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Secular Ethics Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You Very Much

Mother Jones

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Ross Douthat writes hat there are three spiritual worldviews in America today. You might call them hard-core biblical, soft-core spiritual, and secular. Unsurprisingly, he’s bearish on the secular worldview:

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher….So there are two interesting religious questions….The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

I’m willing to concede Douthat’s main point: the secular scientific worldview doesn’t provide much of a philosophical basis for a moral system. I don’t think it’s quite as barren of metaphysical guidance as he suggests, but still, he has a point.

But here’s what I’ve never understood about the kind of argument Douthat is making: it’s not as if secular ethics is a modern invention. Aristotle’s ethics were fundamentally secular, and were appropriated by the Church only long after his death. More recently, we have the example of plenty of modern, secular states in Europe and elsewhere, which appear to effortlessly practice an ethics every bit as praiseworthy as that of more religious states. On a personal level, there’s never been the slightest evidence that religious believers behave any better on average than the nonreligious.

None of this is new. Sure, in some abstract way, it’s not possible for me to justify my own sense of ethics all the way down to its ultimate core, but in real life that’s something I never even think about. In a practical, human sense, my sense of morality is every bit as strong as Douthat’s. He might attribute this to God and I might attribute it to the evolution of the human brain and human society, but either way there’s no inherent tension in the secular view simply because it lacks an ultimate metaphysical justification. It’s just not something that affects most of us even slightly. Douthat is imagining cracks that aren’t there.

At a broader level, you might still wonder whether religious underpinnings for morality are more effective at producing an ethical society. Again, though, where’s the evidence? You can enforce morality by threatening people with hellfire, or you can enforce it by threatening them with jail time. Both work pretty well—though I’d note that religious societies tend to partake liberally of secular punishments too. Hellfire apparently has its limits.

Secular ethics isn’t some newfangled 20th-century experiment that’s falling apart at the seams and must inevitably be replaced with a deist revival or the return of Pol Pot. It’s millennia old, and doing just fine. It’s true that sex and gender roles have changed dramatically over the past century, and that’s certainly produced plenty of tension and discomfort along the way. And for all too many devout Christians, that seems to be the real wellspring of their discontent: not secularism per se, but changes in sexual mores in particular, which produces a foreboding sense that society is inevitably sinking into moral degeneracy. Christian apologists would do well to keep the two subjects separate.

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Secular Ethics Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You Very Much

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The Youngest Begley Speaks Out in Livestream Tonight

Hayden Begley, left, will talk what it’s like to grow up green with dad Ed Begley, center. Photo: Helga Esteb/

What’s it like to grow up in “America’s greenest, most sustainable home”?

Hayden Begley, daughter of actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., will talk about growing up green and her part in the web series On Begley Street in a live webcast tonight at 8 p.m. CST on evox Television.

On Begley Street, which began airing in September, documents the Begley family as they work to build their home under LEED Platinum Certified standards.

Ed Begley has shared with us awesome environmental insight in the past, so we look forward to seeing what his 12-year-old daughter has to say about living sustainably.


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The Youngest Begley Speaks Out in Livestream Tonight

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Fox News Asks Miss America About Those Racist Tweets

Mother Jones

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Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2013 Prensa International Miss America/Ho

I felt terrible for Nina Davuluri this week after she was crowned Miss America 2013, because I knew what was coming. Davuluri is the first Indian-American woman to win the pageant. The moment that special tiara was lowered onto her fabulously coiffed head, a barrage of hateful, outraged, resentful, and predictably inaccurate tweets and posts came hurtling her way, hundreds at a time.

And my personal favorite: “WHEN WILL A WHITE WOMAN WIN #MISSAMERICA? Ever??!!” (The first nonwhite pageant winner was Norma Smallwood, of Cherokee descent, in 1926. It wouldn’t happen again until 1984, when Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America. Not a bad streak!)

Norma Smallwood, Miss America 1926 Archival photo

Davuluri, whose parents are a software engineer and an OB/GYN from the north Indian state Andhra Pradesh, grew up in Oklahoma, and wants to become a cardiologist, went on Fox News this morning to talk about the hostility over her “race. . . and ethnicity. . . and everything,” as Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy put it.

