My Annual New Year’s Day Cathartic Screed

By Science Junkie – 01.29.15

In response to an online Raw Story article looking back on the craziest Christians of 2014, my friends Dave and Eileen wrote, Yikes!

Which is surely an appropriate way to sum up much of what we heard in 2014 and will be dealing with in the foreseeable future right here in “The Greatest Country on Earth,” aka Dumfukistan (Thanks, Dave!). The religious-right madness is probably headed for a crescendo ere we shuffle off this mortal coil. (As usual, The Bard said it best.) Win or lose in their fanatical crusade, the ...

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Of Tears and Fears Redux

Like so many liberals, I am deeply disappointed by Barack Obama’s tepid leadership over the past three-plus years. Nevertheless, I will reluctantly support his reelection and vote for him in this election cycle – but only out of lesser-of-evils desperation.
Recently I reread the columns I wrote for TPJmagazine shortly after Obama was elected. I was very happy at the time but also deeply concerned about the unrelenting threat from the right.
It is now very clear that the fears I expressed then have come to pass, enabled in part by the inaction and foolish bipartisan efforts of Obama and his administration. And the tears? Well they have a different cause these days – profound disappointment.
Here follows the column I wrote immediately after the election, wherein the last four paragraphs are about as close as I’ll ever come to political prescience.
. . . . . .
Like millions of others here and abroad, I choked up when the TV pundits finally proclaimed that Barack Hussein Obama would be the 44th President of the United States. Certainty came to me when they announced that Ohio had gone for Obama. At 11 p.m., when MSNBC declared him the winner, tears began to flow and I woke my wife, who had gone to bed an hour earlier, already confident of the outcome. After eight years of mutual political foreboding, I wanted to share the wonderful news as well as the joy and relief we both felt. In that moment all the nagging doubts I was unable to shake leading up to the election were swept away. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Of course I wanted to savor the moment, and I did; but in the back of my mind was the awareness that this was just one moment, just a beginning, as Obama put it in his marvelous victory speech.
There seems to be a near consensus that the President-Elect and his team deserve the highest praise for conducting one of the most effective presidential campaigns of all time, the details of which are now being fleshed out by experts. There were many times during the campaign that I became frustrated with the Obama campaign because they weren't striking back forcefully enough, weren't attacking a vulnerable opposition beset with pronounced and potentially damaging weaknesses. Why, for example, weren't they bringing up McCain's many opportunistic flip-flops, his cynical selection of an ignoramus for a running mate, his shameless sucking up to the religious right whom he previously labeled “agents of intolerance,” the Palins' association with the Alaskan Secessionist Party, McCain and Palin's stonewalling the release of their medical records, the Keating Five, Palin's embarrassing and outrageous avoidance of the press following the Kouric disaster, and much more? Predictably, the broadcast media pretty much ignored McCain and Palin's glaring liabilities, although they did sort of come through on the flashy issue of Palin's $150,000 coast-to-coast spending spree. Typical mainstream media ratings-based superficial infotainment. I feared the Obama campaign was letting McCain-Palin off the hook and the election might end up like Bush-Kerry.
As the relentless, incendiary slander from the Republican campaign reached a crescendo in the final weeks, Obama stayed on message and emphasized the issues, especially the economy, and most of all middle-class economic plight. One area where he didn't let McCain off the hook was the Republican candidate's support of Bush. Obama wasn't going to let McCain co-opt his signature message of “change.”
Well, it turned out Obama knew what he was doing: He projected a serious, dignified, competent presidential image that inspired confidence in contrast to the desperate ravings and mudslinging coming from McCain and Palin. He didn't exactly ignore the attacks as much as he deflected them, sometimes with appropriate, contemptuous humor: “I don’t know what’s next,” he said in response to their attempt to brand him as a socialist. “By end of the week, he’ll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten. I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” Obama appeared to trust the American people, with just a little help, to recognize the obvious – the scattershot smear tactics being employed by an erratic opposition that couldn't compete on the issues that Americans were most concerned about. He beat the Rovian character assassins without sinking to their despicable level.
Two weeks later I am still savoring my happy feelings, and I'm prouder to be an American than I have been in many years. I feel as if a great emotional burden has been lifted; and for the first time in years I am experiencing cautious optimism as well as cautious relief from Republican-inspired dread. I am optimistic because Americans have elected rational leaders who show every sign of addressing the nation's many problems in a responsible manner and actually putting good governance ahead of gaining political advantage at every turn. And I'm relieved because we have somehow dodged the right-wing bullet aimed right at the heart of our constitutional democracy, so that for now, at least, the country's remorseless drift toward fascism has been curtailed.
But it has been two weeks, plenty of time for reality to reassert itself. As a confirmed skeptical realist, I can't help looking for the dark cloud behind every silver lining. And looking out across today's political landscape, I would have to be blind or in denial on the scale of a Phil (it's a mental recession) Graham not to see many dark clouds gathering on the horizon. In fact, everywhere I look there is a huge mess to clean up, the result of eight years of calculated treachery, criminal neglect, squandered opportunities, and monumental incompetence. So my skeptical-realistic take on the situation is this: Despite the bipartisan, inclusive intentions of the new president, the fragmented opposition may soon reconstitute itself into a purer and even more virulent form of right-wing extremism – not just lipstick on a pig. We will still be assailed by the daily din of a dogmatic, hate-mongering, dishonest, and frighteningly determined opposition. At their most menacing, they will be a kind of political Borg requiring our utmost vigilance. Other times their simpleminded, faith-based assertions will evoke images of the comical, ultra-capitalist Ferengi. But however they come across to us, the army of political, religious, and media demagogues will continue to exploit the ignorance, fears, prejudices, and superstitions of their sizable and angry, “dittohead” constituency. And they will continue to fan the flames of the culture war in increasingly ugly ways and to obstruct progressive change with their familiar lock-step tactics. One of their highest priorities will be to protect the gains they made in the Federal judiciary during eight years of Bush appointments with little opposition from a timid Democratic Congress.
Let's not forget that a small, well-disciplined army of like-minded fanatics with a well-defined long-term strategy can be more than a match for a larger, poorly coordinated force of well-intentioned individuals. Democrats by nature are a diverse, often fractious group. In principle that is what healthy democracy is all about, assuming that the large majority of citizens are well-informed, loyal to the ideals of Constitutional democracy, and participating in good faith. I leave it to you to decide if that's where we're at in the United States at the present time.
In the next several columns I will discuss the dangers of complacency and the kinds of actions I feel progressives need to take to keep the right-wing social and political cancer in remission. We have won a major battle, but the fruits of victory remain elusive.

