20 July 2014

Link round-up for 20 July 2014

A large and fitting tribute to Monty Python is unveiled in London (found via Mendip).

Check out the comments -- these people exist.

Republicans really shouldn't try to talk about other planets.

What if everybody ate each other?

The TSA explains to its agents what country the District of Columbia is in (found via Mendip).

Louie Gohmert explains why God exists, with predictable results.

Is this the face we want patriotism to have?

Dave Daubenmire has a few questions.  Really stupid ones.

Spread the word -- boycott Eden Foods.

The Postal Service gets the job done.

It's never a good idea to refuse to listen to scientists.

The FBI thwarts a planned terrorist attack in Utah.

PZ Myers answers those stupid questions religious people think are so clever.

Over 100 Kansas Republican politicians and activists turn against Sam Brownback.

As Americans abandon religion, fundamentalists become more arrogant and aggressive (found via F169, where I have a few comments).

Crime in Detroit is way down, and the police chief knows why.

RedState showcases the internal war among Republicans -- more of this, please.

James Dobson is still around, sniping at non-traditional families.

A Christian school fights for the right to discriminate against gays, and a mayor pushes back.

An idiot who wants to frack Yellowstone is running for Governor of Wyoming.

The CHP, accused of police brutality, seizes the evidence.

The owner of Hobby Lobby is pushing religious indoctrination in public schools (link from Shaw Kenawe).  In Canada, one student fights such indoctrination and wins.

Here are some great aerial videos of Welsh castles (found via Mendip).

The Irish Atheist looks at history and modern hatreds.  In Belgium, too, an echo of Europe's dark past.

Germans en masse are rejecting the Catholic Church.

"Putin -- damn you!"  Dramatic photos from the MH17 crash site.  Russian-backed rebels are tampering with evidence and stealing the bodies.  Europe is taking a harder line against Russia. Update:  Apparently pro-Russian rebels have looted credit cards from the passengers' bodies.

Sochi redux:  Russia's costs for hosting the 2018 World Cup are skyrocketing.

Finding a girlfriend can be difficult, but I don't see the point of this (found via F169).

These two have more in common with each other than with the murderers on either side.

Here's a look at Kurdistan's progress and its drive for independence.

Reminder:  The real issue in Gaza is that it's being run by people like this guy.

The expulsion of Arabs from Israel in 1948 was a normal action for that time, but Israel is always held to a different standard.

ISIS threatens Iraqi Christians, and is apparently crucifying Christians in Syria.

Could robots help treat one of our most intractable social problems?

If life had a creator, he was pretty incompetent.  We humans can do a lot better.

18 July 2014

MH17 -- another Putin disaster

First off, let's be clear that yes, we do know beyond any real doubt that it was the Russian-backed "rebels" in eastern Ukraine who shot down MH17.  They've been shooting at Ukrainian military aircraft in the same area on a regular basis recently.  They have the "Buk" anti-aircraft system, supplied by Russia, which is capable of hitting planes at airliner cruising altitude.  A recording of rebel officers discussing having shot down a plane, then finding out that it was civilian, has been released.  The Putin regime has made a feeble effort to blame the Ukrainian government, but Ukrainian forces have not been using anti-aircraft weapons for the simple reason that the rebels are not using aircraft.

Here is a good report on what's currently known and on world reactions, and here's some video of the crash site -- real video, not the sanitized images the US media give you with human corpses edited out, so be warned.

This is ultimately Putin's fault.  He made the decision to supply powerful military weapons to what are basically the Russo-Ukrainian equivalents of the trigger-happy morons who rallied around the Bundy ranch back in April and are now freaking out at random school buses in Arizona.  It was easily foreseeable that some gargantuan fuck-up like this would be the result.

Of the 298 people killed, 154 were Dutch and at least 17 were from other European countries.  So much for Putin's efforts to discourage Europe from joining in US sanctions against Russia.  The sanctions are to punish Russia for supporting the rebels, and that support has now hit Europeans hard.

Putin is now all the more strongly confirmed as what the Ukrainian crisis and the corruption-riddled Sochi Olympics revealed him to be -- a dangerous and reckless bungler.  He will remain an embarrassment and liability to Russia as long as he stays in power.  Let's hope that won't be much longer.

17 July 2014

Video of the day -- the wrong bus

"The fear on their faces!"  This clown is a Congressman.  Found via Politics Plus.

Edit:  I'm misinformed -- Kwasman is a candidate for Congress and currently a member of the Arizona legislature.  The point stands, and I suspect his chances of becoming a Congressman have dropped a little.

