Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rick Perry: Another Step Backwards

I am sometimes reluctant to quote Richard Dawkins too much. I shouldn’t be. He is, after all, a brilliant mind who possesses an enviable skill of succinctly and understandably presenting a rational point of view. Yet, sadly, one of the more hateful and ignorant comments against atheism by the fundamentalist crowd is that Prof. Dawkins is held as the deity of the atheists. That atheism is nothing more than a religion itself.

So, by quoting Dawkins, I sometimes feel like it may appear that I am illustrating the claim of these fundamentalists that Dawkins is the worshipped deity of atheism. But, those who retain any level of open-mindedness at all will appreciate that is nonsense. I think Dawkins is a brilliant man, but he’s certainly not my god. I question everything he says and writes. Sometimes I disagree with what he says, but often I agree and realize that he has very carefully thought out his views before sharing them.

In any case, recently Dawkins had what I would call a characteristically succinct and rational response to Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas and aspiring candidate for President of the United States. Mr. Perry is, of course, in favour of the teaching of intelligent design, that thinly veiled version of creationism that has crept into some science classes in the U.S. Perry was recently asked about evolution and he responded:

"It's a theory that's out there," Perry told the child. "It's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution."

This quote, short though it is, stunningly exposes Perry’s ignorance. No one, who has the least grasp of science and reality, could ever state that evolution is “a theory that’s out there.” Who, in their right mind, would say something similar about gravity or heliocentricity?

Dawkins’ response, which follows below, is a very good example of how a ridiculous and dangerously ignorant point of view like Perry’s can be blown away with a bit of rational thought:

“There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today's Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP' nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand') is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today's Republican Party ‘in spite of' is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.

...The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities.

...a politician's attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.”

That last sentence is worth repeating: “You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.” So true. This short statement so adequately explains why the issue of denial of evolution in politics is so important. Gary Goodyear, the Minister of State for Science and Technology in Canada is, as I’ve written before, a creationist. Many of my fellow citizens probably feel that is irrelevant to his ability to do his job. But, as Dawkins puts it, the fact that people like Perry and Goodyear reject a basic part of the reality of the world we live in shows that they are woefully ignorant and uneducated. In Goodyear’s case it is a double whammy. Not only is he an inadequate citizen of today who shouldn’t even be in politics to begin with, he is the Minister responsible for science in Canada. What a tragedy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Who Knew She was on Crack Too?

This story just made me laugh. I know LOL is an overly common part of the lingo these days, but when I read the story I actually lauged out loud.

Sarah Palin has to be the greatest representation of what is laughable about American politics. Here is a woman that most sane people would have to admit has no qualifications or experiences that would contribute to making her a good chief executive of the country. Sure, she has some relatively minor experience in local and state government. But, if you're picking someone to lead a country, particularly in times of trouble brought on by the vastly complex global economy, wouldn't you prefer someone who has a LOT of experience not just some? [Inevitably, Palin supporters will argue at this ponit that Obama also was thin on experience when he became president. I wouldn't disagree].

But, more important than her experience level is, as anyone who has ever heard her speak, the ability to think rationally. Anyone who reads this blog at all understands that I am a big fan of rational thought, and evidence-based arguments. Sarah Palin, it seems to me, is a fan of neither. One of the things that fascinates me about politics and the fanatics on either side of the political spectrum, is how people tend to go into a political discussion in exactly the same way that they approach religion: their mind is made up beforehand, and whatever evidence comes to light is argued away. Everyone has their biases, myself included, but despite my biases it seems to me that the conservative crowd is more guilty of this than the more liberal crowd. It was this observation in fact, rather than any policies, that lead me away from my more conservative position as a youngster to a more liberal view point. Many of the things that conservatives tout are fine with me: small government?...sure; lower taxes?...fine with me; family values?...who doesn't want those? The problem with modern day conservatism is twofold: firstly, conservative politicians don't in fact promote the very values that they claim to; and secondly, this disconnect goes unnoticed by followers of conservatism because they are unable or unwilling to take an evidence based approach. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush ran the largest governments to date during their presidency. Yet, when conservatives in the U.S. run on a platform of small government they seem to get support despite their party's miserable record in that area. No one seems to notice.

This latest bit of "news" about Sarah Palin (we must, in fairness, wait until it is verified before we assume it to be true) is a classic example of this. Sarah Palin's perceived strength amongst her supporters is probably family values and her strong commitment to her religion. There is a feeling that she would bring decency to the White House. If that is what is important to you, then all the power to you. Go ahead and throw your support behind someone who espouses those values. But, shouldn't you, if you truly are in support of those values, reject as a candidate someone who doesn't demonstrate them? I have often claimed that a Republican will be excused of the most outrageous acts that a Democrat would immediately be condemned for. I have previously mused about how the story of Bristol Palin's pregnancy would have been received by fundamentalist Christian voters had it been one of the Obama girls in her shoes. Doubtless there would have been outrage, and claims that it showed how ineptly qualified Barack Obama is as a father and therefore president. Yet, in the warped world of conclusions before evidence, voters managed to convert that issue into a positive for Ms. Palin Sr. "See, she's a great mother - she encouraged her daughter to have the baby even though the circumstances were less than ideal. She would make a great president." Clearly, today's "news" is no different. The fact that Sarah Palin may have snorted cocaine and engaged in extramarital sex won't harm her image among the very people who claim they are for family values. In fact, I predict the opposite effect. If these claims about Palin turn out to be true (and you can bet she is frantically meeting with a bevy of advisors right now determining the best path forward politically, never mind the truth), then she will find a way to turn it into more support, a la George W. Bush post-cocaine and alcoholism. I would also be willing to bet that the power of Jesus will be invoked in her reformed lifestyle.

As someone who tends to vote on the more liberal side of the spectrum, though I would not classify myself as a liberal, I would immediately reject any political figure who turned out not to practice what they preach. If the leader of the Green Party in my country suddenly started making decisions and political actions that were very un-green, she would lose my support (if I supported her in the first place). If a Liberal Party candidate ran on a platform of increased health care support and then cut health care, they would lose my support. Yet, for some reason, no matter what issue conservatives run on, and no matter how they fail to follow through on those issues once in office, their supporters never seem to notice.

As I say, this is one of the main reasons that I have no choice but to reject conservatism as it presents itself in modern society. Conservative values have been completely lost, and conservatism has become nothing more than a synonym for irrational, evidence-less, and therefore ultimately ignorant beliefs and values.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

11th September 2001, Ten Years On

Do you remember where you were? It has been a decade since that dark day. The cliché is old and tired: everyone knows where they were when they heard the news. I remember I was just finishing up watching Law and Order on A&E and heading off to bed and I heard the news. The reported number of dead was astounding. Surely the international response would be immediate and overwhelming. Millions of dollars would be poured into immediate relief to ease the suffering, billions more would be spent in the coming years to ensure this tragedy never happened again. To protect us all from such evil. The news agencies would surely cover no other story for weeks while orange-skinned anchor men and women breathlessly and needlessly over-enunciated key words as the bits and pieces of news trickled in. This was something that had to be remedied. We could never let this happen again. Nationalism would fall away and we would all realize the one undeniable fact that binds us together in this world: we are all human beings regardless of race, religion, or nationality. We would band together, move forward and respect each other a little bit more. We would recognize the steps that had to be taken to avoid a repeat of the day’s tragic events. Each of us would have to make some sacrifices. We would have to give up some of our personal freedoms and probably even a significant amount of money for those assurances. Politicians would face the tough challenge of choosing a difficult path that would prevent such a calamity and yet of course have to do so in a way that would not render them unelectable. The support for politicians would be overwhelmingly high though, wouldn’t it? People would understand that sacrifices needed to be made. People would band together and stand behind their political leaders. Partisanship would fade a bit as people realized this was something far greater than a conservative vs. liberal issue. This was something so big it defined who we are.

The events were so frighteningly real. Everyone suddenly realized: “That could have been me.” Or perhaps worse, “That could have been my child.” What pain to have your own loved one go through that. What if you lost your husband, wife, or, goodness forbid, your child in that painful way? How would you go on in life knowing that your child had suffered an agonizing death that was not only painful, but which you could see coming in advance, which you had to watch helplessly as it approached?  

Sixteen thousand children dead. Sixteen thousand. In one day. Could it be? And apparently that was just the children. Reports were unclear and imprecise, but there appeared to be an additional eighty-two thousand related adult deaths. All in that one day. How was that even possible?

But then, shockingly, in the following months and years the politicians never mentioned those deaths once in any speech. The news networks didn’t even carry the story at all, let alone focus solely on it for weeks on end. Details were extremely hard to find. It was all but impossible to find out just how many had died, let alone the names of any of the victims. The dead were not only forgotten, they were never even recognized. Their intense suffering went unheard.

Yes, I remember exactly where I was on the 11th September, 2001 when 98,000 people died from preventable malnutrition and its related diseases. But, for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I don’t remember where I was on the 10th or 12th September 2001 when the events repeated themselves.

A decade on? Nothing has changed. Well, except of course for the 350 million people who suffered the exact fate that those 98,000 who died on 11th September 2001 did. Three hundred and fifty million painful, preventable deaths  in a decade? Isn’t that approximately the entire population of the United States of America? Gone in one decade.