One more thing: It remains a matter of great uncertainty how the elephant in the room – I'm talking about the very real possibility of an economic depression – will affect everything all of us have been talking about. 


You don’t know diddly-squat

Hey, don’t take it personally, that title is a cheap trick to get your attention . . .

It didn’t just dawn on me, but for a number of reasons I have been more acutely aware of late that I can’t begin to keep up with the daily deluge of information: so much to learn and understand, so little time. Of course it was always impossible to keep up, even in the good old days of print media; but the damnable internet rubs my nose in it, every day.

So the point is I don’t know squat, either; nor does anyone else, at least not in relation to what needs to be known and understood. That’s simply the reality of our situation. But mere reality doesn’t stop arrogant legions of simpleminded ideologues from claiming to have all the answers. These days they are easy to recognize because they are well-organized and crave public exposure. You want examples? Okay, here they are: deluded religious fundamentalists, global-warming deniers, political conservatives, alternative-medicine cranks, the entire anti-vaccine movement, various conspiracy mongers – all fear-driven, suspicious, intellectually lazy people looking for the one, true cause of this, that, and everything. The worst and most dangerous of the lot are the religious and political right, if only because of the outsized power they wield.

Now that I have your attention, however briefly, I promise to be brief. My original title was going to be You don’t know shit, but I chickened out at the last moment (this is, after all, a dignified publication). So with that out of the way, I’ll revert to my preferred, vulgar terminology.

Either way, diddly-squat or shit, my attention-seeking title is nothing more than a shallow overgeneralization. But then so are all cultural adages since time immemorial. How can one possibly sum up all the complexity and nuance of any topic in a sound bite? Of course you know some shit, probably about many things, as do most of us. But we also know little to nothing about vast swaths of important information, regardless of our intelligence, our erudition, or how hard we try to keep up with the deluge of news and analysis.

