21 December 2014

Link round-up for 21 December 2014

It's been a dismal month.  Have a cute sleepy duckling.

Here's a round-up of quirky menorahs (found via Mendip).

This is a real place -- Prohodna cave, Bulgaria (found via Snowstorm 13 (NSFW tumblr)).

Some Muslims have a sense of humor.

Why is Frozen so popular?  It hits all the right notes for girls.

The far right has heartwarming Christmas carols.

Wow, Bill O'Reilly really is a moron.

There's now an actual academic journal dedicated to the study of porn (NSFW gifs).  Let's hope they don't invite this idiot to contribute.

Apparently some airline pilots are complete assholes.

Students and activists plan opposition to the upcoming "Response Louisiana" hatefest.

Green Eagle has a photo history of this year's right-wing rallies.

The US now has less than a third as many nuns as in 1965 (found via Republic of Gilead).

The income gap between the rich and the middle in the US is larger than ever, with the top 0.1% doing best of all (found via Politics Plus).

Republicans in Oklahoma and Nebraska are being jerks again (found via Fair and Unbalanced).

Just came across this thoughtful essay on attitudes toward blasphemy.

Obama's been keeping busy this month -- not that he was slacking before.

Here's a true story of abortion without the clichés and nonsense.  This Missouri Republican prefers clichés and nonsense (found via Republic of Gilead).

Hillary flattens all comers, Democrat or Republican.

Cops in California get caught trying to frame a politician.  This Georgia judge is just as bad.

On the Keystone XL pipeline, here's a question and an answer.

If torture is acceptable.....

Zandar looks at Republican hysterics over Obama's Cuba initiative, and how their efforts to destroy the social safety net are a backdoor route to theocracy.

Andrew Hawkins speaks out.

North Carolina public schools become a channel for Koch propaganda.

Here's the case of Khaled el-Masri, an innocent man held and tortured by the CIA for four months.

A recent right-wing anti-Obama protest erupts into lynching fantasies.

Here's one more thug who won't threaten any more innocent people.  I see no case to be made that it would be better if the shop employee had been unarmed.

Beware of Christian love.

Got some more Christian love for you right here.

Matthew Fenner got some Christian love too (found via Republic of Gilead).

Gosh, you mean religious nuts actually have to obey the law like everyone else?

Behold the end result of fascist aggression, 1945 (found via GoodShit).

Check out Jakub Polomski's spectacular photos of Austria.

Poland, with its vivid historical memory, is very worried about Putin. Here's Putin's real position.

Greenpeace has royally screwed up and must help Peru get custody of the vandals.

100 foreign fighters who joined ISIS have been executed by ISIS for wanting to go home.

Some of the teachers at the Peshawar school were burned alive by the Taliban.  Photos from the attack hereReactions here, still coming thick and fast on Twitter.

Pakistani Muslims -- not Westerners -- protest furiously outside a mosque which has failed to condemn the Peshawar attack.

Here's a little reminder of what Japanese nationalists want you to forget.

North Koreans are getting The Interview, one way or another.

Here's a good round-up of what's happening in the Arctic and why.

The year's top science stories include some intriguing work on blood plasma and aging.

[Image at top:  The Taliban who carried out the Peshawar school attack pose in front of banners bearing the Islamic creed before setting out on their mission.]

Extra added linkWill this be the next torture revelation to hit the fan?  Holy shit.

18 December 2014

Gul Rahmân and Dick Cheney

I don't actually know who Gul Rahmân was, and neither do most Americans, which is unfortunate.  One salient fact about him is known, however -- he was not a terrorist.  Nevertheless, due to an error, he was apparently arrested on suspicion of being one.  He later died under torture in CIA custody.

Take a moment to let that sink in.  An innocent man died under torture, torture inflicted by Americans, as part of a program officially sanctioned by the American government at the time.

