Bigoted and isolationist rhetoric reflects a tarnished image of America

The Advocate’s editorial board has a somewhat spotty track record regarding the quality of its columns, but this one nailed it. Recent declarations by 31 governors that Syrian refugees would be denied entry to their states (under dubious legal authority) because one of the attackers in the recent Paris bombings appears to have come from Syria shows the worst and ugliest side of American politics. Sadly, while we normally only see this kind of stupidity on the elephant side of the aisle, the jackasses got in on it too, with Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and our own Democratic gubernatorial candidate adding their voices to the chorus of fear and paranoia. This follows our current governor’s letter to the president demanding more information about the handful of Syrians who have been allowed into Louisiana; it seems that, for once, our current administrator was actually ahead of the game in ramping up the scare tactics about Muslim invaders. Kudos, I guess.

Here’s the problem with all of this absurd hand-wringing: while the U.S. has long had (and continues to have) probably the most rigorous screening process for any migrants in any country in the world, the volume of immigrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS in Europe means that such screening is virtually impossible. Is there a good chance that the attacker in question did indeed come to France from Syria? Yes, there is, but consider this: approximately 10,000 people pour onto the shores of the Greek isles every day trying to escape the violence and destruction in their homeland. 10,000 is the total number of people that the administration has agreed to accept in the U.S.

No other country shares America’s unique heritage of immigration and it is one of the ideals that defines us as a nation that we welcome immigrants, especially those seeking asylum from totalitarian regimes. Now Ted Cruz wants to have a religious litmus-test as a condition of entry to America. Cruz should be ashamed of himself for so many reasons, and this is just the latest of them. Our own state “leaders” should be equally ashamed for their blatant appeals, in this election season, to the very worst demons of our nature.

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Why Republican science isn’t the same as regular science

Why Republican science isn’t the same as regular science

Science is a way of learning things about the world around us. Over the millennia, it’s done some pretty great things for us. It’s taught us how to control the flow of water, how to construct permanent dwellings, how to safely dispose of our own wastes (mostly), what the lights are in the sky, and that was just the beginning. In the last century-and-a-half, we’ve learned about how life evolved on this planet over the course of 4.5 billion years. In the last 50 years, we’ve learned about the greenhouse effect and how rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, particularly as a result of human activities are wreaking havoc on the world’s climate. Over a slightly-longer interval, roughly the last 80 years, essentially one human lifetime, we’ve developed many of the medicines that treat the afflictions that plague us as a species.

Among those medicines are the vaccines that we’ve used to treat everything from measles to HPV to hepatitis to polio. Many of these diseases have been essentially eradicated from the Western world, thanks to the pervasive use of vaccines to effectively immunize populations and prevent their constituents from getting sick and dying from the illnesses. Well, that was true until recently, anyway. By now, everyone’s heard about the measles outbreak linked to Disney World in Anaheim and believed to be the result of parents refusing to vaccinate their children with the standard MMR triple vaccine according to the prescribed schedule. Vaccine denialists, people who have convinced themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, that vaccines are harmful and cause diseases, are a bipartisan group: liberals who don’t trust “big pharma” and have been duped by listening to anecdotal evidence provided by parents of people with autism spectrum disorder make for strange bedfellows with conservatives who espouse small government and “parental choice” (a phrase which, from what I can tell, pretty much means whatever you want it to mean). However, it is uniquely right-wing Republican politicians who have made bold stands against the idea of mandatory vaccination: presidential hopefuls Chris Christie and Rand Paul have made statements, which they’ve made floundering efforts to walk back to some extent, regarding the need to vaccinate children against deadly threats. Presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and current president Barack Obama, on the other hand, have made unequivocal statements in favor of vaccinations for all. What are we to make of this?

