Monday, December 30, 2013

The Yearly Sift

The root motivation of the Tea Party isn’t the deficit or ObamaCare or any other policy it’s currently focused on. The root motivation is tribal: a feeling that People-Like-Me used to own America, but it is being taken away by People-Like-Them and needs to be taken back.

-- "The Method of Madness" 10/28/2013

review all the Sift quotes of 2013

This week everybody was talking about ... Duck Dynasty?

I grew up around enough uneducated rural white people that I don't find them exotic, so I've never been tempted to watch Duck Dynasty. Anyway, DD star Phil Robertson gave GQ writer Drew Magary a tour of his domain, and along the way said a lot of ignorant crap about gays and blacks and non-Christian cultures. Then the A&E network suspended him from the show indefinitely, which turned out to be nine days.

The suspension made Robertson a poster child for the Christian persecution complex, whose culture warriors are now crowing victoriously. I've already posted what I think about Christian "persecution" in general. With respect to this case, Salon's Elizabeth Stoker observes that persecution is about never having to say you're sorry, no matter how much of a jerk you are:
If Christianity is posed as an institution on the defense, persecuted successfully by powers greater than itself, then it need not take stock of the impact of its chosen frames. The fantasy of the persecution of Christianity in America is thus mostly a technique aimed at protecting a particular approach to framing issues in the cruelest, least considerate method possible.

Along the way, conservatives showed their usual complete ignorance of the Constitution by claiming that Robertson's First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.

From my point of view, the Duck Dynasty story isn't about censorship at all, it's one big orgy of freedom: Robertson is free to speak his mind without being fined or jailed by the government. A&E -- a joint venture of Hearst and Disney -- is free to disassociate itself from Robertson (or not) if that's in the corporate interest. Robertson's fans are free to respond by protesting or even boycotting A&E, as are the insulted gays, blacks, and non-Christians (who probably don't watch the show anyway). The rest of us are free to judge those protests as we like.

Freedom reigns all around.

You know what DD fans ought to have been upset about? The way corporatism creates bland homogenized culture. In a perfect world, Duck Dynasty would be a transaction between the Robertsons and their fans, who could decide for themselves whether to go on supporting celebrities who promote such views. Instead, the Disney corporate brand is involved; hence the flip-flops in response to controversy. The Robertson saga ought to motivate people to break up the media leviathans. Needless to say, it hasn't.

On the substance of what Robertson said, the anti-gay comments have gotten the most attention, but I find the racial ignorance more worrisome. (The claim that Nazi Germany was a non-Christian country is just too stupid for me to worry much about; maybe I'm being naive. In reality, the early electoral strongholds of the Nazi Party were areas dominated by rural Protestants, i.e., people a lot like the Robertsons. The urbane, gay-tolerant, Jew-tolerant, post-religious Germans mostly counted themselves among Weimar's Social Democrats and Communists, i.e., the first people Hitler locked up.) Charles Blow and Ta-Nehisi Coates explain better than I can why Robertson's black-people-were-happier-under-Jim-Crow notions are self-serving and anti-historical.

But let's get on with reviewing the year.

In the Weekly Sift, 2013 had two themes

The Sift is an attempt to make sense of the news one week at a time, so I never go into a year looking to emphasize some particular theme. But invariably at the end of the year I see that I've been writing about one or two ideas over and over again.

2013 had two very different themes: minority rule and race. They overlapped in discussions of voter suppression and immigration reform, but mostly were two separate threads.

Minority rule. 2013 started with a focus on gun control. The Sandy Hook school shooting the previous December had seemed like a tipping point; now we were finally going to do something. In poll after poll, 90% or more of the public wanted to strengthen the gun laws at least a little. Pro-gun forces never convinced the public to agree with them, but they did manage to keep our democratic government from doing what the public wanted.

