There’s Videos, and Then There’s Videos


Gosh, Dana Loesch is really outraged by doctored videos, isn’t she? Well, no, actually. The right-wing radio mouthpiece didn’t seem to have a problem with the doctored videos targeting Planned Parenthood — she even praised their supposedly revelatory nature. But when someone released a doctored video that featured her, she went apeshit.

Granted, it was a different ball of wax altogether; the Planned Parenthood videos were presented as being accurate, whereas the cartoonish video of her  apparently shooting herself was an obvious satirical riff on her (rather deranged) pimping video for the NRA — a playful but blunt reminder of what happens when people play with guns.

Now you could always call this video unfunny and in questionable taste if you like (I might tend to agree on at least the latter point). But Loesch wasn’t satisfied with that. She tabbed it as a threat to her life, and a typical gesture by gun-grabbing librulz; she even contacted the FBI. See if you can follow the logic here: Them librulz hate her because they hate guns and she loves guns. So they want to kill her using some of those guns they hate. One of the big problems with firearms is you don’t have to be particularly bright to own one.

She even thought it pertinent to point out that she’s a mother, which didn’t seem to stop her from hawking a product that kills thousands of children every year; yet her own children apparently are supposed to be an impenetrable shield against anyone illustrating the very real consequences of her actions.

Loesch posted the clip online, and her fan base took the bait, denouncing it as “sick”, “disgusting”, “hateful”, and entirely typical of them librulz. (And by the way, it wasn’t  nearly as “grisly” or “graphic” as they all proclaim, but only implies the gunster shooting herself in the head, by a splatter of obviously fake blood.) None of them have seemed particularly outraged about her own sick, disgusting and hateful allegation that Planned Parenthood is “selling black market baby parts”.  And few if any of them have shown any outrage over reports that Trayvon Martin’s killer boastingly posted a photo of his trophy kill. But if you dare impugn The Almighty Gun, all hell breaks loose. As one commentator so succinctly put it:

People tweet gun related violence threats against government and President Obama on a daily basis, but nobody on the right cares. One spoof video and everybody loses their minds.

Let’s emphasize that whatever you may think of the video, it was the work of one person. It did not represent the “gun control” movement or any other group. Yet Loesch and her drones did their best to dishonestly link it to Moms Demand Action. And they proclaimed in loud and unanimous chorus that it was a tactic typical of gun-grabbers and librulz in general. (This is an example of conflating a small number with a large number, as discussed in a previous post.)

In short, this episode serves to illustrate a sobering and inescapable fact: the rabidly delusional, toxically polarized, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-never mentality pervading the gun culture is what makes gun ownership in America such a problematic and deadly proposition.


Culture Of Confrontation

Argument clinic

Of all the many great Monty Python sketches, I think my favorite is Argument Clinic. In addition to being just plain hilarious, it makes — as great comedy often does — some very astute observations about what passes for modern culture. It underscores how people love and crave interpersonal conflict. It illustrates that a great deal of what we call argument is just mindless “automatic gainsaying”. And it suggests that a great deal of arguing is as pointless and absurd as voluntarily being insulted or hit on the head.

But perhaps the most amusing aspect of all is the preposterous irony of the premise that a person would have to frequent a special clinic in order to find a confrontation. In truth, you’d be more likely to have to hit a clinic to avoid confrontation. It’s all around us. Modern life is saturated with it — as you well know if you’ve done very much driving. Or watching TV. Or attending sporting events. Or browsing online forums. Confrontation is the coin of the realm in contemporary America. Many people seem, quite literally to live for it. They’ll spit venom at you on the excuse of just about any topic they can seize, though there are three in particular (politics, religion and guns, not necessarily in that order) that are just about guaranteed to generate fireworks. Coincidentally, those are probably the three topics that Americans on the whole consider most vital.

We’re not talking about mere conflict, which is a healthy thing. Conflict makes us stronger, gives us direction, and ultimately solves rather than creates problems. But we get all the conflict we need (and sometimes more than we can handle, it seems) in the natural course of living. Confrontationism is the act of creating conflict artificially: attacking someone physically or verbally, not for the sake of defending your turf or accomplishing a purpose, but for the sake of sheer antagonism.

Mind you, there’s really nothing new about any of this. In what is considered the world’s oldest recorded story, the epic of Gilgamesh from about 5000 years ago, the Babylonian king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu engage in a head-butting, eye-clawing, mud-rolling fight to the death, such as a couple of WWE gladiators would have you believe they do. In the end, the fight is a draw and so, each impressed by the other’s ability to wage a viciously senseless donnybrook, they become the best of buds. Likewise in the medieval yarn about Robin Hood and Little John crossing the footbridge.

But this is a different world now. We can get our thrills from bungee jumping, skydiving and alligator wrestling. We can also watch other people beat each other senseless in the ring or on the football field, and blow each other to bits on the big screen. And we can indulge in all sorts of violent video games and other simulated delights.  Yet our thirst for confrontation does not seem to have abated one whit.

I rarely read online discussions about topics that are the least bit controversial, because it seldom takes more than a few exchanges for them devolve into “flame wars”.  Even on this present site, although most of its readers are a cut above average in the maturity department, there are plenty of people who try to replicate the same cafeteria food fight atmosphere they’ve seen elsewhere. But you may not be aware of it because I’m more fastidious about filtering it out than most blog moderators — I don’t want this site to become another one of those. Consequently, I just delete the attack messages unless there’s a compelling reason to publish them — e.g., they contain factual or logical errors that it would be instructive to examine.

