Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Paris Attacks - And What MUSLIMS Should Do About It

Almost a year ago, when Charlie Hebdo happened, I nearly went ballistic. I very nearly lashed out, calling out all Muslims as evil for simply being Muslim. It didn't matter how peaceful or moderate a Muslim might be, I nearly said, because the beliefs themselves provide fodder for extremism, which they - the peaceful of Islam - then don't bother doing anything substantive to stop. If you're peaceful and loving, and happen to be a Muslim, you have but one choice, as I argued then. LEAVE! Because only the abandonment of Islam will make terrorism stop! Only empty houses of worship make religious leaders change!

Well, I was right about that last part, as far as it goes. Fortunately, I was talked off the ledge by some very kind and intelligent friends who reminded me of what it's like for a peace-loving Muslim who upholds Western democratic values. They get reviled, insulted, spat upon, ostracized, all because of something they had nothing to do with and openly condemn. That's not fair! That's not reasonable! And yes, it's part of why people who are treated that way get radicalized.

I understand that part of the natural reaction to an event such as 11/13 (we might as well give the Paris attack 9/11 and 7/7 status, right?) is for people to become extra xenophobic. They want to yell at people who wear the hijab or burqua. They tell Arab-looking people to "go home!" They shout profanities at men who unroll prayer rugs in the park. But I'm also aware that this is part of what the terrorists want. They want us to be Islamophobes! They want us to lash out.

Just as I nearly did almost a year ago. It radicalizes the moderates, and the cycle continues forever.

I suppose I can't blame people for lashing out. I'm a pretty anti-war guy, generally speaking, and back then I was tempted to say "outlaw the creed and burn every Mosque and minaret." Today, I, even I, am tempted again to say we should simply drop two or three nukes on Daesh (ISIS) held territory and win the war by making the entire area a radioactive wasteland. After all, it certainly seems odd that a nuclear power is getting pushed around by some Kalishnikov-waving imbeciles driving Toyota pickup trucks, doesn't it?

And yet - no. Islam really can be a religion of peace - if given the chance. It proved so back in the Christian Dark Ages when the ancient classics of Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras were nearly lost. The Islamic culture, not yet radicalized like it is today with Wahabiism, was able to preserve those works of learning, paving the way for the Enlightenment and what we today call Western values of freedom and democracy. How ironic that same culture has now transformed into something which gave birth to a terrorist philosophy which is trying to destroy the very democracy Islamic culture once helped create! Today, Islam is not a religion of peace anymore. But it once was, and could be again. How? I'll get to that in a minute.

Muslims point out that condemning all Muslims for the acts of a few among them is like blaming all Germans for the rise of Adolf Hitler. Good point - almost. The only problem I have with that line of thinking is, I do blame all Germans for Hitler! At least, the Germans of that generation. And I don't merely say so as an American of German descent. I say so because it is an historical fact. The Nazi loyalists never did achieve a working majority among the German populace. They didn't need to. The remainder of Germans, those opposed to the Nazi regime, were simply too afraid to speak out. They were scared of reprisals to themselves, and more importantly, to their families. As the Nazi party flourished, they looked the other way for the sake of their own personal well being, and for prosperity. That was to their eternal discredit. They should have had the courage to speak up and derail the Nazi regime before it threatened to bring the world crashing down into fascism. They didn't. Nazis, and their leader, Hitler, came to prominence largely because the peaceful majority of Germans did almost nothing to stop them.

Just as peace-loving Muslims do now.

Oh, I get it. Speak out against Jihadism, and you put the risk of your wife and children being knifed down in the middle of Brussels in broad daylight. Yeah! Who wouldn't understand that kind of threat? But isn't that level of evil even more reason why we should find some way of standing up to it? Can't there be some solution that allows us to dig in our heels, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and say with one voice, "Enough of this shit?!"

Up until now, the approach of peaceful Muslims has been to let the largely Christian military powers attempt the futile effort at exterminating the terrorists through the use of their military superiority. They feel that not speaking out against this is enough. Well, I doubt that. It hasn't worked so far. I mean, short of dropping several nukes between Syria and Iraq (and I still privately wonder why the hell we don't!) military might really isn't going to achieve much.

So what can we do? Shit, we have to do something!

And here's where my science-fiction writing ability comes to the forefront, because as a writer of tales, I can see strange strategies and plots where most don't. And what do I see?

I see a story - a grand tale about a secret spy organization whose sole purpose is to root out terrorism from within. Secretly funded by Muslims and Muslim-world governments, it finds the terrorist cells and then kills them before they strike. It is acting out on the realization that Islam's greatest P.R. challenge is terrorism, and that it cannot survive as a religion unless it is stopped. And so this organization goes forth, battling terrorism behind the lines, gaining intel that most spy organizations miss, killing the terror cells in their caves and their hovels, and keeping the world safe for religious freedom and democracy. Think of it as INTERPOL meets S.H.I.E.L.D. blended together with the Free Muslims Coalition and Muslims Against Terror. I intend to call this fictional super-spy organization the "M.P.K." for "Muslim Peacekeepers," and I think the story line would best be published as a graphic novel. I've never tried a graphic novel before, but I like the prospect of trying.

