30 June 2014

Hobby Lobby

I've got just one thing to say about this:  VOTE!!!  The Supreme Court justices who imposed this travesty personify the most enduring consequence of Republican Presidents.  Very well then -- there must be no more Republican Presidents.  Any Democrat would appoint far better Supreme Court judges than any Republican.  And vote this year too -- defend the Democratic majority in the Senate to minimize Republican obstruction in case Obama gets to make another appointment in his last two years.

This can be overturned, someday, and other bad decisions can be prevented -- but that depends on who appoints and confirms the justices, which in turn depends on us.

There's plenty more to say, of course, and our other bloggers are saying it; check out Progressive Eruptions and Booman Tribune.  And an Andrew Sullivan reader points out that this decision privileges Catholic taboos specifically, not religion in general, making the flouting of the Establishment Clause even worse.

UpdateSquatlo Rant lays it on the line.

29 June 2014

Link round-up for 29 June 2014

Murr Brewster looks at BIG horses and evolution.

Financial and fire hazards -- more bitcoin "mining" machines.

Here are ten signs of being a fundie.

It's not exactly the Library of Alexandria, but this little spat in Kansas shows the grouch mentality at work, though there's a happy ending (found via Mendip).

Stupid Bible story of the week:  Jepthah.

Hollywood is running out of ideas -- but it has plenty of ideas for what spaceships should have.

Here's a fascinating analysis of Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait.

Meet the ladies of concealed carry (found via F169).

Wealthy Nick Hanauer has a warning for his class.

Cruelty is the essence of the right-wing war on civilization.  Read the comments, if only for the knee-jerk troll responses -- these people really are unreachable.

Faye Kane pwns libertarians (NSFW blog).

It's not just creationism -- fundamentalism makes America ignorant.

A "knockout" attack in Brooklyn ends badly for the perp.

Here's a quick summary of Republican policy on pretty much everything.

An ex-Muslim laments the absurdity of his former religion.

The most admired recent President by far?  Bill Clinton.

Say thanks to the NSA (found via Faye Kane).

Hey Republicans, how's that outreach to Latinos going?

Much of our country's disastrous wrong direction is the work of one man.

The Supreme Court gives the green light to religious harassment.

Teabaggerdom is mad as hell about Thad Cochran's victory in the Mississippi primary.

Why we need to keep Democrats in power:  Biden takes an uncompromising stand against bigotry.

Gin and Tacos takes a sobering look at American exceptionalism -- read the comments too.

Britain keeps a very close eye on its Muslims.

An Italian Catholic priest declares extramarital sex a worse sin than murder (found via F169).

Teddy bears are misused to facilitate disgusting religious rituals.

Defying Putin, Ukraine signs a trade deal with the EU.

Check out how Russian cops dress, at least until the killjoys crack down.  More stupid Russian legislation here.

Iran's chief theocrat Khamenei makes a dangerous reversal on birth control.

ISIS holds a victory parade through Mosul.  Your taxes probably bought those military vehicles for the Iraqi army, which abandoned them without a fight.

Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani is a puritanical old grouch, but he has his good side.

Muslim Pakistani traditional values -- a couple is hacked to death and a woman is burned alive.

In the world's most boring country, the young resort to dangerous thrill rides.

Chimpanzees have fads, though not quite as silly as ours.

Can you understand the tesseract? (NSFW blog)

There's something big and mysterious in a strange sea far away.

27 June 2014

The Middle East and American narcissism

John Kerry, the top foreign-policy official of the most powerful country in the world, is in Iraq right now, and he is being ignored.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refuses to step down in favor of a less-divisive leader, or to reform his Shiite sectarian regime into a unity government more inclusive of Sunnis (not that either action would likely do any good at this point).  Kerry has also urged the Kurds to cooperate with Maliki against ISIS, but the Kurds know that the Iraqi state's authority over the north is gone, probably forever, and they are focusing on securing Kirkuk and other important territories against the threat of ISIS.

John McCain may fume that Obama should "make" Maliki or other local players do this or that, while others argue for different goals, but the fact is, Americans have to get over the idea that we are the chief shapers of events in the Middle East.  Yes, we have great military power and we can do the things that military power can do, such as overthrowing Saddam, but everything else is being driven by local forces and interests.  Even in Iraq, where the US has invested money, time and lives in trying to influence the outcome, American fantasies of a western-style democracy unifying the country were almost comically swatted aside by the ethnic and sectarian dynamics now playing out.  Indeed, the very concept of Iraq as a country is just another Western delusion the West cannot preserve.