The horror of the situation goes beyond that, however.  Here is part of an interview with Dick Cheney, in which the case came up:

CHUCK TODD: Let me ask you, what do you say to Gul Rahman, what do you say to Sulaiman Abdula, what do you say to Khalid al-Masri? All three of these folks were detained, they had these interrogation techniques used on them. They eventually were found to be innocent. They were released, no apologies, nothing. What do we owe them?


CHUCK TODD: I mean, let me go to Gul Rahman. He was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water, froze to death in C.I.A. custody. And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.

DICK CHENEY: -- right. But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield. Of the 600 and some people who were released out of Guantanamo, 30% roughly ended up back on the battlefield. Today we're very concerned about ISIS. Terrible new terrorist organization. It is headed by named Baghdadi. Baghdadi was in the custody of the U.S. military in Iraq in Camp Bucca. He was let go and now he's out leading the terror attack against the United States. I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.

CHUCK TODD: 25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released.

DICK CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are --

CHUCK TODD: Well, I'm asking you.

DICK CHENEY: -- you going to know?

CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error?

DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.

And there you have it.  Leave aside the consensus, among most who understand the issue, that torture almost never produces reliable or useful information.  Cheney has "no problem" with using torture even though a quarter of the victims were innocent, even though at least one innocent person (and I certainly don't believe he was the only one) died under torture.  This is a former Vice President of the United States, but the words coming out of his mouth sound better suited to Lenin or Himmler.

Cheney justifies the use of torture on the basis of the 9/11 attack, which was indeed a horrific atrocity.  The problem is that almost every regime we have ever condemned for using torture could advance a comparable argument.  North Vietnam, for example, lost a lot more than 3,000 innocent civilians to American bombing during the war in which it tortured John McCain.  There are certain lines which a civilized state doesn't cross, even under that kind of provocation.  Such standards are what distinguish us from a communist dictatorship or a fascist gangster-state.

Or used to.

McCain, the only Republican to really distinguish himself honorably in the wake of the torture report's release, understands this.  The many members of his party who continue to defend the program and attack its detractors do not.

And this means that I owe some people an apology.  In the past I've been very critical of bloggers who compared the Republican party to the Nazis.  I believed that they were weakening a strong case against the Republicans by making an absurdly overblown comparison.  Yes, there is much evil in the Republican party, but comparing them to the Nazis was going much too far, offensively so.

Those bloggers were right.  I was wrong.  Not that the Republicans are guilty of everything the Nazis were guilty of, of course, but if a politician of Cheney's stature can defend torture, even torture of the innocent, and if a broad range of political figures from the party can continue to support that position, then yes, they are straying onto the same ideological turf.

These people have no idea what they've done.  This program, and the continued defense of it by a major part of our political establishment, have done damage to our country's moral authority and global standing that can probably never be repaired.

A lot of ordinary Americans don't yet understand it either.  As commenter Tommykey observed in response to last weekend's link round-up:

Of course, my Facebook feed was filled with people posting pictures of the Twin Tower burning with captions like "Waterboarding is fine with me" or some variations of approval for torture juxtaposed with a picture of 9/11, as if that automatically justifies it.

And, of course, from Pakistan to Morocco there are probably millions of people reading the revelations of the torture report and thinking "Terrorist attacks on the United States are fine with me -- now."

16 December 2014

Pakistan's Beslan

In what looks to be the worst single act of religious violence in several years, Taliban terrorists have attacked a school in Peshawar in northern Pakistan.  Reports so far have 126 people killed, mostly children, and almost as many injured -- but those numbers are sure to rise, since these are just early reports, and fighting is still going on as the army struggles to regain control of the school from the Taliban.  The Guardian is live-blogging the story here.

The school is described as military-run, but most of the children attending are from the local civilian population.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban organization, has claimed responsibility for the attack, but their story keeps changing.  At first they said it was retaliation for the killing of Taliban fighters by the Pakistani army, then that it was because the army had been targeting the families of Taliban.  They also now claim their fighters were ordered not to attack children at the school -- an absurd assertion, given the huge number of children they've killed and the fact that a school was chosen as the target in the first place.

