Anniversary Post: Yaoya Oshichi’s Sadistic Murder

Yaoya Oshichi - Utagawa KuniteruOn this day back in 1683, Yaoya Oshichi was burned at the stake. She was 16 years old. Apparently, she had fallen in love with a temple page during a fire. So the following year (1682), she set a fire, hoping that she would get a chance to see him again. But she was caught. Apparently, the magistrate at her trial tried to save her life by claiming that she was 15 years old. (You had to be 16 to get the death penalty. This is accepted everywhere — except in Texas.) But the clueless girl corrected him and ended up burning. The story is a very famous one in Japan and has been broadly romanticized in literature.

This took place toward the beginning of the Edo period. At that time, the government applied the death penalty in cases of murder and, as with Oshichi, arson. And the ways they killed people were varied. The less terrible ones are decapitation, waist-cutting (just what it sounds like), are crucifixion. The more terrible ones are sawing (mostly what you are thinking), burning, and boiling. I really don’t understand these torture deaths. I can understand the eye-for-an-eye philosophy of the death penalty — even if I don’t accept it. But these torture deaths can only be the result of psychopathic minds.

So 333 years ago, a girl was burned death. I can’t say that we humans have gotten any better. And I am definitely not just talking about the recent activity of the Islamic State. Sometimes I think the one thing that binds together all of the “great men” of the world now and forever is a lack of empathy.

Happy anniversary of the sadistic murder of Yaoya Oshichi!

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Conservative Voter Suppression Is Elitist

Jonathan BernsteinI don’t know about you, but I could really use some good political news. It isn’t new; I wrote about it last weekend, Oregon Increases Freedom in Our Democracy. It was about the new law in Oregon that would automatically (unless they opt out) register people to vote. But I mentioned that there was little reason to think this would mean that more people would vote. Still, as the title indicates, I thought it was a great thing. It made voting easier and that’s wonderful. Democracy is a good thing. But before getting to the good news, let me briefly discuss why democracy is a good thing.

The standard take on democracy from conservatives is that if voting is too easy, all these idiots who aren’t engaged in politics will vote. “Idiots” is defined in the conservative world as, “Anyone who doesn’t hang on every word of conservative commentators.” But I am a big believer in The Wisdom of Crowds. The big problem that I see is that, for example, the rich generally are much better educated than the poor. But they are blinded by their own class interests. It is only by including everyone that we assure that the interests of everyone are taken into account.

But it is curious. While I was growing up, the big thing that made the US special was that unlike the USSR, we were a democracy. But today, conservatives are really quite outspoken in their opposition to this foundational idea of our republic. In fact, it is interesting: when Glenn Beck was a huge thing on Fox News I kept hearing people talk about how the US was a “republic” not a “democracy.” At first, I was confused, “It’s a democratic republic.” But it was really just the mainstreaming of the devaluation of the concept of democracy. It went along with Glenn Beck’s belief that America died when we started direct election of US Senators. Really what it means is, “My ideology is unpopular, so I don’t like democracy.”

I’m thrilled when America becomes more democratic. In that way, I am entirely typical of the Democrats. Just the same, under normal circumstances, I would be typical of most Republicans. The anti-democracy push of recent years has come the way most things come in the conservative movement: from the top down. Of course, don’t expect to hear any Republican politicians talk about how terrible democracy is. Just expect them to do everything they can while in power to limit democracy. But I think we need to talk openly about this kind of stuff. What kinds of laws are being enacted in Republican controlled states? Modern poll taxes — laws to limit democracy. What kind of laws are being passed (or at least considered) in Democratically controlled states? Laws that increase democracy. As an American, you really have to ask why you would support a party that doesn’t believe in democracy.

On Thursday, Jonathan Bernstein wrote, Voting Is All About Registration. It is about a recent research paper that found that if people were automatically registered to vote (or could do so the same day), 3 to 4 million more people would have voted in the 2012 election. Now that’s not a huge amount. In fact, Romney lost the election by 5 million votes, so even if all these voters had been Romney supporters, he still would have lost. But it still represents roughly 2-3% of the vote.

