Blog Move Early Warning

Readers of my blog should be aware that it will soon be moving to http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones/. All new posts will appear at the new location only, and this site will be considered deprecated. Please update your bookmarks and feeds accordingly. If you're using my Feedburner feed (http://feeds.feedburner.com/ZinniaJones), it will be updated to point to the new blog. If you're not, the new feed is located at http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones/feed/.

See you there!

3 comments Filed under

Governor Bryant, There Is No "Non-Denominational" School Prayer

Last week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant spoke to a group of high school students at an American Legion Boys State program in Hattiesburg. After telling them that he believed his experience with school-sponsored prayer was beneficial, he explained to the media:

I know it's difficult when you start talking about denominations and different beliefs, but I think there is a way for us to have a non-denominational opening prayer when the opportunity is available to let people know there is a God. Those children should know that he does care about them, particularly within their classroom.

He then speculated that the federal government might eventually find that school-sponsored prayer is legally permissible. While this may sound pleasantly ecumenical, it's simply impossible for a prayer of the kind that he envisions to be described as "non-denominational". Within only two sentences, he's outlined a religious observance that's entirely sectarian. The implications of his idea for school prayer make this unavoidable.

First, the statement that "there is a God" is a claim that at least one deity exists, that it's probably the only deity, and that its name is capital-G God. Bryant further depicts it as an entity that can be described as "he" and takes an active interest in human affairs. His suggestion also implies that it's appropriate to direct prayers to this god, and that it's acceptable for the civil government to mandate this worship.

For such a structure of beliefs to be considered "non-denominational", every religion would have to agree on these points, and every person would have to follow some version of religion. This is absolutely not the case, and anyone who believes that no faith group would take issue with any of these tenets obviously doesn't have much experience with religion as a whole. Gov. Bryant seems to have forgotten that there are religions and beliefs other than Christianity.

Not everyone believes in just one god - billions of people believe in many gods, or none at all. And not every monotheist believes their god is a "he" or bears the name "God". Some people don't believe that a god would concern itself with human activities. Even Christians who share Bryant's theology might still disagree with the exact text of the prayer or take issue with the government telling them when and how they should pray. Ultimately, Bryant's outline for school prayer would be "non-denominational" only to those who completely agree with him.

If it were acceptable for the government to endorse and promote these specific religious beliefs, then it would be equally acceptable for public schools to institute daily Islamic prayers toward Mecca. Would it matter that not everyone is Muslim, or prays to Allah in the same way, or believes that the government should lead people in prayer? No. Such considerations would already have been ignored in order to allow the promotion of Christianity as Gov. Bryant sees it. Disregarding the Establishment Clause doesn't just permit your favorite religion to insert itself into public schools. It permits all religions to do the same.

But when the civil government decides that a certain faith should be honored in schools and other public institutions, it positions itself as the arbiter of which religious beliefs are true or false. The state's approval and promotion of Christianity necessarily means denying that promotion to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, Scientology, Satanism, Unitarian Universalism, the Jedi, atheism, and every other viewpoint pertaining to religion. It isn't the job of judges, executives and lawmakers to decide whether a certain god exists or a religious belief is valid, and there are no grounds for imposing a particular religion upon the populace at large.

Whenever the government says that one person's religious views are better than another's, somebody always loses, and anyone who seeks state promotion of their faith will only avoid this as long as their religion is in vogue. The First Amendment doesn't only protect the government from the influence of religion. It protects everyone, of any religion or no religion, from state interference in their personal beliefs.

Without school-sponsored prayer, students are still free to pray on their own while in school. But where school prayer is mandated, students from all walks of life have often been required to acknowledge an "Almighty God" or "Heavenly Father", whether through regulation or just social pressure. Such an arrangement is clearly antithetical to genuine religious freedom in schools.

The only truly "non-denominational" prayer is the one that isn't imposed upon everyone else. As the leader of an entire state, Gov. Bryant should understand this, and it's disturbing that he either doesn't know enough to keep his personal faith separate from the government, or he just doesn't care. He may feel that school prayer is harmless, but the Bill of Rights would beg to differ.

