Rick Perry Displays Ignorance, U.S. Shrugs Collective Shoulders

While taking a break from attacking President Obama for the GOP-induced credit downgrade, Rick Perry stripped off the kid gloves and came out swinging against one of the neocons’ favorite foes — climate change.

Pictured: The Governor of Texas protects America from socialists with a grenade launcher.

The Governor of Texas would like you to believe that not only is global warming a process completely independent from human activity, he actually accuses climate scientists of ethical misconduct. After kinda-sorta threatening the Chairman of the Fed with physical violence, Perry’s latest bombastic tirade has the feel of an act that will soon become routine:

1.) Wear hair gel and cowboy boots as often as possible.
2.) Be angry, yet folksy.
3.) Yell at things that Republicans are supposed to dislike.
4.) Try to make everyone forget about the last Texan to occupy the White House.
4.) Become a caricature of the last Texan to occupy the White House.

Pictured: Rick Perry enjoys a qui...wait. Oh wait. That's actually Josh Brolin's exaggerated Bush character from Oliver Stone's "W." Well, close enough I guess.

Unfortunately, behind the laughable soap-boxing effort Perry put forth, he makes some very real, very serious remarks about the integrity of American scientists. I know that when Perry pictures “Americans” he is not thinking of those individuals who toil in laboratories around the country (they generally make for poor photo ops), and I know the word slander is over-used, but this is one situation where its use might be appropriate. Though Perry didn’t use any names, his slur is nonetheless both untrue and potentially damaging. Shame on him.

Pictured: After his prayer rally failed to end the withering drought in his home state, Governor Perry gleefully unloads a full cylinder toward heaven, just to show Jesus that he doesn't fuck around.

For those who may not have been following the climate change “debate” I can summarize it quickly: 97% of scientists accept and understand that man-made global warming is occurring.

This is roughly equivalent to the number of scientists who breathe air and eat food. Unless you are involved with the sciences, it would be difficult to explain how tedious it is to come to a consensus on anything, and how alarming it is that our elected officials pretend that science and statistics only matter for polling numbers. Apparently, not only can you be basically uneducated and run for President, such a display of intellectual…umm…”independence” is actually encouraged.

Pictured: After a strong showing at a rally in Iowa, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann prepares to unfurl her wings and return to her nest.

To put this as plainly as possible, modern climate-change “deniers” are the spiritual successors to those who claimed tobacco was not addictive or deadly in the 60’s and 70’s. With lots of money and effort, tobacco companies successfully suppressed legitimate scientific data in the name of (perceived) potential profit loss. There is no debate, and we have gone so far down the climate change road that we have already done permanent damage. That’s really all there is to it. Damage control is the best we can do now.

I can only hope that there are enough intelligent, reasonable people in the United States to prevent another smooth-talking, sweet-praying, shitkicking, wanna-be cowboy from occupying the White House.

Pictured: Potentially the worst re-run of all time. Maybe even worse than when you lose the remote and "According to Jim" is about to come on. *shudders*

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The NCAA is a Cruel, Exploitative Joke

I was trying to think what, exactly, I would do if a grown man offered me hundreds of dollars for some token possession of mine. Say, if a stranger wanted to fork over $1000 for the watch I got from the National Spelling Bee (this reference isn’t for show, I promise. You’ll see why.) I might decide to keep it for sentiment’s sake, but a thousand bucks is a lot of cash for a few bits of leather and metal that I’ve never worn. So, I take the stranger’s currency and he gives me what I consider an exorbitant amount of legal tender in exchange. Leaving debates of exchange value versus trade value aside, the transaction was by all accounts a success, and the two consenting adults go on our merry way, each of us thinking himself a bit richer in some way, tangible or otherwise.

In short, I was awarded a token for my participation in a relatively exclusive event and, finding no use for this trinket, sold it to an individual who found it appealing. One man’s trash, and all that. No one would bat an eye; in fact, few people would probably even know that this (admittedly odd) business deal even occurred.

Now, let’s warp from the site of this deal in my college town, to a far more famous and bustling college town: Columbus, OH. After selling my watch, I had heard that some football players in Columbus had decided to sell some trinkets of their own, so I was curious to see what price some Buckeyes memorabilia might fetch on the (scarlet and) gray market. The kids reportedly exchanged or sold jerseys, shoes, pins, rings, and autographs to fans in the town who are notoriously hungry for Buckeye gear, and can never be satiated. I think to myself that this seems like a pretty neat idea. Despite widespread reports of agent meddling and financial misdeed, student athletes are frequently cash-poor, even if their tuition and lodging is paid for. I figure that $1000 for a tiny gold pin shaped like a pair of pants seems a bit ridiculous, but if someone is willing to pay such a price then who am I to protest? Just as my foreign feelings of good will mixed with sticker shock are reaching their zenith in response to this entrepreneurial initiative, the seller’s future prospects and athletic careers are suddenly mangled by a swift and capricious hammer-blow from those American Royal and Ancients: the NCAA.

At What Cost, Football?

Everyone has to admit that the NCAA, public and private universities, television networks, and video game manufacturers all make incredible amounts of money from the production and playing of college football. Two arguments that the NCAA perpetually makes in defense of its questionable practices are:

1.) They provide opportunities and/or experience for college athletes in the from of sports, and provide some with a free education and lodging.
2.) The rules state that college athletes are student-athletes, that they may not profit from their activities, and the rules regarding pay-for-play cannot be changes so as to preserve the “integrity” of the organization.

Now, think about this. When NCAA 11 creates its player rosters, though it can’t use the name of college athletes, it can use their rough likeness, physical attributes, estimated skills in the from of player ratings, and even their number. When big “QB #5” lined up behind center on the video grid-iron, it was not only assumed to be Tim Tebow, it was supposed to look and seem like Tim Tebow. While EA Sports was busy snorting cash in $60 lines off of the backs of virtual college athletes, not only were these athletes told that they were not allowed to profit from their status, team affiliation, or likeness, they were told that other people could and, in fact, this setup was actually beneficial for the student-athletes. Go back and read that sentence out loud to yourself, emphases included. Even if you are a rules-hawk, you should see that the rules are not only completely unfair, but unabashedly exploitative. I mean, EA Sports is never ashamed to publish NCAA 11, they run commercials with simulated student-athletes featured prominently in the ads. The NCAA itself has no concern for appearances; the Rose Bowl has almost as much pageantry–and invested capital–as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I would say “How do they sleep at night?” but we all know that the answer is “well” and “in piles of money.”

So let’s go back to the Ohio State players who have been suspended–and their future careers jeopardized–and explicitly state what it is that they did. The Buckeyes players took items that they own, mainly memorabilia, and either traded it for tattoos, or sold it for cash. Reportedly, the highest profit was made–unsurprisingly–by quarterback Terrell Pryor, whose “gold pants” pin (an award received by Buckeyes who beat rival Michigan) fetched $2500. Every player was ordered to pay back what they made, and some were forced to perform “charity work” for their “misdeed.” (I’m running out of sarcastic quotes and italics). You should note that Pryor’s profits are equivalent to the income EA Sports makes from selling 42 of its games.

This is what the NCAA is saying, with no hyperbole: “It is acceptable, even ethical, for us to profit from the work, talent, likeness, and popularity of student athletes. We also consider it acceptable for other entities like video game companies, sports apparel manufacturers, and memorabilia collectors to profit form the work, talent, likeness and popularity of student athletes. If, however, the student athletes attempt to profit from their own work, talent, likeness, or popularity for themselves, not only do we prohibit this, we will punish them by suspending them from the activity that garnered them attention–and us money–in the first place.”

