Saturday, August 30, 2014

Walker: 2012's "gold standard" jobs numbers "misleading", but "inaccurate" numbers awesome!

So, here we have yet another example of Scott Walker illustrating his disregard for consistency and honesty. Wisconsinites might remember that, during the recall election, some of Walker's opponents touted unfavorable job numbers. These numbers were deemed unreliable by the Walker camp because they were just monthly estimates -- as opposed to the comprehensive hard numbers, that Walker himself touted as a "gold standard" in job numbers.

Well, Scott has got a new ad out. And guess what set of numbers he's relying on -- the "gold standard" or the "unreliable" estimates?

If you're thinking "the unreliable estimates," well, you would be correct (and, if you think "the gold standard", now might be a good time to lay off the kool-aid).

NPR sums it up:
Walker's [new] numbers are based on cumulative monthly estimates between July of last year and July of this year. These are the same monthly estimates Walker attacked as unreliable during his recall campaign. Department of Workforce Development Secretary Reggie Newson described them as numbers that are “inaccurate,” and that “cannot be trusted.”
But it's worse than that. Walker has newly found these unreliable estimates to be trustworthy, but he also accuses Mary Burke of "misleading" people by quoting his former "gold standard" numbers.

Fox News' Mike Lowe reports:

“Those are numbers she’s using and not pointing to the most recent statistics. Wisconsin now ranks third in the Midwest for actual private sector job creation.  That’s just this week from the current employment statistics by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,” Walker said. 
The employment survey comes out every month, and is simply an estimate. That’s the number Walker is using when he says Wisconsin ranks third. 
The quarterly census, which Walker called “the gold standard” to measure jobs is hard data that is much more reliable. That’s what Burke is using when she says Wisconsin is “dead last.”
And, as NPR points out, "Burke's ad, however, accurately quotes detailed quarterly census numbers covering Walker's first three full years in office."

In other words, our illustrious governor has not only reversed his position on "unreliable" monthly estimates (as they benefit him); not only reversed his opinion on the hard numbers, the "gold standard" of job numbers; but he accuses Mary Burke of misleading voters by using the numbers that he himself described as the gold standard, rather than the numbers he and his party derided as unreliable estimates. I think it's fair to say that when it comes to honesty, Governor Walker is full of it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bill Maher's atheism is not a religion...classic

So, yeah, I'm watching atheist videos as I make jewelry tonight...stumbled on this one. I've seen it a few times before, but, you know, it's pretty damn good. It looks like HBO doesn't want this embedded,  because the embed feature is turned off on every video I come across. Alas, I can only link to it (sorry!). However, it is worth the click. Whether you've seen it before or not.

If I had a nickel for every time some jackass has told me that I'm just following a different religion, well, I wouldn't be making jewelry to sell in my spare time. ;) Comedy sometimes is the best way to handle these things.

Best line? Probably "You don't get to put your unreason up there on the same shelf with my reason. Your stuff has to go over there, with Zeus and Thor and the Kraken."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The $700K question of Scott Walker's new attitude toward mining

So by now we all know that Gogebic's $700,000 donation couldn't possibly have influenced Scott Walker, according to Scott Walker. See, our grand governor has always been pro-mining. Except when he wasn't, of course.

In fact, he helped block a proposal to construct another major mine in northern Wisconsin years ago.
In 1998 — as a member of the Assembly — Walker voted in favor of a mining moratorium that put the brakes on a proposed copper and zinc mine near Crandon. The measure passed in the Assembly on a 91-6 vote and was signed into law by Gov. Tommy Thompson.
The mine was never built.

 A far cry indeed from his more recent actions.

In March 2012, state senators rejected legislation aimed at clearing the way for the $1.5 billion mine. Just two weeks after Walker won his recall election that year, he launched an effort to put together a bill favorable to Gogebic Taconite.
The GOP-controlled Legislature passed a measure last year rewriting the state's mining laws, a bill that the mining firm helped draft. An alternative proposal by three state senators — Democrats Bob Jauch of Poplar and Tim Cullen of Janesville and Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center — failed to garner support

Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now perhaps phrases it best:

"The record is clear: Scott Walker the legislator was for tougher environmental laws on mining before Scott Walker the governor was against them," said Ross, who gave $250 to Walker's opponent, Democrat Mary Burke. "The '$700,000 Question' remains — what changed Governor Walker's mind?"

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

John Oliver literally destroys piñatas (and has something to say about click-bait headlines, too).

So, if you, like me, cannot stand those "You won't believe this!" or "so and so DESTROYS some other so and so!" click-bait will enjoy this. While John Oliver is great, and his show is often brilliantly done...this is, to my knowledge, the first time he has "literally destroyed" anything on air.

On the other hand, for examples of John Oliver figuratively destroying things...

