A Better Tribe on New Year’s Eve?

Frank With His TribeInfidel753 offers a thought on this the arbitrary end of the year, A Vague Musing at Year-End. Basically, it is a short love letter for diversity. He mentioned the “dying era of religious and tribal conformity.” I’m with him on that but I’m afraid I’m deeply pessimistic. One of my favorite words — used always as a great compliment — is “idiosyncratic.” But I fear that we are not built to love the idiosyncratic.

I think a great deal about the film Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s not a film I much like. It was just Ed Wood trying to make a whole feature out of some home movies with his old pal Bela Lugosi. Much better is Glen or Glenda — the full exploration of the pleasures and the pains of being the man he was. But what bothers me is that most people only know these films because they are seen as “bad.” But they aren’t bad. They are just strange — different from what other filmmakers chose to produce. To me, Glen or Glenda will always stand as a great example idiosyncratic art — art that is done for the sake of tickling the brain, not soothing it.

I’m not sure how we get past this whole tribal identity. I agree with Infidel753 that such identity based upon religion is getting less strict. Just the same, we seem to be transferring one kind of tribal conformity for another. Now we have much greater opportunities to find other people who are more consistent with who we are. So we aren’t dependent upon having friends drawn from the neighborhood that we grew up in. Now we can draw from people all over the world. My concern is that this just makes our tribal identities even more rigid. Maybe it just makes our prejudices seem all the more true and unquestionable.

In this regard, I feel fairly safe. This is because I find myself always working the margins. I think of myself like a Puck — disruptive but benign. If people started to properly appreciate Glen or Glenda I’d be right there to point out that it’s a dreadful film! Or maybe not, because in such a world, I would probably just be an accountant. Such a reasonable world would need not Pucks! But the thing about the Puck is that he is, ultimately, a lonely creature — desperate for fellowship but destined to disappointment because of his nature.

Still, I have my friends. And they are an eclectic bunch. The one thing they seem to have in common is that on any issue which we are both passionate, they know that I am wrong. In other words, I am quite blessed. But I see problems. There is a kind of background noise of agreement. And these are things that I really won’t brook disagreement about — things like the death penalty. Or on the positive side, the importance of empathy above all else. And it is based upon these kinds of things that we do have a tribal identity.

So we disagree about my many passions. No one will read Don Quixote — at least all the way to end. No one will watch Glen or Glenda — at least all the way to end. No one treats my ontological theories with anything but scorn. But we all desperately wish for a more humane and just world. And I would really like to believe that we are connected in this way because we are right. But I fear it is just that we are a tribe.

Regardless, I hope the new year moves in the direction preferred by my tribe. Because, you know, we’re right.

Good News About Maryland Death Penalty

Death Penalty - Tom Tomorrow

I almost didn’t notice that it was new year’s eve today. Part of it is that I just don’t like the day. I never do anything for it. Under most circumstances, I won’t even stay up for it. But now I normally do because that’s when I do my birthday posts. Really: the new year has absolutely no relevance to anything. It is an entirely arbitrary dividing line between years. But whatever. I do have a bit of good news on this new year’s eve.

Maryland had the death penalty all the back to when it was a colony — in 1638, they hanged two men for piracy. Since that time, they’ve killed 312 people. Now that may sound like a lot, but actually, in that almost four centuries, the state has managed to kill off many fewer than Texas has killed since people started dancing in the street in 1976 because the Supreme Court allowed them to start legally killing people again. (Texas has killed 508 people in the last four decades.)

But last year, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a law abolishing the the death penalty. As Huffington Post reported, O’Malley argued that “it wasn’t a deterrent for criminals, could end up being applied to innocent people, and was far more costly to the state than other punishments.” You know: the holy trinity — the reasons that all people would be against the death penalty if they approached the subject with their higher brains. But instead, most people approach it with their lowest brain: they just want to “get” the bad guys.

Let’s go over that list. First, people don’t kill as rational acts. They don’t think, “Now that I only have to spend the rest of my life in prison, I’m going to kill my wife!” People murder for two reasons: they either think they won’t get caught or they aren’t thinking at all. There is no evidence whatsoever that the death penalty reduces the homicide rate.

Second, innocent people get put to death all the time. If the death penalty really was effective at stopping murders from happening, maybe one could argue that innocent people being put to death was an acceptable price to pay. But since we can’t, we are killing these innocent people for no reason whatsoever. But hey, I guess as long as it isn’t happening to you or one of your loved ones, it doesn’t matter. And after all, you do get something from the death penalty: the great feeling that you are “getting” the bad guys.