I’m not going to lie to you. I think that a strong majority (maybe even a vast majority) of these voters are liberals. And the truth is that if 4 million more Democrats had voted in 2014, the two parties would have roughly tied for the total popular vote in House and Senate races. But even if most of those voters were Republican, I would still be thrilled that they got to vote. I would think that my job as a liberal was to make my policy ideas (which I know are better) more appealing to the people. In general, conservatives don’t think this way. And why would they? They’ve used fear and hatred very successful for decades. Winning on actual policy has never been their way.

But in the public consciousness, it is liberals like me who are elitists. I’ve never really understood that. It’s true, I scoff at ignorant people pushing stupid ideas. But conservatives do the same thing toward people like me, claiming that our good ideas are stupid or, hilariously, elitist. Contempt is something we all share. But conservatives think that the whole democracy thing is a joke. And that is absolutely the most elitist opinion that there is.

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Galileo on Ted Cruz

Galileo GalileiDear Ted…

[Y]our grasp of history is as secure as your grasp of science.

This is so wrong. This is more wrong than the geocentric model of the universe, the thing I actually spent my life debunking. (We knew Earth wasn’t flat, dang it. Columbus had already sailed!) What I battled wasn’t a ruling scientific theory, either. It was religious dogma. I am not saying that those are opposites, but mistaking one for the other is like mistaking you for someone with an understanding of climate science…

It’s like saying “by opposing vaccinations, I am just following in the footsteps of a heretic called Edward Jenner, who as we all know invented the light bulb.” This is like invoking Elizabeth Cady Stanton to support Men’s Rights Activism, but crediting her with Prohibition. It’s like saying, “I am a Democrat, just like Ronald Reagan, who of course won the Civil War.” You might as well thank Tesla every time you perform dark magic…

And I don’t care what you believe about the climate. I mean, I’m dead already. I don’t care what you do with the place. Just don’t use my name to lend yourself credibility. Once being forced into a lot of inaccurate statements by people whose grasp on science was lacking is enough.

Eppur si muove…

—Galileo Galilei (as told to Alexandra Petri)
An Open Letter From Galileo to Ted Cruz

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Modern Immigrants the Same as Always

Dream ActPew Research put out a great report this week, A Majority of English-Speaking Hispanics in the US Are Bilingual. What I love about it is that it counters most of the stereotypes that Americans have about our Spanish speaking immigrants. In particular, there is this idea, “Immigrants today don’t want to integrate with the rest of society!” This is such a tired complaint, that it is almost funny. This is what has been said about every immigrant group at every time in our country. It is true in a sense. What is distinctly not true is that there is anything different about “immigrants today.”

Think about it from the perspective of a new immigrant. If you settled in Russia, for example, don’t you think that you would naturally hang out with other American immigrants? They speak your native language; they share your culture; they are more inclined to help you out. This is not rocket science. It wouldn’t mean you weren’t committed to your life in Russia. But really, where are you going to go if you want a decent hamburger? Your becoming fully part of Russia is not something that you would do; it is something that your kids would do.

Both my father’s parents came to the United States from Portugal. It is almost the very definition of “immigrants built America.” My grandmother worked a maid and my grandfather worked odd jobs — eventually working for Luther Burbank. They were eventually able to buy a small farm and lived off that and traveling around the area bailing hay for other farmers. Yet most of what I remember as a kid are Portuguese parades and a bunch of old people arguing in Portuguese. My father, on the other hand, doesn’t even speak the language. His older brother and sister are bilingual, however. And that’s entirely typical of immigrants to the United States.

So what do we see with those horrible “immigrants today”? It’s exactly the same. People who immigrate from another country tend to stick with their mother tongue — but note that this doesn’t mean they don’t also know English. Their kids tend to be bilingual. And their grandkids tend to be just as mono-linguistic as the rest of the country:

Spoken Language of Recent Immigrant Groups

Strangely, the Pew article discussed the potential effect of the large Latino community in keeping Spanish alive as a language in the United States. I have no problem with that, but even discussing it seems to be somewhat racist — as though there really is something different this time with these immigrants. The data in the report itself show this really isn’t the case. In the graph above, we see that Spanish is dying out as a primary language. What’s more, census data indicate that Spanish is dying out as the primary language at home. But it may be the case that it will die out slightly slower than other languages have.

