Sin is the abomination

AbominationFew things push my buttons like sanctimonious “love the sinner, hate the sin” declarations. The very concept of sin is a cancer that rots the mind. It is the substitution of morality with dogma. Take homosexuality. There is no moral argument to be made against it. Many have tried, and it always comes down to subjective ickiness, religion, or both. It takes religion to transform an act of love into an “abomination”, to tell people who they are is bad and that they must fight it, which means fighting against themselves. All this, even when they are harming nobody.

For this imaginary and victimless crime, however, LGBTQ people are in reality marginalized, discriminated against, bullied, terrorized, and killed. By implying that there is something wrong with them, those who call homosexuality sinful normalize and justify criminal behavior. This is at best victim blaming. This attitude destroys lives, and contrary to homosexuality, is deeply immoral.

The next step in the perverted reasoning is that gay people are allowed to be the way they are; it’s their behavior that should be fought. Behavior, in this case, being awesome gay sex. I call bullshit on multiple counts.

First, this goes way beyond sex, and is effectively denying love to anyone who’s not straight. Make no mistake, gay marriage, even if it didn’t imply sex, is out of the question. As a LGBTQ person, you are simply denied the right to love in the same way that straight people can.

Second, sex is an integral part of being human. It’s a wonderful, joyful, amazing, and positive experience. Denying an adult person the right to have sex with another consenting adult is actually denying them a part of their humanity. Sexual repression can have some serious consequences on mental health, and can even become full-blown public health crises.

Listening to Christians on this topic however, they would have you think that they are the victims. They claim their religion demands that they reach out and try to convert everyone. They demand special protection for their bigotry, despite evidence that it is actively harmful. We have the moral high ground on this topic, and we should never confuse religiosity for virtue. They have their free speech, but we also have the right to call them out.

If you are a Christian and you claim to love LGBTQ people, please keep your proselytism at bay. Accept people for who they are, keep out of their sex life, and don’t deny them the basic rights everybody else enjoys. This is what true love looks like.

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Some context about Charlie Hebdo: don’t judge a magazine by its cover

"It's hard to be loved by idiots" The past two days have been nerve wracking for the French, and for friends of freedom of speech. We’ve all been floored by the savagery of the attacks, but it’s been heartwarming to see support messages from all over the world, as well as the extraordinary unity of the French people overall, including the Muslim community and clergy, as well as all other confessions (but of course, let’s not fool ourselves, there are already brain-dead violent reactions against the whole Muslim community, which is exactly the sort of division the terrorists are trying to create).

All this makes it particularly irritating when several voices from supposedly smart people writing in reputable journals start blaming the victim. USA Today even went so far as to publish a commentary from a self-avowed radical extremist, something I find way more offensive than anything Charlie ever put on their front page:

Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression […] why in this case did the French government allow the magazine Charlie Hebdo to continue to provoke Muslims, thereby placing the sanctity of its citizens at risk?

It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world's population was protected.

USA Today is not quoting an opposing view, in an article meant to give context to the attacks: they actually gave an unrestricted tribune to a dangerous extremist who misrepresents his own religion, and advocates against freedom of speech, in favor of blasphemy laws, without comment. It’s hard to fathom why USA Today would do that, but at least one can understand what this guy is saying and why. And it’s chilling.

Harder to understand is the chorus of reasonable journalists who attempt to paint Charlie Hebdo as a racist, islamophobic journal. Before I go into the details of the accusations, and why they don’t hold water, I want to point out what should be very obvious: this is the equivalent of showing up at a funeral and telling the family that the deceased had really looked for it. Only insensitive, tasteless assholes do that.

Case in point, David Brooks writes in the NY Times:

let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Notice the subtext here: in America, this wouldn’t stand, not because speech is less free, but because the French agree with “hate speech”? Give me a break and watch Fox News for 10 minutes to realize what Americans allow (which is fine, of course, just pointing out the hypocrisy of an article that aspires itself to denounce hypocrisy). It also takes about 30 seconds to find direct counter-examples of American campus newspapers that are nothing but racist hate speech

I’ll also point out that nobody but their readership can “cut financing and shut them down” in the case of Charlie: it’s completely independent, has no ads, and is not part of a large corporation. Imagine that: really free press. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

So is Charlie hate speech? Of course not, but if your knowledge of it is limited to a few of the most provocative covers that you’ve seen on the Internet, it may seem to be.