Third, it is a hell of a lot more expensive to kill a murderer than to just let him rot in jail the rest of his life. It is this argument that gets the most bizarre response from death penalty advocates. Their response is always the same, “But it shouldn’t cost more!” According to them, after a “guilty” verdict, the judge should just pull out a gun and shoot the defendant in the the head. The fact that dozens of people have been proven innocent decades after conviction is just ignored. Nothing can get in the way of the wonderful feeling people get from legally murdering the bad guys.

In getting rid of the death penalty, Maryland had a bit of a problem. They had four people still sitting on death row. The state could still kill them because they were grandfathered in, so to speak — or so some claimed. So as his final act of governor, O’Malley commute their sentences to life without the possibility of parole. That is about the best news that you are going to get from me this year. And it is pretty good news too. I wonder when my home “liberal” state of California will ever outlaw this barbaric practice.

Magic 8 Ball - Don't Count On It

Torture Here at Home

Rebecca GordonThe fact is that torture is still continuing today — both in the so called war on terror and also in plain sight in our own jails and prisons in this country. I mentioned in the piece you were referring to a number of ways that torture is still going on. And one of these involved the forced feeding that’s still happening at Guantanamo. This is what happens twice a day to those people who are on hunger strike. A cell extraction team of six people arrives in their cell and forcibly removes them from the cell. And then, as one of the people who’s suffered this describes, what they do is they actually strap the person down to a feeding chair — which they call a torture chair — but in order to make the process more painful, instead of attaching the prisoner’s arms to the arms of the chair they’re handcuffing them behind the person’s back and then strapping the person into the chair that way so it puts terrible pressure on the shoulder joints. And so there’s pain not only involved in the feeding itself but also in the physical restraint that’s going on when they shove a tube up someone’s nose and pump food into their stomach.

One of the people who wrote about it this for The New York Times said it this way:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat, and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

It’s interesting to know that at the very same time this kind of force feeding has been going on — and as far as we know is still happening — exactly the same procedure was being used on prisoners in California in May of 2013 — so only a year and a half ago — when they also went on hunger strike. And they were striking about exactly the same issues. The two issues were indefinite detention — in other words in US prisons having prison sentences that last an undetermined number of years — 15 to life, 25 to life. And secondly, solitary confinement — being held in complete isolation from other human beings. And in May 2013 30,000 prisoners in California went on hunger strike, and when they did it they did it in direct solidarity and awareness that people in Guantanamo were doing the same over exactly the same two issues. So the connection between the US prisons and the war on terror is not a hard one to make — it’s a direct connection.

—Rebecca Gordon
Interview with CounterSpin

Obamacare Ignorance Is Due to Mainstream Media

Mainstream MediaPaul Waldman wrote in interesting if maddening article article yesterday over at The Washington Post, The Substance and Politics of Obamacare, in One Citizen. It tells the story of Kentucky resident Amanda Mayhew who is thrilled with all the needed medical care she is receiving because of Obamacare. But she would give it all away if it would put an end to all the old people who are being killed by the death panels. It’s kind of sweet actually. Ms Mayhew is clearly a very caring person. In fact, she’s the kind of person that Americans flatter themselves as being: willing to put the needs of the less fortunate above their own.

The bad aspect of this is that her very decency is being used against her. She’s been lied to. There are no death panels. No one is deciding if old people deserve cancer treatment. This is just a scare story designed to malign the new healthcare law. Teens are told the story of The Hook to scare them away from making out in their cars and the Death Panel is told to the working poor to make them turn against a healthcare bill that is designed to help them.

Waldman blames politicians and hate radio hosts and Fox News for the problem of all the misinformation about Obamacare. But I don’t. They are just doing their jobs. They are the foot soldiers for their fascist leaders. My problem is with the mainstream media. All the right wing propaganda about a government takeover of healthcare and death panels never would have gotten a foothold in the mainstream consciousness if it hadn’t been for the local news and the big newspapers and the network news reporting it as, “The administration says that the government is not taking over the healthcare system and that there are no such things as death panels; the Republicans claim this is the end of quality healthcare in America and all people over the age of 65 will be forced to kill themselves; as objective reporters we have no way of saying what the truth is.”

