The American Taliban

It is striking how the gentlemen competing to secure the republican nomination are so like the Taliban in their medieval longing for an intolerant, religious society in which any infraction should be met with the harshest possible punishment.

As far as I can judge, the only thing that separate Romney, Gingrich and Perry from the afghan tribesmen under the odious label "Taliban" is that their brand of corruption is more refined and profitable. Romney, Gingrich and Perry are rich beyond most people's dreams.

It is with some astonishment the world looks on while the american voter yearns to put into a position of power a figure that will complete the United States' transition to a authoritarian theocracy. It is with amazement the world looks on as half the population simply can't wait to turn the US into Afghanistan or Iran.

The republican party is the Taliban. They stand for precisely the same values as those held in other areas where bronze age myth is held in higher regard than reason, dignity and restraint - though their worship may differ in practice.

(With apologies to Mitt Romney - strictly speaking the religious piece of fan-fiction he believes in first saw the light of day roughly around the time of the industrial revolution and not the bronze age.)

Moral authority

After nearly a decade of war with Afghanistan it may be time to take a step back and ask a couple of questions. The most important of which is "what are we hoping to accomplish?".

On the surface of things invading Afghanistan may have seemed like an inevitable response to the 9/11 attacks. Nevermind that the might of the Soviet empire never managed to gain control over the country during its more than a decade long foray into asymmetrical warfare: it was important for politicians to be seen as doing something. So even though the fight was not a winnable one, participation in it was expected.

But 10 years in, why are we not accomplishing much? Why is the situation still not under control?

Part of the reason is that we no longer have moral auhority.

The previous administration defined a new low with regard to government integrity and specifically a new low with regard to the integrity of individuals holding various posts within the government. The president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, he secretary of justice and an assortment of other secretaries and advisors demonstrated beyond any doubt that the US government is not beholden to law - international or national. We had a spectacular demonstration of how it is possible to hijack a democracy and abuse power to further private agenda. Be they motivated by profit, by personal agenda or religious zeal.

Wars were started on false premises and outright lies, the government made sure that certain private parties were able to profit handsomely from preferred treatment as part of the war effort. But worse yet: the US shed any and all principles that would otherwise have stood in the way of such gross indecency and abuse: the US is now on record as a supporter of rendition, torture and imprisonment without due process. Anything "rogue states" have been accused of in the past, the US is now in favor of. Criminal acts that in relatively recent history lead to harsh sentences, including capital punishment, are now deemed acceptable actions.

Add to that the installment of the likes of Hamid Karzai as the president of Afghanistan. An unprincipled, shady, weak-willed puppet of the US - though it could be argued that he is not even an effective tool in that respect since he appears prone to not keeping in line with the script that he has been given.

But the big problem rests with President Obama.

By not making any credible effort to address the transgressions of the previous administration, history has already started to solidify and Obama has cast himself in the role of Bush apologist. The war crimes perpetrated by the Bush administration will never be prosecuted. Of course, this means that Obama is, for all practical purposes, as morally bankrupt as the people who committed these war crimes.

Engaging in warfare against an opponent that has no infrastructure and does not depend on infrastructure cannot be won by traditional means. It can only be won by moral superiority. The US does not have moral superiority.

The "war on terror" is little more than a tool for radicalized religious zealots and war profiteers to further their agenda. As long as the Obama administration is unwilling to bring war criminals to justice and insists on wasting time on putting on a show, from perpetuating unwinnable wars to terrorizing its own population, the "war on terror" can only act as an amplifier for the agendas of the terrorists within and outside the US. Within and outside government.

I hope that Obama will yet do the right thing. Now that his chances of a second term has been significantly reduced, I hope that he will spend his remaining time in office to put things right. To put aside petty politics and to rebuild the foundations of the democracy. Because until the US rehabilitates its shattered moral principles, it will not be in any position to affect lasting positive change for itself or the world.

