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Opportunity For American Jane Austen Fans To Connect With Human Rights Abuses Of Guantanamo

What if I told you that Momhamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who has been held prisoner in the American prisons of Guantanamo for over 12 years, where he has been tortured and threatened in violation of the Geneva Conventions, in spite of the fact that he has never been accused of any crime, has managed to publish a handwritten account of his illegal imprisonment?

Maybe you shrug.

Now, what if I tell you that Colin Firth, the actor who gained fame by playing Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, can be heard on The Guardian web site reading excerpts from Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book?

Mohamedou Ould Slahi writes, “What do the American people think? I am eager to know. I would like to believe the majority of Americans want to see justice done, and they are not interested in financing the detention of innocent people.”

I say, if what it takes for the American people to pay attention to the injustice perpetrated in their name as a part of the ongoing War On Terror is for Mr. Darcy to speak to them, good for The Guardian for getting it done.

No, Heaven Is Not For Real After All

There are two versions of the story about Alex Malarkey – the Boy Who Came Back From Heaven going around the Internet.

The first tells a half truth. It admits that the book titled The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, though it claims to be “a true story” is in fact a piece of fiction. It acknowledges that Alex Malarkey has recanted his story about dying and going to heaven and meeting angels and Jesus and Satan when he was six years old. It says that Tyndale House, the publisher of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, has responded to Alex’s message that “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention” by withdrawing the book from sale. In this version of the story, Tyndale House and its promotional partners come out looking like responsible publishers.

boy who came back from heaven fraudThe second version of the story tells a more complete, less flattering version of what really happened. Not only did Alex Malarkey send write a letter this month recanting the story behind The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven – he and his mother have been trying to tell people that the story is false for years. Tyndale House and the Lifeway chain of Christian bookstores were both contacted many times many time by Alex, with messages acknowledging that the book was a fraud, urging that it be taken out of print.

Alex even posted a message on the Facebook fan page for The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, telling everyone there that he had lied, and that the book should not be believed. In response, the administrators of the Facebook page deleted Alex’s message and banned him from participating in the page.

Christian clergy have joined in on the coverup. “When Alex first tried to tell a “pastor” how wrong the book was and how it needed stopped, Alex was told that the book was blessing people,” the boy’s mother has explained.

Over the last several years, many Christians, including those at Tyndale House and Lifeway, became aware that the book was a fraud, but they didn’t tell the general public. In fact, they worked to cover up the hoax. Why? First of all, the book was selling very well, and the publishers didn’t want the cash cow to run dry. Second, the book’s claims of proof of the reality of Heaven had proven to be a successful tool for encouraging children to follow Christian teachings. No one wanted to have to explain to the large number of children who loved the book that it was all a lie, because that might provoke a crisis in faith.

So, instead, whenever criticisms of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven were made, Christian believers went on the attack. The criticisms were dismissed out of hand “Individuals are entitled to speak their story as they see fit, without need to ‘prove’ anything,” wrote one believer.

Another angry Christian wrote, “I believe that Alex Malarkey died, went to Heaven, walked and talked with God and saw something indescribable, and came back to tell about it. I believe no human words can describe Heaven, except for maybe the word PERFECT, but that doesn’t even come close. It’s a wonderful thing to have faith like a child, maybe you should pray to God to give you a realization of what Heaven is actually like, instead of trying to prove a little boy’s story wrong.”

The fundamental message of books like The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven and Heaven Is For Real is that, when children start talking about supernatural events, their stories should be accepted on faith (so long as the stories are in keeping with Christian ideology). The full story of Alex Malarkey’s recantation, and the attempts of Christian publishers to cover it up, should remind us that scepticism is the most healthy reaction to extraordinary claims.

Alex Malarkey appears to have been used by his father Kevin Malarkey, to gain publicity for his work as a “Christian therapist”. Colton Burpo, the boy behind the Heaven Is For Real, appears to have been used in a similar way by his father, Todd Burpo, who transformed his small-time preaching career into a profitable business with many employees after the publication of his son’s tale of heaveny tourism. Burpo can offer no evidence tbat his son really went to Heaven, and the credibility of the Burpos becomes stretched thin even for devout Christians as Colton Burpo supposedly remembers new stories from his time as a four year-old in Heaven – just in time to be included in new spin-off products that are added to the Heaven Is For Real brand.

