Missionary Zeal, Tender Toes, and a Modest Proposal

Bumper stickers

America is a nation of missionaries.  Not necessarily in the religious sense, although certainly there are plenty of scrubbed young men in white shirts and ties going around pounding on doors. But there are also many other causes that people are passionately attempting to recruit for. It has become a national trend for just about any conviction or set of values to be an object of religious fervor and persuasion. Just look at all the billboards, bumper stickers and Facebook soapbox updates.

Being a nonreligious person, I’ve always been lectured by Good Christians about how I’m going to hell if I don’t adopt their beliefs.  As a vegetarian, I’ve been lectured by meat devourers about how I’m going to wither away if I don’t get some animal flesh into my system, and just who do I think I am for not liking hamburgers anyway. (You might think that vegetarians are more likely to preach; but if my own experience and observation are any indication, it’s carnivores by a landslide.) As a gunless citizen, I’ve been lectured by gun fanatics about how they have a constitutional right to own guns, and guns make us safer, and I’m being anti-American by questioning either tenet. As an essentially apolitical person who’s only voted twice in my life, I’m lectured by “conservatives” about how if I love my country and want to save it from certain destruction and save us all from certain enslavement, I have to vote Republican. (Democrats also have their missionary element, of course; but it’s not nearly as extreme, as abrasive, as apocalyptic, or as deranged.)

That missionary zeal is often accompanied by a strong identification with the values in question, to the extent that when someone is opposed to those values, the zealot feels that his/ her intelligence or integrity is being impugned. Which is to say, if you reject someone’s religion, politics or whatever, they take it as a personal insult, or react as if you’d raped the Statue Of Liberty. Quite often you don’t even have to criticize; all you have to do is fail to live by someone else’s principles, and that will be interpreted as stepping on someone’s toes.  American ideological fanaticism seems to be connected to the world’s most tender toes.

But this phenomenon is not limited to ideology. It also spills over to personal preferences of any kind, such as taste in music or TV shows. When I was a film critic, it was not unheard of to receive death threats for panning the wrong movies.  And then, God yes, there’s sports.  Spectators have been known to attack and even kill each other over soccer matches or Little League games. In 2011, a baseball fan wearing San Francisco Giants attire to a game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was jumped by two men in the parking lot who brutally beat him and left him unconscious – he spent several weeks in a coma and was left permanently disabled. Not to be outdone, some Giants fans got into an altercation with Dodger fans outside a bar near the San Francisco stadium, and one of the latter was fatally stabbed.

Which brings us to the real problem: missionary zeal sometimes morphs into crusader zeal; in which case the zealot is no longer content to convert or assert by persuasion, but resorts to force. On those two or three occasions in the past when I tried sporting bumper stickers myself, I had people throwing eggs and lighted cigars at my vehicle, and honking as they drove past so I’d be certain to observe them presenting their middle digits for inspection.

How did we get to this point? Is it the fast-pace, intensely competitive, angst-ridden contemporary lifestyle aggravated by the threat of terrorism? Is it confusion, alienation, and/ or just plain boredom? Is it an impressionable public whipped into an irrational froth by trash-talking media? Well, perhaps, but there’s certainly nothing new about being patronizing and/or antagonist toward The Others. There was a time when “heretics” could be horrifically tortured and murdered for deviating even one hair’s breadth from official religious dogma.  This kind of savage behavior has been around for a long time. Still, it seems likely that whatever remnants of it linger in modern American culture are either exacerbated by Limbaughism, or else Limbaughism just makes it appear worse than it really is. Or both.

Sorry to break the news, but the world is not holding its breath to hear your beliefs and convictions. Other people have their own, and are none too eager to have them compromised. If we lived in a rational world, people would gather all the information they could before committing to a belief. This is not a rational world. And most people first decide what to believe, then zero in on facts that seem to support the belief, while tuning out those that don’t.

Meat eaters are not interested in hearing how their habits are damaging their bodies as well as the planet they live on. Gun enthusiasts are not interested in hearing that guns mostly just create the illusion of safety — or that the so-called “constitutional right” to be armed is founded not on what the Second Amendment actually says, but on a highly subjective speculation about what the framers were thinking when they wrote it. “Pro-life” activists don’t want to hear that banning abortion is ineffective and probably even counterproductive. Climate science deniers and anti-vaxxers aren’t interested in scientific or medical research (except the “research” pushed by crackpots and quacks). Fox “News” devotees don’t want to hear that they’re being played like a cheap fiddle at a barn dance.

If and when people decide it’s time to reevaluate their convictions, they’ll do so without being prompted. In the meantime, there is nothing to be gained by telling them what idiots they are for not seeing eye to eye with you. Proselytizing is pointless unless the recipients are ready to make a change, and you just happen to be offering the change they’re looking for. (Actual missionaries tend to target people who are so desperate they’re willing to try just about anything.)

Which is why this blog is addressed to an audience of fellow skeptics, iconoclasts and freethinkers rather than an audience of die-hard ideologues or even the general public.  My purpose is just to present information and ideas for people who might be interested. I have little interest in trying to change anyone’s mind about anything — I know how futile the attempt is. I have no cause to promote except uncovering the truth.