Charlie Hebdo is one of the last journals in a long tradition of lampooning, political caricature, irreverence, humanism, secularism, and freedom that goes all the way back to the French Revolution. If you go beyond the cover and look inside, you’ll find something a lot different from what Brooks describes: the articles are about raising awareness on social issues, about defending the defenseless, such as immigrants, and the homeless, about culture, about the struggles of the Third World, the environment, and generally about fighting oppression in all its forms. Most articles aren’t even funny ;)

The authors of those articles and drawings who died in the attack were not immature 13 year-olds trying to “stick a finger in the eye of authority” and who belong at the “kids’ table”. They were very smart, respected and beloved journalists and cartoonists whom people of my generation have seen on TV and read in newspapers since our childhood. We know they are all the kindest, funniest, and smartest folks. They were also resolutely at the “adults’ table”, even by Brooks’ standard that “you must read Le Monde or the establishment organs”: they were not just reading those, they were writing and drawing in them.

Cabu drew on Antenne 2 (French TV), in Paris-Match, Le Journal du Dimanche, France-Soir, Le Figaro, Le Figaro Littéraire, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde, Politique Hebdo, Jours de France, and many more.

Wolinski has drawn in France-Soir, L’Humanité, Paris-Match. In 2005, Jacques Chirac gave him the Légion d’honneur, the highest decoraration in France.

Tignous was drawing in Marianne, and Charb in Télérama and l’Humanité. He even drew illustrations in Le Petit Larousse, the most popular French dictionary. Bernard Maris was a PhD-holding University Professor of economy and “agrégé” who wrote for Marianne, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde, and France Inter.

This puts the front pages that created such controversy under a much different light: those were not racist caricatures reminiscent of the darkest anti-Semitic propaganda of the second quarter of the twentieth century. Rather, they were funny, courageous, and deliberate, if provocative, pieces from well-respected and well-understood humanist authors who thought that one should be able to laugh of anything, that it was an essential part of Democracy.

There’s also this weird perception that Charlie was going after the Muslim minority. In reality, they were going after all fundamentalisms, not after communities. In fact, over the years they got 14 lawsuits from Catholic organizations, but only one from Muslims (and Charlie won them all). It’s also worth mentioning that they were able to gather 173,000 signatures against Front National, the extreme right French party that is the real voice against the Muslim community in France, and that attacked the journal several times with lawsuits. During the Mohammed caricature controversy however, the F.N. weirdly supported Charlie, for their own partisan reasons. “It’s hard to be appreciated by idiots”, indeed.

Wolinski said in an interview that what they were doing was in fact to treat Muslims like the adults they are, with whom it’s possible to joke and laugh. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, are like bratty children who can’t stand contradiction. Brats with guns. They are the criminals here, let’s not be confused about that, and they are attacking us all, by assassinating journalists and policemen. They’re the ones we shouldn’t allow at the grownups’ table.

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Objective, Transcendent, or Absolute?

God shows something to MosesThe number one cliché I hear about atheism is that lacking an objective / transcendent / absolute morality, everything is permitted, and surely we must be eating babies for breakfast. Religious people seem to be very insistent on this point, and all but attempt to push us to be immoral, telling us that we are being inconsistent if we aren’t, and that ours is a self-defeating position.

There are quite a few parts to deconstruct in those assertions. First, can the religious point(s) of view really claim objectivity, transcendence or absoluteness? Second, are the only games in town really religion and extreme relativism?

