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The Nobel Peace Prize was recently awarded to President Obama, which immediately sent the right-wing up in arms, bemoaning that the award was bestowed undeservedly.

However, what Obama’s critics fail to realize is that the Nobel Peace Prize is largely a trivial empty gesture, one which has been given out many times over the years to undeserved candidates while those of worthy merit were overlooked.

To understand the farce that is the Nobel Peace Prize, one only need look at its history.

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, and were named after Swedish chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel, who left his massive fortune for just such a purpose. So, how did Nobel accumulate his enormous wealth?

Nobel invented dynamite. Oh, and he also sold and manufactured weapons.

That’s right – the most prestigious award recognizing the promotion of peace in the world was named after someone who was responsible for the deaths of countless people, setting the stage for the theater of the absurd to come.

One of the earliest controversial recipients of the Prize was Theodore Roosevelt, who got the award for helping to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

While Roosevelt may have been a decent president, and certainly did play a role in the peace process, he also was entangled in numerous military interventions, such as the violent suppression of a revolt in the Philippines in 1904.

In 1945, Cordell Hull, Secretary of State during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, was awarded the Prize for his work with the United Nations.

But in 1939, Hull was involved with the controversial turning away of the German ship, the MS St. Louis, a boat that was holding 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany trying to gain entrance to the U.S. The ship was denied entry and sent back to Germany where most of the refugees died in the Holocaust.

Menachem Begin, who was Prime Minister of Israel, was given the Prize in 1978 for his work securing peace between his country and Egypt.

However, Begin was embroiled with numerous wars and violent incidents over his life, including personally leading a commando raid on a Palestinian Village in 1948 where 107 villagers, including women and children, were killed in what became known as the Deir Yassin massacre.

In 1994, PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Foreign Minister of Israel Shimon Peres, and Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin were all given the Nobel Peace Prize for their attempt at a peace agreement during the Oslo Accords.

These three men were so utterly consumed in decades of conflict, war, and the killing of each other’s people that the Prize almost seemed like a poor attempt at ironic humor.

But perhaps the most controversial recipient in my opinion was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who received the Prize in 1973 for his work on the Vietnam Peace Accords – and at a time when the Vietnam War hadn’t even ended yet. Not to mention the fact that Kissinger had actually helped to escalate the war as he urged President Nixon to expand aerial bombing into Laos and Cambodia.

Meanwhile, Kissinger was also heavily involved with Operation Condor, the brutal and horrendous campaign of political assassinations, kidnappings, and interventions in South America in the 1970s. Many historians cite him as personally making the call to assassinate Salvador Allende, the president of Chile in 1973, and installing the atrocious regime of Augusto Pinochet.

Kissinger also helped give operational support to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Indonesian near-genocidal campaign against East Timor, and countless other military interventions and wars across the globe – a man of peace this was certainly not.

But what is also absurd about the Nobel Peace Prize is who has not received it. While there have been numerous curious omissions over the years, such as Caesar Chavez, perhaps the most criminally overlooked was Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi, one of the most famous symbols of peace in human history, was nominated for the Prize five times, and five times the Nobel committee decided he was unworthy.

Also, for some inexplicable reason, the Nobel committee (which is made up of only five people from Norway) feels that the award itself is not reward enough for acts done in the name of peace. Recipients of the Prize also receive $1 million – because nothing says peace and prosperity like a wheel barrel full of cold hard cash.

Sort of seems like the wrong message to send, no? Apparently everyone should do all they can to promote peace in the world, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it might just make you filthy rich.

So, did President Obama deserve the award? Probably not, but honestly, who cares? The Nobel Peace Prize is meaningless.

Muse – The Resistance (Warner Bros/ Helium-3)

Everyone enjoys a good conspiracy theory – a wild romp through fanciful images of shadow and light at war behind the scenes of ordinary life. But once you peel back the layers and do some proper research, those tales of secret brotherhoods, aliens and government cover-ups just seem so silly and childish.

And so it is with The Resistance, the new album by Muse that leaked this week (available below) – a big loud stadium-rock opera filled with romantic tales of defying Big Brother set against the backdrop of Judgment Day… that ultimately just feels so hollow.

Muse’s front-man Matt Bellamy has never had any qualms about admitting he is a conspiracy theorist, and on this outing (their fifth studio album), his penchant for the sinister and bizarre is once again on full display.

Those who have never heard Muse will probably notice Bellamy has a falsetto vocal range reminiscent of Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and in many ways, Muse sounds like a louder, poppier, eviler Radiohead (though Radiohead is clearly the better band).

The band has moved slowly away from the prog-rock experimentation on their early albums toward a much more radio-friendly big arena-rock sound. And while that change is disappointing, some of the new stuff is certainly fun.

The album opener “Uprising” is a simple, thunderous catchy number destined to be a single, and lyrically, it also sets the tone for what’s to come next: the title track “Resistance,” a rocking strident plea to resist the powers-that-be with love.

The album then takes a bit of a turn with the song “Undisclosed Desires;” a track with an 80’s throwback ambience, which, strangely enough, sounds like early Depeche Mode or maybe Tears for Fears for a new era.

But what follows is when the flood gates of craziness truly burst open with the totally frenzied madcap opus (and perhaps the best song on the album), “United States of Eurasia.” This track features more than a slight nod to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a bit of the main theme to Lawrence of Arabia thrown in the mix.  Also featured in the instrumentation is an homage to the work of composers Camille Saint-Saëns and Frédéric Chopin.