That special-interest victory set the tone for the entire year: no immigration reform, no jobs bill, a government shutdown (that wasn't even popular among the Republican House caucus that caused it) used to attempt a minority-rule repeal of ObamaCare, and a year-end cut-off of unemployment benefits. All the tools of minority rule were on display: the threat of unlimited campaign spending on primary challenges, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Hastert Rule, the filibuster. And those tools themselves became issues: the Senate eventually weakened the filibuster, but the Supreme Court strengthened voter suppression.

I broke this out into its own article: "Themes of 2013: Minority Rule".

Race. Race didn't make as coherent a yearlong story as minority rule, but it just kept coming up.

For me, the year-in-race actually started last December, when the movie Lincoln made me wonder how the two parties had switched positions on race since 1865. That led to "A Short History of Racism in the Two-Party System", one of the most popular posts of 2012.

January 1, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect, and 2013 went on to have many other significant anniversaries: the Gettysburg Address and the Dream Speech (when I protested against the "safe" MLK that gets celebrated), among others. But it wasn't just history that put race on the agenda. We also had the Zimmerman trial and verdict. Nelson Mandela died. The Supreme Court let Jim Crow out of his cage, and the former Confederate states seized their chance to resume suppressing the non-white vote. Pop culture gave us "The Accidental Racist", Miley Cyrus twerking (which led me to write about when and why borrowing from ethnic cultures not your own is or isn't legit), an argument about whether Santa has to be white -- and we just ended the year talking about Duck Dynasty.

Each new event evoked the pattern I had described in "The Distress of the Privileged": Whites felt persecuted by the very idea that someone could accuse them of racism, and insisted that their persecution be discussed first. President Obama's envisioned "national conversation on race" never got past that obstacle.

The post I'm most proud of in this thread is "Sadly, the National Conversation About Race Has to Start Here". Conservative opinion-makers did their best to de-legitimize the whole idea of a national conversation on race, turning it into an indictment of black culture that (from their point of view) had to be discussed before white racism could even be acknowledged.

I don't think those opinions really deserved any answer from the black community; the point was to shut down conversation, not promote it. But I'm white, and nobody was attacking me directly, so I thought I'd take the time to respond. I took four conservative voices that seemed representative -- Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Jennifer Rubin, and Victor Hansen -- and started from the point of view of their audience.

Two weeks later (after CNN's Don Lemon continued the black-culture bashing), "Acting White isn't Really a Racial Issue" addressed the criticism that working hard in school is "acting white" by pointing out that white working-class kids have a similar hostility to conforming to school expectations.

The sifted books of the year

Book reviews are one of the staples of The Weekly Sift, but this year I did fewer of them. 21 books got discussed in 2012, but only 13 in 2013. That wasn't a planned shift, it just worked out that way. (A discussion of Michael Kimmel's Angry White Men is going to happen any week now.) The subjects were all over the map.

Discussions about class and race led me to discuss Reading Classes by Barbara Jensen and Learning to be White by Thandeka. What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz and The Democracy Project by David Graeber reflected a rare attitude I labeled "Apocalyptic Optimism". The vision of an economy with more cooperation and less competition led me to discuss The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler, The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, and Assholes, a theory by Aaron James in "Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man". Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise and Blur by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel informed an article about how the internet is changing the public discourse in "How do you know what you know?"

Tom Allen's Dangerous Convictions provided an insider's view of why Congress doesn't work. Enough is Enoughby Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill envisioned a sustainable economy not based on growth. And finally, Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium didn't change Catholic doctrine, but definitely refocused the church on issues of poverty and inequality rather than sex.

The mosts ...

My most prescient statement: In August, when everyone else was saying a government shutdown would never happen because the Republicans had nothing to gain from it:
Nothing I’ve heard in the last two weeks has changed my belief that we’re heading towards a major budget crisis, either when the new fiscal year starts in October or when we hit the debt ceiling in November. The gist of the conversation between the Republican leadership and their conservative base during the August recess — which I detail in How Republican Congressmen Spent Their Summer Vacation — has been the leaders’ warning that shutting down the government to stop ObamaCare is a doomed strategy, and the base responding “So?”