It's a mind-set I encounter again and again.  If anything happens in the Middle East, especially if it affects us, it must somehow be caused by something the West did.  Jihadism is a reaction to colonialism or the existence of Israel (you'd think the intense jihadist targeting of places like Russia, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Thailand, etc. would tip people off that there are other factors at work).  The Arab Spring is to be credited to an American administration wiser than the last, as if hundreds of thousands of people who braved the guns of the dictators took their inspiration from Washington.  The breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with Iran is similarly credited to nuances of American policy, not to a new and courageously reformist Iranian President or the gargantuan mass street protests of 2009 which intimidated the ayatollahs enough to make his election possible.  Middle Eastern people are, apparently, passive and inert and never take initiatives; they only react to things that Westerners do.

I blame this mind-set partly on the fact that most Americans, including liberals, know very little about the internal social and political dynamics of Middle Eastern societies -- so when they need an explanation for something, they retreat to the familiar, especially if they can turn it into an opportunity to praise or condemn the policies of some American politician whom they wished to praise or condemn anyway.

It's true that spectacular Western blunders like the Iraq invasion or the overthrow of Mosaddegh had a major impact, but the West could not guide subsequent events to a desired conclusion; taking one big player out of the game changes the game, but does not mean you control the game.

Nor does the Middle East exist as a mirror held up to ourselves.  When Americans' sole response to events in Iraq is "Yeah, that proves what an idiot Bush was", they are engaging in narcissism.  Yes, Bush was an idiot, but ISIS and Maliki and the Kurds are not doing what they are doing in order to remind us that he was an idiot.

The fact is, we're a sideshow, if that.  The Middle East has to be understood on its own terms.

24 June 2014

Cultural nationalism

We think of nationalism as a political phenomenon, but in the present age it can take another form which is almost equally important, which I call cultural nationalism.

I define cultural nationalism as the mass re-assertion, in cultural rather than political forms, of a sense of national identity which is felt to be under threat.  There isn't a leader or an ideology or a written mission statement, and if organizations exist at all, they're generally innocuous and more an effect that a cause.  It starts among ordinary people and largely stays there.  It can appeal to people who are uncomfortable with the often more aggressive and ideological character of political nationalism.  It can, however, eventually lead to a later rise of political nationalism, as we'll see.

An example of a country where cultural nationalism has become important is the United Kingdom.  People in the land of my ancestors have felt their sense of identity to be under attack for several decades due to three factors which are unprecedented in modern British history.  One is large-scale immigration, especially Muslim immigration, which has introduced a radically-different culture into the country; Muslims are only 4.4% of the total population, but their presence has been highly visible and assertive.  The second factor is the European Union, Europe's increasingly intrusive and unaccountable supra-national quasi-government.  The third, perhaps most important in this context, is a sporadic tendency by the authorities to discourage symbols and practices which are felt to be potentially "offensive" to Muslims.

An example of the latter involves the English flag, not to be confused with the familiar British flag (The UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but England has 85% of the population).  The English flag is traditionally displayed on St. George's Day, England's national holiday, but because it resembles the flag used by the Crusaders, it was discouraged as potentially offensive (example here).  In the last few years, though, the flag and other traditional St. George's Day practices have been resurgent.  There isn't an obvious political component to all the dressing up and slaying of plastic-and-cloth dragons.  It's just people re-asserting who they are and, perhaps, sticking it to the finger-wagging busybodies.

Cultural nationalism also often asserts itself in music.  What first made me aware of the concept, in fact, was a folk-rock band called Show of Hands (again, more an English than a British phenomenon -- the distinction isn't too relevant to this post, though the English themselves are very conscious of it).  You couldn't ask for a better example of cultural nationalism than this song:

Again, there is nothing political here, but the appeal to reclaim identity is fervent and explicit.  Show of Hands is enormously popular, having for example sold out the Royal Albert Hall (a huge venue) several times.

One striking thing about the re-assertion of cultural identity in Britain is that religion has been decisively rejected as a component of it, even though there is an official state religion.  Rosa Rubicondior, a British blogger, discussed this last week, and I particularly note this chart based on a recurring survey of what British people themselves consider the most important components of their identity:
Being Christian ranks by far the least important of all the factors surveyed, and is falling in importance over time.  (More on nationalism vs. religion here.)  Cultural nationalism in Europe is routinely smeared as racist (and racists certainly do exist there, as everywhere); there was no question about race in the survey, but note that having British ancestry also ranks much lower in importance than most of the other factors.

