Monday, April 27, 2015

A new holiday

Today was a new holiday in New Zealand. Well, not really a new holiday as such, but a new public holiday. And, we have the Labour Party to thank for it.

Back in 2013, Labour MPs David Clark and Grant Robertson got a bill through Parliament that established that when Waitangi Day or Anzac Day fall on a Saturday or Sunday, the public holiday will be observed on the following Monday. When they fall on a weekday, they’ll be observed on that day.

The law change ensures that all workers get 11 paid holidays every year. It was a really good idea, but National and Act both voted against it. However, they were the only parties to oppose the bill, and with all the other parties backing it, it became law without government support.

Today was the first time the law came into use, and we can go long times without needing it. The next time the law will come into play is Waitangi Day next year, but the next time after that won’t be until Anzac Day in 2020. However, the next year, 2021, both Waitangi Day and Anzac Day fall on a weekend.

The Labour Party shared the graphic above on Facebook. They deserve to celebrate something good they helped bring about, and I think they managed to do so in a restrained way. It’s an example of the good web graphics the party has been producing lately.

In any case, it was nice have a long holiday weekend.

2015 WH Correspondents’ Dinner

The video above is of President Obama at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. I thought that he did a particularly good job this year.

I have no idea how President Obama managed to keep a straight face, particularly during the bit with his "anger translator". I thought that the Dick Cheney quip was comedy gold. I also thought that remembering journalists murdered or imprisoned was a good thing to do.

I also watched the C-SPAN video of the opening comedian, Cecily Strong, on YouTube, but I didn’t really care for her performance. A chuckle here and there, a couple well-placed barbs, but mostly just flat, I thought. It’s not the first time I didn’t like the comedian.

These events are always fun and relaxed, and a welcome break from the usual bitter divisions in Washington. It’s too bad the city can’t be like that more often.

Attorney General Eric Holder

The US Department of Justice posted the video above Friday (US time), and described it as “Attorney General Eric Holder Legacy Video”. It’s a nine-minute look at the first African American to serve as US Attorney General, and his career highlights.

Chad Griffin, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, is shown saying that Holder was “the LGBT rights movement’s Robert Kennedy”, chiefly because as Attorney General, Holder refused to defend the unconstitutional Defense [sic] of Marriage Act.

In his farewell remarks at the Justice Department (excerpts in the AP video below), Holder said:
“Civil rights: The LGBT community is something that I have tried to focus on. I think that is the civil rights issue of our time. This whole question of same-sex marriage, which will be resolved by the [Supreme] Court over the next couple months or so, hopefully that decision will go in a way that I think is consistent with who we say we are as a people.”
Holder also fought strongly for voting rights and to reform the criminal justice system. He also successfully prosecuted terrorists in civilian courts, something his Republican opponents, arguing for prosecution in military courts, said was impossible to do.

Holder ended up with an intensely confrontational relationship with Republicans in Congress. Many of them hated him as much as they hated President Obama, and also for similar reasons (racism chief among them). However, in an era in which Republicans used parliamentary procedures to persecute the Obama Administration, they use the controversy over “the fast and the furious” for partisan political gain. In the end, no evidence was ever found to implicate Holder himself. Indeed, nothing that the Republicans trotted out on any issue ever amounted to anything more that purely partisan grandstanding to benefit themselves and their party, all while wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on their partisan crusades.

None of which is to suggest that Holder was perfect, because he absolutely wasn’t. His department’s aggressive investigation of leaks of national security information to journalists was nothing less than a fundamental threat to freedom of the press, something one would have expected during the Bush/Cheney regime. To this day, it’s unclear how much of that was under his direction, but what clearly was, was troubling on its own.

Still, when the history of Holder’s tenure is written, I’m certain that it won’t be focusing on “the fast and the furious”, and it won’t be about investigating leaks to journalists. Instead, in terms of legacy alone, it really will be LGBT rights and the fight for marriage equality. Holder’s actions—or, in the case of DOMA, inaction—helped create the monumental shift that makes 50-state marriage equality an eventual certainty, hopefully as soon as the middle of this year.

