Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Binary Thinking

by Edd Doerr

"So, Governor, are you afraid you're going to hell?" columnist Maureen Dowd asked Gov Andrew Cuomo (tongue in cheek) after he signed into law New York's same-sex marriage law that Catholic church officials and fundamentalists had fought tooth and nail (NY Times, 6/29/11).

This gives me a chance to ruminate on the subject of binary (i.e. two-valued, either/or, black/white) thinking. The real world is far more complicated than is allowed for in some freethinkers' "god-believer" dumb/ "god-unbeliever" smart or "bright" binary thinking.

Examples: I have conversed with a few "humanists" who see nothing wrong with government forcing all taxpayers to support discriminatory religious private schools and who agree with the Vatican and fundamentalist view that embryos are "persons" and that women should be forced by government to carry problem pregnancies to term. I know of humanists and freethinkers whose narrow vision has actually worked to defeat humanism. On the other hand, I have worked with Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians and others who for all practical purposes are pretty much humanists in all but name. For years I had a colleague who was a minister and biblical literalist but as strong a champion of church-state separation as I have ever known. For 30 years I represented the AHA on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (which AHA helped found) and found it to be as progressive as any humanist organization could be.

General Semantics founder Alfred Korzybski, in his seminal 1930s book Science and Sanity, made the case against binary (two-valued, either/or, black/white) thinking. As he put it, "The map is not the territory". Or as I would put it, the label tells you very little about the content.

No two individuals are exactly alike. The real world is complex beyond comprehension. Some people use the word "God" to refer to "creativity" or the sum total of natural law. I find that the word gets in the way of clear thinking too often and rarely use it in any sense. And in the realm of politics I am not bothered by a politician's religious label. I am interested only in what he or she stands for in the real world what he or she actually does and how they do it.

In our current political and social crises we cannot fall into the error of allowing binary thinking to influence our actions. I say this as a thorough-going Manifesto II sort of humanist who recognizes that humanism embraces far more people that just members of humanist organizations, Ethical Societies, Unitarian churches and Humanistic Jewish congregations. Moving away from binary thinking would help us grow.

Watch The Ledge, a movie

Matthew Chapman, the great great grandson of Charles Darwin has come out with his latest movie The Ledge. It is fight between an atheist and an evangelical christian. It is possible to watch it by downloading it from itunes or video.
I met Mr Matthew Chapman in the Atheist alliance conference held in Washington DC in 2007. Ms Margaret Downey organised the meeting.
I had my conversation with Mr Chapman who told me about his experiences.  His book Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir is a must to read.  Mr. Chapman lives in New York city.
The current issue of The Skeptic magazine gave some details about the movie Ledge. It is possible to see some itunes previews at:
He founded website SCIENCE DEBATE 2008.
Innaiah Narisetti

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

WaPo & Vouchers

by Edd Doerr

On June 28, for the umpteenth time in the last couple of years, the Washington Post ran another editorial touting the school voucher plan foisted on the District of Columbia by George W. Bush and a Republican congress a decade ago, the plan, you know, that forces all taxpayers in the US to contribute involuntarily to the support of religious private schools in the District. The Post seems to have forgotten where it stood on this in its March 3. 1971, editorial:

"Americans have every right, of course, to seek for their children a religiously oriented education and to send their children to private schools which provide the sort of religious orientation they want. But they have no more right to ask the general public to pay for such schools -- and for the religious instruction they provide -- than to ask the general public to pay for the churches in which, happily, they are free to gather for prayer and for worship as they please."

The Post was right in 1971 and wrong now. The Post's editors seem to have forgotten that DC voters in 1981 rejected a similar voucher plan by the superlandslide margin of 89% to 11%; that DC's elected congressional delegate has opposed vouchers; that tens of millions of voters from coast to coast have rejected vouchers or their variants by an average margin of two to one in over two dozen statewide referenda; that vouchers are essentially a Republican device to undermine public education and teacher unions, and to cater to the religious right; that widespread imposition of vouchers or tax-code vouchers would inevitably fragment our school population along religious, ideological, class, ethnic and other lines while wrecking the teaching profession and undermining the teaching of science and civics; that widespread implementation of voucher plans would drive up educational costs and further clog our streets with large yellow gas guzzlers.

Vouchers are a growing political problem -- in Congress, in states where GOP governors and legislatures are pushing vouchers (Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Arizona, etc), and in the upcoming election races.

Readers MUST become active in opposing vouchers. Write your members of Congress. Write the Washington Post and urge it to return to its 1971 position. Write letters to editors and post comments on blogs. Support organizations that fight to save public education and church-state separation (such as Americans for Religious Liberty, ACLU, PFAW, etc.)

(FYI, the 1971 Post quote is from the book Great Quotations on Religious Freedom, edited by Al Menendez and myself, and available from me for $10 at Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Gay marriage, miscegenation, and the 11th Commandment

by Luis Granados

The New York Legislature has just approved a bill permitting same-sex marriage in the nation’s third most populous state. The hold-up for the past week was a debate over what is called the “religious exemptions,” granting special rights to people who, for ostensibly religious reasons, object to same-sex marriage. For example, will the Knights of Columbus be required to open its halls for same-sex weddings? Will Catholic adoption agencies be allowed to refuse to place children with same-sex married couples? Can a Muslim caterer or chauffeur lawfully refuse to serve a same-sex wedding?

The religious exemption push is a ploy for elevating God experts above the laws that apply to the rest of us. Suppose, for example, that a non-believer declines to photograph a same-sex wedding not for any religious reasons, but just because he finds the whole idea offensive – that “guys kissing guys” is really gross. Nothing in any of the proposed exemptions would cover that. But if it’s God telling him to stay away, that’s different.

The exemption finally adopted by the legislature Friday night does not go as far as the God experts wanted. It covers only religious organizations and clergy, not just individuals claiming religious belief. “Religious organizations,” though, covers a lot more than churches, including any affiliated group like the Knights of Columbus. Ordinary caterers and photographers are not exempted. It shouldn’t be a demanding legal challenge, though, for haters to affiliate themselves with some sort of church organization so they can thumb their nose at the law as well.

The new exemption for religious organizations covers a lot more than same sex marriage. “Nothing in this article shall limit …[any such religious organization] from taking such action as is calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.” I’m not a New York lawyer, but it looks to me like this guarantees the right of religious adoption agencies to refuse to serve legitimately married New York couples of whom they disapprove, such as couples belonging to the same sex.

What’s more, this new religious exemption is in no way limited to same sex marriage. It allows these organizations, most of which are tax exempt, to discriminate against anyone, at any time, for any reason that they allege will promote their religious principles. Historically, God-based discrimination in matters of marriage and family has centered far more on race than on sexual preference, so the legal door is now open to roll back 60 years of racial progress.

God’s disdain for sexual race-mixing goes all the way back to the Old Testament, which was as clear as it could be on the question of Jews marrying non-Jews: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.” When Ezra returned to Jerusalem from Babylon he was shocked:
For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished.

