Thursday, December 31, 2009

Responses to "Ethical Implosion"

I had a feeling my previous post would get more comments than usual...

I was responding in the comments, but I noticed my response was starting to get longer than the original blog post. So I figured I'd start a whole new post to answer the comments, and elaborate on my situation and where I am coming from.

I'll start with just a couple of quick responses, with the meat of this post below the fold.

gerwitz said:
Someone has to start social change.

Well duh, but that doesn't stop it from sucking for those who do. Someone has to be an early adopter of new technologies too, and those people generally get fucked (e.g. my friend who bought a Series 3 TiVo, only to see the TiVo HD released less than a year later with more features and a third the price). The fact that "somebody" has to do it is cold comfort when you are the one paying the price -- whether we're talking about something as trivial as DVRs or as important as climate change.

Sabio Lantz wonders about one of my remarks:
"I'm a reasonable man."

I just mean, I may have my faults and foibles, but I'm a good dad and a good husband and I pay my bills and go to work, and I'm not a thief or a crackhead or anything. The worst things I do are that I pirate music sometimes, I almost never remember to bring the reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, I lose my temper a little too easily, and I eat and drink a little too much. I'm a reasonable man.

Also, at one point in arguing with my wife I unexpectedly found myself quoting Radiohead...

Joel said:
The idea that air travel is "unethical" because it causes pollution seems bizarre to me. Is there an ethical imperative not to pollute ever?

I'm actually way less worried about that one, and it's not been an issue for my family, i.e. we both agree that flying is necessary sometimes and well worth the trade-off. It was just frustrating stumbling on that comment at Bjørn's blog when I was already undergoing ethical overload. Just as I have posted at least three times about how my visceral need (as opposed to the rational need) to speak out about religion is fueled by the ubiquity of religious exposure, I find it similarly frustrating to find that a lot of every day choices are, if you look beneath the surface, infused with hidden political and ethical implications. In the same way as I feel I can't escape religion, I sometimes feel I can't escape considering the ethics of my choices, even for a day.

Of course, there is an important difference, in that religion is all made up, while many of the ethical and social and environmental problems facing humanity are all too real... But that doesn't make it any less annoying that I find myself constantly confronted with it!

And now on to the tough stuff. Joel also said:
Also, guilt only works if you let it.

Heh, this is true... but I also don't feel I want to be the person who lives any kind of life I want without regard to the effect on society and on the planet. Of course it's a balancing act, and one can only do one's best. One needs to decide what is important to each one of us -- and that's the crisis I'm having right now, is I'm so overwhelmed with all of the factors in play (see my response below about The Vegetarian Myth for just how complicated it can get) that I am having trouble telling what is important to me. Add to that a bitter spousal dispute over household diet, and... yeah, it pretty much sucks right now.

Sabio Lantz continued:
Suggestion: Challenge your wife to read:
The Vegetarian Myth before she insists her whole family follows HER fanatic trip !

So without having read the book, but only reading the description on Amazon... This might be interesting, but I worry this would mean we'd just need to buy more expensive produce :D

I'm already aware that the argument about meat production being inherently inefficient (calorie-wise) is bogus. Humans can't eat grass, and you can't plant human-edible crops on every square inch of land that is undeveloped. Furthermore, massive agricultural monocultures -- be they organic or conventional -- can be just as devastating to the local environment as most factory animal farms (except perhaps pig farms, which are an unmitigated disaster -- but my wife and I long ago mutually agreed to mostly give up pork, except for wild boar and occasionally a bit from local farms where the pigs are pasture-raised).

But the rebuttal to the "efficiency" argument mostly falls apart when you are talking about modern factory farming. Cows fed on corn are most definitely less efficient calorie-wise (even though the varieties of corn fed to cattle is not generally fit for human consumption, that doesn't mean the same land couldn't be used for human-edible agriculture). Which is why -- again, mutually agreed -- my wife and I decided to mostly avoid factory-farmed meat and try to buy from small operations at local farmer's markets.

This was the position held by both my wife and I until quite recently. The problem was that for Christmas she got the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer acknowledges the points above, visits small animal farms raising animals in a sustainable and ethical manner, and agrees that this is a good thing (though he points out -- and I was already aware of this, but had decided this was not enough on its own to make me give up meat -- that all the animals go the same slaughterhouses, the conditions of which are not well-regulated and in many cases are highly problematic).

