Thursday, August 09, 2012

Religious Freedom Around The World

I saw some pictures the other day of some Sikhs wearing turbans in the U.S. Army and it made me a little proud.  America has done a decent job of allowing people of different faiths, or no faith, to coexist.  Creationism is kept out of public schools, and the government is kept out of mass.  But what’s particularly interesting about this is the diversity of approaches taken by other advanced democracies.  America, France, Germany, and Great Britain all have modern religiously tolerant governments, but the way each goes about it is different.

Universal Toleration: The government doesn’t tell religions what to do, but the government (aside from some small instances of “ceremonial deism”) doesn’t promote religions at all.

Laïcité (aggressive secularism): The French model is arguably the most atheistic of any democratic country.  The French have spent over 200 years trying to purge Catholicism from the public sphere, and it shows.  While generally speaking the French are as free as anyone else to practice their religion, any interference in the public sphere can be attacked by the state.  The most famous example being Sarkozy’s banning of the burqa.

Entangled Equality: The German model doesn’t separate church and state, it integrates them.  Germany has a Church tax that people pay, and you can direct it to whatever religious community you want – Atheists have a few ethical societies they can choose from, or you can opt out entirely and send it to the state instead.  Religion is taught in public schools, with parents being able to choose which denomination teaches their children, with a general philosophical ethics class available as well.  The state administers many programs for various religions, but attempts to do so equally.

Official Church: England, on the other hand, still maintains an official church.  Ancient endowments and donations ensure that the general public isn’t taxed to pay for the church anymore and other churches and religions are tolerated.  The church serves a rather public ceremonial function and is the largest church in the country.  Perhaps as a consequence of its official nature, the doctrine and practices of the Anglican church are very diverse, and it’s notably socially liberal.  Though the Archbishop of Canterbury runs the church, and the Queen is its official head, Parliament has ultimate authority over the church.  An official church doesn’t result in religious control of the state, but rather state control of religion.

I think the American model works best, because I don’t want to harass religious folks like the French sometimes do, I don’t want the government collecting taxes for churches, and I’m annoyed by the spectre of an official path to heaven.  But of course I feel that way, I’m an American.  If you couldn’t choose the American system, which would you choose?

Second Best Religious System?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lessons from the GOP Nomination contest

Now that it's over (and it is over), here's what are some lessons learned from the GOP nomination fight in 2012:

1. The Party Decides. The Party Decides. Seriously, The Party Decides. Despite what appeared to be a chaotic race, with no less than 7 different national front-runners, despite the sturm and drang about the "Tea Party", despite the lack of enthusiasm for Romney, the Republican Party coalesced around a compromise candidate with decent campaigning skills who positioned himself so as to not offend any major party interest group.

You couldn't have created a better test for the "Party Decides" framework: Romney's weaknesses, longstanding fractures within the Republican Party, and miserable economic conditions were a perfect storm to upset the system. And yet, as we see party actors from all spectrums of the Republican party turn to destroy Newt after his improbable South Carolina win, the theory seems as safe as ever.

2. The Invisible Primary is the Most Important Primary. By the time people actually started voting the number of possible nominees had dropped to two: Romney and Perry. Romney successfully cajoled, bribed, threatened, or just flat out beat most of his potential competitors before a single delegate was selected. I'm reasonably certain he forced out Barbour and Thune, and I know he beat Pawlenty by drying up his donor base. Huckabee had his own reasons, and I won't even speculate that Palin has a coherent thought process, but they both ran and lost in the invisible primary as well. Others, like Jindal or Christie, might've thought about running and been told not to early on.

3. SuperPACs. SuperPACs have played an outsized role in this nomination contest, and it's not clear why. So far they haven't really done anything that 527s couldn't do in the past. (527s couldn't say "Vote for X" but they could say "X is an evil jerk".) The invisible monsters that don't report donors and savaged Democrats in 2010 haven't been playing in the Republican contest. But it seems like some sort of psychological barrier has been broken.