God experts in the New World relied on these passages and others to persuade civil authorities to pass laws against miscegenation as early as 1660. Eventually, thirty different states banned interracial marriage. Six of them put the ban in their state constitutions; Mississippi made mixed-race marriage a felony punishable by life imprisonment. Just as with same-sex marriage today, the opposition to mixed-race marriage was overwhelmingly cast in religious terms – it had to be, because common-sense arguments were so unpersuasive. For example, Richmond’s Christian Herald explained in 1877 that “God has made the two races widely different not only in complexion, but in their instincts and social qualities. We take it for granted it was not the purpose of the Creator that they should be blended. Nature abhors the union.”

William M. Brown, bishop of the Episcopal Church of Arkansas warned that if the black race were “absorbed” and the white race “ruined as a result of intermarriage,” then
God’s plan in the creation of the two races, so far as America is concerned, would be defeated. … Inasmuch as God made yellow, black and white people, instead of only black or yellow, or white when He could have made all any one of these colors, it must be concluded that He had some great purpose to accomplish in doing so. Hence, the amalgamation of the races, or the aping of one by the other, must be wrong because it thwarts God’s plan.

In 1930, Senator Thomas Heflin used the Senate floor to propound God’s views on the marriage of a black man and white woman in New York City, which took place the previous fall:
God had a purpose in making four separate and distinct races. The white, the red, the yellow, and the black. God intended that each of the four races should preserve its blood free from mixture with other races and preserve race integrity and prove itself true to the purpose that God had in mind for each of them when He brought them into being. The great white race is the climax and crowning glory of God’s creation. … The fact that the Roman Catholic Church permits negroes and whites to belong to the same Catholic Church and to go to the same Catholic schools and permits and sanctions the marriage between whites and negroes in the United States is largely responsible for the loose, dangerous, and sickening conditions that exist in New York City and State today.

Even former President Harry Truman told a reporter in 1963 that mixed-race marriage “ran counter to the teachings of the Bible,” while evangelist Jerry Falwell warned that miscegenation would "destroy our [white] race eventually."

A unanimous Supreme Court invalidated state laws against miscegenation in 1967, but it has taken a while to remove those laws from the statute books. When a referendum was held in 2000 to do so in Alabama, our second most religious state, over 40% of the electorate voted “No.” Those who have studied the data conclude that white voters split almost 50-50 on the question.

Then there are the Mormons, who teach that people are born non-white because their souls committed grievous sins back during their pre-birth period. According to the refreshingly blunt Brigham Young: “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” Mormon children learned from their “Juvenile Instructor” manual that “In fact we believe it to be a great sin in the eyes of our Heavenly Father for a white person to marry a black one. And further, that it is a proof of the mercy of God that no such race appear able to continue for many generations.” The Mormons have allowed miscegenation since receiving a new revelation from one of their Gods in 1978. It’s interesting, though, that a certain presidential candidate chose to spend two years of his life as a missionary spreading the Mormon race message a decade before this change was made.

I’m not complaining about the New York legislators. The majority swallowed a distasteful compromise to achieve a greater goal, proving that the profoundly humanist ideal of democracy can actually work, at least in fits and starts. But once again, the 11th Commandment prevails: Rules are for schmucks. God experts do what they want.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Michele Bachmann

by Edd Doerr

Now that Newt Gingrich has torpedoes himself and Mitch Daniels has chickened out, we need to closely watch Michele Bachmann in her run for the GOP/Tea Party nomination.

Bachmann is a fundamentalist zealot. She got her law degree from Oral Roberts University's law school, which promoted "the law from a biblical worldview." That law school is now part of Pat Robertson's Regent University, described by journalist Matt Taibbi as an "educational outhouse" where 60% of the grads fail the bar exam and that ranks 136th nationally, but produced a flood of entrants to the Bush Justice Dept.

Bachmann, who home-schooled her own kids, got involved in 1993 with a charter school in Stillwater, MN, and helped steer the publicly funded school into being very religious. Parent complaints led to state and local officials threatening to take away the school's charter and Bachmann soon left the board.

In the late 1990s she ran as a Republican in a nonpartisan school board election and tried to make abortion a school board issue.She lost, but the next year she defeated a Republican incumbent for a seat in the MN senate. Her political career was off and running.

A key plank in her platform now is to cancel out women's reproductive rights.

{Info for this comment cames from the 6/22/11 NY Times, the 6/23/11 LA Times, and 6/22/11 Rolling Stone.]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Death Spiral or Something Else?

Since the 2010 elections, the country has watched as the Republican Party - egged on by the Tea party - has apparently gone insane. While the election campaigns focused on jobs, the Republicans have forsaken that mantra in favor of, well, just about anything BUT jobs.

From the anti-union legislation in Wisconsin that kept us entranced for weeks to the Florida governor's enactment of legislation to enrich his wife's drug testing company to the plethora of anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive, anti-woman and anti-child legislation all the way to the disastrous budget bill outlining Republican plans to end Medicare, is there a hot button social conservative issue they've missed? I mean, do we really want to make having a miscarriage a felony?

An interesting web site, Seeds for Thought, has brought together some of the more insane bills being worked on at the State level:

I've watched this insanity on at least a weekly basis, and sometimes nightly, on Rachael Maddow's show. She is often gleeful at the misadventures of the right wing's current crop of Presidential hopefuls, but just as often seems just puzzled at the wide spread over reach of the Republicans on a national basis, as if they've all drunk some kind of insanity drug or something.

It helps sometimes, to step back and get out of the weeds and look at the bigger picture.

Just imagine for a moment that you were a stinking rich liberal with no public awareness of your political leanings, and you wanted to end the political power of the right wing. You figured out a way to use your money to obtain entre' into the upper reaches of the Republicans and were able to gain a measure of power over the actions of those at the top of the party.

Now, you are making a list. A checklist of actions that would result in the destruction of the Republican party by alienating every constituency in the country except the most hard core right wing. What kind of stuff would you put on that list?

Anti-abortion legislation? Anti-union legislation? Suggesting the end of Social Security?

I think if there is such a list, they've managed to hit about 80% of it so far this year alone. But why? It has been a well known formula for years that in order to win the Presidential elections, one has to win your party nomination by winning over your base, and then you've got to move to the center to win over the centrists and independent voters to add their numbers to your own party. Neither party has the numbers to elect their own nominee outright, so this has long been the recipe for winning the White House.

One doesn't win over the center by alienating them at the beginning. Campaigning is one thing, enacting legislation that proves your campaign promises are lies even before the campaign begins is completely another! I think just about the only subject they've missed so far is immigration, but they seem to be gearing up to hit that one, too.

Again, why? What do they have to win? How can they possibly win after enacting legislation that not only alienates almost half the electorate (women), another larger part (old folks), and a growing group (non-whites) that threatens to grow into the largest voting block in the country?

