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The democratization of opinion: reason and science in the balance. Yet another reason not to support John McCain.

Mildred, I think we have a problem. Our culture is facing a “democratization of opinion” that seriously threatens its core post-Enlightenment values of reason and science.

Yesterday, a quote in a NY Times article called “Philadelphia Set to Honor Darwin and Evolution,” by Jon Hurdle, caught my eye.

“…polls shows that a majority of Americans believe God created man in his present form and that the number of people who accept the evolutionary model of human origins is declining.”

A MAJORITY? The numbers DECLINING? Can this possibly be true?

The article isn’t focused on why these unnerving statistics are true, but rather on an effort by nine Philadelphia academic, scientific and cultural institutions to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s seminal work, “The Origin of Species” by increasing public understanding of evolution. It is a good thing when recognized authorities attempt to counter the increasingly successful effort by the “faith-based” community to place its ideas about creationism and/or “intelligent design” on the same playing field as science. And it is a good thing that the event will feature John E. Jones III, a federal judge who ruled in 2005 that teaching intelligent design in public classes was unconstitutional.

However, those of us who worry that America is heading inexorably backward, perhaps even backward into a new dark age, are not appeased. The question in my mind at least is WHY are more and more people accepting and clinging to pre-Enlightenment ideas?

One reason is that our opinion leaders, including our current President, are themselves confused. Here’s a piece from a Washington Post article from 2005 on George Bush’s remarks about evolution and creationism/intelligent design:

“Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about,” he said, according to an official transcript of the session. Bush added: “Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

There are those so disgusted with George Bush that they simply shake their heads in disbelief when he speaks, but the fact is he IS the President, and (even though some might argue) the country actually elected him, and the point he was making proves my premise, which is the nonsensical idea that many people nowadays hold that all opinions are equal.

Later in the article:

With the president endorsing it, at the very least it makes Americans who have that position more respectable, for lack of a better phrase,” said Gary L. Bauer, a Christian conservative leader who ran for president against Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries. “It’s not some backwater view. It’s a view held by the majority of Americans.”

Gary Bauer is a man with whom I probably don’t agree on very much, but on this issue he speaks some truth. Whether “intelligent design” is a “backwater view” or not, and whether a majority of people believing it makes it “respectable” are debatable points, because “debatable” and “respectable” are subjective issues on which people may legitimately disagree. But there can be but there can be no debate that the view IS held by the majority of Americans, because this is an observable fact. We have seen over and over in these last eight years what happens when public policy is made according to opinion and/or faith-based ideas rather than evidence and facts, and nowhere are the dangers of doing this more apparent than in the pseudo-debate over evolution vs. intelligent design. What’s been happening in this arena is that those who believe in creationism have in this and many other areas done an end run around established expert opinion by creating their own colleges and think tanks and PhDs. This is of course aided and abetted by the democratic nature of the Web and its increasing influence.

In almost every area, the Web eliminates the need or desire for traditional cultural authorities who have been vetted and approved by some established entity. The Web (and even Cable News) asks us to “vote” on everything, either directly or through our clicks–from our favorite books, to whether we think there is life on other planets, to whether “intelligent design” belongs in the science classroom. If everyone can be a critic, no more do we need consult literary critics or writers who have studied writing and literature. If everyone is or can be a citizen journalist, no more do we need to consult actual journalists who adhere to established standards of reporting. And if everyone is a scientist, no more do we need to consult—

Uh-oh.

Yet NO reputable scientist–religious, agnostic, or atheist–supports the idea of intelligent design as science, and it remains essential for citizens of this country to employ enough critical thinking to understand at least that in certain cases we must defer to our established experts, even if our natural psychological tendency is to seek out those who agree with us.

And now we come to John McCain. According to evolutionary biologist and UC professor Jonathan Eisen on his blog, The Tree of Life when John McCain was asked about evolution, he said:

“I think Americans should be exposed to every point of view,” he said. “I happen to believe in evolution. … I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not.”

