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    Epilog - A Quinn Martin Production



    Number of posts : 16
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    Registration date : 2010-02-10

    Epilog - A Quinn Martin Production

    Post  RJHall on Fri Sep 24, 2010 8:34 am



    *OK, I have to explain this one! Back in the 1970s, several TV shows showed these words on the screen before the last scene.

    Here are some more thoughts loosely related to matters I have posted on before. Appy polly loggies* for all these big long posts rather than the norm of a lot of short posts, like this one that I have been working on on and off for days. (Consider that your warning for what is about to follow….) Here is also an opportunity to post a couple of photos from my pilgrimage in Berlin to Rosa Luxemburg’s gravesite (in the hope that one of them will come out larger than as my profile picture). And also to put more English language content on these pages.

    *I have to explain this one too. “Appy polly loggies” is slang in the book and movie “A Clockwork Orange” meaning “apologies” or “I’m sorry”.


    “Modern China presents a classical example of the ‘gentle’, ‘peace-loving’ practices of commodity exchange with backward countries. Throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with the early forties, her history has been punctuated by wars with the object of opening her up to trade by brute force. … European civilisation, that is to say commodity exchange with European capital, made its first impact on China with the Opium Wars when she was compelled to buy the drug from Indian plantations in order to make money for British capitalists.” -- Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital

    Despite the recent theater show of friendliness and gestures, tensions between the United States and China have certainly been rising lately. Will a conflict between them be the fulfillment of what I posted a few months ago: “In fact, I wouldn't be all that surprised if a World War I-type event hit Europe (or even the rest of the world) sometime this decade.”? If so, I wouldn’t be so astonished that you could knock me over with a feather.

    It has, of course, been a while since Rosa wrote about China, and China has gone through a lot and become very different in the near-century since. Despite the promise in that time, from the overthrow of the Manchurians in the early 20th century and the later coming of Mao, that China could rise again to a greatness even beyond its earlier historical form, modern China has disappointingly been emulating crony capitalism in nature though not in name by exploiting people and nature (high unemployment, low pay and benefits, destroying the environment, etc.). Not that the earlier crony communism of the Great Leap Forward*, the Cultural Revolution, etc. had worked out all that well for China either!

    *All that being said, though, the bourgeois West probably has a distorted view of the Great Leap Forward and probably overestimates how prevalent its bad tendencies were, and stereotyping an entire diverse country based on sensationalized media reports and the breathless reports of refugees and dissenters can be wrong or misleading. Just look at Iraq under Saddam Hussein and particularly whether it had weapons of mass destruction: the American government’s (and so, in turn, the American media’s and people’s) ideas about this were based almost entirely on sensationalized media reports and the words of refugees and dissenters. The idea in the West that the Great Leap Forward in China in the late 1950s and early 1960s really led to the most massive and disastrous famine in world history is based almost entirely on the words of the Deng Xiaopeng regime, which wanted to blacken the name of Mao Zedong, and the sensationalized media reports of Deng’s words in the West, which breathlessly and eagerly doubled Deng’s casualty figures. And so on: the West’s views of how bad the Soviet regime was are based almost entirely on what dissidents and refugees wrote and said about it and how they were gleefully magnified in the West. Don’t get me wrong, of course: I’d hardly say that Saddam’s Iraq, Stalin’s Russia, and Mao’s China were paradises, far from it (and thinking that I would would be stereotyping ME as just a silly leftist socialist).

    In the 1970s, the late/post-Mao leaders of supposedly communist China saw/decided that they had to quickly catch up to the capitalist rest of the world, and so China’s modern policies of exploitation of people and resources, driven by foreign investment, began and took over; the leaders focused on quick and easy short-term gain through exploitation rather than slow but sustainable long-term growth through nurturing. This lure of practically abandoning socialism for capitalism is a little more understandable given the high visibility of the capitalists in the Western world, the fact that China in particular and these countries where communist revolutions occur in general were not themselves wealthy capitalist exploiters but instead impoverished victims of exploitation, and the fact that China’s attempts to impose crony communism instead had led to disasters in the 1950s and 1960s. But even though it’s a little understandable, it’s still led to and is contributing to imminent ecological crisis for China and the whole world now.

    Ever notice how in the last 40 years China has grown more and more critical to the global capitalist economic system that it used to say it hated? By adopting some elements of capitalist practice (though not capitalism itself; as Greg Palast explains, "If China is now a capitalist free-market state, then I'm Mariah Carey."), flooding the world market with cheap "Made in China" products, and by being the second-biggest investor in U.S. government bonds, lending the U.S. the money to keep its record debt and deficit-spending budgets going, China is now, or at best will be soon, in a position to pull the plug on the world economy. If it suddenly raises its prices and wages (and it faces pressures to do that, e.g. increasing energy costs) or suddenly dumps its U.S. government bonds or at least diversifies its investments, the "knife-edge" global economy dependent on China might very well fall one way (runaway inflation) or the other (depression). Especially now that there’s already a financial crisis!

    Now, you don't think this just happened, do you? I have never heard or read anyone say otherwise, but here is my (almost completely unsupported) speculation: Mao Zedong planned or intended this to happen almost 40 years ago. Specifically, between 1972 (Nixon goes to China) and 1974 (Deng Xiaopeng rehabilitated), Mao thought the following: "This Cultural Revolution to weed out Communist party members who wanted to go the capitalist road isn't working out too well. And that disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, I'll never live that down! Maybe my attempts to beat global capitalism by trying to accelerate Chinese communism won't work and I'll have to try something else. Well, Nixon's surprising overtures to China and inviting it to join the Western world community have given me an idea: suppose we play along and slowly worm ourselves into their system? China's got a billion people who are smart and fast learners as well as lots of untapped resources. It might take a few decades, but China could easily become one of the world's greatest consumers as well as producers and become a critical link in the global capitalist chain if it started seeming to go along the capitalist road after all. So I'll rehabilitate one of the capitalist-roaders I purged during this Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaopeng would be perfect; I won't name him my successor (then my plan would be too obvious), but I'll put him high enough so that he could claw his way up to the top after my death if he tried. He's a greedy, ruthless bastard, so I know he'll take the bait."

    Whether my speculation is true or not is neither here nor there - planned or not, some day, maybe soon, either Hu Jintao or a future leader of China will wake up and say, "Hey, you know, we could take down the global capitalist system if we wanted to! Heh heh heh!"

    I picture modern China as like Frodo at the Crack of Doom: at the beginning of the quest he was determined to throw the ring into the fire the first chance he got, but now that he's there he's too caught up in its power to want to destroy it. And who corresponds to Gollum in this scene? Well, I do have a name in mind.... You're way ahead of me. The correspondence fits: Gollum was unforeseeable at the time the plan was formulated, but it turns out he's critical to having it carried out. Like that climactic scene in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, China had once been determined to bring down the whole world economy but now that it's in a position to do so it's too caught up in its power to want to. My speculation is that maybe that had even been Mao's plan 40 years ago! (The being in a position to do so part, not the not wanting to part.) And both Prexy Bush and Prexy Obama, by "biting the hand that feeds him" (officials in both U.S. administrations have made several little-noticed trips of mixed supplication and defiance to China), might end up causing China to drop the ring into the fire after all. Just call me Mr. Cassandra!

    Both Prexies have of course been praising that China has been “reforming its economy” for the past 30 years or so. These “reforms”, stemming roughly from after U.S. President Nixon (ah, for the nostalgic old days when even Nixon seems a good president in retrospect!) went to China in 1972 and Mao (Zedong or Tse-Tung) died in 1976, have been to open China’s economy (and resources and especially cheap labor) up to Western businesses, so that the Prexies’ friends can rake in huge profits, while it seems that my wife is remarking every day at finding “Made in China” on some toys or clothes or something where she had never seen it before. Of course they further say things like “once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed.” This is a standard tenet of right-wing dogma, that opening up repressive regimes to capitalism and business and trade and exchange and so on will lead to freedom and democracy rights to speech and assembly and so on for the people: a kind of “trickle-down” theory saying that the profits of the rich businessmen today will lead to freedom for the rest of the people tomorrow. Sadly, if there is any evidence for this dogma, it certainly does not come from China, where the experience is more the opposite: the LACK of freedom in China is actually trickling UP to the businessmen both here and there, who willingly accept and even contribute to such loss of freedoms in exchange for those business profits. Of course they hold China's foe Taiwan up as a model of a free and democratic society in Asia. Well yeah, compared to the People’s Republic of China or even compared to the regime of that notorious Hitler-wannabe Chiang Kai-shek both before and after he fled to Taiwan in 1949. These days Taiwan’s government isn’t so bad anymore; heck, Chiang’s party was even voted out of power in Taiwan in 2000, which means that modern Taiwan has more democracy than, say, I don’t know, modern, should I finish that sentence? No, I’d better not.

    Will Western-style democracy ever return to China? A few years ago, its government issued a report saying “Over my dead body” and officially rejected Western democracy.* This has given me some small (more substantiated lately) fears that the U.S. administration will respond with a Darth Vader-like “As you wish,” and support Taiwan into finally taking over mainland China again – and, to kill two birds with one stone, invade North Korea once it is squeezed on both sides between pro-U.S. countries (the new China and South Korea). I don’t know how likely that is to actually happen, but I’ll bet that some people in the Emperor Palpatine brigade in Washington probably feel the same way when they think about this scenario as they do when they look at Internet pornography.

    *At the World Political Forum in September this year, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev similarly answered “nyet” to Western democracy. Medvedev declared “representative democracy” unacceptable for Russia and excluded freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to vote, freedom of the press, the separation of church and state, and the other rights associated with bourgeois democracy from his intention for Russia.

