Libertarians don’t understand the ‘game of thrones’

May 26, 2013

One of my Facebook friends posted the following image on their wall:


This prompted a commenter to call libertarianism “pure selfishness,” and well, you’ve been on the internet. You know where these things go. Both parties found common ground and readers were witness to a pleasant rational and academic discourse on topic of governance.

Just kidding.

That didn’t happen. No. Instead, the original poster replied: “how is it selfish to want people to be free?” This led to the objector calling libertarianism “selfishness distilled,” which in turn led to the libertarian declaring ” its about choice over force,” which I can only conclude must be true because it rhymes. And as we all know, all slogans that rhyme… are true all of the time.

Well since it seems like forever that I’ve ranted about some of the many ways I think Libertarianism is bullshit, and since it’s been forever since I’ve even written anything here (and my sincere apologies to my readers for that), without further ado, here’s yet another attempt by me to distill some of my thoughts on this nauseating topic…

All these utopian pipe dreams are just a shell game. You can say getting government out of our lives is freedom but historically, it’s never worked out that way for the vast majority of the populous Ultimately, you can’t have a functioning society without establishing certain ground rules, aka compromises on one’s freedom. Otherwise, what you have fails to even be a society in any meaningful sense. That means someone or ones are going to have to step up to take some form of leadership role to make up those rules. And then those rules are meaningless unless someone enforces them. These are the basic building blocks of any social contract.

Government at its absolute idealized best serves to ensure fairness between parties under its governance. Government at its absolute worst is fascism. Now what you get when you have government at its most inept is functionally identical to a hard Libertarian state, where the vast majority–and certainly anyone with the great misfortune to be born into a marginalized outgroup–are at the complete mercy of whoever wields the most might, be it through wealth, arms, influence, whatever. And so, while this utopian vision with its grand pronouncements of “freedom” sounds lovely, in actual practice, they’re no less naive as the utopian promises of hard Communists who also built an ideology around getting powerful forces off their backs. I always find it funny that the very tyrants Communists found too oppressive are seen as liberators by Libertarians, and vice versa.

Ultimately, neither utopian fantasy solves the fundamental problem of power dynamics. In arguably every social interaction, one party has more power than another party. On a macro-scale we just call that government. And whether that government is made up of elected officials, military conquerors, robber barons, or just charismatic people with social influence, it all, by any other name, still functions in the role of government.

Interaction with others simply necessitates rules and compromises…compromises on one’s freedom. But hey, you can always break away from society and go it alone. Then you’ll really be free, right? Nope. Nothing interferes with one’s wants more than the constant demands on one’s time that is securing, maintaining, and protecting their necessities and resources.

Sorry, but there simply is no end to the game of thrones. I for one would prefer a society that functioned more like John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” where the rules are designed in such a way that one would deem them fair prior to any knowledge of what one’s own social position in said society would be. Of course that’s just a thought experiment, but it still sounds like a far more rational way of at least approaching these issues of governance than the extreme polar ideologies of Communism and Libertarianism, who think the solution is trading one form of oppressor with another.

Why I disagree with my liberal peers on Bloomberg’s proposed ‘soda ban’

March 11, 2013

Today, a judge struck down NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed limits on surgary drinks. And as a liberal progressive with mostly liberal progressive friends, most of my peers seems overjoyed by this news. But I’m not.

I’ll admit, when news of the bill first emerged, my initial knee-jerk reaction seemed to be the same as everyone else, that the proposed law was ridiculous. But then my opinion gradually shifted to the point that I’m now more in favor of it than not. Paradoxically, it probably didn’t help that Big Soda’s political ads running at movie theaters couldn’t have been more ridiculous and misleading if they were hosted by Troy McClure. And since the smallest beverage size offered at most movie theaters these days is 32 ounces, it’s hard to see any conflict of interest among theater owners’ opposition to the bill. Unfortunately, I don’t think it took corporate geniuses to spin this as a attack on consumer freedoms after the press was quick to inaccurately label the proposal a “soda ban.” The very first conclusion we all jumped to was the wild notion that Big Government was taking away our soda. And that’s certainly the angle of today’s nauseating headline in the joke that is the NY Daily News:  “Bloomberg’s soda ban fizzles, New Yorkers win.”

