Monday, December 28, 2015

The Humanist Part of the Techno Dissent Discussion

by Gary Berg-Cross

I do like the term and think of myself as a humanist -  secular humanist. And in the Washington Post recent series on Tech Doubters kicked off by Joel Achenbach's THE RESISTANCE. I see that there may be an opportunity to get the humanist position, even the progressive, nature centered and deliberately rational, progressive secular view into the conversation.  At least this can be in regard to the human-technical interaction in society.

The article kicks off the issues thus way identifying people uncomfortable with how the internet and associated technology is influencing modern life.

"They are the digital dissenters.

They see tech companies tracking our every move.

They want to go back to the basics – to a world where the interests of

humans come before robots, algorithms and the needs of Silicon Valley.

 Meet the people on “Team Human."n.” █ 

From a distance I don't much object to this stance.  I don't like the invasion of privacy with companies (or governments) tracking our behavior etc. And I share the view of human values being central.  It is just that I also appreciate science and technology and perhaps want more thought to go into its use. Some of the critics do too and 
Achenbach starts introducing them like this:

"Techno-skeptics, or whatever you want to call them — “humanists” may be the best term — sense that human needs are getting lost in the tech frenzy, that the priorities have been turned upside down. They sense that there’s too much focus on making sure that new innovations will be good for the machines.

'I’m on Team Human!' author Douglas Rushkoff will say at the conclusion of a talk."

Well again, I agree with part of these critiques including the judgment that parts of our digital age has nightmare elements run by digital "robber barons" who mine data our personal info for profit. So it is not paranoid, that one of the tech skeptics, political activist Astra Taylor keeps duct tape over the camera lens on her laptop computer. Someone might be listening.

There are many people who have this view:

"You could fill a college syllabus with books espousing some kind of technological resistance. Start the class with “You Are Not a Gadget” (Jaron Lanier), move on to “The Internet Is Not the Answer” (Andrew Keen), and then, to scare the students silly, “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” (James Barrat)."

Also cited is Pope Francis' recent encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” which "contemplates the mixed blessings of technology." He acknowledges the marvels of modern technology such as the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper), but warns of potential dangers,unless technological development isn't been matched by "development in human values and conscience." There might be a spiritual ting to Francis' values though.

I might a bit more uncomfortable with the broad brush labeling of techno-skeptics as humanists. There are some qualifications to make along the way.  
I would agree with the point that humanism, and in particular a secular humanist position has potential here. There is something lost in blindly designing things for machine culture in an arms race, first to the market, winner take all style that we have. I would feel some affinity to both ‘believe’ in humanism and trust (well hope) in a fair view of technical innovation;which includes that humans find some meaning in through work (Jörns, 1997). As the article notes we currently have a problem here:

 “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings."

Yes, and humanist values could be the basis of doing this in a human friendly way.  The humanist movement, has what Roy Speckhardt calls a forward-thinking outlook with an emphasis on critical thinking and self-reflection. It also has a naturalist outlook which wouldn't want an intrusion of spiritual values into this conversation. So that type of humanism is what we want now.  It is more sophisticated than a human vs. computer labeled wrestling match. Secularism, understood as the dominance of naturalistic and scientific thought over supernatural explanations of reality, was seen as the future for America and might be seen in light of techno skepticism a solution again. What come along with a "progressive secularism" view is a belief-stance that human beings are alone in the world and must act responsibly by forming their ethics solely from their human experience, human reason and science (source Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews.)

To me then is not an either machines/computers or us issue (human reason & science apply), although I can understand dissent in the face of an un-thought through tech "advance" imposed by a morals-free system.  Few of us want to be slippery sloped or bludgeoned into accepting an unacceptable future. The problem is as much a slow versus fast thinking for-profit style. In a deliberate manner we may be able to answer how humans and smart, communicating systems can usefully interact and profit all human life not just the masters.

It seems to me it also the values of a shallow capitalist culture (the robber baron image again) allowing tech use for company profit.  It is the old fire is good or bad depending on how you balance its use within a cultural system. We need reflection to do this.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Why is the Post knuckling under on D.C. vouchers?

On Dec 19 the Washington Post ran an editorial titled “Knuckling under on D.C. vouchers” deploring Congress’s refusal to expand the D.C. school voucher program. 

Here is a portion
of the original article followed by comments:

"Left by the wayside — despite pleas from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) — was a five-yearreauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program that allows children from low-income families to attend private schools with federal vouchers. The program was created in 2004 as part of a three-pronged investment in D.C. public education that funds the vouchers and provides extra allocations of federal dollars to the public school system and public charter schools. Indeed, the three-sector federal approach has brought more than $600 million to D.C. schools, with traditional public schools receiving $239 million, public charter schools $195 million and the voucher program $183 million. The vouchers have allowed thousands of students, predominantly minorities, to attend private schools. Parents of scholarship students have extolled the benefits of school choice and the positive impact of better schooling on their children’s lives. Interest in the program, according to its administrators, has never been higher."