I remember reading about a guest on one of the Fox “News” screaming fests — Bill O’Reilly’s, as I recall — and during commercial break he was advised that he was not being combative enough, so he should ramp it up.  Viewers might assume that the sparks are a by-product of debate; but they’re actually the steak rather than the sizzle.  It’s an addictive vicious cycle, with Fox etc., etc., giving the public the in-your-face clashes it craves, which in turn fuels further craving.

And it isn’t just a matter of experiencing vicarious confrontations in the media. It isn’t at all unheard of for people to get into violent, and sometimes fatal, disputes over parking spaces or other matters even more trivial. Sure, people do stupid things behind the wheel, and they might make you justifiably angry; but is that any reason to call them names, threaten them, shoot at them or follow them home?

One day I was riding my bike across an intersection on a thoroughly green light when a car whipped around the corner and nearly ran me over. Justifiably peeved, I yelled at the driver to watch where he was going; and then I went on my way. He, however, chose to take it as a personal insult that I would reprimand him for being reckless and nearly killing me, so he yelled after me angrily, calling me a “pussy” and challenging me to duke it out. I ignored him, but I could still hear him yelling for as long as I was in earshot. A similar experience occurred even more recently with the driver of a vehicle who nearly hit me when I was crossing on foot — only this time I didn’t even say anything first. The motorist just started yelling, threatening and challenging me because I dared to be in his way.

Nor is it just among strangers. Friends and relatives sometimes shout it out, slug it out or shoot it out, with the initial conflict beginning with the silliest of matters — e.g., who gets the dark meat of the Thanksgiving turkey (the actual impetus for at least one fatal family shooting I read about).

One of the strangest and most disgusting experiences I’ve had in this regard occurred back during the Bush-Cheney years, and involved a friend (or so I thought) whom I’ll call John (since that was his name). John was a very intelligent and well-read fellow who possessed several degrees in a variety of disciplines — or so he claimed at every opportunity. He was also, as I understood it, essentially a Libertarian; and thus I would not have expected that he would have been fiercely defensive about Dubya. Big Mistake.

Pursuant to some comments his wife had made on a related topic, I sent her an article describing how the present GOP in general, and the Bush administration in particular, had a habit of glossing over, if not downright throttling, scientific research that did not support their ideology. It was John, and not his wife, who replied to me, and in the most scathing terms. After first assailing the credentials and credibility of the author — with whom he admitted being unfamiliar — he ridiculed me as a scientific illiterate (after himself regurgitating the myth that scientists in the Seventies had subscribed to a global cooling model) and a believer in “conspiracy theories” (after himself suggesting that thousands of the world’s top scientists were cooking the books on climate change).

Ignoring his surprise invitation to a schoolyard pissing contest, I gently reminded him that neither I nor the writer in question had expressed a stance on any issue involved — e.g., stem cell research. The discussion, I pointed out, was about the Republican attitudes toward science, not my own. And I sincerely urged him to pass along any information on that subject that he thought I didn’t have.

Instead, he responded with more insults and unfounded speculations about my beliefs, motives and background, declaring that he couldn’t explain anything to me because I didn’t have the capacity to understand. Politely insisting that I had the utmost confidence that a man of his talents could summarize recent political developments in such a way that even I could grasp them, I asked him again to clarify why he felt the criticism of the administration was unwarranted. Which just prompted even more insults and bizarre assumptions.

The upshot was that after three or four exchanges like this, John announced that he was terminating our friendship and wouldn’t read anything else I sent him. It was entirely his decision — I’d always enjoyed talking with him even though his pomposity had been evident from the start. In his last message to me, he said it was time for the “Monty Python Solution”. It wasn’t a reference to Argument Clinic; it was a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which one combatant gets all his limbs whacked off by the other, and agrees to “call it a draw”.

Let me emphasize that at no time did I return any of John’s puerile insults.  At no time did I challenge his opinions or express any of my own. I didn’t even correct any of his factual errors, although he certainly committed a few. Yet in his mind, we had engaged in a clash of Gilgamesh-Enkidu proportions, which he of course had won with his diplomas tied behind him.

I wish I could say that this incident was unique, but alas, it isn’t. Just recently, there was something eerily similar with a longtime reader of this blog who in the past had been a valuable contributor to discussions on the forum. But he apparently decided that it would be more fun to indulge in “automatic gainsaying”. He became obsessed with trying to discredit me about something, anything — even if it meant putting words in my mouth or contradicting his own. Among other things, he played three of the most common attack games: ad hominem (shooting the messenger, a la John), tu quoque (“you’re a hypocrite who commits the same offenses you criticize others for”) and what I call psychic psychoanalysis (“You may say X but you really mean Y because you secretly believe Z”).

I’d seen all of this before, so many times that it made my eyes roll; and normally I’d just ignore it. But because this reader had made comments of substance in the past, I thought I’d try being patient with him, and made some short replies to him to the effect that if he would be patient, he would see that his assumptions were off track. Big mistake. Lesson learned. He just interpreted my lenience as an invitation to attack further, and became so desperate to find a reason to snap at me that he offered wild — and wildly inaccurate — predictions about what I was going to write in the future so he could attack his own predictions.

I mention these two episodes because they illustrate four important points about confrontationism. First,  it’s essentially a proactive rather than reactive mindset. Confrontationists may claim that their nastiness is a response to something that someone else has said or done, but it’s usually an aggression rather than a defense; and to the extent that it may be a response at all, it’s usually vastly overblown and altogether inappropriate. John and the reader may have convinced themselves that they were arguing with me about something or other, but the former was arguing against a straw man, and the latter against himself.