For an oppressed minority that's had so few champions, especially in the Justice Department, that's an admirable legacy.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Today was a food day

I didn’t plan it starting out, but it became pretty obvious early on: Today was a food day. I don’t do “food porn”, as a rule, which is all the more reason to do so with this post. Because, well, it was food day.

This morning we went out for breakfast to a local café. We were up and showered early this morning, a benefit from going to bed at a decent hour, and we were hungry. The choice was, have breakfast at home and go out for lunch, or go out for breakfast. That won.

We went to a café near our house, which has the best corn fritters, I think (photo above). Their version has feta and outstanding bacon (oh yeah, and salad…) served with what seemed to be a homemade tomato sauce and sour cream. Lovely.

From there, it was off to the grocery store to pick up something for dinner. Nigel had an idea for something he wanted to make, and we needed a few bits and pieces (like bread and milk), so off we went.

The grocery store had a promotion for Coca-Cola Life, their version of coke which substitutes stevia for some of the sugar. It's just been introduced into New Zealand and Australia. I decided to get the (not on special) little tiny cans (250ml), because all that sort of stuff is meant to be a rare treat, not a guzzle. Okay, I’ll admit it: I think the cans are cute.

Some folks seem enraged on the Intertet (yawn.) about the product, saying it has nothing to do with fighting obesity and everything about profits for Coca-Cola. Really?! Because no company has ever been concerned first and foremost with profit, right? Sheesh.

Seriously, all those sorts of things really should be rare treats, and if someone can’t stand the “diet” versions (or just wants to avoid aspartame), then Coca-Cola Life is a better choice than the—ahem!—real thing. Personally, I found it more similar to real Coke than either Diet Coke or Coke Zero, but it WAS different from real Coke, too. I didn’t hate it, or necessarily like it, but if I’m vacillating between real Coke and one of the diet versions, I’d probably choose Coca-Cola Life. Well, that or a diet version, much as I try to avoid aspartame…

Back home, and a quiet day. It turns out that I even blogged about food. This was about the time I realised that today had a theme.

Lunch was what we bought at the grocery store (nothing unusual or even interesting). Dinner, on the other hand, was wonderful.

Nigel made poached salmon, served with a special crème fraîche sauce, along with roasted new potatoes with garlic and fresh rosemary, and buttered peas. It was wonderful (and I’m not normally a salmon person). A photo is below.

Today started out as an ordinary Sunday, but quickly, and unexpectedly, became food day. It was a good result, and a good day.

Food science

A column in yesterday’s New Zealand Herald purported to warn about mass-produced supermarket cakes sold in New Zealand. Part of a series, it was the first one I’ve read, and for me it raised far more concerns about having non-scientists writing about science than about the cake itself.

In her weekly column, Wendyl Nissen “takes a packaged food item and decodes what the label tells you about its contents”, according to the description on the site. This week it was a low-cost supermarket chocolate cake.

I'll be honest: I'm not a fan of such mass-produced supermarket cakes. I think they’re usually flavourless, overly sweet, or both. As Wendyl Nissen says, many of the ingredients in the cake are not ones I’d put in a cake I made at home, nor would reputable local bakers. Which is why I think she seems sincere in what she says.

My concern is that much of what she says is alarmism seemingly based on pseudo-science. She notes the many misspellings and similar mistakes in the labelling, so we can't be certain the cake really did contain propylene glycol. It may actually be propylene glycol alginate, which is used in beer, for example, and not even remotely similar to the anti-freeze ingredient.

However, propyl paraben, which is her main concern, MAY be a potential problem, though there's not enough evidence to prove it's a threat to human health. Even so, it's being removed from NZ supermarket cakes, as the Herald also reported.

It’s important to remember that not all chemicals are "bad", and even ones that might possibly harm a human would have to be consumed in such large quantities that the person would die of over-consumption before the chemicals could do any harm. In addition, "natural" is not always better. For example, organic produce is often extremely high in potentially toxic chemicals because it takes much higher amounts of organic-approved pesticides to do the work of artificial chemical weed or insect killers. A "natural" colour or flavour could still cause problems, particularly for those with food allergies.