Using sick children as tools for professional leverage has got to be one of the most selfish things a parent could do. It’s no wonder the real stories behind these children’s supposed trips to Heaven have been so vigorously covered up.

Despite the Hottest Year on Record, Global Warming Apologist Still Cries “No Warming”

“There has been essentially no global warming since 1998.” — S. Fred. Singer, December 29 2014

NASA GISS Global Temperature Data, 1880-2014

“Bullshit.” — NASA

Even S. Fred Singer, famous for his stretching of data to deny global warming, is having a hard time using 1998 any more; he has to insert the modifier “essentially” to his “no global warming” declaration, so that “essentially” means “yes, there has been global warming, actually, but I’m not boiling yet.”

In the context of the end of the millenium, 1998 was an aberrant spike, an amazingly hot year. In the context of the years since, it’s a relative cool spot. A look at the full range of direct temperature measurements around the globe, provided by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, clearly shows a trend of global warming.

The Other Bush Running For President

Everyone knows that America has already had two members of the Bush family elected President, and that another Bush, Jeb, is currently running for President. Most people aren’t aware of the other member of the Bush family running for President: Michael Bickelmeyer.

Though Bickelmeyer is seeking the Republican president nomination, there isn’t much policy material from the Committee to Elect Michael Bickelmeyer to judge the worth of his candidacy yet.

Instead, we have the biographical information Bickelmeyer has provided online. He has posted his birth certificate online, just in case anyone makes the mistake of thinking he was born in Kenya. Also, Bickelmeyer shares an episode from 2007 in which “I was hospitalized by Judge John Corrigan by court order at the recommendation of United States Secret Service Senior Special Agent Greg Truman”.

michael bickelmeyerPolitical scientists make their careers looking for the little clues that distinguish successful campaigns from losing ones. Sometimes, however, the clues aren’t very hard to find. Such is the case with Bickelmeyer’s campaign. He mailed in his paperwork to the FEC bright and early on New Year’s Day this year. The envelope he mailed it in had a pre-printed return address sticker on it, featuring cute little penguins wearing cozy hats and scarves.

michael bickelmeyer inventionOn his resume, under the “Achievements” section, Bickelmeyer lists “Weapon System – A Gift For Children”, an invention “created to protect, watch and guard the Free World.” Bickelmeyer describes the device at some length, with diagrams, declaring it to be an “evolutionary device,” “designed to erase from the world, the spirits of dread and nightmare,” using reflected rays of sunlight, “controllable from earth, space, and outer spheres”.

Bickelmeyer also shares that he was in written communication with President George W. Bush in 2002, around the time his father died. He now considers George W. Bush to be his father. Thus, Michael Bickelmeyer might be thought of as a member of the Bush family, although rather estranged.

Does Science Prove the Catholic Church is Right? Part IV: Homosexuality and Discrimination against the Disabled

Jim Schroeder, writing for the pro-Catholic Foundation for Evangelization through the Media, has baldly declared that “Science Is Proving the Church Is Right and the Culture’s Wrong:

“Modern science – which so many assume is the antithesis or even enemy of Catholic teaching – actually bears out the truth and value and relevance of what the Church has taught for 2,000 years. Here are ten examples to illustrate my point.”

In a series of five posts, I’m examining each of Schroeder’s ten scientific proofs of Catholicism. Do they actually take the form of scientific proofs?  If so, do the proofs make scientific sense? Last month, I started with Schroeder’s points on Narcissism (Example 1) and Gluttony (Example 2), followed up by a consideration of Lust (Example 3) and Family (Example 4), and then an evaluation of Schroeder on Contraception (Example 5) and Fear (Example 6).  Today, let’s look at Schroeder’s “proofs” regarding homosexuality and discrimination against the disabled:

Schroeder’s seventh example of a scientific proof of Catholicism:

“7. The Church teaches that homosexual acts are not a healthy expression of human sexuality. An ‘International Journal of Epidemiology’ review of studies finds that the risk of HIV transmission is 18 times greater during anal intercourse than vaginal intercourse.”