But surely it won’t be a contradiction of that directive to make a modest proposal with regard to both preachiness and thin-skinned toes: just lay off already, will ya? Why do you feel you have to let people know if you are offended by whatever they say about your beliefs and preferences? Why do you have to feel offended at all? How exactly do their words have any impact on you? Either they’re right, in which case you should reflect rather than react; or they’re wrong, in which case they’re exposing their own ignorance rather than any flaw of yours; or they’re neither right nor wrong, in which case you’re just two people agreeing to disagree, which is one thing that made America great.

And why would you feel that the rest of the world is entitled to your opinion? Perhaps you should consider that your own life is your best PR. In other words, if your values and convictions are really as great as you think they are, it will show; people can’t help noticing, so you don’t have to bring it to their attention.

Whatever your cause may be, you’re not helping it any by smearing it in people’s faces. Or by throwing a hissy fit when someone fails to go along with it.

This Is Not Satire


The above photo was not intended to be humorous. Nor was the advertising copy accompanying it, though both appear to have been lifted from a Saturday Night Live skit or an Onion article. Both photo and text are part of an earnest promotion for a product called… (wait for it)… Thunderware. It’s a handy little item designed to give you a real sense of security by packing heat in your meat. The text reads in part:

The weapon is worn in the front, on the centerline. This way it will not interfere with normal or rigorous activity. When you sit down, the weapon fits down comfortably between your legs. “Sensitive” body parts are behind the bulk of the weapon. … Be as active as you want. You’ll never have to adjust your holster.

I know what you’re thinking. But I assure you, it only sounds like it was written by Tina Fey.

It’s the perfect gift for the guy who has everything, and wants to protect it. Or the guy who wants to pretend he has more than he does. Or, as the photo suggests, the gal who wishes she had something to pretend with too.  Or, as the photo also suggests, the guy who wants to impress the gals who wish they did.

Gun fanatics often bristle at the suggestion that their attachment to their hardware has phallic connotations of one kind or another. And then they turn around and market a product called Thunderware with ads like this. With a perfectly straight face.

The (Poorly) Armed Assault on “Gun Control”: How the Gun Culture Manipulates Statistics (Part 4)


In previous discussions about gun propaganda, we’ve examined what we call The Chicago Gambit, which is cherry picking statistics to make the case that stricter gun laws cause a rise in crime, as well as its counterpart, which we call The D.C. Gambit — which is cherry picking data to argue that looser gun laws cause a drop in crime. We also took a closer look at one particular example of the latter, the peculiar gun ordinance in Kennesaw , GA. supposedly making gun ownership mandatory. As you probably realize, there are also many other examples of these two strategies; not only are they applied to many cities and states, but to the United States as a whole.

The statement I hear so often from gun fanatics goes something like this: “There are more guns being sold than ever, yet crime is decreasing. So obviously guns reduce crime.” Well, aside from the common sin of identifying correlation with causation, there are at least three major problems with this argument:

1. The Problem of the Long-Term Crime Trend

First of all, the crime decline they’re referring to has been going on for a good 20 years.


But the surge in gun sales they tout apparently didn’t begin until much more recently. There is no comprehensive data on gun sales, but it probably has a pretty decent representation in the record of background checks:


And this one of gun production:

gun production

What both charts indicate is that the numbers roughly doubled over a period of about 6 years beginning around 2005; but you’ll notice that the major uptick coincides with the election of President Obama — whom the gun propagandists have painted as a bogeyman out to “take away your guns”. Even putting their best spin on it in an effort to establish the trend at an earlier point in time, they certainly can’t establish that such a distinct and consistent trend began before the drop in crime started.

If you’re looking for a more logical single specific cause for the crime decrease, you might try the Brady Bill, which became law just before the crime rate’s nosedive.  Again, we can’t prove that this was a cause as opposed to a mere correlation, but at least such an assumption, unlike the assumption that the increase in gun sales was responsible, wouldn’t require time-warping.

(There are at least three other probable factors that have made a difference. One is better policing. Another is the waning of the crack epidemic. And the third is something that few people of any ideological stripe want to acknowledge: the legalization of abortion a generation earlier, with the consequence that fewer potential criminals were born to begin with.)

2. The problem of a possible increase in shootings

You hear a great deal about how gun deaths have declined in recent years, but little about the number of non-fatal shootings. One reason is that we simply don’t know for certain how many such incidents occur — nobody really keeps a comprehensive score. Some reports claim the total number of shootings has increased, while others claim it has declined, though not by as much as gun fatalities. Others maintain that it has held steady , although the severity of the injuries has intensified. We do know that at least mass shootings are on the rise — and contrary to gun culture claims, armed civilians are almost never able to stop them. (I know, I know. Things will go down very differently when you and your guns get a crack at it, by god.)

In short, there is the strong possibility that even though fewer people are dying from gunshot wounds, more people are getting shot. And the apparent explanation is that emergency response to trauma has improved — not that guns are making us safer or that gun owners are less inclined to open fire. It’s pretty hard to make the case that the abundance of guns is the cause of the crime drop if more people are winding up with bullets in them.