The "both sides of the climate debate" nonsense is, of course, a highly memorable one:

And his Dr. Oz segment is certainly worth a mention:

And his Ferguson coverage is surely a worthy contender:

And those are just the first three that come to mind, where John Oliver has done a wonderful job of addressing important points. Without taking a bat to anything. Feel free to nominate your favorite in the comments.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Walker's WEDC votes for Ashley furniture $6 mil tax credit, owners then donate $20 K

So just yesterday I posted about some of the *ahem* peculiar things we're learning about what Scott Walker has been doing in (to?) Wisconsin. One of those items was:
And, finally, in an unrelated but also curious move, Walker's WEDC -- the purpose of which is to create jobs in the state -- is giving a Wisconsin company a 6 million dollar tax credit to build headquarters in the state -- with the okay to lay off 1,900 employees (half its workforce), and with no new job creation requirements. Because, you know, it's all about the jobs and workers. Just not the ~2000 who are going to lose theirs, apparently.
Well, wouldn't you know it, within a month of getting Walker's goody bag...Ashley Furniture's owners felt moved to donate $20,000 dollars to Scott Walker's campaign.

About two weeks after the WEDC vote, on Feb. 17, Ronald and Joyce Wanek of St. Petersburg, Florida, and Todd and Karen Wanek of Arcadia, each gave $5,000 to Friends of Scott Walker, state campaign finance records show.
Ronald Wanek is founder and board chairman of Ashley. His son Todd is president and CEO of the company, which is privately owned.
Also worth noting?
The company and city of Arcadia have received 10 awards from WEDC and the Department of Commerce since 1988, but the $6 million tax credit approved in January would total more than all the others combined.
In the words of One Wisconsin Now's executive director, Scot Ross:
“They just got a $6 million tax break that allows them to cut half their jobs and two weeks later they give Walker $20,000. I think it speaks for itself."

Georgia gun-nuts give rapists, pedophiles back their guns

So I came across this truly mortifying story, about a Georgia cop who tried to sodomize a woman with his service weapon. That failing, he raped her.
Krauss was convicted of sexual assault against a person in custody, and this one instance of sexual assault is far from the only allegation against him. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “[h]is record was filled with allegations of misconduct: that he beat a prisoner so severely the man’s brain bled; that he threatened to fabricate charges against a suspect so he could sleep with the man’s wife; that he pressured at least 10 women for sex to avoid arrest.” The former cop, for his part, is unrepentant. When asked about his sexual assault conviction, he claims that “[t]here wasn’t any crime,” and that “I was dealt a bad hand.”
Now this cop sounds like a poster boy for the NRA's "bad guy" that we all need to be armed against, right? Funny* story...due to Georgia's gun nuttery, this POS is now another "bad guy with a gun" -- because last year "the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles restored Krauss’ right to carry a firearm." And he's not alone.
According to a Journal-Constitution tally, he is one of 358 violent felons who regained these rights over a six year period. That includes 32 violent felons who killed someone, and 44 who committed sex crimes. One man regained his right to own a gun in 2012 after serving a 10 year sentence for child molestation and aggravated child molestation. Some offenders regained their gun rights after being convicted of crimes such as armed robbery, burglary or aggravated assault.
Between re-arming violent criminals and rapists and opposing background checks that keep firearms out of the hands of those legally barred from owning them, it's getting more and more obvious that the right's gun nuttery has nothing to do with a legitimate exercise of second amendment rights, or the safety of Americans. In fact, America's gun nuts are actively enforcing policies that do the opposite: that put children, women and everyone else at risk by making it easier for criminals to own arms -- and even re-arming violent criminals.

*and by funny, I mean f'ing horrifying

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A roundup of this week's "Scott Walker says and does the darndest things" moments...

So, some interesting news from Wisconsin, about our illustrious governor, Scott Walker, mostly about his dance with unethical and illegal behaviors.

For starters, we have this:

Newly released court documents include excerpts from emails showing that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's recall election campaign team told him to instruct donors to give to a key conservative group that would run ads for Walker and distribute money to other conservative groups backing him. 
The documents released Friday by a federal appeals court also show that prosecutors believe Walker personally solicited donations for conservative group Wisconsin Club for Growth to get around campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements as he fended off the recall attempt in 2012. 
Aides told Walker to tell donors that they could make unlimited donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth without having the gifts publicly disclosed. Wisconsin Club for Growth then funneled the money to other conservative groups that advertised on Walker's behalf. 
"As the Governor discussed ... he wants all the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging," Walker fundraiser Kate Doner wrote to campaign adviser R.J. Johnson in April 2011, a little more than a year before the recall election. "We had some past problems with multiple groups doing work on 'behalf' of Gov. Walker and it caused some issues ... the Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth."

Now, as we all know, money has no -- zero, zilch, nada -- impact on politics. Thus it's all perfectly legal for groups to accept unlimited cash for political purposes, because no elected official would ever, could ever, possibly be persuaded by the offer of money. Or, put in the form our legislators like to peddle:

While the law fully accepts that politicians will never, ever be persuaded to, or dissuaded from, action by the lure of cash, they still demand that politicians maintain the flimsy pretext of separation between interests and actions. Which is to say, a group can lobby a politician to do x, y and z, while making giant donations, with the express purpose of buying that politician's votes; but they can't acknowledge that they're doing it for that purpose. A politician can consistently be persuaded to see eye-to-eye with those who write him large checks, but he can never draw a line between the check and his persuasion. In American politics, the former is all proper and on the up-and-up, and the latter dirty politics.