Schroeder conflates anal sex and homosexual sex. Someone needs to tell him that straight people have anal sex, too. Actually, the article Schroeder mentions draws the distinction well, and makes it clear that anal sex, not homosexual sex per se, is assocated with a greater risk of contracting HIV. To quote the article, “There was no significant difference between per-act risks of unprotected receptive anal intercourse for heterosexuals and men who have sex with men.”

Schroeder’s eighth example of a scientific proof of Catholicism:

“8. The Church teaches that all human life is precious, from conception to natural death, and that each person is deserving of our love and care. The American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations strongly condemn discrimination against those with disabilities whose medical care, happiness and livelihood are often threatened by others (but, curiously, they support the ‘right’ to abort persons with disabilities).”

Schroeder’s link in this example is broken. Regardless, the statements of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are not scientific condemnations based in scientific research, but rather professional condemnations based in a sense of professional ethics. Schroeder misses the distinction. Besides, in his parenthetical reference he undercuts his general point about “science” supporting Catholic positions by noting a circumstance in which the APA and the other APA clearly oppose Catholic teaching.

Next up: sex before marriage and greed!

Christian Terrorists Bring Duke University To Its Knees

duke university christian terrorists

Christian terrorists, inspired by radical preacher Franklin Graham, have inundated Duke University with threats of violent attacks against students. The Christian extremists have been whipped up into a fury by reports that Muslims at Duke University would be allowed to have a call to prayer. The terrorists have demanded that the Muslim call to prayer be censored, and Duke University has agreed to their demands, citing “a number of credible threats against Muslim students, faculty and staff” from Christians outside the university.

This decision to give Christian terrorists what they want, and to deny Muslim students equal status at Duke, is being implemented on National Religious Freedom Day. Apparently, what National Religious Freedom Day means to American Christians is that Christians get religious freedom, and everyone else gets to go to hell.

Extra security provisions are being put into place across the Duke University campus to protect students from the Christian terrorist menace.

What is not known is how closely Franklin Graham is connected to the terrorists. Graham has not condemned their use of threats of violence to gain control over Duke University, and has celebrated the university’s surrender to the terrorists’ demands.

Franklin Graham’s followers are the American Christian equivalent of the the Muslim terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons of Mohammed. Muslim extremists have used violence against Charlie Hebdo to try to stop others from deviating from their strict religious laws, and Christian extremists have used threats of violence against Duke University to try to stop others from deviating from their strict religious laws.

The only significant difference is that Duke University caved in to terrorist demands before terrorist attacks were implemented, whereas the publishers of Charlie Hebdo refused to cave in.

We will not hear any of the major news networks refer to this instance of intimidation as “terrorism”, although it clearly meets the definition of terrorism.

Oxford Dictionaries defines terrorism as: “The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines terrorism as: “The use of violence or the threat of violence, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political goals.”

WordNet Dictionary defines terrorism as: “the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimindation or coercion or instilling fear”

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines terrorism as: “The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.”

We will not see the Department of Homeland Security sweep down upon North Carolina to infiltrate churches to root out the Southern Christian terrorist cells being developed there. Franklin Graham will not have to worry about drone attacks against his home.

In America, Christian terrorists and Muslim terrorists don’t get the same treatment. While Muslim terrorists are reviled, Christian terrorists are celebrated as heroes.

In The Long Run We Are All Dead

Friday seems an apt time for this reminder: Economist John Maynard Keynes advised, “In the long run we are all dead.” Invest wisely.

Pope Says It’s Normal For People To Be Violent In Response To Blasphemy

After the murder of people working at a magazine that published blasphemous cartoons of Islam’s prophet Mohammed, has blamed the magazine for the attack. Making an analogy between a blasphemous cartoon of Mohammed and an insult against his mother, the Pope warned that, “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch! It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pope would warn that anyone who dares to criticize religion should expect to be attacked. The Catholic Church has a long history of threatening, imprisoning, torturing and killing people who vary in the slightest from its imperial ideology.

Consider the way that the Pope’s church made an example of Giordano Bruno, having him imprisoned, tortured, and then burned at the stake for the following crimes:

catholics burning people at the stake* Holding opinions contrary to the Catholic Faith and speaking against it and its ministers.
* Holding erroneous opinions about the Trinity, about Christ’s divinity and Incarnation.
* Holding erroneous opinions about Christ.
* Holding erroneous opinions about Transubstantiation and Mass.
* Claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity.
* Believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes.
* Dealing in magics and divination.
* Denying the Virginity of Mary.