Cultural nationalism can presage a later rise of political nationalism; questions like intrusive international organizations, and the clash between religious "sensibilities" and free expression, have a political dimension.  Establishment pundits were startled by the electoral victories of the explicitly nationalistic UK Independence Party, and similar parties in other European countries, last month.  They shouldn't have been.  But they need to start paying more attention to those fake-dragon slayers and sold-out folk-rock shows, and less attention to officious tie-wearing people pronouncing upon what is and isn't correct thought -- and that kind of thing doesn't come naturally to most pundits.

Cultural nationalism is asserting itself in many places, though it can sometimes be hard to recognize -- by its very nature, it takes somewhat different forms in each country.  But for better or worse, it's a manifestation of something very important, and in many cases it tells us more about what the future has in store than the words of politicians, always deemed more newsworthy, ever can.

22 June 2014

Link round-up for 22 June 2014

This guy went a long way for love.

NOM's sad and dispirited "march for marriage" was just one more big right-wing flop.  Anti-gay-marriage religious propaganda is just as embarrassing.

More and more people see the Bible for what it is.

Poison in our water?  What matters is who did it.

Ben Kinchlow's mindless patriotism shows spectacular ignorance of history.

Big oil's big money is corrupting even our museums.

"Peace for all mankind" -- only where there was no one to fight.

Oklahoma used to average two small earthquakes a year; in 2013 it had 109 more powerful ones.  Here's why.

The delusional Christian Right claims it's being persecuted by Satanic gays.  Here's the reality.

Working to deconvert religious people is the right thing to do (found via Kaveh Mousavi).

Republican governance has made a real mess of Kansas.

The most recent Oregon school shooter was a Mormon fanatic out to kill "sinners".

Don't be fooled -- Obamacare is working.  More here.

How can the US remain a great country when our conservatives so gleefully embrace stupidity?

Abortion opponents fight for the right to lie.

Are American CEOs really 40 times better than Germany's?

As nationalism rises in Britain, religion is sharply declining as an element of national identity.  Another element, the British sense of humor, is alive and well (found via Mendip).

Denmark's first mosque opens amid well-deserved controversy.

Ukraine has secured its border with Russia, while Putin stands revealed as an epic bungler.

Here's an insightful assessment of the significance of Iran's reformist new President, Hassan Rouhani.  But sectarian abuse is still going on.

There's now an online photo journal to celebrate those who cast off the Islamic dress code.

No one knows who built these odd stone structures thousands of years ago, or why (found via Mendip).

The Kurds don't think much of the Iraqi army -- or ISIS -- even as they take in swarms of refugees from the latter.

Buddhist extremism, sometimes violent, is a growing problem in several countries (found via Lady Atheist).

In the rapid rise of renewable energy, Al Gore sees real hope for saving the Earth's climate.

Elephants empathize and console each other (found via Lady Atheist).

20 June 2014

Video of the day -- having it both ways

Funny how they do that, isn't it?  Found via Ed Brayton.

17 June 2014

From Iraq, visions of belief

"The filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds", boast the Sunni extremists of ISIS, and they've got photos to prove it, after their recent victories in northwestern Iraq:

Remember, these and the many others like them are not pictures smuggled out by someone else trying to expose ISIS.  They were taken and posted by ISIS itself.  These men are proud of what they are doing.  They claim to have massacred 1,700 captured Shiite soldiers so far, aside from other reported large-scale killing of civilians.  And they are now threatening to march on Baghdad and on the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbalâ'.  Volunteers throughout Shiite southeastern Iraq are signing up to fight; as I suggested last week, many who will not fight for a meaningless failed state will fight for their religion and their own community.  Iraq seems to be heading toward a full-blown religious war.

This is not about Bush.  Bush was grossly incompetent, but he threw a match into a tinder-box; the tinder was already there.  Bush's stupidity is a matter for American domestic politics.  This is about Iraq and Islam and belief.  This is what happens when people believe in things, fervently.  It's not even about Islam being worse than Christianity.  Back when people actually believed in Christianity, there were the Albigensian Crusade and the Thirty Years War, with scenes far worse than the above, had there been any photographers to record them.

It's not even that most Iraqis are fanatics.  The great majority of Sunnis in Iraq would probably be utterly repulsed at the massacres ISIS is committing.  There's a reason why extremists are called extremists.  It takes only a determined and well-armed minority of fanatics, driven by hatred of some other group, in the absence of a state strong enough to enforce order, to launch a conflict which can then engulf everyone, moderates included -- because fanatics target everyone in the group they hate, not just its own fanatics.

15 June 2014

Got yer free speech right here

Occasionally I get people here who want to engage in interminable back-and-forth arguments in the comment threads.  This leads to me having to explain the difference between a blog and a discussion forum, which often leads to more arguing, which leads to me deleting their comments, which leads to e-mails ignorantly bleating about censorship and free speech, at which point I tune them out, since I have other things to do than deal with people who didn't even bother to read the last paragraph of the comments policy.  However, obviously some people would value a real discussion forum where they could say whatever they wanted with no censorship at all.

