25 November 2015

The Russian fighter-plane incident

Turkey's downing of a Russian fighter plane yesterday further complicates the already very complex and dangerous Syrian civil war.  As always, we don't immediately know some critical details of what happened.  Turkey claims the plane passed over Turkish territory and was warned ten times in the space of five minutes before being shot down; Russia claims it remained entirely over Syrian territory and was not warned.  Presumably in time objective data will sort out which version is correct.

Background on the key players:

1) The Syrian civil war pits the Asad regime (dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam) against several rebel groups including Dâ'ish (ISIS), Jabhat an-Nusrah (an al-Qâ'idah affiliate), the Kurds of the northeast, and various other ethnic and sectarian rebels.  Some of these rebel groups, such as Dâ'ish and the Kurds, are also fighting each other.  Syria's population is very heterogenous, but the majority is Sunni; militantly Sunni groups such as Dâ'ish and Jabhat an-Nusrah loathe the rule of the "heretic" Alawites.  The Asad regime has a history of extreme brutality, which also fuels the rebellion.

2) Turkey is a secular democracy, but its current ruling party is Islamist, authoritarian, and belligerent in foreign policy (imagine a sort of Turkish version of the Republicans).  Its military power far outclasses that of most other Middle Eastern countries, thanks to its NATO membership which gives it access to US technology and training.  Turkey's grudging support of the fight against Dâ'ish is complicated by its long-standing enmity toward the Kurds -- the huge Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey has been waging an on-and-off fight for independence for decades, sometimes including terrorism.  Like the US, Turkey favors the removal of the Asad regime in Syria.

3) Russia supports the Asad regime (which is a cooperative client of both Russia and Iran) and has recently involved itself in the Syrian civil war to attack not only Dâ'ish but also the more moderate rebel groups, some of which are US-supported.  Putin's Duce state has a history of increasingly aggressive behavior which includes challenging the airspace of NATO countries, notably Britain.

In the area of Syria where the plane incident happened, the anti-government rebels are members of the Türkmen ethnic group who, as their name suggests, are related to the Turks and speak a form of Turkish.  Turkey tends to be protective of Turkic peoples outside its borders, and has demanded that Russia cease operations against the Türkmen rebels, a demand Russia has ignored (this suggests another possible motive for Turkey's aggressive stance toward Russian forces in the area).  The most disturbing part of the story is not the downing of the plane itself, but what happened thereafter.

Both Russian pilots successfully bailed out over Syria before their plane crashed.  However, the Türkmen rebels boasted that they shot at both Russians as they parachuted down, killing them in midair.  Russia now says that one pilot has been rescued alive, but the Türkmens may well indeed have killed the other in his parachute, which would constitute a war crime.  They also fired at a Russian search-and-rescue helicopter which was looking for the pilots, killing one crew member.  At the very least, if this rebel group is one of those which has been receiving US support, that support needs to end.  And even if Russia is shown to have been in the wrong about violating Turkish airspace, Putin cannot let the cold-blooded murder of a Russian military pilot go unanswered.  If Russia escalates operations against the Türkmen rebels and Turkey continues to try to protect them, further clashes are likely.

The US has been publicly supportive of its NATO ally Turkey, but is no doubt working on both sides behind the scenes to de-escalate the situation.  Once again we're fortunate to have a leader like Obama at such a time.  I don't even want to think about how a President Rubio or, Satan forbid, a President Trump would be handling this.

24 November 2015

A few observations on politics

John Bel Edwards, who beat David Vitter in the race for Louisiana Governor last week, is not anyone's idea of a flaming liberal.  He's anti-abortion, pro-gun, and a "man of religion" according to his campaign website.  Some might even call him a DINO.  Is such a victory worth celebrating at all?

Booman Tribune makes it clear that the answer is yes.  Edwards is likely to increase education funding, expand Medicaid, and address the state's budget problems by rolling back business tax breaks rather than cutting services.  What if a more solid liberal had run as a third candidate and split the Democratic vote, or if too many Democrats had refused to vote for Edwards because he wasn't "pure" enough?  The Governor-elect would then be an anti-abortion, pro-gun man of religion who wouldn't do any of those positive things.  Results are what count.


The Republican establishment has announced plans for an ad campaign to take down Donald Trump, spearheaded by a John Kasich super-PAC which has committed $2.5 million to the effort.  It seems to me that this initiative will only worsen the infighting within an already disastrously-divided party.  The first ad looks ineffectual and utterly clueless about why Trump is doing so well with the troglodyte base in the first place.  And the BONCs (boring old normal conservatives) are struggling against a daunting enthusiasm gap -- The Donald is the only Republican drawing the big crowds, and this has been true throughout the campaign.  Nobody's excited about Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, the hapless Jeb!, or any of the other "serious" candidates being so earnestly pushed by sober conservative pundits.  After years of being fed fear and rage in an alternate-reality fake-news bubble, the rabid base now demands nothing short of utter lunacy from its candidates, and they're flocking to the man who's serving them great steaming red-meat heaps of it.  They're not going to be chivvied back into line behind some ordinary politician.

