Mainstream media trivializes Paris climate talks by focusing on Obama’s legacy

Have you noticed that most mainstream news media coverage of the climate change summit in France stresses that any agreement will burnish, establish, enhance or cement the legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency?

It’s absurd to conjecture that Obama will be judged by one conference after almost seven tumultuous years in office. He shaped and passed healthcare reform, ended torture, led us in two, and now maybe three wars, had massive budget fights with Republicans, arranged the capture and immediate assassination of than man most responsible for the 9/11 attacks, oversaw an economy that went from 10% unemployment to 5% unemployment, and initiated an immigration plan that the courts may or may not approve as constitutional. Plus he has already made his mark on global warming with his semi-tough regulations and his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Despite the apparent silliness of the statement, lots of mainstream news media are peddling it, including The New York Times, The Hill, Huffington Post, CNSNews, Washington Examiner, and Politico, among many other media outlets.

What would cause so many editors to pursue what is truly a trivial concern?

I suspect it’s a combination of reasons, mostly venial, including:

It’s an easy story to write. It’s relatively easy to write a story on a legacy. You can build much of the article on a recap of Obama’s past accomplishments and losses in the environmental area, analyze his statements on climate change, as the polite euphemistically call human-induced global warming, and get some experts to chime in about the President’s legacy. It’s much harder to analyze the technicalities and implications of proposed initiatives or to compare the various climate change and economic impact models.

It’s a personality story. As much as possible, the mainstream news media likes to turn all issues into personality stories: Obama versus Boehner; Marco backstabs Jeb; Bush II motivated by Saddam’s diss of his dad; Reagan and O’Neil govern as pals. Donald Trump received enormous media coverage from the very start of his campaign because his obnoxious personality and personal comments about others enabled the media to write about personality without really touching the issues.

It takes our mind off the problem. Focusing on the legacy issue instigates conversations about what Obama’s legacy should be. Those opposed to actions to slow down and address the ravages of climate change should be delighted. They can no longer call into question the facts of global warming, at least not with a straight face. The latest research puts the lie to their long-time fallacy that transitioning from fossil fuels will hurt the economy. But no matter, the mainstream media helps to distract people from the gloomy facts by creating another controversy: what does a conference on climate change mean to the legacy of the widely if unfairly despised first black president? If the talks fail, Obama has in part failed. If Republicans can block any agreement to which Obama agrees in Paris, they have taken down the man and tattered his legacy. The main attraction is no longer what to do about established facts, but a political cat fight.

There are misinformed voters who don’t want the government to take over Medicare and others who don’t like food stamps and other social welfare programs because they wrongly believe that the money goes almost exclusively to blacks. Similarly benighted individuals who support action to address climate change might root against Obama achieving anything of substance at Paris since what is at issue is not preserving the world as we know it for 7.3 billion human inhabitants and our fellow travelers, but something far more important—the legacy of this one man who has attracted so much unwarranted animosity by virtue of being the first black president.

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Wyoming Senator John Barrasso perfects the art of lying while telling the truth

Although he has heavy competition from Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, Donald Trump has recently established himself the king of the Big Lie.

Saying that he saw thousands of people in New Jersey cheering the toppling of the twin towers on 9/11 serves as the American epitome of the “Big Lie.” Like Hitler’s big lies about the Jews, Trump’s false statement serves to support a virulent and odious racist position and also plays into the beliefs of Nativists and what some pundits are calling the “undereducated voters.”  After historians and news bureaus proved beyond the doubt that there was no such occurrence of a group of thousands cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center, Trump dug his heels in and said many people had tweeted they saw the same thing on TV—surely what Trump and his peeps saw were crowds of Arabs in a Middle Eastern country cheering. But it never happened in the United States, and Trump knows it!

The crescendo of disapproval of Trump’s incendiary 9/11 lie coincided with a report in the New York Times that Trump placed an historical marker on a golf course he bought noting that a bloody Civil War battle had taken place on the spot. Of course nothing happened there. After historians corrected the Donald, he dug his heels in again with some medieval thinking: “So if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot—a lot of them.” Note he’s arguing from general principles, which is called deductive reasoning. Popular among scholastics in the European Middle Ages, deductive reasoning can be a powerful tool, except when its conclusions contradict the facts on the ground, which are determined through inductive reasoning.  Trump’s logic is full of holes. Moreover, the fact that he believes deductive logic over empirical fact-gathering should be truly disturbing to everyone. Unfortunately, these lies comfort those predisposed to mistrust immigrants and hate religions not their own.

But Trump’s Big Lies and those of the other Republican candidates are blunt instruments compared to the surgical precision that Wyoming Republic Senator John Barrasso uses in his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “Congress Can Cool off Obama’s Climate Plans.”  Barrasso manages to build lies based on accurate statistics.

The headline tells us all we need to know about Barrasso’s stand on human-induced global warming, which is now euphemistically called “climate change” in polite circles. He tries to stonewall all actions to address climate change for the short-term business interests of the coal companies and other energy corporations which he serves.

His call to arms to Congress to block the President’s likely actions at the upcoming Paris climate change conference begins with his assertion that there is already too much regulation of emissions in the United States. His proof is the fact that we are responsible for a mere 13% of world-wide greenhouse gas emissions, down from 24% since 2000. China by contrast pumps out 24% of the world’s carbon-based pollution.  His implication, of course, is that China should cut back, but that United States has already done its part.