The main thing here is that we need to remember that our recent immigrants are the same as our past immigrants. Trying to put new immigrants into a special category is just doing what we’ve always done to immigrants. We need immigrants — desperately — but we hate them. And that isn’t right or helpful.

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Comparing State Economies Is a Fool’s Game

Kevin DrumI like Kevin Drum very much, but I think he was a bit deceptive in an article last week, Three Cheers For the California Miracle! It is a comparison of the Texas and California economies. In 2014, California actually added more jobs than Texas. So much for the “Texas miracle.” Drum is correct that the whole business of the Texas miracle was nonsense from the beginning, “It was mostly just PR bluster.” Just the same, there is something good about Texas and other backwater states with regard to business: the cost of living is cheap and so companies don’t have to pay their workers as much.

This brings up what I think is a really important question, “Who wants to live in Texas?” I’ve been to Texas many times. I’m sure for some people it is just wonderful. But for most people, it is a hot place that is far better characterized by George W Bush than Jim Hightower. On the other hand, California is overall fantastic. Yes, I am a left coast boy and I’m mostly thinking of northern California and our adjuncts, Oregon and Washington. But I can’t imagine leaving the state because I could pay my employees a bit less. And apparently that is how most people feel because California has never seen the mass exodus of companies claimed by conservatives.

But you still have to give Texas its due. During 2014 (roughly), “California gained 498,000 new jobs, almost 30% more than the Lone Star State’s total of 392,900 for the same period.” 498,000 new jobs in Wyoming would mean a lot more than in California. The contrast is not so large with Texas, but it is still notable. California added 27% more jobs than Texas. But California’s population is 44% higher. Similarly, it total employment is 44% higher. Its GDP is 40% higher. Even its non-farm employment is 35% higher. None of this means that California is doing worse. I would say it is more or less a wash.

The real takeaway from Drum’s column is that all this stuff about a Texas “miracle” is rubbish. He provided the following helpful graph that shows the unemployment rate of all of the states around Texas. And what it shows is that Texas is right in the middle of the other states. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see that Colorado has actually seen a greater decrease in unemployment, even though it started at the same level. Obviously, there are reasons for everything, but Texas’ low taxes and “blowed up real good” regulations are not the reasons.

Unemployment in and Around Texas

We’ve seen this a lot. If there is a state that is doing well, conservatives claim that it proves that conservative economic policy is the cause. Usually, it is just random fluctuations. But roughly what we are seeing is a zero sum game. When State Farm moves from California to Texas (which it recently did), there aren’t more jobs created. State Farm did this to lower its costs and increase its profits. Those profits will go overwhelmingly to people who are already wealthy. And that just leads to more of what we’ve had over the last four decades: middle class stagnation and increased economic inequality. But that’s great! Just ask George Will.

But let’s not make the same mistake that the conservatives make. The Texas economy is doing okay. Without digging into the numbers, it seems to be doing as well or slightly better than California. Of course, the median household income in California is 25% higher. The main thing is that the US economy is improving, so things are getting better everywhere. This business of comparing different states is a fool’s game.

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Morning Music: 99 Luftballons

99 LuftballonsIn general, new wave songs do not hold up. There is just something about real (non-synthetic) instruments that never gets old. You may not like classical music, but a violin doesn’t sound stupid. And it isn’t really that synthesizers sound stupid. Listen to Dark Side of the Moon. But in the early 1980s, there was a change going on from analog synths to digital synths. And those early digital synths sucked. They sounded fine at the time but now they make me want to rip my hair out.

But there are songs that manage to overcome this. I’ve discussed this before. But today I offer another such song, Nena’s “99 Luftballons.” I don’t know, maybe it is just one of my blind (Deaf?) spots. Or more likely, the over-polished pop sound of the song just works in contrast to what is actually a really depressing song.

It tells the story of 99 toy balloons being mistaken for alien aircraft. So the military send some fighter jets to check them out. When the pilots find that they are just balloons, they attack them, thinking of themselves as “Captain Kirk.” But everything goes astray as this playful activity is mistaken for an act of war. Thus the 99 balloons lead to 99 years of war and the destruction of the earth.