“It was an unfortunate experience, but for each negative tweet, there were dozens of positive remarks and support,” said Davuluri. “A lot of that stemmed from ignorance, and that’s why my platform is so timely right now.”

Like presidents, Miss America candidates run on platforms. Davuluri’s is “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.” Cultural competency is that idea that everyone’s responsible for sorting through their own cultural biases and trying harder when it comes to interacting with different sorts of folks. It comes up a lot in conversations about public education and health care, places where people from different backgrounds cross paths regularly and have to (or should) make it work.

“I have always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, but for me the girl next door’s evolving as the diversity in America evolves,” said Davuluri on Fox & Friends. “It’s not who she was ten years ago, and she’s not going to be the same person ten years down the road.”

I cringe at the “girl next door” trope. I can’t stand the Miss America contest for that matter, for reasons many, many, many smart people have articulated well elsewhere. But if someone’s gonna go on Fox News and talk about being “Miss America,” I prefer Nina Davuluri at the podium.

This was hardly the first time the racist side of Twitter flipped its presumably ultrablonde wig over a person of color showing up in a familiar media space. When the character of Rue from The Hunger Games, described as “dark skinned” in the book, was played by the young black actress Amandla Stenberg, angry viewers took to Twitter to complain the movie had been “ruined.” When Cheerios released a commercial in which a little girl adorably pours cereal all over her (black) sleeping dad’s chest because her (white) mom said Cheerios is “heart healthy,” the company had to disable YouTube comments because thousands of Americans think it’s still 1966.

But all this trembling at the mere sight of little brown girls hasn’t stopped the rapid colorization of our country. So why bother bringing Davuluri’s attackers up at all? Because of the class-act performance she’s been delivering in the face of so much ugliness. She’s handling the ugly backlash with grace and poise, and working in some teachable moments along the way.

A few years ago, I made a promise to myself. I’d never again eat at an Indian restaurant where scenes of “traditional” Indian women were hung on the walls, rows and rows of doe-eyed women coyly hiding their smiles beneath gauzy scarves while performing traditional Indian activities such as pouring water from jugs and strumming wooden harps. I wouldn’t have held it against Nina Davuluri if she’d stuck to the high road, refusing to dignify ugly attacks with a forceful response. But it means a lot to me that she’s talking back.

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Fox News Asks Miss America About Those Racist Tweets

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Ex-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels Supports Free Speech—Except When He Disagrees With It

Mother Jones

When Mitch Daniels took the helm of Purdue University in January, after eight years as the Republican governor of Indiana, he published an “open letter to the people of Purdue” outlining his vision for the state’s second-largest public college. In his letter, Daniels offered critiques and observations about the state of higher education; on the subject of “Open Inquiry,” he wrote: “A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate,” adding that “the ensuring of free expression is paramount.”

Now, some great muckraking by the Associated Press casts serious doubt on Daniels’ commitment to protecting free speech. According to emails obtained by the AP, Daniels as governor tried to ban the works of historian Howard Zinn from the classrooms of Indiana’s public colleges. When Zinn died in February 2010, Daniels wrote in an email: “The terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.” Daniel described Zinn’s celebrated and widely read book A People’s History of the United States as “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”

Daniels goes on to write: “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

When told the book was being taught at Indiana University in a course on American social movements, Daniel fired back: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session.”

More from the AP:

David Shane, a top fundraiser and state school board member, replied seven minutes later with a strategy directing Bennett and Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers to review university courses across the state.

“Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in ‘professional development’ and what is not. Who will take charge,” Daniels replied seven minutes later.

Shane replied that a statewide review “would force to daylight a lot of excrement.”

Just seven minutes later, Daniels signed off on it.

“Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings. Don’t the ed schools have at least some substantive PD (professional development) courseware to upgrade knowledge of math, science, etc,” Daniels wrote.