Responses Here are replies by LaborLawyer and myself.  – Edd Doerr
LaborLawyer 12/19/2015

Given that taxpayer $ is already supporting two K-12 school systems in DC, what rationale -- other than helping parents send their children to religious schools -- is there for the voucher program?

Parents who do not like their regular neighborhood school, can apply to regular out-of-neighborhood schools. Parents who do not like any of the regular schools, can apply to a wide variety of charter schools. Why do parents need yet another option? This editorial fails to even attempt to offer an answer to this obvious question.

Two possible answers -- 1) the WaPo editorial board wants to encourage parents sending their children to religious schools; and 2) the WaPo editorial board wants to weaken the DC teachers union. I'd say the answer is almost certainly #2. The WaPo editorial board has long been irrationally hostile to teachers unions, public sector unions, and unions in general.

(And no, I'm not a union "mouthpiece"; in 30+ years practicing labor law, I represented govt and management, never unions or employees. I have, however, been reading the WaPo editorials for many years and, given my real-world knowledge regarding the good/bad/ugly of unions, am surprised by the WaPo editorial board's irrational animosity towards unions -- particularly the public sector unions which have relatively little economic power and whose impact is largely limited to providing some protection against arbitrary or invidious management action.)

Edd Doerr 12/19/2015 1:00 PM EST
Excellent comment. As for the voucher plan forcing all taxpayers to support pervasively sectarian private schools, it should be clear that this means violating every taxpayer's right not to be compelled by government to support religious institutions. James Madison made this point in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, which was the forerunner to the First Amendment.

Let me cite a Washington Post editorial from March 3, 1971: "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 religious schools are organs of a church. The public schools are organs of a secular authority, the state. Would it not ne wiser, as the Founders of the Republic concluded, to keep church and state altogether separate?"

The Post ran a similar editorial on June 21, 1969.

Edd Doerr (

12/19/2015 10:20 AM EST
The DC school voucher plan is paid for by US taxpayers nationwide -- and US taxpayers have made it clear that they oppose vouchers. The 2015 Gallup education poll showed opposition at 57% to 31%. State referendums from coast to coast -- 28 of them from 1966 to 2014 -- have shown that Americans oppose vouchers and their variants by 2 to 1. In 1981 DC voters defeated a school voucher plan by 89% to 11%. DC's city council majority opposes vouchers. A coalition of over 50 national religious, educational, civic and civil rights organizations told Congress in October that they oppose vouchers. Why on earth are the Post's editors so keen on vouchers? It makes no sense. Who does not see that diverting public funds to sectarian and other private schools through vouchers or tax credits can only fragment our student population along religious, ideological, social class, ethnic and other lines while undermining our public schools?

Juan Bosch, Pentagonism: A Substitute for Imperialism

by Edd Doerr

This year, 2015, marks 50 years since President Johnson sent the Marines to the Dominican Republic.  

The backstory: Rafael Trujillo was the brutal military dictator of the country from 1930 until he was assassinated in 1961, by some reports with the aid of the CIA. (The recent Colombian TV series, El Chivo, scripted by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, tells the story.)

 In 1962 noted liberal writer Juan Bosch was elected president. He was ousted

in 1963 in a military coup, which in turn was overthrown by younger military officers who invited Bosch and the elected congress to return to office. This upset Lyndon Johnson, who, claiming that this was the work of “communists”, intervened with  the Marines to halt Bosch’s return. Bosch retaliated with his 1968 book, Pentagonism: A Substitute for Imperialism (Grove Press). The US in 1965 was in the process of accelerating the war in Vietnam.
Here is a brief summary:

First published in 1967, Bosch wrote El Pentagonismo: Sustituto del Imerrialismo to explain the role that the United States played in internal affairs in the Dominican Republic during the turbulent 1960s. Following the collapse of the Trujillo dictatorship in 1961, Dominicans experienced U.S.-supported democratic elections in December 1962. In what U.S. politicians heralded as a showcase for democracy, Bosch won the elections with almost 60 percent of the vote and took office in February 1963. After seven months in office, however, Bosch lost the support of the U.S. government and was overthrown in a military coup. A group of military officers and civilians attempted to restore Bosch to power in April 1965. The result, however, was the intervention of 23,000 U.S. Marines in the Dominican Republic. The United States, however, did not impose colonial rule in the Dominican Republic nor did the United States stand to reap huge benefits from controlling the Dominican economy. An embittered Bosch, therefore, attempted to understand the motives behind U.S. foreign policy.

In the late 1960s or early 1970s, I recall, I met a young US scholar who was heading to the Dominican Republic to interview Bosch for a thesis he was writing. I gave him some money and asked if he would buy some of Bosch’s books for me. He did and I still have them, including a book of short stories and a nonfiction book titled Judas Iscariote: Calumniado (Judas  Iscariot: Framed).