The Far Right really wants to see a Charge of the Light Brigade, and they may get it.
and my least prescient statement:
The reason Republicans are so desperate to get ObamaCare derailed right now is that the exchanges start up October 1. When Americans start dealing with the reality of ObamaCare rather than the monsters-under-the-bed conjured up by right-wing propaganda, they’re going to like it.

In the long run, I still believe the point I was making: Much of the unpopularity of ObamaCare stems from horror stories that don't stand up to scrutiny; conversely, the reality of getting health insurance and knowing you can keep it is going to be popular, just as Medicare and Social Security are popular now. But the early implementation problems delayed that process considerably. Whether ObamaCare will be a plus or a minus for Democrats by the fall elections is still up in the air.

The year's most pleasant surprise: Pope Francis.As someone who went to a conservative Lutheran K-8 grade school before setting off on a fairly wide-ranging religious journey, I can look at Christianity as either an insider or an outsider.

To me, there are two ways to be Christian, one that I find inspiring and one that turns me off. There's what I call Pharisee Christianity (with apologies to my Jewish readers, for whom "Pharisee" means something completely different than it does in the New Testament context) in which the point is to be good according to a fixed set of rules, lest we piss God off. Pharisee Christianity is all about maintaining moral purity -- especially with regard to sex -- and avoiding contamination by sinners.

Most headline-making Christian leaders are actually Pharisees in this sense. The self-righteous essence of Pharisee Christianity was captured in that famous exchange between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after 9-11.
FALWELL: I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America ... I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur.

The second way I call Samaritan Christianity, in which the point is to be motivated by love and compassion, and to go wherever that takes you. (In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan sees the traveler's limp body by the side of the road and risks becoming ritually unclean by touching blood or possibly a corpse, and so saves him.)

In Samaritan Christianity, the Ego is like the sound barrier: On the other side, there is a completely different way to move through the world. To be on God's side isn't to sing hymns of praise, or to be pure, or even to obey the letter of the law, but to care about what God cares about: people. The prophet Amos envisioned God saying this:
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river

And Amos is very clear what "justice" means in this context, or at least what "injustice" means: getting rich on the back of the poor. (BTW: The only place where the Bible explicitly states the sin of Sodom is in Ezekiel: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." So when Paul Ryan tries to cut Food Stamps, he's practicing sodomy.)

What Pope Francis has done in his short time on the throne of St. Peter is to start turning the Church away from Pharisee Christianity and towards Samaritan Christianity. It's not a bit-flip, it's turning an ocean liner. But at least he's pointing and saying "That way."

The best post nobody read: "The Myth of the Zombie Voter". So far it only has about 200 page views. This is an article to bookmark and keep ready when your conservative friend emails you something alarming about voter fraud. It describes how South Carolina's attorney general made the tour of Fox News and conservative talk radio to claim that 953 dead people had voted in the last six years, including 207 in South Carolina's most recent election. Horrors!

What happened next? The same thing that always happens -- I mean always -- when somebody takes such claims seriously and investigates. Months later, state election officials came out with the boring report that all but 10 of those 207 had innocent explanations. Nobody covered it. Then the state police investigated those ten cases and found innocent explanations for seven of them. They recommended no further action be taken on the three they couldn't explain. So instead of 207 zombie voters in South Carolina in 2010, there were at most three and possibly none.

And the numbers

The general theme seems to be fewer viral posts and more regular readers, which was what I was aiming for when I changed the format in 2012.

The blog got about 214,000 hits this year, down slightly from last year's 240,000. Due to the way WordPress counts hits, though, that doesn't include the "syndicated views" of people who subscribe, and subscriptions are up significantly. On WordPress, the number of subscribers is up from 504 to 908. The Sift's Facebook page has 256 Likes, up from 183 last year. It's Twitter feed has 203 followers, up from 123. Google stopped supporting Reader this year, so I can't directly compare last year's 280 Google Reader subscriptions. But the Sift has 251 subscribers on Feedly.