Probably not? Well, I’m glad John McCain at least “believes” in evolution, and I SUPPOSE this is a better position than Bush’s even more egalitarian, “democratic” stand, but I have to wonder, along with the progressive Website Think Progress, how much more pandering McCain is going to do in his current effort to shore up the Republican base in his “lurch to the right”

Here is a quote from Think Progress.com’s 2007 reporting on the issue:

February 23, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will be the keynote speaker for the most prominent creationism advocacy group in the country. The Discovery Institute, a religious right think-tank, is well-known for its strong opposition to evolutionary biology and its advocacy for “intelligent design.” The institute’s main financial backer, savings and loan heir Howard Ahmanson, spent 20 years on the board of the Chalcedon Foundation, “a theocratic outfit that advocates the replacement of American civil law with biblical law.”

McCain has an ambiguous record on whether he supports intelligent design in the science curriculum. In 2005, he said it should be taught:

Daily Star: Should intelligent design be taught in schools?

McCain: I think that there has to be all points of view presented. But they’ve got to be thoroughly presented. So to say that you can only teach one line of thinking I don’t think is – or one belief on how people and the world was created – I think there’s nothing wrong with teaching different schools of thought.

Daily Star: Does it belong in science?

McCain: There’s enough scientists that believe it does. I’m not a scientist. This is

something that I think all points of view should be presented.

If John McCain wants to ally himself with these people, that’s his right, but at least he should speak truth to them, plainly and clearly. No, there are NOT enough scientists who believe that it does. Thank God for that.

And by the way, God help us if we have to suffer through another four or eight years with a President who’s mind is so muddled that he speaks as McCain does in sentences like those quoted above.  Here’s another pair of facts to consider: Barack Obama was magna cum laude; McCain’s class ranking at Annapolis was 894 out of 899.

Political Surprise: Dreams From My Father: Barack Obama is a real person and a real writer

For many months I’ve resisted the urge to read either of Senator Obama’s books, particularly the first, “Dreams from My Father,” the memoir written before he became a political candidate. Why? Because I had thrown in my hat, such as it is, with Senator Clinton, and was afraid that I would be so moved by Senator Obama’s memoir that it would undermine my support of Senator Clinton.

Fifteen years ago on the eve of publication of my second novel, in response to a moment in which I expressed grave self-doubt, an editor at Dutton named Michaela Hamilton kindly reassured me that I was a “real writer.” I think I suspected that I would find in Senator Obama’s memoir akind of kindred spirit, a “real writer”, to use Michaela’s words, someone to whom the “‘real writer” in me could truly relate, someone who understands what it takes to search one’s own soul honestly and carefully and accurately, and put that search on the page. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I find that my concerns were well founded. I have discovered not only a “real writer,” but someone who by breadth and depth and force of his personality and background, and by brilliance, honesty, clear thinking, and sheer talent, has rendered my past support of Senator Clinton, an admirable person in many respects, irrelevant.

The memoir is remarkable, and not only because it was written by a politician. The man is a real person–authentic, self-aware, probing, searching, honest with himself and with us, willing to be vulnerable, and most important, able to offer us a big piece of his interior life on his journey of self-discovery, not some made-up, faux patriotic, self-serving, self-deluding version of his interior life, but the real thing. Given the ghost-written pabulum served up by so many other politicians, “Dreams From My Father” is a revelation, a call to action, a sanctuary of hope that this man really can begin to build bridges across cultures and countries, and change the world. At the risk of sounding like I’ve bought into a cult of personality, I’ll say that I believe the country and the world needs such a man. How refreshing and different and hopeful it would be to have him as President.

What politician has ever, or would ever write these words?

“Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come into say she was going to sleep, and those same words–white folks–would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.”

Or report the following outburst out of the mouth of a young friend, chastising the future candidate for sucking up:

…All that stuff about ‘Yes, Miss Snooty Bitch, I just find this novel so engaging, if I can just have one more day for that paper, I’ll kiss your white ass.’ It’s their world, all right? They own it, and we in it. So just get the fuck outta my face.”