Serfdom

Two hallmarks of authoritarian rule are:

1.) Those in power provide for the common welfare and expect respect, adulation, and obedience in return.
2.) Rules made by those in power are convoluted and unclear (either purposefully or out of stupidity) and the opaque regulations create a miasma of uncertainty and perpetual fear of running afoul of the regulations.

Does this sound familiar? Let me be clear that I would never compare the NCAA to a military junta. First it’s not even a close or fair comparison, and secondly it cheapens the suffering of those who have struggled under such government. But it is permissible to highlight certain aspects of a despised organization without invoking all of the negative qualities. It is not “cherry-picking,” and disallowing such comparisons is just as intellectually disingenuous as my referring to the NCAA as a junta would be (which, I most certainly am not). I thought I’d clear this up to avoid confusion and unjustified anger. Now, back to the show.

The nature of the relationship between universities and their student-athletes (especially those on scholarship) is, by definition, authoritarian. The “common welfare” argument closely mirrors the “education and opportunity” benefits espoused by the NCAA. Yes, they are technically paying athletes in the form of schooling and housing, but think about it this way: If you divided all the profits that the NCAA allowed themselves and others to gain from student-athletes, and dispersed the money among the athletes themselves, you can guarantee that they could pay for their own educations many times over. Just like unpaid internships are relatively unethical (and often technically illegal) explaining that you are paying someone with “experience and opportunity” is a weak argument that reeks of self-aggrandizing solipsism. There is no legitimate equivalent to the NCAA in terms of a player’s ability to turn professional, so this argument is also notable for its almost perfect circularity. It goes something like this:

Rough representation of most NCAA executives, probably.

NCAA: “Wanna play pro ball? Come to University “X” and be paid nothing!
Athlete: “That seems unfair given your ludicrous profit margins.”
NCAA: “Why not sign on with another, competing organization?”
Athlete: “Well, there isn’t one. The NFL doesn’t exactly place a lot of emphasis on drafting from the UFL or the Arena League. You guys have quite the monopoly.”
NCAA: “Monopoly you say? No, no, no, my boy. We just offer a humble service.”
Athlete: “But I have no other option than to use your service if I want to pursue this career. And even if I know I can’t go pro, you will be making money from my participation on your school’s team.”
NCAA: “Well, you might as well come to University “X”! At least you’ll get experience!”
Athlete: “Where else would I get ‘experience?'”
NCAA: “Exactly!”

The second point I made above, regarding arbitrary and capricious rules, barely warrants an explanation. The news is filled with stories of “student-athlete indiscretions”; agents offering kids cash to go to a certain school, a booster giving a kid some extra spending money, the list goes on and on. You will notice that, almost without exception, the infraction involves and adult giving money to a kid. The one who inevitable ends up in trouble, however, is almost always the kid. So what if the booster is fired? Their career isn’t jeopardized. And what kind of sanctions can the NCAA really put on an exploitative agent or coach. The NCAA is just now considering taking away USC’s 2004 National Championship for violations by Reggie Bush and, ostensibly, Pete Carroll. Both of those guys are sitting fat and happy with lucrative jobs and generally positive public opinion. The general format of this tired old play consists of three acts: Adult offers Kid money, Kid takes Money, Kid is Punished. The sad part is that we all keep paying for admission.

As an aside, before Pete Carroll slithers into his bathtub full of gold bullion every night, I wonder if he mockingly waves his dong in the general of the NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters with that stupid, shit-eating grin plastered on his face. I think it’s reasonable to assume that this is the case.

I can even dispatch the protests to these statements before I hear them, because the pabulum that Boss Hogg the NCAA jams down the public’s throat is so profoundly inept and shockingly stale that rebuttals are quite elementary. It might be said that the NCAA offers the chance for students to become professional athletes. This is true. However, about 1% of Division I athletes become paid professionals in their sport, so this argument applies to an extremely small minority of student athletes, and this “opportunity,” as noted in the imaginary exchange above, is afforded exclusively by the NCAA. This in one of the most blatantly monopolistic ventures since Rockefeller bled money out the ground for decades while building a monument to himself in the form of Standard Oil.

It is often said that paying athletes would “tarnish the integrity” of the game. Excuse me? I think the acrimony generated from the perennial parade of income-less student-athletes and profiteering old men has stripped the gild from this ugly old NCAA lily on its own quite well. This non-argument is just the old guard’s febrile attempt at maintaining the status quo. It is a non-argument, and should be treated as such. I understand that paying college athletes poses its own problems. Do D-I athletes get more than D-II or D-III? What about more popular players? How about merchandising contracts? Surely, the NCAA would have to consider these questions. But just because this is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Lots of people profit from college athletes, but college athletes are not permitted to profit for themselves. That’s what all the arguments boil down to, and to deny this is simply to deny reality. Semantic wizardry does nothing to address this core issue. Simply saying “Well those are the rules” is a non-argument because unfair rules, like unfair laws, should be changed.

Thomas Paine said that a “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” The NCAA’s shameless exploitation of athletes has gone unchecked for so long that most people tend not to consider what such restrictions actually entail. Once you think about it, and describe the events verbally, out loud, it’s easy to see how immoral such a paradigm really is. Ignoring the unethical nature of the NCAA’ treatment of student athletes requires the donning of very thick rose-tinted glasses and industrial-strength blinders. Above all else, keep in mind that through all of this, we are talking about kids. Kids with parents, kids with girlfriends and boyfriends, kids who just want to make some extra spending money, and kids whose talents are siphoned and mutated into a product that creates a lot of very wealthy people. We have to admit that the marching bands, the cheerleaders and banners, and the spirited crowds are forever sullied by the dishonorable machinations of filthy hands.

Some Reasonable Predictions for a “Post-bin Laden” World

Call me an “armchair politico” if you will, but I’d prefer you just comment instead.

1.) The Republican Party is finished in the short-term.

The entirety of the Republican strategy has been to attack Obama personally, and with very little basis. The right has no cohesive strategy beyond attacking Democrats, and since they’ll obviously have to cut that out, the hollowness of their existence will become very noticeable, even to Fox News junkies.

2.) Trump, Palin, Gingrich, and Bachmann are caput.

The Republican nominee will either be Mitt Romney (my guess) or Tim Pawlenty (or T’Paw, as no one calls him. So let’s start). However, neither of those two will win. Americans love a winner. I think people will migrate toward voting for Obama, even if they can’t articulate exactly why they are doing it. This is probably a good thing, at least for now.

T'Pau, Queen of Vulcan, and mother of Tim Pawlenty (her little baby T'Paw).

3.) The Democrats have their “liberal lion”

For better or worse, Dems now have “their Reagan.” How Obama handles the next few weeks–and the 2012 election–will affect our foreign and domestic policy for years to come. Anyone who reads what I write knows that I am not prone to hyperbolic flights of fancy; I am completely serious about this. Good luck, Mr. President.

Reagan, in a lighter moment, reflects on his fiscal policies: "I told them that it would 'trickle down,' and those fuckers believed it!

4.)There will be actual “death certificate-ers.”

Like every other momentous occasion, people will make up stories about bin Laden’s death, much like they did about September 11th and, on a smaller scale, President Obama’s birth certificate. In advance, I will say that they are wrong, they are stupid, and they won’t matter.

Pictured: Undeterred by physical evidence and the President's success, Michele Bachman prepares to take flight for her nightly hunt. If all goes according to plan, her nocturnal work will hopefully yield a belly full of neonatal spinal fluid before dawn breaks and her thick, outer carapace begins to roast in the sun's holy light.

5.) You may start to see redoubled efforts of a “push-back” against regressive policies on the state level (i.e. Scott Walker, John Kasich, etc.)