Daniels also appeared to have used his position as governor to target an academic who was critical of the state’s education policies. Emails show that Daniels asked for an audit focusing on the work of Charles Little, who is on the faculty of Indiana University Purdue University–Indianapolis’ School of Education and who leads the Indiana Urban Schools Association, an advocate for inner-city students, teachers, and administrators. In an April 11, 2009, email, Daniels asked for greater scrutiny of Little’s program and how it spent it funds.

Reached at his office, Little said he wasn’t surprised that Daniels and his colleagues targeted him. “It is worrisome that some of the people mentioned in the article are still around” in state government, Little told me.

Daniels, for his part, told the AP he had no regrets about his decision to target Howard Zinn. “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools,” he responded. “We have a law requiring state textbook oversight to guard against frauds like Zinn, and it was encouraging to find that no Hoosier school district had inflicted his book on its students.”

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Ex-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels Supports Free Speech—Except When He Disagrees With It

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I Built This AK-47. It’s Legal and Totally Untraceable.

Mother Jones

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The wooden and steel parts I need to build my untraceable AK-47 ï¬&#129;t within a slender, 15-by-12-inch cardboard box. I ï¬&#129;rst lay eyes on them one Saturday morning in the garage of an eggshell-white industrial complex near Los Angeles. Foldout tables ring the edges of the room, surrounding two orange shop presses. The walls, dusty and stained, are lined with shelves of tools. I’m with a dozen other guys, some sipping coffee, others making introductions over the buzz of an air compressor. Most of us are strangers, but we share a common bond: We are just eight hours away from having our very own AK-47—one the government will never know about.

The AK-47, perhaps the world’s best-known gun, is so easy to make and so hard to break that the Soviet-designed original has spawned countless variants, updated and modified versions churned out by factories all over the globe. Although US customs laws ban importing the weapons, parts kits—which include most original components of a Kalashnikov variant—are legal. So is reassembling them, as long as no more than 10 foreign-made components are used and they are mounted on a new receiver, the box-shaped central frame that holds the gun’s key mechanics. There are no fussy irritations like, say, passing a background check to buy a kit. And because we’re assembling the guns for our own “personal use,” whatever that may entail, we’re not required to stamp in serial numbers. These rifles are totally untraceable, and even under California’s stringent assault weapons ban, that’s perfectly within the law.

Among those ready to get going at this “build party” (none of whom wanted their names used) are a father-son duo getting in some bonding time and a well-bellied sixtysomething with a white Fu Manchu who “loves” the click-ack! sound of a round being chambered. Assembling a Romanian variant is a builder wearing a camo jacket and a hat embroidered with an AR-15 rifle above the legend “Come and take it.” His knuckle tattoos read “PRAY HARD.”

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I Built This AK-47. It’s Legal and Totally Untraceable.

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The 10 Worst Prisons in America: ADX

Mother Jones

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The “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” Bacote et al. v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

“If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” So goes the old saying. Yet conditions in some American facilities are so obscene that they amount to a form of extrajudicial punishment.

Doing time is not supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These, however, are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.

The United States boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate, with close to 2.3 million people locked away in some 1,800 prisons and 3,000 jails. Most are nasty places by design, aimed at punishment and exclusion rather than rehabilitation; while reliable numbers are hard to come by, at last count 81,622 prisoners were being held in some form of isolation in state and federal prisons. Thousands more are being held in solitary at jails, deportation facilities, and juvenile-detention centers. Nearly 1 in 10 prisoners is sexually victimized, by prison employees about half of the time—more than 200,000 such assaults take place in American penal facilities every year (PDF), according to estimates compiled under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Suicides, meanwhile, account for almost a third of prisoner deaths, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while an unknown number of fatalities result from substandard nutrition and medical care.

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The 10 Worst Prisons in America: ADX

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A Lesson in Pension Return Math

Mother Jones

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CalPERS, the giant California state pension fund, says it expects future investment returns of 7.5 percent on its holdings. Andy Kessler says this is “fiction.” He figures 3 percent is more like it. Dean Baker brings the math:

This is a case where Mr. Arithmetic can provide a big hand. Pension funds like Calpers typically invest around 70 percent of their assets in equities, including the money invested in private equity. The expected return on stock is equal to the rate of the economy’s growth, plus the payouts in dividends and share buybacks.

