Friday, August 27, 2010

Religion and Politics

Brian Griffin from "Family Guy"

Religion and politics are the two topics that cannot be discussed at most dinner tables. My mother-in-law once said (over forty years ago!), “You may discuss religion and politics at the dinner table, but you can’t go away mad.”

I took those words with a grain of salt at the time. As I’ve gotten older, they take on greater import.

Why are religion and politics grouped together in this fashion? Why are they such emotional and divisive topics? Why must we tread carefully in their presence?

I think it is because they are two sides of the same emotional coin. I alluded to this in the New York Mosque post, where the manner in which you perceive that debate depends on whether you think of Islam as a religion or as a political movement. I also noted that both religion and politics look to achieve greater power by combining the two belief systems. Religions strive to attain the power of political movements, and political movements seek out the elements of religious fervor. The most powerful (and destructive) historical movements have combined the two.

Where are the current examples? The convenient target is always The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). The secular involvement of the church is frequently attacked, most notably by Jon Krakauer.

But the more intense comparison comes when you contrast the influence of Islam in world politics with the influence of the Democratic Party in the affairs of our American culture.

Is Islam really a political movement? Does the Democratic Party see its battles as a sectarian “fight”?

This blog points out the workings of our anti-Republican culture and allows its readership to connect the dots. However, one point is worth reflection:

A common denominator for Islam and the Democratic Party is hate. Islam uses Christians and Jews as objects of hate. The Democratic Party uses Republicans.

Adherents of each ideology use the word “moderate” as a descriptor for the less extreme advocates. What is that common denominator linking moderate Muslims and moderate Democrats?

They both eschew the hatred.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010


The main premise behind America’s desire for healthcare reform is that our healthcare system is broken.

Reuters helps foster the insecurity with quotes such as this:

The United States, a country of 300 million people, ranks 42nd in the world in life expectancy, according to previously released data.
What if that statistic is contrived, and the overriding premise is false? What if we have a REALLY GOOD system and we end up destroying it in order to feel good about ourselves?

It takes a Canadian native and president of the Pacific Research Institute to raise the question and set the record straight. Sally Pipes does just that in her book, "The Truth About Obamacare." It is a reference book that explains the provisions of healthcare reform that our legislators didn’t have the time to review before casting their votes earlier this year.

As Reuters demonstrates, one of the primary “facts” cited to indicate that our system is broken is that American life expectancy is less than in other rich nations with government-run medical systems. Thomas Sowell references Ms. Pipes in a column today, and shows the “spin” associated with this statistic. (h/t: Urgent Agenda)

Political Calculations helps us with a convenient chart of the actual data. The chart describes the statistical influence of “non-natural causes of death” such as homicides, automobile accidents, and accidental poisonings.

It turns out that Americans rank first in life expectancy once fatal injuries are taken into account

And so the question lingers: Are deaths by vehicle accident indicative of a broken healthcare system?

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Monday, August 23, 2010


Macaulay Culkin from the movie Home Alone

Have you noticed the use of the word “unexpectedly” in reporting economic data?

We see it in the first or second paragraph of reports on the performance of our economy. It sometimes even appears in the headline.

The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or The Conference Board don’t include the modifiers “unexpected” or “unexpectedly.” The organizations just present their data. It is up to our media to color the data with the appropriate characterizations.

What are the appropriate characterizations to use? It actually depends on whether or not the data are being generated under a Republican administration.

(I know, I know, you are thinking, “This guy never lets up! He sees anti-Republican culture everywhere.”)

Professor Glenn Reynolds, at his Instapundit blog, might agree with me this time. In a post from today (8/23/2010) he highlights an article by Randall Hoven at American Thinker and includes a link to a search of his site using the string “unexpectedly!” Here is a slightly more expansive search, leaving off the exclamation mark.

Take a look at the results of the search. You see a markedly different outcome for the word “unexpectedly”, depending on whether the timeframe is 2004 to 2008 or 2009 to 2010.

As an example, this link from January 25, 2005 points to a Bloomberg article that begins, “U.S. consumer confidence unexpectedly rose in January.” A link to a CNBC article from May 19, 2009 has the headline, “Housing Starts, Permits Both Unexpectedly Lower.”