I looked at several of Nissen’s columns, and saw a pervasive suspicion of “chemicals”, many of which she dismisses as “don’t know why that’s in there”. She could have asked the manufacturer, couldn’t she? If not, how about asking a genuine food scientist?

The problem with such superficial looks at food product ingredients is that there’s SO much scientific illiteracy today that it leads people into all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and paranoia, leading them to avoid perfectly safe and ordinary substances.

Here’s an example.

Every day, you consume dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), a colourless, odourless and tasteless chemical. Also known as hydroxyl acid, it’s the major component of acid rain and contributes to the “greenhouse effect”. It can cause severe burns, and accelerates corrosion and rusting of metal. High quantities have been found in tumours of patients who have died from cancer.

DHMO is used as an industrial solvent and a coolant, in nuclear power plants, and as a fire retardant. It’s also used in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing produce, it’s still contaminated by this chemical. Even so, DMHO remains an additive in food products, especially some low-cost junk foods, where it can be in very high concentrations.

What is this terrible, awful, dangerous chemical? WATER!

My point is that columns like Wendyl Nissen’s don’t help make people better consumers—they just make them more frightened and paranoid. People who are concerned about additives in prepared foods should make their own products or buy from reputable local bakeries and the like, people who can tell you what, exactly, is in their products and why. Just remember that even then many ordinary ingredients—flour, cocoa, even water—have been processed or produced using chemicals.

If you want one of those awful supermarket cakes, go for it. Fresh and freshly-made food is best, of course, for a whole lot of reasons. But prepared food is often a necessary thing in our fast-paced world, and some people really do like them. Moderation in all things is sound advice—including moderation itself, of course.

Too much of a good thing can kill you, too—so can water.

Related: For a more sceptical look at claims made by pop culture food, nutrition and health commentators, I highly recommend the site Science-Based Medicine.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Anzac Day 2015

Today is Anzac Day, and the 100th anniversary of that ill-fated landing at Gallipoli. 2779 New Zealanders died in that campaign. There were record crowds at both dawn services and community services around the country today, and the official commemoration at Gallipoli itself was huge.

The photo above is of the official Anzac Day WW100 Commemorative pin. I bought one for me and one for Nigel. Since this is a special year, the special pin seemed appropriate.

This year is also the first in which the public holiday for Anzac Day will be observed on a Monday (on the 27th this year). A law change means that if Anzac Day or Waitangi Day fall on a weekend, the public holiday will be observed on the following Monday. This ensures that Monday-Friday workers don’t miss out on a public holiday when those two holidays fall on a weekend. The observations themselves still happen on the actual day, of course.

Finally something a little different for this year. The video below is from Andrew Little, the Leader of the Opposition. I think it lends some interesting human perspectives.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Openly Secular Day

April 23 (today in the USA) is Openly Secular Day, a day to celebrate being secular. People who are secular—including atheists, agnostics, humanists, and nonreligious people—are asked to tell one other person. The mission is “to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance” of secular people. Above is the official promotional video.

I think everyone I know (which includes regular readers of this blog) is aware that I’m ardently secular and completely non-religious (if not, surprise!). I believe that for freedom and democracy to thrive, there must an impregnable wall of separation between church and state, while at the same time I also believe that people must be free to believe whatever they want—as long as they don’t try and force those beliefs on everyone else. None of this is news for regular readers or the people who know me in real life.

Even so, I don’t usually label myself specifically. In the past, I’ve used the terms “non-theist” and “agnostic” for what seemed the best description of my own religious orientation, but, like all such terms, they’re imprecise. I’ve come to realise that my difficulty in self-labelling on religious belief (and sometimes labels are necessary) is based on internalised prejudice.

The fact is, atheists in particular have a really bad image, and Americans have an especially negative opinion of them. For example, here’s something I wrote about in 2010:
In 2007, Gallup conducted a poll that asked if people would be willing to vote for their party’s presidential nominee if the party nominated a “generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an atheist” (among other categories). Only 45% would vote for an atheist, and 52% would not. Interestingly, Americans hate Atheists even more than gay people, with 55% saying they’d vote for “a homosexual” as opposed to 45% who would not. [link in the original]
Those statistics kind of sum things up for me. I’m part of a minority that’s been oppressed in the past, often severely, though things for LGBT people now are light years ahead of where they were when I was a kid. For atheists, things are now not much better than they were for LGBT people when I was a kid—maybe they’ve made it to the 1980s. Maybe.