Add to that the suction of the Tea Party that has drawn off the craziest right wing of the party plus the Republicans' own tendency to eliminate the moderate wing by throwing out the likes of Meagan McCain and Colin Powell, and it seems that the GOP is headed down a road of complete self annihilation!

I wish I knew. Who gains if the Republicans do self destruct? Are people like the Koch Brothers really so insane and politically blind that they cannot see how this current trend is likely to end? How about the Republican slate of Presidential contenders? Are they that blind, too? Are men like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich not able to see how out of touch with the American mainstream their party has become? Is their right wing world so self contained that they really can't read the polls?

I don't think so. These people can't be so stupid, can they? I mean, Mitt Romney is wealthy, and one doesn't get and/or keep that kind of wealth by being stupid. Do they? I'd like to think that they really are that dumb, but something just doesn't ring true. There has to be another explanation for it. Smart, successful people don't just go off the deep end suddenly and begin doing stuff that is so destructive to their party interests, especially not in job lots.

This isn't just a few people at the top. This is ALL OVER THE COUNTRY! State legislatures, governors, just about everywhere that the Republicans have gained control of the reins of power without Democrats to slow them down. So, is it the true character of the Republican Party to do these things? If so, how have they kept that a secret for years if not decades? Plenty of Republicans have changed sides, and someone was bound to talk sometime, so that seems unlikely.

So who gains? Is there a small cabal of wealthy corporatists ready to move in after some measure of national confusion after the very public spanking the Republicans are likely to get in 2012? Is there some plan to destroy the right wing as a political force and substitute a more moderate party in its place?

I can't say. I'm not a political expert, I fix computers for a living. I can't imagine how this is going to play out, but when an entire political party goes stark raving mad, it can't be good.

Robert Ahrens

Who Needs Morals, Anyway?

The most-often-asked question when debating morality with theists is, "but where do you get your morals?" Of course, if the theist says "I get my morality from the Vedas/Quran/Bible/Dianetics", that doesn't help, since it just raises the question that Matt Dillahunty posed at his debate at UMBC: let's say some being comes along and says, "I am a god. Here's a book with my moral system", then so what? How do we decide whether the system in the book is any good?

I thought I'd step back for a moment and ask, what if there were no morals?

Maybe there are no rules, or no one to give them. Maybe there are rules, but nobody knows them. Maybe the rules are known, but they're ignored, and there is no mechanism for enforcing them, not even a twinge of guilt. What then?

I don't think anyone has any trouble imagining this sort of world: theft and lying are rampant, people will kill each over a can of beans and not feel remorse. In fact, there wouldn't be any cans of beans, because the industry required to produce them couldn't exist without some kind of stable society and the ability to form long-term associations. A world where you're constantly looking over your shoulder, lest your own child stab you in the back.

Okay, so this vision may not be accurate. Maybe some combination of game theory and psychology can show that there might be amoral societies where life doesn't suck as much as what I described.

But I think it's safe to say that the vision of a world without morals that I described above, or the one that you imagined, represents our fear of what would happen without some sense of morality.

If you're with me so far, then presumably you'll agree that then morality is a way of avoiding certain Bad Things: living in fear, being killed or seeing your loved ones killed, and so on; and also of being able to get some Good Things: establishing trust, assuring some level of stability from day to day, and so forth.

We may not agree on anything. You might want to security cameras on every street corner, to make the risk of being robbed as small as possible, and I might feel that the feeling of not being watched all the time is worth the occasional mugging. But if we can agree in broad outline that certain outcomes (like being killed) are bad, others (like knowing where our next meal is coming from) are good, then morality reduces to an engineering problem.

That is, it's simply(!) a matter of figuring out what kind of world we want to live in, what rules will allow us to get along, and how to get there.

Obviously, this is a thorny problem. But nobody said this was going to be easy. Well, nobody who wasn't trying to sell you something. As is the case with every engineering project ever, not only are there conflicting requirements, but they change over time. Everyone wants to put their two cents in, and everyone thinks their personal pet cause is the most important one of all. Finding a solution requires political and diplomatic negotiation, and convincing people to give up something in order to strike a deal. It's enough to make your head spin.

But this strikes me as a huge problem, not an intractable one. We can tract this sucker. We have enough history behind us, and enough data collection methods, that we can see what works and what doesn't, which sorts of societies are worth living in and which aren't, and try to figure out how to get where we want.

Saying "I get my morals from an old book" is a lazy cop-out. It's the response of someone who doesn't want to look at the problem, let alone try to solve some part of it. And if you're not going to help, the least you can do is stay out of the way of those who are trying to fix things.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Framing Arguments: You say Flaming Atheists and I Say Non-Confrontational Humanist

By Gary Berg-Cross
The choice of vocabulary is central to favorably framing an issue. Framing things from one point of view can be like taking the high ground and letting others climb a hill to get close to a fair conversation. Recent examples include calling the health reform legislation Obamacare. It’s official, and more neutral name, is the Affordable Care Act. The “right to life" is a good example of older, glib positive phrasing for one side of a complex topic. It seizes the high ground of an issue by siding with life. Aren’t we all for life? It’s a conservative slogan that packages lots of assumptions into it and encourages a defensive, catch-up conversation by the other side. Indeed since there is usually more than one side to an issue, as I discuss in my Binary Thinking habit blog, one value of a frame is to create a false dichotomy that buries the idea of shades of grey and nuance to an issue.
Being shoved around by a neat framing vocabulary makes it pretty easy to get into an argument. We can disagree just based on how we label things. Labeling one side of issue in a negative way often produces such misunderstandings and disagreements. It evokes negative connotations. Some call this a dog whistle to a group that hangs on emotional phrases. I saw what I thought was an example of this in the recent blog discussion of education where I was surprised to read the phrase “government education”. This labeled what I usually think of as “public education”. To conservatives calling it “government education” dog whistles in Milton Friedman-like overtones of government control, intrusion, carelessness and inefficiency (as observed in my blog contrast Scientific and Political Culture in the Capital views of life inside the Beltway).
It’s pretty hard to avoid running into frozen frames in most conversations and they abound in debate since they are powerful weapons to seize audience attention. One of the powerful ones is attaching the adjective “flaming” to a person. It seizes the attention and in today’s social network we run into that term and to real instances of flaming rhetoric. The old exemplar use of the phrase probably comes from calling someone a flaming a-hole. Not a complement. Some might use it in pejorative way as in discussing a topic and requesting that no flaming Xes (pick a category) participate. They say that flaming Xes just aren’t nice enough or tolerant of others beliefs. Flamers scorch up the conversation with put down phrases such as:
"obviously you don't know what your talking about....."