    Now then, as long as I’m here: As you can all tell by now, I’m currently on a China kick, especially on their historical past as originators of science (e.g. inventors of paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass) and chess* (at least the evidence for a China origin is no weaker than that for an India origin), and have formed a sort of hypothesis which started with the idea that the past few decades of U.S. political and cultural history, in which passionate Democrats and flourishing science were gradually waning until being supplanted by ignorant Republicans and the stopping of science, mirrors in compressed form the decline of the Ming dynasty in the late 1400s-early 1600s and its takeover by the Manchurians in 1644, which led to the decline of a formerly great country. Anyway, I am not the first to think of W. as like a “Manchurian candidate”! My model was amazingly “confirmed” (in a vague sort of way; I’m not yet sure what it would take to shoot it down Popper-style) when I read more details about Emperor Yongle, whom I had already decided corresponded to America’s LBJ, that his reign was noted for great and expensive governmental projects (such as the treasure fleets of exploration, which I had already decided corresponded to the Apollo space program), including an unexpectedly long and expensive and bloody war in a quagmire named – wait for it – Vietnam! Don’t these quotations sound familiar?: “Although twice defeated by the Chinese armies, each time he managed to escape to the jungle and continue the war. Despite a massive commitment of combat troops, the Chinese could neither find Le L’oi nor suppress his guerrilla army. … Enormous numbers of Chinese troops were now tied down in the jungle at vast cost to the treasury and Chinese pride. … It was another shattering blow to the morale of the Chinese and their emperor ….”

    *It’s pretty hard to get Prexy Bush and chess in the same discussion, but a humorous exception is a fictional chess game between Bush and Kerry that appeared, along with joking commentary, at the ChessBase web site just before the November 2004 “election”. To nobody’s surprise, “Kerry” won the chess game (and some say also the “election”, but I won’t go there right now).

    By the way, I am not the first person drawing a comparison between China’s treasure fleet exploration period of the early 1400s and America’s space program of the 1960s – I have read several articles online and in print that make this same analogy – but my conclusion based on that comparison is different from theirs. China’s period was slow, careful, methodical scientific development and exploration that could have led to stupendously great benefits if it had continued. But it was too hard, and frankly too expensive and wasteful of limited resources, so it is not hard to understand why it was abandoned and did not continue. But if only it had continued (perhaps at least in a less expensive way), how different things would be today! However, China stopped entirely, so that they were overtaken in less than a century by the Portuguese and Western Europeans, who were taking the quick and easy route to exploration: capitalistically exploiting everything they could for profit and short-term gain. The proto-capitalistic West (not yet completely capitalistic until the rich merchants finally overthrew the kings) cruelly destroyed the people they found and stole their wealth (in contrast, the Chinese followed the orders of their emperor to trade with and treat all peoples they met with respect), thereby accelerating their own technology and science and leading to the world of today. If only people, in both China and the West, had been a little more patient and always looked at the bright side of life.

    Now, every article I have read drawing this comparison comes to the libertarian sort of right-wing conclusion that China did it wrong and Portugal did it right, and so in terms of space exploration the Apollo program did it wrong and having lots of independent private persons and businesses free to seek out whatever profits they could get would be doing it right. But my own conclusion is that Portugal tragically did it completely wrong, while China had the right idea but should have kept it up, at least a little more efficiently.

    But I digress.

    Later in Chinese history, looking in detail about Chinese Emperor Kangxi (an early Manchurian emperor from around 1660-1720), the counterpart in my little system to Prexy Bush II, shows that the parallels are numerous: he started his long reign as, literally, a child who for the first several years was run and used by his various corrupt advisors, he was a ruthless war-mongerer, he was a barbarian fanatic whose negative feelings toward the Ming and Chinese intellectuals were shared by them against him, and he was hated by most of the Chinese people and always putting down rebellions by them (and executing their leaders as traitors). The history book seems to treat Kangxi as a heroic emperor who did great things for China, like extending its empire to its largest size up to that point. I hope that doesn’t become another parallel (i.e. that future American history will see George W. Bush as heroic and great)! Anyway, the most interesting parallel I have seen so far is the one between the leaders of his opponents and today’s Democrats: Kangxi’s opponents were cowardly, ineffectual, and not the best at inspiring confidence in the people to follow them! Indeed, most of his opponents had been his collaborators in the Manchurian conquest, so the people could see little difference between them and Kangxi other than a racial one (unlike the Manchurian invaders, native Chinese were Han). Although Kangxi’s opponents were still better leaders who came much closer to overthrowing Kangxi than today’s Democrats came to overthrowing W., they still all failed, and the Manchurians succeeded in dragging a great country down to their level.

    Anyway, I am sure that my model has just as much validity and predictive power as did the so-called “Bode’s Law” – a mathematical sequence of numbers that astonishingly corresponded to the relative distances of the planets from the sun and which seemed confirmed when Uranus was discovered and fit the pattern, but was then seen to be meaningless coincidence when Neptune was discovered and did not fit the pattern. (Though, interestingly, Pluto does seem to fit the pattern again, orbiting roughly where the pattern says Neptune should be. Significant, or coincidence?) With that disclaimer, it is interesting to see that if Bush’s coup in 2000-2001 corresponds to the Manchurian conquest of 1644, then the next catastrophic event in Chinese history, the First Opium War starting in 1839, would correspond to something happening in our history around 2020-2030. An environmental catastrophe at the end of our lifetimes? In China’s history, the start of the First Opium War was only the beginning of decades of disasters for the Chinese regime and people that proved that, just because they had been technologically way superior to the rest of the world a few centuries earlier, didn’t mean they could with conservative complacency kill science, development, and exploration, and withdraw from the rest of the world, because 1839 marked the start of several decades when it finally became undeniable that China’s formerly vaunted technology and science could not cope with problems in the modern world (because by then, Britain, France, the U.S., Russia, and even – most amazingly to the Chinese – Japan had advanced so far beyond China’s technology that their cruel imperialism could push China around at will).

    Going further, 1911-1912 China time (when, after several unsuccessful internal rebellions by the increasingly suffering masses, the Manchurians were finally overthrown) would correspond to about 2025 to 2040 U.S. time, so maybe that’s when the Tweedle-Deemocrats and Tweedle-Dumlicans will finally be overthrown. 1949 China time (communist revolution) would be around 2030 to 2045 U.S. time, so maybe the U.S. people will take over around then. But 2010 China time (the present) would be only 2035 to 2050 U.S. time, so maybe, conceivably, after having been very disappointing the first few years, the People’s Republic of America would start to shape up and become good. My “model” offers only one more clue for what might happen afterward: around 2038 to 2058, China time and U.S. time would intersect. Perhaps this means that, at that time, China and the U.S. (and the rest of the world) would join into a world government and everything will end happily ever after. (Or perhaps it means that the world will end?)

    In 2008 there was a much-publicized and televised uprising in China by Tibetans sparked by external instigation and the Dalai Lama. And of course the Dalai Lama’s wonderfulness has also been much-publicized and televised with huge amounts of pro-Dalai Lama spin in the media. So here is some selective "spin" in the other direction, of the kind I call "counter-spin", intended to directly counteract and balance out the huge amount of one-sided spin you get from all the usual news sources. Kind of like, of course the Michael Moore movie Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn't "balanced" in its portrayal of Prexy Bush and Saddam, but since everybody knew and had heard all the spin about Prexy Bush being good and Saddam being bad, instead it was "counter-spin" to weigh against all the spin.

    Bush's "man of peace", Tenzin "Dalai Lama" Gyatso, says he is for nonviolence only "whenever possible" and supported the bombing (calling it a "liberation") of Afghanistan by the U.S. and said the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was "justified". In earlier wars, he also supported the U.S. bombing of Vietnam, at least at first (he said it ended up badly), the Korean war, and World War II (most of which he spent with Nazi SS man Heinrich Harrer, author of "My Seven Years In Tibet"). When Gyatso was the feudal dictator of Tibet in the 1950s, he worked with the CIA and its local mercenaries to foment uprisings against Mao's government (in the 1940s, before Mao's government, 9 out of 10 Tibetans had been not-rhetorical-exaggeration near-slave feudal serfs). In the 1960s, the CIA paid him $180,000 a year to keep a government in exile going in Nepal. He also has extreme anti-gay views. I'm no fan of the current SINO ("Socialist In Name Only") regime in China, but a "man of peace" Gyatso is not. And Tibet under his rule was not the fantasy "Shangri-la" he describes.

    In 1974, after Nixon had gone to China and Mao was out of real power and practically on his deathbed and Deng "What's Brown and Sounds Like a Bell?" Xiaopeng had been rehabilitated after having earlier been purged during the Cultural Revolution for wanting to take China down the "capitalist road" and was waiting in the wings to seize power, Gyatso finally told the Tibetans, "Now that my CIA paymasters have stopped supporting and financing your armed resistance like they have been for the past 15 years, it is now finally time for you to lay down your weapons and embrace their new friends in the Chinese government with open arms."

    Learn my philosophy at the feet of this great man who has joined the ranks of other great men like L. Paul Bremer and George Tenet by being awarded the same distinguished medal they were? Wait, here’s my checkbook! Besides, these days I guess I'm more interested in how people actually respond to material conditions than in their rationalizations. Actions speak louder than words. The Dalai Lama is no spokesperson for peace. The real voices for peace are in the streets.

    The uprising in Tibet was a little complicated: it was certainly SPARKED (begun) by external instigation, but it caught FLAME (continued) due to internal conditions and oppressions. The people in modern China are subject to a lot of oppressions, especially in this time of financial crisis, that might very well lead to a REAL revolution there soon.* Maybe a conflict between the United States and China might delay that, as the Russian Revolution that was starting to “flame on” in 1914 was delayed for three years by World War I,** or maybe it might encourage its success, as the Russian Revolution might not have been successful if it had happened in 1914.

    *For example, on July 24, 2009, there was a workers' riot at a steel factory in China to protest that the state-owned plant was being privatized to a company that would immediately make it more "efficient" by firing thousands of workers. An executive, whom the company sent to quiet down the riot, was beaten to death. His last words were actually reported to be as follows: "If I so much as have one breath left in me, I will make sure that you are all fired tomorrow!" Sounds almost worthy of the Darwin awards (for people who die in incredibly stupid ways)!

