Victor Stenger: Christianity And Modern Science

Victor Stenger: Christianity And Modern Science 2014-04-21

Christianity, as practiced by billions of people worldwide, still rests on a foundation that was erected by desert tribesmen who lived thousands of years ago in a tiny spot on a the surface of a planet that itself is, as we now know, an infinitesimal speck in an immense universe. Many of the original concepts of these tribesmen, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments and built upon over time by tradition, deeply conflict with the discoveries of modern science. Today's Christians must resolve these differences if they are to claim, as most do, that Christianity and science are perfectly compatible.

Other religions make similar claims, but allow me to focus on Christianity where we find the greatest efforts by apologists to reconcile their faith with science.

Perhaps 20 percent of American Christians regard the Bible as literal and inerrant, and so are unwilling to accept the facts revealed by science that contradict Scripture. As far as fundamentalists are concerned, they know the truth and science is simply wrong. They think scientists are all a bunch of frauds.

However, most Christians can judge, just from looking at the world around them with all its technological marvels, that science cannot be so simply dismissed. Science is the most successful and powerful activity humans have ever undertaken. In this essay I'm going to show what a difficult task science-savvy Christians have in reconciling many of the most basic tenets of their faith with science.

Let's start with the first words of the Bible, which are usually translated as: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." At the time these words were written, the conception of the universe that was common throughout Canaan and Mesopotamia was a more-or-less flat Earth resting on water. Above are the heavens in which the sun, moon, planets, and stars circle around Earth. And, in the Hebrew version, above it all God sits on his throne looking down upon his most beloved creation -- us.

Although more sophisticated cosmologies were developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, these were rejected by the Catholic Church when it took control of the Roman Empire in the fourth century of the Common Era. This ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages that did not end until the Renaissance a thousand years later.

Europe emerged from the Dark Ages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the rise of the new science. The development of the telescope, first turned on the heavens by Galileo in 1609, provided irrefutable evidence that Earth is not at the center of the universe -- as was commonly believed until then. Instead, the telescope showed that Earth is just another planet revolving about the sun.

With this impetus, observation replaced divine revelation as the primary source of authority for our knowledge of the world. With that, Europe moved into the scientific age since that is the basic principle of science and the one most at odds with the principles of religion.

Over the next 400 years, telescopes and other instruments steadily improved and our knowledge of the cosmos expanded beyond anyone's imagination. In the twentieth century, instruments on Earth and in space discovered that our sun is just one of hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy we know as the Milky Way. And, the Milky Way itself is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible universe.

Our universe originated 13.8 billion years ago in an explosion, called the big bang. The Hubble Space Telescope has detected galaxies that were over 13 billion light-years away from Earth when the light we observe first left them.

Most educated people are aware of these facts, but perhaps not the latest discoveries, which are even more mind-boggling.

I'm sure you have all read about the recent discovery of gravity waves from the early universe generated by the big bang. This provides strong evidence that immediately after it came into existence, our universe underwent an exponential expansion of many orders of magnitude called inflation. As a result, an even vaster part of our universe, originating from the same big bang, lies beyond what is visible from Earth -- where light has not had time to reach us in 13.8 billion years. This region is at least a hundred orders of magnitude larger than the portion we can see from Earth. If Earth is a speck of dust in the visible universe, our visible universe of 100 billion galaxies is but a speck of dust in an even vaster universe.

Furthermore, inflationary cosmology, supported by the new discoveries, implies that we live in an infinite and eternal multiverse composed of an endless number of universes of which ours is just one. This means there was no beginning, no creation. If there was no creation, then there was no Creator.

While we have not yet observed other universes, they are in principle detectable by their effects on the cosmic microwave background. Don't rule that out such an observation in the not-to-distant future. There are already some hints in the data from space telescopes. By the same token, if future observations should not show the expected deviation from spherical symmetry, the multiverse hypothesis might be falsified. This alone justifies treating the multiverse as a legitimate scientific hypothesis and discussing the philosophical and theological consequences.

Now, clearly scientific cosmology bears no resemblance to the cosmology described in Genesis, where Earth, the sun, and the stars were divinely created about 6,000 years ago. In fact, Earth and the solar system were formed 4.5 billion years ago, some 9 billion years after the big bang.

If Christians are to accept science, they have to admit that the Bible is not a reliable source of information about the natural world. And why should we believe it is a reliable source of information about anything? The creation story in Genesis is a myth. And, it is not the only story in the Bible that science can now prove is largely fiction.

Archaeology has revealed that Exodus and the conquests of Joshua are almost certainly fictional, and no evidence has been found for a great Jewish empire ruled by David and Solomon. At best they were minor tribal chieftains. How do Christians (and Jews) deal with these established scientific facts? No covenant with God? No Ten Commandments? No Promised Land?

Actually, intellectual Christians today are gradually disassociating themselves from the God of the Old Testament, who is certainly an unpleasant character. Thank goodness he is fictional. But it is not so easy to disregard the New Testament, which essentially defines Christianity.

A basic tenet of Christian belief holds that God is the creator of all there is, that the universe had a beginning a finite time ago and will end at some finite time in the future with the Second Coming, which has already been put off for 2,000 years. Jesus said it would happen in a generation.

But let's start with creation. The first major conflict with physical science that the science-savvy Christian must reconcile is the possibility, as I have said is strongly implied by inflationary cosmology, that the universe was not created but is part of a far greater reality that had no beginning and will have no end. How can there be a Creator if there was no creation?

Similarly, Christianity can hardly abandon its notion of a supreme being who has a special interest in humans, listening to their every thought, answering their prayers, and providing those he specially selects with eternal life. Without these minimal attributes, a belief system can no longer be called Christianity.

Throughout the Old Testament, God intervenes with his chosen people, the Jews, providing them with laws to follow and punishing them severely when they disobey those laws or show him disrespect by worshipping other gods, which they often did. In the New Testament, God goes even further in his direct involvement with humans by coming down to Earth himself in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, who dies to atone for humanity's sins. In just the last few months, we've learned from the Kepler space telescope, launched by NASA in 2009, that there are far more planets in the universe than astronomers ever imagined. It was previously thought that only stars like our sun could have planets, and they are relatively rare. We can now say that planets are common in most stellar systems including those with stars very different from the sun that are also more numerous.

We already know from our failure to find life outside Earth in our own solar system that life is not very common. But it is hard to imagine that the universe is not in fact teeming with life, perhaps very different from ours, but still life. And even if intelligent life is highly improbable, there are still likely to be trillions of planets with sentient life forms. According to Christians, all of this is presided over by their personal God. It's unthinkable that God only rules over Earth.

We have no scientific reason to think that life is so improbable that it only happened once, on one planet out of quadrillions in 13.8 billion years. Yet Christians believe that only they have a special relationship with God. In this view, of all the other sentient beings in God's creation, only humans required redemption. But, how does that reconcile with the Christian teaching that humans were made in the image of God? Shouldn't we be the least sinful creatures -- not the most? Shouldn't we be the least in need of redemption? Not the only ones. And, if we are God's favorites, why did he create this vast universe, wait nine billion years before making us, and then confine us to this tiny speck of dust rather than making it possible for us to live anywhere, even in space?

Moving from cosmology, we can't point to a single observed fact about the world around us that is indisputably the result of an action by a force outside of nature. That doesn't mean we have a natural explanation for everything. We never will. But no one has ever proved that a natural explanation for some particular phenomenon -- any phenomenon -- is impossible.

Christian theologians who agree that science has found no evidence for God have made heroic efforts to develop a plausible mechanism by which God can act in the physical world without that act being detected. I wrote about these in my 2009 book Quantum Gods. But I can't imagine why God would want to hide from us.

So far, the attempts to explain the hiddenness of God have not succeeded. The best apologists can do is come up with a modern deist god, who creates the world and then goes away, leaving it to carry on by its own means. But that's not the Christian God.

Let's move to biological evolution. I just have a short addition to the arguments between creationists and evolutionists that are, no doubt, already very familiar to readers.

While Catholics and moderate Christians claim to accept evolution, surveys indicate that most are not thinking of the theory of evolution, as it is understood by science. They say they believe in God-guided evolution, which is just another form of intelligent design. These Christians need to recognize that Darwinian evolution by natural selection has no design, intelligent or stupid. It has no need for guidance. Evolution is the result of random mutations and the unavoidable fact that only those organisms with the ability to survive, do survive. Natural selection is not a law of nature. It's a tautology.

Theologians correctly point out that we do not yet have an accepted theory for a natural origin of life. Evolution does not currently deal with that issue. It assumes that some form of primitive life already existed when the process of natural selection got underway. However, we have no reason to think that a natural origin of life is impossible. Life is basically a property that material systems develop when they reach a sufficiently high level of complexity.

