Christians, Atheists, and Torture

Saint SebastianI have this tendency to be most critical of the groups that I’m part of. You see this a lot in terms of my thinking about the Democratic Party. But I dare say you see it most of all with my thinking about atheists. And there is a lot to dislike about the modern atheist movement. I am an atheist in the Arthur Schopenhauer tradition. Much of modern atheism is intellectually vacuous. But as popular movements go, it is still pretty good. There isn’t likely to be a mass movement that I have any less criticism of.

Probably the best aspect of modern atheism is that there is a strong current of humanism in it. I think it is the case that people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are admired despite being torture proponents, not because of it. What’s more, I don’t so much see myself as part of the atheist community in the sense that I read atheist blogs and go to atheist conventions. I see myself as a member of the growing numbers of people who just aren’t religious. And by and large, this is a mighty fine group.

As regular readers know, I found the recent release of the torture report as upsetting as it was unsurprising. So I was somewhat pleased to read Steve Benen’s The Week in God today. It’s focus was on a new Washington Post/ABC News poll on attitudes about torture. It confirms the results of a 2009 poll by Pew. As you’ve probably heard, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of torture. Of those polled, 59% were just peachy with what the CIA did; only 31% had a problem with it. Obviously, that was not what pleased me.

This poll subdivided people by their religious affiliations. So Benen put together the following graph that sums up the main categories:

Religion and Torture

Benen pointed out that people with “no religion” were pretty much the only group in the report that were against torture. I wish the numbers were better than they are, but they are far better than average. And the major Christian groups are all worse than average. It’s disgusting, but again, unsurprising. It goes along with my primary complaint against modern American Christians: their religion is all culture and no theology. The one thing they absolutely believe is that people like them are “good” and people not like them (eg, Muslims) are “bad.” Thus they don’t really care. After all, it’s not like anyone is suggesting burning the evildoers alive. (Not that they would be against that either.)

As much as I’m pleased that we non-believers demonstrate more humanity than average, this information is profoundly disturbing. We are, after all, an almost 80% Christian country. And the only takeaway from that is that Christianity is “right” and that Christians are oppressed whenever someone says “Happy holidays!” to them. We live in a sad world.

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Reader Comments Are a Good Thing

No Comments!Over at The Monkey Cage, Elizabeth Suhay wrote some much needed perspective, Comment Threads Are Messy, but so Is Democracy. There has been a push in a lot of quarters to get rid of user comments. It is understandable. A lot of commenters are repellent. But I think it’s a major mistake. What’s more, I think it reflects a kind of desire on the part of content providers to go back to the old days when they could sift through the letters and publish the ones that they wanted. It’s about control, and it doesn’t speak well of those who push it.

Some time back, the excellent blog The Incidental Economist stopped allowing comments. Now they treat their users the same way that magazines used to. If you have a comment, email them and if they think you are worthy, they will add the comment. In addition to the “Moses coming down Mount Sinai” arrogance of such a policy, it just isn’t practical. A few years back, I emailed one of their writers about the statistics in one of his articles. He took over a month to get back to me. But even if the response was timely, it would take at least a day before such comments would be posted — long after most people had read the article.

This approach also eliminates the possibility of what I consider the best part of comments: conversations. Comments to articles often end up being even more interesting than the articles themselves. They also make the readers more engaged with the material. There is no doubt that The Incidental Economist is no longer as exciting as it was when it had comments. Look at Eschaton: it is little but comments and is one of the most vibrant websites around.

Getting rid of comments strikes me as an overreaction to a problem. Sure, there are jerks who post comments. But the numbers are small. Suhay reported on some of her own research that found that “clearly disrespectful” comments only made up 10% of those found on sites like Daily Kos and only 4% of comments on sites like The New York Times. And for that, people want to get rid of all the good that comes from comments? That strikes me as, “Letting the terrorists win!”

What I think is going on is that content providers are thinking of what they do from their own perspective and not from that of their users (ie, customers). In fact, another article in The Monkey Cage found that comments make people trust articles less. The article concluded “news outlets that care about their reputations (including The Monkey Cage) should shut down their comments sections.” That shocks me. That’s such an authoritarian thought. Obviously, when a bunch of people openly debate an article, it is going to make that article seem less authoritative. And by and large that’s a good thing!