But Foer goes on to argue that in practice it is virtually impossible to be a meat-eater and never eat factory farmed meat. (And indeed, though my wife and I mostly eat meat from operations where we can feel good about it, in practice it has turned out to be anything but a hard and fast rule) He argues that anyone who wishes to avoid participating in the factory farming industry must for all practical purposes become a vegetarian.

To be honest, I think this is a reasonably solid argument. My only response is to ask, what is the goal? Is it to push for change, or is it to remain ethically pure? Of course, my wife called me out on the fact that my invocation of "purity" was a form of begging the question, but I think, perhaps phrased in a less confrontational way, this is still the central question, and the one my wife and I answer differently. For her, the idea that she is playing a part in unnecessarily unpleasant and unsanitary conditions, that she's supporting an industry with highly dubious (and viscerally disgusting) practices, is the paramount concern. And taking that as a given, I think Foer's argument more or less holds.

I can't actually in good conscience say that my paramount concern is enacting change, though I do feel that, as far as rationalizations go, I've got a pretty damn good one: If you are a vegetarian, the mainstream meat industry does not consider you a potential customer. You're dead to them. On the other hand, if enough people starting buying meat only from local farms with more sustainable and ethical practices, the mainstream meat industry will say, "What can we do to capture this market?"

Still, I must admit my paramount concern is just that I love food and I love cooking. My wife's argument that meats are just a few foods, and that there are a whole world of vegetables, is frankly fucking bullshit. Blue is just a few shades, and there is a whole rainbow of other colors, but if somebody told me I could never see the color blue again, I'd kick them right in the nards. And there's more to it even than that, which I won't bother to go into here since this post is already getting really long.

My wife either backed off from saying she wants me to go vegetarian, or else I misunderstood her. Well, I might argue that her continuing position that she "hopes" I might feel the same way is a de facto request, when it comes from a spouse, but in any case that's not a central bone of contention. Mostly she was upset because she felt that I responded with hostility and derision to one of her aspirations, and she wants me to be supportive. I didn't mean to be hostile or derisive -- mostly I was just glum, because if I'm the only person in the house who eats meat that means in practice I won't be able to enjoy cooking meat the way I have in the past, and furthermore I think it's pretty fucking fair for a foodie to be a little unhappy that his wife is renouncing meat altogether -- but I also need to remember that my wife and I mean different things by the words we use, and often I interpret her comments to be far more definite than they are.

For example, if I say, "I'm ready to go", that means I can walk out the door in less than thirty seconds, or else I'll be apologizing because I forgot something; whereas if I she says, "I'm ready to go", that means sometime in the next ten minutes. By the same token, though, if she says, "Maybe we should consider exercising some more," I tend to hear, "Get off your fat ass now, you lazy slob!", when of course it's unreasonable to interpret it that way. The biggest two lessons I have gotten out of this are a) whenever I think my wife is making a demand I should interpret it as a suggestion, and whenever I think she is making a suggestion I should interpret it as just brainstorming; and b) my first response to any idea my wife has, no matter how shitty I think the idea is, ought to be questions rather than rejection. This latter part is both so that I will be less rude, and also because, as I described above, my wife and I mean different things by the same words sometimes...

The gorilla left in the room is what to do about our son. He's only ten months old right now, so I'm not that concerned if he eats a purely vegetarian (not vegan!) diet. But when he gets a little older, it is really important to me that I be allowed to share with him the full palette of flavors and food experiences, and someday the experience of cooking meat. (I'm sorry, but there is nothing in the vegetarian world that is remotely like the experience of braising a beautiful piece of short ribs or chuck roast, seeing this tough fatty piece of meat transformed into a buttery, savory treat... Braised vegetables are total ass in comparison)

We've discussed some of how this might work, and I think we'll be able to make it happen. My wife would love it if I took him hunting or fishing before consuming our bounty, or take him to a cattle farm (preferably the one we'd be buying he meat from) to meet a cow and explain that it helps transform the grass into something we can eat, etcetera. I agree this would be a lovely experience, though I don't want it to be an absolute prerequisite, and there could be some disconnect about appropriate ages. (Though I do hope to be able to talk frankly to my son about things like the reality of eating animals from as young an age as reasonably possible..)

Luckily, we have a few years to work that one out.

