Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Michelle and Irene

By Gaije Kushner

Say what you will about Michelle Bachmann, she's never boring. Like Rachel Zoe, or a Top Chef winner, Bachmann is not content to rest on her laurels. She remains deeply committed to bringing her fans some fresh new crazy as often as humanly possible.

Over the weekend, she described Hurricane Irene, and last week's east coast earthquake, as God's attempt, "to get the attention of the politicians." We expect that kind of thing from Pat Robertson, or James Dobson, or whoever else the religious right is throwing money at these days. Presidential aspirants, not so much.

Jerry Falwell apologized for pinning 9/11 on those abortion loving lesbian feminists. Glen Beck apologized for equating Reform Judaism with Islamist extremism, and for making fun of Malia Obama. Pat Robertson apologized, kind of, for calling for Hugo Chavez's assassination. Bill O' Reilly apologized for suggesting there were circumstances under which a, "lynching party against Michelle Obama," could be appropriate. David Letterman apologized for his tawdry office affair, as did Bill Clinton. Apologizing is like breathing to Americans. It's just what we do.

Well, most of us. By now we should know to expect the unexpected from our girl Michelle. She does apologize occasionally. For instance, she apologized for confusing Elvis's birthday and the anniversary of his death, and for endorsing the idea black children were better off during slavery than they are now. She certainly knows how to demand an apology. Chris Wallace had to apologize, repeatedly, for asking her the perfectly reasonable question, "Are you a flake?" A Pawlenty (remember him?) aid had to apologize for referencing her, "sex appeal," when we all know her name recognition would be absolute zero, if she didn't look so good babbling on TV. Don't we?

We should have known better than to expect an apology for crediting God with Irene's murder and mayhem. In fact, this may have been her weirdest apology yet. First, basically repeated herself, clarifying only that, while she'd been joking at the time, she really, truly, meant what she'd said.
My comments were not ones that were meant to be taken lightly: What I was saying in a humorous vein is there are things that politicians need to pay attention to. It is not every day that we have an earthquake in the United States. What I think we are seeing is that in this country, we have to have a margin, financially. When we are so far over the cliff financially we don't have the margin that we need anymore."
The best part is her claim that God's punishing us for the federal deficit. Or something like that.

Bachmann's conception of God gets more confusing by the minute. If he is actually feeling neglected by our politicians, couldn't he be more direct about it? Why bother with earthquakes and hurricanes? Why not just appear to them, or lead them to some golden plates, or pull their hair? Who expects God to be so passive aggressive? Probably the same people who expect him to care about our federal deficit.

Incomprehensibly, media observers have been classing this as just another one of Bachmann's goofy gaffes, on par with the Elvis flub, or not knowing where the Revolutionary War began. But it's nothing of the sort. A gaffe is an error, a faux pas, a mistake. This wasn't a gaffe at all. Bachmann said it intentionally, because she meant it. She really does see God as kind of a dick, yet claims pleasing him to be her highest priority.

When someone tells you who she is, you should believe her. No matter how scary that truth might be.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Perry vs. Bachmann: Who’s Scarier?

By Gaije Kushner

Michelle Bachmann is a mesmerizing creature. Like a snake charmer, or the pied piper, she is simultaneously terrifying and entertaining. The wacky Christian hijinks, creepy wifely submission, appalling policy positions, and that hair, combine to make just about anyone look comparatively smart and sane.

No one has benefitted from this more than Texas governor and GOP presidential dreamer, Rick Perry. By focusing attention on a well-constructed economic narrative, he has successfully positioned himself as a more mainstream alternative to Bachmann’s flamboyant crazy train. But look past the spin, at each candidate’s positions on some touchstones of domestic policy, and Perry’s quieter brand of crazy comes into view.