I've long thought that in the battle for mass opinion in the Middle East (or anywhere else) between religion and secularism, the most powerful argument against religious extremism is -- religious extremism itself.  What academic debate about the true nature of Sharî'ah law could have a hundredth of the impact of actually seeing it in force under ISIS?  What armchair recital of the dangers of theocracy could be as convincing as a grinding, dreary third of a century under actual theocratic rule in Iran?  What declaration on the depravity of the Taliban could match seeing them deliberately target innocent children for murder -- something they have a long history of doing, with this latest attack being only the bloodiest and most horrifying example?  It's important to remember that, despite spectacular incidents like 9/11, the great majority of the people killed by Islamic extremists have been Middle Easterners -- killed for having the wrong religion, or belonging to the wrong sect of Islam, or violating some Muslim taboo or other, or simply being in the way when an attack was launched.

From the overthrow of Mosaddegh to the Iraq invasion to the resort to systematic torture now recently revealed, Western governments have bungled the fight for Middle Eastern public opinion with criminal incompetence.  What progress Western values have made there is due to the appeal of Western popular culture, the same popular culture that our home-grown Christian Right is always blasting as depraved and immoral.  Modernity and pluralism can appeal to people anywhere in the world.

And the Islamists have no alternative to offer but horror, blood, fear, and death, the vision they have displayed in the ghastly spectacle now unfolding in Peshawar -- tearing down everything progressive and humane and tolerant, until they bring a new Dark Age down over the ruins of the birthplace of civilization.

15 December 2014

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Lost to us on this date three years ago

Your struggle continues until victory.

14 December 2014

Link round-up for 14 December 2014

What would happen if we launched a real war against Christmas (found via Mendip)?

Some American conservatives find something to like about ISIS.

Anti-suffragette propaganda posters reveal primitive attitudes of barely a century ago (found via Mendip).

It's a good thing we have Green Eagle to report on these mass right-wing revolutionary upheavals, otherwise we'd never notice them.

Should we just roll with it and replace the cops with ED-209?

Right-wingers seem kind of gloomy about the future.

Steve Jobs suffered from Stockholm syndrome.

If this is true, it's the best news I've heard in a long time.

Here's more on that Montana legislature dress code.

The US abortion rate is down, but not because of the anti-abortion movement.

Next month a passel of delusionals will gather in Louisiana to ask their imaginary friend to smite us.

Here's some history of the ideological roots of terrorism in the US, which will make your hair stand on end.

Ken Ham's stupid Noah's Ark project has bungled its chance for subsidies from the state of Kentucky.

If you haven't read McCain's great speech about the torture report, here's the whole thing.  Republic of Gilead has a round-up of other right-wing responses.

Never "doxx" (destroy the online anonymity of) your opponents, even if they're bigots (found via Snowstorm 13 (NSFW tumblr)).

This anti-gay billboard achieves epic fail (found via Republic of Gilead).

The US lags far behind other advanced countries in vacation time.

Where Islam is concerned, Salon promulgates a lot of rubbish.

Sorry, grabbers, gun rights have more public support than ever before.

Elizabeth Warren is leading the fight on the budget.

Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more places -- here are some tips on using it safely (found via TYWKIWDBI).  Oh, and please sign here.

E-mails among Florida Republicans reveal their deception and subversion on gerrymandering.

The exuberant blasphemers of Femen go after the Pope, Islam, and Sean Hannity.

Brits stage a sit-down protest against their conservative government's idiotic new porn rules.

Pope Francis has very reactionary views about women (found via a comment from Ahab).

Paul Krugman explains how the Greek economic crisis is driven by austerity and arrogance, and how the world has learned the wrong lessons from it (found via Frank Moraes, whose evaluation of Germany is right on target, so far as its leadership is concerned).

Greenpeace idiotically damages Peru's ancient Nazca lines during a protest, and faces well-deserved prosecution.

Atheists are being attacked and persecuted in Islamic countries, suggesting that we're becoming enough of a presence there to worry the religious nuts.

Dear Japanese nationalists: go fuck yourselves (heartily seconded).  More here.