Well, have I got a treat for you!  F169 BBS is a new website -- just started a month ago -- which provides exactly that (there's a handy intro page for new users).  The only limitations are (1) no child pornography (most websites have that rule, since allowing such material can lead to legal problems) and (2) no gay pornography.  Aside from that, anything goes, and I do mean anything.  To maximize disinhibition, it's anonymous; you can register a "moniker" to use consistently, or type in any name you choose, or post totally anonymously "as a dot".  People who are used to the blogosphere will need only a minute or two on F169 to notice something they think is so outrageous that it ought to be banned.  That's the beauty of real free speech, though.  If you can say anything you want, so can everybody else.

There's a certain amount of complete rubbish and childish material as well as outright shocking stuff, but some serious discussions too.  You want free speech, there it is.  And you'll find out what a certain number of people out there really think.

Link round-up for 15 June 2014

Here are motivational slogans as you were never meant to see them (found via Mendip).

Best bus ad for a zoo ever.

Once homosexuality has won full acceptance, here's a new frontier in forbidden love.

How did kids survive the 1970s?  Especially when adults had other things on their minds (both found via Mendip).

Translation is difficult.  A satisfactory Arabic version of Frozen proved practically impossible.

Here's what really scares the enemy.

The story of Jonah epitomizes the absurdity of the Bible.

The blog "Mr. Apostate" is apparently no longer updated, but has some amusing religionized comics.

Look what Fox dragged in to attack Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The hard right wing's image of Obama is totally delusional.

Liberal Christian sects in the US have long been shrinking, and now the same is happening to the conservative ones.  But Oklahoma Republican Scott Esk is a real Christian.

Republican-leaning gays, read this, and know how the people you're sucking up to despise you.

This week was the 50th anniversary of the scariest comedy ever (found via Mendip).

A Texas blogger challenges conventional wisdom on the Governor's race there.

Here are some photos of D-Day sites, then and now.

The Tuam Catholic dead-baby scandal just gets worse, with illegal medical experimentation now revealed (link from Shaw Kenawe) and suspicions of thousands of similar child deaths in Catholic institutions across Ireland.

Half the population of Britain now claims no religion (and doubtless many of the rest are Christian-or-whatever in name only), and even most marriages are no longer done in churches.

The Russian city of Volgograd may vote on regaining its historic name -- Stalingrad.

Kaveh Mousavi interviews another Iranian atheist.

The ISIS conquest of northern Iraq has been accompanied by mass beheadings (found via Lady Atheist).

In another alarming step away from secular democracy, India arrests students for publishing an insulting picture of the country's new leader.  Meanwhile, Akin syndrome continues to spread among Indian politicians, and the police are even worse.

All these animals are in imminent danger of extinction.

13 June 2014

Iraq disintegrates

In Iraq this week, Islamic extremists of the ISIS group suddenly lunged northward from their base in Anbar province and seized a huge chunk of territory including Mosul, the second-largest city in the country.  This provoked the Kurds, who have been autonomous in northeastern Iraq since before the fall of Saddam, to advance into Kirkuk, a city they claim as rightfully their own.  The Iraqi government has lost effective control of the entire north and west of the country.

The US government and much of the punditocracy interpret these developments as a "problem" for which a "solution" must be found.  They are wrong.  This is part of the natural disintegration of a state which has no basis for its existence.

The Middle East includes some of the world's oldest nations, such as Iran and Egypt, but Iraq is not a nation and never has been one.  Except for the centuries-old eastern border with Iran, its borders are an arbitrary construct of Anglo-French imperialism after World War I, enclosing three groups of people who don't like each other and have no feeling of common identity.

Iraq's population is about one-fifth Kurdish (in the northeast), one-fifth Sunni Arab (in Anbar province and extending north to the edge of the Kurdish area) and three-fifths Shiite Arab (in the remaining southeastern part of the country).  Baghdad is a mix of all three groups, since people from all over tend to settle in the capital.  The Kurds are a distinct people with a language closely related to Persian, not at all related to Arabic or Turkish.  They are also Sunni, though that fact is not very important.  Kurds also live across the borders in Turkey, Syria, and Iran; their land, informally called "Kurdistan", is a coherent territory divided among those four states.

Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Arab, and his regime brutally repressed the Shiites and Kurds.  His genocidal al-Anfâl campaign of 1986-1989, to thin out the Kurdish population, destroyed about 4,500 Kurdish villages, displaced a million people, and killed about 180,000.  This helps explain why the Kurds, having gained de facto independence, are determined not to be drawn back under the authority of the Iraqi state.