It is commonly believed that complexity can only arise from an even higher level of complexity. This is dead wrong. There are many examples in nature showing how complex systems often spontaneously emerge from simpler ones. The best example is the way water passes naturally from a simple gas to a more complex liquid, and then to a very complex solid we call ice. Consider the complex beauty of a snowflake compared to the structureless water vapor from which it formed. It takes energy to reverse the process, to melt ice or vaporize a snowflake. In other words, an external action is needed to make complex things simple. No external action is needed to make simple things complex.

Next let's look at the world of human behavior, which is still in the purview of science since it involves observations. Christians certainly do a lot of highly visible public praying (despite Jesus discouraging the practice in Matt 6:5, calling it hypocritical). While not all prayers involve entreaties to God to take some action on behalf of the supplicant, many if not most have that purpose. In the two millennia since the birth of Christianity countless prayers have been offered. You would think that by now, God would have answered some for which the result could be independently verified.

In recent years, competent groups of scientists from reputable institutions such as Duke, Harvard, and the Mayo Clinic have tested for the efficacy of intercessory prayer on medical outcomes. They found none. Christians need to ask themselves why prayer is so ineffective.

You often hear it said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Prayer is an example of how the absence of evidence that should be there but is not constitutes evidence of absence. The absence of evidence that prayer works can be considered evidence for the absence of a God who answers prayers.

Another basic tenet of Christian belief is the promise of eternal life. People have written best-selling books describing alleged visits to heaven while on the operating table, where they were close to death before being resuscitated. This is the so-called near-death experience. Some describe floating above the table and observing everything below. But controlled studies have failed to confirm any of their claims. Furthermore, there is no evidence that they were "brain dead" during what have all the earmarks of purely natural hallucinations.

A simple test can be made for any claimed religious experience. From the time of Paul's possible epileptic attack on the road to Damascus to now, no one returning from such a mystical event has been able to demonstrate its veracity by providing some revelation that could be verified. For example, a subject might meet Jimmy Hoffa in the next world and he tells her were where he's buried. If the authorities then go to the spot and dig up his bones, then we would have reason to take the existence of another world seriously. But nothing like this has ever happened.

The possession by humans of an immortal soul is fundamental to Christian belief. Christian tradition has long associated the mind with the soul. Otherwise, how can our thoughts and memories survive death? For almost two centuries, scientists, who were mostly Christians, have sought to find evidence for the soul. They have studied so-called psychic phenomena, such as ESP and mind-over-matter, which would indicate that the mind has supernatural powers. Although many positive claims have been reported, in all that time, no evidence for psychic powers has been found that stands up under scientific scrutiny.

The association of mind with the soul is further undermined by the fact that our thoughts and memories are affected by disease, drugs, and brain trauma. If consciousness is unphysical, why do we lose it under anesthesia or a blow to the head? If all our memories are stored in our physical brains, how can they survive when the brain crumbles into dust?

One of the most misused words in the English language is "spiritual." People use it to describe their more profound thoughts such as love or joy. Today many individuals who have become disenchanted with organized religion and all its negative effects on society describe themselves as "not religious but spiritual."

Even if not part of any religious tradition, the implication remains that another realm exists outside the realm of matter -- a realm of the spirit. However, we now know a lot about the brain from neuroscience. Brain imaging techniques, especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have located regions of the brain where certain thoughts, including emotions and even religious experiences, take place. There is absolutely no sign of any immaterial element in the process, no evidence for stuff called spirit.

One day, in the not-too-distant future, we will have neural network machines that think just as well as humans--if not better--and experience emotions. It's now past 2001, but Hal may be just around the corner.

Of course, we still have a lot more to learn about the brain. Scientists and philosophers have not yet reached a consensus on the nature of consciousness. But they have no reason to think that anything supernatural is involved.

I've covered a lot so let me summarize the points I have tried to make:

Archaeology has conclusively demonstrated that key events in the Old Testament, such as Exodus and the conquests of Joshua, never happened. There was no covenant with God. No Ten Commandments. No Promised Land. The universe is much vaster than most people realize and extends far beyond a horizon where light has not had time to reach us. Not only is Earth a tiny speck, our visible universe of 100 billion galaxies is also just a speck in the total cosmos generated by the big bang. Christians must reconcile this fact with their belief that humans are the special creation of God. Inflationary cosmology has just received a major boost with the discovery of primordial gravity waves. This makes it quite possible that the cosmos is infinite and eternal, a multiverse of many universes, in which case there was no creation since there was no beginning. If there was no creation, there was no Creator. The multiverse is a testable hypothesis. We have recently learned that the visible universe has quadrillions of planets in the habitable zones of stars. Our universe is very likely to be teeming with sentient life, though because of the immense distances we are unlikely to ever be in contact. Are we the only ones in the need of redemption? Most Christians who say they believe on evolution really do not. They believe in God-guided evolution, which is not Darwinian evolution. Complex systems in nature do not require something more complex to produce them. Many occur spontaneously from simpler systems. There is no evidence that prayers are answered. All our thoughts and memories reside in the physical brain. It is very unlikely that they will survive death. They will die when our brains die. Mystical experiences provide no evidence that they are not all in the head. In short, there are many conflicts between science and basic Christian beliefs that are irreconcilable. Science is not likely to change to accommodate Christianity. If Christianity changes to accommodate science, it will be difficult to still call it Christianity.

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This essay is based on a talk given to the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, April 16, 2014.

Peter Dreier: My Vinyl Offer

Peter Dreier: My Vinyl Offer 2014-04-21

We raised our twin daughters on Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Tom Paxton, and assorted other folk singers who recorded children's albums. They enjoyed them as toddlers and adolescents, but by 12 they had left them behind in favor of Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. Now they are 17. As the father of teenage girls, I have spent many hours driving them places while they listen to their favorite songs and singers on the car radio. Most of this music (like Bruno Mars, Imagine Dragons, Jay-Z, Adele, and Pink) strikes me as simplistic or silly -- no doubt just like my parents felt about my favorite songs and singers in the 1960s. Even so, I have discovered that I actually like a few of my daughters' favorite singers, like Mumford & Sons, Ed Sheeran, Civil Wars, and the remarkable (though still little-known) Hudson Taylor. But when I try to sing along, or just move around to the beat, the girls give me that look that means: "Daddy, don't try to be cool. You're too old." So I figured that I'd never bond with my daughters over music.

2014-04-21-AmeliawithSimonGarfunkelalbumApril202014.jpg Amelia with her favorite album and her new record player (photo by Terry Meng)