Here's an animal that weighed seven times as much as a T-rex.

13 December 2014

Kaveh Mousavi on firebrand atheism

We've all seen the latest tactics for attacking "New Atheism" -- the uncompromising rejection of and attack upon religion exemplified by writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Hirsi Ali.  You're too extreme!  You offend people and hurt the cause!  "Moderate" religion is harmless and shouldn't be attacked!  Et cetera.  Iranian atheist blogger Kaveh Mousavi has written a must-read response to this kind of sniveling, one which puts into words a lot of my own reactions.

First off, as Mousavi's title emphasizes, effectiveness at "deconverting" religious people isn't the only criterion by which atheist argumentation should be judged.  There's also honesty.  If religion is truly evil -- which it is -- the honest thing to do is to say so plainly:

I think Abrahamic religions are a very poisonous influence, tyrannical systems that are inherently tyrannical, I think faith as defined by these ideologies is an evil thing, and I find moderate religious people’s arguments less convincing than any other argument I have come across. So when I’m talking about religion I have two choices: (1) Be firebrand (2) lie. I have always valued honesty more than being convincing.

Look at how our liberal allies argue on other issues where they are convinced of the evil involved, like racism.  They don't pull their punches for fear of offending racists.  They don't worry that racist beliefs are sometimes a "comfort" to the people who hold them (which they surely are, by the way).  They don't decide that "moderate" racism is harmless and go after only the extreme form.  No, having recognized an evil for what it is, they attack it in plain language and without cavil.

(The main critique I have of the liberal anti-racist polemic is that it tends to see racism everywhere, even where it's really a strain to claim it exists.  But I don't see any equivalent problem of New Atheists accusing people of being religious when they really aren't.)

There's also the point that a forthright and honest argument can be more effective than a mealy-mouthed, watered-down one.  Mousavi says he has deconverted quite a few fellow Iranians from Islam to atheism.  Perhaps people in a country like Iran, which has been tyrannized by a theocracy for a third of a century, are more primed by experience to embrace a total rejection of religion -- but in the US, too, it's noticeable that the really dramatic growth in numbers of non-religious people seems to have begun in the first decade of this century, when New Atheism started to spread its uncompromising message.  There is such a thing as moving the Overton window.

Another point Mousavi makes is that religion has a special, untouchable status not given to other types of ideology, and that we need to erode and break down that untouchability so that religion can be critiqued and debated just like any other set of ideas -- which is why the use of ridicule and mockery is so important, and why religionists especially object to it:

You can criticize religion, of course – just don’t trivialize it, or ridicule it, or treat it harshly.....A moderate Iranian Muslim had said “religion can be argued against in academies, but ridiculing it and dismissing it as a joke is unethical.” Why not? Comedians ridicule everything. People dismiss all ideas.

Firebrand atheism may or may not change people’s ideas, but it will slowly and gradually change the atmosphere, break the taboo of touching religion, and will bring religion down from its heavenly throne. Desecrate something enough and people will start to realize it isn’t that holy.

There's also the issue that a harsh and forceful response can be more effective at getting the bullies to back off:

Usually when religious people try to force their religion down my throat (which obviously doesn’t include rational debates which aim to convince me which I welcome from them) my reaction is not to try and convince them that they are wrong, my reaction is to demonstrate that they can shove their beliefs up their asses. So, to the person who has stopped me in the street preaching me, Islam forbids me from taking this girl’s hand in mine? That’s awesome! And Islam can go fuck itself! And you too!

Generally, I think setting up boundaries is a more worthy thing to do than changing minds.

This speaks to me more than anything. I am absolutely sick to death of being told to make nice with people who want to turn me into a second-class citizen in my own country, who have no hesitation in denouncing me as immoral and dangerous because I don't believe in their imaginary friend, and who support reams of laws designed to force me to conform to their random and idiotic taboo systems.  The belief system that drives this behavior is vicious and totalitarian, it has declared war on me, it deserves nothing but hatred and ridicule and counter-attack, and that's all it will ever get from me.

