Nov 8, 2016

For Hillary

Tomorrow, I go to vote for Hillary. I encourage you to do the same. I'm a policy wonk (it's my actual degree, after all), and I like getting into the weeds, but there hasn't been much point this year. Where should any comparison begin? Trump has no policies, not in the traditional sense--he riffs around with language until he finds a crowd-pleaser, then wails away. Truth, intentions, facts, analysis--these things are lost in primate dominance rituals wrapped in verbal affect and white nationalism. There is no policy, and in any case a discussion of his few horrifying and impractical proposals misses the point.

This is no mere disagreement about the details and philosophies of governance, no common dispute--however heated, however bitter, however one-sided--about whose policies will truly help the nation. One can say of Romney, of McCain, of Bush, that they at least had ideas, and least believed--or convincingly pretended to believe--that those ideas were correct, and would be to the betterment of the country. Naturally I hold them disastrously incorrect; but to be incorrect one must at least hold an idea. Trump is not even wrong. His candidacy has obliterated policy, and reduced tomorrow's choice to a single question: the survival of our constitutional republic, and of its ideals.

In the last week we learn that his campaign staff took away the keys to his Twitter account--the Android has fallen silent. This is astonishing. His own handlers realize that he cannot be trusted with social media--yet they, and the leadership of his party, propose he be given the nuclear codes. This cannot be forgiven. Here is a man who believes climate change to be a Chinese hoax; who mocks the disabled; who assaults women and brags about it; who pays no taxes; who stiffs and ruins those who work for him, and invest in him; who retweets white nationalists and has encouraged and enabled a racist resurgence; who incites violence against minorities, his opponents, and protesters at his rallies; who attacks gold start families; who paints immigrants and refugees as terrorists and rapists; who praises brutal dictators as strong; who has committed these sins and others beyond enumeration. What more can be said? He is an existential threat to our nation and the world; he has wrought incalculable damage already; and he must not be President.

There is only one candidate who can defeat him. Make no mistake, either Trump or Clinton will win this election. There is no politician in living memory for whom I would not vote under these circumstances. Not Cruz, not Romney, not McCain, not the Shrub himself. As it happens, we have a candidate who surpasses any of those. Clinton is a dedicated public servant, a workhorse who knows her policy cold. Her scandals are the inventions of the right-wing fever swamp that culminated in Trump; her mistakes are real; her lapses in judgment irritating but not more so than any public figure of such long service; and along the axis of her every fault, Trump is worse. Besides this, she is a fundamentally decent and dedicated human being for all that the Trumpettes accuse her of murdering babies, checking email, and practicing witchcraft. She will do well, and better as we hold her to account. I would have voted for anyone in the Democratic primary over whatever hairball the Republicans coughed up; I would have voted for Bush himself to stop Trump; but I am proud to vote for Hillary Clinton. I am proud to be a part of electing the first woman President. I am proud to continue Obama's legacy.

Against this we have only the "third" parties. They are unserious. They have brave slogans and no details, but more tellingly they have no coalitions. In a democracy, power comes from coalitions. Coalitions require compromise. In their special snowflake purity, they have disdained compromise--and with it coalitions, and with them power. You can never get everything you want in a democracy, there is always the messy give-and-take. The third parties are nothing more than a way to pretend otherwise while getting nothing. To turn up one's nose at the lesser evil is to choose the greater, as Nader proved in 2000, and they may stamp their feet and indignantly deny it, and complain that they are tired of hearing it, but they have yet to explain how, in a winner-take-all system with geographic representation, a third party vote will accomplish anything other than marginally decreasing the odds of victory for the major party with whom you most closely align.

These are our choices, and there is only one. Tomorrow we vote. I'm with her.

