In a modern interpretation of the bible, televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson said in 1992 "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women...It is about a Socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy Capitalism and become lesbians" (!).  Laugh all you want at Robinson's absurdly over the top statement, but remember that this is a man who has sat with Presidents and influenced elections in this country.


Nobodies don't wind up on this cover

Therefore, it would not be out of line to say that the sexism found in the bible has had a negative effect on the support for a female President in this country.  But there is another important issue: after World War II, while Europe went about rebuilding its bombed out cities, America, which had faced no attacks on its home front,  became the logical country to stand up to the growing threat of Communism in the USSR  and other countries.  This led to the massive US military build up of the cold war; when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the late 1980's, America became the world's largest military power.  Today, the country's defense spending is still the highest in the world, and at around $680,000,000 a year,  it more than doubles second place China.  So America's armed forces are the world's largest by far, and remember that the President is constitutionally ranked as the "Commander  in Chief"  of those armed forces.  And let's face it, a female candidate is going to be considered by many voters as  less likely to be an effective commander than a male candidate.  In other countries, with smaller militaries, this isn't as much of an issue, but in the last remaining super power, it inevitably is.  Although history has given us female leaders who have used their militaries (like English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invading the Falklands Islands in 1982), I think the stereotype of the "weak" woman still exists.

Hillary Clinton definitely seems aware of this, which may lead to her victory in 2016.  When she was serving in the Senate under President George W Bush, she voted in favor of the Iraq war, knowing that if the war was a success, her vote against it would be seen as a sign of weakness down the road (ironically, that vote came back to haunt her, and may be the main reason why she isn't President right now).  In another telling moment during the primary campaign with Obama, she was asked what she would do if Iran ever attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, and she replied, "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them. That's a terrible thing to say but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic."  The fact that she used the harsh term "obliterate" was no mistake; she knew that she needed to look tough.  Not that this will definitely work; with Clinton  we are sure to see coded (and not so coded) sexist comments from conservative pundits attacking her as being too weak to properly defend the country.  Conservatives have always attacked Democratic candidates as not being strong enough, and having a Democratic female candidate will be an irresistible target for the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world.  
Whether those attacks prove to be effective remains to be seen. One thing is for sure,  as religion becomes less of an issue in this country, and the cold war (and even the war on terror) becoming more of a memory, the two hurdles facing a female Presidential candidate I mentioned above are becoming less potent than they once were, and America will have a female President sometime in the near future. And more than likely, whether good or bad, Republican or Democrat, the rest of the world will be saying one thing: "It's about time."