And one last quip from Joel:
Running the heater in the winter pollutes, is that unethical?

Hey, don't laugh, I have a friend who is really worried about this and struggling to find the least carbon-emitting method of keeping their pipes from freezing. He won't even let his wife get a stove with gas burners, because then they'd need to get a propane tank (they live out in the middle of nowhere) and he'd rather use electricity, since around here it mostly comes from sustainable sources (nuke and hydro -- I know hydro in general has it's own problems with environmental destruction, but in this case I'm talking about Niagara Falls, which is pretty much free sustainable power).

So yeah... some people DO worry about it all the time. In a way I admire that, but it's not for me. No sir, not at all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ethical implosion

First, my wife decides that she wants to be purely vegetarian (we had already tried to mostly eat only locally-raised pasture-fed animals, but that is no longer good enough), that she wants our son to be raised vegetarian until he is old enough to decide himself, and that she'd really like it if we could keep a vegetarian household. As I have mentioned before, I really love to cook, and this pretty much means that a whole section of the palette is now ripped away from me, and I can never paint with those colors again. Oh yeah, and she also wants me to be happy and excited about it. What the fuck. I should at least be allowed to be unhappy about it, right?!?!?!

Then, I'm browsing around over on Bjørn Østman's blog, and I see a comment from someone exhorting people not to travel to the atheism convention in Australia, because of the impact of air travel on global warming.

I can't fucking stand this shit any more. I am a reasonable man, and I do way more than the average American to try and live an ethical life. But it's never good enough. What do I have to show for my efforts? Yet more restrictions and sacrifices heaped on me, more guilt, more politicization of everyday decision, more worry and deliberation -- and the planet is still headed for disaster, animals are still suffering in massive numbers, because nobody else is changing.

I'm really about to have an ethical implosion here. It's too hard, it causes too much strife, and I don't feel like it makes a difference. I'm a fucking sucker, a fucking sap, for trying to live an ethical life when everybody around me is reaping the benefit of doing what is right for them. I'm so sick of this bullshit.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The "New Doctors'" fundamentalism on display

I was reading a post over on Pharyngula discussing an article by a Christian at Salon, where she apparently expresses some embarrassment about her beliefs. This paragraph, which PZ also mocked, made me think of something:

Writers like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Victor J. Stenger -- and, of course, performers like Bill Maher -- get loads of press mocking the dummies gullible enough to believe some guy a couple thousand years ago was God's son. But come on. It's like shooting Christian fish car magnets in a barrel.

Hmmm, interesting... so some 40% of Americans and a disturbing number of leading politicans are "gullible dummies," and this is so obvious that it shouldn't even be pointed out?

Well, maybe she has a point. I've noticed the same thing about these "New Doctors", who, unlike their counterparts from sixty years ago who had the decency, tolerance, and respect to keep their mouth shut about the dangers of smoking, feel the need to go preaching to everybody that smoking can cause cancer. Like people don't already know.

Surgeons general like Elders, Satcher, Carmona, and Benjamin -- and of course droids like C3PO -- get loads of press warning the dummies gullible enough to pay upwards of $5 for a pack of addictive carcinogens. But come on. It's like shooting diseased lungs in a barrel.

Of course, there are some differences here... Most smokers know cigarettes are bad for their health; smokers comprise about 12% or so of the US population, as opposed to more like 40% who take the Bible literally; and despite the efforts of the Tobacco Vatican, the smoking lobby no longer has a stranglehold on American politics...

I may have to boycott Annie's

So I was making this package of Annie's Macaroni & Cheese, and at the very end of the instructions it says, "And to support family farms, use organic milk, butter, and yogurt."

Wait, wut?

Annie's is based in Napa, CA, and given the volumes that they do, dollars to donuts their shit is coming from massive operations like Cascadia Farms, basically monocultures/factory farms that just happen to be organic. It's probably slightly better for the environment, but not by much.

But more important, by absolutely no means do those places qualify as family farms. Implying that buying organic products from giant corporations like Annie's is a way to support family farms goes beyond disingenuous, it's just plain dishonest. Quite the contrary, a slavish devotion to USDA-Certified Organic products probably hurts family farms on balance, because small farms often cannot afford the expensive and arduous certification process.