Aug 3, 2016

Post-fact Taxes

So I saw a little conservative rant about tax plans going around, and ... well, take a look:

It's a little hard to read, so here's the text:
I compared Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump's tax plan to see how it would effect me as a middle class tax payer. Here's the break down assuming I can get my deductions to bring me down to $75,300 of taxable income.
Hillary Clinton places that salary in a 25% tax bracket (married filing jointly) which translates to me paying around $724.00 in fed tax a paycheck. That's around $1,448.00 a month or $18,825.00 per year in fed taxes (my salary is divided over 26 pay periods).
Donald Trump places that salary in a 10% tax bracket which translates to me paying around $290 in fed tax a paycheck. That's around $580 a month or $7,530.00 per year in fed taxes.

Donald Trump's tax plan would put an extra $434.00 a paycheck in my pocket every paycheck. That's about $868.00 a month or $11,284.00 per year in extra money.

If I were to invest that $434 each paycheck into a mutual fund with an average interest rate of %10 I would have....almost 2 million dollars when I retire in 30 years.....
Think about that when you consider who you are going to vote for in November. An extra $870 a month can go an extremely long distance in most people's households.
You can check Clintons tax plan here
And Trumps tax plan here
1) Comparing an independent analysis of your opponent to your guy's campaign propaganda is neither honest nor likely to yield insight.

2) "$18,825.00 per year in fed taxes"
That is not how tax brackets work. You aren't taxed 25% per year on the whole thing; income in a certain bracket is taxed on the rate for that bracket. Dude just multiplied 75,300 by .25. (In fairness, he makes the same mistake calculating his taxes under Trump.)

3) "Hillary Clinton places that salary in a 25% tax bracket (married filing jointly)"
Actually, the link that the gentleman provides states that Hillary Clinton places that salary in a 15% tax bracket.

4) Errors 2&3 together have led him to overstate his tax burden under Clinton's plan by more than 80%. Doing the actual calculation, a married-filing-jointly with $75,300 under Hillary's plan would pay:
10% on the first $18,550 = $1,855
15% on the next $56,750 = $8,512.50
For a total of: $10,367.50.

If it were just the reading comprehension error and not knowing how tax brackets work, I would be inclined to ascribe it to error rather than malice, but the campaign-propaganda-to-independent-analysis comparison hints at a more deliberate attempt to deceive--if only to deceive himself.

Also 'effect' in the first sentence should be 'affect' so there's that, too.

This dreck has been shared 126,000 times.  Gaze upon my works, ye elitists, and despair.

May 29, 2016

Feminism at the Movies

There's a new Ghostbusters trailer.  It's all women, so of course a bunch of MRAs are screaming about icky girls ruining their (apparently ongoing) childhoods.  But they seem to have picked a much softer target than Mad Max: the trailer gives every indication that we're in for another boring retread by a studio out of ideas and looking to cash in on nostalgia. Am I seriously going to have to go see this to piss them off?  Even from an SJW perspective, I can't have been the only one bothered by the portrayal of the black girl, right?  The white girls got to be "funny", smart, proactive--and the black girl got to be ... the stereotype of a loud black girl.  Yet many SJW types seem excited by it for some reason?  Sigh.  Equal and opposite to the tendency to dislike things just because they don't conform your agenda is the tendency to like things just because they DO--and if you doubt me, google 'Kirk Cameron'.

While we're on the subject of retreads and social themes in movies, I finally saw the new Star Wars.  It wasn't perfect ... but I liked it.  I liked it a lot better than any of the prequels, including Revenge of the Sith (formerly known as 'the good one').  It was an actual goddam Star Wars movie.  True, as someone said, it felt like a cross between a reboot and an homage by someone who wasn't clear on the difference between a reboot and an homage.  But when I saw that stormtrooper refuse to fire on innocent villagers, and then come back to his ship and pull off his helmet an emotional wreck, I cared about what happened to that stormtrooper.  And when we met Rey, and saw her hard scavenging life, and saw her stick up for a droid, I cared about what happened to Rey.  And that right there is far more than can be said for the prequels, where the only caring-for was a carry-over from the original trilogy.