While it hasn't really ever been illegal for a rogue billionaire to decide to single-handedly prop up a candidate, what has happened between Newt Gingrich and Sheldon Adelson has been remarkable. One of the ways in which the parties retain control of the nomination process is the way political donations are structured. Since people can only give a couple thousand dollars to a candidate, it requires candidates to appeal to a fairly wide swathe of middle class partisans in order to have enough money to seriously compete for the nomination.

Newt was never going to be the nominee. But we may have returned to the era where Joe Kennedy can buy his son a Presidential Nomination. (Hear that, John Huntsman, Sr.?)

4. You Can't Jump In Late. It's a perennial fantasy. Wes Clark, Fred Thompson, and now Rich Perry stand as monumental failures. Your best polling will be on the day you announce. If you're going to run, then run.

The most obvious point of this, as it applies to Perry, is that if you start running earlier, you get to have your big mistakes earlier. If Perry had managed to screw up a few debates before anyone was paying attention, he could have a year to recover and find his game. (Rumor has it that he didn't jump in the race because he was having back surgery, and then his painkillers from recovery were the cause of some of his odd behavior.)

But it goes beyond that: people who jump in late have a harder time raising money, the best staff is taken, some key party elements have already committed, etc. If you're going to run, then run.

5. Don't Get Drafted. Jon Huntsman's campaign to be the Republican for people who don't like Republicans was pretty awful. But that wasn't his fault! He was in China when the campaign started, and could not legally speak to the people trying to get him to run about campaign strategy. By the time he started running, they'd created the McCain 2000 retread. Despite the fact that McCain lost, and that the GOP has gotten more conservative, Huntsman was more-or-less forced to play they hand they dealt him.

5a. Don't hire John Weaver.

6. GOP Voters are Hyper-Informed. I do not mean that they are correct, especially about basic facts about reality. But rather, GOP partisans watch partisan TV, listen to partisan radio, and read partisan newspapers and blogs. The people who vote in the GOP nomination process really follow the race. That is what produced the surges last year, and that's why state-level results have been tracking so well to national results. Things like the ground game and local group participation matter much less when the potential electorate is filled with highly informed voters.

7. The Candidates Don't Get to Pick the Issues. I don't just mean Romney's well-publicized flip-flop on abortion. Anyone not named Rudy Giuliani could tell you that the GOP isn't going to nominate a pro-choice candidate any time soon. What was more interesting was the backlash against Gingrich for his rejection of the Ryan budget, or Perry's cratering in the polls for favoring a more moderate stance against illegal immigration.

As a corollary to #6, the rise of highly polarized national parties with highly informed partisan voters means that candidates have much less leeway to choose their positions than they used to.

8. Ron Paul is The Future. In the alternative future where only people who are under the age of 30 can vote, Ron Paul has won every contest to date. The GOP has been losing younger voters consistently since 2004 (this is a new phenomenon, despite the stereotypes, there historically hasn't been that big of a partisan difference between age cohorts in voting over the past 40 years). And of the young voters who are open to being Republicans, they favor an unconventional candidate with issue positions far outside of the GOP mainstream.

I've been saying for years that if the GOP wants to keep being able to win national elections, they'll need to convince Hispanic people to start voting like White people. Bush (and Perry) seemed to understand this, even if the rest of the party has rejected it this time around. But now it seems that unless the GOP does something about its issue positions — purge the neo-cons, or roll back the drug war — it will become a rump party for a generation.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Gun Control: Failure of the state

Gun control is the most obvious failure of the state in modern America, right?

From the 1960s to the 1990s, America, especially in its cities, experienced a dramatic rise in violent crime. The violent and deadly nature of this crime was accompanied by the wide availability of firearms.

The best response to this sort of thing is to stop people from engaging in crime; it's possible that the rise was driven by lead, or many other factors, but finding and identifying those sort of origin aspects of this are difficult.

