Saturday, July 30, 2011

New blog network: FreethoughtBlogs

My friend Ed Brayton who currently blogs at Dispatches From the Culture Wars on Scienceblogs is launching a new blogging network specifically for skeptical/humanist concerns called FreethoughtBlogs on Monday, August 1st. You can see the event announcement on Facebook here, and here is the description given:
A new blog network is hitting the web on August 1. Led by two of the most prominent and widely read secular-minded blogs in the country – PZ Myers’ Pharyngula and Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars – will be THE central gathering place for atheists, humanists, skeptics and freethinkers in the blogosphere. 
Freethoughtblogs will be more than just a place for people to read the opinions of their favorite bloggers. It will be a community of like-minded people exchanging ideas and joining forces to advocate for a more secular and rational world.  
The network will launch Aug. 1 with a handful of blogs with many more to be added after the first three months of operation. Here are the five blogs that will lead the way: 
Pharyngula. PZ Myers has built one of the most popular atheist blogs in the world. Never one to shy away from controversy, Myers has built an astonishing following over the last few years and has traveled around the world speaking to skeptical audiences. As a PhD biologist he is the scourge of creationists everywhere but he takes on a wide range of subjects in his blogging, including religious criticism, women’s rights and progressive politics.  
Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Ed Brayton was raised by a Pentecostal and an atheist, sealing his fate forever as someone who is endlessly fascinated by how religion intersects with other subject, particularly science, law, history and politics. He is a popular speaker for secular organizations around the country, has appeared on the Rachel Maddow show and is pretty certain he’s the only person who has ever made fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.  
The Digital Cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are shy and elusive creatures; when necessary, they hide in their own ink. This particular cuttlefish has chosen as its habitat the comment threads of science, religion, and news sites, where it feeds on the opinions of those who are emboldened by the cloak of internet anonymity. Cuttlefish is an atheist, a skeptic, and is madly, passionately in love with science. The Digital Cuttlefish has, since October of 2007, been a repository of commentary and satire, usually (but not exclusively) in verse and now moves to Freethoughtblogs.  
This Week in Christian Nationalism. Chris Rodda is the author of "Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History." Since the release of her book in 2006, Chris has been blogging at and Huffington Post about the use of historical revisionism in everything from education to legislation. Chris is now launching her own blog on that will accompany her weekly podcast, This Week in Christian Nationalism. 
Zingularity. Steven "DarkSyde" Andrew is a 40 something former stock and bond trader and one time moderate conservative. He grew up in the Southwest and has long been fascinated by science, particularly evolutionary biology, physics, and astronomy. He is a frequest contributor to the popular progressive website Daily Kos and now blogs at Zingularity, where legit science disappears forever down an event horizon of petty snark and cynicism. 
If you would be so kind as to help us have a successful launch, please post the above information, or at least a link to the new network, on your Facebook pages, on your own blogs and in forums in which you participate that might be interested in it.  
We want this to quickly become the most important gathering place for the skeptical community in the blogosphere.
I'm very interested to see what will come of this project, and wishing it success....not that they'll need my wishes, as this is a very good crew of bloggers with dedicated audiences who will hopefully form a lasting community.

A reminder on perspective regarding victimhood...

...from Jon Stewart:

Speculations on the economics of sterilization: Denmark edition

From the blog of Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics:
The Economics of Sterilization 
When it comes to sterilization, Denmark has had a rather turbulent history. In 1929, in the midst of rising social concerns regarding an increase in sex crimes and general “degeneracy,” the Danish government passed legislation bordering on eugenics, requiring sterilization in some men and women. Between 1929 and 1967, while the legislation was active, approximately 11,000 people were sterilized – roughly half of them against their will. 
Then, the policy was changed so that sterilization was still available, still free, but not involuntary. And as you might expect, the sterilization rate in Denmark dropped down dramatically – and stayed this way until 2010. 
Now we come to 2010. In only a few short months, the sterilization rate increased fivefold. No, this was not a regression to the old legislation; it was a result of free choice… 
What happened? Last year, the Danish government announced that sterilization, which had been free, would cost at least 7,000 kroner (~$1,300) for men and 13,000 kroner (~$2,500) for women as of January 1st, 2011. Following the announcement, doctors performing sterilizations found that their patient load suddenly surged. People were scrambling to get sterilized while it was still free. 
Now, it could be that the people who were already planning on getting sterilized at some point in the future just made their appointments a bit sooner, and conveniently saved some money. But I can also imagine that (much like our research on free tattoos) there were many people who did not really think much about sterilization before the price change, but were so averse to giving up such a good deal that it pushed them to take the offer and undergo a fairly serious procedure. 
And although we usually don’t think about sterilization as an impulse purchase, it might just become one when a free deal is about to be snipped.
First thought: I doubt it. It seems far more likely that the people who got sterilized last year were "some dayers," who are married or at least coupled and have a kid or two with no plans for more, with thoughts about him getting a vasectomy "someday." Or possibly getting her tubes tied, though that's more expensive. But once it was announced that the procedures would no longer be publicly funded, "someday" became "today."