The only thing that really bugged me was Finn.  One, he's black.  Not 'black in a leading role', not 'black in Star Wars', but 'black in the Empire First Order.'  The Empire was species-ist, sexist, and racist--wall-to-wall white dudes oppressing a gender-, color-, and species-diverse Rebellion (by the third movie, anyway).  Changing that fundamental dynamic requires more explanation than "none whatsoever."

Two: Finn is conversant; funny; quick on his feet; lies to impress a girl; convinces a skeptical third party to go along (and how refreshing to see a movie where the guy admits to a lie because it's the right thing to do rather than being found out!); and is generally a fun, charismatic character.  This is a bit odd for someone trained from birth in a program of combat drills and indoctrination so thoroughgoing that he didn't even have a name.  But boom!--he defects, and then he's more or less a normal guy.  Shouldn't he be a bit more ... damaged?  Like, Kurt-Russell-in-Soldier-level damaged?

But ah well.  It was good stuff--compelling characters, beautiful effects--and I'll definitely be seeing it again.

Feb 28, 2016

True Religion

Saw this video on a friend's wall:

Sorry for the lack of embed, but it's on Facebook. In it, a Muslim tells us that the extremists are not of true Islam.  I know where he's coming from, but ...

I was raised in a nasty version of Christianity, and as I got older and found a voice to fire back, I was largely met with the Christian version of this guy: people who simply deny that the violent, the abusers, the guilters, the terrorists are "real Christians". Those infinitely more interested in defending the good name of the tribe than in listening to its victims. Not one of us, not my problem, they say, and cherry pick some verse or another to back up their position.

In other words, they make the very same argument--cherry picked scripture and all!--that the extremists made about them for, oh, I don't know, the entirety of my childhood. Now who's right, exactly? Yeah, sure enough, the nice ones are right--the Bible really does say, "Do unto others." But hey, look at that! The nasty ones are right, too--the Bible really does say to kill the gays and breathes nary a word of condemnation for the slave trade it established.

So long as the 'good' ones continue to proclaim the book in which the bad stuff is written, and the epistemology of blind faith and revelation which leads to it, any argument just boils to down "Nuh uh YOU'RE wrong." I suppose it's true that the good ones do less damage, but they cover for the bad ones. Keep telling people that "God" can speak to them and sure enough "God" will keep telling people some really nasty shit--and what do you say in return, having once told them to follow that voice against the world? Proclaim as the perfect source of all morality a book that will not suffer a woman to teach--are you then innocent when others discriminate against women on its basis?

I'm not as intimately familiar with Islam as with Christianity, but in this at least they are precisely analogous.

Jun 29, 2015

Poor Wayfaring Dreher

"Voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies are not going to save us now," writes Dreher, implying that Orthodox Christians in America had been looking to the Republican Party to save them.

From the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, I can imagine no stronger indictment of "Orthodox Christianity" than that such a thing could be thought, written--apparently in all seriousness--and then published by a major news organization without anyone thinking anything of it.  One traditionally thinks of Orthodox Christians, in America or otherwise, as turning to Jesus to save them, but in my four years an atheist I seem to have fallen behind the times.  Like the Israelites of old, they have turned to Egypt for their succor and found it a staff of crushed reed, an "ally" who only ever intended to use and betray.

But now, deprived of both their asserted "right" to bend the law in service of their oppression and of any knowledge of what their sacred text actually says about marriage (virgin-saving and polygamy both come to mind), they find themselves cast adrift, exiles in a cruel, debauched world which crucified their very Lord.

In the mouths of the overweight majority of the richest and most powerful nation that ever existed, the persecution narrative becomes a marvelous emetic.  Christians must paint themselves as victims--as the outcast, the persecuted, those despised of the world.  Jesus promised his followers that they would be exiles; at least some of these lily-white Republican stooges have read those passages, and the implications lay buried in their collective subconscious like a stinger.  If we're not being persecuted, then we're not followers of Christ, and Dreher's jawdroppingly un-self-aware whinge is but the latest pearl to grow from that sand-grain abyss.

