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I’m watching Stephen Colbert the other night, and he shows a clip of Sean holier-than-thou Hannitty saying “America has the greatest health care system in the world.” This is followed by clips of other Fox news puppets echoing the sentiment. Yesterday, a conservative guest on “Morning Joe” tried valiantly to hide her apoplexy when Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone dared to proclaim that there are serious problems with the American health care system.

This, again, is the whole ball of wax wrapped up in a nutshell: If you think the solution to all of our problems is to shout “America is number 1” more loudly and more often, and to wave the flag more fervently, then “conservatives” and the Republican Party are for you. This is their solution to everything.

When conservatives accuse liberals (and, man, I hate using those labels without quotation marks) of “blaming America first,” I reply that the real problem is that conservative will not blame America first, second, third or thousandth. We’re the richest, most powerful country in the world, yet somehow nothing is our responsibility. Even invading an unarmed country somehow wasn’t our fault.

Patriotism is like religion: it’s often dangerous because it’s often mindless.

I was going to expand on these thoughts here. Then Bill Maher went and read my mind again:

Bill Maher: New Rule: No Shame in Being the Sorry Party

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I Hate These People More Every Day

The hysterical woman at the town hall meeting shrieks, "I want my country back!"  She may as well have added ". . . from the scary black man."  It was almost as audible unspoken.

Another woman, another town hall, and this one says she's afraid "we're losing our country."

For eight years, these people slept while our government did the most patently un-American things.  Detained individuals indefinitely without charges, tortured, spied on American citizens without warrants, pre-emptively invaded and occupied an unarmed country.  We're still doing much of this.  THIS was just fine with these people.

But now, we're in danger of "losing our country" because . . . we want health care reform.

 Health care.  This is what has got these neanderthals in an uproar.

Pressed, they say they're most concerned about government spending.  These folks have no problem spending money . . . as long as it's being spent to kill.  But the moment we're spending money to literally save lives, their red, white and blue blood starts to boil.  And mine starts to boil listening to their nonsense.

Back to politics

The President of the United States recently asked (or demanded) that Israel cease settlement projects in East Jerusalem.  Yesterday, President Netenyahu told President Obama to shove it up his ass (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31994267/ns/world_news-mideastn_africa/).

Care to guess whose side patriotic conservatives will take in this dispute?

I find it odd that Israel is the only ally that conservatives care about.  Conservatives had no problem pissing off vitually every one of our allies for eight years.  They actively tried to transform France from ally to enemy.  And yet they view our alliance with Israel as inviolate, unquestionable.  And I'm sure this post will qualify me as an anti-semite simply for making these observations.

Try as I might, I can't recall a time in elementary school when I was asked to pledge allegiance to the flag of Israel.  Listening to the way conservatives speak of Israel, I almost question my memory.

I accept that we have allies in this world, and Israel is one of them.  I also accept that what I know about the Arab-Israeli conflict could fit inside a thimble.  But here's the way I often see the US-Israel relationship, especially recently:

Let's say you have a very close friend, a guy you've been close with for many years.  You two are so tight that nothing could ever shake your friendship.  Every Friday night you and your buddy go out for drinks.  You know that everyone in the bar hates your buddy, but fuck them - he's your best friend and you don't care what they think.  The problem is, every time you go out, your buddy has a few too many drinks, and the people who don't like him have a few too many drinks, and pretty soon you find yourself in another bar fight.  And so, one time when you go out, you tell your buddy that maybe if he sticks to seltzer tonight, it will lessen the odds of getting into a fight.  Your buddy says that his "enemies" are all drinking, so why shouldn't he?  He says that he's a grown man and has every right to have a few drinks.  He's right.  But that doesn't make your request unreasonable.  And it doesn't make you any less of a friend.

All we've asked is for Israel to CHILL OUT for a while.  Hold off on the alcohol for a night and give us a chance to make PEACE.

And that brings us to the crux of it, don't it?  When was the last time a conservative took the side of peace?

I’m wondering why god hated the 228 people on board this Air France flight: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31040692/?GT1=43001.  Were they all on their way home from a gay pride parade?