For all of her ranting and raving, Bachmann’s policy positions are essentially what we expect from 21st century Republicans. She’s anti-choice, and she’s pro creationism in public schools. She offers a generic opposition to federal income tax and regulation, but she elaborates on few details beyond a belief that poor people need to stop slacking and start paying their fair share. She has proposed the elimination of Social Security and Medicare—for future generations, not for all those aging baby boomers who’ll be heading to the polls next year. Her general disdain for science can be seen in her assertion that global climate change cannot be manmade, because, “carbon dioxide is a natural by-product of nature.” Yeah, like anthrax and arsenic.

The centerpiece of Bachmann’s campaign is her longing for a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships, or any legal recognition of same sex partnerships whatsoever, by state and federal governments. Homosexuality, she tells us, is, “part of Satan.” Everyone knows Satan can be vanquished via Constitutional amendment. It’s just a wonder it’s taken us this long to get around to it.

Perry is more moderate than Bachmann on exactly none of these issues. Creationism, climate change, he’s right there with her. The only noticeable difference between them is Perry’s tendency to take the crazy to a whole new level.

He’s all for using the Constitution to exorcise Satan from the land. That’s just the beginning of his big plans for our founding document. He wants an amendment banning abortion, of course. Then the repeal of the 16th Amendment, which created the federal income tax, and the 17th, mandating direct election of senators. He pines for the days when state legislatures selected senators. This plan would encourage senators in ideological extremism. It would be a fabulous way for political parties to consolidate power. Any advantage to erstwhile voters remains unclear.

Constitutionally defined checks and balances on governmental power aren’t really working for Perry. He’d abolish lifetime appointments for federal judges, including Supreme Court justices. He’d also empower congress to override Supreme Court decisions with a 2/3 vote, freeing them from silly concerns about legislation’s constitutionality.

Perry’s understanding of the Constitution is idiosyncratic, at best. Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional, in his world. As are civil rights protections, environmental and financial regulations, the minimum wage, and labor laws.

Given his disdain for federal regulations protecting individuals from the workings of corporate power, Perry’s call for a moratorium on federal regulations shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet it does, being such a colossally bad idea. Do we really want our 8 year olds taking over the counter meth, to keep them awake for their 20 hours working in the coal mines, for $2.50 an hour, washing it down with water chockfull of toxins? Well, Governor Perry does. Because, hey, that’s job creation!

You’re probably scared of Perry by now, but you might be wondering about his entertainment potential. Don’t. It’s huge. He once shot a coyote while out for his daily run, and he was a cheerleader in college.

Michelle Bachmann has never looked so good.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Magic Pee Wee Suit

By Jim Reed

After many decades of living, loving, and getting by, I’ve come to the conclusion that everybody feels cool at least once in a lifetime–maybe even a few times in a lifetime, for the lucky ones.

Coolness is a state of mind, which means that you may feel cool to yourself, but you have no idea how you might look ridiculous–uncool–to others.

There’s the time in my life when I owned and wore an exact replica of the Pee Wee Herman suit–you know, his trademark outfit–which consisted of this form-fitting neatly pressed narrow-lapeled suit complete with white dress shirt and bow tie. In my case, I wore the obligatory Mad Men thin necktie. Also, in my case, I wore black wing-tip dress shoes instead of Pee Wee’s white loafers. But in all other respects, I looked like Pee Wee Herman. I was skinny as a rail, still had my hair, wore hornrimmed glasses, and thought the coolest thing in the world was my then-fashionable suit.

You might have guessed by now a couple of things:

1. This was back in the 1960s, long before Paul Reubens had ever conceived of Pee Wee and his suit, so in essence, Pee Wee wore an exact duplicate of my suit, rather than the other way around.

2. This was the era of Mad Men, when we all smoked and drank and caroused too much, and had miles to go before we became enlightened about the wrongness of smoking and drinking and carousing too much.