Second thought: The U.S. has eugenics in its history too, and it is for that reason that I'm pretty sure publicly funded sterilization here would be met with an outcry that eugenics has returned. Of course Denmark is a bastion of socialized healthcare so it's not unusual that things would be different there....what's unusual to my eyes is that they decided to change things and begin charging. If cutting costs is the goal, isn't it a bit short-sighted to begin with a procedure that prevents all of the future costs that come with having a child which also at least in part will be publicly-funded? Or, for that matter, the costs of abortion? Granted, a first trimester abortion probably costs about a third of what female sterilization would cost....but that's assuming first trimester, and that it's the only abortion she gets. It just seems an odd policy decision to make.

Third thought: There is a dramatically less invasive and expensive form of female sterilization called Essure. But it was not government funded even when other forms of sterilization were, and you have to go to Copenhagen to get it. It would seem like if cutting corners when it comes to sterilization is really deemed a good decision (highly questionable), beginning to fund that and licensing more doctors to perform it would be the way to go.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How not to deal with misogyny, gaming edition

Girls, keep out!
Let's say you're planning a big party. Unfortunately, when parties like the one you have in mind have been thrown in the past, they have tended to attract...well, some assholes. These assholes direct their ire to and about a certain specific group of people, and it can be really obnoxious, making others feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. You want to make sure that kind of thing isn't going to happen at your party. So what do you do?

A) Announce in advance that assholery of any kind will not be tolerated, and enforce it by kicking out anyone at the party who insists on behaving that way.
B) Take note of assholes who have attended such parties in the past, and make an effort not to invite them.
C) Incentivise people of the group targeted by the assholes to attend, so as to create a disparity in numbers which encourages the assholes to keep their traps shut.
D) Some combination of the above.

If you're one of the organizers of an upcoming LAN party in Austin, Texas for Battlefield 3, your answer was.... E) None of the above! Announce that members of the group targeted by assholes are not invited to attend, for the sake of their own protection.

Yes, really. And as you can guess from this post's title, the targeted group is women. From Owen Good at Kotaku:
Enthusiasts of military-style first-person shooters are not well known for their progressive thoughts on the matter of gender. The organizers of a large LAN party in Texas, scheduled to celebrate the launch of Battlefield 3, have decided the best way to deal with any slurs hurled at female gamers is to simply forbid them from attending. 
"Nothing ruins a good LAN party like uncomfortable guests or lots of tension, both of which can result from mixing immature, misogynistic male-gamers with female counterparts," the organizers originally wrote in an event FAQ. "Though we've done our best to avoid these situations in years past, we've certainly had our share of problems. As a result, we no longer allow women to attend this event. 
This paragraph has since been removed, as the stink over the exclusion went viral, and replaced with: "This event is a 'gentlemen's retreat'; as such we do not allow women to attend." 
Later, they clarified that with: 
"We actively discourage gamers from being the kind of mysogynistic jackwagons seen in the Reddit post, and such behavior should not be tolerated. Frankly, we don't like that kind of player either. So far as this event goes, it is an special event designed specifically for male gamers. Further, it is meant as a getaway designed to help said male contingent become better men both for themselves and for those who love us." 
This is a large, private event and its organizers certainly have the right to associate with whomever they please. But given what I usually hear over my headset in military shooters like Battlefield, I wonder if this party would so outwardly ban any black gamers from registering. Because it would be so, you know, uncomfortable to hear them being insulted. 
Or maybe the answer here is to forbid that kind of obnoxious behavior, and kick out anyone who breaks the rule, $49 registration be damned. Or maybe this event is more about the comfort of the organizers than the participants.
This is not the sort of event I would want to attend anyway, not being big on first person shooter (FPS) style games, let alone playing them with strangers who are known for their propensity to engage in aggressive smack talk throughout the game. That this is the general pattern of conversation for multiplayer FPS games is so well-known it is practically a truism. But as Good suggests above, insults to and about women are not the only kind of prejudice displayed in gamer put-downs. It's not at all uncommon to hear racism and especially homophobia as well-- would the LAN party organizers ban non-whites and/or gays as well, in the name of making those gamers who are allowed to attend "better"?  Doesn't it seem a little odd on its face to keep the assholes and exclude the victims, for the sake of decreasing the levels of general assholery?

The Battlefield 3 party is being organized by Powers Gaming, which is a private organization so of course they get to make their own rules. And I have no doubt that they are genuinely interested in keeping the level of aggressiveness during gameplay itself to a minimum. But their chosen means of doing so amounts to creating a heckler's veto-- an institutionalized means for those who are willing to be obnoxious to penalize those who are not, while escaping any penalty for themselves.