I’m not as sure about this, but we should not underestimate how much momentum bin Laden’s death may have. I, for one, pretty much assumed bin Laden was already dead or had permanently escaped to a rogue state (which he kind of did). People might be reinvigorated by our Pakistani operation which was successful against significant odds. We’ll see.

6.) Obama gets to make the budget.

Because Obama is a little too nice, we won’t see a budget that I (and more importantly, you know, actual economists) would want, but Paul Ryan is done. I imagine people’s tolerance for taking Medicare and Medicaid away from the old and sick, respectively, will be greatly diminished. To our esteemed Chairman Mr. Ryan, I say with all due respect, please sodomize yourself with an iron stick. Failing that, it would be acceptable if you find another way to go fuck yourself.

This blue-eyed Boy Wonder is serious as fuck. Just kidding. He's really, really awful at his job.

7.) The debt ceiling will be raised.

Even the most profoundly retarded politicians on the right side of the aisle will be unable to force this issue (which, in the end, is a good thing.) It’s not ideal to raise the debt ceiling, and much work needs to be done so we stop doing that, but not raising it would be catastrophic. I don’t think we have to worry about that now.

In closing, think about this. In 1981 Ronald Regan proposed a budget that slashed spending and gave tax cuts to the rich. Democrats said “No” and Regan’s popularity was fading fast. Then, in one of the craziest things to ever happen in real life, a guy named John Hinckley tried to kill President Reagan to win the heart of Jodi Foster. I’ll leave the “barking up the wrong tree” joke aside, and let you make them yourself.

After the assassination attempt, Reagan’s popularity skyrocketed, Dems caved to his idiotic fiscal policies, and “Reganomics” was born (maybe “spawned” would be a better term.) My point is that I believe you can expect a significant bump in Obama’s poll numbers (which, after spiking, will settle in the mid-60’s or so) along with the potential for a similar (but hopefully way smarter) type of over-arching fiscal policy. Expect health care, science, and education to get the funding they rightfully deserve and desperately need.

Pictured: President Bush explains, with gestures, the estimated size of the branch he shoved up the education system's collective ass.

To conclude on serious note, we should remember with honor the 6000 American servicemen and servicewomen who are unable to rejoice in justice having been served. Regardless of our views on strategy, policy, and all the other horrible trappings of war, it is critical that we solemnly recall the deaths of the soldiers who, tragically, cannot be with us today. It is always old men who make war, and young men who die in war, and we can never allow ourselves to forget that. We should also remember the thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilians who have been killed. Such are the unspeakable byproducts of war-making.

Having said that, enjoy this occasion. Military successes like this are few and far between, as we know all too well. A professor–who was a community activist–once told me that, even though you will face a constant stream of problems, it is important to celebrate all your victories, no matter the size, and no matter the surrounding circumstances. Even if it meant just “bringing in a box of donuts.” Otherwise, the will to continue with such difficult work can easily be lost. Before we get back to the budget, Medicare, and all the other issues plaguing our domestic policy, let’s remember, for at least a moment, to be happy with this victory. Today, let’s not forget the donuts.

My Response to a Sloppy Rebuttal (re: “USA Today” Jumps Another Shark)

I was informed that someone took issue with what I had written. I don’t mind opinions that oppose mine, but I have little tolerance for rebuttals that have no substance. The original complaint:

“yeah, i got bored because even on the first objection it turns out that for a good bit of conversation on the issue we can replace ‘materialism’ with ‘physicalism’. And, then he busts out the old PET scan nonsense, at which point I lose my ability to focus on what he’s [meaning, me] saying.”
You can thank the persistent Sam Harris for the resurgence of the naturalistic fallacy. http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2010/10/sam-harris-the-naturalistic-fallacy-and-the-slipperiness-of-well-being/”

While I understand that this was probably fired off casually and quickly in response to my post, I took the time to explain why his arguments are invalid, or at least poorly articulated.

1.) I made only one point on “materialism.” The main idea, since he clearly doesn’t grasp this, is that only the religious have a burning desire for labeling people. “Physicalism” or whatever else he wants to call my doctrine has no import to me. I have no interest in trivial monikers. I adhere to physical evidence and reasoned logic. So does the rest of the world, at all times, except in the pews. He should be glad that most learned individuals view the world in this way.

2.) I’m not sure what “old PET scan nonsense” he is referring to. Firstly, PET scans aren’t all that old. And secondly, I didn’t propose anything that could be considered trite. I wanted to explain how we can, in fact, objectively “boil emotion down” to its molecular interactions. Obviously PET scans don’t comprise the entirety of our ability to do this, but it was a solid example. And though our explanations are certainly incomplete, scientists are the first ones to admit this. If only more people were willing to say “I don’t know. But let’s work together and try to find out!” I think we’d be a much happier, and less superstitious, species. Arrogance in assuming complete and infallible knowledge of the purpose of the universe is a phenomenon that rests exclusively on the side of religious individuals.

3.) I absolutely love when the religious use logical devices like syllogisms to defend their position. Since the majority of their life’s devotion (i.e. a given religion) is completely un-falsifiable, they have no business bringing logical devices into the mix, as any person with even basic knowledge of rhetoric should understand that the un-falsifiability of a given argument constitutes automatic “intellectual disqualification” of that argument. Plato and Socrates laid down the rules of logic so that superstitious nonsense could, ideally, be cast aside in favor of ideals that could be potentially productive. Rather than cowering in fear of every earthquake and flood, the Greek Thinkers decided there had to be a better way. Abuse of their tenets, by shoehorning credulous beliefs into logical devices, is just ignorant. Sorry. Not a personal affront. It’s just the facts. One cannot apply logic to a premise which has no basis in our observable world.

In addition, I never said “science has all the answers.” I simply meant that religion has exactly ZERO that cannot be arrived at in the absence of divinity. To this type of argument I always pose Hitchens’ brilliant question (and, like him, I have never gotten an acceptable answer):

a.) Name me a moral action that a religious person can perform, in the name of his faith, that an atheist could not perform. You’ll find there aren’t any. (i.e. Feeding the poor in the name of Jesus vs. feeding the poor in the name of human decency.)

b.) Name me an evil or immoral action/statement that a religious person could execute based solely on their faith, which an atheist could not, due to their lack of faith. There are plenty. (See: Crusades, Inquisition, suicide bombings, etc.) This is because differences in religion have no value to us non-believers. Unlike a given Christian (who must, by definition, assume that all other religions are false, if not down-right evil), I view all religions equally. That is to say, equally superstitious and irrational.

Persecution of others based solely on differing views of the divine has a long and despicable track record in world history, and it continues to this day. One particularly salient example (which I used in a recent post):

From 1750-1850, 1.5 million Americans were captured by Muslim Ottomans near the Barbary Coast. When Thomas Jefferson went to find out why, the Ottoman’s diplomat stated, quite frankly (though I’m paraphrasing) that they were enslaving and murdering Americans because the Koran told them it was acceptable to do so, since Americans were Christians and, thus, infidels (that sounds familiar…). This “long view of history” reinforces my query above quite neatly.

4.) As for the “naturalistic fallacy” idea, this requires only a short response: Moral absolutism is not a real thing. Deal with it.

My over-arching point is that the Bible (or whatever “divinely inspired” text you fancy; there are historical hundreds to choose from) clearly and objectively does not hold all the answers. To assume that it does is simply false. This leaves only the possibility that morals must evolve in a similar fashion as our own biological composition. This individual who complained about my post strikes me as a person who has either not read enough in opposition to his position, or simply chooses to ignore obvious evidence (or the lack thereof in defense of his position). This is not unexpected, and in fact, his bias has a name. It’s called the Semmelweis Reflex; essentially, the tendency to reject new evidence in favor of a well-established, or dearly held paradigm. The Semmelweiss Reflex is something one should try to avoid, and my under-informed amigo would do well to read a bit more before trotting out half-assed rebuttals that either misconstrue what I said, or are simply illogical.

