Quickie: Texas Republicans Should Read the Bible


Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently said America should be guided by “the Christian values that this country was based upon.” Even though Article 11 of the John Adams-endorsed Treaty of Tripoli states “the Government of the United States of America, is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” I’m sure it warmed the hearts of Christian voters in the room. However, Rick Perry is the absolute worst model of a Christian leader.

The scriptures are clear about the necessity of helping the sick and the poor. Proverbs 3:27 instructs those to not withhold good from the deserving when it’s in their power to do so. Jesus defined the Christian’s role of aiding the needy in Matthew 25: 35-41, adding that those who deny the needy the help they need do it to him also. Jesus also warns, speak out against religious hypocrites in Matthew 23. The idea of wealth redistribution isn’t new – Luke the Apostle actually advocated for it in Acts 4, in a passage called “Believers Share Their Possessions.”

Yet, Rick Perry instead chose to deny public healthcare to tens of thousands of his fellow Texans with reckless cuts to Medicaid. 4.6 million Texans are living in poverty, with a poverty rate three percentage points higher than the national average. After Governor Perry cut millions from volunteer firefighter and forest service budgets, Texas’ wildfires are raging to this day.

Instead of redistributing wealth, Perry’s friends in the capitol denied help to struggling people in his state in the midst of a $27 billion revenue shortfall, and chose to reward owners of $250,000 yachts with a generous tax break. Perry, who constantly criticizes federal entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare as “unconstitutional,” apparently feels entitled to $600,000 in taxpayer money to spruce up his rented mansion.

Not to be outdone, Ron Paul recently hinted during the CNN-Tea Party debate that allowing the uninsured to die was “what freedom is all about,” before finally relenting and saying churches and charity could likely pay for life-saving healthcare for a hypothetical uninsured patient in intensive care.


More Notes on the Fragility of Empire

“Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the
American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially
unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be
an unacceptable shock to the American economy.”
— George F. Kennan (1904-2005) US advisor, diplomat, political analyst, and Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study and former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. 1987

So Kennan understood clearly in 1987 that the American economy was built around military industry. The need for an enemy, the threat to the US economy from not standing in opposition to an enemy had become an end in itself. Americans and the world had learned to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation (the thermonuclear war variety, not the poor engineering variety demonstrated at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and most recently at Fukushima). We got desensitized to that “hard rain” threat over a couple of decades and all attempts to reduce nuclear weapons around the world have been effectively thwarted by the US failure to lead, to comply with our obligation to reduce our nuclear stockpile as an important part in the non-proliferation treaty. We continue to upgrade and adapt nuclear weapons for use in changing battlefield scenarios. Need an example? Look at depleted uranium ammunition. We have avoided the issue of safely disposing of the uranium tailing produced in enriched uranium processes by turning the waste material into a heavy projectile weapon that can be used to pierce armor, kill enemy combatants and coincidentally expose a population in foreign lands to a chemical agent. If these were exploded on American soil by some party I think they would be called a dirty bomb. But they are just armor piercing DU shells when we use them.

A “good” thing for the American economy, I suppose. Lots of profitable economic activity dedicated to enriching uranium and a win-win for the military industrial complex to be able to turn the waste material into another profit opportunity in du sales to the American war machine.

But where does it get us? Does it make us safe? I think our distance, our continental isolation, from the peoples we exploit economically and oppress culturally is the dominant factor in the American experience of security and stability. I believe that our choices to build economic stability on the rock of military weaponry makes us less safe. As empires have historically discovered, the price of maintaining a standing army capable of taking on all comers (and even all comers at the same moment) is the oppression and exploitation of foreign nations and peoples. The formula is not stable. Great Britain chose to step back from empire at the end of WWII. Was it a choice or had GB had been so depleted by its proximity to the war in Europe that its time at the top of pyramid was over? I am not sure about that question, but the long term outcome was the shift to GB as servant to American hegemony, a bit of role reversal for the two countries, notwithstanding some notable disagreements between the two nation-states including a fracas in 1776 and another in 1812.

