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.)


Eric

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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.


Eric

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Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Stirring Aborted Fetus Video


There's an amazing video going around Facebook that I should share, and it's bound to make the pro-life people go ape. But I'm showing it anyway, because I worship Truth rather than some pre-literate-era deity, and because I'm demonstrating that I'm unafraid of anything my opponents might have to say. Yeah, that's right, I serve the truth straight up, no ice, no soda.

First, let me remind everyone of my position regarding abortion. I argue that the brain's development, not conception, defines the onset of a being. Republicans have accidentally admitted as much with their recent push to ban abortions at 20 weeks because that's the point they feel a fetus can begin to feel pain. That point is both wrong and arbitrary, because it has been determined that the point a fetus begins to feel pain is more like 29 to 30 weeks. (For more info, go to FactCheck.org's website on that issue. I've included a link to it here.) The brain defines the being, and that means without a functioning cerebral cortex, a being's individual life, by any measure, has not yet truly begun. Or, to put it into spiritual terms, the soul hasn't entered the body yet.

In this video, you'll clearly see the fetus move in response to the physician's hand touching the placenta. This makes perfect sense, because the part of the brain that governs movement is the cerebellum, or hind-brain, and this forms very early on. Although it continues development later, it begins functioning at around 10 weeks, at which point it goes through a kind of "systems check," and the fetus begins to move quite a bit. Interestingly, this is usually the point at which a woman is required to do an ultrasound by certain states whose laws try to discourage abortions. After this point, however, the fetus goes into a kind of stasis, where it can move, but does so sparingly.

In other words, what you are about to see is a fetus capable of movement yet incapable yet of thought or feeling. You're seeing the beginnings of what will later be a "being" in the true sense of the word, but which has not yet crossed that threshold, because the brain hasn't reached that point. Again, to put it into spiritual terms, this is the empty clay cup, not yet finished baking, into which "God" (or whatever deity you will) will pour the "soul" into. But for now, it's an empty shell - a body without any "spirit," if you will.

Here is the video:

video


To my inexperienced and untrained eye, the fetus shown in this video appears to be about 16 or 17 weeks into development. (That's a guess, mind you.) As such, the fetus can move, and does so when prodded. But the cerebral cortex has not yet fully formed, and as such there is no conscious perception going on. There is no pain, no pleasure, no sensation at all to be frank.

Will this video pluck at the heart strings of those who feel abortion is murder? Undoubtedly. Will some be convinced to turn to the pro-life side of the argument? I'm certain that's so. But the brain defines the being, period. And that means that the snuffing out of this life (and yes, it's alive) can be done ethically, because while it may be both alive and human, it is not yet a human "being." For that, you need a developed brain.

Let's hope anti-abortion activists grow one.


Eric

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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Hillary Over Bernie? Yes! Here's Why:


Many of my left-leaning friends are excited about Bernie Sanders. Many are also convinced that he can, will, and should win the Democratic primaries and the general election. Personally, I like Bernie. I think he's an upstanding guy and would make a fine president. If he ends up being the nominee, I'll back him 100%. But right now, I'm all for Hillary, and I'm about to give an impassioned speech as to why I am, and why you should be too.

I know, I  know, this is where people who "feel the Bern" will write me off as a "Hillary schill" or worse, and not bother to listen to a single thing I have to say after this point. But please, hear me out! I think those who write Hillary off do so at their own peril! Some of us may not like Hillary, but as you'll see in a moment, we need her, plain and simple.

First, let's address Hillary's downsides, since we all know them well. People say she's 1.) shifty, 2.) an insider, 3.) totally ruthless, and is 4.) chummy with the big-money. All of which is true. But let's get something straight, because it's the crucial point:

That's what we want! That's what we need!

Shifty? Yes, she plays dirty. But the republicans have played dirty for seven years, and all during that time, we've watched our first African-American president, a man with a heart of gold and a brilliant mind, get completely and thoroughly lynched! Frankly, I'm fucking sick of it! It's time for us to get up, dust ourselves off, turn to the Republican machine as we wipe off our bloodied mouths and say, in all sincerity, "So ya wanna play rough, do ya?!" Yeah, Hillary plays dirty. Well, GOOD! We want to play dirty! Because only by playing dirty can we stop ourselves from getting steamrolled!

An insider? You bet! But she's an insider in so many ways. As Secretary of State, she knows world leaders personally, and knows what they're capable of. As First Lady, she was present at all the prayer circles and luncheons, and you can bet that she got the dirt on everybody through their wives! Believe me, Republicans fear her inside info, because she has the dirt on all of them, and don't think she won't use it!

Ruthless? Again, GOOD! I don't know about you, but I'm sick of Washington gridlock. How do you break gridlock? By breaking those who orchestrate it! No, we won't get compromise through appealing to the mavericks on the left and the right, because there aren't any more mavericks on the right. Only the Democrats have any moderates. The only way we will broker any compromise deals now is to make the opposition too scared to do otherwise.