“USA Today” Jumps Another Shark

Since USA Today decided to publish this nonsense, I will address its errors, point by point. Block quotes are the author’s original writing:

..”a nation that once prided itself on its Judeo-Christian heritage”

Not a great way to start. Considering that “Judeo-Christian Heritage” accounts almost exclusively for the sum total of resistance to social progress and scientific inquiry until the early 20th century, I’m not so sure I would be waving this banner so pridefully and carelessly.

“The superstition of atheism”

That was the title of the first section of this op-ed. It was obviously meant to rile non-believers, but it is simply inaccurate and nonsensical (most atheists, obviously, hold no superstitions whatsoever. It’s kind of a requirement.)

“They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism…”

I’m not sure what that means. Firstly, no modern scientific atheist is a materialist. “Materialism” is an outdated monist philosophy that holds no water, as it ignores the existence of Energy (big “E” on purpose). So far as all of science knows, everything in the observable universe currently falls under one of these two very broad categories. For now, I will ignore semi-theoretical physical concepts like dark matter and dark energy, because I don’t need them for this discussion. If you want to call me a “dualist” since I “believe” only in Matter and Energy, so be it. I have no use for an artificially-produced title with no innate meaning. Curently, matter and energy are what we can measure. If more comes to light, I’m willing to change that, just as every good scientist would be.

On the other hand, have you ever heard a religious person say, “If someone showed me [blank] I would change my belief system.” Of course you haven’t. Because to religious people, faith–by definition a concretely-held belief supported by no evidence–is a virtue. To scientists, it’s what you want to avoid at all costs. It’s also what most people want to avoid at all costs. I don’t think anyone would take a newly-developed medicine on “faith.” They would want double-blind, placebo-controlled studies done as they rightfully should. But choosing to apply this standard sporadically is intellectually disingenuous at best, and extraordinarily destructive at worst.

Pictured: At Worst

“The problem is that this really isn’t a theory at all. It’s a superstition; a myth that basically says that everything in life — our thoughts, our emotions, our hopes, our ambitions, our passions, our memories, our philosophies, our politics, our beliefs in God and salvation and damnation — that all of this is merely the result of biochemical reactions and the movement of molecules in our brain.”

If we were to hook our lovely author up to a PET scanner (a very expensive machine that literally uses antimatter to map your brain. How cool! Now burn the witch!) we could see that when he prays, a specific part of his brain lights up. If we had the right tools, we could look inside and see exactly which neural synapses were firing, at what time, and exactly which neurotransmitters were being released and absorbed in order for his prayers to be mentally articulated. On the other hand, if I asked the author to explain, objectively, what prayer does to him, he would certainly give me some nonsensical answer about a “personal relationship” and an unquantifiable feeling. What use is this to anyone but himself? It’s massively ironic that he accidentally wrote the truth and referred to it as a myth.

“We can’t reduce the whole of reality to what our senses tell us for the simple reason that our senses are notorious for lying to us.”

This is partially correct. For example, out of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, we can only physically view a very small slice (the visible light spectrum). But, we have instruments (that God didn’t exactly hand to us, by the way) that tell us that things like gamma radiation exist, and we’d better be careful not to be around it for too long. If we only used our non-augmented physical senses, we’d be pretty shitty at science. In addition, it would be logical to ask that why, if we were “intelligently designed,” were we built to view the cosmos with the sensory acuity of a fucking mole rat? Unless, that is, we weren’t “designed” at all, but were instead subjected to the omni-present forces of natural selection, which ensured that we would obtain the skills/qualities/physical properties required for survival, but not so many that it would be a waste of energy (i.e. there was no reason for us to “need” to see gamma radiation with our eyes while we were busy hunting and gathering. It was enough to be able to see more pertinent dangers, like saber-toothed tigers.)

A more pressing issue than gamma rays.

But the most important things in life can’t be seen with the eyes. Ideas can’t be seen. Love can’t be seen. Honor can’t be seen.

Beside noting the dubious grammatical choices present in this sentence, this is a very good example of how you should never let flowery, fatuous prose trick you into thinking that the words on the page have any value or meaning whatsoever.

See above.

“No less a genius than Albert Einstein once said…”

I’m not even going to quote the rest of this. Albert Einstein was a self-avowed atheist. Any reference to God, a Creator, or anything similar was 100% metaphorical. I’m actually glad he included this. If you get into a debate with a religious person and they cite an Einstein quote to reaffirm their religious beliefs, you may as well stop the discussion. That person has clearly not read enough arguments against their own position (if they’ve really ever read at all) to have a rational debate, as evidence of Einstein’s disbelief can be found with even the most cursory of research onto the topic.

“…a world of miracles, a world of grace, a world of angels, a world of diabolical warfare, a world where the highest values are completely opposite from those of our secular society — where weakness equals strength, sacrifice equals salvation, and suffering equals unlimited power.”

I loathe the patently false idea that morals come from the Bible. I could write an entire esaay (or book) on why. But here are just a few, easy-to-remember reasons why this statment is so wrong:

1.) Do not kill, do not steal, and do not lie did not originate with the Ten Commandments. They just don’t.

2.) The first three Commandments are just the lunatic ravings of a, self-admittedly, jealous God. (This is God speaking to Moses in the third person in: Exodus 34:14 – “…for the lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”) All the first three commandments entail are instructions to the lowly plebes on how best to worship their heavenly master. Who kinda sounds like a huge dick, by the way.

3.) “Thou shalt not covet” is an an admonition of a thought-crime. This is not ok.

4.) There is no commandment that says “Thou shalt not commit genocide.” Why? Well, because, in the very next chapter, God tells the Israelites to completely wipe out the Midianites, including the elderly and children, and to keep as many women as possible for breeding purposes. But, hey, it wasn’t in the commandments, am I right? Genocide high five! This also goes for domestic abuse, child abuse, rape, incest, and a myriad of other acts that society has come to despise. But since the ancient Hebrews were busy doing all of those things, God couldn’t very well ban such acts, now could he?

I’m also putting the above quote in here so that in 50 years, when my kid says:

“Dad-Unit Alpha, what’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard in the Virtual Immersive News Machine?” I’ll say:

“Well, actually Kal-El, (my son will be named after Superman’s Kryptonian name) the silliest thing I’ve ever heard in the media was actually not in the VINM. It was something I read in what we used to call ‘newspapers.’ It was in a publication called ‘USA Today.’ And there it is, kiddo. Just a little ways up on the page. The dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever read.”

Future me, and my future son, probably.

“…the product of weak human psychology; a psychology that is so afraid of death that it must create “delusional fantasies” in order to make life on Earth bearable.”

I wouldn’t say weak. There are obvious evolutionary advantages to listening, with complete adherence, to anything your elders tell you. (i.e. Don’t eat those delicious looking berries! You’ll die!) Religious admonitions are a natural extension of these tendencies to heed authority. We now have the tools to recognize the value such biological urges, and to judiciously decide when using these ancient instincts is appropriate. If you refuse to use these tools (say, by being a Creationist) then yes, I think your mind should rightly be considered weak.

See above

“Is it wishful thinking to believe that we should discipline our natural bodily urges for the sake of some unseen ‘kingdom'”?