The idea that good economic news is unexpected during a Republican administration and bad news is unexpected when the Democratic Party is in charge could not be more clearly demonstrated. It is an implementation of the Democratic Party theme, “Republicans are turning the economy into a catastrophe.”

I think back to Madeleine Albright assuring us that she was doing all that could be done during the Rwanda genocide. Her statements were accepted because we trust the Democratic Party as our authority on domestic and foreign matters.

That trust is now reflected in reports of our current economic data: negative outcomes are an outlier, an anomaly, an unexpected event.

We accept this style of characterization so long as it does not affect us directly. But look out: When we end up “living the numbers,” our perspective changes.

Then it’s personal.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Glad You Asked!

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Ehrman

This post is a transcription of an imaginary blog interview. The interviewee is the blog creator, Howard Towt. The interview is conducted by the esteemed Elizabeth Docent. Enjoy!

Libby: What’s this blog about?

Howard: My very first post explains it pretty well. The Cliff’s Notes version is that the blog is meant to explore and document a 21st-century phenomenon that is new to our political landscape. We are aware of anti-Semitic culture in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, anti-American culture in Europe. But we don’t understand the anti-Republican culture in America. In our country, it is “cool” to hate Republicans. Someone has to ask the question, “What’s up with that?”

Libby: Who should read your blog?

Howard: That depends. A couple of weeks ago, I had a post about the controversy over building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center. It makes the point that you take one side of the argument or the other, depending on whether you believe Islam is a religion or you believe it is a political movement.

Libby: I’m not sure I follow you.

Howard: Our point of view determines our receptiveness to a particular idea. If you want a litmus test on this blog, rent the movie “Julie and Julia” and watch for the anti-Republican scenes. If you come to the conclusion that this is all very “right and natural”, then you can stop right here. This blog is not for you.

Libby: Do you have any favorite posts?

Howard: I like the ones highlighting the mindset of those who promote our anti-Republican culture. Check out An Open Letter to “Anonymous” and Moral Authority. They show how our culture encourages people to discern intent, and then equips them with the personal moral authority to pronounce judgment. Those kinds of posts form the bulk of the blog. However, I occasionally do an online review of a book. My write-up of Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory” received an “Instalanche” from Glenn Reynolds. That is always fun.

Libby: What about the graphics?

Howard: You mean the ones at the top of each post? They add a metaphorical twist. Take the photograph above this post. It could be about two cheetahs in the Kalahari Desert. It might also be about asking the question, “What the hell brings you here?” It’s a way to have fun with an emotional and divisive topic.

Libby: Do you have a “message” for the viewing public?

Howard: I guess the subtext is that our social scientists are failing us. We live in a culture where it is accepted that Republicans are Raaaaacists and there are no homophobic Democrats. How is it possible that such an obvious political angle is ignored in researching our societal interactions? You would almost think it points to a bias within our university community.

Libby: Any concluding thoughts?

Howard: I like to think of this blog in the same way that some people might perceive a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. The painting might appear to be something of an abstraction, and they simply note it and pass on by.

However, if you see one of Ms. O’Keeffe’s black door paintings and then go to Abiquiu to visit her home, you receive an entirely different experience. You enter her courtyard, walk by that same black door and find that it rocks your world. The reality of what she was painting and what you are viewing produces a profound acknowledgement of this artist and her accomplishments.

I’m hoping that those who visit this blog will dwell on our culture and its political ramifications. I’m also hoping that at some level, they “get it.”

UPDATE 8/26/2010:
David French, Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund has an article on social workers and counselors that shows how bias is conveyed through their philosophical and organizational structures.  He highlights the First Amendment implications.

This might be an interesting class assignment in the social sciences: Does elevating the desire for equality and justice in society hinder our First Amendment rights?

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Thursday, August 12, 2010


I am a veteran of our armed services, so am particularly moved by pictures of our service members coming home.

John Hinderaker at Power Line has a post (courtesy of Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online) that directs us to the Facebook page of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport for August 11, 2010.

Mr. Hinderaker's post is titled simply, "I miss him."

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

American Dhimmitude

I recently posted about the use of moral authority in politics.

This YouTube video is instructive…

Note the affect of the person lecturing Governor Palin. She uses measured, intimidating speech and a dismissive tone. It literally reeks of moral authority. The speaker knows her point of view is absolutely unquestionable.