But that’s not what’s going on here at all. On the contrary, it’s not the consumers who are the targets of this bill but the corporations. They’re the ones being infringed upon. Now normally, it’s the liberals in modern society who crusade against corporate power, sometimes even to the point where that clouds their judgment. For instance, two popular pseudo-scientific positions, anti-vaccinationism and anti-GMOs, are held disproportionately by liberals railing against the corporations at the center of these issues. But here we have a case where corporations like McDonalds (sorry they’re always the stand-in representative for all fast food), have successfully diverted attention away from their role in America’s public health problems and managed to make the Left-Wing sound like the gun-obsessed Right that’s also been heavily in the news lately. Just like the gun-totting Republican stereotype proclaiming that they won’t let Big Government take away their guns when nobody is really coming for their guns, now I see my liberal peers proclaiming nobody’s taking away their freedom to drink sugary drinks when nobody is coming for their sugary drinks. That’s not what the bill is trying to do at all.

Now let me be clear here. The appropriateness of any given public health initiative is always debatable no matter how scientifically sound its premise. And sensible people can reasonably disagree on such public policy decisions without being driven by ideology or corporate money. Now I used to flirt with libertarianism myself in college but it didn’t take. I’ve since become a strong opponent to libertarian ideology while still maintaining that there are some cases where the more libertarian approach may be called for. But when it comes to public health policies firmly rooted in real science, I tend more socialist. For instance, I support strong vaccine policies and water fluoridation programs. So if a reasonable amount of scientific evidence backed the notion that reducing sugary drinks has a statistically significant positive health effect, I’d have no problem at least entertaining the idea of government playing a role in reducing that health threat, provided I felt the measures didn’t go too far.

Today, there was a great piece over at Think Progress that touches on the relevant science and facts surrounding this issue:

Restaurants’ portion sizes are more than four times larger now than they were in the 1950s — and that culture of excess is making its wayinto Americans’ homes, too, where meals are also getting bigger. Soft drinks sizes specifically have seen one of the largest increases, ballooning by over 50 percent since the mid-1970s. And research suggests that larger portion sizes do lead people to consume more than they would have otherwise, since we tend to estimate calories with our eyes rather than our stomachs.

The average American child consumes about 270 calories from soft drinks each day, which adds up to U.S. children drinking about 7 trillion calories from soda each year. That’s a huge problem in the larger context of childhood obesity rates, which have tripled since 1980. But there’s evidence that innovative public health measures can pay off. After all, states with aggressive nutrition policies, which include limits on sugary drinks and fried foods in public schools cafeterias, have experienced decreases in their childhood obesity rates.

The impact of sugary drinks on the ongoing obesity epidemic, and how best to encourage Americans to make healthier choices, is one that health advocates continue to grapple with, and there’s general consensus that proposals like Bloomberg’s are worth a shot.

Now I remember years ago when NYC implemented a policy to reduce smoking by banning people from smoking indoors in public spaces. Back then, even though I’d never smoking a cigarette in my life and had no love for the tobacco industry, I passionately opposed that policy decision. In the years since, however, the statistically significant drop in lung cancer deaths in New York City made that position more and more untenable. The reward proved to far outweigh the infringement on civil liberty, in my opinion. If I’m honest, perhaps my feeling I’d been wrong about that decision has influenced my position on the sugary drink restriction bill by making me reconsider my initial negative gut reaction to the idea.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the ethics of the matter, Bloomberg’s proposal seems at least born out of a drive to improve public health. And for any public official to put the people first is admirable…and rare these days. The message the mayor wants to send people is that too much soda is not good for you. He does this by slightly inconveniencing consumers who wish to drink more. I suspect that if this bill does come to pass, it’ll have an overall statistical effect on people’s waistline. But we’d have to see when we get the hard data. I concede that it’s entirely possible it will fail miserably. But I think it’s a worthwhile experiment.

It’s also worth noting that this is hardly breaking the mold; we regulate lots of substances and the legal system attempts to determine in each case what a fair penalty is. The only difference here is that sugary drinks are generally viewed by our society as benign despite the science showing the contrary, and so people quickly jump to a knee-jerk argument from personal incredulity. Again, the proposed law does not target the consumer, but the corporations.