According to Walker, he has behaved in a perfectly legal and upright fashion. On the other hand,

Prosecutors contend Walker and the club [Wisconsin Club for Growth] stepped over a line by working together to secretly funnel unlimited sums to groups backing Walker.
As one example, investigators say Walker was set to participate in a December 2011 conference call with James Buchen, a top official with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group. Wisconsin Club for Growth gave WMC $2.5 million the following year, which WMC used to produce and air commercials promoting Walker and criticizing his recall opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett.

Walker, of course, denies this.
Walker said he helped solicit contributions to Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 primarily to help GOP senators who faced recalls. The court filings suggested, however, that he was involved in raising more than $1 million for Club for Growth in the months before his own recall election.
As to speculation that Walker was in any way influenced to rollback environmental protections in order to facilitate a new Gogebic mine by a $700,000 donation by Gogebic, Walker simply has no idea what anyone is talking about. And, in fact, the whole thing is ridiculous!
Asked whether he was aware that Gogebic Taconite secretly donated $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth — a pro-business advocacy group directed by the governor's campaign adviser — Walker said, "Not to my knowledge." 
When asked if the previously undisclosed funds and subsequent legislation were part of some pay-to-play scheme, Walker said, "That's a ridiculous argument."
Not everyone agrees with Walker. Even some from his own party see this as a potentially damaging revelation:
Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), the only Republican senator who voted against the mining legislation, indicated he was not surprised by the donation. Schultz sought to craft a bipartisan mining bill with Jauch and Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville).  
"The fact that someone gave a donation in and of itself does not indicate solid evidence that there is pay-to- play," Schultz said. "But there just isn't any question that the quality of public policy making in Wisconsin has suffered since big money has come to this state."  
He said it was "particularly disturbing" that the mining company sought to conceal its activities.
"They have obviously tried to channel their money in places where the public won't see it," Schultz said.  
"I just think in this state that is going to get a very negative reaction from the public. And I think it has taken an exceedingly long time for all of this stuff to come out," Schultz continued. "As my dear late mother used to say, 'Eventually the truth will win out.' I guess I'm just saddened. I love this state. I have loved its political traditions, and I just don't think this is us. I really don't."
It's also worth noting that, due to the continued fight to keep these documents hidden from public scrutiny, these were pulled from the court's website shortly after being released.

And, finally, in an unrelated but also curious move, Walker's WEDC -- the purpose of which is to create jobs in the state -- is giving a Wisconsin company a 6 million dollar tax credit to build headquarters in the state -- with the okay to lay off 1,900 employees (half its workforce), and with no new job creation requirements.  Because, you know, it's all about the jobs and workers. Just not the ~2000 who are going to lose theirs, apparently.

Self proclaimed pro-lifers object to ALS research, because it's better to throw out embryonic stem cells than help people

So, in case you missed it, the "pro-life" community has its collective panties in a wad over the ice bucket challenge. Shockingly, the same folks who think life is sooooo precious that a live woman must die for a dead fetus, and also don't think you should give your healthy organs from your dead body, think that helping raise money to combat ALS is bad, bad, bad.

Why, exactly? Well, because some research might involve embryonic stem cells. And, like our organs after death, it's so much better to toss 'em than put 'em to good use. You know, because "life".

Monday, August 18, 2014

Parental rights trump a child's, including his right to life...except abortion, because, hell, that shit's murder!

There's a curious strain of contradictory thought in this country, that posits that, on the one hand, a parent should have absolute control over their child (what they eat, what they wear, what they learn, what healthcare they do -- or don't -- receive [up to and including deprivation of life-saving medicine], etc.); and, on the other, that a woman should not have the right to make choices regarding her pregnancy -- and should even be held responsible for choices made during pregnancy that might inadvertently impact the fetus involved. So a Christian Scientist refusing to treat his child for a treatable ailment, resulting in a wholly preventable death, is a perfectly healthy manifestation of "freedom of religion", but a woman terminating a nine week old fetus is the epitome of evil. A parent having the power to pull the plug on a child on life support is absolutely appropriate, but a woman pulling the plug on an unwanted pregnancy is MURDER!!!!

Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that all pro-life people think that parents should have the right to dictate every detail of their child's life, up to and including things that cause intense mental trauma and even death; or that only pro-life people believe that. But the observable overlap of people who believe those two ostensibly mutually exclusive concepts is fairly substantial. It's the right-wing, as part of their anti-choice efforts, that continually promotes "parental consent" laws -- that ultimately dictate that a minor's parents can decide how she will or will not use her reproductive organs (even if it costs her her life in the process). It's the almost exclusively anti-choice right-wing that embraces concepts meant to empower parents to have absolute control over their children. This is a cornerstone of right-wing fundamentalist belief: children are to submit, absolutely, to the authority of their parents. "Rebellion is akin to witchcraft", and in some strains it must be driven out with "the rod and staff", or the belt, or whatever instrument is deemed useful.

But it is not only among fundamentalists and hardcore right-wingers that we see this mindset flourishing, that a parent's control over healthcare, even life and death decisions, is appropriate outside of the womb, but not inside. Many persons of moderate persuasion still have a marked hesitance, or outright opposition, to a woman exercising her right to choose (even if they support the legal existence of that right). Why? Why is it more objectionable for a parent to choose to pull the plug on a comatose child than to terminate a non-sentient fetus?