The album closes with a three-part symphonic epic called “Exogenesis” that mixes the orchestral compositions of Chopin, Wagner, and Gershwin with the rock-opera sensibilities of Queen, Rush and Electric Light Orchestra, and it all comes together in an interesting, albeit a bit overreaching and flawed, musical arrangement that somehow sounds modern.

There is no question that much of this album is enjoyable and plays well at the higher decibels.

But ultimately, the album just doesn’t gel as a whole very well, partly due to the embarrassingly awful lyrics. Bellamy has attempted to create some sort of concept album which feels a bit like a paranoid love poem penned as a soundtrack for the Apocalypse. Yet, the end product sounds more like the ramblings of a teenage pot-head that has read too many David Icke books and has fallen in love for the first time.

It seems like Muse was really swinging for the fences on this new album, but the result is more of an inside-the-park homerun than a grand-slam. Granted, once it begins its inevitable rotation on the airwaves, it will probably be one of the best things currently playing on MTV or corporate radio, but that bar has obviously been set incredibly low.

One must give Muse props for attempting something grandiose, but for all its ambition, much of it still sounds like boilerplate arena-rock fit for the radio dials, and the thematic and lyrical content is unforgivably juvenile.

Perhaps Bellamy will someday grow up and abandon his puerile obsession with conspiracies and other such nonsense, but until then, he will always come off as a pseudo-intellectual. And as such, this review shall close with an oft-quoted Shakespearean line, a favorite for the pseudo-intellectual in all of us: The Resistance “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Grade: B-

click here for album

My Lecture on Agnosticism

I was recently featured as a guest speaker at the Unitarian Universalist church in Pensacola and gave a lecture on agnosticism. The lecture was called “The Map of Agnosticism: Human Explorations of the Universe.” You can listen to or read the lecture below. There is a question and answer session at the end of the audio of the lecture that is not featured in the text below. (*note – the text of the lecture may differ slightly from audio)

(If you have trouble getting the sound to play above, you can alternatively use this link, right click and “save as” to download: http://www.fileden.com/files/2009/8/29/2559011/lecture.mp3)

Good morning, thank you very much for having me. I realize that it’s not every day that someone gets to give a talk on agnosticism in what is ostensibly a church, so the irony and rarity of such a thing is not lost on me. So, I’d like to thank Thom for originally proposing the idea that I give a talk here, and I’d like to thank the church very much for allowing me this opportunity.

Before getting into the meat of the discussion, I thought I’d give you a little bit more background on myself.

I am going to be discussing agnosticism today, but I thought it might be interesting for you to know that I was raised in a family that did attend church somewhat regularly when I was younger. I was baptized at a very early age.

But I was lucky enough to grow up with very open-minded, fairly liberal parents. We actually stopped going to church regularly at one point when I was younger – my father tells me this story, I don’t actually remember it – apparently after Sunday school one day, my brother and I were telling my dad what we had just learned, and apparently we were explaining to my father all the different ways one might go to Hell.  This upset him a bit, and he decided  that we probably shouldn’t go to church regularly anymore.

My father is someone who probably considers himself to be very spiritual, but not religious. He meditates every day and reads a lot of spiritual books. And my mom would probably consider herself to be somewhere between spiritual and agnostic.

However, there is a very religious tradition in my family. My grandmother on my mom’s side was a pretty devout Christian, and was very active in the First Methodist church here in town, though she was also of the very liberal/progressive sort.

And my grandfather on my mother’s side was actually the dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt at one time, and wrote several published books on theology and theological ethics, though he was a liberal, and was even involved in the civil rights movement in Nashville back in the 60’s.

I personally rejected religious dogma at a very early age. The concept of what I like to call the Santa Claus version of god, the single creator being in the sky who watches everything you do and judges you, this was something I found very silly around the time I was 12 years old.

But I spent three years at FSU a few years back, and in those first years of college I had what many might call several spiritual experiences. I prefer to characterize them as psycho-neuro-somatic experiences, basically meaning that I have no working model for explaining exactly what took place, but cannot deny that something of a bizarre and psychological nature did occur.

I would love to describe to you in vividly specific detail the nature of those experiences, but I understand enough about what happened and it would simply take too long to describe, suffice to say I consider those experiences to have been monumentally important events in my life which sent me on a very interesting journey of which I am still traversing today.

After that I spent several years experimenting with many different forms of meditation and studying various religions and esoteric practices. I did dabble a tiny bit in the occult at one time, as Thom mentioned, and even still break out my tarot cards on occasion. And while I feel like I learned a tremendous amount, I came out the other side of all of this as an agnostic, for the reasons I am about to describe to you today.

So, that should be enough background to get started…

As we all make our journeys into the mysteries of the universe, these expeditions of the human condition… I feel it is important that we all have an appropriate map for our travels.

So, it is in this spirit that I wanted to discuss agnosticism for a moment today. Because, for me, there is no better map to equip for the human experience, the human voyage, than that of agnosticism.

Etymologically speaking, the term “agnosticism” comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” and literally means “without knowledge,” or to not know. The word itself was actually coined by 19th century English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley when he was looking for a word to describe his own position between religiosity and atheism.

With the current surge in fundamentalism felt both at home of the Christian sort and abroad of the Islamic sort, I feel agnosticism has become increasingly relevant.

But in recent years there has also been a resurging interest in atheism due in no small part to a growing number of popular books on the subject: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith to name a few.

And while part of me is joyous to see an increasing number of people reject religious fundamentalism, my own feelings are that atheism is simply the flip side of that same coin of religiosity.