Now paradoxically, the very reason the judge today ruled against the law is largely the reason I like this particular proposal in the first place. His complaint was that it left open too many loopholes, and thus was unenforceable. After all, hasn’t everyone already patted themselves on the back for being genius enough to conspire to buy two cups? But that’s the whole point! Yes, you can buy two 16-ounce drinks to buck the system, you sly devil you. Hell, you could buy 20 cups of soda if that’s your personal idea of freedom, or whatever. The press has done a horrible disservice to the public by labeling this a “ban.” It’s nothing of the kind. You can buy all the diabetes juice you please. That’s the beauty of the bill and exactly why comparisons to alcohol prohibition completely fail.

Any individual CAN get around the bill easily if they were so inclined. The beauty of the bill is that it’s built on decades of psychology research that predict that given the choice, the vast majority people simply WON’T ultimately choose to buy more than one cup and WON’T bother to make another stop somewhere else, because most people will likely choose the path of least resistance. And it gets even better than that. Not only will people on average likely choose to not make an extra effort and just accept whatever size is offered, but its using the corporation’s own stigmatization strategy against them. Decades ago, McDonalds realized that many customers would finish their small fries, and despite still looking hungry, would not go up to buy another order of fries. They eventually discovered that people didn’t go up to order more fries because it was embarrassing to be seen ordering even more food. That’s why they introduced larger sizes; it’s more discreet. The Bloomberg plan does the same thing in reverse. Sure, everyone says they’ll just order multiple cups –and most importantly of course, the law doesn’t stop anyone from doing so– but who really wants to be the guy sitting at McDonalds seen with two cups in front of them? I suspect the ordering multiple drinks strategy will be more common among those taking their food to go. But then again, if you’re taking it out, why even bother buying insanely overpriced soda at the fast food restaurant?

So what’s my final takeaway here? Big Government isn’t taking your soda any more than its taking your guns. Bloomberg’s proposal infringes on corporations, not consumers, who would be just as free to consume sugary drinks as they’ve always been in whatever quantity they please. If psychology research proves accurate, merely adding a slight inconvenience to consumers who choose to drink above 16 ounces will drive many to just accept the smaller sizes given, and in turn, consume fewer calories from soft drinks and less sugar, which would have a statistically significant effect on public health in the long run. And regardless of whether the science is sound, most people will probably reject this policy and similar policies in the future for ill-conceived, illogical, and ideological grounds before finding an actual good argument to oppose it (and I certainly think there are some good reasons). Oh yeah, and patrons can always order larger sizes of diet beverages.

Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ as Rorschach Test.

February 19, 2013

Several months ago, I wrote about the strange phenomenon of obsessive viewers of the film “The Shining” discovering alleged hidden messages in the film. In that article, I briefly mentioned a documentary that came out last year titled “Room 237” that chronicled several of the stranger theories out there about the “true” meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Well I’ve finally caught up with that documentary and found it to be a fascinating film.

I doubt the filmmaker believes any of the interpretations presented in the “Room 237” but I greatly enjoyed listening to the cast of kooks who maintain them. Most of the interpretations presented in this film, with only a few exceptions, are totally bonkers. But that’s what’s great about this film. It uses “The Shining” to demonstrate the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia, which is when a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant. We see the same grasping of tenuous connections among tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists. This is an exploration of Kubrick’s “The Shining” as Rorschach Test.

The “theorists” presented here commit a host of logical fallacies and assumptions that range from the slightly plausible to the utterly impossible. And while the latter often made me want to shout at the screen, they also proved the most fun such as the interpretation that the film was Kubrick’s confession for working with NASA to fake the moon landing. There are so many levels to why this is ridiculous, not least of which because the Apollo 11 undeniably did land on the moon and all the claims moon landing deniers have presented to prove otherwise have been thoroughly debunked. But putting that obvious fact aside, the “researcher” putting forth this notion in the film just plain makes things up like when he wildly speculates that the reason Kubrick changed the room number from 217 in the novel to 237 was because 237 MUST HAVE BEEN the number of the studio where they filmed the fake moon landing? Um, citation needed?