Or present us with this wonderful paragraph?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revelers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hasan at his new lady’s place–don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.”

The contrast with other “political” memoirs is, of course, astounding. I won’t dwell on that, however, except to point out the most compelling disparity, the one between this man, Barack Obama, and our current President, George Bush, who is revealed in Scott McClellan’s new book, “What Happened.” Continue reading

The “Have You No Shame” Factor

When I put my Bruisedmuse into the blogosphere a few weeks ago, allowing that I am an admitted left leaner, I swore I’d try to be as “fair and balanced,” as I could, to borrow a phrase from Fox News, which I think should be renamed The Doublethink Network (see my posts on doublethink). I tried in one post to differentiate between outrages of tactics and outrages of policy, and admitted that tactical outrages come from all sides in politics, in greater or lesser degree. My knowledge of psychology leads me to allow, for example, that possibly the catastrophic blunders of the Bush administration were not made by inherently evil men, but only (mostly) misguided ones who believe themselves patriotic Americans, acting in the best interests of the country. (I’m willing to hear arguments that this is not the case.)

However there have been a few days when I couldn’t help but think that the comments by at least SOME on the right wing really, REALLY have to call into question their very HUMANITY. This is the “Have you no shame” factor. You know it has happened when a wave of righteous nausea comes over you and you feel as if someone has punched you in the stomach.

Today is such a day. The issue over which I’m in a stew involves the so-called gaffe by Senator Obama, who after a year and a half of campaigning mentioned that his uncle was one of those who liberated Auschwitz. The point of the story was about treating veterans right, and Senator Obama said-I’m paraphrasing here–that family lore has it that his uncle spent six months in the attic when he got back from the War, presumably suffering PTSD or some other disorder that might understandably come from having seen that place.

The fair and balanced network, FOX NEWS, then “interviewed” Karl Rove and others for their comments on this “developing story,” while the following screed crawled across the bottom of the screen: OBAMA MISSPEAKS: SAYS HIS UNCLE LIBERATED AUSCHWITZ and OBAMA’S GAFF ABOUT UNCLE’S SERVICE RECEIVES MINIMAL PRESS. (I refuse to give Fox even a link on my blog.)

Like the minimal press of Fox News? What do you call Fox News? The Bruisedmuse?

Menachem Rosensaft wrote a brilliant piece on the Huff Post today that captures the “have you no shame” factor here. Quoting a bit of Rosensaft:

It started yesterday when the RNC put out a statement slamming Obama for referring to Auschwitz as he related a family story on Memorial Day. Instead of merely asking for clarification, the RNC smeared Obama’s “dubious claim,” and suggested — tongue in cheek — that perhaps Obama’s uncle “was serving in the Red Army.” They went on to say that the story raised questions “about his judgment and his readiness to lead as commander in chief.”

And what is the “dubious claim” that raises such questions?

Rosensaft goes on:

It turns out that Obama’s great uncle — the brother of the grandmother who largely raised him — served in the 89th Infantry Division of the United States Army, which liberated Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald. But astonishingly, that only served to fan the flames for those on the right who saw an attempt to use the heroic service of Obama’s uncle against him. In their breathless attempt to damage Obama, Fox News has stooped to a level that is truly depressing.

This morning on the program “Fox and Friends,” one of the hosts said: “It wasn’t Auschwitz. It was a labor camp called Buchenwald.” Just in case the point was missed, she repeated. “It wasn’t Auschwitz, it was a labor camp. You would think you would want to be as specific as possible if you are telling one of these anecdotes.” Meanwhile, a news “crawl” at the bottom of the screen reinforced, in bold letters, that this was “a work camp, rather than an extermination camp.”

Here are some facts about Buchenwald, which is one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps. At this “work camp,” prisoners were often worked, starved, tortured, or beaten to death. Sometimes they were simply murdered. Roughly 250,000 people were imprisoned there between 1937 and 1945, many of them Jews. Over 50,000 people lost their lives.