Ignorance has afflicted humanity in all eras, but – and this is an important point – its nature and causes have changed. Early on, in the infancy and childhood of our species, ignorance was pervasive and inescapable. It was genuine, full-fledged ignorance: our ancestors literally couldn’t know shit, other than what they instinctively had to know to survive in a hostile, natural environment. About the bigger questions that were totally out of their ken – e.g., Where do storms come from? – they just made shit up, mostly out of fear stemming from lack of control. So they invoked powerful, invisible agents, an “explanation” and coping strategy now recognized by enlightened people as the god-of-the-gaps explanation. Only, in those prehistoric times, it was all gaps, all the way down. The result was what we call human nature, with all its tattered and obsolete baggage, including superstition, gods and religion, animal and human(!) sacrifice, soothsayers, shamans, faith healing, tribalism . . . and I could go on.

We have clearly come a long way since those dark times, thanks to a reality-based mindset that overcame formidable odds to give us science and scholarship. No thanks to religion and political ideologies that erected obstacles to progress at every turn. And the obstruction continues: the frightened, the ignorant, and the superstitious are still with us in droves – no longer out of necessity but due to that pesky old human nature that still tends to default to conservative, collective ideology. Only these days the ideologues have to deal with a challenge their primitive ancestors didn’t face: verifiable scientific evidence. In order to maintain their Medieval world views, they now rely on stratagems our ancestors didn’t need – denial and rationalization.

These days you gotta have a filter  

For the vast majority of our species’ time on earth, life has been short and brutish. Don’t you feel, as I do, immensely privileged to be living now rather than, say, at any time prior to 1900? Despite everything, these are, for the time being, the best of times; and under favorable conditions things could continue to improve were there not so many organized, ideologically driven, malevolent groups determined to spoil everything. Sadly, the most dangerous groups are made up of our fellow citizens right here in “the greatest nation on earth.”

So we now suffer from the don’t know shit syndrome for very different reasons than in the past. Ironically, it’s because we live the the information age, aka the internet era, the digital revolution, whatever you choose to call it. The irony, for freethinkers and truth-seekers, is information overload – too much good stuff coming in to keep up with. So when I say we don’t know shit, it’s because no matter how much we know, we just can’t keep up with the flood of new, relevant information.

These days, with information expanding exponentially, it is simply no longer possible for anyone to have comprehensive understanding of many areas, or maybe even one. Specialization is the rule, including sub-specialities within specialized areas. Even narrow specialists are pressured just to keep up with their journals every day. Perhaps this dilemma is best summed up in the adage, “Art is long, life is short.” And note that was first expressed by the Greek physician, Hippocrates, sometime around 400 BCE. I like the entire quotation:

Life is short, and Art long, opportunity fleeting, experience perilous, and decision difficult.

So it’s not only the sheer volume of information coming at us, but also the increasing complexity and technical sophistication of so many specific areas of knowledge. That’s why everyone has to specialize, even within specialties. That’s why all of us must be humble and prepared to modify our positions in the light of new and better evidence. And that’s why Republicans, Tea Baggers, the religious right, etc. are hopelessly naive (in addition to all their other glaring deficiencies and vices). In their false certainty and lust for power, they have lost humility and compassion. They use their filters to block out reality and create a distortion field from whence to disseminate disinformation on a scale not seen since the Nazi ministry of propaganda in the 1930’s.


Not to let liberals off the hook: they can be naive and arrogant, too; and sometime I’ll try to document their foibles. But if we’re talking degrees of difference, which we should be, we’re looking at orders of magnitude. Conservatives, in their ideological arrogance, see things in black and white, good versus evil; whereas doubt is, or should be, a defining characteristic of liberalism, bringing it more into line with the basic tenets of science (e.g., all knowledge is provisional, pending new and better evidence).


So if there’s a take-home message in this rant, it’s this: you gotta have a filter to reduce the flood of information to a useful flow. And it’s got to be well-designed, up-to-date, and commensurate with the information overload of the times. I’m talking  about a high-yield, high signal to noise, broad spectrum filter bundled with a software package that integrates and synthesizes information from across the spectrum. The better and more reality-calibrated your filter, the more effective use you’ll make of the flood of information.


And still you can’t do it alone, which brings us to networks. That’s what I plan to write about next time. 


Heroes of Science and Secularism: A Series

Welcome to the first in a series of posts calling attention to men and women you may not have heard of – women and men who are making significant contributions to science and secularism. I won’t call them unsung heroes, as they are well known in their fields and spheres of influence; but neither are they famous at the level of Richard Dawkins, or even Sam Harris. But like those luminaries, some of them have had books on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

The plan for future posts is to keep the introductory comments brief and let my heroes speak for themselves via links to audios, videos, and written materials. So this time only, I’ll ask you to endure a few paragraphs of preliminary explanations.