At another point in the film, a researcher makes a huge deal out of a simple continuity error in which Jack’s typewriter is gray in some scenes but eggshell color in others. The “researcher” claims this must be deliberate on Kubrick’s part because Kubrick controls absolutely every aspect of every frame of his films when the far simpler explanation is Kubrick and his crew were not superhuman and they shot those scenes at different times, using whatever typewriter happened to be available…like any other filmmaker would. This example further illustrates how naive the interpreters are to the filmmaking process. As a filmmaker myself, I have at least some experience. But one doesn’t have to be a filmmaker to realize that constantly adding to a film’s budget with absurd things like demanding a production assistant run out to buy TWO typewriters of different colors when only one was required is the kind of stuff that wouldn’t go unnoticed.

Then there’s the claim that Kubrick designed the film to be viewed  backwards and forwards simultaneously, one direction superimposed over the other, which is just flat-out impossible. In fact, I dare anyone to try, especially when limited by the  linear editing machines of the time. And with all the minute details these self-proclaimed “researchers” noticed, one minor detail they “overlooked” (no pun intended) was that Ray Lovejoy edited the film, NOT Kubrick. So Lovejoy would have to be in on all these editing tricks Kubrick supposedly wanted in the film too, right?

As debunkers of the infamous The Bible Code have demonstrated, one can find seemingly profound connections in just about any text of a certain length. In films, I suppose the equivalent would be the weirder a film gets in its choices, the more people can find an unintended wacky interpretation. I’d love to see someone apply the same rigor to investigating Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” I’m sure someone could then come away from that film believing Wiseau caused 9/11 or killed Paul McCartney, or whatever. Of course, the reason that might not happen is because what people really latched onto here is the larger than life mythology surrounding Stanley Kubrick himself. Because Kubrick was known to be a bit obsessive and a perfectionist, the underlying and totally baseless assumptions these interpreters make is Kubrick (1) was an unparalleled genius, (2) had superhuman abilities to control every aspect of both the production and every frame of the final product, and (3) had the fanatical desire to bury important hidden messages in his films so deep that there’d be no reason to believe anyone would ever find them. So when you begin with the assumption that Kubrick is totally infallible, then every continuity error becomes a clue to unlocking his true, hidden message. That’s where these theorists go wrong; they fail to recognize Kubrick was every bit as flawed and human as the rest of us.

The Young Turks get the science wrong on GM food

September 27, 2012

I’m a huge fan of the internet news show The Young Turks (and to only a slightly lesser extent their sister show on the Current network). They release daily clips of their show on YouTube. I make it a point to check most of those clips out on a regular basis, and I’ll go as far as to say The Young Turks is usually among the best sources of news out there today.

All the more reason for me to be disappointed at a recent piece they did on genetically modified (GM) food and the company Monsanto, an agricultural company and major producer of GM food:

Monsanto is a popular target of conspiracy theorists superstitious of GM food and to be fair, like any corporation, there’s an excellent chance they cut corners and misbehave every chance they get to save money.

Now when a recently published study on the effects of genetically modified corn on rats arrived at seemingly frightening conclusions along with scary images of tumorous rats, many news outlets jumped on the story. But The Young Turks went further than simply reporting the story. Co-host Ana Kasparian went on to claim that there is still insufficient evidence that GM foods are even safe. And while mentioning that Monsanto was debating the merits of the study, she failed to mention other critics who don’t work for Monsanto and poisoned the well with a statement about how Monsanto is quick to come down “against anyone who says anything negative about them.” Of course that’s the case with any corporation at all times and it neither validates nor invalidates the specific study being reported on. Kasparian goes on to show a clip from a documentary titled “The World According to Monsanto,” which talks about how Monsanto gets around heavy FDA oversight.

Is Monsanto dirty? Almost certainly. Just like pretty much every corporation. The problem here is that The Young Turks are letting their own cognitive biases influence their judgment in this case instead of performing their usual due diligence. When it comes to issues of corporations using their money to influence politicians, there’s no better source than The Young Turks. And when the oil industry funds bogus “tobacco studies” suggesting that anthrogenic global warming isn’t legitimate science, they’re very good at knocking that down. But when you have a story like this one that only superficially plays into that narrative and where the independent science largely reinforces the point of view that conveniently favors the corporation, The Young Turks seem to fall into the trap of assuming Monsanto’s defense is just another corporation shamelessly defending itself with bogus research despite the fact that the science is on their side.