Let’s not forget where the whole idea of the death panel came from. Sarah Palin, of course, came up with the name. But the concept came from Betsy McCaughey — the disingenuous health policy “analyst” who pretty much single-handedly destroyed the Clinton healthcare reform plan. And like James O’Keefe, it doesn’t matter how many times she lies and is shown to be totally wrong, the press just can’t manage to apply even the smallest amount of skepticism towards her. Because, you know: that wouldn’t be “objective!”

The best example of this came when McCaughey went on The Daily Show when she brings out a big binder containing the Obamacare law. And Stewart gets her moving from section to section until it is clear that what she’s claiming is nonsense. Nothing in the law says anything about death panels. It’s clearly just about end of life planning — living wills — and Stewart is absolutely right when he calls what McCaughey is doing hyperbolic and dangerous. Also check out the second part of the interview.

But as usual, the mainstream media didn’t do anything near as good as what the comedy show The Daily Show did. So as usual, the problem is our media that has no real interest in informing readers and viewers. Instead, it is a kind of talking point aggregator. And that’s why we can’t have decent governance. Our government is only as good as the media that covers it. And we don’t even have a media that covers the government. We have a media that repeats the government.

So we have poor Amanda Mayhew who would vote to eliminate Obamacare because of the all the old people she thinks the law will kill. “Liberal” Californians vote against GMO food labeling because they think it is going to harm the one remaining small family farm in the state. And Americans consistently vote for politicians who take money from them and give it to the rich because of some weird sense of fairness. And it is all due to a media system that will only take a stand on an issue when it helps the power elite.

Ben Kingsley

Ben KingsleyThe great actor Ben Kingsley is 71 today. He is probably best known for his Academy Award winning role in Gandhi. But that just shows what a crock the Academy awards are. They just love giving out awards to films that are about “important” subject. Leave it to Hollywood to make an important movie not just decades after Gandhi’s death, but also after Martin Luther King’s death. Kingsley was great in the film, but then he always is.

Most recently, he was absolutely great in Iron Man 3 — a film that literally had nothing else to recommend it. In it, he plays the Mandarin — a supposed terrorist who is, in fact, just a down on his luck actor with a weakness for drugs and women. You know: my hero! But don’t watch the film. It’s tiring. But Kingsley is great.

There are so many films where Kingsley shines that it is hard to list them all. I will just mention a few that you really must see. Obviously, Schindler’s List should be seen for a number of reasons, but his role as Itzhak Stern is the heart of the film. Another is Sexy Beast. And for a sweet one, there is Hugo.

One film that I love but bombed (probably because it is great) is War, Inc. Here is a scene, but John Cusack gets the best line, “I signed up to kill the bad ones! Health clinics, trade unionists, journalists, agricultural co-ops, Catholic liberation theologians, impoverished Colombian coffee farmers, these are the barbarians that are brave opponents of civilization. We turned Central America into a f**king graveyard. Whoever momentarily interrupts the accumulation of our wealth, we pulverize. I’m just not feeling good about that anymore, sir.”

But for a limited time only, two of my favorite Ben Kingsley films are complete and on YouTube. The first is Turtle Diary with Glenda Jackson. It’s one of those little gems that the studio can’t even be bothered to release on DVD. (It is available on VHS.) So you can be sure that that before too long, the studio will notice that it’s online and say, “We don’t care enough to sell this title, but we’ll be damned if we’ll let anyone watch it for free!” While it lasts my friends:

The second film is available on DVD (sadly not letterboxed), Without a Clue — I own it and watch it quite a lot. It is a reversal where it is really Watson who is brilliant and he’s hired an actor to play the part of Holmes. It isn’t great, but it’s sweet and very funny. Sadly, I can’t embed it, but you can watch it over on YouTube (but at least it is letterboxed).

Happy birthday Ben Kingsley!

Blathering On Over the Holidays

Frank MoraesThis is the hardest part of the year to write. Very little is going on in the news and the people I commonly read are not writing very much. What’s more, not that many people are reading. I suppose that they have more important things to do than read my increasingly strained missives. Yet I still try to grind out five articles per day. This is not out of any commitment to you my loyal readers. It is more out of a commitment to myself. I am a man of habits and I have this feeling that if I don’t write five articles today, I may never write another ever again.