Another thing to do, and what most other countries did, would have been to get rid of all the guns -- even if people were going to be crazy, if you take away the ability, the desire doesn't matter.

But we couldn't do that either. The American political system was so broken that individuals didn't trust the government enough to deal with the problem. Instead, it created a backlash that created a desire to increase the availability of firearms.

It's a pretty clear example of a failure of state legitimacy. And now, even though the crime crisis has passed, I still have to deal with a bunch of crazy people who now use the issue of gun control to validate their "fear" of the state.

(I know that they don't have a real fear of the state, because they don't care about other "Civil Liberties" at all.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Origins of Political Order: Mistaken About Evolution

I just finished Part 1 of Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order. First off, I like the book. He’s an evolutionist, and a Hobbesian, which is to say that he understands human nature, and he bases his theory of the state upon that foundation.

Now, a mistake: Fukuyama’s description of human evolution is wrong. It’s only a little bit wrong, but it’s totally wrong. Fukuyama tells the familiar “one tribe out of Africa” story. We now know this is wrong, because we have genetic evidence of interbreeding with Neandertals, not to mention Denisovians, and presumably dozens of biologically modern Homo Sapien tribes that left Africa at different times.

Of course, Fukuyama’s book was published a month before that paper came out, and presumably written a while before.

On the other hand…

For a genetic example of what happens when one people conquers another, we need look no further than the high frequency of European Y chromosomes in the Americas. I would expect most pre-historic genetic exchanges to follow similar models. When an anthropologist says “population displacement,” we should interpret that to mean “they killed all the men and raped and married the women.” This means that conquerors not only take their enemies’ land, they also absorb genetic information, which is then selected for.

Fukuyama is exactly the sort of person who ought to have doubted the old story. Rome claimed to have founded itself upon a crime of mass rape. And the old testament doesn’t shy away from what to do with conquered people. Fukuyama actually quotes Genghis Khan and notes his massive offspring.

So, while one can hardly blame Fukuyama for making this error, since it was the conventional scientific view, if he had been following his own method of science+anthropology+historical analysis more rigorously, he might not have.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Of Kellys and Kellys

So I grew up with a gal named Kelly and I have a friend named Kelly and I was thinking about what would happen to various Kellys.

My friend Kelly recently gave up the teevee because he doesn’t think it’s good for his kids. But it’s great for me because he gave me a bunch of DVDs. These exist in a legal gray area which I describe as “these are mine until Kelly wants them back.” I’ve even lent out a couple of these DVDs to a dude named Spencer. Spence watches DVDs quickly and will have them back soon. But anyway, there are a bunch of Kelly DVDs at my house right now and I basically treat them as my own property.

What would happen if Kelly were to, for some reason, contact the police and tell them that I stole his DVDs (probably worth hundreds of dollars)? The DVDs are his, he’s got the receipts. All I’ve got is an explanation that he said I could have them. I’m pretty sure the law would side with him.

What if Kelly was a girl and I had sex with her? Even though the harm to the victim is much worse (rape being worse than theft), the rules change! If you’re taking sex from someone instead of property, the law presumes consent, and it’s up to the victim to prove they said no.

Now I say the fact that the victim is complaining to the police is pretty good proof that they were not on board with the whole thing. But this is where most “liberal” men I know get off the progressive train. And I’d like to know why.

Monday, March 21, 2011

How to cook a meaty tofu

And the question was asked: "My skills are totally lacking in the tofu dept. I've only used soft stuff in miso soup. What do you recommend for a more 'meaty' tofu?"

Good question! First, you're going to need to get yourself some firm tofu. You can buy it for $4 at a white person grocery store. I buy it a case at a time for a dollar a pack at the Asian grocery store. You can also buy "Extra Firm" tofu, which I am convinced is a marketing gag.