In some ways, the English translation of the song is better in a purely artistic way. Just the same, it pulls a whole lot of punches. The German song shows far more contempt for the ruling elite. This is a funny thing about Americans: we think of ourselves as such individuals but we yield to power more than most people. And that’s especially true when it comes to the military, which we are supposed to never counter. I’m not too keen on Germany, but this is a damned good pop song.

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Birthday Post: Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas LlosaThe great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa is 79 years old today. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 2010. I don’t read much modern fiction, so I only know him from one book, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. I first read it upwards of twenty years ago. I liked it, but I thought it was a tad dense for a comedy. But just a couple of weeks ago, I got it from the library. It sat around until the day it had to go back. So on my way to the library, I finally opened it and read the first couple of chapters. I was wrong before, the books is hilarious and perfectly rendered. It probably also helps that I’m older now. When I read it before, it seemed kind of harsh. I don’t get that from it now.

After I turned the book back in, I immediately requested it. As a result, it has been sitting at the library for me for almost a week. I will pick it up tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to it. There is not a great deal that I read that can be termed truly enjoyable. If I read any of his other work, I’m sure it will show up here.

Happy birthday Mario Vargas Llosa!


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American Myth Versus Reality

The American Way - Ohio River Flood

I only saw this picture for the first time last night. But it is a classic from Life magazine. The actual history of the photo isn’t quite as stark as the message of it. Just the same, the message that people take away from it is still true. There is a group of African Americans standing in a food line and behind them is a billboard featuring a a very white family (Even the dog is white!) that proclaims, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” The tag line — “There’s no way like the American Way” — takes on a whole different meaning than was originally intended.

The photograph was taken by Margaret Bourke-White during the 1937 Ohio River flood. This particular one was taken in Louisville, Kentucky. The only thing that really matters about this is that it explains why people are holding buckets. Even more than food, the people needed clean water. The area had received 18 inches of rain over a two week period. Check out all the pictures from the original article to see just how bad the situation was. But Bourke-White was known for her ironic photographs, and she certainly knew what she was doing. She was making a broader point.

The billboard was not, as one could reasonably assume, part of a government program to cheer people up and head off revolution. No, then as now, it is our private sector that is in the business of hoodwinking us into disbelieving our lying eyes. This billboard came courtesy of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). According to James Guimond in American Photography and the American Dream, photographers[1] for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) took great relish in going after these kinds of things:

First of all, as a group trying to show what had gone wrong with America, the FSA photographers had an aversion to the conservative, big business clichés about American economic life that continued to flourish in the 1930s along with the sufferings of the depression. They expressed this attitude most clearly in the deliberately ironic photographs they made of certain billboards that were part of what Life magazine called a “propaganda campaign” by the National Association of Manufacturers in the 1930s…

FSA photographers were quite assiduous in their pursuit of NAM and other big business propaganda billboards, and their irony was more deliberate. According to Arthur Rothstein, they considered the Manufacturers’ clichés about the American standard of living so absurd — at a time when millions of Americans were suffering from the depression — that they treated the billboards as fair game for visual ironies.

What I think is so amazing about this whole thing is that nothing has changed — except that people working for the government wouldn’t think of taking potshots at big business today. I’m reminded of this every time I hear someone claim that America has the best healthcare in the world. What they actually mean is that if you are rich you can get the best healthcare in the world here. Of course, you can do the same thing in Germany, France, and Japan — but let’s not go there right now. It’s ridiculous to think this way. It’s like saying, “Why did the French people revolt against King Louis XVI? His life was great!”

But I’m afraid that most Americans like their pretty delusions. But it gets harder and harder to maintain those delusions. I don’t think the inequities in our society today cause people to be outraged the way they did in the 1930s. Instead, we’ve reverted to an older and more cynical view of the world: the rich are rich simply because they are; the poor are poor because that is what they deserve; God wills it. This is not a rational response.

[1] Margaret Bourke-White was not part of the FSA.