3. The problem of gun ownership trends

Furthermore, gunsters focus on the boom in gun sales, but seldom mention the apparent fizzle in gun ownership — i.e., it appears that more and more guns are ending up in the hands of fewer and fewer people, as reflected in research by  Pew Research Center and the General Social Survey:

gun ownership

If this is indeed the case, then how in the holy hell could more guns have resulted in less crime? How many weapons can one person wield at once, anyway? On the other hand, it’s certainly conceivable that there would have been even less crime had there not been more guns. For one thing, the more guns there are in circulation, the greater the likelihood that some of them will end up (by theft if nothing else) in the wrong hands.

On those few occasions when Second Amendmenters do mention this trend, it’s most likely to deny it exists. My old friends, God bless them every one, over at my favorite gun propaganda site, The Truth About Guns, have made several attempts at denouncing this “myth”, though they still haven’t offered anything to debunk it. The most compelling piece of evidence they can provide is the boom in demand for firearms training. But that’s very far from conclusive. Just because there are more people who want to shoot effectively doesn’t mean there are more people who have something to shoot.

Another trick the folks at TTAG tried was presenting a chart of background checks, like the one reproduced above, as evidence of increased gun ownership. But while background checks might be a pretty good indicator of firearm purchases, they don’t  necessarily reflect the number of purchasers.

In one post, TTAG zeroes in on Gallup’s tracking, which seems to be a bit of an outlier, and the writer brandishes three selective years to give the impression that Gallup shows gun ownership to be on the rise. But in fact if you look at the big picture — i.e., a graph of Gallup’s numbers since it began surveying the issue in 1960 — you get a rather different impression:

Gallup gun poll

This appears to be a slightly downward trend as well, though not as steep or consistent as GSS. Indeed, the zigzagging of Gallup’s numbers suggests that, for whatever reason, its polling on this particular matter is less than reliable. Nonetheless, its figures have been combined with those of GSS into a cohesive graph that indicates an unmistakable downward shift:

gun ownerhsip in america

Yet another tactic is to dismiss the GSS estimates as inaccurate because they are produced by surveys, which can’t be trusted. These, mind you, are the same folks who latch onto the outrageous figure of 2.5 million annual DGUs, produced by another survey, as absolute gospel. Evidently they want you to believe that in both cases, the respondents understate their cause — and thus, instead of an already preposterous 2.5 million DGUs per year, there are actually 5 or 6 million.

Indeed, the head Gun Guru himself over at TTAG posits this supposed under-reporting in terms that, be warned, may make you fall out of your chair and roll in the floor:

In fact, Americans don’t like to tell strangers about their guns. Not just the ones who consider government the greatest threat to individual liberty (i.e. those afraid of firearms confiscation). Gun owners who understand that discretion is the better part of valor.

Gunsters don’t like to tell strangers about their precious guns? So they never attend rallies to proclaim they have a (so-called) constitutional right to be armed? They never sport their pieces in restaurants or other public places? They never attend gun shows? They don’t maliciously campaign against and harass and threaten “anti-gunners” (many of whom own guns themselves) who express concern about school kids being gunned down and want to take measures to prevent it that don’t involve flooding the streets with even more guns? They don’t have websites devoted to promoting their fetish?

These are individuals who presumably have already gone through the process of background checks, which apprise the Big Bad Guvmint not only of their gun ownership, but of their identities and other personal data. And yet they don’t want to acknowledge their passion anonymously to pollsters who might help promote their cause?

It’s probably true that there are some false negatives in surveys of firearm ownership. It’s probably true that there are false positives as well. And that there are some respondents who reply “It’s none of your damn business.” But surely that’s always been the case.  And thus, the surveys should not be any more inaccurate now than they’ve ever been.

Unless gun owners have become a lot more paranoid because of the gun-grabbin’ librul socialist fascist Muslim atheist terrorist anti-Amurrcan Kenyan in the formerly White House. Well, there’s not much denying that the right-wing gun culture has ratcheted up its hysteria since Obama has become president, and that this has resulted in a healthy increase in profits for gun manufacturers. But does this mean that more people are buying into the hype? Or, to put it bluntly, just because the right-wing loony fringe has devolved into deeper lunacy, does this mean that more sane people have been inspired to join the right-wing loony fringe?

Again, such a conclusion is at odds with the long-term trend. Look again at those charts showing the decline in gun ownership. It began long before Barack Obama became the wingers’ demon du jour. It went on during the terms of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, who were — notwithstanding the elder Bush’s renunciation of his NRA membership — much cozier with the gun culture.

Note that the figures presented are percentages; and given the population expansion, it’s possible that a decreased percentage could represent an increased tally; but in such statistics and trends, it’s usually percentages that we’re concerned with.  The GSS estimates may or may not be the most accurate indicators of the actual percentages of gun ownership. They may be off by plus or minus 3 points. Or 10. Or 15. But the fact that they show a consistent long-term decline is still an indication that they probably are at least a reasonable barometer of the change.

And one other thing about the graph of that trend. I hate to spoil the party at the gun-lovers’ orgy, but it correlates rather nicely with another graph we presented above. The one showing a steady drop in crime.