Obama to serve one term only

Of course I don't know that Obama will serve only one term. Nobody knows that for sure now (with the possible exception of Nate Silver), but I can't help but feel that the rudder has come off Obama's presidency. Just as the United States really needed its president to make the trip up to Capitol Hill and straigthen out the House, he did the opposite: he buckled and now appears weak and unprincipled. The dire situation that has developed over the past weeks is rather extraordinary - and extraordinary measures to address this would have been appropriate.

The republicans clearly do not care about the people they represent. The republicans clearly do not represent fiscal responsibility. The republicans represent the top percent or so - the wealthy, the financially independent, those for whom the financial crisis was merely a temporary setback, not even noticeably affecting their life.

Allowing the tax cuts for the rich expire would not have hurt the rich in any way that would even be noticable to them. Moreover, we need not theorize about any trickle-down effects: we know for a fact that there is no such thing as a trickle-down effect. In fact: we know with absolute certainty that it has the opposite effect. It has been tried before and the data is in. We count this as scientific fact.

This can mean only two things: either the representatives are exceptionally incompetent or they simply do not care about 99% of the population.

With the middle class gone, the "American Dream" is dead.

Some economists have come up with a good metric for illustrating financial viability, or lack thereof: how many people can come up with $2000 if they are given 30 days to pony up the money. By saving, borrowing, selling possessions etc. Less than 50% of the United States population are capable of coming up with $2000 in 30 days. This means that over 50% of the population is one small misfortune away from insolvency and financial ruin at any given time.

And for the people in question, not even the tax cut can make up $2000 over a whole year, let alone 30 days.

It is sad that Obama and the democrats are so easily manipulated by the republicans. By extending the tax cuts for another 2 years there is now a big hole in the budget. A big hole in the budget that has to be filled by increasing the United States dependency on foreign countries. Countries like China and middle-eastern oil nations. These are the countries whose good will the US will now become more dependent upon.

Those tax cuts will not go away either. They will expire around the time of the next presidential election at which point they will be part of the presidential debate. And by now we know the score: the uneducated masses will reach for their $1500 in tax cuts, vote for whomever promises to get it for them, and sink the country into more debt.

You can't really do anything with $1500. If you slip and break something it won't even cover a significant part of your hospital bill.

It is even sadder that unemployment benefits for the victims of the financial crisis have only been extended for about 13 months. Though not all of them. These benefits only cover those that have been unemployed for less than 100 weeks. For those who have been unemployed for longer there is nothing. Nada. Zero.

The Obama administration has caved. It has caved to the republicans, it is actively rewarding those who were already doing fine and those who created the financial crisis -- while it has done little or nothing for those, due to no fault of their own, fell victim to the financial crisis.

Shame on you, Obama. Shame on you, Biden. Shame on you Pelosi. People were counting on you and you let them down.

But most of all: shame on the american voter who is demonstrably too stupid to take care of him- or herself. Shame on the american voter for not putting country first and for being too uneducated, too easy to lead, too eager to get distracted by straw-men to make sure the nation's affairs are put in order. Shame on the american voter for steering the country towards insolvency and absolute dependence on nations that represent values opposite of those values you like to think you represent.

As for the republicans in the House, I don't think they are capable of feeling shame for wanting to sacrifice the independence and future of the nation at the cost of enriching the top 1% wealthiest which they represent; and only the top 1%.

Wikileaks and history

The press has been abuzz with stories about Julian Assange for the past months. Lately some prominent politicians and pundits have called for the assassination of Assange as well as death sentences for those who supply him with information.

I can't help but think how badly things have gotten out of hand and the terrible, terrible hipocrisy of the west. When I grew up I was told how evil Soviet Russia, China and places like Cuba were. Places where there was no free speech, where people were jailed without proper legal proceedings, where the state had no respect for human rights, where torture was acceptable, wars were fought for the wrong reasons and the population was kept ignorant of what was going on.

This is us now. We censor, we torture, we jail people without trial, and we start wars for reasons that turn out to be lies. We even allow weak and paralyzed leaders to let extremists dictate how the population is terrorized. At airports and by having their private lives invaded. Sometimes by mean-spirited unskilled labor. Our "inalienable rights" are not so inalienable after all.