Second, while attacks like these are generally, to quote Ambrose Bierce, “merely stupid, although a few add the distinction of silliness”, one can’t always chalk them up to ignorance or ineptitude. John and my reader were both rather bright and very well-educated fellows; clearly, then, their combativeness was a matter of calculated intent rather than unwitting default. Hell, maybe even the two drivers I mentioned were brilliant guys.

Third, they all indeed were guys — and it would be hard to imagine otherwise. Confrontationism is unmistakably linked to the Y chromosome. There are certainly exceptions, of course. In the verbal arena at least, Ann Coulter can Hulk-Hogan with the worst of them. And in peer pressure settings — e.g., schools — there very well might be as many female bullies as male bullies, verbally if not physically. But in the vast majority of cases, this is a behavior mode that goes with being male, not female. Which suggests that maybe one cause might be body chemistry or cultural conditioning. There’s a reason verbal assailants so often use “pussy” as an insult (“dick” is also sometimes pejoratively, but the contexts are very different.) And it’s interesting to note that John’s first vicious missive included a demand that if, in the future, I had any reading matter to send his wife, I instead should send it to him for screening.

The fourth and most important point is that these confrontations are counterproductive and stifling.  As you can see (I hope) the antagonism that these two gentlemen chose to vent toward me totally quashed any chance for fruitful dialog. And that, mind you, is the best-case scenario. Quite often, as we’ve mentioned, such incidents escalate into pointless violence.

Does confrontationism serve any useful purpose at all? It’s difficult to see what that might be, aside from its cathartic value — which, as we’ve noted, can be satisfied through other means. It’s possible that some people use it, even if subconsciously, as a way to test the mettle of a potential ally. It’s possible that if I’d been as nasty toward John as he was toward me, he would have had a great deal more respect for me. Even so, it’s just not worth it as far as I’m concerned. If I have to kick someone in the crotch to win their respect, they’re probably not the kind of person I’d want to deal with anyway.

Many people seem to think confrontationism is really cool and empowering. For my part, I just wish I could make it go away. But I can’t. And it won’t.

Rushing to Misjudgment


As you may have heard, police raided the Los Angeles home of Gene Simmons, bassist for the musical group Kiss to conduct a search for evidence of child pornography. This may have caused a great deal of shock and alarm among Kiss fans. (Are there really Kiss fans?) How could such a perennial pop icon have been involved in such despicable activity? Well, he wasn’t. When you read past the headlines, you see that neither Simmons nor his wife is a “person of interest” in the investigation — which apparently involves another individual who stayed in their home last year when they were away.

But how many people have the wrong impression because they only pay attention to headlines? Quite a few, probably. Headlines can be, and often are, misleading. Yet headlines are what grab people’s attention, and what people tend to remember longest. And even when people read past the headlines, it is the initial report that captures and holds their attention.

Which is a problem itself because news coverage, and particularly in initial reports, tends to be overwhelmingly sensationalist, superficial and slanted. Journalists and editors are under constant pressure to get a story out there fast and get it to the public in such a way that it will appeal to the public’s heavily divided and taxed focus and attention span. But they are seldom under pressure to provide accuracy, depth and balance.

Consider what happened when the news broke about videos that allegedly showed that Planned Parenthood sells “body parts” from aborted fetuses. Many people took the story at face value and ran with it, Facebooking it ad infinitum. It turns out that the videos had been heavily doctored (not only were conversations edited, but imagery of a stillborn baby was passed off as a fetus), and PP absolutely has been cleared of the charge of selling body parts. The problem, as usual, was not anything the organization actually does, but the sleaziness and dishonesty of “pro-life” fanatics. But by the time the truth came out, the damage had been done: the reputation of Planned Parenthood had been irreparably tarnished. Which was the whole idea.

Unless you live on Uranus, or just live with your head in your anus, you’ve probably heard more than you ever wanted to about the Ashley Madison scandal.  The website’s 37 million members included many politicians, some of the holier-than-thou variety. It also included “family values” media darling Josh Duggar, who’d already been exposed as a child molester and porn addict.

But it wasn’t until a few days later that we learned something else: Ashley Madison did not verify the email addresses of its members. Which means that theoretically, any email address that you or I have used in the past few years could have been “borrowed” and used by someone else to join the site.

And later still, facts surfaced that were even more interesting. It turns out that about 90 percent of the site’s members are known to be male. Of the remaining 10 percent, most are apparently fake profiles submitted by men or by persons connected with Ashley Madison itself.  There are, in other words, very few real female members at all; and of those few, almost none have responded to messages on the board. Which is to say, Ashley Madison is a colossal ripoff; and despite the huge membership, it’s highly unlikely that any given member actually cheated with another member. Yet divorces reportedly have been filed because of names being listed in the leaked database.

People have a habit of rushing to judgment. Why? We’ve already examined the compulsory tendency of the American public to form an opinion and voice a strong reaction to anything and everything that comes down the pike. But even if you feel obligated to form an opinion, does that mean that you have to do so immediately?  It will still be just as possible to react later after more facts come in as it is when the story first breaks. And it’s wise to wait until the other shoe(s) fall, if you don’t want to make a fool of yourself.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you may have noticed that it’s often considerably behind the curve when it comes to discussing recent events — you’d probably never be able to accuse it of getting a scoop . There’s a method to this slackness. I want to make certain I have the full and accurate picture before analyzing anything. And with current events, that usually involves a cooling-off period of at least a few days; I find it’s often better to wait at least a month. That doesn’t guarantee total accuracy, of course — it may turn out that Gene Simmons is really as much a perv as Jared Fogle (who according to initial reports was not a suspect) and Planned Parenthood is a grisly organ mill after all. But the evidence at this point says otherwise, whatever the malicious rumors may say.

