Saturday, September 29, 2007

Exercise in Futility - The First Year/The Evolution Meme

Thanks to the Spanish Inquisitor for including me among the five atheist bloggers he chose to tag for the Evolution Meme. Normally I hate these things and generally tend to ignore them. However, SI could not have picked a better time to tag me for this particular topic, because it dovetails with a post I had been planning to mark the first anniversary of this blog. I will have to be a bit of a killjoy though because I am not interested in tagging anyone else.

The five posts I have picked for this meme are not necessarily the best posts I have had or the most substantive, but many of them represent important milestones in the evolution of Exercise in Futility. So here it goes:

1. My first post on September 30, 2006 (well, actually it was the second, because I botched the first post and uploaded a blank post!). What is important about this post is that I set forth in it the principles that would guide this blog. It would be primarily an atheist blog, but it would also be a forum for sharing my observations about life in general from my own personal perspective and my personal life. My "What About Bob?" series is the best example of this theme.

I also resolved that I would not use my blog as a forum to smear people. It does not mean of course that I refrain from criticizing people. My first substantive post that followed the inaugural post criticized Frank Russo, a conservative Catholic and anti-gay activist who lives here on Long Island. So far, I believe I had adhered to the principles I established for myself in my inaugural post.

2. Another function of my blog as I envisioned it would be to encourage altruism by sharing with my readers my own altruistic and charitable endeavors. The purpose was not to glorify me as some kind of super wonderful guy, but to serve as an example of what anybody can do help make a positive difference in the world, however small it might be. The first post I did in November of 2006 that exemplified this was "Give the Gift of Life", in which I urged all of my readers who were eligible to do so to donate blood.

Interestingly, this post ended up getting the second highest number of comments ever for a post on my blog, mainly fueled by a running debate between two former Exercise in Futility regulars, Christian fundie Sable Chicken (who has since evolved from trolling on atheist blogs to posting her own videos on Youtube) and agnostic Theerasak Phota. Sable was also troubled because I mentioned in the post that I had used the Barnes & Noble gift card I got from Long Island Blood Services towards my purchase of "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.

3. My January 2007 post "A Traitor to the United States of America" represented my first post to feature a photograph. It represented an important evolution for this blog as I started to become more tech savvy and learned new things. Prior to this post, the fanciest thing I could manage was to include hyperlinks. Also, for a post that featured little more than a picture of a billboard that equated atheists to traitors to this country, it managed to generate a rather impressive 85 comments, whereas many of my substantive posts into which I poured my heart and soul rarely generated more than single digits.

4. In an effort to generate more traffic and build a loyal readership, I decided that a regular dose of humorous film and television clips would be a good idea. My first Friday Night Funnies post appeared in May of 2007, a tradition which I still continue today. It also marked another milestone for Exercise in Futility, as it was my first post in which I embedded a Youtube video instead of just providing the link.

To be honest, I don't know how many of my readers watch the Friday Night Funnies clips that I put up. They rarely if ever generate any comments. But regardless of how many of my readers watch them, just as important for me is that I like to watch them!

5. With the proliferation of atheist blogs out there (and thank God for that! LOL!), it is important to find ways to distinguish one's blog from everyone else's. Any atheist blogger can do a post fisking parts of the Bible or linking to the latest outrage du jour from the Religious Right or Islamic fundamentalists. A really good atheist blog should strive to offer something that most other atheist blogs do not. I decided one way I could distinguish myself would be to meet prominent people in the atheist/freethought community.

The inspiration for this idea came when I received a mailing from the libertarian Cato Institute that it would be hosting a luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City last May that would feature Ayaan Hirsi Ali as the luncheon speaker. I thought to myself, what a coup that would be if I could not only meet her and get her to sign my copy of her book "Infidel", but to also get photographed with her as well. As fate would have it, I was not able to get my picture taken with Ayaan, so I had to settle for this. This post represented my first post to feature me in the same photograph as a famous person, in this case a Muslim apostate who lives under the threat of death from Islamic extremists who loathe her for her outspoken advocacy for the rights of Muslim women.

It was also the first post that featured a picture that I took myself. I also managed to get myself photographed with Michelle Goldberg, author of "Kingdom Coming", though it hilariously resulted in a picture of the two of us with my head cut off. I had hoped to attend the Atheist Convention in Arlington, Virginia this weekend and try to get myself photographed with such luminaries of the atheist community such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but alas, due to a number of family obligations, I had to pass on the opportunity. Still, I will continue to keep an eye out for such opportunities in the near future.

While Exercise in Futility is hardly among the top tier of atheist blogs that are out there, I consider myself lucky that I do have a small core of regular and semi-regular readers. I am humbled and honored that there are people out there (and you all know who you are!) who actually take an interest in what I have to say. To my regular readers, I want to say thank you, because it is you who help make this endeavor worthwhile for me. I also wish to give a special thanks to Stardust for her encouragement and for helping me out with some technical issues I had during my first baby steps into the world of blogging.

So what does the future hold for Exercise in Futility in the coming year? For starters, I want to make it a more meaningful blog. While it will continue to be primarily an atheist blog, I want to expand its focus to include advocacy for issues that I believe are important, not just for secularists, but for everyone. I also want the blog to evolve on a technical level, including the possibility of doing short films, as well as finding new ways to make Exercise in Futility a fresh and original blog. I hope you will accompany me on the journey.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Latin Music Sampler

For a change of pace here at Exercise in Futility, I thought I would share a collection of some of my Latin music favorites. Enjoy.

Video numero uno is "Toda la noche" by Lucero.

Next up is Thalia's "Por Amor". Like Lucero above, Thalia is famous in Mexico not only as a singer, but as an actress in Mexican soap operas.

Here is another Thalia song, "Ponle remedio".

Last but not least is Shakira's "Suerte".

If this song sounds familiar to you, it is because it is the Spanish language version of her first English language hit, "Whenever, Wherever".

Friday Funnies - Parodying Shakira

In looking for videos for the Latin Music Sampler post on Youtube, I came across a number of videos that spoofed Shakira's blatantly sexual performances. These two below are from Mad TV. After watching these parodies of Shakira and then watching her actual videos, I almost found the real videos as funny as the parodies.

Shakira parody #1

Shakira parody #2

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Random Foreign Prudery from the BBC

While those of us who are American secularists often complain about our crop of domestic religious fundamentalists obsessed with the issue of sex, we often forget that attitudes towards sex or any public displays of intimacy can be just as bad, if not worse.

This evening, the BBC web site features two articles on this topic. The first, reports that China, yes, that officially atheistic country in Asia that is home to over a billion people, is banning "sexy" ads. I wonder if I can apply for the job of official censor.

"I'm going to have to look at these pictures of these lingerie clad ladies a little longer before I can decide if they're too sexy to be seen in public."

The ban also applies to advertisements for sex toys and products touted as enhancing sexual performance.