But something happened a few months ago that may have turned the tables -- literally. I was cleaning out the shelves in our living room cabinet. That is where my wife and I store our record collection, comprised mostly of 33 rpm vinyl albums from the 60s and 70s. We brought them with us when we moved to Los Angeles over 20 years ago. We hadn't listened to even one of them in all that time, but it was hard to part with them, since, like old letters and high school sports trophies, they connect us to our past. When we drove from Boston to LA, we depended on tape cassettes, which had replaced vinyl albums, to keep us entertained. Within a few years, though, we'd moved on to the CD stage of history. And just recently, we've become familiar with the strange new world of I-tunes, which allow music-lovers to create their own highly individualized albums instead of buying the pre-packaged versions. I rarely thought about our collection of more than 200 LPs, but when I did, I assumed that they had become warped and unplayable, and would eventually be thrown in the trash to be recycled into some polluting plastic product. But a few months ago, our daughter Amelia started to look at our LPs and then started asking questions about them, including "will these still work?" I told her that the vinyl records had probably warped. And even if they were in mint condition, I pointed out, we didn't own a "record player" -- a phrase I hadn't used in years and which, to Amelia, probably sounded like "typewriter." But she was curious enough to pick out some albums that caught her fancy and bring them to the house of a friend whose parents did own one of those old-fashioned music-playing machines. She was hooked, and asked us if we could get her a record player. We did, and for the past few months she's been spending lots of time in her room -- by herself and with her friends -- listening to Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, and even Procol Harum, whose "Whiter Shade of Pale" album cover is one of the most psychedelic ever produced. (I remember the covers of most of my albums as well as I remember the music). At some point I may ask her to listen to some of my more obscure (but much-loved) albums -- like the McGarrigle Sisters, Nina Simone, Fairport Convention, Laura Nyro, Tim Hardin, Odetta, the Roches, and Richie Havens. But right now I'm enjoying listening to my old favorites and enjoying even more watching Amelia enjoy them. It is strange to realize that most of these albums are 45 or 50 years old, purchased when I was in high school and college. To Amelia, these are ancient artifacts of an earlier civilization. But they constitute great music and I'm happy to see her appreciating them and asking questions about the artists and their songs, including my own memories. So I've told her about seeing a young Bob Dylan at a Greenwich Village coffee house before he'd released his first album, going to a Peter, Paul and Mary concert in Asbury Park when I was in high school, attending a Simon & Garfunkel concert even before the soundtrack to "The Graduate" made them super-famous, and spending nights in my college dorm room with friends trying to figure out what "I Am A Rock" meant. She's already heard my stories about every Pete Seeger concert I ever went to, including the Newport Folk Festival. In today's high-tech world, it is comforting to hear Amelia say that she likes hearing the scratchy quality of the songs on vinyl records, which she considers a marker of authenticity. And Amelia isn't the only teenager who has rediscovered vinyl LPs. She's part of a trend. Just like video stores, record stores have fallen on hard times. Big chains like Tower and Virgin have gone out of business. But some independent stores have recently gotten a big boost selling both used LPs and re-issued albums. (To appear trendy, even stores like Urban Outfitters sell vinyl records). Rusty Gordon, co-owner of Canterbury Records in Pasadena (which was started by his father in 1956 and is now one of Amelia's favorite hang-outs) told me that there's always been a demand for vinyl LPs among jazz and rock aficionados, but he noticed a big jump in vinyl sales about five years ago and an "extra surge" in the past six months. Five years ago, vinyl records accounted for about 5 percent of his store's sales. Today, new and used vinyl LPs constitute more than 15 percent of Canterbury's sales and the momentum is "still building," Gordon says. The 6 million vinyl albums sold in the United States last year account for only about 1.4 percent of all album sales, but the number is growing steadily. According to Nielson SoundScan, vinyl album sales increased by 44 percent in 2010, 39 percent in 2011, 19 percent in 2012 and another 32 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, CD sales declined 14.5 percent last year. Teenagers, Gordon said, make up a big portion of the new consumer market for vinyl records. They mostly buy re-issued classic rock and folk-rock albums (the Beatles, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel) and newly-minted albums by indy rock favorites like The Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys, and Mumford & Sons. One of the most popular vinyl re-issues among teenager consumers is the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album. (Amelia, however, has the original album, thanks to her dad). What explains vinyl's new-found popularity among today's teenagers? "They think it sounds better," Gordon told me. "Plus, it's about as far as you can get from MP3s. They like the artwork on the covers, too." Amelia's bonding with my old vinyl albums may be a passing fancy or the beginning of a life-long love affair with this music. And, of course, she hasn't abandoned her contemporary favorites, whom she still listens to on the radio and I-tunes, and whose concerts and other gigs she still attends with her teenage friends. But I do get a special chill up my spine when I hear "The Sound of Silence" and "Blowin' in the Wind" coming from her room. Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).

Robert Kuttner: Can Democrats Go Long?

Robert Kuttner: Can Democrats Go Long? 2014-04-21

For more than 30 years, the right has been throwing long passes. The Democrats, with some fine individual exceptions in the Senate and House, have been playing an incremental game, eking out gains of a few yards at a time and often being thrown for big losses.

Guess which side has been winning.

Four decades ago, supply side economics was a joke. The idea that cutting taxes on the very rich was the key to prosperity had been laughed out of the debate as "trickle down economics." Now low taxes on the rich -- even the dead rich -- are national policy.

Forty years ago, Richard Nixon was fighting mostly on territory defined by Democrats. He had a universal health proposal somewhat to the left of the Affordable Care Act. Nixon was even for a guaranteed annual income, and that was before Watergate.

In the 1970s, both parties were environmentalist. Epic laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were approved with large, bipartisan majorities. Now, regulation is a dirty word.

Meanwhile, Democrats have made nice incremental progress on laws like the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage subsidy to industry that allows corporations to pay their workers less and have government make up the difference) while the distribution of wage and salary income becomes steadily more unequal.

The Office of Management and Budget, under a Democratic president, waters down environmental regulations even before the Republican House of Representatives adds further obstacles.

The Democrats have made incremental gains at insuring more people, as the entire health system is so dominated by commercial players that it is becoming generally unaffordable, and more and more people are under-insured.

We've reformed a corrupted financial system with millions of pages of Dodd-Frank regulations to the point where the very complexity invites more corruption. Meanwhile, high-frequency traders and hedge fund operators are taking more and more of the total investment gains at the expense of regular people.

So why not take a leaf from the right's playbook. Why not say what we're really for, and have a long-term plan to lead public opinion there?

How about giving the financial system the drastic simplification that it deserves. No high frequency trading (which adds nothing except profits to insiders). No hedge funds exempt from the usual disclosure rules. No mega-banks that add only risk to the rest of the system?

How about national health insurance, pure and simple?

How about a minimum wage that's a true living wage?

How about a massive public investment program in deferred infrastructure and a green transition, to provide good domestic jobs along the way?

How about a "universal, portable pension" -- not the small-bore savings incentives offered by centrist policy wonks but an easy-to-grasp general expansion of Social Security.

How about planting a flag?

I know, I know, Congress won't vote for this stuff. But Congress isn't voting for the small-bore stuff either.

At first, Congress did not vote for the policies the right was offering, but the right kept pounding away. They eventually managed to get policies enacted and ideologies entrenched that harm most people.

Progressives, by contrast, begin with one big advantage. Public opinion is mostly on our side.

The voters actually support Medicare for All, and expanded Social Security, and higher minimum wages, controls on Wall Street, higher taxes on millionaires, and increased investment in infrastructure. It's only elites who oppose them. How about leadership that validates what voters want?

It's a thankless task for Democrats to run and govern as centrists. The policies do not solve large national problems. Voters see only more bureaucracy, and voters give up on politics.

Who, after all, promotes "third way" policies? Financial elites wearing their Democrat hat, that's who. It's a great strategy for neutering the people's party and scaring away voters.

Look at progressive causes that actually won big -- LGBT rights, disability rights, equal treatment in the workplace for women. They did not begin by asking for meager incremental gains. They began by making demands far outside the mainstream, and changing the mainstream.

So let's say what we're really for, and bring public opinion to it. It may take a decade or two. It may require a genuine progressive to get nominated for president, backed by a mass movement.

But if Democrats stick to the course they are on, they are likely to lose both the politics and the policies. It would be liberating, and energizing, to plant that flag.

Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.

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Joe Peyronnin: Writing Off Putin

Joe Peyronnin: Writing Off Putin 2014-04-20

The White House may be signaling a new approach to its standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The headline in Sunday's New York Times reads, "In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin." While such a strategy may not address short-term issues, it may be the best approach in the long-term. President Putin's ultimate ambitions are not known, though it is clear he is using the seizure of Crimea and threats against Ukraine in part to strengthen his position at home. Russia's economy is struggling, and government is riddled with corruption and cronyism. Human rights abuses abound in Russia, as does suppression of free speech. Russia has slowly been slipping in relevance on the world stage.

President Obama has had great difficulty getting European support for crippling sanctions against Russia. The problem is that many European countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil resources. And many global banks and businesses do not favor harsh tactics.

The challenge to reining in Putin is complicated further by Russia's role in difficult negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. American troops and equipment are also passing through Russia to Afghanistan.

President Obama and President Putin have spoken by phone several times since the crisis in Ukraine began earlier this year. The American and Russian accounts of those conversations vary widely, but they agree that no real progress was achieved.

Last Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine and European diplomats. The agreement calls for pro-Russian gangs to give up the government buildings they seized and lists other steps to de-escalate the crisis. President Obama greeted the agreement with skepticism last Thursday, and pro-Russian groups continue to occupy the buildings. Meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 Russian troops remain in place just across Ukraine's eastern border.

President Obama and European allies have identified additional sanctions that can be imposed on Russia. And there are reports that the Pentagon is planning on expanding NATO's presence in Eastern Europe by deploying troops and fighter jets into Poland. Nonetheless, President Obama has ruled out going to war over Ukraine.

While the administration debates its long-term plans with Russia, The New York Times reports that there is a debate within the administration over how far to go in the short-term. Conservatives have been critical of the president's tactics for not being strong enough. But the president is focused on isolating Putin with sanctions and other forms of pressure. According to the Times, he has concluded, even if there is a resolution to the current Ukrainian crisis, "he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin," according to aides.

Given Russia's weak economy, President Putin cannot easily take on the additional costs of annexing Eastern Ukraine. Military intervention would be difficult and costly for Russia. Further, Putin has already cast himself, by his actions to date, as an unreliable partner to much of Europe.

Putin is a bully who cannot be ignored. But President Obama and Western allies are on the correct course by continuing to tighten sanctions and by applying other meaningful steps to isolate Putin. In time, even Putin's own people will likely tire of his act.