What Barrasso neglects to say is that per capita Americans burn more fossil fuels than any other nation. We Americans pumps so much pollution into the atmosphere that we are responsible for 13% of all greenhouse gases with only 5% of the world’s population. China has 4.35 times the population of the United States, which means that on average each American is responsible for 2.37 times more greenhouses gasses than each Chinese.  Certainly China, India (another country given an apples-to-orange comparison by Barrasso) need to install additional pollution controls and switch as much as possible to non-fossil fuels, but that does not absolve the United States of its responsibility to continue reducing green-house gas emissions.

Later in the article Barrasso notes that the United States is negotiating away our economy, because recent deals give developing nations more slack than the United States in terms of when emissions regulations are phased in. He notes that developing countries have been growing recently by 7%-9%, whereas the United States has seen 2% growth. He blusters that by imposing environmental regulations on us 15 years before they go into effect elsewhere we are subsidizing these other economies. The facts about growth rates are true, but the premise is as leaky as a straw roof in a hurricane. First of all, 2% growth is more than twice as high as the historic growth rate of the economy through centuries. More significantly, our growth does not depend on the energy we use, nor on the energy that we sell to other countries.  Recent studies have delinked the growth of greenhouse emissions with economic growth because the problems caused by global warming will cost the United States and the world, so much money to solve and natural disasters will lead to so much lost productivity.

Barrasso performs a rhetorical feat of distraction similar to a magician’s. While we are watching the facts in one hand, Barrasso slips us a mickey of false premises and illogical reasoning, proving once again that Samuel Butler was right when he said that while figures never lie, liars figure.

Of course, for many people, the annoying part of Barrasso’s article is not that he lies, but that he doesn’t tell entertaining lies such as the ones uttered by Trump, Carson and Cruz.

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Americans around tables with friends/families in warm homes should give thanks they aren’t refugees

As hundreds of millions of Americans gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we should give thanks that we aren’t refugees.

Whether praying to a deity or expressing our humanity, we should give thanks that our homes have not been destroyed, that we have not seen friends and family killed or injured by bombs and bullets.

We should give thanks that we have never been raped, nor lived with the knowledge that our daughters and women have been.

We should give thanks that we have not had to huddle in camps, low on food or not knowing where to find the next meal, or crowded onto trains, our children crying, our elderly groaning in pain, often smelling the stench of human excrement.

We should be thankful we don’t live in a no-win situation, caught between two, three, and in the case of Syria, four armies, all shooting, bombing, rounding up, vandalizing and marauding.

We should give thanks that our country has been bombed only once and that was 74 years ago. We should be thankful that our country hasn’t been invaded since a slave-owning break-away confederacy attacked the territory of those loyal to the Constitution more than 150 years ago.

We should be thankful that we live in a land of relative abundance and low crime.

We should be thankful that we were born or have immigrated to this country and remember that we didn’t make the United States, the United States made us—its freedom of expression, religion and action, its relative abundance, its consistent rule of law and its openness to immigrants. We have our problems, specifically our mistreatment of minorities; a wide gap between the wealthy and everyone else; a lack of cradle-to-grave healthcare and education for all; and our dependence on fossil fuels. But we at least have the possibility of fixing those problems without resorting to violence.

In particular, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina should be thankful for being born rich. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz should be thankful for being born with high intelligence, a gift of god or chance that no one works to get. Jeb Bush should be thankful he was born the scion of a political dynasty.

All these individuals and everyone else about to take a knife and fork to a large succulent piece of white turkey meat slathered with gravy could have just as easily been born in Aleppo or Palmyra.

And being thankful that we are not refugees, we should open our hearts—and our shores—to those unfortunates who are. Otherwise, we lose our humanity and our country loses the reason it exists.

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The worst way to react to the Paris bloodbath is to escalate the war against ISIS

First we react with horror and sympathy. Then anger takes over, perhaps too quickly, and we focus on how we are going to revenge the deaths of innocents and destroy the barbaric enemy who planned and initiated the terrorism. Of course we hunt down the perpetrators who did not die, but we also start inflicting damage on the greater government to which they hold allegiance by all means at our disposal.

But what if we don’t have bombers that can fly thousands of miles? We likely resort to sneak attacks by suicide soldiers and other acts of guerilla warfare. We bring the war home to the other side.

That essentially would be the argument justifying the ISIS attacks on Paris that killed about 130 people, from the ISIS point of view. It’s an argument that all should reject, except those who are in favor of committing acts of violence for political and economic reasons. Which pretty much means every Western government and many of their citizens.

Those whose knowledge of ISIS begins with its blitzkrieg land grab and YouTube beheadings should consider this scenario: A foreign country topples your stable government, bringing anarchy to the land. Hundreds of thousands of your people have been slaughtered, plus many more injured or displaced. You are a patriot who is also devoutly religious, so religious that you are willing to follow the extreme form of it that demands that you inflict your views on others, such as evangelicals frequently do in the United States. These religious views help you engage in savagery when you fight both the external and internal enemies, because these are infidels, or worse yet, nonbelievers dedicated to controlling you and your country and imposing their customs. This last part kind of sounds like the motivation for a lot of Israel’s brutal actions through the years, but the scenario as a whole is what happened in Iraq.