Of course, my readership would be much larger if, like many other news-related blogs and like Internet gossips, I eagerly joined in the game of telephone. But unlike them, and unlike most news outlets, I’m perfectly willing to sacrifice popularity for comprehensiveness and accuracy.

6 Silly Narratives About the Gay Marriage Ruling and the Confederate Flag Flap


What, the world is still standing? After the Confederate flag started coming down and the rainbow flag started popping up in a single week, the word on the street was that The Final Days were at hand. Although the two developments had little if anything in common, the same reactionaries tended to react to both, and in a similar fashion. And they did their damnedest to squeeze both into a cohesive narrative of degeneration, persecution, oppression, and ominousness.

If you thought the cultural purge over the Confederate flag was breathtaking — wait until you see what LGBT activists do with Christians.  (Todd Starnes of Fox “News”)

Talk show host Bryan Fischer, who evidently can get better drugs than you can, commented about the Court’s ruling, “I saw Satan dancing with delight”. And of the backlash against the Confederate flag he said:

If we are going to remove symbols of oppression from our culture, if we come to the point where we say any flag that represents bigotry, any flag that represents hatred, any flag that represents slavery or oppression needs to be removed, then I want to suggest to you that the next flag to go ought to be the rainbow flag of the Gay Reich.

Fischer is a one-person Bartlett’s of loony right-wing soundbites. As is this guy:

This could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – that camel being the up till now silent, passive Americans who have been cowed into “tolerating” societal changes that go counter to their fundamental beliefs (Allen West)

These people have been silent and passive up until now??? Heaven knows what kind of earplugs we’re going to need if they ever decide to start mouthing off. West and Fischer didn’t go it alone, of course, but had plenty of other people echoing their inflammatory rhetoric.

“Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history”, lamented Ted Cruz to Sean Hannity of fairandbalanced Fox “News”, who promptly agreed, “I couldn’t have said it more eloquently”. (All too true, alas.) Which presumably puts this ruling right up there with Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, and the same court’s hijacking of the presidential election in 2000.

Some individuals mused about what would happen if a gay couple wanted to put a Confederate flag on their wedding cake — would the baker have to oblige? Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. This is a simple conflation of a hypothetical refusal to portray a certain image on a cake with a hypothetical refusal to serve an entire class of citizens.

Other responses to these disparate events didn’t necessarily try deliberately to bundle them together, but did often place them on parallel tracks. Here are six of the most frequent narratives.

Silly Narrative #1: It’s an anti-American thing

Many Americans responded joyously to the news of the Supreme Court’s decision by decking out their Facebook pages with the rainbow flag. Not to be outdone, many right-wing reactionaries responded in protest by draping their pages with the American flag. Huh??? How exactly is that supposed to be a protest? Is it intended to suggest that gays aren’t really Americans? Not even James Buchanan, a gay U.S. president who was elected more than 150 years ago? If they are Americans, how can it be un-American for them to get married?

The reactionaries also denounced it as un-American that some people aren’t in love with the Confederate battle banner. Just try wrapping your head around that one for a moment.  The Confederacy, lest we forget, was a treasonous faction that fought  an extremely bloody war against the United States Of America, brandishing this very flag – a battle fought primarily (contrary to revisionist spin) for the “right” to enslave and oppress an entire race. (Note that the iconic X-flag so often displayed was not the official national flag of the Confederacy itself, but a flag specifically designed for military forces.) Yet now, many self-proclaimed “patriots” proudly celebrate their Dixie “heritage” by exhibiting this symbol of bigotry, tyranny, insurrection and violence alongside the Stars and Stripes they claim to revere.

Silly Narrative #2. It’s a government overstepping thing

How dare the government try to dictate to us what flags we can and cannot fly? Well, don’t look now, but the big bad guvmint has done no such thing. What did happen was that the government of South Carolina, via due democratic  process, resolved to stop rubbing its “proud tradition” of insurrection and oppression in the public’s face, and no longer fly the Dixie rag on government property. And a few retail chains decided, of their own volition, to stop selling such emblems, at a loss in profits to themselves – the free enterprise system at its finest. But nobody is trying to tell you that you can’t fly that flag in your own yard or stick it under the gun rack on the back of your pickup or even tattoo the damn thing on your scrotum if you choose to.

And the Supreme Court decision? Though reactionaries have almost unanimously bemoaned that the Court has “redefined” marriage, it has done no such thing; what it has done is extend the right to get married to all Americans. Don’t look now, but governments at various levels have been dictating for a long time who can and can’t get married. The Supreme Court just put an end to that. You’d think that anti-guvmint fanatics would be out dancing in the streets along with Satan rather than bitching and wringing their hands over the impending End Of The World As We Know It.