Julie Bergman Sender: Middle-aged And Invisible At Coachella

Julie Bergman Sender: Middle-aged And Invisible At Coachella 2014-04-20

Remember when you were a teenager -- or even in your early 20s -- and you walked into a party or a concert feeling a little uncomfortable and kind of unsettled until you finally see a familiar face?

Well, it wasn't anything like that last Saturday as I made my way through the throngs at Coachella -- where my 16-year-old was completely age-appropriate and I was, well... definitely not. There was no moment when I sighed with relief at finding that familiar face. I walked into Coachella feeling like just a woman at a concert and very quickly awoke to the harsh reality that I had walked into a strange anthropological experiment. I didn't just feel invisible -- I was invisible.

As a 50-year-old -- okay 53 -- the sea of faces is the first thing telling you that you are deeply out of your element. As I was packing to go, I fooled myself into thinking that I was checking the weather to see just how hot it was going to be and what I needed to bring to brave the 100- degree desert sun. But that was a lie. I was actually perusing the Google images of Coachella fashion. I thought I'd see what it took to look Coachella-ish or Coachella -esque. It took me about two seconds to get that this was not going to happen. Without going into too much detail, the cut-off shorts and keyhole mini dress were both out of the question.

So now I'm there, in my white jeans (slightly distressed at the knees) and black tank top (the safe 50-plus mommy uniform) doing my self-appointed duty of making sure that I hadn't thrown 16 years of pretty respectable parenting out the window in one indulgent move by letting my daughter run around at a rave.

I was a mom on a mission, which somehow made this experiment a little more bearable. I accept that Coachella has become one of those rites of passage for millennials and far be it from me to deny my child that... but along the way I had my own rite of passage: the one where you realize that you are invisible when walking through a vast crowd of strangers under 25 in their own world with their music, their friends, their selfies and their Instagram.

I felt a little crappy for a second -- that pang of coming to terms with something for the first time. In that moment the reality of my age rather than the illusion of it came into focus. Then and there, in the middle of the Empire Polo Field I accepted that indeed there are some things that I am now just too old for. Even if I didn't feel my age, whatever that means, -- which I don't -- it didn't mean that I am not my age and that a rave in the 100-plus degree desert with 40 mile an hour winds whipping the sand around was kind of a stupid place for me to be.

So I left and went back to the hotel. I was satisfied that by and large my 16-year-old would be safe and would likely come back covered in sand and thirsty but in one piece. As an aside I did consider how strange it was that Palm desert -- which is the west coasts' answer to retiring to Florida -- for six days a year becomes the coolest place to be for anyone under 25.

I wonder if that is the irony of the whole thing: The young come in and take over for a brief moment, while we as their parents are glimpsing the last gasps of knowing what our kids are doing as we look ahead to the hill we are about to be over.

So they have their rite of passage and we have ours.

But there is still overlap -- musical, emotional and historical. Unlike our parents, who mostly viewed their children's choice of music as noise, our ears are more attuned to handle and even enjoy some of what our kids are listening to. For instance, I listen to Vampire Weekend, 1975, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Lorde, Ed Sheeran, Kid Cudi among others with my daughter a lot. And in the spirit of everything old is new again, scores of artists are sampling "old" songs all the time. So we can still feel secure in the fact that we are not invisible to our children's generation within the confines of our cars and living rooms as long as we remember that we are everywhere else...

Diane Ravitch: Why Doesn't The New York Times Understand The Controversy Over

Diane Ravitch: Why Doesn't The New York Times Understand The Controversy Over Common Core? 2014-04-20

In story after story, the New York Times consistently misses the essence of the controversy surrounding Common Core.

Sunday's New York Times gives its lead article on page 1, column right, top of the fold, to the battle raging within the Republican Party, about the Common Core. On one side is Jeb Bush, standing up for the Common Core standards (presumably a moderate, let's not talk about his fight for vouchers and for the destruction of public education in Florida), while on the other are figures like Ted Cruz and other extremists of the party. Common Core, we are told, is now the "wedge issue" in the Republican party, with sensible people like Jeb Bush fending off the extremists.

A few weeks ago, the newspaper wrote an editorial enthusiastically endorsing the Common Core standards, while giving no evidence for its enthusiasm other than the promises offered by the advocates of Common Core.

Story after story has repeated the narrative invented by Arne Duncan, that the only opponents of the Common Core are members of the Tea Party and other extremists.

Occasionally a story will refer to extremists of the right and the left, as though no reasonable person could possibly doubt the claims made on behalf of the Common Core.

Of course, David Brooks' column on Friday echoed the now familiar trope of the Times, that only extremists could oppose this worthy and entirely laudable endeavor.

Missing is any acknowledgement of the many researchers who have challenged the wacky assumption that standards alone will cause everyone's achievement to rise higher and higher, despite no evidence for this assertion.

Missing is any recognition that there are reputable educators and scholars and parents who are disturbed either by the substance of the standards or by the development process (Anthony Cody, for example, just won the Education Writers Association's first prize award for his series of blogs challenging the claims of the Common Core).

Missing is the pushback from teachers that caused the leaders of the NEA and the AFT to call for a slowdown in implementation of the standards (the media sees this only as teachers' fear of being evaluated by tests).

Missing is the concern of early childhood educators about the developmental inappropriateness of the standards for the early grades, which reflects the fact that no early childhood educator participated in drafting the standards. Also missing from the writing group was any educator knowledgeable about children with disabilities or English language learners.

Missing is any acknowledgement that not a single classroom teacher was included in the small group that wrote the standards, and that the largest contingent on the "working groups" was from the testing industry.

Missing is any suggestion that the writing of the standards was not "state-led," but was the product of a small group of insider organizations inside the Beltway, heavily funded by one organization, the Gates Foundation.

Missing is any recognition that there is no appeals process, no means to revise standards that make no sense when applied in real classrooms with real students.

Missing is any awareness that the Obama administration made eligibility for $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funding contingent on state adoption of "college and career ready" standards, which turned out to be the Common Core standards. How else to explain their rapid adoption by 45 states?

Missing is any acknowledgement that there is very little connection between the quality of any state's standards and its performances on the NAEP, or that some states with standards higher than the Common Core dropped their proven standards so as to be eligible for the new federal funding.

Missing is any recognition that the Common Core standards are an essential ingredient in a Big Data plan that involves a multi-billion dollar investment in new hardware, new software, and new bandwidth for Common Core testing, all of which will be done (for no good reason) online.

Missing is the issue of value-added measurement of teachers and school-closings based on test scores, or the fact that major scholarly organizations (the American Educational Research Association, the National Academy of Education, and the American Statistical Association) have pointed out the inaccuracy and instability of VAM. Nor has it ever been reported by the Times that these same organizations have said that teachers' influence on variation in test scores ranges from 1-15 percent, with the influence of the family, especially family income and education, looming far larger.

Question: How can the nation's "newspaper of record" be so seriously indifferent to or ignorant of the major education issue of our day?

The Daily Meal: Surprising Ways People Make Mac And Cheese Around The World

The Daily Meal: Surprising Ways People Make Mac And Cheese Around The World 2014-04-20

The classic macaroni and cheese that Americans know and love is made simply with a sharp cheese, usually cheddar, grated and melted over elbow pasta and milk, for a cheesy and creamy texture that is just right.

Click Here to see the Slideshow for 14 Ways People Make Mac and Cheese Around the World

Of course, not all macaroni and cheese is made alike. Depending on flavor preferences and who's making it, there are tons of variations on this classic mac and cheese dish that are enjoyed all over the world. Some recipes go as far back as 1769, around the time when the earliest known recipe for mac and cheese was tested and jotted down in a pasta-lover's cookbook.

Historians believe macaroni and cheese originated in Northern Europe, later making its way to the rest of the world. It was introduced to America in the 1800s by Thomas Jefferson, who, while visiting France, fell in love with the dish and brought home recipes and a pasta machine. He even served mac and cheese at an 1802 state dinner.

Just as we love it in America, so do people around the world. But macaroni and cheese isn't made the same in every country. Traditional Egyptian mac and cheese, known as "macaroni béchamel," calls for ground meat baked between two layers of macaroni and covered in béchamel sauce (a mixture of butter, flour, and milk) and cheese. Käsespätzle, the German version of mac and cheese is traditionally made simply with cheese and caramelized onions.

What Indian people call "desi mac" is made with tomatoes, haldi (turmeric), garlic, dhania (cilantro leaves), and cheese. In Spain, though, cheese isn't the main ingredient in mac and cheese. The Spanish version is typically made with pork sausage, tomato sauce, and onion and then topped with grated cheese.

No matter the region or the recipe, all mac and cheese is always made with two ingredients: plenty of cheese and pasta. Read on to see how people make macaroni and cheese around the world.