But going for the gold medal in absurdity, the Richard Gere/Shilpa Shetty kiss scandal has a new development. While the ban on the lovely Miss Shetty being able to leave the country was suspended, apparently Indian customs at Mumbai Airport did not get the memo.

For goodness sakes! Lighten the fuck up India! It's abundantly clear that Ms. Shetty was taken by surprise when Gere spontaneously planted a kiss on her on stage. What was she supposed to do, kick him in the balls in front of the audience? And to think this is the country that gave the world the Kama Sutra.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

UPDATED: The "Passion" of the Atheist

I came across this column by way of Pharyngula.

It seems that John Terry, an economist, veteran, minister, and columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Times did not take kindly to a recent article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette titled "Passionate Atheists".

While you can read Mr. Terry's column in its complete and original form by clicking the link above, I will reproduce it below in italics with my own running commentary in bold. Here it goes.

Not long ago the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an interesting article entitled “ Passionate Atheists. ” This caught my attention immediately.

My first thought was, “ How do you get passionate about nothing ? ” If no God exists, what is there to get passionate about ? Why do professed atheists find it necessary to convert other people to their unbelief, since there is nothing of substance there to convince them of ?

Gee, Mr. Terry, you seem to have your syntax all wrong. We are not people who are passionate about atheism. We are atheists who are passionate about our beliefs.

Must one believe in the existence of a god in order to be passionate about whatever it is that inspires or challenges us, whether it be creating music, art or literature, or doing well in athletics, or fighting for worthy causes, or simply engaging in a hobby that provides enjoyment and self fulfillment?

And while I cannot claim to speak for all atheists, I don't find it necessary to convert people to unbelief. Rather, what we feel compelled to do is to challenge the beliefs of those who would use their religion as a justification to support legal discrimination against gays, to erode the reproductive freedoms of women, and to eliminate from school curriculums all scientific knowledge that does not comport with a literal reading of the book of Genesis, to name just a few examples.

My second thought was, “ Isn’t this statement, passionate atheists, close to being an oxymoron ?”

What is oxymoronic about being a passionate atheist? See my comments above.

I have been in the ministry many years, and in every one of them the subject of atheism has reared its head. However, periodically (usually about every decade ) there is a push to convince people that there is no God. In the United States, as it has become more liberal in theology, more people have, as the article stated, “ come out of the closet” and admitted their unbelief, much in the same way as homosexuals have admitted their sexual preferences.

Both of these are symbols of the moral and spiritual decline of a nation, and this is happening in the United States with disturbing rapidity.

I do not doubt that there are scientists who would say "I have been in the field of [biology, astronomy, geology etc.] many years, and periodically there is a push to convince people that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that there were was a worldwide flood and that Noah had dinosaurs on his ark, and that evolution is 'just a theory'. In the United States, as the Religious Right has become increasingly influential, more people have responded to pollsters by professing their disbelief in evolution and natural selection and have admitted their belief in the Biblical story of creation."

Tell me Mr. Terry, how is it that atheist Americans and gay Americans exercising their rights as citizens of this great country are symbols of a moral and spiritual decline?

Contrary to the apparent belief of atheists, their nonbelief is not a danger to Christianity, nor to individual Christians. Nor does it change the existence of God. It does pose dangers, however, and the dangers are these:

The first danger is the unbeliever himself. He is left with no god but himself, no wisdom but his own (except the wisdom of men ) and no hope of a life beyond this one. Worst of all, he is in danger of facing an eternity devoid of the God he denied. In short, he wanted it that way, and that is the way he got it. A solemn and sad situation.

I don't consider my atheism to be a danger to Christians. Apparently, Christians believe that atheists represent a danger to Christianity simply because we exist. Because the fact is that most of us atheists are ordinary people who go to work, pay our taxes, raise our families, and go on about our lives pretty much the same as everybody else. It would be all too easy for Christians if atheists were pedophiles, rapists, thieves and murders. Since we aren't, we represent a challenge to Christians because we are living proof that people can lead basically decent lives without believing in a supreme being.

And as for being left with no wisdom but our own,"except the wisdom of men", my knee-jerk response is "so what?" We rely on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of our peers and forebears for just about everything. Our knowledge of medicine, engineering, mathematics, and agriculture, to name just a few fields of endeavor, is built on the work of those who came before us. One does not need to believe in the existence of god to improve upon existing construction techniques to erect buildings that can withstand earthquakes or to invent new medicines to help cure diseases. Why then must belief in god be paramount for a person to have a code of morals and ethics to live by?

Interestingly, it does not surprise me that a conservative Christian like you would refer to the "wisdom of men" instead of the "wisdom of humanity". Women should just keep their mouths shut and let men do the thinking, right Mr. Terry?

And so far as I know, when my human body expires, I am dead and that is it. I do not face an "eternity" because there will be nothing left for me to experience an eternity.

The second danger is that the atheist may be able to persuade others (I knew of one situation like this where an older man concentrated on young people ) that his unbelief is really true. This might consign those he persuaded to the same fate that is in store for him.

Oh, if I could be so lucky! No one persuaded me to become an atheist. Atheism was the conclusion I arrived at after a long period of examination of the evidence and personal reflection. And to reiterate, the fate in store for an atheist is no different than that of a Christian when he or she dies. Our bodies cease to function and our conscious selves come to an end. It may not be poetic or pretty, but that does not make it any less true.

The third danger lies in what kind of person the atheist may become when he becomes his own god. If he does not recognize God, he may not recognize any of the restraints that a belief in God generates. Thus, without restraint, he may become a pedophile, a murderer, a thief, or any other kind of a deviant you can think of. Or he might just become one who lives inward, with no concern for the people or things around him. There are tragic examples of such people.

Here we go again, another theist who just cannot seem to grasp that morality without belief in god is not only possible, IT'S EASY! Let me see if I can spell it out for you in very simple terms Mr. Terry. True wisdom comes not from believing in the existence of god, but in recognizing the basic fact that our lives are intertwined with each other and that our actions have consequences. People do not want to be murdered, raped, assaulted, or robbed, so we have laws to punish those who engage in such activities and we fund with our taxes police forces, courts of law, and prisons.

True wisdom is recognizing that we benefit not only from restraining our lusts and desires, but in actively promoting altruism and a civil society that respects life and property. We understand that we are not islands unto ourselves.

My wife, whom I love dearly and who I consider also to be my best friend in the world, believes in god, albeit as a lapsed Catholic. However, whether it is because of her own personality or her cultural background (she's from the Philippines), she frequently exhibits her disapproval whenever I engage in any altruistic activity. Several years ago, when I was heading to a local supermarket, I found a woman's wallet in one of the shopping carts in the parking lot. Because the lady's drivers license was in the wallet, I was able to find out where she lived and I drove to her house to return it to her. Feeling good about myself, I told my wife about it when I got home. Bur rather than praising me for being a good Samaritan, she actually chided me for going out of my way to help a stranger. She also complains when I donate blood!