Silly Narrative # 3: It’s a political correctness/ liberal tyranny thing

Ah yes, political correctness. It’s been the source of many wretched excesses, hasn’t it? Actually, it would be very hard to find a single example of supposed “political correctness” or “liberal hypocrisy” that pans out to be anything like it’s portrayed by right-wing reactionaries – who never bother to define what political correctness is really supposed to be. We just gather that it’s something often perpetrated by them librulz – who are never really defined either. But apparently both are identified with progressives and the Democratic Party, which sometimes at least makes a pretense of being progressive.  And that makes the reactions to recent events very curious indeed.

Right-wing reactionaries are very fond of reminding us, when it suits their purposes, that it was the “Democrat” Party that was on the wrong side of slavery and the Civil War – and pretending that the two parties haven’t changed a whit in the interim.  The governor of South Carolina who spearheaded the movement to remove the Confederate flag form the capitol, Nikki Haley, is herself a Republican. (She’s also a native of her state, contrary to assertions by the eternally clueless Ann Coulter.) As is a solid majority of the state legislature that voted to back her up.

Meanwhile, many of these reactionaries would prefer to forget that there are a good many gay Republicans (though it’s hard to fathom why), and even an official organization for them, the Log Cabin Republicans. Furthermore, the Supreme Court justice who cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize gay marriage was appointed by none other than St. Ronald himself.

Silly Narrative # 4: It’s a First Amendment/ religious freedom thing

Even though nobody is saying that you can’t buy or fly a flag (see above), some people see the recent reactions to its presence as, somehow or other, an incursion against freedom of expression. Evidently, that freedom is supposed to apply only to people who love the Rebel banner, not to those who don’t.

If you think that’s batty, try this: many of them also believe that the court’s ruling damages, somehow or other , “religious freedom”.  Both reactions seem to be predicated on the notion that freedom is a finite commodity; and whatever you grant to one person, you must take from someone else. They see no irony in proclaiming that gay marriage tramples their First Amendment rights because their religious beliefs should dictate the actions of everyone; and they forget, if they ever knew, that not so terribly long ago, Good Christians believed that God gave them the right to fly their Confederate flags over their slave shacks.

Okay, we get it:  many fundamentalists hate “Sodomites”. No, wait, we mustn’t put it that way. It’s really all God’s fault – He’s the one who’s declared that they’re “sinners”, and so the fundies are just following His wishes by condemning them. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And while they can’t prove it by quoting Jesus, who never seems to have gotten around to mentioning homosexuality at all, they can pull up an out-of-context injunction from the Bronze Age code laid out in the Old Testament that seems to support their cause –while ignoring even more draconian passages from the same book, including one that instructs them to sell their daughters into slavery.

Well, guess what? If hating fags – oops, mustn’t use that word – if condemning fags unto hellfire is part of your religious bag, you’re under no obligation to stop it just on account of 9 guys and gals in black robes.  You don’t have to like gays or gaydom. You don’t have to perform or attend gay weddings. You don’t have to enter into a gay marriage yourself. You don’t even have to give up your own marriage.

Please note, however, that this does not mean you always can use religion as a shield against the responsibilities of doing your job; most employers either want you to do your duties, quit, or be dismissed. This is particularly true if your employer happens to be a government entity, because government entities in the U.S. are committed, officially at least, to non-discrimination.  You have the option to comply with that commitment or step aside and make room for someone who will. But it’s entirely your choice, not an assault on your “religious freedom”.

Here’s a helpful tip, free of charge. If you really and truly believe that gay weddings somehow infringe on your religious freedom, then maybe it’s really, really time you started shopping around for a new religion.

Silly Narrative # 5: It’s a slippery slope thing

The “slippery slope” is one of the favorite tropes of the reactionary crowd to just about anything they don’t approve of.  Rarely do any of those things actually involve a bona fide slippery slope – don’t hold your breath until wingers get their thongs in a bunch over environmental desecration, for instance. But the decision to remove the Rebel banner from government property and certain retail outlets? Totally different thing, doncha know. After all, let THEM, whoever they are, snatch away the Confederate flag, however exactly they’re doing that, and they’re certain to do the same to the flag of the Confederacy’s enemy number one. Makes sense in a very nonsensical sort of way.

The pants-pissing over gay marriage is even more intensely Jeremiah-ish. For a long time, the reactionaries have been warning that if gays are allowed the same rights and rites as us unperverted folk, it well lead to all sorts of sexual aberration: polygamy (you know, like certain right-wing Mormons), bestiality, pedophilia, marrying your sofa, etc, etc.

Some people in the Alex Jones/Glenn Beck brigade are even warning, with cobbled evidence too scant to even qualify as tenuous, that pedophiles already have been inspired to make a drive toward legitimizing their thing under the same logic that gays have legitimized theirs. Well hey, it wouldn’t be unheard of for fringe groups to try to capitalize on a court case; but it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll succeed in that laughable endeavor.  They’d have to make it past the courts. And courts, however radical, will surely understand that there is a big difference between matrimony involving two consenting adults and predatory behavior toward minors. Almost everybody understands that. Even right-wing reactionaries understand that. Don’t they?

Silly Narrative # 6: It’s a (insert inappropriate analogy) thing

Naturally, one way to convince people how terrible these two events were was to compare them to other things that people already know are terrible. We’ve already seen how some commentators suggested that “banning” the Confederate flag (which Bill O’Reilly said stands for “bravery”) will almost certainly lead to “banning” the U.S. flag. Chairman of the South Carolina League of the South Pat Hines, meanwhile, characterized the movement to remove the flag from his state’s capitol as “cultural genocide”, while a certain perennially pompous radio talk show host declared it was all about “destroying the South as a political force”.