-- Haley Willard, The Daily Meal

More Content from The Daily Meal:

9 Irresistible Mac and Cheese Recipes How to Make the Perfect Mac and Cheese 101 Best Cupcakes in America America's 50 Best Coffee Shops

Jane Clementi: Loving All God's Children Equally

Jane Clementi: Loving All God's Children Equally 2014-04-20

Today's church, the Body of Christ, is at a crossroads. Some denominations are trying to wear an accommodating mask under the guise of phrases like "hate the sin but love the sinner," but upon closer examination, we see that these words have a less-than-Christlike tone. How can love be a sin? The "sin" here is love, a love that people have no choice about. My hope and prayer is for the church to fully embrace all LGBTQI people. This will have a dramatic impact for many, but most especially for our youth, who do not need to be shamed, "healed" or merely tolerated but fully embraced and loved just as they are, beautifully created in God's image.

How should the church show Christ's love to all? What does that love look like for my gay brothers and sisters in Christ? How do we create a safe and inclusive faith community where all God's children can come together to worship? Today's church needs to address these questions.

I think all Christians can come together on the truth that God is love and God's whole Word speaks to His love for us and the love we should have for our neighbors. I know much about the outpouring of love: I was surrounded by a large outpouring of love from many after the death of my son, Tyler Clementi, most especially from the faith community that Tyler had called home for over 12 years. They showered our family with great love and support after Tyler's death, and I am so very grateful for that.

After Tyler's death, in the silence of my shattered world, as I looked deeply into God's Word and listened, God continually and clearly spoke of His unconditional love for all and how we should exhibit God's love to others with kindness and compassion, always seeking unity, giving life, being respectful and welcoming with hospitality and inclusion, always allowing everyone to be at peace with who they are and how God has created them, perfectly and wonderfully made in God's image. Why have we lost this message? The church must start to embrace these truths and stop preaching hate.

Sadly, as I look back -- almost as if through Tyler's eyes -- I see things so very differently now. Looking through the eyes of a far-less-mature believer, a child with many uncertainties, and a vulnerable youth with much less confidence in how his sexual orientation fit into God's plan or God's kingdom, I now see the harm and pain that is caused by the misinterpretation of scripture that homosexuality is a sin.

Regrettably, Tyler received a clear message from our faith community, whether it was in youth group, Sunday school, the infrequent short sentences that were spoken on rare occasions in the sermon, or maybe even the silence -- the shameful, silent disapproval and judgment of how God created him to be different. But Tyler got the message loud and clear, and clearly that is not a message of love for a young person sitting in the pews next to you.

I know Tyler received this message because when Tyler came out to me, he told me he could not be gay and a Christian. Sadly, I too had received this message -- almost without even hearing those few sentences occasionally preached. I too struggled.

I knew without question that Tyler was a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. God had showed me that long ago, so I was stunned, my heart broken, when he said, "That works for you, Mom, but not for me." Sadly, the only words I had to share with Tyler that night were, "I love you, and so does God." I said those words out of love, but it has been pointed out to me that Tyler probably perceived those words as rejecting, since Tyler was not seeing God as accepting of his sexual orientation.

Faith communities must stop being the bully, exerting their power and influence over their members with such harmful doctrines. The church must stop teaching that homosexuality is a sin. Causing people to feel broken and separated from God because of how God has created them has devastating effects on our youth, as well as on their parents, siblings, grandparents and friends. Faith communities must stop interfering with legislation that would allow all people to share in equal rights, benefits and protections. By not recognizing the love of our gay brothers and sisters in Christ, we tell them that their love is not valid or valued. This causes our gay youth to also think that their love and possibly even they themselves are "less than" and not equal to their straight peers. This is wrong. This message of disapproval is so very harmful. Please do not let another child hear this untruth!

The answer is simple: We must reexamine those six scriptural passages with open hearts and minds and understand that what Paul was saying to first-century Christians does not translate to what we understand today in 2014 about loving, committed same-sex relationships. We must stop judging; we must stop imposing shame. The church, the Body of Christ, needs to acknowledge that homosexuality is not a sin. The church should apologize, put up a rainbow flag on their church sign and welcome all to God's family. That is how to love our gay Christian brothers and sisters: Love them like God does.

Stacey Morris: This Is The Fat Girl's Dilemma

Stacey Morris: This Is The Fat Girl's Dilemma 2014-04-20

I get mail all the time from people wanting to know how I dropped nearly 200 pounds and kept it off. Understandably, they want answers so they can apply the same techniques to their own lives. Most expect a prescription that involves me telling them what to eat. They want details on calorie ranges, protein-carb ratios, daily fat gram allotments, etc.

Instead, and in the interest of being true to my story and how I did it, I begin by telling them what NOT to eat. And it has nothing to do with food. My healing began in earnest when I decided one day, circa the year I turned 40, that I would no longer be the willing recipient of crap. That's right: No more eating it. As a fat kid turned obese adult with a crippling desire to be accepted, I'd been on a steady diet of it for decades, and I'd had enough.

You see, it was the ingestion of cutting remarks, judgmental glances, and outright insults that were really responsible for the weight. The potato chip binges were just a means to quelling my rage and salving my hurt feelings. What was really responsible for the pounds piling on was me accepting mistreatment from others and pretending to be OK with it.

Sure, it hurt when a stranger was mean to me simply because they didn't approve of the way I looked. But what injured me to the core is when the vitriol came from members of my inner circle, or as some of them liked to call themselves... "my friends."

I qualify with quotations because I finally broke through the wall of denial and woke up to the fact that anyone who claimed to love me and care for me would not deliberately insult or hurt me. I can hear some of you gearing up your battle cry for the "What about the health issues?" argument, but let's get real. If health were a valid concern, you'd also be badgering your friends who smoke, drink immoderately, go on spending binges, and I never saw that happen. I only heard these sanctimonious types recite grave would-be statistics, like me being at risk for high-blood pressure, diabetes, and an early grave if I didn't do something about my weight NOW... and by the way, how's your latest diet going?

I'm not denying health risks can be a factor, but I also had to go with my gut every time a lecture or chilly remark came my way, because they were delivered with an unmistakable cloud of antipathy, and not empathy. It became my normal, and because it started so early I didn't question it when it happened.

School years were the genesis, with mean girls who lacked emotional maturity laughing and shouting names at me. Sometimes, when my close friends were in a random mood to lash out, who was the easiest target? If you guessed the fat girl, you'd be absolutely correct.

Anyone else out there familiar with The Fat Girl Drill? You're part of a demographic that's universally looked down on, so run for cover. Compounding the emotional Molotov cocktail is the perception that the fat girl deserves the crap storm because it's her fault she's fat in the first place. Just stop overeating and go on a diet... any idiot can figure that one out. Actually that's largely untrue. If a diet were what I needed, the first one would have worked and I wouldn't be writing this blog.

The true healing of an emotional eater takes years. No one wants to hear that, but it's the truth. And when I realized I could diet no more forever, I started to heal the things that really mattered. Like friendships. Since you don't have to be Freud to figure out that the quality of your relationships sing volumes about who you are and how you view yourself, I got to work.

Out went the phony friends whose primary reason for being in my proximity was to look down on me. Yes Virginia, there are quite a few emotionally-stunted people out there who enjoy the company of those in compromised situations in order to feel unblemished and superior. I fired those friends, one by one. Some evacuated of their own accord when it became clear I'd no longer be dining on their well-meaning crap casseroles they delivered in such a pseudo-caring manner to my door. Others straightened up and decided to fly right, and they were allowed to stay. And the newfound confidence meant an influx of wonderful new friends, who didn't care if I was 330 pounds or 130 pounds.

As I was digging through old photos the other day I came across one of me and my friend Stan. He loved and accepted me exactly where I was. He saw and embraced all of my qualities: a great listener with a fabulous sense of humor; also a passionate writer, who is sensitive, impatient, intelligent, and fat. And that's a problem because...? If you cross someone off your list of potential friends because of their weight, please get into therapy, or return to it. You've got some work to do.

With Stan, I never felt apologetic or shameful of who I was. And I NEEDED this. My soul needed it, and so did the broken and betrayed heart of the little girl who just wanted to feel accepted. I needed a friend like Stan far more than I needed to count calories and fat grams. It was a phase that was absolutely crucial to my healing and emotional evolution. And of course, it had to precede any physical healing.

Take a look at the photo of the two of us and how he's looking at me. At that moment in time, what would you say I needed more: a boot camp DVD complete with seven-day food plan, or the simple resonant feeling of being loved?