Under most circumstances, I don’t read comment threads. I have my own blog; if I want to comment, I will write an article. But I do find comments useful. If an article strikes me as using questionable logic or facts, reading the comments can be really helpful in corroborating or diffusing the article. And that’s especially true in reading about specialized subjects like economics. The comments are often of shockingly high value.

But I get it. Before moving to WordPress, despite my automatic filtering, I still had to manually remove a great deal of spam. Also, I had to explicitly approve all comments — even people who had commented before. But given all that is done by using free software, I don’t have any sympathy for far more successful blogs on this issue. And it is annoying to get certain kinds of comments. Personally, I don’t mind people yelling at me. The one thing that does bug me is when someone yells at me without having read (or understood, at least) the article I wrote. (Here’s my favorite example: Two Thoughts on Lars and the Real Girl.)

Ultimately, the push to destroy comments is just about the desire to control. I do understand why the folks at The Incidental Economist and Hullabaloo just wouldn’t want to deal with it. They can be forgiven. I think it is wrong to even discuss it at The Washington Post. But above all, it is dismissive of your readership.


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The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be KingHaving watched Zulu recently, I decided to watch another film with red coats in it, The Man Who Would Be King. I’d never seen it before and I was interested — especially because it was directed by John Huston. And I can see why he wanted to make the film: it is epic. And it was a chance to make his generation’s Gunga Din. Just the same, I don’t really think the film works very well.

There are things to like about the film. The main thing is that it is a gorgeous film. That isn’t just because of all the beautiful locations. It is also despite all the beautiful locations. When movies started moving out to location shooting, it caused a problem. Movies began to present places like Egypt as they were instead of how they ought to have been. The Man Who Would Be King gets the best of both worlds with actual locations and wonderful sets. The designs by Alexandre Trauner and their implementation by Tony Inglis are stunning. The costumes by Edith Head are also great — simple but beautiful.

Also of note in the film is the vaudeville act that is Sean Connery and Michael Caine. They really are good as a couple of lovable rogues. And they are what give the film a feel of Gunga Din: Victor McLaglen and Cary Grant in color! The problem in this regard is that when they are not in the film, the entire experience seems hollow. And poor Christopher Plummer is so constrained in his part that he hardly leaves a mark. That’s saying something for one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. On the plus side, Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is really good in the Gunga Din part.

What most fails in the film is the script. It is entirely too dependent upon narration. This isn’t just a problem with drawing attention to the fact that Peachy is telling the story, and thus taking the viewer out of the narrative. Even more, the entire story telling is dependent upon the narration. It is as though Huston and co-writer Gladys Hill never figured out how to translate Kipling’s novella to a visual framework. There is far too much inexplicable action followed by Peachy’s voice-over explaining what had happened. And when it isn’t done with narration, it is done with dialog as when Preachy explains that the avalanche has created a bridge for them to pass or when Danny explains that the arrow was stopped by his bandolier.

The bigger problem with the film is in stark contrast to Zulu. This film is racist. This is entirely due to the filmmakers’ decision to follow the novella so closely. Whereas the Zulu are portrayed from the outside and as the enemy, they are always rational. But the local people here are not. And the entire plot is dependent upon them not being rational or loyal. For example, at one point Preachy tells Danny that they must go to see the religious leader Kafu Selim, or else their own men will turn on them. Ultimately, the local people were not given the dignity of being anything but a plot device.

Still, the film is marginally worth watching. If it shows up on television, it is worth a look. As I said, it is wonderful to look at. And much of it does work rather well. But there are so many films that are more worth watching. Like Gunga Din.

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Governmental Power in the Age of Corporations

Theodore RooseveltThere once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.

—Theodore Roosevelt
Limitations on Governmental Power (pdf) — 9 September 1912

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George Roy Hill

George Roy HillOn this day in 1921, the great American film director George Roy Hill was born. I always associate him with William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade. The entire chapter on directors consists of the following sentence, “Some of my best friends are directors.” This sentence did have a footnote where Goldman explained that directing was a hard job — not like a theoretical physicist’s job is hard, but like a coal miner’s job is hard. And he noted that directors help everyone involved in the production. His point was that we have mythologized directors and that given all the other creative minds on a film, the director is not that important. He has a vision of the film director that is more like that of a theater director: the person who manages all the creative activity. I agree with this vision to a large extent. And this is the kind of director that George Roy Hill was.