You see, Muslims could support something like this without fear of reprisal because it's a secret organization! Fuck, I'm a genius!

And here's my challenge to the peace-loving Muslims of the world: While I write about this organization in fiction, you should make it reality in fact - or at least enact something which makes a similar stand against terror. No, it doesn't have to be a super-spy organization with secret decoder rings and fancy exploding pens, but it does have to be making a stand - and a strong one. The way I see it, you have two choices if you want to live in Western democracies without hanging your head in shame. 1.) Fight terrorism with every fiber of your being, or 2.) leave Islam! Those are your only two choices. Because ever right-thinking Muslim prays the same prayer when some act of terror is first reported on the news. That prayer goes like this: "Oh, dear Allah, please let it not be a Muslim!" And I say that it's high time you did something about that prayer!

Hands that help are better than lips that pray, as Ingersoll once said. Ben Franklin once put it, "God helps those who help themselves." In other words, Allah says, "Answer your own damned prayer!"

Yes, conspiracy to commit terrorism should be punishable by the death penalty. France should probably bring back the guillotine and Germany should get over it's scruples regarding capital punishment. But otherwise, the only thing we can do is let Muslims stand against terrorism, or watch terrorism slowly destroy their religion forever. Why? Because Islam is radicalizing, and also growing somewhat, but it is also setting the stage for it's own destruction. Christianity did something similar before its current demise. It's coming, Muslims, unless you stop terrorism now.

People don't leave radical religions for any sort of outside threat. Believe me, I know, being a rare escapee from such, and knowing well the mentality. They only leave when their conscience is pricked, and that can only happen when we turn the other cheek, as Jesus is said to have recommended. It's not easy, but the best way to fight terrorism is to let the Muslims fight the physical fight, while we win the war of words, and defeat radical Islam (and Islam itself, I might add in my atheism-promoting moment) in the free marketplace of ideas.

In the meantime, go M.P.K.! I'm going to have so much fun writing this!



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Radical Proposal For Russia (And Reflections On Mom)

So, yesterday morning, my mother finally passed away from Alzheimer's disease - something no human being should ever have to endure. And consequently I find myself mulling things over, taking some time off from work, and reassessing a lot of things. Who wouldn't? And perhaps that's the sort of thing that causes me to write a blog post, not about my own mother, but about (oddly enough) foreign policy. Not that my mother doesn't deserve a write-up; believe me, she's going to get a big one, and not on something so deliberately tainted as this blog of mine. Rather, everything that she went through brings into focus how much I just plain see things differently than everybody else, and probably a lot clearer.

I could complain about how unintentionally condescending people have been, telling me to do this or that to help care for her - as if somehow she were somehow still there after her brain had gone. Or I could do a rant about how people actually dared to speak to me of spiritual matters in regards to her soul being at peace, as if somehow I didn't know far more about the subject than they do. Hell, I could decide to go off about how absurd it is for our culture to object to euthanasia in the face of such travesties as Alzheimer's. Certainly, were I to be diagnosed with the disease, I would join the Hemlock Society the very next day. Is the world really filled with that many imbeciles?

Then again, I really think I shouldn't be so cavalier. It's not like I don't suffer from my own delusions regarding what my mom went through. After all, I understood on an intellectual level that my mother's brain was gone long before her body was, and yet I scolded numerous hospital doctors for talking about her when she was right there in the room with us - people of science; people like me. They knew far better than I did how dementia worked, and yet I presumed to argue with them on their own turf! How arrogant of me! I understood perfectly well that science said she wasn't really there. But damn it all, that was my mother's face looking at me! I wanted to scream, "Couldn't we at least try to be polite and talk about her outside in the hallway?"

I guess I'm an imbecile too, sometimes.

No, I have my non-intellectual, emotionally driven moments, just like everybody else. So I'm not justified in going off on other people acting human in front of me. I therefore shrug it off when people say that they're "praying for me," telling me that mom's "happier now," or saying any of the other unintentionally insulting shit that goes along with learning someone has had a death in the family. They're not being stupid. They're just being human. Ultimately, I'm only human, too.

Which brings me, jarringly, to Russia.

Why? Well, the subject of Russia intervening in Syria has been something I've been pondering for quite some time. But when your mother dies and you take time off from work, one of the consequences is that you find yourself watching the first Democratic party presidential debate on CNN, and you see that nobody on the stage, not even Hillary Clinton, has as effective a plan for dealing with Russia's incursion into Syria.

