Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Let's Get Scared!

In those moments when I am not fearing for my life or dreading the collapse of civilization, I just tune into the 24 hour news networks and get a dose of swine flu coverage.

But before you blockade yourself in the basement with bottled water, canned fruit, a CB radio, and a shotgun, consider this: At this time, one person has died of swine flu in the United States (and he came here from Mexico for treatment) and worldwide 159 people have died.

Yet, the average death rate from influenza in the United States is:

  • 63,729 per year
  • 5,310 per month
  • 1,225 per week
  • 174 per day
  • 7 per hour

One way of looking at this is to say you are far more likely to die from average influenza than the pork flavored variety. But more importantly, the sixty-three thousand figure is what is normal and yet nobody panics because either they don't realize it or accept it as a fact of everyday life. But when it comes to swine flu, news organizations are inciting (forgive the oxymoron) a calm panic by telling people to simultaneously be concerned but not hysterical.

Here are some other death rates that may make you feel better (or worse):

  • Heart disease: 652,091
  • Cancer: 559,312
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809
  • Diabetes: 75,119
  • Alzheimer's disease: 71,599

And lastly, here is a statement from congressman Ron Paul, who was a physician before going to Washington, on the swine flu:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Feingold on the Torture Memos

I've been a fan of Russ Feingold for some time. I was a still a kid when he first won the Senate seat representing Wisconsin and in his time in office he has been one of the most progressive voices in the chamber, working on campaign finance reform and being one of the only members of congress to vote against the PATRIOT Act.

Feingold is keeping up the good work, now calling the Obama Administration on its unconscionable decision to not pursue prosecution of those who tortured prisoners.

From The Huffington Post:

"Part of what troubles me are the lawyers -- we should see their law school degrees -- who consciously wrote these memos justifying and explaining full well those outrageous arguments," the Wisconsin Democrat said on Tuesday in reference to the Bush-era torture memos released last week. "I cannot join the president, or his spokesman, or [chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel, who said we aren't going [to prosecute these people]. I can't. I just disagree with them."

Later, the Senator took a swipe at some of the rationalizations for avoiding prosecution that have been voiced by Washington lawmakers and pundits.

"If you want to see just how outrageous this is, I refer you to the remarks made by Peggy Noonan this Sunday," he said, referring to the longtime conservative columnist's appearance on ABC's This Week. "I frankly have never heard anything quite as disturbing as her remark that was something to the affect of: 'well sometimes you just have to move on.'"

I'm hoping that the Obama Administration is planning on letting the little fish go so that they can get the bigger fish--the lawyers who wrote the torture memos and maybe even cabinet members who authorized the use of torture. But it's bothersome that the people who actually committed the actions--and were in a direct position to stop it--are being let go.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dobson: "We are awash in evil"

James Dobson has left his post as the head of the social conservative organization Focus on the Family. In his farewell address, Dobson admitted that the social arguments that he and others in his movement have engaged in have been lost.

James Dobson, 72, who resigned recently as head of Focus on the Family - one of the largest Christian groups in the country - and once denounced the Harry Potter books as witchcraft, acknowledged the dramatic reverse for the religious Right in a farewell speech to staff.

“We tried to defend the unborn child, the dignity of the family, but it was a holding action,” he said.

“We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”

Despite changing the political agenda for a generation, and helping push the Republicans to the Right, evangelicals have won only minor victories in limiting the availability of abortion. Meanwhile the number of states permitting civil partnerships between homosexuals is rising, and the campaign to restore prayer to schools after 40 years - a decision that helped create the Moral Majority - has got nowhere.

Though the struggle will go on, the confession of Mr Dobson, who started his ministry from scratch in 1977, came amid growing concern that church attendance in the United States is heading the way of Britain, where no more than ten per cent worship every week.

Before you run out and celebrate, be wary of announcements of the death of social conservatism. It is a movement that has been pushed to near defeat before and then pops back up as strong as ever. And nothing rallies the troops quite like the impression that the forces of evil are about to triumph.

Check out this interview with Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans for Separation of Church and State who puts Dobson's speech in some context and scores style points by comparing Dobson and his companions to Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

What is wrong with this picture?

In his Easter sermon, Pope Benedict XVI urged for an end to poverty.

What an image: a man who lives in a castle and chairs an organization that takes in millions of dollars and gives little in return sits in a chair made of gold and tells the masses to work harder to end poverty.

I suppose it's not uncharacteristic. Just a few weeks ago the eighty-one year old virgin proclaimed that condoms increase the AIDS problem in Africa.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Happy Cruci-fiction Day 2009!

It's Good Friday, the day Christians celebrate the death of Jesus by crucifixion. The death of Jesus is the central event in the Christian faith because the execution of Jesus represents the death of the believer's own sins through vicarious redemption.

Here is a slide show with the audio of Christopher Hitchens effectively debunking the assumptions behind the crucifixion:

What Hitchens says here is extremely important because it drives a stake right through the heart of the essential Christian belief. All worship of the deity rests on the idea that man is an inherently fallen and sinful creature and that the only path to heaven is through the sacrifice of Jesus. What Hitchens so clearly demonstrates is that this whole concept is not moral or ethical. Someone could serve your time or incur your punishment for you, but they cannot assume your responsibility. With that, we still bear ultimate responsibility for our actions and no sacrifice by someone else, no matter how grotesque, can atone for that.