(Still more to come on this topic. Alas.)

Crusading for the Crusades: How Revisionists Are Whitewashing a Bloodbath


As you may have noticed, the Crusades have become something of a sacred cow in the U.S. As President Obama discovered, anyone who dares point out how brutal they were is in danger of being branded as anti-Christian and anti-American.  In recent years, a spate of revisionist books have tried to paint the Crusades as a noble and just endeavor; one of the most egregious of these volumes, for instance, is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Crusades (“politically incorrect” being a euphemism for ideologically tilted and/or historically inaccurate).

There are basically four flimsy defenses that the Crusades Crusaders offer for their pet cause:

Flimsy Defense # 1: It was a long time ago

Because a millennium has passed, some crusaders suggest, it’s no longer cricket to express horror and outrage — at the same time, however, they see no problem with reaching back into the past nearly half a millennium in order to find some grounds for defending the Crusades (which we’ll get to in a moment). The implication is that because the Crusades are so deeply buried in the vaults of history, Christian violence is too.


These folks are overlooking the Inquisition. They’re overlooking the witch trials. And they’re overlooking events in modern times as well. For example, violence between factions in Ireland (a centuries-old tradition carried over into recent years), though officially pegged as politically rooted, was in fact largely occasioned by differences in religion. This conflict gave rise, among other things, to The Shankill Butchers, a band of Protestant fanatics who abducted, tortured and murdered Catholics (as well as a few fellow Protestants who pissed them off).

More recently, there was the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, which might be more accurately characterized as religious “cleansing”.

And we’re certainly not out of the woods now. You’ve surely heard a great deal about Muslim terrorists these days, but chances are you’ve heard much less about the more common and more menacing Christian terrorists. Violence isn’t exclusive to any one age or country or religion. And somebody once said something important about those who can’t remember the past.

Flimsy Defense # 2: Everyone else was doing it too

Because the Crusades occurred so far in the past, some people imagine that there is a magical boundary between Then and Now; and that once humanity crossed that line, it was suddenly transformed into a different biological order. Back then, they want to believe, people were just more violent in general, so it’s understandable that Christians would have been too (though at the same time, Christians were supposed to be morally superior to everyone else).

I was having a discussion along these lines a few years ago with a friend — a highly intelligent friend who knows more about history than I do — when I brought up what a bloodthirsty sleazeball Columbus was. To which he replied, “Well, can we really judge a Fifteenth-Century man by modern standards?”

Yes, absolutely, we can.

One reason we know so much about the misdeeds of Columbus and other Christian conquerors in the New World is that a contemporary priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas, recorded them with disgust. If he could feel compassion and respect for the Natives and revulsion over violence and exploitation, why couldn’t Columbus?

It isn’t human nature that has evolved. It’s the collective social order, to the point that most societies now frown on genocide, slavery and torture. On an individual level, though, some people still do it when they can get away with it. But just because some people do it is not, and has never been, ample cause for someone else to do it.

Flimsy Defense # 3: It was self-defense

This is the most popular of the flimsy defenses, the very heart and soul of Crusades revisionism. According to this tidy fairy tale, the Crusades were a just and holy undertaking, quite pleasing unto the will of God, because they were a defensive maneuver against those nasty Muslims who were picking on Christians. But this narrative is at best a gross oversimplification.

There were numerous crusades — the exact number is a matter of debate — over a period of a couple of centuries (some historians maintain they lasted as long as five centuries). Some were motivated by political and economic rather than, or in addition to, religious factors. Not all of these were directed toward Muslims; the Christians also targeted Jews, pagans and even their fellow Christians whose beliefs were considered “heresy” by those in power. And far from being uniformly defensive, these were often aggressive campaigns with the aim of not only conquest but eradication.

The mythos of  Crusades as defense has its roots, curiously enough, in what is generally taken to be the first major Crusade (1096-1099), which was organized ostensibly for the purpose of retaking Jerusalem, which had been conquered by Muslims.  Evidently God wanted Christians to have Jerusalem for themselves, because they consider it a holy place and all.  It is, for one thing, the site of the “Holy Sepulchre”, the reputed burial place of Jesus. The expedition, in other words, was at least as much about recovering control of a shrine as it was about protecting Christians from alleged abuses — arguably a campaign about conquering places and things rather than liberating the oppressed or defending ideals.

Furthermore, the Islamic sacking of Jerusalem occurred some 4 centuries earlier. If the Crusaders were following the calling of The Almighty, they certainly were taking their sweet time about it. One explanation for the delay is that the subjugated Christians in and around Jerusalem found life tolerable enough until the Seljuk Turks took over and began oppressing and persecuting them more heavily. But even if we grant this, they at least were allowed to live under Muslim rule. The conquering Christians did not return the favor, but systematically exterminated the Muslim men, women and children they encountered. They also slaughtered Jews living there, some of whom joined the Muslims in fighting off the Christian invaders — which just might provide a clue as to who the real bad guys were.

Flimsy Defense # 4: The numbers have been inflated

Of course they have. The Crusades, like the witch trials and the Wild West gunfights, have become the stuff of legend. And legend invariably lends itself to hyperbole.