Though one should be careful to draw parallels to Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, but I think it is necessary. The holocaust was allowed to happen largely because it was kept a secret to most of the population. There were no images circulating from the camps. There was no official acknowledgement from the authorities that millions of people were being systematically murdered.

Admitting the existence and nature of the camps would, of course, made it hard for the nazi regime to secure the needed support. Secrecy and the ignorance of the population was key.

Had the horrors of the holocaust been known to the population of germany, and outside, it is doubtful if it would have been allowed to proceed. But it wasn't known and millions of people did get killed in ways that are too horrible to contemplate. Millions of people were killed in a country that was considered one of the most advanced and civilized countries of its time.

The holocaust scares us because it showed us what we are capable of. It shows us when government is allowed to operate behind a veil of secrecy. When the checks and balances do not work.

Many of the things that Wikileaks have published are historically important documents. It is important to document war crimes. It is important to document that our politicians are misleading us. It is important to document whom and what we are supporting. What we are letting our leaders do in our name.

And it is important that we know about these things now. While we can still do something about it.

The transgressions, lies and atrocities would probably come to light at some later point in history. When it is too late to do anything about them. We can visit the holocaust museums at Auschwitz -- but it won't bring back the people who were tortured and exterminated there. The world eventually learning about the camps saved exactly nobody.

What would history have looked at if there was a Wikileaks in the 30s and 40s? What would history have looked at if we knew then.

Indeed, what Assange is doing is unpleasant for diplomats and world leaders. But a bit of embarrasment and the possible prosecution of war criminals and inept politicians is a small price to pay to ensure that history won't look back on 2010 with the same sort of regret we look back at dark times in our recent history.

And as for putting people at risk: no credible evidence has been presented for this. And there is a precedent for this already. Scooter Libby outed a CIA operative; while serving in the administration -- yet his punishment for this act of treason was a mere slap on the wrist. Why should someone who isn't even part of the government be held to any higher standard?

And since Obama, and the US, have demonstrated that the US does not prosecute its war criminals, prevention and dissemination of knowledge is critical. There will be no trials. There will be no upholding of the laws. There will be no justice. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld will never be held to the standards that the US has held other war criminals to in the past. The precedent set is that the US president and his staff are free to commit war crimes without fear of prosecution. This is worse than a mere totalitarian regime operating in some hot and humid part of the world: this is us. This is what we are. And we are foregoing the moral high ground of expecting anything more from others.

We must know. We must not repeat history. We must hold our leaders to higher standards.


I travel a quite a bit in my current job. This means I spend a lot of nights alone in hotels. Tonight was valentine's day and I really would have wanted to spend the night with my GF. But I have an important meeting tomorrow, so it was critical I be there bright and early tomorrow. Which means I had to go tonight.

Since there is nothing decent AND quick to eat around the hotel, I usually go out and have a burger. On my way to the burger joint I spotted a homeless guy. The same homeless guy I usually give my spare change on my last day in town when I am here. A skinny, dirty fellow, obviously a heroin-addict.

I don't give him my money because I condone his heroin abuse. I give him my money because I think it is better than him having to steal it to feed his addiction. Begging in one of the richest countries in the world must be crushingly humiliating. And if he is willing to do that, I'd feel an idiot not to empty my pockets of the spare change I have. I usually give him about $10-20 in coins.

Anyway, it was cold tonight. And since it is the first night of the trip, I have not accumulated any spare change yet. I went to the burger place and ordered two meals. On the way back I walked over to him, sat down, held out the the food and said "you hungry?". He looked up, then slowly reached out and accepted the food with a "thank you".

For a brief moment while walking down the street I felt good.

Then I felt bad about feeling good.

It isn't like I really did anything to help him. I felt bad about not staying there. About not eating with him and perhaps talk a bit.

I think I'll do that tomorrow if he is still there. It'll be late tomorrow with all the work that has been scheduled. But if he's there late tomorrow night I'll bring him coffee and something to eat and have a chat.

Who is watching?

