Archive for November, 2011

Letter Writing Sunday: Stop SOPA

Posted in Editorials on November 27th, 2011
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By now you might have heard of SOPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act which has been introduced into committee in the House of Representatives. It claims that it’s goal is to protect copyrighted works on the internet, but in fact the definitions are so broad that many sites that are abiding by current law would be in trouble. In addition, there are no provisions for due process, as cnet news explains:

It allows the U.S. attorney general to seek a court order against the targeted offshore Web site that would, in turn, be served on Internet providers in an effort to make the target virtually disappear. It’s kind of an Internet death penalty.

More specifically, section 102 of SOPA says that, after being served with a removal order:

A service provider shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) that is subject to the order…Such actions shall be taken as expeditiously as possible, but in any case within five days after being served with a copy of the order, or within such time as the court may order.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has drafted this letter that you can send to your elected representatives here:

I am a constituent and I urge you to reject the Internet Blacklist Bills (PROTECT IP Act in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House). I am deeply concerned by the danger these bills pose to Internet security, free speech online, and innovation. The Internet Blacklist Legislation is dangerous and short-sighted, and I urge you to join Senator Wyden and other members of Congress, such as Representatives Lofgren, Eshoo and Issa, in opposing it.

Letter Writing Sunday: Transit Tax Benefits for Straphangers

Posted in Editorials on November 20th, 2011
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Hat tip, Long Island Fail Road.

As someone who takes public transportation to work every day, I am happy to take advantage of the Transit Tax Benefit – I can set aside a certain amount of money from my salary every month, pre-tax, and spend it on bus or train fare. Currently the amount is $230 per month, which is a reasonable amount considering a NYC Subway pass is $104 per month and a Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit or Metro North Commuter Rail pass can be over $200 per month.

If it’s so incredibly controversial to remove tax brakes for corporate jets, why can’t working people of all classes write off their commuting costs? And yet somehow this years budget will roll back the allowance to only $115 per month.

You can take action by sending an email to your member of Congress and Senators, and asking them to support H.R. 2412 and S. 1034, both titled “The Commuter Benefits Equality Act” which will keep the Tax Benefit at the current level. My letter is below

I am writing to you today to ask you to support The Commuter Benefits Equality Act. As a commuter, I face increasingly high fares every year and this tax benefit helps to reduce the cost. Public transportation has many benefits, one of which is a cleaner environment for all of us to enjoy, and so this incentive has multiple positive qualities.

At this time of economic hardship for so many Americans, I urge you to pass this bill so that there will be as few obstacles as possible for getting people back to work.

Privacy? On Facebook?

Posted in Pictures on November 18th, 2011
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Intelligence Squared: Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?

Posted in Editorials on November 16th, 2011
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Last night, Adam and I attended the Intelligence Squared debate “Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion?” I am inclined to think that the world would be pretty much the same without religion. I don’t deny that religion is linked with tremendous atrocities – oppression, war and ignorance. However, I am not sure that these things are the sole purview of religion. As I said on twitter, religious problems also exist in a secular context – greed, bloodlust, prejudice all appear in our society in ways not directly related to religion. I think that a better way to state the motion would be “Does religion do more harm than good?” But as I have written previously, I think sometimes Intelligence Squared goes for the catchy title rather than a proposition that is easy to debate.

I think that the speakers were all impressive Matthew Chapman and A C Grayling for the motion and Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbi David Wolpe arguing against. However, I was a little disappointed with the fact that neither side really made an effort to frame the debate, and both sides seemed to be talking past each other. Chapman and Grayling cited ridiculous and cruel passages from the Bible and stressed that religion deters science and oppresses women and gay people. D’Souza and Wolpe spoke of the good things religious charities do and of how people need hope and to set high moral standards. Rabbi Wolpe pointed out that the other side kept stressing the text whereas he was talking about the actions of religious people. This was an excellent point, and wasn’t countered at all.