For the second straight year, "The Distress of the Privileged" drew more than half of all the blog's hits: 173K in 2012, the year it came out, and 133K in 2013. Those numbers dwarfed the year's other popular posts: "Religious Freedom Means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination" (8.2K), "Evolution/Creation for Non-Eggheads" (2.8K), "Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man" (1.6K), and "Sadly, the National Conversation About Race Has to Start Here" (1.4K).

The weekly summaries have been more popular this year than last: 6 of the 7 weekly summaries with the most hits come from 2013.

My subjective impression is that the Sift is getting more legitimate comments this year, but I delete so many spam comments that I have no trustworthy numbers. (I could raise comment stats just by deleting less spam.) Obviously spam comments are up, for what that's worth.

Monday, December 16, 2013


No Sift next week. The Sift returns December 30 with the annual Yearly Sift.Jesus wasn’t white because the category white didn’t exist when Jesus was around in the Roman Empire. That is a construction that was made later on for very intense social reasons.

-- Chris Hayes

Featured posts this week are "White Santa, White Jesus, White Christmas" and "Mandela's Memorial Service Was All About Us".

This week everybody was talking about another school shooting

I was wondering what the Weekly Sift should do to mark the anniversary of Sandy Hook, which was Saturday. Friday, that decision was taken out of my hands when somebody else commemorated Sandy Hook in what I suppose is the way we should have expected: with another school shooting.

In terms of carnage, Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado (about ten miles from Columbine) got off lightly compared to Sandy Hook: The shooter himself is the only death so far, though one other student remains in a coma.

The Arapahoe shooting is the kind of bookend a novelist would hesitate to put on the year, thinking it too obvious and heavy-handed. But it is all too appropriate an ending to a year that began with such determination to do something about gun violence, and produced so little actual change.

and the Person of the Year

It came down to Pope Francis or Edward Snowden. I've already said what I think of Pope Francis. Here's what Time thinks:
what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.” In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors.

The argument for Snowden was also pretty good. He certainly changed the way we think about government surveillance and got us all looking over our shoulders for Big Brother.

I feel like I owe Sift readers an apology about Snowden: I keep meaning to write a summary of what we now know about how the NSA's spying and data-mining affects ordinary people. Every time I think I have a handle on it, though, something new comes out and I have to re-evaluate.

and about the budget deal

The two budget-committee chairs, Paul Ryan from the Republican House and Patty Murray from the Democratic Senate, came up with a bipartisan budget proposal Tuesday. It passed the House Thursday in a strikingly bipartisan fashion: 332-94, with 169 Republican votes and 163 Democratic votes. The Senate hasn't voted yet, but supporters of the deal sound confident.

There are two pieces to this story: what's actually in the deal and the nasty things Republicans said about each other while it was happening.

The deal. The word everybody uses to describe the agreement is "small". It breaks the sequester spending cuts, but not by much. Spending in 2014 is $45 billion higher than the sequester agreement called for, and the budget pays for that spending with fee increases, not increases in income tax rates or even closing the most egregious tax loopholes.

The most noteworthy thing about the deal is what's not in it: No "grand bargain" of deficit reduction through cutting Social Security and Medicare, and no extension of unemployment benefits.

The shouting. Several influential conservative groups came out against the deal, and John Boehner got mad about it. He pointed out that these same groups pushed House Republicans into the public-relations disaster that was the government shutdown in October.
I think they’ve lost all credibility. They pushed us into the fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government… And the day before the government reopened, one of these groups said, "Well, we never thought it would work." Are you kidding me?

Similar sniping broke out between Marco Rubio ("This budget ... keeps us on the same road to ruin") and Paul Ryan (senators in the Republican minority "don't have the burden of governing").

Pundits continue to cover this as a "Republican Civil War" or a battle for the soul of the party. But TPM's Ed Kilgore points out that it's really a struggle over tactics, not goals. The Tea Party wants scorched-earth tactics and no compromises, while the so-called "moderates" want to get what they can out of bipartisan agreements and hope to acquire the power to do more in the next election. But ultimately both sides want the same things:
a free-market economy with extremely limited government and a traditionalist, largely patriarchal culture. These policies, buttressed by an increasingly chiliastic view of the status quo (e.g., the “Holocaust” of legalized abortion, and the social policy “tipping point” at which an elite-underclass alliance will destroy private property and liberty entirely), simply are not negotiable.

