Drinking Scandal And The State of the Union

It is a sad commentary on the state of political discourse in this country that so many people are far more concerned about Marco Rubio drinking water than the competing arguments made during and after the State of the Union Address. We saw a thoughtful look at our current problems from Barack Obama and then Marco Rubio responding with the usual Republican bromides and straw man attacks, showing that the current Republicans have nothing to say about the real world, and no capacity for coming up with meaningful solutions to our problems.

I was sure happy it was Barack Obama on my television screen last night as opposed to Mitt Romney. Rubio’s speech showed how if Mitt Romney had been elected, the entire State of the Union Address would have been full of the same types of lies, distortions and irrational arguments that we heard from Rubio in the Republican response.

Obama had already debunked the gist of the Republican response with lines such as these: “Most Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” and “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.”

Rubio’s throat became dry and he took a sip of water. Big deal. I object more to seeing him fall back on perpetuating the same false narratives about Democrats which Republicans have been relying upon for years to avoid read debate over the issues. Criticize him for trying to pass of a plan which would destroy Medicare as a means to save him. Criticize him, as Paul Krugman has, for his simplistic and untrue explanation for the economic crisis, and ignoring the Republican Party’s role in crashing the economy and obstructing attempts at recovery. Compared to this, drinking water is trivial, even though it will probably be the lead skit on Saturday Night Live this weekend. This is what Rubio will be remembered for, regardless of the significance. It would have been cooler, even if unacceptable, if he had reached for a beer instead. It would have been a far better speech if he had presented some actual ideas.

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An Inane And A Meaningful Response To Marco Rubio’s Comments On The Age Of The Earth

The response to Marco Rubio’s answer to a question on the age of the earth shows why we need both a better opposition party and a better news media. Rubio’s answer:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Often ignorant comments such as this receive brief mention in the liberal blogosphere and are forgotten, but this comment continues to receive a lot of attention. Mark Halperin writes this off as an example of How the left-wing Freak Show is gearing up for ’16:

There’s one area where Democrats are really far ahead of Republicans right now. Science and technology, no. It’s doing this thing that Democrats failed to do in 2000, to stop George W. Bush, which is really, really early on using the left-wing Freak Show to define anyone who’s thinking of running for President, as quickly as possible, in negative terms on Twitter, on cable, on the Internet. They’re all over this Rubio thing because they want to control his image in a negative way and they did it this cycle too. They went after Romney early, it really hurt him. And they’re doing it now. And, you know, as a matter of just pure politics, it’s very effective because Rubio’s not full-time thinking about running for president. He’s out there dabbling but people on the Left will just be defining anyone who looks like they might be strong in four years.

Halperin has often referred to the right wing Freak Show, while far too often repeating their falsehoods as if there was some validity to them. It is even worse if he is going to call criticism of Rubio’s statement a left-wing freak show, analogous to the right-wing freak show of Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and others who promote a fictitious right wing narrative. There is no real comparison between these people who spread misinformation and those on the left who criticize Rubio for making a statement showing such disregard for science.

It also borders on the right wing conspiracy-theory mentality to see this as a plan to take out (or Palinize) Rubio in preparation for a possible 2016 presidential run. This response came after the interview, not part of some long-range conspiracy. This is not a quote being invented or taken out of context as we frequently see from the right wingers. This is not an attempt to dig up some long past statement or action, as right wingers often do when attempting to demonize a political foe. This is an honest response to a recently published interview on a subject which the left is quite concerned about–the Republican denial of facts and science.

In his answer, Rubio played down the importance of the question stating, “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.” Alex Knapp responded to this in Forbes:

…the age of the universe has a lot to do with how our economy is going to grow. That’s because large parts of the economy absolutely depend on scientists being right about either the age of the Universe or the laws of the Universe that allow scientists to determine its age. For example, astronomers recently discovered a galaxy that is over 13 billion light years away from Earth. That is, at its distance, it took the light from the Galaxy over 13 billion years to reach us.