Middle-aged white dudes wrapping themselves in the shawl of misery and LARP-ing out 'Poor Wayfaring Stranger' would be hilarious were the underlying terror less heartfelt, and that terror would be pitiable were it not for the suffering they inflict on others to assuage it.  Make no mistake: Team Evil does not consist solely of knuckle-dragging bigots justifying their inborn hatred with a few clobber passages, nor does the remainder consist entirely of decent people who just can't square the good they want to do with the evil that the Bible commands.  Beneath and woven through them both is fear--fear at the juxtaposition of their station and their beliefs, a fear so profound that in their desperation they latched onto something this stupid in order to wish it away.

This is as charitable a picture as I am able to paint of those now falling onto their carefully positioned fainting couches, and it is dredged from my own experience at considerable emotional expense.  Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps he is not tormented by his faith into tormenting others.  But being as how his politics and beliefs have tormented others, eliminating fear reduces the field of explanations to malice and stupidity. If you look at this great milestone towards the end of oppression, violence, and hate, and all you've got is "Woe is me!" then you're either a horrible person or you're really fucking dumb.

And whatever else he is, Dreher isn't dumb.

Jun 18, 2015

Picking a Translation

The first thing you notice when sitting down to read "the" Quran is the same thing you notice when sitting down to read "the" Bible: there's no such thing, at least for those of us not sufficiently versed in ancient languages to crack open the original.  I expected to have to choose a translation, but I didn't expect to have 57* translations** to choose from.

When I was on the mission field, it was a common complaint that despite the dozens--hundreds--of translations of the Bible into English, we were wasting resources adding more and more and more when so many languages didn't even have one translation.  These days I'm more inclined to suggest that if not one of a hundred extant translations lives up to your expectations, then perhaps the problem lies with your expectations.  Perfection is a heavy burden for a text to bear.

Still, I want to give this thing a fair shake, not stumble into the Islamic equivalent of The Message.  I called up the local mosque and was directed to The Noble Quran***, a Saudi-backed translation billed as the most widely disseminated.  It's also been slammed as the most extremist, interpolating the text with parenthetical additions consisting of medieval screeds and polemics on modern Middle Eastern politics.  In the very first Surah we find denigration of "those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews)", whose crooked ways are contrasted with the straight ones that we should be following.

Well if I wanted to hear about a people being under God's wrath by virtue of birth, I'd go read Luther.  This is the most widely disseminated version?  The go-to answer for the first Mosque on google that picked up the phone?  Yikes.

Understand, I'm not saying this is any worse for Islam than the "kill the gays" bits of the Bible are for Christians.  But I'm sort of used to the Christian Bible saying kill the gays, and I'm not really used to anyone who's trying for respectability just out and ranting about The Jews in public.  This is part of the problem with Western perception of Islam.  Christianity's sins--textual and practical--have become the wallpaper, whereas the casual Western observer of Islam can find much that, in its newness, still shocks.  This is not an argument for the normalization of Islam, though--it's a call to bring the hammer down on Christianity.  If the gays came out with a book that said to kill the Christians, you'd better believe they'd be taken to task for it, and rightly so--but no such accounting is demanded of those that cleave to the Bible.

At any rate I'll do one better for Islamic PR than it just did for itself and avoid that particular text.

I find myself drawn to the descriptions of two versions: The Holy Qu'ran by Muhammed 'Ali, the favored text of the Nation of Islam, and copiously footnoted, whose anti-miraculism might prove something of a counter-measure to normal dialectic of "The fact that we now know what it says is wrong isn't sufficient grounds to claim that's not what it means."  The other, alleged to be accurate, beautiful, and free of prejudice, is Arberry's The Koran Interpreted.  Both texts are available for free online at the links that I've provided.