So what’s the point here? That murdering 1000 people is more morally upright than murdering 10,000? This kind of argument might carry a bit more weight if the difference had been 10 or even 100 versus 1000.  But even though the numbers have been exaggerated, they are still quite extreme enough, numbering in the high thousands if not the millions.

Perhaps the purpose of playing the exaggeration card is to suggest that Christian atrocities like the Crusades were carried out by fringe elements, and thus do not represent “true” Christianity, whatever that may mean. In fact, the Crusades were carried out with the approval of, and even under the impetus of, the Pope.

Finally, we should mention that one of the most troubling things about Crusades revisionism is its Machiavellian implications. Which is to say, it suggests that many Christian apologists believe that if they can establish there was worthy reason to undertake the Crusades, then it excuses any and all actions undertaken by the Crusaders. That’s a similar line of reasoning to that exercised by guys who fly planes into buildings.

Let’s be very clear: these holy Crusaders ruthlessly butchered, tortured, beheaded, dismembered, impaled, burned, and even cannibalized innocent people of all ages. At times they literally waded in the blood of their victims, with which they were smeared from head to toe, and wore proudly as a token of their triumph as they exhibited the severed heads and limbs of the vanquished.

Is there really any cause sufficiently holy to justify all of that?

What? Journalists Lie?


As you’ve no doubt heard, NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for stretching the truth about his coverage of Iraq. Which just goes to prove that them librul journalists are all nothing but a pack of liars. (NBC is librul, of course; every network is assumed librul unless it proves otherwise by bashing Obama to a sufficient degree, and then it can be safely classified as fair and balanced.) And in the frenzy over that revelation, it has surfaced that Fox’s Bill O’Reilly is also guilty of padding his resume several times. Which just goes to show that them libruls have no compunctions about maliciously spreading the truth if it helps their cause.

And although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention, it happens that at least one more Foxer has been tipping the liar meter quite a bit for self-promotion: one Emily Miller has built a career out of an anecdote about a terrifying home invasion she supposedly experienced, but actually didn’t. Which just goes to show that them librulz… well, something or other. In any case, it’s all left a lot of people wondering to what extent journalists can be trusted, anyway.

If I absolutely had to answer that difficult question, I’d probably say something to the effect that I believe most journalists are trustworthy most of the time — and I say this having had a bit of experience as a journalist myself. Nonetheless, I know that inaccurate information does get reported; it’s just not easy to know exactly how often, even in this Age Of Google.

I’ve also been on the receiving end, having been written about in a fair number of media stories. And while the information reported in those stories was about 98 percent accurate, virtually every story contained at least one error — even when the writer had actually interviewed me. Usually, they were minor details that almost nobody but me would know about. And they were honest mistakes, generally the result of connecting dots that had no business being connected. Still, it makes you wonder how frequently the same sort of thing happens to reporters facing a blazing hot deadline to cover breaking news events.

But the fuss isn’t really about mistakes committed because journalists are human. It’s about deliberate misrepresentations such as those committed by Williams and O’Reilly. And with some frequency or other, they do indeed occur.

In 1981, Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a story she wrote for the Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. But she was stripped of her prize when the story turned out be just that. Jimmy was a figment of her imagination. Perhaps she felt justified with the fabrication because Jimmy represented certain genuine cases. But further investigation revealed that she’d also fabricated part of her own credentials and experience.

Many years ago when I was living in San Francisco, a respected dance critic was fired after writing a review of a performance he apparently didn’t attend. Had he done this kind of thing before? Quite possibly. This time he was caught only because he criticized a couple of dancers who, as it turns out, had been replaced at the last minute. Oops.

Ironically, this critic wrote for the S.F. Chronicle, which shortly thereafter was acquired by the Hearst Corporation. That’s Hearst as in William Randolph, who set an astoundingly high bar for journalistic disintegrity.  Although his reputed quote to the effect that “you furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” is possibly apocryphal, it does give a good indication of his actual attitude, influence and modus operandi. Whether he uttered the statement or not, his propaganda did, to an extent, “furnish” action in the Spanish-American War.

In 1941, cinematic wunderkind Orson Welles produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, which many critics regard as the greatest movie of all time. But since the story appears to have been loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron did not take kindly to it, and barred the film from being so much as mentioned in his media properties. He also had his journalists repeatedly libel Welles, and he lobbied the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to avoid bestowing honors on the film. Not only did the “Greatest Film Of All Time” fail to win the Oscar for best picture, but Welles was even booed whenever his name was mentioned during the ceremony that year.

Hearst also waged a sensationalized crusade against marijuana, as did much of the media in his time — though the popular notion that it was fueled by a desire to eliminate hemp as a cheaper alternative to paper is highly dubious. Still, he was definitely a titan of yellow journalism and a highly vindictive practitioner of smear tactics. He was, in short, the Rupert Murdoch of his day.

Speaking of whom, it’s a sign of the times that there is so much focus being directed on the efforts of talking heads to swell their heads even bigger, and so little focus on the more pervasive falsehoods that potentially have much more impact on us all. By all indications, Fox lies far more often than any other network — which is hardly surprising, since Fox is only marginally a news network, and it’s questionable whether its personalities can even be classified as journalists. Politifact has found in recent cursory evaluations that Fox lied, at least in part, about 60 percent of the time. Another estimate has the network lying more than 80 percent of the time. (And bear in mind that its few truthful utterances include those that depart from its normal ideology.)