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A Tale of Two Natural Born Citizens

DigbyI assume liberals are not going to jump on this Ted Cruz being born in Canada business with the same fervor as the right’s masturbatory obsession with Obama’s birth certificate because the facts are clear: he is eligible to run for president. But it cannot pass unnoted that the right wing spent years attacking Obama for allegedly not being a “natural born American” even to the extent that they claimed he faked his birth certificate. But the fact is that he was born in the US and it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t been since his mother was American, just like Ted Cruz’s.

This is the situation with Cruz. His father was a Cuban citizen when Cruz was born, his mother was American and he, unlike Obama, actually wasn’t born in the US and held a dual citizenship with Canada until last year. All of that makes him perfectly eligible to be president, of course. But the idea that these right wingers are a-ok with Cruz’s circumstances after having made such a spectacle of themselves over Obama shows them to be… hypocrites. Shocker, I know.

—Heather Digby Parton
The Canadian Candidate

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Maybe It’s Time Israel Learned Some Manners

Benjamin NetanyahuAs you probably heard, on Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported, Israel Spied on Iran Nuclear Talks With US. And they used the information they got to funnel it the Congressional Republicans in an effort to destroy the deal. This resulted in Israel stating unequivocally that they do not spy, Netanyahu’s Office Denies Nuke Talks Snooping. But it was a curious denial. It’s kind of like being accused of robbing a 7-11 store and responding, “I’ve never killed anyone in my life!” The information that was being used so inappropriately is not technically spying. And the real sin here is that the Israeli government is actively trying to screw with our foreign affairs — just like all of us liberals have been saying the last few weeks.

But it is worse than that. At The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman wrote, Netanyahu’s Spying Denials Contradicted by Secret NSA Documents. You know, those Snowden leaks are the gift that keeps on giving. All throughout these NSA documents are discussions of what a threat Israeli spying is on the United States. They are ranked third after Russia and China. A lot of this is exactly what we are seeing with the Iranian negotiations. It would seem that the Israeli government is quite paranoid, despite the fact that it couldn’t have a more constant and true ally.

Interestingly, another problem is that Israel does a lot of industrial espionage focused on us. That doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Last year, I wrote, Spam Geography at Frankly Curious. In it, I described a method I had developed to determine whether a visitor was a real person or a spammer. Users coming from the US, UK, Canada, and India are pretty much all real. So are the vast majority of users from Indonesia. But Israel, which I would have guessed then would also have been mostly real, was as big a spammer as the eastern European countries. In fact, Russia is actually substantially better than Israel.

The fact that Israel isn’t quite as “western” as we’ve been led to believe isn’t that big a deal. But Israel’s behavior toward the United States is really unacceptable. It reminds me of a younger brother who is always depending upon his older brother to protect him. Yet the younger brother does everything he can to undermine his older brother. This is exactly the dynamic I created between Steve and Darren in “The Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour.” Except that in it, Darren (the “younger brother”) is a puppet and he gets his comeuppance at the end of every episode. Darren wouldn’t be a likable character in real life.

We don’t know about what Israel is up to just based upon the NSA leaks. The Intercept also noted:

Previously reported stories on Israeli spying, by themselves, leave no doubt how false Netanyahu’s statement is. A Der Spiegel article from last fall revealed that “Israeli intelligence eavesdropped on US Secretary of State John Kerry during Middle East peace negotiations.” A Le Monde article described how NSA documents strongly suggest that a massive computer hack of the French presidential palace in 2012 was likely carried out by the Israelis. A 2014 article from Newsweek’s Jeff Stein revealed that when it comes to surveillance, “the Jewish state’s primary target” is “America’s industrial and technical secrets” and that “Israel’s espionage activities in America are unrivaled and unseemly.”

I don’t know where all of this leaves me with regard to Israel. It’s been clear to me for a long time that the Israeli government has no interest in a two-state solution because of the way that it has encouraged the illegal settlements. More and more I’m thinking that the United States is more than enough of a safe haven for the worldwide Jewish population. Maybe Zionism just leads to the kind of conservative jingoism that Israel now represents. I’m not suggesting that we abandon Israel. But big brother is starting to think of little brother as a selfish brat who needs to learn some manners. Maybe a couple non-vetoes on the Security Council might help the Israeli government to grow up.

