Friday, January 23, 2015

Is Consistency the Hobgoblin of Little Minds? On the Death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The hobgoblin reference is to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  It's also a reference to Western attitudes, both political and journalistic, to the extreme Wahhabi sect of Islam.  When the Saudi government pushes it on the rest of the world (by funding mosques and by sending preachers to those mosques) there's not much loud criticism.  But when the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) decides to use it as a blueprint to create its own nightmare world there's much loud criticism.

The difference is in oil, my sweetings.  Sadly, this suggests to me that if ISIS ever gets hold of enough oil resources, whatever president the US has then will hold hands with their leaders.

It's true that the late king Abdullah did push for certain minor improvements in the position of women.  But women in Saudi Arabia are still unable to drive themselves, are still subject to the custodianship and rule of their male relatives, and as far as my research has been able to prove anything, the only creative addition* ISIS has introduced to their version of the Wahhabi teachings is the idea of taking slaves (as long as they don't have one of the three Abrahamic religions), selling them to the highest bidder in legal slave auctions and justifying rape of female slaves as just appropriate use of war booty.

The rules about chopping off the hands of thieves, the rules about killing those suspected of homosexual activity and the rules about stoning adulterers**, those are all practiced not only in the Islamic State but also in Saudi Arabia (and a few other countries).

I'm welcoming any reforms that Saudi Arabia can carry out towards greater human rights, of course, just as I feel great urgency about getting rid of the "values" that ISIS is touting.  Any reform is better than none, and I also understand that resistance to reform inside Saudi Arabia is a powerful force and hard to fight.  Still, we cannot remember that half the population there (women) have far fewer rights and much less freedom than the other half.  Neither should we forget that the rulers in the country are not democratically.
*Crucifixion as punishment (or as a way to display a corpse after death) may be another innovation by ISIS
**Women appear to be the victims of stoning more frequently than men, by the way.

Potential Moms and Painkillers! Today's Study Popularization.

If you ovulate you are a potential mom.  Indeed, you can be regarded as one if you are a woman between the ages of fifteen and forty-four!   It doesn't matter one whit if you are not going to become pregnant any time soon (or ever).  You are still a potential mom.

And perhaps you should just take any serious pain you have, without mega-strength painkillers.

Here's a story about all that with the headline:

Potential moms using painkillers, study finds

That means women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five, and the painkillers the headline refers to are opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin.  Those can cause birth defects in a fetus.

But how does that relate to women in that age group who are not pregnant or not planning to become pregnant?

Well, my dears, here's the answer:

Previous studies of opioid use during pregnancy suggest that the medicines could increase risk of major defects of the baby’s brain and spine, heart and abdominal wall.
But this is the first time that the CDC has looked into opioid painkillers specifically among women of child-bearing age, which is important because many pregnancies aren’t recognized until well after the first few weeks, and half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, officials said.

Emphasis mine.

The study summary I discuss here gives not one single recommendation for all those "potential moms" out there.  It's hard not to read it as implying that pain is something "potential moms" should just bear bravely, or at least seriously consider that alternative.

I got carried away a bit thinking about all the stuff "potential moms" aka women do.  They might drink (gasp!), they might ski downhill at a rapid rate, they might dance all night through!  Perhaps all women of the fertile ages should be moved into protected housing where their diet and lifestyles could be controlled?

The CDC's own summary on the study is quite a bit saner.  It recommends this:

“Women, who are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, should discuss with their health care professional the risks and benefits for any medication they are taking or considering.” said Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., MS.Hyg., Director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “This new information underscores the importance of responsible prescribing, especially of opioids, for women of child bearing age.”

But to return to that bolded bit in the above quote:

It's based on an interesting flaw in how that statistic is used.  That half of all US pregnancies are unplanned does NOT mean that half of all pregnancies of every US woman are unplanned.  In particular, it doesn't take into account the difference between women who use contraception and women who do not use contraception.

Here's the Guttmacher Institute on that distinction:

To repeat from the graph:  The two-thirds of women at risk of unintended pregnancy who practice contraception consistently and correctly account for only 5% of unintended pregnancies.

I'm not quite certain why that distinction is so seldom made in these types of studies.  If it was made, angry Echidne wouldn't have to keep going all haywire* over the same stuff.

This distinction also matters, because now health care providers can ask women in the fertile age categories whether they practice birth control or not, and they can also tell the women who are prescribed opioid painkillers to be very careful not to get pregnant.


*I've tried to figure out why I get so angry with the particular flavor of the pieces which use the "half of all pregnancies are unplanned" in this manner.  The reasons are  1)  that the assumption takes away all agency from women in the fertile age category (it doesn't matter what the women themselves do, pregnancy just "happens") and 2) that there is often a sense in these articles that fertile women really are just temporarily empty fetus aquaria rather than full human beings.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Huckabee on Theocracy

Huckabee is going to toss his hat in the presidential ring, I read.  It would have been a lot harder to write sarcasm without his presence so I'm grateful.  mm.