16 July 2014

A question on espionage

By now, most people who follow the news are aware that the NSA's spying has caused a serious breach between the US and Germany, the most important country in western Europe.  The NSA surveillance in Germany -- a NATO member and close ally of the US, remember -- was so comprehensive that even the personal cell phone of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, was tapped.

Germany has now arrested two intelligence employees on suspicion of spying for the US, and is expelling the top CIA official in Germany, a high-profile rebuke.  The Germans are so outraged about the spying that they have brushed off Obama's requests to resolve the dispute through private diplomatic channels and are insisting on conducting the whole conflict in public.  They are openly talking about taking broader countermeasures against US intelligence-gathering.  This is the worst breach between the two countries that I can remember.

(My greatest disdain, I must say, is reserved for those who want to blame Edward Snowden for revealing the spying rather than the NSA for conducting the spying.  The problem is the unethical activity, not the whistleblower who lets us know it is happening.)

My real question is, what good is all this spying doing anyway?  It doesn't seem to have given us any advance warning of any of the important things that have happened lately.  The US government didn't seem to know in advance that Putin was about to invade Crimea.  It didn't seem to know in advance that ISIS was going to launch a major offensive and seize much of northern Iraq from the US-backed Maliki government.  It didn't seem to know in advance that Hamas was about to launch a new terrorist onslaught against Israel.  It doesn't seem to have any more of a clue than anyone else where Boko Haram is keeping all those abducted schoolgirls.  I guess it does know whenever Angela Merkel orders a pizza, but if all this spying isn't giving us any special or in-advance knowledge of things that actually matter, what good is it?  Yes, espionage is necessary, but can we at least focus on trying to cover hostiles more effectively and stop spying on allies, which makes them justifiably angry and creates conflict for no reason?

13 July 2014

Quote for the day -- what the righties really hate

"So why are conservatives fighting so hard to make contraception harder for women to obtain? Because they don't think people — young people, poor people, unmarried people, gay people — should be able to enjoy 'consequence-free sex.' Because it's sex that they hate — it's sex for pleasure that they hate — and they hate that kind of sex more than they hate abortion, teen moms, and welfare spending combined. Knowing that some people are having sex for pleasure without having their futures disrupted by an unplanned pregnancy or having their health compromised by a sexually transmitted infection or having to run a traumatizing gauntlet of shrieking 'sidewalk counselors' to get to an abortion clinic keeps them up at night."

Dan Savage

Link round-up for 13 July 2014

Here's a map of unfortunate place names (found via Mendip).

Road signs are easily subverted.

Fireworks and idiots don't mix, or shouldn't.

There are reasons to vote Republican, sort of.

It's OK for Catholics to have sex, as long as it's within marriage and they try really hard not to enjoy it.

Join the protest against the wicked killing of this.....dinosaur?

One graph says it all about the effect of Obamacare.

Christians claim to have absolute truth, but can't agree on what it is.

Teabaggers pontificate about space travel, with amusing results.

Bruce Gerencser looks at creation and Noah's flood.

To right-wingers, even a new Planet of the Apes movie is just another opportunity to be disgusting.

Sometimes sex can be too much of a thrill (NSFW).

Murrmurrs and Hot for Jesus have their say about the Hobby Lobby decision, while Senate Democrats prepare to act.

Progressive Eruptions looks at a pair of holy warriors.

Green Eagle debunks the Republican meme that the Supreme Court keeps "rebuking" Obama.

Fundamentalist Baptists go to extreme lengths to shield child molesters and torment victims.  More religious child abuse here.

We could still learn a lot from, yes, Karl Marx.

Clarence Thomas demonstrates why there must never again be a Republican President to give us another Clarence Thomas (link from Mendip).

Intrepid Iowa hog-deballer Joni Ernst talks crazy.

Start with comment #13 on this Republican post and keep going.

On average, children raised by gay parents turn out slightly better than the general population.

Don't be fooled -- libertarians are just a variant of Republicans.

Under Pope Francis, the Vatican is still obstructing efforts to bring molesting priests to justice.

Axelle Despiegelaere lost her modeling contract after posting a photo of herself with a gazelle she had shot in Africa -- a sign of how socially unacceptable sport hunting has become in civilized nations.

Guess the country.

Naughty graffiti goes back a long way.

If you live in certain parts of Turkey, your ISP might be a donkey.