This would be like if Apple put a little notice on the back of their iPod packaging that said, "And to support independent software developers, buy a Mac." Um, yeah, Apple may not be Microsoft, but they are still a multi-billion dollar global corporation. HelllLLLOOO!!!

Sorry, that just really pissed me off.

Friday, December 18, 2009

God takes sides in Survivor: Samoa

My wife and I were watching Survivor: Samoa last night (yes, I kind of like that show) and a reward challenge involved a hilarious scene where people on both teams were openly praying for victory. Oh noes, a decision! What's a deity to do?

It started out with Token Hot Blonde Natalie making a comment to her newfound evangelical boyfriend, Brett, along the lines of, "You're a prayer warrior too, right? Let God guide your hand!" gag

You see, earlier in the episode, we had been shown the two lying together with Brett quoting Bible verses and Natalie looking suitably impressed. Despite being in different alliances, a bond seemed to be forming between the two attractive young people over their shared beliefs. Of course, people's beliefs are their own business, and they did not appear to be proselytizing, only discussing a shared belief, and the presence of a nosy cameraman can hardly be blamed on them. So even though I found this to be eye-rollingly lame, I can hardly criticize them for this discussion.

But then we get to the day's reward challenge.

The challenge involved a large number of coconuts suspended in the air by criss-crossing ropes, and each turn a team member had to untie and remove one of the ropes, letting as few coconuts fall as possible. The first team to have 100 or more coconuts fall was the loser. Success involved a combination of choosing the right rope, as well as removing it with a slow and steady hand.

"Did she just say 'prayer warrior?!'", asks my wife? Yes, yes she did. The praying continued in gratuitous fashion. Now there is something worth criticizing. Even viewing this through a completely Christian lens, this was total bullshit. First, there is that Bible verse that mentions that making a big show out of praying in public is a douche-y thing to do (I paraphrase liberally), and terming you and your new boyfriend "prayer warriors" on national TV surely counts.

Moreover, how much more self-centered can you get than begging God to help you win a reward challenge on a game show, with the other team only a few feet away? It's one thing when athletes give praise to God after a game. The inanity of this has been well-discussed. But this would be more akin to the captain of a (American) football team loudly praying for victory during the coin toss. How offensive is that? Downright blasphemous, I would argue, as far as it goes.

Things kicked up yet another notch when a member of the other team, ex-military Christian lesbian Shambo, started closing her eyes, raising her head to the sky, and pointing both fingers upwards with a muttered "Thank you God" every time something went well for her team.

While not coming anywhere close to equaling the lameness of Natalie's genuflections, it created a situation where you had members of each team quite openly beseeching and/or praising God in the name of opposite goals. They were both Christians, so which one was God helping? Rarely, if ever, have I seen the obvious criticism of asking/thanking God for competitive success illustrated in such a stark manner. Classic.

The conclusion was even better. Natalie's team initially had some success, but soon the team Shambo was on caught up. Then Shambo's team fell behind again, with 70+ coconuts having fallen, while the other team was still in the 40s.

Foul-mouthed manipulative oil company president Russell, and judging by some of his comments one of the more godless contestants on the show, pulled off an epic win for Shambo's team by removing a rope very late in the game without a single coconut falling. On the next turn, Natalie approached the place where the ropes were tried, made some pious gestures, and reflected, "God has surely taken good care of me today." She unties the rope and begins to pull...

There was a rain of coconuts.

In a single turn, "God caused" over 50 coconuts to fall, losing the challenge for Natalie's team in one brief stroke. God has surely taken good care of her, indeed. Perhaps Shambo was the more righteous? Or maybe God just preferred her style of prayer?

It was such a slap in the face, one has to wonder to what extent the CBS editors spliced and rearranged to more fully discredit Natalie's gratuitous display of blasphemous faux-faith. In any case, I have to admit it was pretty awesome. Even if you are religious, I would think that it would impart a certain satisfaction to see such a selfish and naive conception of one's place in the universe thoroughly discredited.

Whatever one's thoughts on the divine, the idea of begging a supreme being for your gain at another's expense is just sick.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why are otherwise sensible skeptics susceptible to AGW denialism?

First it was Penn Jillette, now it's James Randi. Why do otherwise sensible skeptics seem to be prone to buying into the claims of anthropogenic global warming denialists?