“You are both incredibly rude & incredibly misinformed, which is a deadly

Applying the adjective “flaming” to such rhetoric seems apt. But, back to semantics again, flames can have other, softer characterizations. Flaming could mean just TOO passionate, as in controlled by emotions rather than intellect. But it can be a judgment, since some arguments have both passion and reason.
I recently heard the term “flaming atheist” tossed about as a label. It’s simple enough to understand that the term used to characterize someone who is a passionate atheist. Indeed some atheist blogs use the term in this way. The Blog site thespitfiredragon's Flaming Atheist is an example. The fire dragon offers spirited but reasoned arguments which she explains this way:
“Logic and reason have led me to reject any and all belief in the supernatural, whether it's gods, devils, angels, demons, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, fairies or leprechauns. Since 2007, I have worked to discuss the fallacy of supernatural beliefs with as many people as possible in an attempt to ignite the fires of logic and reason in stymied religious minds in the hopes of making the world a better place for the coming generations.”
This is a flame I can live with, although I recognize that it is not impossible to imagine that there are some atheists whose emotions and conversational dynamics are vaster than their knowledge and thought. Atheists can be passionate about labels and what they mean too. I’m often in a discussion where different ideas and labels come up and someone says, “Well that’s just a question of semantics.” If semantics is about what things mean then that’s not just a simple thing of being bogged down in a word like say “tom-ato” vs “to-mato”. It is central to understanding what one is really talking about. What I think most people mean by the “only semantics” statement is that people are focusing on some framed vocabulary that is getting in the way of mutual understanding. This is even true when the atheist-secular humanist community talks about proper labels. What do we call ourselves? Is atheist best? Is it inclusive? How about skeptics, brights or freethinkers? Are they included in a broad term like atheist? What’s the best term or label? Any term may quite different things to different people. To some atheism means Militant atheism which implies an action oriented anti-theism. This means not only being philosophically opposed to theism, but actively working to end it.
We may use atheist as a means of distinguishing passionate belief from a "weaker spirited” freethinker, an agnostic or perhaps a secular humanist. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins formulated a 7-point belief scale that formalizes some of these ideas so that there is less confusion. The scale goes from:
1 Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists, to
7 Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.
In between (2-6) are people who feel they cannot be certain, are very uncertain about God or non-God; with a 4 being a Pure Agnostic - God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
I like the scale, but I’ve known some strong atheists who feel this scale is foolish. To them agnostics are wimpy, afraid of a fight and not willing to peruse an argument with the ultimate truth as an objective. To others flaming atheists are too certain. For still others it is more logical thing to be is skeptical, since you can prove or disprove every idea that comes up. To them it is wrong to choose a side if not enough evidence is presented and not enough proven.
To me it is very interesting to have conversations with people along the scale particularly 3s-7s. Some passionate religious folks (1s) prefer to have a conversation with a polite ardent atheist (7) than someone who is agnostic at a 5 or 6. They say that it’s just easier to dialogue about religious matters since they both know where they stand. But to me I hear more of 2 framed vocabularies passing in the night with little real interaction. I prefer conversations where there’s a good chance that the group will come out knowing and thinking about more than when we started. This often means that we have come to appreciate honest differences of vocabulary and the model behind it. But that’s just the intelligence I expect in a secular humanist community, or whatever term you prefer.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

School Vouchers & "Capacity"

by Edd Doerr

Is there a "capacity issue" if school voucher and/or tuition tax credit programs expand, as many Republican governors and legislators intend? Will finding "physical space" for voucher schools be a problem? These questions were asked in an article in the June 15 issue of Education Week. And the answer to both questions is not only a loud, resonating NO but an emphatic HELL NO.

And why, you might ask, is that? Simply this two part response. The decline in Catholic school enrollment from 5.5 million students in 1965 to about two million today means that there is classroom space for a huge number of voucher schools. And, as the growth in nonpublic school enrollment in recent years has been largely in conservative Protestant schools, please note that there are literally tens of thousands of religious education facilities in conservative churches nationwide used only on Sunday mornings that could easily and inexpensively be adapted for full time use as classrooms for millions of K-12 students in voucher programs.

Make no mistake, if the public funds spigot is opened wide for vouchers and tax credits (i.e. tax code vouchers), churches will be utilized to the maximum for new private schools, schools that will inevitably be filled with kids sorted primarily by religious identification and secondarily by ideology, ethnicity, and degree of special need. When and if this happens, public education will shrink to serving mainly the poor and disadvantaged, the teaching profession will degenerate to s shadow of its former status, teachers will be sorted by religious orientation, and education in America will sink to something worse than mere mediocrity.

Since over 80% of nonpublic school enrollment is in faith-based schools, the voucherization of education will mean that nearly all of the kids in these schools will be subjected to systematic indoctrination inimical to women's rights and denied access to the kind of comprehensive sexuality education that lowers teen pregnancy rates. The kids in the conservative Protestant (i.e. fundamentalist) schools will get indoctrinated in the areas of science, history and literature with the ideas pushed by pseudohistorian David Barton and the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Tim and Beverly LaHaye.

If you think I exaggerate, read Albert Menendez' book Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Prometheus Books, and available from me at Box 6656, Silver Spring, MD 20916 for $8) or Frances R.A. Paterson's book Democracy and Intolerance: Christian School Curricula, School Choice, and Public Policy (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation).

If you are not scared, you should be.

The Hitler Letter – Part 2

by Luis Granados

Germany's Zionists welcomed HItler's ascent to power as a way to combat assimilation
Hitler’s 1919 letter urging “removal” of Jews from Germany, an original copy of which was unveiled last week by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, launched his rise to political prominence in Germany. His progress was monitored nervously by Jews, labor unions, and lovers of freedom throughout the West. When he won the chancellorship in 1933, movements were launched in the United States and elsewhere for a boycott of German goods. The idea was to mobilize international pressure either to soften his threatened actions or to force him from power – exactly as international boycotts helped crush South African apartheid 50 years later.

Not everyone supported the boycott, though. In fact, many Zionist Jews not only actively opposed it, but welcomed Hitler’s victory, because it would accelerate the removal of Jews from Germany to Palestine – and teach them a lesson. The Zionist newspaper Hapoel Hatsair described Nazi persecution of the Jews as God’s “punishment” for having tried to integrate into German society instead of leaving for Palestine while it was still possible to do so.

The Zionist Federation of Germany welcomed the new Führer with a warm address:
Zionism recognized decades ago that as a result of the assimilationist trend, symptoms of deterioration were bound to appear, which it seeks to overcome by carrying out its challenge to transform Jewish life completely … Zionism believes that a rebirth of national life, such as is occurring in German life through adhesion to Christian and national values, must also take place in the Jewish national group. For the Jew, too, origin, religion, community of fate and group consciousness must be of decisive significance in the shaping of his life.