Here’s another thought from Kennan, from an earlier date:

US State Department 1948, Review of Current Trends in U.S. Foreign Policy: …We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population… In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. George Kennan, US State Department 1948

Clearly, Kennan was not just a sophisticated insider and observer of the American Empire, he was an architect or engineer in the construction of empire. If there is a section of hell reserved for the dogs of war George Kennan has earned his place there. But these things are beyond human knowing or understanding. A person like Mandela spends decades in jail and a guy like Kissinger has yet to be arrested. Justice in our time is a chimera, a roll of the dice, a happenstance, not a predictable outcome of any human process that I can identify.

The US and Obama had an opportunity to put our feet on a different path. The collapse of the Wall Street megabanks, the banksters (financial wizards with conscience comparable to Kennan’s) who have arisen to lead the military economy were momentarily vulnerable. Coincidentally, the climate, the planet itself is starting to respond to our species hubris in ways that will force change, but sadly, Obama played it safe and propped up the banksters and chose to double down on the military economy instead of committing resources to an employment program based on clean energy and energy independence. The door was open, a path away from military empire and back on industrial and environmental stability lay on the other side through that door. Obama is not a dumb guy. He must have recognized the opportunity, but he appears to be a really cautious guy who just could not take bold steps. An effective orator and ineffective politician. I was never sold on the guy, so I don’t have to deal with the betrayal factor, but I am certainly disappointed. My energy and passion are with candidates like Kucinich and Dean. Do these guys have a chance in the big money politics arena? David, meet Goliath. He’s the big guy with heavy armor. Good luck with that guy.

Well, Goliath sometimes loses. It’s historic when he does, it’s history when Goliath prevails as he most often does.

Alternet is running a piece by Noam Chomsky today. Noam continues to respond to the “Obama Kills Osama” story in the same way that I do, by wondering how the country has moved forward into the realm of lawless, rogue states with so little outcry.

Noam asks When Did America Completely Jettison the Rule of Law? It’s a good question.

So we move forward into the post-rapture-disappointment week with Obama wearing the armor of Goliath. Somehow we have to find a way to reach Goliath. To persuade Goliath that might does not make right. That is the real David versus Goliath battle. Persuade Goliath to lay down his arms.

Happy Monday to all!

Why Abortion isn't Murder

Anti-abortion activists like to call embryos “unborn children”, “innocent babies” or “developing human beings.” Their obvious aim is to shame people into believing that abortion is murder. But just repeating these phrases doesn’t change any facts and shouldn’t change any opinions. There are clear differences between early term embryos and late term fetuses. Specifically, a fertilized egg has no nervous system and hence no consciousness. The nervous system develops gradually, over many months, and along with it consciousness develops gradually too. Until there is significant brain development, there is “nobody home,” so no consciousness is being destroyed.

Inherent preciousness, consciousness and gradual development

Why do pro-lifers think that embryos become precious immediately after conception? Does a switch get turned on that instantly makes the fertilized egg precious? I mean: not just precious in onlookers’ eyes, but inherently precious.

embryo cells

What makes a person inherently precious, I think, is (dormant or active) consciousness: thoughts, feelings, memories, hopes, and awareness. Since consciousness depends on the development of the nervous system, and since it takes many months for the nervous system to mature, we can conclude that consciousness emerges gradually. Consequently, the inherent preciousness emerges gradually too.

Granted, a sleeping or comatose person has no consciousness either. But a sleeping or comatose person’s consciousness is dormant: if they wake up, they have memories, etc.

For a fertilized egg, there is no consciousness and also no history of consciousness (unless you believe in reincarnation). Even though all the DNA is there, the fact that there’s no higher brain activity strongly suggests that there’s no consciousness.

Nor does the later presence of a heartbeat and of primitive neural activity imply consciousness or preciousness. What’s needed is higher brain activity and the consequent self-awareness.

Now, I grant that nobody knows for sure what consciousness is — philosophers have been speculating about the nature of consciousness for years, and scientists haven’t yet tackled the issue. But it is quite clear that consciousness does not emerge full-grown immediately after conception. And since I believe in science, I have to presume that consciousness emerges with the gradual development of the nervous system.