Don't let the back-biting confuse you: As Kilgore says, "the 'soul' of the GOP is pretty much right in plain sight." People who oppose the Tea Party's tactics may get to pose as "moderates", but their Ideal America looks just like the Tea Party's Ideal America.

and Nelson Mandela's memorial service

Of course, you can't expect Americans to care about some dead guy on another continent, so our news media manufactured conflicts to keep it interesting: the Castro handshake, the "Danish tart" selfie ... I discuss them in "Mandela's Memorial Was All About Us".

and the whiteness of Jesus and Santa

Fox News' Megyn Kelly tries not to be the nasty, trolling kind of race-baiter that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are. And that's what made her Jesus-and-Santa-are-white pronouncement so interesting. She seems really sorry for the people who are hurt by this state of affairs, but it's just how things have to be. I discuss the implications in "White Santa, White Jesus, White Christmas".

and you also might be interested in ...

Yet another study shows American high school students doing badly compared students in other countries. NBC News illustrated the problem in the most graphic way possible.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="614"] 25 other countries teach ordinal numbers.[/caption]

Yep, we're "21th" in science. I wonder where we rank in proof-reading.

Oklahoma wanted a ten-commandments monument at the state capitol, so in 2009 the legislature passed the Ten Commandments Monument Display Act:
This monument shall be designed, constructed, and placed on the Capitol grounds by private entities at no expense to the State of Oklahoma. ... The placement of this monument shall not be construed to mean that the State of Oklahoma favors any particular religion or denomination thereof over others, but rather will be placed on the Capitol grounds where there are numerous other monuments.

No public money, explicit non-favoritism ... nothing for separation-of-church-and-state types to object to, right?

So the monument was installed last year. In a test of the non-favoritism language, last week a Satanist group offered to donate its own monument for display at the state capitol. Reportedly a Hindu group would also like to erect a statue of Hanuman, the monkey god. A representative of ACLU Oklahoma says they'd prefer not to have any religious monuments at the capitol, but ...
If, at the end of the day, the Ten Commandments monument is allowed to remain on the Capitol grounds with its overtly Christian message, then the Satanic Temple’s proposal can’t be rejected because it is of a different religious viewpoint.

I can't wait to hear what the courts say.

Here's a nightmare come to life: Tom Wagner fell asleep on a plane flight and woke up on a dark, empty, locked-up airliner. The ExpressJet crew apparently didn't notice him.

No new song has broken into the permanent Christmas playlist since Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" in 1989. But it's not for lack of trying. Slate's Chris Klimek describes the more recent offerings and wonders why they don't catch on.

The Daily Show's Jason Jones discusses the "art" of gerrymandering.

The Onion's "Deformed Freak Born Without Penis":
According to reports, the sadly disfigured 26-year-old’s quality of life has been greatly diminished due to such a condition. Sources said the abnormal, visibly blemished creature has been repeatedly passed over for employment opportunities, frequently gawked at and harassed on the street by total strangers, and has faced near constant discrimination for over two decades, all due to the horrific and debilitating birth defect. Indeed, many are reportedly unable to look past the glaring deformity and simply see the 26-year-old as a human being.

and let's end with a Christmas miracle

Even if you don't believe in Santa, the "rational" explanation -- a commercial airline did something unexpectedly wonderful for its passengers -- is pretty miraculous too. 13 million people had watched this video before I did, and probably a lot more by now. But maybe a few of you missed it.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Basic Rights

Everyone has the right to have access to ­health care services, including reproductive health care.

-- the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of South Africa

This week's featured posts: "Rooting for Your Country to Fail is Unpatriotic" and "The Procrustean Sainthood of Nelson Mandela".