Finally, there's this:

Maybe I'm not addressing religious people at all. Maybe my audience is other atheists. Maybe I’m happy with that. Maybe I want to influence the atheist movement. Maybe I want to increase ex-Muslim presence in the atheist movement. Maybe I feel atheists need to hear an ex-Muslim version of things. Maybe I want atheists to stop saying particular things about Islam. Maybe I want atheists to support reformists and nuclear talks with Iran. Maybe I want other atheists to have a more accurate picture of Iran.

Religion -- Islam -- has hurt me a lot. And I've got a story to tell.....And I have my own opinions about religion. They may be wrong, but they’re genuine, well thought out, and reflective of who I am. And I deserve to be heard. I deserve to be a part of the debate.

Always remember this!  Not all atheists live in places like Boston or Portland where religion has become so watered down that we can delude ourselves that it's harmless.  I'm not surprised that nowadays some of the most forceful and clear-thinking atheists come from an Islamic background.  They've confronted religion without its veil, at its full bloodthirsty strength, reminding us, "Just because religion has grown weak in the West, never forget what it's really like when it has power, and never, ever allow it to regain power."

11 December 2014

Lady Atheist on rational responses to racism and police brutality

Fellow blogger Lady Atheist has written an essential post on the recent spate of police shootings epitomized by Ferguson.  If you're a liberal, I urge you to read it -- especially if you're convinced you already know the rights and wrongs of these cases and already know the correct way to respond to them.

I have some reservations about her analysis.  I'm convinced that racism often plays the biggest role in why some people get shot by the police and others don't.  There is a terrible problem which divides the country -- an institutionalized injustice, often deadly, against one-eighth of the American people.  We have to eradicate that.  The status quo is intolerable.  I've added a comment on her post which expresses these reservations in more detail.

But the liberal blogosphere's response to the crisis has often been flawed and simplistic, and Lady Atheist's post does the best job I've seen of elucidating that.  Read it with an open mind -- resist the urge to close off thought with labels and clichés.  We make our case best when we recognize the complexity of the situation, not when we dismiss facts and observations which don't fit the narrative.

09 December 2014

The religion of exclusion

The Christian Right has gone well beyond defending the "right" to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding.  Via Progressive Eruptions comes word of a new law passed by Republicans in Michigan which establishes a "right" of a religious person to refuse to do practically anything for practically anyone their religion objects to, even if it's part of their job.  As the linked article describes it:

The broadly written Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow, for example, an [emergency medical technician] to refuse emergency treatment to a gay person or a pharmacist to refuse to refill HIV medication, because God decreed gays and lesbians should be put to death.....the act is so broad it would let a Catholic high school refuse to hire a Muslim janitor, and a DMV clerk deny a new driver’s license to someone who is divorced.

As I've said before, the most striking thing about laws like this is that the Christian Right's core value, the essence of religious freedom in their view, the hill they've chosen to die on, is the right to exclude -- to refuse service to certain categories of people, to reject them, to stigmatize them, to cast them out.  This is how fundamentalist Christianity, the noisiest and most visible form of Christianity in the United States, is choosing to define and present itself.  This is the face they themselves are putting on their own religion.  It's not atheists like me defining Christianity as a religion whose core is bigotry.  It's Christians who are doing that.

Imagine if, instead, the Christian Right had taken up the case of Arnold Abbott, the 90-year-old man arrested in Florida last month for the crime of giving food to homeless people.  Imagine if they were busily and noisily passing "religious freedom acts" all over the country defending the right of people to help the poor if their conscience compels it.  What a different image that would project!  But they aren't doing that (in fact, a judge, not religious politicians, later stayed the law under which Abbott was arrested).  Instead, they're fighting like hell for the right of Christians to refuse to help people.

Is it any wonder that Americans in growing numbers are turning away from religion, especially younger people, when this is the face religion shows them?