And I do.

When my mom was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I moved back home, and the Obama economic recovery was being hampered by Republicans, and thus moving too slowly to have caught up with the accounting trade. Hence, I found myself living at home, in my parents' basement, turning 40, making very little money, and having very little prospects of pulling myself out of that hole anytime soon.

So I started writing. Honestly, what the hell else are you going to do in that situation?

And now, at my mother's death, I am again driven to catharsis, and find myself sharing the brilliant thoughts I had during the Dem-Debate. Hence, I'm sharing them. (Thanks again, mom.)

So why would Russia be so anxious to get involved in Syria? As is often the case, it comes down to money and resources. Syria is one of the few nations willing to trade with Russia in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. While other nations are slapping sanctions on Putin, Syria is willing to provide much-needed oil - below market. Russia depends heavily upon oil exports because it is one of the few resources that gets around trade sanctions, and the Syrian oil fields would go a long way to sustaining the Russian economy. When trade sanctions are lifted on Iran, Russia will be able to compete for Iranian oil, but this additional resource will also flood the market, driving oil prices down. With lower oil prices, one of the only commodities left to Russia for export will become a lot less profitable.

So! Into Syria Putin goes! His goal? Well, he says there are only two options: The Assad regime, or ISIL. He sides with Assad, and is currently trying to rescue his rule from rebellious factions which seek to oust him.

But oddly, he isn't bombing ISIL targets just yet. Why? Well, he doesn't want an incident between Russian and American planes, to be sure. But also, ISIL sustains itself primarily from oil sold on the black market at a discount.

And Russia is undoubtedly a primary buyer!

So, what Putin really wants is the oil. He will eventually target ISIL. But he'll seize the oil wells before he targets the troops.

Our goals in the region are to oust the Saddam-Hussein-like Assad, and then encourage the region towards democracy while simultaneously eroding ISIL and driving it to extinction. Easier said than done. And the real problem is that Putin has a valid point. There really isn't a pro-democracy force with the military strength or political will to guide Syria to democracy.

Which is where my radical proposal comes in: How about we ask Putin to oust Assad and temporarily rule Syria while guiding it to democracy?

Yeah. I know. That's big. It's huge. It's a real gamble. And it just might fucking work!

But what can we offer in exchange? Why would Russia be willing to get even deeper into a military quagmire in a middle eastern country just for us?

My second proposal regarding that is even more radical: In exchange, we push for partitioning off a portion of Eastern Ukraine for autonomous rule. Possibly even a newly annexed Russian territory.

Am I seriously proposing the violation of the sovereignty of two nations in order to permanently end the conflicts in both? Yes! It's not fair to the people of Western Ukraine to lose another region in addition to what they've already lost in Crimea, and it's not fair to see Assad given a golden parachute to live out his days in the lap of luxury in Petrograd. But at a stroke, it achieves peace in two regions of the world while satisfying democratic freedom in both. I think that's worth it.

It might be a tough sell in the U.N., but I think the nations of the world would be willing to forgive another Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory if it meant building a new democracy in Syria. Trade sanctions on Russia could eventually be relieved, and the U.S. and Russia together could tag-team to defeat ISIL. (It would mean a new Republic of West Iraq, but that's a subject for another blog post.) Putin may be mad, but give him an opportunity to play the role of international hero, and he may very well jump at the chance.

Like a patient with Alzheimer's, we could let the whole thing fester until it dies horribly, or we could end the suffering quickly.

I argue for the latter - for reasons of regret as well as realization.



Monday, October 5, 2015

Another Mass Shooting

So, big shock, another asshole with guns up the wazzoo has shot up a school. This happens with such disturbing regularity that we've gotten numb to it, and unless it happens in our own back yard, we seem not to even care. In fact, the knee-jerk reaction to all this is for so-called conservatives to immediately condemn any attempts at attempting to regulate firearms in the aftermath, almost as if to say "Don't even think of using this tragedy for political ends, bub!"

Now let me be clear, I'm very much in favor of defensive weapons. I believe we have the right to protect ourselves and our homes from burglars and/or random assailants. The real question, at least for me, is where do you draw the line between a defensive weapon and an offensive weapon? It bears repeating that you don't need an AK-47 to shoot deer, and you hardly need an Uzi to keep burglars away from your front porch. So, in light of another mass shooting, where ought we draw the line? Because it's perfectly clear by now, we'd better draw the damned line somewhere.

Perhaps now is a good time to look at the second amendment to the Constitution and remember what it says:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Now, here's where I get confused: Where in there does it say the government can't issue a license or a permit? So far as I can tell, it doesn't. Where does it say that citizens must be allowed to sell such guns to others without any oversight? It doesn't say that, either. In other words, taken at its literal meaning, the government can regulate the shit out of firearms! It's only the keeping and bearing of them that cannot be infringed. But buying, selling, and bartering for firearms is fair game!