There is another aspect of of this. In order to write well, it is important simply to write. When I go back and read things I’ve written in the past, I’m constantly amazed that the best work is often the stuff that I just dashed off. And stuff I thought was very good — things I worked very hard on — leave me flat. So if I want to write a hundred articles each year that are worth while, I probably do need to grind out a couple thousand. Because when you are in the thick of it, you really don’t know what is good and what is dreck.

Another problem is that I’ve now written well over 8,000 articles on this blog. With every day that goes by, it seems that I’ve already said what I have to say on the subject. Indeed, there will be times when I’ve written half an article, only to realize that I must have written the same thing before. And a quick search shows that indeed, I have. And often, the process of my thinking is dead on. I am nothing if not consistent. Even when I was a libertarian, my writing on the subject of politics was not so very different than my more clear thinking today. This was one of the reasons that I wasn’t allowed to play in any libertarian games.

Tomorrow, I’m sure I will have much to say about the ending of the year. As for now, I have little to write about other than the fact that I have little to write about. Of course, there are things to write about. For one thing, I have a very interesting grammar article to write about. But it will take a little work and I don’t feel up to it right now. But you would think that at this point with five years and 8,000 articles under my belt, I’d be able to look back to the previous years for what I did. This is not all that useful. For example, last year at this time, I just didn’t write that many articles. And the year before, I wrote really short articles.

So I’m stuck tonight just slogging out an article about how I’m reduced to slugging out an article. It really doesn’t speak well of me. If I weren’t so obsessive, I’d just recycle old article. I know that even my most devoted readers don’t manage to see everything that I’ve written. What’s more, I often completely forget things that I wrote. I’ll sometimes notice that there is a flurry of visits to a particular article and I have no idea what the it is about. So maybe I’ll start doing a little about that. But there is so much else to be done moving into the future.

There is something that I might consider. Posting five articles of an average length of 700 words each day is an arbitrary work load. I have friends (Although they might might not describe me that way!) who have active blogs who produce far less. Infidel753 posts only every other day on average. Bark Bark Woof Woof posts only a couple of things per day and they tend to be light on content. Beggars Can Be Choosers posts every couple of weeks. Human Voices posts every week or so. The Good Typist publishes once a week (but she’s also polishing her novel). Ramona’s Voices is much the same. On the other hand, Job’s Anger publishes at the same pace that I do. And so does P M Carpenter’s Commentary. But most of all, I try to be like Digby — both in terms of amount of content and quality. I’m pretty sure I’ve got her beat in terms of amount. It is still the quality that I’m working on. And I’m afraid having lots of content is necessary to have a high level of content.

The Hell of American Punishment

Inferno: An Anatomy of American PunishmentYou are afraid all the time, and there is good reason to fear. You are alone with enemies all around you. No one cares about you. You can be attacked where you are, but it is more dangerous when you must move in the open. Groups roam the territory looking for victims. You cannot hide. Your only weapon is yourself. There is no authority to call on that you trust. Over and over you ask, “How did it come to this?” But it has come to this and for the foreseeable future.

Who are you? Where are you? You are not a soldier or a spy on some mission in a foreign land. You are not an undercover agent. You are not under siege. You are not a survivor of a civil war. You are not an explorer in some alien jungle, though in some ways you are. You are an inmate in an American prison. You belong to a peculiar version of hell, one that the American separation of church and state has imagined for you.

What did you do to get here? Perhaps you had too much dope on you when stopped or sold some of it to the wrong person to feed your habit. You have never been violent, but now you are surrounded by vicious inhabitants who enjoy hurting other people. Your chances of getting out of here in one piece are limited. They will depend on your wits and some luck, not the help of others, and if you do get out, there is nothing waiting for you — no job, no family likely to help, no skill set for use in an economy that has passed you by and that will reject you anyway for what you have become. There is nothing to do where you are, but if you try to do something useful, predators will come after you. The lowest common denominator rules here. Most of all, you should not be the only person asking, “How did it come to this?” — a question with many answers.

—Robert Ferguson
Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment

It’s Any Day and Robert Samuelson Is Vile

Robert SamuelsonRobert Samuelson is a truly vile person. He uses his prominent perch at The Washington Post to argue week after week that all of our problems come from the fact that we treat our elderly too well. He thinks Social Security pays too much, even though it pays out what it takes in and it is not nearly as generous as similar programs in other advanced economies. And then he complains about all the money we spend on Medicare, but isn’t at all concerned that the cost is so high because we pay twice as much for our healthcare as people in other advanced economies where the medical care is better. He just wants to harm the poorer people in our society and assure more and more money for the already rich. Like I said: he’s a vile guy.