Lesley at Two Whole Cakes sums up what is going on:
Since it’s been picked up by some blogs, the text has been changed to describe the event simply as a “gentleman’s retreat”, with a link to this site, in an effort to either elicit hilarity (that said men are trying to be better people by playing Battlefield 3 together) or to earnestly reframe the male-exclusive space as a positive thing. There is also some weird drama in which possibly-imaginary female attendees describe harassment at prior LAN parties put on by this group that may have never happened. 
Ultimately, the question of whether women have been egregiously harassed at past events — although it would seem to be implied by the original wording — is irrelevant to this post. All I want to unpack here is the original language in the original pre-drama announcement quoted above, because I think it demonstrates a lot of what is wrong with games culture in an especially clear way. 
The encoded, indirect message behind that text is this: 
We don’t want this to be difficult. We just want to play our games and not have to worry about forcing people to behave. We don’t want to think critically about what kind of ground rules would need to be laid down, how we would make them clear, and how we would enforce them, because that seems like a lot of work without any worthwhile payoff. We don’t want to be distracted by having to police our participants. We just want to play some motherfucking Battlefield 3, and have fun doing it. Because dealing with misogyny, racism, homophobia, or any kind of hate speech? It’s just not fun. So in the interest of making this event fun for the men and safe for the women, we’re just going to require that the women stay home. 
The idea that it is somehow “safer” to make the event male-only is problematic in that it reinforces the assumption that men are feral fucking animals who are incapable of controlling their allegedly natural chromosomal need to be assholes. It presupposes that getting dudes to treat women and other non-dudebro people like human beings is, at best, a huge imposition, or at worst, an impossibility.
Exactly. Yet again, such a characterization is not doing men or women any favors.

I do very much believe that, in addition to simply being regularly exposed to friendly interaction with members of a targeted group, the next best way to eliminate prejudice against that group is peer pressure. As in, having friends who are not members of that group say to you "Hey, that's not cool. Saying things like that makes you sound like a douche, actually. And I know you're not one, so cut it out." But I'm under no illusions that that is at all what this Battlefield 3 "gentleman's retreat" will be about.  It will be, quite naturally, about playing Battlefield 3. And that's perfectly fine-- that's the reason the event is being held.  But it could still be about Battlefield 3 without preemptively excluding the people who are likely to get picked on while the bullies walk right in the door...presumably to conduct all of the bullying they care to do, since the parties most likely to be offended have been eliminated.

Or have they? How cool would it be if a certain number of guy gamers went to the event to stand in for the excluded girl gamers?  To apply a little peer pressure, while simultaneously not approving of the chosen format which makes it so much more important for them to fulfill that role?

Maybe I'm dreaming, in that regard. But it would be nice.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When is a pasta strainer not a pasta strainer?

An Austrian man, Niko Alm, was acknowledged the right of wearing a pasta strainer on his head for his driver's license photo:

Pasta strainers are now considered suitable religious headgear in Austria ... at least as far as the transport authorities are concerned. 
Three years after applying for a new driver's licence, an Austrian man has finally received the laminated card. And the picture shows him sporting an upturned pasta strainer on his head.
Nothing to worry about: the authorities ruled the kitchen utensil was a suitable religious accessory for a Pastafarian. 
Niko Alm, an entrepreneur, told the Austria Press Agency he had the idea when he read that headgear was allowed in official pictures only for "confessional" reasons. 
The atheist says he belongs to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a light-hearted "faith" whose members call themselves Pastafarians and whose "only dogma ... is the rejection of dogma," according to its website. 
Accordingly, Alm sent his application for a new driver's license in 2008 along with a picture of himself with a colander on his head. 
The stunt got him an invitation to the doctor's to check he was mentally fit to drive, but after three years, Alm's efforts have paid off. 
He now wants to apply for Pastafarianism to become an officially recognised faith in Austria.
As you may recall, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster began in the first place in relation to the controversy about teaching evolution in Kansas public schools. The idea was that if the schools are going to teach a particular religion's origin story, they should have to teach everyone's. The degree to which the story is ridiculous doesn't matter, because in the eyes of the law religion is religion.

Since that time Pastafarianism has taken off as a pseudo-religion, to the point that there was actually a panel at the American Academy of Religion conference dedicated to it in 2007. They discussed it as a "new religious movement," with little to no discussion about evolution or the law from what I recall, and very little about whether its adherents were/are actually serious.

I don't know what Niko Alm thinks or knows about that, but since the article says that he's an atheist I assume he intends to make another point about how religions are viewed by the state. Presumably in Austria religious headgear is the only kind of headgear you are allowed to wear in photos on official identifying documents. So the particular item's form is not what matters-- what matters is whether it is associated with a belief system revolving around supernatural entities, regardless of whether the person in the photo actually holds that belief system or not. Religion is an object of special treatment in the eyes of the law.

This, I assume, is why Alm is continuing in a crusade to have Pastafarianism to become an officially recognized faith in Austria-- to make it explicit that literally anything could qualify for special treatment. And when anything qualifies, what does "special" mean anymore? 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Political mysticism

I'm just going to take a moment to ramble about a way of thinking that I notice regularly, and by which I am rankled every time: political mysticism. A political mystic need not have any particular political beliefs-- it is entirely possible for him or her to be anywhere on the spectrum. But such a person is distinguished by the way in which she regards political knowledge and understanding.

Specifically, this person "does not generally follow politics," because it is "pointless and boring, and it just makes me angry" but nevertheless has continuing revelations about how bad things really are. How politicians really are all a bunch of lying scumbags, and nobody seems to know it but our mystic. Our mystic is baffled by this revelation, and a revelation is indeed what it is-- an ineffable, transient, noetic experience. The knowledge conferred in this revelation, which occurs again and again, is that things have become really bad recently. As in, right about the time our mystic started paying attention. 