….The long-term growth of nominal GDP is projected at around 4.8 percent, 2.3 percent real growth and 2.5 percent inflation….Companies typically pay out about two-thirds of their earnings as either dividends or share buybacks. With a current ratio of price to trend earnings, the yield is around 7 percent. Two thirds of this yield gives us a payout of 4.7 percent. Adding the two together we get 4.8 + 4.7 = 9.5 percent.

The problem, as near as I can tell, is that Kessler is unaware (?) that pension funds don’t invest their money entirely in treasury bonds and other fixed-income securities. They invest lots of it in equities, which have a higher return. And indeed, if you get Baker’s 9.5 percent return on 70 percent of your holdings and Kessler’s 3 percent on the rest, your average return is….

7.5 percent.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if CalPERS is being a wee bit optimistic in its forecasts. Maybe they really ought to be assuming 7.25 percent or something like that. But 3 percent? Give me a break.

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A Lesson in Pension Return Math

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Friday Cat Blogging – 15 March 2013

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Yesterday was both Pi Day and the 10th anniversary of Friday Catblogging. Today is both the Ides of March and the beginning of the next ten years of Friday Catblogging. As you can see, Domino could barely contain her excitement. In her defense, though, perhaps she really is celebrating in the best way possible.

Mother Jones
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Friday Cat Blogging – 15 March 2013

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The Future of Special Forces in Afghanistan

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Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that he was barring U.S. troops from Wardak province after reports that U.S. Special Forces had tortured and murdered innocent people. Among other things Karzai said that nine villagers had been abducted from their homes and a young man was found decapitated and with his fingers sliced off. Today, the LA Times reports that Karzai was probably mistaken:

The account of the young man’s death was wrong, U.S. and local Afghan officials say.

He was snared by armed men, not U.S. forces or their Afghan allies, according to Afghan law enforcement officials. In police photos of the body, he has one finger chopped off and a gash on one side of his neck, but he wasn’t beheaded.

Crucially, say Afghan officials who investigated the slaying, the bearded veterinary student known as Nasratullah was a Taliban facilitator whose brother is serving time for planting so-called sticky bombs — explosives that attach with magnets. They believe that Nasratullah was killed in a power struggle between the Taliban and another Islamist faction in insurgent-ridden Wardak province, and that tribal elders here, perhaps coerced by militants, blamed Americans to fuel an outcry against U.S. troops.

A couple of days after Karzai’s announcement, Yochi Dreazen suggested that it was really just a bit of shadow boxing. What Karzai is really doing is reacting to President Obama’s plan to keep Special Forces troops in Afghanistan even after most other troops have been withdrawn:

The White House has made clear that sizable numbers of Special Operations forces will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future….Here at home, bearded commandos from units like the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force are celebrated in best-selling books like “American Sniper” and the popular, if controversial, movie “Zero Dark Thirty.” Video games featuring the elite troops have collectively grossed billions of dollars. Americans love heroes, and the men (they are always men) who swoop into fortified compounds at night to kill or capture wanted terrorists seem to fit the bill perfectly.

That is not, to put it very mildly, how those troops are seen in Afghanistan, where the commandos are routinely accused of killing or arresting the wrong targets and calling in air strikes which result in significant numbers of civilian deaths.

The night raids the elite units use to catch wanted Afghans while they’re asleep are particularly hated. Afghans complain that it’s a grave cultural insult for male troops to search women or enter a home uninvited. A night raid earlier this month which killed a pregnant woman has made the missions even more unpopular.

I don’t have any independent assessment of all this. But we should probably expect a lot more fireworks over the next 24 months as we draw down troops in Afghanistan. It’s likely to get pretty ugly.


The Future of Special Forces in Afghanistan

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Students Call for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Nicole Bergeron


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Students Call for Fossil Fuel Divestment

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