Another key point, as has often been pointed out, is that the technology of warfare has changed radically over the last 240 years. The most common application of weapons technology at the time the second amendment was written was the musket, and the pinnacle of weapons technology was the impossibly bulky cannon. A well regulated militia meant that people would be called to war, at which point fathers would get the family musket from off the fireplace mantle and go fight. Both federal and state governments were also usually strapped for cash, and income taxes were unheard of. They simply couldn't afford to arm draftees! It was hard enough just to feed them! It was literally an era of BYOG - bring your own gun. But my, how times have changed!

Today, our wealthy nation has developed cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs, Abrams tanks, harrier jets, stealth aircraft, napalm, aircraft carriers, gunship helicopters, satellite surveillance, drones, and very likely soon, droid armies. And, let's not forget, the atomic bomb. Now, if the second amendment is to be taken at face value, then citizens should be able to obtain "arms" of the same technological advancement by today's standards, as the musket was back in 1776. But that means that the average citizen would be able to purchase bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades, landmines, tanks and fighter-jets. But just try obtaining any of these! The government clamps down on you like a vice! And rightly so! Armed citizens are one thing. Heavily armed citizens are quite something else! The government has determined that modern military equipment should not go to common citizens. Good thing, too, or else Donald Trump would be able to buy his own private military to go to war against the private army of Bill Gates!

So the government has already determined that some weapons are illegal. Somewhere between musket and atomic bomb, we need to draw the line. And here it is good to point out one of the more common arguments used by gun advocates, namely that citizens need to be armed in order to prevent the government from taking away citizens' rights and freedoms. If the citizens are disarmed, they will have no defense against oppression.

Um, two things in response to that: First, the government has already taken away your rights and freedoms! Uncle Sam has been ass-fucking the people since Vietnam! Gerrymandering has stolen their votes by the billions! Corporate interests have bought our government and transformed it from a democracy into a plutocracy - an oligarchy of the elite wealthy class. The revolution that assault rifles are supposed to be needed for should have happened with the Citizens' United ruling! And yet the rednecks of our nation just sit there on their fat asses, never bothering to march on Washington with the weapons they claimed were meant to defend our rights! What bullshit!

The other point is this: You are already disarmed! Do you really think a puny little assault rifle matters to an M-1 Abrams tank? Do you think the government will care if you shoot down one drone while the other fifteen take you down? Do you think your stockpile of ordinance will even matter if one smart-bomb hits it with napalm? Fighting our government's massive arsenal with AK-47's is akin to fighting a fire-breathing dragon with a book of matches!

But disarmed though we may be, people who stockpile guns are still a significant threat to other citizens. They can't take on the government, but they can certainly target a room full of defenseless students, or a day care full of kids, or a theater full of moviegoers. Our government could at least protect them. Instead, it protects the shooters - at least until after the massacre. What madness!

We need private hunters to help regulate our wildlife, and we need citizens to carry small arms to help prevent those who would go on a shooting rampage from getting very far. But honestly, can't we all agree that someone who buys 100 Kalashnikovs at a gun show is probably up to no good?

If the NRA were about defense, as it claims, then no state of the union would be able to outlaw tasers. A taser is a defensive weapon, and thus We The People have a right to it. But the NRA doesn't give a fuck about that. Five states and the District of Columbia all outlaw tasers. Seven states and D.C. outlaw assault rifles. Four of those states, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, at least outlaw both, but Rhode Island is stupid enough to legalize assault rifles while banning tasers! And where is the NRA? Nowhere to be found. Wisconsin used to be similar to Rhode Island in this respect, but the concealed carry law, passed by Scott Walker in 2011, lifted the ban on tasers. Wisconsinites can now own them - with a permit.

Why not a permit for other defensive weapons as well?

Yes, you have the Constitutional right to bear arms. You do not have the constitutional right to stockpile. You need one gun for defense. A few if you want options (shotgun vs. handgun, for example). But if you own dozens of guns, you're nuts! Oh, you're a collector? I don't care. Find another hobby!

Yes, you have the right to buy a gun. You do not have the right to buy one without oversight. And you sure as hell on earth don't have the right to sell it to someone else afterward!

Yes, you have the right to carry a gun. You don't have the right to do so without a license!

Finally, let me point out that the problem is not crazy people. We're ALL crazy! The problem is that even the sanest among us can crack. Even the nice guys occasionally go postal. If we assume that someone is crazy just because he kills people, we make a dire mistake. Ted Kaczynski was one of the most sober and sane people alive, but that didn't stop him from becoming the unibomber.

You say guns don't kill people? People kill people? You're right! People kill people - with guns!