It’s probably just me preaching to the choir again, but I still feel the need to comment on why I’m using the descriptive noun hero in a gender-neutral sense. To my ear and sensibilities feminine terms like heroine nearly always seem to detract from what is important about a person by needlessly calling attention to their gender. Consider the deservedly archaic aviatrix, or the ludicrous mayoress or governess. Or instructress, inventress, proprietress/proprietrix (LOL). Don’t you agree there’s something kind of weird about talking that way? Thankfully, those words and others like them have fallen into disuse; and what I’m saying is that all routinely feminized nouns like heroine need to join them in the linguistic hall of shame. We live in a society where more women than men graduate college, for chrissakes, where women have taken their rightful, earned places in all fields at all levels (although we’re still awaiting a woman president, but thank Zeus the anti-woman Michelle Bachmann never got any traction). So let’s drop all gratuitous, patronizing gender distinctions as I do in this series, which features only heroes – women, men, and groups.

Now about the relationship of science and secularism, which will also be obvious to many readers. After much thought I concluded that science and secularism together covered damn near everything that’s important to me in the public domain. Science subsumes reason, logic, skepticism, critical thinking, transparency, rejection of authority, and the primacy of repeatable evidence. Secularism, which in this country theoretically separates church and state, is a necessary condition for science to function effectively. It takes very little imagination to see how science, and ultimately everything, would suffer under an American Taliban – a Christian fundagelical theocracy – which is clearly a goal of the shockingly successful religious right.

So science and secularism are interdependent, inextricably intertwined (I just had to use that phrase at least once). In the broadest sense, science covers everything we know – and I mean everything we have been able to verify, directly and indirectly. (Of course not everything we know has to be verified scientifically (e.g., the Eiffel Tower is located in Paris); but if something can’t be properly verified, then we are, or should be, obliged to be skeptical of its existence (other than in the minds of believers). On the other hand, skepticism of well-verified scientific findings is perverse and prevalent, especially among those who identify as conservatives or Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Science is, of necessity, open, transparent, and universal; it requires freedom of thought and expression; it cannot be censored or constrained by dogma. And it should be abundantly clear that political and religious ideologies are mortal enemies of science; they would make scientific inquiry and findings subordinate to their dogmas; they would cut off its head, tear out its heart, and turn what was left into an evil instrument of oppression and aggression. 

The role of science in a secular society seems obvious and in alignment with common sense and the principles enacted by the founders of this nation, to wit: let our laws and public policy be informed and guided by verifiable evidence and reason. Given the nature of the world we live in, anything less is a prescription for disaster. I was going to say long-term disaster, but the long term is already upon us. What happens in the next few years will most likely be a template for the future of the country.

So on my list of heroes are people who are fighting to reclaim and secure a future that is safe for science and reason. Most of them are atheists or agnostics; a few, like Frank Schaeffer, Barry Linn, and Kenneth Miller, are practicing Christians. And of course there are many awesome women, including Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. So far no Muslim or Christian fundagelical is within shouting distance of making my list, so be sure to let me know if you come up with a qualified candidate (which I find hard to imagine). END OF INTRODUCTION

Now, at last, meet my first Hero of Science and Secularism, Sean Faircloth, public speaker extraordinaire and the most important person you may not have heard of. It has been less than a year since I first heard him speak on a video posted at the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. That short talk really resonated with my thoughts and fears about the religious right, and I was blown away by Faircloth’s deep understanding of the issues and his compelling plan to counter the theocratic threat to what’s left of our freedom and democracy. So I immediately forwarded the video to everyone on my email list along with effusive words of praise and an expression of uncharacteristic hopefulness.

As my long-suffering friends and tens of readers are aware, it takes a lot to rouse me from my pessimism regarding the United States’ and the world’s collective future. And yet that's what Faircloth accomplished in a 31-minute talk and with his new book, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It. In his book and his speeches he puts forward a realistic vision and a strategy for reversing “creeping theocracy” and bringing about the tolerant, secular society we all want to live in. His many examples of real harm being done to real people in many unsuspected ways provide a way to connect with regular folks who are not aware of the nature and extent of the threat from the religious right.  

Faircloth is saying it's time for a change in the priorities of the secular movement, time to focus on public policy issues and to reclaim the moral high ground. (We know the religious right is profoundly immoral, but the majority of  citizens do not.) And he actually succeeds in making me believe that our message can be presented so as to capture the attention of the non-theocratic majority of Americans – to help them understand and feel what's at stake. And to energize them to support efforts to undo the growing list of wrongs perpetrated and perpetuated in the name of religion.   

