Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

Bob Jones University apologizes for past racist views

Bob Jones University, the private, fundamentalist Christian college founded in 1927, has just issued an apology for racist views that they formerly held and justified on biblical grounds.  The school did not admit black students until 1971 and prohibited interracial dating until that particular policy gained attention during the 2000 presidential election when George W. Bush gave a speech at the school.

This blog commends Bob Jones University for apologizing for the racist views they formerly promoted

This blog commends Bob Jones University for apologizing for the racist views they used to promote

The detailed rules that Bob Jones University developed in the 1970s prohibited not just interracial dating and marriage but threaten expulsion for any student who even advocated interracial marriage, who was “affiliated with any group or organization which holds as one of its goals or advocates interracial marriage,” or “who espouse, promote, or encourage others to violate the University’s dating rules and regulations.”  The Internal Revenue Service revoked the University’s tax exempt status; the school appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the University met all other criteria for tax-exempt status and that the school’s racial discrimination was based on sincerely held religious beliefs, that “God intended segregation of the races and that the Scriptures forbid interracial marriage.”

The just released apology (full text) says in part:

We failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

The South Carolina chapter of the NAACP welcomed the apology from the Greenville-based school.  “It’s unfortunate it took them this long — particularly a religious, faith-based institution — to realize that we all are human beings and the rights of all people should be respected and honored,” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP.

The school has never reapplied for tax exemption, though they could presumably qualify now.  This blog commends the school and its leadership for having the courage to admit these past mistakes.

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Palestinians offer peace plan to Israel

The Palestinians don't have a state, but they have a good flag.  That's a good sign.

The Palestinians don't have a state but they already have a good flag. That's a good sign.

There is a positive development in the Arab-Israeli conflict: the Palestinian Authority has published, in Hebrew, a peace proposal in Israel’s four largest daily papers.  It outlines the plan that’s backed by both Saudi Arabia and the Arab League that calls for:

  1. Israel withdraws from entire Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Eastern Jerusalem;
  2. Normalization of relations between Israel and the 57 members of the Arab League, who would “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended”; and
  3. the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Apparently it was Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s idea to place the ads, which describe what Israeli officials have called a “positive initiative” that need to be “fine tuned and corrected.”.

Like the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, this blog favors a two-state solution and welcomes this development.  This is a serious proposal, and hopefully is being offered and will be taken and seriously. 

Of course the third item, the Palestinian right of return, would significantly change the nature of Israel in the short-term,  making it about 40% Arab, and would have the longer-term effect of there being two Palestinian states, due to demographics changes. However, the plan calls for a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem,” which could be accomplished via other means.  For instance, I rather think it’d be well worth it for the United States to put up several billion dollars to compensate the refugees and allow them to get on with their lives in a rebuilding Palestinian state; it’d be much cheaper and safer than an indefinite continuation of the status quo. 

8. The precise shade of blue is not specified.

The Flag of Israel has a hight:width ratio of 11:8. The precise shade of blue is not specified.

There are two major stumbling blocks that need to be removed.  For their part, Israel needs to remove the settlements which have been built in the West Bank.  Just as two Palestinian states wouldn’t qualify as a solution neither would two Israeli states, which is basically what is accomplished with these settlements.  They need to be dismantled, something which can be accomplished fairly easily.  Israel should begin removing these outposts immediately and unilaterally.  That will put the onus on the Palestinians to do their part and will show everyone that Israel is serious about making a Palestinian state possible.

The second major problem going forward is the ability of the Palestinian Authority to end the attacks on Israel.  If they can’t do that, this isn’t going to work; Israel must have security.  Lasting peace will require two states, side by side, and living in peace with each other.  Of course, there will be some radicals on both sides who will reject any possible compromise; some on the Arab side will likely resort to violence.

Reportedly, President-elect Barack Obama finds this Arab proposal to be constructive.  He is also impressed with Benjamin Netanyahu’s “economic peace” plan, which calls for rebuilding the economy and infrastructure of the Palestinian areas as a prelude to a formal peace plan.  If Palestinians had more jobs and were less desperate, they’d be less likely to strap bombs to themselves.