On Christmas eve, he sunk to new lows, Repairing the Middle Class in 2015. The title itself is funny. As if Samuelson is in the least bit interested in helping the middle class. But the article itself is just one distortion after another. He claims that the American system is not rigged against the middle class but rather for the middle class. “That’s a natural result for a democracy in which politicians compete more for votes than for dollars.” No serious person could look out on the vast American political system and conclude that the votes really matter. A tiny investment of $8 million by Monsanto caused a hugely popular GMO food labeling bill in California to go down to a resounding defeat.

But when it comes to all that money that the middle class is getting from the government, Samuelson points to — Surprise! — Social Security and Medicare. Keven Drum calls him on this issue, The Middle Class Needs More Income. Faith Will Follow:

When we speak of the “middle class,” we’re nearly always talking about the working-age middle class. Samuelson surely knows this. But the only programs he calls out by name are specifically directed at the elderly and the working poor. Barely a single dollar of those programs goes to middle-class workers.

But Samuelson doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to complain that most of the taxes fall on the rich. Well I wonder why that might be! Median incomes have been stagnant for almost four decades. But he is further disingenuous by looking only at the federal government where taxes are most fair. As I showed last week when discussing the supposed Texas Miracle, state taxes are usually ridiculously regressive. But Samuelson doesn’t want to talk about that, because he isn’t interested in what the truth is about life for the poorer classes in the United States. He’s interested in pushing the interests of the oligarchs.

But if that weren’t bad enough, he then goes on to blame the financial crisis of bursting the house bubble on those evil poor people getting loans they couldn’t afford. He noted, “There is much evidence for [the cause of the financial crisis], but it ignores the deeper cause: an intellectual, political and social climate that legitimized lax lending policies in the name of promoting middle-class well-being.” To begin with, those lax lending policies were not created to help the middle-class. They were created to help bankers make a lot of money. But his narrative is just outrageous. Oh, those poor bankers being pushed around by the intellectual, political, and social climate! Funny how when people are screaming for jobs, the business community is sitting on piles of cash, despite the intellectual, political, and social climate.

Samuelson ends his article by noting that the challenges for the middle class are only partly economic. It is also psychological. It seems we can’t really control the economic environment, but we can control ourselves. So let’s not do anything about the economy and let’s complain that the middle class just kind of sucks. Dean Baker called this for the nonsense that it is, Robert Samuelson Thinks That Because He Is Confused About the Economy, Everyone Else Is Also:

In fact the government has structured the market over the last three decades in ways that cause most income to flow upward. For example its trade deals have been focused on putting less educated workers in direct competition with the lowest paid workers in the world. This has the predicted and actual effect of driving down their wages. At the same time, highly paid professionals, like doctors and lawyers, are largely protected from international competition. The government has also had longer and stronger patent protection, causing middle class people and the government to pay hundreds of billions more for prescription drugs than would be the case in a free market. The benefits from these forms of protectionism disproportionately go to the wealthy.

The government also has adopted more anti-union policies in the last three decades, substantially reducing the ability of workers to organize effective unions. It also gives huge subsidies to the high six and seven figure salaries of top officials at non-profits like the Gates Foundation.

And the government gives free too big to fail insurance and special low tax status to the financial industry…

It’s also interesting that the government has done nothing to keep the minimum wage up with the rate of inflation — to say nothing of the rate of productivity growth. The government has done everything it could get away with to screw the poorer classes and lavish the rich with every possible benefit. But that’s what Robert Samuelson thinks it ought to do. I just wish he were more honest about it.

Texas Might Take Medicaid Expansion

Greg AbbottMichael Hiltzik offered up some potentially good news at the end of this year, Is Texas, the Biggest Domino, About to Topple on Medicaid Expansion? It seems that not all right wing freaks are created equal. With Rick Perry and his Super Glasses leaving office to pursue truth, justice and the American way, governor-elect Greg Abbot has indicated that he might be open to taking the Medicaid expansion in the form that Arkansas and Utah have pioneered. In it, instead of the working poor getting added to Medicaid, they are given money to buy insurance on the exchanges. It ain’t perfect, but it is a distinct improvement on the way things are.