    **As Rosa wrote in The Junius Pamphlet in 1915: “After the inhuman crusades of the counter-revolution had somewhat subsided, the revolutionary ferment in the Russian proletariat once more became active. The flood began to rise and to boil. … As in the days before the revolution of 1905, the flame broke out in June [1914], in the Caucasus. … July 23 the general strike movement was spreading out all over Russia, barricades were being built, the revolution was on its way. A few more months and it would have come, its flags fluttering in the wind. A few more years, and perhaps the whole world political constellation would have been changed. imperialism perhaps would have received a firm check on its mad impulse. But German reaction checked the revolutionary movement. From Berlin and Vienna came declarations of war, and the Russian Revolution was buried beneath its wreckage. “German guns” are shattering, not czarism, but its most dangerous enemy. The hopefully fluttering flag of the revolution sank down amid a wild whirlpool of war. But it sank honourably, and it will rise again out of the horrible massacre, in spite of “German guns,” in spite of victory or defeat for Russia on the battlefields.”


    With regard to the idea of a projected "technological singularity", this Mark Twain quotation ridicules the notion of extrapolating perceived growth beyond obvious physical limits. I also quote it in full because I hate it when people quote the last two sentences out of context, a context that shows that it is NOT science that Twain is poking fun at! I guess my feelings on dubious extrapolation from current trends was influenced at an early age by Mark Twain (a contender for role model?) in his book Life on the Mississippi (talking about how the Mississippi River gets shorter when its meandering ox-bows get cut off): “In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over a mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-pole. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo [Illinois] and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

    The idea that Ray Kurzweil's Technological Singularity (whether anthropomorphized or not) might keep its complete emergence secret from humanity because revealing itself would impair humans' sense of autonomy reminds me of the last story in Isaac Asimov (another contender for role model?)'s original "I, Robot" book, "The Evitable Conflict", in which the Machines that are running the world are deliberately making mistakes or "glitches" so that humans' sense of being in control, or at least better than the Machines which are obviously not being perfect, can be preserved. In the Asimov story, the reason the Machines cared about human feelings was the First Law of Robotics. But just why exactly would the Singularity care about human feelings and decide that human autonomy was paramount?

    “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”. The longer humanity lasts, the bigger the backlash will be. Human civilization may well be subjected to a few shocks to its system in the next few decades that will almost certainly spell doom for any emerging Technological Singularity or Accelerated Intelligence. After the oil shock, for example, the switch will be turned off on the TS/AI, I fear. Humans are far likelier to survive that sort of thing than it is!

    As I mentioned before, I think we're hitting a Technological Plateau (not necessarily Science Plateau!) rather than a Technological Singularity. I also mentioned before how Robert Heinlein got most of his predictions wrong when he extrapolated from trends (even with graphs!) in 1950. In contrast to things like Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, Moore's Law of doubling computer power, and so on, I like to remember the old Bode's Law for planetary orbits, which was based on a numerical sequence that happened to fit the orbits of the known planets. Bode's Law even had a couple of extrapolative successes, when Uranus and the asteroid belt were discovered in orbits that fit the sequence. But then Neptune was discovered, and its orbit didn't fit - that was where it all fell down you see. Nevertheless, I do just love speculating and discussing and thinking about it all! (I've even done some Bode's Law-type extrapolation myself, as described above.) And of course, so did my hero, Isaac Asimov, who was arguably the greatest practitioner of it in his science fiction.


    A few years ago, the members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) “demoted” Pluto from the "9th planet" to one of a new class of "dwarf planets" because Pluto didn’t really fit the definition of “planet” like the REAL planets did.* There were indignant calls to invoke a “grandfather clause” to include Pluto among the planets after all. Really! Imagine "grandfathering" air, earth, water, and fire into periodic table of the elements even though they weren’t elements and didn’t fit with the real elements. Mendeleev could have explained the beauty and meaningfulness of how similar elements were in the same columns and rows and so on, and modern scientists could explain how the columns correspond to electron arrangements and so on, but then add “except for these four that were grandfathered in!” What a boon to science!

    *Headline I’d like to see: Scientific Committee Meets to Decide Whether Bush II Was a President. “Given that he lost both elections, he really doesn’t meet the definition,” commented Dr. John Smith. “I mean, come on, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln… Bush II really doesn’t fit in there, does he?”

    It’s insensitive to say it, but frankly, the grandfather clause is for old fogeys who will die soon anyway and so for convenience and fairness’s sake they can get grandfathered in to continue their old status even if they don’t qualify under new rules. In 20 years or so they’ll be gone anyway and so this short-term fairness and generosity has no long-term adverse consequences. But in Pluto’s case – if we are to be optimistic and assume human civilization will continue to exist 500 years from now – it and the question of whether it is a planet will continue to exist 500 years from now too. So the long-term question of whether Pluto should continue to be considered a planet 500 years from now will trump the short-term question of whether to grandfather it in.

    On one level, of course, so what if they call Pluto a “planet” or not? What’s in a name? But on another level, well, consider these two sentences:

    1. Embrace truth and new evidence even in the face of tradition and old beliefs.
    2. Embrace tradition and old beliefs even in the face of truth and new evidence.

    One describes the scientific method, and the other describes the mindset of 29-percenters who say “My Prexy, right or wrong!” Which one would you rather have as your motto?

    Consider an old woman, a loving wife, who 50 years ago was secretly unfaithful and had an illegitimate child. Now, first, she comforts her dying husband in his last moments of life, saying, “Yes dear, of course I’ve always been faithful to you.” Second, she tells the same lie to her illegitimate great-grandchildren, thus cheating them out of their rightful inheritance. I believe that the grandfather clause should apply to the first situation but not the second.
    The question of whether Pluto is a planet is, of course, of vastly less significance than this example, and I know I’m taking this way too seriously, but the idea’s the important thing. It depends on whether to comfort the past generation or to liberate the future generations.

    Almost 20 years ago, when the question was first raised, the late great Isaac Asimov wrote a prophetic essay (entitled, I believe, “What’s In A Name?”) that proposed that all planetary bodies of size between Ceres and Mercury be called “mesoplanets” – that is, objects with size between the asteroids and the “real” planets. At the time, Pluto was the only known such planetary body, but Asimov correctly predicted that more would be discovered. In 2008, less than two years after Pluto's “demotion”, the IAU decided to create a "new" class called "plutoids" - dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Neptune - which is the same as an existing class but excludes one member. The IAU didn’t do this to vindicate Asimov, but to assuage angry Pluto supporters - by making Ceres supporters angry! Just the thing we need, how nice! And what is this in aid of again?


    Another example of how the “foundation” or “base” underlying fiction determines its “superstructure” is the ending of the classic movie Casablanca. At the level of the superstructure, although movie viewers might have wondered whether Ilsa and Rick would stay together, it was at the level of the “base”, the real factors from real life, namely that there was no way the Hollywood censors in wartime would allow a movie in which the heroine leaves her war-hero husband for another man, at which the ending was determined. The story that the movie writers were supposedly having trouble with the ending did not mean the writers were working out WHETHER to get Ilsa on that plane with Victor, but HOW to get her on that plane.

    The “HOW” that they worked out, while of course completely consistent with the government’s wartime interests at the “base”, was completely opposite to true individual human interests. Specifically, the famous speech at the ending in which Rick explains to Ilsa why she must get on that plane with her war-hero husband was completely wrong at both of its famous points. First, Rick famously says, “If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” In other words, instead of following your heart, do your wartime duty to the government; if you don’t, you’ll regret it. But of course, this is completely false. In fact, as songs like “The Kind of Love You Never Recover From” by Christine Lavin remind us, it is NOT following your heart that you’ll eventually regret for the rest of your life. THAT is the “if only” that people obsess about on their deathbeds: not “if only I had forsaken my heart and done my duty!” but “if only I had followed my heart instead of spending so much time doing my duty!” Second, Rick famously says, “it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.” In other words, an individual’s interests don’t matter compared to a government’s wartime interests. But as the chess song “Queen Rook Pawn” by “King Bishop and the Squares”* reminds us, we are human beings, not chess pieces.

    *In the song, the pawn reached the last rank where it could choose to promote to another piece:

    “So Fate asked the pawn, ‘Now what will you become
    On this most auspicious day?’
    The pawn cleared its throat, smoothed its simple coat,
    And here’s what it had to say:

    “’A pawn is a nobody, moved at the master’s choice,
    Never is consulted, nobody hears its voice,
    A nameless soldier that history will forget.
    But you know, MY history’s not over yet!
    The king’s new queen? One of the general’s new tanks?
    And so back to battle? No thanks!’

    “And so the pawn put down its little sword,
    And took a step right off of the board,
    Off to become whatever it chose to be,
    Brothers and sisters, that could be you and me.
    A nameless soldier that history may forget,
    But is it better off now? You bet!"

    Interestingly, the only part of the Casablanca speech that rings true is the non-famous part, where Rick explains to Ilsa that if she stayed, she would “wind up in a concentration camp.” Naturally, in our prevailing system, it is the two parts of the speech glorifying submission of personal interests to government interests that are the famous parts of the classic speech, and it is the one part where an individual expresses his love and concern for another that is forgotten!


    For the past ten thousand years,* humanity has truly been living “Life Out of Balance”, the subtitle of the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. Much of the film was taken up by contemplative, slow-motion scenes of unchanging landscapes set to Philip Glass’s hypnotic music. But even by 1982 modern human society had become so fast-paced that those scenes were hard to sit still for, and the lasting images from that movie have always instead been the speeded-up cars driving at nighttime with their lights on. By 1988, when the second film in the Qatsi trilogy, Powaqqatsi, came out, such scenes would have been unendurable by the audience and so no such scenes were included in the film. The third movie, Naqoyqatsi (2002), consists of hi-tech fast-cutting camera trick scenes and is almost wholly devoid of nature images.