Once you've got the right kind of tofu, you need to "press" it to remove excess water. If you hate trees you can wrap it in paper towels and then put a cutting board on top of it to remove the extra water. The longer it presses the better. I usually wait about 30 minutes. Since I don't hate trees I have a couple of cloths that I use for the purpose.

Now your tofu is pressed. Cut it up into pieces, in whatever shape you want it in. If you end up dry frying it (see below) you'll want it thin. Vanessa thinks it's cute when I cut it into triangles.

Now, the cooking. You have a many options, but I'm going to suggest three: Baking, Oil Fry, and Dry Fry.

Baking is the easiest. Get yerself a marinade. I like to throw soy sauce, cooking wine, vinegar, garlic, etc. into a baking dish. Let the tofu hang out in there. Who knows, you could get crazy and add a lime. Stick it in the oven to bake. The longer it bakes, the better it tastes, but the lower the temperature needs to be. Stick it in for 375 for 30 minutes, and subtract 25 degrees for every extra 30 minutes you can leave it in there. I'm not a scientist or anything, but I think 250 degrees is about the lowest you should go. Check it every 30 minutes. Throw it in anything you want.

Frying takes a bit more attention, but is way quicker than baking. Rice takes 35 minutes and I can usually start the rice and be done with the stir-fry before the rice is done.

First, you need a cooking pot. I use a fairly fancy wok, but that's because I'm a huge snob. The most important thing is that whatever you use has to be nonstick. Tofu sticks and it is no fun.

Dry frying is healthy, easy, and fully discussed here.

Most of the time I fry the tofu in oil. Get your pot out, coat the bottom in oil. Vegetable oil fries the best, but I like olive because I like the taste. Plus it lets me claim all of my dishes are Greek-Chinese fusion. The oil should be hottttt, just hot enough to not splatter all over you when you drop the tofu in. Flip the tofu around fairly frequently until it's a golden brown. Then drop in whatever spices you want. Most recipes will tell you to take the tofu out at this point and add it to your stir-fry later, but I'm lazy and just throw the next group of ingredients in at this point.

If you want to be super-fancy you can bread your tofu (after you press and cut it) in a mix of corn starch and spices. Then fry it as above. The first time you try this you'll screw it up because either it'll stick together or you'll get too much corn starch in the oil and the whole thing'll turn to mush. But once you get the hang of it you'll amaze the neighbors.

I've also got a deep fryer that I use from time to time, and my world renowned tofu scrambles, but those are stories for a different day.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The case for Bonapartism

I’ve mentioned this to several people already, so I thought I’d take the time to explain myself online.

Basically, the prevailing “Democratic Peace” theory holds that Democracies tend not to go to war, and don’t ever go to war with each other. This theory may or may not still hold, depending on how “democratic” Serbia was when we bombed them in the 1990s or whether or not Russia and Georgia count as democracies. I tend to think the theory is at least partially true, as democracies at least tend to evaluate their own interests similarly. But even if you don’t think there’s a current example, it’s at least possible to imagine two democracies going at it – most wars have popular support when they’re started, after all.

In contrast to the prevailing theory, these guys argue that young democracies are actually more likely to go to war than other states. If you ignore the mythologizing about democracy, it makes sense. When a country goes democratic the rulers change, and the new government is likely to perceive the interests and global order of the country differently than the previous state. Ideological re-alignment brings instability to stable regions and can therefore easily lead to wars. This probably applies to the shift to any new governing order as well (think of Communist Russia’s survival war after the Russian Civil War, Mao picking a fight with Russia, et cetera, et cetera).

The textbook case for this is, of course, Revolutionary France. Following the extinction of the French monarchy most of Europe declared war on France, which started a spiral of events that eventually led to Emperor Napoleon conquering most of Europe and cheerfully extinguishing monarchies all over the place. Napoleon was able to do this because spreading France’s revolutionary ideals was tremendously popular in France – France was the first nation to be able to fully mobilize for war. Killing kings is fun, apparently.