It’s not wishful thinking. It’s profoundly stupid thinking, bordering on literal insanity. Read his sentence again. Mr. DeStefano is putting forth, as a completely reasonable and, in fact, noble idea, that abstaining from physical pleasure in the name of an Invisible Monarchy (excuse the literary twist) is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. One that we should all do. One that we should write about in the goddamn newspaper. Does anyone else have a problem with that? Are tears of laughter currently blocking your view of your monitor like mine are? Or maybe it’s the rage-blood seeping from my eye sockets. Either way, I’m losing liquid.

Pictured: Anthony DeStefano; not masturbating.

He’s right about one thing. Religious leaders have always liked to reign supreme over our genital habits. For example, St. Jerome–one of the four “Doctors” of the Catholic Church, whose literature is considered of nearly equal value to the Bible–once had visions of naked maidens dancing in his head. To solve this problem (if you can call it that) Jerome burst into hysterics, weeping and wailing, rending his garments and gesticulating wildly, until he found a crucifix before which he prostrated himself in reticence. Then, seeing a nearby rock, he bashed himself in the chest, repeatedly, as penance, before sprinting off into the desert to be in solitude with his “shame.” None of that was made up. Why is it okay to revere such a man because he was an ancient religious figure, when the same behavior today would have you quickly institutionalized? Anyone? Bueller?

Moral dictation from the pulpit (and, far more nefariously, from the political pulpit) is my main problem with religious institutions. As Christopher Hitchens–eloquent as always–once said “If you want to have your silly playthings, you can have them in your home. But I will not be made to play with your toys.” For some reason, large portions of humanity have long considered it acceptable to have their bodies ordered around by old men in fancy robes and even fancier hats. If you want to “discipline your body” (read: Anthony DeStefano does not, repeat, does not beat off) that’s fine. But leave me, and my manhood, out of your silly little game.

Pictured: Pope Benedict models the latest look from the Dolce and Gabbana "Infallible" Collection.

“If human beings were going to invent a religion based on wishful thinking, they could come up with something a lot “easier” than Christianity.”

The author thinks about this backwards. The origins of religion, almost unequivocally, come from our fear of the Three D’s: disease, destruction, and death. From roughly 100,00 B.C. until the Enlightenment, we had no way of understanding the microscopic world that surrounds us, or the implications that the fields of geology, biology, chemistry, and physics (among others) would eventually have in helping us understand our world. The ancient man, completely incapable of understanding any of what I’ve just described probably thought (and not unreasonably, I must add, given his limited resources):

“Well, the Earth just split open and swallowed my whole village. We must have done something to piss off whatever put us here!” Some explanation provided more comfort for our ancient man than no explanation. It at least allowed him–via adulations to and pleas with the sky–to attempt to change his fate. Our self-regulation and, to some extent, self-loathing, comes from our complete lack of scientific knowledge at the dawn of humanity. Then, when we finally started to understand the processes that shaped the our world, as well as the cosmos at large, the Catholic Church tried its hardest to set fire to anyone who was attempting to expand upon our newly-found powers of reason. One must wonder how much more technologically advanced we would be had Mother Church not spent most of its history immolating brilliant thinkers in the name of Jesus. So, no, your superstitions aren’t “easy.” They’re simply the remnants of a bygone area.

Like monocles.

In addition, the author accidentally deals a grievous blow to his religion with this quote. If religion were divinely inspired, you would expect that all religions, regardless of geography, would be similar in their doctrines and practices. Since they are not, the author has two choices of beliefs:

1.) God decided that only Europeans/Americans (mainly) were worthy of his Divine Word. This seems pretty dickish.
2.) They’re all make-believe. This seems more reasonable.

The enormous breadth of religions both past and present is further evidence of religion’s genesis as a man-made machine, rather than some divine edict from on high.

“No matter how hard they try, they will never succeed in making Christianity ‘a thing of the past.'”

The statistics cited in the author’s own piece suggest that this is probably not the case.

“…one simple fact remains: 2,000 years ago, on that first, quiet Easter Sunday morning, Christ did rise.”

Let me explain the concept of “falsifiability.” A hypothesis is considered falsifiable if said hypothesis could theoretically be proven wrong. For example, I could say something like “I believe that the sun will rise in the east every morning.” If I awoke at dawn for a number of days in a row, I could see that this is, in fact, the case. More simply put, a hypothesis is falsifiable if you can measure something about your hypothesis. Since the author’s above statement cannot be tested and, oddly enough, scant evidence remains that a “Jesus of Nazareth” even existed as a literal person, I find no need to waste my time prostrated in worship of a deity that, even the author would admit, cannot be seen, measured, or experienced in any objective and/or reproducible way.

Pictured: Anthony DeStefano, still not masturbating.

Then we come to the idea of “onus of proof.” Many theologians like to say that, since most people are religious, the burden of “proving God wrong” lies with the non-believer. This is false for two reasons. Firstly, the idea that something must be right because a lot of people agree that it’s right is a logical fallacy known as anargumentum ad populum, or, roughly, an “appeal to popularity.” It’s an elementary error in rhetoric to assume that your argument is correct because other people agree with you, and one that USA Today should be ashamed of not editing. Secondly, and more importantly, I think it’s pretty obvious that if you say something to the effect of:

“My way of thinking about the universe is the only correct way to think about the world, and if you disagree you will be subject to eternal punishment!”

..then you had better have a damn good reason for your holy arrogance. I’m not the one telling you how to use your reproductive organs, raise your kids, what to do on Sunday afternoons, who you can or can’t marry, why Creationism (read: theology) should be taught in public schools, what to eat, when to eat it, things to not mix with what you’re eating, who to love, who to hate, what to watch, what to listen to, what women should wear, where women should be allowed to go, what women should be allowed to do, why it’s okay to hit your kids, why it’s okay to hit your wife (oh wait, not anymore. Whoops! Divine mistake?) what superstitions to believe, what superstitions not to believe (heresy!), and basically every other aspect of your divinely-restricted life. On the flip side, religious adherents have been perpetually engaged in such authoritarian moral-making since the advent of religion itself.

Since we’ve been on the subject of reproductive organs quite a bit, I’ll share what I consider to be a very good explanation about how people should treat their religion (though this only works for males): “Treat your religion like you treat your pecker: keep it stowed away in public, and don’t force it down anyone’s throat.” But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Basically every religion commands its adherents to “Go forth! Spread our Gospel!” most times as a prerequisite for proper salvation. I’ve never heard of an atheist travelling to a foreign land, attempting to convert the indigenous population (and usually plundering the land while they’re at it) and slaughtering those who don’t care to switch metaphysical allegiances. Have you heard of an “atheist missionary” or a ” medieval atheist Crusader,” or an “atheist Inquisitor,” Mr. DeStefano? I thought not.

Francisco Pizarro subjugated the Savage Incas on behalf of Good Christians everywhere.

The bottom line is this: you certainly have the right–unfortunately–to your superstitious beliefs, and you also–regrettably–have the right to publish them in a public forum, especially if you can find a fellow supplicant on the staff of your friendly, neighborhood coloring book opinion poll machine simulacrum of a genuine journalistic endeavor nationally available newspaper. Just don’t expect anyone to take you seriously, and expect to be mocked voraciously by people who have chosen learning and reason and intellect over superstition. And not in a “Well Jesus said we’d be mocked for following him” kind of way. No no no. I mean the good, old-fashioned, “You’re an incredible asshole and should be publicly shamed” kind of way. As alchemy gave way to chemistry, so must religion eventually yield to scientific philosophy. That is, if we ever want to progress past the mythological manacles of our species’ ancient past.

Pictured: Anthony DeStefano; still not masturbating. Not ever. 'Cause Jesus says so.