The Republican party has lost control of the monster it created.  But that monster isn't Trump, it's the barbarian horde supporting him.  That's the point.

Still, it's never wise to underestimate one's opponent.


A new poll, startling to some, shows that on the issue of dealing with terrorism Americans trust Hillary Clinton more than they trust any of her likely Republican opponents.  Readers may recall that, at the end of my original post explaining my support, I raised this point as crucial to why Hillary must be the Democratic candidate.  Bizarre and unfair as it is, the country favors Republicans over Democrats on national security by a huge margin -- but she personally is an exception, being rated better than the Republicans are.

Some might argue that this is less of an issue than it seems right now, because by November 2016 the Paris attack will be a year in the past and mostly forgotten.  But that attack actually shows how, at any moment, foreign affairs can suddenly erupt and dominate a campaign.  What if next October sees Dâ'ish carry out a similar attack in Manhattan?  (They might even attack with the conscious aim of encouraging the election of a Republican President, knowing that the resulting incompetent military escalation in the Middle East would radicalize millions of Muslims.)  What if it's something else -- a revolt in Saudi Arabia, some North Korean aggression against South Korea or Japan, a Russian move into the Baltic states similar to the current one in Ukraine?  Such an event could abruptly change the focus of the election at any time, without warning.  We can't risk running a candidate who inspires anything less than full public confidence on security.

22 November 2015

Коллекция ссылк для 22 ноября 2015

Congratulations to Democrat John Bel Edwards, elected Governor of Louisiana yesterday.  A harbinger for next year!

Be cautious when buying a T-shirt with writing in a language you don't understand.

Here's an aurora no one has ever seen.

An employee shares memories of Chick-Fil-A.

As Britain de-Christianizes, paganism is making a comeback (found via Mendip).

Dolphins get stoned too (and they don't even have to worry about assholes making laws against it).

Sorry, but Syria would never go for this exchange.

When legal marijuana comes to Israel, celebrate with this (found via Mendip).

British theaters decide not to pester Star Wars fans with religion.

The wingnut media are now claiming Trump didn't really call for registering Muslims -- but he did.

Muslims condemn the Paris attack, and Muslim public opinion worldwide rejects Dâ'ish.  Christian extremists Kevin Swanson and Theodore Shoebat condemn the victims.  Iranian atheist Kaveh Mousavi takes a nuanced look at what's behind such violence.  The world shows solidarity with Paris.

Burr Deming looks at religious moderates and extremists.

Austerity policies imposed by the European Union make Europe more vulnerable to attacks like the one in Paris.

In this comment thread I try to summarize liberalism for the right-wingers, and discover it's mostly a waste of time.

Here's a point-by-point take-down of anti-abortion arguments.  It all boils down to this.  In Ireland, activists help women defy barbaric laws.

This guy wants to limit freedom of speech because his imaginary friend doesn't like it.

Dâ'ish may be starting to wish they hadn't blown up that Russian airliner -- and France has been making its wrath felt as well.

A Democratic mayor in Virginia rejects Syrian refugees, gets dumped by Hillary's campaign, and gets pwned by George Takei.  Since the Paris attack France has increased its commitment to the refugees, making a contrast to the US -- though apparently that map is wrong about Massachusetts.  US Evangelicals are genuinely divided on the issue (found via Republic of Gilead).

Here's a graphic photo essay on Dâ'ish atrocities.

Saudi Arabia sentences a poet to death for "doubting the existence of God".

On some things, even Rand Paul is a complete wingnut.

How do we treat our soldiers?

Republicans are a counter-revolutionary party likely to lose big next year.

Boycott Mall-Wart.

A good omen for future unity -- Hillary and Bernie supporters mostly like each other's candidates.

People will use drugs.  Let's encourage the safest option.

Redneck idiots can't even do racist violence properly.

A Republican says Trump is destroying the party.  Boring old regular conservatives launch a campaign to take him down (photo reminds me of Mr. Creosote).

The evidence is clear -- birds are dinosaurs.

Look who's got a pet frog.

(Note: The title of this week's link roundup is in Russian as a small gesture of solidarity after the terrorist destruction of the Metrojet airliner over Sinai three weeks ago.)