Now, Marco Rubio’s Republican colleague Representative Paul Broun, who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently stated that it was his belief that the Universe is only 9,000 years old. Well, if Broun is right and physicists are wrong, then we have a real problem. Virtually all modern technology relies on optics in some way, shape or form. And in the science of optics, the fact that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum is taken for granted. But the speed of light must not be constant if the universe is only 9,000 years old. It must be capable of being much, much faster. That means that the fundamental physics underlying the Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many many more critical parts of the economy are based on bad science. The consequences of that could be drastic, given our dependence on optics for our economic growth.

Here’s an even more disturbing thought – scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates.  Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact.

If the Earth is really 9,000 years old, as Paul Broun believes and Rubio is willing to remain ignorant about,  it becomes imperative to shut down our nuclear plants and dismantle our nuclear stockpiles now until such time as scientists are able to ascertain what circumstances exist that could cause deadly acceleration of radioactive decay and determine how to prevent it from happening.

The bottom line is that this economy, at its root, is built on  a web of scientific knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology. It’s impossible to just cherry pick out parts we don’t like. If the Earth is 9,000 years old, then virtually the entire construct of modern science is simply wrong. Not only that, most of the technology that we rely on most likely wouldn’t work – as they’re dependent on science that operates on the same physical laws that demonstrate the age of the universe.

Now, this doesn’t mean that our representatives to the Congress and to the Senate should be scientific experts. But if they hold ideas about the world around us that are fundamentally at odds with scientific evidence, then that will ultimately infringe on their ability to make reasoned judgments about a host of issues where the economy touches technology. And that could end up harming the economy as a whole.

Politicians who are ignorant of basic science are not capable of making rational decisions on public policy in the 21st century. It is possible that Rubio might be more knowledgeable about science but feels it is necessary to deny scientific facts to maintain the support of the anti-science right wing. If this is the case, such cowardice is also not desirable from those in government.

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Ignorance And The Alternate Reality Of The Right Wing

If you had to pick just one word to characterize the modern conservative movement it would have to be ignorance. To believe the stuff they say it is necessary to be ignorant of history, economics, science, and public policy. The major reason for their ignorance is their rejection of legitimate sources of information while believing the outrageously untrue claims regularly made by Fox, right wing talk-radio, and their chain emails. I’ve pointed out many times that the more you watch Fox, the dumber you are. I had thought that this primarily involved matters related to right wing ideology and policy. This would include the belief that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attack, that Saddam had WMD which represented a threat to our national security, that cutting taxes brings in more revenue even during eras of relatively low tax rates, that creationism is a valid alternative to evolution, and that climate change is a hoax. This also includes their bizarre misconceptions about the beliefs of others, the belief that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, or the absurd belief that Barack Obama is a socialist. (Newt Gingrich has now claimed that the Congressional Budget Office is a “reactionary socialist institution,” which conservatives are certain to repeat when the facts contradict their beliefs.)

As bad as all this is, matters are even worse. A Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind Poll found that readers of newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today are, as would be expected, more likely to be aware of events which are unrelated to conservative talking points. However, those who watch Fox know less than those who follow no news at all. Taegan Goddard summarized:

A new Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind Poll finds that the Sunday morning political shows on television “do the most to help people learn about current events, while some outlets, especially Fox News, lead people to be even less informed than those who they don’t watch any news at all.”

“For example, people who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all (after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors). Fox News watchers are also 6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government than those who watch no news.”

These results mirror a University of Maryland study published last year.

The trend towards rejecting reality has led former Bush speech-writer David Frum to write an article asking, “When Did The GOP Lose Touch With Reality?”