When it comes to excoriating court rulings they don’t like, wingers have a favorite whipping boy that they frequently juxtapose with Roe V. Wade:

What if no one had acted in disobedience to the Dred Scott decision of 1857? What if the entire country had capitulated to judicial tyranny and we just said that because the Supreme Court said in 1857 said that a black person wasn’t fully human… (Mike Huckabee)

It hardly could be a worse comparison. The Dred Scott ruling limited the freedom of an entire class of people while the current ruling expands the freedom of an entire class of people.

And there was a whole truckload of other inappropriate comparisons, including these:

Next we’ll get the arena and the lions, get the arena and the lions and bring them in from Tunisia.  (Michael Savage)

Essentially, this is gay Sharia … “Love” has won; now it’s time to shoot the prisoners– (columnist John Zmirak)

I fear for our country, quite frankly, because this is a spiritual 9/11. (Tim Wildmon, American Family Association)

I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch.  (Mike Huckabeeagain)

June 26, 2015: a date which will live in infamy. (Bryan Fischer, yet again)

What’s next? What’s next is what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. It is just a question of how soon the wrath of God is going to come on this land. (Pat Robertson)

And of course when all else fails, there’s always a certain short dictator with a funny mustache:

…the parallels to Germany in the Thirties… when German people had no idea where this was really going to end up… (talk show host Eric Metaxas

Are you okay with a baker saying that he’s not going to make any goods for a Nazi party rally? (Bill O’Reilly)

Another obligatory tactic is to suggest that rejection of intolerance constitutes intolerance itself, at least as intolerant as the intolerance it isn’t tolerating. Forty percent of the American public still disapproves of gay marriage, the reactionaries say, so why shouldn’t their wishes be respected too? Would they say the same if forty percent disapproved of interracial or interfaith marriage? Besides, who says their wishes aren’t being respected? Nobody’s forcing them into a gay marriage. (See above.)

Well, here we are two months later, and Obama’s storm troopers still haven’t raided anyone’s house to search for Dixie flags or hetero marriage licenses. Nobody has married their alpaca or DVD player. And God hasn’t unleashed a plague of locusts on America. In fact, the results of these two actions have been overwhelmingly positive; while there have been zero negative consequences. Get back to me in 20 years if any of that changes.

Teller Tells All: How Magicians (and Others) Manipulate the Mind


Like just about everyone else on the planet, I’m a big fan of Penn and Teller. Indeed, I’ve probably been a fan longer than most – since I first saw them in 1980, long before they became global superstars. That was literally before they were Penn and Teller; in those days, they were a three-person troupe billed as Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.  The third member, a geeky-looking fellow known as Wier Chrisemer, reportedly left the act because he objected to some of the risqué material the other two came up with.

Years later, when I spoke to Teller after catching one of their performances in Las Vegas, I asked him whatever happened to Wier.  Without missing a beat he replied, perfectly deadpan, “we killed him and took his clothes.”  It was a characteristically quick-witted response. Though Teller doesn’t speak onstage, he was once a high school Latin teacher; and he’s always been, like his longtime partner, highly articulate and highly intellectual.

I recently read an article he wrote for Smithsonian magazine outlining the techniques magicians use to fool their viewers. It’s worth reading the original article, because he goes into more detail and illustrates with some specific tricks. But here in a nutshell are the 7 principles:

  1. Exploit pattern recognition.
  2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.
  3. It’s hard to think critically when you’re laughing.
  4. Keep the trickery outside the frame.
  5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks.
  6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.
  7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

All of these are interesting to anyone who appreciates a good magic trick – and who doesn’t? But some of them (especially 1, 6 and 7) are quite relevant to other forms of mental manipulation as well.  In fact, one of the most illuminating things about magic is that it helps underscore a fact about human nature that, depending on the context, can be either delightful or disturbing: people enjoy, and quite often crave, being deceived — even many people who are quite intelligent and well-educated. Witness the enormous success of Fox “News”. And many, many cases of the public willingly offering its eyes for the wool to be pulled over.

In the last post, we discussed a deceptively edited video distributed by “pro-life” manipulators that supposedly proved Planned Parenthood sells “body parts” from aborted fetuses. This was unquestioningly distributed by millions of shocked individuals who apparently never stopped to think that “pro-life” radicals might be able and willing to tamper with videos, even though they’d already done so not too long before. The video showed people what they wanted to see, so they assumed they were seeing it.

An even more vibrant example involved a video that wasn’t even tampered with. It was attached to a viral blog post claiming that the clip depicted a lawyer for President Obama admitting his birth certificate was a forgery. The video, of course, showed no such thing; yet millions of people passed it on, believing they actually had heard the lawyer say this, because that was what they really, really wanted to hear.

Or take the Second Amendment. Please. Anyone literate in the Mother Tongue need only read it to see that it absolutely does not unequivocally state that American citizens have a right to own firearms. Yet many Americans are willing to live and even die for such a nonexistent “constitutional right”.  Five prestidigitators on the Supreme Court told them it was there, and they believe that settles it. Not that they needed convincing; they’d already long insisted very loudly that they saw such a right clearly enshrined in the Constitution, no matter how much it wasn’t really there. The fakirs of the gun lobby had already been telling them, long before the Court got around to it.

When a magician fools us, we get something useful out of it – namely, diversion and delight. When a propagandist deceives us, other people get something out of it, to our detriment. Keeping an eye out for the techniques magicians use can enrich our appreciation of being taken in by a trick. Keeping an eye out for the techniques propagandists use can help prevent us from being taken in.