21 November 2015

This is the man

If the next week or two pan out as I expect they will, they will confirm my growing belief which is now hardening into conviction:  Trump will be the Republican nominee for President.

By now everyone knows of yesterday's eruption about a "database" of Muslims in the US, who would have to "register" and carry ID identifying them as Muslims -- an idea which has prompted even some Republicans to make comparisons with Hitler (example).  Another commenter asked if the special ID would consist of making Muslims wear yellow crescents on their clothes.  After all his repulsive remarks about John McCain, Latinos, women, various rival candidates, Mexico, Iowa, and on and on, Trump has finally sunk to the depth beyond which there are no further depths to sink.  Through every previous outrage he kept, or quickly recovered, his front-runner status in polls of Republicans.  If the same happens this time -- and I believe it will -- he's invulnerable.  If his front-runner status survives this, it will survive anything.

The kind of people who have supported him so far will continue to do so because the simplicity of broad-brush prejudice appeals to the simple-minded:

On terrorism, as on so many other issues, what sounds outrageous to political and media elites can sound reasonable to large swathes of the American electorate, said veteran New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Dave Carney. "When [elites] sit around and have a wine after work and some brie and they talk about the situation and geopolitics and what's going on in the Mideast they're talking about the Sunnis and the Shia and Alexander the Great and.....what font the f**king French should've used to draw the maps after World War I," he said. "Americans after work, if they can have the time to have a beer and see what's going on, think there are these radical Islamist terrorists who want to kill us."

.....A perfect example of what Isaac Asimov called "the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'."  There's always been that sludge at the bottom of the gene pool which believes in simple solutions for every problem and hates the "pointy-headed intellectuals" who always make everything sound so complicated because they, uh, know stuff.

For four decades the Republican party has cultivated that element and ridden its support to many significant electoral victories.  But now it has become such a large and even dominant presence in the party's voting base that the party establishment can no longer control the monster it has created.  Especially with the non-Trump vote split among an absurd number of candidates, Trump has stayed on top for nearly five months and will continue to do so.  And it's now late November.  The February votes in Iowa and New Hampshire aren't all that far away any more.

I don't believe Trump can become President.  The general electorate is very different from the Republican primary electorate.  But I believe he will be the candidate facing Hillary.  Which will make 2016 the most bizarre, and hair-raising, US election in living memory.

[I don't remember where I found the photo above, but I like how it brings out Trump's resemblance to Jabba the Hutt -- a character he's reminiscent of in a number of ways, if you think about it.]

19 November 2015

The name of the enemy

There's a certain amount of confusion about the name of the enemy in the current Middle East war.  ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, and so on are all commonly used.  What should we call them?

The actual name of the group is this:
In transliteration, allowing for the fact that the sound system of Arabic is very different from that of English, this is:  Ad-Dawlah al-Islâmiyyah fî al-'Irâq wa-ash-Shâm (in actual speech the "a" vowel of al- drops out in most situations and the words are pronounced in a more run-together fashion).  The name translates as "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria", the acronym of which, ISIS, has become the most common English term for the group.

Ash-Shâm is actually an archaic word for Syria as a region, which historically refers to a larger area than the present-day country of Syria (the Arabic name of the modern country of Syria is Sûriyâ), so some writers translate it into English as "the Levant" -- hence ISIL, the other commonly-used acronym for the group.

The letters I've underlined in red above are the first letters of each of the four words (the reason they don't look like they're at the beginning of the words is that in Arabic the definite article al- is written joined to the word following it).  The first letter of 'Irâq is actually a "throat" consonant with no European equivalent, often represented in transliteration by an apostrophe.  When you combine the four letters to form an Arabic-script acronym, you get this:
The letters look different from how they do in the full name, because just as letters in our own alphabet have two forms (capital and lower case), Arabic letters have up to four forms which are used depending on how they join, or not, to the letters adjacent to them.  The acronym would be pronounced Dâ'ish in Arabic, and this is actually what the group is often called in Arabic and, with some difference in pronunciation, in Persian and Kurdish as well.  Dâ'ish doesn't actually mean anything in Arabic as far as I know, but I've seen claims that it has a derogatory sound to it and that the group has tried to forbid people from using it.

Using Dâ'ish in English would have some advantages.  It would end the confusion between ISIS and ISIL, which are just acronyms for different translations of the same Arabic name and not really different names at all.  Abandoning ISIS would end the sullying of a perfectly good ancient Egyptian goddess and perhaps stop idiocies like this.  And it would put us on the same page with the Arabic-, Kurdish-, and Persian-speaking people who are fighting against the group.  We get along fine, after all, calling al-Qâ'idah by its Arabic name, however badly mispronounced (it translates as "the base", but few Americans even know that).  To say Dâ'ish correctly, drawl out the first vowel a bit (DAA-ish) and try to glide from the "a" to the "i" without any consonant in between (or a glottal stop, to approximate the Persian pronunciation), and you'll get pretty close.  It's the name I'll be using from now on.

