Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fight the Christian Right

From Michelle Goldberg's Tyranny of the Christian Right:

Focus on the local

One way for progressives to build a movement and fight Christian nationalism at the same time is to focus on local politics. For guidance, they need only look to the Christian Coalition: It wasn't until after Bill Clinton's election exiled the evangelical right from power in Washington that the Christian Coalition really developed its nationwide electoral apparatus.

The Christian right developed a talent for crafting state laws and amendments to serve as wedge issues, rallying their base, and forcing the other side to defend seemingly extreme positions. Campaigns to require parental consent for minors' abortions, for example, get overwhelming public support and put the pro-choice movement on the defensive while giving pro-lifers valuable political experience.

Liberals can use this strategy too. They can find issues to exploit the other side's radicalism, winning a few political victories and, just as important, marginalizing Christian nationalists in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Progressives could work to pass local and state laws, by ballot initiative wherever possible, denying public funds to any organization that discriminates on the basis of religion. Because so much faith-based funding is distributed through the states, such laws could put an end to at least some of the taxpayer-funded bias practiced by the Salvation Army and other religious charities. Right now, very few people know that, thanks to Bush, a faith-based outfit can take tax dollars and then explicitly refuse to hire Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims. The issue needs far more publicity, and a political fight -- or a series of them -- would provide it. Better still, the campaign would contribute to the creation of a grassroots infrastructure -- a network of people with political experience and a commitment to pluralism.

Progressives could also work on passing laws to mandate that pharmacists fill contraceptive prescriptions. (Such legislation has already been introduced in California, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada, and West Virginia.) The commercials would practically write themselves. Imagine a harried couple talking with their doctor and deciding that they can't afford any more kids. The doctor writes a birth control prescription, the wife takes it to her pharmacist -- and he sends her away with a religious lecture. The campaign could use one of the most successful slogans that abortion rights advocates ever devised: "Who decides -- you or them?"

A new media strategy

In conjunction with local initiatives, opponents of Christian nationalism need a new media strategy. Many people realize this. Fenton Communications, the agency that handles public relations for MoveOn, recently put together the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, a MoveOn-style grassroots group devoted to raising awareness about the religious right. With nearly 3.5 million members ready to be quickly mobilized to donate money, write letters or lobby politicians on behalf of progressive causes, MoveOn is the closest thing liberals have to the Christian Coalition, but its focus tends to be on economic justice, foreign policy and the environment rather than contentious social issues. The Campaign to Defend the Constitution intends to build a similar network to counter Christian nationalism wherever it appears.

Much of what media strategists need to do simply involves public education. Americans need to learn what Christian Reconstructionism means so that they can decide whether they approve of their congressmen consorting with theocrats. They need to realize that the Republican Party has become the stronghold of men who fundamentally oppose public education because they think women should school their kids themselves. (In It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum calls public education an "aberration" and predicts that home-schooling will flourish as "one viable option among many that will open up as we eliminate the heavy hand of the village elders' top-down control of education and allow a thousand parent-nurtured flowers to bloom.")

When it comes to the public relations fight against Christian nationalism, nothing is trickier than battles concerning public religious symbolism. Fights over crèches in public squares or Christmas hymns sung by school choirs are really about which aspects of the First Amendment should prevail -- its protection of free speech or its ban on the establishment of religion. In general, I think it's best to err on the side of freedom of expression. As in most First Amendment disputes, the answer to speech (or, in this case, symbolism) that makes religious minorities feel excluded or alienated is more speech -- menorahs, Buddhas, Diwali lights, symbols celebrating America's polyglot spiritualism.

There are no neat lines, no way to suck the venom out of these issues without capitulating completely. But one obvious step civil libertarians should take is a much more vocal stance in defense of evangelicals' free speech rights when they are unfairly curtailed. Although far less common than the Christian nationalists pretend, on a few occasions lawsuit-fearing officials have gone overboard in defending church/state separation, silencing religious speech that is protected by the First Amendment. (In one 2005 incident that got tremendous play in the right-wing press, a principal in Tennessee wouldn't allow a ten-year-old student to hold a Bible study during recess.) Such infringements should be fought for reasons both principled, because Christians have the same right to free speech as everyone else, and political, because these abuses generate a backlash that ultimately harms the cause of church/state separation.