President Bush foolishly though that overthrowing Saddam would usher in democratic nationhood in a place where neither democracy nor nationhood have ever existed.  In fact, all it did was to reverse the power relationship between Sunni and Shiite.  Democracy means Shiite dominance, since Shiites are the majority.  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, much to US frustration, has operated as a Shiite regime, excluding and denigrating Sunnis -- not surprising since, to the Shiites, the Sunnis are not fellow countrymen but former oppressors.

Al-Qâ'idah, a Sunni organization which has massacred Shiites when it had the chance, plunged into the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq when it saw a chance to position itself as the defender of the Sunni minority there.  Since then, the country has seen endless tit-for-tat terrorist attacks between Sunnis and Shiites.  The current main Sunni militant group ISIS ("Islamic State in Iraq and Syria") consists of people who were expelled from al-Qâ'idah for excessive brutality, which gives you some idea how difficult they are to deal with.  Outsiders were shocked this week when the Iraqi army melted away without a fight when attacked by a smaller and less-well-equipped ISIS force.  I wasn't.  ISIS fighters are motivated by religious fanaticism which has repeatedly shown its power to move men to kill or die for the cause.  The Iraqi army is under orders to defend a fake state that nobody believes in.

This was inevitable once the US pulled out.  A foreign power defending the integrity of the Iraqi state is like plowing the sea -- as soon as you stop, what you think you accomplished instantly disappears.  ISIS is now threatening to march on Baghdad and seize the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbalâ; it's been suggested that US airstrikes could stop this, or perhaps the Iraqi army will fight harder when defending Shiite territory.  Iran (also Shiite) might even intervene, though after the massive losses of the Iran-Iraq war, public enthusiasm there for an actual invasion would be low to say the least.

ISIS probably can't conquer the Shiite southeast, or at least not much of it.  But even if the US committed a big enough force to help the Iraqi government re-take Anbar province and the north, the situation would simply revert to something like the present one as soon as we left.  Saddam held Iraq together with brutality and terror which were shocking even by Middle Eastern standards.  That option isn't available any more, not to any government that wants to avoid his pariah status.  Neither the Shiites nor the Sunnis can establish stable control over the whole country.

And the Kurds?  They have little interest in Iraq beyond their northeastern enclave, but their Peshmerga fighters have protected the independence of that enclave not only against the feeble post-Saddam state but against Saddam's much stronger forces during the last few years of his rule.  They've now seized Kirkuk pre-emptively to protect it from ISIS, and can probably hold it against them, too, even though the Iraqi army which the US helped create failed utterly.  They're fighting, not for a fake state, but for their own people.  Because -- and this is the important point -- whatever the maps tell you, Iraq is not a nation, but Kurdistan is.

Update 1Iran has intervened to support fellow Shiites against ISIS, so far on a fairly small scale.

Update 2:  This excerpt from The Guardian, I think, sums up the US role well:

The sheer scale of the Iraqi military's capitulation in the face of a well-armed and disciplined insurgent force has shocked American soldiers and officers who fought in Iraq. Many were involved in training and mentoring Iraqi counterparts and left the country thinking they had helped build a credible institution, perhaps the only one in the land.  "When I arrived in 2003, I was a true believer," said a former US marine. "I voted for Bush, I believed in the cause. Then I stayed for three years. We were lied to. We went there for nothing and we came away with nothing. It cost a trillion dollars for this?"

Even after such a huge investment by a superpower, the artificial state is crumbling in the face of the enduring realities of religious fervor, Kurdish nationalism, and Iranian power.

12 June 2014

Brat worst

Well, so much for the Republicans' "the establishment strikes back" meme.  The Tea Party returns to its role of bumbling henchman to the Republican mad scientist, once again bringing back a defective brain to install in the electoral monster.

First off, no, it wasn't crossover Democrats who brought Cantor down.  Teabaggerdom is gonna have to own this one, and judging by the triumphant excitement on RedState, they're more than eager to do so.

David Brat has only been famous for a couple of days, but I'm already getting a whiff of Christine O'Donnell.  His website implies he attended Princeton University, whereas he actually went to Princeton Theological Seminary, a completely different institution.  His core belief system seems to be a combination of Ayn Rand and Bible-thumping.  He's already flubbed an interview because he doesn't know anything.  What else is going to come out in the long months between now and election day?  Will he manage a signature gaffe as memorable as "I'm not a witch"?  If so, Democrats may have a fighting chance at a seat Cantor would easily have held.  If Brat does get elected, he'll be a loose cannon and a constant threat of embarrassment to the party.