Still, in the year 2015, Pope Francis embraces the sadistic values that led to the killing of Giordano Bruno. He defends the logic that led to the murder of people at Charlie Hebdo.

What makes anyone think that the Pope of the Catholic Church would say differently? What on earth gives the leader of the Catholic church the moral standing to make moral pronouncements about people who kill heretics, when the Catholic church has waged such bloody jihad itself?

Pope Francis ought to be ashamed for suggesting that it’s “normal” for people to engage in violent acts as a result of petty insults. No, it is not normal for people to assault people in revenge for insults against their mothers. No, it is not normal for people to be killed for their criticism of religion.

We can, and we will make fun of the faith of others, especially when that faith is so vile as that of the Vatican, which continues to profit from the power it gained by pillage and murder around the world.

Those of us who live without religion are not perfect, but at least we know that we have the choice to defy and mock the ugliness of religious leaders like Pope Francis who make excuses for violence. We can walk away from their churches and temples and mosques of vengeance and bloody righteousness.

Republican Districts, Democratic Districts: How are they Different? (How are they Not?)

One of the best features of the newfangled Internet connectivity in our society is the ability of everyday citizens like you and me to take the data powerful governments, corporations and political parties have quietly accessed for decades and use it ourselves to answer driving questions we might have. Over the last few weeks I’ve been assembling information for Irregular Times’ own mashup of a database for the 114th Congress in Washington, DC, and one of the best sources of contextual data I’ve found for states and House congressional districts is the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.  Through the American FactFinder service, it’s possible to easily find and download information not just about your own congressional district, but about all congressional districts in the nation.

Once that information has been found, it’s possible to move beyond the casual, qualitative spin of political pundits about supposed differences between Republicans and Democrats in America.  Instead, we can ask very specific, quantitative questions about how Republican America and Democratic America might differ.  This morning, I’ve decided to look in detail at the 435 districts of the U.S. House of Representatives and ask how districts represented by Democrats might differ from districts represented by Republicans.

I’ve looked at six social indicators today, drawing from information in the 2013 American Community Survey (the last year for which data is available):

1. Per capita income: this is simply the average income received by every man, woman and child in a House district.

2. Gini index on income: a measure between 0 and 1 indicating the extent of income inequality in a district.  A Gini index value of 0 indicates complete income equality, while a Gini index value of 1 indicates complete income inequality.

3. Female Labor Force Participationexpressed as a percentage of non-institutionalized civilian women over the age of 16.

4. Simpson’s Index of Educational Diversity times 100, to represent the percent of pairs of people in a district who have different levels of educational attainment from one another.

For these first four characteristics of people in a district, there is little to no difference between the districts represented by Republicans and the districts represented by Democrats:

 Areas of Little to No Difference between House Republican Districts and House Democratic Districts:
Republican Districts Democratic Districts
Per Capita Income $27,255 $28,548
Gini Index 0.45023 0.46749
Female Labor Force Participation Rate 57.7% 59.9%
Simpson’s Index of Educational Diversity 86.1% 87.2%

For two additional characteristics I measured, on the other hand, there is a large difference between districts represented by Republicans and districts represented by Democrats:

5.  Simpson’s Index of Racial Diversity times 100, to represent the percent of pairs of people in a district who are members of different racial categories, as measured by the American Community Survey.

6.  Percent Foreign Born: the percent of people in a district who are either naturalized citizens or living in the district but not citizens of the United States:

 Areas of Large Difference between House Republican Districts and House Democratic Districts:
Republican Districts Democratic Districts
Simpson’s Index of Racial Diversity 30.0% 47.8%
Percent Foreign Born 8.3% 18.9%

When it comes to education and income, Republican and Democratic districts do not strongly differ.  On the other hand, Democratic districts are much more racially diverse and have much larger percentage of immigrants living in them than Republican districts do.