I mean, come on! If we can't at least ban the big shit after this latest tragedy, America really doesn't stand a chance.



Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bible Disproofs Where You Least Expect Them

In my ongoing quest to re-invent my career yet again, I have stumbled upon yet more Bible verses which prove that not everything written therein is accurate. This time, it chanced upon me in the form of a very boring booklet which my welding theory class is forcing me to read. The author (whom I will graciously not name here) recounted many Bible passages detailing how the early Philistines and Israelites show the progression of the invention and use of forged iron and steel. At times, he seems almost enamored of how many Bible passages confirm his hypothesis. And yet, the very first Bible passage he quotes presents him with a very serious problem, if he would bother to think it through.

The verse he initially quotes is the Genesis reference to a man named Tubal-Cain. In this part of the Bible, a very long and boring genealogy is spun which details names of the first artisans, all of whom are descended from Cain, the slayer of Abel. Cain, after his exile, fathered Enoch, who fathered Irad, who fathered Mehujael, who fathered Methusael, who fathered Lamech. And Lamech, it is then revealed, had two wives, Adah and Zillah. Adah bore him Jabal, who was the forefather of all nomadic cattle-herders who lived in tents, and Jubal, who was the forefather of all those who played musical instruments. Now, at this point, it is self-evident that we are dealing with a kind of caricature of history in which various professions are all ascribed to one particular mythical figure out of folklore, But this particular author overlooks that. Zillah, the other wife, bore Lamech his other son, Tubal-Cain, and this man, according to Genesis 4:22, "instructed all those who forged bronze and iron." From this, my needlessly wordy author concludes, the forging and use of metals is steeped very early in human history. While this is undoubtedly true, there are better and more relevant evidences than scripture which can be cited to make this point.

The problem arises in the earliest known uses of bronze and the earliest known uses of iron. Bronze began to be used around 3,300 B.C.E., whereas iron and steel did not make their earliest appearances until about 1,100 B.C.E. - a difference of well over a millennium. It is therefore highly unlikely that the same individual, living in a time which pre-dated Noah's purported flood, developed and used both bronze and iron technologies, even if Methuselah did live to be over 800 years old (which is highly suspect). And what's more, the dates I just cited are cited by this very same author as well, meaning that he should have been able to spot the discrepancy staring him right in the face!

Now, I know first-hand how difficult it is to see a contradiction within one's own dogma and/or scripture when it happens to be part of the religion you were raised upon. After all, every Christmas we see nativity scenes showing the baby Jesus beneath the Star of the East, not even realizing that this is a clear depiction of astrology, which not only is obvious pseudo-scientific bunkum, it is a practice of divination forbidden by the Law of Moses - proving the story to be of Roman rather than Jewish origin. Nevertheless, this particular author completely misses the Tubal-Cain contradiction, not bothering to question how the same man could be the progenitor of two separate metallurgical arts eleven centuries apart. Now, other Bible versions, such as the NIV, attempt to soften this problem by saying that Tubal-Cain forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron without bothering to name him as the first instructor or inventor. But this hardly erases the problem, as the flood of Noah came at 2,400 B.C.E. according to the Bible, and Tubal-Cain and all his students would be killed off. The bronze and iron arts would then have to have been revived or re-invented by Noah's sons, Shem, Ham or Japeth, and the span of time found between bronze artifacts and iron artifacts according to modern archaeology would not jibe with the Bible either.

It's really amazing how many Bible errors pop up where they are least expected. I sincerely doubt this particular author is anything more than a layperson when it comes to Biblical scholarship, nor do I expect many would-be welders are particularly astute in theology. Nevertheless, even in the world of blue-collar skill trades, there are ample opportunities to see the errors of fundamentalist Biblical literalism, if one simply bothers to look.

One wonders how it remains such a profound influence among politicians.



Thursday, September 10, 2015

Daniel Pipes Confirms My Iran Analysis!

Sometimes, other brilliant people confirm the brilliant things I say on this blog. Such as Daniel Pipes. For those who aren't aware who this guy is, let me give a little background: Dan Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think-tank that promotes American interests in the Middle East. Unlike most conservative hawks, Pipes is at least an expert on the cultures of the region, and knows a thing or two outside the five second sound-byte.

And what does he agree with me on? Why, he agrees with me on the Iran deal! No, he doesn't agree that the deal is a good thing. In fact, he's quite staunchly opposed to it. But he does agree that the deal paves the way for a potential Arab Spring event within Iran, something I previously argued on this blog way back in May, when I called for the 47 U.S. Senators who sent a letter to Iran to be impeached for treason. I also briefly made this argument in April on the Sacred Cow Wursthaus Podcast for April 4th. You can read the Daniel Pipes blog post here for comparison.