18 November 2015

Quote for the day -- recruiters for the enemy

"I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this [US political] debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the West, and when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive. And it needs to stop. And I would add, by the way, these are the folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough, that just talking to Putin, or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America, as part of our tradition of compassion. Now, first they were too scared of the press being too tough on them in the debates; now they’re worried about three-year old orphans. That doesn’t seem so tough to me.

"They’ve been playing on fear to score political points or to advance their campaigns and it’s irresponsible. It needs to stop because the world is watching. I was proud after the attacks in Boston took place and we did not resort to fear and panic. Boston Strong. People went to the ball game that same week and sang the national anthem. And went back to the stores and went back to the streets. That’s how you defeat ISIL, not by trying to divide the country or suggest our tradition of compassion should stop now."

President Obama (source -- I corrected some transcription errors based on other reports)

17 November 2015

After the bloodshed comes the bullshit

As the details of the ghastly attacks in Paris grew clear last week, one thought I had was that this should, at least, build more sympathy for the waves of Syrian refugees who have flooded into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey (and, to a much lesser extent, into Europe).  Of course Syrians are fleeing a country where the same maniacs who carried out the Paris attacks are running rampant, killing at will, because in many areas they actually rule, not just raid!  How could anyone not be understanding of the human need to get the hell out of a situation like that?

This was naïve, of course.  I should know by now that there's no limit to the dishonesty and depravity to which demagogues will sink in the cause of promoting their obsessions.

In Europe, governments are quite rightly increasing security in the wake of the massacre, but the usual rabble-rousers who have been trying for years to turn Europe's Islamic-extremism problem into a "clash of civilizations" have naturally seized on this as well, not at all concerned that success would mean driving hundreds of thousands of victims of ISIS back into its arms.  The refugees themselves seem to understand the problem better than a lot of pundits do -- but then, they come from a place where demagoguery and demonization of "the other" are a lot more common than they are, or are supposed to be, in Europe these days.

If the rabble-rousers succeed in demonizing and alienating the Muslim and Muslim-descended populations of European countries, they will actually make Europe much more vulnerable to terrorism.  Over the years European countries have gotten better and better at thwarting planned terrorist attacks before they happened. The most important factor contributing to these successes is the good relationships most European police departments have built up with the mainstream Muslim communities in Europe. Most Muslims in Europe desperately do not want to see Islamic terror attacks occur -- aside from anything else, such attacks provoke hostility among the general public against the whole Muslim community (and Muslims are just as likely to be victims of the terrorists as anyone else -- one coffee-shop attacked in Paris was owned and staffed by Algerian immigrants). Muslims are often in the best position to get wind of something being planned and tip off the police. If the crazies succeed in turning the fight against terrorism into a general crusade against Muslims and immigrants, the police would likely lose their best tool for learning about attacks and stopping them before they happen.

In the US, 25 state Governors (24 of them Republican) have come out against accepting Syrian refugees, apparently unable to differentiate perpetrators and victims of terrorism if they come from the same region.  Americans sometimes read stories of the US and other countries in the thirties and forties turning away Jews fleeing from Germany, and ask how such a thing could have been possible.  Well, now we know, I guess.

Bizarrely, some Republicans seem obsessed with demanding that Democrats speak certain designated phrases as if they were magical incantations.

The most irresponsible reactions have come from the Christian Right, also amping up the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric in an effort to create the kind of mass feeling of siege and general hysteria in which extremism of all kinds, including theirs, flourishes best (and we're already seeing hysteria turning into action).  Perhaps most disgusting of all are the words of arch-fundies Sean Harris and William Sturm:

STURM: I do not feel pity for a godless society that is now eating the fruit of their own ways. I feel pity for my brothers and sisters who are in Paris who are partakers of this.

HARRIS: Sure, sure. It's hard not to say "You're reaping what you sowed".....

They suggest that the West deserves, or at least will naturally suffer, such attacks because of its acceptance of gays, secularism, and their various other bogeymen.  In this they echo the notorious remarks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after 9/11 -- and the words of ISIS's own official statement claiming credit for the Paris attack, which denounced France as the "capital of prostitution and obscenity".  Whether Christian or Muslim, religious extremists are cut from the same cloth -- anyone who doesn't conform to the primitive taboo systems of their barbaric religions is ripe for slaughter.