Richard Dawkins once said that he has more sympathy with the Christian fundamentalist than he does with the agnostic, because he sees agnosticism as the ultimate cop-out, a way of giving up, of not joining the debate.

However, in my opinion, what Dawkins is describing is not agnosticism; what he’s describing is apathy. He apparently seems to completely misunderstand the concept.

I feel Dawkins has it completely backwards. In my opinion, dogmatism of any stripe is the true cop-out. Because for the dogmatist, his journey into the mysteries of the universe is complete. He might as well roll up his map, pack up his things and go home.

The dogmatist has nothing left to explore, nothing more to research, no need to ever pick up another book. To me, it is an arrogant and presumptuous notion of truth that flies in the face of logic and reason.

And considering Dawkins is a biologist, I find this very disturbing, because any good scientist should know that all of science is predicated on the notion of agnosticism. Good science is about having doubt.

The entire scientific method begins with a blank slate, with no assumptions. And then the observations are made, data is collected and theories are formed.

Science is not about truth; it is about exploration. And I feel the same should apply not only to religion, but to all of human knowledge.

We are all explorers of the human condition, charting our path through the universe together. And I feel that is an appropriate place to begin our journey today…

And if I could sum up the main reason for why I adopt an agnostic perspective, why I have no interest in dogma of any kind, it would this: we, as human beings, can never escape our limited ability to receive and process information, and the limited ability we have to communicate such information.

Basically, what we can ascertain about the workings of the universe is directly dictated by the faculties we possess in order to observe the universe.

So, what do I mean by the faculties we possess? I mean the way we receive information as human beings, as organisms, how we perceive external phenomena.

Well, the most obvious would be sensory input: the relationship between sense organs and the nervous system and the brain.

I imagine what immediately comes to mind are the so-called “five senses.” You know, sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell… these are all ways that human beings gather information about the universe.

I would like to quickly point out that there are actually more than five physical senses. And I’m not speaking of anything supernatural here; I’m speaking of accepted science.

In addition to the five senses we all know, humans also feel atmospheric pressure, density in the atmosphere; you can feel this when you’re up in an airplane and your ears pop. We have the ability to temperature, to feel hot and cold, what’s called thermoreception. And we also have a sense of balance, sometimes called the vestibular sense or equilibrioception, which is essentially the ability to perceive the effects of the phenomena of gravity, basically how we orient ourselves within our environment so we don’t fall down. These all ways that human beings gather information about the world.

To better articulate what I’m driving at here, I would like to provide you with an analogy that I’m fond of. Because, even though I would imagine most of what I have said so far is rather self-evident, perhaps, it is not immediately apparent what, if anything, all of this has to do with agnosticism.

The analogy I like to use to convey what my main point is has to do with dogs, canines. Now, our science suggests that dogs, along with many other animals, cannot see the entire  range of colors, basically what we as human beings call the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, their eyes cannot see all of the colors that our eyes can see. They have what’s called dichromatic sight, so they basically only see in shades of red and green. And it has to do with the biological makeup of their eyes containing more rods than cones, but the point is that they cannot see the full color spectrum as we understand it.

Now, I would like to point out that some people, such as Goethe in his scientific writings, have suggested that even we as human beings cannot see the full range of colors… but let’s not get into that.

So, in the same way that we know a dog cannot see all of the colors available in the universe, there is absolutely no reason to think we as human beings possess the faculties necessary to receive all of the information available in the universe.

Dogs can’t see all the colors that we can see, perhaps we can’t receive all the information that some other organisms can, and in fact, that’s true.

Sticking with the animal kingdom for a moment, some animals do possess sensate abilities that go far beyond what the human possesses biologically. For instance, many species of fish and sharks have what’s called electroreception, which is the ability to detect electrical fields. Many species of birds have magnetoreception, which the ability to detect magnetic fields. And whales, dolphins and bats use echolocation, the ability to detect other objects using sound reflection, like sonar.

And let’s be honest, the only reason we know about these additional sensate perception abilities within the animal kingdom is because our science has caught up with them. We can detect what we call the electromagnetic spectrum because of the advent of scientific instruments that we’ve created.

It’s entirely possible that animals have even further senses of which we are not yet aware because our science hasn’t gotten that far yet.

And it is also possible that we as human beings possess further perception abilities that our science simply cannot detect or explain.

But the point is this: we can only know as much about the universe as is available to us based on our ability to perceive the universe.

We don’t know how much, if anything, there is that we cannot perceive.

And when I say “universe,” I don’t mean the farthest reaches of space that we haven’t found or been to yet; I mean the world external to ourselves, the universe all around us.

We can only know as much as our faculties of receiving information will extend. And there is no reason to think the faculties we as human beings possess are all encompassing in the scope of the universe; there is no reason to think we are capable of comprehending the totality of the existence.

There is no way to know how much exists beyond what our faculties are capable of perceiving. There could be an endless amount of information available in the universe that we simply are not able to receive, much less comprehend.

This idea has been expressed numerous times throughout history by everyone from Descartes to John Locke, David Hume to George Berkeley, all of whom suggested in one way or another that we can never know what an object is, but that we can only know how an object is perceived by the mind.

Well, let’s extend that idea to the entire universe. We can never know what the universe is, we can only how the universe is perceived by our minds, based on the faculties we possess to gather information.

There is no way to know how much there is we cannot know; we can only know what we are capable of knowing.

I feel that fact alone should be more than enough to make anyone a stone-cold agnostic… but let’s take it a step further – and it would probably we helpful to try to keep everything in context as we move along.