Which is why the Openly Secular Day is such a great idea. Progress on the civil and human rights of LGBT people took off once everyday Americans got to see and even know real LGBT people, not the caricatures. So, if Americans can get to see and know real atheists, the USA might become more tolerant of them, too. Maybe.

As we’ve also seen with LGBT people, growing openness in society can also help heal internalised prejudice against one’s self. I think that’s a good thing in itself.

Of course, being secular isn't just about being atheist. In fact, plenty of religious people are also secularists. But if people like me are reluctant to embrace the label implied by non-belief, how much harder must it be for religious secularists, people who are often condemned as being atheist or, at least, not a “real” adherent of their religion?

The larger point is, there are many different ways to be secular. At the bottom of this post is a video for Open Secular Day that I ran across a couple days ago. It’s part of a series of videos in which people talk about being openly secular. This one features John Davidson, and, I’ll admit, part of me was fascinated from a “where are they now?” perspective, seeing someone I remember so well from my youth. Beyond that, it was also because he, too, is a preacher’s kid, something that obviously interests me personally.

If living an authentic life, being honest with one’s self and others, is a good thing in itself—and clearly I think it is—then Openly Secular Day is a positive force for change. Secularists like me have a long way to go in melting away prejudice, but we have to start somewhere, even if it's with ourselves.

Happy Openly Secular Day.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Taking Down an Anti-Gay Infomercial

In the video above, Matt Baume takes on the virulently anti-gay “Family” Research [sic] Council’s new video. The group puts out anti-gay propaganda videos all the time, and all of them say absurd things. “F”RC needs to be held accountable for what it says.

The “F”RC video, according to the YouTube description for Matt’s video, is “about how the gays are going to ruin everything with all their pesky marrying and doing business and existing. The video's full of crazy claims, half-truths, and homophobia, and worst of all builds to a sneaky sales pitch at the end.”

So, Matt takes the video apart point by point, and it’s embarrassing for the “F”RC. As always, this has nothing to do with the anti-gay group’s opinions, it’s about facts alone: Everyone, even homophobes, are entitled to hold whatever opinions they want—but they’re not entitled to their own facts.

This is the sort of takedown I wish I had the patience and calmness to do, because there’s so much chicanery in the far right anti-gay industry that needs to be exposed as the bovine excrement it is.

But, I don’t have the patience and calmness to do that. Well, not usually. So, I’m glad that Matt did and I hope he continues to do it. This video is an example of how to do it.

However, there was one thing that made me chuckle: Matt criticised Tony Perkins for turning his propaganda video into a commercial at the end, and then Matt did that at the end of his video. However, Matt’s podcast is free, unlike Tony’s DVDs, so it’s different—and kinda funny.

But after such dark topics in that video, it was also kind of nice to have something to smile about at the end.

All in all, a good video, and I think Matt did a great job.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Pop Culture's Journey Toward Marriage Equality

The video above from the ACLU shows the history of the move to marriage equality in the USA against a backdrop of pop culture. This is an interesting approach, and also appropriate, since many people experience social change through pop culture.

However, the change hasn’t happened as quickly as many people think.

On May 18, 1970, two students at the University of Minnesota, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell, applied for a marriage licence in Minneapolis. The Hennepin County District Court clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused solely because the applicants were both male.

Baker and McConnell sued, contending that Minnesota's marriage statutes had no explicit requirement that applicants be of different genders, and that restricting marriage to opposite-gender couples would violate the First, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. It became the first lawsuit arguing for marriage equality in the United States. The trial court dismissed their claim.

The pair then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and on October 15, 1971, the court ruled against the plaintiffs, upholding the state’s exclusion of same-gender couples from marriage.

Baker and McConnell then appealed the Minnesota court's decision to the US Supreme Court. On October 10, 1972, the Supreme Court issued a one-sentence ruling: "The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question."