It is not my intention in sharing these examples of altruism on my part just to say "See what a wonderful guy I am!", but rather to refute the tired arguments of the likes of Mr. Terry that the absence of belief in a god makes people either amoral hedonists or self-absorbed loners indifferent to the world around them.

Now if you will excuse me, there are some neighborhood children I have to go out and molest now.

In the long years of being a minister I think I have known no more than two dozen people who loudly declared that there is no God. I did not believe in any of them. I have found that the man who so professes may be just “ whistling past the graveyard. ” In short, because of the life he has lived, he may just be hoping against hope that there is no God to whom he might someday have to answer.

Do you have any evidence that these self-proclaimed atheists were just "whistling past the graveyard" Mr. Terry? And funny how I always thought it was the other way around, that people suddenly find religion as their sense of their own mortality grows, and they are afraid of the prospect of dying without being "saved".

I was not raised in a “ church-going” family, yet the name of God was revered in our home. My parents never used the name of God in vain, nor any of the by-words popular in those days. So I always believed in a God; I just wanted him to leave me alone and let me live my life the way I wanted to. In fact, at an early age I had planned my life, and no god was included in it.

However, my father died of a heart attack when he was 43, and I was 18. I had just returned home after spending a year-and-a-half in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Colorado Springs. When my father died he left my mother and me with six little brothers and sisters to raise.

And, though I did not know God, I became terribly angry with him. In the “ old days” nearly everything was ascribed to God. If there was a tragedy in the home, old preachers would declare that it was “ God’s will. ” I came to hate that expression, and have refused to use it throughout my ministry, as it related to things I just could not understand. I look askance at any preacher who always seems to know what “ the will of God is. ”

I was raised in a family that had a church-going father, and when I was around 5 years old, my mom had a "born again" phase. And during my late teens I was church-going and Bible reading Catholic. I did not want god to leave me alone. Rather, I wanted god to be my personal friend and to be ever present in my life just as the god of the Bible was Abraham's BFF. And yet here I am today an atheist.

I'm sorry your father died so young, Mr. Terry. And I do agree with you about one thing, tragic circumstances are not a result of "God's will". In fact, the world functions just as we should expect that it would in the absence of a supreme being.

Why are atheists coming out of the “ closet” now ? Simple. The country has become so secularized, and has adopted an “ anything goes” attitude, so deviants of any nature now feel it is safe to declare themselves. Also, led by many prominent universities, it has now become “ politically correct” for people to try to be “ different. ” Factually, it does not brand people as intellectual or brave, but contemptuous of centuries of solid beliefs and traditions.

Wrong, Mr. Terry. If atheists are coming out of the closet now, it is because we believe we cannot remain silent as the Religious Right, via the Republican Party, tries to nudge this country closer and closer to a Christian theocracy. And I find it a little disturbing that you believe there is something wrong with atheists such as myself feeling safe to declare ourselves. Would you prefer that I do not feel safe, Mr. Terry? Was it brave of Jerry Falwell to declare on a national cable television program that atheists, gays, and feminists were responsible for 9/11, or was Falwell being contemptuous of a tolerant and pluralistic democracy?

In the Bible, few people are so chastised as are avowed atheists. In Proverbs 1: 7 are these words: “ The fear (awe ) of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. ”

And the Bible is proof of what, Mr. Terry?

So, unless the avowed atheist is prepared to account for the universe, for man in all of his complexities, and life in general, he certainly is not prepared to declare that “ there is no God. ”

Wrong again Mr. Terry. I don't have to account for the existence of the universe to declare that "there is no God." The only thing the existence of the universe proves is that the universe exists.

But let us suppose that perhaps there is some higher intelligence that created the universe in which we live. It does not mean that therefore the god described in the Bible is real. Maybe the universe was created by a collection of highly advanced beings. Or, maybe god, if there is one, is really just an idiot savant. It creates universes and that's all it does. It is quite a leap to say that because the complexity of the universe is plausible evidence of an intelligent designer that therefore a virgin woman in Judea some 2,000 years ago conceived a child who grew up to be an itinerant preacher, healed sick people, cast out demons, performed miracles, was killed and then rose from the dead.

He is revealed, not as an intellectual, but as a gadfly with no answers to anything. It is even more plain in Psalms 14: 1: “ The fool has said in his heart, there is no God. ”

Again, this proves what?

Ted Turner once said, in speaking of the Lord, “ I do not need anyone to die for me. ” Well, perhaps he doesn’t know all of the truth. Personally, I need a Savior, and I am happy I found out the truth as young as I did. The sad thing about the atheist is that he may find out the truth after it is too late.

Ah yes, the appeal to fear. Believe as Mr. Terry does, or face an eternity of suffering in the after life. Oooh! I'm so scared!

So please don’t feel sorry for those of us who believe in God, who build churches, attend churches, send missionaries, and do every kind of charitable work known to man. Even if we were wrong in all this, we would still be better off than the atheist. At least we would have lived lives that helped us, and more importantly, helped others.

I don't feel sorry for people who believe in god, Mr. Terry. I feel sorry for people like you who believe that those of us who do not share your beliefs are lesser human beings than you who are fated to damnation in the afterlife.

Religious people are no better or worse than atheists, Mr. Terry. We are all capable of doing good works and bad works, and it is quite often the case that we can exhibit both the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves in the same day. I have no problem with acknowledging the many wonderful acts of charity that are performed by religious people. But it is rather disingenuous when religious people on the one hand belittle atheists as being so small in number and then on the other hand boast that religious people and organizations contribute more to society than atheists do. And if you want to compare the quality of life of a Christian to an atheist, I guarantee you that by any measure my life is infinitely better than Ted Haggard's life.

I know that most atheists are probably not bad people. But they are sadly misguided in their thinking, and in their hearts many of them probably know it. One should not live his life as a fool when he can live it as a child of God, and have the promise of everlasting life.

Gee, thanks for conceding that most atheists are not bad people, Mr. Terry. Most Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are not bad people either. You know why? Because most human beings are not bad people. If the majority of us were evil, the human race would not have advanced from roving bands of illiterate hunter-gatherers to build civilizations capable of sending space probes to the farthest reaches of our solar system. The fact is, most of the good people who lived and died on this planet did so without ever having heard of your god and your Bible. I submit that you are the one who is misguided.


The Northwest Arkansas Times published a well written letter-to-the-editor by an Arkanasa atheist in response to Mr. Terry's column.

Here is another letter published in the Northwest Arkansas Times.

Also, Martin Wagner at The Atheist Experience puts in his own two cents worth, or make that twenty cents worth, here.

Foot, Meet Mouth (Revised)

Regular readers of this blog know that for an atheist, I am relatively open about my identity. I have put up pictures of myself recently, though I think only one of them is clear enough to recognize me from, and several of my posts describe my immediate neighborhood. When one blogs about sensitive topics like religion and politics, there is always a risk that someone might be offended and angered enough to go beyond writing nasty comments in the comments section and possibly seeking you out if they happen to live in close geographical proximity to you. And it is an unfortunate truth that we live in a world where people have been harrassed or even killed for expressing opinions critical of religious beliefs.