Notice that it's not just discrimination against gays that's being defended -- it's discrimination against anyone who fails to conform to the entire Christian taboo system.  Even if you're not gay, are you divorced, or non-Christian, or using birth control, or having a relationship with someone without being married, or a member of a Christian sect which some other Christian sect strongly disapproves of?  If so (or if you're any of a dozen other things), the Christian Right thinks passing laws defending someone else's right to have nothing to do with you is the most important religious-freedom issue in the country right now.

Fundamentalists are already a shrinking minority in the US.  It's only their great influence within the Republican party that gives them as much power as they have.  The day will come when the tables turn against them.  On that day, remember these laws.

07 December 2014

Link round-up for 7 December 2014

Aleister Crowley is to be honored with a line of sauerkraut (found via Mendip).

Don't confuse me with facts!

Here's a post on religious extremism from a blog I just discovered, Dr. Seussilitis, which offers political and religious commentary in poetic form.

Target stores are promoting a book which advocates the torture, mutilation, and sadistic killing of women.

Montana's teabagger-dominated legislature imposes a dress code -- a strikingly stupid one.

Bless the instruments that defend the faith.

Some people get seriously upset at the very existence of anyone different from themselves.

Bill Maher reminds us that the Pope really is nuts.

Lady Atheist updates her list of non-theistic charities -- and has some info on a particularly nasty religious one.

It's not only the Catholic Church -- apparently the Jehovah's Witnesses also shield sexual predators.

A Texas pastor refuses a funeral to a member who didn't keep up her tithing -- while she was comatose.

Religion isn't just wrong in its beliefs, it's wrong in its methods of reaching them.

Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite of Democrats for our party's 2016 Presidential nomination.

And they wonder why they are called haters.

The media are not helping us understand our domestic-terrorism problem.

Here's more police brutality, this time against a 15-year-old in Arizona.

Cool, Republicans are back to bitching each other again (see comments).

An archaeologically-valuable set of caverns in Indiana seems to have been partly commandeered by creationists (found via Lady Atheist).

Today's Republicans are different from the Democrats of 1988 -- they're dumber.

Here's how our country's drug policy became such a mess.

Lotsa luck trying to enforce this kind of bullshit in the internet age.

Apparently, sometime between 1367 and 1452, a queen decided to have a bit of fun on the side.

Norwegian tourism is getting a boost.

70 years after the fact, France gives recognition to a heroine spy (found via Mendip).

In Spain, a new party rises to fight for socialism.

Nice work, Putin -- Russia's currency is collapsing and recession is looming, while in occupied Crimea, opponents are being murdered and minorities persecuted.

Civilization is breaking down in the lands where it was born.

The Middle East needs feminism at every level.

The case of this Sierra Leonean family illustrates why Ebola is so hard to control.

Will we become locusts of the solar system?

The engraving on this shell looks pretty ordinary -- except that it's half a million years old.

As has happened with many disease germs, HIV is evolving into a less lethal form.

Antarctic glaciers are now melting three times faster than they were ten years ago.

05 December 2014

Quotes for the day

[Click on any image for a bigger version]

[Tyson image by Dead Logic]

02 December 2014

Identity and liberation

The human sense of identity and group affiliation is very important to us.  Humans will kill or die in a fight for "my own kind" against "the other".  But which of our countless traits and differences get privileged to define an identity can vary considerably based on all kinds of factors.

The best-known example of this is the shift from primarily-religious to primarily-national identity in the Western world over the last few centuries.  During the Dark Ages when European culture was dominated by fervent Christianity, religion determined identity -- "the other" was the Jew, the Muslim, and whatever pagans still survived, or were suspected to survive, in odd corners of the domain everyone called "Christendom".  Even within that domain, the bloodiest wars were waged not between nations but against "heretics" like the Albigenses or rival sects, such as the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant Christianity.  Over time this shifted to a sense of ethnic / national identity based on common language, culture, and history (granted that these were often somewhat artificial, contrived by governments to justify existing or desired borders), and in recent centuries Europeans have fought as fiercely for la patrie or das Vaterland as their ancestors once fought for this or that True Church against unbelievers.