As much as anyone, I love to mock conservatives, theocrats, wingnuts, and Republigoons™ – all those proto-fascists who are poisoning our public and private spaces. It’s satisfying to show, again and again, how ignorant and how wrong they are about everything (which, of course, never changes their minds). But if we’re going to reverse the insidious theocratic trend, we need to recruit and organize support at all levels, just as the right has been doing for 30 years or more, and with alarming success. I see Faircloth as a present-day Paul Revere sounding the alarm, telling us to tone down our internecine differences and focus our collective efforts on saving the things we most value about this country.

Addendum: Attack of the Theocrats was published before Rick Santorum entered the Republican race for president. I have to think that Santorum’s menacing theocratic positions are an incredible gift to secularists. If the majority of Americans aren’t revolted and scared shitless by the implications of his regressive agenda, they soon will be with some help from people like Sean Faircloth. And us.  


Desired and Dreaded Daily Dose

“When the bones of prehistoric animals began to be discovered and scrutinized in the nineteenth century, there were those who said that the fossils had been placed in the rock by god, in order to test our faith. This cannot be disproved. Nor can my own pet theory that, from the patterns of behavior that are observable, we may infer a design that makes planet Earth, all unknown to us, a prison colony and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by far-off and superior civilizations.” – Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Ah, the Yin and Yang. From the sublime to the ridiculous. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m referring of course to my morning Internet experience – a daily intellectual and emotional roller coaster running the gamut from the lofty heights of science, reason, and humanism to the vilest depths of right-wing ignorance, bigotry, and stupidity. “Why bother with the latter?” you might ask,  “It’s such a nasty job.” I know that, and I guarantee I would rather be doing just about anything other than reading, or reading about, the latest right-wing treachery. But the answer is I can’t help it – the threat from the right is so great, so imminent, that if at least some of us don’t pay attention, the bastards are going to get the best of us. Actually, they have been besting us for the past 30 years or more, for mostly apparent reasons (keep reading).

Yesterday, my morning Web fix began way on the high side with an hour of delightful YouTube enlightenment and entertainment from my favorite maestro of cosmology. But as they say, what goes up must come down, so after that I held my nose and choked down the obligatory dose of nastiness, malice, misogyny and racism from the Republican proto-fascists and their equally evil co-conspirators, the religious-right theocrats. You know, the coalition of ideologues who are hell-bent on destroying whatever is left of our crumbling democratic traditions, the psychopaths who want to reverse every last bit of humane social progress we’ve seen in the past 150 years.

In my previous column I wrote about the abortion/birth control “controversy” and promised to follow up this time; but then I had second thoughts: Haven’t Santorum and the other Republigoon fools already outdone themselves, shown their asses to such an extent that no further comment is necessary, at least not for now? I think so. The battle lines on these issues have been drawn for a long time, and most everyone knows where he or she stands. It’s not likely that the pandering Mitt Romney, the deluded Rick Santorum, or whatever new candidate crawls out of the right-wing slime is going to change anyone’s mind. In a rational, reality-based world, most of the right wing’s burning “moral” issues (e.g., abortion, birth control, homosexuality, church-state separation) wouldn’t even rise to the level of worth thinking about. Those issues would be seen for what they are, a toxic brew of selected bits lifted a la carte from an ancient and ignorant misogynistic text that approved of slavery and genocide and commanded the stoning of disobedient children as well as neighbors who picked up sticks on the holy sabbath. To mock the fool who may turn out to be their presidential nominee, “That makes me want to throw up.” And don’t even get me started on The Ten Commandments.

. . . . .   

Enough of that for the moment. Let me tell you, briefly, about yesterday’s Internet highlight, a wonderful talk on YouTube by the captivating theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss. On the slim chance you haven't heard of him, he is, unarguably, one of the most brilliant people on the planet, the author of hundreds of scholarly papers and several books, including the blockbuster, "The Physics of Star Trek." His new book, a New York Times' bestseller, has the provocative, science-based title, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing.

A Universe from Nothing is also the title of his mind-boggling YouTube video, wherein he takes us from the vastly remote origin of the universe to its astronomically distant future. I will never forget the quotation he opens with, which is usually but not definitively attributed to Kurt Vonnegut: "Things are going to get unimaginably worse, and they're never, ever going to get better again." Sound like Kurt Vonnegut to you, too? (I miss that man almost on the same level that I miss Carl Sagan. But it's scientists like Krauss and the equally inspiring Neil deGrasse Tyson who make me think that Sagan's death did not, after all, leave a void that will never be filled.)

