Thursday, March 29, 2007

Constitutional Showdown

I read this article in the New York Times today, which reports that the Senate voted 51-47 on the bill appropriating more funds for the debacle in Iraq -- more than $96 billion -- while also sporting a non-binding measure to have US troops out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. But guess who didn't vote for the bill? That's right, Joe Lieberman -- the very same senator who broke off from the Democratic party when primary voters in Connecticut rejected his candidacy, only to subsequently run as an independent in the general election. Upon winning the 2006 senatorial election, Lieberman -- who had switched his position on the conflict in Iraq after losing the primary to the true anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont -- claimed he would be caucusing with the Democrats in the Senate. Considering that Lieberman won the election with 70% of the Republican vote, it's no surprise that he's siding with Republicans on this issue.

That aside, this is an important victory for the Democratic majority in Congress. Not only did the Senate bill pass, but so did the House version, which had even stronger language. The House version demands that US troops to be out of Iraq by September 2008 -- there's nothing non-binding about it! And this is where the constitutional showdown will occur.

President Bush has said that he will veto any Iraq-conflict appropriations bill that calls for US troop withdrawal. This New York Times article writes that both the President and Democrats in Congress seem eager for the fight.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) said that President Bush “doesn’t want anything other than a confrontation.” And a confrontation there will be -- but this will be bigger than just a spat between Congress and the President over the handling of the Iraq-conflict, this will be a fight between the constitutionally mandated balance of governmental powers and the unitary executive theory.

Why is this so important: because at the end of this confrontation, Americans will finally know whether or not they're living in a democracy or a dictatorship. If Congress is able to exercise it's constitutional oversight of the Executive branch, then we'll know democracy still exists in the country. But if the President successfully thwarts the efforts of Congress, then the unitary executive theory will gain strength, solidifying extra-constitutional powers to the President.

As I understand it, Congress -- and only Congress -- has the authority to declare war. While Congress authorized force in Iraq back in October of 2002, that can easily be changed at any time by Congress. From a legal standpoint, we're not at war because Congress has not declared so. Therefore, any use of force by the President is subject to the oversight of Congress. This is to prevent the Executive from wielding the nation's standing army as a political tool -- but if the President wins this fight, he will have set a new precedent that allows the President to do what he wishes with the armed forces without the oversight of Congress. We'll be one more step towards totalitarianism.

I do think that Bush will veto this bill, and I hope the Congress will continue to pursue a confrontation with the President on this issue. If so, it's likely that this could end up before the courts -- and only then will we know if Bush has sufficiently packed the Supreme Court with enough conservative justices to give him the judgment that he wants. This constitutional showdown is necessary for the people of America to know where their government stands.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Frank Miller's 300 Is... Religious?

Over at ScienceBlogs, I read a post pointing to a column by Rabbi Marc Gellman in Newsweek, which argues that in the film-adaptation of Frank Miller's 300:

The Spartan Greeks, led by Leonides, could have chosen to live under the rule of Xerxes and the Persian Empire. They could have traded their imperiled freedom for a secure life of slavery. The choice of Leonides and the 300 Spartans to die in a doomed but heroic battle is the clear choice of those who believe that nothing—no faith, no material wealth, nothing—justifies the surrender of freedom to tyranny.


Neither Leonides nor Captain America were religious, but both of them stood for that part of the religious world that believes in a God who fights for freedom. They both stood for the proposition that freedom is the foundation of all meaningful life. Religiously speaking, this is the belief that God gave freedom to all people made in His image, and that those who oppose freedom must be prepared to fight God. Leonides and Cap were echoing Moses' message to Pharaoh.


Leonides and Captain America were heroes not because they entered the field of battle with a shield of Vibranium or were in possession of abs of steel, but because they entered battle with a spiritually authentic idea: that God is free and we are made in God's image to be free as well. We were not placed on planet earth to avoid death. We were placed here so that we could avoid surrendering our God-given freedom to tyrants. [emphasis mine]
Aside from PZ Myers' odd claim that comic books (or graphic novels) have nothing to offer in terms of cultural/social/political commentary -- I point the reader towards the works of Alan Moore, especially V for Vendetta and Watchmen -- Gellman is projecting his faith onto a film which demonstrably rejects religion as the basis for which Leonidas fights for freedom.