This week everybody was talking about Nelson Mandela

Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.

I discuss our tendency to let our pre-conceptions about sainthood overwhelm the actual lives of the people we want to canonize in "The Procrustean Sainthood of Nelson Mandela".

and improvements in

29,000 people signed up for ObamaCare last Sunday and Monday, the first two days after the administration's self-imposed deadline for getting the web site fixed. That's more than signed up during the entire month of October. The best evidence we have about how well the ObamaCare web site is performing now is that Republicans are shifting to other attacks.

The latest lie about ObamaCare is that 80-100 million people who get their insurance through their jobs will have their plans "cancelled". Ezra Klein points out that this is only true if you stretch "cancelled" to mean "changed in any way at all", including the ways your plan already changes from year to year without you noticing.

Another new lie is that ObamaCare has expanded access to abortion coverage for Congress and its staff. ThinkProgress explains.

CNN explains what most news stories about Medicaid expansion miss: States (like mine) that refuse the expansion aren't just opting for the pre-ObamaCare status quo. The Affordable Care Act lowered the federal subsidy to hospitals that treat uninsured people who can't pay, because there weren't supposed to be so many uninsured people who can't pay. But conservatives on the Supreme Court allowed conservatives in state government to opt out of Medicaid expansion. And the result is that hospitals are closing.

You could imagine a sane Congress working some kind of a fix to keep those hospitals afloat. That would benefit red states, so it could be lumped together with some fixes that Democrats want, and everybody would be better off. But the Republican majority in the House refuses any fixes that improve ObamaCare. They'll only back poison pills that sabotage the system or outright repeals. Improvements? No. Erick Erickson says it outright:
The website they can fix. We must deny them the opportunity to fix the law itself. Let the American people see big government in all its glory. Then offer a repeal.

This kind of sabotage is what I'm talking about in "Rooting for Your Country to Fail is Unpatriotic".

and inequality

President Obama gave a speech on "economic mobility" Wednesday. In general it was good a good diagnosis: Over the last several decades, economic inequality is up, economic mobility is down, and this not only makes our individual households insecure, it makes our economy more vulnerable to recessions.

I wish he would say more about one structural cause of the problem: lax enforcement of antitrust laws and the resulting monopolistic bottlenecks in the economy, which I talked about here.

and the War of Christmas

Every year, the Christmas Empire expands. The once-independent celebration of Thanksgiving has become Christmas' puppet holiday, Black Friday Eve. Only the popular Halloween prevents Christmas from rolling all the way to the Fourth of July. (Columbus Day? Labor Day? They'll fall like dominoes if the Halloween Line is ever breached.)

And yet somehow, the Christmas propaganda machine always manages to portray the aggressor as the victim. There is a War ON Christmas. Christmas was just standing there minding its own business when people attacked it for no reason with their battle cry of "Happy Holidays". Without constant vigilance, Santa and his mighty elves will be stabbed in the back by Jews and atheists, and Christmas will be lost.

Jon Stewart calls out this year's propaganda: "How can I enjoy my Christmas, when I know that somewhere a little Jewish boy isn't being forced to sing 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'?"

and bringing automation to your doorstep

Amazon says it's working on drone delivery copters. (And Rock City Times, "Arkansas' 2nd most unreliable news source", claims Walmart is installing surface-to-air missiles at its stores.) Google might "have one of the robots hop off an automated Google Car and race to your doorstep to deliver a package".

I am reminded of a possibly apocryphal conversation between Henry Ford II and union president Walter Reuther as they toured a new Ford factory with advanced-for-the-times automation. "How are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?" Ford gibed. And Reuther parried: "How are you going to get them to buy your cars?"

Maybe Amazon and Google should start working on an automated consumer.

and you also might be interested in ...

It's time for your annual dose of intellectual humility: The New York Times has put out its "100 Notable Books of 2013" list. I confess to having read exactly zero of them, though one is sitting on my bookshelf and I was already thinking about reading a handful of the others. (A few will have to wait: The publication of Thomas Pynchon's The Bleeding Edge reminded me that I still haven't finished Mason and Dixon. And Stephen King's Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining, which maybe I really should look at.)