Okay, keeping in mind that we can only know as much as our faculties can perceive, after we have collected our data through our observations of the universe, we then have to formulate it into theories and communicate this information through language, verbally or through writing.

When we consider that we are limited by our ability to receive information, we must also acknowledge how inhibited we are by our ability to communicate, how the structure of language itself is restrictive.

Now, we could go on and on about the inadequacies and limitations of language in general, but I think the most obvious limitation of our communication is this: all language is metaphor. Words are not actually the things they represent; they are vague analogous representations which disparately correspond with their counterparts.

An obvious example: if someone is dying of thirst in the desert, you could say, “water, water, water” to him a million times and he will obviously still die of dehydration.

There’s an analogy that I feel expresses this concept very well. It is a phrase coined by the Polish scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski developed the field of General Semantics, which is an area of study that deals with the psychological implications of how the structure of language can affect the human organism. He wrote a fascinating, albeit flawed, book which was released in 1933 called Science and Sanity; and in this book he coined the phrase, “The map is not the territory.”

It was a statement, in part, meant to illustrate how abstractions in language can lead to misconceptions in thought: The map is not the territory.

On the most basic level, the idea is very simple. Let’s say you have a map of Florida. You do not have Florida itself; rather, you have a metaphorical representation of Florida. It would be impossible to ever make a complete, all encompassing map of Florida.

On the surface, this is supposed to be an analogy for language: the word is not the actual thing it represents. But, at the macrocosmic level, the analogy speaks to something much more substantive.

What it also speaks to is the process by which we, as human beings, develop our theories and ideas concerning the workings of the universe.

It is a reminder that we can never escape these limitations I’ve been speaking of today. It says that not only are we limited in the way we receive and process information, but that as we organize this information into theories and ideas through language, the information is inherently biased.

It is the product of the human condition. All of the ideas and knowledge we accumulate, whether it be through science, psychology, philosophy, or religion… these are simply the maps we make to chart the human experience.

They are maps of our experiences as seen by our eyes. And they are just that: maps… or models. They are representations of the universe that we have created based on our limited ability to perceive the universe.

I think Robert Anton Wilson perhaps said it best of all when he wrote, “Any grid we use to organize our experience of the world is a model of the world and should not be confused with the world itself.”

I think that sums it up beautifully. The models we make of the universe should never be confused with the universe itself… The models we make of the universe should never be confused with the universe itself.

Because, if you really think about it, when we as human beings study something, no matter what the field of knowledge may be, science, religion, whatever, at the end of the day, we are learning just as much about ourselves as we are the subject of our studies.

We are learning how we receive and process information. We are learning how we make the maps.

Our maps reflect how we see the universe. They reflect the faculties we as human organisms possess in order to receive and process information.

A great example of this, if you’re not familiar with it and would like to do a research project some day, take a look at the history of quantum theory or theoretical physics, and see all the conflicting ideas that have come and gone over the years. You’ll see how the same experiments can produce radically different results depending on who’s doing the observations. You’ll see how some experiments will show a particle behaving as a particle, and some experiments will show a particle behaving as a wave. Then you’ll see how an experiment will show that some theoretical particle does exist and then the same experiment produced by a different group of scientists will show how that particle does not exist. When you look at that stuff you’ll recognize how you are looking just as much inside the human mind as you are the inside of an atom.

And I am in no way meaning to denigrate science or religion.

I especially do not mean to belittle the wonderful discoveries made within the scientific community, as I think they are magnificent and necessary tools for our evolution.

I am simply suggesting that when considering this perspective I am advocating, there are no dogmas to be found in the breadth of human knowledge: there are only models of the universe we as humans make based our ability to perceive the universe.

So, I am not suggesting we let fly agnosticism in the face of religion alone; I am advocating we let fly agnosticism in the face of all of human knowledge.

And, don’t get me wrong: agnosticism itself is just another human map of the universe. However, it is a map that is aware that it is a map. It is a way of studying all the other maps and recognizing them as maps.

And that is why I feel it is the most appropriate map to bring on our journeys into the mysteries of the universe. Because agnosticism is an open-ended map about exploration.

Because ultimately, I am advocating that we not take ourselves too seriously… and that we learn to consider our limited ability to receive and process information as a liberating experience.

For me, there is something very satisfying to realize that no one has a monopoly on the truth, that neither the scientist nor the clergyman has any greater stake or ability to comprehend the universe than I or anyone else… It is very satisfying to realize that we’re all in this together. And that’s what I feel agnosticism really means.

It is a way of letting the air out of all our arrogant and presumptuous notions of truth, of “my god’s better than your god” or “my theory trumps yours.”

It leaves the door open to embrace both science and spirituality without any sense of hubris, allowing us to all take hands and together to continue our human explorations, to forge that journey into the unknown, into the mysteries of the universe, not for the sake of ever finding ultimate truth, but simply for the sake of exploration… and along the way, through our travels, we may help each other make the maps that chart our voyage… as long as we realize they are only maps.

And I can’t think of a better place to make such a statement than here at the Unitarian Universalist Church… Thank you.

Everyone knows healthcare in America is a bloated, chaotic, diseased nightmare in dire need of massive overhaul and reform.  We have almost 50 million without insurance, and millions of those with insurance are constantly dropped or denied coverage for absurd reasons like “preexisting conditions” (as though life itself was not a preexisting condition worthy enough for proper healthcare).

America spends about $2.5 trillion on healthcare every year (two and half times as much per person as most developed nations), and ranks near the bottom of all industrialized countries when looking at infant mortality, life expectancy and immunization rates.