In Palestine, the Zionist labor magazine Davar affirmed that:
However, even if we suppose a return to the status existing before the Hitler revolution to be within the realm of political possibility, even then the Jewish democrat, liberal, socialist, assimilationist may perhaps be satisfied with his reinstatement in equal rights, but a Zionist cannot rest content with this, since he has a special conception, since this is not the ideal of Zionism nor the altar for its sacrifices. … Now we have a new goal and no longer content ourselves with “arousing world opinion.” Our ideal is not the obtaining of rights, citizenship rights or minority rights, for the Jews of Germany, but the obtaining of a Palestine visa for them, in addition to all that is necessary for such a visa so that it, too, may not become a mere scrap of paper.

In the ultimate “politics makes strange bedfellows” arrangement, Zionists actively collaborated with Germany’s Nazis, developing a scheme called “haavara” to facilitate legal movement of German Jews and a portion of their capital to Palestine despite restrictions on currency transfer, by selling German manufactured goods in Palestine. Haavara neatly undercut the international boycott by opening new markets for Nazi products. Once goods entered Palestine, it was then a trivial matter to resell them elsewhere; one pro-boycott Jew disgustedly described Palestine as “the official scab-agent against the boycott in the Near-East.” Businessmen fought over who would have the rights to skim profits from all the money movement; the winning firm was represented in Berlin by future Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.

From 1933 through the early years of World War II, the Hitler regime favored and actively promoted Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine. Hitler cynically remarked that he’d be delighted to see the Jews leave “on luxury ships.” At one point, the Nazis even despatched future Final Solution organizer Adolf Eichmann on a mission to Palestine, to work out loose ends of the haavara scheme. Eichmann was impressed; he wrote that “Had I been a Jew, I would have been a fanatical Zionist. I could not imagine being anything else. In fact, I would have been the most ardent Zionist imaginable.” Propaganda minister Goebbels had a medal struck to celebrate the collaboration: on one side a swastika, on the other a Zionist star.

In 1938, President Roosevelt convened a meeting of the Western nations at Evian, France, to promote alternatives for Jews wishing to escape Hitler’s oppression. Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion was deeply concerned, telling his colleagues that he did “not know if the conference will open the gates of other countries … But I am afraid [it] might cause tremendous harm to Eretz Israel and Zionism. … Our main task is to reduce the harm, the danger and the disaster … and the more we emphasize the terrible distress of the Jewish masses in Germany, Poland and Rumania, the more damage we shall cause.” With no public pressure from the people it was trying to help, the conference produced few concrete results, other than an easing of red tape for German Jewish emigration to the United States and an offer from the Dominican Republic to take in 100,000 refugees – which the Zionists never seriously pursued.

Shortly after Evian, the Kristallnacht pogroms exploded across Germany; Ben-Gurion worried that “the human conscience” might induce more countries to open their doors further to Jewish refugees from Germany. He saw this as a threat and warned: “Zionism is in danger!” While the Holocaust raged, Ben-Gurion wrote that “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second – because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.” He later blocked plans to transfer thousands of child Holocaust survivors in frail health from wretched camps for displaced persons to safe havens elsewhere in Europe, for fear that such resettlement “might weaken the struggle for free immigration of Jewish refugees to Palestine.” Even the Final Solution had not altered his view from the time that Zionists opposed the boycott in the early 1930s: “The Zionist role is not to rescue the survivors in Europe, but to rescue Eretz Israel for the Jewish people.”

Despite Ben-Gurion’s intensive efforts, though, far more Jews who escaped Germany in the 1930s chose to live in the Americas rather than in Palestine. According to some Zionists, that’s because they were bad Jews. “There is something positive in their tragedy,” Menahem Ussishkin said at a meeting of the Zionist executive, “and that is that Hitler oppressed them as a race and not as a religion. Had he done the latter, half the Jews in Germany would simply have converted to Christianity.”

Zionists not only talked the talk; some of them tried to walk the walk. In 1941, the Zionist “National Military Organization,” whose leadership included future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, delivered an astonishing offer to German diplomats in Vichy France:
It is often stated in the speeches and utterances of the leading statesmen of National Socialist Germany that a prerequisite of the New Order in Europe requires the radical solution of the Jewish question through evacuation (“Jew-free Europe”). The evacuation of the Jewish masses from Europe is a precondition for solving the Jewish question; but this can only be made possible and complete through the settlement of these masses in the home of the Jewish people, Palestine, and through the establishment of a Jewish state in its historic boundaries. … The establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East. …

Proceeding from these considerations, the NMO in Palestine, under the condition the above-mentioned national aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognized on the side of the German Reich, offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side. This offer by the NMO, covering activity in the military, political and information fields, in Palestine and, according to our determined preparations, outside Palestine, would be connected to the military training and organizing of Jewish manpower in Europe, under the leadership and command of the NMO. These military units would take part in the fight to conquer Palestine, should such a front be decided upon. … The cooperation of the Israeli freedom movement would also be along the lines of one of the last speeches of the German Reich Chancellor, in which Herr Hitler emphasized that he would utilize every combination and coalition in order to isolate and defeat England.

The Nazis never replied. The founder of the NMO, Avraham Stern, was honored by an Israeli commemorative postage stamp in 1978.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Humans created all time myths and beliefs to which they succum

1.God ( also  Goddess)
    Margin has to be given to ancient, medieval and modern gods
2. Soul
    The key to reincarnation, rebirth, hell and heaven
3. Prayer
    Make belief which is like long distance call where there is none on the other side.
4. Priest
    Social menace who eats the vitality of communities and abuse brains from childhood onwords.Root cause of all evils including terrorism.
All human rights and values are hindered by religions.
Innaiah Narisetti

Friday, June 17, 2011

Words, Things and Simplifying Explanations like Free Will

By Gary Berg-Cross
Language is a wonderful, adaptive, social tool. We use it to communicate to others, and thus it has evolved in part to serve social purposes. Putting a name to things helps bring some simplification to complex phenomena. But words can also be Procrustean beds that dice up real, roundish objects to fit into our square conceptual holes. For example, we can say that that a clock is happy or in pain, but to our best knowledge these are social rectifications of some concept that may not correspond to reality. They are borrowed from our social realm and used to explain things there. To some degree they reflect the fact we thinking and linguistically express things anthropomorphically as objects. We see and name the world in terms that make sense to us.Science is a discipline sitting on top of our social world with a specialized language. But the Sciences are also social so Scientists create causal hypothetical concepts such as the Ether or phlogiston to explain things.  If these fail to be validated by observation they come to be seen as artificial creations. 