It must be recognized, of course, that not all religious people are extremists.  Muslim leaders and spokesmen all over the world have vociferously condemned the Paris attacks (found via Progressive Eruptions) and in France, there was this, but as with previous terror attacks, this has gotten much less attention in the US media than it should -- enabling the wingnuts to once again wail that "Muslims won't condemn terrorism" and demand that they do what they are, in fact, already doing.

The thing I'm most thankful for is that our leader right now is President Obama who, rather than indulging in macho posturing and dramatic but ill-thought-out action as irresponsible Republicans would prefer, is continuing the kind of informed and well-considered strategy that offers the best hope of actually defeating ISIS -- letting the Middle Eastern peoples who have the most at stake take the lead in fighting ISIS, while providing tactical support such as airstrikes.  To "bomb the shit out of" vast areas of Iraq and Syria without regard for civilian casualties might be emotionally satisfying, but it would throw away our alliance with the Middle Easterners who have, by far, suffered the most from ISIS's atrocities and are most determined to defeat it, while re-igniting the public sympathy for the terrorists which they have largely lost over the years since 9/11.

John Kerry's words yesterday were very important:  "This is not a clash of civilizations.  These terrorists have declared war against all civilization."  He's showing that the US government understands what is really going on.

15 November 2015

Video of the day -- Trump through foreign eyes

Irish people are shown clips of Donald Trump and give their reactions -- which I suspect are pretty typical of how this clown is viewed in foreign countries generally.  Note that with the Carson boomlet apparently starting to fade, Trump should soon regain his status as the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination.

Collection des liens pour le 15 novembre 2015

Never lose your soccer ball again.

The printers are acting up.

Christians suffer persecution, then and now.

Wingnut dumps Wells Fargo, gets pwned.

They found Cthulhu's typewriter!

Maternal death in childbirth is declining worldwide, but one major country is an exception.

Decades ago, Muhammad Ali got it.

Political pundits ponder persistent public pooing problem.

Green Eagle's latest Wingnut Wrapup is another dive into the bottomless deeps of right-wing lunacy.

Here's how to deal with offensive art.

Trump has one constituency solidly in his corner.

Look, we all know why Oklahoma has had such a huge increase in earthquake activity.

How did the Liberals win in Canada?

A Fox News discussion goes startlingly off script.

That Utah judge who took a baby from her lesbian foster parents has now backed down.

Terrorism is just a symptom.  This is the real problem.

What is socialism really like in practice?

The Rubio campaign found an interesting trick for saving money.

Evangelism doesn't work!  Let's do more of it!

Republicans got the debate they wanted, unfortunately for them.

If Sanders doesn't get the nomination, it's pretty clear who he'll vote for.

Why is a Missouri state senator trying to block a student's dissertation?

Cruz, Huckabee, and Jindal knew exactly what they were doing.  And here's an interesting question.

Egypt's Minister of Antiquities has no time for Ben Carson's idiotic blather about the pyramids.

A Veteran's Day parade in Florida turns ugly.

Lawrence Krauss brings his message on science and religion to a country where it's truly needed.

No, uninsured people don't have real access to treatment.

When it comes to terrorists, the Russians don't mess around (found via Earth-Bound Misfit).

Faye Kane looks at the bombing of Hiroshima.

A vegetarian diet can be cheaper.

South Dakota used to have this huge nasty thing.  And what the hell is this (warning: ugly).

There's a lot in just a little bit of sky (NSFW blog).

[Note: The title of this week's link roundup is in French as a small gesture of solidarity after the recent terrorist attack.  Image at top found via Progressive Eruptions.]

14 November 2015

Turning point?

"Other than the Americans, there aren't many nations capable of projecting military force at a considerable distance beyond their own borders. The terrorists have, in the last two weeks, seriously pissed off two of them."  -- Comrade Misfit

During the almost two years that ISIS has been terrorizing, enslaving, and massacring the people of Iraq and Syria, most of the burden of fighting back against these religious maniacs has been borne by the peoples of the region -- the weak Iraqi state and its demoralized army, Syrian forces embroiled in a four-way civil war, and above all the Kurdish Peshmerga and PKK, with considerable support from Iran.  The Western role has been mostly limited to air support, though this has helped substantially in some cases, as in this week's Kurdish attack which liberated the ISIS-held town of Sinjar.

That may be about to change.  By murdering at least 128 people in Paris yesterday and 224 over the Sinai earlier this month, ISIS has demonstrated that it poses an intolerable threat to more distant and far more powerful nations -- and I don't mean only France and Russia, although obviously both of those can be expected to retaliate massively for the slaughter of their citizens.  Does anyone imagine that those are the only infidel states these fanatics will target?  They may already be planning attacks on Britain or Germany or Israel or our own country, or any number of others.  An intelligent government will not simply wait to be attacked before taking action.