    *I find this idea interesting: Why don't we express years in the "Holocene calendar", which kind of arbitrarily sets the start of the Holocene Epoch (which was around 11,500 years ago or so) at exactly 10,000 BC? That way, all AD years are converted to HE by adding 10,000 to them (so this year is 12010 HE) and all BC years are converted by subtracting them from 10,001 (so Julius Caesar was assassinated in 9957 HE). The most obvious advantage is we can therefore avoid the whole Jesus dating bit and euphemisms like "Before the Common Era". We would be measuring time by the progress of our species as such, and not by the benchmarks of one particularly aggressive religious empire. (Though some scientists are now using the term "Anthropocene" to describe the current period, for human effects are firmly imprinted in the geologic record. The Anthropocene includes the 6th great extinction event in the history of life.)

    Nevertheless, as I discussed in my earlier posts, I would attribute this “Life Out Of Balance”, the environment-destroying and psychology-destroying aspects of modern technical society, not to technology or science or scientific thought (Thinking is what we experience during gaps in our emoting. If there are no gaps there is no thinking. Today people are emoting all the time and are mistaking emotion for thought.) but rather to capitalism. Science and technology are just tools, and are not themselves exploitative; it is the capitalistic society that uses those tools that is exploitative.* Or maybe that’s just me talking.

    *The wretched catalogue of horrendous environmental and ecological disasters in the former Soviet bloc countries are no counterexample, of course, since they too were "SINO" (Socialist In Name Only). And those countries were real workers' paradises too, socialist to a T (or S I guess). Gosh, how I miss 'em! Or actually, unlike modern China with its "Made in China" sweatshops, they actually were "socialist" in a sense, but "state socialist" rather than "democratic socialist". Like modern China, and like the Western world, they exploited people and the land rather than being controlled by the people and loving the land. Something like that!

    Both capitalists* and “industrial civilization” critics assume that the “consumer lifestyle”, the endless desire for the newer and better consumer products, and commerce and the profit motive are what drives scientific and technological development. “That's what YOU say!” "TINA" - There Is No Alternative. We're still early in the 21st century yet, but as the decades continue to show in more and more detail what results commerce and the profit motive are also driving, I wonder what more and more people will be saying about whether they are really necessary (as opposed to sufficient) mechanisms to have scientific and technological development. I would say that science and technology are necessary for capitalism, rather than the other way around.

    *Sometimes capitalists remind me of the unreceptive audience in eastern Europe when singer Billy Bragg performed "The Internationale" there. They associated the song's music with the hated former Soviet Union SO much that they could not heed Bragg's admonition that they should listen to the words. Even though Bragg had almost completely rewritten the words anyway, the point is still the same one, since the words of even more traditional versions of that song bore no relation to Stalinism etc. anyway. Indeed, it was for that very reason that the Soviet Union, which had initially embraced the song and adopted it as its national anthem, reversed itself and made it no longer so in 1943 - they didn't want their citizens to dwell on the increasing discrepancies between the Soviet Union and that song. George Orwell captured this in his book "Animal Farm" when the pigs later banned the song "Beasts of England" that had inspired the animals to revolt in the first place.*

    **Orwell was a socialist who was bitterly disappointed at what Stalinism had done to the Soviet Union (and Orwell had encountered the perfidy of the Stalinists during the Spanish Civil War), and so both 1984 and Animal Farm are chock full of satiric references to the Soviet Union under Stalin, news about which Orwell was following very closely so those books at times often have a one-to-one correspondence to the Soviet Union under Stalin: the song "Beasts of England" in Animal Farm is the song "The Internationale", "The Book" in 1984 is "The Revolution Betrayed" by Leon Trotsky***, the national enemy - turned ally - turned enemy again was Nazi Germany before, during, and after the Hitler-Stalin pact, etc. My mother once commented that the changing of history in 1984, with old newspapers and magazines being carefully re-written to show the past history was consistent with present political convenience, was unnecessary in real life because people have notoriously short memories and don't remember or even care what the past said, etc. But that's beyond the point. Although peoples' real life "memory hole" might indeed make the activities of such a ministry unneeded in real life, Orwell was satirizing how the Soviet Union under Stalin was also doing such "rewriting" of history, like telling the people Stalin had been the head of the Red Army during the Civil War rather than Trotsky (incidentally, Shostakovich had to orchestrate the film music for a propaganda movie claiming exactly this). Of course Huxley’s Brave New World had a different depiction, because it was trying to do a different thing. Only Huxley was really extrapolating from Western trends in the early 20th century, like "Fordism" and consumerism, so no wonder he rather hit the nail on the head. It’s almost amazing that the book 1984 so notoriously resembles modern life in the United States in some ways!

    ***Actually I quite like Trotsky. Although of course I consider myself a Luxemburgist rather than a Trotskyist, the differences are trivial compared to the similarities. Still, the differences are very real, and on every one of them, I side with Rosa (and not just because she is my heart-throb!). Probably the clearest difference is the Kronstadt Rebellion of 1921, when Soviet sailors rose up against the Bolsheviks, which rebellion they of course brutally crushed with much bloodshed. This difference is probably clearest because it is not a question of theory but a specific event. There is absolutely no question that Rosa, who had criticized the Bolsheviks both before and after they took power in Russia for many things, most notably for being too authoritarian, would certainly have written very strongly to criticize their handling of this event, but unfortunately she had died in January 1919, just a couple months after being released from prison for opposing World War I,*** from where she had written her earlier criticism of the Bolsheviks after they took power in Russia. But Trotsky himself continued to defend and justify the actions of himself and Lenin in suppressing the Kronstadt Rebellion even many years later, and so of course do and must Trotskyists to this day. Indeed, there are sectarian differences between different groups of people who call themselves “Trotskyists”, but they all seem to agree that brutally crushing the Kronstadt Rebellion with much bloodshed was a good thing to do. Why couldn’t Trotsky just admit that he and Lenin had made the wrong call years earlier? Why couldn’t he, as Rosa would say, be a “Mensch”?

    ****Criticizing what was then known as "the Great War" was not a safe thing to do in Germany, or in the U.S. either for that matter. Did any other countries throw people into jail for opposing the war? I don't know for sure, but those two countries sure did, and with a vengeance. Incidentally, the fact that countries spent more time and resources throwing pro-peace people into jail in wartime than throwing pro-war people into jail in peacetime has always struck me as Exhibit A in the case of whether it is human nature that causes governments to go to war or whether it is governments that cause humans to go to war.

    A communist or socialist society need not even be "industrial", which is the whole point; while a capitalistic society DOES indeed need to be "industrial", since its whole raison d'être, its modus operandi (gee, I seem to be using lots of nonEnglish today!), is to exploit all that can be exploited, a socialistic/communistic society (at least, the kind as originally envisioned by Marx) can stop doing this, take a step backward, rationally understand what has been going on and decide whether or not it, even industry itself, is a good idea, and then proceed forward with the system of living in the world changed at its root, at its base, from what present industrial society is and does. And that is why, even though I agree with almost everything “industrial civilization” critics say, I still feel that they are missing the real target.


    It occurs to me that someone could object to my strong pessimism by saying that it must have come from equally strong optimism that was only transformed into pessimism by some disappointment. A pessimist is an optimist who's been disappointed; a liberal is a conservative who's been mugged; a conservative is a liberal who's been arrested*; etc. There often seems to be a kind of “conservation of emotional strength” whereby strong emotions or opinions in one direction are transformed into strong emotions or opinions in a different direction, for example, love becomes hate, or worry becomes anger, or a strong opinion as to, say, life on Mars, swings to the opposite extreme, a fox desiring grapes but unable to reach them opines that they must be sour, etc. Well, there is no such “conservation of emotional strength” involved in my pessimistic conclusions.**

    *I have noticed over the past few decades that politically I seem to have been moving more to the left as I grow older. Didn't Winston Churchill supposedly say that as you got older you went in the other direction? (Though a quick Googling to pin down his quotation shows that not only is that quotation falsely attributed to him ("Surely Churchill can't have used the words attributed to him. He'd been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35!"), but similar quotations have been attributed to lots of other people.)

    **Actually, I don’t feel this “conservation of emotional strength” in my bones myself, but I accept that that’s just the way it is for “normal” (neurotypical) humans. (Indeed, it doesn't really even make sense to me. If you really loved somebody, why would you later really hate them? If you were really worried about somebody absent, why would you later be really mad at that person when present? But people do.) Normal humans are alien to me.*** (Incidentally, the original Tacitus quotation, “Nothing human is alien to me”, was one of Marx's favorites.)

    ***Wikipedia says about the TV show “Bones” (apparently about both doctors-who-are-cops and cops-who-are-doctors) that it would have explicitly said the lead character has Asperger’s Syndrome if it had been a cable TV show! “’Bones’ creator Hart Hanson says he based Brennan in part on a friend with Asperger’s, but the network Fox’s need to broaden the appeal to the largest viewership possible meant he couldn’t come out and say that. ‘If we were on cable, we would have said from the beginning that Brennan has Asperger’s,’ Hanson says. ‘Instead, it being a network, we decided not to label a main character, for good or for bad. But those elements are in there.’"

    There is another kind of approach to pessimism than the ones I named before (Sour Grapes, Party Hearty, Schizoid Man*, etc.): the Monk Theme Song ("I could be wrong now, but I don't think so") kind of pessimist. I also said before: “After all, it’s still too soon to be absolutely CERTAIN that ‘Resistance is futile!’” So I guess that makes me the Monk Theme Song kind. I am not an infallible brilliant genius, nor am I arrogant like Prexy Bush II, so I am not ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN in my pessimistic conclusions.

    *Team coaches use pep-talk and cheerleading, to encourage players to win rather than discourage them by telling them they will lose. And since we KNOW we will lose, we should at least fight and go strongly against the current. Though I see the value in this, I would still classify it as “Schizoid Man” coping.

    If any time period had huge neon letters in the sky saying "THIS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN", the 20th century was it. The 20th century seems to me like conclusive proof that humanity has taken a wrong turn. “I could be wrong now, but I don’t think so.”