Philosophy probably has had an equal number of word creations if not more. Among them are concepts like consciousness, self, spirit, will and free will. Is there a reality to them? Some like spirit, that have been pulled into religion and laden down with dogma, no longer seem viable as causal philosophical concepts. Others like consciousness seem fair game for a joint cognitive science-philosophy effort.
The Free-Will versus Determinism argument has been raging for quite a while and very now and then every now and then some thinker takes a whack at it. This usually stirs the pot anew. Philosophers with a good grounding in modern science have provided some new perspective on the topic using neuroscience and an evolutionary perspective. For example Daniel Dennett’s in his Consciousness Explained (1991) approached the issue something like an update to David Hume’s ideas in the light of our neo-synthesis of Darwin's theory of evolution. Dennett calls the idea that we live in the here and now, moving steadily into the future an illusion. Instead cognitive "real time" is a spider web process of zigzagging through memories as we assess our progress on goals, hopes, plans and regrets! Indeed,in his view the Self like Consciousness is a type of internal reification. It is a constructed web of tales spun by us to make sense of experience. To Dennett our human consciousness, along with our narrative self-hood, is a product of experience not their source. This makes sense for several reasons including the fact that as children are learning language they see others as objects and so it is easy to identify oneself as a similar object. This concept of a conscious self serves a role of a unified agent who we can speak about in simple words. During this period we may pick up a term like "soul" and make a simple connection to a concrete concept so that the term comes becomes part of an unverified system of belief.
More recently Dennett took on the issue of whether there can be freedom and free will in a deterministic world in his Freedom Evolves. Surprisingly he frames his conclusion in the other direction considering the idea that as cognitive agents we can avoid some things we foresee. Our ability to understand some things mitigates the idea of inevitability.  
"Some things we can avoid. We are free to avoid some things such as ducking to avoid a tree branch. Very useful, but it doesn’t work so easily with a Tsunami. So some parts of the future is inevitable and others not within a deterministic world. So some concept of freedom is not an illusion but an adaptive, objective phenomenon that is distinct from other biological conditions and found in only humans through evolution. We are less instinctual, automated creatures and can even chose to be non-adaptive to prove a point."

See for Dilbert's view on Free Will.

Even more recently Sam Harris has had a go at the issue in his The Moral Landscape (pp. 102-110), which has further stirred the pot. To Harris, unlike Dennett, the problem with free will is that no account of causality leaves room for it. All our internal life of thoughts, moods, and emotions effect of us in ways that are: “from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable.”
Harris asks why he might have used the term “inscrutable” in the above sentence and answers for us that he has no idea. It is not clear that he was free or constrained to do this and even the meaning of the claim is inscrutable or opaque. 
Harris’ stance mixes philosophy and cognitive-neuroscience observing that only a small fraction of momentary information that our brains process becomes conscious. This requires attention which we have in small amount. You can actually experience how limited this is in the selective attention video on YouTube. 
The essential message is that human evolution has given us a cognitive system that allows us to note only important changes in our environment. It has not produced an all knowing or even totally rational system. We use simplifying models to helps us make sense of a complex world. While we are aware of some our inner life of thoughts and emotions, we are personally unaware of the neural events that produce these changes. Thus we generate models of the world of ourselves and of other people explain why things happen. These such as concepts of a unified self are simplifications, but pretty good ones to start with. It’s just that Science has moved us along and is helping us un-muddle the words used for concepts that are not simple “things” but processes.
Perhaps somewhere between Dennett and Harris’ views is Schopenhauer's summary statement pushing the issue a bit farther back to cognitive primitives:
'Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot want what he wants'.
It seems to capture an important aspect of the argument.

Scientific and Political Culture in the Capital

By Gary Berg-Cross

Talking about the culture that exists inside the DC area Beltway sometimes evokes pretty negative responses and with good reason. The culture of modern national politics is less the art of the possible than of endless, silly shallow hypocritical ideological confrontation and posturing. Its a place where a pumped up version of American Exceptionalism exists with blistering criticism of current government. Government workers are increasing looked down upon as part of an inept culture just like public school teachers. To some the whole mix that makes up the public sector is seen as inefficient and ineffective. Workers and politicians are lazy they say. They lack good judgment and aren't serious about serving people. I don't hold to those views and their non sequitur reasoning, but I do see political conversation (and action) in the Capital as an unrealistic mix of group and party interests dressed up with bumper quote principles. The faulty reasoning of some is evident when conservatives say things like closing lobbyist-developed tax loopholes is a tax increase which they must oppose. In the past Washington’s summer have been called the silly season, because that’s when politicians went on expensive, taxpayer-funded, “fact finding” vacations around the globe. There’s less government money for such junket silliness, but the exercise of perks has grown into adventurous national tours paid for by campaign contributors. This silliness reflects the fact that there are now enormous wads of money to push ideological ideas and values.

But our DC Beltway culture also contains a good deal of wonderful values to celebrate. Some of this is generated by the non-political and secular institutions in the area. They may be less plush with money but they still generate events like the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival each June-July organized by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The festival celebrates cultural traditions around the world. I’m particularly fond of those which present a secular, scientific culture. As locals we can partake in quite a few of their events, but through grants and research efforts they send rational ripples outward throughout the country. I’m thinking of such institutions (a short list) as NIH, AAAS, the National Academies of Science, the Carnegie Institute, the NSF, the National Geographic and the many parts of the Smithsonian Institution (SI) including its Zoo (which I visited yesterday -try the Think Tank for some fun observations of our Ape cousins). They all have events, lectures and programs that celebrate science and often the larger culture. So there is lots to enjoy in the area and together they continue to inspire generations of Americans through broad access knowledge and digestible nuggets of human creativity and discovery. And they are often depend on exceptional people to make them survive in hard, financial times.

2011 Marks the 165th anniversary of the Smithsonian and I like the vision being implemented by SI’s 12th Secretary Wayne Clough. Clough combines sounder scientific and management values than his immediate (Small) predecessor while “expanding the Smithsonian’s global relevance and helping the nation shape its future through research, education and scientific discovery on major topics of the day. “ This is American Exceptionalism at its best.
One of his first initiatives has been a consensus-based new strategic plan that articulates four grand challenges whose goal is to leverage diverse resources of the Smithsonian’s museums and science centers through interdisciplinary approaches. The parts we see in DC are only the tip of SI’s iceberg of science with many moving parts across 769 Acres involving 500 scientists and 9 big research centers.

I feel especially close to the first challenge, called Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe. It reminds us that science is an ongoing enterprise that builds on the shoulders of past progress. While I tend to think of the SI icons of the Natural History such as human origins, SI’s Science Centers operate out of town and are interested in science broadly and include astronomical investigations to better understand inflation in the early phase of the universe. This gets at current mysteries such as the nature and role of dark matter in the evolution of the universe, and the properties of the dark energy that is speeding up the expansion of the universe.

I also feel excited by the 2nd challenge, Understanding and Sustaining a Bio-diverse Planet. This stands in sober contrast to the way large part of the political system have dealt with issues around climate change. SI continues t work to increase knowledge of the evolutionary and ecological history of species and ecosystems, and the processes responsible for population declines and extinction.