Anyhow, I worked as an on-air personality at Tuscaloosa’s fledgling television station, then known as WCFT-TV, Channel 33. I would snazz up in that suit, grab my loaded, hand-wound 16-millimeter movie camera, and go off to cover some news event, hoping to get back to the station in time to have Curtis Lake develop and edit the film while I wrote the story to go with it. Then, I’d get ready to host the daily live Noon broadcast interview show, called “This is the Show that Starts at Noon,” which remained on the air for four years.

Back in those days, you could look cool while out in the public being recognized as a TV personality, but there was no way to be cool, once you got back to the station. At the station, you were just another employee, trying to keep your job, stay out of the way of the more hostile pointy-haired folks, and just having fun doing your job. It is thus with virtually all jobs: as long as you can concentrate on and perform the tasks you love, you’re happy. But office politics and office politicos will be working full-time trying to spoil it for you. Denial is your only weapon.

Anyhow, for a few minutes at a time during those years at Channel 33, I could overcome my insecurities and self-doubts, don the Pee Wee suit, leave the station to cover a story or host a panel or judge a beauty contest or make a personal appearance, and just plain forget the other facts of life I had to put up with.
The Pee Wee suit was my magic time machine, my way to beam up and away each time conflict threatened to douse me. It made me feel like somebody, even though I wasn’t. It made me feel stylish, even though I wasn’t. It gave me a few chuckles many years later, when I saw Pee Wee himself wearing that outfit and feeling like a million dollars.

I wonder if Pee Wee found my suit at a thrift store

Jim Reed is the proprietor of Reed Books in downtown Birmingham.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In Defense of Standing by Facebook

By M. David Hornbuckle

Reposted from M David Hornbuckle Dot Com 

With all the media hoopla about Google+ a lot of people are once again talking about jumping the Facebook ship, and that's worth looking at. So far, I have not actually seen very many people trade one for the other. Most people I know, if they've signed up for Google+, they are trying (and mostly failing) to keep up with both, usually favoring the familiar over the new toy.

I can't emphasize enough how important Facebook has been for me in the past 2-3 years in maintaining my social and professional life, so I'm not going to give it up without a fight. Facebook has many flaws, but the complaints I hear most often about it are things that are easily resolvable.

If Facebook is prodding you over and over to be your homepage, you probably have your security settings on "ultra paranoid mode." If you say No to the request, a cookie is set to remember that answer. If your browser doesn't accept cookies, you are just going to have to deal with that. Maybe Google+ doesn't have that prompt yet, but it will come as the application attempts to grow. Getting the most out of Facebook, just like getting the most out of the internet in general, means you have to take a certain leap of faith and not worry so much about the paranoid security issues that plague the blogosphere. Reasonable security measures are valid, but if you do things like set your browser to never accept cookies, the internet just doesn't work.
People in your news stream you don't care to hear from? Hide them. Just click the little X in the upper right corner of the post.  You can always defriend or outright block people who are particularly troublesome, but hiding people keeps them out of your way without disrupting their experience. They'll never know that you aren't reading their posts.

The "Circles" feature on Google+ is admittedly interesting and more intuitive than the similar features on Facebook in many ways. I know I'm relatively alone in this, but I went to a lot of trouble a couple of years ago to put all my FB friends in Lists. However, these Lists aren't as flexible as Circles. I can filter my feed to only view things from friends in a certain List, and I can use my security settings to block Lists of people from viewing certain things. But I can't easily share a post with only people in one List while depriving it from others. I hope FB will take a cue from Google + and improve the flexibility of Friend Lists. The new way Groups work on FB may be intended to resolve that issue, but again, it's not that flexible. I want to organize people on my end, but I don't want to force them to comply by becoming part of a "group." Friend Lists accomplish this, but not perfectly.

Google+ is sort of interesting to play around with. It does a couple of things FB doesn't do, like the "Hangout" feature, though I haven't yet found anybody to "Hangout" with. None of my friends seem to be on G+ at the same time I am. Plus, I relish the times when I get to "hang out" with my friends in real life, and I think this sort of thing just makes it easy to sit around at home instead. I can see it being fun or useful in certain situations though.