I suspect that in the days to come the war against ISIS will be broadened and escalated dramatically, and even these deranged nihilists will come to realize that they've made a deadly mistake.

13 November 2015

Hell Frozen over

The wingnuts are throwing a fit about Queen Elsa again.  News of Kevin "Kill the Gays" Swanson's "Freedom 2015 conference" has rightly focused on his murderous ranting and on the attendance of three Republican Presidential candidates including Ted Cruz, a serious contender for the actual nomination.  But the fundies ventured back into film criticism as well, with featured speaker Geoff Botkin denouncing Frozen's iconic song "Let It Go" as "Satan's rebellion anthem" and adding it to the ever-growing list of things God is going to smite us for any minute now.

This isn't too surprising given that last year Swanson himself decried Frozen as a Satanic scheme to turn girls into lesbians, even seeming to speculate that Satan had bought a controlling interest in Disney in 1984 (a smart investment, if true).  While it's hard to deny that most girls would probably find Elsa and Anna a lot more appealing than Swanson and Botkin, if humans were so prone to homosexuality that watching a movie which never even mentions the subject was all it took to "convert" them, then surely between one thing and another the whole planet would have turned gay a long time ago.  If the fundies could just get it through their heads that sexual orientation isn't that mutable, maybe they'd be less prone to panic over every new pop-culture phenomenon that comes along.

It's not just Frozen, either.  The conference also denounced Harry Potter since author J.K. Rowling has mentioned that Dumbledore was gay, a point which is never referenced in the books but which does make one or two plot points easier to understand.  Harry Potter has long been on the fundies' hate list because of its emphasis on magic, which their Bible-addled brains take as promotion of diabolical witchcraft and sorcery, as if young people might be tempted to take up those practices as well.  (What a thing to worry about!  Homosexuality, at least, actually exists.  But maybe they think magic does too?)  Homosexuality, witchcraft, Satan -- it all blurs together in their minds into an all-encompassing fog of evil overwhelming the land.  It's truly a terrifying, "demon-haunted" world that these people inhabit.

Why their fixation on popular culture?  This point is important, because here, for once, the fundies are actually more perceptive than we liberals are.  Things like movies, novels, music, and TV that reach a mass audience can have a vast influence.  Politics is a blunt instrument and can be used to do considerable good or harm, but it's ultimately the direction of mass culture that determines how it's used -- shifts in popular views on issues like homosexuality, marijuana, guns, women's position in society, and so on are eventually reflected in election results, court rulings, and law.  And people are much more open to influences from popular art than to those from most other sources -- compare the general suspicion and hostility people feel toward most politicians with the near-cult-like adoration of Queen Elsa, Harry Potter, Taylor Swift, and the like.

Finally, popular art commands a level of mass interest, even fascination, that the political world cannot match.  As an example, during the year and a half I've been at my current job, I've overheard a lot of conversations among co-workers.  I have never heard any of them ever mention anything even remotely connected with politics -- not even once, not a single word.  The Republican and Democratic candidates for President, the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, the marijuana referendum in our state -- never mentioned by anyone, in any conversation I've overheard.  But Frozen references are everywhere, on tote bags, cubicle decorations, choice of costumes at the company Halloween party, and the like (there is nothing political in anyone's cubicle decorations either).  And I don't think this is unusual.  That's the electorate you're fighting with the Republicans to get the attention and support of.  The political blogosphere isn't the real world.

It is culture and its direction which are really the enemy's chief concern -- they want the taboo on homosexuality reinstated, women back in traditional limited roles, Christianity dominant in the public space, etc.  Politics is more a means to achieving those goals than an end in itself.  And they realize, as I think a lot of liberals don't, how much impact popular art has -- especially since its influence is largely against their aims, even if their paranoia about Satanic subliminal propaganda is absurd.  As I've discussed before, Frozen does convey progressive attitudes about individuality, freedom, acceptance of differences, and female empowerment and autonomy, even though I don't believe any direct reference to homosexuality was intended.  So does Harry Potter.  The enemy has tried to counter these influences with artistic efforts of its own, though the results are usually godawful and their appeal is mostly confined to the American fundamentalist subculture, while the reach of progressive mass-culture phenomena like Frozen, Harry Potter, and Star Trek is planet-wide.

They're losing the fight that ultimately matters -- the culture war -- and losing it badly, and they know it.  Is it any wonder they tell themselves Satan himself must be responsible?