Imagine you get a new neighbor. About the same time your neighbor moves in next door, fruit starts to disappear from your garden. Suspicious of your new neighbor you ask him if he knows anything about this. Your neighbor admits to stealing the fruit, then goes on to blame you for not keeping an eye on your garden. "How can you expect to not have your fruit stolen unless you watch your garden?", he states with a shrug.

A sentiment I have often heard from people of faith is "how can there be any morality without God?".

I would much rather have a neighbor that respects my property because it is wrong to steal rather than because he knows I am watching.

Likewise I think it says something about the lack of moral character when people think we need God to act morally.

If you believe God is needed for morality they you will never be a moral person. With or without God.

On religion.

I do not believe in God.

Unlike many, I have never bothered to self-apply any label to my lack of faith. Mostly because it has never been important to me to precisely communicate which flavor of non-faith I would sort under. If you like, you can call me an "atheist".

It is not like I had any choice in the matter.

At no time did I make a conscious decision not to believe in any deity or religion. When I was a kid I can remember reading historic accounts of the crusades, of the middle ages, and of wars being fought, apparently over beliefs, but even as a 12 year old child I assumed that these were just ulterior motives. That they were excuses for everything from xenophobia to the acquisition and retention of political power.

As a kid I did have an above average intelligence, but I did not, and I still do not, consider myself all that smart. I just have an appetite for knowledge, and then, as now, I spend a lot of time on my own just thinking.

By the time I was 15 I had read the bible cover to cover twice. I felt that since the bible plays such a central role in our culture, whether you believe in what it says or not, I ought to at least have read it.

The first time I read it must have been the summer I turned 14. It was not an enjoyable read, but I toughed it out and finished the whole thing.

The second time I read the entire bible was the year after. This time I took notes and it took me a few weeks longer to get through the whole text. I also borrowed a stack of books at the library. Mostly history books, books on middle eastern culture and some books on certain theological subjects (not all of which made much sense to me at the time).
I also spent some time reading criticisms of the bible as well as rebuttals of criticisms, though they were not as easy to come by in the 80s when all I had access to was the town library. (However the librarian (a devout christian) was indeed very helpful. Not only in getting books, but in discussing and explaining matters of theology and suggesting subjects for further study)

By the time I was done reading the bible the second time I felt a great sadness. A great sadness that one would consider a text largely shaped by centuries of politically motivated editing and shoddy translations, cultural and historical ignorance a holy text.

It made me sad that all those people would turn up for mass every sunday -- neither understanding the religion they believed in nor the circumstances that shaped it. The majority of them had most likely not read the whole bible or even significant parts of it. Much less tried to understand the historical contexts (plural) that shaped it. I can't say I felt very sorry for those who had not even bothered to read it: if you are willing to believe in the bible without having read it, well, then you are truly a moron -- I am sorry, but there really isn't any nice way to put it.

The people I felt truly sorry for were the people who having read it still were unable to see it for what it is. Or the people who didn't feel the need to understand the times and the cultures that created and shaped it and ask themselves important questions about how we should deal with the many problems with the text.

It may seem strange to christians that, at least intellectually, I saw the bible and christian faiths as two very separate things.

At the time I did not believe in God, but I was open to the possibility that there might be a higher power -- some form of consciousness outside ourselves. I, ironically enough, considered it unscientific to rule it out absolutely without proof one way or another.

For the most part I saw christian faith as just a manifestation of a belief in some consciousness outside our own. I must admit that I saw concrete religions as being a synthetic construct -- nice (and many not so nice) fairy tales to give abstract concepts some shape.

Concrete analogies for the unsophisticated mind, if you will.

The fact that the christian myths are so elaborate to the point where they have time and again sparked theological controversy I mostly put down to the fact that along the way the church got a bit carried away in the storytelling and ended up inventing too many conflicting and internally inconsistent narratives. I felt that whatever meaning might have been there at the beginning has been perverted by excessive elaboration, cultural and historical ignorance and misinterpretation.

And we need not go far back in our own recorded history to observe this. The mormons believe in a whole new set of fairy tales spun by known con-man Joseph Smith.