Iraqi Kurdistan takes further steps toward independence, including seizing oilfields from the imploding Iraqi state.

Most Muslim leaders reject the ISIS claim to the Caliphate.

The Ganges isn't India's only filthy holy river (link from Ahab).

No faggot penguins please, we're Singaporean.

Science's increasing knowledge of how consciousness works is making religion obsolete.

Death is not as simple as we think.

10 July 2014

Courageous President, resolute people

Soon after Hassan Rouhani took office as President of Iran last August, he brought about a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with the West.  This was not completely unexpected.  He had run on a platform of improving relations with the West, and dismantling the nuclear-weapons program was the key to achieving this and getting relief from the damaging economic sanctions the West had imposed.  But would he, or could he, do anything about the brutal internal repression in Iran?  That was much less clear.

Iran's government is an Islamic theocracy in which the highest official is not the President, despite his title, but rather the Supreme Leader, a religious office currently filled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The President does have real power and is elected by the people, but the religious establishment is not above banning candidates it doesn't like and rigging elections, as in the case of 2009 when Rouhani's predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a standard-issue Israel-hating Islamic religious nutjob) was "re-elected", triggering the Green Movement, mass street protests which were among the largest in world history.  It was these protests which intimidated the theocrats enough that they refrained from blocking Rouhani's election in 2013, despite their hostility to his reformist tendencies.

Most of the machinery of internal repression in Iran is outside the President's official jurisdiction, but as in the US, a popular President can exert influence even on issues outside the formal scope of his office.

Lately Rouhani has begun doing this.  In May, for example, the regime imposed tighter hijab rules (there is a constant tension in Iran between women pushing the limits of the Islamic dress code and theocrats trying to enforce it more strictly), and several young people were arrested for making a dance video.  As public exasperation over these repressive measures mounted, Rouhani spoke out:

"Do not interfere in people’s lives so much, even if it is out of compassion," Rouhani said at a health insurance conference on May 24 arranged by the administration. "Let people pick their own path to heaven. One cannot take people to heaven through force and a whip. The Prophet [Mohammad] did not have a whip in his hand."

Religious hard-liners pushed back hard in Friday prayer speeches in mosques across the country, which are a regular venue for making the theocracy's official positions on issues known.  But rather than backing down, Rouhani made further criticisms of, for example, internet censorship (see again the link which has much more detail).

A couple of weeks later, during public protests calling for the release of political prisoners, Rouhani pithily twisted the theocrats' tails again (details here) and his Minister of Culture ridiculed the way authoritarians' suspicion of new communications technologies leads to continual backwardness (a problem which contributed to the fall of the USSR).  Again the conservatives reacted with alarm, denouncing Rouhani's view that "we don't take people to Paradise by force" as "liberal and modernist", which are apparently very bad things.

Rouhani's cabinet appointees are another example of his efforts to reform Iran domestically.  See for example his Minister of Science (who has authority over education and research), whose liberalizing actions have provoked conservatives to try to impeach him.

But the most startling confrontation has arisen over an issue that is also a liberal-vs-theocrat battleground in the US -- contraception.  Surprisingly, Iran for many years has had government-guaranteed access to birth control (scroll down about halfway), even in remote villages which are visited by traveling gynecologists for the purpose.  But last month Supreme Leader Khamenei announced a change of course, supporting a proposed law banning many forms of birth control, and declaring a goal to increase the population from its current 77 million to 150 million.

Rouhani has now denounced the proposed law as a potential violation of human rights and declared that his administration will oppose it -- despite that fact that this means directly opposing the will of the Supreme Leader.  It takes real courage to stand firmly for free public access to birth control in a political system whose Scalias and Alitos are nominally his superiors in authority, and have armies of thugs at their command as well as a proven willingness to use torture and murder to crush their enemies.

So there is no longer any doubt -- Rouhani is indeed trying to reform Iran domestically despite great obstacles and risks.  And the key to his ability to do so is popular support.  Remember, the Ayatollahs aren't afraid of the United States.  They're afraid of a recurrence of this:

Certainly his victory is not assured, and it's unclear just how far he really wants to go.  But a courageous leader can take on even very powerful reactionary forces if the public is forcefully and actively supporting him.

Remember, Iran is potentially a country of enormous influence.  Historically its culture and language have great prestige in the Middle East.  Even under this wretched theocracy it is one of the most advanced countries in the area -- it has a convincing nuclear-weapons program and a space program, it conducts stem-cell research, it manufactures cars, it teaches evolution in its schools without reservation (putting it ahead of places like Louisiana), it guarantees access to birth control (until and unless Khamenei gets his way).  Only de-fang the theocrats and lift their internal repression, and it would probably advance as rapidly as Spain and Portugal did after the end of fascism there.