This fact is both fortunate and deeply frustrating for the mystic, because she has become Cassandra-- only she knows the complete foolhardiness of whatever political activity is under consideration at the moment.  There is a ground of rationality, fairness, and coherence regarding all things political, and she stands on it. Alone. Everyone else-- the people in elected office, the people trying to get elected and the people trying to influence them, and the voting populace in general-- are wandering aimlessly in the mist, either unable to find the two-foot square patch of ground called "Right" where our mystic stands, or deliberately trying to prevent others from discovering it in service of their own agendas. Our mystic, in case you were wondering, has no agenda. That would preclude being Right.

Our mystic regularly opines on political matters, usually angrily, because she cannot understand why everyone does not share her views on pet topics.  She lacks perspective-- the notion that entirely reasonable, intelligent, good-hearted people can hold political views diametrically opposed to hers has either not been considered, or soundly rejected. She finds it liberating in the extreme to have crawled out of one diorama and into another, believing that it represents a paradigm shift in favor of understanding how things truly work. How things have, in the last decade or so, gone to hell in a hand basket and nobody seems to know or want to do anything about it. Now, after having arranged the furniture and settled comfortably into this vantage point, she can resume being confronted with the enormity of how many people have it completely wrong.

"Politics" is for our mystic, by the way, a discrete realm of activity relating to the actions of those people whose power stems from having been elected or appointed. That is how she can talk passive aggressively about being "fed up with politics" or "just not understanding why certainly people don't get it, politically." Even though our mystic votes-- because it is her civic responsibility, by which she earns the right to continue bitching about politicians-- she does not regard herself as part of the political machine. She simply pays attention to it, from time to time, until doing so becomes too frustrating and venting no longer entertains.

Our mystic considers herself empathetic, certain that she knows the motivations of others regarding their stances on specific topics, even though she is equally certain they do not give her anything like the same consideration. That's why they do not share her views.  

What defines this phenomenon, essentially, is this unconscious conviction of isolated insight. It is perpetual without being enlightening, satisfying without being productive, justifying without signifying any actual moral character. In the depths of my soul, I fear emulating the political mystic. I do not want to become her.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

More on The Marriage Vow

First, I didn't talk at all yesterday about the statement of motivations in The Marriage Vow that preceded its fourteen provisions, which included two claims that have since been removed:

  • Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.
  • LBJ’s 1965 War on Poverty was triggered in part by the famous “Moynihan Report” finding that the black out-of-wedlock birthrate had hit 26%; today, the white rate exceeds that, the overall rate is 41%, and over 70% of African-American babies are born to single parent. 

Professor of Religion Althea Butler wrote a scatching commentary on this at Religion Dispatches:

Um, Hell-to-the-yeah slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families. White slave owners broke apart families to sell, raped black women, and often confiscated the babies from these forced unions. Somehow, conservatives like Bob Vander Plaats forget to mention that. They are too busy buying into the fake history of the forefathers from WallBuilders
The statement that a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household is a boldfaced, ignorant lie, designed to tug at conservative white heartstrings and sucker in some African-American Christian conservatives. To wit, let me quote Frederick Douglass from his autobiography: “The practice of separating mothers from their children and hiring them out at long distances too great to admit of the meeting, save at long intervals, was a market feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system... It had no interest in recognizing or preserving any of the ties that bind families together or to their homes” 
I am really getting sick and tired of the conservative meme about saving marriage, and placing the shaky foundation of their argument on African-American single parent birth and wedlock rates. Conservatives idolize the founding fathers, yet they conveniently forget the legacy of slavery and its atrocities many of the founders acquiesced to. While conservatives tick off statistics about African-American babies born out of wedlock, Teen Mom is the MTV show where teenage white girls can get their cash on by being pregnant and beating up their boyfriends on TV. Bristol Palin is proof that being a pregnant, unwed white girl is enough for a memoir at 20 called Not Afraid of Life. Put this together with all the reproductive rights rollbacks on abortion and the like, and the schizophrenic hysteria of the right doesn’t hold up. 
When it comes to vows, pledges, and the like, the last thing I want to hear it from is a white male conservative authoring some sappy pledge for candidates to sign. After reading the report on John Ensign and Mark Sandford hitting the Appalachian Trail, and the RNC using funds at a sex-themed voyeur nightclub, moralizing, asinine pledges aren’t going to stop anyone, including the candidates, from having sex and watching lots of porn. Add in the ahistoricism of the right, and it’s laughable that any pledge from this hypocritical bunch could hold water.

I don't think I have anything to add to that.

Also, today Salon published an interview with The Family Leader founder Bob Vander Plaats, who authored The Marriage Vow, including apparently the worst photo of him they could find. I'm really not a fan of that, even when the person in question is someone I despise. Some background on TFL generally Vander Plaats specifically:

The Family Leader was formed after the 2010 elections as a coalition of Iowa social conservative advocacy groups, with Bob Vander Plaats as its executive director and public face. Vander Plaats had become the best known conservative culture warrior in Iowa that year after receiving a respectable 41 percent of the vote in the GOP gubernatorial primary; his campaign focused on reversing a 2009 decision by the state supreme court allowing same-sex marriage. 
After losing in the primary, the fiercely anti-gay Vander Plaats led the successful campaign to oust three supreme court justices who had voted for the same-sex marriage decision. Now at the helm of the Family Leader, he has brought in presidential hopefuls for a speech series and is openly cultivating an image as Iowa kingmaker.