The next grand challenge - Valuing World Culture is also something that political DC sometimes has trouble agreeing on. Even harder to get a good objective stance and agreement on is the last challenge - Understanding the American Experience. It perhaps represents a more sober and balanced take on experience rather than a slanted view of American Exceptionalism (as I discussed in a previous posting). And I believe our science institutions remain one of the real prize realizations of the aspiration of American excellence.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Meeting with Edd Doerr is great experience

I introduced Dr Ms Gauri Malik, the humanist leader from India to Mr Edd Doerr, the humanist leader in USA.
We had discussions on Indian Humanist movement and contemporary situation. This happened some time ago.
Dr Gauti Malik is now retired from active humanist movement due to health reasons and she lives with her son and daughter in law in USA.
Dr Gauri Malik practiced medicine in New Delhi for long time while activily promoting humanist and renaissance movement.Her husband late Malik was writer and organizer in Indian Humanist movement.
Her father PREM NATH BAZAZ was a great writer on secularism and critique of Hinduism. His book on Gita was acclaimed as great work from humanist point of view.
Dr Gauri toured India and USA extensively to promote humanist movement.
She was happy to meet and discuss with Mr Edd Doerr on separation of state and church.

Humanist Funerals

by Edd Doerr

Prometheus Books has just republished Corliss Lamont's book A Humanist Funeral Service and Celebration, with additional material by Beth Lamont and J. Sierra Oliva (2011, 46 pp, $13). Humanist celebrants and others will find the book very useful.

While we are on the subject of humanist funerals, let me recommend a long piece for chorus and small orchestra by Clif Hardin, the music director of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland. "Requiem" is a magnificent, moving piece of half an hour or so using the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti, Hilda Doolittle, Emily Dickenson, Bhartrihari, Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Archibald Rutledge, and John Buxton. A recording is available for $15 from the composer, Clif Hardin, 16940 Baederwood Lane, Derwood MD 20855-2013.

(Disclosure: The composer is a friend of mine. I was a member of his choir for five years and a few weeks ago sang in a choir that performed Requiem.)

Let me also recommend The Cosmos Cantata, with text by Kurt Vonnegut and music by Seymour Barab. This wonderful piece for soloists and orchestra is available on a CD from Kleos Classics. The recording is by the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Richard Auldon Clark.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kids Fail History

by Edd Doerr

"US History Is Still Troublesome for US Students, Nationwide Tests Show", shouts a headline in the New York Times on June 15 above a 6-column story on the latest results of National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. As a former high school history teacher I would like to record some observations, in no particular order of importance.

Several years ago a nephew, a graduate of my own university and a millionaire, rang me up to ask what World War II was all about. In reply to my stunned question, he informed me that his history teachers in his private high school and public university had never gone past the year 1900. So I spent an hour or so explaining the 20th century. Which brings us to the problem.

History is the most controversial subject in the curriculum. Teachers and schools too often shun controversy. Textbooks are produced by publishers trying to make a profit, and getting textbooks adopted is crucial to the process. James W. Loewen's 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong explains this rather well. Then, too, pressure groups, usually from the Far Right, like Texas' Mel and Norma Gabler or David Barton, make life miserable for teachers, administrators and publishers.

Some years ago a teacher friend of mine spent a week with his history students on the Bill of Rights in his rural school district. The school principal reamed him out for daring to deal with something so controversial. The teacher then told the principal that he was going to drive to the state capital and have the ACLU "sue his ass". The teacher years later became the state ACLU executive director. In my first year of teaching in the US, during the civil rights era, I got into trouble in my lily white school district for daring to have the subject discussed in class.

Then there is the problem that seldom gets talked about, the predominance of coaches as high school history teachers. Why? you might ask. Because many, perhaps most, states require that athletic coaches teach and be licensed in an academic subject, and the easiest subject in which to get certified is social studies. So zillions of kids are being taught history by guys whose first interest is winning football or basketball games but who know and care all too little about history.

Indian Humanist Heroine Dr Indumti Parekh

Indumati Parekh at right side
Edd Doerr, former president of American Humanist Association once commented:
If there should be a Noble prize for charity it should go to Indumati Parekh, the president of Indian Radical Humanist Association.  She deserves it and not Mother Teresa. How true that is!
She was the true Humanist Heroine.
She did yeoman service in Mumbai slums with medical care.
Indutai, people fondly called her, worked throughout her life as a devoted humanist.  She was a medical doctor and wife of Professor Govind D. Parekh, the Indian Humanist leader and great follower of M.N. Roy, the humanist philosopher.
Indumati built a humanist house in Mumbai where international humanist conferences were held. She died in 2002.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Porky Pig Gets Flag Day Right

by Don Wharton

Today is Flag Day. The Pledge of Allegiance did not have the oppressive phrase “under God” in it before the 1950's. Below is Porky Pig reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as it should be. Thanks to Roy Speckhardt for the reference.

Gov. Goodhair's Prayerfest

by Edd Doerr

Texas Gov Rick ("Gov Goodhair") Perry has invited fellow governors to Houston on August 6 for his "Christians-only" prayerfest. Below are excerpts from a June 13 letter responding to Perry's invitation by a number of Houston clergy -- Lutheran, Methodist, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Unitarian-Universalist, and others.

"We believe in a healthy boundary between church and state. Out of respect for the state, we believe that it should represent all citizens equally and without preference for religious or philosophical tradition. Out of respect for religious communities, we believe that they should foster faithful ways of living without favoring one political party over another. Keeping the church and state separate allows each to thrive and upholds our proud national tradition of empowering citizens to worship freely and vote conscientiously. We are concerned that our governor has crossed the line by organizing and leading a religious event rather than focusing on the people's business in Austin.

"We also express concern that the day of prayer and fasting at Reliant Stadium is not an inclusive event. As clergy leaders in the nation's fourth largest city, we take pride in Houston's vibrant and diverse religious landscape. Our religious communities include Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Unitarian-Universalists, and many other faith traditions. Our city is also home to committed agnostics and atheists, with whom we share common cause as fellow Houstonians. ..."

"Our deepest concern, however, lies in the fact that funding for this event appears to come from the American Family Association, an organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. ..."

This statement shows that cooperation between humanists and people in traditional religions is both possible and desirable.

A Tale of Two Progressive Women

By Gary Berg-Cross
Like many recent events have reminded me enough of the Great Depression. You don’t have to be economist Paul Krugman to know that the economy of the last 4-5 years bears a resemblance to the late 20s and some of the 30s. They differ in degree but less in kind with a Stock market prices crash, failing banks, stalling manufacturing, large and persistent unemployment, people losing houses and markets stalled. The dismal scene confronting Obama was a bit like what faced FDR with a few wars thrown in early and an opposite that is not apologetic or remorseful about its role in creating and solving the mess. In an open letter to the newly elected President Krugman drew attention to the comparison:
“The last president to face a similar mess was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and you can learn a lot from his example. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should do everything FDR did. On the contrary, you have to take care to emulate his successes, but avoid repeating his mistakes.”