I haven't yet heard of Rouhani taking any action on the murderous repression of gays or the persecution of the Baha'is, but perhaps that will come next.  He has a lot of targets to choose from.

[The majority of my information on this comes via Iranian blogger Kaveh Mousavi, who provides a very valuable insider's view of what's happening in Iran, from a secular perspective.]

08 July 2014

The first superpower and its founder

If you want to understand a nation, study its history.  Here is a leader about whom most Americans know little if anything, but who shaped his country and region, and the world we all live in today.

In 549 BC the city of Ecbatana, capital of the Median Empire, fell to the Persians and the Median king Astyages was deposed.  The Median Empire had been one of the four big powers of the Middle East, the others being Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt.  The Persians had been a minor people, divided between the kingdoms of Persia and Anshan -- in fact, they had been vassals of the Median Empire, so the Persian war on Media was really a rebellion against an overlord.  After this startling victory the Persian king, Cyrus, took Astyages's place as ruler of the Medes.

(I'm citing all proper names in their Greco-Latin forms because those are what you'll see in most English-language sources on this period.  The forms in the original Middle Eastern languages were quite different.)

One detail of what followed was almost equally surprising.  The normal treatment meted out to overthrown kings at that time was death by impalement, but Cyrus merely packed Astyages off into retirement with a pension.

The Medes were a people closely related to the Persians and probably saw the accession of Cyrus as more a mere change of leadership than a foreign conquest -- the distinction between the two counted for so little that later the Greeks indiscriminately referred to Persians as "the Medes", and modern Persian-speaking Iranians are probably descended from both.  Cyrus went on to an impressive series of further conquests of quite different states and peoples including Lydia, the great Babylonian Empire including what we now call Syria and Israel (at that time Babylon was the world's largest city and most advanced civilization), and the wilder tribal peoples to the east and northeast of Iran proper.  In just 20 years he built an empire comparable in size to that of the much later Romans.  No state even approaching such a size had ever existed before (even China, ancient as a culture, did not become a unified state until 221 BC).  He did not conquer Egypt, but his son and successor Cambyses added it to the Persian Empire a few years after his death.  He is known to history as "Cyrus the Great".

Cyrus and later Persian kings held this huge empire (in its final form, actually larger than the later Roman Empire) together by a combination of two strategies.  One was humane (by the standards of the time) treatment of defeated enemies, of which his mercy to Astyages was the first example.  Whenever possible Cyrus left the existing leadership and forms of government in conquered countries intact, eschewing plunder and massacre but demanding loyalty to himself and payment of tribute.  Wiser heads respected the forbearance which they themselves would never have shown had the positions been reversed, and accepted Cyrus's rule; in a few cases local leaders mistook it for weakness and rebelled, and in such cases, to discourage similar behavior elsewhere, Cyrus sometimes descended to the brutality normal for that era.

The other strategy was exploitation of local religions.  In Babylon, for example, Cyrus capitalized on suspicions that the existing king Nabonidus was not a legitimate heir to the throne by declaring that the Babylonian god Marduk had sought him out to liberate the "noble Babylonian race" from Nabonidus's oppression, and to restore the temples which the old king had neglected.  The Persian Empire rapidly developed a sophisticated propaganda department which found ways to use the religion of each conquered country to legitimize Persian rule.

An example of Cyrus's style of rule is found in the Old Testament.  After the conquest of Babylon, it was he who freed the Israelites from captivity there to return to their own land, and even paid for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  Since Egypt was still an independent and rival state in his lifetime, it was useful to him to have a loyal population in Israel near his border with Egypt.

Cyrus was the true inventor of the giant multicultural universal state, a form identified in the Western mind with the Romans. The Persian Empire ultimately unified an astonishing variety of peoples -- Central Asian nomads, Ionian Greeks, seafaring Phoenecians, Arab Bedouins, monotheistic Hebrews, Indus Valley kingdoms, the (even then) ancient civilization of Egypt, the business-savvy metropolis of Babylon, and many others.  It extended from the Indus river in modern Pakistan to Cyrenaica in modern Libya, an east-west span greater than that of the modern continental US.

