Thursday, May 29, 2008

Is it okay to break the law if the President says it’s okay?

From the ACLU.
That’s the outrageous proposition at the heart of a new spying “compromise” that Republican Senator Christopher Bond is pushing on Capitol Hill.

His goal: to let off the hook telecommunications companies that willfully cooperated with illegal spying.

Senator Bond wants to bury lawsuits filed against telecom companies in a secret court. And, when they get there, he wants cases dismissed if the companies can show that the President gave them a note saying his request for customer information was legal.

He just might get away with it, unless we can convince Congress to reject his proposal.

Tell your representative: Just because the president says it's legal doesn't make it so! Take action now.
Not to mention that we are presumably governed by laws not royal edict.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Stroke Leads a Brain Scientist to a New Spirituality

There's a nice story in the NYTimes on Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain scientist whose stroke enabled her to experience her right brain almost in isolation. (See also my earlier post about her.) She has become quite a celebrity. Here are some extracts.
“I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.” …

Dr. Taylor shows the less mystically inclined … that this experience of deep contentment “is part of the capacity of the human mind.” …

Although her father is an Episcopal minister and she was raised in his church, she cannot be counted among the traditionally faithful. “Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain,” she said. …

Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely. …

On Web sites like and in Eckhart Tolle discussion groups, people debate whether she is truly enlightened or just physically damaged and confused.
A discussion among people seeking enlightenment debating whether Taylor is "truly enlightened or just physically damaged and confused" strikes me as particularly ironic. Taylor's whole point is that it's possible to stop forcing one's view of the world to conform to such rigid left brain categories.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Misleading Claims That Congressional Budget Plan Calls For "Largest Tax Increase In History"

The President’s [2001 and 2003] tax cuts expire in 2010 because their supporters deliberately designed them that way … Supporters of those measures opted to “sunset” the tax cuts before the end of the ten-year budget window, partly to avoid recognizing the cost of permanent tax cuts. Now, a few years from the tax cuts’ expiration, some of these same supporters are acting as though the tax cuts are already permanent and that any proposal to offset any portion of the cost of extending them is a “tax increase.”

To extend the tax cuts without paying for them — and to attack those who simply seek to require that Congress at least partially pay for any extension of the tax cuts — further heightens the irresponsible fiscal nature of the original actions.
But then we already knew that Republican lie.

The right to marry? What does that really mean?

In the ACLU's newly re-titled "Blog of Rights" Matt Coles, Director, ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project writes the following
From a constitutional lawyer’s standpoint, [the California Supreme Court gay marriage] decision is just about everything we could have hoped for. The Court rules—in general—that sexual orientation is not a legitimate reason to treat gay people differently. In lawyer’s jargon, the court held that sexual orientation is a “suspect” classification, just like gender and race classifications.

The Court also holds that even though history is important in deciding what a fundamental constitutional right is, courts should not respect traditional restrictions on who got to exercise the right in the past.

The Court puts these rulings together and says that since the right to marry is fundamental, denying it to any group of people is highly suspect. Moreover, the Court says, since the law denies gay people the right to marry, this particular exclusion is highly suspect.
I certainly am pleased with the court's decision and have always favored allowing gays to marry. But this reasoning raises a number of questions for me. (I don't have time to read the decision, which might answer my questions.)

What does it mean to say that the right to marry is fundamental? What does the right to marry mean? To which pairs of people is it available? What qualifications, if any, must people satisfy to be permitted to marry? Can any two adults marry? Other than the polygamy restriction, are there any pair of adults who are not now permitted to marry?

What obligations does marriage entail? What rights does it provide?

Basically I'm wondering whether this position says that marriage has nothing at all to do with love and that any two people who choose to enter into the legal marriage relationship have a "fundamental" right to do so?

Why should that right be fundamental? What is so fundamental about it? It is different from any other "right?"

I'm not necessarily objecting to that position, but is that the position of the court? If so, it makes marriage even more of an administrative and legal relationship and removes it even further from notions such as having a sexual relationship, emotional pair bonding, and families.

Do any two people who find the legal relationship of marriage to their advantage have a right to enter into it—in the same way that any two people who find any other legally acceptable contractual relationship to their advantage have a right to enter into that relationship?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Thought police? US supreme court upholds child pornography ban

From What I find most interesting about this decision is the extent to which it depends on what people think they are doing. [All emphases added.]
[In a 7-2 decision the] court found that the language of the statute requires that the offender believe him or herself to be offering child pornography, and the offender must intend that the listener believe the material to be child pornography. …

The statute does not require that an offender actually possess child pornography, but criminalises promotion and advertisement of child pornography, for example an internet post describing child pornography available for trade or sale. …

Justice David Souter wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They were troubled that the act could conceivably be used to punish someone for promoting images that didn't in fact portray children, so long as the person believed them to.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Good for Barack.