Calling “Bullshit” on Prophetic Nonsense

Have you heard the news? The world is ending. That’s right, May 21, 2011; mark it down (or maybe don’t, since there’s not much time left). You see, Harold Camping got a message the rest of us didn’t get, and it’s (allegedly) the last message he’ll ever need to spread. Harold Camping is a prophet, and his followers are many. And they all, quite literally, believe that the world will end in 10 days.

He has also predicted a comeback for mutton chops and 80's-era hearing aids.

If you’re not familiar with the man I’m describing, that’s okay. He’s a dick. Harold Camping is the head of a group of fundamentalist Christians who, over roughly two decades, have organized under the banner of “Family Radio,” a non-commercial religious radio station worth approximately $122 million (as of 2007). For most of their existence they were just a sect full of garden-variety, hate-spewing, Bible-thumping evangelicals, who occasionally wormed their way into the public eye by publishing literature with such gripping titles as “Gay Pride: Sign of the End,” and “Another Infallible Proof.”

But something insaneprophetic happened last year to our lovely protagonist. Harold Camping, self-proclaimed modern-day diviner, calculated the exact date of Judgment Day® as coming to pass on May 21, 2011. This differs from his original pseudo-predicition from 1992, when he published his oddly-titled book “1994?” which put forth the theory that the world might end on September 6, 1994. I guess his choice of punctuation in the title should have been the first clue about the veracity of his publication. The closest approximation of Armageddon that would actually take place on 9/6/94 was that actor Jackson Pinckney was awarded $487,000 for being partially blinded by Jean-Claude Van Damme during the filming of “Cyborg” Oddly enough, this picture of Van Damme that I’ve included below was actually in the movie. I guess Mr. Camping deserves at least a “C-” for his efforts in predicting that at least some pseudo-religious event would occur on that day.

Meh. Close enough.

When asked about his miscalculation from 17 years ago Camping insists that it was his fault; he misinterpreted the Bible. (He apparently cannot detect the gallons of accidental irony dripping from this statement). When asked why he’s so sure this time, Camping was quoted as saying “I know it’s absolutely true, because the Bible is always absolutely true.” Good answer.

In fact, Camping and other Family Radio acolytes are so sure of the impending Apocalypse (and subsequent Final Judgement on October 21, 2011) that they’ve purchased five RV’s and are currently on a nationwide tour to spread the Good (?) News. Unfortunately for most of us, the news isn’t all that good. You see, in addition to being silly evangelicals, they are also “Pre-Determinists” a fancy name for a pretty heinous doctrine. Pre-Determinists (such as Calvinists, to name another sect) believe that only a small number of people will go to heaven, and they were selected for salvation before they were even born. This seems like a pretty good deal until you realize that they believe that only 2%-3% of the entire world’s population will be “saved” and that no amount of good works or faith can stave off the divinely pre-determined outcome. The rest of us Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200, and go Directly to Hell. How wonderful.

You only get the Mega-Rapture Power of flight if it was pre-determined that you deserved it.

So, to recap, dozens of families have sold everything they own and begun touring the nation in Winnebagos in order to warn everyone that they’d better repent because Judgment is at hand, but if God didn’t pick you for dodgeball before he sent you down to our quaint little rock well, tough luck Chuck. Maybe try Hinduism. At least you have a shot at reincarnation with those guys. For those of us not “fortunate” enough to be whisked, naked (or so they believe; no lie) up to heaven, we will be tortured by Lucifer for 154 days until the aforementioned October 6 deadline passes and the whole apple cart gets upset, sending us plummeting to hell for all eternity, ostensibly with Michael McDonald perpetually wailing in the background, creating further misery for our already-tortured souls.

T.K.O. indeed, my sweet angel.

Now we get to the uncomfortable part. Not for me, but for those in the lame-stream media (that one’s for you, Sarah, my darling) who are religiously-oriented. You see, interviews with Camping are generally approached with a hilarious combination of timidity and disbelief. Reporters don’t want to say anything criticizing Camping’s religion, as he might challenge their own belief system (i.e. the old “who’s to say how we should interpret the Bible” argument). On the other hand, they have a story to get, and there’s a man right there, staring the reporter in the face, who is quite obviously a lunatic in the literal sense of the word, and who might just get them to the front page of CNN (which actually happened). Huzzah for journalistic integrity!

This is a brief summary of how all these interviews tend to go: Reporter interviews Camping, Camping spews a combination of Old Testament nonsense and old-man saliva, Reporter happily jots down notes and tosses softballs at the so-called prophet (“So, exactly how much do you love Jesus?”), and Camping, either blissfully unaware of his own insanity, or diabolically manipulative of this new-found mass delusion currently gripping a startling number of Americans, relishes every last minute of his most recent opportunity to infect another human with his mad clairvoyance.

This is the main problem when dealing with “prophets” and their ilk; we are expected to “respect” their beliefs, even if they are stupid and hateful. Any rational person (and, I suppose, many Christians) know without argument that Harold Camping is a fool, a charlatan, a crazy person, or a dangerous thrilling combination of all three. But who are Camping’s Christian detractors to say that his interpretation is incorrect? Debating the finer points of fairy tales is a business destined for bankruptcy. Camping’s detractors, in distancing themselves from his mad ravings, provide an excellent example of the ridiculous enterprise that is “revealed” religion (and all others, for that matter).

I’d like to reiterate my point about his caravan: many, many families have abandoned their lives in order to follow the Gospel of Camping, and have no way back to their previous lives when the inevitable disappointment occurs, similar to the Great Disappointment of the mid-19th century. Detailed records don’t appear to exist for the repercussions of the Millerites’ failed prediction, but anecdotal evidence suggests a significant number of suicides were a direct result of William Miller’s alleged (and incorrect) supernatural precognition. Are we to believe that similar results won’t ensue from the latest in a long line of holy deceivers? I mean, Marshall Applewhite convinced 38 people to kill themselves so that they could be warped to the Hale-Bopp comet and escape the destruction of Earth. In other words, how many people will take their own lives on May 22, 2011? Should we consider such beliefs as acceptable any more? I don’t think so.

At least their logo was bitchin'

This brings me to my main point. We have been instructed, since birth, to tolerate people of faith. This convention simply must stop. Harold Camping deserves neither courtesy nor tolerance, and neither do his followers. He is a sick old bastard who has preyed on the fear and doubts of countless innocents (weak-minded though they may be) in the name of personal profit and “eternal salvation.” I haven’t been able to find a quote, but I think it would be safe to assume that Mr. Camping counts himself among the lucky 2%-3% whom God has already drafted for his celestial softball team, apparently a bonus to his already-notable divine endowments. I have no quarrel with the average church-goer. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said in reverse. Men like Camping, who are given a public platform to emit hateful screeches outlining just how wrong most of the world is (including li’l ol’ me), certainly have a right to do so. But it’s high time that everyone, journalists especially, began regarding Camping in the manner of which he is deserving: with scorn, mockery, and intolerance of his hateful message.

You are a disgusting man-corpse composed mainly of bone dust and bullshit.

If the world were full of Harold Campings (which, for quite some time, it pretty much was) all of the scientific achievement and human enlightenment we have achieved would, quite simply, not exist. When Socrates and Plato laid out the rules of logic in roughly ~100 B.C., it was the first time in human history that we had had a way to view the world that did not require superstition. Ever since then, free thinkers have been fighting an uphill battle. Men like Camping were the ones who persecuted scientists and philosophers like Galileo, Descartes, and Bruno (who was actually murdered by the Catholic Church for defending Galileo), and violently quashed dissidents like Jan Hus who had the audacity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the bread and wine used during communion did not literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, a doctrine–known as transubstantiation–that Catholics are still required to believe in order to be “in communion with the Church.” For his heretical thought-crime, Hus was buried up to his neck in straw and immolated in the public square. While he was burning alive he said:

“God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached [referring to some writings which were, in fact, not his]. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.”