As I said earlier, science is a tool that teaches us about the world around us. It’s a fact-finding construct so its insights are inherently descriptive but not prescriptive. As citizens we have to take the information science provides to us and make a simple calculus: do we accept its truth and adjust our policies accordingly or do we reject it (or cherry-pick it) in the hope of short-term gains despite what science is telling us? The far left and the far right have this in common: for different reasons, they don’t trust science or scientific consensus and are more comfortable with what their religious or alternative-medicine or celebrity authorities tell them. However, the far left is rarely represented in mainstream politics these days (despite what Rush Limbaugh would have you believe), while the far right has gotten louder and more accepted by mainstream right-wing politicians as the old GOP “big tent” seems to get ever tinier.

We are seeing tangible and concrete evidence now of the consequences of cherry-picking science. People are getting sick and dying because they don’t understand the concept of herd immunity and how everyone getting vaccinated who physically is able to be vaccinated protects the entire population of those who may be exposed to a pathogen. Or perhaps they’ve listened to Jenny McCarthy, who insists that vaccines cause autism and that she was able to use a natural remedy to “cure” her child’s autism (if you’re wondering, there is no “cure” for autism). Or maybe they just feel that mandatory vaccinations are a “government overreach,” an intrusion into their private lives and personal choices–and they don’t want Obama telling them how to raise their kids. Ultimately, there are lots of rationales for making bad decisions, but it is a peculiarly Republican trait of prominent politicians to declare their solidarity with what most normal people consider to be fringe lunatics: vaccine denialists, climate change denialists, and creationists.

Lest we forget, one of the newly-Republican-controlled Senate’s first official acts was to pass two resolutions: one that supported the idea that climate change is real and a companion piece expressing doubt that it is anthropogenic. These resolutions have no real meaning other than to give us a sense of the direction that Congress is heading on this issue: nowhere. With prominent climate-change denier James Inhofe (R-OK) now heading the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, there is little to no chance that we will see any significant action from this august body on this grave threat to humanity’s continued survival. The impact of continuing to seek out new sources of fossil fuels in lieu of seriously promoting renewable energy sources that do not boost atmospheric carbon levels won’t be seen in a few days, months, or years like the impact of lots of paranoiacs refusing to vaccinate their children, but the effects will be even more dramatic: mass extinctions, rising sea levels, melting polar sea ice, diseases and pests appearing and thriving further north than ever before are just some of the consequences of inaction that we can look forward to.

Aside from looking like a bit of a relic from the Middle Ages, there aren’t many dire repercussions for not accepting biological evolution. The array of evidence for evolutionary theory is so diverse and compelling that you pretty much have to  toss out all of science as a whole if you choose to dispute it. Nevertheless there is a certain small demographic of true believers that Republicans feel they must cater to in order to get enough votes to get elected. It’s disheartening that in the 21st century we are still standing people for the highest office in the land who reject the scientific foundations upon which our modern society is built.

This story from NPR shows how the Republican candidates in the presidential primary responded to questions about climate change and evolution in 2012. Among this entire crop of presidential wannabes, only Jon Huntsman took the controversial position that evolution and climate change are real phenomena. It seems increasingly likely that we can expect a repeat performance for 2016. While many moderate Republicans have been quick to repudiate the more bizarre and unfounded assertions made in recent weeks regarding the safety of routine vaccinations, these two touchstones of conservative Christian outrage are not so easily dismissed by those who wish to survive the crucible of Iowa and New Hampshire. And so they will try to have it both ways, like our esteemed Governor Jindal, who took a break from releasing self-aggrandizing press releases critical of the president long enough to declare his support for the science behind vaccines; this is of course, the same Jindal who has long supported the Louisiana Science Education Act, which attempts to muddy the waters in public education surrounding the topics of evolution, climate change, and, for some odd reason probably known only to his puppet masters in the Louisiana Family Forum, human cloning.