The other scenario to consider is a country whose rebels are being supplied by other countries, thereby weakening the legitimate government so much that different rebel groups control different parts of the country. Both the weak legitimate government and other rebel forces are attacking your rebel group, using weapons supplied by governments in other continents.

These scenarios are not meant to justify ISIS or its actions, but to react to the broadly held notion that it is somehow more barbaric and more evil than the Western governments that have been terrorizing the Middle East for decades and filling the barracks of all sides with sophisticated weaponry. All sides have behaved immorally.

In considering what to do now, there are two basic issues to consider, and we need to keep them separate: One, stop terrorism that destroys innocent lives. Two, bring order to the bloody anarchy that is Iraq and Syria. We must keep in mind that while these objectives are related, the means to obtain them are different.

Let’s first take a look at ending terrorism. The West, and especially the United States, has done a great job in reducing terrorist episodes. Let’s compare the number of people who collectively died in the Russian airplane crash, the Charlie Hebdo and Synagogue massacres and the coordinated attacks on Paris this past week. Counting the Paris attacks as one, we have four separate acts of terrorism and we haven’t reached 500 dead yet. Fourteen years ago, a single act of terror (or four coordinated acts) on 9/11 killed 2,977 (excluding the 19 hijackers). Remember, Al-Qaida was a shadowy group with few adherents, whereas ISIS controls territories and has thousands of soldiers. A more powerful group has inflicted less damage in more attacks. Going further back, there were far more terrorist attacks in the United States in the 1970s than since the turn of the century, although collectively none cost as many lives as 9/11.

Why are acts of terror down? Because all the Western countries, and especially the United States, do a much better job of identifying potential terrorists, weeding out terrorist plots, securing our borders and protecting our airports. In fact, much of the enhanced security instituted after 9/11 has gone over or close to the line of what is appropriate in a free and civil society. What I’m suggesting is that we’re doing enough to prevent terrorism right now, both here and in Europe.

The threat of terrorism will exist as long as a country has enemies which it engages in a shooting war, internal dissidents who feel a special allegiance to the enemy or mentally ill people—ideologically motivated or not—with ready access to guns. In other words, we won’t end terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists until the Middle East is stabilized.

And that won’t happen as long as anyone in the Western world is bombing, giving or selling weapons, providing advisors or putting troops on the ground. The lesson of the Paris bloodbath should not be to bomb ISIS and trample on civil liberties. The answer should be to continue to be vigilant domestically, but get the hell out of the business of selling weapons to foreign governments or directly fighting ISIS or Assad or any other side in Syria and Iraq. It’s not a matter of cutting-and-running. It’s a matter of stopping the decades of foolishly messing around in the business of other countries.

Those who want to use the Paris bloodbath as an excuse to deny refugees entrance into France, the United States, Germany or other countries or to persecute Muslim immigrants are blaming millions of innocent hard-working people for the sins of a very few.

The territory that defines Iraq and Syria will eventually grow tired of war, sooner if the main sources of weaponry and financial support dries up. As I have written before, at that point we should be ready to do business with any government dedicated to peace and ready to renounce terrorism moving forward. If that includes ISIS, so be it. We made terms with terrorists such as Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. How is a beheading or taking hostages at a concert venue any different from bombing a business hotel?

I want to close with a comparison between the calls to action raised by most politicians and media outlets in the wake of the Paris bombing and the proposals that routinely surface after a domestic act of terrorism by a lone gunman born and raised in United States, at a school, church or Pilates class, AKA, a mass murder. Since Paris we have had calls to bomb ISIS, put more boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria, end asylum for Syrian refugees (except Christians) and have the National Security Agency begin crossing the line into illegality again. Yet after the mass murders, the same people wanting to strike out at ISIS, often illegally, routinely reject all the known anecdotes for reducing gun violence in America, including waiting periods, stricter standards for ownership, more effective gun registries, laws preventing concealed or unconcealed carrying of firearms and limits to the types of weapons and ammunition that may be purchased.  In the United States, at least, we have far more to fear from the collective body of gun owners than the collective body on ISIS jihadists. The equation is a little different in Europe, but then again, the total number of people killed by guns is far, far lower on a per capita basis there than in the United States.

The paradox of wanting to strike out at ISIS but not restrict gun rights is easily explained by the underlying principle that motivates most action by the American governments on all levels—making more money for the ruling elite. By having loose gun laws, we sell more guns. We also sell more guns by reacting to terrorism with an irrational war or military support of one or more factions—be it in the former Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, or the current ISIS-controlled land. Often the same companies are involved in both private and military armament manufacturing and sales.

Thus, we are completely consistent. We always do what’s best for the domestic and international weapons industry.

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The immigration argument that Rubio ducked shows what’s wrong with presidential debate structure

Both the Associated Press and The New York Times did a solid job of reporting the factual mistakes made by the various Republican candidates for president in the fourth debate. Between the two media outlets, they picked up on the fact that:

  • Ben Carson was wrong when he said that raising the minimum wage always increases the number of jobless.
  • Donald Trump was wrong when he claimed China designed the Trans-Pacific Partnership; in fact China had nothing to do with the agreements.
  • Marco Rubio was wrong when he said welders make more money than philosophy majors; philosophy majors make more than three times what welders do.
  • Ted Cruz was lying when he said he was proposing a simple 10% flat tax, when his plan also calls for a 16% added value tax; added value taxes, FYI, are typically passed along to end users—meaning the general public.