I plan, at least at first, to read the text in both translations, and at the very least skim the footnotes, before recording my reactions.  We'll see how it goes.  The whole endeavor is very much a work in progress, so please bear with.

*Counting (and perhaps miscounting) only direct-to-English translations.

**I'm also aware of the Islamic tradition that no true translation of the Quran is actually possible.  This is correct, but trivial--I'm a former professional translator, and I can safely report that no "true" translation of anything is possible.  All translations are paraphrase--though some are more paraphrase than others--and they all make tradeoffs between rhythm, poetry, connotation, references, double-meanings, idiom, readability, and grammatical construction.  Even reading in the original, the translation from the page to the mind is problematic: no two people will come away with exactly the same impressions of a text's "true" meaning.  That said, the text consists of words, and those words have meanings, and anyone who insists otherwise is selling something.

***Text available here.

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Jun 11, 2015

Reading the Quran, Intro

A nonbeliever was once traveling through Northern Ireland back when the Northern Irelanders were slaughtering each other for being the wrong sort of follower of the Prince of Peace.  He was stopped at a roadblock by unknown assailants: "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" came the menacing question.

"I'm an atheist," he replied.

Undeterred, the questioner demanded: "Well are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"

I never really believed in Vishnu.  I didn't agonize for years about reconciling Vishnu with what I could observe to be true.  I wasn't mind-fucked by Vishnu's followers and indoctrination.  I don't feel an urgent need for atonement through opposition to the sins of Vishnu's tribe, as I was never a participant.  Of course Vishnu isn't real, and of course bad things are bad things whether it's Hindus or Christians or atheists doing them.  But Vishnu isn't near to my heart in that Morgul-blade sort of way that Southern Baptist Jesus still is.  I am very much a Protestant atheist.

That personal history informs my encounters with other faiths.  When all you have is a rage-fired hate-crossbow, every problem looks like a zombie, and while I never really expect to like what I see when I look at religion, the itchy trigger finger can make an honest examination difficult.  Here we have the indoctrination of children,  the unsupported truth claims, and the harmful and antiquated morality propped up by the arrogated word of the divine; there we see the social circles so beloved of its members and so oblivious and sickeningly hurtful to those excluded; and finally we are reminded of the good commandments, and asked not to notice that they are supported by the same epistemology which upholds the bad.

How shall we react?

But the attempt should nonetheless be made.  So, I'm going to read the Quran.  It's an idea that's been rattling around in my head for a while now: to have an honest encounter--including an honest accounting for my history and viewpoint, which you're currently reading--with the "sacred" texts, and to set down my thoughts and reactions.  I've just recently started a new job, so I have no idea what kind of posting schedule I'll be able to manage, but I'll strive for regularity and at least weekly updates.

So with all that out of the way, stay tuned for more.

May 22, 2015

Better a millstone ...

It seems that a self-righteous pack of libelous discrimination advocates are in fact sex criminals. But that snarky sentence doesn't really capture the horror of the thing.  What's worse, Josh Duggar is already being referred to as a broken hero, as if anyone who worked for the FRC was ever anything but a villain.

Let us speak plainly.

Josh Duggar was evil through and through; the only thing that we found out today was that he was evil in one more way--and what a way!--than we thought. He's vile "moralist" known primarily for lying about gay people in order to deny them rights, and now we find out he's a sex criminal to boot.

Josh Duggar's entire life was premised around being better than gays (he worked for the FRC fer chrissakes!), and now that he's fallen we find Christianity teaching us that we're no better than him? This is a vile, anti-human preachment.

This article, like Josh's "statement", displays zero--ZERO--empathy for his victims, either of his political stances or of his unpardonable crimes, instead spending its moral energy equating doubting God and consensual sex with murder. The utter warping of the moral compass displayed not only by this family but by their defenders and commentators should be sufficient in itself, apart from any other evidence, to convince one absolutely that Christianity is a festering malignancy on the soul of humanity that it is the duty of all those who seek the good to excise.