The state of healthcare in this country is sickening. And now President Obama and Congress have their stethoscopes set to find a proper cure for our ailing system.

Unfortunately, this is America, and we don’t cure anything here; rather, we prefer to find treatments that make the present conditions tenable – and profitable. And so it is with healthcare reform.

Obama laid the groundwork for what his administration would like to see in a healthcare bill and then Congress quickly got to work botching the job as usual.

My tentative prediction is that, after the congressional recess, some kind of healthcare reform bill will eventually pass – that is, if the bills in the House and Senate ever make it out of the committees holding them up.

And I think if it does pass, some good things will no doubt be accomplished: ten of millions currently without coverage will get access to basic health insurance, and insurance companies will see some regulation making it more difficult for them to deny or drop coverage for those who need it.

Yet these reforms do far too little to overhaul this failing system, like trying to save the Titanic with a roll of duct-tape.

There has been much talk of a so-called “public option,” a government-run insurance plan, like Medicare, that millions of Americans could access which would also compete with the private insurance companies and negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to bring overall prices down.

But mark my words: there will be no public option such as this if this bill ever passes. It’s a pipedream; it’s not going to happen.

Why won’t it happen? It’s for the same reason this healthcare bill stinks: America is the only country in the world that treats people’s lives as a market commodity.

No other nation lets the marketplace dictate their healthcare system, but that is exactly what we do in America. We treat healthcare not as a social service, but as a money-making endeavor.

We distribute care not according to those who need it most (those coughing up a lung), but to those with the most ability to pay (those coughing up the money).

The healthcare industry is a business, and their main goal, like every other business, is profit maximization.

And that’s exactly why many in the healthcare industry are actually supporting this potential bill by Congress, because contained in this reform are government mandates that will require people to purchase health insurance or face being fined.

That means people will be legally obligated to obtain health insurance, which, in turn, means millions of new customers for the private health insurance companies. And that would be acceptable – if there was also a public option.

The healthcare industry has more lobbyists by far in Washington than any other group, and the industry is bitterly opposed to a public option. They do not want to compete with a cheaper, more efficient, government-run health insurance program because that would force them to have to lower their premiums and reduce their overhead costs.

And guess which congressmen are the ones most opposed to a public option? If you guessed the ones who have received the most money from the healthcare industry then you get a lollipop.

The only real solution to the healthcare problem in this country is to start slowly dismantling the current system from the outside in.

I’m not suggesting we outlaw private insurance companies altogether and nationalize the entire industry, but I am suggesting we begin to make the ubiquitous presence of private health insurance unnecessary.

And the only way to do that would be a public option – a massive non-profit Medicare-like government-run health insurance program that would not just compete with the private insurance companies, but would dramatically undercut the competition.

If we can trust the government to run the post office and the military, then we can trust them to run part of the health insurance industry.

They already do a completely acceptable job with Medicare. If you don’t believe me, ask someone on Medicare if they would like to have their service replaced with a private insurance plan (by the way, the overhead costs for Medicare are around 3 percent while the average overhead costs for private insurance companies is about 30 percent).

And I would like to remind everyone that it is being called a public “option” for a reason, because it would be just that – an option. While there will be mandates for people to have health insurance, you would have the option of choosing the government plan or a private plan.

This idea that the government will take over the healthcare industry altogether and begin making important medical decisions for American families is an absolute paranoid absurdity. Even if a massive public plan goes into place, you will always have the option in this country to choose private doctors and private insurance.

So, I hope I’m wrong and that Congress will actually include some sort of reasonable public option in this healthcare reform package, but I have my serious doubts. It looks like all we’re willing to do with our appalling healthcare system is trim off a little of the fat, while also pumping more money and more people into the status quo.

And until we stop viewing people’s lives as just another product in the market place, we will be fated with a diseased healthcare system befitting of such a sickening concept.

Condoleezza Rice has recently taken a job as a political science professor at Stanford University (a position I imagine she was given ironically) and got into a bit of trouble after taking some questions from a couple of students yesterday as evidenced by a recent YouTube video.

The short version of the story is that she committed numerous factual absurdities and may perhaps have admitted complicity in a serious crime. So, maybe we should take a look at the long version of the story, eh?

I suppose the easiest way to do this will be to go through her remarks basically line by line and point out each time she makes a factual error or says something that makes absolutely no sense.

The YouTube video starts halfway through the first question we see her answer. Here is the first part of their exchange:

Rice: … And in terms of enhanced interrogation, and rendition, and all the issues around the detainees. Abu Ghraib is, and everyone said, Abu Ghraib was not policy. Abu Ghraib was wrong and nobody would argue with…

Student: Except that information that’s come out since then speaks against that.

Rice: No, no, no — the information that’s come out since then continues to say that Abu Ghraib was wrong. Abu Ghraib was. But in terms of the enhanced interrogation and so forth, anything that was legal and was going to make this country safer, the president wanted to do. Nothing that was illegal.

Okay, let’s start here. The student is referring to a recent report by the Senate Armed Service Committee called “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody” (read report here, summary here).

The student was attempting to correct her when she said that the abuses and interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib were not policy before she cut him off.

She flatly denies the student’s suggestion that the recent Senate report disputes her claim that the Abu Ghraib incident was not the result of policy. But the report absolutely does dispute this; here is what it said about Abu Ghraib:

“The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited Information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.”

The report not only claims that “senior officials” were involved in the policy, but it says the policy was crafted to create the appearance of legality, obviously suggesting the policy was illegal.