Okay, a sample size of two doesn't necessarily mean anything, but I think there is something to this. In my opinion, the reasons are twofold:

First, unlike most of the "hot topics" in the skeptical community, AGW is goddamn hard to understand. When it comes to creationism, anti-vaccination, alternative medicine, religious and paranormal beliefs, even as a layman I can pretty handily explain why it makes no sense. (On a side note, some of the anti-vaccination propaganda is somewhat harder to debunk, which may help to account for folks like Bill Maher) With AGW, on the other hand, pretty much the best I can do is point out that the vast majority of people with legitimate credentials say it's real, so I have to trust them on it. Of course, it helps that when AGW denialists show the graphs that are supposed to show that warming doesn't track with CO2, I think they show a pretty strong correlation given how noisy climatology data is... but I really don't know very much about the topic, and to be able to guess whether the predictive models are accurate or not, well that takes a lot of knowledge I don't have.

Second, and I think this is important because Randi alluded to this in his statement, environmentalism is a pseudo-religious endeavor for many of its adherents. For those who view it this way, often their goals end up being laudable anyway, but the reasoning is sometimes sloppy or just outright wrong.

"We taught a lion to eat tofu!"
I watched Wheel of Time the other night, which contains several interviews with the Dalai Lama (incidentally, I think the Lama is a bit of a douche... he pays lip service to a lot of good causes, I suppose, but anybody who refuses to deny that they are a god is pretty much an asshole automatically). At one point, Hertzog asks him what his message would be to the world. Most everything he said was positive, but when he talked about protecting the environment, he pretty much summed up exactly what I am talking about: He said the objective was to "keep the environment pure." I had to roll my eyes at that one... And indeed, it seems to me that for a lot of people who support environmentalism, it's not about sustainability or ethics, it's about a metaphysical idea of purity.

A "supersense" of purity is the driving force behind a lot of religious intolerance, it seems. It also feeds a substantial amount of the appeal of alternative medicine: Don't "pollute" your body with those "unnatural" pharmaceuticals. Flush those toxins which are "contaminating" your health. Etcetera.

So should we really be surprised that some skeptics, as soon as they get a whiff of something being associated with a purity campaign, immediately put their bullshit detectors into overdrive -- to the point that it sometimes scores a false positive?

You could even argue that this may have fed into Jillette's ludicrous denial of the dangers of secondhand smoke (which he has since at least partially retracted). When the subject of smoking came up on the denialism blog, I was shocked at how much vitriol some of the commenters had for smokers. It was as if, rather than smoking just being a public health hazard, they thought it was a horrible sin, and that anyone infected with the sin must be an evil despicable person.

I also think a supernatural sense of "purity" feeds into some of the the stricter outdoor smoking regulations... There is no doubt that prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke is hazardous, but it is weird to me that someone who is bothered being ten feet away from a lit cigarette has no qualms about waiting minutes at a crosswalk at a busy intersection. I'm no scientist, but I have trouble believing the former is as harmful than the latter. (Try this experiment sometime: Ride a bike down a fairly busy road where traffic mostly flows at a pretty decent clip, but where there are a number of widely-spaced traffic lights. Smell the air in between intersections, and at the intersections. Mmmmm, that intoxicating scent of exhaust mixed with burning rubber and melting brake pads -- gotta love it!)

So the moral is: As skeptics, we must be careful not to let the smell of zealotry become a primary indicator of trueness or falseness. Though they may be garner the support of superstitious fanatics using fallacious reasoning, AGW and the risks of secondhand smoke are both quite real.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Strong" and "Weak" Accomodationism

I was reading a comment from Bruce Hood over at his blog, and in responding to it I think I had a bit of an insight about the so-called "accomodationism" debate. At least in my mind, it helps me to frame why some "accomodationists" don't bother me (e.g. Eugenie Scott, Bruce Hood, and to a certain extent Michael Schermer), but others (e.g. Chris Mooney, etc.) tend to really annoy me.

It could be said that there are two forms of accomodationism: "Weak accomodationism" is an individual decision to take a more conciliatory approach to religion. Those who subscribe to this philosophy will typically not give voice to direct criticisms of religion, and are unlikely to directly point out the flaw in a theists thinking unless that thinking is directly leading to bigotry or anti-scientific attitudes. (Here I distinguish "unscientific" which would be something like a belief that there is a divine being who loves you, vs. "anti-scientific", e.g. Creationism. Unscientific viewpoints cannot or are unlikely to be true from a scientific perspective, but anti-scientific viewpoints specifically challenge well-known scientific facts.)