3 comments Filed under , , ,

What Peter LaBarbera Will Never Understand

In a recent post on his website Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, anti-gay activist Peter LaBarbera criticizes so-called "pro-family leaders" for focusing on issues such as gay marriage while neglecting to oppose homosexuality itself. Citing the need to emphasize "WHY homosexual and transgender behaviors are always wrong", "how homosexual sex is fraught with health risks", "why homosexuality violates Natural Moral Law, the teachings of Judaism and Christianity", and "the inordinate drug and porn use among homosexual men, and 'gay-on-gay' assaults and abuses", he says:

Simply put, we as a movement must conquer whatever timidity, fear and political correctness we have in NOT wanting to debate the morality of homosexuality - because our fanatically-driven LGBT opponents will never relent in their audacious campaign to "sell" homosexuality to the public. Notice that while many conservatives shrink from the homosexuality debate, self-described out-and-proud "queer" activists never back-track in their misguided, indeed, pathological quest to compel society to approve of their aberrant "lifestyles."

LaBarbera gives little thought to why this might be the case, but the answer should be obvious to anyone who isn't consumed with self-righteous loathing for gay people. There certainly is a reason why the mainstream anti-gay movement does its best to avoid openly attacking us for being drug-addicted rapist sinners, and that's because most people just don't want to hear it.

Over 50% of Americans personally know someone who's gay, and this figure holds true among liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Those who do know someone gay are more likely to support gay marriage and the legality of gay relations. Knowing gay people puts a human face on what would otherwise only be an abstract concept of what gay people, their relationships and their "lifestyles" are like. Without any actual firsthand experience, their understanding of us remains foggy and vulnerable to rumor, suspicion and distrust. Familiarity serves to ground this in reality - a reality which LaBarbera and his colleagues have dedicated themselves to fighting against.

What is it that makes these personal connections and interactions so effective at humanizing us in the eyes of the public? Many in the anti-gay movement seek to diminish our struggles in a historical sense by asserting that sexual orientation is nothing like one's race or color. But in one crucial respect, this is absolutely true.

The fact of our sexuality does not visibly manifest itself in an easily recognizable way, with the unfortunate side effect of the superstitious marking of certain appearances or mannerisms as "gay". While this has often resulted in plenty of anti-gay abuse being directed at young children and anyone who strays even slightly from established norms, it has also deprived people of any certainty about who among them might be gay. Our sexuality does not afford them the opportunity to recoil from our very skin the moment they lay eyes on us. It's something they must come to learn.

In no small part because of a pervasive history of societal homophobia, many of us have been reluctant to share the truth about ourselves with anyone but those we trust the most: our good friends, neighbors, co-workers, and hopefully our families. By the time we feel comfortable enough to come out to them, this can spark an extraordinary shift in perspective, because these people have already come to know us, appreciate us, and love us for who we are - not what we are. When faced with the fact that the wholesome and upstanding person they respect and care deeply for also happens to be gay, this goes a long way toward dispelling any misconceptions, including the vulgar lies of anti-gay activists. Our own lives testify to the truth.

So how do you think our families and friends will react when Peter LaBarbera's partners in homophobia such as pastor Patrick Wooden claim that gay men use gerbils and baseball bats sexually and "die in diapers"? What will they think about the notion that our very love should be subject to criminal sanctions and we're going to burn in hell? How will they feel about baseless accusations that gay people are pedophiles and even orchestrated the Holocaust?

These wildly hateful confabulations may serve to rile up the anti-gay base, but this is utterly repulsive to anyone who knows us. Does LaBarbera really expect people to believe that their loved ones are actually child-molesting Nazis? If he thinks his moralistic bloviations can take precedence over our humanity, then we can only hope that even more anti-gay groups will follow his lead. He's just given them a lesson in how to drive their movement directly into a brick wall.

5 comments Filed under , ,

Bristol Palin: Not a Victim, Just Acting Like One

I hate to keep revisiting Bristol Palin's remarks about gay marriage and same-sex parents, but she actually did take notice of my last article about this, and I feel she deserves a response. In her latest post, she claims that she was not "playing 'the victim card'", and was really only saying two things:

1. Those who claim to be loving and tolerant certainly are hateful and bullying.

2. But despite their efforts at name-calling and even their threats, I won't be deterred from speaking out.

So, let's recap. Bristol, here's what you did:

  • You falsely implied that President Obama only chose to support marriage equality because of his daughters' opinions, and you ignored everything else he said on the matter.
  • You cited "thousands of years of thinking about marriage" as a reason why gay marriage is wrong.
  • You claimed that "in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home", contrary to actual studies about same-sex parenting.
  • After people reacted to your statements, your only response was to quote a selection of rude comments and threats you've received, and accuse people of "hate and bullying".
  • You then said that they had no arguments against your views.