There is potential in both scenarios for a healthy child to emerge, and parents have the legal right to make both decisions. Depending on the scenario, there might be a higher, even considerably higher, likelihood that the fetus will eventually become a sentient human being. Is that, then, the difference? The potential, the high likelihood that the pregnancy (barring some misfortune) will result in a healthy child?

To moderate people, I believe so: the averted potential is regarded as being unfortunate, even worthy of being mourned. But I don't think that is the cause among the religious right. In fact, I believe I can demonstrate conclusively that it is not; and that it should not be to others.

It is true that the average pregnancy, uninterrupted, will lead to a healthy child. But so what? In a world in which children starve to death, are murdered, and linger waiting for adoptive parents every day, the promise of eventually delivering another unwanted child is not a great selling point. Our species is hardly in danger of extinction through lack of numbers, so a "greater good" argument falls short as well. Ultimately, if you support a parent's rights to dictate the fate of, choose the medicine for, and so heavily impact the future of an actual child, you don't have much room to complain about what happens to a pre-child. Indeed, there's a much stronger argument for limiting the rights of parents when it comes to medical care and other such life and health-impacting choices for their actual children than there is for limiting the rights of women to make decisions regarding could-be children. The state recognizes the existence and interests of sentient beings, and has a duty to protect those. It does not recognize nor have a duty toward non-sentient pre-persons. Therefore it is in the state's interests to punish parents who knowingly withhold life saving care from a child dying of a preventable condition (and look at how long that journey has been going on, necessitating multiple children dying within the same family before a court finally did something -- in the one instance), but not to concern itself with a person's decision to continue, or not, the development of a fetus. At such time as the fetus becomes a sentient, born human being, the state has a duty toward it; before, well, I've yet to see a convincing argument as to why it should -- or one that adequately (or remotely) addresses the utter trampling of the rights of sentient human beings that such a decision would necessarily entail.

To some anti-choicers, whose focus seems to extend only to foisting forced births of perfect little cherubs on unwilling mothers (and subsequently letting the little moochers and their harlot mothers starve in the hedgerows, as Conservative Jesus intended -- Amen!), the unwanted nature is irrelevant, though. While a parent should have absolute say over what happens to their child, because children are to obey their parents, a woman should have no say over whether or not she continues her pregnancy, because "the babies!!" In the pro-life world, a fertilized egg is an embryo is a fetus is a Super Person, whose rights, even to life, trump its mother's. So the potential child is more important than the actual woman, and its interests trump hers. Considering the misogynistic, fundamentalist religious roots of the movement, the continuous focus on "punishing" sexually active women, etc. this is perhaps not surprising. Disgusting, but not surprising. The pro-life movement is not a pro-woman movement, whatever duplicitous pretenses to the contrary it might muster. Where this gets really dicey, though, is that the potential child has more rights than the actual child. "Personhood" and other pro-life legislation around the nation has not only elevated the fertilized human egg to the same status as the human child, but it attempts to confer upon it special privileges. A child can be subjected to intense physical and emotional trauma by parents (and, in many red states, even teachers); a child can be denied necessary healthcare, to the child's extreme detriment (and even death); and that is right and just exercise of godly authority over offspring. But if a Super Person is harmed as a result of its mother's drug addiction -- she is to be prosecuted, harshly. A human child without brain function can be removed from life support at its parents' direction. But the non-sentient pre-child, the Super Person, must remain in utero at all costs -- even its mother's life. Again, one assumes -- the only kindly way to interpret this fetus-obsession -- that this is due to the fetus' potential life: that the extraordinary privilege granted the fetus is granted because it carries the potential for a full and God-ordained life if birthed.

This is, demonstrably, an unjustified and incorrect assumption, however. Pro-lifers do not accord unmatched rights to a fetus because it is a child or potential child, a precious egg baby being robbed of its future; and we can easily determine this, in two ways.

First, potential children-making activities, and the lives that would result, are hotly, vehemently opposed by "pro-lifers". The same anti-choicers who will complain about the potential life lost through abortion for a child who "might have cured cancer" are very often the ones who seek to ban fertility treatments (because cancer cured by a rape-conceived or unwanted child is cancer well cured; cancer cured by a child both wanted and conceived with medical assistance is Nazism). It's the same crowd that fervently worries that using the Pill will prevent the conception of the child who might grow to cure cancer that spends a great deal of time, energy and thought on convincing people that sex is evil, no good, very bad and wholly disgusting (unless engaged in by heterosexual married people: one subservient, submissive, always sexually available but chaste, modest, and demure wife, and her dominant, God-fearing, head of the household husband). Again, cancer cured by the birth control-thwarted egg-baby is to be mourned; cancer cured by the out-of-wedlock baby isn't a concern.