So sure, an embryo is a growing human being. Sure, it’s a potential person (as are an unfertilized egg and sperm). But it’s not yet a conscious person and hence not yet inherently precious. That’s the distinction.

We generally reserve the word “human” or “child” to refer to a thinking, feeling being. So calling an embryo an “unborn child” is odd, since it masks clear distinctions between an (unconscious) embryo and a (thinking, feeling) child.

Now, if you believed that a “soul” enters the embryo at conception, then I could understand that you’d likely think abortion is murder. But I doubt that pro-lifers want to depend on an essentially religious argument.

In short, pro-choicers can say: abortion isn’t murder because until there’s a mature nervous system, there’s no conscious person, just a potential consciousness (a clump of cells). Nor is there any pre-existing (dormant) consciousness, as there’d be in the case of a sleeping or comatose person.

So, I’m suggesting the following equation: person = existing or pre-existing consciousness = mature nervous system.

Given that the development of the nervous system and consciousness is gradual, when does the embryo become conscious enough to be considered a person (a precious human being)?

Arbitrary cutoffs

Some anti-abortion activists concede that the maturation of the nervous system is gradual. They acknowledge that there’s no clear line (cutoff) between non-consciousness and consciousness. Therefore, they argue, it’s arbitrary to say that life begins at, say, three months; far better, they argue, to play it safe and say that life begins at conception, which is non-arbitrary. In other words, anti-abortion activists say that setting a cutoff later than conception is arbitrary.

I agree that there’s no precise place to draw a line, because development is gradual. However, this doesn’t imply that we have to draw the line at conception or that it’s completely arbitrary to draw a line later in development.

By analogy, there’s no clear line between pornography and art, but some books are clearly pornographic, and some books are clearly art. Saying there’s no clear line does not mean that we should say that all books are art or that all books are pornography. But for practical purposes (e.g., the law) we may need to set a somewhat arbitrary cutoff, somewhere in the middle.

The word “arbitrary” is ambiguous. It can mean “completely arbitrary” (meaningless, or random), or it can mean “partially arbitrary” (smudgy, fuzzy, or imprecise). It’s the latter sense that’s operative here when we’re talking about embryonic development and consciousness.

For many things in life we need to decide on thresholds to separate two classes. For example, in some schools a grade of 90 or above counts as an ‘A’. That’s somewhat arbitrary, but not completely arbitrary. Other schools decree that 92 or above is an ‘A’.

Similarly, in the law, there are semi-arbitrary cutoffs. If you steal less than, say, $100, you may get one punishment. If you steal more than the threshold, you might get a worse punishment. There’s nothing magical about $100.

Likewise, if you drive faster than 60 miles per hour on some particular road, the police may give you a speeding ticket. Why not 62 mph or 58 mph? Well, the decision is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s based on a variety of considerations (including the fact that 60 is a nice round number).

The fact that there’s no clear difference between an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ doesn’t imply that all grades are ‘A’s or all grades are ‘B’s. Likewise, for different grades of crimes and different sorts of traffic violations.

Likewise, it’s somewhat arbitrary to say that life begins at three months, as opposed to two months, or four months. But it’s always like this for things that are gradual — for things that have a continuous gradation (“a smudgy line”).

Right after conception the embryo is not viable, not conscious, and hence not inherently precious. The fact that there’s no clear line certainly does not imply that we have to draw the line at conception; it just means that if we need to set a precise line, its position will be somewhat arbitrary.

Even the presence of a heartbeat and the presence of primitive neural activity don’t imply that the embryo is significantly conscious. What’s needed is a developed nervous system with higher brain activity.

In summary, the criterion of being conscious is fuzzy (gradual, smudgy or imprecise) but not totally arbitrary. Some things are definitely unconscious, some things are clearly conscious. There’s a continuum from complete unconsciousness (rock or fertilized egg) to full consciousness (laughing child). To decide when (precious) human life begins, we need to decide on a cutoff. For someone like me who thinks that preciousness involves consciousness, abortion is quite reasonable: close to conception, consciousness is absent or extremely primitive.