Faithful to the end, I suppose.

Every time a reporter sits down to have a serious interview with Harold Camping, that reporter is spitting in the face of the noble men and women who suffered and died at the hands of religious zealots throughout history, as well as those who are being murdered in modernity for similar ideals. It could be argued that it might be best if we were to completely ignore Camping, but with 66 radio stations nationwide, in addition to his aforementioned traveling sideshow, this is a difficult proposition. In addition, I’m not a big fan of the “don’t feed the trolls” mentality. If someone is both factually incorrect and willfully ignorant, they should know about it, whether they like it or not. It’s time that we all call “bullshit” on those among us who say “We have the only answer, and you’re going to Hell if you don’t agree!” and disallow such mongrels from polluting our collective consciousness with their wicked faiths. Mr. Camping has the right to his opinion, as hateful, stupid, and nonsensical as it may be (all of which it most certainly is). We also have the right to call him out for what he is: an insane zealot with an illogical, fatalistic thirst for the End of Days, worthy only of excoriation and the collective contempt of all humanity. My only wish is that there was a hell where a vile man like Camping could be deported after his ancient, rotted heart ceases its detestable beating.

How To Survive a Government Shutdown

I started making this on Friday morning, went to sleep, then woke back up in the middle of the night to finish. Let me know what you think.

D.O. Day on the Hill

I will be travelling to D.C. to meet with my home district (OH-13) Representative Betty Sutton, and possibly the two Senators from Ohio as well (Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman). This is an annual program where D.O. students across the country meet with legislators to discuss issues pertinent to medicine. We were instructed to be well-prepared, so I made a few very simple, easily readable visual aids. I think they get the message across pretty well. Here’s the first one:

John Kasich: Robber Baron

Break out your monocles and top hats, because it’s Robber Baron Time! ThinkProgress has an excellent explanation of John Kasich’s plan to sell public property and institutions (liquor stores, the turnpike, and prisons) to private investors. This article specifically focuses on the liquor stores.

Click here to see the ThinkProgress piece

If you don’t want to click or read all of that here’s my Reader’s Digest version:

1.) Gov. John Kasich of Ohio recently created a “private development company,” known as JobsOhio, and has made himself Chairman.

2.) Kasich plans to sell Ohio’s state-run liquor stores, which pull down roughly $228 million per year, to his new company, JobsOhio, via a 30-year lease.

3.) The plan is to sell the liquor stores, as a collective, for $1.5 billion. Now, you might say, $228 million multiplied by 30, is actually get $6.8 billion!

You are correct. Once again, under the guise of a “budget emergency,” Kasich will be short-selling our communal interests for pennies on the dollar.
Oh yeah, and JobsOhio has no cash yet. Since it’s new, and completely insolvent, Kasich will be funding his newest purchase with bonds from Wall Street investors.

Let’s recap: The Governor of Ohio is selling our most profitable revenue stream (the liquor stores) to a company he owns, at a bargain-basement price, with no actual money. remember, this is from a guy who’s always ready to highlight the inefficiencies and lack of profitability in government programs. So when he finally found a program worth something to the state of Ohio, he loots and pillages it for himself, to the potential tune of hundreds of millions.

If ~225,00 signatures are gathered, Senate Bill 5 will become a ballot initiative directly voted on by Ohioans, as opposed to being squeaked through the Ohio Senate (only a 17-16 victory). That means that if 1/8 people who didn’t vote for Kasich sign the petition, it will become a ballot initiative easily. When I find a way to sign petition like that (hopefully backed by someone with some clout) I will post a link.

The Damnable Consequences of “Citizens United”

It’s difficult to believe, but the 2012 election cycle is already in full swing. So once again, for the next eighteen months, we will be inundated with stories of $5000-per-plate fundraising dinners, attack ads featuring our “favorite” politicians, and an overwhelming air of American excess. In the land of plenty, there’s plenty of campaign money to be scrounged, if only you know where to look.
President Obama has an early start. He has already announced his intention to raise one billion dollars for his re-election campaign. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

$1,000,000,000. That is one million dollars, collected one thousand times. The literal meaning of “ridiculous”—deserving of ridicule—certainly applies to this gilded simulacrum of the democratic process.

With egregious corporate bailouts and an astronomical national debt, it is easy to overlook just how much a billion dollars really is. In the interest of providing a frame of reference, it should be noted that the first person even have a net worth of $1 billion—depending on who you ask—was most likely John D. Rockefeller who, by the time he was done bleeding money from the ground in 1937, was worth an estimated $1.4 billion. In other words, for almost 37,000 years of human history, no one even had a billion dollars, but 74 years after the existence of the first billionaire, a single person is planning on spending a billion dollars to purchase the office of President of the United States. As another example, President Obama’s campaign will cost more than GDP of 25 different U.N.-recognized countries and territories. This is certainly not Obama’s fault, nor is it the fault of any opportunistic candidate. In fact, in our cash-centric political process, this type of fundraising might be considered a candidate’s due diligence. The problem is that becoming an elected official has become such a wealthy venture that our votes have decreased in value to the point of triviality. There are numerous reasons for this “effective disenfranchisement,” but I will focus on the damage done by enormous campaign contributions.

“Zero-Sum” Politics
The ability of individuals to acquire varying amounts of wealth due to unique ideas, hard work, and personal merit is one of our greatest birthrights as Americans. Those who are wealthy, even the super-rich, should not be derided solely on the basis of their economic status, just as poverty-stricken Americans should not be considered with an air of disdain simply because they are poor. However, citizens can be justifiably incensed when colossal sums of money overwhelm the democratic process and effectively disenfranchise the average voter. Massive sums of cash turn politics into a “zero-sum game,” a mathematical concept that essentially means that by increasing the “winnings” of Player A, the “losses” of Player B must be exactly reciprocal. To illustrate this concept, imagine two people holding wicker baskets, with five apples in each basket. If Player A takes two apples from Player B’s basket, Player A now has seven apples, and Player B now has three. There are still ten apples in play, but the gains of Player A are directly opposite the losses of Player B. A simple numeric representation—(+2/-2)—now explains why this type of game is referred to as “zero-sum”. If you add the gains of Player A to the losses of Player B—positive two plus negative two—you end up with zero; thus, a zero-sum game.

In a non-zero-sum game, we could imagine a “community basket” placed in the middle of our two basket-wielding players, filled with five additional apples. Player A could take two apples from the community basket and now have the same total number of apples—seven—that he had in our first game. Player B, on the other hand, while he may not gain any apples during this new game, does not have to lose any apples in order for Player A to gain apples. This differs from our first game, because of the existence of said “community basket.” Using a numerical representation similar to our first one, we would get (+2/0). In a simple equation, 2+0=2; thus, our community basket allows the creation of a non-zero-sum game. So why is this important?

Introducing huge amounts of money turns the electoral process into a zero-sum game; by increasing their influence via money, wealthy Americans now have the ability to vote, as well as influential money. Unfortunately, the influential money makes the votes in our “basket” much less valuable. Thus, our “wealthy player” has gained political influence at the expense of “our basket” having been rendered virtually worthless. Zero-sum games are not intrinsically negative in economic terms, but certainly not a just way to run a democracy. Money devalues individual votes and cheapens the process as a whole. While it is true that campaign spending and the act of voting are two separate mechanisms, and no amount of money can compel you to vote a certain way, they are nevertheless inextricably linked, and the former boasts far greater influence than the latter.

A Grievous Blow to Democracy

In January 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 split decision the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional—per the First Amendment—to restrict the amount of money that unions and corporations can spend on political campaigns, effectively reversing the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act. In a ninety-page dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote that the Court’s decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.”