It’s kind of the perfect way for Republicans to dip their toes into Obamacare. After all, they are already part of it. The citizens of Texas are already required to have health insurance. And they are already paying higher taxes for the new law. So they are getting everything bad from the law and relatively little good from it. They might as well get some of that money back that they are sending away. The way the law was designed, blue states (because they are generally richer) were subsidizing red states. But because Republicans have been so spiteful about Obamacare, it’s worked out that red states have been subsidizing blue states. This is not a state of affairs that can go on for long.

This kind of “block grant” approach to the Medicaid expansion is something that Republicans have long claimed to like. And this kind of deal is a great face saving maneuver that allows the Republicans to claim both that they made the evil president bend to their will and that they don’t just hate the working poor. (Even though they clearly do.) Now we will have to see if Texas goes along with this. It is still likely that the Texas legislature will be unable to get past their mean girl spite and do what is best. But this is good news regardless.

Hiltzik runs the numbers in his article and they are overwhelming. Texas has the highest level of uninsured residents with over 22%, when the average is around 13%. And with bad economic times coming to Texas, it will only get worse. A 2013 report found that by not taking the Medicaid expansion, the state was set to lose almost $8 billion and have extra costs of almost $400 million. That was for a two year period. What’s more, hospitals are getting hit hard. Each year, they do $17 billion in uncompensated work. The Medicaid expansion would take a big chunk out of that.

I spend a lot of time complaining that the Democratic Party is too much the party of big business. But what’s remarkable is that the business community is so wedded to the Republican Party when the party doesn’t look out for its interests at all. Its general incompetence hurts business growth but on the individual level, it doesn’t do anything for business except for its trademark crony capitalism.

But we have a perfect storm here in Texas. It is losing a huge amount of money. The hospitals are keen to see the extra money coming in. The state is looking at bad times ahead. And it has a perfect face saving excuse for signing up for the program now. Given the absolute joke that the Republican Party is — especially in Texas — we can’t say what will happen. But this is hopeful news. And if Texas accepts the Medicaid expansion, many other states are sure to follow.

Bo Diddley

Bo DiddleyOn this day in 1928, the rock legend Bo Diddley was born. It’s a little strange though. He is literally a household word. But people don’t so much know his music. This is partly due to the fact that he never had a song that charted high on regular pop radio. His biggest hit was the confusingly titled “Bo Diddley” — which made it to number one on the R&B charts but didn’t make it on the pop charts at all.

I know that when I was younger, I was confused as to whether Bo Diddley was an actual person or not. Of course, he isn’t really. That’s just the stage name of Ellas Otha Bates. But even at that time he was an important artist. And he was hugely influential with musicians I would go on to love like The Velvet Underground.

What most defines his work is his use of really compelling, driving rhythms. You hear this on his first and biggest hit, “Bo Diddley” where there isn’t really much more than the rhythm. Additionally, the vocal to it has the sound of a field song. It’s all very simple but fascinating:

Happy birthday Bo Diddley!

Cosmos and the Lack of Politics

CosmosBecause my sister knows me well, she bought me the new Cosmos on DVD for Christmas. I had seen much of it before, but I’m glad to have it. For one thing, it has allowed me to share it with my father who likes such things. But I have to admit that it bothers for a few reasons. The most minor of these is simply that I’m an old curmudgeon. I know far too much science and I bristle at every statement that isn’t quite right. I found that to be especially true in the fifth episode because it dealt with relativity and that’s a subject that people seem to be unable to discuss with any degree of clarity. And then there was some mixing up of special relativity and general relativity and I was fit to be tied. But that really is minor.

What most bothers me about it is the politics of it. The first several episode were filled with scientific hubris. This is an issue that causes me no end of problems in my relationships with fellow atheists. It’s kind of weird. The scientific process is an amazingly powerful thing that I greatly admire. But there is a tendency among people to think that it is the end all of knowledge. And it just isn’t. It is the ultimate in the old joke about the drunk guy looking for his keys under the lamp even though he dropped the keys in a different location, “The light is better here!” Science is a great way to answer certain kinds of questions. But there are questions that science just can’t parse. So those questions are just avoided or defined as non-questions.

So it is great that we have science around to pound away at our knowledge. But it is generally not the case that what we want for is a scientific approach to solving problems. In the 13th century, for example, the Dominican Theodoric of Freiberg managed to figure out the rainbow. The biggest problem is not how we will go about answering questions. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t even occur to us that questions ought to be answered. To me, the best example of this today is found in the field of economics. It seems like a science. The same process is used with data and models and all that. But fundamental questions are simply not acceptable. Where in the world of mainstream economics are there people asking how property — a commonly held resource — can be privately owned? That’s just an illegitimate question. The best we get is an analysis of income inequality, which the profession has denied to generations and now shoves aside with various arguments — most notably with the idea that inequality is great because we have iPhones.