Indeed, Paul at least appears to be trying to make political hay from his irresponsible statement that he knew of “walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He later tweeted a picture of himself receiving a booster shot and remarked snarkily that he wondered “how the liberal media will misreport this,” implying that that eternal Republican boogeyman, the Liberal Media aka The Main Stream Media aka The Lame Stream Media, had somehow mischaracterized his own words. Paul, who loves to tout his credentials as a physician (ophthalmologist) on the campaign trail, knows damn well that his statement above was intended to imply causation not merely correlation and that the average layperson would interpret those remarks in just that way. It’s as cynical and naked a political ploy as anything I’ve seen in some time: he scores points with the vaccine denialists by throwing them a bone about autism and quickly disavows his own remarks by blaming those “misreporting” ne’er-do-wells, the Media, thereby currying favor with the more moderate elements of his party who are all for vaccines but definitely don’t trust reporters.

So all of this brings me to my point: how is Republican science different from science? Well, it’s necessarily incomplete because they hold science hostage to the interests of various factions from whom they are relying on some kind of largesse, be it votes or the money with which to buy more votes. Acceptance of anthropogenic climate change would displease the oil and gas companies that funnel billions of dollars of campaign contributions into the cesspit that is our political system. Acceptance of the fact of evolution would displease the voting bloc of archconservative Christians still convinced that a bearded man in the sky individually crafted them and brought the world into being ex nihilo 6,000 years ago. Acceptance of the fact that vaccines prevent outbreaks of highly-preventable but highly-contagious diseases. . . well, no matter what the shrill vaccine denialists screech about thimerosal and Big Pharma’s price-fixing, it’s getting harder and harder to justify that position in light of recent events.

Here’s the bombshell, once and future kings of America: science isn’t a country buffet, where you can pick what you’re comfortable with and fits with your preconceived notions or those to whom you owe some manner of allegiance. Governor Jindal, how do you think we understand that vaccines work? Use that Brown education. The answer is that we learned about the way that viruses and bacteria evolve in response to changes in their environments (yes, I said two “e” words in one sentence). I agree with one thing you said not that long ago: the Republican Party needs to stop being the “party of stupid.” Perhaps you could start leading by example. It would make a refreshing change.

 

Mid-term stupidity

They say you get the government you vote for. Or maybe the government that Americans for Prosperity pays for. I’m not quite sure how anyone can tell the difference at this point.

Well, congratulations, America. You put a Republican majority in the Senate, giving the Party of No and Fearmongering control of both houses of our bicameral legislature. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, this is what you’ve given a thumbs-up to:

1) More eboli scare-tactics (No, I’m not making “eboli” up; look up Darell Issa.)

2) More “we have to get them over there before they get us over here” scare-tactics pertaining to ISIS in Syria and Iraq (and, yes, in case you’re wondering, that means more pushing by chickenhawks to start a new ground offensive in the Middle East)

3) More meaningless attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act by the same people who brought you lies about “death panels” and skyrocketing premiums

4) More rejection of basing public policy and education on sound, well-supported science like global anthropogenic climate change and biological evolution

5) More promotion of policies based on trickle-down economics bullshit that was discredited 30 years ago when Reagan was pushing it

Here’s the government that you’ve abandoned all pretense of giving a shit about:

1) Prioritizing repairs of America’s aging transportation and utility infrastructures

2) Using #1 as a platform for promoting the growth of high-paying manufacturing, construction, and engineering jobs as opposed to seeing consistent growth of low-wage jobs in the service sector and calling that good economic news

3) Promoting sensible economic reforms to protect and preserve our natural resources

4) Reducing the burden of student loan debt, which is presently a significant drag on our economy and will be even more so in the future

On a local level, Louisiana has once again done a bang-up job of making itself look ridiculous. As a result of today’s Hunger Games, we now have this to look forward to:

1) More constitutionally-protected pieces of the budgetary pie, making hard decisions about fiscal matters even harder and likely to fall on the few chunks that lack constitutional protection (bits of health care and education, mostly)

2) Yet another race between Edwin Edwards and Generic Republican No. 37, in which many Louisianans will probably vote for Edwards because the alternative is another “toe-the-party-line” GOP congressman

3) A failed opportunity to start on the road to creating a financial infrastructure to aid local governments in paying for maintenance and repairs to our actual infrastructure

4) An extra inducement for legislators to create endless tax breaks and loopholes for corporations and special interests, aka more trickle-down BS

So, well done, electorate. Pat yourselves on the back and prepare for two more years of nonsense and non sequiturs.