There's an even stronger indicator, however, that it isn't the life or potential life of the fetus, the Super Person, that worries pro-lifers. This is the legislation and rules, and the reasons proffered for these, enacted by pro-lifers. Consider, for instance, Terry England, and his infamous push to force women to carry to term dead fetuses -- because he had "had the experience of delivering calves, dead and alive" and "[d]elivering pigs, dead or alive", and, dangnabbit, if it's good enough for a cow or a swine to carry dead offspring to term, it's good enough for women! Consider the Catholic hospitals that force women to carry dying fetuses, at significant determinant (up to and including death) to themselves. The potential, in these cases, is already nullified. These are dead or dying fetuses; and yet pro-lifers would force women to continue carrying these dead or dying Super Persons. To what end? A dead fetus has no potential -- other than to sicken or kill its mother. The anti-choice crowd does not -- cannot -- oppose abortion, then, because of the fetal "potential": because it is perfectly willing to force a woman to carry a fetus with no potential (even if it destroys or ends her potential-filled life), which means that potential is not a relevant factor.

The "you can't play God!" nonsense is often thrown up at this point, as if that isn't precisely what medicine does: saves, extends & improves lives when they are imperiled or harmed. This is simply a non sequitur. Dead bodies and human tissue are disposed of as quickly and in as sanitary a fashion as possible. Forcing a woman to keep a dead body or dead fetal tissue inside her is as barbaric as it is disgusting and unsafe. It is decidedly non-medically minded, and has no more to do with "playing God" than any other medical procedure with the potential to save lives. Or, for that matter, disposing of corpses that exist outside of the body.

When really pressed, the anti-choice crowd will often throw in a little something else to their arguments. Sometimes it boils down to innocence: the fetus is innocent! Or the anti-"convenience"/selfishness argument. Or punishment for the mother. Or some amalgamation of these arguments. "Well, she chose to have sex, so why should the innocent child suffer for her selfish convenience?!" 

I've addressed this before, so I'll touch on it only briefly. Child-bearing isn't "retribution" for failing some puritanical strictures about sex (and this argument is itself nullified by the large body of anti-choicers who would force rape victims [who have no say in having sex] to carry to term fetuses). Child bearing is a choice, and one that should be made with the fullest intent to do right by the child. Choosing not to a bring a child into the world when you know you are not ready, willing or able to be a good parent is not being selfish. It is the only responsible thing to do. And, indeed, none of this is relevant in regards to the actual child, so none of it is relevant to the Super Person: parents aren't compelled to keep a child on life support because, "Well, you should have thought of that before you opened your legs!" Parents are not forced by the state to provide scientifically sound medical care if they choose to pray instead or rely on homeopathy (despite the demonstrable evidence of human suffering that results from its absence -- evidence that does not exist in the case of the Super Person) because they chose to have intercourse, or even chose to make a baby. If choosing to have sex, much less actively seeking to conceive, is irrelevant to a parent's life altering and even ending parenting choices outside of the womb, it's a poor substitute for an argument when the fetus remains in the womb. It becomes an excuse in lieu of an argument, not a legitimate reason why.

And, finally, the fetus' innocence is irrelevant. A fetus is not, cannot be, substantially more or less innocent than an average two week old, two year old, six year old, or twelve year old. A parent's decision-making power is not granted or revoked based on the innocence of the person or fetus involved. A mother has as much right to decide when and if to pull the plug on a saintly six year old as a tantrum throwing terror, when to refuse significant and even life saving care for the best of five year old's as for the worst. Good behavior, bad behavior, "innocence" and guilt are immaterial. If we are a society that grants life altering, even ending, powers to parents of actual children, whose capacity for thinking, feeling and suffering is certain and undisputed (unlike the fetus, who for much of its existence is incapable of thought or feeling); and since this is largely fueled by the right wing's obsession with "God-given" parental rights over children; it is patently absurd to suggest that granting the same powers to women over non-sentient pre-children is somehow a monstrous miscarriage of justice.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When a corpse has more rights than a woman

Look around the world. Consider the status of women in "pro-life" countries, particularly as relates to the "life of the mother". In countries like Ireland or the Dominican Republic, where laws that directly or indirectly grant "personhood" to fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses necessarily put pregnant women's lives in jeopardy -- because to interfere with said fertilized egg is tantamount to murder (even if the zygote/embryo/fetus has zero chance of surviving anyway, as its continued existence will kill the pregnant woman upon whom it depends). Even in countries where the law does not utterly prohibit the medical rights of women and girls, the Church is quick to insert its vitriol -- a nine year old impregnated by a rapist step father, whose tiny body will surely be destroyed if the pregnancy is allowed to continue (as happened in Brazil -- a country that allows abortion only in instances of rape and medical emergency), must be subjected to that hideous fate. Or else those who assist her, those who save her life, will be excommunicated (notably, the church did not excommunicate the rapist, who abused and endangered the child's life -- but the victim's mother and physician, who saved the child's life, that pious institution took to task).

In our own nation, where the Supreme Court has ruled that women have the constitutional right to procure abortions, the "religious right" maintains a fierce opposition to the procedure. And from tracking women who have abortions to shuttering abortion facilities on a state by state basis to introducing personhood measures on the federal level to murdering abortion doctors, they are not-so-slowly but very-steadily-indeed encroaching on that right. The difference between us and Ireland as far as women's health is effectively non-existent to a poor woman living in the deep south, where abortion clinics are being forced closed for hundreds of miles around; and with the "personhood" push, we, as a nation, are at risk of becoming yet another "pro-life" nation that slays pregnant women on the altar of fetal rights. In Catholic hospitals around the country, a pregnant woman's life is already in very real jeopardy -- because the heart beat of a dying fetus is more important to the pro-life movement than the actual life of the pregnant woman. (Is it any wonder that our rates of pregnancy related maternal death are so high in this country, when so many of our health care institutions utterly devalue a pregnant women's existence?)