Jon Stewart (what a void he is going to leave) responded to Fox’s pot-and-kettle accusations that he had been lying by challenging them to a “lie-off”, and producing a clip of 50 Fox lies in 6 seconds. Of course the 50 lies had been gleaned from a much longer time span than 6 seconds; but as you may recall, I previously found 8 lies in a real-time Fox clip of just under two minutes. And it was a clip chosen essentially at random.

Stewart also bemoans the tortuous pretzels that the official story often gets twisted into in order to accommodate extreme right-wing dogma:

Fifteen states have approved Voter ID laws in the absence of any meaningful evidence of voter fraud. An Oklahoma state committee voted to ban AP history for not sugar coating slavery enough. Abstinence is approved sex education. Scientific fact isn’t reported now. It’s debated.

Actually, it’s even worse than Stewart indicates. We’ve reached the point that virtually any fact is considered negotiable; many people seem to have the attitude that evolution and global warming will just disappear if we have strong enough opinions about them. You’ve probably heard a lot about the “debate” over global warming and the “debate” over vaccines. In reality, there is no debate on either subject. There are only arrogant and gullible individuals who are convinced they know more than the experts. And in order to reinforce that belief, they are quite willing to latch onto whatever falsehoods the hucksters toss their way.

So let’s see now. We get a whole lot of media focus on Brian Williams. Much less on Bill O’Reilly. Less still on Emily Miller. And (aside from media watchdog sites on the left) damn little about Fox’s relentless dishonesty. Could it be that there is more attention paid to “liberal” dishonesty and considerably less to “conservative” dishonesty. Nah, can’t be. We all know that there’s an overwhelming librul bias to the media, right? So what’s the alternative? That the more trivial a lie is, the brighter the spotlight on it?

In light of the persistent and consistent record of Fox mendacity, it might seem a bit trifling to make such an opera out of a couple of TV personalities fibbing to boost their credentials. But they do say that sunshine is the best disinfectant; and maybe, just maybe, airing out the relatively petty transgressions of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly will lead to some level of accountability for Fox. But my advice, for what it’s worth, is not to suspend all respiration until it happens.

Obama Speaks Truth, Obama Haters Have Meltdown


They called it a shameful statement, an embarrassment, an act of self-destruction on the part of President Obama, a defense of terrorism,  and an out-and-out attack on Christianity. They said that he was equating terrorism with Christianity, a “moral equivalency” that was “stupid and dumb” (both??). They called it “moral stupidity” (at least it wasn’t immoral stupidity). They said the president was displaying his own closet Muslim faith, and his hatred of America itself. They even touted it as proof that “liberals” in general (of which they’re immovably convinced Obama is one) love terrorists and hate America. What horrific utterance did the president commit in order to earn this (self) righteous condemnation? It was a little statement he made at the National Prayer Breakfast:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

The National Prayer Breakfast is an event sponsored by the ultra-right wing fundamentalist group known by the appropriately godfatherish name The Family. As usual, the president displayed chutzpah in venturing onto hostile turf and offering an olive branch. And as usual, he was eloquent and insightful. In fact, the more rational observers hailed his address as “brilliant”, “remarkable”, and “a powerful celebration of America’s religious tradition.” Naturally, then, the right-wing fanatics went absolutely apeshit, spewing out an avalanche of straw men, dopey insinuations, references to nutty rumors, and downright lies:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share. (Former VA Governor Jim Gilmore)

We all share the values that slavery and slaughter are desirable if done by the right people?

prayer breakfast 1

Guess I missed it. When exactly did he “blame the Crusades”?

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“Nominal Christian”? Cute. Would you say the same about the pope? It was a pope who spearheaded the Crusades. How much more “true” does it need to be?

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Guess I missed it. When exactly did he try to justify horrific acts of barbarism, Islamic or otherwise?  But somebody else missed the fact that he did NOT have to go back 1000 years.

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Guess I missed it. When exactly did he insult Christians? And why would he do that when he is at least a “nominal Christian” himself?

So Barack Obama, leftwing community organizer and closet theologian, used the National Prayer Breakfast to throw a tu quoque at anyone critical of Islam while continuing to fancy himself as the Pope of Islam (Conservative News)

Gotta admit that “tu quoque” is a level of diction several notches above the Palinesque, but unfortunately we can’t say the same for the content.

Mr. President, you… are damning your reputation as a president and may never hold any regard or esteem of the American people. Then again, perhaps that was always your aim, as you fundamentally transform our beloved Constitutional Republic. (Allen West)

The ever-reliable Mr. West, who presumes to give the “Islamapologist In Chief” a history lesson, also claims that lynchings in America were supported by “Democrat (sic) Christians”.