There have been problems with just about all the peace deals offered thus far, and this one from the Arab League is no exception.  However, I think the way forward is becoming pretty clear.  Ultimately, I think there will be two states, based largely on the 1967-borders (with some 1:1 land swaps) and no right of return, but some other sort of compensation to make up for that.  This won’t happen until Israel dismantles, or guarantees it will dismantle, the West Bank settlements and the Palestinians make significant progress in curbing the violence from their side.  I predict this will happen 5-20 years from now.  It’s just a matter of how soon the two sides realize this and make it happen.  More than 42% Palestinians are under 15.  Hopefully they’ll soon realize that violence isn’t going to get them what they want and will reject terrorism and decide that most of what they want with peace and modernization is better than a continuation of the violence.

People know more about American Idol than about America

Since Paula Abdul is not in this picture, most Americans probably have no idea what is going on.

Since Paula Abdul is not in this picture, most Americans probably have no idea what is going on here.

Most Americans—56% to be precise—know that Paula Abdul is a judge on American Idol, but less than half can name the three branches of their government, according to a study administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the University of Connecticut.  It also found that only 27% of us could correctly identify what the First Amendment explicitly proscribes—and these were multiple choice questions (20% chance just by guessing). 

You can take the 33-question quiz for yourself here.  Hopefully all readers of this blog get the 7th question correct.

High school graduates averaged 44% correct; college graduates did only slightly better, 57%—getting one more question right for each year of higher education.  The quiz was given to 2000 Americans this past spring and only 29% received what would be a passing mark on it.  Amazingly, elected officials actually scored lower than the general public.

Politicians … scored five points lower than the Average Joe, a performance that former Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok labeled “abysmal and alarming.”
 
— Seventy-nine (79) percent of elected officeholders did not know that the Bill of Rights expressly forbids the government establishing an official religion for the U.S.
 
— A large number (43 percent) of politicians did not know what the Electoral College does.
 
Only 32 percent of politicians can actually define what the free-enterprise system is – even though many of them may have campaigned for office pledging to defend it.

I’m guessing that most of those politicians were local officials and not national figures, though I could be wrong.  Anyway, why should we expect our officials to know what they’re doing when we don’t?  You get the government you deserve.

Further information on the study is available at http://www.americancivicliteracy.org

Washing your hands may make you evil

Cleanliness may not be next to Godliness after all. Researchers have found that experimental subjects who had been primed with concepts related to cleanliness (e.g. pure, immaculate, pristine, et cetera) or who had just washed their hands were less likely to be troubled by questionable behavior, which they rated on a scale of 0 (perfectly okay) to 9 (very wrong).  The Economist has the story.

The researchers report that those who were given the “clean” words or who washed themselves rated the acts they were asked to consider as ethically more acceptable than the control groups did. Among the volunteers who unscrambled the sentences, those exposed to ideas of cleanliness rated eating the family dog at 5.7, on average, on the wrongness scale whereas the control group rated it as 6.6. Their score for using a kitten in sexual play was 6.7; the control group individuals gave it 8.3. Similar results arose from the handwashing experiment.

Dr. Simone Schnall conducted the research, which is published in Psychological Science.  The Economist reports that her hypothesis is that “feeling morally unclean (i.e. disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong.”  The article concludes by saying:

Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.

Anyway, if you want to manipulate someone into doing something wrong, get them to wash up before making your proposal.

Gettysburg Address is 145 years old today

The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, taken about three hours before he spoke

Seven score and five years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches ever given by anyone in any language.  Ironically, it includes the line “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” which has been proven quite untrue.

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the Address, with many facts that you’re probably not aware of.  Or if you’re in the mood to celebrate the Gettysburg Address with some fun, Sporcle has a fun game where you can see if you know all the words to the famous speech!  Or you can just read them here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The words to the Address are carved into the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial’s interior; the north wall bears extracts from his Second Inaugural Address, a speech which exceeds almost any other given by an American President—except for the Gettysburg Address.