For more see: 

Five social science resources by Juan Bosch

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Talking Naturally ala Tom Flynn

by Gary Berg-Cross

The 50+ lucky people who attended Tom Flynn spirited, no animated talk at WASH recently got something extra and above his spirited, no energetic talk about ""A Radical View on Church and State." (That was about the possibility & value of a "naked public square."
We also got a nice cheat sheet handout on Tom Flynn's "95 Ways Not To Say Spirit."  It's about fictional concepts, in this case from the spirit way of thinking.

Tired of expressions like, "the flag stands for the spirit of the US"? Tom sure is and has provided some help. It's in the spirit ,well approach, of handling the emotional & biases language of spirited, well heated conversations. 

 One thinks of J. Bentham's most famous remark regarding fictions:"To language, then -to language alone- it is that fictitious entities owe their existence; their impossible, yet indispensable existence." 

A workable solution is to replace all fictions & value judgments in the conversation with neutral or grounded terms.
For example, if some claims that someone in a political debate is lying replace 'lies' with 'claims'.  It there is a claim that pols are robbing us, then replace 'rob' with 'tax'.

For those not attending you can see the basic idea of removing the S-word from the conversation in Tom's much earlier article in Free Inquiry.  This is from the  Summer of 2002 which divides the "spirit" idea into broad categories of meaning and then applies secular concepts to these.

So if you missed the talk and have lost track of your 2002 copies of Free Inquiry & want to start your new year filling in secular concept-words for the old ghostly spirit world inspired one, here is something you can use.

A start is the meaning of spirit as life as in:
‟Spirit” in the sense of LIFE has these synonyms: animation, consciousness, dash, energy, essence, feeling, spark, vitality, vivacity

Similar to the Life-Spirit idea is the use in the sense of NATURE: character, drift (as in; ‟You get my drift”), essence, gist, quintessence, substance

Spirit is used here and elsewhere a bit like the idea of a soul as if we can attribute human life to an inhabiting supernatural vapor-like soul..  For a critique of the soul idea see Julien Musolino's "The Soul Fallacy" book & also my blog on his Lecture

Spirit” in the sense of VIGOR, as in "I admired her spirit" has alternatives of: ardor, enthusiasm, gusto, liveliness, resolution, spunk, zeal
Obviously a word like "liveliness" is also somewhat in the Life sense too, but we get the idea.  I can go for this substitution with gusto.
‟Spirit” in the sense of COURAGE ("I like John Wayne's spirit."): audacity, dauntlessness, determination, firmness, fortitude, resolve, steadfastness, tenacity

Some folks that I know have a brave/courageous psyche and are lively too.  For the new year putting some of these together to describe a person seems like a good step to take.  Of course we may be talking about the nature of a person who is cowardly, anxious and fearful.  These seem to be more the spirit of some people now a days, but I digress unless we are talking about ‟Spirit” in the sense of MOOD as in, "Her spirits were low."

We can substitute for spirit the words attitude, disposition, feeling, frame of mind, humor, temper, tenor.

‟Spirit” in the sense of THE SUBLIME has the longest Tom-List which goes like this: 
admirable, affecting, amazing, astonishing, attractive, charming, dazzling, elegant, elevated, enticing, excellent, exciting, exquisite, grand, harmonious, imposing, impressive, inspiring, lofty, magnificent, majestic, marvelous, matchless, moving, noble, outstanding, overwhelming, peerless, piquant, poignant, provoking, radiant, resplendent, seductive, sensual, sparkling, splendid, stately, stimulating, stirring, stupefying, superb, thrilling, touching, unsurpassed, venerable, virtuous, wonderful, wondrous

All of the above may help get us a bit away from the supernatural slipping into conversations the way it had been ensconced in the Pledge. It is all part of a lazy language with old metaphors envisioning extra natural Life Forces or Spiritual Energy flowing through the body as a basis for the body's natural self-healing ability. As Tom says, its time to put such ideas on the shelf along with obsolete notions like the pervasive ether and phlogiston.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Endless Efforts to Undermine Public Education

Edd Doerr
Article XI, Section 10 of the Nevada constitution: “No public funds of any kind or character whatever, state, county, or municipal, shall be used for sectarian purposes.” 

But as noted in the article Nevada Taxpayers File Motion to Immediately Stop Implementation of SB 302 SB 302 proposes a voucher program that "
"uses public money for religious instruction and other religious functions and activities at religious schools, in violation of this strict constitutional prohibition. With over a century of Nevada precedent and Nevada Attorney General opinions, the motion makes clear that voucher program funds are public funds. Any pass-through bank account for funds that the state continues to own and control is a fiction that does not alter the public character of the funds."

“The Nevada taxpayers in Duncan are standing up and asking the Court to immediately block implementation of this unconstitutional program. SB 302 funds private religious indoctrination, and funds private religious schools which operate with discriminatory admissions policies, all at the expense of the existing system of public schools and public instruction. This directly contravenes the Nevada Constitution and more than 130 years of state-law precedent,” said Amy M. Rose, ACLU of Nevada legal director.