Finally, a Democrat who will attack back. From The New York Times.
Senator Barack Obama responded sharply on Friday to attacks on his foreign policy, linking President Bush and Senator John McCain as partners in “the failed policies” of the past seven years and criticizing them for “hypocrisy, fear peddling, fear mongering.”

Confronting a major challenge to his world view, Mr. Obama tried to turn the tables on his critics, saying they were guilty of “bluster” and “dishonest, divisive” tactics. He cited a litany of what he called foreign policy blunders by the Bush administration and accused Mr. McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, of “doubling down” on them.

“George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for,” Mr. Obama said at a midday forum here, listing the Iraq war, the strengthening of Iran and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden’s being still at large and stalled diplomacy in other parts of the Middle East among their chief failings.

“If George Bush and John McCain want to have a debate about protecting the United States of America,” Mr. Obama said, “that is a debate I am happy to have any time, any place.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

House of Representatives votes to withdraw from Iraq.

From The Guardian
The U.S. House of Representatives, in a surprise and largely symbolic move, defeated legislation on Thursday to fund the war in Iraq for another year.
And the Bush response?
The House bill "seeks to tie the hands of our military commanders and impose an artificial timeline for withdrawal," the White House said.
And I thought that under the US constitution, civilians were supposed to control the military. Silly me.

A neat ad from the Courage Campaign

The Neural Buddhists - New York Times

A nice column by David Brooks
The atheism debate is a textbook example of how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as “The Origin of Species reshaped social thinking, just as Einstein’s theory of relativity affected art, so the revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people see the world.

And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.
I think Brooks is right that the debate will be between theology and "spirituality." It's been popular for a while for people to describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious."

What Brooks hasn't realized is that spirituality is also a subjective experience; it takes place in one's mind and doesn't necessarily imply anything about the world. "[Feeling] the existence of the sacred," as Brooks put it, doesn't imply the existence of "the sacred," just the ability to have certain feelings.

The realization that these feelings are not necessarily connected to any particular religion is progress—at least in my opinion.

But distinguishing between subjective experience and external reality is—also in my opinion—the real truth of Buddhism. It's also the fundamental truth of science.

The New Cold War

I'm very glad (again) that Thomas Friedman is back.
[The] real … story in the Middle East today [is] the struggle for influence across the region, with America and its Sunni Arab allies (and Israel) versus Iran, Syria and their non-state allies, Hamas and Hezbollah. As the May 11 editorial in the Iranian daily Kayhan put it, “In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the U.S.”

For now, Team America is losing on just about every front. How come? The short answer is that Iran is smart and ruthless, America is dumb and weak, and the Sunni Arab world is feckless and divided. Any other questions?

The outrage of the week is the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah attempt to take over Lebanon. Hezbollah thugs pushed into Sunni neighborhoods in West Beirut, focusing particular attention on crushing progressive news outlets like Future TV, so Hezbollah’s propaganda machine could dominate the airwaves. The Shiite militia Hezbollah emerged supposedly to protect Lebanon from Israel. Having done that, it has now turned around and sold Lebanon to Syria and Iran.

All of this is part of what Ehud Yaari, one of Israel’s best Middle East watchers, calls “Pax Iranica.” In his April 28 column in The Jerusalem Report, Mr. Yaari pointed out the web of influence that Iran has built around the Middle East — from the sway it has over Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to its ability to manipulate virtually all the Shiite militias in Iraq, to its building up of Hezbollah into a force — with 40,000 rockets — that can control Lebanon and threaten Israel should it think of striking Tehran, to its ability to strengthen Hamas in Gaza and block any U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Simply put,” noted Mr. Yaari, “Tehran has created a situation in which anyone who wants to attack its atomic facilities will have to take into account that this will lead to bitter fighting” on the Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi and Persian Gulf fronts. That is a sophisticated strategy of deterrence.

The Bush team, by contrast, in eight years has managed to put America in the unique position in the Middle East where it is “not liked, not feared and not respected,” [emphasis added] writes Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast negotiator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, in his provocative new book on the peace process, titled “The Much Too Promised Land.”