I mentioned in my last post that I don’t think I’ll be bringing up anything new here when it comes to the conversation about religion.  And this may be the oldest question in the book.  How do the Judeo-Christian religions explain the existence of evil?  Thoughtful religious people have tried to address this issue for a couple thousand years now.  None has been able to adequately reconcile the contradiction between their stated beliefs and reality.

Why does an omnipotent and benevolent god either allow evil to happen or will it to be done?  The usual strategy in answering this question is to blame humans and our free will.  This results in the general idea that god is to be praised for all that is good in the world, and man is to be blamed for everything that is evil.  Accepting this position for a moment, blaming man’s free will for acts of evil obviously does not account for “acts of god,” such as an airplane being struck by lightning.  And so, religion must offer a different excuse for such an act.


You know what kind of explanation I could wrap my brain around?  I could almost understand if religious people believed something like this:


Everything involved with our existence on this planet is subject to a continual, eternal struggle between good (represent by God) and evil (represented by Satan).  These two forces are virtually equal in their power to effect what happens to us and to our world.  When a tragedy happens (like an earthquake or a hurricane or a six-year-old developing an inoperable brain tumor) it’s an example of the devil winning one.  It happens.


If our preachers proceeded from this idea, and encouraged us all to root for the good guy, if they told us that prayer (better, our collective will) increases the likelihood that the good guy will win more often . . . I could kind of buy this.  It would make some sort of fantastical sense.  But they believe nothing of the sort.  Instead, they seem to believe that their good and loving god is responsible for ALL events, including the evil ones.  And because of this, believers will often then attempt to provide a divine reason for evil.  Hence, evangelicals sure as hell did blame Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans for planning a gay pride parade.  The attacks of 9-11 (the type of event that would usually warrant a simple explanation of man exerting his free will to do evil) was also blamed on America’s “liberal” policies concerning gays and lesbians.  And when a tragedy is so senseless (a six-year-old developing brain cancer, for example) that even the most despicable religionist can’t offer a divine motive, they will usually fall back on that old chestnut about their god moving in “mysterious ways.”  These days, I find most religious people have rebranded that cliché into something more like: ‘I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to presume that I could know the motives of a supreme being.’  They’re plenty comfortable with claiming to be certain about the motives and desires of a supreme being whenever it serves them, but non-believers are the ones accused of arrogance when we ask for a simple explanation as to why their god allows millions to suffer.

The question of evil is real simple.

Either your god is all powerful or he isn’t.

If he is all powerful, and he wills evil to happen, he is evil.

If he is all powerful and he allows evil to happen, he’s possibly worse than evil and certainly doesn’t deserve to be worshipped.

If he is not all powerful, you need to rewrite your books.

Atheist or Agnostic, This is the Question

I opened a Facebook account recently.  The “About Me” section asked for my religion.  Agnostic or atheist, that is the question.

At varying times, Kurt Vonnegut referred to himself using both these terms, in additional to calling himself a humanist, freethinker, skeptic, and probably a few other things.  Oh, and he also said (paraphrase) “the best proof for the existence of God is music.”  So it seemed he at least left open the possibility of something divine.

Vonnegut’s apparently malleable definition of his own philosophy is common for thinking people, I believe.  It is for this reason that I laugh whenever I hear someone claim that atheism is just another religion.  Atheists can’t even agree on what to call themselves, we certainly can’t agree on anything resembling the dogma that is the core of any religion.

            As for myself, I am sometimes willing to label myself agnostic because I am willing to admit my own ignorance, to admit that my knowledge of the universe is miniscule and that I cannot be certain that there isn’t something that started this mess.  And it baffles me whenever I consider that this attitude is not more common.  Agnostics, it seems to me, should be the overwhelming majority – in this country and in the world.  Agnosticism is the very definition of middle of the road!  The extremes should be made up of believers on one side and non-believers on the other (I would, of course, argue that one of these “extremes” is not nearly as extreme as the other, but be that as it may) and the vast middle should be made up of those who are willing to say three simple words: I don’t know.  And yet, the statistics tell us that around 90% of Americans claim to believe in a personal god who takes an active role in their lives.  And this is why I am, for practical purposes, not an agnostic but an atheist.  Because, while I am willing to admit my own uncertainty, there are a few things of which I am 100% certain.  And one of these things is this: the god in which most people claim to believe does not exist.  The idea of a personal god is beyond nonsense.