But as usual, the media outlets went after small fry errors, the policy equivalent of nitpicking gotcha’s. On the larger issue of conceptual lies, the media was silent. To a person, the eight candidates at the “big kids” debate all advocate that lowering taxes will lead to economic growth. Analyzing each of their tax proposals in detail reveals that all want to give the lion’s share of reduced taxes to the wealthy and ultra-wealthy. None of the media points out that the bulk of the research by economists demonstrates that lowering taxes on the wealthy does not lead to increased jobs, but raising taxes on them does.

Likewise with government regulation, immigration and the minimum wage: The media is happy to correct an error—or lie—of number or fact, but not of concept.

Speaking of the minimum wage, the way the debate moderators handled that issue at the fourth debate exemplifies what’s wrong with the basic debate structure. At the very beginning of the debate, a moderator asked Trump and Carson whether they thought the minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour. We did not get an opportunity to hear what any of the other candidates thought about the minimum wage, because the moderators changed the question for Marco Rubio, who decided to answer the minimum wage question despite the change of subject. All three were against raising the minimum wage, but we never found out what the other five thought.

The moderators insisted on flitting from question to question, afraid that viewers would get too bored with eight people pontificating/obfuscating/expatiating the same basic thoughts on the same issue, essentially saying the same thing, because it seems as if on every issue, at least six of the eight hold isomorphic views. The show biz aspects of the debate compel the moderators to keep the subject fresh.

The changing of topics before all had their say worked in Marco Rubio’s favor when the topic turned to immigration. First Trump gave his poisonous views on immigration and then both Kasich and Jeb pointed out the impossibility of deporting 11 million people. Jeb added a compassionate note about the American way. It was probably his finest moment in the campaign so far, and was rightfully the highlight of much of the mainstream news media’s coverage.

What happened next is what I would call a deus ex machina for Rubio. A deus ex machina is a god that comes out of a machine at the end of Greek or Roman play who resolves all the plot twists; in modern parlance it refers to any sudden ending, such as the King pardoning Mack the Knife (Brecht) or arresting Tartuffe (Moliere). For Rubio, the deus ex machina was the moderator’s need to change the subject. The next question was to the young lad Marco, but about automation, not immigration. And unlike the first time the moderator changed the subject on Rubio and Rubio said, “Let me answer that, too,” this time Rubio took a pass and gave his standard campaign messages about addressing automation. Rubio avoided the need to confront his disgraceful waffling on the subject, coming out against the immigration bill he helped to develop because he was afraid to lose primary votes.

Much of the news media is calling Rubio the big winner from last night, but I think that’s wishful thinking for those looking for an alternative to Cruz, which means most of the mainstream and rightwing news media. I don’t think any candidate did anything to change anyone’s minds, except Carly Fiorina, who I expect will lose support.

Carly produced the most laughable moment of the debates, and she did it again and again. It’s when she kept calling for “zero-based budgeting” as the answer to our problems. Zero-based budgeting means that when putting together an annual budget, a manager does not start with last year’s number, but determines the department’s needs for the coming year; you start from zero and decide what you really need. It’s a technique of managing corporations that I learned in my first job after graduate school, in 1974! It’s been around for decades. Wikipedia says the federal government has been using it since Jimmy Carter mandated it in 1977. It’s a fundamental tool of all organizations.

Essentially, what she is saying is the equivalent of a chess teacher saying he can teach a kid to be a world champion by learning the “fried liver” offense, which can win you a game or two on the beginner’s level but will lose to any player with even a little experience. I have to believe that many business people noticed that Fiorina is advocating the second day’s lesson in business management 101 for non-majors as the key to most of our problems. Even those without MBAs will likely have been bored by this one-trick pony droning on and on in message points that sometimes didn’t really match the question.

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Evangelicals should protest that Starbucks commercializes Christmas by offering special cups to attract sales

Another skirmish on the culture wars broke out this week as right-wing Christians have flooded the social and mainstream media complaining that the specialty coffee cup into which the part-time, low-paid servers working for multinational Starbucks pour its overpriced brew in November and December does not sufficiently represent Christmas. This year’s cup is plain red with the Starbucks’s logo. In past years, Starbucks has embellished its holiday cup with icons of contemporary secular Christmas celebration such as ornaments, carolers and snowflakes.

Evangelicals say the Starbucks’s action is part of a continuing “War on Christmas.” For about 10 years now, religious right-wingers and right-wing media such as Fox News have complained whenever big retailers have used “holiday” in their ads and marketing instead of saying “Christmas.” The motivation of the retailers seems clear: to entice those who don’t celebrate Christmas to participate in the potlatch of conspicuous consumption which defines late December in the United States and most other countries whose population is Christian or has a Christian background. Jews fell into line decades ago, turning a minor holiday—Hanukkah—into an occasion for gift-giving, which of course means gift-buying. But what about Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year? And what do retailers do about Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi, Jains and the myriad of other religions practiced by Americans? An ecumenical “holiday” season certainly has a better chance of attracting sales from all these non-Christian groups than a “Christmas” season.

But that’s not how the evangelicals see it. To them, everything that does not directly manifest Christianity in the marketplace in November and December is a direct attack on Christianity. If they cared so much about Christianity, however, their concern would not be that the marketplace is too secular, but rather that the marketplace has taken over Christmas and slowly drained it of any religious meaning.