I have no problem with the "weak accomodationist" viewpoint, and as I have blogged about before, I think the existence of such folks is strategically necessary to effecting social change.

The "strong accomodationist" position, on the other hand, holds that every nontheist should adopt a conciliatory tone. For instance,Mooney and Kershenbaum recently did the point-a-finger-and-laugh routine at Dawkins, alleging that his previous publication of The God Delusion makes it impossible for The Greatest Show on Earth to succeed in its mission. They have expressed quite clearly on numerous occasions that they think Dawkins would be better served if he would extend an olive branch to the religious -- even if that olive branch comes in the form of an out-and-out lie.

I think this is a very important difference here. In the blog comment I linked to at the start of this post, Bruce Hood describes how he chose to avoid the subject of religion as a simple superstition in order to avoid offense; yet he also makes no secret of what he thinks about religious truth propositions, and, importantly, he declines to criticize Dawkins et al for their more strident approach. He gives reasons why he chooses to take the approach he has, but he doesn't proceed to write, "And I really think that mean old Dan Dennett should act that way too!"

Monday, December 14, 2009

You can't escape it, part III

This morning I was reading through the print version of the Sunday New York Times (yes, we actually get a physical newspaper -- just the Sunday NYT though, but yeah) and I was reading a front page article about custody controversies arising from surrogates. It's a very tricky issue and I'm not sure just how I feel. Ideally people would adopt anyway, but unfortunately that is not an option for many people (gay, not wishing to get married, too old, etc.), and in addition I don't feel comfortable passing judgment on those incapable of having their own biological offspring. I confess that it was fairly important to me -- for completely irrational reasons, of course, but I'm human after all -- to have a biological child, and while I would like to think that if I had proven incapable of doing so that I would be accepting of it, I can't say that for certain.

The anecdote they lead off with is about a surrogate who changed her mind after discovering the adoptive mother had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, although it had been under control with medication for the better part of eight years. Because
Michigan law is hostile to surrogacy, basically all she had to do was snap her fingers (litigiously speaking) and she regained custody.

Without commenting on the specifics of the story, this evoked an audible groan from me:

“My husband and I would not do something like this unless we thought it was given to us to do,” Ms Baker said. “My belief is that God placed this on my heart for a reason.”

In the fall of 2007, Ms. Baker advertised in saying she would carry a baby for a Christian couple.

Argh. You know, people's beliefs are their business and stuff, but putting this caveat on it being a Christian couple is messed up. Could you imagine if someone posted that they would only carry a baby for an atheist couple?!? Oh my god, how much of an asshole move would that be...

It perhaps belittles the situation, but I can't help but say that maybe the adoptive mother should have known that this woman was susceptible to placing stupid and arbitrary criteria and who she was willing to be a surrogate for.

Anyway, even though the article was on the front page, it was continued much further back, in the National section.1 I looked to the bottom of that page from the national section, and I see an article covering the absurd attempt to bar an atheist city councilman from taking office based on a clause in the North Carolina constitution that has been explicitly nullified by Supreme Court precedent. Or in other words, yet another article about religion messing up the whole works.

So I go to put back the National section, and what's on the front page of that, but an article about California PR companies getting rich making anti-gay propaganda for electoral battles in other states. Apparently a couple of specific companies -- one of them ironically in San Fransisco -- have become the go-to agencies for the badly-misnamed National Organization for Marriage's dishonest advertising. Yes, another article reflecting the negative influence of religion in our daily lives -- even in the daily lives of the non-religious.

You really can't escape it. When people say that atheists should just leave people alone to their personal beliefs, I say, "Yes! Please!" This is exactly what we want. I don't need to convince every single person to abandon their irrational beliefs -- I mean, at the top of this very post, I admitted to a highly irrational desire on my own part. We are humans, and irrationality is part of our existence, and I am totally okay with that as long as we keep it in check. That means that it stays mostly a private thing, and that we keep rationality firmly in the driver's seat when it comes to public policy.

And it also means that people who don't keep it mostly a private thing are subject to whatever ridicule or disdain they bring on themselves. That's how it works. If you want to shout your craziness from the rooftops, I'm going to shout back, "You're crazy!"