I've seen the film twice in theatres since its release, and, if my memory serves correct, every single time a Spartan says they are fighting for freedom, the proclamation is coupled with reason/logic, democracy, and justice. Several times in the film, the Greeks are praised for their reason and logic as the basis of their culture and society -- not for their religion. Additionally, the religious figures in the film are portrayed as abnormal, mutated inbreds. Several times, Leonides calls them swine and he even ponders why these religious figures prevent him from marching to Thermopylae with his entire army to defend freedom. Furthermore, these religious figures can hardly be the poster-children for freedom or morality, considering that they require that the most beautiful Spartan girls serve as sexual slaves to them and that they will only give an audience with a bribe of gold.

It's also interesting to take Gellman's argument one step further -- that freedom is a gift from god. If this is true, why does Gellman's god impose rules (i.e. the Ten Commandments) which cannot be broken if one wants salvation? Doesn't sound a whole lot like freedom to me. In effect, Gellman is not "made in God's image to be free as well."

When I walked out of the theatre, I had a strong sense of anti-religious themes running through the film. But these are the kind of people who get a column over at Newsweek. Being a Rabbi doesn't make one an expert on religion any more than being a politician makes one an expert on government -- it just makes one a tool for the system in which one identifies.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Religion is a Dead Weight

On Friday, I had a very interesting discussion with a co-worker which began about the over-representation of religious figures versus non-religious figures in the media on issues of "values" or "morality." She took the position that pitting religious figures from the left and the right is enough to have a balanced debate, but I had to disagree. What about the perspective from openly non-religious figures (i.e. atheists)? By only having religious figures debate these topics, the impression that religion has some sort of moral authority is created. As we discussed this, the conversation quickly turned into a debate over the intersection of religion and science, as well as the role of religion in regards to human progress.

Her position here was that progressive religious people are a step in the right direction -- progressive religious people meaning those who still hold the basic tenets of their faiths as true while at the same time accepting known science about the natural world that contradicts what is taught in their holy books. Religious pluralism is what she was arguing for, but again, I had to point out the corrosive effect even religious progressives have. Despite the fact that these religious progressives have attempted to negotiate their faith with science create a sort of cognitive dissonance. Why haven't these people taken the methodologies behind the science that they do accept and applied them to all aspects of their faith? It is and interesting question, and one that religious progressives appear unwilling to explore.

Over at ScienceBlogs the other week, I followed an interesting discussion on this very topic. One blogger, Rob Knop, wrote about how he has meshed his religious faith and this scientific understandings. Another blogger, Jason Rosenhouse, pointed out that Knop was conceding many things central to the faith he subscribed to in order to hold onto that faith. Eventually, we are told that the religious progressive has some sort of "spirituality," which another blogger, PZ Myers, describes accurately. My point is that religious progressives are forced to throw away central tenets of their faith in order to keep that faith in conjunction with science. Tenet after tenet is sacrificed... so why not just take this progression to its logical conclusion?

But back to the original topic: I was trying to show that religion no longer holds any kind of moral authority. In fact, every modern social advancement I can think of -- human rights, democratic government, social equality -- is conceived of by thinkers using the basic foundation of the enlightenment: logic, reason, rational thought, empiricism, and collection of evidence to prove theorems. Religion then adapts in order to survive, all the while holding onto the tenets that cannot be directly challenged by science and philosophy. I do believe that one day science and philosophical thought will replace religion completely -- both science and philosophy have mechanisms of improvement built into them as our understanding of the world becomes more complete, as well as have a foundation in the enlightenment thought process. These are much better sources for moral authority -- why turn to the bible, which is a document that cannot be viewed or analyzed in its original form or altered from its current state, when you can turn to a document like the US Constitution, which can be viewed in its original form and which can be altered as social/cultural institutions change?

Religion is a dead weight on the road to progress. Religion holds us back, and religious progressives are a part of the problem. Religious progressives give legitimacy to irrational ideas and help those ideas persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is this religious dogma that slows down progress. Religious pluralism, while sounding very democratic, allows for things like the literal interpretation of the Bible to persist. Not all ideas are created equal, and not all ideas should be viewed as polar opposites of each other with the same validity. Religious ideas are at the bottom of the knowledge food chain -- they aren't based on anything over than blind faith. Scientific ideas are much different in that they are based on repeatable observations and natural phenomenon, supported by empirical evidence, and argued using rational and logical frameworks. Science and faith are not equal ideas, and science will trump faith every time.

Unfortunately, many people still hold onto these religious faiths, and it is slowing down our progress as a species. But the good news is that an increasing number of people are rejecting them on some level or another, and each new cohort is more progressive and less religious than the one before it. And with the proportion of atheists on the rise and the proportion of theists on the decline, isn't it about time that non-theists be given the same exposure and legitimacy granted to the theists in the media?