This is a wonderfully clear example of the political moral authority that is rampant in our anti-Republican culture. Think of it as American Dhimmitude.

Luckily, with Governor Palin, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Texas for Sarah Palin has some background on the person in the video who represents herself as a teacher.

UPDATE 8/11/2010:
Ben Adler of Newsweek has a blog post titled, "Sarah Palin Gets Snarky on a Schoolteacher."  He provides an extra helping of anti-Republican scorn, characterizing Governor Palin as having "prima donna qualities", a "self-centered side", a "dark side",  a "tone of nasal condescension", "unamusing sarcasm", and the literary skills of "a nasty, snotty, slightly dense but popular high-school girl."

Mr. Adler describes the target of Governor Palin's "snark": "The victim was not President Obama, but a schoolteacher in small-town Alaska."

Mr. Adler is the National Editor of  He may be in a position of cultural power, but his portrayals of "victimhood" and "snark" seem to be misplaced.  (h/t Hugh Hewitt)

UPDATE 1/29/2011:
James Taranto leads his column with a few examples of the "Persecution of Sarah Palin."

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Backfire and Inception

David Sirota penned a column last weekend awakening us to the deceptions in our media that are causing us to experience a real-world “Inception.” The play on words refers to the Leonardo DiCaprio movie that has been in theaters the last few weeks.

Mr. Sirota welcomes us into his column, noting how “we are reflexively hostile to ideas when we know they come from agenda-wielding intruders.” (People in general want to avoid propaganda, so we are all comfortably on the same page at this point.)

But then comes the psychological adjustment. He alerts us to “the conservative media dreamland” which is keeping us all in an “impregnable bubble.”

And so we get the message: In this column, conservatives will be wearing the black hats.

Mr. Sirota contrasts Fox News with the “traditional” media (New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, ABC/CBS/NBC News). We find that Fox News is part of a multimedia dreamscape that feeds us constant propaganda, while the traditional media might also be in cahoots, broadcasting "synthetic ideas" such as “militarism and market fundamentalism.”

Continuing on, Mr. Sirota warns that “problems are emerging” and our minds are being sown with “demonstrable fallacies.”

What is the source of this dreamworld where facts no longer have meaning? Mr. Sirota refers to the work of Joe Keohane, writing in the Boston Globe.

Mr. Keohane explains the backfire effect: “When misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs.”

It makes you wonder who these “political partisans” might be. Can you guess?

They are conservatives.

I should end this post here, and let that ride. But you might like further information on the source referenced by Mr. Sirota.

Mr. Keohane writes about the 2005-2006 work of a University of Michigan student. The student, Brendan Nyhan, worked with Jason Reifler, a professor at Georgia State University to examine the persistence of political misperceptions. The two conducted experiments in which conservative students were given mock news articles to read. The students were then measured on their perceptions of the articles.

The results of the study are summed up by Mr. Nyhan in a 9/15/2008 post on his blog. He characterizes the reaction of conservatives who defend their beliefs when confronted with opposing facts as a backfire effect. He points to an article of the same date by Washington Post writer Shankar Vedantam who states:
In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might "argue back" against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research...
We see the Washington Post and the Boston Globe and the Denver Post have published articles strengthening this argument. The failings of Republicans and conservatives are on display. Mr. Sirota refers to the Boston Globe article as a “report about new scientific findings.”

Let’s look into the “science.”

If you read the report from Mr. Nyhan’s study, you find this quote about the methodology used:
Method – Tax cuts
The second experiment in Study 2 tests subjects’ responses to the claim that President Bush’s tax cuts stimulated so much economic growth that they actually has [sic] the effect of increasing government revenue over what it would otherwise have been. The claim, which originates in supply-side economics and was frequently made by Bush administration officials, Republican members of Congress, and conservative elites, implies that tax cuts literally pay for themselves. While such a response may be possible in extreme circumstances, the overwhelming consensus among professional economists who have studied the issue – including the 2003 Economic Report of the President and two chairs of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers – is that this claim is empirically implausible in the U.S. context (Hill 2006, Mankiw 2003, Milbank 2003)