So it was that a couple of days ago, someone named Sue posted a comment to one of my posts asking if she saw me walking down a street in my neighborhood this past Sunday. I did not know who Sue was, and her question did not offer any context as to why she believed it was me she saw, so my suspicions kicked in. In my feverish imagination, I feared that if I told her yes and it turned out that she (or a he pretending to be a she) was someone who lived near by who had issues with me because of my blog posts, it could lead to the person knowing which house I lived in. Regretfully, rather than just replying by asking her why she thought it was me and how she knew me, my response to her veered a little too heavy towards the paranoid side.

To my shock and surprise, Sue replied that she went to high school with me and that she had found my blog when she came across the post I did about my high school classmate and other acquaintances of mine who died on 9/11. It was clear from her comments that she was offended and taken aback by what I wrote in response to her intial question.

I was greatly dismayed that I behaved in such a fashion to someone with whom I was acquainted with many years earlier and I spent the rest of the day and evening on Monday trying to recall any of my high school classmates named Sue. Then during the evening, one name did pop into my head.

Since I did not know if Sue would ever return to my blog to see my apology, I felt I had to make some effort to try and locate her to let her know how sorry I was. It is a quirk of my personality that whenever I make a mistake I feel compelled to go to great lengths to correct it or atone for it.

And lo and behold, the power of Google pointed me to a web site where she had posted some comments and which also contained an e-mail address for her. (And as an aside, how easy it is for people to find out our personal information on the Web is another issue altogether.) Her post was about 5 or 6 years old, so I did not know if it was an e-mail address that she even still used, but I figured it was worth a shot. So I sent the e-mail and then anxiously checked my inbox all afternoon yesterday to see if I got either a response or an undeliverable message. Just before leaving work to go pick up my kids, I checked my inbox again, and lo and behold, not only did she e-mail me back, but I had correctly guessed who she was.

As I wrote earlier regarding this in comments that have since been deleted, this has been an important learning experience for me. Great harm can be done when people leap to conclusions based on incomplete information and behave rashly rather than take the time to think and reflect first.

So in conclusion, I again wish to express my most deep felt apology to you Sue, and I dedicate this song to you. All the best,


Calling Fundies on Their Bullshit

By way of Pandagon, I came across this post by Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin.

Burroway was reporting from one of those "family values" summits where the panelists devoted their talk to bashing gays and decrying the threat that gay marriage posed to America. During the question and answer portion of the discussion, Burroway relates how a woman named Cathy James identified herself as a lesbian and very eloquently and intelligently challenged the panelists.

You can click on either of the links above to read what Cathy James said, so I won't repeat them here. It is well worth it.

To throw in my own two cents worth, it annoys me when the label "values voters" is used by the media to describe religiously conservative voters. We all have values, whether religious or secular, conservative or liberal. It is our values that inform how we vote and how we conduct ourselves in society. It is not a case of voters with "values" versus other voters without them. Rather it is a matter of competing value systems.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Self Imposed Lunacy

That is what I would call the Orthodox Jewish requirement that farmland in Israel be fallow every seventh year (shmita) in accordance with Torah law. Food grown and harvested on Israeli soil during the shmita is not considered kosher, which means that orthodox Jews will not purchase it.

This article in The Independent reports on the plight of an Israeli farmer named Moshe Amar. During the last shmita, Mr. Amar and other Israeli farmers resorted to a variety of contrivances to take advantage of loopholes in the law. One tactic is to nominally sell their farms to Arabs and hire foreign workers so that no Israeli will be involved in planting and harvesting crops during the shmita. Amar takes it further than that, by planting his seeds in mounted trays filled with foreign soil so that he can certify that his crops are not grown in Israeli soil.

This year, Amar thought he had sufficiently complied with the law so that his produce could be considered kosher. He even had a certificate attesting to this from the Chief Rabbinate. Unfortunately for Amar, the Rabbinate had given permission to local rabbis to ignore the certificate and insist on a strict literal interpretation of the law. This hurts Israeli farmers like Amar because orthodox Jews are an important market in Israel, and a significant amount of the produce sold to orthodox Jews must be imported from outside Israel during the shmita.

I have mentioned it before on this blog and I will say it again. As much as I abhor fundamentalist Christianity and Islam because of the threat they pose to secular liberal democracy, orthodox Judaism is probably the most frustrating of all the major religions for the sheer mind boggling scope of the onerous rules and regulations that religiously observant Jews impose on themselves.

I am very thankful to have been raised Catholic rather than orthodox Jewish. Yeah, my dad had us comply with meatless Fridays during Lent when I was growing up, but that only meant that we got to eat pizza instead!

Fight Malaria

The October 2007 issue of Scientific American is out and it is chock full of good articles this month.

Jeffrey Sachs has a good column arguing the importance of controlling the spread of malaria in the developing world. I did a post on malaria back in July, which included a link to a very moving article in National Geographic.

The online edition of Sachs' column links to the web site of an organization called Malaria No More, which "engages individuals, organizations, and corporations in the private sector to provide life-saving bed nets and other critical interventions to families in need." You can also link to Malaria No More's web site here if you would like to make a donation to provide mosquito repelling bed nets for people in need.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Christianity as a Zoonotic Pathogen

One of the questions that bedeviled me when I first became an atheist was why Christianity went from being a movement within Judaism only to expand outwards to embrace non-Jews.

I had always taken it for granted that Judaism was an insular religion in that Jews believed that they were the chosen people of the Biblical god and that it was not their concern what gods other people worshipped so long as the Jews were left alone.

What I did not realize for many years afterwards was that there was a time when Jews did actively proselytize and seek to convert non-Jews to Judaism. For example, Herod the Great was an Idumean (Edomite) whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmoneans (Maccabees). I was surprised to read that Jews comprised some 10 to 12% of the population of the Roman Empire in the first century C.E., and that such a huge number could only have come about from Judaism aquiring converts from people of other faiths.

Furthermore, as Rodney Stark writes in his book "Cities of God", early Christian preachers such as Paul did not primarily convert Gentiles to Christianity, but rather fellow Jews to Christianity. Stark argues that it was easier for Jews to convert to Christianity than pagans because of something he calls "religious capital." A Jewish convert to Christianity would still be worshipping the same god and his holy texts were integrated into the new faith. Thus, with the Jewish Diaspora spread out across the Roman Empire, it is easy to understand how Christianity took hold so early in various parts of the Empire. There was already an available supply of Jews to tap into.

However, this still does not explain the "why" of Christianity. Why did it happen? (I know, if you are a Christian, the answer is that you believe that Jesus Christ was born from a virgin, was crucified and rose from the dead, and commanded his disciples to spread his message.)