Let’s hope that the above mentioned ACLU lawsuit is successful and that the state courts are more attentive to the state constitution than the nose-thumbing Republicans who dominate the legislature, unlike the disgraceful Indiana supreme court.

These attacks on public education, church-state separation, and religious liberty have been led for decades by Republicans in state legislatures and Congress for decades. 
See Edd Doerr's column titled “Public Education under Siege” in the current issue of Free Inquiry. 

Also, Americans for Religious Liberty has been reporting and analyzing this issue for 34 years. See ARL’s web site –

Republicans in their endless efforts to undermine public  education seem oblivious to the 50 years of state referenda and opinion polls showing that Americans oppose diverting public funds to sectarian and other private schools by 2 to 1.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Secularizing Maryland Health Care

By Mathew Goldstein

Many health care facilities in the United States are owned or operated by religious institutions.  About twenty percent of all hospital beds in the United States are owned or controlled by the Catholic church.  Religious health care facilities sometimes opt to give their religious authorities the final say over the provision of health care services.  Religious restrictions on the provision of health care are enforced not only on hospitals, but also on HMOs, universities, and social services agencies, which provides a significant amount of care to poor and lower income communities.  

Enforcing equal standards of care has been further hindered by an increase in the number of states with health provider conscience laws.  Maryland is one of the states with a health provider conscience law. Both individual and institutional health care providers in Maryland can refuse to provide their customers with "artificial insemination, sterilization, or termination of pregnancy" [MD. CODE ANN., HEALTH-GEN. § 20-214].  

The role of religious institutions in trying to restrict citizen access to health care options does not stop with conscience clauses.  Some religious institutions object to allowing doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of barbiturates for the purpose of hastening the voluntary death of terminally ill people.  For some people, their religious beliefs only make sense to them if length of life always takes priority over the quality of life.  Other people think surviving as long as possible will sometimes be a misplaced goal for terminally ill people.  The strength of the religious lobby in the U.S. ensures that the only way most states can pass and enforce a law to accommodate the latter people is by including a conscience clause to accommodate the former group of people who also work in health care.

An "End of Life Options Act" bill that would legalize physician assisted dying is expected to be introduced in the 2016 Maryland General Assembly session.  Maryland patients and their families should be allowed to make their own health care decisions and need to be informed which health organizations and providers will refuse to honor their decisions.  Concerns like this make statewide action on health care laws a priority.

Oregon has been collecting data on physician assisted dying for 21 years.  Under Oregon’s law, every step of the process is in the hands of the patient, and those who interfere with or coerce the patient can face criminal prosecution.  About 0.3% of deaths in Oregon are physician assisted.  About one third of terminally ill patients who receive the barbiturates do not consume them.  People with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) are the most likely to deliberately hasten their death with prescribed drugs.  Loss of dignity, inability to enjoy life, and lack of autonomy, are the leading motives.  Similar laws were enacted in Washington in 2008, Vermont in 2013, and California in 2015.  The Montana Supreme Court legalized physician aid in dying there in 2009.

The provisions of the Maryland End of Life Options Act bill are expected to be similar to those in the other states.  To qualify the patient must be diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of death within six months, be mentally competent, and be able to self-administer the drugs.  The qualifying patient makes two oral requests to the prescribing physician separated by at least 15 days.  A written request to the prescribing physician must be signed in the presence of two eyewitness, at least one of whom is not a relative.  A prescribing and consulting physician must agree on diagnosis, prognosis, patient capability,  and the patient lacking any psychiatric or psychological disorder that would impair judgement.  Either doctor can refer the patient for psychological examination.  The patient must be informed of alternatives by the prescribing physician (comfort care, hospice care, and pain control).  The prescribing physician must talk privately with the patient to verify that the patient is freely opting to hastening their own death.  

The current draft of the End of Life Options Act specifies that the death certificate identify cause of death as pharmacological accelerated imminent death.  Some states allow death certificates to be issued without cause of death.  Maryland lawmakers may want to consider enacting a law to publish death certificates without cause of death and to restrict access to the full death certificates containing cause of death.  An option to omit cause of death helps to allay privacy concerns that may otherwise dissuade people from seeking physician aid in dying.  The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should be directed to publish a booklet that explains end of life options in Maryland.

To better protect the ability of patients to obtain appropriate health care there is also a need to enact a state law protecting patients’ right to know when a health care provider does not provide certain care based on religious or philosophical beliefs.  Such a law could require any health care provider who refuses to follow standard medical guidelines and practices, thereby resulting in any health care options being omitted, to inform patients in writing of health care services that are not available to the patients through this particular provider.  Patients could be required to provide signed consent acknowledging they have received this information. Additionally, this law could require health care providers to inform health insurance companies of the specific health care options that are not provided.  Health insurance companies will share that information with their enrollees and insured participants.