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Geoffrey R. Stone: Politics, The Constitution And The Roberts Court

Geoffrey R. Stone: Politics, The Constitution And The Roberts Court 2014-04-20

When I was a law student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, I had the great privilege as having Philip Kurland as one of my constitutional law professors. Kurland was one of the most distinguished constitutional scholars of his generation. He was also, by the standards of the day, quite conservative, and often a sharp critic of the Warren Court.

In 1970, Kurland published a much-heralded book, Politics, the Constitution and the Warren Court, in which he laid out his critique of the Supreme Court's work under the leadership of Earl Warren. A former law clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter, Kurland echoed many of Frankfurter's views about the need for judicial restraint. Frankfurter himself came to be suspicious of judicial "activism" in the early years of the 20th century when a clique of conservative Supreme Court justices took an aggressively "activist" approach to constitutional interpretation in a campaign to declare unconstitutional a broad range of progressive legislation -- including, for example, laws guaranteeing a minimum wage, establishing maximum working hours, prohibiting child labor and regulating the working conditions for women. The lesson Frankfurter drew from this era was that Supreme Court justices should be cautious in interpreting the Constitution, lest they fall victim to the temptation to impose their own personal values on the nation in the guise of interpreting the Constitution.

Kurland applied this lesson to the Warren Court, which he regarded as insufficiently respectful of the majoritarian political process. He concluded that the justices of the Warren Court were often too quick to reach results that they themselves thought to be good for the nation, whether or not these results were mandated by a proper understanding of the Constitution. In short, Kurland, like Frankfurter, insisted that the proper stance of the Supreme Court should be one of judicial restraint and that, in interpreting vague and often open-ended constitutional provisions, the justices should err on the side of deferring to the elected branches of government.

Having recently re-read Politics, the Constitution and the Warren Court, I couldn't help but wonder what my old mentor would have thought of the work of the Roberts Court. After all, the Roberts Court is dominated by "conservative" rather than "liberal" justices, so Kurland would be pleased, right?

Wrong. My rather confident guess is that traditional conservative constitutional scholar like Philip Kurland would be appalled by the conduct of the current Court -- and most especially by the work of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. This is so for two reasons.

First, for critics of the Warren Court like Kurland, the proper stance of Supreme Court justices ordinarily should be one of judicial restraint. But the Roberts-Scalia-Thomas-Alito wing of the current Court is anything but restrained. To the contrary, these modern-day "conservatives" are often extremely activist in their interpretations of the Constitution. They are not in any way "conservatives" in the Kurland-Frankfurter mold.

In recent years, for example, these self-styled "conservatives" have voted consistently to hold unconstitutional laws regulating guns, laws regulating corporate campaign expenditures, laws regulating the size of campaign contributions, programs designed to promote the racial integration of public schools, affirmative action programs, key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and (except for Chief Justice Roberts -- on a technicality) the Affordable Care Act, to offer just a few illustrations.

Each of these decisions was the product of an aggressive form of judicial activism that Phil Kurland surely would have condemned. Each overturned the judgments of the democratic process without any clear and compelling justification in constitutional text, history, theory, or precedent. Kurland would have found these decisions just as unwarranted as Felix Frankfurter found the Court's decisions invalidating progressive era legislation a century before.

Second, and here's the real kicker, Kurland would have been even more appalled by the unwillingness of these justices to invalidate laws they should have held unconstitutional -- but didn't. This is so because Kurland's commitment to judicial restraint was not universal.

The one critical "exception" to the principle of judicial restraint, Kurland explained, is when "the legislature imposes on... minorities in so fundamental a fashion as to necessitate invoking the safeguards of the Constitution." Indeed, the Supreme Court's "most important function," Kurland added, is "to frustrate the will of the majority" when the majority runs roughshod over "interests that would otherwise be unrepresented in the government." Despite what he saw as the Warren Court's failings, Kurland praised the justices of the Warren Court for accepting their core responsibility to protect "minorities against the tyranny of majorities."

In performing its role as the "guardian of interests that would otherwise be unrepresented," the Warren Court was particularly activist in interpreting the Constitution to ensure that it protected the rights of African Americans, political dissenters, religious minorities, persons accused of crime, and the right to vote. Although Kurland did not approve of all of these decisions, he understood and endorsed the constitutional understanding that drove them.

The "conservative" justices on the Roberts Court, however, are often passionately restrained in their interpretation of the Constitution in precisely the cases in which a more muscular form of judicial review is most appropriate -- those involving discrimination against African Americans, women, Hispanics, religious dissenters, gays and lesbians, persons accused of crime, and denial of the right to vote to minorities and the poor. In these cases, our contemporary "conservative" justices often err on the side of upholding laws that even Philip Kurland would have found unconstitutional.

This is, in my view, a sad state of affairs. There was once a principled understanding of judicial conservatism. That understanding no longer exists. Our conservative justices no longer believe in judicial restraint, and they no longer believe in the responsibility of justices -- liberal and conservative alike -- to protect "minorities against the tyranny of majorities."

If Phil Kurland were here today to write a new volume, Politics, the Constitution, and the Roberts Court, it would be, I am quite certain, scathing -- and with good reason.

Yoani Sanchez: Cuba's Culture Of Violence: A Dangerous Spiral

Yoani Sanchez: Cuba's Culture Of Violence: A Dangerous Spiral 2014-04-20

Poster for the sixth anniversary of the magazine, Coexistence

A woman hits a child, who appears to be her son, on one corner. The passersbys who see it don't get involved. A hundred yards further on, two men get in a fight because one stepped on the other's shoe. I arrive home thinking about this aggressiveness, just under the skin, that I feel in the street. To relax my tension I read the latest issue of the magazine Coexistence, which just celebrated six years since its founding. I find in its pages an article by Miriam Celaya, who coincidentally addresses this "dangerous spiral" of blows, screams and irritation that surrounds us.

Under the title "Notes on the anthropological origins of violence in Cuba," the scathing analyst delves into the historical and cultural antecedents of the phenomenon. Our own national trajectory, steeped in "blood and fire," does not help much when it comes time to promote attitudes like pacifism, harmony and reconciliation. From the horrors of slavery during the colonial period, through the wars of independence with their machete charges and their high-handed caudillos, up to the violent events that also characterized the republic. A long list of fury, blows, weapons and insults shaped our character and are masterfully enumerated by the journalist in her text.

The process that started in 1959 deserves special mention, as it made class hatred and the elimination of those who are different fundamental pillars of the political discourse. Thus, even today, the greater part of the anniversaries commemorated by the government refer to battles, wars, deaths or "flagrant defeats inflicted" on the opponent. The cult of anger is such that the official language itself no longer realizes the rage it promotes and transmits.

But take care! Hatred cannot be "remotely controlled" once fomented. When rancor is kindled against another country, it ends up also validating the grudge against the neighbor whose wall adjoins ours. Those of us who grew up in a society where the act of repudiation has been justified as the "legitimate defense of a revolutionary people," may think that blows and screams are the way to relate to what we don't understand. In this environment of violence, for us harmony becomes synonymous with capitulation and peaceful coexistence is a trap that we want to make "the enemy" to fall into.

Arianna Huffington: Sunday Roundup

Arianna Huffington: Sunday Roundup 2014-04-20

This week began the way so many do: with more tragic gun violence, as three people were killed in two shootings at Jewish centers in the Kansas City area, part of the 86 killed by guns in the U.S. every day. "We are united in our condemnation of this heinous attack," said Attorney General Holder. "These acts cannot be ignored." And yet, one year ago this month, the Senate rejected even a modest background check bill, despite the support of 90 percent of Americans. In the wake of the Kansas shootings, Michael Bloomberg's $50 million gun control effort, "Everytown for Gun Safety," unveiled its first ad. We "have another chance to stop a child from being killed," it said. We do, but only if we refuse to lower our expectations. As Gabriel García Márquez, who died on Thursday, wrote, "It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams."

Umar Lee: Why Progressives Should Think Twice About Embracing Uber And Lyft

Umar Lee: Why Progressives Should Think Twice About Embracing Uber And Lyft 2014-04-19

Since 2005 it has been my pleasure to be a cab driver in my hometown of St. Louis. On a daily basis I get to see all parts of St. Louis City, St. Louis County and often the Metro-East and beyond. While I love my job there are also many challenges. I've had to deal with attempted robberies, people throwing up in my cab, urinating in the cab, fighting in the backseat, inappropriate sexual behavior in the backseat, people who jump out and run, passengers who have tried to fight me, and almost anything else you can think of. Still, I love my job.

What do I love? I love meeting new people every day and hearing their stories. There are some passengers I've been picking up for years and by now they know my kids' names and I know their kids' names. There have been passengers I became friends with and others I have counseled through divorces and deaths in the family. When my ex-wife and I divorced, I told my passengers even before I told my family. These relationships, and the thrill of seeing the look on the faces of my passengers when they see the Arch, Old Courthouse or Central Library for the first time, makes all the hard times worth it. We get them all. One day I picked up former St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan and dropped him off at Busch Stadium and my next passenger was a homeless guy out of the New Life Evangelistic Center. The full microcosm of society.