The ACLU already does this, but few hear about it, because secularists lack the right's propaganda apparatus. Liberals need to create their own echo chamber to refute these kind of distortions while loudly supporting everyone's freedom of speech. Committed Christian nationalists won't be won over, but some of their would-be sympathizers might be inoculated against the claim that progressives want to extirpate their faith, making it harder for the right to frame every political dispute as part of a war against Jesus.

The challenge, finally, is to make reality matter again. If progressives can do that, perhaps America can be saved.

Ethics for Robots

From Ed Habershon and Richard Woods's No sex, robot, just clean the floor: "The race is on to keep humans one step ahead of robots: an international team of scientists and academics is to publish a "code of ethics" for machines as they become more and more sophisticated.

Although the nightmare vision of a Terminator world controlled by machines may seem fanciful, scientists believe the boundaries for human-robot interaction must be set now — before super-intelligent robots develop beyond our control.

"There are two levels of priority," said Gianmarco Verruggio, a roboticist at the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation in Genoa, northern Italy, and chief architect of the guide, to be published next month. "We have to manage the ethics of the scientists making the robots and the artificial ethics inside the robots."

Verruggio and his colleagues have identified key areas that include: ensuring human control of robots; preventing illegal use; protecting data acquired by robots; and establishing clear identification and traceability of the machines.

"Scientists must start analysing these kinds of questions and seeing if laws or regulations are needed to protect the citizen," said Verruggio. "Robots will develop strong intelligence, and in some ways it will be better than human intelligence. But it will be alien intelligence; I would prefer to give priority to humans."

The analysis culminated at a meeting recently held in Genoa by the European Robotics Research Network (Euron) that examined the problems likely to arise as robots become smarter, faster, stronger and ubiquitous."

The Transhumanist Beat/Beck Tune Remixed by Boards of Canada

The Transhumanist Beat/"ALL CAPS" BY MADLIB

Extra credit for those who can recognize the Kirby/Sinnott squiggle...

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Universal Health Care: A Moral Choice

From Jim Hightower's How to Fix Our Healthcare Mess: "Years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Of all the forms of inequalities, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."

Allocating health care according to the size of your bank account or to your privileged position in society is fundamentally (even biblically) immoral. It's also a shameful embarrassment for any wealthy nation. A strong, fair, affordable choice is readily available -- and it's time to fight for it. Americans can keep wasting hundreds of billions of dollars a year on the handful of bureaucratic corporate profiteers that make up the health-industry complex, or we can put that money into a single-payer system that will deliver quality care to everyone. Despite relentless ideological assaults on the idea of universal, government-financed systems by cult-of-the-market dogmatists and right-wing blowhards, the untold truth is that such systems work.

Let's refute a few of the Big Lies that have kept a national, single-payer health plan from even being considered.

IT'S SOCIALIZED MEDICINE.Wrong, Limbaugh-breath. Like Medicare, government doesn't deliver the health care under a single-payer system (SPS) -- you still go to your choice of doctors and hospitals. SPS, as the name suggests, is merely a government-run payment system. Instead of you and me paying inflated premiums to profit-seeking insurance giants which then pay our medical bills, SPS eliminates the rip-off overhead of the middleman and pays all of our bills directly to the providers.

PRIVATE IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN PUBLIC. Not at performing truly public functions, such as assuring health care for all. Presently, up to a third of the health premiums we pay to insurance corporations go not to health care but to their profits, marketing campaigns, CEO pay packages, posh headquarters, lobbying firms, and -- most damning -- massive bureaucracies whose sole purpose is to try to deny coverage for our medical treatments. With SPS, all of these costs are eliminated -- Medicare, for example, spends only 2 percent of its revenues on administrative costs.

WE CAN'T AFFORD TO COVER EVERYONE. We can't afford NOT to have universal care. When today's uninsured millions get sick, they end up at the ER -- the most expensive care there is. Also, they get no preventative care, which is far cheaper than paying for the serious illnesses that they later develop. A decade ago, Taiwan switched from a U.S.-style corporatized system to a Canadian-style SPS. It quickly went from 60 percent of its people covered to practically all -- with virtually zero increase in overall health spending.

THERE'LL BE WAITING LISTS. Hello! Have you ever tried to get a quick appointment with your family doctor -- especially at night or on weekends? Only a third of Americans have same-day access to their own doctor. It takes days, even if you have insurance -- ask an uninsured American about waiting lists! And forget about trying to see a specialist within a month of calling. No country with SPS has a waiting list for emergency care and few have them for primary care. Waits for other procedures are almost always for elective surgeries (liposuction, face lifts, tennis elbow, nonessential MRIs, etc.).