The big complaint should be that Starbucks trots out its special holiday cups as early as the first week of November, the same time that most retailers install their holiday decorations, which mostly draw from Christmas traditions. We have two solid months in which we are bombarded almost 24/7 with attempts to sell us goods and services to celebrate the holidays. Whether “holiday” means Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Chinese New Year or whatever, the marketplace and the mass media exhort us to celebrate by buying stuff. Not by following Christian principles. Not by contemplating what some will call holy mysteries and others will call myths. Not by helping others. No, most of the holiday information overload focuses on conspicuous consumption. As is the American way, we relate to others and the real world on Christmas solely as purchasers.

If they really cared about Christianity, right-wingers would protest the commercialization of Christmas. They would advocate that cashiers and store greeters say “Happy Holidays” or give the normal rest-of-the-year greeting, because reducing their religious holiday to conspicuous consumption dishonors the day’s holiness. They would picket stores with Christmas displays, since those displays are merely exhortations to buy, and not reflections of devotion to their god.

Muddying the Starbucks cup controversy is the ignorance of many of the evangelicals, who don’t realize that certain Christmas practices have nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with social customs, many of which predate Christianity, such as bringing greenery inside the home in winter. For example, one prominent evangelical dunce named Joshua Feuerstein wrote on Facebook, “Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups?” Of course, he was wrong. There never was a symbol of Christ on the cups, just symbols of secular Christmas.

Those who believe in the War on Christmas do not understand how ubiquitous and potent the symbols of Christianity are in society during the last two months of the year. The Starbucks cup is exhibit A. While plain, the color combination is red and green, traditional Christmas colors. As far as I know, there are no white and blue cups, which would suggest Hanukkah. No cups add black to the color palette, which would symbolize Kwanzaa. None of the cups are red and gold, colors associated with the Chinese New Year.

No, it’s only red and green, the colors of Christmas. Starbucks may proclaim its dedication to diversity, but its special holiday cup references only one holiday. Even those commercials that talk about the “season” exclusively focus on Christmas in the iconography they present—trees, stockings, Christmas-style decorations.  I’ve yet to see a Menorah or dreidel in a Wal-Mart or Target TV commercial. One sometimes sees Hanukkah themes in store decorations—a little Jewish star in a sea of Santas, reindeer, candy canes, ornaments, trees, angels and carolers. That’s why many Jews and other non-Christians feel that the real war this time of year is against every other religion. I understand that retailers focus on Christmas because most Americans are either Christian or of a Christian background. But that knowledge does little to relieve the oppression and alienation that many non-Christians feel as the holiday is shoved down their throats for two solid months.

After making a vague suggestion that people should boycott Starbucks because it only used color to symbolize Christmas and Christianity on this year’s special cup, commercial real estate failure and former reality show host Donald Trump—who, BTW, is running for the Republican nomination for president—said “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying, ‘Merry Christmas’ again. That I can tell you.” Now that’s a declaration of real war, not against Christmas or Christians, but against basic American values. That a major party candidate should make such a statement should send a chill down all of our spines.

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If the series of Republican presidential debates is a reality show, then Ben Carson’s version is alternate reality TV

Every day we’re learning more about the fantasy world in which presidential candidate Ben Carson inhabits. Carson believes in a curious hodgepodge of fantasies, discredited myths, false ideas and inaccuracies, all of which he seems to have determined a priori, that is, before he considered any evidence outside his own longings or those of his constituencies.

These false beliefs—many self-serving because they justify Carson’s political stands—are cancerous, because they can spread quickly among people through the Internet and social media, infecting the innocent with ideas that are not only wrong but can sometimes harm them, like the idea that more guns in public will keep us safer.

The latest “Carsonoma” is the revelation that 17 years ago, Carson told a group of graduating college students that the Egyptians built the pyramids to store grain under the direction of the Biblical character of Joseph. Since Buzzfeed first reported this fantasy, Carson has defended his statement with an even greater stupidity: “Some people believe in the Bible, like I do.” It’s a greater stupidity, because the Bible does not mention storing grain in the pyramids, nor does it say anything about Joseph initiating the pyramid construction program.

Media outlets are furiously looking to find a new Carsonoma that tops the last revelation of Carson’s ignorance. I’m quite certain the Bush and Clinton campaigns, and perhaps others, are aiding journalists as they pore over every piece of video or written comment the benighted Carson has ever uttered.

For those who think I’m exaggerating the extent to which Ben Carson lives in an alternate reality, let’s review some of Ben’s greatest hits. Some of these are quotes, and some paraphrases based on quotes and media reports:

  • Homosexuality is a choice because people go into prison straight and come out of prison gay.
  • The theory of evolution is a fraud promoted by the “forces of evil.” Evolution is a theory from Satan.
  • Obamacare is like slavery.
  • Jews could have defended themselves against Hitler if they had guns.
  • Without Fox News, the United States would be like Cuba.
  • A Muslim shouldn’t be president.

But wait, there’s more! Carson said that when he visited federal prisons, he was “flabbergasted by the accommodations,” and he worries that we are “creating an environment that is conducive to comfort where a person would want to stay.” Yes, Carson believes that people are committing crimes for the privilege of rotting in a Texas or Alabama prison.