1New York Times does this thing where the main section and International section are numbered one through twenty-something, and then the National and Local sections pick it back up with the same numbering, so you can actually have an article continued in a different section. Kind of annoying...

Update: Immediately after posting this, I went poking around and started reading a funny article about bad video games given as gifts by non-gamers... and what do I see at the bottom of the page?

I'll transcribe the oldest featured comment here, since you can't read it without clicking for the larger version:
Regardless of the pagan origins of the season, christians celebrate Christ's birth on this day and I have actually studied this too because of a report I was doing.

Being christian, my family and my church celebrate it because of it's religious significance, but it doesn't mean it's wrong to enjoy other aspects of it. I have no problems with secularists celebrating this holiday too, if it puts a little kindness in everyone's hearts then that isn't a bad thing.

Sure, the guy is apparently getting smacked down, but... why oh why the need to bring up your Christ bullshit on an article that has absolutely nothing to do with that at all?!?

You truly can't escape it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

If Republicans are fiscally conservative, why have they failed to make the one "valid" argument against gay marriage?

(Before proceeding, I should be very clear that by "valid" I don't mean that the argument is satisfactory or convincing. I merely mean that it doesn't rely on fallacious reasoning, abject falsehoods, or imagined costs or risks; i.e. I am defining "valid" as meaning an argument which identifies a real cost or risk, no matter how trivial that cost may be when compared to the benefits of doing the right thing.)

One thing I am fond of saying to explain my rabid support of gay marriage is that, unlike the vast majority of political issues, this one is a no-brainer. I have previously claimed that legalizing gay marriage is a rare legislative action that is all benefit and no cost. This differs from other issues on which I have a strong opinion, but where I acknowledge there are significant costs to the position I advocate, making it an issue where reasonable people might differ (e.g. my opinions on abortion rights and the death penalty fit this profile1). We don't even have to figure out the logistics of enacting the legislation -- you just say, "Now all marriage laws are exactly the same as they were yesterday, except the gender of the involved parties doesn't matter." Done.2

So I was contemplating that this morning, and I suddenly thought of an actual, real cost of legalizing gay marriage. Mind you, it's a rather small cost, and even if it were a large cost I would still strongly support gay marriage because it's simply the right thing to do. Denying full civil rights to the LGBT community cannot be deemed acceptable under any circumstances.

Still, since the cost I have identified has a direct effect on the federal budget, it seems odd that a political party that nominally prides itself on fiscal responsibility has so far failed to raise this argument in their attack on gay marriage. (Or, it would seem odd if I actually believed the modern Republican party had any clearly articulated ideals at all, other than providing a haven for bigotry and promoting unapologetic demagoguery)

Without further ado, here it goes:

I'm not exactly sure how the numbers work out, but it seems likely that recognizing gay marriage at the federal level would create a sudden spike in the number of "Married filing jointly" tax returns, with a presumably negative effect on tax revenue. I don't imagine the impact will be large, and as I said, even if it were, it would be irrelevant in a discussion on civil rights. And furthermore, this can't become a reality until DOMA is either repealed or correctly ruled unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, so the only way it can be applied to legalization of gay marriage at the state level is via the "slippery slope" argument (but we know gay marriage opponents have no qualms about using that usually-fallacious argument...)

But isn't it strange that this argument hasn't been made? Doesn't it seem like a perfect fit for Rush Limbaugh to be blathering on about how "these deficit-happy liberals want to deal a further blow to the federal budget right in the middle of the worst recession in recent memory?"

Could it be that it is beneath even the modern GOP to argue that civil rights should be arbitrarily denied to a certain group in order to increase tax revenue? It doesn't seem like it... The only answer -- and I guess we knew this already, but it is just further evidence -- is that when the GOP has a choice between promoting fiscal conservatism vs. promoting bigotry, they're going to go with the one that they know their audience can grasp.

1My position on those two issues, and why it's not as cut and dry as gay marriage...

On abortion rights: I support full abortion rights with no restrictions on when they are performed or on medical necessity. I recognize that this position would conceivably allow a small number of abortions to occur which reasonable people -- myself included -- might view as hugely immoral, on par with infanticide. I think this cost/risk is justified because a) the vast majority of women seeking a late abortion are doing so for legitimate medical reasons, b) both the government and insurance companies have shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy at discerning what "legitimate medical reasons" are in regards to abortion, and c) good luck finding a doctor willing to perform a 3rd-trimester abortion on a healthy fetus inside a healthy mother, anyway.