One way of explaining how it came about by way of analogy occurred to me when I learned about the term zoonosis. To put it simply, zoonosis is when a pathogen that makes the leap from animals to humans. Examples of zoonotic pathogens are the HIV virus, the Ebola virus, Lyme disease, and West Nile Virus. Take Ebola for example. It has been determined that its reservoir host is three species of fruit bats. But every once in a while, Ebola comes into contact with humans.

It is widely believed that humans are at greater exposure to zoonotic pathogens because of human encroachment on animal habitats, which bring the reservoir hosts into greater contact with humans.

So where does Christianity fit into this? First off, so as not to offend Christians, I do not mean to imply that Christianity or Christian believers are a virus or disease. I am merely using zoonosis as a model to describe how Christianity grew out of Judaism and spread to become the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Just as human encroachment on the habitats of reservoir host animals facilitates the transfer of pathogens from the hosts to humans, so Roman expansion into the Middle East served as a catalyst to spark the creation of Christianity. The Jews were the reservoir host for Judaism, of course. But in response to the encroachment of Rome on Judea, some person or group of persons was inspired to make a mental leap and jettison the onerous rules of Judaism and refashion it into a universal religion that applied to all people, whether they be Jew or Gentile.

I have lately come to believe that Christianity would not be possible if it were not for the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was an ideal host for the new religion. Rome ruled over a vast territory that stretched from the Middle East to the British Isles. Thus, Christians had the means to spread their faith over a large geographic area controlled by a single political entity, instead of encountering a patchwork of states with fortified borders and generally hostile relations.

True, there were occasions when the Romans persecuted Christians, sometimes quite vigorously. But just as the size of the Roman Empire helped to facilitate the spread of Christianity, it also helped to hamper the ability of hostile emperors to persecute the faith. It would often take months for imperial edicts to be transmitted to the most distant provinces of the empire. Even then, implementation of the policies was rarely enforced with any degree of uniformity. A governor of a province with a small Christian population would likely be much more vigorous in carrying out anti-Christian policies than a governor of a province that had a large Christian population simply because it was easier to do so. A governor ruling a province with a large Christian population might balk at the prospect of encountering resistance from his Christian subjects, or he might even have friends or family members who were Christian converts and thus be sympathetic to them. With the passage of several years, a new emperor would sit on the throne and the persecution policy would be relaxed or repealed.

As I mentioned above, the Ebola virus is an example of a pathogen that is transmitted on occasion from its animal host to humans. As odd as it may sound, it is actually a blessing that Ebola kills its victims so quickly. Humans who have contracted Ebola thus far lived in rural areas and they tend to die before they come into contact with large population centers. Other pathogens, such as HIV, do not kill their hosts or even indicate their presence for many years, thus facilitating their spread from one person to another. As a zoonotic pathogen, Christianity more resembles HIV than Ebola.

Christianity was very fortunate in that its host, the Roman Empire, was an enduring state, which gave the new religion the time it needed to spread until it reached the tipping point and became the de facto religion of the Empire under Constantine and the official religion under Theodosius in 395 C.E. Had the Roman Empire split apart into a multitude of mini-Romes during the civil wars of the 3rd century, some of the off-shoots of the Empire might have been Christian states while others remained pagan. On the other hand, if Rome did not extend itself into the Middle East during the 1st century B.C.E. onward, I suspect that Christianity might never have happened at all.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday Funnies - Life Imitates Monty Python?

Well, not exactly, but as Newsday reports, Humberto Arribasplata of Cedarhurst assaulted another man using a can of fruit and a baseball bat.

After reading that, I couldn't help but think of this:

I Didn't Make It Again

Another year and another Forbes annual list of the 400 wealthiest people in America that does not include me. Oh well, there's always next year!

However, I am pleased to report that for the 5th year in a row, I did make Forbes list of the wealthiest 200 million Americans! Don't worry, I won't let it get to my head!

Monday, September 17, 2007

More Power to Them

A group of women in Saudi Arabia plan to petition the Saudi king for the right to drive cars. At present, it is still against the law for women to drive in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It's high time these people joined the 21st century!

Updated: The Thomas Paine Project

I just finished a moment ago making a donation to the Secular Coalition for America. I also shared with them an idea I have had for several weeks.

As you all know, you can't visit a motel or hotel in America without finding a copy of the Bible in one of the drawers. Increasingly, the Book of Mormon can be found alongside the Bible.

Well, for those of us who are freethinkers and skeptics, don't you think it is about time people had an alternative? I was thinking that Thomas Paine's "The Age of Reason" would make a fine introduction to people who are not familiar with criticism of the Bible. Paine's polemic is readable, intelligently argued, and just as important, is not too long.

I e-mailed the Secular Coalition and suggested that with the Atheist Convention being held the weekend after next in Arlington, Virginia, that it would be a perfect opportunity to distribute copies of "The Age of Reason" to convention attendees and asking them to leave the copies in their hotel rooms to be discovered and read by others. I then added that copies of the book could be given to people who made donations of $100 or more, again, for leaving in motel and hotel rooms across America.

It should not cost all that much either. My Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading edition of "The Age of Reason" cost only $6.95. The Secular Coalition or some other freethought organization could probably get it for even less than that by purchasing copies of the book in bulk.

Update: I received a reply from Lori Lipman Brown. She told me that my idea falls outside of the scope of what their staff focuses on (lobbying and promoting nontheistic viewpoints in the media), but that she would forward my idea on to some of the other secular groups they interact with.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

International Coastal Cleanup Day

As I mentioned in this earlier post, today is International Coastal Cleanup Day.

I just returned from it a short while ago. I participated with a group that was cleaning up along the shore of Zachs Bay in Jones Beach State Park. The last time I participated was two years ago, and I remembered that there were a lot of empty beer bottles and debris near this abandoned and dilapidated structure across the bay from the Jones Beach Theater.

Sure enough, there was more debris in this section of the beach than I could possibly hope to collect and tally by myself. About a half hour after I had started, one lady along with her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend, came by and I told them I had found the mother lode of litter.

In addition to all of the empty beer bottles I had collected, I also personally found 33 shotgun shells (Bedrock, have you been up here lately?), in addition to the ones found by the other people who were with me. I asked Roseanne, the team leader, why there were so many shotgun shells there. She told me it was from people who were duck hunting.

All in all, it was a successful outing.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

One Small Benefit From Religion

Thanks to the Rosh Hashanah holiday today, I got a really good parking spot at the train station this morning.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Some Really Cool Music

I just love Youtube! You can find almost anything there. I especially love being able to find videos for songs that were among my favorites years ago but which are rarely played on the radio nowadays.

The first video above, is for a song called "The Different Story" by Peter Schilling. I remember I heard it for the first time on WLIR during the summer of 1990 and absolutely loved it, but hardly ever heard it after that. I did not even know who sang it, except that it was a Peter something. And that is exactly how I found it on Youtube, by searching "Peter" and "Different Story".

