Monday, September 17, 2012

The Muslim world's excuse

I had hoped the crackpots who went after South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone a couple of years back were the exceptions rather than the rule. They, proclaiming themselves devout Muslims, declared that the satirical TV show's purported depiction of Muhammed not only was blasphemous, but worthy of retributive violence.

Now we have the spiritual leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood demanding a change in U.S. law, according to the New York Times:

In his statement after protesters breached the walls of the United States Embassy last Tuesday, the spiritual leader of the Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, declared that “the West” had imposed laws against “those who deny or express dissident views on the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a topic which is purely historical, not a sacred doctrine.”

In fact, denying the Holocaust is also protected as free speech in the United States, although it is prohibited in Germany and a few other European countries. But the belief that it is illegal in the United States is widespread in Egypt, and the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, called for the “criminalizing of assaults on the sanctities of all heavenly religions.”

As I wrote about the intolerant yahoos who threatened Parker and Stone:
A religion that requires fealty -- not just respect -- from non-believers challenges the very idea that different belief systems may coexist. That, in turn, begs the question of how such a religion can be accommodated within a pluralistic society, since pluralism only works if people are free to choose what to believe.

As a matter of courtesy, most of us refrain from willfully insulting the religious beliefs of others. However, I'm glad there are those who feel free to violate that and other taboos. Sometimes you only find your own limits if someone else steps beyond them. And sometimes, the only way to stumble onto wisdom is to stray off the path everyone else is following.

A law such as Badie demands would not only be unconstitutional on its face, but totally at odds with the core principle embodied by the First Amendment: the idea that freedom of expression is absolutely vital to preserve freedom of thought. Freedom of thought is, in turn, absolutely vital to the survival of the human race. Foreclosing any avenue of inquiry because of religious objections is not just a repugnant idea, it is flat-out dangerous. We simply do not know enough to be so close-minded.

By the way, it's striking that the calls for "jihad" against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses quite clearly focused on him rather than his country of origin or his then-current country of residence. It raises the question: why aren't today's protesters making the same distinction? After all, the man purportedly behind the film that has so angered the Muslim world is as much solely responsible for his creation as Rushdie was for his novel. Why, then, scream bloody murder about the U.S. being collectively responsible for the outrage?

The only plausible answer is that there are people who benefit by demonizing the U.S. as a whole. Did they orchestrate these supposedly spontaneous protests? I doubt it. Did they set the stage for such protests by fomenting simmering resentment and hatred of the U.S. for its real and imagined misdeeds? That, I don't doubt. This offensive film, if it exists (I haven't seen authoritative evidence that it does), was simply a handy excuse for angry people to lash out. They were ready to do so anyway, having been primed by years of inflammatory rhetoric — backed, unfortunately, by the U.S.'s heavy-handed foreign policy since the end of World War II. (And you thought I was going to pick on G. W. Bush again. Sadly, there's plenty of blame to go around, and though W made things much worse, he alone didn't dig us into the generations-deep hole we're in vis-a-vis the Muslim world.)

I have scant patience or sympathy for Muslim outrage in this case, considering that these same Muslims — the ones who hew to a narrow and intolerant vision of Islam — have absolutely no use for the likes of irreligious me. I think Muslims in much of the Middle East have a great many legitimate grievances against the industrialized West as well as their own leaders — but don't ask me to get up in arms because they're unhappy with the religious sensibilities of infidels. I am not about to recede from my principles because they bother Muslims who do not respect my right to live my life as I see fit.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Amazon charges California sales tax

Amazon started charging California residents their local sales tax today. Evidently a lot of people were dismayed by the change: news reports breathlessly claimed that people had scrambled to make large purchases on Amazon before 15 September so as to avoid the taxes.

These people seem to have forgotten the ruckus of almost a decade ago, when state officials warned us that we were responsible for California sales tax on our online purchases even then. State tax forms include a box to report the total amount, and Amazon, at least, allows its users to tot up their purchases from the previous calendar year.

I'd be curious to know how many others were like me and actually honored that long-forgotten warning by paying the additional sales taxes on their returns. How honest and law-abiding are we, really?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The real feckless foreign policy

In a piece in the New York Times about the blowback against Mitt Romney's remarks about the killing of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya, Romney's "policy director", Lanhee Chen, said, "While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing, I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner." In the same article, Sen. Jon Kyl was quoted as saying, "This is like a judge telling the woman that got raped, ‘You asked for it because of the way you dressed,’ O.K.? That’s the same thing: ‘Well, America you should be the ones to apologize. You should have known this would happen.’"

Romney screwed up by condemning a statement the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued in advance of the violence in Libya. The statement was an attempt to tamp down the likelihood of deadly violence. The attempt didn't work, of course. However, Romney's remarks implied that the statement had been made in response to the Libyan violence: "It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."

Romney blew the timeline — not an encouraging sign of clear thinking and analysis by either him or his team. For that, he has come under fire not just from Democrats but from Republicans, too. However, some Republicans, like Kyl, have leaped to Romney's defense with the same thoughtlessness and zeal Romney himself has shown.

Kyl is a reflexively jingoistic half-wit who indulged in the kind of simplistic analogizing that demogogues of all stripes love, reducing the truth to a seemingly persuasive sound bite but in fact losing the truth entirely in the process. The U.S. wasn't and isn't like a raped woman, and it is inconceivably insulting to both raped women and the nation to pretend the two are anything alike. The U.S.'s history with the Middle East and the Muslim world is tangled and its relationship with both is complex. President Obama has attempted to recognize that complexity by treating both with a nuance for which hard-line conservatives like Kyl have no patience. Kyl and his ilk, in refusing to treat the inhabitants of the Middle East and Muslims worldwide (not at all the same group, incidentally) with the modicum of respect due to other human beings, are patronizing jackasses who endanger U.S. citizens with their moronically bellicose rhetoric.

It is the height of irony for Chen to characterize the Obama administration's foreign policy as "feckless". It is Republicans, whose foreign policy has been carried out not with other nations in mind but instead with both eyes aimed at firing up the underinformed Republican base, who have for decades behaved "fecklessly". Chen's remarks are more confirmation that Romney has surrounded himself with advisors who would take this country down a terrible path if he is elected.

Sugar pop, 2012

For people my age, (the manufactured pop group) the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" is the prototype for a certain kind of pop song: one so addictive, so innocently pretty, and, if you'll forgive the vulgar racial note, so white, that it can only be thought of as musical sugar. It takes a lot of behind-the-scenes skill and effort and production wizardry to produce such a song: like white sugar, sugar pop is highly processed.

2012 has produced a fine sugar pop ditty in Owl City's and Carly Rae Jepsen's collaboration "Good Time". The song itself is unbelievably catchy, and the video is a pitch-perfect accompaniment that maintains the song's youthfully innocent tone. Is there a performer who looks more girl-next-door than Carly Rae Jepsen? And there's something about the way she twice enunciates "down" in one verse — she slightly elongates the first part of the "ow" sound and then abruptly clips the whole word off to fit the rhythm, making it sound more like "daown" — that is distinctive and, to my ears, charming.

The high you get from sugar pop songs is fleeting; they can be overexposed to the point of triggering a backlash (I remember Hanson good-naturedly participating in a SNL takedown of their sugar pop ditty "Mmmbop"); and you will hate yourself six months later for having gone nuts over one (the analogue to the sugar high crash), but it's damnably difficult not to get caught up in them.

And you know what? I still like "Sugar, Sugar" all these years later.