April 2004 Archives

Saddam Hussein was a danger to the US, says Kerry

We kept on going to war with him.

From the Quad Cities Times, come the following quotes from Kerry (slightly re-ordered):

During his speech, Kerry warned against confusing the successes in Iraq with the war on terrorism. He accused President Bush of failing to keep his pledge to give firefighters and police on the front lines the resources they need to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

“I will keep America’s promise to keep our communities and our country safe,” said Kerry, who has earned the endorsement of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Kerry, who voted in favor of authorizing military strikes against Iraq, also criticized Bush for trying to link the justification for the Iraqi war to the war on terrorism and the search for Osama bin Laden.

Kerry said the country is better off now that a tyrant who killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and has driven America to war twice has been apprehended.

“I know that most Americans agree that capturing [Saddam Hussein] has indeed eliminated threats to the United States and made us safer,” Kerry said at a police union hall in Pleasant Hill.

Let me get this straight. Kerry is saying that Bush is not fighting the war on terrorism properly, and Iraq had nothing to do with September 11th. But he still says Saddam Hussein was a threat, because he killed lots of his own people, and - this is wonderful - we went to war with him. Not the other way round.

Oh, and how can Kerry say that the second war on Iraq was wrong, and then turn around and use it as a reason why Hussein was a threat?

As I've said before, I have yet to hear any of Dean's rivals actually explain what the danger to the US of Saddam Hussein still being at large in his spider-hole actually was. All I hear is people randomly calling Howard Dean a liar. That's not enough.

UPDATE: I've just found another quote from Kerry, this time from the Boston Globe.

Kerry also hammered Dean for citing the heightened terror alert as evidence that Hussein's capture did not make America safer.

"Americans won't be fooled into confusing the war on terror with the capture of Saddam Hussein," Kerry said. "It's George Bush who tries to trick the American people into confusing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. And Democrats owe it to America to be better than that."

The sheer gall of taking a statement that says Saddam Hussein has nothing to do with the war on terror, and saying that it does, is so breathtaking that I don't know what to say.

Why D&D isn't the best system to use for roleplaying sex with gnomes

It's still a hack-and-slash game at heart.

The Book of Erotic Fantasy is a recent RPG release from Valar Project, Inc. It adds sex to D&D.

As such, it includes rules for maintaining sex (roll against your Constitution), details on what Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and even things like Centaurs think about sex. Things like this:

Like dwarves, the genetic makeup of gnomes prevents them from producing halfbreeds, unless the other parent is a celestial, dragon, fiend, or other being noted for its ability to successfully crossbreed. This does not prevent gnomes from sampling sex with other beings-indeed the idea that they cannot get the other creature pregnant is more than a bit enticing.

And yes, it's geeky as fuck, but it's relatively harmless.

Some bits are, however, inherently broken. Never mind that page 133, according to the table of contents on their website, features a sidebar "Alternate Spaces for Magic Items on the Body". Consider the Prestige Class Sacred Prostitute.

To qualify to become a sacred prostitute, a character must fulfill all the following criteria.
Base Attack Bonus: +3.
Charisma: 13.
Appearance: 13.
Feats: Sexually Open Society
Skills: Diplomacy 8 ranks, Perform (sexual technique) 8 ranks, Profession (prostitute) 8 ranks
Special: Must be willing to engage in sexual acts when asked.

Table 3-15: The Sacred Prostitute

Attack Bonus
1st +0 +0 +0 +2 Aura of Sexual Ease 0 - -
2nd +1 +0 +0 +3 Sexual Healing I 1 - -
3rd +1 +1 +1 +3 Sexual Communion 1 0 -
4th +2 +1 +1 +4 Sexual Healing II 1 1 -
5th +2 +1 +1 +4 Restorative sex 1 1 0

The very first thing it mentions is that you need to be able to hit things fairly well to be a prostitute. And if you get good at it, what do you know - you get even better.

That just plain does not make sense. You should not be able to become a fine fencer by dint of shagging people. I see no reason why learning one skill automatically gives you the other. But this is D&D, which has its origins in wargaming, and it is axiomatic that when you go up in level, you get stronger, harder, and better at hitting things.

Even if you're a Voyeuristic Seer.

Most useless Constitutional amendment ever?

On the danger of specifying numbers in laws, when numbers can change.

While researching something else, I came across the Seventh amendment:

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Is this the most useless Constitutional amendment ever? Not because its sentiments are wrong or out-moded, but because $20 these days is worth peanuts?