Now The Young Turks also played a clip from the days of the Reagan administration when then Vice-President George H.W. Bush visited a Monsanto factory and can actually be heard saying essentially that he intends to ensure the government looks the other way with Monsanto, saying, “We’re in the ‘dereg’ business.” There’s no getting around how bad that looks both for Monsanto and the Republican Party. HOWEVER, to be fair, within the context of that quote, there’s nothing about fixing the system so unsafe products make it to market. Rather, Bush seems to be responding to a concern over getting past bureaucratic red tape to simply get some authorization sooner. I’m not saying Monsanto isn’t dirty, but the actual promise there was not nearly as serious as looking the other way on safety policies. And for the record, George H.W. Bush hasn’t been Vice-President in a very, very, very long time. The damming clip we’re being presented with is about 25 years old. It can’t reasonably be used to discredit the Monsanto of today.

Kasparian also shows some inconsistency when she poisons the well by dismissing all the studies Monsanto presents that show the safety of their GM products as being all deeply flawed while simultaneously bolstering a study that, as it turns out, is itself deeply flawed:

Within 24 hours, the study’s credibility was shredded by scores of scientists. The consensus judgment was swift and damning: The study was riddled with errors—serious, blatantly obvious flaws that should have been caught by peer reviewers. Many critics pointed out that the researchers chose a strain of rodents extremely prone to tumors. Other key aspects of the study, such as its sample size and statistical analysis, have also been highly criticized. One University of Florida scientist suggests the study was “designed to frighten” the public.*

How could Ana Kasparian and Cenk Uygur have been so fooled? Presumably because the study reinforces their biases. That’s not a criticism of them personally though as we are all guilty of doing this from time to time. That’s why Steve Novella encourages people to ratchet up our skepticism when we hear information that reinforces our previously held beliefs.

Now I tried to reach out to both Uygur and Kasparian about this via Twitter. I wrote:

@cenkuygur @AnaKasparian Sorry guys but you got the science wrong in your recent Monsanto piece: …

And I must say I was a bit disappointed at the response I got:

I don’t think Kasparian is accurate in her assessment of the research, but given the limitations of Twitter, I gave one more response:

@AnaKasparian Do u at least agree w/ Slate’s analysis that that specific study isn’t entirely credible? &how further back mustGM rsearch go?

Unfortunately, like a skilled politician, Kasparian dodged both of my direct questions and gave me just a talking point:

I decided to stop there as I didn’t wanted to try and drag her into a lengthy Twitter debate. But while I recognize that at least among non-Republicans, comparisons to climate change deniers can seem like name-calling. In the past, denialists of various stripes have often taken great umbrage with being compared with Holocaust Deniers, due to the stigma attached to that. But I don’t think Keith Kloor, in his Slate article, was out of line with his comparison because he wasn’t necessarily comparing them on a scale of respectability. Rather, the basis of the comparison seems to be that both climate change deniers and the anti-GM crowd distort the science based on their respective political leanings. And based on my, to be fair, limited understanding of the science of genetically modified foods, the study’s lead author, Gilles-Eric Seralini, did just that, and The Young Turks’ position on this issue is less based on the science and more based on their distrust of corporations, a distrust that usually serves them well but which in this particular case has led them to false conclusions. 

Now to be clear, I think Ana Kasparian and the rest of The Young Turks team are excellent journalists. I happily call myself a fan of Kasparian and The Young Turks.  But on this issue, I happen to think she’s dead wrong.

Further reading:

NPR – “Manipulating Science Reporting” – interview with Carl Zimmer about recent study referenced above.

World Health Organization – 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods

WebMD – Are Biotech Foods Safe to Eat?

“Food Fight: The Case for Genetically Modified Food” By Brendan Borrell

Skeptoid podcast – “Genetically Modified Organisms: Jeopardy or Jackpot?”