Claims to objectivity are the most bizarre to me. Objectivity is supposed to be the quality of something that is based on facts rather than thoughts or opinions. A system based on a single old book of myths then hardly seems objective. Furthermore, philosophers are insistent that one can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, values from facts, so how can any system of ethics be fully objective? There is of course Rand’s perverse Objectivism, but that is more rationalization for selfishness than moral system, and it’s only objective by name. That is not to say that facts can’t inform moral decisions: they have to. But they can’t on their own be their foundation.

The claim of transcendence is that morality is somehow from out of the material world. This is of course entirely unconvincing to atheists who tend to find the supernatural to be an ill-defined, if not outright impossible notion. Kant objected to the notion of transcendence that something that exceeds the limits of experience is only hypothetically knowable. Real knowledge requires a tie to objective reality, and that seems to exclude the supernatural.

Transcendence is a rather hand-wavy way out from the problem of understanding morality: proposing an unknowable origin doesn’t explain anything.

Most of all, it’s a claim that falls to the Euthyphro dilemma: by declaring morality transcendent, you take the “it’s moral because it’s God’s command” option, which makes morality arbitrary. Which god are we supposed to believe, given that they give contradictory commands, and that their followers all claim, with similar arguments, that they hold the One True Faith? As a consequence, anything goes.

Believers usually reject the dilemma by declaring that goodness is God’s essence, that He is one with goodness. Of course, that’s more hand-waving, circular reasoning, and nothing more than a deepity. Their own argument actually forces them to answer the problems of evil and hell. If there is an omnibenevolent and omnipotent being, why are there earthquakes and tornadoes that indiscriminately kill and cause suffering for innocent people?

Then there is the absolutism vs. relativism debate. The main problem with this one, I think, is one of false dichotomy. It is hard to argue that there aren't moral issues that are relative, and others that are absolute.

For example, you would have to be out of your mind to argue against the fact that all things being equal, we ought not to harm other sentient beings. That’s an absolute, and there is no need of a God for that to be true. It does require the existence of sentient beings to make sense, but that’s another matter.

Reversely, most people nowadays would consider it morally harmless for an adult person to get a tattoo. However, Judaism has a commandment against it, and they are forbidden in Sunni Islam (but ok in Shia Islam). They are virtuous in Hinduism, as well as in certain forms of Christianity.

That not everything is absolute doesn’t imply that everything is relative. Reversely, that not everything is relative doesn’t mean that everything is absolute.

It should be clear at this point that there are other choices of moral philosophy besides Divine Command and an absolute relativism leading to nihilism. There are actually many other options. If you are interested in a great exposition and discussion of modern ethics, Massimo Pigliucci has a series of articles on the topic, of which this is the conclusion: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-ethics-part-vii-full-picture.html

Even without understanding all this about the underpinnings of so-called objective, transcendent or absolute morality, we can empirically evaluate the initial claim, which boils down, really to “religious people are more moral than atheists”. Does it work? Well, not very well.

If morality came from God, since the US doesn’t imprison people for their religious affiliation, you would expect their prisons to be filled with atheists and almost empty of believers. You should even be able to tell which one is The One True Religion: it should be the one with the lowest crime rates. Quite the reverse is true. Atheists are dramatically under-represented in prisons, with 0.2% of the population (Denise Golumbaski, Research Analyst, Federal Bureau of Prisons, compiled from up-to-the-day figures on March 5th, 1997), against 4% in the general US population. This is often discounted as more of a correlation between level of education (with which Atheism is correlated) and delinquency, but one should see a massively opposite difference nonetheless if morality really came from God. If education was the only factor in this, you would expect to see the ratio between populations with higher education diplomas out and in prisons to be higher than the same ratio for atheists. The opposite is true.

This is just one example, the more general point being that the argument, if true, should be empirically verifiable, and it is actually verified that it’s false.

Whenever statistical data is published on a morally loaded behavior and its correlation with religious affiliation, religious people act at best the same as the nones, and at worst measurably worse. If religion is efficient at one thing, it may be in inducing guilt, but statistically not a change of behavior.

One last thing... When discussing those topics with religious people, I’ve often had the impression that they were committing a category mistake, confusing goodness with some kind of conserved quantity, like a substance. As if God created a finite quantity of moral stuff and injected that into people’s souls. This is also true of love, compassion, faith and many other things.