She claims that the report says Abu Ghraib was “wrong.” However, the report does not just say it was wrong, the report says, “Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”

Okay, moving on… She then, at one point, claims the World Trade Center Towers were 80-story-tall buildings. Hate to nitpick, sweetheart, but they were 110 stories.

Eventually the conversation turns to Guantanamo Bay:

Rice: And Guantanamo Bay, by the way, was considered a model “medium security prison” by representatives of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe who went there to see it. Did you know that?

Student: Were they present for the interrogations?

Rice: No. Did you know that the Organization — just answer me — did you know that the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe said Guantanamo was a model medium security prison? … If you didn’t know that, maybe before you make allegations about Guantanamo you should read.

Here Rice makes another factual error.

What she is referring to is a comment made by Alain Grignard, who is the deputy head of a federal police anti-terrorism unit in Belgium and accompanied a group from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to Guantanamo Bay. The statement was an off-the-cuff remark of his own and had no affiliation whatsoever with the OSCE. However, many newspapers incorrectly cited him as an OSCE expert at first.

But the OSCE issued a press release attempting to clarify issue (read press release here). The press release in part read, “… he was not employed or commissioned by the OSCE.”

The OSCE has yet to offer any official take on the situation at Guantanamo. So, it seems that Rice is the one who “should read” before making allegations.

Also, Grignard said that holding detainees for years without bringing formal charges or to trial was a form of “mental torture.”

Immediately following this factual error, she makes another one:

Rice: Now, the ICRC also had access to Guantanamo, and they made no allegations about interrogations at Guantanamo.

The ICRC is the International Committee of the Red Cross, and they have made repeated allegations about the interrogations at Guantanamo. For instance, in 2007, they said in a report, “The interrogation process is contrary to international law.”

And in 2004, the ICRC said, “[the interrogations methods] cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment and a form of torture.”

Well, that’s a little different than making “no allegations about interrogations,” isn’t it? This woman is unbelievable.

Now, this next exchange is perhaps the most absurd yet:

Rice: What [the ICRC] did say is that they believe indefinite detention, where people didn’t know whether they’d come up for trial, which is why we tried with the military commissions system to let people come up for trial. Those trials were stayed by whom? Who kept us from holding the trials?

Student: I can’t answer that question.

Rice: Do your homework first… The Supreme Court.

The amount of chutzpah and ludicrousness contained in this remark is absolutely staggering.

Rice is basically saying the Bush administration would have loved to let the wheels of justice turn and give each detainee a fair and speedy trial, if only it hadn’t been for that pesky ol’ Supreme Court gumming up the works.

I can only imagine she is referring to the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case in 2006 where the Supreme Court held that the Bush administration policy of trying detainees under military commissions or tribunals was unconstitutional. The Court also said the military commissions violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.

So, Rice is attempting to make an argument here, basically saying that the highest court in the land declared a Bush administration policy as unconstitutional, but that the problem was not with the policy, but with the Supreme Court for having the nerve to perform its function and adhere to the US Constitution.

She gives the clear intimation that the Bush administration – the same people who attempted to deny detainees the right of habeas corpus – would have loved for there to be a fair judicial process at Gitmo, but the Supreme Court – the arbiter of the Constitution – got in the way.

My head dizzies just trying to comprehend her twisted logic. If anyone needs to do some homework, it’s Ms. Rice. I would recommend a book report on the US Constitution.

Okay, here’s the final exchange between Rice and a different student, where she may have admitted to a serious crime:

Student: I read a recent report, recently, that said that you did a memo, you were the one who authorized torture to the — I’m sorry, not torture, waterboarding. Is waterboarding torture?

Rice: The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture. So that’s — and by the way, I didn’t authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency. That they had policy authorization subject to the Justice Department’s clearance. That’s what I did.

Student: Okay. Is waterboarding torture?

Rice: I just said — the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture.

The student is referring to memos recently released by the Obama administration which detailed Rice’s involvement as basically a go-between from the White House to the CIA in the authorization of the use of torture – oh, excuse me –  enhanced interrogation techniques.

First of all, notice that she dodges the question of whether waterboarding is torture (which the vast majority of legal experts agree it most certainly is).

But then notice that she admits she “conveyed the authorization of the administration to the [CIA].”

However, if waterboarding is torture (which it is), then even conveying the authorization would be a direct violation of the Convention Against Torture, which she cites.

The Convention Against Torture, a UN treaty of which the United States is a signatory party, explicitly states in Artice II that “an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.” (read the treaty here)

So, Rice basically just admitted complicity in a war crime.

Also, not only do her actions violate the Convention Against Torture, but many would argue her actions could be considered a violation of the federal statute banning torture, US Code: Title 18, Chapter 113 § 2340 (read statute here), as well as a violation of the War Crimes Act.

And then, to make matters worse, she makes the very bizarre claim that, by definition, if the President authorizes something, it is therefore not illegal.

This harkens back to the infamous gaffe made by President Nixon during his 1977 interview with David Frost when he said, “When the President does it that means that it is not illegal.”

The President is not a dictator, Condi, not matter how much you wish he were.

So, not only did Rice get almost everything wrong in her exchange with these two students, she may have admitted her role in a conspiracy to commit torture.

Condoleezza Rice should never speak in public again without her attorney present. In fact, maybe she should just never speak in public again.

alamobattle

On April 15, “tax day,” I drove by University Mall in Pensacola where I saw a handful of people holding protest signs. I steered closer to get a better view only to realize what looked like a handful was actually throngs of hundreds of people carrying signs, some of which read “Obama is not the Messiah!” and “The Democrats are Thieves!”