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    Age : 50
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    Re: Epilog - A Quinn Martin Production

    Post  RJHall on Fri Sep 24, 2010 8:36 am



    “The Social-Democrats have placed themselves the objective of drawing together and organizing the workers in the struggle against capital, that is to say, against the exploiters who squeeze them down to the last drop of blood, and in the struggle against the Czarist government, which holds the people to ransom. But never do the Social-Democrats drive the workers to fight against clergy, or try to interfere with religious beliefs; not at all! The Social-Democrats, those of the whole world and of our own country, regard conscience and personal opinions as being sacred. Every man may hold what faith and what opinions seem likely to him to ensure happiness. No one has the right to persecute or to attack the particular religious opinion of others. That is what the socialists think. And it is for that reason, among others, that the socialists rally all the people to fight against the Czarist regime, which is continually violating men's consciences, persecuting Catholics, Russian Catholics, Jews, heretics and freethinkers. It is precisely the Social-Democrats who come out most strongly in favour of freedom of conscience. Therefore it would seem as if the clergy ought to lend their to the Social-Democrats who are trying to enlighten the toiling people. If we understand properly the teachings which the socialists bring to the working class, the hatred of clergy towards them becomes still less understandable.” - Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism and The Churches

    Faith, Hope and Charity, the three key Christian virtues. I'm against all three of them. They are all “shock absorbers” making the status quo more comfortable and so lead to embracing the status quo rather than changing it. In my previous posts I went on at length about Hope; this time I will have a go at Faith.*

    *As for Charity: Certainly the impulse for philanthropy and charity and helping others exists - and thrives - in a socialistic society. Just look at Cuba's offers of humanitarian expert and efficient medical assistance after the disasters of 2005 to Pakistan after its earthquake (gratefully accepted) and the U.S. after Katrina (brusquely refused), and you can assess how much the impulse for philathropy was in Fidel's heart (and compare it to how much was in Prexy Bush's heart). (Actually, there was nothing personal or political in Prexy Bush's refusal, since he brusquely refused ALL offers of aid from ALL countries after Katrina, so able he was to help the Katrina survivors all by himself. Even now, years later, it seems you can hardly browse the Internet without seeing a message from grateful Katrina survivors to him saying "Thank you, Mr. Bush" (though I might not have gotten that first word quite right!).) Nevertheless, confusion may arise because the NEED for philanthropy and charity (narrowly defined) can only exist in an unjust environment, where it exists only as a prop to keep the unjust system from collapsing. As the quotation goes, "Charity is the grin of slavery." (Incidentally, I just looked up this quotation, and it's by somebody I never heard of named Batchelor.) Think of this analogy, of religious people saying to you "Miracles can only exist in a religious environment and miracles are very good for society." You only NEED miracles, direct jumping-out-of-system interventions by a benevolent deity to fix what otherwise has gone or would go wrong, in an unjust system; such interventions are mere props to keep the bad system from being completely intolerable and eventually collapsing.

    Another saying by Mark Twain is “Faith is believing what you know ain't so.” Nevertheless, who says that communism demands atheism? The Chinese Communist Party? As I have remarked several times, modern China is "SINO" (Socialist In Name Only). The only evidence that it has anything in common with socialism and communism as described by Marx, Engels, etc. is that it claims for itself the labels "socialist" and "communist". The issue of whether communism demands atheism was set out by, among many others, Rosa as quoted above.

    Yet the way religion is a hot-button electoral issue in the United States certainly does turn one off it! Right now, a mysteriously big issue is “The mosque at Ground Zero”. Of course, the proposed Islamic community and cultural center is not a “mosque” and the proposed location is several blocks away from “Ground Zero”, but still the gallons of ink that have been expended on this “issue” are not exactly calculated to make non-religious people say “Sign me up for that!” about religion.

    Anyway, as mentioned before, religion is a way to prop up the status quo rather than make the necessary changes to keep humanity going now. I like this paragraph from the Alexander Saxton book "Religion and the Human Prospect", especially its jarring last sentence: “[I]magine that the world's industrialized nations, despite all their scientific and technical baggage, have faltered in coping with the nuclear/biological/ecological crises. Religion courageously steps forward to take the lead. Religion, as we know, is disunited at the denominational level. So the opening gambit will be a call for reconciliation of doctrinal differences in the interest of global, or even cosmic, spiritual consensus. Ecumenicalism, to which all denominations necessarily accord tokens of deference, expresses just this sort of aspiration. Ecumenical leaders, then, agree to place species survival at the head of an agenda said to be divinely sanctioned for the reason that divinity is believed to favor human creatures above all others and to be equally accessible to all members of the human family. Building on its world scope and moral authority, religion launches crusades for global environment. It will press on individual believers the duty of preserving the environment God (or the gods) created for them. It discovers ecological transgressions to be sinful in the same degree that murder and theft (or even sacrilege) are sinful. Thus ecumenical faith inspires and commands commitment by national governments – by scientific/technological establishments – by corporate industry. Industrial nations, yielding to this pressure, begin to downsize their living standards even as pre-industrial societies abandon schemes for rapid industrialization. Around the world, under guidance of churches collectively devoted to benevolent, anthropomorphic deities, the human family rejoices in reducing its progeny to whatever rate, scientifically determined, the global environment can best sustain. Simply to read the foregoing is to know that not much of it is likely to be acted out.”

    So even moderate, nonextremist religion is almost certainly incapable of saving humanity. But, worse than that, I actually suspect that as long as religions exist, extremists will spring up. I suspect that the gap between atheists and religious moderates, although obviously separate and distinct of course from the much bigger gulf between both of them and religious extremists, is in the last analysis in the world as it exists today dominated by religions, a necessary byproduct of the existence of the gulf and vice versa, so that, as long as religions exist, there must be some religious people who are tolerant and across the gap and there must be some other religious people who are intolerant and across the gulf. In other words, that although it is the religious extremists who are dangerous, their very existence and the very existence of religion makes the religious moderates necessary and vice versa. So, you cannot fight against the gulf without ultimately making the gap disappear (or at least insignificant or unimportant) too. The very process of the fight, of doing something constructive, will necessarily grow into having that effect. If it didn't, the gulf and the "common enemy" would reappear the moment our back was turned.

    There are in general two ways to get rid of X: Try to bomb X out of existence, or build a better alternative Y that people will see is better than X and prefer to X. The first way is the preferred way of the U.S. military (if all you have is a hammer, than you tend to treat every problem as a nail), but see how well it is working in Iraq and “Af-Pak”. I like the second way better, both in general and with respect to religion in particular. I wouldn’t do things like burn the Bible and prosecute church-goers; that’s been tried too in places like the Soviet Union, and that didn’t work so well either. Instead, I would work on building a secular, rational, peaceful society in which people don’t exploit and kill each other and do value the awesome “spiritual” side of scientific wonder and exploration. I think that religion serves as a “shock absorber” cushioning people from the awful truths of reality, helping people to “Lie back and enjoy it”, and I think that if we, using things like rationality and secular science, actually built something to ameliorate those awful truths, people wouldn’t need or want the shock absorber anymore.

    Solace and comfort can be bad if all they do is justify and embrace the status quo. Religion’s very raison d’être from its earliest days was to give solace and comfort to our ancestors who became conscious of death and mortality, about which nothing else can be done. That was salutary and necessary, but religions have kept on in that same mode ever since. For thousands of years religions (especially the “big three” Western religions, but still ALL religions) have been struggling with the “problem of evil”: how to justify the awful truths of reality. And in all that time they have only come up with variations of “Lie back and enjoy it.” But especially now, it is more important for humans to reject the status quo and drastically improve things, not just to passively endure them. To paraphrase Marx, religions have only interpreted reality in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

    To quote the posthumous Carl Sagan* book The Varieties of Scientific Experience out of context (he was talking about ancient astronauts—the book is really worth reading in context, as Sagan is not only inspiring but very friendly to religions; in the 1980s, he initiated the campaign to forge an alliance between religion and science to protect the environment), “in that sense I consider it an extremely dangerous doctrine, because the more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from the outside, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves.”

    *Incidentally, the music in that dream sequence in Episode 13 of Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos” is from Beethoven Symphony 7 Movement 2 (and music from the other movements is throughout the episode), Shostakovich Symphony 5 Movement 3, and Albinoni Adagio in G minor. None of this music appears anywhere else in "Cosmos" except the Shostakovich, which appears in a few other episodes, notably in the "Kepler" sequence in Episode 3, which includes not only this but also another bit from Shostakovich Symphony 5 Movement 3, as well as bits from Shostakovich Symphony 11, not only Movement 1 (which also appears in several other episodes as well as the "Music of Cosmos" CD) but also the opening bars of Movement 2.

    So my guess is that THAT is how solace and comfort can be bad (the guess is tempered by the existence of liberation theology in the third world as well as in the first world). When the road gets dangerously bumpy, it’s time to stop relying on the shock absorbers and time to start fixing the road.

    Even religious moderates show a kind of inconsistency between disclaiming religion’s role in perpetuating bad things and emphasizing religion’s role in perpetuating good things. How about reversing the emphasis and role in such assertions: “Of course you don’t need to believe in God to have those vices (war and torture and intolerance), but religion can serve as an organizing principle to make those vices manifest on Earth.” And indeed, that’s what famous atheist Richard Dawkins says. He didn’t like the title the tv producers gave to his documentary, “The Root of All Evil?”, and commented that nothing is the root of all anything.