Behind each of these statements is either a political stance or an appeal to Carson’s main constituency, fundamentalist Christians. He is in favor of loosening gun control laws even more than they are now. He doesn’t like it when the government helps the poor or the elderly. He wants to establish Christianity as our state religion.  To prove his point, he either makes stuff up, or believes the half-cocked, already disproven theories of others in the reality-challenged community.

Besides looking for new verbal boners, the media is hot on the trail of Carson lies, and it’s about time.

Like all Republican candidates, he tells the standard lies like you cut taxes to stimulate growth and Social Security is in trouble. And again, like all the other republican candidates with the possible exception of Rand Paul, Carson tells special lies related to his own past and/or present. He has certainly lied about his role in promoting Mannatech, which sells nutritional supplements, skin care products and weight management products, all using multilevel marketing, which essentially builds a pyramid of sales by having sales people recruit other sales people in whose commissions they share.  He claims not to have been tied to Mannatech, yet his name and image have been used extensively in marketing the company’s products.

The latest allegation of Carson lying comes from CNN-TV, which could find no evidence that Carson was mean, prone to violence or a bully in interviewing people who had gone to school with Carson. None could remember any of the incidents of violence that Carson touts in his book.  As is typical of politicians who try to pretty up their past, Carson had no reason to pretend he started as a bad seed. The very fact that he went to Yale and became a prominent neurosurgeon is admirable in and of itself. Carson gilded the lily, probably because the myth of the reformed sinner plays so well with his constituency. It took years, but he was finally caught in the lie.

And let’s not forget about the inherent lie underlying Carson’s campaign. Although Carson is raising a lot of money, he’s spending a higher percentage of what he takes in every month than every other candidate except Hillary Clinton. A typical campaign spends money on traditional and online, rent, payroll and travel, spending that enables the candidate to build a real campaign infrastructure for the long haul. By contrast, virtually all of Carson’s money is being plowed back into raising more money. In other words, Carson doesn’t really have a campaign, but a fund-raising machine built almost exclusively on direct marketing.

The chance of any future embarrassment leading to Carson’s decline is minimal, since lots of people in his core constituency believe a lot of stuff he says. But his fantastical statements and fibs about his past and present will prevent other Republicans and most independents from supporting him. I don’t think we need fear Carson being elected president, or even being nominated by the Republicans.

It seems as if the United States often flirts with candidates who are living in a dream world and build their campaigns almost entirely on lies, myths and fantastical notions, but we never elect them. That’s right…there was Ronald Reagan and that Bush II fella. Make that almost never.

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In thinking about our troops in Syria, remember Viet Nam and how quickly 50 can become 500,000

I wonder whether the Obama Administration has been watching too many superhero movies. You know, the kind in which a team of three or four superheroes take on armies of the powerful.

How else can we account for the administration’s assertion that embedding 50 specially trained soldiers into Kurdish and certain Syrian rebel forces will make a difference?

These must be 50 very talented individuals.

Especially when you consider that President Obama has predicted that Russian actions in Syria would lead to a quagmire. Russia now has 4,000 troops in the country, or 8,000 boots on the ground, as military pundits like to write. Before Russia began bombing ISIS, and perhaps rebel, positions a month ago, there were only 2,000 Russian troops on the ground.

What difference does it make? 4,000 or 2,000, with or without the air strikes—that’s nothing compared to 50 red-blooded Americans. We’ll get the job done while avoiding both the quag and the mire.

Obama’s initial announcement said the 50 troops would provide strategic and tactical advice. Now it turns out, that they will also go out on raids. But since they’ll be fighting less than 50% of the time, the mission is classified as “non-combat.” It sounds as if some professor of Newspeak left over from the euphemistically inclined Bush-Cheney Administration thought up that logic. I lost some respect for the President for telling this big white lie.

At least these 50 soldiers don’t have as their goal the one thing that U.S. troops have consistently shown they are able to do: Get the local military anywhere from weeks to months away from being ready to go it alone. Wasn’t that the assessment of the situation for months, and sometimes years at a time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Viet Nam? Turns out that our armed forces never were able to complete that job anywhere.

We’re not on a training mission, and we’re not on a combat mission. What then? Some have characterized what our troops are doing in Syria as offering guidance: Let’s hope, then, that we’re talking about group therapy, because one-on-one sessions can get to be expensive. Or will we get into the heat of battle and our guidance be to show the Kurds/rebels how to fire their shiny new American-made weapons? First we load, then we aim, then we push this button. Gee that was fun, let me show you again.

The sarcasm of these comments is meant to hide a large, gnawing fear that Syria is going to become the next Iraq, Afghanistan or Viet Nam. At this point, it structurally resembles Viet Nam in that we are starting with a small contingent of crack troops whose job is to train and advise the locals. Our troops in Viet Nam ballooned from a few hundred advisors to a half a million soldiers in what those who lived through it probably remember as a blink of the eye—but what was really just a few years. The difference of course is that this time we’re supporting two of three rebel forces and not the official government. That’s Russia’s role in this increasingly bloody farce.

Syria is a mess, and for a change, it’s not entirely America’s fault, as the mess in Iraq is. But like Iraq and Afghanistan, there is nothing that we can do to fix the Syrian situation. Four forces are fighting over a territory jerry-rigged between the 20th century’s two world wars and at least two of the forces would be delighted to rule over a part of the whole.  No side has distinguished itself for its humanitarianism or its dedication to free-market democracy.