And this gets to my primary problem with Cosmos. The takeaway from the original series really wasn’t scientific. Rather, it was that science is a powerful means of understanding the universe and so it must be used to counter bad ideas in the lives of humans. In particular, Carl Sagan was interested in nuclear arms. But what is the new series interested in? Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the big fight now is just against ignorant theists who want to teach Creationism in science classes. But I think it is a major mistake to even step down to that level. So what great policy is Tyson willing to tackle? Nothing really. He doesn’t say much more about global warming than Carl Sagan said three and half decades earlier.

Add to this the fact that the producers of the series made the terrible decision to put the show on commercial television. The original series provided a whole hour to deal with a subject. But here, the narrative is interrupted every ten minutes for everyone to be reminded what really matters: commerce. And that’s what I mean about the questions we don’t ask. Is science a common good that should be shared with all of humanity? Or is it just a way of delivering eyeballs for commercials about soft drinks and erectile dysfunction medications? I think the former, but our society clearly thinks the latter. Sadly, the new Cosmos does not have an opinion on such matters. That means that the producers of the series are doing just what those who ran the Library of Alexandria did: nothing. And Carl Sagan pointed out the problem with this kind of disinterested science in the original Cosmos.

Useless Mainstream Media

Chuck ToddCharlie Pierce made an interesting comparison over at his place at Esquire, Life And Cheerios Imitate The Newsroom. He started by noting the ridiculousness of Chuck Todd claiming that he has to allow Republicans (“politicians”) to lie on Meet the Press, because if he didn’t, they wouldn’t come on the show. It was a remarkable moment of honesty, although Todd does seem to think it is about “balance.”

I think it is typical of what I call “fake power” — the kind of power you only have as long as you don’t use it. The best recent example of this has been Speaker of the House John Boehner who has enormous power, but if he ever used that power to do what was right rather than just to do what his caucus wanted, he would find that he was out of a job. Similarly, Chuck Todd has the power to ask the “hard questions” only so long as he absolutely never asks the hard questions.

It reminds me of something else. You could watch the nightly news on ABC, NBC, and CBS. And you would never see anything different. It is a remarkable example of self-censorship. Either that or it just so happens that the major news outlets manage to get right to the heart of what is going on in the world. Of course, we know that isn’t the case. You can go back over the decades and see what the news sources were reporting in their amazing unanimity and see what was really going on. It’s just follow the leader.

Meanwhile, all the time I was growing up, I was told that the Soviet Union didn’t have a free press. Well, true enough. But that didn’t speak poorly of them so much as it speaks poorly of us for thinking that we do have a free press. It’s like what Noam Chomsky said in The Common Good, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

So good old Chuck Todd is there to play the part of a free journalist. And indeed, he isn’t being told what to say and not to say by the government. Oh no! He’s being told what to say and not to say by the “free” market! And that is better because… I’m not sure. No one has ever answered it because no one seems to even be aware that it is a question to be answered.

Pierce focused primarily on Reince Priebus’ recent hissyfit about not allowing any Republicans to come on MSNBC, after someone at the network had tweeted out, “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.” MSNBC folded like a cheap ironing board, of course. And Pierce notes that if a Democrat had made a similar demand, he would have laughed out of polite company. But there is a difference I’m afraid: Democrats aren’t bigots. If half the electorate that votes Republican weren’t compelled to do so by their bigotry, Priebus wouldn’t have felt the need to demand an apology.

I don’t think there is an other side to this situation. Democrats — despite their many failings — actually believe in what they claim to believe in. It isn’t the case that half of the Democratic vote comes from closet communists. And even that would be more acceptable than the racist base of the Republican Party. So of course if the Democrats started acting like the Republicans, people would scoff. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine a comment that would cut the party so deeply while also being true.

What’s wrong with our media system is that people like Chuck Todd don’t start interviews with Reince Priebus with questions like, “What is the Republican Party going to do when all its racist voters die off? Does the party have a plan to create new racist voters?” But that won’t happen. If it did, the Republicans wouldn’t come on Meet the Press, and people like Chuck Todd would have to do actual journalism. And I don’t think there are many people in the mainstream press that still know how that’s done.