In using that commencement-speech quotation, Krauss, a self-described optimist, was referring in jest to an unimaginably distant future trillions of years hence. Here's the spoiler: At some point all the galaxies will be moving away from each other faster than the speed of light; so, for example, astronomers in a nascent civilization somewhere in our galaxy will see no evidence of anything in space beyond our the Milky Way. It will look to them just as we thought it was as recently as the early 1920s, when Edwin Hubble finally settled the question of the existence of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. That’s all I’m going to say about Krauss’s talk, except that I urge you to watch it.

. . . . .

Now for the ridiculous, the bad, and the ugly – the specter of a detestable near-future brought to us by the political and religious Reich. One thing that keeps me up at night is concern that the bastards are exponentially working themselves up to a point of critical mass where they will no longer play by the rules, no longer accept the verdicts of voters and the rule of law. Unless of course they gain control of the government, in which case the law will be what they say it is, and there will be no going back. Think theocratic fascism. People like Krauss and Tyson and my friends, Steve Jonas, Don Ardell, and Iris Vander Pluym won't have a voice in that world – not if they know what's good for them. Either of the two scenarios – the bastards do or don't get elected – has nightmarish potential, although not elected is by far the lesser of evils and still offers us a fighting chance against their remorseless advance. Think I exaggerate? Just consider how far to the right this country has moved since the 1960s.

So if you haven't been paying attention, it's time to check in on reality: those ignorant, malevolent ideologues are for real and they are motivated, much more than we are. And they are well organized and well financed. And for the most part they stay on message, march in lock step, like disciplined soldiers in the culture war they declared. How successful have they been? According to Sara Robinson, in her three-part series at Campaign for America's Future, we could very well be poised at the tipping point of fascism right now. You no longer hear people saying, "It can’t happen here." At least not with a straight face.

I have suggested that the wingnuts' outrageous public statements are nothing compared to what they believe and regularly say among themselves. But recently they seem to be abandoning caution, revealing more of their true nature. Even their historically "responsible" public figures, say, presidential candidates, are sounding more extreme, more like Rush Limbaugh, who has become the role model for the generic conservative personality. Increasingly reckless statements keep "slipping out." And, led by Limbaugh, they are ratcheting up the rhetoric to very disturbing levels.

I hate to have to point out again that the media responds to all this with a huge double standard:  With few exceptions, Republicans can say damn near anything and they get a pass – the underlying assumption being that that’s just who they are. I would argue that this tacit acceptance of bigotry and the politics of personal attacks is driven by numbers, by the  existence of a huge and increasingly belligerent  audience of “Dittoheads” that lends legitimacy to their most recklessly insane comments. Leaders of the religious right have been getting away with absolute insanity for, well, for as long as I can remember.

A recent example was Rick Perry's talk about secession being something Texans might have to resort to? That was said in public, for a national audience. And I don't think it was just some random brain fart on Perry's part: that's how those guys and their white supremacist buddies think and talk among themselves. These days everyone on the right is angrier than ever, if that’s possible, which is just what you'd expect, considering they are not in power and, mainly, there's a black man in their White House! So here’s my fearless prediction: If they don't win the presidency this time, or at least both houses of Congress, the angry rhetoric will escalate and lead to serious violence.

In such a short time politics have gone so far beyond Bush and Cheney, who were certainly scary enough. But these conservatives have taken things way past the psychological point of no return. They are so far gone there is no way they can make it back to participate in normative politics. Those days are gone forever, or at least until this culture war is resolved. And I’m saying it won’t be resolved peacefully. Of course I hope I’m wrong.

So what can we do? Get serious and organize, organize, organize. Our survival depends on setting aside our internecine differences and focusing our collective efforts on saving this country from impending fascism. That means defeating those proto-fascists at every level.


The Right’s Tough

The political and religious right are assuredly the tough guys of U.S. politics – tough, that is, in several invidious and immoral senses of the term. Consider these definitions: “characterized by severity or uncompromising determination . . . very hard to influence: stubborn . . . marked by absence of softness or sentimentality . . . strong and prone to violence.“ In other words, intransigent, brutish ideologues. Their slogan might well be, “Tough luck, losers.”