The second video is for "I Can Feel The Beat" by Darude. I totally dig the synthesizers and the the beat.

Next up is "Never Let Me Down", one of my favorite songs by Depeche Mode.

Lastly, I found a video for another song that takes me back to the nights dancing with my friends at Malibu in Lido Beach, "Send Me An Angel" by Real Life. Unfortunately, the embedding was disabled, so I can only link to it.

So, crank up the volume and enjoy this collection.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

UPDATED - Why I Do Not Believe 9/11 Was an Inside Job

I was going to make this a major post but my schedule just does not allow time to do a thoroughly researched piece replete with citations and links to support my case, so I will just cut to the chase.

As I wrote in my Recollections of September 11, 2001 post below, I took it for granted that Osama bin Laden was behind it. The idea that the day's events were an inside job committed by elements of the Bush Administration or some secret cabal of war profiteers never occurred to me.

I did not give serious consideration to the inside job theory until about a year ago. Over at the Liberal Avenger, a frequent commenter there kept flogging it and provided links to the Loose Change videos and other 9/11 "Truther" sites. Since I consider myself an open-minded person, I decided to check them out.

After watching Loose Change and a couple of other videos, I began to think, "Maybe the Twin Towers really were brought down by controlled demolition." But I was not going to just buy into the conspiracy theory hook, line, and sinker, so I reviewed counterarguments and raised questions of my own. Upon further consideration, I came to reject the inside job theory.

The basic premise behind the idea that 9/11 was an inside job is that the Bush Administration or whoever the "Truthers" believe allegedly carried out the attack, did so because it would cause the American public to support the administration's plans to control the Middle East under the guise of fighting terrorism.

But if this was really the case, then the plotters went about doing so in much too complicated a manner. Readers of this blog know that when I critically analyze certain stories in the Bible that believers claim are literally true, such as Noah's Ark, I like to use Rube Goldberg analogies. For example, in the Noah story, God has the power to cause every wicked person on the face of the Earth to spontaneously combust, thus leaving Noah and his small family of righteous people to start the human race anew. Instead, the Bible tells us that God went to absurd lengths to have Noah and his family pack themselves into a wooden vessel along with pairs of every living thing so that the Earth could be flooded. That the God of the Bible resorts to such a Rube Goldberg method to achieve an end that could have been carried out in a much simpler fashion is convincing evidence for me that the story is nothing more than a fable.

Likewise, if some cabal of government officials and evil corporations wanted to cause a mass casualty incident in the United States so that the American people and Congress would give the Bush Administration a blank check to wage an unlimited war against terror, it would be quite easy to do so. Just having two hijacked aircraft crashing into the Twin Towers with the towers still standing would have been enough for me, and I suspect most of the American public, to support an intervention in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and try to catch or kill Osama bin Laden. Alternatively, multiple truck bombs could have been detonated in a number of crowded places to ensure a high body count.

What the Inside Job crowd would have us believe though is that two airliners crashed into the Twin Towers but the towers were brought down by controlled demolition. Then a missile was fired at the Pentagon while the government claimed it was another hijacked airliner. And a fourth plane was shot down but the public was told that the passengers actually turned on the hijackers just so that we could have a feel good story about heroes who fought back and redeemed American honor on that day.

There were other things about the Inside Job theory that did not sit with me. Many of the Inside Job crowd mention that WTC 7 was brought down by controlled demolition. But why would the perpetrators of the conspiracy do that? Did it have any meaningful impact on swaying American opinion about waging a war on terror? What do they think, that Americans were sitting around in their local bars saying to one another, "It's a damn shame that the Twin Towers were destroyed, but the terrorists also brought down WTC 7. This means war dammit!"

Then there is also the inconvenient fact that the late Barbara Olsen, wife of Solicitor General of the United States Theodore Olsen and professional Clinton basher, was a passenger on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. If 9/11 was an inside job, then either Ted Olsen is an idiot who continues to serve an administration that caused the murder of his wife, or Barbara Olsen is really alive and is in hiding, and her husband is pretending that she is dead. Neither possibility strikes me as plausible.

That being said, I can understand why some people would want to believe that 9/11 was an inside job. The Project for a New American Century members who occupied positions in the Bush Administration clearly were itching for a reason to go into Iraq, and 9/11 certainly contributed to a climate where Congress and most of the American people would come to support the invasion of Iraq. But I suspect that even in the absence of 9/11, they could have ginned up some pretext for going to war against Saddam Hussein.

I am not going to pretend that this post can touch on all aspects of the Inside Job theory. There are some "Truthers" who believe that Israel's Mossad actually carried out the attacks because Israel's government would benefit from America's military intervention in the Middle East. Others believe that Al-Qaida really carried out the attack, but that the Bush Administration allowed it to happen while not realizing the true magnitude of the terrorists plans.

I also am not going to pretend that anything I have written here will change the minds of those who support the Inside Job theory. The Truther I debated with at Liberal Avenger was not unlike Biblical Literalists who insist that the Bible is literally true no matter what counter-evidence one throws at them. I am merely laying out my reasons for not believing the Inside Job theory.

For those of you not familiar with the debate over the theory that 9/11 was an inside job, I invite you to explore the matter and come to your own conclusions. One web site for prominent advocates of the Inside Job theory is Loose Change, while a resource for counter-arguments against Loose Change can be found at, try not to laugh, Screw Loose Change.

Addendum: Here is an article I just read on the BBC web site about a study by a Cambridge University engineer who argues that "the residual capacity of the north and south towers was limited, and that once the collapse was set in motion, it would take only nine seconds for the building to go down."

My Recollections of September 11, 2001

Like today, September 11, 2001 fell on a Tuesday. The morning began for me like any other morning. I caught the 8:41 Long Island Rail Road train out of Hicksville headed for Penn Station in Manhattan to go to work.

The first indication that anything was wrong came as we were approaching Jamaica Station in Queens around 9 a.m. A passenger in a seat across the aisle from me to the right, a man around my age, stood up and called out to the rest of us "In casy anybody is interested, two planes just crashed into the Twin Towers." Someone had called him on his cell phone to relay the news.

The man did not specify what kind of planes hit the towers, but the fact that he mentioned two planes made me think at once that it was a deliberate terrorist attack. But in the absence of any further information, I was under the assumption that the planes that hit the towers were those small Cessnas and that they probably did not do all that much damage.

As I took this all in, our train pulled into Jamaica Station, and as with any other day, some passengers got off and others got on. The doors to the train closed and we resumed our journey towards Penn Station. Whatever had happened, I figured it must not be that serious if we were still continuing on to Penn Station.

After the train had passed Forest Hills, the Manhattan skyline began to come into view. Everyone in the train began to peer out the windows on the south side of the train, anxious to see what had happened to the towers. This was the image that greeted us, albeit from farther away:

The extent of the damage was now there in broad daylight for all to see. I knew at that point the situation was really serious. But it was too late to get off the train, as there were no stops between Jamaica and Penn Station.