Oh, man… Let the unwarranted hysteria begin.

What I witnessed was the local version of the national protest events referred to as “tea parties.” Apparently “tea” is an acronym which stands for “taxed enough already.”

The movement started among conservative circles that originally encouraged people to send teabags to Washington as a form of protest, and then staged “teabagging” demonstrations across the country.

While it is difficult to find a consistent message among the teabaggers, one thing is very clear: none of it makes any sense.

The protests are largely aimed at the Obama administration’s fiscal policies.

And they have utilized the symbolism of the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to illustrate their dissatisfaction over the federal stimulus package, higher taxes, and “taxation without representation” (as many of the signs read in Pensacola).

However, there are several problems with all of these dissatisfactions.

First of all, while the “taxation without representation” bit was certainly part of the Boston Tea Party, I imagine most involved with these recent tea party protests are unaware that what sparked the furor in 1773 was the lowering, not raising, of taxes on tea. The history is complicated, but basically the American colonists feared that if England lowered the tax on tea, it would undercut the competition and lead to a British tea monopoly. This upset the local merchant class who made a great deal of money selling smuggled tea bought from other countries. So, the colonists were actually upset with lower taxes on tea, not higher.

And I hate to break it to the teabaggers, but there is no taxation without representation in modern America.

Every single person attending these protests has democratically elected representatives in Congress and the White House. They may not be who the protestors voted for, but they are who the majority voted for.

The next problem comes with the idea of higher taxes.

On April 15, the tax policy in effect was really that of George W. Bush’s administration. So, at the time of the teabagging events, everyone was essentially protesting the Bush tax policy, not the Obama tax policy.

But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they meant Obama’s tax policy when it goes into effect in 2011. What is it exactly about this policy that disturbs them?

Do they realize that Obama’s tax policy only raises taxes on the top 5 percent, those earning more than $250,000 a year?

And the tax rates for the richest Americans will go from 35 percent to 39 percent, a whopping 4 percentage points. The remaining 95 percent of Americans will actually see a tax decrease.

So, unless the vast majority of teabaggers are among the top five percent of the richest Americans, they are in reality protesting a tax decrease.

Also, 39 percent on the rich is still one of the lowest tax rates in last hundred years. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had a tax rate of 91 percent for the richest Americans; Republican President Richard Nixon had a top tax rate of 70 percent.

And comparatively speaking, the United States has the lowest taxes of all developed nations when looking at tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product.

As for the federal stimulus bill, while there are plenty of debates to be had, I hope everyone would acknowledge that something has to be done to try to stabilize the economy.

The idea behind the stimulus package is that since people and businesses are spending less money, the government should spend heaps of money to get the economy growing again. Whether or not this plan will work is yet to be seen.

All in all, regardless of the mainstream media coverage, the tea party protests fizzled across the country, garnering only moderate crowds in most states.

It is not clear what they hoped to accomplish, but I can wager they will have little to no effect on government policy.

I think the most fitting illustration of the pointlessness, failure, and factual inaccuracies of these ridiculous tea parties was the event held at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas which was headlined by the insufferable Glenn Beck of Fox News.

Apparently they thought the Alamo was a great place for starting a revolution. Someone really should have told them that the Alamo is one of the most famous symbols of failed revolution in history. It is the site of the famous battle where the Texian settlers lost to Mexican troops in 1836.

Remember the Alamo? These people obviously did not. I would imagine the next major teabagging demonstration will be held in Waterloo, Iowa.

image10701

Politics is a dirty game. And we so desperately need from our politicians a sense of accountability.

It is in this spirit that I wish to relay a rather ugly incident for which I hold Vice President Joe Biden solely responsible.

It was a crisp winter morning of 2007 when I awoke from a spirited night filled with music, libations and politics. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I staggered from the bedroom of my townhouse into the living room where a few of my friends still slept on the couch and floor.

Stepping over the bodies, I pushed through, opening the door to what used to be my mother’s room (she had long since moved out, but left many of her things behind), whereupon my eyes gazed a horrid sight of depravity and degeneracy.

It looked as if a bomb had exploded during the night. Every drawer from every piece of furniture had been removed and emptied; crumbled pieces of paper, magazines and garbage littered every inch of the floor; an antique dresser laid on its side in cracked pieces – and the ironing board was a twisted heap of metal junk.

“What kind of fuckery is this?” I wondered. “What sadistic asshole would do such a thing?” And then slowly I began to remember the circumstances that lead up to this very unsightly incident.

I remembered something rather odious occurring at about three in the morning after we got home from the bar.

The event began to flood back to me in all its Technicolor horror. Apparently this all had something to do with the 1988 presidential election.

But I digress for a moment. The night started off just fine.

We were in jovial spirits as five of us downed a bottle of Appleton rum, sharing in pleasant conversation and listening to choice selections from the catalogues of Coltrane, Woody Guthrie and Modest Mouse.

Much of the same could be said when we arrived at the bar. In fact, while at the tavern I successfully talked a 56 year-old conservative black guy named Mason out of being a Republican.

I was quite hammered as I ranted at Bush-loving Mason, and most of my arguments he jettisoned with relative ease. I realized this was going to be a tough political conversion.

But as I went down several argumentative avenues, I eventually won him over by somehow convincing Mason that he had aligned himself politically with the same people who shot Medgar Evers.

It was a bit cheap on my part, but, as I mentioned, politics is a dirty game and sometimes you must wait until to you get home to wash your hands.

“Man… I ain’t been livin’ right,” my new drunken ex-conservative buddy eventually remarked.