In the end, it does look like those arguments really are designed to de-humanize atheists, to justify a sense of moral superiority and to rationalize the adherence to a flawed system. After all, if one can really be good without God, what is God good for?

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Elections are not democratic

AgoraIt’s becoming increasingly clear that our so-called democracies really are plutocracies and always have been. But, I hear you ask, aren’t elections the guarantee that we the people are getting represented properly? Of course not.

To get elected, you need to be a candidate. To be a candidate, you had to belong to a very specific category of individuals who actually desire power. It’s very easy to see how this can result in elected assemblies that are constituted exclusively of rich people: they are the ones who desire power and can afford to spend the money to get there. And like it or not, the rich are not necessarily the most caring of people. After all, how many of your own caring, decent low or middle-class friends want to become politicians? My bet, which coincides with my personal experience, is precisely zero.

How is that representative? Doesn’t this show clearly that elections result in precisely the opposite of democracy? More importantly, what would work better than that? Isn’t democracy the least bad of all systems?

Democracy means power by the people. Part of the problem is that we the people let that term get hijacked by a system that is anything but. When a system results in the exact opposite of representation, assemblies that are statistical aberrations with no correlation whatsoever with the general population, that cannot possibly be called a democracy. When the people in power are systematically the rich -elected or not- that is the definition of a plutocracy.

I understand that some are perfectly fine with a plutocracy, but can we at least call things by their names and stop pretending to live in a democracy?

So what would be a real democracy then, you may ask? Well, that’s easy, the Greek had it all figured out (except for the part about women and slaves of course, but come on it was 2,500 years ago).

The only truly democratic system is one where the assembly is not elected but randomly selected. Only chance can select a sample of the population that is truly representative.

Think about it.

More on this later. This text was inspired by a TEDx talk by Etienne Chouard, unfortunately in French, but nonetheless one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in years.

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Contraception and Religious Liberty

Reproductive organsYet another response to Ambrose, whose blog doesn’t like that my comments tend to have more than 4,000 characters... He says:

"the underlying argument is that religious freedom is not absolute in the US. There have been Supreme Court cases, such as not allowing polygamy, where it has been limited."

Yes, all freedoms have limitations, which is not a big deal. In the case of religious freedom though, religious people in my experience tend to believe that it means that if their holy book mandates something, it should trump the laws of the state, or that no new law can go against what they believe. This would of course be impossible except in a single-religion theocracy (which eliminates entirely everyone's religious freedom of course). I've written extensively on the subject already so I won't add too much on this here.

"any limitation on our First Amendment right to free exercise of religion should ideally find its justification in the Constitution itself (such as the right to life) or clearly in natural law."

The Supreme Court disagrees with this, as in the specific case of polygamy that Ambrose mentions, it said:

"laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices."

In other words, religious freedom is not a license to act as your book tells you. We should all be glad about that, otherwise people would get punished for apostasy or other imaginary crimes (let's not forget that religions themselves impose the strictest limitations on religious freedom, ironically).

But there are a lot more assertions in Ambrose’s post that I find objectionable. For instance:

"nobody is making me work for [Mormon employers]"

Well, Ambrose has a great privilege, which is to choose where he works. Unfortunately the majority of people in this country have no such choice and accept the jobs they can get. Does he really think that the 16% of Americans who have no health insurance deliberately chose to work a job with no coverage? That they could just have chosen to work where they would get great dental as part of the deal? Come on.

It should be mentioned that it’s not the employer that would have to pay for contraception (which I personally regret), so its religious freedom is hardly touched, even with Ambrose’s liberal definition of it:

"if a woman works for a religious employer with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide, pay for or refer for contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to directly offer her contraceptive care free of charge."
http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/02/10/fact-sheet-women-s-preventive-services-and-religious-institutions)

Ambrose also makes a reference to Planned Parenthood that I find interesting, knowing the campaign of hate that has been unleashed against this institution by the religious right:

Even if we were to agree that contraception should be considered "health care," it is widely freely available through other means via organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Beyond the scare quotes, is he saying that he would advocate for better Planned Parenthood funding?