104 Generals and Admirals say let gays serve openly

Department of Defense HQ

Department of Defense HQ

A statement was released Monday by 104 retired generals and admirals calling for the U.S. to end the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy which prevents gays and lesbians from serving in the American armed forces unless they deceptively hide their sexual orientation.  The full text of the statement is as follows:

We—the undersigned—respectfully call for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Those of us endorsing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish. Scholarly data shows there are approximately one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States today as well as 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in our armed forces. They have served our nation honorably. We support the recent comments of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, who has concluded that repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would not harm and would indeed help our armed forces. As is the case with Great Britain, Israel, and other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality. Such collaboration reflects the strength and the best traditions of our democracy.

By my count, the flag offices who’ve signed the statement have a total of 161 starts on their uniforms (it was also signed by Former Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander).  The list is topped by Retired 4-star Admiral Charles Larson, a former Superintendent of the Naval Academy and prior supporter of the don’t ask policy. 

He thought it was a mistake for Bill Clinton, who was a close acquaintance, to try to lift the ban immediately, and wished he would have worked more closely with the military if he wanted to make the change. “You can’t change the military culture overnight,” he recalled thinking. …

Admiral Larson changed his view after he learned that “there were a lot of witch hunts and a lot of people were turned out on that basis.” He found that the policy was not being implemented as he had hoped, and the military was losing valuable talent. He was also influenced by having a number of people work for him who were gay, and by having a gay daughter with whom he spoke at length about gays in the military.

He now believes the ban should end. “I think the time has come to find a way to let talented, young, patriotic Americans who want to serve their country serve,” he said, “and let’s enforce high standards of personal and human behavior for everyone.”

Initially, opposition to gays in the military was justified on grounds that they wouldn’t make as good soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen as straight people.  That argument can no longer be made by any serious person.  Now, opposition to gay servicemembers is based on the argument that straight members aren’t mature enough to serve with someone that they know is homosexual.  (Though the claim isn’t normally put in such bald terms.)

Larson, the Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor of Maryland in 2006, says that a generational shift in thinking towards homosexuality now allows heterosexuals to serve alongside homosexuals.  This is exactly what happened with allowing non-whites to serve in the military in an equal capacity with whites: first blacks wouldn’t make good soldiers, then they proved they could so it was argued that whites couldn’t work with them.  Then whites proved they could.  And now we have a racially-integrated military that works fine.  The same thing will happen with homosexuals; it is inevitable.  People looking for more information about gays in the military are hereby referred to the very excellent essays and data maintained and provided on the subject by Dr. Gregory Herek of the University of California, Davis.

These changing attitudes can be easily seen in the age demographics in California’s Proposition 8 battle: 66% of 18-24 year olds, 60% of 25-29 year olds, and 50% of 30-39 year olds supported retaining same-sex marriage rights.  Only 41% of those 65 and older supported those rights.  In ten years many of those people currently over 65 will have passed away and there will be ten years worth of new younger voters who are comfortable with gay rights—and many of those who currently oppose those rights will change their own attitudes.

This blog supports equal rights for gays and lesbians who wish to serve in the military

This blog supports equal rights for gays and lesbians who wish to serve in the military

Between 1994-2007 the military discharged about 12,340 people for violating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; last year, 627 military personnel were discharged.  Some of these people have been Arab-language linguists with sklls that are, to say the least, mission-critical at this point in time.

During the primaries, all of the Republican candidates for president favored retaining the present policy; all of the Democrats, Barack Obama included, favored repealing it.  However,  he has indicated he won’t scrap the policy unilaterally, preferring to lead and work with the Department of Defense and military leaders in developing a consensus to do so.  I think this is probably the best approach in getting widespread acceptance for the reform.  Pundits are saying that it’s unlikely he’ll make changing the policy a top priority early in his term.