In usual arch-conservative form, Justice Scalia opined that Justice Stevens was “in splendid isolation from the text of the First Amendment. [Stevens’ opinion] never shows why ‘the freedom of speech’ that was the right of Englishmen did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.” In addition, Majority Whip and constant terrapine annoyance Mitch McConnell had previously bloviated that “Our democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all,” in regard to the original McCain-Feingold ruling; a vapid and fatuous proclamation clearly intended for use as a cable news sound bite. What seems to have been forgotten by our esteemed Justices is that while individuals may contribute large sums of money to a political campaign, there are still limits to spending per election as well as spending per year. If restricting the amount of money a corporation can spend is allegedly a violation of the First Amendment, how is limiting the contributions of an individual citizen legally justified?

A Return to Reason

Unfortunately, these are consequences a democracy faces when appeals and judicial rulings—otherwise known as “common law”—abandon reasoned logic in favor of fierce, pseudo-patriotic loyalty to the so-called “literal” interpretation of the Constitution, which is contrary to the original intent of the document’s framers. I agree completely that anytime speech is restricted, we must do so only in the face of overwhelming necessity, and with ultimate caution. In most cases, legitimate restrictions on speech are created to avoid public chaos or physical harm, as is the case for “clear and present danger” restrictions and the restrictions placed on hate speech. In that vein, the virtual disenfranchisement of the majority of citizens should undoubtedly be considered as dangerous as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Additionally, no reasonable, impartial citizen would argue that the words that you are currently reading are literally or legally identical to the contents of my wallet. We can use a syllogism—essentially the “transitive property” of algebra created by Aristotle—to show very simply why such an argument is logically fallacious:

1.) Speech is always composed of words, thoughts, or ideas.
2.) Money is never composed of words, thoughts, or ideas.
3.) Therefore, speech is never money, and money is never speech.

Now, I understand that in terms of commerce, “voting with dollars” is a legitimate, useful, and time-honored tradition. But when dealing with the law, we must always strive to ensure that our societal biases do not interfere with our ability to objectively evaluate the logic behind a given law. The governance of a people must adhere as strictly as possible to the tenets of logic in order to establish a level playing field for the entire citizenry. Equating speech and money in lay situations is perfectly acceptable because the consequences of such a relationship have little or no effect on the population as a whole, since an individual is never compelled to buy a certain company’s product. On the other hand, legally equating speech and money—given our current electoral paradigm—inherently awards a disproportionate amount of influence to those with vast wealth since we are collectively compelled, by law, to follow the edicts of our elected officials and thus, by extension, those who paid for the successful election. The allowance of unlimited campaign contributions legally bestows unequal political influence on certain individuals or groups based solely on the size of their bank account; a hallmark of plutocracy, and the bane of democracy. While the Koch brothers are doing their best impression of the Renaissance-era Medici family in Ohio and Wisconsin, the citizens of those states are literally powerless to halt the damaging and potentially irreversible actions of their elected governors, two of the Koch brothers’ most recent investments.

Simple Solutions

Now that I’ve aired my complaints, I suppose it would only be fair if I offered a potential solution. Since I’ve mentioned them quite a few times thus far, let us begin from a place of logic and reason. Occam’s razor is a concept which explains that given multiple solutions to a problem, and all outcomes being equal, the best solution is the most accurate and most succinct solution. With respect to Occam’s Razor, it would seem that setting a hard cap on dollars spent by a citizen per election (say, $100) and setting a hard cap on donations per year (something like $2000) would level the playing field enormously for the electorate as a whole while reducing the complexity of current campaign financing laws. With fewer dollars in the “political pool,” the value of each individual donation rises dramatically, as does the value of each vote. In addition, any group of people should be completely barred from contributing to campaigns as a group. In other words, if the Local Pipefitters 243 or the shareholders of Company X decide that, in order to make a statement, they will pool their funds and will each send their allotted $100 to Barack Obama or *shudder* Sarah Palin, that would be a perfectly acceptable practice as no “extra votes” are being added to the election. However, both the Pipefitters and Company X shareholders would be disallowed from contributing money as a group that did not come directly from their legally restricted, individual $100 limit.

Not a single citizen could claim that their right to free speech was being infringed upon; they have their vote, and they have their $100 check. If you want to do more in service to your preferred candidate or cause, hold a rally, send out flyers, or make phone calls, much like wealthy donors and politicians encourage less affluent or younger voters to do. Imagine how much more excited a high school senior would be about his government if he knew his $20 contribution was actually meaningful! If he can manage to donate twenty bucks five times, he has just “voiced” the strongest possible monetary support allowed by law! Is there anyone who honestly believes such engagement could, in any way, be construed as negative? Apparently Anne Coulter could, as she self-avowedly favors disenfranchising college students. I suppose that such a deplorable stance should be expected from this type of woman, whose pitiable existence is predicated upon receiving as much negative attention as humanly possible at the intellectual expense of anyone who has had the misfortune of hearing the hateful screeches and squawks that she routinely discharges. Aside from Coulter’s self-aggrandizing and pretentious opinion, the benefits of increased civic engagement, especially among American youth, are quite obvious.

And let’s not forget that under this new, donation-capped system, corporations could still potentially take official positions on candidates and issues. If Company X has ten board members that would like to donate to a certain candidate, they could pool their funds and donate a total of $1000 to said candidate. This is an excellent example of “group free speech”—which Justice Scalia supposedly supports—that does no harm to the average citizen. Such caps and restrictions would turn politics back into a non-zero-sum game, since corporate contributions—which would simply be a collection of individual contributions—would not devalue your vote or my vote, since our votes and $100 checks are only competing with the votes and $100 checks of other citizens. This differs from our current model which allows corporations—and unions, to be fair—to artificially introduce extra influence into politics that is superfluous to the actual process of democratically electing our leaders. Someone is going to be President no matter how much money gets spent, so why not attempt to make the process more accessible and engaging to the average citizen? We did away with property requirements and poll taxes so that a greater number of Americans could become involved politically. Donation caps are a natural extension of these policies. Unfortunately, politicians–and their wealthy patrons–have a personal financial stake in the perpetuation of our current system of election. We must demand reform despite such resistance in order to return some semblance of integrity to a process that has been perverted into a depressing charade.

If Not Now, When?

In 2008, only 57% of voting-age Americans participated in the presidential election. Compare this to Lincoln’s election in 1860 in which over 81% of voting-age Americans cast a ballot. Surely our population hasn’t been replaced by apathetic Pod People, and to simply blame low turnout on voter laziness is disingenuous, or at least unverifiable. Though I have voted in every election since I turned eighteen, I have always, sadly, considered it to be a futile and hollow gesture. With true campaign finance reform similar to what I have suggested here, gone would be lavish fundraisers with inevitably exclusive price tags. Suddenly, every constituent would be worth $100 at most, and we might witness the emergence of fund-raising rallies with thousands of attendees as the main source of campaign funding, rather than the current paradigm of exclusive, high-yield gatherings held behind closed doors. Hopefully, we will reflect back upon this practice of buying elections with a disdain similar to that which we reserve for the long-term disenfranchisement of African-Americans and women; as immoral, unjust, and damaging policies that were considered customary for a shamefully long portion of our history. Maybe President Obama’s cartoonishly-bloated campaign will one day be retrospectively appraised as the nadir of money-driven politics, and the genesis of true reform. As Thomas Paine so eloquently observed in his seminal pamphlet Common Sense, “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” In the interest of creating a just system of democratic election true to the ideals of the brilliant Greek philosophers from whom the concept at least partially originated, let us hope that in this case, reason will conquer time.