When asked whether TFL's support hinges on the matter of whether or not a candidate would sign the Vow, Vander Plaats replied:
What we've said is that a primary candidate for the office of president will not get our support if they can't sign this pledge. If they can't sign the pledge, we're going to ask them questions like, "Where's the issue you have with the pledge?" Because we want to have a discussion and a debate. And if for any reason they point out something we're just wrong on, then we'd admit it and say "OK, we're wrong on that." But we don't see that.
Are you surprised? I'm not surprised.

Regarding the plank concerning Sharia Islam:

There's one section in the pledge that says the candidate has to reject -- the phrase used is "Sharia Islam" -- can you describe what you mean by that phrase and what you want the candidates to reject in that? 
Well, Sharia Islam -- and I'm not an expert on Sharia Islam -- but I think just in the brief knowledge [I have] of Sharia Islam, one you can have multiple wives, and two is you can have temporary wives, and three is I think it disrespects women as a whole. And so we see Sharia Islam as being an issue. 
Only a "brief knowledge," yet apparently it is such a threat that it must be specifically mentioned in a statement on protecting marriage that presidential candidates are being asked to sign. Got it. Are we supposed to assume that the candidates know more about Sharia than Vander Plaats does?

Regarding pornography:

Another part of the vow that's gotten attention was the clause about promising to protect women and children from a long list of evils. Some of those things were obviously crimes -- human trafficking was one -- but there was also pornography. What would you say to people who don't see pornography as a threat to women? And secondly, do you think only women need to be protected from pornography or should men be, too? 
Well I think if you read in that, there's also the word "coercion" -- "coerced." I don't have the vow in front of me right now, but I think if you read that it's going to talk about coercion as it relates to abortion, prostitution, pornography. What we're trying to do is have a high standard for women and for children, as well as for marriages and for family. 
Some people were saying that the pledge was somehow calling for a ban on pornography, is that what it was intended to do? 
No, not at all. I think if the Family Leader could have its way, we'd probably say we'd like to have a ban on pornography. But that's not the vow. The vow was [about] forcing women into pornography.
Really? Let me remind you, Mr. Vander Plaats, of what the vow you authored actually says on that:

Humane protection of women . . .from all forms of pornography. . . and other types of coercion or stolen innocence.
Sure sounds to me like you're defining pornography as a form of coercion, or at least "stolen innocence" (whatever that means), from which women need to be "protected." Suddenly consent matters!  Just not enough to make it clear in the document presidential candidates are being expected to sign, apparently.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Google Plus

Yes, I have been seduced. Feel free to add me if you have as well, and would like another person in whatever circle is deemed most appropriate.

What's wrong with The Marriage Vow

This is not a marriage. No matter what
it might look like. No siree-bob. If they have
kids, they will not be a family.  Nope.
This message brought to you by a lot of
organizations with the word "family"
in their names, so they know what
they're talking about.
So far, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann are the two presidential candidates (wow; it's still strange to say that) who have signed something called The Marriage Vow. What is this vow, you ask? Well, it's a pledge conceived by a Christian organization called The Family Leader, based in Iowa and associated with Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Because by golly, you don't care about families if you don't have "Family" right there in your name.

And the word "family," of course, means something very specific: a church and state-authorized union of two people who were born biologically male and female respectively, who were virgins until marriage and maintain a strict monogamous relationship, would never divorce unless perhaps one of them beat the other to a pulp, and whose sexual relations (which involve no consumption of pornography) have produced at least one child containing their shared genetic lineage. Or to use the Vow's terms, "innocent fruit of their conjugal intimacy."

Having clarified that, let's get to the Vow itself. The purpose of this pledge is to outline a set of stances a presidential candidate will promise to support and uphold in defense of the Institution of Marriage, which is critical to maintaining that of Family (TM) outlined above.  If a candidate refuses to sign, then of course we need no more evidence whatsoever to conclude that he or she is anti-Marriage and anti-Family (TM) and therefore presumably in support of every brand of debauchery, perversity, and hedonism that you can imagine. He/she probably holds nightly screenings of Caligula for the neighborhood children during which they are encouraged to suck on vodka-flavored phallus-shaped lollipops. Or worse, he/she supports gay marriage. Which is not Marriage, regardless of what the government might say. Unless the government agrees with The Family Leader and passes a federal prohibition on gay marriage (support for which is included in the Vow) in which case the law is presumably binding and just.