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About Ted Cruz’s Music Taste

Ted CruzAs you may have heard, Ted Cruz used to be into “classic rock.” But after 9/11, he said, “I didn’t like how rock music responded.” But he was very happy with the jingoistic response of “country music.” So since that time, he’s listened just to country music. A lot of people have mocked this change on his part. Jonathan Chait wrote, After 9/11, True Patriot Ted Cruz Sacrificed His Love of Rock Music for America and the Republican Party. He questioned whether it isn’t all just for show. Ed Kilgore was even less charitable, Ted Cruz’s Friends in Low Places. He wrote, “It all seems kind of mechanical and unimaginative for a man of Cruz’s supposed brilliance…” I agree with all this. Count me with Holden Caulfield: Ted Cruz is a phony.

But I’m interested in this subject from a personal perspective. At the time of 9/11, Ted Cruz was 30 years old. That’s about the time that a lot of people have a falling out with rock music. Yesterday, my business partner Will told me that he was shocked to find out that Cruz is younger than we are. “He just seems so old!” He is the political operative that Rafael Cruz built — more automaton than human. And for Rafael — born in 1939, I believe — that places his image of a politician in the 1950s. Thus it isn’t surprising that Ted Cruz has the feel of Joseph McCarthy.

The people I’ve known who switched from rock music to country music were never that interested in music to begin with. They were interested in what I term “pop rock” and then they went onto “pop country.” What is the difference between The Romantics and Garth Brooks? Slide guitar. (I know these are old references; I don’t stay up on this drivel!) It’s all so pathetic. That’s not to say that musical tastes don’t change, but they are usually gradual and based on, you know, music and not politics.

Do you know who I can totally see making decisions about art based solely on ideological considerations? Joseph Goebbels. Now, I’m not saying that Cruz is a Nazi, because he isn’t. He’s certainly a lot closer to Hitler than to Thomas Paine, but that doesn’t make him a Nazi. Proto-fascist perhaps, but not Nazi. The main thing is that he’s an ideologue. Everything seems to take a backseat to his political aspirations. So I think we can reasonably say that Ted Cruz doesn’t care much for music, film, or any other kind of art or entertainment. Or as he might say, “That art is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result.”

I would love to think that this means that Ted Cruz would not win the “have a beer with” election. But that’s always been more about pandering. I never understood how it was that people would rather have a beer with George W Bush — who didn’t drink — than John Kerry. They were both tiresome people who graduated from Yale. I couldn’t be less interested in having a beer with either. So I don’t doubt that the people will come to the conclusion that Ted Cruz is a “cool” guy who they’d like to hang with. But at least with Bush and Kerry, you’d know that they would have an opinion about the the song on the jukebox that wasn’t based on the political opinions of the singer or how the song focus grouped in red states.

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Morning Music: Martyrs Prayers

Martyrs PrayersOn Tuesday, I published, 35 Years Without Óscar Romero. This led to my discovering THE PROJECT: Martyrs Prayers. It is a collection of explicitly religious songs about Christian martyrs. On the CD they’ve released, there are ten songs, each about a specific martyr. Interestingly, one of them is “Clement,” which I assume is about Pope Clement I. Personally, I find Clement of Alexandria a more interesting guy — admittedly, not a martyr. But he argued against what I think of as the Saint Sebastian form of martyrdom. The question is, if you are clearly just trying to get yourself killed, are you a martyr? I don’t think so.

The martyrs on this album represent what I consider the real deal. Ultimately, most of the martyrs are political in nature. And that goes right along with my feelings about religion as being fundamentally political — at least when it comes to religion and not ontology. And as you should know, when it comes to politics, I have a great deal of faith. Because what’s the option? Applying the same thing to God isn’t much of a stretch, even if it isn’t something that I personally feel.

I’ve only heard two of the songs: the ones that they’ve produced highly evocative videos for. Interestingly, they are both assassinations. The first is the song “Becket.” But I want to highlight “Romero.” In addition to it being a beautiful song, the video includes lots of footage of Romero himself (something we don’t have for most of the others — although they do include two other 20th century martyrs). It’s really great. Give it a listen:

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