In modern times we think of empires as oppressive and instinctively side with smaller groups opposing the rule of more powerful ones, but in ancient times, when the independence of small states usually meant constant pointless warfare, incorporation into a giant state with the power to keep peace and order meant much better lives for most people, however humiliating it may have been to their local rulers.

The pax Persica helped spread ideas and knowledge.  Babylonian banks (a concept unknown elsewhere) set up branches throughout the Empire, something which would have been impossible under a hodgepodge of squabbling local states.  As travel became safer and easier, Greek scholars in increasing numbers went to Babylon to study its astronomy, medicine, and history, helping to trigger the spectacular rise of Greek science.  A vast system of qanats (underground aqueducts) irrigated the arid Iranian plateau (thousands of them are still in use today, 25 centuries later); under Persian rule, the qanat system was introduced into Egypt.

Cyrus the Great was not by any stretch of the imagination a modern democrat or liberal.  He was a product of his time; he ruled as a king and demanded the respect due to one.  But he was a startlingly just and humane man for his time, and he left the Middle East a much better place than he found it.

The Empire faced its first major crisis a few years after Cyrus's death, when a minor member of the royal family took the throne as Darius I after the deaths of Cyrus's two sons (the history of these events is murky and intriguing, but they were both probably killed by Darius).  Revolts broke out against the perceived usurper, but Darius managed to hold the Empire together and went on to become its most capable and important king after Cyrus himself.

The Persian Empire is mostly known to Westerners as a menacing presence to the east of ancient Greece, one which launched several unsuccessful efforts to conquer the Greeks.  The Persians thought of Greece much as we now think of Afghanistan -- a small, remote, mountainous country inhabited by wild and formidable warriors, maddeningly defiant of even the armies of the superpower.

But that conflict was ultimately the Empire's doom.  When Alexander the Great invaded it in 334 BC, his goal was not to destroy it but to capture it intact.  Alexander, one of the greatest generals who ever lived, took Cyrus the Great as his role model and dreamed of establishing a common civilization of Greeks, Persians, and the other peoples of the Empire and someday beyond.  What the world could have gained if he had succeeded, we will never know.  But he died young, with no clear successor; his generals divided the Empire, and the Middle East fell back into an age of quarreling smaller states.

To modern Iranian nationalists (who form the most important opposition to the present theocracy), Cyrus the Great is a hero and inspiration, an almost mythical figure, representing Iranian nationhood and civilization dating back ages before the dawn of Islam.  Even history as ancient as this can be very much alive and relevant in the present.

(For another episode from Persian history, a thousand years after Cyrus but still long before the coming of Islam, see here.)

06 July 2014

Link round-up for 6 July 2014

Poisoning pigeons in the park?  I prefer taunting teabaggers on the 'tubes.

Perhaps this is why ads are so bad.

Conservatism proclaims itself as ugly, smelly, and dirty.

Why is the South such an economic failure?  Maybe Lincoln screwed up.

Drought drives Texas to desperation and six-legged toads.

Teabaggers and libertarians attack each other -- more of this, please.  Will teabagger rage throw away Cochran's Senate seat?

Ken Ham builds straw man, makes idiot of self (again).

More bloggers weigh in on the Hobby Lobby decision -- Frank Moraes, Politics Plus, Brains and Eggs, Horizons, and Chauncey de Vega at Daily Kos.  All have interesting angles, though I think it's Booman Tribune that nails the real issue best.  Hobby Lobby's own stance is profoundly hypocritical (found via Progressive Eruptions, which has more).  And right-wingers are making idiots of themselves defending the ruling.

The wealth of the rich depends on the prosperity of society.

Teabaggers try to express themselves verbally.

Anti-vaccine stupidity is now killing more children than gun accidents (found via Earth-Bound Misfit).

Ignorant racist fattards call for revolution, hardly anyone notices.

The Obama administration continues its tough stance on illegal aliens (and teabaggers, confronted with this, resort to reality-denial).

The latest arrogant EU move makes it more likely that Britain will leave.

Iran has begun exporting cars to Russia.

Defying Maliki and the US, Iraqi Kurds prepare for formal independence, but Maliki has found an ally -- Syrian dictator Asad.  ISIS has a new weapon in its brutal war against non-Sunnis -- water.

Don't forget Obama's role in making the Syrian mess this much less ghastly.

China's one-child policy is destabilizing the country.

Frank Moraes looks at the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger.

Here's a taste of what ancient Greek art actually looked like (found via F169).

Most of the plastic we dump in the oceans is disappearing, and that's not a good thing.

04 July 2014

Happy Independence Day!