Return to Iraq

I was very disappointed to learn last week that the president had authorized a military re-engagement in Iraq. I know in some sense we’ve never really left any of the countries we’ve had armed conflicts in, as we seem to have military bases scattered all over the world in really peculiar places from a 21st-century perspective; it is nonetheless disheartening that this president who seems to pride himself on having drawn down our remaining forces in Iraq and Afghanistan publicly, while engaging in a covert drone war that is essentially Bush’s War on Terror 2.0, is ready to begin a new campaign of airstrikes in our old quagmire.

Look, I know that Republicans want America to flex its muscles any time a pretty girl walks down the beach or a bully starts kicking sand in the bespectacled eyes of a Euro- or Middle Eastern nerd, but there’s no point in doing any of this to satisfy the administration’s war-hawk critics if for no other reason than that it won’t. Those critics have made it abundantly clear now, six years into Obama’s presidency, that there is no action that he could take in either domestic or international quarters that would be the right action. If Iraq is destabilized and eventually taken over by ISIS, they will claim this is because of his early withdrawal of forces and that we failed to provide sufficient logistical or “boots-on-the-ground” support to the central government. If ISIS ceases pushing into unoccupied sections of Iraq in order to consolidate its gains on a temporary or permanent basis, they will declare that we should move quickly to take back Fallujah and Mosul from the “terrorists.” In any case, they will always blame anything that goes wrong on Obama’s alleged failure to project America’s strength throughout the world the way that <insert your favorite Republican candidate or former president here> would have done.

So we can safely ignore that nonsense. What about America’s “you broke it, you bought it” responsibilities? It should be abundantly clear to anyone who’s been paying even the slightest modicum of attention over the last 11 years that America’s nation-building efforts in the Middle East have been and will continue to be a colossal failure for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that while we do bear some responsibility for the present state of Iraq, being the fragmented country that it was since the Allies drew its lines up after World War II, after we destroyed its infrastructure and the strong central government and replaced it with basically nothing. However we cannot seriously expect that another military engagement will result in anything other than more death, more destruction, and more misery for Iraqis. All we have to do is look at what happened in Bosnia to see how truly effective a campaign of airstrikes is for effecting political change. We would also do well to remember that the term “smart bomb” is a terrible oxymoron and however much we might like to pretend otherwise no airstrike will ever attain the precision that can be achieved with the physical presence of soldiers on the battlefield in a war zone. When we say that we’re using  targeted airstrikes to destroy our enemies, what we really mean is that the lives of our soldiers are more valuable than the lives of the citizens that live in the countries of our enemies. That is an appalling calculus to make.

I wish there were a voice of reason in Washington, someone who would stand up and say, “There is nothing to be gained by taking half-measures and pretending that this makes us somehow better than everyone else.” War is not the answer because this is a civil war, albeit one being directed from across the Syrian border. If we intervened in every civil war across the world we could do nothing else–and we would be held accountable for the next tyrannical regime that would inevitably emerge from such a conflagration. It’s not isolationism to recognize that we have never been and never can be “the world’s policeman.” While I see no harm in unilateral humanitarian missions, there simply is no dividend from repeating Clinton’s mistakes of the 1990s.

Between the initial draft of this post and its imminent publication, America has apparently committed to putting combat troops on the ground in northern Iraq and staging relief efforts from an airfield located in the same area. The news gets worse and worse.