But take a minute to think about what would happen if hardcore pro-lifers (who are the ones setting the direction of the movement) actually got their way here. American women would have less rights over their bodies than corpses.

A corpse's wishes as to what happens to its body are respected. If a person wanted to take perfectly healthy organs with them to the grave, we shrug our shoulders, and say, "Well, so be it. That's his choice." And no matter how many lives those organs would have saved, we tell the dying people what amounts to, "Tough shit. We have to respect that corpse's wishes." Not only are pro-lifers not actively campaigning to save these wasted organs -- and all the people that they'd preserve -- but many pro-lifers actually actively campaign against the dead giving organs (generally with scare tactics like these). So, to the pro-lifer, the corpse's right to stuff its organs into a concrete hole to rot is either undisputed or sacred. But a living woman, deciding who will use her body? Even if she's evicting a fetus that's killing her? Even if that fetus will not survive her death? Based on how anti-choice laws are implemented all over the globe and in "pro-life" medical facilities right here in the States it's clear: the "pro-life" view is that she does not have a right to preserve her own body and/or life. Unlike every other "threatening situation" (from, "oh my god, there's a black kid carrying skittles as he walks down the sidewalk!" to "I'm having a heart attack; quick, save me!"), the religious right argues that she alone doesn't get to take the steps necessary to save her life. She doesn't get to take the step necessary to preserve her bodily integrity. She has to die, even if the fetus dies too. Because, unlike the corpse, a pregnant woman's rights cease to matter in the pro-life worldview.

In areas -- be they countries, states or medical establishments -- where "pro-life" thought reigns, women's rights effectively cease to exist. Women, indeed, have fewer rights to bodily autonomy than a corpse. Women have fewer rights to life than a non-sentient glob of human tissue, that has zero chance of survival if the woman dies. In the pro-life worldview, women matter less and are accorded fewer rights than dead and non-sentient bodies. And the irony in all this? These lunatics and hypocrites declare their lunacy and hypocrisy to be the "moral" choice, and that anything short of imposing these barbarous restrictions on women's health is extreme immorality. And millions upon millions of well-meaning but deluded people nod in agreement, without ever stopping to think about what they're doing, or to consider the practical import of their opposition to women's rights: that they support a system that reduces their mothers, sisters, wives, or -- oftentimes -- themselves to a special class of citizen with less rights than a corpse.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Atheism & Mythicism: Danger, Will Robinson

I recently caught a program on the newly launched AtheistTV that featured an interview with Richard Carrier, which got me thinking about this topic. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dr. Carrier, he is a leading "mythicist" scholar. And if you've never heard of mythicism, that it is because it is (for now?) a largely rejected line of thought, that contests the historicity of Jesus: he was, according to the argument, merely a "myth", a fake messiah, rather than a real person. (If you're interested on a primer of arguments, here you go). You may recall that, when Dr. Bart Ehrman published his book, Did Jesus Exist, a heated and bitter feud ensued on the topic. Carrier responded. Ehrman responded. Other people got involved. Carrier recapped. Since then, Carrier has also written a book on the topic (which those who watch the Atheist Experience might have noted, he will be discussing at this year's Austin Community of Atheists' Bat Cruise).

Now, let me make some acknowledgements right out off the bat. I'm an atheist, but I'm not convinced that Jesus was just a myth (I, obviously, don't believe he was divine; but I remain unconvinced that the mere existence of the person is a myth). My mention that mythicism is largely rejected is not a value judgment or an attempt to dismiss or diminish it (I deliberately avoided the use of the word "fringe", which I see often applied to it); this is something that Carrier and other mythicists freely acknowledge (and Carrier rightly points out that other, now widely accepted, theories were once 'fringe' ideas as well). I am not and do not claim to be an expert on the topic...but, going on what I've read from both sides, and based on what seems to be a growing embrace of mythicism -- and, in some cases at least, for reasons that are not necessarily sound ones -- in the atheist community (however small the overall number actually is), here are some thoughts on the topic.

1. Mythicism might indeed be completely accurate. We should not, however, embrace it for any but the soundest reasons. (And I am not convinced that we actually have those reasons, yet at any rate).
It is, of course, completely possible that Jesus was merely an invention. But the only sound reason to accept such a claim is the presence of very good evidence (I'll talk a bit more about that in a minute). There are a lot of very bad reasons to accept it, however.

Foremost among these, I think, is the appeal. In general, by virtue of having a firm opinion on the god question, you necessarily must assume that those who do not share your opinion are wrong -- you would not follow Christ if you believed in Allah, you would not follow Allah if you did not believe he existed, etc. Atheists believe that there are no gods. In America, particularly, where the Christian religion is predominant, a "magic bullet" that could show the vast majority of the populace the truth would be delightful.