He's a man of God, Mike is.  He is going to run on the divine side:

"We cannot survive as a republic if we do not become, once again, a God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God," he said on the show "Life Today."
When Huckabee added that he wasn't demanding a theocracy, host James Robison said, "We have a theocracy right now. It's a secular theocracy."
"That's it!" Huckabee said, describing the current political order as "humanistic, secular, atheistic, even antagonistic toward Christian faith."
I need to take out my brain and vacuum it before returning it to its nest, what with the idea of something called secular theocracy. 

But what is the difference between theocracy and "understanding that our laws do not come from man [sic], they come from God?"  Please someone tell me.

I have difficulty with the extremist Islamic ideas (ISIS) of how a country is run as a theocracy, and I have difficulty with Huckabee's version, too.  Many years ago:
 ...former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee forcefully defended an earlier statement backing the biblical admonition that wives should submit to their husbands.
"I'm not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it," Huckabee said. "I don't try to impose that as a governor, and I wouldn't impose it as a president. But I certainly am going to practice it unashamedly.... "
He went on to explain that the Bible also commands husbands to submit to their wives and that marriage requires each spouse to give 100 percent to the other.

That's gobbledegook, that idea of mutual submission, based on the Bible.  But if you grant Huckabee his god ideas, it would suggest that in the past he wasn't going to use those to run the country.  How can you both have theocracy and not have theocracy?

The real problem, naturally, is that nobody truly knows how a divine power would rule a country (well, you could ask me about my rules).  What we have instead are writings by human beings who lived thousands of years ago and who lived inside a society which looks very different from many societies existing today.  Adulterous women were stoned, men had absolute rule over their families, homosexuality was a crime punishable by death and so on.  That the writers or recorders believed all this to be the will of god doesn't prove that it is.

But those are the writings the extremist literalists and fundamentalists attribute to gods in all religions today. Thus, Huckabee is a brother under the skin with those who planned the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq.  Granted, he's a much kinder and gentler brother, but he uses similar books as his guide to what should be.

The difficulty with that approach is pretty obvious for the rest of us:  How do you debate issues with someone who believes that he speaks for God? 

More On The No-Go Zones in Europe

Have you noticed that the debate about the Muslim no-go zones in Europe tends to take the final form of YES, THEY EXIST! NO, THEY DO NOT!   Rinse and repeat.

That isn't terribly helpful.  Neither is the invitation to go and see whether they exist or not, given that most of us cannot hop into our private jets and organize extensive visits of the world.  Why does it seem to be so hard to delve into the next layer and look at evidence which might point either way?  Or towards something more complicated?

I did a little bit of that work, starting with the assertion about 55 Swedish no-go zones (mostly because I can read a little Swedish).  This quote refers to it:

That night, on Anderson Cooper’s program, the concept crept again into the conversation, as retired CIA officer Gary Berntsen told the host, “Anderson, the Europeans and the French in particular have problems that are the result of also 751 ‘no-go zones’ in France where you have Islamic communities that have formed councils that are managing these areas. And the police don’t go in. If you look at Sweden there are 55 ‘no-go zones’ there. You know, firefighters or ambulance drivers go in there and they’re attacked. Their vehicles are lit on fire, their tires are slashed, and the Europeans have not pushed back against this. They can’t surveil people inside the ‘no-go zones’ if they get and go in there,” said the analyst, who called the zones “enclaves that are completely separated from the government.”

The idea of 55 Swedish "no-go zones" comes from a report by the Swedish police.  The report itself does NOT use the term "no-go zones" and as far as I can see it says nothing about religion. either, or about religious councils which are supposed to run the areas.

Instead, the report is about criminal networks (mostly dealing in narcotics) and loose criminal gangs in certain areas, and the power of those gangs.  Crimes are not often reported to the police, parked police cars are sometimes attacked, rocks are thrown at police and firefighters and it's difficult to find witnesses for crimes.  The one reference to alternative governments in the report refers to the criminal gangs themselves as being in power in a few areas, via the use of fear and threats in the local communities.   But the report also states that most areas do not fall under the concept of a "parallel society."

Could those 55 areas have a high percentage of Muslim immigrants?  That's possible, given that crime tends to hide in poorer areas and immigrants mostly begin as poor and are therefore more likely to settle into higher crime areas.  It's probably also the case that immigrants are among those criminal networks or run at least some of them.

But are those areas run as some type of miniature caliphates?  I found no evidence of that.  Note, however,  that it's not unknown for religious minorities to try to control the area in which they live.

What's the point of what I wrote here?  That crime might be what the idea of the so-called "no-go zones" are about, and that any "parallel societies" would be more tied to crime lords than mullahs, say.   Still, it is obviously important to avoid segregation along religious lines, especially when it coincides with economic and social segregation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On Rabbits, Contraception, the Pope And Climate Change

Is this serendipity again?  I read a pretty depressing article about the likely consequences of climate change the other day.   Then I read what Pope Francis thinks of birth control.