Now, Pipes is a conservative hawk. He wants democracy for all the nations of the Middle East. He simply thinks that the best way to achieve this is by outright warfare and/or overthrowing the governments covertly. He also feels that Islamic culture is not ready to instill such democracy itself because Islamic religious extremism stands in the way. But democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. It must be earned from within. We learned that the hard way after World War II, and not just with the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Democracy must be earned from the inside. Fortunately, we have many people inside Iran, citizens of that great Persian culture, who are highly educated, who love the West, and who desire democracy themselves. Back in 2010, they nearly revolted against their government. With the United States no longer their looming enemy, they are more likely to do so again. After all, the government is now their only enemy, aside from the possibility of a preventative strike by Israel.

In my original blog post, I cited another expert on Iran named Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, who essentially argued the same point. (There was much more to his talk, but that was the essence of it.) Again, I include his speech at TED here for comparison.

Isn't it interesting when people on the left and the right, having nothing in common except an intimate knowledge of Iran's people and culture, both come to the same conclusions? Other people making this same point include Iranian-Americans, such as noted comedian Maz Jobrani. These people of Iranian descent are split regarding the deal themselves, but they all agree that it gives Iran a better chance at democracy than no deal at all. The chance for democratic revolution is agreed upon by both sides, pro and con. The only difference is that Pipes thinks it's merely a silver lining, and Bruce De Mesquita and I think it's the whole damned point!

And by the way, that's why those 47 Senators should still be impeached and tried for treason! Not only have they betrayed democracy in the U.S., they've betrayed it in Iran as well.



P.S. For those who really want to know about this debate, there is an Intelligence Squared session in which those in favor argued directly with those opposed. Experts on both sides duke it out over the issue, leaving neither side convinced, but all of us who watched better informed. You can watch the debate here. (And I strongly suggest you do so!)

Monday, August 31, 2015

Hillary Clinton's Emails

Often, I feel the need to write something on this blog because I strongly feel that it is being under-reported elsewhere. This is one of those posts.

What's going unreported is the real back-story behind the Hillary Clinton email scandal which is threatening to undermine her presidential aspirations. She still leads in the polls in Iowa. She still leads them nationally. Only in New Hampshire does she trail Bernie Sanders, and good ol' Bernie can't win with just that. But there's a real sense that Hillary may be damaged goods. Is she?

I argue not, and if the media were doing its job, I feel that everyone would  know that. Here's why:

The State Department has already said that Clinton did no wrong. In an official statement on CNN, spokesman John Kirby, a Rear Admiral in the Navy before joining the State Department, told Chris Cuomo that there were no policies in place at the time Hillary was Secretary of State that prohibited her use of a private email server for official business. Chris Cuomo then pressed the Admiral regarding a possible change in 2009 which Clinton violated, and Kirby guardedly said that he did not believe that there were such changes.

The changes Cuomo referred to were from the National Archives, which is not part of the State Department. In 2009 they said that agencies allowing employees to do official business on nonofficial email accounts had to ensure that any records sent on private email systems are preserved “in the appropriate agency record keeping system.” This, Clinton did, with such correspondence going from her private email to government email addresses, thus preserving them. Even if this were not the case, Clinton would only have violated a regulation from the Archives, a government agency which ranks fairly low on the overall totem pole. For Cuomo to imply that this meant Hillary was in serious violation of any major rule is biased reporting, in this author's opinion.

Now, here's the important part. There are three government organizations investigating Hillary's email usage during her tenure as Secretary of State. One is the Justice Department, which is investigating whether any regulations were violated. Another is the FBI, which is keenly interested on whether or not classified information may have been leaked. And lastly, there is the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which is comprised of seven Republicans and five Democrats, with the Republicans controlling the chair. (The chairman is Republican Trey Growdy of South Carolina.) The State Department has already absolved her. But what about the other three investigating bodies?

The Justice Department is likely to exonerate her after review. After all, if the State Department already has, then the issue about whether or not Hillary violated any rules or laws is moot. That's one down.

The FBI will most likely exonerate her as well, unless there really was something she leaked which was clearly and unambiguously classified. That's a whole separate issue, but for now, the FBI will say she did not commit any serious breeches of information. I suspect, however, that the FBI will also seriously chastise her. That would be a blow, but if the FBI clears her, she'll gladly endure it. That's two down.

And the Select Committee on Benghazi? Well, that's where politics is most likely to be played. But there are five Democrats on that committee, and they're not likely to let too many shenanigans take place. That means they may try something, but a manufactured October surprise is unlikely. This board will not find a direct link between this scandal and anything that happened with the Benghazi attack, because there isn't one.

That's all three! And presuming these three events take place before Iowa's primary, Hillary will be our next president.