And, incidentally, does this amendment say anything other than a) trial by jury is important, and shall happen in all moderately-important cases, and b) you can't use legislative or executive powers to reverse a jury trial?

Democrats and religion, part 2

The hot-button issue of the moment, it seems.

I talked about Howard Dean and religion a few days ago. Since then, a whole lot of people have said a bunch of things as well. Here's a roundup:

The peculiar blend of religions in this Presidential race

First of all, to put this into perspective, here's David Brooks in the New York Times:

George W. Bush was born into an Episcopal family and raised as a Presbyterian, but he is now a Methodist. Howard Dean was baptized Catholic, and raised as an Episcopalian. He left the church after it opposed a bike trail he was championing, and now he is a Congregationalist, though his kids consider themselves Jewish.

Wesley Clark's father was Jewish. As a boy he was Methodist, then decided to become a Baptist. In adulthood he converted to Catholicism, but he recently told Beliefnet.com, "I'm a Catholic, but I go to a Presbyterian church."

What other country on earth would have three national political figures with such peripatetic religious backgrounds? In most of the world, faith-hopping of this sort is simply unheard of. Yet in the United States, we simply take it for granted that people will move through different phases in the course of their personal spiritual journeys, and we always have.

Note that Howard Dean's wife Judy is Jewish, which explains the religious divide in their family. See the belief.net article for more on Wesley Clark (the link is to page 4, which is where the quote is from).

Dean's religious learning experience

We've also got the LA Times' take on De 1000 an's effort to talk about religion:

During a conversation with reporters on his campaign plane late Friday night, Dean said recent stops in South Carolina had moved him to try to be more forthcoming about his view of religion to connect with voters who speak openly of their relationship with God.

"I think that I'm gradually getting more comfortable to talk about religion in ways that I did not talk about it before," he said. "It doesn't make me more religious or less religious than I was before, but it does mean I'm willing to talk about it in different ways."


Dean indicated that he was trying to adjust to the idea of being more frank about his religious views, especially after seeing how people in South Carolina easily refer to God in public conversation.

"The people there are pretty openly religious, and it plays an ingrained role in people's daily lives," he said. "I think that I didn't understand fully how comfortably religion fits in with daily life in the South, in both black and white populations."

This, of course, follows the pattern of Dean travelling around the country, like any other political candidate, talking to people and - gasp! - listening to them. This is something to be deeply admired, this process of discovering America in order to lead it, this political road movie of a pre-campaign, and rather that castigating candidates for initially having had a tin ear, I think we should concentrate our blame on those who still don't get it, those who are unable to learn.

Note, incidentally, the following passage from the article:

When asked about his favorite book in the New Testament, Dean first cited the Book of Job, which is in the Old Testament and is the story of a pious man whose possessions are stolen and children killed before God ultimately restores his good fortune.

Dean corrected himself about an hour after the interview ended, returning to the front of the plane to tell reporters he misspoke when he said the book was in the New Testament.

There's two interesting things here. First, that Dean cited the book of Job when asked for his favourite New Testament book. (I think Job is pretty damn interesting as well, but surely he should have realised that it's an amazingly Old Testament-style book?) Secondly, that the journalist didn't call him on it at the time.

As it is, the article snarks that Dean was wrong, and doesn't mention that either a) the journo was unable, for whichever reason (nervousness? partisanship? Dean's Reality Distortion Field?) to correct him, or b) that the journo didn't spot the problem either. And if it's b, you've got to wonder who spotted the mistake first.

Anyway, if that was Dean's only problem, he'd be home and dry. The problem is that the Republicans have come out swinging.

Anti-semitism rears its ugly head

First comes Cal Thomas, in the Moon-funded Washington Times (I understand he also appears on Fox regularly). The stand-out snarky paragraph is this one:

Mr. Dean is from a Congregationalist background, a liberal denomination that does not believe in ministerial authority or church hierarchy. Each Congregationalist believes he is in direct contact with God and is entitled to sort out truth for himself. Mr. Dean's wife is Jewish and his two children are being raised Jewish, which is strange at best, considering the two faiths 1000 take a distinctly different view of Jesus.

Michael J Totten (via Matthew Yglesias) rebuts him far better than I could, but I'll merely point out that the paragraph in question appears to be objecting to both Protestantism and mixed marriages, which seems rather un-American to me.

Incidentally, consider:

In the Globe interview, he said Southerners understand religious talk better than his fellow New Englanders. Yes, that "vast Unitarian wasteland of the Northeast," as Charles Colson has jokingly called it, is the latest target of Mr. Dean's regional stereotyping.