It's a holiday much given over to fireworks, barbecues, and mindless flag-waving, but as always, I hope Independence Day will serve as a time for remembering what the United States at its best is really about (it's the mindlessness which is bad, not the flag-waving).  To me, it's summed up in this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The rest of the Bill of Rights protects various specific rights, and they remain important (the level of electronic snooping we endure nowadays might have been prevented by more respect for the Fourth, for example), but it's the First Amendment that lays down the principles so fundamental that, if we were to lose them, America would no longer be America -- separation of church and state, and freedom of expression.  Those principles have always been under attack, of course -- the Founders well knew that they would be, which is why they put them in the most prominent position.  But there have also always been those who defended and expanded them, and that's the tradition we belong to.

And part of that tradition includes a right to spend a lot of our time being silly and self-indulgent (in loftier language, "the pursuit of happiness").  This has never been a country where Correct Thought is blared from red banners strung across the public square and politics worms its way into everything.  A big part of Americanism is keeping politics and policy out of everyone's hair so we can focus on our personal lives and have fun.  "The personal is political" is at least a strong contender for the most anti-American slogan ever conceived.  The personal is personal, and a free society leaves it alone to be so.

(See also earlier posts on Americanism and renegade culture.)

Firework safety reminder

Fireworks can be fun, but don't let them be launched by minors, morons, drunks, or teabaggers.  I suspect this person is at least two of those:

02 July 2014

Inside the theocracy

As ISIS rule spreads through northern Iraq and adjacent parts of Syria, local residents are getting a taste of theocracy:

On June 23, the Assyrian International News Agency reported that ISIS terrorists entered the home of a Christian family in Mosul and demanded that they pay the jizya (a tax on non-Muslims). According to AINA, "When the Assyrian family said they did not have the money, three ISIS members raped the mother and daughter in front of the husband and father. The husband and father was so traumatized that he committed suicide.".....Since the fall of Mosul, a litany of evils has replaced the liturgies of the Christians there: a young boy ripped from the arms of his parents as they ran from the ISIS advance and shot before their eyes, girls killed for not wearing the hijab.

I should point out that some of these stories haven't been independently corroborated, but given what we've already seen of ISIS's treatment of Shiite Muslims, they hardly seem surprising.  Islam does mandate tolerance for the existence of "People of the Book" (Christians and Jews), but this tolerance is conditional on their accepting Islamic rule and second-class citizenship including paying the jizyah, and no such tolerance is allotted to other religions or to the non-religious.  Everything ISIS is said to have done so far is in line with what God repeatedly commands the Hebrews to do to various unbelievers in the Old Testament.  What we're seeing here is simply what happens when the adherents of Abrahamic faiths really believe and follow what their sacred texts say.

Not surprisingly, great numbers of people have fled Mosul since ISIS captured it, some heading for nearby smaller towns, though these are not safe either.  The one true safe haven nearby is the self-governing enclave of Iraqi Kurdistan, where 300,000 people have already fled, straining the Kurds' resources and threatening them with a permanent refugee problem on their hard-won soil.  Not all those who have fled are Christians.  No non-Sunni can feel safe under ISIS rule, and many Sunnis do not wish to live under a grim totalitarian theocracy that engages in mass beheadings and worse.  Remember, ISIS was actually expelled from al-Qâ'dah for excessive brutality.

ISIS is also fighting to expand the swath of territory it controls in Syria.  There are over six million non-Sunnis in Syria, including Christians of various kinds, Alawites, Shiites, Druzes, and others.  Where religion is concerned, no matter how bad things are, it is always possible for them to get worse.

30 June 2014

Hobby Lobby

I've got just one thing to say about this:  VOTE!!!  The Supreme Court justices who imposed this travesty personify the most enduring consequence of Republican Presidents.  Very well then -- there must be no more Republican Presidents.  Any Democrat would appoint far better Supreme Court judges than any Republican.  And vote this year too -- defend the Democratic majority in the Senate to minimize Republican obstruction in case Obama gets to make another appointment in his last two years.

This can be overturned, someday, and other bad decisions can be prevented -- but that depends on who appoints and confirms the justices, which in turn depends on us.

There's plenty more to say, of course, and our other bloggers are saying it; check out Progressive Eruptions and Booman Tribune.  And an Andrew Sullivan reader points out that this decision privileges Catholic taboos specifically, not religion in general, making the flouting of the Establishment Clause even worse.

UpdateSquatlo Rant lays it on the line.