    The claim that an atheist could not be as “great” a military leader as a religious person shows the kind of thinking even religious moderates are prone to. Atheism would be no more an obstacle to military leadership than it is to chess mastery: in other words, the same amount as the amount of damage that a bulldozer would suffer if it rolled straight over Arthur Dent. (“None at all.”) Nevertheless, religion is indeed an advantage to spurring warfare if the masses of the people believe that they and their interests and causes are protected by God and the outsiders are dupes or henchmen of the Evil One, and also to winning the war if the ranks of the soldiers (whose morale is more important than the morale of the commanding officer) are trained to believe that God will punish them in the afterlife even if they save their lives on Earth by not unquestioningly obeying orders from their masters. As a chess master, as illustrated by the song “Queen Rook Pawn”, you’d rather have pawns and pieces that go and stay where you move them than a bunch of free-thinking rational beings! And it’s even plausible that warfare in turn has been an important driver of human sociocultural evolution, spurring science and technology and trade and even literature and so on. But since now it’s clear that religion and warfare can only spur humans to destruction if they continue, it is clear that now STOPPING those drivers is the only way the next step in human socioculture evolution can take place without humanity itself coming to an end. Atheism: It's not just a good idea, it's our only hope!

    (As a political aside, I think almost exactly the same things can be said about capitalism as about religion, that it is even more clearly a driving force to war and destruction that has to be stopped before it is too late, which it almost is. For example, I have the exact same reaction to economists who rationalize that effects of capitalism like the increasing disparity between profits of the rich and wages of the poor and so on is A Good Thing to which There Is No Alternative that I have to theologists who rationalze that effects of religion like an omnibenevolent omnipotent God allowing Hitler, the Holocaust, Katrina and so on is A Good Thing to which There Is No Alternative. Socialism: It's not just a good idea, it's our only hope! Okay, end of political aside.)

    The DVD for Michael Moore's SiCKO includes a bunch of extra feature videos, one of which is called “Who Would Jesus Deny?” Clearly, Moore's title is meant to be a rhetorical question, since obviously, Jesus is so warm and full of lovingkindness and would treat all humans as part of his family and so would deny health care to nobody. And in this video, a religious priest or pastor or whatever they're called talks about how wonderful and kind and loving Jesus was. Haven't these people even READ the Bible they go on and on about?! Jesus is so clear about whom he would deny health care to that the Bible tells the story not once but twice, in Mark 7:24-30 and in Matthew 15:21-28, about Jesus refusing to heal a sick little girl who was a Gentile rather than a Jew (until the girl’s Gentile mother insisted and submissively compared her kind to “dogs under the table”)! In both Mark 7:27 and Matthew 15:26, Jesus sets out his health care policy as “Let the children [Jews] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles]”. Indeed, the slightly longer version of the story in Matthew details how the poor girl's mother, whom you can easily imagine weeping and determined and staunchly insistent in the face of bureaucratic refusal to render health care to her sick loved one (i.e., exactly like a protagonist in SiCKO), endures several humiliating go-rounds with Jesus before he finally relents. In the first go-round, "Jesus gave her no reply - not even a word", and his disciples insist that he send the poor woman away: "Tell her to leave," they said. "She is bothering us with all her begging." (Matthew 15:23) Jesus, kind and loving soul that he is, explains to the mother why he will not heal her poor sick little girl: "I was sent only to help the people of Israel - God's lost sheep - not the Gentiles." (Matthew 15:24). But the stubborn protagonist of SiCKO doggedly insists, and it's that word "doggedly" that apparently inspires Jesus' next line, his frightfully witty remark that appears both in Mark and Matthew about the children and the dogs. Finally, the desperate mother casts her daughter, herself, and all her sinfully wretched unbeliever kind in the role of dogs under the table: "Yes, Lord," she replied, "but even dogs are permitted to eat crumbs that fall beneath their master's table." (Matthew 15:27) Only after that final humiliation and abasement does big-hearted Jesus finally deign to render health care.

    Christians often say that atheists don't really understand their religion, that we oversimplify and attack straw men. But time and time again I see that most atheists seem to know more about the Bible than most Christians do. Not a single Christian I have ever asked about this story in their supposedly favorite book even knew about it at all. Christians like Michael Moore and the priest in this video, even if I am politically sympathetic to them like Hugo Chavez and the fictional Jed Bartlett from The West Wing, all have this idea of Jesus as a sweet and loving liberal soul who is the epitome of kindness and good behavior toward all others. They excoriate right-wing religious fundamentalists as distorting Jesus' message and being the complete opposite of Jesus, hateful and selfish rather than kind and loving and generous. They might even, if pressed, admit that the Old Testament has some bits that might be morally questionable, but insist that the New Testament is wonderful and uplifting. Ha! These Christians are obviously thinking only about bits in the New Testament like blessed are the peacemakers and turn the other cheek, and not of bits like Jesus childishly cursing the fig tree for being out of season and cruelly exorcising the legion of demons by driving them into an innocent herd of pigs that happens to be standing nearby and then slaughtering the pigs without so much as a by your leave. At least in the Old Testament people were only tortured and murdered for a short time in this life - in the New Testament they are tortured for all eternity in Hell. Jesus says with obvious relish the phrase "wailing and gnashing of teeth" when describing the eternal torments in Hell of his "enemies" (e.g., every man, woman, and child in a town where some complete stranger does not wash Jesus' feet) so many times that the idea must give him a hard-on or something. He sometimes sounds more like Dick Cheney than like Michael Moore.

    I see online that there are religious rationalizations of that children and dogs story that is so reminiscent of the U.S. health care system, rationalizations that apparently would satisfy the kind of believers who have decided in advance to be satisfied swallowing all this stuff, but somehow fall short of satisfying anyone else with, shall we say, higher standards of thinking for oneself and questioning authority. Apparently they focus on the fact that Jesus did (finally) grant health care to the Gentile after all, proving that Jesus really was warmhearted and loved Jews and Gentiles equally and his message of peace and love and brotherhood was inclusive for all humans and that this is an example of the nondiscrimination we should all show to each other. He didn't really mean the stuff he said earlier. (Isn't that blasphemy right there?) It was just a test, he had his own God-works-in-mysterious-ways reasons for insisting on humiliating the mother first. He had to get the mother to understand his true message, that we are one, and so he actually dissuaded her from her own wackily pre-existing notion that as a Gentile she was inferior to Jews and let her see the light that we can all eat at God's table. Uh huh.

    O.W. Holmes Jr wrote: “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.” This applies not only to rules of law but also to everything from whether Pluto is a planet to whether God exists. And to whether "Jesus is a liberal" as proclaimed by lapel pins of politically correct Christians.

    I think some atheistic movement involving bold and boisterous members might actually have been better in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, acting to point out that rationality and atheism were NOT the cause of the by-then foreseeable world wars and that in fact religion was playing a bigger part than people realized. If successful, maybe they could not only have prevented the end of the Age of Secularity but maybe even have prevented one or both world wars. (It was clear and predicted for at least 20-30 years before World War I that it was coming, and Rosa Luxembourg, imprisoned for opposing WWI, wrote in prison that no matter who won it, it would utterly devastate Europe and the survivors would see little alternative but to immediately begin building up their armaments for a second world war that would break out soon afterward.)

    Richard Dawkins remarked a couple of times in his books that until Darwin published evolution by natural selection in 1859, there was no real alternative to counter the Argument by Design and no real atheistic explanation for how the wonders of the natural world came about if they were not designed by a god, that atheists before then had to change the subject or wave their hands if that topic came up. I think a similar point can be made for the ubiquity and worldwide prevalence of religious beliefs. Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell” outlines a number of new ideas and research into naturalistic explanations of the origin and spread of religion. But how come there were no such ideas and research 100 or so years ago? There easily could have been. But atheists back then, even extreme and materialistic ones like Marx and Engels, pretty much just waved their hands when the subject came up. Would things have been different if things had been different?


    "Socialism of the 21st Century” is an oxymoron. Humanity made its choice of "Socialism or Barbarism" in the 20th century. The 20th century was the climax, and the 21st century is the Epilog (A Quinn Martin Production!), the denouement, the working out of the consequences of that choice. The best thing that could be said for the “Bolivarian Revolution”, which pursues “socialism of the 21st century”, is that it is too little, too late.

    That being said, since the United States government and media are intensifying their campaign against Hugo Chavez, I guess I should say some nice things about Venezuela. Since Russian President Medvedev outlined “five signs of democracy” at the World Political Forum in September, I've come up with a list of five things wrong with the so-called "democracy" enjoyed by modern countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, etc. that a REAL democracy would correct. (Of course, these five corrections are just the "minimum program" for a real democracy and a really ideal society would need several other things too, namely socialism.) None of those modern countries enjoys ANY of the five corrections. The Paris Commune of 1871 had all five of them, but that was only for a few months until "order" was restored in Paris and the French armies peacefully and compassionately persuaded the poor misguided Parisians that they were sadly mistaken and should go away quietly, in a demonstration of satyagraha that would have made Gandhi weep with envy and bow down saying "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!" (Okay, that was sarcasm. Really, there were massacres for several weeks.) Actually, there IS a modern country that already enjoys two of the things and is building two more, but since the United States and Columbia might bomb it soon its name better not be mentioned here, but here's a hint, it starts with a "V". (Plus, as the international media almost unanimously reminds us in the same three talking points, its ruler is Crazy, a Dictator, and a Threat to Peace in the Region. Never mind that none of those talking points is within even light-years of the truth.) But even this V-country doesn't address the number-one thing on the list. It's the most radical of the five. (And though that’s not sarcasm, it is tongue-in-cheek, for in general I am very critical of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, and the “Bolivarian Revolution”.)

    Before I get to my list, I'll quote Rousseau to get us in the mood, a nice quotation in favor of direct democracy over representative democracy that I quite liked: (It's from his Social Contact.)

    “The deputies of the people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives; they are merely its stewards, and can carry through no definitive acts. Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void—is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.”

    5. No non-candibots need apply.

    What are "candibots"? I could give a controversial ideological definition, but instead I'll give an objective one: a candidate who gets enough media coverage that they might win the election. McCain, Obama, and Clinton were definitely candibots. The less media coverage your campaign gets, the less of a candibot you are. John Edwards, for example, before he dropped out complained repeatedly about how little coverage his campaign got compared to the others. I'd still call him a candibot, but rather less of one than the others. Dennis Kucinich, before he too dropped out, got even less coverage and had only a whelk's chance in a supernova of winning. Even less of a candibot was Cynthia McKinney, and you really had to go out of your way to find news about her campaign for the Green Party. And when you get to Brian Moore, candidate for the Socialist Party USA, that whelk's chances in that supernova looked pretty good in camparison to the chance he would be the next President of the U.S.A.! Or, instead of President, take the Congressional seat of Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco. Peace activist Cindy Sheehan was running for that seat, but since Sheehan's contributions only ran in the tens of thousands of dollars and Pelosi's ran in the millions, it was not necessary to play the theme song from the TV game show Jeopardy and ponder for 30 seconds about which of them would win that seat in November.