Ah, but that's the trouble! Will these three investigations conclude their snooping and sniffing around in time? Will Joe Biden jump in beforehand and add a new option for wary Democrats? Clearly, the sooner this all wraps up, the better for the Hillary campaign. And this is the part where the media just plain missed it. There should be a watch on all three investigations! THAT'S the real news story! And I'd go so far as to say this needs to be a special feature. After all, so much of the Clinton campaign hinges on it, and consequently, so does much of our nation's potential future. Were it up to me, all three major networks would do a countdown to a statement release. "It's been 143 days since the start of the FBI's investigations into Secretary Clinton's email controversy, and no word yet on any conclusions." That type of thing. For that matter, Hillary supporters should broadcast this as well as a means of putting pressure on the agencies to resolve things quickly. I know I certainly will.

But is there anything really here with this so-called scandal? Anything at all? Well, let's take a look: So far, the worst of the accusations has been that Hillary passed some sensitive information to Huma Abdein, Hillary's long-time aide. Not classified, just sensitive. How sensitive? We're not sure. It might be rumors about Prince Harry, for all we know. Abdein, in turn, is the wife of Anthony Weiner, who was recently scandalized when it was revealed he had "sexted" several women with pictures of his own anatomy (which the press simply devoured). So the accusation is, apparently, that some sensitive information was appropriately shared with her aide, which was then inappropriately shared with a philandering husband. Oh, and by the way, there is no evidence at all for this last part. Scratch that one.

Next up is good ol' Dick Cheney. He's calling Hillary's email use "sloppy" and "unprofessional." Now, this is the same man who has never been above outright lying to the American public in order to achieve his political ends, so if that's the worst he's got on her, it seems clear that he hasn't much of a case. Scratch that one as well.

And really, that's about it. So much for scandals! But it's not like there isn't some legitimate concern regarding all this. Several things have been retroactively been labeled as "confidential" or "sensitive." This has exposed a real problem within government, which is that different agencies regard different things as classified or confidential at different times. So the FBI might consider something classified when the State Department does not. What's worse, they could change their minds later about what's classified or not! What a mess! This is a real concern which needs to be addressed, and this controversy has shed some light on the need to do so. But that in and of itself is not a bad thing.

So that's my take on it. We're waiting to hear from the FBI, and the Justice Department. Everything else reported about the emails is just plain smoke. But it's rumor-mill smoke, so people will pay attention, unfortunately. The Special Committee will take its own sweet time, so that agency can be safely written off. Hillary's fate is now in the hands of two federal agencies, and at least one of them won't particularly care about the primary schedule.

Perhaps that's why Hillary has pivoted on this lately. She hasn't been dismissive or scoffing any more. Now, she's contrite, acknowledging that her email use, while allowed, was a mistake, and one which she takes responsibility for. For some, that's waffling, but this has always been a Clinton strength - to adapt and re-tool when necessary in order to achieve the greater goal and the greater good.

Hillary's still my pick. But it's largely out of her hands, now.

Go FBI! Go! Read! Research! Conclude!

(As if they'll ever listen to me.)



Sunday, August 23, 2015

John Oliver: Should We Tax The Churches?

On Sunday, August 16th, John Oliver delivered a hay-maker on the HBO television program, "Last Week Tonight." In it, John exposed the televangelistic criminatilites of Robert Tilton, a man who was exposed for his shenanigans back in the 1980's. But unlike Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, Tilton was not completely brought down. He's still out there, and that made him a prime candidate for John Oliver's wrath. Lumping him in with other faith-based assholes such as Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, he attacked the notion of "seed faith," which is a concept I'm all too familiar with, having spent most of my youth in a Pentecostal church. The basic idea is that if you tithe your 10% to the Lord, that God will repay you many times over. In other words, prosperity comes by giving to the Church, and to various televangelists as well. But if you give over and above your tithe, God will reward your faithfulness even more. In other words, gifts to preachers are investments in your own prosperity later on. Many people have learned the hard way that this doesn't work, and many more get continuously spanked by this doctrine, and go on self-punishing themselves anyway, to the delight of the televangelists who bilk them mercilessly.

So, Mr. Oliver proceeded to respond to this with his usual mockery, launching the Church of Our Lady Of Perpetual Exemption, and asking people to send him their "seeds," (which, one week later, it seems some people literally did - not money, ACTUAL SEEDS!).

But this awesome publicity stunt, which small-media outlets like this blog are totally in favor of, has put tremendous pressure on the government to begin taxing churches. People are sick and tired of this shit, and so they're calling legislators, e-mailing representatives, and begging them to start taxing the churches. Should we?