Friday, March 23, 2007

McCain: Targeted for Termination

Walnuts looks as though he's about to get punched in the face by the Governator!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Music is a Dinosaur

Today, I read in The Washington Monthly that record companies are continuing to see CD sales drop. The discussion in the comments section is rather interesting too. While the RIAA continues to blame internet privacy of mp3s as the cause of their woes, many others have pointed out the fact that the RIAA fought tooth and nail to avoid adapting a new business model to include digital music files -- thus leading to their current crisis.

Others still have pointed to the fact that music today generally sucks... but I think that it can be argued that the pop music of any era generally sucked, with a few notable exceptions here and there. One comment suggested that artists today have to compete with almost 100 years of back catalog, which has created the appearance of no new music in pop. I tend to agree with this last point -- today, the music scene has been flooded with musical acts that lead nowhere, or that have virtually nothing interesting to add. It's much more difficult these days for an unknown band to get recognition, simply because there's so much out there already. And, as Steve Albini has pointed out, major labels exploit bands in ways that carve their short life-spans into stone before the first record contract is even signed.

I think the current trends in music and music consumption will lead to the complete destruction of the music industry, and there's no amount of copyright law that can prevent this collapse. Many in the youngest generation have been accustomed to getting their music fix for free. The album format appears to be on its way out, as music lovers continually complain about CDs having one or two good songs and the rest being filler. Additionally, as more people download music from places like iTunes, they are searching for individual songs instead of entire albums. Music is less about holding a physical copy in your own hands than about cramming an iPod with 80 gigabytes worth of music, which is more than enough music for one person to listen to completely in any reasonable amount of time. People may also feel that they have so much music already that there is no reason to go out and pay for more -- and on top of that, the latest musical acts are a lot less than even marginally tolerable.

Then you have this flood of amateur acts, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in-and-of itself. But this over-saturation of the market will bring down the value of music for the average consumer. Why would someone pay $20 for a CD of a mediocre pop act when they can log onto MySpace and check out hundreds of DIY bands for free? I think the trend is clear -- we're moving away from amassing physical copies of music. We're going into an over-saturation of the amount of choice available, which is now collected digitally.

So I propose something radical: stop selling music. Fuck record labels. Don't even create a physical product. Play shows, write songs, but don't bother trying to cement ownership into a physical recreation. At this point, I think that's futile. Instead of trying to claim ownership, just create music -- not to make a living, but to destroy the fucking culture.

Executive Privilege v. The Constitution

The Baltimore Sun has a rather misleading headline in today's paper -- "Bush says Congress can talk to aides." Sure, the Bush administration technically did say that; however, the White House is not allowing aides to be questioned on the public record or under oath:

He [Bush] urged them to accept his offer to have Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers talk to congressional investigators behind closed doors, but not under oath. He also pledged to release all White House documents related to the firings.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said it best:
"It is not constructive, and it is not helpful to be telling the Senate how to do our investigation, or to prejudge its outcome. Testimony should be on the record and under oath. That's the formula for true accountability."
So what is the Bush administration's reasoning for disallowing White House aides to testify on the public record and under oath?
White House counsel Fred Fielding said in a letter to congressional leaders that Bush's proposal struck a balance between providing the information that Congress needs and preserving confidences of the president under the doctrine of executive privilege.

Besides making the questioning private and not under oath, he said, the interviews should be permitted only as "a last resort." [emphasis mine]

Preserving executive privilege. This may or may not be constitutional, since we haven't had any serious inquiry into President Bush’s excessive use of executive privilege. Once again, this administration is attempting to concentrate and preserve political power.

And I'm glad that the Democrats are going to be challenging the President’s decision with subpoenas:
"We will move forward to authorize subpoenas for current and former White House and Justice officials, as well as documents," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.
The committee "will take whatever steps are necessary and within our congressional authority to get to the bottom of what has become a horrible mess that is undermining American trust in our federal criminal justice system."

Bush wants to avoid a confrontation, and that's because he knows that the courts will force White House aides to testify on the record, under oath. I, for one, look forward to subpoenas being issued tomorrow -- it's about fucking time that a constitutional confrontation occur. We need to short circuit this idea of a unitary executive if we want to continue to live in a democracy rather than a dictatorship.

This coming confrontation is more important than anything else in politics today -- dare I say it -- it is even more important than the conflict in Iraq. This is about whether or not the executive branch can do whatever it wants without congressional oversight. Clearly, we need to have a balance of power between the three branches of government, and allowing the executive to have this kind of unchallengeable power is not healthy for a functioning democracy.

UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that the House approves issuing subpoenas.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Police Brutality Targets the Elderly

I read in The Colorado Springs Gazette that a St. Patrick's Day parade turned into a confrontation with police. So what happened? Colorado Confidential reports:

Bill Durland, who was part of a group of about 45 marching with the Bookman bookmobile, says he watched as Colorado Springs police, some wearing riot helmets, descended into the crowd.

One cop kneed a woman in the groin as she lay on the ground. Another broke a wooden peace sign that one of the participants had been carrying. One photo shows a cop with his arm around the neck of a retired priest, Frank Cordaro, in an apparent chokehold. In another shot a cop hoists a Taser.
Check the links to see some of the pictures of the brutality.

These were senior citizens sporting peace signs who had a permit to march in the parade, yet police took it upon themselves to remove this "threat." Police state, anyone?

Monday, March 19, 2007

More Freedom of Speech Misunderstandings

Today, my wife directed me towards the livejournal of one of her favorite filmmakers, Nick Zedd. In his March 18, 2007 post, he details a confrontation he had over the Columbia University students who stormed the stage during a speech by Minutemen Project founder Jim Gilchrist. His argument boils down to this: the students violated Gilchrist's 1st amendment right of freedom of speech, and that the students should have countered Gilchrist with "reasoned debate" since that will "negate" an "illogical and indefensible point of view." Naturally, I became interested in this because of my recent comments regarding Ann Coulter's "Macaca moment."

As I have argued before, the 1st amendment guarantees freedom from the government limiting one’s speech, but does not guarantee a forum through which to disseminate that speech. Gilchrist has the right to say whatever he likes, but he has no constitutional right to a stage to voice that speech from. And the students have a vested interest in voicing their grievances with the university’s decision to give Gilchrist a forum through which to disseminate his speech.

Gilchrist was given a public forum, and these students did what the underprivileged and disenfranchised do (in the context that these students were not given a forum of equal influence to represent their opposing point-of-view) -- they assembled and protested. Zedd would have preferred that the students engage in reasoned debate instead of civil disobedience, but I have my doubts that Gilchrist would ever agree to such conditions. It seems that the students' decision to storm the stage with more speech was the most effective way to counter speech that they didn't agree with.

And now these students may be facing disciplinary action from their university for exercising another part of their 1st amendment rights -- freedom of assembly and protest.

Again, I don’t see this as a censorship issue at all, because the students were not limiting Gilchrist’s speech in any way -- he can still say whatever he wants about immigration in the US, and the students haven’t made it illegal for Gilchrist to voice his opinions. Instead, the students were simply protesting Gilchrist’s speech at their university by using more speech. I wonder if Zedd is OK with limiting the students’ speech of protesting speech they disagree with? I would think not, but this is the logical extension of his argument.

inally, there’s a problem with Zedd's central argument that:

"an illogical and indefensible point of view will be negated by reasoned debate."

This is not always necessarily true -- illogical and indefensible positions have frequently (especially in the last six years) overcome reasoned debate in politics. Take, for example, the Bush administration’s position on torture: how has reasoned debate “negated” the administration’s indefensible argument in favor of torture, considering that the administration’s position is currently official US policy?

Early Derailment of the Straight Talk Express

"Mr. Straight-Talk" is unsure about contraceptives preventing the spread of HIV. You have to read it to believe it:

Q: “Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Q: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Q: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Freedom of Speech

So we're all aware of Ann Coulter's remarks towards Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards about a week ago. This is old news so I'll get right to the point -- my problem is with this recent "defense" of sorts in Coulter's favor, which argues that petitioning newspapers to cease printing Coulter's column is akin to limiting her freedom of speech; or worse, it's akin to censorship.

How is this so? The 1st amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees freedom from the government limiting a person's speech, yet it says nothing about guaranteeing a forum through which to disseminate that speech. Coulter has no 1st amendment right to have her column printed in a newspaper.

The question that those who are urging newspapers to drop Coulter from their pages are asking of editors is simply this: does Coulter's column provide for the public interest? For a functioning democracy to survive, media has to be relevant, coherent, and potent. Media should be a "4th estate," asking the tough questions to those in a position of power in order to simultaneously provide for an informed populace while serving as a watchdog to the government. I think it's patently obvious to those paying attention to Coulter's career that her columns have never provided anything even resembling these principles.

This is not a censorship issue, and those who believe it is need to retake their high school civics class.