One evil man had the audacity to attack Christianity and defend Islam in the midst of 3,500 Christians at the recent National Prayer Breakfast… Barack Obama and others like him have a direct connection to evil; whereas too often people serving God are not directly connected to truth. This is why Obama can lie and push his destructive agenda and mercilessly attack our freedoms and sacred institutions. (CNS)

This latter, hilariously enough, appears in a piece titled “Christians, It’s Time to  Get Over Your Illusions”.

In the midst of all this sound and fury and manufactured outrage, one little fact was a bit neglected: the president’s observations were absolutely on the mark. Horrific deeds have indeed been committed in the name of Christianity, and just about every other religion that ever has existed. He was right about slavery. He was right about Jim Crow. He was right about the Inquisition. And yes, despite the current tide of trendy historical revisionism, he was even right about the Crusades.

But these episodes are only a sampling of the violence that has been performed in the name of Christianity. We touched upon this in a recent discussion (“The Christian Persecution Complex, and the Myth of the School Prayer Ban”), though it really was just scratching the surface. During the interval of time between Christianity’s coming to power in the Fourth Century, and up to the modern age, there has been an average of one major episode of Christian barbarism every 15 to 20 years. And these are just the major episodes, most of which were massive campaigns that claimed the lives of many victims.

One of these was a campaign by England to “civilize” non-Christians in Ireland by slaughtering tens of thousands of them. One of the commanders of the forces, Humphrey Gilbert, ordered that

the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies… and should be laid on the ground by each side of the way … (to cause) great terror to the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends on the ground.

And if you’re a fan of Fox “News”, you might have been under the impression that ISIS invented beheading.

As for the beloved Crusades, one (Christian) chronicler of the noble exploits recorded that during one particular siege the noble Crusaders

did no other harm to the women found in [the enemy’s] tents—save that they ran their lances through their bellies

How very Christian of them to be such gentlemen. Makes you wonder what kind of harm they’d been doing to other females they’d encountered.

You might object that some of these episodes were not of a particularly religious nature, or that there were sometimes other motives in addition to religious ones. True, but the point is that these horrible deeds were committed by Christians. Or at least nominal Christians. Furthermore Christian beliefs were often cited as the justification for atrocities, even when they actually may have been committed for other reasons. The very fact that dogma can be considered a justification for savagery is itself a damning indictment of a social order dominated by religious fanaticism.

I’ve always been fond of Philip Roth’s short story Defender of the Faith, in which a Jewish army sergeant decides to crack down on one of his fellow Jewish soldiers because he realizes that defending his religion entails defending it not only from the outside but from the inside. That’s a lesson that many Christians don’t want to learn; but President Obama seems to understand perfectly. If you’re a Christian, perhaps you should ask yourself which sentiment you’d rather have expressing your religious values to the world: (a) “I’m appalled by the things some Christians have done, and I pledge to do better'; or (b) “Atrocities? You’re talking about history. You obviously hate Christianity and hate America.”

In writing for Time about the Bizarro Planet reaction to the the president’s speech, Eric Yoffie notes

One would think that both religious and political conservatives would have applauded the President’s remarks, which celebrated American religion and affirmed the centrality of religion in American society.

And he goes on to ask why such “self-evident” truths should be considered the least bit controversial. He chalks it up to Christian “denial”, and that probably is indeed one factor. But the reaction was probably at least as much political as religious. In other words, it was yet another manifestation of Obama Derangement Syndrome, the obsession with trying to make a scandal out of absolutely anything and everything the current president says or does.

It’s certainly not unheard of for presidents to spark controversy when they’re caught telling lies. But Barack Obama very well might be the first politician in history to possess the uncanny power to generate controversy and cause reactionary heads to explode just by telling the self-evident truth.


Pascal’s Wager, and the Overrated Question


Of all the questions I hate being asked, few are as annoying as “Do you believe in God?” For one thing, it’s a very overrated question: what difference does it make whether any particular individual possesses such a conviction? Will God disappear in a whiff of smoke if He doesn’t maintain a quota of devotees?

Though they may not realize it, people who exalt this query to a position of prominence are indulging in a form of gambling. They are participating in what has come to be called Pascal’s Wager,  after a rumination by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).

Pascal was a brilliant thinker who penned some very stimulating discussions of some very significant ideas. This is not one of them. It’s quite ironic that the one utterance for which such a great thinker is most often remembered is in fact one of the most inept oddities of illogic ever to creep into the textbooks. Treating the existence of God as a gambling proposition, he concludes:

Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

This expresses what gamblers call an overlay, meaning that the potential gain for a positive outcome exceeds the sum of potential losses for all possible negative outcomes. Though such a situation is, as you might expect, difficult to find in the gambling world, Pascal is convinced he has a sure thing. But there are at least three major flaws to his proposition:

1. Belief is not a button.

The first problem is that, as Pascal himself observes only a couple of sentences later, faith isn’t exactly something that you can just turn on or off.

But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.

How exactly should those who “cannot believe” try to “convince themselves”? If he’s going to urge people to attempt the impossible, he might at least offer a couple of pointers.

It’s conceivable that we ultimately have no choice in whether we are believers or skeptics, even when we convert from one to the other. It may be that such options are the inevitable product of how we process and react to information; and that those details are determined by biological/ biographical factors over which we have little or no volition.