So. Let's fisk The Family Leader's Marriage Vow for candidates, shall we?
Therefore, in any elected or appointed capacity by which I may have the honor of serving our fellow citizens in these United States, I the undersigned do hereby solemnly vow to honor and to cherish, to defend and to uphold, the Institution of Marriage as only between one man and one woman. I vow to do so through my:
  • Personal fidelity to my spouse
This goes to hypocrisy. It's typical for conservatives to accuse everyone else of hypocrisy for not properly upset about the dalliances of people like John Edwards, Bill Clinton, or Anthony Weiner, but the reason why we aren't is because those aren't the politicians who were going on about the sanctity of marriage as an inviolate institution which no one deserves but people like them. That is, they're not hypocrites. The number of Republicans, on the other hand, who have made precisely such speeches and advocated legislation in "protection" of this institution?  Caught red-handed all of the time. So often it has become a joke-- identify the ones speaking most loudly about the sanctity of marriage, and they will be the next one caught cheating. Sexting, hiking the Appalachian Trail, affecting a wide stance in an airport restroom....I can understand why advocates of The Marriage Vow would want to ensure that such embarrassments are not recruited to their cause. I am also skeptical that they can attract anyone else.  
  • Respect for the marital bonds of others
...unless they're gay, or their marriage is otherwise not officially condoned as supportive of Family (TM).
  • Official fidelity to the U.S. Constitution, supporting the elevation of none but faithful constitutionalists as judges or justices
This one struck me as out of place, considering that the Constitution says exactly nothing about marriage. Then I read the footnote to this provision: 
It is no secret that a handful of state and federal judges, some of whom have personally rejected heterosexuality and faithful monogamy, have also abandoned bona fide
constitutional interpretation in accord with the discernible intent of the framers.  In November, 2010, Iowa voters overwhelmingly rejected three such justices from the
state Supreme Court in retention elections.  Yet, certain federal jurists with lifetime appointments stand poised, even now, to “discover” a right of so-called same-sex
marriage or polygamous marriage in the U.S. Constitution.      
Aha! Yes, that pesky 14th Amendment. The reasons for eliminating that bothersome guarantee of the equality of all American citizens to be protected at both state and federal levels just keep adding up, don't they?  After all, it has been used as justification for ending segregation and legalizing miscegenation. First the blacks got to marry whites, and now the gays are getting to marry each other. Clearly this amendment must be eliminated. In order to protect the Constitution from those who would change it, we must...change it first, before they can get to it.
  • Vigorous opposition to any redefinition of the Institution of Marriage-- faithful monogamy between one man and one woman-- through statutory-, bureaucratic-, or court-imposed recognition of intimate unions which are bigamous, polygamous, polyandrous, same-sex, etc.
Or, conservatives from 1967 would like to note, mixed-race.  
The definition of the Institution of Marriage used here strikes me as uses a non-legal concept of marriage (faithful monogamy not being a requirement) to enforce a legal prohibition.  If the authors of the Vow want non-monogamy to be outlawed, they've chosen a very roundabout way of expressing that. As it is, the mention of monogamy here is superfluous at best. Certainly it wouldn't be a surprise to find that they would like to lock up adulterers, but perhaps refrained from including that because it would be impossible to find anyone willing to sign off on it.  After all, it's one thing to pledge to be true to your spouse-- it's quite another to agree to your own arrest and prosecution if you fail.  

Also, including both polygamy and polyandry is redundant, polygamy being the word for multiple spouses in general and polyandry for multiple husbands specific. Bigamy is okay to include as to my knowledge it refers to duplicitously marrying multiple spouses. But that goes to the issue of consent, and people making this argument generally don't seem to factor in consent at all.  That's how they can compare gay marriage not just to polygamy but also pedophilia and bestiality, as signatory Rick Santorum has done.  
  • Recognition of the overwhelming statistical evidence that married people enjoy better health, better sex, longer lives, greater financial stability, and that children raised by a mother and a father together experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble, and less extramarital pregnancy. 
The footnote to this rather startling claim cites Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions From the Social Sciences, a 2005 report from the Institute for American Values. As its sole evidence. This report is also entirely about comparing the welfare of children raised by two parents as opposed to a single parent, rather than those raised by married straight parents as opposed to married gay parents. An omission about as subtle as a freight train.
  • Support for prompt reform of uneconomic, anti-marriage aspects of welfare policy, tax policy, and marital/divorce law, and extended "second chance" or "cooling-off" periods for those seeking a "quickie divorce."
Well, I suppose making it harder for people to get divorced certainly supports the goal of marriage as an end unto itself. In the same way that opposing assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who are in great pain supports the goal of preserving life as an end unto itself.  
  • Earnest, bona fide legal advocacy for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) at the federal and state levels.
Of course. Even rabid states' rights advocate Ron Paul (whom The Family Leader supportshas abandoned that position to advocate for a federal ban on same-sex marriage. I am not a states' rights supporter myself and in fact consider the notion to be abhorrent, but it's particularly sad to see a libertarian abandoning principles in favor of personal prejudice. When your entire claim to legitimacy is based on the fact that you stick to your principles come hell or high water, and can at least be consistent if nothing else, and then you take a stance like this,'re no longer even a stopped clock, are you?
  • Steadfast embrace of a federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman in all of the United States.
Yes, yes....and a big banner across the White House that reads "Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve," and a formal repudiation of rainbows, triangles, and the color pink to be included in the presidential oath of office, and the establishment of internment camps for anyone found to be in possession of a Barbara Streisand album, and a national ban on mullets for women. We get it already.