Maryland's health provider conscience law should be amended to clarify that the clauses granting institutions a conscience right to refusal apply only when the institution is privately controlled.   Also, health provider institutions should be allowed to mandate that their employees agree in their employment contracts to provide the medical procedures that the conscience laws otherwise render optional.  Freedom of conscience is not a one way street that applies selectively only to the people who adopt one side of the two opposing sides.  Whenever institutions objecting to some medical procedures can mandate refusal to provide them on freedom of conscience grounds it necessarily follows that institutions that support those same medical procedures have the corresponding right of conscience to mandate agreement to provide them.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

American Companies & American Dreams

Edd Doerr focuses on a NY Times story " Walmart’s Imports From China Displaced 400,000 Jobs, a Study Says" , dated Dec 9 that reports on a new study showing that between 2001 and 2013 Walmart, the US’s largest retailer and importer, “eliminated or displaced 400,000 jobs in the estimate by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive research group that has long targeted Walmart’s policies.

The jobs, mostly in manufacturing, represent about 13 percent of the 3.2 million jobs displaced over those same years that the study attributes to the United States’ goods trade deficit with China. Walmart’s Chinese imports amounted to at least $49 billion in 2013, according to the study, which was based on trade and labor data. Over all, the United States’ trade deficit with China hit $324 billion that year.”

But that’s not all, the Walmart “charitable” foundations have been pouring many millions of their dollars into expensive campaigns
to undermine church-state separation and public education throughout the US.See also "5 Reasons Shopping at Walmart Makes You a Scrooge This Holiday Season"

Is it too much of a stretch to say that shopping at Walmart is a subversive activity?

As noted in the Scrooge article:

Walmart doesn't support American business.
While the company proudly boasts and encourages shoppers to "Buy American," the majority of the company's goods are made outside of the United States and often made in sweatshops. When you buy something at Walmart, you are not buying American.
2. Walmart creates more poverty than jobs.
When a Walmart store comes to town --  it isn't the economic golden child the company's PR machine would like you to believe. In fact, a study done by the Northwest Community group estimates that a Walmart opening up in a local town will actually decrease the community's economic output over 20 years by an estimated $13 million. It also estimates that Walmart will cost the community an additional $14 million in lost wages for the next 20 years. This translates to communities being worse off in the long run when Walmart strolls into town. When you shop at Walmart, you are not creating jobs.
3. Walmart's jobs are poverty jobs.
This year numerous studies released expose Walmart's poverty wages and the corporation's willingness to place that burden on taxpayers -- not the company. A report by Wisconsin's Democrats looked at how to quantify Walmart's cost to taxpayers in that state. At a minimum, Walmart workers in the state rely on at least $9.5 million a year to subsidize medicaid for workers. If these poverty level wages were raised to $10.10 an hour it would create 100,000 new jobs in the overall Wisconsin economy, not to mention adding another $13.5 billion to the overall economy. When you shop at Walmart you support poverty wages.
4. Walmart fires workers illegally.
Walmart has a long history of violating workers' rights far beyond mistreatment. The National Labor Relations Board found that Walmart has violated the rights of workers by "unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees" for "having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests" and "in anticipation or response to employees' other protected concerted activities." In essence  --  Walmart not only encourages its managers to bully employees who want to speak out about unfair practices, they will also fire you if they find out you're planning a strike. When shopping at Walmart you support their anti-worker practices.
5. Walmart is a JOB KILLER. 
We've touched on how Walmart promotes itself as a company that values made-in-America products while their products on its shelves are largely produced overseas and in sweatshops. We've highlighted how Walmart relies on subsidies by the federal government to legally pay their workers poverty wages. We've even exposed Walmart for illegally firing its workers who plan to strike or threatening their jobs to keep the workers from speaking out. All of this adds up to Walmart costing us an estimated 196,000 jobs  --  many of them manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2006. To prove the power Walmart has in the job market  -- each store opened destroys almost three local jobs for every two it creates. When you choose to shop at Walmart you don't create jobs.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Can leftism be saved from Jeff Sparrow?

By Mathew Goldstein

The Guardian newspaper has been on the attack against New Atheism for some time, and the latest salvo from Jeff Sparrow, titled We Can Save Atheism From the New Atheists begins with the question "Why are the New Atheists such jerks?". The provided explanation for the New Atheist's "dickishness" is "anti-Muslim bigotry" and "paranoid, racist shit".

To prove his characterization he cites Dawkins' comments regarding the 14-year-old who was "humiliated in school" and "falsely accused of terrorism on the basis of his religion".  The boy was arrested for carrying a briefcase with wires containing a clock that resembled a briefcase bomb.  There are school employees who feel that they have some responsibility for the safety of the staff, teachers, and students at the school.  It is easy for someone sitting and typing in London to declare this was a racist incident, but if the same thing happened in a London school there is a high likelihood that the reaction would have been similar.  