In the last few decades we've seen the emergence in the West of a quite novel form of group identity -- sexual orientation.  Gay people have become, and are now largely viewed as, a distinct community like an ethnic minority, with its own culture, flag, self-pride, and "national interests".  This concept would have struck anyone before the 20th century as extremely strange, but it's easy to see why it happened.  The early gay liberation movement faced a formidable task in a society where homosexuality was illegal, widely reviled, and condemned as sinful by the dominant religion.  And it emerged at a time when the black civil rights movement was beginning to make progress against the equally-daunting forces of entrenched and murderous racism.  It's only natural that the gay movement, consciously or not, modeled itself on another great struggle then under way.

With victory in sight, however, it's appropriate and likely necessary to take another look at our premises.  The re-purposing of homosexual orientation as the basis for a distinct group identity may have contributed to the startling success of gay liberation over the last couple of decades, but it's hard to see how anything analogous could work in coming phases of the struggle such as, say, decriminalization of marijuana or sex work.  We can't let ourselves get mentally locked into just one model of how to fight.

Indeed, the very concept of a quasi-ethnic gay identity would not exist outside the context of repression.  In the Classical civilizations, homosexuality in males was not a "sin" or even a particularly salient trait.  It was noticed that some men were attracted mainly to females, some mainly to males, and some equally to either, but none of these preferences was considered a marker of an identity or a deviation from a social norm -- and as far as I know, neither ancient Greek nor Persian nor Latin had a noun equivalent to "a homosexual" or "a gay person" in the sense that we use such terms today.  It was something you liked, not who you were.  Ethnic identity, on the other hand, was very strong even back then, as any overview of Greek attitudes about "barbarians" will illustrate.

One could argue that if our dominant religion damned left-handedness as a sin and had imposed vicious punishments on it for centuries, left-handed people would have banded together as a quasi-ethnic group to demand freedom from such oppression, complete with "lefty" pride, parades, and indignant insistence that they were "born that way", to the outrage of religionists who would parade "ex-lefties" who had achieved right-handedness through faith in the Messiah.  In that case our language would certainly have established a noun for a left-handed person, as I've been forced to re-purpose the word "lefty" in this paragraph in order to even describe what I'm talking about.  In our actual society where left-handedness is merely a trait of no moral significance, as homosexuality was in the Classical world, the concept of a left-handed identity would seem baffling and pointless.

For that matter, human sexual desire comes in a whole kaleidoscope of variations, of which one's preference in the gender of one's partners is only one aspect.  In our present society where everything becomes politicized and group identity is emphasized to an unhealthy degree, we're probably fortunate that most of these variations don't fit the group-identity model very well.  Other battles, other strategies.

I'm personally very conscious of this issue because my atheism is the most definitive part of who I am, and I generally feel like I have more in common with an atheist in a foreign country than with a highly-religious American like Pat Robertson, and yet I'm also very aware of how absurd the whole concept is.  Why is there even a word for "atheist", for a person who doesn't share a specific set of delusions?  We don't have a word for a person who doesn't believe in unicorns.

Only in the context of the immense power and repressive character of religious insanity does this concept make sense.  If unicorn believers had dominated Western society for centuries, torturing and killing anyone they believed the unicorns disapproved of, and fighting huge bloody wars with each other over slight differences of opinion about what unicorns' horns are made of, then rejection of the belief in unicorns would surely have emerged as a central part of the struggle for a better world, and there would be a word for people who didn't believe in them.

But we mustn't confuse strategies and necessary defensive measures with the goal.  It would be a terrible failure if, after the final overthrow of Christianity and conformist traditional values, we were left with a sort of Ottoman-style millet society which defined itself as a jigsaw puzzle of discrete communities (gay, black, Anglo, neo-pagan, etc.) with each individual categorized as merely a member of one or another such grouping.  The only real success will be a society where individuals are free to be themselves, with whatever combination of traits, desires, and quirks make each person who he or she is, but not defined or categorized by them.

30 November 2014

Link round-up for 30 November 2014

Need something to be thankful for? Think of home.