This is important beyond a metaphysical or theological argument. Western civilization, and for that matter much of the world that has been influenced by the Abrahamic faiths, has been impacted by this theme of martyrdom. In the stories of our culture, the notion of sacrifice is often held as a moral high point for many protagonists. In both peacetime and wartime, military service is considered sacrosanct without any regard for what the military is fighting for. Likewise, suicide bombers are ego manics who view themselves in Christ-like terms. This blind praise of martyrdom poisons us, encouraging the masses to suspend their critical thinking and sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the "greater good," which is so often a codeword for that which is best for the upper echelons of society.

To leave things on a pleasant note, here is the final scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian:

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Newsweek: The End of Christian America

Newsweek has an interesting cover story by Jon Meacham, provocatively titled, "The End of Christian America." As it turns out, the piece is not quite as inflammatory or as conclusive as the title suggests, but what it does do is suggest that American culture may be on the verge of a post-Christian era:
To be post-Christian has meant different things at different times. In 1886, The Atlantic Monthly described George Eliot as "post-Christian," using the term as a synonym for atheist or agnostic. The broader—and, for our purposes, most relevant—definition is that "post-Christian" characterizes a period of time that follows the decline of the importance of Christianity in a region or society. This use of the phrase first appeared in the 1929 book "America Set Free" by the German philosopher Hermann Keyserling.

The term was popularized during what scholars call the "death of God" movement of the mid-1960s—a movement that is, in its way, still in motion. Drawing from Nietzsche's 19th-century declaration that "God is dead," a group of Protestant theologians held that, essentially, Christianity would have to survive without an orthodox understanding of God. Tom Altizer, a religion professor at Emory University, was a key member of the Godless Christianity movement, and he traces its intellectual roots first to Kierkegaard and then to Nietzsche. For Altizer, a post-Christian era is one in which "both Christianity and religion itself are unshackled from their previous historical grounds." In 1992 the critic Harold Bloom published a book titled "The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation." In it he cites William James's definition of religion in "The Varieties of Religious Experience": "Religion … shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine."

Meacham distinguishes between a post-Christian and a post-religious period; he does not make the case that religion is dead or nearly dead. What is at issue is religion's role in the culture, what influence it carries, and how it exudes that influence:
America, then, is not a post-religious society—and cannot be as long as there are people in it, for faith is an intrinsic human impulse. The belief in an order or a reality beyond time and space is ancient and enduring. "All men," said Homer, "need the gods." The essential political and cultural question is to what extent those gods—or, more accurately, a particular generation's understanding of those gods—should determine the nature of life in a given time and place.

If we apply an Augustinian test of nationhood to ourselves, we find that liberty, not religion, is what holds us together. In "The City of God," Augustine —converted sinner and bishop of Hippo—said that a nation should be defined as "a multitude of rational beings in common agreement as to the objects of their love." What we value most highly—what we collectively love most—is thus the central test of the social contract.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Anthony: Why are we killing each other?

This piece by Ted Anthony surveys the recent shooting sprees that have resulted in forty-three murders in the past few months. What is rather intesting about Anthony's piece is that, rather than make predictable and tired arguments about gun control or traditional values, he links the recent shootings to the economy but also acknowledges that there must be something more to it than that:
Put aside for a moment the debate over guns. This isn't about policy. It's about asking the urgent question: What is happening in the American psyche that prevents people from defusing their own anguish and rage before they end the lives of others? Why are we killing each other?

This is not an era of good feeling in the United States. We have under our belt eight years of pernicious terrorism angst, six years of Iraq war weariness and, now, months of wondering how bad the American economy's going to get and when — or, worse, whether — it's going to come back. People are tense. There's less inclination to help out your fellow human being.

Meanwhile, anchors and analysts and witnesses and bloggers cast about in an information-age fog trying to make sense of something that is, in the worst way, nonsensical. They rush to offer solutions, but the thing they typically dodge is that we seem to be powerless to stop it all — that our community, our neighbors, may be next. That's too terrifying to contemplate, not to mention too open-ended for American news consumers reared on tidy Hollywood endings.
I'm suspicious of fear mongering in the media, as was done in the summer of 2001 with shark attacks (when there really was no rise in attacks) or in the lead up to the Iraq War (when there was no nuclear threat), so I will reserve judgement on what is going on--if anything--until I see some harder data and how it compares to other eras or recent years. But just the perception of danger and pervasive violence can be upsetting and have other impacts because it heightens the level of anxiety and tension in the culture.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

CBS: G20 Protesters Clash With Police

From CBS News:
Protesters clashed with riot police in central London on Wednesday ahead of the G-20 summit, breaking into the heavily guarded Royal Bank of Scotland and smashing its windows. Nearly two dozen people were arrested in multiple clashes.

Some 4,000 anarchists, anti-capitalists, environmentalists and others clogged the streets of London's financial district for what demonstrators branded "Financial Fool's Day." The protests were called ahead of Thursday's summit of world leaders, who hope to take concrete steps to resolve the global financial crisis that has lashed nations and workers worldwide.

A battered effigy of a banker in a bowler's hat hung on a set of traffic lights near the Bank of England. Protesters also tried to storm the Bank of England and pelted police with eggs and fruit.
This is not a particularly good story. As is usual in coverage of this kind of event, the corporate media provides a dismissive description of the protesters as "anarchists, anti-capitalists, environmentalists" and tries to pretend that 4000 people are some unrepresentative minority of attention starved trouble makers. This video, also from CBS, tells a slightly different story, giving the opposition a little bit of a voice and captures the violence:

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April Fool's Day

I don't have any brilliant pranks to pull on all of you for this April Fool's Day but since I'm always amused by Weird Al Yankovic, here is the video for "Weasel Stomping Day."