If the boy was not Muslim then my guess is that the likelihood of arrest would decrease, but still be substantial.  This has not happened often so anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's.  Does the possibility that people in both the US and Britain may be more wary of, and suspicious of, Muslims, demonstrate racist, anti-Muslim bigotry?  In the unreal world of leftism maybe it does.  In the real world such greater suspicion of Muslims reflects the fact that on social media, and in some publications, and in some mosques, etc. there is an ongoing, organized, effort by groups of people to incite violence against the citizens of Britain, the US, and other countries for the stated purpose of promoting Islam.  This is a highly relevant fact, but we will rarely, if ever, hear the left acknowledge this fact, let alone properly incorporate this fact into their analysis of current events.

I think President Obama made a mistake when he invited Ahmad to the White House.  Nevertheless, I think I can understand why he did that. The right wing in the US is somewhat crazy, they over generalize, they fear monger, and much of what they do is unfortunately counter-productive.  So maybe the president wants to communicate we welcome people of all religions. But then the left should not therefore be excused for reacting by going crazy in the opposite direction.  Ahmad provoked his arrest by his actions and his being Muslim maybe made his arrest even more likely.  Maybe he was treated unfairly by government employees after his arrest, the details of what happened may be in dispute.  We may never know if he was an innocent boy or a provocateur.  People who argue either way on this question are not therefore on the left or the right.  Not unless we define "left" and "right" narrowly and intolerantly.  The notion that Ahmad wanted to provoke an incident is assumed by many people on the left to be outlandish.  This evidences that the left is naive, this is not as outlandish a possibility as they think.

It is crazy to equate Dawkins' questioning the integrity of Ahmad's claim that he assembled the clock with "a 9/11 truther obsessing about jet fuel".   There is good evidence that the clock in the briefcase was purchased already assembled and then relocated to the briefcase.  This discrepancy between what the boy and his family claimed the boy did and what the boy probably actually did has some relevance here as it raises a question about their honesty.  This is another example of a fact that some on the left do not deal with sensibly because it does not comport with their desired story line.  The effort to point out that there is substantial evidence that the science project may be fraudulent is thusly rejected by Jeff Sparrow as an "effort to discredit".  No, it is an effort to spread information that is relevant, an activity people on the left like Jeff Sparrow routinely also do.   Apparently, for some on the left, evidence does not matter, or it only matters when it is evidence that favors their preferred conclusion.  When evidence favors a conclusion contrary to theirs the same activity of publicizing that evidence is declared by some people on the left to be motivated by ill-will.

Then the attack against New Atheism proceeds to Sam Harris.  Sam Harris is critical of some on the left for not taking the threat from people claiming to be fighting for Islam as seriously as he thinks it should be taken.  He bemoans that the people who take this threat seriously are crazy right wingers who spout a lot of nonsense.  Some on the left then strike back by saying Sam Harris is a paranoid racist.  President Obama, who is not a right wing nut, recently paired fighters for Islam together with global warming as two major problems that the international community needs to confront.  We can disagree about how big a threat the fighters for Islam are, but such blatantly false ad hominem attacks against Sam Harris are uncivil and beyond the pale.  This is not the way to carry on a discussion. It is not reasonable, it is not responsible. It is pure, unadulterated, bile and slander of the sort that has no resemblance to anything liberal or humanistic.  This kind of nasty name calling by Jeff Sparrow reveals that his brand of leftism is infected with anti-intellectualism and intolerance.

He then goes on to criticize the New Atheists as "privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots".  This is a cheap, below the belt, accusation.  In the U.S. religious believers spend more money, by far, on political lobbying and political candidates than do atheists.  Some of the wealthiest American billionaires are religious.  The same is probably true in the Muslim world. Adults who are poor are not therefore mentally deficient, or child like, or somehow entitled to live in special safe zones unexposed to debate.  All argument involves one person claiming that his arguments are superior to someone else's contrary arguments.  A similar accusation of "superiority" can thus be leveled against anyone in any context of disagreement.  Does Jeff Sparrow make this universally applicable accusation against everyone who argues over anything or only against the New Atheists?  He then argues that all such debate should be focused on acceptance of all religious beliefs.  No sir, beliefs are to be discussed and debated, and Jeff Sparrow's insistence that there is a special exemption for religious beliefs is without merit and is illiberal.

Then he goes on to falsely claim that "the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim".  This is crazy false.  We do not have to do a study to recognize that most New Atheists are very likely spending more time speaking to, and about, other people who share their language and live in their own countries. The result is we who live in the U.S. and Britain most often argue with Christians, and lampooning is infrequent.  Given all of the nasty personal attacks thrown around by the dozens like pennies by Jeff Sparrow in his article, his criticism that New Atheists are lampooning is hypocritical.  New Atheists have many different occupations, many different levels of education, from all different races and religious backgrounds.  And if we are mostly white then therefore what?  Therefore we are tainted?  Therefore we are wrong?