“Pro-Life”, Anti-Truth


So, were you shocked and outraged when you heard — as you almost certainly did — that Planned Parenthood has been “selling body parts” of “murdered babies”? Congratulations, that’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel. But the real congratulations are due to the folks who concocted the whole story in the first place.

That would be the Center For Medical Progress, a”pro-life” activist group that released an undercover interview with Planned Parenthood’s Deborah Nucatola, deceptively edited to make it sound as if Planned Parenthood sells the tissue of aborted fetuses. The hoaxsters also released the full unedited video, which clearly shows Nucatola decrying the idea of selling fetal tissue; but the fanfare was all about the shorter video, and they surely must have realized that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. It was the dishonest edit that got Facebooked ad infinitum.

Even the supposedly intellectually viable organ of rightwingnuttery, the ever-entertaining National Review, took the bait. In an editorial titled Let’s Face It: Planned Parenthood Is Evil (don’t mince words, folks, what do you really think?), NR lamented that

In America, it’s illegal to donate money to a candidate without first reporting it to the government. Even then, if you give more than is permissible, you could end up in jail. In this country, you can’t add trans fats to your foods or smoke cigarettes in your own bar. Here, the Little Sisters of the Poor can’t tell the state they’d rather not buy condoms, and bakers can’t tell a couple they’d rather not participate in their wedding. But it’s completely legal to kill an unborn baby for convenience and then sell its parts for cash.

Except that’s totally untrue. And the ever-entertaining National Review knew that, or else didn’t bother to look it up. Either way, it’s inexcusable for anyone masquerading as a journalist to make such utterances. Just as it’s inexcusable for anyone pretending to be “pro-life” to support policies that are anti-life (however you define it) and to indulge in this kind of devious smear tactics.

Yet this is very far from unusual. Planned Parenthood has become the favorite bogeyman of the “pro-life” movement, which has no qualms about how it goes about persecuting them.  And as we’ve seen before, many “pro-life” fanatics have no problem with lying their righteous asses off. We’ve asked this question before, but it’s certainly worth asking again and again: if they really are so convinced that their cause is noble and righteous and true, why do they so consistently feel the need to promote it with lies, deception, sleazy attacks and intimidation?

Myths About Myths About Vegetarianism


I’ve been a strict vegetarian for more than 20 years. Before that, I was a half-assed vegetarian for at least 20 more. In all that time, I’ve frequently researched nutrition, and experimented with and reevaluated my diet. And I’ve always been happy to discuss the matter with people who express an interest, either because they’re vegetarians themselves or because they’re just curious. But there are two things I have not done: I have not criticized anyone else’s diet, and I have never tried to recruit anyone to the “cause”. Not once. I’m annoyed by proselytizers myself, and I know many other people are too.

Many meat eaters, however, are not nearly so accepting. They remind me at every opportunity of what I’m missing, as if I’d never eaten meat before in my life. They warn me that I’m committing suicide by not ingesting animal flesh. If we eat out together, they never pass up an opportunity to comment on my meatless regimen. Never. Sometimes it’s all in good fun, and I have no problem taking a good, er, ribbing. But some of them are highly judgmental in their missionary zeal, and behave as if they consider it a personal insult that I don’t eat the same things they do. (Yes, I’m certain that some vegetarians are just as obnoxious.) Some people are just as defensive about their meat as they are about their guns or their religion — and often for reasons just as ill-informed and irrational.  Just recently, the Gotcha Squad descended on me with accusatory soundbites ablaze (“You’re obviously a so and so who believes such and such”) after I dared mention here in passing that it’s perfectly possible to live a perfectly healthy life without meat — a fact that anyone can readily verify. I was denounced as a pseudoscientific, bigoted, propagandizing mountebank after mentioning a proposed discussion of this topic that I haven’t even written yet!

Well, I’m not out to improve anyone’s manners or reasoning skills any more than I’m out to improve anyone’s diet. But I am out to correct misinformation. And there’s quite a bit of it propagated in the name of the meat cause. Accordingly, I’ve been planning for some time now to do a series about popular meat myths. But it seems I should first address the myths about vegetarianism and the people who practice it, as these also have gained a great deal of traction.

This became apparent after I read an article called Myths & Truths About Vegetarianism. I’m rather embarrassed to confess that I’ve discovered it only recently, as it’s been around since 2000, and it has become something of a staple among meatsters, a standard piece of propaganda they cut and paste and hurl in the faces of vegetarians with a “chew on that, rutabaga head”. This piece is often transmitted in a digest version that makes its argument even more oversimplified and dogmatic than it already was.

The article was written by a doctor, the late Stephen Byrnes, ND. And to many people, that means he must have been an expert nutritionist. As it happens, he was also a registered nutritional consulting practitioner. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. An astounding,  shocking, horrifying, disgusting secret. Ready? Here goes: most doctors receive woefully inadequate training in nutrition. Most medical schools do not even meet the absolute minimum recommended standard of 25 hours. (That’s for the entire 4 years, folks.) In many cases, students receive far less than that — often only three to four hours, even at the nation’s top schools. Dr. Andrew Weill says that he received only ONE hour of nutritional training at Harvard — only slightly more than your plumber or barber. Moreover, the bulk of this training tends to come early in the curriculum, when students are learning basic material.