Why Romney lost and why the Republicans still don’t get it

A lot has been written and said about the spectacular electoral failure of the Republican Party in the November election, and much of it misses the point. CNN and other broadcasters pontificated on their tables and interactive maps and talked about how the GOP lost women and blacks and Hispanics and young people, and all of these things are undoubtedly true but not all that interesting in and of themselves. The more salient part of this is why the Party of No not only flopped in its efforts to unseat an admittedly-divisive sitting president (just why he is so divisive is probably worth its own article), but lost seats in both houses of Congress, including races that were considered easy victories like Todd Akin’s challenge to Claire McAskill.

Ask 10 Republicans why this happened and you may get 10 different answers. Mitt Romney, suffering from an apparent bout of Aesop’s fox syndrome, sulkily declared that Obama must have “paid off the electorate.” He didn’t mean that literally–he meant that the president had promised those constituencies that didn’t vote red money or some other form of government largesse in exchange for his reelection. Slightly smarter or less bitter observers like Louisiana’s own Bobby Jindal or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker hastened to say that Romney’s reaction to his loss was a bit stupid and suggested that the true problem with the Party lay in its failure to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Both of these men are, of course, playing to a national audience with these statements and it’s probably the worst-kept secret in politics that they have ambitions beyond governing a single state.

As others have pointed out, it’s worth paying attention to deeds as well as words. At home, Jindal has promoted an extreme social-conservative agenda that plays well to his base–and particularly the religious right–in this most crimson of states but which has been met with suspicion by moderates and independents. His recent push to put public funds in the hands of charter and private schools aligns perfectly with his previous efforts to dilute science education in the state with his Orwellian Louisiana Science Education Act. This is an important context in which to examine Jindal’s public proclamations, wherein he pays lip service to the idea of creating a more inclusive political party that embraces many groups–the so-called “big tent.”

The reality is that this is more empty rhetoric, because the GOP has continued to push an extremist agenda, even while giving the appearance of holding its more extreme elements at arm’s length. During the election, in a case of belated damage control, the national party stumbled over itself to distance itself from comments made by numerous Senate candidates who made abortion a central issue in the campaign by stating in various ways that their god had a hand in many terrible crimes against women; meanwhile, a similar policy statement is to be found on the official party platform and on the lips of its vice-presidential candidate (Paul Ryan is basically Sarah Palin, except that he actually did read all of the newspapers).  On the economic front, fiscal hawks like Speaker Boehner are taking a hard line against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and are pushing the vague and ultimately meaningless trope of “tax code reform” that Romney was promoting as his “economic plan” during the election. This self-imposed “fiscal cliff” nonsense is the last gasp of the absurd “trickle-down economics” that  Republicans have been shoving down our throats for the last 30 years, and I hope they choke on it. The only thing that trickles down on the poor and the middle class when the rich get richer is the excrement that always rolls downhill.

Intellectual luminaries within the party suggested an alternate reason for why young people didn’t vote Republican. Bill Bennett suggested that liberals have taken over the public schools and indoctrinated America’s youth with pinko propaganda. He’s actually serious about this and it gets better. The prescription is to not to get rid of onerous and intolerant policies that drive people away the party in droves; it’s to take over schools and insert their own propaganda. It’s well worth taking a look at this film to see what Bennett and his followers have in mind.

This particular piece of idiocy just got cranked up to 11 this week in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. Congressmen Louie Gohmert of Texas and Dennis Baxley of Florida have actually suggested that the answer to mass shootings in this country is for people to have more guns. Perpetual carnival acts James Dobson and Bryan Fischer declared that their god had once again intervened to “allow judgment to fall upon us” because of abortion and gay marriage and because there is no state-sponsored prayer in schools. Sure, you can always count on fringe loonies to say things like this after children are gunned down at school, but here’s the kicker: Mike Huckabee, the guy who was almost the GOP’s candidate for president in 2012, was saying the same things. If the party leaders really want to know how they’ve gone so astray and why Americans don’t trust them anymore, nothing sums it up quite so succinctly as this.