From all appearances, however, we do have at least some control in the matter. And assuming that we do, the choice to believe is in some ways more of a voluntary commitment than the choice to doubt. If you decide to believe, for instance, that the earth is 6000 years old or that vaccines cause autism, you must exercise an ongoing effort to single out factoids that seem to support your conclusion and steer clear of the mountain of evidence that contradicts it.

A commitment to skepticism, on the other hand, is more general and open-minded. Even assuming that the decision to be skeptical (which I highly recommend, by the way) is made totally of your own free will, the thing is that it comprises a broad resolution to demand that extraordinary claims be backed up by extraordinary proof.

Once you become entrenched in this mindset, skepticism comes naturally, and you’re quite receptive to all kinds of information, since you have no dogma to be threatened. You automatically challenge any extraordinary claim — of which the concept of a supreme being is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. (Note, however, that some avowed “skeptics” are not truly skeptical at all; climate science deniers, for instance, may peg themselves as skeptics but in reality they’ve simply chosen to believe that scientists are incompetent and/or dishonest — a premise that a true skeptic would question thoroughly.)

2. Bait and switch

Pascal begins by talking about God, and the next thing you know he’s talking about eternal happiness. How did he get from Point A to Point B? Clearly, in his mind there’s a link between the two. And that link unquestionably is Christian dogma. For those who believe the “right” things, dogmatists tell us, endless bliss awaits in the afterlife; for those who don’t, it’s an eternity of agony (at least as far as fundamentalists are concerned.)

Religion, by the way, is itself highly overrated; for many people it’s the most important thing in the whole world. For some, it’s just about the only thing that really matters.  For my own part, I can hardly think of anything I’d consider less important than religion. But it isn’t for personal reasons that I call it overrated; it’s because many religious people are quite oblivious to the fact that religion isn’t for everyone.

Whatever its degree of importance, it certainly has been injected into American public life to an excessive degree. More to the point, the supposed validity of religious doctrines is an entirely separate matter from the supposed existence of a divine being.

Pascal treats the two as if they were interchangeable, or at least inseparable.  But there are many people who believe in God, yet are not religious. For that matter, there are many religious people who consider themselves atheists – including some ministers. Of course, they are very discreet about it, because many of their flock consider atheism the ultimate evil.

3. Say what?

But the main reason I find the Overrated Question so annoying — and so overrated — is that it is in itself quite meaningless. If you tell me that you believe in God, what exactly have you told me? Nothing, without some clarification. I could tell you today that I do too, then tell you tomorrow that I don’t — and be perfectly accurate and honest in both instances. It all depends on how I happened to define my terms at the moment.

And this is where many great philosophers dropped the ball. They considered it important to “prove” the existence of God, sometimes with elaborate logical constructs modeled after geometric proofs. But they were rather negligent in explaining exactly what it was they were trying to prove the existence of. The word God means different things to different people, ranging from (to quote a humorous recording from the Sixties) “hairy thunderer” to “cosmic muffin”.

For some people God is literally an anthropomorphic entity up there somewhere over the rainbow, using the earth for a footstool. For others, He is a being of an unimaginable nature, with or without a humanoid personality. For others, He/ It is a more abstract spirit underlying all of nature. (“PANTHEISM, n. The doctrine that everything is God, in contradistinction to the doctrine that God is everything.” — Ambrose Bierce.)  Some think of God in a fashion quite similar to The Force from Star Wars.  Others might simply say that God is a name for that which has no other name or explanation. (This philosophy prompted one noted skeptic to observe that since we are learning more and more every day, God is shrinking every day.)

If that isn’t complicated enough, there are also different levels of belief. You can believe something literally or figuratively. You can believe something with all your heart, mind and soul to the point that you’re willing to stake your life (and afterlife) on it. You can believe that something is probably true, but hedge your bets. You can believe that something may be true, but be unwilling to commit to assuming it is. You can believe it’s reasonable for other people to believe that something is true, but not really believe it yourself.  You can believe that something is true on some planes of reality, but not the one you happen to inhabit. You can offer a tenet a kind of meta-belief, as one might believe in Santa Claus or Batman.

In short, The Overrated Question is one that cannot be adequately answered with a simple yes or no. But that is exactly the kind of response the questioners almost invariably expect, so they can pigeonhole you and — quite often — condemn you if you answer the wrong way.

A few years ago, I was having a stimulating conversation with a relative who was suffering from a terminal illness when he posed the question point blank. I was uncomfortable as I always am when somebody does that; knowing that his side of the family was fiercely Catholic, I didn’t think I could offer a response that he would find acceptable. But since he’d been straight with me, I was straight with him.

“Depends on what you mean by God”, I said. I figured this would throw him off balance and he’d drop it. But as it turns out, I was the one thrown off balance.

“The spirit of universal love”, he replied.

Now this is a rather nebulous concept itself, but it still narrows the field considerably in comparison to God. And it was not a concept that I felt I could reject.

I regret to say that since then, this relative has passed on to the next level, if there is one. Unlike most people, I don’t claim to know whether he really has had a chance to experience God at close range. But I do know that when it comes to figuring out what kind of God he was expecting to encounter, he was (unlike a great many people) on the right track.