            The god who cares about what I do in my bedroom does not exist.  The god who made a certain patch of desert holier than everywhere else on earth does not exist.  The god who promised this holy patch of desert to a certain group of people does not exist.  The god who cares if I eat meat on certain days of the week does not exist.  The god who wants me to wear a silly hat when I enter certain buildings does not exist.  The god who requires me to face a certain direction when I pray to him does not exist.  The god who created an entire universe and yet still requires my undying devotion and worship does not exist.  The god who wrote a book does not exist.

            One can reasonably infer that I am one of the millions whose primarily problem is with religion and not “spirituality,” and I would not dispute that with much heart.  But for practical purposes, in 21st-century America, religion and spirituality may as well be the same thing.  And this is why I may as well call myself an atheist and be done with it.

# #

            It’s been a LONG time since I’ve posted here.  From here forward I’m going to attempt to devote this blog to musings of this nature.  I’m probably not going to offer much (if anything) new and I would certainly recommend you go ahead and read some more Sam Harris or Chris Hitchens instead of wasting time here.  But I’ll write it anyway.  For the hell of it.

By Any Other Name

What do the following people have in common?

Tom Seaver
Ken Griffey, Sr.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Sparky Anderson
Babe Ruth

None of them are best known by their given name: George.

I'm sure I had a few others that fit this category (from outside the world of baseball), but I can't seem to remember them now.  The only other example I can think of is James T. Kirk had a brother named George, but Kirk chose to call him Sam (his middle name).

What is it about the name George that causes folks to skip over to their middle name or a nickname instead?

Just wonderin'.

Black and White

Through the course of Obama's run for President, I've heard several of my friends and relatives object to categorizing Obama as the "first black President."  "He's bi-racial!" they say.  "He's half-white!" they say.  I'm surrounded by idiots.  To decide whether Obama is black or white, I propose a simple, one-question test.

Does Barack Obama look like this?


If you answered "no," then rethink your objection to Obama's title as first black President.

In America, if you look black, you are black.  It's that simple.  And yesterday we took one step closer to making it just as simply irrelevant.

I must say, I admire all the folks who were able to, after the election was done and won, continue their roles as informed citizens.  I decided to go to sleep.  After these last eight years, hadn't we all earned a nap?  Just a little two-month respite.  And so I shut down a part of my brain and slapped on a post-it note that read "Do not wake until Jan 20."  No politics.  No economic crisis.  No Keith Olbermann, no MSNBC . . . not even a few minutes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.  Hell, even gas prices had the courtesy of falling to a level I could sleep through.  And I sure as hell was not going to wake up for any part of George Bush's magical history-changing tour.  I’ve been lied to enough, fuck you very much.


So now I wake up, 24 hours away from the end of our long national nightmare (sorry, I’m sure I’m the nine thousandth person who’s used that phrase this week). I am thrilled that it is coming to an end, but it’s true what they say about the evil that men do – the reality is, we will be digging our way out of Bush’s and Cheney’s misdeeds for decades. And so, this historic event, which I was sure would overwhelm me with optimism (and may yet still when I see the man take his oath tomorrow), is tempered by this reality.

Instead of canonizing the man with gooey sentiments, let me offer a few very simple things I believe about Barack Obama:


I believe that he will not lie us into a war. Nor will he, in general, lie to us concerning matters as grave as life and death, war and peace.

I believe he will not be undone by a sexual scandal while in the White House.

I believe he will mold his decisions around facts and not vice versa.

I believe he will give us a government that values science over superstition.

I believe he will restore the power of American diplomacy; I believe we will once again walk softly and carry a big stick.

I believe he will actually attempt to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.

I believe he will close Guantanamo Bay and make it crystal clear that America is better than its enemies, that we know exactly what torture is and we will no longer condone it, that we will not hold prisoners indefinitely without charges or the rights to habeas corpus.

I believe that, when he leaves office, our country will be better off than it is the day he takes the oath.

That doesn't sound like much, does it?  After the last eight years, it sounds like a revelation.

I wish I could believe that Barack Obama will prosecute Bush and Cheney and all of their cronies to the fullest extent for all of their crimes. But I’m trying to temper my optimism.