Egypt is a big country – 80 million people – twice as large as the next largest Arab country. Its politics and culture dominate the Arab world. In short, it occupies the same place in Arab culture as France held in European culture in 1800. Its military is big, modern, American armed, and American trained. Israel is basically the only country in the region that could hope to beat it. It has the capability to be an army of Arab liberation.

Egypt’s culture has been pan-Arabic for as long as it has been independent. They merged with Syria for a couple of years, invaded Libya, and supported a democratic uprising in Yemen. This is not likely to change. What is changing however, is that they are likely to be led by a revolutionary government soon.

Egypt is about to be a big country with a modern army ruled by people who view all Arabs as brothers and democracy as a birthright of humankind. Where is Lt. Bonaparte?

The only thing lacking in this scenario is the triggering event to send Egypt’s army on the march. For Revolutionary France, it was other European countries declaring war on the young republic.

The United Nations just declared Libya a no-fly zone. While it looks like France, Britain, and America will enforce the no-fly zone, they’ve basically ruled out sending in ground troops. Eventually ground troops will, in fact, be necessary (the alternative is portioning Libya). Neither Obama nor Sarkozy nor Cameron have any interest in sending in ground troops, the memory of Iraq is still fresh enough to prevent that – which leaves a “volunteer” “arab” force. Which means next-door Egypt.

And a week later the Arab world finally gets the hero this revolution needs – the great liberator of Benghazi. Where does he stop? Don’t the people of Yemen deserve freedom? Doesn’t the house of Saud pollute the holy land? Aren’t the Sudanese really just “Upper Egyptians”?

Some people think Egypt will become a member of the great democracy club. Other people worry about the Muslim Brotherhood turning it into the next Iran. No one seems to be worrying about an Egyptian Bonaparte, but they should be. I'm not saying it's the most likely possibility, but it's certainly a possibility.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Isn't there a soul in there?

When a person suffers some sort of total and permanent brain damage, a la Terri Schiavo, people divide up into familiar pro-life/pro-choice groups.

This doesn't make any sense to me. Notionally, religious people claim to be committed to the views of soul-independence and soul-having-ness. That is to say, that the soul is independent of the body, and that humans have souls while they're alive. It also appears that religious folks think the soul is connected to the experiences of the body (i.e. you get to see your loved ones in heaven) in a way that requires the soul to be aware of bodily experiences, even if the mind isn't directly aware of the soul.

So if you believe all that, isn't keeping a vegetative person alive for decades a kind of torture to the soul? The usual sort of Natural Law arguments that are used to justify this bizarre beliefset don't seem to make any sort of sense here, because a vegetative person is undoubtedly being kept alive through the magic of modern science — god's will is clearly to let the person die. Alternatively, if the soul leaves the body when the mind does, then all this energy is being spent to keep unresponsive meat "alive", and that doesn't seem to make sense either.

Other sorts of "No You They Really Think This" theories are well-established, such as the notion that many pro-life activists are really anti-sex or anti-woman activists, or that the most virulent anti-gay bigots are closet cases. Clutching on to a dead person's body after it's clear that their mind is gone, seems to just be a sort of naive unwillingness to deal with reality. This mentality doesn't seem to spring forth from any sort of religious thinking, but it may be the same sort of instinct that also compels religious thinking.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Is being gay a choice?

This question seems to matter to a lot of people, but I can't really see why it does.

That's not true. I know why it matters to some people.

This seems like a clear example of the Deontological/Consequentialist divide in ethics, in a popular ethical discussion.

My position is, obviously, that I don't care why. If being gay is a choice, then choosing to be gay is making someone happy, so they should go for it. Laws should arrange themselves around persons for the maximum amount of happiness possible.

But some people really seem to care if it's a choice.