Why not now?

The American people overwhelmingly support a major, progressive shift from corporatized "care" to universal care. Recent polls show consistent agreement on the need for real action:

*Everyone has the right to quality, affordable care (90 percent) -- Lake Research poll of U.S. Women, 12/05
*Average Americans spend too much on health care (65 percent); government spends too little (70 percent) -- Pew poll, 3/06.
*Our current system has so much wrong with it that either "fundamental changes" are needed (56 percent) or we must "completely rebuild it" (34 percent) -- CBS/New York Times poll, 1/06.
*Government should guarantee health coverage for every American "even if it means raising taxes" (65 percent) -- Pew poll, 5/05. Likewise, 64 percent of doctors favor a single-payer health plan, according to a 2004 Harvard Medical School survey of Massachusetts physicians. Even corporate executives -- from General Motors to Wal-Mart -- are publicly wailing about the high cost and low coverage of America's current system (though none are providing the leadership to put America on the right track to a national plan of universal coverage).

A single-payer system is the answer. An unusually strong editorial in March by the St. Louis Post Dispatch expressed the benefits succinctly: "Employers would no longer be saddled with health care. Workers would no longer worry about health care for themselves or their children. And we could toss the disgraceful private health insurance industry, with its wasteful bureaucracy and inscrutable coverage rules, into the dumpster."

Many good grassroots groups are pushing this fundamentally moral issue into the elections of '06, '08 and beyond, confronting Republican lawmakers on their shameful fealty to corporate greed, and Democrats on their appalling wimpiness. We can achieve the goal of good-quality health care for all -- and advance America toward the greatness of its democratic potential."

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Coming Political Revolution

From William Greider, author of The Soul of Capitalism:

"Momentous change is approaching in American politics. Conceivably, the turning point has already arrived, too indistinct to recognize. We are witnessing the demise of the reigning economic ideology. A deep shift of this kind is a very rare event, one that comes along only every thirty or forty years. Economic disorders accumulate that the orthodoxy cannot answer and may even have caused. Eventually, the ideological presumptions are discredited by real-world contradictions.

The last time this happened was in the 1970s, when economic liberalism foundered and collapsed. Ossified intellectually, unable to adjust to changed circumstances, the liberal order did not know how to deal with economic consequences like inflationary stagnation. As the long postwar prosperity lost its energy, so did liberal politics.

Something similar is happening now to the Republicans. Their problem is the underperforming economy, which must borrow to stay afloat and, roughly speaking, lifts only half the boats. The conservative order -- inspired two generations ago by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek and brought to power by Republican ascendancy -- pushed government aside so business and capital would be free to generate more lasting prosperity. But their utopian promise was not fulfilled. Instead, the right's principal product, one can say, was economic inequality.

The breakdown won't necessarily produce an immediate shift in power. When the bottom fell out of liberal doctrine thirty years ago, what first unfolded was confusion and political paralysis, then an awkward retreat by the Democrats until they were finally displaced by the aggressive new conservatives under Ronald Reagan. But it does mean that Republicans have lost the political cohesion to advance their more extreme measures (privatizing Social Security, freeing capital entirely of taxation).

More to the point, the way is now open for alternative thinking: the new ideas that can lead to a new governing order. These ideas must be grounded in a determination to give people back their future. The strange paradox of our times is that despite America's fabulous wealth, most people's lives are shadowed by economic anxieties and real confinements, the wounds that market ideology has imposed. They fear that much worse is ahead for their children. Reform must re-establish this fundamental principle: The economy exists to support society and people, not the other way around. Only government can liberate them from the harsh rule of the marketplace, the demands imposed by capital and corporations that stunt or stymie the full pursuit of life and liberty in this complex industrial society. This very wealthy country has the capacity to insure that all citizens, regardless of status or skills, have the essential needs to pursue secure, self-directed lives. This starts with the right to health, work, livable incomes and open-ended education, and to participate meaningfully in the decisions that govern their lives. The marketplace has no interest in providing these. It is actively destroying them.

A coherent alternative agenda that will fulfill these principles does not yet exist. Nor will a liberal-progressive program emerge miraculously if the Democratic Party should somehow regain power in the next few years, since many Democrats in Congress have internalized the market ideology and collaborate with the right. But elements of that alternative agenda are already ripe for discussion."

Read more of on the AlterNet.