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.

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.