  • Humane protection of women and the innocent fruit of conjugal intimacy-- our next generation of American children-- from human trafficking, sexual slavery, seduction into promiscuity, and all forms of pornography and prostitution, infanticide, abortion, and other types of coercion or stolen innocence. 

The mind boggles on how a provision such as the above could be enforced. I wonder if The Family Leader even know(s)? The footnote to this plank doesn't specify-- it just contains a very thorough and detailed rejection of abortion and infanticide. Okay, so the latter is already illegal and we'll outlaw the former. Then what? Human trafficking is already illegal. Slavery, sexual or otherwise, also illegal. Prostitution is illegal. How do you ban pornography and "seduction into promiscuity"? At least, without turning into Saudi Arabia?  

And what counts as "stealing innocence"?  Can I bring charges against George Lucas for bringing the first three chapters of Star Wars into the world?  How about the creation of Garfield, the movie?
  •  Support for the enactment of safeguards for all married and unmarried U.S. Military and National Guard personnel, especially our combat troops, from inappropriate same-gender or opposite-gender sexual harassment, adultery or intrusively intimate commingling among attracteds (restrooms, showers, barracks, tents, etc.); plus prompt termination of military policymakers who would expose American wives and daughters to rape or sexual harassment, torture, enslavement or sexual leveraging by the enemy in forward combat roles.
But not, presumably, when such acts are committed by our guys.
  • Rejection of Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.
...such as laws banning abortion, pornography, adultery, prostitution, and gay marriage. All of which Sharia Islam also forbids, does it not? What a coincidence.
  • Recognition that robust childbearing and reproduction is beneficial to U.S. demographic, economic, strategic and actuarial health and security. 
Clearly the most controversial and divisive plank by far. With their record on emphasizing the importance of raising children properly and healthily, Democrats would never sign off on something like this.
  • Commitment to downsizing government and the enormous burden upon American families of the USA's $14.3 trillion public debt, its $77 trillion in unfunded liabilities, its $1.5 trillion federal deficit, and its $3.5 trillion federal budget.
Smaller government = happier families. Umm, okay? I suppose that means happier advocates for smaller government, and therefore they will be kinder to their spouses and children, and so....wait a minute; this argument could work for committing to anything at all that will make anyone with a family happy!  By that rationale all presidential candidates should commit to legalizing marijuana, because Willie Nelson has seven kids who could sure use some bonding time with Dad. Get on it!
  • Fierce defense of the First Amendment's rights of Religious Liberty and Freedom of Speech, especially against the intolerance of any who would undermine law-abiding American citizens and institutions of faith and conscience for their adherence to, and defense of, faithful heterosexual monogamy.
Great! Fantastic. I'm glad to hear that The Family Leader and all signatories of The Marriage Vow are fully behind protecting freedom of of expression for everyone who agrees with them on everything. Now let's hear how they feel about those who don't.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"All great leaps forward in liberty and equality"

Ed Brayton has a very moving (to me) post today about the progressive acceptance of equality in the face of absolutist proclamations that the faith of the majority rejects it. Using an argument from Southern Baptist Al Mohler which appeals entirely to tradition and biblical exegesis as an example, he notes that advancements in equality for virtually every minority have been faced by the objection that a person who takes his/her Christian faith seriously could never accept this "moral inversion" in which what was formerly considered sinful is now acceptable, and those who object considered the immoral ones:

The same thing always happens when society struggles to leave behind a traditional prejudice and embrace equality instead. In a remarkably short period of time in this country, slavery went from being a God-ordained institution that had existed from the earliest human civilizations with little to no doubt about its moral standing to being viewed as perhaps the single most inhumane thing one can do to another person, the greatest immorality of all. 
In a remarkably short period of time in this country, miscegenation went from being viewed as a great moral evil -- preached as such by the very same Southern Baptist church that now stands against same-sex marriage -- that society had outlawed for centuries, to being declared a protected right by a unanimous Supreme Court. And guess what? The same exact arguments were used against that ruling as are used against same-sex marriage today. 
The constitution itself is a perfect example of this dynamic in many ways. Prior to the constitution the norm was for all governments to be built upon a religious foundation. All written charters or constitutions prior to that time were expressed as covenants with God, complete with punishments for blasphemy and heresy. All of the colonies with the exception of Rhode Island had official churches prior to the constitution and forbid and punished even the preaching of other Christian denominations. In Massachusetts, one could be arrested, banished and even put to death (and many were) for preaching the Baptist or Catholic brand of Christianity, much less preaching Judaism, Islam or -- God forbid -- atheism. In Virginia, Anglicanism was the official religion and Baptists were thrown in jail. And nearly all of them had religious tests for office, requirements that one be of the right brand of religion in order to hold public office. 
The constitution rejected all of those things. It guaranteed freedom of religion and outlawed religious tests for office. Instead of a covenant with God, it forbid all such establishments of religion. It guaranteed freedom of speech, including the right to blaspheme and preach what others might consider heresy. and in a remarkably short period of time, everything changed. One by one the states did away with their religious establishments and adopted new constitutions without religious tests and protected free speech. 
This is the way it is with all great leaps forward in liberty and equality, what was previously seen as terribly immoral was legalized and legitimized -- leaving conservatives making the same old arguments from tradition that Mohler is making now.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pareidolia of the day: Holy shit!