When we finally arrived at Penn Station around 9:25, I learned that the subways were down. The line I took to my office near Rockefeller Center, the 1 Line, had a stop at the World Trade Center. My office being only 15 blocks away from Penn Station, I decided to walk the rest of the way to work. 7th Avenue was crowded with people, many huddled around television screens that were visible from the street.

I arrived at my office around 10:00. Everyone was getting the latest updates from the morning's events from Internet news sites at their desks. It turned out that the Twin Towers were hit by hijacked airliners. I was shocked to find out that the Pentagon was also hit by a hijacked passenger airliner. But I was not prepared for the most shocking news of all. The Twin Towers had fallen.

The Office Administrator sent out an office wide e-mail telling us that the office would be closing for the day. Unfortunately, the Long Island Rail Road and all the subways were shut down, so most people who commuted into Manhattan for work that morning had no other means of transportation for getting back to Long Island. Because the Pentagon had also been hit, there was a pervasive sense of fear that the worst might not be over. Would there be anymore attacks? There were some people who were even afraid of crossing the bridges, because they feared the bridges would either be bombed or that terrorist sharpshooters would shoot at them as they tried to cross over to the other side.

Since I didn't know how or when I would be getting out of Manhattan, I headed over to the nearby office of my friend Trang. She and I had become good friends over the last couple of years and I thought maybe we could come up with a plan to get out of Manhattan. Around noon, her boss offered to have people come over and spend the day at her apartment in the city. I was not enthused at this prospect, as I wanted to get home and be with my wife and family. As I followed Trang and her co-workers out onto the street, I saw a shuttle bus driver and overheard him talking to someone about the bridges.

"Is the 59th Street Bridge open to foot traffic?" I asked him. He told me that it was. That was it. I would walk across the bridge into Queens. My grandmother, who was still alive at the time, managed an apartment building in Sunnyside. I would go to her place, call my father (I did not own a cell phone at the time), and ask him if he could drive to grandma's place to pick me up. I turned to look for Trang to tell her my plan and to see if she wanted to come with me. She lived on Long Island and had a daughter, so I am sure she wanted to get back home as soon as possible too. But I did not know which direction they had gone and she and her co-workers were already lost to me in the crowd.

Now that I had a plan, I resolved to carry it out. I was on 51st Street between 6th and 5th Avenues and started making my way eastward and northward towards the 59th Street Bridge. The streets were even more crowded than before, evidently from so many offices closing for the day. As I approached one corner on my way to the bridge, I was surprised to see Sander Vanocur. We made eye contact with one another, but I did not say anything to him. His face was a mask of grief and sadness, and I felt it would have been disrespectful to have troubled him at such a moment.

I continued on towards the 59th Street Bridge and joined thousands of other people who had the same idea as me. Along the way, I struck up a conversation with an African-American woman and we discussed what had happened that morning. I knew it was Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida that was behind the attacks. I had no doubt about that. "This was their big 'fuck you' to America," I said to her, and she gave me a hearty "Uh huh!" in agreement. Looking south towards downtown Manhattan, I could see what looked like a large gray cloud formed by all of the debris kicked up in the air by the collapse of the towers. I felt like I was a refugee who was fleeing from a war zone, though I certainly do not wish to trivialize my experience to people who really did have to make their way out of places filled with violence and danger.

After some time had passed, I set foot on Queens asphalt and made my way to my grandmother's apartment building near Roosevelt and 49th. I walked into the lobby of the building and rang the bell for her apartment, but she did not answer. "Maybe she's still asleep" I thought to myself, as she was nearly 90 years old. I decided to sit outside and take a breather, when a few seconds later I saw my grandmother walking up the sidewalk to her apartment toting a grocery bag. She was quite surprised to see me. I gave her a hug and kiss and explained to her how I had ended up outside of her apartment building.

Grandma made me a turkey breast sandwich while I sat down on her living room couch to watch the television. The latest news was that a fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania that was believed to be heading towards Washington, D.C. I don't recall if it was speculated yet if the plane was shot down or that it was deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field because the passengers had tried to retake it.

I called my father to see if I could get a ride home, but he said he would not be able to make it in. I cannot recall if the parkways were closed or if it was a matter of them being clogged with traffic. I had made it out of Manhattan before mid-afternoon, but I was still a long way from home and I was still on my own. I stayed with my grandmother for about an hour and was able to recover my strength after eating some lunch and relaxing on the couch. I told her that I was eager to get home and thanked her for the sandwich.

I began the next leg of my journey home as I walked eastward on the south side of Queens Boulevard. My objective was Jamaica Station, the same station where I had the opportunity to get off and go back home earlier that morning after I had first heard of the planes hitting the towers. The walk was long and tiring, and as it was mid-day, the hot mid-September sun beat down upon me. On the north side of Queens Boulevard I noticed a Muslim temple. I believe it was the Islamic Institute of New York. I felt an urge to go there and vent my anger at any Muslims who might be there and ask "Why?" but I was too damned tired and I was more concerned with getting home to my family than harassing some Muslim-Americans who had nothing to do with what had happened that morning and who probably deplored it as much as I did.

As I felt myself growing more fatigued, I decided to try hitchiking. I held up my right thumb while I walked with my upper body twisted backwards to see the cars coming down Queens Boulevard from behind. To my good fortune, after walking just a few blocks more, a car driven by a Jamaican man pulled over and offered to take me as far as Union Station, where I could catch a subway to Jamaica Station. When I finally made it to Jamaica Station, I was relieved to find that trains were running from Jamaica to Long Island, and I was fortunate in that a train headed for Hicksville was waiting for passengers at one of the platforms.

On the ride home, I found myself in a conversation about the Twin Towers and terrorism in general with a handful of passengers seated near me. Most of them were convinced that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of terrorists in America waiting to strike at us with follow-up attacks. I told them I had my doubts and that there at most only a very small number of Muslim terrorists in this country. But it was clear to me that in the wake of the day's horrible events, my viewpoint among the passengers on the train was decidedly in the minority.

Some twenty minutes or so later the train pulled into Hicksville. I walked to my car and drove home, arriving there around 5 p.m. I was so relieved to be back home safe and sound with my family.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Remembering the Fallen of September 11, 2001

Like many people in the New York City metropolitan region in the days and weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, I wondered if I knew anyone who had died in the attack.

I do not remember the exact date when I received confirmation, but within a couple of weeks after the attack I learned from a friend that my high school classmate Steve Colaio was killed. Then I heard from another friend that Steve was alive but was hospitalized. But after a brief flicker of hope, I learned conclusively that Steve had died on 9/11.