Subjects read an article on the tax cut debate attributed to either the New York Times or (see appendix for text). In all conditions, it included a passage in which President Bush said “The tax relief stimulated economic vitality and growth and it has helped increase revenues to the Treasury.” As in Study 1, this quote – which states that the tax cuts increased revenue over what would have otherwise been received – is taken from an actual Bush speech. Subjects in the correction condition received an additional paragraph clarifying that both nominal tax revenues and revenues as a proportion of GDP declined sharply after Bush’s first tax cuts were enacted in 2001 (he passed additional tax cuts in 2003) and still had not rebounded to 2000 levels by either metric in 2004. The dependent variable is agreement with the claim that “President Bush's tax cuts have increased government revenue” on a Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5).

Results – Tax cuts
The two regression models in Table 3 indicate that the tax cut correction generated another backfire effect.
Do you sense some bias in this survey? It might be interesting to note what the researchers decided should be areas for further study:
It would also be helpful to test additional corrections of liberal misperceptions.  Currently, all of our backfire results come from conservatives – a finding that may provide support for the hypothesis that conservatives are especially dogmatic (Greenberg and Jonas 2003; Jost et al. 2003a, 2003b). However, there is a great deal of evidence that liberals (e.g. the stem cell experiment above) and Democrats (e.g., Bartels 2002: 133-137, Bullock 2007, Gerber and Huber 2010) also interpret factual information in ways that are consistent with their political predispositions. Without conducting more studies, it is impossible to determine if liberals and conservatives react to corrections differently.
There is a lot to absorb in this post. We’ve got a celebrated research paper that looks at conservative students as lab rats. We’ve got a conclusion that characterizes them as dysfunctional participants in our society. We’ve got at least two separate news organs promoting this perception.

And we’ve got David Sirota warning us of the dangers of conservative propaganda.

UPDATE 8/19/2010:
Inside Higher Ed has an article that describes more research being done on conservative students.  You get the feeling that conservative students are like some form of alien visitor or an enigmatic disease.  They must be investigated!

I'm probably being overly sensitive, but this treatment of conservatives as "objects to be investigated" is also a subtle aspect of dhimmitude.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

A New York Mosque

World Trade Center photo courtesy of

The building of an Islamic mosque in New York City near the 2001 attack site is controversial.

In May, Community Board 1 in lower Manhattan approved the construction of Cordoba House, a Muslim community center. The Islamic prayer room in Cordoba House is the cause of the controversy.

Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs is concerned. So is Peter Gadiel, a guest on the 8/4/2010 Peter Boyles show here in Denver on KHOW radio. He uses the disquieting Holocaust term “oven walkers” to make his point.

Others don’t see it that way. Hugh Hewitt worries about the Constitutional grounds. Parvez Ahmed sees the outcry as symptomatic of American hate and anger.

Your point of view on this issue is largely determined by whether you perceive Islam as a religious movement or a political movement. If you see Islam as a religion, then the 1st Amendment to the Constitution becomes the defining point. If you see Islam as a political movement, then you worry more about threats to peace and security.

The nexus of politics and religion is what is actually being debated. The passions of political ideology and religious fervor create power. Political forces seek religious fervor; religious forces seek political passion. When the two combine, we see far-reaching societal changes, often accompanied by a great deal of human suffering and death.

A political movement backed by religious zeal or a religion which incorporates political ideology: Which forms the path to the greatest power?

That’s a philosophical question worth considering. However, we really don’t need to fret about the starting point.

The goal is always the same.

Tim Daniel at Left Coast Rebel links!

UPDATE 8/18/2010:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that characterizes the controversy as a "Clash of Civilizations", using the formulation of the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard.  She notes that the Western media frame the issue as one of religious tolerance while it is predominantly a cultural conflict.  She gives examples of this type of conflict in France, Morocco and Switzerland.  (She appears to come from the perspective that Islam is essentially a political movement.)

UPDATE 8/19/2010:
Roger L. Simon has a beautiful rebuttal to Nancy Pelosi's comments on the controversy.  If nothing else, it introduces you to the philosophy of Karl Potter.  That alone is worth a visit to Mr. Simon's site.