What Uber and Lyft Do and How They Damage the Profession

Uber and Lyft may sound like a good idea and may sound "progressive." They probably sound the best to people who know the least about cabs. We can start with the knowledge that St. Louis has a long history of cab companies. Some still operating and many who have went away. There are many professional cabbies who have been driving for decades. For cabbies to earn a decent living there has to be proper regulation of the industry. Too few cabs and the public isn't served and too many and drivers can't make decent money. St. Louis has done a pretty good job at regulating the industry through the Metropolitan Taxi Commission. Not perfect by a long shot; but one of the better regulatory bodies by national standards.

Driving a cab in St. Louis is a job that has allowed drivers to buy homes, raise families and send their children to college. Its not a plaything for me. I work six or seven days a week on this job (usually 10-12 hours a day) and that's the money I use to support my children and pay my bills. While business in the fall, winter and spring is brisk, for the most part come summer time business grinds to a halt. Drivers barely make it in the summer time and there is little margin for error. With Uber and Lyft appearing on the scene that margin of error may be wiped away, drivers may lose their jobs, tuition may not get paid, the lights may go out, the gas may get cut off, evictions can happen, and marriages and relationships may crumble. Its that serious.

St. Louis is already a city that has lost so many good-paying blue-collar jobs. America has become a nation of haves and have-nots and St. Louis is no different. Gone are the days when you could walk up and down Broadway or Hall Street and find good-paying jobs with ease to feed your families. Good jobs are scarce in this city for the working-class and driving a cab is one of those good jobs. Lyft and Uber are part of the Walmartization of America. Part-time workers earning fast-food wages. These drivers are in a very real sense akin to scab workers, and like the companies they drive for, represent regression and not progression.

There is nothing progressive about lowering earnings for working-class people, nor is there anything progressive about undercutting labor costs to the point workers are driven into poverty and homelessness. It's a game as old as the laborers in the days of the Bible and as recent as those sweating in the mines of Western and Southern Africa. Play the working class against one another for the benefit of the wealthy who seek to be served no matter the human cost.

Who Catches Cabs

There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about who actually catches cabs. In a city with the "Delmar Divide," where black and white don't mix as much as we should and the poor and the rich mix even less, people tend to not know a lot about each others lives.

Most of the people who catch cabs in St. Louis are not hipsters, or yuppies or business people or college students. They're not out drinking and partying. No, the bulk of our passengers are the elderly and the working poor. People who catch cabs to and from work every day. Those who take cabs from the grocery store or to the doctor's office. Sunday is Easter and without a doubt I will be taking people to church and to their families homes to celebrate, There are others who we pick up from the emergency rooms of hospitals, rescue from domestic violence taking them to shelters or pick up from the Ronald McDonald house for sick children. No tips and usually not that much money.

We can afford to do that because come Thursday night we get the college kids from Washington University and St. Louis University and on Friday and Saturday night we are both delivering and picking up those enjoying the nightlife of St, Louis. That's where we are able to make serious money. Take that away and we lose drivers -- and losing drivers will hurt the poor and working-class people who need cabs the most. Lyft and Uber are not designed to serve the poor and working-class populations in the St. Louis area. It's an elitist concept for an elite crowd. But rest assured its casualties will be in deep south city, north city and north county. Problems With St. Louis Cab Service

No business or business-model is perfect. People aren't perfect and from time to time we all may need a little rejuvenation. There are certainly things cab companies and drivers can do to improve the industry. There are also things that have already been done like the "STL Taxi" and "Taxi Magic" apps to order legal cabs in St. Louis.

However, allow me to share how customers can be proactive in improving their experience. Since Uber and Lyft are designed to serve the hipster population let me share with you some of the problems hipsters seem to have with catching cabs:

Making time-orders and then still coming out late or not coming out at all

Calling from high-rise apartment buildings and not waiting in the lobby forcing drivers to double-park and block traffic

Calling for a cab from a bar and then just hopping into the first cab you see regardless as to whether its your cab or not

Getting into unlicensed cabs and then complaining you got screwed

On the driver's part, if you are displeased with any licensed driver or have a complaint, you can call the company or the MTC. There are safeguards in place to protect passengers.

Hipsters and a Just Society

To call a spade a spade, Lyft and Uber aren't coming to serve good ol' St. Louis Hoosiers or North St. Louis. Nope, they are coming by invitation and for the hipster population (and to a lesser extent business people and college students). Hence they kicked off at Nebula (the center of hipster thought in St. Louis).

So, now, let me use this time to call out hipsters and ask: What kind of a society do you want to live in? Do you favor the right-wing economics of the GOP or do you favor a more humane and just society? Hipsters are mostly associated with the left and being progressive. But with a closer look you could very well come to a different conclusion. Of course there are many brilliant and progressive folks in the hipster population who do much good, but still these questions need to be asked.

If you're supporting the decimation of good working-class jobs you can't make a very good claim of being progressive. Uber and Lyft are conservative economic ideas. Over the last several years, I've heard several young hipsters tell my they're socially-liberal and economic-conservatives, a popular trend in American politics. Well, I hate to break it to you buddy, but it's economics and the role of the state that defines politics. If you're an economic conservative, despite how ironic and sarcastic you may be or how tight your jeans are, you, my friend, are a conservative.

However, there is something even worse. If you believe the resources of the state should be used to help the affluent and disenfranchise the poor, which often happens during gentrification, that puts you in a category that conjures up some very nasty images from the 20th century.

Some will look from the outside and say hipsters succeed because of three things: government aid, racial solidarity and class solidarity. If I were a hipster, I would be looking to counter that image. I would be looking to hire African-Americans in bars and restaurants opening up in heavily black areas and let it be known those in the neighborhoods will be the first to be hired. Yet, that is not the case. These bars and restaurants open in black neighborhoods with high unemployment rates and the staffs are either all-white or nearly all-white and not from the neighborhood. St. Louis cabbies are mostly minorities; but I am willing to wager most Lyft and Uber drivers won't be. This is an issue the local NAACP, Black Clergy Coalition and Urban League needs to take up for this reason.

There is nothing progressive about moving into black neighborhoods. The term "settler" and "pioneer" are hardly progressive. St. Louis was a Native American neighborhood when the Europeans arrived and that didn't turn out to be very progressive. If moving into black neighborhoods made one a progressive surely the likes of Cecil Rhodes, the Belgians employed by King Leopold in the Congo and the Afrikaans of South Africa would be seen as the most progressive people ever. If being a settler and pioneer was such a beautiful thing, Israel wouldn't need to keep over 100,000 troops in the West Bank. It's what you do when you move in. Do you move in as brothers and sisters or do you move in as conquerors? Do you come to work with the local population or do you come to eradicate the local population?

Gentrification fueled by hipsters is in its early stages in St. Louis. You have a choice: do you want to repeat the methods that have brutalized the poor and working-class in cities like New York, DC and San Francisco -- or do you want to be true leaders and trailblazers in St. Louis and advocate for a just society? Saying no to Lyft and Uber and yes to good-paying working-class jobs will be a step in the right direction and a show of good faith.

The media also has a role. While hipsters may be few in numbers, they have a stranglehold over conversations about St. Louis in the media (particularly in public media). Their side tends to be the only side to get air or ink. So, I ask the local media to be fair and just and cover both sides of this issue.

Solidarity With Labor and Show-Me 15 and Mayor Slay

Lyft and Uber come at a time of great turmoil for the working-class in St. Louis. Republican lawmakers (who I'm sure would love Lyft as Lyft has hired GOP lobbyists before) are trying to make Missouri a right-to-work state. In other words, they're trying to get rid of unions in Missouri and make our state more equivalent to Mississippi or Arkansas in terms of worker's rights.This was tried in the 1970s and failed miserably. Those were different times though. That was a Democratic Party committed to the poor and working-class. Many Democratic voters today think being progressive is about watching Stephen Colbert and eating from Whole Foods (owned by a right-winger, by the way) and are not concerned with issues like right-to-work. Yet there are many who are fighting on behalf of the people. As St. Louis cabbies we must stand with them because Lyft and Uber come in the same spirit as right-to-work. We must also support the Show Me 15 campaign organized by fast-food workers in St. Louis. Lyft and Uber want to drive down our earnings and McDonald's and Burger King are seeking to do the same with their workers. Working-class solidarity between professions.