To a large extent, the film directors who are considered “auteurs” are generally the ones who talk a certain way. There is no doubt that someone like Jon Jost absolutely is the author of his own films. But it is hard to make that claim even for David Cronenberg, much less Martin Scorsese. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of the films these three men make — they all produce films that are without exception worth making and are sometimes great. But $100 million budgets are collaborations. Regardless, I don’t think that Scorsese has a more distinctive visual style than Hill does.

Of course, the thing is that Hill does have a distinctive style. Or rather: his films have a distinctive visual style. It is just that no one fetishizes that style. But as a result of that, Hill’s films tend to age better. I know for a lot of people, Goodfellas is a favorite film. To me, it is almost un-watchable; it is filled with tricks that Scorsese would (gratefully) eventually get over or refine. (I think Scorsese is at his best in films like The Age of Innocence and Bringing Out the Dead and Kundun.) Hill doesn’t have that problem.

So let’s look at a few of his classic films — and I will be ignoring a number of others! First is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — one of the greatest westerns ever made. (I want to say “the greatest” but that’s hard.) In a sense, that is William Goldman’s film, because it is drenched in his sensibility. Just the same, it looks and feels like a Hill film. It was a collaboration of a lot of great people, including Burt Bacharach. But Hill brought it all together in a film I still love watching.

Do I need to mention The Sting? Maybe we should just move on to The Great Waldo Pepper. When I was a kid, I didn’t much like it. But it ages well. Also: it helps to be an adult. This trailer makes it seem like it’s a comedy, but it really isn’t. It’s an interesting film about a man trying to find meaning in life. But it is done in a very Hollywood (false) way:

Other films that are well worth watching include: Slap Shot, A Little Romance, and The Little Drummer Girl. I will say nothing about the Chevy Chase film, because I haven’t seen it. But let’s take a look at The World According to Garp, which is still a joy to watch:

Happy birthday George Roy Hill!

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Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Why Only Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Worth Discussing

Cuba FlagMax Fisher is one of the shining stars over at Vox — very possibly the best person they have there. And he wrote a really useful discussion of the history behind Wednesday’s announcement, Nine Questions About Cuba You Were too Embarrassed to Ask. It is very much worth reading. But I want to discuss the small part of it that annoyed me. It was the seventh thing you were embarrassed to ask about, “I hear that Fidel Castro is a monster who did lots of terrible things. Is that true?” I don’t even like the question, which is prejudicial. And the initial answer just makes it worse, “Oh yes.”

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying Castro was a great guy. But I’m not keen on the facile dismissal of him either. And that’s especially the case when George Washington, the father of our country, owned hundreds of slaves. And we haven’t exactly done ourselves proud since then. Right up to the present with Bush’s torture program and Obama’s drone attacks, it would not be hard to dismiss our leaders as “monsters.” But I know what many will say, “You are just putting the worst face on this! Washington freed all his slaves at his death; Bush was trying to keep us save; Obama is managing a war. Have some nuance, man!”


Saudi Arabia FlagNone of the Castro’s notable brutality took place early on in his regime. Isn’t it possible that his behavior was shaped by the fact that the United States — just a few hundred miles from his country — was trying to overthrow him and assassinate him? Of all the things I know him to have done, they were all done against people who could be reasonably claimed to be his enemies. That’s at least better than the United States has managed to do over the last couple of decades. So I have no problem claiming that Castro was an authoritarian dictator who oppressed his own people. How that exactly makes him worse than other rulers I can’t say. If the United States were signing a treaty with Saudi Arabia, I doubt very seriously that Vox would spend hundreds of words describing the brutality of that “friendly” regime.

Vox is really pushing this point. I suppose it is because they want to head off the argument that the embargo shouldn’t be lifted because the Cuban government is so terrible. So their argument is, “Cuba is terrible and that is why the embargo is a bad idea.” I get it. I even agree with it. I don’t think there is any doubt at all that if we had tried to befriend Castro (or Ho Chi Minh or many others) the situation would now be far better. But I think it comes off as extremely self-satisfied to run articles (by another great writer Matt Yglesias) like, Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Terrible, No Matter What You Think of the Embargo.

Going through the list of things that the Cuban government did, what keeps occurring to me is that generally speaking, Cuba comes off as somewhat to much better than Saudi Arabia[1] — our longtime ally. But more than that, the biggest point made in both articles is that there is no press freedom in Cuba. This is something I think about a lot these days. What does it mean to have press freedom if you don’t use it? The Soviet constitution provided press freedom, it just wasn’t available on a practical level. Maybe the only reason that the United States doesn’t need to interfere with the press (not excessively, anyway; yet) is because the government knows it can depend upon our press to treat official enemies to a higher standard than our friends.