Moreover, Google+ doesn't have a lot of the features that I absolutely count on Facebook for. I use the Events feature religiously to organize my social calendar. I like being reminded when it's someone's birthday, even someone I don't talk to often. It often prompts me to spend a little time catching up with that person. I have many FB applications blocked—things like Farmville and Mafia Wars. I don't mess with most of that stuff. But I do play Scrabble and a couple of other games on FB whenever I need to give my brain a five minute break during the day. Google+ doesn't have any of these games.

In addition to personal social stuff, I have three "business" identities I manage frequently (Ghost Herd, Birmingham Free Press, and Steel Toe Review—plus a couple of others that I don't use as much currently), and Facebook is the easiest and most efficient way for me to engage with fans/customers/readers who are interested in those things. I don't personally know all the people that are "fans" of those pages, and I don't want to communicate with them as "M. David Hornbuckle" because many of them don't know who M. David Hornbuckle is. Facebook allows me to have these multiple identities and manage them relatively easily.

Finally, before you say "Facebook sells your personal information to other companies," I say, who cares? If you don't want Facebook to know anything personal about you, don't tell Facebook anything personal. But I fail to see why this is a problem. How this works is, Facebook's advertisers look at the things you say you are interested in and target advertising toward you based on those things. If you are going to have ads anyway, isn't it better for them to be for things that you are interested in knowing about rather than just random stuff? Targeted advertising on the internet has been revolutionary. Nobody at Facebook is sitting around masturbating over your Caribbean beach pictures because you posted them. A more or less automated process is looking at keywords and other clues in your profile and deciding you might be interested in a cheap Jamaican vacation sometime. What's so bad about that?

Moreover, the internet is and should always be considered a public place. If you don't want your shit out there in public, don't use the internet.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Is There Life After Death?

By Stephen Smith

Is there life after death? On the surface the question might seem nonsensical. If someone is alive they are not dead by definition. But that’s not what we mean by the question. Most contemporary philosophy seems to come down to the definition of words. The question of life after death isn’t a subject typically addressed by contemporary philosophy; it is a question from an earlier time when the obvious objections had yet to be realized. Is the “human experience” in any way a continuity? Are we the same entity we were as a child? Are we the same entity we were yesterday?

So putting aside the fundamental problems with the wording of question of life after death, let’s just agree to run with the classic understanding. Does the human experience continue beyond the grave? Theology and “spirituality” offer a seemingly endless list of cocksure and contradictory answers to all of life’s mysteries, but these tend to be based on revealed truth rather than evidence. Is there any evidence for life after death?

There are three usual lines of so-called evidence for the continuation of the human condition past the grave: Near death experiences (NDE), out of body experiences (OBE), and ghosts. For some reason the ghost thing is usually dismissed by believers. Somehow the idea of ghosts is not as serious as NDE or OBE. This is totally arbitrary and cultural. The whole question is about ghosts. Is there a ghost inside your body that controls your brain? Does this ghost skedaddle when the host body is no longer useful? Calling it a soul or spirit isn’t in any way informative and calling it energy is just an abuse of the English language.

To move forward at all we have to just sort of roll over and accept the fact that the tough questions have to be ignored. This isn’t an issue that philosophy is well prepared to deal with, though that doesn’t seem to give the philosophers any pause. The primary objection to life after death is that brain functions seem to be able to explain all of human experience, and a misfiring brain can account for NDE. But the believer will respond that the brain is just a tool of the ghost. Just because you can cut out the part of the brain that remembers your wife’s birthday only means the ghost doesn’t have access to it anymore. The brain is just the ghost’s tool. Kind of like a lug wrench or pachinko machine. The obvious next step with this opposition to the materialist view is that now rabbit and human ghosts can be considered equivalent with one just having access to a better brain.