Some two decades later, the Hawaii case of Baehr v. Miike set off the rightwing crusade against marriage equality, including 1996’s infamous "Defense [sic] of Marriage Act". However, it would be nearly another decade before any state actually had marriage equality, when it finally arrived in Massachusetts in 2004.

Beginning in 2004, voters started approving referenda to ban same-sex couples from marrying, and by 2010, they’d done so 28 out of 30 times (one of those two, Arizona’s, was later passed on a second attempt). The last real referendum to pass was in 2009 when Maine voters voted to repeal marriage equality, something they then reversed in 2012, approving it. I don’t count the 2012 special vote in North Carolina because it was so obviously rigged.

All of which is why the pace of change seems so rapid: In 11 years, the USA has moved from zero recognition of marriage equality, through a frenzy to ban it, and on to the verge of 50-state equality. A recent USA Today poll found that by a margin of 51% to 35%, Americans think that it's no longer practical for the Supreme Court to ban same-sex marriages because so many states how have marriage equality. The same poll also found, like all reputable polls do, that a majority of Americans support marriage equality (it also found that Americans are suspicious of the so-called “religious freedom” laws the rightwing has been promoting as a sort of last stand against LGBT equality).

As this history has played out, pop culture has reflected what’s been going on. While pop culture always lags behind the pace of change, at least somewhat, its reflection of change has nevertheless been important both for reinforcing that change, and also to reassure Americans that everything will be okay—because it will be. That’s why the ACLU video is so apt.

In another decade or so, all this may seem like ancient history. Or, we may still be fighting peripheral skirmishes with our far-right anti-LGBT adversaries. But however it plays out, we know two things: Pop culture will reflect it, and, more importantly, the ACLU will still be in the fight, just like always.

A footnote: As of December 2012, some forty years after the US Supreme Court rejected their appeal, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell were still together, a retired couple living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

2Political Podcast 104 is available

Episode 104 of the 2Political Podcast is now available from the podcast website. There, you can listen, download or subscribe to the podcast, or leave comments on the episode. The five most recent episodes are also listed with links in the right sidebar of this blog.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

UK Labour Party ads

The United Kingdom’s next elections will be held on May 7. Most of us outside the UK don’t see their campaign messaging, so I thought I’d share a few of the UK Labour Party’s ad messages. The ad above was their party political broadcast at the end of March. The YouTube description says:
“Martin Freeman explains how this election is a choice between two completely different sets of values. Labour believes in community, compassion and fairness. That’s why we will build an economy that works for everyone. The Tories have cut taxes for millionaires and only work for people at the top. A Labour government led by Ed Miliband will protect the NHS, create opportunities for young people, raise the minimum wage and ban exploitative zero-hours contracts.”
The next video, from a few days later, is called “Could you live on a zero-hours contract?” I chose it because here in New Zealand, we’re fighting our version of the Tories, the National Party, on this very issue. Zero Hour Contracts are employment contracts in which the worker has no guaranteed hours (“zero hours”), but is expected to be available for work at any time. In NZ, and I think in the UK as well, a worker who is not available on demand could be fired. The YouTube description says:
David Cameron says he couldn't live on one, so why should other people? The next Labour government will ban exploitative zero-hours contracts for employees who are working regular hours. This new legal right to a regular contract will apply to workers after just 12 weeks.

Two things about this issue: NZ’s Tories have said the same rubbish, about workers “choosing” such contracts, but, due to mounting public pressure and resurgent unionising, they’re talking about banning them. I’ll believe it when I see it! Also, all NZ workers get a contract before they start work, though for some they may start out on a lower wage—that’s an entirely different issue, and one for another time.

The next video, “Five times an IOU is unacceptable” is about one of UK Labour’s main issues: Saving the National Health Service (NHS). This is a hot political issue in the UK, with the NHS having been under constant cuts and assault by the Tories.

Speaking of saving the NHS, the next video, “A decent society looks after its people” features comedian Jo Brand talking about saving the NHS. This video also talks about “Labour’s better plan for working families.”

