Friday, October 16, 2009

Interracial Couple Denied Marriage License By Louisiana Justice Of The Peace...

...but he’s not a racist, apparently.

(AP) NEW ORLEANS A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.
"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else." [Emphasis mine]
Bardwell said he asks everyone who calls about marriage if they are a mixed race couple. If they are, he does not marry them, he said.
Bardwell said he has discussed the topic with blacks and whites, along with witnessing some interracial marriages. He came to the conclusion that most of black society does not readily accept offspring of such relationships, and neither does white society, he said.
"There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage," Bardwell said. "I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through it."
If he did an interracial marriage for one couple, he must do the same for all, he said.
"I try to treat everyone equally," he said. [Emphasis mine]
I thought that the passages in red deserved particular attention in light of some other musings I have been percolating on the subject of race.
Most germane to this discussion is the following passage from another blogger’s musings on race.
Many people would label a person as a racist for using the n-word, yet I have known many that use it, that have many black friends and hire black people and them well [sic]. Conversely, I know many, mostly liberal whites, who would ostracize people that would ever use the n-word, but who never hire blacks and have no close black friends.

I wonder if the author of the post would consider the justice of the piece a racist, given that he has “piles and piles of black friends” who he generously consents to let “use my bathroom”. This brings up the question of what is actually meant by racism?

My dictionary program (based on Webster’s) defines racism as: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Perhaps Mr. Bardwell should go back to school.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize! Conservatives bust a gasket...

...and some liberals discover, suddenly, that they don’t like the Nobel Peace Prize.

Okay, so I think that the Nobel Committee made an interesting choice in choosing President Obama. It might even be fair to say that they made a premature and, from a domestic political point of view, bad choice (because of the downstream political implications not because of some inherent unworthiness of Obama). However, as I think about this award I begin to think that, perhaps, it is more understandable than it might seem at first blush. Now, I admit, my first blush thought was “why?” but then I thought a little more deeply about it as the day went on. Looking at America from the outside, which the Nobel Committee is doing, Barack Obama has already accomplished a couple of measures of astounding courage. Firstly, he went to Egypt and gave a speech where he claimed, right out front, that America was not the enemy of Islam. Let’s be real about current-day American politics, that took serious cast-iron cajones to do. Sure, sitting here in Portland, OR it seems like an everyday thing to say “members of my own family practice Islam” but while Portland is an American city, America is not Portland. There are places, many of them only a minutes drive from Portland, where saying “members of my own family practice Islam” is tantamount to saying “and I cheered as the planes crashed into the WTC and the Pentagon”. That alone took courage. Barack Obama has, in something less than a year, begun the rehabilitation of America’s image abroad. Secondly, Barack Obama’s election is a singular event in world history. It may not have occurred to people here but this is the first time in world history that a majority white nation (meaning European or its spin-offs) has ever been headed by a non-white person.

Now, I will admit that some of the critique of Obama--that he has not spun-down the Iraq or Afghanistan wars in six months is somewhat justified but only just barely. I recognize that, as liberals and progressives, we are not used to thinking about military matters beyond the knee-jerk, reflexive “military = bad” mantra. However, it may well be that, in fact, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cannot be spun down too much faster than they are and I am not entirely convinced that spinning down the Afghanistan war is the right thing to do. Certainly we cannot spin down the Iraq war tomorrow. Or next week. I would be pleased if our forces were largely out of that country by the Summer of 2011. Wars are complicated endeavors and, as much as we might not like to think in these terms as liberals, there are both tactical and strategic considerations that our war-planners must take into account. They must do so. It’s what we pay them for.

The Afghanistan war is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, I know enough history to recognize that Afghanistan is proof of Vincini’s (from the Princess Bride) Dictum: Never get involved in a land-war in Asia! It is the place where empires go to learn humility. On the other hand, whether we like it or not, we now do have a strategic interest in the region. That strategic interest is, Pakistan. It is not in our strategic interests for Pakistan to go the way of Afghanistan circa 1999. It simply isn’t. Iraq doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Iran probably doesn’t have them. Pakistan definitely does. We know this. The Taliban know this. Al Qaeda knows this and, most sobering, India knows this. India, by the way, also has nuclear weapons so it is in the best interest of all parties concerned for there to be a very stable region between Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. So we are torn in two different directions. On the one hand, we don’t want to occupy Afghanistan. The Afghanis don’t want us there. And we know, because we watched the Soviets learn humility in these same mountains, that this is a lesson we would just as soon learn vicariously than by the blood of young men and women.

I have to take a moment to criticize my own political faction for a moment here. It is inexcusable for so many progressives who are on the right side of the cause of peace to be so dangerously naive about geopolitics and war. Yes, dangerously naive. We are reflexive in our opposition without thought. We do not, in the main, bother ourselves with considerations like strategic interests or tactical necessity. If we are going to oppose war, we should bother ourselves to understand, at some level, that which we oppose. I think, however, that some of our opposition is, again, merely reflexive and not necessarily principled. By this I mean that we are opposed to America making war. We are opposed to the West making war. We are opposed to Israel making war. But we are not opposed to, say, Palestine making war. I wonder how many progressives would howl and scream if China, say, invaded Taiwan (not Tibet) without provocation. How many would protest if China invaded, say, Iran? Why do I think that any outcry would be muted if present at all? Before you flame me, gentle reader, ask yourself why you are opposed to the Afghanistan war? (The Iraq war is a different situation because it was clearly not justified by any strategic or tactical imperative and so opposition to it is entirely justified.)

All of this to say that while I’m not sure that Obama is doing the right thing in Afghanistan, I’m willing to admit that he might not be doing the wrong thing. What if he is? Would we, as progressives, know? Would we care? One commentator I read on HuffPo observed that Obama didn’t deserve the Nobel prize because the United States maintains a large nuclear arsenal. Let us say, for sake of argument that we could destroy our nuclear arsenal in less than a year (we couldn’t) would it even be an intelligent thing to do? I would argue that it might not be. I would like to see us seriously draw down our nuclear arsenal and I would like to see the rest of the world agree to go to a zero-nuke state in my lifetime. I doubt that is going to happen. (And even if we did, the same people who are upset that we have them would become instantly upset at any plan conceived to dispose of them because of the wastes--at which point you have to make a choice. This is, by the way, what I mean when I talk about reflexive anti-Americanism.)

So, does Obama deserve a Nobel? Yes and no. As I said at the beginning of this essay, I think it is premature and that it creates a domestic headache that I’m willing to bet that David Axelrod would just as soon not have to bother with. On the other hand, I hope that this creates more pressure on Obama to rise to the occasion. He has been bestowed with the laurels of greatness. It is now up to him to live up to the great vote of confidence he has been given in the form of this honor.

Now, having said enough about progressive reaction to this news, let me express my utter joy and glee that conservatives are busting a gut over this. Every time the conservatives think “okay, now we’ve got him!” events intervene and change the dynamics on them. Last week conservatives were glorying in “world rejects Obama” because Rio got the 2016 Olympics. But now, they can’t argue that the world shares their view of Obama. In fact, the two groups they find themselves in bed with are two groups that they loathe---international peace activists (some) and Al Qaeda. You just can’t buy that kind of entertainment! As they usually do with all things Obama, conservatives are over-reacting and, once again, overreaching. Our President just won the most prestigious award you can be given and they hate it. It’s the little things that make life sweet.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

HuffPo commenters bring the crazy to LCROSS

So, tomorrow, at 4:30 AM PST the LCROSS satellite will impact the Moon. (I’ll be up with my telescope to watch should be GREAT viewing conditions) Below is just one of the more sane comments posted on the web site (yes, this was one of the more sane ones). The scientific ignorance on display is absolutely breathtaking.

Bomb the moon? Are we insane? Are we space cowboys now? Why is everything we do to be bomb?
The moon shares a delicate etheric web with earth, which is why she controls the ebb and flow of tides, the menstrual cycle in women, enhances growth at night, responsible for gravity, and excites passion to poetry when gaze at. Bomb the moon? How about Bomb NASA! and save trillions of dollars of taxpayers money to be use to pay off our debt, help create universal healthcare, stimulate economic growth, and a dozen other matters of national urgency. NASA is not necessary anymore. It is outmoded, outdated, and without any real purpose.

Here are the numbers my colleague, Richard and I worked up:

   73459000000000000000000 kg  (Moon)
                      2366 kg  (Maximum mass of LCROSS Centaur Impactor)

                      3000 kg  (Hummer H2)
                         0.00000000000000009662532841448 kg (the "bug")

Mass of an average bacterium: 1 picogram. Weight of the "bug" above: 0.09662532841448 picogram.

So... if 1/10th of a bacterium hits the windshield of a Hummer, does it swerve?

Part 2:

So, I got up at 4:00AM (ouch!) and took my telescope out in the backyard on the hopes of being able to see the impact and the plume. Unfortunately, because I’m in Portland, it became overcast about 4;25 so I wan’t able to resolve much of anything. Frustrated, I went back inside to watch it on NASA TV which turned out to be anti-climatic. In my hopeful naivete that intellectual honesty is not just two, completely unrelated words in the dictionary, I went back to HuffPo to see what, if anything, the doomsayers were saying on the subject. Needless to say, my hope that someone anyone might have the courage to say “well, guess I was wrong” was ill-founded.

One person, SUSANINCOLUMBIA, posted a heartfelt and completely wrong-headed lament stating that she would “never be able to look at the moon in the same way”. Another poster, posted that “even though there was no reaction yet” there was sure to be one because “for every action there is a reaction”. The irony of her invocation of Newton’s Third Law was, apparently, entirely lost on her. I attempted to explain that there had been a reaction, which was the debris plume ejected from the lunar surface, and that this was the very reaction that NASA and every scientifically literate poster (all 9 or 10 of us) on that thread had predicted there would be.

At this point I began to despair. Not because the Moon would have its revenge in some vague, unspecified manner, but because I had believed that after the Bush administration and the reign of the non-reality based conservatives, the Progressives had ‘gotten it’ and decided to be the reality-based political faction in America. HuffPo has convinced me that, in fact, reality has no political constituency in America. These same people, who I have no doubt express frustration that conservatives reject the science of climate change for no scientifically adequate reason completely ignore the math and the physics of the LCROSS mission. Instead of ‘being humble before the data’ (which is readily available) they instead go on about vague prophecies of doom that will befall humanity or, just as stupidly, they draw a distinction between a meteorite hitting the Moon and a satellite hitting it as if the physics of those two events are fundamentally different, governed by different laws.

At one point, I had an epiphany that some of the opposition was the reflexive anti-Americanism that conservatives so often accuse liberals and progressives of indulging in. I began to muse upon the question of “what would the reaction be if it had been, say, India or Pakistan or China or Brazil?” I imagine that there would have been nary a peep or worry but because it was Americans this action had to be opposed. Why? Because it was, laughably, militaristic. That’s right, gentle reader, a physics experiment no more different, really, than dropping a stone into a lake observe the water ejected was an act of aggression. It made me embarrassed to be a Progressive, quite honestly.

I have known, for quite some time now, that Americans are scientifically illiterate but every time I think I have a grasp on the breadth and depth of the problem, something like this happens and I realize that we are in much more dire straits than I had imagined we could be.

To reiterate, opposition to the LCROSS mission falls into the falling species

  • The Moon will be knocked out of its orbital position.
  • It will throw off “the balance of the Universe” or the tides or gravity or women’s menstrual cycles or astrology.
  • It is an ‘act of aggression against the beautiful moon, the only one we have’.
  • It will lead to “Wal-Mart and Disneyland on the Moon” (SUSANINCOLUMBIA again)
  • The militarization of the moon (Einstein10--on whom more later)
  • “A reaction and it will be bad”
  • It will throw the moon off by ten or twenty feet and this will affect the tides (Einstein10 again)
  • We have no right to mess up the pristine moon until we learn how not to mess up the Earth (The typical anti-space program, anti-science mantra of the scientifically ignorant.)
  • The Americans are doing it therefore it is bad.
The problem with all of those arguments is that not a single one of them is specific. In fact, to call them vague is to give them altogether too much credit for being coherent thoughts at all! What’s more, they are all based on pure emotionalism. Not emotion but emotionalism. By that I mean that they are driven not by any facts carefully considered but merely by “I don’t like this”. All of the reasons are, in point of fact, backfill to attempt to justify a position that is entirely unjustifiable.

One poster even invoked the ‘hollow moon’ idea. Yes, the purpose of the mission isn’t what NASA stated it was but to determine if the Moon is hollow. Naturally, he invoked the ‘Great Scientific Conspiracy’ to cover up the truth. Now, what I find fascinating about this little gem is that it perfectly illustrates one of the problems with anti-science in almost all of its forms. On the one hand, scientists are, if anti-scientists are to be believed, a bunch of incompetent boobs stumbling about trying to find new and ever more expensive ways to piss of Nature. On the other hand, they are fiendishly secretive and capable of maintaining such perfect operational security that the NSA, KGB and Mossad can only look upon their opacity with awe, envy and wonder. It would appear that the scientific community can carry on conspiracies of such fiendish and byzantine nature that only the most dedicated can even suss them out or understand their convolutions. Yet, these same scientists can’t seem to get correct the mass of the moon, or explain its tidal locking, or the flight of bumblebees, or the evolution of species. One would think that their utter incompetence would preclude being able to maintain such incredible levels of secrecy but apparently not.

Then there was Einstein10 who does what anti-science proponents do so much, namely invoke the name of a Great Scientist, almost always Einstein and then quote him, almost always out of context, from his letters or from “Ideas and Opinions”. All this while being almost entirely unaware of or interested in his prodigious body of scientific work or the implications thereof. Einstein10 was one such poster on HuffPo. When challenged, he would quote Einstein at us but when challenged to provide a single prediction of specific doom OR to even give a description of either Special or General Relativity in his own words, he would either disappear or simply quote more Einstein. It is insulting to the memory of a truly great scientist to treat him this way in the name of “respect” but there’s not much that can be done about disrespect for the memory of the dead.

I will say that the last 36 hours on HuffPo has given me a much better understanding of why PZ Meyers of Pharyngula and Steven Novella of the New England Skeptics Society are encouraging scientists and scientifically literate people to boycott Huffington Post. In-between the decidedly pro-woo spin given to articles related to medicine and health and the pervasive anti-science culture there, I imagine that both Drs. Meyers and Novella are trying to keep a generation of scientists from going to an early grave, either from repeated blunt-force trauma to the head from banging on the desk or from aneurisms vessels brought on by sudden spikes in blood pressure.

Oh and although I doubt anyone reading my blog needs to be told this, the Moon does not cause gravity. Gravity is caused by the warping of space-time by mass. The Moon and the Earth are bound to one another because of their gravitational masses, and both were created by gravity and held together by gravity but the Moon does not cause gravity here on Earth and the Earth does not cause gravity on the Moon.

Stay rational.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Some things never change

Saw this at The Daily Dish and thought to spread the meme around.

One cannot help but notice the familiar theme of “that which I disagree with is communism” and “the person I disagree with is the anti-christ”. Can we just have a moratorium on the political use of the words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ in this country until such time as our educational system gets around to teaching Americans that A> words have meaning and B> those meanings actually count for something.

If you don’t know what socialism is, then you shouldn’t be calling something you disagree with socialist. Because socialist isn’t a synonym for “I don’t like it”. The same applies for communism.

Living through history

“Where were you when you heard...” is the question of our time. Depending upon the generation you belong to, those moments may be different. For my parents, the seminal events are the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, JFK being shot, MLK being shot and killed in Memphis and men landing on the Moon. For my generation, it was the Challenger exploding, Reagan being shot, John Lennon being shot, the September 11 attacks and now, the election of the first non-white person as President of the United States. So much of the history we remember, those ‘where were you when’ moments, are negatives. Looking at the list above, all but two of them are really negative events. But those two! There are two things this nation has done in my lifetime that we, all of us, can be unrestrainedly proud of--landing on the Moon and electing a black man named Barack Obama to the highest office in the land. We have no reason to be ashamed of the Moon landing and even if you didn’t vote for Obama, one has to admit that this bursting through is an event that not only did many of us not imagine seeing in our lifetime but this event heralds a new day in race relations. I’m nowhere near naive enough to believe that this means that America is ‘post-racial’ or that we have somehow magically slain racism once and for all. This new day that has dawned is not THAT day. What has changed is that four-fold; how whites see black people, how black people see ourselves, how blacks are seen by foreigners and how America, as a whole, is seen by foreigners. The way whites will look at black people has forever changed. The President is a kind of temporary embodiment of the nation, in a similar psychological way that a king or queen was back when people really believed in the divine right of kings. That a majority white nation elected a black man to be that embodiment is a powerful statement about how far we have come. What’s even more amazing is that Obama won in the face of, perhaps, the most racially charged Presidential campaign since Strom Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat back in 1948! How black people see ourselves will also undergo transformation. A generation (let’s hope) is going to grow up and in their formative years will have seen a black President. The “Leader of the Free World” or “The Most Powerful Man in the World” now looks a bit like me. Young black children will now know that along with black doctors, black lawyers, black astronauts there is one more job, that most prestigious of all American jobs, that they can aspire to. What’s more important is that Obama shows a path for negotiating the minefields of race. Most of the time, as far as I read him, he moves through the world as if his race were not going to be an issue. When it becomes an issue, as it inevitably will, he addresses it. He does not pretend that it is not an issue but neither does he make it the core of how he projects himself into the world. It is a method and balance that I understand and hope that I, myself, manage to achieve on a more-or-less consistent basis. He pays proper homage and respect to those who came before him, while not behaving as if nothing has changed. Things have changed. In 1967, the year of my birth, there was NO WAY a black man was going to be elected President. Certainly not a black man named Barack Hussein Obama. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, writing on the Friday before the election related the following story: (requires free login) The other day I had a conversation with a Beijing friend and I mentioned that Barack Obama was leading in the presidential race: She: Obama? But he’s the black man, isn’t he? Me: Yes, exactly. She: But surely a black man couldn’t become president of the United States? Me: It looks as if he’ll be elected. She: But president? That’s such an important job! In America, I thought blacks were janitors and laborers. Me: No, blacks have all kinds of jobs. She: What do white people think about that, about getting a black president? Are they upset? Are they angry? Me: No, of course not! If Obama is elected, it’ll be because white people voted for him. [Long pause.] She: Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country! While this story addresses my last point, vis a vis how the rest of the world sees America, I want to focus on how the rest of the world views blacks first. Notice that this woman’s view of black Americans is that we can be janitors and laborers but not the President. When Barack Obama goes forth on missions of State he will be the symbol of America to the rest of the world. It is sad but instructive to note that Americans, in exporting our cultural products like movies, TV, music, have exported racism as well. Lastly, this will change how people around the world view America. One of the things I couldn’t help notice as reaction poured in from around the world was that people all over the planet, people who had no direct, first-hand knowledge of the struggle of black people in this nation were weeping, crying and I realized that it was because, in their view, they got their America back. I know that we progressives/liberals can be blind to this from time-to-time but people around the world believe in America. They believe in what we say we stand for and they think that we mean it at least some of the time. The last eight years has been like having a great, goofy golden retriever go full-blown Cujo on the family but the dog is so big and strong no one can take it down. The election of Obama is a sign that whatever madness had gripped us as a nation, might have begun to dissipate. I hope so. I am not alone in that. I imagine that there are the better part of 6 billion people on the planet (notwithstanding the 40 - 50 million Americans who voted for McCain) who agree with me. One other thing about Obama’s surprise election. I had long thought that if I saw a black President in my lifetime, the first one would be a conservative Republican of the Colin Powell model. Instead we got a center-left former community organizer who is a Democrat. I am shocked and it really does put the lie to the conservative mantra that we are a center-right nation. We aren’t. The Deep South is center-right, the Midwest is center-right, but the coasts, with the exception of the four Southeastern states below the Mason-Dixon line are center-left. We are NOT a left-leaning nation, we are a confusing mix of the two. We push too far in one direction, perhaps, and self-correct back the other. We went far, far to the right. So far to the right that it looked like we were about to rendezvous with history. We ended up having a rendezvous with history but not the kind that some of us feared was coming.