Considering that philosophy's best arguments for life after death are simply rhetorical and there is good rhetoric for almost any imaginable philosophical position, it is better left to look to science for answers.

It is easy to find all kinds of crazy stuff on the internet about NDE, but there are a few sober groups. Dr. Kenneth Ring, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut, published an article in the peer reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies in 1993 claiming that the ghosts of dead people were able to see events far away from their corpses. They would supposedly report all sorts of details when resuscitated. But these aren’t the sorts of experiments that can be repeated in a laboratory setting unless you are willing to deal with a mad scientist.

In 2010, Dr. Jeffrey Long, an M.D. who is also associated with the Journal of Near-Death Studies published a book called Evidence for the Afterlife that summed up the hundreds of scholarly articles written on the subject over the past few decades. Long claims these experience have nine proofs of life after death: 1.) Lucid death, 2.) Out of body experiences, 3.) The blind were able to see, 4.) People under anesthesia heard and saw what was happening to them, 5.) The “whole life passing before you” phenomenon, 6.) Meeting family members, 7.) Young children have the same experiences as adults, 8.) Worldwide consistency, and 9.) Changed lives.

Most of the “research” for these “studies” appears to be anecdotal. The journal itself, though fairly sober, does feature stories about a six-year-old kid meeting the Devil and another one being greeted by his recently deceased puppies. It’s also worth noting that both Ring’s and Long’s books were published by Harper Collins and not a university press, though the journal itself does seem to be above board.

In 2001, a 20-year Dutch study of cardiac arrest survivors suggested that, “NDE might be a changing state of consciousness (transcendence), in which identity, cognition, and emotion function independently from the unconscious body.” Since not all cardiac arrest survivors experienced NDE, the study casts doubt on a physiological explanation. But this just moves the bar from different kinds of brains to different kinds of ghosts and doesn’t really answer the fundamental question. Is there a ghost in the machine?

Earlier this year the Review of General Psychology published by the American Psychological Association did a state of the research concerning NDE and concluded, “[t]he claims made by out-of-brain theorists should not be underestimated by cognitive neuroscientists: if true this would imply a new relation between the brain and consciousness…we are far from solving the question…it is useful to remain open to both interpretations.”

But why do we have to die for our ghosts to roam free? What about OBE? It seems that one should be easy to test. Put a photograph on a high shelf, have a subject leave his body and come back and say what it is. Dr. Sam Parnia of the Weill Cornell Medical Centre in New York, and Southampton University has been performing just such a study since 2008. You can dig around his website ( all day and not find the results. It seems a bit suspicious. His findings were suppose to be released early in 2011 but Dr. Parnia has only responded, “[m]any people have written to us and have asked to be updated with the study results, however, as I am sure everyone will understand, we are unable to release data in a piecemeal fashion. We therefore look forward to being able to release the results of our study once the study has been accepted for publication in a major Pier[sic] Review Journal.” Don’t hold your breath.

Dr. Parnia is claiming he’s run out of money. But honestly, how much can something like that cost? It seems like if you could leave your body it would be worth a hundred bucks to pop into the clinic to prove it. One has to suspect no strong evidence has been discovered. This hasn’t stopped any number of folk from pointing to such studies as proof of the afterlife.

According to Brain: The Journal of Neurology, OBE “are due to a paroxysmal cerebral dysfunction of the TPJ [temporo parietal junction] in a state of partially and briefly impaired consciousness.” So really all we have is anecdotal evidence of any sort of consciousness without a brain.

So what about the ghosts? If we are going to go with anecdotal evidence there is a ton of it for ghosts. We’ve got ghosts on film and stories of people seeing, talking too, being haunted by, and falling in love with ghosts since the dawn of time. For all practical purposes ghosts are the best evidence for life after death there is. Are we really ghosts temporarily housed in slowly rotting collections of meat and bones? Maybe. Who knows?