I've written and spoken on this subject before, and my answer may surprise you. HELL, NO! We shouldn't tax the churches, because the whole fight over the separation of Church and State hinges on our being able to tell religious entities that they cannot have a voice in government because they don't pay taxes. In other words, if you didn't pay your admission fee, you don't get to play. But if we tax the churches, we lose that critical point of argument. Churches will be able to turn around and not only argue that they paid their admission fee, so they should be able to influence government, they will resurrect the old rallying cry of, "No taxation without representation." And we atheists will have no defense to this counter-offensive. Sorry, guys, but the churches should stay tax free. And sorry, Mr. Oliver. You've made your point, but I'm afraid that, just this once, it was for a losing cause.

But wait! Perhaps not all is for naught! While we cannot tax the churches outright, we CAN enact some common-sense safeguard legislation that will leave most churches tax-free, while cracking down on the most hideous abuses of this tax-exempt status. Here are my suggestions:

1.) Only grant tax-exemption to parsonages which are at or below the estimated average value of a home in a given state. For example, in Wisconsin, the average home costs about $150,000. That means that a home can be owned by a church and be free of property taxes if the value of that home is below $150,000. If the home is worth more than $150,000, then the owner, church or not, minister or not, will pay property taxes on whatever additional value that home is worth. With this rule, the vast majority of churches will still pay no taxes, having provided homes for their ministers which are adequate, but not lavish. But the assholes who buy multi-million dollar mansions like the one owned by Kenneth and Gloria Copeland (something cited by John Oliver in his expose), would get hit HARD! And that's the way it should be! Housing prices fluctuate, but they tend to fluctuate together, so tying the standard to the average value of houses in a state is a sound measure. And keep in mind, it wouldn't even be the full value of the property taxed, if a tax were levied! It would only be the small amount over and above the average home value for the region! Most churches could afford that, even on a limited budget. The ones who would pay, and pay big, are the Creflo Dollars and Kenneth Copelands of the world - and that's the way it should be!

2.) Apply a similar rule to parsonage vehicles. Limit of one per household, and tax exemption can only be claimed below the average value of a standard automobile, pickup truck, or SUV. The dodge here might come in the form of traveling preachers who crisscross the nation in large recreational vehicles. If so, fine. If it's a mobile ministry, limit of one RV per ministry too. Not household, ministry.

3.) Fully tax the national televangelism ministries. No, I'm not talking about the local churches who appear on local cable channel number 71. I'm talking about nation-wide broadcasters. It goes without saying that nation-wide broadcasters are not local churches, and therefore should not receive the same sorts of tax exemptions as local ministries and neighborhood churches. You want to do a television ministry in Davenport Iowa on the local community access network? Fine, you get to be tax exempt. But if you broadcast to every state in the union? Too bad! Cough it up!

4.) Only tax the megachurches. The vast majority of churches are small, seldom breaking 200 in attendance on any given Sunday. That's including multiple services at 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., nightly services and Wednesday family night. Only 2% of churches have attendances of 1000 or more per week. If you have much more than that, you're a megachurch. And the abuses of megachurches are extreme. For example, the largest church in Wisconsin is Elmbrook Church, located in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Its capacity is so large that it could hold easily hold 3,000 people. Its weekly attendance is roughly 7,000 per week! Contrast this with the Riverside Theater which holds 2,450 people, or the Pabst Theater, which has a capacity of 1,345. Uihlein Hall, part of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, has a capacity of 2,305. If you're a church, and your building can hold more than 1,000 people, you are ridiculously huge! And the chances that your church is corrupt increases exponentially with its size. Now, I'll grant Elmbrook church a break and say that its probably not corrupt, but that doesn't matter, because its so large that police officers have to be pulled in from their regular job of protecting the public from crooks in order to direct traffic! Elmbrook is that huge! So not only is it not generating any tax revenue, it's costing tax dollars! Taxing such churches is therefore more than fair, whether the ministry is corrupt or not! So, I propose a tax levy upon any megachurches with a seating capacity exceeding 800. 10% of the property's value becomes eligible for taxation when a church's seating capacity exceeds 800, and an additional 10% of that property's value should be subject to taxes for each additional 100 seats. Keep in mind, Elmbrook is probably the only church in Wisconsin that would be hit by any such rule. All the other churches would still be completely tax-exempt.

5.) Tax churches that get involved in politics. There is already a law in place which does this. More than half a century ago, then-senator Lyndon Johnson proposed an amendment that would tax churches that engaged in political activity. In other words, churches could not endorse a political candidate or campaign for a particular political party. If they did, they would lose their tax exempt status. When the law was revisited in 1987, it was actually strengthened, further specifying that churches could not campaign against political candidates, either. Such laws need further strengthening, and a separate bureau to police such activity should be put in place.

So, John Oliver, your little stunt was not a complete wash-out. It inspired me to write this. This, my dear Mr. Oliver, is MY "faith-seed." And I will send you a copy of this proposal with my love offering of $10.00, hoping that you will read my letter and agree with me.

And who knows, some other smart cookie with a lot more political influence than myself might even read this blog post and do something with it.

I have faith in that.