Brat's big issue against Cantor was illegal immigration, an issue on which Cantor was not exactly a flaming liberal -- except in the eyes of teabaggers, whom I've repeatedly seem calling him pretty much exactly that.  Odd as it may seem to liberals, the political territory to Cantor's right is vast and well-populated.  In a hard-red district like VA-7, those zombie hordes are numerous enough that possessing any trace of a brain can be dangerous.  Congressional Republicans, freshly re-terrorized by the revival of the bagger beast they thought tamed at last, will become more timid than ever on this and other issues.  And the right wing's internal debate over illegal aliens, and how (or whether) to appeal to Hispanics more broadly, will heat up (see comment thread here, for example), generating plenty of hateful and alienating rhetoric.

It's events like this that keep me somewhat optimistic about November despite the generally gloomy omens.  The Republican party is so divided and so full of wackos that a certain number of own goals is inevitable.  We can't predict when they'll happen or what form they'll take, but they'll come.

10 June 2014

"The Home" -- the tip of the iceberg?

By now pretty much everyone who follows such news at all knows the story of "The Home" at Tuam, Ireland.  Women and girls who became pregnant as a result of sexual activity not in line with Catholic taboos, and their small children, were treated with utterly callous cruelty and neglect, starved and worked to death or let die of preventable diseases, despite the fact that the nuns were well subsidized by the Irish government for "taking care" of them, and also made good money from the children they forced into adoption.  The last indignity, and the clue that brought this history to light, was 800 corpses of small children dumped in a septic tank.  And this did not happen in the Dark Ages; "The Home" operated until 1961.

See this report at The Irish Examiner; more news and commentary is here.  Andrew Sullivan, though Catholic himself, has always been one of the most outspoken voices on the Church's crimes against children; his assessment is here, here, here, and here.  As has always been the case when such atrocities come to light, the Church's response has been craven ass-covering, spin, and minimization, throwing out every possible excuse and rationalization to snivel that it the evil it committed wasn't actually all that bad.

There are growing demands in Ireland for a government investigation of other such Catholic institutions, not just the one at Tuam.  There is no reason to think this one place was unique.  Who knows how many more places like this the Church was running in Ireland, or even in other countries where its prestige placed its actions beyond question?  Given what we already know about the utterly criminal nature of the Catholic Church, there is every reason to suspect the worst.

Make no mistake.  This happened because of the barbarism of religious taboo morality which subverts and replaces the natural humane morality we are born with and which would render normal people incapable of such cruelty toward innocents.  This happened because, as Sullivan forcefully points out, the Catholic Church is obsessed with sexual taboos and their enforcement above all else.  This happened because those who violated those sexual taboos, or who were born of violation of those taboos, were utterly dehumanized by the self-righteous.  If you are a "social conservative" or a defender of "traditional morality", then you are part of the problem, you are part of the mentality which causes things like this to happen.  That primitive taboo mentality inevitably brings forth cruelty and horror; it, and the religions of which it is the diseased essence and core, must be eradicated from the minds of our species.

08 June 2014

Link round-up for 8 June 2014

Here's what some people in 1939 thought clothes in 2000 would be like (found via Mendip).

Here's how Shakespeare would have done the Hokey Pokey.

A pitiful remnant of the failed Operation American Spring is still acting out in Washington.

Frozen was a great movie, but this is a bit over-the-top.

I09 reviews a new biography of Sally Ride.

There's a part of Maya Angelou's story that she embraced but most obituaries prefer to hush up (found via Kaveh Mousavi).

The fundies are still freaking out over the Harvey Milk stamp.

Sign here to support a ban on animal testing of cosmetics in the US.

Even in red states, a majority favor carbon-emission limits.

Beware of fake satire-news websites.

Will the guy on the right stand with us against the guy on the left?

Samuel Gompers understood the parasite class of his time.  Today, higher productivity isn't helping.

The average age of viewers of two top Fox shows is over 70, though in absolute numbers they still do well with the middle-aged.

Those five Taliban released in exchange for Bergdahl would have had to be released soon anyway.

Rosa Rubicondior has an update on the attempted creationist hijacking of South Carolina's mammoth.

Here are ten dishonest argument tactics used by Christians.  More here.

Ohio Republicans are trying to limit access to birth control.

Frank Moraes looks at a historic American traitor.

We still have lots of creationists, but the number of Americans accepting real evolution has doubled since 1982.

You can get a good wage at McDonalds, but you may need to relocate.

Which European country has the most college-educated people?  You may be surprised.

It's time for Britain to have its own First Amendment.

Here's how D-Day was experienced by a German soldier captured in the invasion.