At Nuremberg, the world was shocked to learn that some of Buchenwald’s victims were skinned, and the human skin was then used to make lampshades, book covers, and other keepsakes. Buchenwald was also a site for the infamous Nazi “medical experiments” on prisoners, which were often nothing more than crude and horrific forms of torture.

To take just one anecdote about the “work” done at Buchenwald, prisoners had to build the camp road, and camp guards used to shoot those who were not carrying stones that were heavy enough. In the final days before liberation, some 10,000 prisoners from Auschwitz and Gross-Rossen were marched to Buchenwald, adding to the horrific scene that awaited American troops.

The big gaffe is that it was his GREAT uncle and it was Buchenwald, not Auschwitz? And this raises questions about his readiness to lead? Excuse me? On what planet do these people live?

I would just like to point out a few of the other occasions on which I have felt the “have you no shame” factor in my gut:

  • When Rush Limbaugh accused Michael J. Fox of faking Parkinson’s symptoms
  • When the United States Congress rushed in to stop the removal of Terry Shiavo’s feeding tube
  • When Rush Limbaugh and others accused Cindy Sheehan not only of being nuts but of making up her son’s death in Iraq.

We live in a country in which an increasingly uneducated public is increasingly incapable of the critical thinking and reality testing that are CRUCIAL to the continuation of democracy, as Al Gore says in his book, The Assault on Reason. It’s as if every version of reality is being given equal weight and succor, to a chorus of okays and hallalulah’s by opinion leaders and the mainstream press. As an example of the failure of much of the public to accept (or learn) any reasonable version of reality, I quote Newsweek:

Asked to name Obama’s faith, 58 percent of participants said Christian (the correct answer), compared with 11 percent who answered Muslim, 22 percent who did not know and 9 percent who said something else.

Some semblance of HUMANITY, however, should at least be a minimum requirement for being allowed to pontificate (with crawls yet) in either the American mainstream media or the United States Congress.

Recount: A Movie Review, more on Doublethink

On Sunday evening, like millions of others, I squirmed and suffered through “Recount,” HBO’s dramatization of the battle for the 2000 election, Bush v. Gore. I suffered not because the movie was dull or one-sided, and I definitely recognize that “Recount” was one-sided, though not egregiously or inaccurately or offensively so. (I’m sure my friends on the right were GREATLY offended.) Though I certainly don’t agree that there is an overall or general “liberal bias” in the media (for a great book on this subject check out Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media: The Truth about Bias and the News), I do agree with the great film blogger Chuck Tryon who pointed out in his post on the film on Monday that:

It’s difficult to watch the film without being acutely aware , to borrow from Leonard Cohen, that the the good guys lost.

Indeed, I found the film quite lively and even suspenseful, given the predetermined outcome. As a suspense writer, I certainly know that narrative drive and suspense can be produced with out resorting to obvious questions of “who done it, or “who’s going to get it.” (I wish ALL suspense writers knew this, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment.)

In any case, “Recount” was worth watching if only to see the performance of the amazing Laura Dern as Katherine Harris, she of the pursed mouth and “awesome cougar tits” (Check out this Wonkette link to vote on who has better tits, Laura Dern or Katherine Harris). Harris seemed plenty nutty back in the Bush v. Gore day, circa 2000, but went on in history to prove herself one of the great nuts of all time when she ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate on the “win back America for God” ticket.

Tryon goes on to say:

But while the film acknowledges many of the troubling problems that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Florida’s vote–the illegitimate purging of thousands of names from voter rolls, the divergent standards used to identify the “intent” of voters, the problem of political appointees overseeing election results, “Recount” is forced to stop short of asking some of the more troubling questions about how elections are conducted and how they are covered.

Indeed, this point gets at why I was squirming. I squirmed through “Recount” simply because as this interminable primary season grinds to an end (some kind of end, PLEASE!) I couldn’t help but wonder what we have done in the interim to address these myriad election irregularities.