Understanding the Marc Allan Feldman for President Campaign

Two days ago, the FEC received papers filed by Marc Allan Feldman, a medical doctor from Ohio, registering himself as a candidate for President of the United States. Feldman is seeking the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party.

marc allen feldman infinityThis isn’t the first time Feldman will have run for public office. In a 2010 race for the position of Attorney General of Ohio, Feldman received less than three percent of the vote. Last year, Feldman attempted to mount a campaign for Ohio state Treasurer, but failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Marc Allan Feldman acknowledges that he never even bothered to register to vote until he was 50 years old. Perhaps his appeal to the non-voting portion of American adults has something to do with his failure to get elected so far.

Feldman’s lack of electoral popularity in the past isn’t necessarily a measure of the value of his ideas, but it is a likely predictor of his performance as a presidential candidate in 2016.

Feldman shares liberals’ opposition to the influence of big sources of money that pays for political campaigns, but he doesn’t appear to seek to regulate campaign finance, as liberals do. Instead, Feldman merely urges people to vote against candidates backed by big money. Feldman’s own record of failed third party political campaigns suggests that this strategy may not be effective.

In keeping with his Libertarian principles, Feldman is currently a member of Stop Mass Incarceration of Greater Cleveland. Feldman also has supported transparency laws in the past, though he hasn’t been specific about which specific pieces of transparency have his endorsement.

In his 2010 campaign for the office of Attorney General, Feldman pledged to take on big corporate lobbyists who were endangering the health of the people of Ohio. He wrote, “We have had a series of catastrophic problems for Ohioans due to the negligence or malfeasance of large corporations and their government lobbyists. 1. Lead paint 2. Asbestos 3. Tobacco 4. Home Mortgages / derivatives

Each time the Attorney General entered the fray too late to help people, the damage was already done. Now we have a chance to fight the big agribusiness that is manipulating food production, marketing, and sales to promote high calorie, high sugar, low fiber, genetically modified products including high fructose corn syrup that are the direct cause of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.

Obesity has increased from 10% to nearly 30% of adults in Ohio just since 1990. The medical costs alone are over 3 billion dollars per year. Obesity is no longer a major problem just for adults. There is now an epidemic among our children.

As a physician with training in public health, I am the only candidate with the background, the integrity, and the independence, to fight the food lobby for the health of Ohio citizens.”

What I’m not clear about is how Feldman proposed to govern as a Libertarian, and to use the power of big government to reduce the power of corporations in order to protect citizens from sugary foods, tobacco, and risky home mortgages. Isn’t this kind of interference what Libertarians usually deride as “nanny state” authoritarianism? The Libertarian argument I’ve heard over and over again is that people have to take responsibility for their own choices, rather than relying on government bureaucrats to protect them from the consequences of their decisions. Feldman doesn’t seem to agree with that point of view, or he didn’t when he was running to Attorney General of Ohio, at least.

Marc Allan Feldman’s alignment with classic Libertarian ideology also appears to get off the rails when it comes to foreign policy… at first. Feldman calls himself an “interventionist”, saying that “I believe the United States has a duty to project its considerable power to maximum effectiveness overseas.” Look again, and it becomes apparent that Feldman wants the United States to project its power by embodying freedom, rather than by sending the military around the world.

Did Thomas Jefferson Really Say Stories of Jesus are no More Real than Stories of Jupiter?

Earlier today, I came across a Freedom From Religion Foundation blog post by Andrew Seidel. It reads in part:

“Free thought and freethought only exist with the right to dissent and to proclaim that dissent. And yes, to criticize and even mock the ideas of others. Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams about his hope for the future: ‘the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.’

“The day that Jefferson predicted is here…”

When I encountered this supposed quote of Thomas Jefferson, I was so flabbergasted by it that I felt the need to do a little bit of fact checking. Did an American president actually declare that the religious origin story of Jesus from Mary was as fictional as the religious origin story of Minerva from the Roman god Jupiter? It seemed implausible to me.

To check the FFRF’s claim, I went straight to the source — Monticello.org, a project of the University of Virginia that aims to separate Jefferson myth from Jefferson fact.

This claim? It’s fact. Thomas Jefferson actually said this in a letter to John Adams, another American president. President Jefferson also said:

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

These statements are no more or less true because Thomas Jefferson said them. But it’s worth contemplating what has changed in our country to make such opinion, once acceptable, no longer acceptable for a president to utter in public.