Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Schadenfavre Moment of the Week

I've tried to avoid this year's episodes of As the Quarterback Turns, but this graphic was on the front page of today's Wisconsin State Journal, and it made me laugh out loud.
The T-shirts are sold by Madison's Sconnie Nation, and they are available online as well as at the State Street store.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thanks, Dad

For teaching me the importance of freedom and personal responsibility.

For teaching me the importance of voting, even when you do not like any of the choices (it lets the politicians know you're watching them).

For teaching to me to both respect and question authority (too many Americans think that questioning authority is the same as defying authority).

For demonstrating that someone without a formal education can make wiser investment choices than most of the MBAs in this country.

For teaching me that no nation can educate its people and keep them oppressed indefinitely. I still remember your prediction in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union would fall within ten years for that reason. You knew a lot more about the world than my social studies teachers.

Happy Fathers Day.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The End of the Beginning

The Iranian regime has taken the gloves off. They have deployed overwhelming force to block access to the planned gathering places in Tehran and are meeting the scattered thousands of protestors who try to get through with batons, tear gas and fire-hoses.

The protestors have taken a more belligerant turn as well. Slogans of "death to the dictator" are more common now, as is "death to Khameini". Over the past week, the focus of the protests has been on the disputed election results, and the opposition has been overtly against Ahmedinejad, not Khameini. But the Supreme Leader's harsh rhetoric during his Friday sermon has drawn a line in the sand that today's protestors seem willing to cross.

Shortly after the clashes began, official state media reported that a suicide bomber struck the Imam Khomeini mausoleum. There has been widespread speculation among Iranian tweeters that the government itself blew up the mausoleum in order to blame the protestors and justify harsher measures against them. The mullahs did something similar 30 years ago, setting fire to a crowded cinema and blaming the Shah. Western media has pointed out that the mausoleum bombing has not yet been independently confirmed.

I don't think Mousavi can stop the protests now, even if the government convinces him to do so. He is reportedly giving a speech now, but I have not yet seen reports of its content. The government's harsh treatment of its citizens has created new opposition. I do not believe they will be satisfied with a new election now. Nothing short of the removal of Khameini will satsisfy them. The mood has changed. Martin Luther King will give way to Bobby Seale.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Obama Respects the Prime Directive

Amadinejad and Khameini would love to be able to say that the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tehran are simply U.S. puppets.

At times like this, I'm glad our President is more like Jean-Luc Picard than James T. Kirk.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Is Another Cold War Ending?

1989 was an exciting year to follow the news. No one saw it coming at the beginning of the year. Although Mikhail Gorbachev had instituted the policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain still seemed sound. Early in 1989, Poland instituted some reforms of its own. Although they were western-looking, the changes were not too radical. After all, Poland had faced a Soviet crack-down (which landed Lech Walesa in prison) far more recently than Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The Soviets did nothing. Heartened by that, Hungary (which had been mixing capitalist elements into its economy for years) took things a little further. Then Czechoslovakia opened its borders to the west, resulting in a mass exodus of East Germans via their (uncontrolled) Czech border.

Before a year had passed, Romania's Stalinist dictator and his wife were executed by firing squad (the day before newly-democratic Romania abolished the death penalty), the Berlin Wall was torn down and Germany was on its way to unification. The changes simply snowballed, energizing people who had been oppressed but highly educated -- a volatile combination for any authoritarian regime.

Now it appears that something similar may be happening in Iran. Friday's elections were not democratic by any sense of the word. Only a few candidates were allowed on the ballot. The real reformers were not even allowed to run. Many young people had boycotted previous elections because they knew nothing could really change with all political authority remaining with Iran's theocracy rather than its elected officials.

But over the past week, after Lebanon's elections (which dealt a serious blow to the Iranian regime-backed Hezbollah), the people of Iran seemed energized to make a statement with their ballots.

Before the polls even closed, text messaging was shut down in Iraq. Other forms of communication (like cell phone networks and many websites) were also shut down or filtered. The government began announcing election returns that favored the incumbent nearly 2-to-1, even in the hometown of challenger Mousavi.

The people of Iran called bullshit. Many of them took to the streets and communicated via Twitter (a new media which the government apparently hadn't yet shut down). As information trickles out, it is looking more and more like the election-rigging was arranged, not by the Ayatollahs, but by the military. It is also looking less like the quickly-squashed Iranian student protests of 1999 and more like the Iranian revolution of 1979.

The Iranian people are mostly young (a whole generation was lost in the war against Iraq). Most of them have no memory of the Shah and his oppressive American-backed regime. Hating the west is something the establishment tells them to do. They have been wanting (and have gradually gotten) more personal freedoms for years. They are among the most highly educated people in the Middle East.

Some of the websites that have been covering the events in Iran have gone down today. I suspect that may be due more to an unprecedented volume of Internet traffic visiting those sites than any hacking by Iran's government. Even Andrew Sullivan's blog, which has been providing a great deal of coverage and links to those other sites, has been loading very slowly for the past few hours.

On a lighter note, is it just me, or does the Iranian underwear model bear a striking resemblance to Paul Stanley?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Top 10 Tacky Jokes About David Letterman

I'm no fan of Sarah Palin. I think she is an opportunistic prima donna, as well as a liar and a hypocrite. However, I became increasingly appalled with Andrew Sullivan's obsession with her medical records. I do not believe that politicians have no right to privacy, and I am unconvinced that the voting public has the right to know about any potential health problem.