[1] Interesting, both Fisher and Yglesias discussed the treatment of LGBT rights in Cuba. Cuba has indeed been horrible about this. But no mention was made of the fact that the country has made major progress in this regard over the last two decades. The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia.


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Professional vs Regular Moderates

Lynn VavreckI don’t mind that elections are largely determined by people who don’t know anything about policy. Democracy isn’t pretty, but it is the best way I know for governance to muddle along. But what I most definitely do mind is when these ignorant people are held up as the best, most open-minded voters. They aren’t. They are just ignorant. As should be clear, I am not talking about conservatives. I may disagree with them and consider them intensely confused. But in general, they at least follow politics. I’m talking about the vaunted “moderate” or “independent” voters.

Back in May, my favorite political scientist, Lynn Vavreck, wrote, The Power of Political Ignorance. In the article, she reported on some research she had done. She gave voters a quiz to see what was going on in politics. It was nothing hard. It consisted of multiple-choice questions like, “What jobs does Joe Biden have?” She found that the less people knew, the more likely they were to split their votes between President and Senator. People in the bottom third of knowledge split their tickets three times as much as people in the top third of knowledge.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Why would people vote for two different candidates who are pushing opposing policies? In general, it is because they don’t know this. They are just voting for personalities or other whimsical criteria. The only world in which splitting a ticket makes sense is one in which political parties aren’t ideological. And that really has never been true. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Democrats had bizarre regional coalitions. But it was still the case that a Democrat in any given area was a Democrat.

As I indicated, I don’t have a problem with ignorant voters. For one thing, ignorance is a relative thing. Certainly someone could have great insights and not know that John Boehner is Speaker of the House. My problem is elevating such people to the status of the good. And this is done by those in the pundit class who fancy themselves as independent truth tellers. This would, of course, require that the candidates running have random policy positions, which is absolutely not true.

My favorite example of this kind of pundit is William Saletan. Two years ago, I wrote, Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness. In that article, I discussed how Saletan, who considers himself a “moderate Republican,” is actually not a moderate. Just like almost all those professionals who use that moniker, he is a liberal on social issues and a conservative on economic issues. What’s more, the social issues are secondary to the economic issues — as they are with most people. So these professional moderates are really just conservatives.

So what we have are regular ignorant voters who truly are independent because they just don’t know any better. And we have professional “independent” writers who trump up the split ticket voters as a way of giving their own nefarious machinations the sound of reasonableness. In the end, the call for “open-mindedness” is just a call for more conservative economic policy, or at very least the same status quo that works great for the oligarchs. We’ve seen how great divided government works in the United States these last four years.

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Republicans Look Bad But Don’t Suffer

GOP SuicideThe Wall Street Journal editorial page just figured out that King v Burwell might be bad for Republicans, A Post Obamacare Strategy. As you may recall, King is the latest in a torrent of lawsuits against Obamacare designed to kill the law by any means possible. In this case, it takes a single phrase from the bill — one that conflicts with many other phrases in the bill and the bill itself — and uses it to claim that the government cannot provide subsidies on federally run healthcare exchanges. It is the kind of lawsuit that would have been laughed out of court forty years ago. But now with people like Scalia, who spout right-wing talking points from the bench, anything is possible. I often wonder if a lawsuit mightn’t get traction if its legal reasoning was simply, “We don’t like it!”

What The Wall Street Journal is concerned about is that suddenly throwing over five million people (it might be as high as 13 million) off their health insurance might be bad politics. They noted that even though it is all the fault of Obama and the Democrats “the public may not notice the difference once the press corps discovers a cancer patient or two who can’t afford her Obamacare plan without taxpayer support.” Meagan Hatcher-Mays at Media Matters is a little optimistic, however, when she wrote, WSJ Just Realized the Anti-ACA Lawsuit It’s Pushing Could Be Ruinous for Americans — Including Republican Voters. The conservative paper only thinks that it will be a temporary problem and soon people will see how much benefit they get from not having insurance. (The people at The Wall Street Journal are amazing: they are so insulated from most of America that they actually believe this dreck.)