One of my all time favorite literary moments is in Anna Quindlan’s novel, “One True Thing,” when the protagonist, Ellen Gulden, asks her dying mother why she stayed with her philandering father all these years, and her mother says (paraphrasing here) that she sometimes plans to leave him but every morning she gets up and puts the coffee on and begins her day. In other words: INERTIA.

No, I am not making some subtle comment on Hillary Clinton’s reasons for staying (with her philandering husband, I’m not talking here about staying the race), although inertia probably applies, but it is and has always been my contention that about 95% of life is conducted according to the dictates of inertia.

You could probably fill Yankee Stadium with all the reports that have been written just in the last few years by well meaning committees on various pressing subjects. Inertia rules the day. Is there any reason to suspect that anything at all has been done to address the election irregularities revealed by Bush v. Gore, problems like unequal protection, purged voter rolls, wildly uneven standards, elections overseen by political appointees, and so much else?

Just thinking about inertia in the face of all that as we move into general election season is enough to make me squirm.

I also found myself squirming to have to watch Republicans in action vs. Dems in action. How organized and single minded Repubs are. How able to stick to their talking points. Oh, that Baker–so poised, so sure. A brilliant performance by Tom Wilkenson.

I’m sure other smarter folk than I have pointed this out, but Democrats seem constantly undone by their own philosophy of liberalism. You can see this play out in the Democratic primary/caucus mess that has led to the Clinton/Obama situation in which we find ourselves now, the arcane and uneven rules by which in some states there is a winner-take-all and in other states proportional allocation. Democrats are so busy worrying about being fair that they often cut off their noses to spite their faces. We’re so busy allowing a broad selection of all points of view as all good liberals should (see the discussion of the word “liberal” below) that the Republicans with their authoritarian nature and single minded devotion to message run over Democrats time and time again. I’m not sure what the answer is, because I would not have us become what we rail against, but still…

And speaking of Orwellian doublethink, according to my trusty Shorter Oxford, which is hardly short, the word “liberal” means:

directed to a general broadening of the mind free in giving; generous; open handed; unprejudiced, open-minded esp. free from bigotry or unreasonable rprejedice in favor of traditional opinions or established institutions, open to the reception of new ideas; favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms; in politics favoring free trade and gradual political and social reform that tends towrd individual freedom or democracy.

I don’t think most Americans would claim to be proud of being narrow-minded, and so the reason for a general acceptance of the world “liberal” as a derogatory epithet has to lie elsewhere. Here too I think inertia plays a role. Most people are too busy or simply don’t care. It is a psychological truth that when one side yells louder and more often, absent any coherent and equal countervailing message, the louder, more frequent message is most often absorbed.

Dems, are you listening?

Thoughts Out There: Say What? Who’s the Elitist?

According to Wikipedia, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty Four defined “doublethink” as …

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth

Evidence that we are living inside a doublethought world is now everywhere, no more need even to hide it. During the last presidential election cycle we had a substantial portion of the population believing that candidate John Kerry, a genuine war hero, was actually the traitor in the race, while the deserter George Bush was the patriot. Now we seem to have a substantial portion of the population believing that candidate Barack Obama, the African American son of a single mother, is the elitist in the race, while John McCain, whose family’s storied history, according to Salon, stretches back to Carroll County, Miss., where McCain’s great-great grandfather William Alexander McCain owned a plantation, and owned 52 slaves, is actually the  …er, what? Man of the people?

How can this be?

Proportional Outrage in the Presidential Election

RJ Eskow, in a May 18 Huffington Post piece, used the term “selective outrage” in connection with Hillary Clinton’s tactics during this endless Democratic primary battle. While the accusation is ITSELF selective outrage, it is actually an accurate term for the way the spinners in our society disingenuously and selectively take note of some outrages at the expense of other outrages. Outrages abound in politics, and selective spinners on all sides focus only on those outrages that seem helpful to their own cause or candidate. I would, however, like to propose a different term that may be more useful in selecting our next President, or perhaps in analyzing how this should be done: PROPORTIONAL OUTRAGE. I touched on this idea in another context when talking about grief in my last post. I said that the “inoculation” effect of big time grief has helped me keep whatever trauma I’ve faced since the loss of my child in perspective. In other words, a strong sense of proportion keeps hysteria in check.