The only skin we should have in this game are the Syrian people themselves. And there can be little doubt that the Syrian people will suffer from the Administration’s policy of a slow water-torture kind of ratcheting up of our military involvement, and will suffer even more from the Putin and Republican solution of making a major commitment to the fighting.

If we care about the Syrian people, we should withdraw all military aid to all parties involved in the Syrian free-for-all. We should sell no more arms to any of these forces, nor to any other country in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Instead, we should lead a massive relief effort to get humanitarian aid to the refugees and place them in other countries throughout the world. We should be prepared to take a hundred thousand Syrians ourselves.

The war will go on, but wars have a way of ending when resources are depleted, and withdrawing our military support from the region will accelerate that depletion process by years. Our withdrawal from an active role in the Syrian melee will, of course, position Iran and Russia to become the major foreign players in Syria—more of a poisoned pawn than an honor, based on the experience of various powerful nations in Viet Nam, Chechnya, Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.

After the smoke clears, we should provide economic but not military aid to the two or three governments that will control parts of the former Syria. That aid should be conditioned on those governments having free elections and refraining from the worst sorts of human rights violations now practiced by Assad and ISIS. We forgave Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for their terrorist pasts and consider the only countries to attack our shores—Great Britain and Japan—as best of friends. I don’t believe it’s inconceivable that we will be doing business with ISIS if and when they mature into a legitimate government.

Or not.

What isn’t conceivable is getting into another war in which American soldiers are lost and tens or hundreds of thousands of innocents are killed, injured or displaced. I fear going from 50 to 5,000 or 500,000 troops on the ground much more than I fear a few beheadings.

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EHarmony resurrects TV ad that proposes having a threesome with a Christian authority figure

Do Americans want a “Big Brother” figure involved in their intimate relationships?

That’s what, one of the largest dating sites in the world, seems to be saying in a commercial that it aired two years ago and recently resurrected with some fresh vignettes.

Underlying the imagery is a sleazy subtext that suggests the possibility of a wholesome threesome involving a man and a woman and a sage-looking elderly gentleman, who happens to be EHarmony founder, Neil Clark Warren.

Here are the vignettes that visually dominate the current versions of the ad:

  • A man and a woman take a romantic ride in a horse carriage. As the carriage moves past the screen, we see that Warren is sitting with them in the open cab.
  • A man and woman are getting cozy on a couch, about ready to watch TV when Warren sits down between and the woman offers him a large bowl of popcorn and starts munching.
  • At the beach, a woman gives a man a drink with a little hat or umbrella in it and turns to her other side and gives a drink to Warren.
  • My favorite because it is so overtly sexual: An African-American man gives his African-American girlfriend a ring at a fancy restaurant, then she reaches across the table to show the ring to Warren, who comments about his role in the selection. At the end of this vignette, the black man and Warren bump fists, much as they might after cackling about conquests.

In all of these vignettes, Warren has intruded on a romantic moment that typically leads to a sexual experience, turning the scene into symbolic ménage a trois. In all cases, Warren enjoys the romantic activity with the couple, which of course, implies that he will also enjoy what comes later. It’s pretty smarmy, whether you conceive of Warren as participating or merely watching.

Meanwhile, the voice over makes a completely grandiose and mendacious claim: “Chances are behind every great relationship is” “Chances are” means probably or almost definitely. The explicit statement here is that is responsible for a large part of all great relationships (at least between men and women). Even if we believe the eHarmony website that 438 members get married every day, plus the implication that they marry other eHarmony members, that’s not a lot of marriages. Experts predict that there will be about 2.2 million marriages in the United States in 2015. An average of 438 members married a day makes eHarmony responsible for about 80,000 marriages a year at the very most, or about 3.6% of the total.  That’s a long way from “every great relationship.” It’s also worth pointing out that not every marriage involves a great relationship. The claim in the TV ad goes far beyond exaggeration. It’s an outright lie.

More disturbing than this false claim, which most will easily see as self-serving puffery, is the hidden message that eHarmony makes by injecting its founder—a white male dressed in a traditional formal suit—into the happy relationships it shows in the ad. The elderly well-dressed white male has been a symbol of authority since humans began conjuring symbols. EHarmony could have just as easily built put a computer or another representation of its survey questionnaire into the ad as the “third party” (of “secret sauce,” as eHarmony says on its website!).  As a sort mechanism, the eHarmony questionnaire  probably works as well as joining other dating services or singles clubs, bar-hopping, attending singles dances, asking friends for fix-ups, taking cruises, or going to adult activities such as Scrabble clubs and singles nights at the symphony.

But the ad is not saying, use us as a tool. It’s saying: interject us—as represented by our white male Christian founder—into your life and your relationship. Let our “key dimensions” of compatibility be your guide, your guru, your teacher, an integral part of the relationship with your significant other. Put us directly into the world you build with your significant other.

Here’s where it gets creepy! Warren is a Christian theologian who first marketed the eHarmony dating site on Christian websites and in other Christian media, touting eHarmony as “based on the Christian principles of Focus on the Family author Dr. Neil Clark Warren.”  EHarmony now claims to be secular and advertises everywhere, plus it has affiliate websites for Asian, black, Christian, senior, Jewish and Hispanic dating.