“We stumbled for eight years under Bill Clinton over how to make peace in the Middle East, and then we stumbled for eight years under George Bush over how to make war there,” said Mr. Miller, and the result is “an America that is trapped in a region which it cannot fix and it cannot abandon.” …

The only weaker party is the Sunni Arab world, which is either so drunk on oil it thinks it can buy its way out of any Iranian challenge or is so divided it can’t make a fist to protect its own interests — or both.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Arianna Huffington: McCain and Me

Arianna Huffington reported the other day that John McCain told her that he didn't vote for Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
At a dinner party in Los Angeles not long after the 2000 election, I was talking to a man and his wife, both prominent Republicans. The conversation soon turned to the new president. "I didn't vote for George Bush" the man confessed. "I didn't either," his wife added. Their names: John and Cindy McCain (Cindy told me she had cast a write-in vote for her husband).

The fact that this man was so angry at what George Bush had done to him, and at what Bush represented for their party, that he did not even vote for him in 2000 shows just how far he has fallen since then in his hunger for the presidency. By abandoning his core principles and embracing Bush — both literally and metaphorically — he has morphed into an older and crankier version of the man he couldn't stomach voting for in 2000.
Mark Salter, a "longtime McCain aide," denied that McCain had ever said that, calling Huffington "a flake and a poser and an attention-seeking diva". Here is part of her response.
As you can see from the many, many newspaper columns I wrote singing his praises, John McCain was one of my political heroes.

Here's one column where I compared him to a modern day gladiator, inspired by his vow 'to have blood all over the floor of the Senate until we accede to the demands of the people' for meaningful reform. In the column, I credit Salter as McCain's 'fellow gladiator,' and include a quote he gave me... before I flaked out on him and started posing and seeking attention.

But hero-worship dies hard, which is why it took so long for me to see that the man who had been willing to take on his own party and redefine what it meant to be a 'loyal Republican,' who stood up for his beliefs in campaign finance reform and his opposition to unconscionable tax cuts and even more unconscionable torture, was no more.

It's why I described his fall as Shakespearean (and, speaking of the Bard, hearing the invective spewing from the McCain camp in response to my post, 'thou doth protest too much, methinks' leaps to mind).

This isn't Mitt Romney we're talking about, folks — a man for whom pandering and flip flopping fit like a perfectly tailored suit. This is John McCain, a man whose personal history, in the words of Newsweek in 2000, "makes the other presidential candidates look like pygmies" — and who, at one time, before he held a fire sale on his principles (Everything Must Go!), was ennobled by that history and had the chance to become that rarest of things — a real leader.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Another great column by Tom Friedman

New York Times
Traveling the country these past five months while writing a book, I’ve had my own opportunity to take the pulse, far from the campaign crowds. My own totally unscientific polling has left me feeling that if there is one overwhelming hunger in our country today it’s this: People want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America.

They are not only tired of nation-building in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with so little to show for it. They sense something deeper — that we’re just not that strong anymore. We’re borrowing money to shore up our banks from city-states called Dubai and Singapore. Our generals regularly tell us that Iran is subverting our efforts in Iraq, but they do nothing about it because we have no leverage — as long as our forces are pinned down in Baghdad and our economy is pinned to Middle East oil.

Our president’s latest energy initiative was to go to Saudi Arabia and beg King Abdullah to give us a little relief on gasoline prices. I guess there was some justice in that. When you, the president, after 9/11, tell the country to go shopping instead of buckling down to break our addiction to oil, it ends with you, the president, shopping the world for discount gasoline. …

Microsoft Bid for Yahoo Withdrawn - New York Times

Is $4/share (about 12%) really the end? From the New York Times
The talks culminated in a final meeting on Saturday in which Mr. Yang flew to Seattle to meet with Mr. Ballmer. Mr. Ballmer stuck to his $33 price, and Mr. Yang said Yahoo’s board would accept $37 a share. Hours later, Mr. Ballmer sent Mr. Yang the letter saying Microsoft would withdraw its bid.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Cognitive Age

David Brooks has an interesting column in the New York Times. He quotes William Overholt of the RAND Corporation as saying that "between 1994 and 2004 the Chinese shed 25 million manufacturing jobs, 10 times more than the U.S."
The globalization paradigm emphasizes the fact that information can now travel 15,000 miles in an instant. But the most important part of information’s journey is the last few inches — the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it? Are there cultural assumptions that distort the way it is perceived? …

It’s not that globalization and the skills revolution are contradictory processes. But which paradigm you embrace determines which facts and remedies you emphasize. Politicians, especially Democratic ones [he can't resist bashing Democrats], have fallen in love with the globalization paradigm. It’s time to move beyond it.