11 November 2015

Video of the day -- the great collision

This NASA animation shows events that will take place over the next several billion years (it's a silent video, so don't adjust your volume control).  Over this huge span of time, the Andromeda galaxy and our own galaxy will approach, collide, and pass through each other twice -- the distances between stars within each galaxy are so vast that there will be few or no star-on-star collisions, but both galaxies' spiral structure will be totally disrupted by each other's gravity -- and then merge into a single cloud of stars.  The counter at the lower right shows billions of years into the future, so that last third-decimal-place digit -- the one changing too fast to follow -- is counting millions of years.  Found via Faye Kane (NSFW blog).

10 November 2015

Sixteen centuries

Sixteen centuries ago this year, a great woman was murdered -- and a great civilization, already long moribund and rotted from within, died with her.

We don't know the exact date on which Hypatia of Alexandria was killed, but it was almost certainly during the year 415.  She is generally considered the last major intellectual of the Classical civilization, and some historians use the date of her death to mark the transition from the Classical era to the Dark Ages.

Her life embodied the conflicts raging in the age of decline in which she lived.  Several decades after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire and non-Christians were subject to increasingly vicious persecution, she remained obstinately pagan.  At a time when dogma and superstition were crushing science and reason, she kept working to advance Greek astronomy and mathematics, even working as a teacher to pass on the treasures of the ancients.  Orestes, the Roman governor of Egypt at the time of her death, had been a student of hers and still sought her advice at times -- a fact which made them both targets of the new religion which taught that a woman should be silent and never occupy a position of authority with respect to a man.

Hypatia lived through the siege and looting of the Serapeum temple (pictured above) by a Christian mob egged on by Bishop Theophilus in 391, an act which may have encompassed the destruction of the last remnants of the Library of Alexandria, though historians are unsure whether any of the Library had actually survived to that date.  In 415 another Christian mob attacked her in the street, dragged her into a church, and hacked her to death with either shells or roof tiles.  She was probably about 65.

Hypatia's life and death were dramatized in a 2009 film starring Rachel Weisz which I strongly recommend; it captures the feel of civilization collapsing into barbarism very well, as well as Hypatia's struggle to preserve the life of the mind in an age of gathering darkness.

About 400 years after Hypatia's death, much of the surviving corpus of Greek writings was rediscovered in the Middle East and translated into Arabic, leading to a huge revival of science and philosophy under the Abbasid dynasty of Baghdad.  The thinkers of this so-called "Islamic" (actually neo-Hellenistic) civilization achieved great things, but faced a constant struggle against religious dogma and hostility to the life of the mind, though this time that hostility took a Muslim rather than Christian form.  As of the twelfth century, the religious purists won out and the Middle East, growing steadily more hostile to science and philosophy, sank into stagnation.

The next revival, again driven largely by Classical inspiration, took place four hundred years after that -- the Renaissance, beginning in Italy and then spreading to the rest of western Europe.  Figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, and later Darwin faced unrelenting hostility and obstruction from the forces of religious fanaticism and intolerance, but they and countless others fought doggedly on, and carried human knowledge and achievement to heights never before reached.

I think we've finally got the bastards beaten.  Yes, the fanatical and the ignorant and the merely unimaginative continue to rail against stem-cell research, life extension, evolution, and on and on, and they've made frightening inroads into one major political party in the most powerful of our countries -- but their hopes of repeating what they did in the fifth-century Roman Empire or the twelfth-century Middle East seem vanishingly remote.  We've come too far now, and our civilization is too widespread.  Any one country that does sink back into ignorance and superstition will merely fall behind and become irrelevant, while progress continues elsewhere.

Hypatia, it took sixteen centuries, but you won in the end.

08 November 2015

Link round-up for 8 November 2015

Jono finds Norse-themed beauty in the change of seasons (be sure to click the pictures for full-size).

Earth-Bound Misfit has had it with futzing around with the clocks.

Here's one last Halloween pumpkin.

Crazy Eddie looks at the wacky world of Ben Carson and the pyramids, and Faye Kane weighs in (NSFW).  Maybe Carson should become an archaeologist.

A once-decaying British city is undergoing a revival.

Two hats, one point.

A "family-friendly" 1991 film offered a surprisingly-healthy look at BDSM sexuality.

It's not just Canada -- Mexico too is moving toward legal marijuana.  In the US, Bernie continues his support.

Behold the dreadful effects of socialism.

Certain people don't want you talking about the weather.

A new study finds the religious less moral than atheists.  And there's more evidence that Americans are becoming less religious -- analysis here, and Tengrain makes a point.  In Britain, religion has become an embarrassment.

To build a "consent culture", take it beyond sexuality.

Here's a guide to conservative art depicting Obama (found via Progressive Eruptions).  And here are some of their reactions to Ben Carson.