We’ve had too like of both emulation and error avoidance and as Krugman (and others) have pointed out the “recovery” economic conditions today bear a strong resemblance to the 2nd economic dip of 1936-37 with slowly growing output, some prices rising, and unemployment still very high. The government cut back its fiscal stimulus before there was a full recovery which locked in high unemployment for years. Krugman, an unabashed supporter of FDR’s New Deal, is good on the history but understand what Krugman was writing about I picked up a library copy of Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Day that Created America. It’s a timely narrative that provides a picture of Roosevelt’s first Hundred Days through the biographic eyes of an inner circle of five men and one woman. I learned something about each of them (e.g. committed liberals Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, along with conservative Lewis Douglas) and their relationships but was particularly struck by his female appoint – Elizabeth Warren. Wait it wasn’t Elizabeth Warren it was Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet position – Secretary of Labor. It’s just that Frances reminds me of Elizabeth. As they say Frances Perkins is no longer a household name, but many see her as one of the most influential women of the 20th century if only because of the ways she found to help people through government problems. Cohen provides a vivid portrait of Frances Perkins arriving in Washington in 1932 by train with no one to guide her to the days’ events or means to get there. With gritty determination she pulls a Department together and works to sway the president to back large-scale public work programs. This was difficult since FDR had an anti-dole oriented to the projects. Hopkins, Perkins, and Wallace worked together on the progress idea that government, especially in times of crises, should take an active role in improving the lives of its citizens - workers, the poor,youth, the unemployed, and farmers. A conservative Douglas at Treasury backed a Hoover like approach favoring, low taxes, laissez faire economics, and small government. While Douglas one the early battles the latter part of the 100 days belongs to the progressives. In his introduction, Cohen neatly sums up this up:

"While the public story line of the Hundred Days was about how Roosevelt, through his eloquent public statements and legislative initiatives rallied a desperate nation, behind the scenes his advisers were battling over what shape the New Deal would take. Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins worked with members of Congress, farm leaders, union officials, and other progressives to promote their agenda. Douglas worked with business leaders and other conservatives to pull Roosevelt in the opposite direction. In the first month of the Hundred Days, through the passage of the Economy Act, Douglas’s side prevailed. For the rest of the Hundred Days, Perkins’s side did. While Douglas won the early battles, Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins won the war."

Perkins and the Progressive team were able to win FDR’s support for progressive legislation that launched massive public works projects. Over time these created millions of jobs for unemployed workers. As a new type of Secretary of Labor, one not under the thumb of bosses, she advanced work for all workers. But she also invigorating the labor movement. Perhaps her greatest monument was creating Social Security. This and her other successes like unemployment compensation, child labor laws, and the forty-hour work week still provide the basis for a social safety net.

Which brings me back to Elizabeth Warren who seems to combine the same degree of pluck, competence number of skills including management and PR along with a vision of what needs to be done. Like Perkins her vision and role is challenged by conservatives. Like Perkins she has crafted ideas and helped with legislation (Dodd-Frank reform law) about how federal agency that can protect people and help in times of crisis, In Warren’s case it is protecting consumers from flawed financial products – the type of thing that got us into our problems such as predatory sub-prime mortgages. Like Perkins she has the ear of the President and some in Congress who she has lobbied to turn her vision into a reality. Like Perkins she can recognize talent and attract it take on hard jobs. She also recognizes non-talent in the merely political and recognizes the damage it can do And now, working inside the Executive Branch she is busy setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which should come to life soon. We can only hope that she like Francis Perkins will be working inside a long time.

For more on Frances Perkins see Kirsten Downey’s biography of Frances Perkins The Woman Behind the New Deal. For more on the similarities between these two women see What Would Frances Perkins Do? Who?

The author notes:

“Both were direct speakers; both fought single-mindedly to protect the American people; both did so without thinking of personal gain or fame. And now we can add one more similarity: both were short-shifted out of positions of leadership in their own creations for political efficacy.”

Abortion Rights

by Edd Doerr

One of the most serious consequences of the Republican electoral sweep in November 2010 has been the dramatic upsurge in Congress and many state legislatures of efforts to do away with or sharply curtail abortion rights, reproductive choice. Underlying these drives is what is correctly labeled malignant patriarchalism, a centuries old macho movement to keep women subordinate to men. We see this malignant patriarchalism manifested in many ways: The Vatican's refusal to ordain women and centuries of exploiting the labor of nuns. Conservative evangelical opposition to female ministers. Female genital mutilation in parts of Africa. "Honor" killings. The paucity of women in Congress (17%) and low numbers in state legislatures. The old German "Kinder, Kueche und Kirche" ("Kids, Kitchen and Church") mentality. The Islamic burqa. Etc.

To justify this malignant patriarchalism the guys invented the idea that fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses are "persons", persons with the same rights as you and me. But this idea is alien to the more "primitive" cultures with high infant and child mortality rates. It is also alien to the Judeo-Christian Bible, which not only does not condemn abortion but also (in the Jewish or "Old Testament" portion of the Bible) uses the word "nefesh" to refer to persons, and "nefesh" refers to something that breathes, as in our Latin-based word "respire". The "personhood at conception" idea is also unscientific.

Some years ago I was the moving force behind an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in Webster v Reproductive Health Services signed by twelve Nobel laureate scientists (including DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick) and 155 other distinguished scientists (had we had a few more days to gather more signers we would have had a veritable army of scientists). At the heart of the brief is this: "The Organic Capacity for Human Thought is Absent Until After 28 Weeks of Gestation.... It is not until sometime after 28 weeks of gestation that the fetal brain has the capacity to carry on the same range of neurological activity as the brain in a full-tern newborn. ... The neurobiological data indicate that the fetus lacks the physical capacity for the neurological activities we associate with human thought until sometime after 28 weeks of gestation." We should note that 90% of all abortion procedures are carried out during the first trimester and over 99% by 20 weeks. Abortions after 20 weeks are performed only for serious medical reasons.

Isaac Asimov has made the point that we can replace or do without arms, legs, hearts, lungs, kidneys, etc. and still be persons, but we cannot replace or do without the cerebral cortex.

Let me put it this way for the many of our fellow citizens who believe that man was "created in the image of God". This of course could have nothing to do with flesh and blood and DNA, but, rather, with the "godlike" capacity for consciousness and thought and will. For religious conservatives to ascribe "personhood" to fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses is to be more "materialistic" than naturalistic humanists or atheists.

Readers of this comment need to put abortion rights near the top of the list of hot concerns, along with protecting our public schools, church-state separation, the environment, civil liberties, and other pressing matters.

(Disclosure: From 1973 until 2003 I represented the American Humanist Association on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and was elected a vice president of the group more than once. I have also worked with the group Catholics for Choice, publishers of the excellent journal Conscience.)

(The amicus brief mentioned above is included as an appendix in John Swomley's book Compulsory Pregnancy: The War Against American Women [Humanist Press, 1999] and is available from me for $7 at Box 6656, Silver Spring, Md 20916. See also Abortion Rights and Fetal 'Personhood', edited by me and James W. Prescott, and also available for $10 from me at the address above.)