In the pockets of big money? True! Welcome to the necessities of Citizens' United plutocracy. And make no mistake, it is a plutocracy, and an oligarchy, and has been since that sick, twisted SCOTUS ruling back in 2010. So the only way we can beat it is to strike a Devil's bargain and get enough big money to support our own side just long enough to undo it. If we don't, we're all fucked, because only billionaires will be able to play the political game. And here's the sick part: We only have one realistic shot at this, and it needs to be THIS election year! Otherwise, the Supreme Court could end up stacked against being able to do anything about this for generations. Hillary has a realistic shot to do it! She's the only one with the financial power to challenge the Republicans and their big-money donations. No checks and balances exist to prevent the Koch brothers and many others from throwing as much money as they can at their candidates, so having the finances to fight them means everything. The only hope Democrats have at matching this is having a candidate win early, and then wrapping up as much airtime as possible before the Republicans have a candidate settled. That advantage is key when you have less money than the other candidate, and already Hillary does have less. In spite of a four-year head start over everyone else, Jeb Bush has already out-raised Hillary, and you can bet that disparity is going to increase as the election wears on. A prolonged fight between two Democrats for the nomination will mean losing that all-important edge. We can't afford to fuck around!

But is Hillary in the big-donors' back pockets? It's possible, but I find it unlikely. She's proven herself to be a woman of integrity in the Senate and through many purported scandals and many different personal trials. She may be forced to keep certain campaign promises to the biggest money people, but if that's what's needed to beat back C.U. and win back our democracy, I say so be it.

Ah, yes, the Clinton scandals. She's had some of those swirling around her, that's true. But have you noticed, for all the concerted efforts Republicans have made to bring her down, none of those scandals seem to stick? Nobody's better at fending off attacks, warranted or unwarranted, than Hillary Clinton, and I argue that the current attacks on her are completely unwarranted. Benghazi? A Republican panel already exonerated her. Dead issue. E-mails? What 68 year old woman hasn't fretted over being required to use a new e-mail address? Unless she actually shared sensitive information, she's already off the hook. Oh, some scandals certainly stuck to Bill, but the last time I checked, he's not on the ballot.

Can Bernie win? That would be nice, since he's a nice guy. I dare say he could pull off an upset for the nomination, but I have grave doubts that he can win the general election. First, he's been very honest and outspoken about bringing fairness to a tax system that gives too many breaks at the top, and feels that income inequality is best addressed by making certain that the wealthy pay their fair share. Okay, fine, but in politics, especially post Citizens' United politics, there is such a thing as too much honesty! The big-money lenders who traditionally back left-leaning candidates will balk at Bernie's blunt admission that they too will be hit in their pocketbook, and it will cost him.

Too much honesty will cost him as well because he's too blunt about being a Democratic Socialist. The word "socialist" no longer has a stigma among young people, but among older Americans, it certainly does. Even MSNBC's Chris Matthews shows a knee-jerk reaction to Bernie using the "S-word." And I perfectly understand that Bernie's form of watered-down socialism doesn't entail the government running the means of production, nor does it mean undoing a capitalist base that's been proven to work. But you can bet the general population won't understand that at all! People are lemmings! And too many people are still affected by the Red Scare of McCarthyism to put the label of socialism completely behind them. Even today.

Also, Bernie has a huge albatross around his neck in the form of his being Jewish. No, I don't have a problem with this, and neither should anyone else, but he will almost certainly be attacked as a "non-Christian." Say what you will about Obama, but he was truly a Christian (not a Muslim). But this time, accusations of a candidate being a non-believer in Jesus Christ will be 100% accurate, for once. Hillary, as anyone who knows her is aware of, is a devout Presbyterian, and her faith is something she cherishes deeply, although she doesn't flaunt it. A Jewish candidate shouldn't be a big deal, but people are just plain idiots about that sort of thing.

And Hillary has a powerful X-factor in her favor in that, of course, she's a woman. The prospect of our first female president is simply too loud a siren call for jaded voters to ignore. They'll vote her in, even if she is a bitch. Perhaps even because she's a bitch! (That's what I'm arguing for, after all.) She already has the black and Latino vote, but if she chooses a young Latino vice president, such as Julian Castro, the White House could be safely Democratic for another sixteen years!

So, there it is. Hillary is our one realistic shot, as I see it. And Bernie's a very nice guy, but that's just it, he's too nice! When you need a warrior, you pick the mean bastard, not the gentle scholar. And after nearly two terms of nice-guy Obama getting stomped on, nice just doesn't cut it for me anymore. I am literally arguing "no more Mr. Nice Guy!" Yes! The bitch is back, and I'm on board!

Make no mistake, everything rests on this upcoming election! The culture war could end and America could finally be the nation of freedom and prosperity it was meant to be. Or it could all collapse into even more oligarchy and plutocracy, forever put out of the reach of any reform. The other side is playing for keeps! And so must we! So, with that much at stake, the question I would ask all of my friends who are (and I'm being good-naturedly humorous, here) "Bern-outs," is simply this:

Would you rather have your second choice and win it all, or your first choice and lose everything?

We're betting it all on one throw. Let's bet wisely!


Eric

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