Finally, towards the end of his article, Jeff Sparrow almost deals with a question of substance.  He points out that Hitchens and Harris think that problems in the Middle East stemmed from Islam, and they thus both parted company with Chomsky who argued it stemmed from imperial meddling.  Then Jeff Sparrow immediately goes into closed minded ideological mode again, accusing Hitchens of aligning himself with the right.  Maybe Hitchens was aligning himself with what he genuinely was convinced was the truth?  No, no, no, Jeff Sparrow must impute nefarious motives to such traitors.  Jeff Sparrow says Hitchens argues "All religions are bad but some religions – especially those in the Middle East, by sheer coincidence! – are worse than others."  So does this criticism of Hitchens imply that the left insists that all religions must be equally bad and anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is automatically wrong?  Is this a rationally tenable position?  Or is it a shallow presumption?

If Hitchens and Harris are guilty of arguing some religions are worse than others then maybe they are guilty of rational, evidenced based reasoning of the sort we need more of?  And ditto for the debate over the role of imperial meddling versus Islam as causes of problems in the Middle East.  Reading Jeff Sparrow it is difficult to avoid the impression that he considers merely asking whether Islam has a role in problems occurring in the Middle East to not even be a legitimate question open to debate.  For him, it appears that leftism is synonymous with declaring the cause of problems in the Middle East to be entirely the result of imperial meddling and therefore anyone who claims otherwise must be a crazy right winger, or in league with crazy right wingers.  Jeff Sparrow does not seem to be aware that there is evidence otherwise.  It is as if he never read Hitchens or Harris who have repeatedly cited evidence favoring their conclusions that Islam is itself contributing to Middle Eastern problems.  Or maybe the problem is deeper than this, maybe Jeff Sparrow and his cherished brand of leftism does not care if the evidence favors the conclusion that Islam has a primary role in problems in the Middle East.  In his article Jeff Sparrow never justified his insistence that Hitchens and Harris are wrong beyond citing Chomsky and making lots of false ad hominem and straw man attacks. For the anti-intellectual, ideological left, this is not about the evidence.  It is about closed, circular, fixed, leftist ideology and attacking anyone who challenges that ideology.  If this the best they can do then they have lost this argument by default.

Jeff Sparrow falsely equates criticizing bad beliefs in Islam with "old-fashioned imperialism: the people we just happen to be bombing are simple-minded savages, impervious to reason and civilisation."  People who seek to open a debate about bad beliefs in Islam, and about the veracity of religion more generally, are seeking dialogue and are treating all people, including Muslims, like adults who can reason.  It is some people on the left who desperately want to shut down this discussion, and we all know why although many will not admit it.  It is on the left where the bigots really reside.  It is this left that conceives of religionists as incompetent children and that employs one standard for Christians and a different standard for Muslims.  This brand of leftism then falsely accuses the New Atheists of what they are themselves guilty of.  This left fears Muslims, more than they fear Christians, and they seek to shut down public conversations advocating for atheism out of cowardice.  Jeff Sparrow cites something Marx said dismissing religion as easily refutable, but the truth is that refuting religion takes effort and advocacy.  If we shut down this conversation then what?  Then we still have bullets and bombs?  Maybe for some on the left we should not care who wins or who gets hurt along the way because it is an axiom that all religions are equally bad anyway.  This leftism is not liberalism, it is not humanism, it is not factual.  It is ill-tempered, bilious, slanderous, censorious, and anti-intellectual.  What we really need is to save liberalism from bigoted regressive leftist dickish know-it-all jerks like Jeff Sparrow.  It is a shame that the Guardian published such invective filled, puerile, commentary.

The trouble with Hanukkah?

by Gary Berg-Cross

A search of "war on Christmas" 2015 in the News yields 60,000+ hits so it quite a topic. Starbucks red cups along generates over 6,000 of this with articles asking, Is Starbucks brewing a 'War On Christmas'?

"This week, Starbucks unveiled new cups for the holiday season, which are solid red with the green Starbucks logo in the middle, with no candy canes, reindeer, or snowmen." 

Not hitting the iconic symbols for Christmas seems passive aggressive to some. It denies easy access to manufactured customs. Many of us know the story of how older customs were captured by Christmas and memed over to serve religious needs. With a good deal of humor, Tom Flynn's book The Trouble with Christmas puts Santa Claus, his reindeer, Christmas trees and cards, exchanging presents and the spectrum of diverse elements of the Christmas tradition in historical context . Given this context and and an increasingly secular society Flynn argues for the downsizing of Christmas as a national holiday given the diverse nature of America's population. You can see his video on this, 
The Trouble book came out in 1993, but he might have a chance for a sequel as fact checking has gotten around to challenging some of the myths around the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (H-party) too.

The Washington Post and other papers ran a simple 5 myth list associated with the big H-holiday (Jennifer Bleyer: 5 myths about Hanukkah).