And finally, “Look at what David Cameron has done in five years...”, a pointed message directed at Cameron. There’s a reference at the end to Cameron refusing to show up for a televised debate, something that’s been roundly criticised. It was posted today, and specifically asks people to share it.

Obviously, I find campaign messaging very interesting, and I’m fascinated to see what campaigns in other countries do. There are a lot more videos on the UK Labour Party’s YouTube Channel; I just picked a few that I thought reflected some of the variety, as well as the issues in the UK election. I have no idea which, if any, of the videos (apart from the first one, up top) were broadcast on television, but I’d guess that most weren’t, since that’s what most modern political parties in Western democracies do now: Produce many messages, some of which are specifically for social media sharing.

The UK Labour Party’s videos are quite different from what the NZ Labour Party (or the NZ National Party, for that matter) tends to do. Some of that is no doubt cultural (we’re a very different country from the UK, despite sharing a head of state), and some of it is different flavours of social democratic parties.

I make no pretence of being impartial here: If I were a UK citizen, I would be voting Labour. That’s hardly a surprise, of course, but I really do think that UK Labour has “A better plan” for “a better future” for the UK. Their manifesto is available on their website, or watch Labour Leader Ed Miliband launch it in a 23:43 video.

Election campaigns fascinate me. Obviously.

The crazy in brief

Over the past 6 or 7 years, I’ve read dozens and dozens of legal briefs filed in various court cases dealing with marriage equality, including briefs from both sides. The cases being considered together by the US Supreme Court have brought out the most bat-shit crazy briefs yet.

In the video above, Matt Baume highlights some of the silliest and most bizarre argument made against marriage equality. It must have been very difficult to choose, with so very many options. Of the choices he made, he notes; “Some are full of mistakes, others have baffling arguments. And at least one is incredibly sexist, and signed by a member of Congress.”

Early this month, I wrote about how Kentucky’s lawyers revived a discredited and reject racist argument to say that same-gender couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry. It was shocking mainly because a state thought it was a good idea to echo the worst of racists’ attitudes in a new context.

However, that same argument has been made in many of the briefs before the Court, in part because opponents of marriage equality can’t find a non-religious justification for excluding same-gender couples from marriage. While we expect that nonsense from professional anti-gay groups, we didn’t expect it from a state.

Other states have tried other bizarre rationales for denying marriage equality, and Matt Baume highlighted a few of those in the video I also posted. It’s clear that for sheer idiocy, the various anti-LGBT amicus briefs have no equal.

In addition to the nutty anti-gay arguments that Matt highlights, here are some more from anti-gay briefs I’ve read: One brief spent virtually all its pages attacking Kinsey and his work, because apparently they think that our demand for equality rests entirely on him (or something…). Another guy claimed that marriage equality was bad because gay people were being mean to him on the Internet (yes, seriously!), another just listed the bible as their “legal” source (in making their arguments, amicus briefs generally cite other court rulings, laws in force, as well as people they consider relevant experts on the matter before the court, or, at least, on an aspect of it the amicus bases an argument on). Still other briefs have tried to argue that gay people are disgusting, sick, doomed to hell, and so on and so on and so on.

We’ve heard all these anti-gay smears and defamation plenty of times over the years. Even though the radical right may have raised the volume of their shouting, no one outside their small segment of society is actually listening, a fact that probably makes them potentially dangerous as they get more angry and frustrated at their mounting losses and inability to convince the mainstream to agree with them (a topic in itself).

Still, I’ve often said that when the dust settles, and the USA has 50-state marriage equality, we’ll have the radical right to thank for it happening so quickly. By being so mean-spirited and even vicious in their opposition, they did more to quickly win over the hearts and minds of mainstream people than our side could have done without the radicals’ inadvertent assistance.

The work for equality is far from over, and marriage equality alone—important as it is—isn’t the end-point in the struggle for full equality, but it will be an important milestone. One thing we can be certain of, though: The radicals won’t stop being crazy or doing and saying crazy things once they’ve lost. Their history so far, as demonstrated by their amicus briefs—with their silly, out-dated and rejected “arguments”—prove that.