And in so saying, I'm sure there will be religious people who feel this is an attack, but please believe that it is not intended as such. Imagine, for a moment, if you had a way to prove the veracity of your beliefs, to demonstrate to every atheist and non-believer that what you believe to be the truth is...would it not be a great thing, particularly if you care for your fellow man and care that he has the truest and best understanding of the world about him? I merely phrase it from the atheist perspective: that, as far as we can tell, the truth lies not in a god or multiple gods, but in no god. Whatever your opinion on the god question, I don't think it unreasonable to propose that solid proof, in one direction or the other, would be a great thing: the Truth, whatever it is, would settle the question that has set us at each other's throats from time immemorial, and we would, all of us, then be free to shape our lives in light of that revelation. That seems, to me, while highly unlikely, about as nice a thing as you can dream of.

At any rate, the appeal of such a discovery is undeniable. Like finding conclusive proof that Jesus not only existed but rose from the dead would be a monumental upholding of Christianity, so too would finding that there was no such person as Jesus be a tremendous boost to atheism (at least, in predominantly Christian nations, where most people already reject contender faiths in favor of the dominant one). But -- and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough -- the timeliness or usefulness of a claim is not reason to believe it. This holds true for anything, of course. Wanting something to be true does not make it true. Unfortunately, I've seen some very smart atheists jump on the mythicist bandwagon with seemingly no evidence, but a great deal of wishful thinking, to support the move. (It is only right to note that the aforementioned Dr. Carrier has also spent a considerable amount of energy admonishing other mythicists for misleading or flat out false work in promoting the theory. See here, for example). I'm not saying that the evidence can't convince (I am not convinced, but I fully admit that the failure might be in my reception of the evidence and not the evidence itself), but merely that, if it is to be accepted, it should be done on the basis of the evidence. Only.

2. A lack of evidence, forgeries in existing evidence, etc., is not in and of itself actually proof that someone did not exist. 
There are good points to be made about this, and Dr. Carrier in particular does a good job of doing this. This goes to you can't prove he did exist. That is not the same thing as I can prove he didn't exist, and they should not be confused. Even if every mention of Jesus in historical records was inserted after the fact; if there was no such town as Nazareth; if most of what we hear about Jesus is made up and utterly at odds with the historical person; this does not prove that there never was a Jesus.

By way of example...ancient Egyptian "propaganda" monuments and tablets were often erected to praise kings and important nobles. The deeds described thereon were wildly inaccurate; accuracy was not the goal, but rather puffing up the good name of the person before the gods (and man, no doubt). A historian may well conclude that much if not most of what these flattering portrayals allege are lies. Without additional, strong evidence, however, it would be an unjustified leap to assert that the person in question never actually existed just because they didn't actually win tremendous victories and bring peace to Egypt.

I have mentioned Dr. Carrier several times so far, as he strikes me as the most scholarly and "mainstream" mythicist, so it is incumbent on me to note at this juncture that Dr. Carrier has actually said exactly this in the past: "The only effective way to argue for non-historicity is to present evidence for non-historicity (and not just demonstrate the lack of evidence for historicity)." Far too many mythicists, however, fall into the trap of "lack of evidence for existence is evidence of lacking existence".

Now, I wholly anticipate someone objecting: "but you dismiss religion for lack of evidence of its claims. Why not the existence of Jesus?" In answer, I must invoke Hitchen's Razor: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claims of religion are extraordinary, and the evidence (as I see it) is simply not there. It is quite another thing, however, to claim, "there lived, some two thousand years ago, in the area of Roman Palestine a Jew, who probably was a religious figure of some sort, who may or may not have been a carpenter, and who may or may not have been killed for his teachings." That is to say, a person of whom we know almost nothing probably lived two thousand years ago. That is a statement so benign as to be almost uninteresting. It is worlds removed from supernatural beings with world-creating powers, sinister nemesis gods with torture chambers, etc. The one is so unexceptional that, were it not for the significance we have added to the fact (which we're only tangentially debating, in discussing the historicity of Jesus), it would not even need to be observed; the other so astonishing as to require a great deal of proving to be accepted.

3. Actually proving that an ancient person of little import (at the time) did not exist is even harder than proving that they did exist. One may say, virtually impossible.
Jesus would have been a teacher with a modest following at the time of his death. He would not have been the only one. He would have been one of many seemingly unimportant -- to non-believing contemporaries -- people. We can not prove that all the others existed based on contemporary records, so I, at least, am not overly surprised that the evidence for Jesus' existence is limited. Since the bare (not supernatural) facts of his existence are quite ordinary, it doesn't seem particularly questionable.

But what's even harder than proving that a relative nobody (at least in the eyes of his non-believing contemporaries) in ancient times existed? Proving that he didn't. If someone alleged that Jesus was born and alive today, in our modern era, with databases, modern record keeping, online records, etc., we might be able to prove that the allegation was either true or false. I say, might, because maybe Jesus' parents live in the mountains, and don't believe in social security numbers and hospital births; maybe Jesus isn't in the country legally, and so has to keep under the radar; maybe Jesus lives under a different name; "maybe" any of a plethora of scenarios that would inhibit definite knowledge, one way or the other, of the existence or nonexistence of Jesus. In this day and age, with all the means available to us to figure such things out. Resources that are certainly not available to us in regards to Roman Palestine.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the point is by way of a thought experiment. Pick an era in ancient times. Invent a character name consistent with the era. Now, would I be able to prove that he or she didn't exist? Even if I resorted to, "But I just told you to invent one, so this must be fake!"  ... what's to stop you from coming back with, "I ignored that: this one's real!" How am I to prove that it isn't? It's practically a non-falsifiable claim.