"All you have to do to avoid it is, duh, not have sex. So if someone is in a position where they it (sic) would negatively impact her health to become pregnant, she doesn't need expensive drugs or procedures to help her with that. Just don't have sex while you're fertile."

Now when comparing the efficacy of contraception methods, one must take into account user failures. Condoms for example (that Ambrose seems to be advocating for, which comes as a surprise to me) are fairly efficient if used properly, but the problem is that they often aren't. The method that he advocate for (sympto-thermal) is way worse. When properly applied, it is efficient (so is complete abstinence), but it still has a catastrophic overall failure rate, comparable to coitus interruptus. Recommending this when we have much better options is just irresponsible. Also, what can Ambrose possibly imply by:

"It's homeopathic! It's organic! It's all natural! It's great!"

Homeopathy is a demonstrated scam, and arsenic is natural too, so I don't see a good argument there.

"let's not forget that STDs are a serious problem, right?"

Yes, they are, but there doesn't seem to be a link between contraception and risk-taking (I'm not a MD but the research that I did in the literature indicates the contrary is true).

If Ambrose is sincere about limiting the spread of STDs, it seems his best weapon would be comprehensive sex education. Would that go against religious freedom?

"Preventing pregnancy is not analogous to preventing disease."

No it’s not, but pregnancy does have a huge impact on women's health. Limiting unintended pregnancy was in fact one of the major factors of progress during the 20th century. It reduced infant and maternal mortality rates, limited the spread of STDs and gave many women better opportunities to contribute to society. In turn, we know that empowering women is the single most efficient factor of human progress. Oh, and also, contraception is a great way to limit the number of abortion, whether those are legal or not.

Of course all that is not even touching on the right of women to enjoy sex without becoming pregnant (a right that men have been enjoying since... forever).

"If people feel strongly that all women should have access to contraception, I suggest that they coordinate and fund clinics and the like who can provide it. Or heck, they can just create a fund to cover it for the women who work for Catholic agencies. We don't need the government to mandate violation of the First Amendment to achieve their ends."

So now we have to pay for the shortcomings of Catholics? It so happens that the 99% of Americans who use or have used contraception do feel that women should have access to contraception (and they are right), and they did coordinate and fund organizations that can provide it. They did it by electing governments that advanced our society and provided Planned Parenthood, among other things.

We all pay for things we disagree with, through taxes and other means. Well, tough. For what it's worth, I'd like to get my Iraq war money back, but that's not going to happen, is it?

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The Brick Bible is "vulgar and violent"

Index Librorum ProhibitorumThat’s not me saying it, but “Sam’s Club customers”. This is a really interesting story. Brendan Powell Smith has been publishing funny little books containing “straightforward illustrations of Bible stories using direct quotes from scripture”. They are really entertaining books, of which you can get a sample on Brendan’s web site: http://www.bricktestament.com/index.html. There really couldn’t be any outrage about the contents, right? It is, after all, quotes from the “Good Book”. Well, apparently there can.

Some people astoundingly had enough clueless stupidity to attack the book on its contents and call it “vulgar and violent”. That means, quite directly, that the Bible itself would have to be “vulgar and violent”. Cause the photos, you know, really are literal illustrations of the text, and the text is, well, the Text.

They didn’t stop there. They also resented “that the author is an atheist”. So what exactly is the problem with an atheist writing a book? Does the first amendment somehow not apply to people who don’t believe in God? Are we not allowed to quote Scripture?

Of course we are. In fact, critics of the book, having no rational grounds for their attempts at censorship, went for hypocrisy, as usual. They counted on corporate cowardice, which always works. They pretexted that the book was not appropriate for children. I would agree, the Bible is not for children. I would only really recommend it to Christians, who would do good actually reading the whole damn thing.