The don’t ask policy doesn’t work and harms our military.  Heterosexuals should be given credit for being mature enough, with very few exceptions, to work side-by-side with a gay or lesbian person.  This blog strongly favors repeal of the policy and allowing people who can cut it to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation without having to deceptively hide said orientation.

Obama will likely have to give up e-mail as president

The New York Times has an interesting story saying that, after taking office, Barack Obama will likely need to give up e-mailing, which the BlackBerry toting Senator and candidate has hitherto relied upon heavily.

The story says that any e-mails will be subject to later disclosure and even subpoena under the Presidential Records Act (passed in 1978).  Also, there are security concerns; e-mail is subject to interception and hacking, and it wouldn’t be much harder to send an e-mail from his account while impersonating him.  Additionally, he’s going to have a lot less time to be e-mailing and following everything on his BlackBerry soon.

The article gives some other details on how Obama, as well as George W. Bush and Al Gore, has stayed wired and connected.  He and his staff have yet to reach a final decision on whether he really will give up e-mail totally, just the outgoing variety, or not at all.

Burlington, VT is healthiest city & Huntington, WV is unhealthiest city in America

Burlington, Vermont may have healthy residents, but they have a terrible flag

Burlington, Vermont may have healthy residents, but they have a terrible flag

The Centers for Disease Control has completed a survey of the United States and found that Burlington, Vermont (pop. 39,000) is the healthiest city in the United States.  The city is among the best in exercise and among the lowest in obesity, diabetes, and other measures of ill health; and 92% of residents report being in good or great health.

At the other end of the health spectrum is Huntington, West Virginia (pop. 49,000).  Many of their health challenges there are related to obesity.

Huntington is essentially tied with a few other metropolitan areas for proportion of people who don’t exercise (31 percent), have heart disease (22 percent) and diabetes (13 percent). The smoking rate is pretty high, too, although not the worst.

However, the Huntington area is a clear-cut leader in dental problems, with nearly half the people age 65 and older saying they have lost all their natural teeth. And no other city comes close to Huntington’s adult obesity rate, according to the report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on data from 2006.

The dental statistic jumps out at me: 48.1% of people over 65 in Huntington have none of their original teeth left.

Some of the differences between the healthiest and unhealthiest cities are interesting:

  • Burlington is younger, with an average age of 37, compared to 40 in Huntington, according to the Census Bureau.
  • Burlington is better off financially, with 8 percent living at the federal poverty level, compared to 19 percent in Huntington.
  • It’s much more educated, with nearly 40 percent of area residents having at least a college bachelor’s degree. Only 15 percent in the Huntington area do.

This flag is an abomination.  In a 2004 flag survey conducted by the North American Vexillogical Association only one city had a worse flag than this

Huntington, WV's flag is an abomination. In a 2004 North American Vexillogical Association flag survey only one city in the country had a worse flag than this

Poverty is a significant factor in Huntington’s high obesity rate and other health problems; people there don’t have much leisure time to exercise and often can’t afford to eat healthy foods. The news story refers to “the KFC $10 Challenge” which the the fried-chicken chain is advertising.  They challenge a family to go to the grocery store and put together a dinner for $10 or less that was comparable to KFC’s seven-piece, $9.99 value meal. “This is what we’re up against,” said Keri Kennedy, manager of the West Virginia health department’s Office of Healthy Lifestyles.  She notes that it’s an extremely persuasive ad for a low-income family that is accustomed to fried foods. “I don’t know what you do to counter that.”

Iraqi cabinet approves status of forces agreement

The new Iraqi flag eliminates the three stars but keeps the

The new Iraqi flag still has the takbir (Allahu Akbar/God is Great). The version used from 2004-2008 had three stars and a different script. The 1991-2004 flag had yet another script, rumored to have been Saddam's own handwriting.