UPDATE 10/4/2010:
John Hinderaker of Power Line comments on a speech by Geert Wilder discussing the characterization of Islam as both a religion and a political movement.  Mr. Wilder comes down on the side of the political characterization.  That impression tends to result when you find yourself politically persecuted for "hate speech."

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Moral Authority

Unless you are trying to figure out the impact of politics in our society, you probably don’t think about “moral authority.” The concept is more at home in the realm of religious studies.

However, religions don’t have an exclusive right to moral authority. Cultures throughout the world vest this power in political entities. Just as it is possible in Saudi Arabia to hold a conventional belief that people of the Jewish faith are inferior, so is it possible in the United States to hold an accepted belief that Republicans are “bad people.” The society in which we live gives us clues as to what is acceptable and what is controversial. We learn “the ropes.”

Paul Mirengoff, writing in the Power Line blog, touches on this idea when he contrasts the philosophical differences between liberals and libertarians: “liberals think their ideology makes them, above all, morally superior.” Combining moral superiority with politics is a powerful force, but there can be difficulties.

A sobering example was on display a few years back when Madeleine Albright proclaimed that she and her Democratic Party colleagues did everything that could be done to avert the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Our culture took her at her word.

Why bring this up?

There are currently three significant areas of national policy that are being defined in moral terms by the Democratic Party. Using the language of moral authority, they are:

--Afghanistan is a good war.
--Human beings are not illegal.
--We must increase taxes on the rich.

Each of these national policies uses the power of moral authority to render profound judgments. Here is a quick evaluation:

The War in Afghanistan
The great religions of the world probably have this one right: War is never a good thing. When you get into the business of judging one war good and another bad, you are confusing moral issues with political ones. Wars have a way of testing every one of us. At some point, most of us find that we prefer not to engage in warfare. It truly needs to be a “last resort” kind of activity, without the attachment of a moral component.
Illegal Human Beings
This moral judgment confuses the actions of humans with the state of being a human. To exclude members of a certain demographic group from being responsible for their actions is a purely political move. It is similar to granting legal immunity to a group of foreign diplomats. It can be done (perhaps for reasons of reciprocity) but to many people, the practice seems unfair.
More Taxes on the Rich
This, in political terms, is what is called a “populist argument.” It goes hand-in-hand with promises of entitlement. We like to think that someone is looking out for us and taking advantage of others for our benefit.
But here’s the problem: “The Rich” derive their income from wealth. Most of the rest of us derive our income from labor. When income taxes are put in place, those who work for a living are “stuck.” We have no escape. We must work to survive, and the taxes are extracted.
If your income comes from wealth, you can relocate your wealth to avoid taxes. If you receive dividends and the government decides to raise taxes on those dividends, you can put your wealth into tax-free bonds. If the government decides to do away with tax-free bonds, you can move to a different governmental jurisdiction. You simply stay one step ahead of the taxation policies.
In each of these examples, we see a questionable policy being embellished with moral authority.

The upside of all this is that we are starting to see a national discussion over moral authority. Republicans seem to be fairly clear on this issue. They rely on the work of some very bright philosophers with names like Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Adams.

Independents are coming to the realization that the moral authority they see being exercised is not favored by a majority of those being governed. That is causing some anxiety.

A few Democrats are even questioning the moral authority being imposed. They have competing influences in their lives: family, religion, heritage, etc. They are feeling less content with simply doing whatever increases the power and authority of the Democratic Party.

This week, our Congress recesses for the summer. We will see Senators and Representatives in their home districts presenting arguments with intellectual authority and with moral authority. Which do you think will have the most impact?

I’m afraid the emotional arguments married with moral authority will carry the day.

Afghanistan is a war worth fighting!

Human beings are never illegal!

We must tax the rich!

And, oh yes…

Republicans are bad people!

Fasten your seatbelts.

UPDATE 6/28/2011:
A clear example of the righteousness of those who hold moral authority in their political beliefs is this comment via Real Clear Politics from Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary.  The mindset of "true believers" flourishes in the world of politics.

UPDATE 5/31/2012:
Daniel Henninger has a great column in The Wall Street Journal that highlights the difficulty encountered by a political body applying its moral authority on an established religion.  America was founded on the basis of religious freedom, and Americans may still not appreciate a political organization telling them what they must believe and how they must practice their religion.  

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