From I was 16 until George W. Bush came to power, I didn't really think much about religion. There were other, more important subjects to think about. It was only when Bush came to power it dawned on me what a terrible shadow religion was once again casting on our society. The 80s was an optimistic time. As a teenager I, rather naïvely assumed that we were progressing -- that we were shedding superstitions and striving for enlightenment. I remember watching "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan on TV and feeling a sense of optimism for the future.

When I see Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" today I am greatly saddened. We have regressed. We have allowed our society to be bullied by religion.

I generally have great respect for people's personal beliefs. People do not choose what they believe -- they just do. Anyone thinking that there is such a thing as a willful act of believing cannot possibly be sincere or take their own beliefs seriously. I don't argue with friends of mine who believe; not unless their beliefs lead to irreparable damage to themselves or society around them.

What people believe is their personal matter and the same idea or notion manifests itself differently in different people. Some people meditate, some pray, some go to a psychiatrist. How people keep their balance and maintain mental well-being is a matter of their personal preference.

But what frightens me is the tendency in later decades of once again coupling religion with politics and using it as a weapon to enlist the feeble of mind. I must say that I am particularly appalled by the way the conservatives have used religion to incite conflict and enlist hordes of feckless idiots to further their political agendas in the US. It saddens me greatly that what the founding fathers did to separate state and religion, knowing full well how easily religion can be abused, has been defiled by irresponsible, dishonest and, as recent history has shown, morally corrupt, and incompetent leaders.

I think it is about time we addressed religion again in the west before things are allowed to regress to a point where the mess will be too costly to mop up.


A couple of years ago I ran some numbers to compare income and tax levels in the US versus the scandinavian countries. Since the scandinavian countries top out most world-wide statistics on quality of life and because they have a public health care system.

What I found might surprise you.

In order to have roughly the same amount of buying power after taxes, insurance, living costs etc. Americans living in urban parts of the US need to make at least twice the amount of money scandinavians need.

Also note that this is "if all goes well". If you develop a health issue in the US, you are at the mercy of your insurance company and then the comparison breaks down completely. If you are very lucky you can get back to work and just have a slight increase in the cost of living due to higher premiums. If you are really unlucky you end up uninsurable and your health problem persists or returns and you find yourself in a downward spiral heading for poverty.

At which point you are screwed bigtime.

In scandinavia the state takes care of you. But if you want, you can still supplement what you are given by the state with a private option. You won't get any tax rebates, but then again, while the taxes might seem high, the total cost of living is a lot lower because you do not have to pay exorbitant insurance premiums.

Of course the quality of living in Scandinavia is vastly higher than in the US. Ask any US expat in either Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

Rule of law.

It wasn't like the criminal acts of the previous administration came as a huge surprise. What I find so astonishing is that now, in the face of hard evidence that the former president and vice president violated the constitution repeatedly, nothing seems to be happening to those responsible. Ultimately Mr Bush and Mr Cheney.

They provably undermined the constitution they took an oath to uphold and they will walk away from this without any due process or adequate punishment. Meanwhile, thousands of ordinary citizens will land in jail this year for relatively minor offenses -- adding to the already obscenely inflated prison population of the US.

The contrast is amazing. On one hand you can get away with multiple counts of high treason and murder and on the other hand you can get thrown in jail for a minor infraction.

The rule of law should mean that the law is applied equally. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

I think it is the responsibility of the current administration to bring George Bush and Dick Cheney to justice. I certainly understand the pragmatism of looking the other way -- it would be extremely unpleasant to put a former president in jail -- or worse. Unpleasant, but necessary.

By doing nothing means that the United States is a fake in every way. It is not a real democracy and it does not have a real constitution, it does not honor its agreements with other countries and its laws only apply selectively.

Obama, you have to make sure that the criminal acts of the previous administration are prosecuted. These crimes are too great for you to sweep them under the rug. Please see to it that you are not remembered as the president who let some of the worst criminals in the history of the United States off because you did not have what it takes to uphold the rule of law.