Slate's "The Overlooked Books of 2013" list -- another zero for me -- is somewhat less intimidating, both because it's shorter and because the title suggests that other intelligent people might have missed these books too.

I just want to say that I am creeped out by how popular the Confederate cause still is in parts of the South. In Florida, there's currently a push to put up a monument to the Union soldiers who died at the Battle of Olustee, partially balancing the three existing monuments to the Confederate soldiers. You might think this would be uncontroversial, but no, it is.

So the soldiers at Olustee who died fighting for the United States of America and against slavery should go unremembered. That's seriously the position people are taking.

The NYT reports that big oil companies are starting to plan around the assumption that at some point there will be a price on carbon, either through a direct carbon tax or some kind of cap-and-trade system. Exxon-Mobil, for example, is shifting to be more a natural-gas company. (They've also stopped being the deep pockets behind climate-change denying pseudo-science. These days the Koch brothers fill that role.)

This follows reports that insurance companies are adjusting their risk models to allow for the effects of global warming. As one industry think-tank put it:
In the non-stationary environment caused by ocean warming, traditional approaches, which are solely based on analyzing historical data, increasingly fail to estimate today’s hazard probabilities. A paradigm shift from historic to predictive risk assessment methods is necessary.

The NYT comments:
Both supporters and opponents of action to fight global warming say the development is significant because businesses that chart a financial course to make money in a carbon-constrained future could be more inclined to support policies that address climate change.

Or at least they might be less inclined to throw their considerable weight behind political monkey-wrenching.

Andy Borowitz reports that the Hubble telescope has stopped looking out into space and is instead taking selfies to post on Instagram.

A mis-worded Republican tweet about Rosa Parks "role in ending racism" led to the hashtag #RacismEndedWhen. Some of the more amusing tweets are "#RacismEndedWhen The Jeffersons moved on up." and "#racismendedwhen the iphone was available in both black and white."

and for Advent, let's end with a nativity scene

How minimal can you go and still have a nativity? This color nativity might be the limit. (Hat tip to whyismarko's "the 50 worst and weirdest nativity sets".)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Rulers and Servants

Money must serve, not rule!

-- Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013)

The Distress of the Privileged got its 300,000th page view on Saturday. If you liked that post, check out my recent article "Political Empathy" in UU World. It isn't exactly a sequel, but builds on some of the same ideas.

This week everybody was talking about Pope Francis

which I discuss in detail in "What to Make of Pope Francis?"

and neocons were wailing about not going to war with Iran

For about a decade, it's been an article of faith among neocons that war with Iran is inevitable: The Iranian leadership is insane, you can't negotiate with them, all they understand is force, and so on. Sooner or later they're going to build an atomic bomb, so we'd better attack sooner rather than later. As recently as a week ago, John Bolton told us, "an Israeli military strike is the only way to avoid Tehran’s otherwise inevitable march to nuclear weapons."

By and large, the people saying this are the same ones who sold us the Iraq War -- Saddam was likewise insane and building nuclear weapons, we'd be welcomed as liberators and all that. So it's a continuing mystery why they get major-media platforms from which to make "expert" predictions that never pan out in reality.

The recent interim nuclear deal President Obama worked out with Iran creates a real possibility that sane Americans might get what we want -- Iran without nuclear weapons well into the future -- without blowing up anything or killing anybody. This comes on the heels of a deal to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons, again without firing a shot. (Neocon Brett Stephens described this as "the administration ... worming its way out of its own threat to use force to punish Syria's Bashar Assad.")

If that possibility becomes real, then the whole neocon worldview collapses, as it should have years ago, when it became clear that everything they had predicted about the Iraq War was false.