Despite occasional setbacks, they also seem to have the right stuff when it comes to advancing their political agenda. Rarely have so many gone so far on so little substance – they are so wrong about everything. And rarely have so many been so ineffectual in response to right-wing political bullying. (That’s right, I’m talking about us timid wimps on the political left of center.)

So the right has, over the past 30 years or so, been tough and, probably as a result, generally successful in shifting the U.S. political spectrum way-far to the right. Seismically. Meanwhile, progressive values have been left behind. Just look at the trajectory of the abortion issue: From this vantage point it looks as if a woman’s right to choose is more precarious than at any time since Roe v. Wade. What a travesty of “freedom and justice for all”! More on that in a moment.

So here we are at another crisis point in the endless conflict between left and right, which likely has its roots in human nature. And I can’t help, once again, asking the obvious question: Why is the left in this country so impotent in the face of impending political ruination? Why are we forgetting, or ignoring, the sordid and violent history of right-wing movements? I don’t need to remind you what George Santayana said of people who ignore the past.

Don’t you think it’s shocking how quickly the right recovered from the election debacle of 2008? Just three short years ago Americans were sick of the Bush wrecking-crew ordeal and the McCain-Palin embarrassment. The once proud and vainglorious right looked to be in disarray, down for the count. But overnight, it seems, they shook off the cobwebs, sprung back to their feet, and now they’re again marching in familiar lockstep to martial music and redoubling their efforts to batter down the flimsy barricades protecting our fundamental rights and freedoms. All the while too many on the left are acting as if we’re just engaged in politics as usual. But what I’m seeing is a well-coordinated right-wing power grab playing out once again right in our collective face. And so far, like our calm, cool and collected president, our responses have been far too composed and accommodating.

Case in point: Where is the pushback against the phony “voter-fraud-prevention” legislation Republicans are enacting in at least 17 states? Seems like something along the lines of the prompt and massive reaction to the Komen Foundation’s politically motivated defunding of Planned Parenthood is in order and overdue. Now we hear that the Obama justice department is, at long last, taking “a close look” at all the new restrictions and onerous requirements, only by now it may be too too late. One possible result of their procrastination is that Obama loses the state of Florida and possibly the election. How did the Republicans ever get this far with voter suppression without triggering widespread, vocal opposition?

Dominance of the Religionists

It’s impossible to understand the actions of the political right in the U.S. without also understanding the dominant role played by the religious right. Thus we are treated to the sorry spectacle of Republican presidential candidates pandering to the ignorant fundagelicals, who virtually own the party because of their highly motivated, disproportionate participation in the primaries. Alienate the fundies and your candidacy is doomed. Which explains why Mitt Romney disingenuously disavows almost all the sensible positions he formerly held, and more credible candidates such as Jon Huntsman are long gone.

In my previous column I promised a more detailed look at the “sins” of the religious righteous in the U.S. My goal here will be to make a case that fundamentalist religions are harmful to individuals and a major factor in the pervasive right-wing threat to our rights and freedoms. So let me start this project by turning the tables on the religious righteous, who always assert, without evidence – because there is none – that morality depends upon belief in a god. One obviously harmful implication of this position is the widespread perception that nonbelievers like me and most of my friends cannot be trusted. That sentiment, of course, is easily proven to be stupidly false, just one more instance of unthinking religious bigotry. Still, surveys show that it is the position held by a majority of Americans. This is nothing new or unique: many stupid forms of bigotry have been staples of religion for centuries. And make no mistake about it: this is a religious nation where too many people of faith are easily persuaded to believe ridiculous falsehoods.

Now I am going to suggest that religions – especially the more fundamentalist protestant sects and much of institutional Catholicism – have little or nothing to do with morality, at least not as it is widely understood and practiced among enlightened people in most First World countries in the 21st Century. To understand this we need look no further than the fundies’ absurd and harmful views about sexuality, notably birth control, abortion, pre-marital intercourse, homosexuality, and stem cell research.

Now I submit that genuine and rational morality finds little or no common ground with archaic religious views on sexuality that are based on faith in the alleged words of an ancient, punitive god and not on meaningful, 21st Century, real-world values. The fundies are all about compliance with dogma, i.e., their interpretations of selected passages in an ancient holy book of dubious authenticity. Quite simply, they have once again painted themselves into the proverbial corner by claiming that their holy book is the infallible word of the perfect and all-powerful creator of the universe and therefore literally true in every particular. Their apologetics thus become an exercise in rationalization and verbal contortions to justify obvious absurdities and contradictions.