Steve and I were not very close friends but we got along well. He was the most popular student in Hicksville High School's class of 1987, and was friends with everybody who knew him. The last time I had saw him was at the 10 year reunion of our class in 1997. He had worked at the bond trading firm of Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower, along with his brother Mark Colaio and his brother in-law Tom Pedicini. Mark and Tom also perished in the attack. Mark had gotten Steve and Tom their jobs at Cantor Fitzgerald. I didn't know either Mark or Tom personally, though I am sure I met both of them at least once. Here is an article from Newsday that profiles Steve, Mark, and Tom.

As the days after 9/11 passed and more of the dead were identified, two more names were added to the list of those with whom I had at least a passing acquaintance. There was Tommy Langone, who I had as an instructor for a class I took at the Nassau County Fire Academy only several months earlier while I was undergoing probationary training as a volunteer fire fighter. Tommy had served as chief of the Roslyn Fire Department. Though I only had him for one class, I remember he had a really cool sense of humor and he liked to reference dialogue from National Lampoon's Animal House during the class. Another lost son of Hicksville was Walter Weaver, who was among the fallen of the New York City Police Department that terrible day. I did not know Walter, but I remembered him because I use to deliver the New York Post to his house when I was in my early teens.

Sometime later this year, the 20th anniversary reunion of my high school class is scheduled to be held. I don't plan to attend. I suspect that the loss of Steve Colaio will cast a somber shadow on the evening and it will not be the same without him. He brightened the lives of so many people who knew him and he will be sorely missed, but he will live on in our memories.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Osama Speech

I've been reading the transcript of Osama bin Laden's latest speech addressed to us here in the United States of America.

My guess is that like most politicians and public figures, Osama bin Laden did not write the speech himself but instead had it written for him while he set the tone and direction. For instance, bin Laden's speech refers to Noam Chomsky and former CIA agent Michael Scheuer, who wrote a book critical of the Bush Administration's handling of the War on Terror called "Imperial Hubris". There is also a reference to the "eloquent message of Joshua", apparently someone who served with the American military in Iraq. Without the benefit of having read anyone else's explanation of who this Joshua might be, I strongly suspect that he is in fact Josh Rushing, who served as a press officer with CENTCOM during the early months of the Iraq War in 2003. Rushing became somewhat famous after he was featured in the documentary film "Control Room", which was about the Arab news network Al-Jazeera and its coverage of the war in Iraq. Rushing has since left the Marines and now works for Al-Jazeera, as well as having his own web site.

So who do I think wrote the speech, or at least contributed a good deal of it? I think this guy would fit the bill nicely. Adam Gadahn, also known as Azzam the American, would be an ideal candidate for writing or at least heavily contributing to a speech that appears to be an appeal to American public opinion. Portions of the speech suggest someone who is knowledgeable about our domestic politics, and bin Laden's railings against American capitalism and the influence of big corporations sounds like a pitch tailored towards an American Left that is antiwar and anti big business.

In the speech, bin Laden segues at one point into a diatribe against the West for the Holocaust against the Jews of Europe. And here bin Laden utters a tremendous falsehood. He states that "the holocaust of the Jews was carried out by your brethren in the middle of Europe, but had it been closer to our countries, most of the Jews would have been saved by taking refuge with us." (Italics mine) This is bullshit and bin Laden knows it. One need only look at the activities of Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, whose incitements of Arab rebellion against the British in the 1930's caused the British to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine. The Mufti explicitly allied himself to the Nazis during World War Two and recruited Bosnian Muslims to fight for Hitler.

Bin Laden concludes the speech by calling on the people of America to "embrace Islam" (see my post below), which he claims "puts peoples' lives in order with its laws; protects their needs and interests; refines their morals; protects them from evils; and guarantees for them entrance into Paradise in the hereafter through their obedience to Allah and sincere worship of Him Alone."

Islam, argues bin Laden, "will deprive [the corporations] of the opportunity to defraud the peoples and take their money under numberous (sic) pretexts, like arms deals and so on." But it gets even better. For those of us Americans who hate paying taxes (which is about 95% of us), "there are no taxes in Islam"! And for American Christians, bin Laden reminds them that "the name of the Prophet of Allah Jesus and his mother (peace and blessings of Allah be on them both) are mentioned in the Noble Quran dozens of times". In other words, bin Laden is telling American Christians, "Hey, becoming a Muslim is no big deal, we honor Jesus too!"

This latest speech by bin Laden is more conciliatory in nature than many of his past pronouncements. For a taste of bin Laden in vintage jihadi mode, here is his 1996 fatwa against America for your reference. Is Osama bin Laden getting mellow with age? Or is it more likely that rather than speaking to Americans, bin Laden's speech is really propaganda aimed at the Muslim world, telling them in effect "I offered the Americans a chance to embrace Islam and achieve true peace, but they didn't want to listen, so they deserve whatever happens to them"?

Given the infrequency of bin Laden's video appearances, this latest being his first in about three years, it inevitably raises questions about his health. I have to admit that until his 2004 video came out, I believed that he was in fact dead. But while he clearly is not dead, his dyed beard and evident fatigue in the new video suggest that something is wrong with him. So, as upset as I am that he has not yet been brought to justice, I can take some consolation in knowing that his is not a life of comfort and ease. One day he will be dead, either from violence or illness, and the terrorist organization he created will fade away.

No Thanks Osama, I Think I'll Pass

In his latest speech addressed to the people of the United States (see here for the transcript), Osama bin Laden invites us "to embrace Islam, for the greatest mistake one can make in this world and which is uncorrectable is to die while not surrenduring to Allah, the Most High, in all aspects of one's life - i.e., to die outside Islam. And Islam means gain for you in this first life and the next, final life."

No thanks Mr. bin Laden. I already gave up one delusion, the belief in the god of the Christians. I am not going to embrace your delusion.

Instead, I call on you Osama bin Laden, to embrace secular humanism, accept responsibility for your role in multiple terrorist attacks that caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, and to surrender yourself to the nearest United States or allied military post in Afghanistan to stand trial for your crimes.

As for the people of the United States converting en masse to Islam, it still would not solve the problem of American military intervention in the Middle East. Our economy would still be dependent on oil, thus necessitating our having an active presence in the region. The Islamic world has not been united since the days of the Ummayad Caliphate in the 7th century C.E., and it is a fantasy that a worldwide Islamic caliphate will ever arise where Muslims of all races and nationalities will live together in peaceful brotherhood. If history tells us anything, it tells us that humans will always find reasons to live in strife with one another, and nothing is likely to ever change that, including a worldwide embrace of Islam.

Friday, September 07, 2007

UPDATED Friday Funnies - Dave Chappelle's Clayton Bigsby Skit

I haven't had time to do any new posts this week, but over the weekend I have a few that I will put up. Plus, with the sixth anniversary of 9/11 next week, I will have several posts dedicated to the event, including my own personal recollections from being in New York city on that terrible day.

But for now, here is a very funny sketch from Dave Chappelle about a blind African-American man who became a white power activist.

And if you think the idea of a black white supremacist seems far-fetched, then who could even imagine neo-Nazis in Israel?