Hippocrates seems to have recognized 2400 years ago that food is medicine; but many medical practitioners today still have not caught up with him. Of course, doctors are qualified to speak about matters of health, which is related to nutrition — whether they realize it or not. But all too often, they’re perfectly content to jump on the conventional wisdom bandwagon, and recommend that everyone eat meat because that’s just the way things are done.

It may not always be fair to judge people by the company they keep, but it may be useful to note that Dr. Byrnes republished his article for the Weston A. Price Foundation, of which he had been a board member, an organization often denounced for quackery that advocates, among other things, the consumption of raw milk and large amounts of animal fats. It was named posthumously after a dentist, Dr. Weston A. Price (1870-1948) who developed some unorthodox theories of nutrition that earned him a quack badge himself. The interesting thing is that his nutritional recommendations were rather different from those of the organization that purports to honor his legacy.

Despite all of this, Dr. Byrnes does manage to include some accurate and useful information. He is quite correct in pointing out, for instance, that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, run a greater risk of vitamin B-12 deficiency, which can have some serious consequences. But he is quite misguided to shoehorn that bit of information into the premise that we absolutely must eat meat in order to survive and thrive. The B-12 problem is an interesting and important one, and it isn’t quite as simplistic as Byrnes and other flesh pushers would have you believe. We’ll be examining it in a little more depth in the future.

Unfortunately, Byrnes mixes his truths with half-truths, distortions, fabrications, and bizarre out-of-the-ass utterances, so that the end result is he promotes more myths than he debunks. And he didn’t restrict his commentary to the topic(s) about which he was an expert, but also spoke authoritatively on matters which he appears to have known little about. Agriculture and ecology, for instance, in his very first “myth”:

Myth #1: Meat consumption contributes to famine and depletes the Earth’s natural resources.

There are several environmental and socioeconomic concerns about the livestock industry — it contributes as much as 22 percent of greenhouse gases, for instance (yep, that cheeseburger is producing a big chunk of climate change). But Dr. Byrnes chose to ignore these (other writers he quotes give them a cursory nod) and just focus on the “myth” he thought he could dispose of handily.  His conclusion is that grazing land “is being put to good use”, but the case he presents is very far from convincing.

He is correct that only about a third of the earth’s dry land is being used for agriculture, and that only about a third of that (some 11 percent of the total land mass) is used for growing crops. But this does not mean, as he suggests, that little of the remaining land could be used for crops. With today’s technology, cropland has been established in deserts and other areas that once might have been the most unlikely of farmland. In fact, the increased demand for crops to feed a growing population has led to cropland expansion that has embraced deforestation and other practices that have an additional negative impact on the environment. If land is suitable for large-scale ranching, then chances are it’s either suitable or adaptable for farming as well.

Just for good measure, he throws in a few red herrings that reflect circular reasoning:

Furthermore, at the present time, there is more than enough food grown in the world to feed all people on the planet. The problem is widespread poverty making it impossible for the starving poor to afford it.

Even if perfectly true, how does that alter the equation between the land used for meat versus the land used for crops (except for emphasizing that meat is more expensive)? And while acknowledging the prevalence of  “business-besotted farmers running intensive livestock units, battery systems and beef-burger bureaucracies”, he insists that ranching when “properly practiced” will not damage the environment. Ah, but there’s the rub. Those alliteratively described “business-besotted farmers” [ranchers] are almost inevitably the norm when there is such a rapacious global appetite for animal flesh. Meat producers, like many other business owners, want to maximize their profits.

He quotes another author who states that “[s]ince ancient times, the most destructive factor in the degradation of the environment has been monoculture agriculture.” That may have been true in “ancient times” when there were no factories or automobiles, but today? Furthermore, farming need not be monoculture, and ranching is quite likely to be.

He also quotes yet another source:

The fact is that over two-thirds of the feed fed to animals consists of substances that are either undesirable or completely unsuited for human food.

Yes, but one reason is that a portion of the land is designated specifically for raising feed for animals rather than humans. And he notes that animals are a “renewable resource”. Okay, but what does it take to “renew” them?

Not content to don the hats of agriculturalist and ecologist, Dr. Byrnes also puts on his wizard hat and gazes into his crystal ball to predict what would happen if the world embraced vegetarianism on a large scale.  The results, he assures us, would not be pretty: “there would be less food available for the world to eat”.  His source for this conclusion is another article published by (ahem) the Weston A. Price Foundation, but since I haven’t been able to find a copy of it, I can’t tell you what (mis)information that author drew on. I can tell you, however, that it flies in the face of what actual experts say. Researchers at the University Of Minnesota, for instance, found that:

Currently, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet (as meat and other animal products). …We find that, given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people (more than the projected 2–3 billion people arriving through population growth). Even small shifts in our allocation of crops to animal feed and biofuels could significantly increase global food availability…

Furthermore, as reported in The Guardian, leading scientists at the Stockholm International Water Institute have issued a projection that is quite at odds with that of Dr. Byrnes — who somehow neglected to mention that livestock production also requires massive quantities of water. These scientists’ projection is also even more apocalyptic: the worldwide population, they warn, may be compelled to embrace vegetarianism by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic global famine.

Notice, by the way, how Dr. Byrnes slyly reframes the issue, shifting from a question of whether meat production has preventable disastrous consequences to a question of whether vegetarianism can eliminate world hunger. In so doing, he sets a very high bar that meatism itself has been failing miserably to attain for quite some time. This tactic is not at all uncommon among people who want to ridicule vegetarianism; they redefine its success in terms they believe it inevitably will fail to satisfy. We just might be seeing more of this tactic in future discussions.