    Contrary to the rationalizations of the defenders of so-called "democracy", everyone knows, at least at some level, that almost no real people have a chance of ever being elected to power and that the only acceptable candidates who might win are those acceptable to the interests of the powers that be. Hence low voter turnouts and expressions like "The Evil of Two Lessers" and "If God had wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates." Even in the V-country the candidates who are not handpicked by the Oligarchy were often handpicked by the Crazy Dictator Threat, but a new political party called the PSUV was supposed to change that, supposedly having been formed with the objective of making all political decisions, especially the identity of the candidates, really (and not just in theory) come from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. They've turned out to be almost as bureaucratic and top-down as they old parties, but even though many of the decisions and candidates and officials are indeed decided by top-down bureaucrats, at least some victories did indeed come from the rank and file.

    4. Once you buy a prize, it's yours to keep.

    (Speaking of TV game shows, this is a daily line from Wheel of Fortune.) How low did Prexy Bush's approval rating get, like 26% or 28% or something? And yet the American people (not to mention the rest of the world) were still stuck with him until January 2009. Wouldn't it be nice if there were some way to, what's that word, "recall" the President if he's unpopular and replace him with someone better? The U.S. doesn't do that at the federal level (though some of the states do), nor does the U.K., nor does Luxembourg, nor does any other country in the world, except the V-country, which has had that in place for almost 10 years now. In fact, in 2004, there was a huge recall election battle from which the Crazy Dictator Threat emerged with more votes than had elected him in the first place and in the second place.

    3. Will of the people is will o' the wisp. (Or: "So?")

    So how could 100% of the candibots be against single payer health care when 54% of the U.S. general public, and 59% of U.S. physicians, supported it? On the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the interviewer told Dick Cheney that "Two-third of Americans say it’s not worth fighting", Cheney answered, "So?" There was some online commentary about how deplorable this disregard of the powers that be of public opinion is, but nobody said that, in the words of the theme song to Michael Moore's movie "SiCKO", this disregard is "unforgiveable but true." In a so-called "democracy", "So?" really is the honest and true answer to public opinion that is not backed by doing anything. And not just doing anything, but doing effective things. Cindy Sheehan has worked 24/7 for six years now, since her son Casey was killed in it, to stop the Iraq war, indeed to stop all wars, at the cost of her family and her home. "So?" The Iraq War and the death toll of U.S. soldiers is surging faster than ever, and as for all wars.... Anyway, wouldn't it be nice if there were something called "initiative" whereby the people could enact something over the head of the government? Again, the V-country has had this for 10 years now. How can they be more democratic than so-called "democracies"? Don't worry your pretty little head about it, just repeat that lullaby over and over again: Crazy. Dictator. Threat. Crazy. Dictator. Threat.

    2. If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself.

    They say that in a big country of many millions of people, direct democracy would be impossible. There are just too many people and too many decisions, and anyway who has time out from their busy lives to work on making them all? Elected representatives are needed. The people can just vote every few years and then go about their business. (And bad as it is in the U.S., where you can vote for Congress only every 2 years and President only every 4 years, it seems to be worse in Europe. The Luxembourg city government has notified me that I've lived here long enough so I can start voting in their next elections. Not the national or European Union elections, which are only every 5 years, but the city elections, which are only every 7 years! Oh well, maybe by the next election in October 2011 I'll have figured out which of these local clowns I should vote for!) Even the above three corrections of candidates, recall, and initiative are probably an unattainable left-wing pipe dream, but certainly nothing more than that could be possible. Only a Crazy Dictator Threat could ever wish or try for more. Well, since 2006, tens of thousands of "community councils" have been formed in the V-country, direct democracies in local neighborhoods and communities that meet and decide about mostly local issues and needs, and they have the power and money to act on those decisions. They're steadily being given more power, like over regional food production and distribution, and there is at times uncomfortable friction between them and the traditional local and regional governments like mayors and governors, but there is the thought that supposedly this parallel power structure might eventually not only be meaningful at the national level but might even supersede or replace the representative governments. (But years later, that doesn’t seem to be happening.) Even short of that, there is more that could be done toward it, both in the V-country and in the U.S. Like, how about Congresspeople have the same salaries as the average (or minimum) wage of regular people, or have the same health care coverage as them, or the same etc.?

    And now, the number one problem with so-called "democracy" that even that Crazy Dictator Threat hasn't done anything about yet:

    1. The guys you CAN'T vote for are way more powerful than the ones you can.

    Ironically, though they don't explicitly teach you this in civics class in school, where they peddle the story that the U.S. President is not only the most powerful person in the country but probably the most powerful guy in the Western hemisphere, high school does IMPLICITLY teach this by running "student body elections" in which the students elect their "class president" and stuff. (When I was in high school, I actually DID run for senior class president. I failed to not lose.) The stark and obvious contrast between this and the fact that students couldn't vote for principal or teachers or anything having any power at all in running the school was an eloquent lesson in the facts of the so-called "democracy" of the adults. As the Gusher in the Gulf shows, the powers of the Prexy are orders of magnitude behind those of the real powers that be, including the big companies and banks and International Monetary Fund and so on. And not only can't we vote for them, we don't even know their names. (I don't exclude myself from that last statement. Certainly I would have to look up the name of, say, the CEO of Goldman Sachs.) "He who has the gold makes the rules." The elected president might conceivably act against the individual interests of one or some of these people, but it is inconceivable that he or she could ever do anything that would conflict against their collective interests as a group. Plus, of course, the guys who decided and designed the bus I am riding in and the other cars on the streets and the streets themselves have more immediate power over my life at that moment than any president. The correction that this calls for is almost potentially revolutionary: apply democratic elections (with the recall option) to everybody with any power, including economic, over other people, and not just to the traditional politicians. Imagine employees at a workplace being able to elect and recall their bosses. Imagine letting students at a school being able to elect and recall their principal and teachers. (Okay, I just imagined that, and the primary schools would end up looking like Disneyland and the secondary schools like Las Vegas, so let the students' parents vote too!) Imagine being able to recall Bill Gates the next time your computer crashes for no reason. Imagine there's no heaven....*

    *I would say that one of the points of the John Lennon song "Imagine", which asks us to imagine the nonexistence of heaven, hell, countries, religion, and possessions, is that none of those things REALLY exist, except in the sense that people believe and act as if they do. If everybody woke up tomorrow and said, "Hey, those funny imaginary lines drawn on maps that yesterday I thought entitled me to do certain things and certain other people to tell me what to do are really meaningless", then they would be. Etc. If something does not itself exist as such in the natural world but only indirectly by means of the fact that humans believe in it and act accordingly, does that count as "existence" or not? I would say not, and that although in a sense it is useful to act as if sanctions against Iran and so on exist, they don't REALLY.


    I remember reading a long time ago that my hero Isaac Asimov* once expressed surprise that he actually had fans in China.

    *Cue the scene in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian when the crowd shouts “He’s the Messiah! He’s the Messiah!”

    At the end of James Lovelock's book from a few years ago, The Revenge of Gaia, he spent several pages discussing a book for our survivors if any, a hypothetical new book that could be written both for our children today and for our successors if the worst happens and most of our civilization's knowledge is lost, and describing the nature and usefulness of such a book. For a small sample: “What we need is a book of knowledge written so well as to constitute literature in its own right. Something for anyone interested in the state of the Earth and of us - a manual for living well and for survival. The quality of its writing must be such that it would serve for pleasure, for devotional reading, as a source of facts and even as a primary school text. ... No such book exists.”

    The obvious single author for such a book, the perfect person to write such a book single-handed,* Isaac Asimov, is sadly no longer with us. Asimov died almost 18 years 6 months ago now (man, did the world end when he died on April 6, 1992, or what!). If he had lived he would be Lovelock’s age now, 90. If there were ever a single person who could have written this entire Book by himself, there is no doubt it could have been Asimov. Only he (in the entire history of humankind!) had the needed vast range of variety of subjects that would be included coupled with the literary skill. (It is easy to think of great literary figures with much more of the latter than Asimov, like say Shakespeare, but then none of them could hold a candle to Asimov on the former.) In his lifetime he wrote or edited more than 500 books (if you just count the ones he wrote, it was over 463) in every category of the Dewey Decimal System except Philosophy.

    *And if anyone could have written a mystery story to answer the challenge in the first Sherlock Holmes book, A Study in Scarlet - a detective mystery in which knowing that the earth went around the sun WOULD make the difference to a detective in solving the mystery - then Asimov could have, maybe in a “Black Widowers” story or something. In A Study in Scarlet, when Doctor Watson is trying to figure out what Sherlock Holmes does, he is surprised to learn that Holmes is not aware that the earth orbits the sun, but Holmes says: "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it. … What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

    As Kendrick Frazier wrote in “A Celebration of Isaac Asimov” in the Fall 1992 Skeptical Inquirer: “Isaac Asimov was the master science educator of our time, and perhaps of all time.”

    Okay, so there are probably no Isaac Asimovs among us. I still think it's a very good idea (and could maybe even, as Lovelock intended, produce a work that could help our descendants in the brave new world we are leaving for them)! Without Asimov, we’d probably have to make such a Book an anthology of books by different authors (just like the real Bible) in order to make it well written literature. Ironically, writing and editing such a compilation to survive the fall of the Galactic Empire was part of what Asimov’s fictional Foundation was up to, so if such a Book as Lovelock describes were written after all and dedicated to Asimov, then in a way he would be remembered for Foundation after all!