In closing, I would like to thank St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who has been supportive of St. Louis cabbies and the MTC. Today more than ever I am happy I voted for Mayor Slay and worked for his re-election and consider him a friend to cabbies and a great mayor (now don't let me down).

Umar Lee is a full-time cabbie, father of two, and author of crime-fiction novels. He writes a blog at: umarlee.wordpress.com

Ernest Owens: Top 10 Best Ways We Should Start Measuring Black Success

Ernest Owens: Top 10 Best Ways We Should Start Measuring Black Success 2014-04-19

It's finally time that we have that long awaited talk about measuring black success. For far too long we have given many a pass when it comes to what they say and how they go about navigating what it means to achieve for the community. No, making money and being a celebrity isn't your "charity" to bettering the lives of others.

And no, being amongst the elite status of white privilege doesn't equate to it as well. There is historical and theoretical reasoning behind this. In 1961, reputable psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in his iconic literature Wretched of the Earth states: "The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist's sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession; of sitting at the colonist's table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man."

But such a developed provocation of black success was first explored by the great W.E.B. Du Bois in his introduction of double-consciousness: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

From a personal epiphany and a desire to motivate others in the community to excel proactively and not reactively to enacting progressive change, here are ten of the best ways I think we should start measuring black success:

1) Social responsibility is mandatory. If what you are doing does not have an outlook on improving the current conditions of others impacted, go back and find out why. There are many problems in our community that can be improved medically, culturally, socially, politically, and educationally. If what you are doing isn't positively impacting that, there's not much to root for.

2) Money is not the only motive. Sorry, but being on Forbes 100 lists means nothing if it isn't going to any programs that are bettering lives. Fortune is a blessing but can also become a curse if that is all that is being honored.

3) Advocacy is part of the brand. If you are not invoking any messages of change in your movement, your impact and purpose is nonexistent. If you are not able to rise to the occasion to do so, then it's not true success you are striving for.

4) Your success shouldn't be the only one. Many continue to tell their success stories and accomplishments, but whom are they mentoring? Put others on and encourage them to do the same. The community will not be strong if only one is being celebrated and others are staying in the dark.

5) Power comes from being progressively proactive. With all of this success, it is important that we encourage those with it to be very involved and out there doing more than just talking. We can speak change, but if we are not out there using our platforms for progress, it's virtually worthless.

6) Tangible possession isn't a validation of true success. The money and materialism is cute, but that isn't an indicator that one has made it anywhere if there is nothing else being shown for it. Because we know that elite privilege teaches us that such possessions are given to those without any work put forward, it is even more imperative that we strive to do meaningful work that outshines the bling.

7) No one is ever too big to do service. If anything, it should be expected that a higher level of moral obligation be assumed for those who have more to do for those who unfortunately have less. If one is truly successful, this shouldn't be an afterthought.

8) White validation isn't the only indicator of success. There is a lot of encouragement for one to only feel legitimization when they finally reach "mainstream" or "white gaze" desirability. And while having a more broad and diverse audience is appreciated, it means nothing if the platform isn't promoting positive messages or invoking social impact.

9) Corporations should work around your vision, not the other way around. Don't compromise your values and ideals of success in the name of the companies that promise you huge figures. Because the true success will not come from the check, but the power to demand more for your representation than just money and fame.

10) Understanding that your presence isn't charity and never will be. You made it, congrats. But your visibility alone will not help eradicate poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other social injustices. So expect to do a little more than just tell people what you accomplished, but actually use your influence for good. For that is real charity people can actually see.

I write all of this to say that I'm tired of the Vanity Fair that has become black success in recent years. We need to stop placing vanity on the same scale of merit. It doesn't matter "who wore it best", but who is instead improving lives the best.

There used to be a time when our celebrities, socialites, and people of influence were involved in politics and social justice movements and not just about their own careers. Sure, some will wear a t-shirt or post a message on social media, but that doesn't do a damn thing to help inspire others to actually do real work and mobilize the community.

At 22 years old, I want to see the return of the Harry Belafontes, Mohammed Alis, Nina Simones, and Maya Angelous. They were renaissance black movers and shakers that could entertain us and encourage us to create a better world and not just a better career.

For their work stands the test of time because they were the epitome of black success.

In 2014, let's hope we can expect the same for our next generation.

Vivek Wadhwa: The Rise Of Big Data Brings Tremendous Possibilities And Frighte

Vivek Wadhwa: The Rise Of Big Data Brings Tremendous Possibilities And Frightening Perils 2014-04-19

Debates are raging about whether big data still holds the promise that was expected or whether it was just a big bust. The failure of the much-hyped Google Flu Trends to accurately predict peak flu levels since August 2011 has heightened the concerns.

In my mind, there is no doubt that data analytics will one day help to improve health care and crime detection, design better products, and improve traffic patterns and agricultural yields. My concern is about how we will one day use all the data we are gathering -- and the skeletons it will uncover. Think about how DNA technology is being used to free people who were wrongfully imprisoned decades ago. Imagine what supercomputers of the future will be able to do with the data that present-day data gatherers haven't yet learned to use.

Over the centuries, we gathered data on things such as climate, demographics, and business and government transactions. Our farmers kept track of the weather so that they would know when to grow their crops; we had land records so that we could own property; and we developed phone books so that we could find people. About 15 years ago we started creating Web pages on the Internet. Interested parties started collecting data about what news we read, where we shopped, what sites we surfed, what music we listened to, what movies we watched, and where we traveled to. With the advent of LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and many other social-media tools, we began to volunteer private information about our work history and social and business contacts and what we like -- our food, entertainment, even our sexual preferences and spiritual values.

Today, data are accumulating at exponentially increasing rates. There are more than 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, and even more video is being collected worldwide through the surveillance cameras that you see everywhere. Mobile-phone apps are keeping track of our every movement: everywhere we go; how fast we move; what time we wake. Soon, devices that we wear or that are built into our smartphones will monitor our body's functioning; our sequenced DNA will reveal the software recipe for our physical body.

The NSA has been mining our phone metadata and occasionally listening in; marketers are correlating information about our gender, age, education, location, and socioeconomic status and using this to sell more to us; and politicians are fine-tuning their campaigns.

This is baby stuff compared to what lies ahead. The available tools for analyzing data are still crude; there are very few good data scientists; and companies such as Google still haven't figured out what is the best data to analyze. This will surely change rapidly as artificial-intelligence technologies evolve and computers become more powerful and connected. We will be able to analyze all data we have collected from the beginning of time -- as if we were entering a data time machine.

We will be revisiting crime cases from the past, re-auditing tax returns, tracking down corruption, and learning who were the real heroes and villains. An artificially intelligent cybercop scanning all the camera data that were gathered, as well as phone records, e-mails, bank-account and credit-card data, and medical data on everyone in a city or a country, will instantly solve a crime better than Sherlock Holmes could. Our grandchildren will know of the sins we committed; Junior may wonder why grandpa was unfaithful to grandma.

What is scary is that we will lose our privacy, opening the door to new types of crime and fraud. Governments and employers will gain more control over us, and have corporations reap greater profits from the information that we innocently handed over to them. More data and more computing will mean more money and power. Look at the advantage that bankers on Wall Street have already gained with high-frequency trading and how they are skimming billions of dollars from our financial system.

We surely need stronger laws and technology protections. And we need to be aware of the perils. We must also realize that with our misdeeds, there will be nowhere to hide -- not even in our past.

There are many opportunities in this new age of data.

Consider what becomes possible if we correlate information about a person's genome, lifestyle habits, and location with their medical history and the medications they take. We could understand the true effectiveness of drugs and their side effects. This would change the way drugs are tested and prescribed. And then, when genome data become available for hundreds of millions of people, we could discover the links between disease and DNA to prescribe personalized medications -- tailored to an individual's DNA. We are talking about a revolution in health and medicine.

In schools, classes are usually so large that the teacher does not get to know the student -- particularly the child's other classes, habits, and development through the years. What if a digital tutor could keep track of a child's progress and learn his or her likes and dislikes, teaching-style preferences, and intellectual strengths and weaknesses? Using data gathered by digital learning devices, test scores, attendance, and habits, the teacher could be informed of which students to focus on, what to emphasize, and how best to teach an individual child. This could change the education system itself.

Combine the data that are available on a person's shopping habits with knowledge of their social preferences, health, and location. We could have shopping assistants and personal designers creating new products including clothing that are 3D-printed or custom-manufactured for the individual. An artificial intelligence based digital assistant could anticipate what a person wants to wear or to eat and have it ready for them.

All of these scenarios will become possible, as will thousands of other applications of data in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and other fields. The only question is how fast will we get there -- and what new nightmares we will create.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke's engineering school and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. His past appointments include Harvard Law School and University of California Berkeley.

This post first appeared in the Washington Post.