In the political arena, we unfortunately find an appalling lack of proportionality. Certainly one of the most disturbing bits of information to come down the pike in an era of disturbing information is that the latest polls show that a large proportion of Obama supporters say they won’t EVER support Hillary, and a similar percentage of Hillary supporters say they won’t EVER support Obama. Even scarier is the news that in certain quarters of Camp Hillary, they’re planning to actively work against Obama, should he be the candidate. I can only hope that this is all just talk in the heat of the moment, and that when the time comes, they will come to their senses.

To help them, I’d like to remind them that whatever offenses or outrages either or both of the Democratic candidates may have committed against one another, they are small potatoes compared to the big outrages committed by Republican George Bush and his outlaw Administration, outrages that with only few exceptions have been consistently seconded and supported by John McCain, who for all this talk of distancing, has agreed with George Bush 95% of the time. Taking this country to war under false pretenses, ruining our good name and reputation around the world, torturing people and holding them indefinitely without charges like the torturers all over the word do, squandering the good will we might have used to good purpose after September 11, 2001–these are some of the very BIG outrages of this (Republican) administration. These are outrages of policy. Outrages of tactics (which are used to greater and lesser degree on all sides) are ALWAYS small potatoes compared to outrages of policy. Tactical outrages affect only individuals, whereas policy outrages affect millions. Tactical outrages may be difficult for candidates to handle, or may upset their supporters, or arguably speak to character issues, but outrages of policy get people killed and maimed. And I haven’t even mentioned the Republican party’s ECONOMIC outrages of policy, which have ruined millions of lives.

This morning before the rain came, I got in a walk with my pooch, Molly, and was thrilled to run into some friends who have in the past self-identified as “staunch Republicans.” Surprise, surprise. They both told me that they will probably support Barack Obama in the general election. Asked their reasons, they both mentioned how impressive and smart Obama seems, and how he managed to keep mostly to the issues, rising above all the negative partisan attacks. One of also them said, “McCain is a war monger.” Yes. Indeed. In my view, this is the main reason to support the Democrat, whomever it may be. The policy differences between Hillary and Obama are miniscule. The policy differences between either Democrat and McCain/Bush are HUGE. l can only hope that Hillary and Obama supporters who claim they won’t support the other Democratic candidate will join with these two “staunch Republicans” and millions of other who understand proportional outrage, and will make the right choice for the country in the end–the Democrat, whomever it is.

We can all honor Senator McCain’s service to our country, but Senator McCain has learned the wrong lessons from his experiences. Senator McCain is a Bush clone, no matter how much lip service he pays to distancing himself from Bush. We saw this in stark relief during the recent, disgraceful “appeasement” episode. Winston Churchill said “It’s always better to jaw, jaw than to war, war.” Jaw, jawing, which involves having a dialogue, is NOT the same thing as appeasing, which involves substantive concessions, and it is proportionally OUTRAGEOUS that George Bush, whose own surrogates at this point are doing plenty of talking with whomever will talk to them, would equate the two in so sensitive a setting as the Israeli Knesset. It is OUTRAGEOUS that the so called straight-talking McCain would second such a misrepresentation, and further, try to distract the American public by calling Barack Obama naive for understanding the difference.

The Republican attack machine and its surrogates are already gearing up to throw everything they can dig up or make up at Obama, in an effort to distract Americans from the proportional outrage they should rightly feel at the Republican party for getting us into this mess, but with current polls showing that 81 per cent of the public believes the country is on the wrong track, and with McCain having sided with Bush 95% of the time, the country WILL make the right choice this time.