Today the Iraqi cabinet unanimously approved a Status of Forces Agreement that will allow U.S. forces to stay in the country legally after their UN mandate expires at the end of this year.  According to Al Jazeera the vote was 27-0 with one cabinet member abstaining and nine members not present.  The agreement must now be approved by the full parliament.

The pact requires U.S. troops to leave the country’s towns and cities by mid 2009; they will then be based in rural areas and will assist in urban areas only when called upon to do so by Iraqi forces.  U.S. forces must leave Iraq by the 31 December 2011.  It was because this agreement was in the works and that no Iraqi government would or could approve a document that allowed the U.S. to stay much beyond 2011 that I didn’t think the recent presidential election would have any impact on the withdrawal of the American military from Iraq; John McCain couldn’t keep the troops there indefinitely and Barack Obama is unlikely to pull them out ahead of schedule.  .

While Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) are considered treaties under international law (see Article 2 Section 2(a) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties), under U.S. law they are considered executive agreements and are made pursuant to the president’s inherent power as commander in chief of the armed forces, not his or her treaty-making power; they therefore do not require approval either by the full Congress or the Senate.

In Iraq the pact is controversial, with Sunnis tending to be most opposed and some calling for a public referendum.  Now that the Iraqi cabinet has approved it, the agreement must now be passed by the 275-member Iraqi parliament where its fate is uncertain.  It then would have to be ratified by the three-member presidency which includes Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi, who has led calls for a public referendum and could veto the pact.  There are currently about 150,000 American military personnel in the country.

Electing judges is a bad idea

Slate has a good article out that describes and criticizes recent efforts to replace the merit selection of judges in many states with partisan elections.

It’s no secret that many chambers of commerce and trade associations and their foes, plaintiffs’ attorneys and unions, have become the Itchy and Scratchy of judicial campaigns, willing to do whatever it takes to prevail. Since 2000, these rivals have spent millions to elect judges that they hope will rule their way, smashing funding records in at least 15 states. (As an Ohio AFL-CIO official put it: “We figured out a long time ago that it’s easier to elect seven judges than to elect 132 legislators.”) In the last few election cycles, businesses have outspent the other side and won more often than not. But the specter of judges chasing after money unnerves the public: three in four Americans believe campaign cash affects courtroom decisions, according to a bipartisan poll that my organization, Justice at Stake, commissioned. The latest John Grisham thriller casts a toxic tycoon buying a court race just to win a case.

Justice is supposed to be blind, but in some states, she may appear to be for sale

Justice is supposed to be blind, but in some states she appears to be for sale

According to Wikipedia, the judges of 23 state supreme courts are chosen by the voters in elections; seven of those states have partisan elections and the other 16 have nonpartisan elections (often just meaning that the candidate’s political party is not listed on the ballot).  In five states supreme court judges are elected by members of the legislature; eight states use gubernatorial appointments, with confirmation by one or more houses of the legislature and/or a retention election; and 14 states use the Missouri plan or a modified version thereof.  The Missouri Plan involves a nominating commission which submits the names of several qualified candidates for the governor to select from.  The appointee then must then face a retention election.

If a judge is well qualified, retention elections usually result in no campaigning or fundraising and he or she is typically retained in office with 85-90% of the vote.  However, in the event of an unsuitable judge the public can organize a campaign against him or her and seek to oust the jurist.  Even the risk of this happening could embarrass the governor, hopefully providing another incentive to choose a well qualified judge and not a partisan hack or lackey.

While okay with retention elections, retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor has recently been speaking out in opposition to contested judicial elections. She has argued that the presence of money and special interests in elections, even when they do not interfere with the administration of justice, can undermine public confidence in judges, which is vitally needed in order for judges to be effective. “Our gavels aren’t that big and we can’t swing them that hard,” she said.  Watch her briefly discussing the matter here and here, where she calls it the worst thing about how we select our judges.

Those jurisdictions that have recently opposed efforts to abandon merit selection for contested elections have made good decisions.  Electing judges is a bad idea, as are confirmation hearings; but that’s another issue.