29 June 2014

Link round-up for 29 June 2014

Murr Brewster looks at BIG horses and evolution.

Financial and fire hazards -- more bitcoin "mining" machines.

Here are ten signs of being a fundie.

It's not exactly the Library of Alexandria, but this little spat in Kansas shows the grouch mentality at work, though there's a happy ending (found via Mendip).

Stupid Bible story of the week:  Jepthah.

Hollywood is running out of ideas -- but it has plenty of ideas for what spaceships should have.

Here's a fascinating analysis of Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait.

Meet the ladies of concealed carry (found via F169).

Wealthy Nick Hanauer has a warning for his class.

Cruelty is the essence of the right-wing war on civilization.  Read the comments, if only for the knee-jerk troll responses -- these people really are unreachable.

Faye Kane pwns libertarians (NSFW blog).

It's not just creationism -- fundamentalism makes America ignorant.

A "knockout" attack in Brooklyn ends badly for the perp.

Here's a quick summary of Republican policy on pretty much everything.

An ex-Muslim laments the absurdity of his former religion.

The most admired recent President by far?  Bill Clinton.

Say thanks to the NSA (found via Faye Kane).

Hey Republicans, how's that outreach to Latinos going?

Much of our country's disastrous wrong direction is the work of one man.

The Supreme Court gives the green light to religious harassment.

Teabaggerdom is mad as hell about Thad Cochran's victory in the Mississippi primary.

Why we need to keep Democrats in power:  Biden takes an uncompromising stand against bigotry.

Gin and Tacos takes a sobering look at American exceptionalism -- read the comments too.

Britain keeps a very close eye on its Muslims.

An Italian Catholic priest declares extramarital sex a worse sin than murder (found via F169).

Teddy bears are misused to facilitate disgusting religious rituals.

Defying Putin, Ukraine signs a trade deal with the EU.

Check out how Russian cops dress, at least until the killjoys crack down.  More stupid Russian legislation here.

Iran's chief theocrat Khamenei makes a dangerous reversal on birth control.

ISIS holds a victory parade through Mosul.  Your taxes probably bought those military vehicles for the Iraqi army, which abandoned them without a fight.

Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani is a puritanical old grouch, but he has his good side.

Muslim Pakistani traditional values -- a couple is hacked to death and a woman is burned alive.

In the world's most boring country, the young resort to dangerous thrill rides.

Chimpanzees have fads, though not quite as silly as ours.

Can you understand the tesseract? (NSFW blog)

There's something big and mysterious in a strange sea far away.

27 June 2014

The Middle East and American narcissism

John Kerry, the top foreign-policy official of the most powerful country in the world, is in Iraq right now, and he is being ignored.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refuses to step down in favor of a less-divisive leader, or to reform his Shiite sectarian regime into a unity government more inclusive of Sunnis (not that either action would likely do any good at this point).  Kerry has also urged the Kurds to cooperate with Maliki against ISIS, but the Kurds know that the Iraqi state's authority over the north is gone, probably forever, and they are focusing on securing Kirkuk and other important territories against the threat of ISIS.

John McCain may fume that Obama should "make" Maliki or other local players do this or that, while others argue for different goals, but the fact is, Americans have to get over the idea that we are the chief shapers of events in the Middle East.  Yes, we have great military power and we can do the things that military power can do, such as overthrowing Saddam, but everything else is being driven by local forces and interests.  Even in Iraq, where the US has invested money, time and lives in trying to influence the outcome, American fantasies of a western-style democracy unifying the country were almost comically swatted aside by the ethnic and sectarian dynamics now playing out.  Indeed, the very concept of Iraq as a country is just another Western delusion the West cannot preserve.

It's a mind-set I encounter again and again.  If anything happens in the Middle East, especially if it affects us, it must somehow be caused by something the West did.  Jihadism is a reaction to colonialism or the existence of Israel (you'd think the intense jihadist targeting of places like Russia, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Thailand, etc. would tip people off that there are other factors at work).  The Arab Spring is to be credited to an American administration wiser than the last, as if hundreds of thousands of people who braved the guns of the dictators took their inspiration from Washington.  The breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with Iran is similarly credited to nuances of American policy, not to a new and courageously reformist Iranian President or the gargantuan mass street protests of 2009 which intimidated the ayatollahs enough to make his election possible.  Middle Eastern people are, apparently, passive and inert and never take initiatives; they only react to things that Westerners do.