We might imagine a distant future when reproductive rights are not so politicized, when regulations might be put in place on late abortions to define parameters when they are acceptable -- but in the near term any attempt to do so is simply going to be used as a foot in the door to deny appropriate medical care to women undergoing one of the most devastating events of their lives. Still, there are real costs here, and (unlike gay marriage) the issue is a bit tricky.

On the death penalty: It's a waste of money, a waste of time, and far too often a waste of an innocent life. But it is still less of a no-brainer than the gay marriage issue, because while the death penalty is a lousy deterrent for violent crimes, there is some suggestive evidence that a person who does not believe proper "justice" is being done in response to wrongdoing is less likely to behave ethically. We might extend that to a whole population, and argue that by failing to execute violent criminals, we contribute to a general nonchalance about unethical behavior.

Okay, that's a stretch. But the other reason I don't feel quite as passionate about the death penalty as I do about gay marriage is that for criminals whose actions are beyond reprehensible and whose guilt is not in doubt, my reaction to their execution is pretty much a big shrug. The recent execution of the DC sniper comes to mind. I don't generally support government-sponsored murder, and I feel like it's wasteful from a practical perspective -- but do I feel a sense of outrage that this guy was executed? Nope, not at all.

Don't get me wrong, on both of these issues, I still feel strongly. But there are major costs and benefits on both sides, so it requires careful thought to come to a conclusion, and opinions could conceivably change over time. With gay marriage, there are simply no (non-trivial) costs to speak of, and I cannot imagine my opinion changing under any circumstances. Nearly unique among political issues, it is a complete and total no-brainer.

2Seriously, legalizing gay marriage is that simple. As we have seen by precedent in areas where it has been legalized, it's not even a big deal if the existing marriage license forms say "Husband" and "Wife". People just cross out the erroneous appellation and replace it with an appropriate one for the time-being, until the local government can get around to printing out "Spouse/Spouse" forms to correct that embarrassment. It's not ideal, but it shouldn't be a barrier to legalizing gay marriage, particularly in cash-strapped locales where expediency might dictate that the old-style forms remain in use until they would have needed to print new ones anyway.

Fixing those little remaining artifacts of prejudice like "Husband/Wife" forms is something that needs to be done, but it is not at all a requirement for legalizing gay marriage. Gay marriage could be legalized across the entire country, today, with nary a hiccup in the bureaucratic administration of marriage laws.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You can't escape it, part II

I have written previously about how stupid and hypocritical it is to suggest that atheists should keep their (lack of) beliefs to themselves, given the ubiquity of religion in everyday life. Everywhere you turn, people are blathering on or otherwise promoting their religious beliefs, and nobody bats an eyelash. I'm not even talking about fundies and other sanctimonious types, I'm just talking about casual promotion of religious beliefs.

Today, my wife took our 9-month-old son to a "Kindermusik" class, which might be described as "music lessons for infants", but is probably better described as "fun activity that let's mom get out of the house while increasing baby's socialization and exposure to music." In any case, she said it was a real blast and she intends on going back. On the other hand, she also reports:

It is unfortunately held at a Christian school, in a room decorated with Christian affirmations, by a woman who appears to be xtian

Not that this is a huge deal... In theory, none of that should matter (though I find even nominal reverence for a book as horribly violent and hate-filled as the Bible to be deeply disturbing, so I guess even in a perfect world it would matter a little) except that this sort of thing is everywhere; nobody thinks very much of it; and if you imagine the atheist equivalent, people would be all up in arms. I mean, what if it was held in a freethinker school, talk by a woman who appeared to be an atheist, and the room was decorated with humanist affirmations like "You can be good without God" and such? People would storm out. It would be controversial.

Either everybody else shuts the fuck up about their stupid beliefs, or else I get to be as vocal as I want about my stupid beliefs. You can't have it both ways... unless you want to maintain that atheism -- even the quiet, deferential sort -- is inherently evil. People who spew tripe like, "People who talk about their atheism are just as bad as religious fundamentalists," need a serious reality check. At worst, people who talk about their atheism are just as bad as people who talk about their religion -- and the latter is not restricted to fundamentalists, it's situation normal all over the world, all the time.