You can't have it both ways, Mr Thomas. You can maintain that you have to have lived in a particular part of the US for a hell of a long time, maybe even been born and raised there, to really understand it. That prevents Dean from talking about the South with authority, but it also adds power to any statement of his about the North East of the US, given that he's spent all his life there (born and raised in New York, most of his adult life in Vermont).

Alternatively, if you want to say that Howard Dean is stereotyping his fellow New Englanders, you can disclaim any requirement to feel the country in your bones - and, of course, you've just lost one of your main arguments for why Dean is wrong about the South.

My Jesus is better than your Jesus

Meanwhile, Matt Grills quotes his favourite parts of the Bible, and badmouths the ones that Howard Dean likes. Frankly, we could be here all night: we're talking about a literary text which is translated differently in a number of different respectable religious traditions, who also disagree on which individual books are canon and which are apocrypha. Anyway, the choice paragraph is this one:

Well, can't we just set aside both views and call him a great teacher? Wrong-o. Jesus' teachings aren't a salad buffet. You don’t just pick what you want. You can't hold onto "do unto others as you have them do unto you" and ignore the fact that Jesus said he sits at the right hand of God and that he'll return someday. Believe it all or don't believe at all.

Mr Grills has just branded as unbelievers a number of British Anglican bishops, I believe. As well as urging a standard for political candidates to the highest office of the country that violates the first amendment that the President is legally obliged to uphold.

Beyond that, you can pick and choose. You can disagree on what the Bible means. People have been doing it ever since the Gnostics, and, effectively (i.e. their erstwhile friends didn't slaughter them too much for it) since the Reformation. And that certainly extends to recognising the universal moral commandments that underpin Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to mention just some closely-related religions.

Incidentally, you can also say that a particular moral philosopher said such-and-such, and remark that, incidentally, Jesus also said that.

Matt Grills' argument appears to be a very modern copyright-rights type of argument, which is ironic as I don't believe even Disney wants copyright to persist 2000 years after death. (OK, OK, strictly speaking 1960-odd years or something.) Because, as I understand it, it goes like this:

  • Jesus said a number of things, which he wrote down. By believing in them, and ascribing them to Jesus, you are quoting the New Testament.
  • We do not accept the notion of fair use. We will, however, waive eternal damnation of your soul in exchange for a commitment to accept the belief system of the rest of the Bible, entire and unabridged.

To which I say: you first.

(Yes, I know that's the Old Testament. But: 1) Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew; 2) I can probably dig out discrepancies in the New Testament as well if you like.)

Sorry, there's another one:

[...] "My father used to tell us how much strength he got from religion, but we didn't have Bible readings," he told the Boston Globe. "There are traditions where people do that. We didn't."

Um, Howard, reading Scripture isn't considered "tradition" for most Christians. It's the best and only way to learn about God, about Jesus and about living a holy life. Even more important to Christians than baptism and communion are the Holy Scriptures. It's the only written record we have of Jesus and his teachings. The first thing a new Christian is handed is a Bible. It is muy importante.

Grills, you numbskull, have you ever entertained the possibility that some people read silently? Have you even considered the possibility of silent contemplation? A great number of monasteries were founded on such principles.

The reasoned Democratic response to all of this

Beyond all of this, there's the issue of how Dean can talk about religion in the US, despite his alleged secular background.

Well, first of all, I think he'll adapt and learn. He's a much better public speaking than he used to be, and I think when the race shifts to the South he'll get more comfortable about talking about religion. Anyway, I think the Howard Dean campaign has the Democratic primary pretty much locked up - even if the candidate trips up slightly, he's got such a base of fervent support that it will take a lot to defeat him. So he's got time to learn.

But once he gets to the general election, Bush and his Republican friends will bash him relentlessly. So what are the Democrats to do?

Here's the second interesting thing: the Democrats don't actually need the South. If the Democratic candidate wins all of the Gore states and takes Arizona, he wins. If Florida goes his* way (*: I don't believe Carol Mosely-Braun will win the nomination), it's not even funny. As it happens, OK, so the Democrats probably can't win the South, but the Republicans can't win New York and California either. In terms of electoral votes, it's pretty much all-square.

Still, we have the issue of Howard Dean having a Jewish wife, and his children being raised Jewish, which a number of Republican wing-nuts will say is a sign of Dean's limp-wristedness, that he wasn't able to impose his rightful religious views upon his family.