Here’s a pro tip for Mr. Huckabee and the rest: your god doesn’t belong in public schools and your religion is not the only one in America. The amendment that goes at the top of the Constitution–# 1–declares that Congress shall make no law respecting religion. That’s the “establishment clause” and it means that government, including public institutions (like schools), are to be religiously neutral. I don’t suppose you’d be too thrilled if the kids were facing Mecca and praying to Allah on prayer mats in the public schools under the imam’s watchful eye. So go ahead and blame those of us who want to take guns off the streets, who want to protect women, who are gay, who believe you can be moral without gods; Democrats will continue to clean your clocks at the polls as we all vote against you.

And on a personal note, fuck you, you self-righteous assholes.

O Big Bird, Where Art Thou?

You’ve probably heard that CTW has asked the Obama campaign to stop using Big Bird in his television ads. (I guess this means they’ll have to create a new campaign featuring Jim Lehrer.) There are probably several reasons for this. While PBS management has not been shy about defending the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the company has carefully kept Oscar, Elmo and the gang out of the political fray. Even when Bird made an unusual appearance on Saturday Night Live, he had no comments about the ongoing discussion of the value of PBS and Sesame Street. I don’t think PBS believes that injecting its popular characters into a political discussion in a way not unlike the Muppets furor of earlier this year (this and this) serves any constructive purpose and ultimately detracts from the show’s message of inclusivity. I also suspect that PBS doesn’t really see any political value in reminding everyone what a political football public broadcasting becomes in an election year.

I, on the other hand, have no such qualms. It’s asinine that in response to a question about how he would offset the economic havoc wrought by a reduction of corporate tax rates across the board to 20%, Romney stated that he would cut federal funding for PBS. By now everyone has read or heard that this makes up something like 0.00012% of the annual budget. In other words, this is possibly the dumbest thing that he could have said except maybe that he would eliminate Medicare altogether. So why say it? Because conservatives love to denigrate public broadcasting, somehow equating it to a liberal factory. I think they do this for the same reason that they have a longstanding agenda to dismantle public education, one which has made leaps and bounds in Louisiana this year. I have a working hypothesis as to why Republican politicians hate any sort of education that they cannot directly control, and it’s this: like the feudal lords of old, they are worried that the peasants will one day realize that the system and policies that have been enacted do not benefit them and they will revolt. I hope this comes to pass, but in the interim the reality is that this fantasy that conservative media blowhards and political operatives have constructed that PBS and NPR are liberal think tanks who skew the news and entertainment programming to the far left is just that–the rabid fantasy of paranoid minds who are terrified of change. (The irony is that this mantra of “fair and balanced” that the right-wing noise machine has perpetuated has become ingrained in the mass media to such a degree that real journalism–the kind practiced by people like Edward R. Murrow and H.L. Mencken–is but a fading memory today. But this is a topic for another discussion.) PBS and NPR are outlets that consistently produce unbiased reporting and quality entertainment of the sort that people across the political spectrum in this country should be able to–and generally do–enjoy.

President Obama’s response to Helmet Head’s comments at the Denver debate has been rather ham-handed. Because everyone except people whose salary he’s actually paying has criticized his debate performance as abysmal, he is now being Angry Obama at public appearances and his sarcastic references to Bird as an evil CEO (rather like Tex Richman) or to PBS as the leading cause of the nation’s deficit don’t really help anyone. Instead of pointing out the obvious stupidity of Spray Tan’s remarks, why not produce an ad that features average citizens talking about how PBS in general and Sesame Street in particular have had a positive impact on their lives and the lives of their loved ones? There is a reason that this show has been running longer than I’ve been alive: it’s an excellent source of education and entertainment for children and it teaches values (that I once believed were universal) like compassion and sharing. We should have fewer responses to Helmet Head like this and more like this.

No one’s hands are clean in sordid Innocence of Muslims affair

As I was listening to this interview on NPR the other day, I pondered just how this mess started and who was really to blame. The answer is that we all are to blame to some degree. Is it ridiculous to storm embassies and murder people because you don’t like a movie? Yes. But should America recognize that it bears some responsibility for fostering an environment where such offensive material is not merely allowed but encouraged? Oh yes.