Decreeing the meaning of life and death

Now, given the chance, voters or the courts could decide on any legal definition of “human life” that they want. We’re discussing what they should decide. Some people want the legal definition to imply that life begins at conception. Others might want the definition to specify that life begins when there’s a heartbeat. Others want a definition that specifies that life begins much later.

I don’t think there is a definite correct answer, just as there’s no definite correct answer about what is and isn’t pornography. Consciousness and personhood are not all-or-nothing, although for legal purposes we may need to decide on a somewhat arbitrary threshold.

The case is similar with end of life questions. There is disagreement about what precisely constitutes brain death, but the general idea is that when there’s no brain activity, and when the nerve cells have become irreparably damaged, it’s OK to withdraw life support. Opinions differ as to whether it’s sufficient for the higher brain centers to be dead or whether the lower brain centers too must be dead. Indeed, people who believe that abortion is murder tend to hold stricter views about how completely brain activity must be absent before the person is declared dead.

The case of embryos is in many ways opposite to that of the dying person. A dying person has a history of consciousness — with memories, friendships, hopes, and dreams. So, it’s reasonable to err on the side of safety and set a strict criterion about brain death, since a revived person would be able to recover consciousness. In contrast, a fertilized egg (like an unfertilized egg and sperm) has no history of consciousness at all, but it has a large potential for new, future consciousness.

What’s in a word? Changing the usage of words

I can hear an anti-abortion activist saying, “Come on! Human life begins at conception. You’re murdering an unborn person, an innocent child.” My response is: you’re trying to change the common usage of our words. People generally reserve the words “child” and “person” to refer to humans who’ve already been born and who are conscious (or have a history of consciousness). Nobody ever bothered calling an embryo an “unborn child” until pro-life, religious activists thought to do so. The reason is clear: there are significant differences between an embryo and a child.

Of course, sometimes we do change how we use words.

At some point in history, scientists realized that the evening star and the morning star were the same thing (Venus). Scientists could give a reasonable explanation about why the change was appropriate and about why the word usage should change.

Thanks to Einstein, people came to believe that energy and matter are really the same thing.

Another example, closer in spirit to the abortion debate, is the change in the status of African Americans during abolitionism. Slave owners apparently thought that the slaves weren’t fully human. But later on almost everybody saw that that position was unreasonable. People came to accept that the differences between Negroid and Caucasian humans were insignificant.

But in the case of abortion, there’s clearly a huge difference between an early stage embryo and a full term fetus. Why or why isn’t that difference significant? Just shouting “But it’s an innocent child!” doesn’t address the question.

If someone thinks that a word is incorrectly used, they need to give substantive arguments about why the old way is inaccurate. Anti-abortion activists haven’t added any new knowledge or insight into what it means to be a person (a “precious human”). All they have done is to appeal to our emotions, by holding magnified photos of aborted embryos and by repeating things like “abortion is the murder of an unborn child,” when the precise point on which we disagree is whether a brainless embryo has enough inherent preciousness (consciousness, in my view) to warrant being called an “unborn child.”

A fertilized egg has no consciousness and no history of consciousness. If it’s precious, the preciousness lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder — or in what it what it has the potential of becoming. But an unfertilized egg and sperm also have a potential for consciousness, and are they precious too? Only a religious zealot would think so.

Alas, I’m sure that for the vast majority of anti-abortion activists, their opposition to abortion is based on religious grounds. They should just come out and say so.

I wrote this essay because tens of millions of Americans oppose abortion strongly enough that they voted Republican, even after 2004 when it was clear that those Republican were doing incredible damage to our nation and the world.