The hidden message in the ad, however, reflects an authoritarian Christian outlook. One of the main principles of many right-wing Christian denominations and Catholicism is that god is part of the marriage, almost a third person in the relationship. Whether taken on a literal or figurative level, “god in the marriage” represents both the person of god and the principles of action that supposedly lead us to god.

One traditional image of god is as a wise old man. Moreover, a genial grandfatherly man has served as an image for pastors, rectors, priests and other human figures of religious authority for centuries. The hidden message of the ad then is that eHarmony will bring god (or the religious and ethical values god represents) into the relationship.  It’s easy to make the assumption that the god in question is Christian. Moreover, Warren has made the round of mainstream and religious talk shows in the past, and so many will recognize him as an authority figure who promotes Christian values in relationships. So men needn’t fear—that other guy in bed with you and your woman is not another guy—it’s the kindly (and fun-loving) white male god who rules over and protects all of us.

The commercial unfolds so slickly—a few story lines, a voice over delivering the uplifting message and feel-good gospel pop music in the background. Like all TV commercials, it goes by so quickly that we are unaware or only vaguely aware of the subliminal messages. But make no mistake about it—the ad is meant to appeal to those who want someone to tell them what to do, whom to love, how to get it right. Warren and his key dimensions of compatibility are a stand-in for an authoritarian, right-wing church.

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Anyone wondering how much Seattle football coach who prayed at a game will make to be test case for religious right?

Why is it so hard for those who want to defend the rights of Christians to infringe on others to understand that when someone acts as an employee or representative of a public organization, he or she absolutely cannot wear their religion on the sleeve?

The latest attempt to assert a new religious right based not on the freedom to practice but the freedom to make a public display involves an assistant high school football coach for a public school district who was suspended from his job for praying at a game. He had done it before and been warned of the consequences of continuing to promote one religion while in the employ of a public school district.

But don’t feel sorry that Joe Kennedy has lost his job. He has a new one—as the latest poster boy for the religious right. He defiantly has told the news media that he is prepared to take his fight to manifest his Christianity while on the clock all the way to the Supreme Court. With a little help from his friends, who include the lawyers of the Liberty Institute, a pro bono law firm that specializes in helping Christian individuals and groups (and occasionally Orthodox Jews) use the First Amendment to assert their rights to encroach on secular institutions. I couldn’t find anything online yet, but it’s only a matter of time before we learn that donations for Kennedy are pouring in from a crowdsourcing website or that the religious right is taking care of Kennedy’s economic needs in some other way.

An enormous photograph of Kennedy already dominates the Liberty Institute home page less than two days after the suspension. Either they move quickly or they had already coordinated Kennedy’s defiance of the school district’s direct order not to continue praying on the sidelines. I’m thinking the latter.

Call me cynical, but I’m wondering whether Kennedy has already negotiated his remuneration for serving as the test case. It would be no different from the hoard of PhDs taking money from right-wing think tanks to write claptrap against the minimum wage and public unions.

The self-proclaimed mission of the Liberty Institute is “to defend and restore religious liberty across America—in our schools, for our churches, inside the military, and throughout the public arena.” In the past, the Liberty Institute has defended the right of a student to distribute candy canes with a religious story attached at his school’s holiday party; filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veteran Affairs alleging it had censored prayers and the use of the words “God and Jesus”; and established the “Don’t Tear Me Down” campaign to fight challenges against veterans memorials with Christian symbolism.

The Liberty Institute and other Kennedy defenders assert that his public prayer is protected by the First Amendment, forgetting that the First Amendment also protects against the establishment of one religion over the others. As a football coach, Kennedy is paid to be a figure of authority. His prayers can make the students who aren’t the same religion feel very uncomfortable, very left out.  Believe me, I know. I was on the football team of one of the five high schools I attended. (I’d like to say I “played football,” but I never entered any game for even one play!)  We always had a prayer session conducted by a member of the local clergy before every game, always ecumenical, with no prayer specific to one religion read nor any particular rite mentioned. We had about 80 kids on the team, all of whom were Christians of various sorts, except for three Jews, myself and two boys who were all-city. One time, the religious figure talked about Christ in the pre-game prayer. All three of us felt humiliated, bullied and unwanted. We told the coach how angry we were, and our parents probably did as well. The coach apologized immediately and assured us that it would never happen again. And it didn’t, at least as long as I went to that high school.

That was 1966 in Miami, Florida, long before evangelical groups decided that it wasn’t enough to have the right to practice one’s own religion in peace, but that they had to make sure that America was branded as a Christian nation that abided by Christian laws.

Even then I questioned the need to have any sort of prayer before football games, ecumenical or not. I understand that football and religion tend to go hand-in-hand in many places. It makes sense, because the same kind of belief in a higher order that helps if one is trying to follow the many rites and beliefs of an organized religion also can serve as the personal justification for putting oneself through painful practices and risking life-threatening injuries on every play. For similar reasons, military organizations often promote religiosity as a stabilizing and motivating element.  No one stops to think that perhaps one or more deities are rooting for the opponent, be it an athletic competition or a war.

Religion is an integral part of the football mentality. The ideal, of course, would be if everyone on the team were fighting for the same religion, so that the individual team members would feel even more bonded to each other and more ready to make sacrifices for victory. Unfortunately, professional teams, those affiliated with public schools and organizations and the armed forces are unable to enjoy the benefits of religious unity. There are just too many different religions around. Plus we have all those atheists.

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