I blame this mind-set partly on the fact that most Americans, including liberals, know very little about the internal social and political dynamics of Middle Eastern societies -- so when they need an explanation for something, they retreat to the familiar, especially if they can turn it into an opportunity to praise or condemn the policies of some American politician whom they wished to praise or condemn anyway.

It's true that spectacular Western blunders like the Iraq invasion or the overthrow of Mosaddegh had a major impact, but the West could not guide subsequent events to a desired conclusion; taking one big player out of the game changes the game, but does not mean you control the game.

Nor does the Middle East exist as a mirror held up to ourselves.  When Americans' sole response to events in Iraq is "Yeah, that proves what an idiot Bush was", they are engaging in narcissism.  Yes, Bush was an idiot, but ISIS and Maliki and the Kurds are not doing what they are doing in order to remind us that he was an idiot.

The fact is, we're a sideshow, if that.  The Middle East has to be understood on its own terms.

24 June 2014

Cultural nationalism

We think of nationalism as a political phenomenon, but in the present age it can take another form which is almost equally important, which I call cultural nationalism.

I define cultural nationalism as the mass re-assertion, in cultural rather than political forms, of a sense of national identity which is felt to be under threat.  There isn't a leader or an ideology or a written mission statement, and if organizations exist at all, they're generally innocuous and more an effect that a cause.  It starts among ordinary people and largely stays there.  It can appeal to people who are uncomfortable with the often more aggressive and ideological character of political nationalism.  It can, however, eventually lead to a later rise of political nationalism, as we'll see.

An example of a country where cultural nationalism has become important is the United Kingdom.  People in the land of my ancestors have felt their sense of identity to be under attack for several decades due to three factors which are unprecedented in modern British history.  One is large-scale immigration, especially Muslim immigration, which has introduced a radically-different culture into the country; Muslims are only 4.4% of the total population, but their presence has been highly visible and assertive.  The second factor is the European Union, Europe's increasingly intrusive and unaccountable supra-national quasi-government.  The third, perhaps most important in this context, is a sporadic tendency by the authorities to discourage symbols and practices which are felt to be potentially "offensive" to Muslims.

An example of the latter involves the English flag, not to be confused with the familiar British flag (The UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but England has 85% of the population).  The English flag is traditionally displayed on St. George's Day, England's national holiday, but because it resembles the flag used by the Crusaders, it was discouraged as potentially offensive (example here).  In the last few years, though, the flag and other traditional St. George's Day practices have been resurgent.  There isn't an obvious political component to all the dressing up and slaying of plastic-and-cloth dragons.  It's just people re-asserting who they are and, perhaps, sticking it to the finger-wagging busybodies.

Cultural nationalism also often asserts itself in music.  What first made me aware of the concept, in fact, was a folk-rock band called Show of Hands (again, more an English than a British phenomenon -- the distinction isn't too relevant to this post, though the English themselves are very conscious of it).  You couldn't ask for a better example of cultural nationalism than this song:

Again, there is nothing political here, but the appeal to reclaim identity is fervent and explicit.  Show of Hands is enormously popular, having for example sold out the Royal Albert Hall (a huge venue) several times.

One striking thing about the re-assertion of cultural identity in Britain is that religion has been decisively rejected as a component of it, even though there is an official state religion.  Rosa Rubicondior, a British blogger, discussed this last week, and I particularly note this chart based on a recurring survey of what British people themselves consider the most important components of their identity:
Being Christian ranks by far the least important of all the factors surveyed, and is falling in importance over time.  (More on nationalism vs. religion here.)  Cultural nationalism in Europe is routinely smeared as racist (and racists certainly do exist there, as everywhere); there was no question about race in the survey, but note that having British ancestry also ranks much lower in importance than most of the other factors.

Cultural nationalism can presage a later rise of political nationalism; questions like intrusive international organizations, and the clash between religious "sensibilities" and free expression, have a political dimension.  Establishment pundits were startled by the electoral victories of the explicitly nationalistic UK Independence Party, and similar parties in other European countries, last month.  They shouldn't have been.  But they need to start paying more attention to those fake-dragon slayers and sold-out folk-rock shows, and less attention to officious tie-wearing people pronouncing upon what is and isn't correct thought -- and that kind of thing doesn't come naturally to most pundits.

Cultural nationalism is asserting itself in many places, though it can sometimes be hard to recognize -- by its very nature, it takes somewhat different forms in each country.  But for better or worse, it's a manifestation of something very important, and in many cases it tells us more about what the future has in store than the words of politicians, always deemed more newsworthy, ever can.