Sanity, Power, Values and More

“It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.”
— David Brin
(1950- ) Author

I don’t know much about sane folks, but I get the drift here from Mr. Brin. I figure the realm of politics attracts opportunists the way a basketball court attracts tall folks. It’s just obvious that this realm appeals to a certain population. One population that is called to politics are reformers, utopians, philosophers who want to see if their ideals can be put in practice. That is probably the best of the lot. Another group are or become pragmatists who think they can see a way to move a body politic toward an ideal through compromises and the politics of the possible. And yet another group are simply political functionaries who understand the political realm as primarily a playing field for exercise of power. All of the experimentation that attends the exercise of power and is done without the counterweight of the human values captured by Eleanor Roosevelt’s master work, the declaration of universal human rights is fraught with risk. Perhaps it is done in the context of a different philosophical realm – the social darwinism of Ayn Rand or the puritanical criminality of folks who come to power with the idea that ethnic cleansing of society is a means that is justified by their dream end of a pure society. And really, this ethnic cleansing model is simply operationalizing social darwinism. It is an impatient social darwinism that doesn’t even have the moral conscience to enact policies of neglect and exclusion that will achieve a similar end more slowly. I will give those folks points for efficiency. The trains will run on time or the conductors will be thrown under the wheels.

So, in an exercise of brutal or brutish efficiency, our country now engages in some horrendous stuff and there is not much outcry. Waterboarding? Is it ever ok to torture beings? I don’t think this is a tough question. Our efficiency (misunderestimated imho) overcomes our values and we are drawn into questions about whether torture works? Does torture work? Of course it works. The work product is tortured individuals on both sides of the equations. Torture creates monsters.

The correct question is should we torture beings? Is there ever a justification for torture? The simple and correct answer is no. Kick the question to ethics philosophers, to religious leaders, to large political bodies, the answer is the same. Torture is wrong. Don’t bother playing around the margins with sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions etc. This is torture. Subject any of the individuals who favor these “pragmatic” options to skirt the clear moral and legal prohibitions to torture to enhanced interrogation techniques for 72 hours and let’s see if they continue to think this is ok. Of course, that is a rhetorical proposition. Unless the proponents of enhanced interrogation techniques volunteer for the treatment to show that is not inhumane, we who believe the treatment is inhumane cannot cross that line. It’s just that simple.

public domain Wiki CommonsHow about murder? Is murder ever ok? “Thou shall not kill” seems to be a pretty common principle in religions and moral philosophies. Geopolitics continues to find justification for wholesale violation of this principle in decisions to enter into wars or “police actions.” Intentional destruction of life is delivered through our proxies, the drones, that circle above us. The finger that pushes the button is isolated from humanity by electronic screens, the screens of violent computer games, the screens of electronic drone control panels, the human screens that allow this murderous activity to be conducted anonymously. Murder from behind the screen of anonymity. Pay no attention to the man behind the screen or curtain. The drone attacks are surgical and intelligent. We get the illusion of smart bombs when we need the reality of smart leaders, smart policies, smart action.

So, this country recently sent a team of assassins into another sovereign country in the dead of night to murder an unarmed man. Our agents captured a man who had been convicted of no crime and it is said they shot him in the face, possibly in front of his family members. Are we ok with that? Is that an event for celebration?

I say no.

So what are our values? Why do other folks around the planet find themselves in conflict with us? I will let John Foster Dulles have the last word:


“Somehow we find it hard to sell our values, namely that the rich should plunder the poor.”
— John Foster Dulles former Secretary of State

Reichert signs theocracy letter

Republican US Congressman Dave Reichert (WA, 8th CD) has signed a letter calling on President Obama to acknowledge the primacy of God in America. The following pdf file


contains an image of the letter, which was signed by 42 US members of Congress.

In a November, 2010 speech Obama said that e pluribus unum — out of many one — is  our national motto. But, according to the letter, in 1956 Congress passed and Pres. Eisenhower signed a law establishing “In God We Trust” as the national motto.

The letter continues in this vein, quoting from the Declaration of Independence (but not the US Constitution), John Adams, and Ronald Reagan, and asking Obama to correct his speech.

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert (R – WA, 8th CD)  was one of the 42 co-signers of the letter.

Though I disagree with Reichert and the Republicans’ positions on the place of religion in politics, I’m not sure that it’s wise to make a big deal out of this issue. It’s a wedge issue, really. So to some degree it’s a distraction from more important issues: economic justice, civil rights, environmentalism, fair elections, women’s rights,  and accountability.