The Bush years cannot be repudiated, but the memory of them can be discarded to make way for a new and more radical ideology, assembled from bits of the old GOP platform that were once sublimated by the party elites but now roam the land freely: ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers. For the past three years, the media have praised the enthusiasm and energy the tea party has brought to the GOP. Yet it’s telling that that movement has failed time and again to produce even a remotely credible candidate for president. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich: The list of tea-party candidates reads like the early history of the U.S. space program, a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff. A political movement that never took governing seriously was exploited by a succession of political entrepreneurs uninterested in governing—but all too interested in merchandising. Much as viewers tune in to American Idol to laugh at the inept, borderline dysfunctional early auditions, these tea-party champions provide a ghoulish type of news entertainment each time they reveal that they know nothing about public affairs and have never attempted to learn. But Cain’s gaffe on Libya or Perry’s brain freeze on the Department of Energy are not only indicators of bad leadership. They are indicators of a crisis of followership. The tea party never demanded knowledge or concern for governance, and so of course it never got them.

Frum addressed the alternative reality created by talk radio and Fox:

But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.

One terrifying example of the alternate reality promoted by the far right was seen at the Religious Right’s “Thanksgiving Family Forum” which six candidates for the Republican nomination attended. They support a warped version of the Constitution which exists only in their heads, containing views which are the opposite of what the framers intended. Rob Boston tried to correct a small number of their mistaken beliefs:

I can’t dissect the entire event. I don’t have that much time or patience. But I did take a few notes and want today to explain a few basic things to the Religious Right:

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison don’t agree with you. You hate the separation of church and state; Jefferson and Madison loved it. Jefferson and Madison worked together to end the government-established church in Virginia and guarantee religious liberty for all. Jefferson coined the metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state.” Madison spoke of the “total separation of the church from the state.” Neither favored an officially Christian government. They are not on your side; stop invoking them.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are two different documents designed to do different things.  There’s no doubt that the Declaration of Independence is an important historical document. It was a bold statement of our nation’s desire to be free from British control. But it does not list our rights. The rights of Americans are outlined in the Constitution, not the Declaration. I realize that it bothers you that the Constitution is secular and that you place great stock in the fact that the Declaration contains a deistic reference to the “Creator,” but that does not change this simple fact: The foundational governing document of the nation is the Constitution – and it does not state that we are an official Christian nation.

We have three co-equal branches of government. It’s discouraging to hear you cheer when candidates vow to stop the courts from handing down decisions that you don’t like. Our system grants the president no such powers – and for good reason. We’re not a dictatorship, after all. An independent judiciary is essential to the maintenance of a free society. When you applaud a man who promises to fire, harass and intimidate judges and turn the courts into a rubber-stamp body, you are advocating for autocracy. Aside from the separation of church and state, there is another important type of separation in our Constitution: the separation of powers. You might want to read up on it.

When you advocate denying public office to people on the basis of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God, you are being bigots. Article VI of the Constitution states that there shall be no religious test for federal office. People are free to reject political hopefuls on the basis of their beliefs, of course, but candidates should not promote this type of bigotry. We would have no difficulty labeling a person who says that a Jew is unfit for the presidency an anti-Semite. Likewise, a person who says that an atheist is unfit for that office should be called what he or she is: a bigot. It’s not something to be proud of.

You cannot simultaneously argue that decisions are best left to states and localities and demand federal control when states and localities do something you don’t like. Several candidates attacked Washington, D.C., policy-makers and asserted that states and local governments should have more control, much to the delight of the audience. They talked about how people have the freedom to make decisions on the local level. But apparently that freedom does not extend to making decisions that the Religious Right does not like. Moments later, many of these same candidates vowed to stop states from legalizing same-sex marriage or civil unions and demanded to criminalize abortion in all 50 states by federal writ. When you promote this type of intellectual disconnect, you expose yourself as the giant hypocrites that you are.

The day before the event, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a statement, “It’s a shame that so many candidates see fit to attend this fundamentalist Christian inquisition masquerading as a debate. Our nation faces many serious problems, but a lack of religion in our political system isn’t one of them. In fact, this election has already become deeply entangled with religion, with four candidates now claiming that God told them to run. Enough is enough.”

 

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