Monday, February 27, 2006

Kinder and gentler zealots

In today's USA today, Michael Medved, who has become a sort of modern-day Know-Nothing (for those who haven't heard of them, they were a real political movement at one time) wrote about the Religious Rat's surprising forebearance in not violently protesting "Brokeback Mountain". He sees it as a sign of grace and maturity on their part. His point of reference was, of course, the Muslim riots over cartoons.

As a civil libertarian, I can only hope that Medved is right, that the Christian movement is softening its hysterical attempts to demonize and restrict behavior it considers immoral. Ironically, Medved himself remains one of the most hysterical and, frankly, confused, commentators on our culture and its supposed degradation. He has been in the forefront of those who would blame, for example, heavy metal rock for teen murder rampages. Yet, with breathtaking hypocrisy, he is silent on the young woman who cut off her baby’s arms while reciting biblical scripture.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Corporate Sellouts, the Religious Rat, Bird Flu and more

(This is an updated version of the post of 21-Jan, "Random Neurons Firing")

Google was apparently alone, among major search engine companies, in standing up to the Adminstration's brazen demand that it cough up data on the search habits of its users. On fears of a confrontation with the Injustice Department, Google's stock tanked (still leaving it at surreal levels). While there is a lot to fault in Google's relentless hype, this is one issue on which we should all stand with the company. Yahoo, meanwhile, caved quietly, and deserves only our scorn. From having once been a symbol of edgy rebelliousness, Yahoo has become just another gutless corporate stooge. But we saw it coming. Their tie-up with SBC amounted to a wholesale sellout of both companies' customers. Why should we expect any better of them now?

Of course, it turns out that Google, along with Yahoo and pretty much everyone else in the browser/search engine/OS business, have caved in completely to the Chinese. We have mentioned this here before: U.S. companies are racing to do the bidding of the Chinese government, in exchange for a foothold in the China market. All of these companies (count Microsoft and many others among them) are complicit in multiple cases of surveillance, arrest, and mistreatment of Chinese citizens by their government. This correspondent is a strong advocate of the idea that engagement, not confrontation, is the route to greater freedom in China, and has even invested in companies operating there. But engagement cannot include active involvement in suppression. The arguments of these companies, when questioned by Congress this past month, rang hollow and self-serving. There are no shades of grey. Either you rat on people, sending them to prison and torture, or you don't.

Following their setback in Dover in December, a few of the Religious Rats have been jumping ship. Suddenly, congressmen like Rick Santorum, the apostle of ignorance, are standing up for science. We'll see how long that lasts. In Santorum's case, it can be traced to an acute attack of re-election anxiety. Some of the rats are turning on each other: the moderates (Creation as metaphor) and the extremists (Genesis as literal truth) are accusing each other of hurting the cause. Meanwhile, America remains the only industrialized country in which a majority reject the scientific account of how we got here. A whole lot more rats are going to have to devour each other before that changes.

Right wing spokesmen (and especially their buddies on the talk radio stations) continue to defend the Administration's desire to spy on us. First it was the Patriot Act. Now the justification is catching web porn users. For a crowd that continually thunders about limiting government power, these people are remarkably casual about telling us to give up our rights. The question: if this kind of government power is OK, then just what does it mean to talk about "getting government off our backs?" Ooops. Forgot, the Constitution doesn't say anything about privacy.

Meanwhile, as institutional panic about Avian flu builds, governments are stockpiling a treatment of dubious value. The company that makes it once had Donald Rumsfeld as its Chairman. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists on the Left are using this as a pretext to claim that Avian flu itself is a hoax, or at best, overblown. If they have their way, we won't do anything about it until 40 million people have died, and then they will point fingers at the "callous" establishment for not having prepared adequately. The current “preparations” for Bird Flu are a travesty, and the political squabbling a case of multiple wrongs making a bigger wrong. We can only hope that the critical mutation that would enable this virus to spread easily between humans does not occur.

On a quasi-personal note: as my brother and I try to help our mom navigate through the healthcare system, extended care, and all that they entail, a few things are obvious: Without either Medicare, long-term-care insurance (which has become prohibitively expensive) and/or children of means, people like her would be dying in the streets. Period. In spite of Medicare, some die there anyway, because our system is beyond broken.

Having the means to pay for care is not enough. We have to take turns hounding the doctors, nurses and administrators at the hospitals and clinics, to make sure they do not forget her (and these are some of the best hospitals in the country). Even in the hospital, patients without such advocates may as well hurry up and die, and many do, in great pain. Most doctors and nurses went into their professions in part because of an idealistic desire to heal other human beings. What is it about our system that leaves them so jaded and exhausted that they don't pay attention unless you badger the crap out of them?

And for those who insist that our system is better than anything in Europe, I can only offer my own experiences in Germany: Doctors who saw me, without any wait; clinics that treated me without any assurance I could or would pay; staff who took the time to learn about me before making any decisions. No system is perfect, and Europe certainly has its problems, but could it be we're missing something?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Back where we started, almost

Five years ago, the Middle East was composed largely of a handful of barbaric Arab semi-states, plus Iran (not Arab), Afghanistan (neither Arab nor even resembling a state), Kurdistan (ooops, wishful thinking), Turkey, and Israel. Israel survived in part because the others were too busy murdering each other to unite behind their shared hatred of the Jewish state.

So, since 9/11, the U.S. has bombed Afghanistan into dust, decided to take out Iraq for good measure, and is busy trying to install new governments in both piles of rubble. Lo! and behold, the Afghans remain in tribal chaos, the Iraqis are busy killing each other, Iran has decided to resume building nukes, and, for good measure, the Palestinians have elected people who hate us even more than the previous thugs did.

Are we back to where we started? Or is it perhaps even worse? Is Israel any safer? Are we? Why do any Americans still think Bush and his gang of draft-dodging bullies have made us safer or stronger? And what of the rest of the world? Our friends must be in shock at how hollow our power has been revealed to be. We know our enemies are drooling with excitement. We are measurably poorer than we would have been if we had simply let time take care of Saddam. And the much of the world, and Iraq most of all, have lost trust that we could deliver.

So, now, a deal to sell the management of 6 of our largest ports, to people who harboured some of the 9/11 terrorists. The clown in the White House claims he knew nothing of the deal (until he heard about it from the press). If that's true, it was his perfect out. Yet, instead, he will go to the wall to defend it?!?!?!?! Am I the only person completely baffled?

In fact, it is coming out that the man who approved it, Treas. Secy. John Snow, has a web of ties to folks with a huge vested interest in buttering up the Emir of the United Arab Emirates, who will now run a major part of our nation's ports. This writer actually believes that the risks of the deal have been exaggerated by its critics, but is there any level of gratuitous risk that is acceptable?

Why there is no call from security hawks to remove Bush from the White House, is truly a mystery.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Final PostScript on India, and other stuff

One of our alert readers (with apologies to Dave Barry) spotted clear and convincing evidence of the loss of American jobs to India. The question now is: when will the bike be replaced by a cage full of gerbils? (Photo courtesy of W.L.; Who knows where she got it from...)

In the meantime, allies and critics alike have been praising the President's commitment to expand funding for science and mathematics education in the U.S., along with packages of tax breaks for corporate programs that support ongoing education and retraining of American workers. It is all part of a strategy to preserve U.S. leadership in technical fields. Of course, as long as we continue to attack the actual teaching of science in schools, one has to wonder: On what do they plan to spend the new money? Special leather-bound copies of creationist textbooks? Creation movies with really great special effects? Wiretapping teachers who insist on teaching science? We await the details.