I am no fan of "family values" politicians using their children as media props. However, I do not believe that makes those children fair game for any subsequent media harassment or humiliation. The children do not choose to be props, and they should not be seen (by either side) as mere extensions or accessories of their parent(s).

David Letterman made a joke that was in extremely poor taste on many levels. While it can be argued that it was aimed at Bristol Palin, who has hypocritically chosen to make herself a spokeswoman for teenage abstinence, the fact that Bristol was not present at the Yankees game supports Sarah Palin's belief that the joke was really aimed at 14-year-old Willow.

The fact that Letterman (and undoubtedly many of his viewers) thought it was funny shows that much of America still thinks female sexuality is inherently degrading, and that a powerful female can have her social status undermined by the implication that she (or her daughter) is a slut.

I believe very strongly in the right to free speech. I do not think CBS should censure Letterman, or that any of his sponsors should be boycotted. I think even David Letterman would agree that he has made himself fair game, and that turnabout is fair play.

Therefore, I present my very own Top 10 List:

Top 10 Tacky Jokes About David Letterman

10. He didn't mean to be offensive -- Indiana's age of consent was 13 when Dave was growing up.

9. What can you expect from a man who attended school at Broad Ripple and Ball State?

8. That's what happens when a 62-year-old tries to be edgier than Conan O'Brien.

7. Dave loves the Palin clan, because their names are even funnier than Oprah and Uma.

6. Dave wanted to get back at Alex Rodriguez for scoring with Madonna.

5. Dave was just helping out a fellow Hoosier by hiring Bobby Knight as one of his joke-writers.

4. Dave can take the moral high ground, now that he's finally married his baby-mama.

3. Thanks to Viagra, jokes about sex get a rise out of Dave again.

2. Dave hasn't gotten this much attention since his bypass surgery.

and the number one tacky joke about David Letterman:

1. You can't expect good taste from a man who uses Stupid Pet Tricks to get dates.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Importance of Separating Church and State

I remember reading something recently about how Americans are so much more religious than Europeans. The writer seemed to find this fact surprising. I did not find it at all surprising. I believe the reason is not because our ancestors for the past two hundred years have been more religious or better at passing on their faith, but rather because our government has been less religious.

We do not have a monopoly on religious tolerance here in the U.S. Most E.U. nations have had similar policies of religious tolerance for several generations at least. The Netherlands and Switzerland were allowing freedom of religion back when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was forcibly converting the local native tribes (the "Pilgrims" came to this country after a sojourn in Amsterdam, not for the right to freely practice their religion, but for the right to impose it on their neighbors).

What we do have that most of Europe lacks is a government that is prohibited from favoring or establishing a state religion. Our founding fathers understood that combining church and state damages not only the state but religion as well. When the two are entwined, the church inevitably becomes corrupted by political power and political agendas, causing the faithful to become disillusioned and irreligious.

A good example of this is France. The Catholic church in France was tightly entwined with the ancien regime. By the time the revolution hit, the rabble hated the church every bit as much as they hated the royal family. Of all the world's majority-Catholic nations, France is the most strictly secular. The clergy cannot even perform legal marriages there; church weddings are sometimes held afterwards, but the legal ceremony is at City Hall.

Russia also had a corrupt official church that supported (and was supported by) a repressive regime. The Bolsheviks opposed religion of any kind largely because of that history. Now, of course, history is repeating itself, with Vladimir Putin backing the Russian Orthodox Church and prohibiting new religions (not only Scientology, but also Protestant churches) from proselytizing in Russia. Only religions that existed in Tsarist Russia (meaning Orthodox Christianity, Ukranian/Roman Catholocism, Judaism and Islam) enjoy the freedom to grow in Putinist Russia.

Unfortunately, in our zeal to oppose Communism in the days of the Cold War, we missed the point. Imposing religion (by adding "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" to our currency, for instance) is every bit as bad as imposing atheism. It creates a backlash and damages the ability of our citizens to freely practice their own faith.

Too many Americans do not understand the real importance of separating church and state. We cringe when a political party in Turkey seeks to establish Sharia (Islamic law) as the basis of the nation's legal code but look the other way when the state of South Dakota passes a law that forces doctors to tell women that having an abortion will increase their risk of breast cancer (even though there is no evidence to indicate a correlation).

Yes, the abortion issue is primarily a church versus state issue. Is abortion murder? The answer to that question depends entirely upon one's religious beliefs. Devout modern Catholics believe that human life (with a soul) begins at conception, so abortion is always murder (church writings regarding abortion were more complex in the Middle Ages). Mormons believe that human life begins at implantation, so extra embryos that are fertilized in vitro may be discarded (or used for stem cell research) without murdering a human being. The Jewish faith teaches that the soul enters the body at the moment of birth. So, while a devout Jew may oppose abortion on moral grounds, just as he might oppose cruelty to animals, it is not murder.

The state has no natural interest in preventing abortions, as they do not threaten the security of society. U.S. citizens have never had to live in fear of being aborted, even when the procedure was at its most available in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are plenty of individuals in this country who are willing and able to reproduce, so we are not in danger of depopulation. Laws restricting abortion are really about enshrining religious rules as the law of the land. Religious leaders can sermonize about the evils of abortion, but they cannot force even their own flocks to obey (much less non-believers). They can, however, pressure lawmakers to force such obedience.

The U.S. government is not in the business of saving souls, nor should it be. When churches try to sub-contract that business to the state, both are corrupted. The state does have an interest in protecting its citizens from religious terrorism, however. I hope Randall Terry comes to understand that.