Well, let's ignore for the moment the unfortunate fact that Jewishness is matrilineal, and that it makes sense, therefore, for the kids to be raised Jewish and then given the opportunity to decide whether they want to continue to be Jewish or not once they're adults, or close to adults. (Both of the kids decided to stay Jewish.) Let's think how it's important that we have a President who is religiously tolerant.

  • Hispanics and Arab-Americans: OK, so Howard Dean may be a Protestant, but his wife and children are Jewish. He's got to live religious to 1000 lerance every single day in his private life. You can seriously expect his administration to follow suit.
  • Israelis and Palestinians: if it took Nixon to go to China, a US President with Jewish wife and kids, with the aid of Presidents Clinton and maybe Carter, is peculiarly persuasive when it comes to asking the Israelis to give up some land in exchange for peace.
  • Al Qaeda: this is more difficult, but any less Bible-thumping from the bully pulpit is bound to help. If a Dean administration can find a way to tie foreign aid into a campaign of reducing the influence of the madrassas, all the better.

And what if people still don't agree? Well, that's fine, it's a free country. And would you want to live in a country where you could only get the job you wanted if you loved the right sort of person?

Is Clark the anti-Dean?

Polls show it - sort of. That is, if the pollsters know about the new voters Dean and Clark are bringing into the system.

The American Research Group is running a tracking poll on the New Hampshire Democratic primary. What ARG call a tracking poll is a system where they poll a third of their sample every day, and every day's poll results include the last three days' worth of responses. So if something happens on day 4, you'll see some reactions on day 5, but you'll only see the full effect on day 7. (Except that stuff may have happened on days 5 and 6, so you're not out of the woods yet.)

Note that they ask different people every time - which are presumed to be representative - so it's not a proper panel poll, so you can't see which people are changing their mind from day to day, just that the overall results are changing.

In 5 days, the following evolution has happened:

 Dec 26-28Dec 31-Jan 2

Why is Kerry dropping? Well, the ARG said at this time that it was because of an anti-war Kerry ad, featuring children playing happily and promising never to go war over oil. This unfortunately reminded women (predominently) that Kerry had voted for the war. Hence the meltdown. I must say, it's pretty tragic that a few days after a candidate announces he's borrowing money and mortgaging his house so he can keep his ads on the air, he goes into freefall because one of his own ads.

Happily, according to today's version of that page, he doesn't have much further to slide. If you compare the total number of people who would vote for a candidate, and the number of people who are "strongly committed" to them, you get the following:

 SupportersStrongly committed% strongly committed

Clark has the most undecided supporters. (Gephardt, Edwards and Kucinich have figures that are too low, and therefore too imprecise, to be included in this study.) This can mean one of two things.

First of all, Clark could be a less compelling candidate, who is nonetheless better than the others. His supporters aren't particularly convinced, and he could lose them as easily as he's gained them. That's one argument.

The other argument is that Clark's supporters are less entrenched because they've recently joined him from other campaigns, or from uncertainty. (There are 18% undecided in the latest poll, and 1% voting for "Other", whoever that is - Lyndon Larouche?)

This matters, because those 18% undecided have to go somewhere. If the ratio of committed to recent converts holds on election day, and the 18% undecided have to choose a candidate (or stay at home), then given the slimness of Kerry's lead, on current standing I think this poll predicts Clark to take 2nd place in New Hampshire.

And that does two things at a stroke: 1) It knocks out John Kerry, and 2) It shows that Wes Clark is the only one of Dean's rivals that can successfully get the votes of people who don't want Dean. If Clark can do it in New Hampshire, and Gephardt, Lieberman and Edwards can't, that gives him immense momentum for the next round of primaries.

Of course, there's a lot of problems with such an analysis. First of all, it assumes that a poll - a snapshot of public opinion now - represents underlying tendencies that will persist until the election. No serious pollster would tell you that; all a poll can tell you is that at a certain time people told someone that they would vote in a certain way.

The other reason is more interesting. Both Dean and Clark have been running highly innovative Internet-based campaigns, and they're attracting a different kind of voter as a result. Young people in particular, and non-voters in general, are being energised to turn out and vote - and it's anyone's guess who they are. Do the pollsters know about this new phenomenon (which hasn't actually been tested in a ballot box yet, of course)? Are the polls we see accurate predictors of the coming elections? It will be instructive to compare the last of the New Hampshire phone polls with the exit polls, especially if the pollsters get things wrong. Because if Dean and Clark are bringing new voters into the system, many of the polls everyone has been relying on may have to be rethought.