Mr. Saunders was speaking on a slightly different but nevertheless relevant topic: the notion that Muslims invade countries like sleeper cells, reproduce rapidly, and threaten to dominate host country populations within a few generations. It’s a bit of a silly notion but one that has been making the rounds since Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and other unsavory types first began making their way to the Land of Opportunity. The point is this: we readily accept that the “others”–the people who don’t worship the same god (well, they actually do, but don’t tell your Christian friends because they would never associate their deity with the likes of Allah), dress the same way, speak the same language at home–are a threat simply by virtue of being different. Particularly in the post-9/11 world where everyone who reads seditious books or travels to the wrong countries is to be treated with great suspicion, we have let this narrative dominate public life in this country.

This survey by Gallup shows how American Muslims and other Western Muslims feel oppressed and isolated within the cultures they live in. This is an atmosphere that we subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) promote when our leaders make casual references to jihads and Crusades and when the media are filled with images of ethnically black or Arab Muslims as terrorists and supervillains. Many Muslim stereotypes (being prolific breeders may be among the least offensive) pervade not just American culture but Western culture in general and in this climate of hatred and fear all it takes is one unstable individual with ready access to weapons and you get a Sikh temple massacre or a Norwegian killing spree.

America and the rest of the world should acknowledge their sins in this regard, but the Muslim countries where so much fear and animosity has been stirred by the actions of a small and as-yet-unidentified group of filmmakers who have produced the equivalent of low-budget hate porn must shoulder some share of blame for this catastrophe as well. Ordinary citizens of places like Libya, Egypt and Iran should take the self-appointed leaders who claim to speak for them to task for igniting this tempest-in-a-teapot. Amid news that Iran has upped the ante by raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, claiming that if Rushdie had been killed twelve years ago, no one would have had the temerity to make something like the Innocence of Muslims trailer, maybe it’s time that the world’s mainstream Muslims acknowledge that, while they are personally deeply offended by depictions of Mohammed in Western media and would prefer that they did not exist, they are not a reason to blow up planes or destroy embassies.

Let’s be clear about something: one of the things that makes America a great nation is that we allow the presentation of unpopular points of view. Dissent is tolerated and even encouraged to some degree. At least that’s the way things are supposed to be. Increasingly we are seeing a shift away from the officially secular society that this nation was founded as over two centuries ago as hints appear that this country can be, always was, and should be a Christian nation. This too is wrong. As most of those who spout this kind of nonsense know, most of our founding fathers were deists (believers in a vague and impersonal deity who has no interest or involvement in the day-to-day affairs of individuals) not Christians. The Establishment Clause exists because 5,000 years of human history taught those men that “officially” religious countries are inevitably set up for conflict with neighbors who are not co-religionists. Turning this country into a kind of theocracy only sets us on a path to perpetual war–like our distant neighbors in the Middle East.

Nor should we abandon that most valuable of secular principles, the freedom of speech, to legally sanction the producers of this absurd film trailer. It is, as I said above, one of the great ideals of this society that even the atheist, the racist, and the blasphemous are given a voice, not because every voice has equal merit but because we privilege no one voice over another under the law. Thus, while the president was right to release those ads decrying the content of the video as not being representative of America (and we surely hope that it is not), he was equally right not to accede to the demands of those calling for state punishment of the offenders, who have committed no crime in this country.

Mitt Romney, in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to appear relevant, jumped in front of a camera last week so he could berate the president for “apologizing.” He is an idiot. I can’t even imagine which of his goofy advisors told him that the murder of an ambassador overseas in what appears to have been a well-planned assault could be fertile ground for partisan political maneuvering.

In any case, we should all take a hard look at our own reactions to this unfolding saga and what it means for the role of religious freedom, pluralism and the dream of what America can and should be, while reminding our brothers to the East that authoritarian rule and religious laws are not the sort of virtues that we wish to emulate.