“No, you haven’t, Mason; no, you haven’t,” I said.

Anyhow, it was an entirely different political conversation that sparked the later ugliness.

Once we arrived back at my townhouse, the three of us left awake sat around my kitchen table, sipping Chivas Regal scotch, listening to the early albums of Van Morrison and discussing the upcoming election year. Soon we all began speculating on the possible Democratic candidates.

Everyone agreed Hillary would definitely run and emerge as the early frontrunner. Everyone also agreed that Kucinich would once again be the best candidate on the issues with absolutely no chance of winning. But then the conversation took a turn.

“Well, I think it may be Joe Biden’s year,” Rocky said.

Kevin and I stared at Rocky in silence for an awkward moment. A subtle tension seemed to creep into the room.

“What did you say?” I asked.

Rocky stared back at me, taking a few seconds to respond.

“I’m just saying I think Biden may run, and, hell, might even get the nomination,” he said.

While normally such a suggestion would elicit howls of belly laughs, the atmosphere around the table was one of abject horror and disgust.

“Joe Biden?” I asked, hoping for clarification.

“Yeah, man… Joe Biden,” Rocky said calmly, taking a drag from his cigarette.

“Well, he hasn’t run since ’88,” Kevin remarked.

“And there’s a reason for that,” I said.

“Yeah, but … “ Rocky stammered. “Man, I seriously wish he had been the nominee in 1988.”

Kevin and I gasped at the suggestion. I stood up from the table, staring down at Rocky. Kevin followed my lead.

“Well, who would you have wanted?” Rocky asked.

Kevin and I both spat out our answers at the same time.

“Michael Dukakis,” Kevin said.

“Gary Hart,” I said.

Kevin and I looked at each other.

“Michael Dukakis?” I asked.

“Gary Hart?” he asked.

And then we were off to the races. Rocky stood up from the table and we all began to argue, our voices getting increasingly louder and our statements getting increasingly more vitriolic.

We rehashed nearly every major scandal and issue from the 1988 election cycle. The whole ugly scene made even more bizarre considering not one of us was more than six years old during that campaign.

We eventually moved the argument into my mother’s old bedroom so as not to disturb our sleeping friends.

“Dukakis looked like a bad-ass in that tank!” Kevin cried.

“No, he looked like a douche-bag!” Rocky retorted.

“Gary Hart got a bad rap!” I exclaimed.

“Oh, come on! He was balls-deep in that model on that yacht!” Rocky shouted. “There was some fucking ‘monkey business’ going on, alright!”

“Well, at least he wasn’t a plagiarist!” I replied.

“Bullshit! Biden properly cited his source!” Rocky yelled.

“Maybe the first time he said it,” said Kevin.

The dispute spiraled further out of control, as the charges became more acerbic.

“Well, I wish Willie Horton had raped and beaten Dukakis instead of that white woman!” I roared.

“Oh, yeah?” Kevin said, and then he quickly snatched a television remote control from a bedside table. He gripped it in his fist, pointing it at me like a gun.

“What are you gonna do with that?” I asked.

We all stared at each other in a tense Mexican stand-off.

“How about this?” he said and ripped the batteries from the remote and threw them to the floor.

Little did I know, Kevin had just fired the opening salvo for what would become a nasty battle.

“What was that,” I asked, “some kind of protest?”

“That was some civil disobedience, motherfucker!” Kevin replied.

“Okay, then, you wanna play it like that?” Rocky said and reached for the alarm clock. Fumbling with it, he removed the batteries and chucked them to the carpet.

“Oh, so it’s like that, huh?” I said and seized a drawer from the dresser and emptied its contents onto the bed.

We then swirled ferociously around the room, like a drunken tornado, grabbing any object we could and disassembling it or hurling it into space.

Fluttering copies of the “Ladies’ Home Journal” whizzed by my head as I removed the pillow cases from all of the pillows.

Rocky emptied the bathroom trashcan onto the floor as I pelted him with pennies from an empty coffee tin.

But the mayhem intensified, culminating with Kevin and me flipping the antique wooden dresser onto its side. It cracked in several places as wood splinters shot into the air. We pushed our shoulders into the dresser, shoving it across the carpet and using it to barricade the doorway.

We all suddenly stopped.

The shit-storm had subsided and silence crept into the room.

We all stared at each other, breathing heavily with sweat pouring from our brows. We stood for a while, not saying anything.

“Look,” I finally muttered calmly, “all I’m trying to say is that I would have voted for Gary Hart.”

* * *

Luckily when I surveyed the room the next morning, there was very little permanent damage. I could fix the dresser with some glue and screws and everything else could be fixed with some basic tidying up.

That is, everything except the ironing board. The ironing board was history. No amount glue, screws or even a welding torch could repair it. I had to throw it in the dumpster to get rid of the evidence.

Fortunately my mother never noticed the missing ironing board when she finally came to retrieve her things.

If she had noticed I would have been forced to take the plausible deniability route and dispute the fact that there ever was an ironing board.

But now that some time has passed and I have the benefit of hindsight to reflect on the incident, I cannot help but come to one critical conclusion: Joe Biden owes me an ironing board.

I have taken the liberty of sending this story to the old naval observatory building in Washington, D.C. where Biden currently resides, and where I would imagine there are a plethora of ironing boards.

Vice President Biden, here is where you can send my new ironing board:

Paul Smith

5978 J. R. Dobbs Dr. #1012

Pensacola, FL 32504

It’s time we held our politicians accountable.

Politics is a dirty game. And I have many a shirt to iron.

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