Of course, I really don't believe in "choices" at all. So there's that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Religion and Racism

These results:
The authors failed to find that racial tolerance arises from humanitarian values, consistent with the idea that religious humanitarianism is largely expressed to in-group members. Only religious agnostics were racially tolerant.
Should only surprise people who've never met Christians, or never met racists, or both. The primary function of religion in society is to serve as a social community. Morality is at best a fourth-order level of concern, behind social community, metaphysics, and aesthetic appreciation.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Humans are social creatures, and it's nice to have a place to gather once a week with your neighbors. It's nice to know that you've got a place to get married, someone who will be with you when you die, and a place to be buried once you're gone. I suspect many closeted atheists remain that way because the positive benefits of community are so obvious and tangible.

But because so much of the appeal of religion is wrapped up in the in-group/out-group distinction, we shouldn't be surprised that this drive's uglier aspects, like racism, are found in higher proportion as well.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Test Post

Friday, April 24, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Godless America

This graph, and others like it, warm the cockles of my atheist heart.

The religion of "None" is up to 12%. And it's nice to see that Christianity has fallen to 77%. But now that "other" is at 7%, don't you think it's about time they started including Islam as an option? Gallup says that they estimate it to be less than 1%, but I've heard Muslim groups estimate it as high as 4 or 5%. They ask about Judaism, after all, and that number is steady at 2%.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Michael Steele

Seeing Michael Steele out everywhere, vying to be the face of the Republican Party is just plain weird. Before Howard Dean, how many national chairs can people name?

The prominence of the national party chair for the party without the Presidency now looks to be a permanent feature of the American Electoral system, and is a consequence of the nationalization of the two parties. Only a system where the parties are ideologically cohesive could lead to a situation where the national chair mattered. In previous decades regional and ideological differences within the parties prevented this sort of thing from happening.

I also don't think it's an accident that Steele was an elected official before this. It seems likely that party chairs in the future will be minor celebrities who've run for office themselves, as opposed to the party functionaries who held the posts in the past.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Liar, Liar, Proust's on Fire

Via Kottke comes this list of books people lie about having read:

1. 1984 by George Orwell (42%)
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (31%)
3. Ulysses by James Joyce (25%)
4. The Bible (24%)
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (16%)
6. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (15%)
7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (14%)
8. In Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (9%)
9. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (6%)
10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (6%)

Interestingly, I often lie about having read 1984. I've lied about it to multiple girlfriends! It's an awful book. I never plan to read it. But I plan to continue to lie about it.

I think I might occasionally lie about 2 & 3 as well, but only in circles where I'm pretty sure other people are lying about having read them as well.

I've only read parts of A Brief History of Time, but I've read enough to lie convincingly about having read it all. And right now "The Bomber" is realizing that entire conversations that we've had (that lasted hours!) were based on my ability to lie about having read Hawking.

I've read 80-90% of The Bible over the years and I can definitively state that 24% is way too low a number. Everyone lies about reading the Bible! It's a bad book. You'd have to be some kind of sick masochist to even get through Deuteronomy. And Christians are the biggest liars in the world, so when they say that they've read it, they almost certainly haven't. I know this, because I've read a lot of it, and it's easy to tell that they haven't. But Christians hate admitting that they lie almost as much as they like lying! So we'll never know how many people lie about having read the Bible, but it's got to be over 50%. Or, rather, everyone who says they've read the whole Bible is lying.

I have actually read Dreams From My Father (when Obama was just a Senate candidate in my humble state, no less), and there's no reason it should be on this list. It's an entertaining read written in easy language. So go read the book!

And number 10, The Selfish Gene, is possibly one of my favorite books that I've ever read. I read it all the way through, and I've read parts of it again for various projects that I've worked on, so I've probably read the whole thing twice. It's phenomenal! It offers a solution to almost every metaphysical problem in Ethics! Everyone should read it! Twice!

Or at least you should learn to be able to lie about having read it. That's almost as good!