You can see it, right? Right? I haven't
been spending all of this time staring
at bird feces on my windshield for
Today's incidence of pareidolia is a doozy. Or a, I'm just not going there. The title for this post was enough. For the record, pareidolia is
a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.
Or in this case, bird poo. From Bryan, Texas:
Image Of Virgin Mary Appears In Bird Dropping On Area Family’s Truck 
The image that came in an unlikely form of a bird dropping appeared on Sunday. 
That was the first time Salvador Pachuca had been back to the home since having an accident there four months ago. 
"I told my brothers come over here and see what this is and they say this is the Virgin," he said.
Family members made their way outside to see the image on the truck's side mirror. 
Cristal Pachuca said she took pictures and began making calls to invite others to see, what she describes as, a miracle. 
"We just all feel protected. It's a blessing to our family and to everybody that comes to see it," says Cristal Pachuca. 
Cristal says the truck doesn't get much use, but last weekend her husband decided to take it out of their garage and wash it. 
A few moments later the image appeared. 
Since Sunday, a steady stream of family, friends, neighbors and strangers has stopped by to pray and take pictures of the image. 
The Pachuca's say the image is more than a coincidence especially since it happened on the 12th. 
The family says in Mexico, Dec. 12 is celebrated as the day of The Virgin Guadalupe. 
Onlookers say the image is a miracle because the distinct colors and outline of the image on the truck match the image of Virgin Guadalupe. 
The Pachuca's say they will continue to welcome anyone who wants to see the image, because the image isn't going to go away anytime soon. 
"I think we're going to just put it on a shelf outside, probably take off the mirror and keep it there cause its something special to us. I'm not going to wash it off," says Cristal Pachuca. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

First Amendment quiz

Reading all of the commentaries yesterday about how little Americans appreciate the significance of Independence Day (or the 4th of July, if you're feeling generic) made me wonder how much of that is actually true and how much is cynicism. Do people really not know what yesterday was originally intended to celebrate?

I laughed at more than a few tweets from people saying things like "400 years ago today Jesus, George Washington and Martin Luther King Junior chased the Russians out of America and made this a great nation!" But people not know what the word "independence" is referring to?  You know, the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Being endowed by....something or other with unalienable rights which means we should throw off governmental powers which do not acknowledge and protect those rights, and so on?  Just in case, Ed Brayton explains what the deal is:

It was originally supposed to be written by Benjamin Franklin, the elder statesman of the founding fathers, but he was in ill health and didn't feel he would be able to do undertake the task. It then fell to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, with each arguing that the other should write it. Adams eventually prevailed in the argument and Jefferson was assigned the task of writing the Declaration. 
When he finished the first draft, it was then circulated to three others -- Franklin, Adams and Robert Livingston. Franklin and Adams did most of the editing, suggesting deletions, additions and changes to wording in many places. Then the final draft was prepared and circulated among the whole group for their agreement and their signatures. 
We forget today what a revolutionary document it was. The assertion that each individual had rights that were unalienable and that the principal job of government is to secure those rights had never before been declared so boldly. The fact that the men who ratified that document so often failed to live up to the principles they declared only testifies to how novel those concepts were -- perhaps still are, at least in practice. 
It is to those principles -- liberty, equality, justice -- that I swear allegiance. Not to governments, which so often offer those principles as justification while actively subverting them in any number of ways. Not to a colored piece of cloth. Nearly every political question can -- must -- be answered in reference to those basic principles. The answers aren't always easy, of course, but the questions cannot be correctly analyzed, in my view, except by using those axiomatic reference points.
The ten original amendments that comprised the Bill of Rights were not ratified on that day....not for many more years. But because I firmly believe that the rights described in the First Amendment are unalienable and yet also poorly understood, I think it's fitting to mention this 20 question quiz on it here.  See how you do. If poorly, get to learn something.  If well, it's still good to be reminded of all of protection of freedoms packed into that brief passage.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

"....Seriously?" Part: the end

...and cue the inevitable "Can't we all just get along?" post.

Hemant Mehta does a good job of summarizing the whole very high-school situation, though I'm not sure what the point is with the whole "Female 1" and "Female 2" thing. If you're interested, read.

Interest in attending any future skeptic/atheist conferences: pretty much nil.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"...Seriously?" part 2

Somebody purporting to be Richard Dawkins apparently made some rather idiotic comments on Pharyngula of the "people have it worse than you, so how dare you complain about your own situation" variety, and Jen McCreight rightly excoriates him (or his impersonator) for it.  For reference on these remarks, see this.

Whether that was actually Dawkins or not, I think there's a pretty obvious take-home lesson: nobody, however fiercely they might like to proclaim it, is on the side of rationality and immune to bigotry simply because they might be a loud proponent of skepticism on a subject where most people reject it. Their courage and eloquence on such matters does not make them infallible. They're as susceptible to bias as anyone else, only they come pre-packaged with an iron-clad resistance to any suggestion of non-objectivity and therefore become, ironically, decidedly anti-skeptical about their own skepticism. Humility should be skepticism's best friend, not its nemesis.