On the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar, France is accidentally subsidizing the British navy.

The US and Europe are ready to tighten the screws further on Putin, if needed.  But his propaganda machine is going all-out.

Kaveh Mousavi has an excellent post on science and religion in the medieval Middle East (see my comments too).  Here's an example of a religious contribution to science today.

Babulal Gaur seems to aspire to be India's Todd Akin.  Petition the new Prime Minister to do better here.

The one that got away: a Pakistani woman survives an attempted honor killing.

China is destroying mountains, with unpredictable results.

Here's how China carries out the death penalty (warning -- gruesome photo).

Today is World Oceans Day (found via Mendip) -- sorry, it's too late.

We have plenty of scientists -- we need people who can explain science.

In certain tests of cognitive ability, chimpanzees do better than humans.

07 June 2014

Lurching toward theocracy

To conclude "Hinduism week" on this blog, here's a look at recent developments in the world's largest democracy.  While the media react to the emergence of secular nationalist parties in Europe with hysterical cries of "far right" and even "fascist", the rise to power of genuinely sinister religio-nationalist forces in India has drawn relatively little attention in the West.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an absolute majority in India's Parliament last month, a rare event in a country where most governments have been coalitions of parties.  The BJP promotes Hindutva ("Hindu-ness"), a vague ideology which opposes the traditional secular character of India's government in favor of defining India in terms of the Hindu religion.  Over time Hindutva has taken the form of growing hostility toward Muslims, the largest non-Hindu religious minority (Hindus are 80% of the population, Muslims 13%).  The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has a murky past in this regard; as governor of the state of Gujarat, he was suspected of passivity or worse in the face of mob violence there that killed 2,000 Muslims in 2002.  But an anti-Muslim stance carries little electoral cost in India, where repeated Islamic terrorist attacks have frayed tolerance and infuriated the public.

The BJP's rise to power has been helped by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a militant Hindu organization which first arose in 1925 under British rule, partly inspired by the rise of fascism in Europe.  The relationship between the BJP and the RSS is somewhat like the relationship between the US Republican party and the various fundamentalist organizations which have supported and helped define it since the late 1970s, starting with the Moral Majority -- except that the BJP always had a religious identity and did not need to be seduced in that direction.  The RSS has a history of mob violence against non-Hindus and attacks on mosques.

The Hindu religion itself has historically been rather vaguely defined; the militancy of the RSS and BJP has gradually reshaped it into an instrument of social order and potential theocratic domination, as our Christian Right and Dominionist movements have done with Protestant Christianity.  An RSS leader recently remarked that there is room in India for non-Hindus "who accept that India is a Hindu nation", echoing the chilling "Christian nation" rhetoric heard in some quarters here.

One shouldn't be too alarmist or push analogies too far.  India's democracy and official secularism will impose some constraints on the actions of the BJP.  Hinduism has historically not been as rigid or aggressive as Christianity.  But one also shouldn't be blind to the obvious signs of where this is heading.  If I were a secularist or non-Hindu Indian, I'd be terrified.

[Image at top:  RSS paramilitary]

04 June 2014

Caste -- apartheid as religion

Probably most readers are at least vaguely familiar with the Hindu caste system.  It should be emphasized that caste is a feature of the Hindu religion rather than of India as a whole -- other religions in India do not have or recognize castes (except insofar as they have been influenced by Hindu ideas) and nor does Indian secular law, which bans discrimination by caste.  However, since Hindus are 80% of India's population, the influence of caste is pervasive.

The population has long been organized into thousands of hereditary endogamous clan-like units (jâti) associated with specific types of work, grouped into four overall categories (varna) which, in order of rank, are:

1) Brahmin (priests) -- not surprisingly, a religion-based system puts priests at the top

2) Kshatriya (nobility and warriors)

3) Vaisya (craftsmen, traders, farmers)

4) Shudra (common laborers)

The "untouchables", the lowest of the low, are those who are outside the caste system altogether, not included in any of the four groupings.

The Rig Veda attributes the system to divine origin, the four major castes being created separately.  As best we can tell, the system actually dates back to the Aryan conquest of India almost 4,000 years ago, which destroyed the ancient Indus Valley civilization and began a period in which the descendants of the invaders formed a distinct ruling class.  It seems likely that the caste system developed from a religious codification of this racial hierarchy, rather as if South African apartheid had evolved into a religion.  Even today, people of higher caste are typically lighter-skinned than those of lower caste, though after thousands of years this is only a general tendency rather than a firm correlation, and a pervasive social bias in favor of lighter skin is attributed to the influence of the caste system.  Interestingly, the original literal meaning of the word varna was "color".