OK, it’s not child appropriate, so just move the book out of the children book section, into humor or religion. Problem solved. Those guys probably also think that South Park, Beavis and Butthead and Family Guy are child programs because they are animated.

Well, no. Sam’s Club actually caved in to the pressure and censored the book.

So what can we do? Well, let’s give them the Streisand Effect. Let’s use the idiots as amplifiers of their own stupidity. Let’s publicize this outrage of theirs, and ours. They have nothing.

And let’s buy The Brick Bible, because it’s hilarious. But not from Sam’s Club.

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Blaming the victim

Blaming the victimA few days ago, French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo was fire-bombed. The decent part of French society condemned the terrorist attack and offered its help. Even Prime Minister François Fillon, who is politically diametrically opposed to the journal, had some nice words of support.

The picture should be very clear: we have on the one side a legitimate press organization doing its job, freely expressing opinions and thoughts. On the other hand, we have despicable terrorists who are trying to silence people through violence and fear. I for one stand with the press, against the terrorists. Sounds easy, right?

Well, apparently not. Some people got confused as to who the bad guys were. In an astounding move, a blogger at Time Magazine had these words for the journal:

do you stillthink the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of “because we can” was so worthwhile? If so, good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring […]

not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy.

How can someone who poses as a journalist even say that? What's this guy's problem? What are we supposed to do? Let the terrorists tell us how we should live and what we're allowed to say or not say? I usually avoid swearing on these pages, but the only thing I feel like saying is: "fuck you, Bruce Crumley, you are a disgrace to your profession."

I really can't stand this revolting habit of blaming the victim. In the same way that a woman has a right to dress any way she wants without legitimizing one bit a rapist's horrendous crime, a journalist has a right to publish any opinion he holds without legitimizing any form of violence against him.

Let's also not lose sight of what Charlie Hebdo was making fun of. The "attack" (graphic and verbal, which is different from physical violence by the way) was blasphemy, which is a victimless crime. It is a foundation of our societies that we respect people more than ideas. The ideas that people should submit to a tyrant in the sky, that you can never get out of his grip under penalty of death, that little girls should be mutilated lest they later enjoy sex, or that women are worth less than men, those ideas are revolting and deserve no respect. What they deserve is precisely what Charlie Hebdo delivered: ridicule and spite.

Speaking of which: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2011/11/09/law/

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I care that everyone can get married

Holy MatrimonyThis post started as a comment on my friend Ambrose's blog but it was getting long enough to justify a post. Check it out for context.

Let's start with this: marriage cannot be defined by the biological prospect of having children, because that would rule out sterile couples and menopausal women. As simple as that.

On adoption, Ambrose said:

"it seems likely that the child raised by a homosexual couple will have at least some issues similar to other children who are raised without a mother or without a father"

What are those issues? Is there evidence of that? Rigorous studies on those problems exist, we don't have to guess.

I'm glad that Ambrose does mention that:

"It is [commitment] not infatuation, not sex, not even children--that is essential to marriage and is also its primary joy."

That I can agree with if we are speaking of marriage in our time and regions, but we should also not forget that in the past, and in many regions of the world, marriage has been and still is mostly arranged and more a matter of business than consensual commitment. But let's pass on that.

Then Ambrose says:

"it must be understood that this is an unbreakable, unquestionable lifetime commitment that no one, not even those who enter into it, can break".

That, I must say, sounds to me like an archaic and patriarchal vision of things. Surely Ambrose would agree that if a woman is routinely beaten by her husband, that marriage should be broken? I agree on the commitment, but I also think that a commitment can only be meaningful if it is consensual and if there is a way out. Otherwise, you have built a prison, not a marriage. At least not a modern one (oh, yes, I do think these concepts must evolve as our understanding of ethics does (and it does)). That does not mean it's subject to the "whims of passion" as Ambrose says. Actually, I find this slightly insulting: I do not remain my wife's partner because we're married. That's backwards. I am married to my wife because we have had and continue to have an adult relationship based on love, trust and shared values. That marriage will last because we don't see an end to these things, not because marriage is sacred. That commitment that Ambrose speaks of is not coming out of nowhere. It's not marriage that is creating it, marriage is only the representation and consequence of it, it existed before.