The first article made me think about the possible solutions to what's happening to our little space ship Earth.

Many solutions to combat human-caused climate change are nearly impossible, because either people don't believe in climate change or have decided to feast until the Day of Demise or people want the countries that didn't get to feast a chance to do so, too, even if that speeds up the Day of Demise.  And then there are those who think we could work this out just fine if everyone agreed to an austere lifestyle with no computers and not much food etc.

I'm exaggerating, of course.  But there's something about human beings which make those self-assumed austerity solutions extremely unlikely.  The best solution to me seems to have a lot fewer people on earth in the long-run.  It might happen, in any case, because of the coming resource wars (which may already have begun).   But we could also carry out that solution by at least making sure that people don't have to have children they don't want to have in the first place.  Birth control, you know. 

A smaller total number of human beings would have a less damaging impact on earth and would also be able to have a higher material lifestyle, on average.  Other animals would have more space, too.

But what do I know, sigh.  The Pope obviously knows better, because he told his flock to be more open to life.  That's Pope-speak about not using contraception:

After discussing various threats to the family, including “a lack of openness to life,” he deviated briefly from his prepared remarks, transitioning from English to his native Spanish in order to speak from the heart about the subject.

“I think of Blessed Paul VI,” he said. “In a moment of that challenge of the growth of populations, he had the strength to defend openness to life.”

In 1968, Pope Paul VI released the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld Catholic teaching on sexuality and the immorality of artificial contraception, predicting the negative consequences that would result from a cultural acceptance of birth control.

“He knew the difficulties that families experience, and that’s why in his encyclical, he expressed compassion for particular cases. And he taught professors to be particularly compassionate with particular cases,” Pope Francis said.

“But he went further. He looked to the peoples beyond. He saw the lack and the problem that it could cause families in the future. Paul VI was courageous. He was a good pastor, and he warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching, and from the heavens he blesses us today.”

So it goes.  Though later Francis clarified that he didn't mean to advocate that Catholics should breed like rabbits.

Weird and fascinating stuff.  Not logical, but then very little about the recent world events looks logical to me. 

And notice all the animals in those pope-quotes?  Sheep, wolves, rabbits!  The types I worry about when it comes to climate change.  Serendipity, I say.  It would most likely be a better basis for writing than trying to make some sense of stuff.

The No-Go Muslim Zones of Europe

You may have read about these.  They are supposed to be areas where shariah law rules and where non-Muslims cannot enter safely.  The idea has been sprouted in the fevered minds of US conservatives, beginning with an "expert" Fox News had on who argued that the UK city of Birmingham is such a no-go zone.  He and the Fox News later apologized for the misinformation he spread.  Now the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, continues with  similar arguments:

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) struggled to substantiate his claims that European cities have been taken over by Muslim extremists during an interview with CNN correspondent Max Foster on Monday in London. Jindal stood by the charge even as other prominent conservatives admitted that the allegations had no factual basis.
“There are neighborhoods where women don’t feel comfortable going in without veils that is wrong, we all know there are neighborhoods where police are less likely to go into,” Jindal said, referring to so-called “no-go” zones or areas that are too dangerous for non-Muslims to enter. The claim has echoed throughout conservative media in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Foster challenged the assertion repeatedly, explaining that, “you need to have sort of proper facts to back that up.” “I’ve lived here a long time,” he said. “I don’t know of any no-go zones for non-Muslims.”

It's all fun and games.  I tried to research this and found claims on various European anti-immigration sites, but none of them provide proper links to any evidence, just to opinions or statements that someone tried to create a shariah police force in Germany or that the Swedish police uses backup before going into some Muslim-majority areas with high crime rates.  The has more.

The only reason I write about this is that I do get the sense in all the debate about Islamic terrorism etcetera of an empty cavity just below whatever the day's arguments might be.  Or an ideological cavity of some type.  That cavity is then filled up with factoids or pseudo-theories.  It happens on both sides of the debate, by the way, though this does not make it a case of "both sides do it."  Rather, it makes it a case of "nobody seems to have the evidence."

Maybe it's simply the fact that when I follow up almost any argument presented in those debates I come up dry or end up as uninformed as I was at the beginning of the debate.  Hard survey data, hard data on religious utterings etc.  is not available at all, and so much of the data I find is on sites which are clearly not aiming at a neutral search for facts. 

The Arc Of Justice. Thoughts After the MLK Day.

Martin Luther King Jr. has given us many famous quotes.  This is one of them:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

It can console and comfort people when times are bad.  But moral universe has no arc whatsoever if people don't push it forwards.  That's also a useful reminder.   I think today might be the time when racial justice will be sought and won in the US justice system, because so many people are working for it and because public opinion is getting more informed.