The WaPo fact list sometimes gets fact checked itself but at least this author consulted seemingly experts on the topic. The five myths discussed were:

1. Hanukkah is an important Jewish holiday.
Well many of us know that Israelis who visit at this time of year can be surprised at how but the H party is in the US.  In Israel it is a minor celebration.
Why the difference?  As with the C-party it is part of a culurally manufactured event. Bleyer's article explanation I see as illustration a general phenomena of how religion and group identity mix, to solve the problems of assimilation using a cathexing celebration:

"... hubbub around Hanukkah is (not) accidental. Its elevation to its current status in the United States goes back to the 19th century, when rabbis concerned about Jewish children feeling envious of their Christian neighbors realized that Hanukkah could let kids indulge in a joyous occasion around the same time of year. As Jewish historian Dianne Ashton recounts in her book "Hanukkah in America," the holiday's "timing in the midst of the Christmas season offered a way [for people] to perform their Jewish commitment through the holiday's rite and, for a moment, to resolve the ambiguity of being an American Jew."

2. Hanukkah celebrates a fight for religious freedom.

This one was new to me. The conventional understanding was that Jews celebrate traditional Jewish practices, which when threaten lead to an uprising of "a family of country priests called the Maccabees."  They are considered heroes (not zealots). They are associated with freedom and control of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and "rededicated it according to their beliefs." 

But who were day and what were their values really?  The real history (ala Woodrow Wilson)  is more complicated, as history often is - think of the real Pilgrim-Indian story for example compared to the story that children used to hear in school.  These are often folk history stories hiding civil wars and such where words like "freedom" are hurled about as casually as in contemporary political campaigns.

"...The idea that theirs was a fight for religious freedom is a myth, as is the notion that their revolt was exclusively against their Gentile oppressors. At the time, many Jews readily welcomed aspects of the dominant Greek culture, with its emphasis on reason, wisdom and art. These Hellenistic Jews advocated for the reformation of their own primitive belief system according to Greek values - the modernization of a faith founded in the Bronze Age. The Maccabees opposed their Hellenized counterparts, and according to some scholars, their revolt really began as a bitter internal fight between religious fundamentalists and reformers.
"The Maccabees were fighting for the ability to observe their own laws and the ability to coerce other Jews to observe their laws," says Albert Baumgarten, an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. "It meant a very strong fight against the Hellenistic Jews and the establishment of what we would today call a theocratic state." Some contemporary commentators have even deigned to call the Maccabees fanatics and zealots.
3. The Jews' victory in the Hanukkah story halted assimilation.
No, it turns out that the lesson is one of compromising and practical politics.  In this case with the accursed Greek ideas such as democracy that we now respect a bit more in the West.
" rulers who subsequently established the Hasmonean dynasty, these rebels quickly realized that their survival involved playing the game of regional politics -- and the way to do that was by none other than adopting Hellenism. "It was a kind of necessity," Baumgarten says. "The Seleucid dynasty to which Antiochus and his successors belonged was split between two rival families that were fighting each other over generations, and the Maccabees had to play one branch off each other.
If you backed the wrong horse in this ongoing civil war, you could end up losing your status and your head. . . . So although the Maccabees started as opponents of Hellenism, they soon become among its most enthusiastic admirers and adopters."
This meant, for instance, aping Greek models of government and negotiation, and establishing an assembly to vote a ruler into power -- a practice with no precedent in Jewish tradition. Their realpolitik also helped them learn to "negotiate the different tensions between being part of the Jewish world and the larger world," Baumgarten says, which was critical to Jewish survival."
4. The oil burned for eight days and eight nights.
Here we have the miracle part from dim history.  But, oh wow, it isn't even in the old Jewish Bible stories!  A made up miracle story? This is a bit like attacking the virgin birth and Santa Claus. 
"..As scholars have long noted, there's no reference to the miracle in early sources based on firsthand accounts, including the first book of Maccabees, an insider history written to glorify the new dynasty and its achievements, nor the second book of Maccabees, also a historical account written close to the time of the revolt, although from the diaspora.
The miraculous-oil story seems to be a rabbinic invention transmitted hundreds of years after it allegedly occurred. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jews were expelled, and religious authority was transferred from Temple priests to diaspora rabbis, who came to codify the Babylonian Talmud as a central text of Jewish law, ethics and customs. In the middle of the Talmudic tractate discussing the proper way to light candles on the Sabbath, as a footnote that seems almost an afterthought, the rabbis included a discussion of Hanukkah candle-lighting along with a telling of the miracle of the oil. It's this written account that made the story last." 
5. Latkes are the traditional Hanukkah food.
"Latkes originated in Eastern Europe, not ancient Israel. And they were first made with curd cheese rather than potatoes, Gil Marks writes in the 'Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.' Although they are certainly a traditional holiday food, they are by no means the traditional holiday food."

Sort of like the bagel.  Things get acquired along the way and incorporated in to evolving tradition.  

It's not a problem unless you think some part of this is the eternal word of God working his dietary magic with a chosen group of people in a 13+ billion year old universe with quite a special locations in that cosmos.
All of this myth busting may be a little too politically incorrect for some H-celebrations, but it is also nice to know the history of how things came to be and the factors that influence group belief.

Perhaps that pleasant humbugging critic, Tom Flynn will have something to say here.  He is speaking at the next WASH MDC meeting Saturday, 
December 12, 20153:15 PM to 5:30 PM (Wheaton Library).