Yes, some of the religious crazies want to ban birth control.

Another reason the TPP must be stopped -- it's a menace to internet freedom.

Trump wins an endorsement any Republican office-seeker would covet.

What we need is an anti-stupidity vaccine.

Some people just aren't into foreign languages.

Hillary's sentencing-reform plan would free about 15,000 unjustly-imprisoned people.

The Mormon religion shuns gays and divides their families.

It's an old-fashioned American Christmas!

A new clothing store in Gaza proves popular.

Sunni rebels in Syria use caged Alawite captives (who may not even be "pro-Asad") as human shields.

The world's newest independent country is a total disaster.

What is the official Catholic position on beavers?

Paul Ryan deserves family time, but you don't.

Republic of Gilead reports on another godawful fundie movie, which is full of bad relationship advice.

Zandar looks at Kentucky's nightmarish future.

Funny priorities the media have sometimes.

Three Republican Presidential candidates attend a theofascist conference, a venue for ISIS-like murderous hatred where Huckabee continues to demonstrate his ignorance of the Constitution.

Et tu, Chick-fil-A?

Krauthammer fumes at Republican political ineptitude.

Fight back against online harassment.

Rubio scandals do exist, but they're pretty boring.

Margaret Cho talks about her life as a sex worker and her support for those in the profession.

Wow, tough anti-Vitter ad.

When seconds count.....keep counting.

Lame duck?  Obama is winning all over the place.

The world's most polluted city looks for solutions.

"Human trafficking" is such an over-used term that it's becoming meaningless.

Time's running out to get serious about global warming.  Republicans won't be able to stay in denial much longer.

There's plenty of good news.

06 November 2015


Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog has a much-needed wake-up call which I urge everyone to head over there and read.  We've gotten used to telling each other that the Republicans are a bunch of clowns, that they're doomed by demographics, that they're so extremist and internally divided that they're on the verge of collapsing and vanishing as an effective political force.  The 2016 election is in the bag; we'll inevitably win the Presidency and make gains in Congress, perhaps even recover control of the Senate, while the floundering Republicans in their alternate-reality bubble look on in shock as they did in 2012.

I don't deny that that will probably happen.  But as Steve M points out, for a near-defunct party, the bad guys did pretty well this week.  A state which was among the biggest beneficiaries of Obamacare elected not only a Republican, but one of those anti-establishment wingnut Republicans, as its governor.  A city which had elected an openly-lesbian mayor rejected a gay equal-rights ordinance.  Dinosaurs remain formidable and dangerous right up to the point of extinction.

Even if the polls look reassuring (which is no longer unequivocally true), the results this Tuesday were much worse than the polls for those races predicted.  This reinforces the view that the growing prevalence of cell phones and reluctance of busy people to participate in surveys are making accurate polling more difficult.  Even if the polls next year show us comfortably ahead of the Republicans again, we can't count on that.

Complacency is dangerous.  It could take the edge off of GOTV efforts and the energy we need to fight the bad guys.  It could also encourage supporters of whichever Democrat fails to win the nomination to indulge in PUMA-like tantrums.  I understand the impulse; I've been there.  But we can't afford it.  The Republicans are far crazier and more dangerous than they were in 2008.  A Republican Presidential win would doubtless be accompanied by retaining Congress.  Obamacare, the Iran agreement, separation of church and state, any chance of a sane Supreme Court, all progress on fighting climate change, very likely even Social Security and Medicare -- all wiped out, plus invasions of Iran and who knows where else.  We can't take even the ghost of a chance of that happening.

You may have to fight for a candidate you have real reservations about -- Hillary's Iraq vote, Bernie's position on guns.  For that matter, Obama has just signaled a willingness to go to the mat for the TPP.  This is infuriating, but consider what a Republican in office instead of Obama would have meant:  even worse trade pacts, no Obamacare, war instead of the Iran deal, more Scalias instead of Kagan and Sotomayor (they learned from Souter and won't make that mistake again -- from now on Republican Presidents will choose only proven wingnuts for the Court).  Gore too had flaws, but no sane person can say that it would have made no difference having him as President for those eight years rather than Bush.  Nor is there any point in contrasting the Democrat with some ideal person who doesn't exist and couldn't win if he did.  Next November there will be two and only two people who could actually become President:  the Democratic nominee (whether it's Hillary or Bernie) and a raving maniac.

I'm still optimistic.  I believe we'll win.  It's just that I'm always aware of the dangers of overconfidence.  Pot smokers in Ohio, gays in Houston, and the half-million newly-insured in Kentucky are about to suffer the consequences of low turnout caused by complacency, apathy, and cynicism.  Let their plight serve as a warning for the whole country next year.