There's some evidence that in the distant past the system was less rigid than today, but in modern times caste membership is determined by birth.  The true genius of caste lies in its combination with two other Hindu religious concepts, reincarnation and karma, the latter referring to the effects of an individual's actions in life which are rewarded or punished by a higher or lower reincarnation after death.  In brief, those who are born into a high caste earned it by their virtue in previous lives, while the low-born are similarly being punished for misdeeds in earlier incarnations.  No matter how outrageously unequal, the social order is actually perfectly just, giving each person their due.  If one accepts the view of some scholars such as Jared Diamond, that each society's religion developed largely to justify the position of its ruling class, then Hinduism must be the most fiendishly brilliant religion ever devised.

Again, modern Indian secular law does not recognize caste and prohibits caste discrimination.  But entrenched religious thinking in great masses of people is notoriously difficult to change, especially in societies where modern education is not widespread.  Like the racial hierarchy in the US in the pre-Civil-Rights era, the religion-based caste hierarchy is sometimes enforced by brutal violence against those who "do not know their place".  Many of the vicious gang rapes and rape-murders which have lately caught the attention of the Western media fall into this category, with either the victims or their male relatives having previously said or done something which local higher-caste people deemed inappropriate.  Like the lynch mobs of our own history, it's basically enraged dumb hicks beating down those even lower in the pecking order than themselves, but with religious tradition adding feelings of self-righteousness about it.

As modernity has exposed the hypocrisy and sleaze of Western religious institutions, some Westerners have turned their "spiritual" cravings toward the supposed mystical wisdom of eastern religions.  But humans are humans wherever they live, and the reality of religion is just as ugly.

02 June 2014

Video of the day -- visions of the spiritual world

[Fair warning -- video contains gruesome imagery -- also begins with loud noise, so adjust volume.]

Who would bathe or wash in the water of a river polluted with vast numbers of rotting corpses and the untreated sewage of a region with hundreds of millions of people?  Only those for whom the physical concept of "clean" has been superseded by the spiritual concept of "pure".  The Ganges river is holy and "pure" in a spiritual sense, never mind how filthy it is in reality.  Small wonder that cholera has been a problem in the Ganges region for as far back as records go, and that major epidemics of the disease have started there again and again throughout history.

And don't forget that in medieval Europe, when Christianity was dominant and even the rudimentary Greco-Roman standards of hygiene had been lost, life was at least as filthy and disease-ridden as this.

This is the true face of the "spiritual".

01 June 2014

Link round-up for 1 June 2014

Sometimes two GIFs are better than one (found via Mendip).

Why can't San Francisco do anything about this rat-breeding nutcase?  (Maybe they should call this guy.)

PZ Myers reviews the moronic film God's Not Dead. There's more crap to come.  And here's some even worse music.

Modern technology helps rescue an abducted baby in just three hours.

Frank Moraes weighs in on garbage blog comments.

That girl expelled from her prom for being too sexy now faces troglodyte parents who believe girls shouldn't go to college.

Bitcoins continue to inspire people to spend thousands of dollars on junk.

Republican efforts at re-branding are not helped by having this guy address a major conference.  The younger generation is different.

The Irish Atheist takes down neo-paganism -- a must-read if you're into that sort of thing (found via Lady Atheist).

Progressive Eruptions looks at the hypocrisy of Ben Carson -- and expands on my own post on Obama's management of the Ukraine crisis.

Fracking threatens water supplies across the US.

Obama finally tells it like it is on Republican obstructionism (found via Green Eagle).

Hey, Christians, you need to hate fags more.

The core of the conservative movement is the political weaponization of stupidity.

Britain's power system confronts two mighty cultural forces -- the World Cup and tea.

The euro currency drops in the wake of anti-EU parties' victories in last weekend's election (my post on that here).  At least in Britain, the insurgency will also be felt in next year's national election.

In Europe, the countries with the most generous welfare states are doing the best.

There was another side to the liberation of France in World War II.

President Rouhani of Iran is bluntly challenging his country's religious extremists, and they're not happy.

A Pakistani woman is stoned to death by her family for choosing her own husband, one of thousands of honor killings that happen every year in that country.

Sudan issues an inane defense of sentencing a woman to death for apostasy.

Will these religious idiots accept reality when he starts decomposing?

Here's why science progresses and religion stagnates.

Patrick Soon-Shiong wants to use artificial intelligence to advance medicine (sent by Mendip).

Sweden is testing an idea to turn roadways into solar power collectors.

A California stick insect being studied in Yorkshire illustrates rapid evolution in action.

More bird intelligence -- swallows learn to manipulate motion detectors.

We are creating lifeless wastelands in a world we've never seen.