There is no hell hot enough, nor eternity long enough, for those who do this to children, and for those who cover for them. Child molestation, and aiding and abetting it, is the vilest act that anyone can commit, and the juxtaposition with their stuck-up moralizing is galling beyond what mortal tongues can convey.

These are deeply evil people and I'm truly sorry that the consequences of their evil will not be more dire--for them. For their victims, of course, it is already quite dire enough.

Apr 3, 2015

The Church of Harvey Fierstein

I'm a bit late to the pile-on, but this is too awesome not to share.

Plus ... it's not really hypothetical.  I have personally been in that exact situation (well, a close analog anyway).

Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria have long denied Evangelicals many basic rights and privileges on the basis of their religious convictions.  Seen it myself.

Then I got back to the States and--whoops!--the only difference between the godly remnant Evangelicals and the oppressive 'form-of-religion-but-denying-the-power-thereof' Orthodox was the extent and geographic distribution of their worldly power.  Seeing my people doing to others what I had labelled persecution when done to us was a shock not easily recovered from, but one which would do a world of good to a very great number of people.

And which, let us add, I should dearly love to personally administer.

Feb 13, 2015

Chapel Hill

On Tuesday this week, an atheist gunned down three Muslims in Chapel Hill.

Apparently I must begin by saying that I disapprove of murder; I would go so far as to say that I disapprove of nearly all violence, with about the only exception being in defense against the violent.  This was a despicable act.

But let us note, in passing, the rank hypocrisy of a society in which three Muslims can go on a mass-murder spree in France while screaming vengeance for the prophet and a veritable tidal wave of commentary will deny any connection to religion, but if just one of a depressingly long list of 'Murkan parking disputes gone bad features an atheist as a perpetrator, then it's crisis time for the entire movement.  Where is your Aslan, now?  Oh that's right, retweeting Dawkins-bashing, 'atheists have no grounds for morality'-regurgitating pablum that wanks itself silly with delight that atheism is a faith, and its adherents no more righteous than those of any other.

Go fuck yourself, Lion-boy.  On a somewhat lighter note, you also have articles like: Moderate atheists claim anti-theist Chapel Hill killer took The God Delusion ‘out of context.  Which ... I do think this is funny, but there's two key differences: 1) atheists, moderate or otherwise, don't revere 'The God Delusion' as a Holy Book, and 2) 'The God Delusion' doesn't actually say to go kill the believers. Contrast the believers who really do revere a Holy Book, which really does say all the nasty things that their extremists get off on.

The reaction in the atheist community has been a bit mixed; you've got the aforementioned, 'People shooting people over parking spots is totally a thing (U!S!A!  U!S!A!), what on earth can you extrapolate from the minor statistical anomaly of both perpetrator and victim holding opposed minority viewpoints on religion?'  On the other end, you've got Heina relating her experience as a Muslim/ex-Muslim having to disavow terrorist attacks to her own similarities with Hicks and PZ advising us to own it, reiterating his familiar point that atheist must go beyond disbelief in one particular truth-claim

Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, was Hemant's reaction, which I might summarize as 'Yeah, this isn't our fault, but since he was one of ours we need to nut up, condemn violence, and stand in solidarity with a grieving community.'

As for myself, my first instinct is the vociferous denial that this had aught to do with me; my second instinct is to mistrust the first--reflexive defense of tribe and self against any criticism removes the corrective mechanism for actual errors.  I accept that a healthy contempt and criticism of bad ideas can bleed over into animus towards and dehumanization of those that hold them.  If this contributed to Hick's actions, then that is deeply regrettable.  But on current evidence, the incident looks like the power to take a life corrupted an ammosexual who was only incidentally atheistic.  We all have moments where we get so mad we can't see straight.  The difference between the "normals" and the gun-fondlers is that the latter are vastly more likely to be in possession of human killing devices when that occurs.

This verdict is defeasible by further evidence.  For now, though, I condemn this senseless and despicable act, and my heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims.