08 October 2009

Death, Rebirth, and the skeptic (metaphorically speaking)

I've got a full blown case of Halloweenitis now. Damn, but I love this time of year.

Mostly, I love the symbolism of this time of year, and of the whole holiday, especially in its pagan roots. Death! Rebirth! Renewal! A time of transition, of liminality. In-betweenness. Which, really, for humans can be scary stuff. We like things nice and settled, mostly. Only life doesn't quite work that way, does it? We always get hit with those unsettled times. The transition moments, when for a bit it's hard to say whether we are this or that, or maybe something else entirely.

Those transitions, that's the stuff of horror and other scary stories. Maybe why we like it so much. It's not just the meditation on death and all that -- it's the dealing with moments of change and transformation.

Watching the atheist community, you get to see a lot of that. I'm one of those members who never did the religion thing much. But many, of course, did. They had to grapple with something that was a huge part of their life. Let go of it, or maybe even have it torn away. And often enough thrust...nowhere. Into Limbo, an in-betweeny place with no sense of whether there is something to be had on the other side, or if there is even an other side.

I have so much respect for people in that boat, the ones who have made that journey. Because that's some scary shit. It takes courage. And it strikes me that this is what lies at the heart of skepticism -- embracing that liminality. Refusing the easy answers, the certainty, the solid ground, and setting out into the unknown, never knowing for sure if there is another shore. Or, really, not seeking a shore. Just seeking. A journey with no end point. No enlightenment, only the promise of always being enlightened.

And Halloween, Autumn, this whole topsy-turvy time of year, it's a good time to meditate on that. Embrace it. Let the wildness of the season sink in and embrace the change. Knowing that even as things die -- our certainties and beliefs and safe little thoughts -- new things will be born. Scary shit, but fun. Me, I've been embracing it a bit the last week or so. Doing some writing like I haven't been doing for a while, thinking and planning, finding ways to upend my life and kill a few things so that new things can grow.

30 September 2009

The Last Temptation of Christ: thoughts on Blasphemy Day

I thought I'd take time on Blasphemy Day to remember one particular work of art that has often been declared blasphemous, both as a book and a movie:  The Last Temptation of Christ.

I find it, frankly, a telling indictment of modern Christianity that Scorsese's movie, flawed as it was, was pretty much a box office flop --
Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Chri...Image via Wikipedia
it grossed a bit over 8 million domestic (even by 1988 standards, that's not too hot). The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's snuff porn flick? 370 million.
The Last Temptation, both as a novel and a movie, attempted to show a very human Christ coming to terms with his mission. He's real. He has doubts; he's afraid. He's a guy who farts, and has bad moods, and feels pain. He's called to save humanity, and mostly he just wants to kiss the girl. He rebels, running from his mission for as long as he can, until it catches up and he can't escape. His discussions with his friend and eventual betrayer, the Zealot Judas, alone make the book and the movie worth one's time.

He's intensely human, and that makes the whole story beautiful and moving. Even as an atheist, and even as someone who isn't impressed on some levels with the Jesus myth, the story gets me every time. I feel this guy's agony. And no, Mel, it isn't the agony of whips and chains and the cross. He is human, and knows the pain that can come from that. He is more human than the body that Mel Gibson fantasy-beats to shreds could ever hope to be.

Back when the Last Temptation came out, I had a classmate who simply noted that, if it truly represented what Christianity was, she might be tempted to believe. I didn't quite agree, but I understood the feeling.

The book? Frequently banned for its blasphemy. After all, it shows Jesus having carnal thoughts! It's wicked! It suggests Our Lord might have had a hard-on or two!

The movie? Protested. In fact, the anger against the movie was so intense that it actually led to a terrorist attack -- a molotov cocktail attack on a theater in Paris. The movie is still banned in some countries.

I'm tempted to point to that attack and say, "Thus the price of the idea of blasphemy." But mostly I think about how a beautiful story has been reviled and smashed down, and a far uglier one has succeeded on a huge scale. Blasphemy as a concept, and as a subject of laws, is an ugly, thuggish tactic to silence. It's probably not a coincidence that, so often, it serves to uphold ugly, thuggish ideas.
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28 September 2009

Bill Donohue, Ignorant Bigot

via Pharyngula comes this little gem of Bill Donohue's:

The Center for Inquiry is factually incorrect to say that "Free speech is the foundation on which other liberties rest." Freedom of conscience is the first liberty, and it is inextricably linked to freedom of religion. Moreover, the whole concept of inalienable rights presupposes a belief in the Creator. In other words, atheists have the right to mock religion because our Christian Founding Fathers afforded them human rights.

Hmmm. Still sputtering, frankly, after reading this. But let's pick this apart, shall we?

Freedom of conscience is the first liberty, and it is inextricably linked to freedom of religion.

Freedom of conscience is useless if one is not free to speak one's conscience. As for freedom of religion, sure, that's one manifestation of freedom of conscience. So is having no religion. Because, Bill, there is no "freedom of conscience" if you are told that certain kinds of "conscience" are off limits.

Moreover, the whole concept of inalienable rights presupposes a belief in the Creator. 

"Creator," of course, does not imply in any way, shape or form YOUR god. Maybe Buddha gave you those rights. Also, and more importantly -- "inalienable rights" is a very complex topic, one with a rich history of philosophic controversy, and is most important to understand it as a political tool. But, of course, even if we
John Stuart MillImage via Wikipedia
dismiss the idea as too hard to quantify in practice or as something that is nothing more than flowery political point making, it is still certainly possible for to have an entirely rational basis for those rights that were called "inalienable." John Stuart Mill, famously, gave an excellent defense for freedom of speech without resorting to the idea of "inalienable rights."
Or, to put it another way, Bill:  try to have a grasp of the topic that is more sophisticated than a 4th grader's.

In other words, atheists have the right to mock religion because our Christian Founding Fathers afforded them human rights.

WTF?! Okay, first off, our Founding Fathers were a diverse bunch -- Christians of various sects, Deists, "Theistic rationalists" (as some, like Ed Bryant, have dubbed people like Thomas Jefferson). They ran the gamut, with a significant number that weren't Christian -- some, like Jefferson, positively despised the Christian churches.

Second off, what's with this "afforded them human rights?" Excuse me? Did you just come out and say that non-Christians only have rights insofar as Christians let them? Are you that afraid of the Other that you can only imagine a world where your folk, Catholics, get to lord it over everyone else, perhaps throwing them a few bones in your kinder moments? Are you that ready and willing to piss all over the ideals that this country was founded on?

For the record, those Founding Fathers, Christian and otherwise, did not "afford" anyone rights -- most of them believed, quite strongly, that they were merely recognizing rights that all people already have. Some of them were even self-aware enough to recognize where they were being hypocritical and not fully recognizing those rights for some people. And again, to reiterate the point that should not have to be made to an adult with any kind of decent education:  they were a diverse lot. I'm sure, if you look across all our Founding Fathers, you'll find a fair bit of variety on exactly how they viewed this "rights" business.

You'd do us all a favor, Bill, if you just shut up about American History until you actually learn some.

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No Gods, No Masters vs. Submission to the Will of God

A morning thought, or at least a morning ponder over coffee, induced by remembering a line from U2: "If you wanna touch the sky better learn how to kneel/ on your knees boy!":

There's ways, when talking religion, that you come up against fundamental differences in thought. For instance, atheists often hear the charge that we are rebellious -- that our beef with God is that we don't want to bow our heads and submit ourselves to His Will.  We're prideful, and Pride Goeth Before the Fall and all that.

Which is one of those true/not true kind of things. I mean, it's not true because really, our beef with "God" is that we honestly don't think "God" exists. It's really nothing more than that, at least for the vast majority of us. But it's also true, because you know what? Damn straight we don't want to submit. We hold that Freedom is the most important thing, that to bow your head is to open yourself up to the chance someone will take it off. No Gods, No Masters.

This isn't just an atheist thing, either. It's a rationalist position, one that holds that we should stand on our own two feet and get to work. Paine, as sure a believer as any Christian, didn't believe in a God who demanded or needed submission. Paine would've grumbled at the "No Gods" part of the famous slogan, but he would've been right there with the "No Masters" part. His God was no Master, but a Creator looking for new creators, beings who'd dare to unravel the mysteries of His Creation and stand proud...

So on one side we have atheists, agnostics and some believers who think that humans should stand on our own two feet and trust in our own abilities; and on the other side we have those who believe that humans should submit totally to the Will of God. It's a divide between those who choose Freedom versus those who choose Slavery. It's hard to imagine how to bridge that divide.
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27 September 2009

Fidelity vs. Faith, or Nonbelievers at the holidays

The Guardian has a short article about The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, a book coming out about, well, atheists and Christmas. It served to remind me that soon we will be mired in another dismal round of the ol' War Against Christmas nonsense.

I mean, sure, there's atheists who don't do Christmas. People, after all, vary in their tastes. For some, it just isn't their thing. Maybe they were Christian once and now feel weird about the holiday. Maybe they have family-induced issues that turn them off from the holiday. Maybe -- gadzooks! -- they come from a background where Christmas wasn't really a part.

Whatever. Fact is, though, that most atheists and other nonbelievers continue to celebrate the holiday, often with great gusto. And some Christians choose to get mad, because after all Jesus is the Reason for the Season, and the secularization of Christmas has led to consumerism and selfishness and gay marriage and who knows what other horrors.

Of course, Jesus isn't the Reason for the Season, and never was. As we nonbelievers like to point out, over and over, our words falling on largely deaf ears, Christmas is way older than the particular body of myths that adhered to the Man from Judea. People playing the Evil Secularist Misappropriation of Christmas card might want to pull out those huge planks of wood stuck in their eyes, first. To rework a line from Bono, Christians stole Christmas from the pagans, and we're stealing it back.

But all that, really, misses the point. The point, actually, as to do with something from the last post -- the things people hear when they hear words. Many people hear "atheist" and they don't just hear "person who doesn't believe in a god or gods." They hear, instead, something like "someone who utterly rejects every thing that is good and decent, like kindness and ordered society and puppies."

Comte-Sponville makes, in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, a distinction between Faith and Fidelity. Faith is, well, faith -- a blind, unreasoned acceptance of something as being true. Fidelity is a adherence to a tradition or set of traditions -- think of it as membership in a culture. You agree to certain principles, values, you name it. You have fidelity towards them. It isn't faith, because of course it can be a reasoned thing -- heck, the American Revolution was founded on the notion that people could withdraw fidelity, in a fashion, and bestow it on something else. They rejected the King -- they didn't reject society. Their values, and the values of the English back home, were pretty similar. They didn't reject any of that, just one little piece.

For many people, they hear "atheist" and they don't just hear a rejection of Faith -- they hear a rejection of Fidelity to the culture as a whole. The two are conflated, and in most cultures, have long been so in popular thinking. To question God was to question the King. Heck, in ancient cultures they often made it more direct, and made the King a god! But it is conflation -- the two don't have to go hand in hand. Fidelity can exist without Faith (and vis versa -- Comte-Sponville notes that Faith without Fidelity is a very, very scary thing. But that's another post).

Why do so many atheists celebrate Christmas with such gusto and cheer? Or, for
Adoration of the Magi by Don Lorenzo Monaco (1...Image via Wikipedia
that matter, celebrate other holidays like, say, Halloween, or Thanksgiving in the U.S.? Because we may not have Faith, but we do have Fidelity. We like our culture. We grew up in it, we're attached to it. Celebrating Christmas is one of the ways that we celebrate that fact. Christmas is part of who we are -- the carols, the food, the pretty lights and the Christmas trees. So we celebrate, and have fun. We may have thrown out the baby Jesus -- except for the carols, many of us love those -- but we haven't thrown out the bath water.
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24 September 2009

There's something lurking behind that word

Greta Christina has a nice piece up, "Atheism and Self-Definition," which got me thinking about words and definitions and battles over same. She's talking about something every atheist has probably experienced -- having the word defined for us, despite our protestations to the contrary.

Mostly, I find myself fascinated by how words can have so much lurking behind
DictionariesImage by jovike via Flickr

As Greta notes, one of the most powerful acts an individual or movement can make is self-definition, and we've been hard at work at it with the word "atheist." Any look at the history of the word will send you down a rabbit hole of confusion and head-spinning. What did people in earlier times mean by the word? It can be hard to say, but I can say this:  it was a lot more than the spartan definition of "no belief in a god or gods." In fact, it seems like it has often meant something like "a wholesale denial and repudiation of everything that we value and hold to be true." It meant Evil and Anarchism, dogs and cats sleeping together... I mean, people back in the day called Thomas Paine an atheist!

So one side of the conversation has really weighed this word down. And we are trying to redefine it. Now, many times we will do that by whittling it down. We proclaim the most basic definition, a lack of belief in a god or gods, and say "no more than that!" Not a positive declaration that there is no God, but rather simply a statement that we just don't believe.

But honestly, we're also adding to the word, too. Go read those New Atheist bestsellers. Go take a peek at the atheist blogosphere. Modern Atheism has some definite features that go beyond "No belief in a god or gods." There's Humanism. There's Skepticism. There's Philosophical and Practical Naturalism.

The real battle, in a sense, isn't just the definition of the word -- it's all that stuff lurking behind it. We have our set of lurking ideas; they have theirs.

Or, to put it another way:  for us, atheism is a funny ol' thing these days, because it's really -- if we take that simple, stripped down definition we talk about -- such a very small part of who we are. That other stuff is where we're at. It's what we're about. Atheism? It's just a description for our stance on a particular idea that many folk seem to think is Very Important. It's not where we start from; it's just one of the places we end up. Just a description, folks. I'm male, I'm a sexy dude, I'm an atheist...

I kinda think, though, that many theists think the God issue is where they start from. It certainly seems as if many folk hang pretty much everything on the notion: Morality, meaning, love, you name it.  So they tend to think of atheism in those terms. We must think it's really damn important, too! Only, funny thing is, we're often not quite on the same page with them on that one. Because of all that lurking stuff behind the word.

I guess someone could say that we shouldn't use the word, precisely because of all the lurking stuff and the problems it creates. But to me it seems like we're pretty much stuck with it. So we redefine it, and keep at it, and hopefully, eventually, we get folks to see all that other stuff.

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23 September 2009

Thinking Aloud About The Animistic Urge

It's Autumn. Not so's you'd completely notice in my parts, since it can still be a tad hot this time of year -- but yes, even here in the Sonoran Desert, you can feel the change in the air. The nights are cooler, and even the days feel...softer. With Autumn comes my inevitable loves of this time of year:  dark fantasy and horror, mythic landscapes composed of Frankensteins and vampires and werewolves, oh my!

Which gets me thinking about the human tendency towards animism. I feel, I think, the most at this time of year. I go for long walks and get caught up in vivid fantasies. The air seems alive. The trees seem -- well, more alive than usual. Shadows seem to have wills of their own. Not really, of course. I may jump headlong into metaphor and not come up for air for a few months, but it's always firmly metaphor in my head. It's more like it's the only way I can think to express the thoughts and emotions that come up at this time.

Some of it is the Topic of the Season -- Death. In Halloween, in the Day of the Dead, and in the whole general tendency of the season, the focus is on death and
An 18th century engraving, conveying that weap...Image via Wikipedia
change and endings. Which, for me, also firmly focuses me on Life, that wondrous thing, so prosaic and yet so mysterious at the same time. So the world around me seems in sharper focus, dancing with Life, and that ol' animistic urge takes hold...
Is it coincidence that, just as traditional religion lost a bit of its privileged place in modern societies, fantasy and its ilk grew as genres? I often wonder if there's been studies done of the fans of fantasy and horror and SF -- I wonder, for instance, if there isn't a larger percentage of  nonbelievers and the like in those groups. Like maybe in these Let's Pretends we let our animistic urge out a bit, let it play, knowing the whole time it's play and nothing else, so it's fun and useful and doesn't carry the dangers that believing our animistic imaginings can cause.

I like the thought, I have to say. Maybe, as we have lost Belief, we have gained Play. That's a pretty damnfine trade in my book, if you ask me. Werewolves would be terrifying things to believe in! But they make delicious fun in stories that explore the darker sides of human nature.

Which leads me to a final thought:  thinking skeptically, using our reason as carefully as we can, doesn't necessarily mean some terrible death match against the irrational parts of our minds. On the contrary, it can give those parts a place to play safely that makes them sources of fun and inspiration, rather than sources of terror and worry. We're always contending against that old stereotype that skeptics are wet blankets -- maybe we need to show, more often, how it can deepen and enrich our experiences. Ghosts are so much more fun when they aren't real.

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16 September 2009

A better wager than Pascal's

Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
-- Thomas Jefferson

Let's make a wager!

We're all familiar with Pascal's Wager, I
Blaise Pascal argued that if reason cannot be ...Image via Wikipedia
assume. Atheists surely are, since there's always that Certain Kind of Theist who likes to trot it out, always with something of an "Aha! I got ya now, you atheist!" air. The poor fools never know, I think, why we laugh.
Many theists, of course, do know why we laugh, and they laugh right along with us. Pascal was a brilliant man, but the Wager was his great Moment of Monumental Stupidity. It's an argument that appeals to fear rather than reason, that makes our conscience nothing more than chips on the table, and makes God a chump to boot. There's nothing likeable about Pascal's Wager -- it's just sad. The fact that many people still reference it in all apparent seriousness -- and think it's such a slam dunk argument -- is even sadder.

Now, I think it can be safely said that most atheists, like me, admit to the possibility that we are, in fact, wrong. We may not think it very likely, but we can admit that -- there's so much we humans don't know, after all, that in the end knowledge is always a matter of certainties that can never really be 100%. Modern Atheism, in short, tends to use a scientific definition of the word "truth." And that means there's always the possibility of being wrong. We believe the evidence makes the existence of God highly unlikely, and so we don't believe. We are willing to change if, and only if, real evidence comes to light.

So, like Pascal, we make a wager. Only ours is different from the one he proposes. Ours is, well -- that God isn't a dick. That this God would prefer that we explore and learn and question and think and challenge. That this God isn't the sorry bugger seen in so much of the Abrahamic tradition -- needy, abusive, insecure, violent, a sullen bully needing to be constantly placated by supplication, praise, and obedience to arbitrary and cruel commands. We're betting, in short, that if we're wrong, it's more likely that God would be something like Paine's God -- the loving, nurturing parent who says, "Grow, baby, grow, dazzle and shine and show me what you can do." Who laughs with delight when we question yes, even His/Her/Its existence, because we're questioning and thinking, which is why He/She/It gave us these brains in the first place. Who doesn't consign people to Hell simply because they didn't play the lick spittle well enough.

It's a better bet, I think. And, oddly, it's a bet that shows more respect for the Hypothetical Creator than Pascal, a believer, showed with his.
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14 September 2009

It's a Mystery

Life, that is. Being. Existence.

I'm rereading Andre Comté-Sponville's The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. There's so much in that little book, it's going to take a few careful readings, I think, to fully engage with it. Which, really, is a wonderful thing. I don't go all the way with this guy's thinking, but I'm finding it challenging and inspiring.

When he lays out his reasons that he doesn't believe in God, one of them is one familiar to many atheists:  the idea that as an explanation, God is incomprehensible. That is, if we take a fairly standard definition of God, God is literally supposed to be beyond human understanding, and thus is useless as an explanation -- but gets used as one anyway. God made Man, God made the Universe. God has a Plan for us, and this is it! This is the meaning of your life. Etc, etc, etc.

For something that is supposed to be beyond human understanding, lots of folks seem to have a pretty clear idea in their head of what the dude is about.

What I find interesting is that for Comté-Sponville, it almost seems as if this problem is emotionally, as well as intellectually, unsatisfying. He notes that we are continuously confronted with Mystery, including that big bugaboo, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" That is, why Being itself? There's an amusing part where Comté-Sponville mentions a painter friend who declared that he wasn't an atheist because there was a mystery in life and the universe. "Ha! No kidding!," Comté-Sponville writes, "I, too, believe there is a mystery! In fact, I believe there is not much else!"

We are finite creatures. No matter how much we learn, we are are always going to be confronted with that most basic of mysteries -- why the hell there is something rather than nothing. I personally find that quite glorious, and it's that basic mystery that invokes the awe that can sweep over me when I really let the Cosmos impinge on my consciousness in some real way -- losing myself in a landscape, or in the night stars, or the simple joy and wonder in personal relationships.

The idea of God not only doesn't explain anything -- it doesn't even, really, add to the awe quotient. Staring up at the night sky, we are still faced with the same unanswerable question. We exist, and Universe exists. There is Being instead of Nonbeing. And it is glorious.

Right there is one of the reasons I'm an atheist. It isn't just that God is an incomprehensible explanation for reality or for questions of how to live our lives -- there's a, well, poetic level, I guess you could say, where God seems just as useless. There's so much to be staggered by just by looking around. You don't need to make up anything.
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09 September 2009

We Need Reason: A Health Care Rant

I thought, really, that I had seen it all during the election. The weird spectacle of madness that was put on:  the people at McCain/Palin rallies; that freaky old lady McCain had to admonish. People seriously paying attention to a guy called "Joe the Plumber" who wasn't named Joe and wasn't a plumber. The racist comments. The conspiracy theories.

And then came Healthcare Reform, and my head exploded.

Seriously. Everyone remember back in the day, when "apeshit" was those nutters who tried to spread the story that the Clintons had had people killed to hide their shady business dealings? Oh my Flying Spaghetti Monster, but those days seem sane now.

Watching Obama's speech tonight, I just got so pissed. I mean, at this moment, giving this speech, dealing with this issue, the President of the United States shouldn't have to spend time refuting claims that are so apeshit that apeshit won't go near them. The President actually had to call out the "Death Panels" lies. If that fact doesn't make you wet your pants, doesn't make you think that we are heading towards a national loony bin, I don't know what will. Think what it means:  enough people are worried about that, think it might be true -- this statement that is nothing more than the evil, twisted, fucked up, wicked, asinine ravings of an ignorant quitter from Alaska -- that the President has to waste a few minutes slamming it down. Instead of laying out more concrete details of his plan in the context of a spirited, but cordial, debate, he had to spend time to say, "Hey, Jimmy, don't worry. I'm not going to gas your gramma."

And we keep treating this stuff as if it's rational. We keep letting those voices get microphones, as if they are a serious part of the debate. They aren't. They're con artists or lunatics, or so mentally lazy that they have trouble forming enough of a thought to open a bag of potato chips. Or, to be more succinct:  they're Fox
Foxnewslogo.Image via Wikipedia
News's audience. A minority, I think, in this country, but a big one, and worrying, because they hold ignorance as the highest ideal, truth as anything that is spoken -- or, preferably, screamed -- over and over, and spitting as public discourse.

Of course, there are those who benefit from this debate being nothing more than frothing at the lips. Right wing radio, Fox News (go figure!), the insurance companies, you name it, there's folks that are making money off this whole damn mess, and don't care much if the country lurches into dangerous lunacy in the process. As long as they get theirs, right? Bahamas, here we come! And meanwhile, this "debate," this discussion that is being snowed under by all this anti-rational bs, is about something really, really simple:

In the richest nation on Earth, there are people who die because they can't afford health care.

It's not an academic debate. It's a debate about a tragedy in the real world. It's about suffering. It's about lives ruined and dreams forever deferred because of illness and because of a screwed up system that too often grinds people under instead of helping them.

It's a topic that desperately needs reason. It needs serious, informed conversation, creative problem-solving, intelligence, team-work. It needs all of that and more so we can end this tragedy once and for all.

At this point, I just have to end with a quote from Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy:

If I sound angry, then, yeah, I am. I’m tired of ignorance held up as inspiration, where vicious anti-intellectualism is considered a positive trait, and where uninformed opinion is displayed as fact.
It’s killing any real debate in this country, where the system of government depends utterly on a well-informed public. When rampant idiocy is presented as reasonable discourse without any rebuttal, then we all suffer.

What we need are government officials not afraid to talk like Barney Frank did to such a voice of lunacy. To reiterate, crackpots have a right to air their diseased notions, just as we have the right to tear those ideas to shred when they do. More than that, the news media have a responsibility to do so.

(And while you're at it, read the whole article. And also read what John Scalzi has to say in his post "That Obama Speech," which is, like Plait's, about Obama's evil speech to the nation's school children.)

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