To my Republican friends, I promise I will hold this President to a higher standard than the one to which you held George W. Bush.


To keep myself from despising half of our country, I long ago rationalized George Bush's second term in this way: I believe that a whole lot of otherwise good and smart people voted for George W. Bush based on nothing more than fear.  They had been terrorized by the Republican Party so effectively that they were not in their right minds when they entered the voting booths in 11/04.  I forgive these people their weakness (big of me, I know).


But to those 20% or so who still approve of, support, defend, and make excuses for the two most despicable men to ever disgrace the White House: may I introduce you to the Darwin Awards? Please win one as soon as possible and leave our world a better, smarter place.

I hope to return with a rosier blog in the day or days to come.

Happy Birthday, Michael Moorcock!

Today is Michael Moorcock's 69th birthday.  Yes, only 69 - judging from the length of his bibliography, one might think him closer to 169.  I recently did some redecorating in my house, and this was the first time I was able to fit virtually all of my Moorcock hardcovers in the same bookcase:

This is just the hardcovers (and a few outsized paperbacks).  Another shelf is filled with mass market paperbacks, another holds graphic novels, comics, etc...  I'm sure there are Moorcock readers with even bigger collections.

He's been my favorite writer since a friend introduced me to Elric of Melnibone when I was 15 years old.  The brooding, outcast antihero seemed to be written for me.  It was love at first page.

I've met Moorcock a few times over the years, and he gives the lie to that old cliche warning about meeting one's heroes.  I've never heard anyone say a bad word about him. I doubt there's a bad word to be said.

He's had a rough year with some health issues, along with losing a few very close friends in a short span of time, but he still makes time to correspond with his readers almost daily over at his website (www.multiverse.org).  Any writer who spends this much time corresponding with readers surely can't continue to find time to write!  And yet . . . he somehow still keeps cranking out stories and novels.  And if anyone thinks Moorcock's best writing days are behind him, they need to read The Vengeance of Rome - the final volume of the "Pyat Quartet," published in just the past few years and maybe the best of a series which, had he published nothing else, would make Michael Moorock a significant literary force.  Or read "A Portrait in Ivory" - a very recent Elric short story that so successfuly captures the brooding melancholy of the original Elric stories that reading it nearly brought me to tears.

Thank you, Mike, for over 20 years of entertainment, enlightenment, astonishment, and inspiration . . . and for being one of the most gracious people I've ever met.

Jeffrey Ford's The Drowned Life

The second best reason to celebrate 11/4/08 was that it marked the release of Jeff Ford’s latest short story collection, The Drowned Life. This is Ford’s third collection and it may be his best yet.


The title story that kicks things off is a minor miracle, a surrealistic adventure that’s equally heartbreaking, harrowing, and funny. And I mean honestly, laugh out loud three or four times, funny.


In the story, Ford’s everyman, Hatch, finds that his financial woes (along with the dark specter of world events and working a soul sapping job) have manifested as a growing tide that he must continuously bail himself out of. When he finally loses the will to keep bailing, he finds himself in “Drowned Town,” an underwater city populated by everyone who has “gone under.”


One of the risks of surrealism, it seems to me, is that once the reader has entered a dreamscape, the consequences for the characters can lose weight. One of the most impressive things Ford does in “The Drowned Life” (and elsewhere) is retain every bit of gravitas even given the absurdity of the milieu. When Hatch calls home to apologize to his wife for going under, the pathos is genuine. When Hatch tries to navigate through Drowned Town to rescue his son from a rowdy party, his desperation is palpable.


The title story sets the bar incredibly high for whatever follows, yet Ford manages to almost reach that level several more times – particularly in the mobius strip plots of “Under the Bottom of the Lake” and “The Dismantled Invention of Fate,” the Bradbury-esque “The Night Whiskey,” and the inspired premise of “The Scribble Mind” (you’ll never look at a two-year-old’s artwork the same way again after reading this one).


Critics are quick to proclaim a writer as having an “original voice.” Ford’s an original, to be sure, but to describe his voice, the adjective that first comes to my mind is appealing. I know of no writer who employs such bullshit-free prose, yet still manages to be downright poetic so often. The Drowned Life is a perfect introduction to Ford’s style and, once you’re done, you’ll want to read everything else he’s written. Take my word for it.