The result has been a lot of, well, squealing like stuck pigs. Neocons used their inexplicable media power not to dissect the agreement and find its flaws, but to shout "Munich!" and "Worse than Munich!" at the top of their lungs. I agree with Daniel Drezner's assessment:

the Munich analogy has been degraded to the point where #worsethanMunich deserves it's own Alanis Morisette song that permanently devalues the term.
Reading these articles will teach you virtually nothing about the content of the agreement or how it might yet go wrong. Instead, you'll get a lot of polemic, a lot of bad historical analogies, and more in the endless neocon series of scary-but-divorced-from-reality predictions.

and everybody wondered whether is fixed yet

The White House says it will work for more than 80% of users, that it can handle 800,000 users a day, and that it will continue to improve.

The important thing, though, is the back end: Does the data you enter get delivered accurately to the appropriate insurance company, who can then cover you? It's going to be a while before we can assess that. Ezra Klein (who has been following this more closely than just about anybody) comments:

So there remain reason for concern. But here's what's indisputable: is improving, and fast. Or, to put it differently, will be fixed. In fact, for most people, it is probably fixed now, or will be fixed quite soon.

And if you're wondering how the government is going to convince 20-somethings to sign up for ObamaCare, it isn't. Their moms are going to do it.

and "abolition porn"

It's tough to get people's attention when, like John Derbyshire, you've been booted out of the gated community of respectable right-wing commentators for being too racist. Yeah, you can still write for Taki's Magazine or VDare, but who reads those anyway?

Never fear, the true scum can always rise to the top: Derbyshire started his November 20 column talking about "12 Years a Slave" (which he admits he hasn't seen), labeling it "abolition porn" and going on to argue that slavery wasn't really as bad as all that.

Bang! He's back on the national radar. ThinkProgress, Alternet, Rightwing Watch ... nobody on the Left could resist such artful trolling. Congratulations, John. You made us look.

and you also might be interested in ...

Salon's Sean McElwee summarizes the reasons to believe that growing inequality comes from changes in political power, not changes in technology.

OK, it's the holidays. You eat, you get depressed about gaining weight and sitting in front of the TV, so rather than go jogging you think: Why bother? I can't possibly run far enough to burn off that second piece of pecan pie.

New research explains why you should bother. Exercise doesn't just burn calories, it changes the way your body operates. A mere seven-day experiment showed a significant difference between over-eating-and-sedentary young men who did short-but-vigorous daily exercise and those who didn't.

the volunteers who had exercised once a day, despite comparable energy surpluses, were not similarly afflicted. Their blood sugar control remained robust, and their fat cells exhibited far fewer of the potentially undesirable alterations in gene expression than among the sedentary men.

As the Hobby Lobby case moves to the Supreme Court, I appreciate Annalee Flower Horne's Quaker perspective on giving people "conscience exemptions" from following the laws that apply to everyone else.

Many Quakers are pacifists, so they object to being drafted into combat roles or even (for a smaller number of them) paying taxes that fund wars. They deal with this moral conflict by agreeing to alternative non-combat service or "by making sure they don’t make enough money to incur tax liability." In other words, they recognize that conscience has a price, and they willing pay that price.

Now along comes Hobby Lobby, demanding a consequence-free exemption to paying for birth control on the grounds that it violates their conscience. ...

If the Green family’s conscience really forbids them from meeting their legal obligations under the Affordable Care Act, then they have the option to arrange their lives so as not to incur those obligations. They can choose not to run a two billion dollar corporation.

But if they’re not willing to make those sacrifices–if their ‘conscience’ only compels them so far as they can follow it for free–then they are not conscientious objectors.

And they and their fake conscience objection can get the hell off my lawn.

I gave my opinion on this subject in July: “Religious Freedom” means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination.

One more Annalee line worth quoting:

I won’t even ask which version of the bible they’re reading where Matthew 25.36 reads “I was sick and you sued not to cover my medical care.”

Polling three years before a presidential election is mostly about name recognition. So sure, VP Biden is the Democratic front-runner if Hillary Clinton decides not to run.
The most sinister aspect of NSA spying isn't the crimes they might find, it's the legal-but-embarrassing stuff that they can use to intimidate or discredit people they don't like.