I would go so far as attributing the higher rate of divorces in the most religious parts of the US to sexual repression (if you can't experiment freely with sex, you are more likely to confuse lust with love), silly notions about contraception and an archaic notion of ownership of women by men that still permeates religious thought (but that I'm not accusing Ambrose of personally, of course).

Back on topic: even if Ambrose was right that marriage is fundamentally a granting of privilege and not a right (and I don't think he is), there exists a right to this privilege, and I don't think any privileges should be granted on anything that does not boil down to merit. He did not show why these privileges should be granted only to some. Gay people can commit to each other and adopt children just as well as, say, a sterile couple.

I also do not share his view that marriage should be translated into quasi-economic terms of cost and benefit to society. The state does guarantee all kind of rights on their own merits (plus it's quite tricky to define the "common good"). Reading the Declaration of Human Rights or the Bill of Rights should convince anyone of that.

Finally, if those civil unions that religious people so generously grant gay people (after having fought them), if those civil unions were enough, why does the gay community still insist that they aren't? Simply because the recognition they provide is not enough, yes.

Looping back to Ambrose's original point, yes, it's about recognition, the recognition that gay people are just as capable of commitment and love as anybody. Anything less is insulting and discriminatory.

Let's not forget that it's also about the happy couple being able to show their commitment to friends and family. We haven't talked about the ceremony and the celebration, but they are essential. You *can* do them with a civil union contract, of course, but it's clearly not the same thing to celebrate the "civil union" of Pierre and Paul or of Susan and Amy as it is to celebrate their marriage. There is a symbol here for which no substitute will do.

There are privileges associated with marriage for sure, but that's only one more reason why it should be a universal right.

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The Many Tribes Society

King DavidIf I told you that the emergence of blogs, Twitter and Facebook have changed our societies in more profound ways than we imagine, you’d be justified in telling me that I’m being neither original nor very pertinent. There is certainly something to be said about the amplification effect those services have on self-centeredness and gossip, and how those are sometimes more powerful than the few examples we have of new media spreading freedom, truth and democracy. Still, I think we are seeing the first signs of a profound revolution, one that is remodeling society in a way that is more in tune with our evolutionary origins. One where the notion of tribe makes a comeback, but with a couple of twists.

We all belong to many tribes.

I belong to a small tribe of French people living in the Pacific Northwest. That tribe is defined by geography, friendship and a shared cultural heritage.

I belong to a tribe of godless liberals. This one is also circumscribed by geographical proximity. It values debate, evidence and a certain willingness to show the finger to bigots and conservatives. It is brought closer together by what we perceive to be the radicalization of the USA towards religious conservatism.

I belong to the tribe of my family. This one is defined by genetics, not at all by geography. Common values are almost non-existent in this tribe, but still it exists.

I belong to the tribe that is building an open-source content management platform with Microsoft. Work, a commitment to open software and some ideas around software design are what keeps us together.

I belong to the tribe of people I follow and people who follow me on Twitter. The only thing these people have in common is... me.

This last example is troubling: the borders of this community are well-defined but still it seems fuzzy, because it is just one in a cloud of many millions of others like it. Nothing about it is particularly extraordinary or interesting: it is only valuable as a part of a complex network of similar entities.

To understand why this is new and worth noticing, we need to take ourselves back in time to the society of our parents or grandparents, the society of nations, the centralized hierarchical society. Every aspect of public life was then structured as a tree, with a supreme authority on top.  Government is most obviously an example of that. Whether our ancestors lived in a theocracy, a monarchy or a democracy, there was an authority on top, and everybody else spread in a pyramid of authority beneath it. Democracy’s saving grace is that it allows people on the bottom to choose who’s on top, but the structure remains essentially unchanged.

Hierarchical models are being challenged today by the idea that a network is more efficient that a pyramid. By the idea that talent, ideas and leadership can emerge from any point in the network and maybe also the thought that no authority should be permanent.