Science Daily – “Spontaneous GMOs in Nature: Researchers Show How a Genetically Modified Plant Can Come About”
Science Daily – “Engineered Plants Make Potential Precursor to Raw Material for Plastics”
The Atlantic – “A Golden Opportunity to Rethink Genetically Modified Foods” by James McWilliams
“Cloned Beef” by Steven Novella
Science Daily – “Genetically Modified Chickens That Don’t Transmit Bird Flu Developed; Breakthrough Could Prevent Future Bird Flu Epidemics”
“GMO plants and herd immunity”
“GMO chickens and herd immunity”
“The Conspiracy Meme” by Ted Goertzel

On Kubrick’s alleged dual narratives and hidden messages in ‘The Shining’

September 23, 2012

Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining is a masterpiece. I think most serious film scholars, critics, and fans agree with that. But one aspect of the film that is highly debatable is the popular notion that Kubrick layered hidden messages or even whole dual narratives into the film. And many of the speculations about the meaning of these hidden messages happen to revolve around conspiracy theories.

The weird speculative theories about hidden messages in the film is the subject of a recent documentary called “Room 237” that I have not yet seen, and until recently, I was totally unaware this was even a thing. It first came to my attention earlier this year when I came across an article linking to a series of YouTube videosthat begin as if they’re objective analyses of the film, but ultimately reveal analyst Rob Ager’s true agenda late in the series when Ager eventually stops talking about The Shining altogether in favor of straight propaganda promoting his crazy gold-standard conspiracy theory. If I made a video analyzing, say, Citizen Kane that lasted the better part of an hour, and devoted at least a quarter of that analysis making a political argument about the evils of capitalism or whatever bullshit political theme I supposedly pulled from subtle symbolism in the film, and did so to the point that I stopped even mentioning the film Citizen Kane at all, you’d be right to not take me seriously.

Other than the whole gold standard thing, there are numerous other wacky interpretations of The Shining out there, as the New York Times article about Room 237 linked to above alluded to, like the theory that Kubrick worked in a hidden confession about having played a part in faking the moon landing. Some others, like the Native American slaughter motifs and Kubrick’s concerns over the Holocaust even made it onto the film’s Wikipedia page.

So is the film The Shining REALLY ABOUT Stanley Kubrick’s veiled confession of the part he played in faking the moon landing?

Is it about the slaughter of the Native Americans?

Is it about how the sinister elite plotted to rid America of the gold standard (the one true currency…somehow)?

In one word:  NO.

I know the weird iconography in the film has led many pattern-seeking people to go anomaly hunting and find all sorts of alleged “hidden meanings” in The Shining, but it’s just a product of the psychological phenomena known as pareidolia. We’re driven to see patterns, particularly when presented with ambiguous stimuli such as amorphous shapes. This is why it’s easier to see images in things like clouds than in most other things we might be looking at. It’s this pattern-seeking tendency that allows us to see coherent objects and subjects from the millions of pixels in films to begin with. If Kubrick did have hidden messages in The Shining, it almost certainly had nothing to do with the gold standard or the slaughter of Native Americans, etc. It’s just a great film by a master artist that happens to be full of weird, ambiguous imagery and dialogue that can be endlessly analyzed and used to find almost any interpretation the viewer is looking for. It’s like Yoda’s cave; what you find is ultimately what you brought in with you.

Further reading about the documentary Room 237 from Aint It Cool News’ critics Quint and Nording.

Why progressives need to support Obama now more than ever

August 22, 2012

I came across an interesting article in The Atlantic on my Facebook feed called “Liberals Need to Start Holding Obama Responsible for his Policies” by Conor Friedersdorf. And I found the article to make a lot of sense. In fact, I’ve been making similar arguments for the past few years. And had this article been published last year or the year before, I’d have no disagreement with the author. However, not this year. This year is different.

It’s true that Barack Obama has been too often a disappointment for progressives, be it his compromises on healthcare that took the single-payer plan off the table, or his record deportations, or his failure to prosecute those bankers whose fraud caused the economic crisis, or his continuing of the War in Afghanistan, or his continued support of countless Bush policies like the “War on Drugs” and abstinence-only sex ed classes, or the drone strikes against innocent civilians. Take your pick.

But this is an election year. And that changes things.

I’m all for criticizing Obama for his failure to fight for the progressive policies he promised. But I don’t think this is the time to START holding Obama responsible for his bad policy decisions. During the first three years in a term seems the best time to hold Obama responsible for bad calls. But come election year, that’s when I think the focus should be on criticizing the far worse of the two evils. Strategically, it’s best for progressives to stand behind Obama for the next few months. Then after the election, we can give him hell again.