In Jesus' case, for mythicists this often comes down to parallels with other belief systems, to cultural factors that seem to be at odds with the alleged facts of Jesus' existence, etc. These may (or may not) be sufficient reasons to cast doubt on the historicity of Jesus, but it is worth noting that even strong doubt isn't absolute proof. Reasonable doubt may be enough to keep someone out of prison, but it is not a guarantee that they did not commit the crime.

It is further worth noting that belief has the capacity to overcome even very reasonable doubt. Theologians are adept at crafting clever, sometimes downright brilliant, responses to practical objections to their faiths, because they ardently believe them to be true. They operate under the assumption that the religion is true, therefore discrepancies must have an explanation compatible with belief. Thus, to convince a firm believer that Jesus is merely a myth would take a great deal of evidence, far beyond doubt. While a minor point from the perspective of history, the existence of Jesus is a crucial point in, the cornerstone of, Christianity; to illustrate its falsity to believers would take a substantial body of irrefutable evidence.

4. Whether Jesus actually existed or not is no more relevant than whether Buddha, Mohammed, or Joseph Smith lived.
I have several times now alluded to the fact that there is nothing -- when the supernatural elements are removed -- from the idea of Jesus' existence as to raise too many red flags in regards to historicity. Someone, of whom we know very little, inspired followers to commemorate and worship him. This has happened hundreds, probably thousands or tens of thousand of times throughout human history; quite possibly more.

It is no more evidence of the truth of Christianity that Jesus existed than it is evidence of the truth of Islam that Muhammad existed, or the truth of Mormonism that Joseph Smith existed. The average Christian does not reject Islam because he believes Muhammad was not a real person. The average Muslim does not follow Islam because he's positive that Joseph Smith never lived. A religious leader's existence is not evidence that their claims (or those attributed to them) are correct.

Sure, if you could definitively prove that religious figures never existed, you would sway most believers (there will always be a contingent who ignored the facts [see: creationists], but most people are rational and will adjust their opinions when confronted with solid facts). But, even if you are persuaded, it is true that definitive proof is lacking (Dr. Carrier, in the interview I mentioned, put the possibility for Jesus' existence at 1 in 12,000 based on his reading of the evidence, but admitted that by more conservative estimates it could be 1 in 3). Based on the nature of the topic, it's further very possible that definitive proof might never be forthcoming -- at least, not in the direction mythicists argue. (If Jesus was real, we may yet find evidence of that existence; if Jesus was not real, what convincing evidence could we find of his nonexistence?) All of which brings me to my final point...

5. Tacking mythicism on to atheism is a potentially unwise thing to do.
I understand the appeal of mythicism. It is the magic bullet, at least if you live in a predominantly Christian nation. It's as close to proof of God's non-existence as you can come to get. As such, it requires a great deal of proof.

In my mind, mythicism seems like a step too far based on the evidence we have -- the burden of proof is on the person making a claim, not the person who remains unconvinced by the claim. It seems that a person who insists that Jesus was real has to prove that to convince us; a person claiming that Jesus had supernatural abilities has to prove that to convince us. On the other hand, a person claiming that Jesus did not exist has to prove that as well. Not just to people who don't really care if he did or not, because they reject the larger claims surrounding him, but to people who believe that he was real.

It's all well and good to admit the possibility, to make the argument that the only evidence we have for Jesus' existence is flawed, suspect, even wholly unreliable. It's fine for scholars to make the case that the data, in fact, points in the opposite direction, that church leaders invented a perfect messiah (provided the evidence actually indicates that). The more accurate knowledge we have, the better; the more honest examination of facts, the better.

But I can't say I'm thrilled to see atheists embracing this as an "atheist" idea. Atheism isn't concerned with the historicity of Jesus. It's concerned with the divinity of Jesus (and Allah, and G-d, and all the other gods out there). If tomorrow evidence of Jesus' existence is found, if the city of Nazareth is unearthed, or Ted Cruz gets a copy of Jesus' birth certificate -- atheism doesn't change. I'm not saying atheists shouldn't explore the matter, shouldn't encourage research into the topic. But I do think there is a risk to atheism seeming to promote or endorse the idea as a tenet of atheism. There is one ultimate question on which atheism hinges: if a god or gods exist(s), we are wrong. If no god(s) exist, we are right. Jesus' existence is only relevant in that respect: is he a god or demigod, or not? To get hung up on historicity -- which has the potential to persuade no one to a new opinion, neither atheist nor theist -- is to potentially be wrong, on a point that can only be proven, if it ever can be proven, against us (that is, evidence of existence can be discovered, if it exists, but, short of a confession from the church founders, solid evidence of nonexistence is going to be impossible to locate). And, more importantly, on a point that is merely tangential to atheism.

If there is truth to mythicism, scholars will (if it's possible) unlock it in time. In the meanwhile, atheism's position is no stronger for sticking its neck out for a position that might well just be hokum.