Still, I felt like there was a lot being left unsaid. I did get to ask a question. I asked, “For those in favor of the motion, how are the harms of religion different from those of nationalism and racism? And for those opposed to the motion, how are the good things about religion different from the benefits of secular charities, community organizations or having close relationships with family?” Chapman said other societal ills are “mistakes based on reason” and that the “horrors of religion” are based on “superstitious fear and delusion.” I’m not sure if he really means to say that racism is rational, but what I think he is missing is that superstition and delusion exist outside of religion. Rabbi Wolpe said religion is good because religious people do good works for a transcendental, enduring purpose. I find this also kind of silly and trite. What if your enduring purpose was because you wanted to be remembered after you died as a philanthropist? There are reasons people do good things for all kinds of philosophical, moral, and social purposes, some of which are selfish but as a person who enjoys art museums and a yearly concert at Carnegie Hall, I can’t criticize the “selfish” philanthropists too harshly.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am glad that my congregation exists. I am interested more in ideas of orthopraxy – how we should live a moral life, and the faith I have that we are called to do good works – than theological debates about the existence or nonexistence of God. But I am in no denial about the atrocities human beings are capable of. I believe a case can be made that there would be less cruelty in the world without religion, but it was not made last night by Chapman or Grayling. Brilliant writers though they may be, they never specifically explained how religion discourages critical thinking or why it halts scientific progress. I understand those arguments thoroughly, but wonk than I am, I needed to hear them spell it out before I would vote for them. I was frustrated with D’Souza’s arrogance and odd non-sequitirs (if Catholicism is better than Hinduism because it lacks a caste system, then doesn’t Hinduism make the world worse?) I liked Rabbi Wolpe the best of all the speakers but he never explained why a religious person is better off because of religion than they would be if they simply were involved in secular charities and had an active social life. In his closing statement he made a touching statement about hope, but hope comes from all kinds of places, and is not solely the province of religion.

I maintain that the world would be much the same without religion, a few inspiring heroes, some terrible villains, and most of us falling somewhere in between.

Well, it looks like I spoke too soon.

Posted in Links on November 15th, 2011
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Police Clear Zuccotti Park of Protesters

Councilman Weprin Responds On Occupy Wallstreet

Posted in Editorials on November 14th, 2011
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Last month, I sent a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and my city councilman about the rights of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. I received this response, dated October 24:

This is to acknowledge the receipt of your email in support of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s decision not to remove Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park. Thank you for taking the time to write and for providing me with the opportunity to respond.

I agree that ever American has the right to participate in peaceful demonstrations to express his or her opinions. I assure you that I will continue to support the right of all individuals to exercise their constitutional freedoms.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of assistance with any other matter.

Kudos to Councilman Weprin for standing up for free speech!

Nassau Democrats Celebrate Poetic Victory

Posted in Editorials on November 10th, 2011
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Tuesday night Carrie Solages was all smiles at the Nassau County Democratic Headquarters Victory Party. As he thanked his supporters and family, he was exuberant and gracious. And he had every right to be. He had done something that Nassau Democrats had been trying to do for years with little luck – he unseated 16 year incumbent Republican Legislator John Ciotti, and as a person familiar with the history of the district, believe me when I say it was a truly Sisyphean victory.

The district is majority Democratic, but John Ciotti is popular in the community and for various reasons Democratic voters do not turn in as high numbers as Republicans do in the odd year elections when the county legislators are elected. However, there is more at play than a simple lack of enthusiasm. The Nassau County Republicans are notorious for their intimidation of Democratic voters, especially people of color, as I have written about previously. The difference is that this year, Solages campaign was able to capture this intimidation and racism on film.

Solages win is symbolic of so many things – a grassroots victory over an entrenched political machine, the power of the internet and ubiquity of digital cameras to influence a large number of people quickly, a community standing up and fighting back against racism, and also proof that sometimes – the good guy does win. Sometimes, justice is served, and the person standing up to the bully doesn’t get trampled, but is the triumphant hero. And this year, it wasn’t merely a dream, or an inspirational story liberals tell themselves to keep their spirits high, it came true right here on Long Island.

The final lesson to learn in this happy chapter of the 2011 elections, is that the Nassau County Republicans are not unaware of how and why they lost this seat. Tuesday night, two candidates who won reelection spoke of their unwavering support for John Ciotti.

Other Republicans stood up for Ciotti even as the numbers looked grim “Ciotti ran a great race,” said fellow North Valley Streamer and Town of Hempstead Councilman Ed Ambrosino. “I don’t care what it says up here, John Ciotti is a winner each and every day.”

“John Ciotti is a man of tremendous integrity, of tremendous character,” said Nassau County Legislator Fran Becker.

What fascinates me about these quotes is that they were uttered at the exact moment they will have maximum impact in both raining on Carrie Solages victory and minimizing the damage to their own reputations. In two years, no one will remember John Ciotti’s racist tactics and so statements supporting him will be meaningless as ammunition for challengers. There will be no consequences for absurdity of these statements. That they were made at a time when they cannot be held accountable for them shows a shrewd calculation, that they are aware of the power of their words. Ambrosino and Becker did not say these things two weeks ago when Ciotti’s campaign was going down in flames, because outright support for racist and intimidating tactics would have hurt their own electoral chances. By waiting until after the polls have closed on election night proves they know it, and this is important to remember. Future dirty tricks may be more subtle or not as cinematic, but still just as underhanded as what happened in front of Solages’ campaign office this October.