There is really only one way that King would hurt the Republicans: the presidential election of 2016. It is likely that if the court decides to strike down the subsidies to those who get their healthcare on federal subsidies, the Republicans will be blamed. People will wonder why Republican controlled legislatures across the nation don’t do something to help the millions of people they are harming. This will be far worse than these same legislatures rejecting the free money of the Medicaid expansion just to thumb their noses at the president. Taking something away seems far worse than never giving something in the first place. The nation as a whole will look on this and be reminded just how awful the Republican Party is.

But other than the election of the president, I don’t see any problems for the Republicans at all. Let’s start with the fact that most governors are elected on off-years. So they can already depend upon a conservative electorate — older and richer and unlikely to have been negatively affected by this. But most of these states have Republican legislatures because the people (stupidly) support them. Just look back at Kansas this year. Sam Brownback has pretty much destroyed the state and yet he still won re-election by over 3.5 percentage points. So where the Republicans are strong now, they will continue to be strong. Harming millions of middle class Americans is the sort of thing that has gotten them elected in the past and it will continue into the future.

So sure, King might give the Republicans a little bit of bad press. Of course, even it won’t be the bad; just look at how the country has moved on from the torture report. It might hurt them a little bit in Congress and will reduce how well they do in the run for the White House. But it’s not even significant, much less catastrophic. And let’s not forget: if the economy tanks in the first half of 2016, our next president will be a Republican. It doesn’t matter how much the party actively harms the nation.

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Ukraine in Context

Owen JonesOur nation joins the United States in invading Iraq on a false pretext, effectively destroying the country and killing hundreds of thousands in the process. Israel is allowed systematically to violate UN resolutions, building illegal settlements and annexing Palestinian land. Our great ally, the “witch”-beheading, hand-chopping dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, invaded Bahrain (at the request of Bahrain’s dictatorial regime, of course) to help suppress a struggle for democracy and human rights. The United States launches drone attacks in sovereign nations like Pakistan, in direct defiance of the country’s Parliament, killing countless civilians.

If Russia, or other countries deemed unfriendly, acted in this way, the calls for action would be deafening. When foreign nations commit acts of aggression, it provokes a sense of “we have to do something” in the West; so it does in other countries when we commit similar acts, too. But “rogue state” is not a term that applies to countries that violate international law, but rather to those that have failed to bend to the will of the West.

That is not to suggest that these attacks on the international order provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It would undoubtedly have happened anyway. But they are all symptoms of the same phenomenon. International law is treated by Great Powers as a convenient stick to beat opponents with, to be discarded when it is inconvenient.

—Owen Jones
The Hypocrisy of the Great Powers Is on Display Again in Ukraine

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Édith Piaf

Edith PiafOn this day in 1915, the great singer Édith Piaf was born. The French Billie Holiday! Stylistically, they are rather different. But they are both highly emotional singers, with tragic lives to back it up. Piaf spent much of her childhood living in her grandmother’s brothel. At the age of 14, she began working with her father as a street performer. She continued in this line of business until she was discovered at the age of 20, when she began working nightclubs. She quickly rose to stardom, but died at only 47 of liver cancer.

It’s better just to listen to her music. Let’s start with one of her biggest hits, “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.” I love its resolve. I just wish it didn’t include the payoff line, “Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi” (“Today, it begins with you”). That seems to cheapen it. I want it to be a statement about who she is, not what relationship she now finds herself in. Regardless, it is wonderful:

Here is another hit, “Milord.” Exactly what happens in the song is not clear. So let me give you my take. The singer is a woman who works at a cafe as a server. She has seen this rich gentleman walk past before with a beautiful woman on his arm. But the woman is not there today. The server entreats the gentleman to sit down and tries to cajole him out of his sadness. And by the end of the song, she has him dancing around with her. It is very beautiful:

The next song, “Hymne à l’Amour,” Piaf actually wrote the lyrics to. It was written to her lover, after he died in a plane crash on his way to visit her. You don’t need to know the lyrics. It is just one of those “I would do anything for you” songs. You get everything from the performance:

And let’s end with Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie en Rose.” The lyrics are also by Piaf and it is pretty similar in content to “Hymne à l’Amour.” Life is rosy when he looks into her eyes. I think the reason the song works so well is simply that there is nothing quite so compelling as a sad woman singing of hope. Here she is singing it in Nine Boys, One Heart:

Happy birthday Édith Piaf!

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