This is a spectacular sight I hope I never see coming toward me (found via GoodShit).

Pwned! -- by a fish!

Cats rule!

Maybe this is why we don't get visitors.

Here's some eldritch horror and madness for your Lego sets (found via Mendip).

Don't hire this architect or this one.

This is the kind of dumbass a right-wing "news" site sends to a science museum.

The Barbie doll has finally been dethroned as the most sought-after girls' toy.

STFU, Schumer.

Chatpilot remembers the arrogant nonsense he once believed.

We need more tell-it-like-it-is Democrats like Biden.

Here's a man who truly follows the Bible.

I can't think of a comment on this either.

Politics Plus has a detailed report on the Tamir Rice shooting.

After a series of bungled executions, Ohio Republicans push a law to.....keep details of executions secret.

This is what tyranny is and isn't.

Green Eagle reads the right-wing internet so you don't have to.

Black Friday just gets worse and worse.  But one item sold very well.

Republicans plot against the will of the people in DC.

Gay-friendly subtexts aside, Frozen had a few other progressive touches.  But teabaggers take heart, no doubt this new conservative film-making venture will soon bury the competition.

If only we'd listened to this guy.

Republicans are poised to throw away their last traces of Hispanic support.

Squatlo makes an important point about the Ferguson riots.  Here's another.  But here's a side to the protests the media haven't said much about.

Hay-on-Wye, Wales, is known as the town of books (found via GoodShit).

British and Americans have outdated stereotypes of each other.

Our translations of the New Testament get the tone wrong.

2,200-year-old mosaics from a flooded ancient Greek city look good as new (found via GoodShit).

Must-read post of the week: Kaveh Mousavi explains why the existence of good and decent religious people is all the more reason to oppose religion.

Sounds like ISIS is getting desperate (found via Green Eagle).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has emerged as something of a Middle Eastern teabagger with his recent remarks on women's equality and the discovery of America, but protest so far has been muted.  More gravely, Erdoğan needs to be held accountable for this.

In India, standards must be upheld!

Isn't this what Jesus would do?  Oh, wait.....

It's dropped off the US media's radar, but the Ebola epidemic is still raging.

A treasure trove of hominid fossils from South Africa reminds us again of how science differs from religion.

28 November 2014

Visions of the spiritual world (2)

Remember the mass human sacrifices of the Aztec religion?  Fervent believers slaughtered great numbers of people (mostly prisoners of war or victims given as tribute by subject peoples of the Aztec Empire), sometimes tens of thousands at a time, in bloody temple rituals to propitiate the Aztec gods who, they believed, would otherwise allow the mechanism of the cosmos to cease running.  That ghastly faith and its practices vanished centuries ago, thank goodness, but an almost equally horrific tradition of mass blood sacrifice continues on the other side of the world -- even if the victims are not human.

Every five years millions of Hindus gather at the temple of Gadhimai, a Hindu "goddess of power", at Bariyarpur, Nepal.  Many come from nearby India.  The occasion is a mass sacrifice of animals to the goddess, an action which the faithful believe will entice her to give them luck, health, and prosperity.  The scale of the slaughter is staggering -- in 2009, the last time the festival was held, these believers killed between 300,000 and 500,000 animals, mostly by clumsy beheading.  Not for food, not in self-defense, but purely to win the blessings of a fatuous entity with no existence outside their own deranged delusions.

Here's a video by blogger Lady Freethinker (who posts more on the Gadhimai festival here), which will show you exactly what this looks like.  Be warned -- beheadings are shown graphically.

The 2014 festival begins today.  I was not able to locate the petition mentioned at the end, but here is another, and there's also a campaign aimed at the Nepali embassy in the US.

This yet again illustrates, of course, the inability of the religious mind to test beliefs against empirical evidence.  If Hindus believe these mass slaughters bring health and prosperity, a glance at India and Nepal strongly suggests that it isn't working.

Earlier posts of mine on Hinduism are here, here, and here.

27 November 2014

Turkey cremations

Be thankful that you don't live next door to these jive turkeys -- unless you do!