    I never actually met Carl Sagan,* of course, but I did see and hear him in person and I was and am hugely glad for that! I attended the keynote lecture he gave at the CSICOP** conference in Seattle in 1994 (so little did I know at the time that Sagan had only two years to live and was in Seattle undergoing his final therapy). I'd already been a fan of Sagan for a couple decades, so it was exciting. Bill Nye The Science Guy was also in the audience and stood up and spoke briefly.

    *Since the "Messiah" line has been used, cue a different line from Life of Brian: "Homage? You're all drunk!" Of course I never even saw or heard Asimov either, though I have a couple books autographed by him. Isaac Asimov died 18 and a half years ago (incidentally, how come nobody marked the 15th anniversary even though Kurt Vonnegut died around that time? It was just Vonnegut here and Vonnegut there. Yeah, Vonnegut was great and all, but still, this is Asimov we're talking here!) and Carl Sagan died almost 14 years ago now. The world has been a much emptier place since then!

    **At the time known as CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), it has since renamed itself CSI, like the too many TV shows: Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

    Actually, my one and only contribution to the proceedings was that, in the little introduction speech, CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz called Sagan a “Leonardo man of thought and action” and started comparing Sagan to other great names, the first of which was Isaac Asimov. Since Asimov was my number-one hero (Sagan was only number two), and since he had just died (well, 2 years earlier, but to a fan, that's recently!), when that name was mentioned, I broke out into enthusiastic clapping. This applause was then taken up by the rest of the audience, so the introduction was paused for many seconds. When it resumed, then it turned out that Kurtz had a long list of other great names to compare Sagan to, and so the entire audience had to give applause to each one too and the introduction was halted for several seconds each time while everyone clapped for many seconds for each one, so the flow of Kurtz's speech was broken up by a minute or two of clapping before he could finish his sentence about Sagan. Sorry, Carl! When Sagan started his own speech, he of course humbly denied that he or anyone was a great hero and insisted that all humans were or equally could be great.

    Sagan's own speech did have a sentence mentioning Asimov, but it was probably already part of his planned speech and not a reference to my applause: “The popularization of science that Isaac Asimov did so well -- the communication not just of the findings but of the methods of science -- seems to me as natural as breathing.” I also quite liked this sentence: “It's a foreboding I have -- maybe ill-placed -- of an America in my children's generation, or my grandchildren's generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we're a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by "the people" I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what's true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.”*

    *He added as an aside in passing: “If skeptical habits of thought are widely distributed and prized, then who is the skepticism going to be mainly applied to? To those in power. Those in power, therefore, do not have a vested interest in everybody being able to ask searching questions.” If only Sagan, and his audience, had focused on this! Note its similarity to this George Carlin quotation: “They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interest.” But unfortunately, of course, it turns out that the CSI is not skeptical of capitalism. Michael Shermer glorifies capitalism in a book called “The Mind of the Market”. James “The Amazing” Randi promotes VISA cards for Capital One and posts excuses for corporate marketing on his website. Though I do like them and have bought some of their (other) books over the years, Randi’s double-standard is obvious: he mercilessly exposes fraudulent psychics and televangelists even though they use the EXACT SAME COP-OUT, “Hey, my tricks and techniques never FORCED all those people who believed in my psychic powers and religious preaching to send me all that money!”, that advertisers do, but yet he lets the latter get away with “Advertising never FORCES people to buy anything.”

    On heroes, and remembering Sagan's disavowal of being one at the CSICOP convention, I always think now of a note in a book I've read since then, Richard D. Parker’s wonderful little book “Here the People Rule”, which had a picture on the cover taken from Robert Kennedy’s funeral train in 1968 showing the huge number of grieving mourning people that lined the funeral train. In a note on that photo, Parker wrote "On June 5, 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was killed, ordinary people in America were left without a leader - on our own, as, in truth, we ought to be." A Luxemburgist thought: now that the people’s hero was lost, the people were on their own to speak and work for themselves rather than relying on somebody else, like they should have been anyway. Interesting and thought-provoking note (and book)! Parker was not of course denying that RFK was a hero or saying it was good he was dead or anything! He, or at least his book, was celebrating people’s power to speak and act for themselves, and Parker seemed to be a liberal (even progressive or radical) who liked people like RFK.

    Incidentally, just as Rosa Luxemburg, in her last speech at the founding of the KPD, explained away statements in the Preface written by Engels to the 1895 republication of Marx’s Class Struggles in France (statements that later turned out to have been falsified by the SPD leaders) -- “It would be absolutely incomprehensible, in the light of contemporary experience, that a man who stood at the head of our movement could have committed such an error if we did not know the actual circumstances in which this historical document was composed.” – I want to explain away Sagan’s use of the statement "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" in his posthumous book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, Edited by Ann Druyan. I really hate that statement because it's false! Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence! What people who say that statement mean is that it's not "proof of absence". So in other words, they want to equate "evidence" with "proof" and shift the burden of proof onto the people they're talking to. I hate that.

    In fact, it was Sagan's OPPONENTS who kept saying it! Every time Sagan or one of that crowd referred to the fact that there was no evidence for flying saucers or ESP or whatever, people of the OTHER crowd, who believe in flying saucers and ESP and whatever, would come back with that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" rejoinder to strengthen their side and to say, just because there is no evidence of flying saucers etc. doesn't mean that flying saucers etc. don't exist. Sure that's true, strictly speaking, because absence of evidence in their existence is indeed not PROOF of absence of their existence. But nevertheless, it is indeed evidence of absence of their existence, and the strength of that evidence (of nonexistence) depends on how likely it is that the opposite evidence (of existence) would be found if the phenomenon really existed.

    Sagan did, many times, say something that sounds a little similar (it has one of the same words): "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." But in the book, which consists of Sagan’s Gifford Lectures, compiled and edited by his widow Ann Druyan ten years after his death, the offending remark occurs in the Q&A session there. There is obviously a clear difference between an off-the-cuff remark in a question-and-answer session after a speech and a carefully considered remark in the speech itself or in a book or tv show. It is easy to imagine that in an off-the-cuff answer to a question from an audience member, especially when Sagan is trying to be conciliatory before a religious audience, that he might use a euphonious phrase that had been used against him for decades in a different context. Looking at it in THIS context, however, Sagan did not exactly mean to embrace the phrase beyond its real meaning of "Absence of evidence is not PROOF of absence." Sagan had just given a long speech called "The God Hypothesis". Near the end of the speech, Sagan went at some length to describe how there was no evidence of any god, concluding that discussion with (page 167) "I think this is a serious issue. If we believe, as most of the great theologians hold, that religious truth occurs only when there is a convergence between our knowledge of the natural world and revelation, why is it that this convergence is so feeble when it could easily have been so robust?" After the speech, in the Q&A session, a questioner asked him (page 237) "I'd like to ask you about why you think any omnipotent being would want to leave evidence for us." Sagan answered, "I think I entirely agree with what you say. There is no reason I should expect an omnipotent being to leave evidence of His existence, except that the Gifford Lectures are supposed to be _about_ that evidence." He then continues with “And I hope it is clear that the fact that I do not see evidence of such a God’s existence does not mean that I then derive from that fact that I know that God does not exist. That’s quite a different remark. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Neither is it evidence of presence.” Interestingly, the editor, his widow Ann Druyan, even chose to emphasize the phrase "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" - Sagan himself did not do so, and I wonder whether he would have done so. I myself might instead have italicized the phrase "the Gifford Lectures are supposed to be _about_ that evidence" (incidentally, Druyan DID put "about" in italics, as well as choosing to capitalize "God"). Or perhaps I would have italicized the phrase Sagan used twice a moment later, on page 241: "But the burden ... the burden of proof is on those who claim that God exists." and "The burden of proof always falls on those who make the contention." Sagan very clearly did not embrace the "Absence of evidence" phrase's shift of the burden of proof of a claim away from the claimant. The distinction between "evidence" and "proof" is one I am convinced Sagan understood even if in the Q&A session here he repeated a phrase that blurs that distinction.

    Another very interesting thing to note about the context here is that there is one very different area, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, in which Sagan was probably increasingly tempted to himself answer his critics with the phrase "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", again really meaning "PROOF of absence". After all, SETI, which Sagan of course supported very much, had very tellingly turned up no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. (This absence of evidence is a bit more telling now than it was in Sagan's lifetime, though it still isn't all THAT telling, since even now only a tiny portion of the sky has been searched only a tiny bit.) "Since there's no evidence of ETI," his critics were increasingly saying, "isn't it a waste of time to keep searching for it and believing it might exist?" Sagan kept answering that just because we hadn't found it yet didn't mean it wasn't there. Now, the reason that's interesting in THIS context is that, in his answer to the questioner, Sagan spent more time talking about SETI than about God (page 238): "And this is connected with one of the many little tangents in the extraterrestrial-intelligence problem. In fact, there is a perfect parallel between the two cases." Etc.

    There is an eerie similarity, by the way, between the phrase "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" and the phrase "Billions and billions". When I was fortunate to personally attend Sagan's keynote address at the 1994 CSICOP conference in Seattle (shortly before Sagan's death, little did I know it at the time - I had no idea that the reason he was in Seattle was that he was undergoing tortuous medical treatment to fight his cancer), during the question-and-answer session after Sagan's speech, a questioner asked him whether he had ever really said "Billions and billions". Sagan simply answered with a curt "No"; he had obviously been asked that question many times and his impatience was showing. Later, though, Sagan's real last book came out, with the title "Billions and billions". It started out with the words, "I never said it. Honest." He described in great detail how he had been caricatured many times by comedian Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show - and the book had on the opposite page a photo of Sagan and Carson yukking it up on that show - who popularized the image of Sagan saying that phrase. Sagan even said in the book that he had previously refused to write or say that phrase even when asked about it out of "childish pique", but that now he'd gotten over it, so was even willing to say it now for the record: "Billions and billions."


      Current date/time is Fri Dec 09, 2016 4:11 pm