Now let me be clear here. This is not a free pass, but a stay of execution until November. What good will come out of increasing Romney’s chances of victory?

Unfortunately, it’s either Obama or Romney at this point. In an ideal world, there’d be more options on the table, but in an election year particularly, we’re prisoners of the system. Too late to introduce a true progressive third party alternative who could plausibly win the presidency and too late to redirect the Democratic Party’s platform. If Obama were to suddenly turn super-progressive tomorrow, his campaign would suffer from accusations of being a flip-flopper. No, now’s the worst time to attack Obama’s policies if the goal is a progressive presidential cycle for the next four years.

The day after Obama wins reelection, I say go to town on his bad decisions. And maybe then, if we push him and the press hard enough, we’ll have a chance at getting a few important policy decisions go our way or, though very unlikely, even get Obama to make changes to help fix the system like he promised. But neither of those options exists with Mitt Romney in the White House. He’s even more bought by the corporations than Obama and even more motivated to push conservative social and fiscal policies.

All evidence suggests a Romney presidency would continue to marginalize women, LGTB Americans, and every other minority group. They’ll likely continue to deregulate the market and make it easier for the super-rich to profit off the poor and middle class. They’ll likely promote a science policy that undermines climate change research and the teaching of evolution in schools. Whatever you might think of Obama, by all indication, a Romney presidency will almost certainly be disastrous.

The time to fight Obama in this term is over. Progressives who care more about the cause than shaming the president need to put the pitch forks down for now and support Obama now more than ever. Then after he wins, feel free to let him have it.

Has the skeptical movement failed?

August 8, 2012

The skeptical movement has been behaving in very self-destructive behavior over at least the past year as cults of personality and bitter rivalries have sprung up while those screaming the loudest on different sides of numerous issues have been allowed to dominate the conversation.

Just one recent example of this was highlighted when Ian Murphy penned a rather weak piece on Alternet that called out five individuals as The 5 Most Awful Atheists. There’s been much criticism about the rather subjective criteria Murphy used as well as his over-simplification of the views of several individuals on his list.

Well now Sam Harris, one of the alleged “awful” atheists on the list, has responded not just to this piece but to much of the recent criticism he’s received as well as the larger problem of internet critics with the ability to potentially smear a person’s name forever with the total freedom to make any accusation they wish. Now I don’t agree with Harris on everything. For instance, I do take issue with his current positions on torture and profiling. However, I also recognize that his position is far more nuanced than Murphy’s article and many of Harris’ critics let on. And I think to some degree Harris is willing to engage in civil discourse on these subjects. But I also think simply writing Harris off as a monster or a racist or a fascist or whatever does a great disservice to the conversation and to the rationalist goal of building a society on reason and intellectual discourse. But that being said, I’m not so sure Harris would easily change his mind when confronted with compelling evidence against his position. If he would, I surmise he’d have changed his position already given the currently available facts of the matter.

Harris also calls out PZ Myers for allegedly contributing to gross misrepresentations of Harris’ positions. And in these criticisms, Harris doesn’t pull his punches. Nor did Myers when responding to Harris’ condemnation. And it’s in these sorts of back-and-forths that I’m sadly reminded of the Joker’s line from the film, The Dark Knight about what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an unmoveable object. I suspect neither side of this rivalry will back down any time soon.

And that brings me to the thesis of this piece here. Shouldn’t we expect more from so-called skeptics and rationalists?

It’s unfortunate that supposedly rational atheists are utterly incapable of engaging in civil discourse when faced with disagreements and instead ultimately always choose the least rational approach of treating all disagreements as giant pissing contests where it’s far more preferable to vilify the other and score points before one’s fans than be seen trying to actually understand where the other party is coming from and find common ground. Rationalists should welcome civil disagreement, not attack it as if it were the enemy.

And skeptical audiences should cheer the moments when our peers admit being proven wrong, not the moments of grand-standing and bloviation. Until that starts to happen, this movement is at best failing in its mission and at worst a fraud.

George Sanayana once said that fanatics are those who redouble their efforts while forgetting their aims. Have the most prominent figures in our movement done just that? And if they have, where do we go from here?