Beyond this, what interests me in blogs, Twitter and Facebook is that they leverage a powerful instinct of our kind: tribalism. Instead of bringing a small group of primates together around a dominant male and against neighboring tribes, like tribes of old were doing, they make us all the patriarchs and matriarchs of our own local tribe. In such a model, there are no frontiers, no wars to wage: the limits of your personal kingdom overlap those of everyone else’s around you. There is a continuum of tribes that now covers the world (or at least, the industrialized world).

That brings us to the second fundamental change: connectedness. Bacon’s six degrees of separation have become a cliché, but they are also outdated. They have very much become no degrees of separation. I can now have a direct connection –if one-directional– to all the living people that I admire. That rich connectedness is far from meaningless. In the same way that our brains use local and global connections to function, there is a fundamentally new society that can emerge from social networks that feature both local and global connections. It takes only a few hours for a brilliant idea to conquer the world today.

Think about that: a few centuries ago, when no global communication existed, an idea had to spread organically in concentric circles, and was often stopped by geographical constraints (seas, mountains), or political ones (frontiers, confessions). That’s a most inefficient system.

Then with the sort of global hierarchical societies that were characteristic of our more recent history, ideas had to make their way to the top from the branch where they emerged, before trickling down from there to the other branches. In this configuration the reach of your idea is determined by how far up you can take it. This model gives a disproportional amount of power to authorities, as they can whimsically stop anything in its tracks.

In a networked society, ideas start locally and spread globally. They seduce nearest neighbors first, then get picked up by more distant nodes that start spreading them in their own neighborhoods, and this repeats until it dies down or it has covered the whole world, which happens with exponential acceleration instead of a linear pace.

There is a selection mechanism at play here, that amplifies some signals and dampens down others. It’s not just dumb transmission of a signal, unchanged. The signal is modified and reformulated as it moves. When it’s factual news being communicated, that’s a problem (a.k.a. the grapevine). But when it’s a concept, a pure idea, something marvelous happens: the concept can be enriched by each person it transits through. It can adapt to new environments. That is an essential difference with, say, genetic information, for which the substrate is purely mechanical. Because the substrate of ideas is brains, they can get smarter as they gather the thinking power of hundreds along its path, instead of having to wait for random mutations.

This is why I don’t believe in the old concept of intellectual property anymore. What ideas we have we should share freely with our tribe. Think local. Don’t attempt to bastardize your thoughts by attempting to make them universal. Know you can count on the rest of the network to adopt the good ones, massage them and adapt them to their needs. For that to work, we need to let go of ownership and accept to give and receive. Open Source software and hardware is of course in perfect tune with this worldview. As is scientific thought.

Today you need to think locally if you are going to have global reach. Centralized, feudal systems are but the remnants of old societies that should lose pertinence over the next few decades.

Even democracy should reinvent itself to adapt to these lighter-weight and decentralized networks. Rules and decisions could one day be made within diffuse entities that bear little resemblance to the political structures of today that were determined in a large part by the arbitrary rules of geography.

That’s what I hope for.

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The fact checking generation

RotativeI'm not very good at predicting the future (because I'm just one individual out of several billion) but I'll give it a shot today, and try to make it some sort of message of hope.

The greatest revolutions in the history of Mankind, the ones that moved humanity forward in a measurable and long-term fashion, such as the invention of the movable type, owe their success to the way they made knowledge more easily available to more people.

We are in the middle of such a revolution.

The generation of my children is the first one in the history of Mankind for which information will be ambient, and where the entirety of human knowledge will be available all the time to everyone and everywhere.

This fact gives them an amazing power: whenever an extraordinary claim will be made, someone will go "ORLY? Let me check that (LOL)… Oh look, that's actually BS." Or, even better: "that's an interesting idea. Did really nobody come up with that before? Let me check it out… Wow, you really are up to something here. Let's see how far we can push it."

Seriously, gullibility should have no excuse with this generation and I'm convinced that should make it the most successful in the history of Mankind.

Here's to hope on this Christmas 2010.

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