Unwanted Pregnancy? The Religious Right Says That’s Tough

There is no force in American religion more consequential than abortion, which could well be the single most divisive issue in American society. Opposition to abortion, at least in the early stages of pregnancy, is overwhelmingly based on belief in a particular anthropomorphic, supernatural, multiple-personality deity for which there is no valid empirical evidence. Therefore, absent a compelling secular, humanitarian justification, abortion should never be restricted, at least not prior to a certain point of fetal development. After that point, I’ll concede that some compromise may be in order, if only because feelings about “murdering unborn babies” run so high that reasonable restrictions may be the only way to preserve fragile, nonviolent coexistence between groups holding opposing views. With that gun to my head, I can accept restrictions similar to those in Europe while always insisting on the primacy of the woman’s physical and mental health. But the idea that a zygote (from conception through day four), a blastocyst (days four to 14) or an embryo (two weeks through eight weeks) is a “person” is a religious prejudice that should not be imposed on any woman against her will.

The reason for this is straightforward: religious beliefs are human creations, not revelations from on high, and beliefs vary widely among and even within various religions. And let us not overlook the megamillions of people worldwide who hold no beliefs or idiosyncratic beliefs. To restrict any person’s rights based on faith in unproven supernatural forces must be seen for what it is, a form of tyranny. Personal choices – especially of such life-altering magnitude as to whether or not to have a child – should not be restricted without a compelling secular justification.

Any genuine, rational morality must embrace the concept of “First, do no harm.” Avoiding unnecessary harm and suffering simply must be a central moral tenet; and yet if you look at fundagelical Christianity and Catholic doctrine vis-a-vis sexuality, you find little or no benefit but lots of harm. Again I call your attention to the right’s relentless efforts to ruin women’s lives by forcing them to give birth to children they’re not ready to raise and support; and to their attempts to ban birth control; and to their opposition to using fetal stem cells for research purposes; and to their persecution of gays. I could go on, but it should be apparent, in the case of abortion, that they place the welfare of a clump of cells above the interests of fully invested human beings. (As the old joke goes, fundamentalists believe life begins at conception and ends at birth. Only it’s not exactly a joke.)

It’s fair and reasonable to ask, “Who is hurt by an abortion?” Certainly not the zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus. It has no memories, no fears, no hopes and dreams, no investment in its life, no consciousness. An abortion changes nothing from the fetus’s subjective standpoint, whereas being forced to give birth to an unwanted child can destroy a woman’s life. The harm-versus-benefit ratio seems clear enough.

So why do the religious righteous oppose abortion? For religious reasons only. They are convinced beyond reason that their chosen god puts a soul in every microscopic, single-celled zygote at the moment of conception and that said god will be mightily pissed if anyone tampers with his little creations. Never mind that something like 60 percent of all conceptions fail because the ensouled zygote doesn’t become properly implanted in the uterus.

I anticipate logic-chopping arguments from pro-lifers along these lines: “So if it’s okay for a mother to terminate the life of her fetus, why not allow her to kill her infant child?”

The simplest answer is that morality and law regularly necessitate making distinctions, drawing lines; and, in fact, humans are very good at that. It is clearly to our advantage to embrace a sanctity-of-human-life ethic that includes all living persons. Still, if I were forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice” between the life of a mother and her infant child, I would unhesitatingly choose to save the mother, who is ever so much more invested and connected, even though she would most likely sacrifice her own life to save her child. Fortunately, we rarely have to make such choices, and I see nothing wrong with imposing the same penalty for murdering an infant as for murdering an adult.

But if a pro-lifer irritated me with their sanctimony, I would turn snarky and point out that their almighty god, as recorded in their inerrant and perfect holy book, not only condones, but commands, infanticide. Of course their leading apologists have no problem rationalizing genocide and infanticide.

Okay, I know I have ventured into dangerous territory, and I hasten to say I speak only for myself. But let me be clear: I think the religious right’s and the Catholic Church’s positions on almost all sexual issues are profoundly immoral, exacerbating rather than ameliorating human suffering. It’s not my place to question the nuanced, socially calibrated euphemisms employed by pro-choice organizations, who have been fighting these battles on a national stage for a long time. Yet I’m suggesting that the recent Komen experience suggests there is a useful role for uncompromising, un-nuanced, rational smackdowns of right-wing Christian misogyny. We’re right about these issues, and we have to stop letting the theocrats frame and dictate the terms of the debate. Abortion is a safe and reasonable choice for many women. It is not immoral.

To be continued.