And here's what you did not do:

  • You did not acknowledge that you blatantly mischaracterized Obama's support for gay marriage.
  • You did not provide any explanation for your use of tradition as an argument against marriage equality.
  • You did not offer any evidence that "kids do better growing up in a mother/father home" or that same-sex parents are inferior.
  • You did not explain why that would mean they should be deprived of the right to marry.
  • Throughout all this, you gave no further defense of your position on gay marriage.

Again, while death threats are clearly intolerable and repugnant, this is unfortunately par for the course for anyone of even slight notoriety online, let alone the daughter of a vice presidential candidate. Practically any discussion could be diverted from the issues at hand to how hostile some people are, and you've seized that opportunity shamelessly. You say, "Those who claim to be loving and tolerant certainly are hateful and bullying." Really, all of them? Would that happen to include yourself? I'm sure you can see how misleading it is to accuse literally everyone who supports gay rights - or just love and tolerance - of being "hateful and bullying", and this argument certainly doesn't make you any more right.

Do the rude comments you've received mean that gay marriage is actually wrong? No. Do they prove that same-sex parents are worse at raising kids? No. Do they justify your misrepresentation of Obama's position? No. Are they grounds to dismiss any disagreement with you as mere hostility? No. You're just using them to reorient the conversation from your position on marriage to how mean people are.

Do you really think that does justice to the question of equal rights? Gay marriage is a significant issue that affects millions of people, and you even described it as "a policy position that could affect the entire nation". Yet you've shown curiously little interest in treating it as an important concern that ought to be addressed seriously. Doesn't this deserve critical analysis and debate beyond how rude people have been to you?

While your perseverance is admirable, it would be better directed toward actually supporting your views and engaging in genuine discussion on these matters, instead of coming up with so many irrelevant distractions. I may not be the "professional pundit" you seem to think I am, but I'm willing to focus on the real issues here. Are you?

3 comments Filed under , ,

Bristol Palin the Victim? I'm Not Buying It

It wasn't hard to tell what direction things would take after Bristol Palin's recent statements about President Obama and his newfound support for gay marriage. Where the Palins are involved, the sequence of events is firmly established and completely predictable: one of them will say something ridiculous, everyone else will react, and the Palins will proceed to make the entire episode about themselves and how "victimized" they are. Bristol Palin's latest post is a textbook example of this. After being widely criticized for falsely suggesting that Obama only supports gay marriage because of his daughters, and claiming without evidence that "kids do better growing up in a mother/father home", she now says that the response to her remarks has been "a lot of hate and a lot of bullying".

Ironically, she accuses everyone of failing to make any arguments, and then proceeds to spend several paragraphs talking about how mean people have been. Maybe she would have received more serious responses if she had actually presented any arguments of her own in the first place, rather than misrepresenting what Obama said and disparaging families with gay parents for no justifiable reason. If she's looking for a real debate on the issues, she has a strange way of showing it. Instead of providing any explanation of her earlier statements, she claims that a generic monolith named "Hollywood" is uniformly intolerant of any dissent on the issues of gay marriage or abortion, and "anyone who disagrees is stupid, hypocritical, hateful, or bigoted".

Not once did she consider that it might actually be hateful to assume that same-sex couples must be inferior parents when all studies indicate otherwise. And she doesn't seem to think there could be anything bigoted about expecting people to teach their children that same-sex parents don't deserve to be married. That's because not being hateful and bigoted just isn't her concern here - this is all about people calling her names and making her feel bad.

In that vein, she presents a selection of comments from people wishing for her death and generally being rude. While this is obviously unacceptable, it's definitely not a unique occurrence. We could just as well gather up all of the violent and hateful comments made about Obama and his family, same-sex parents, and the LGBT community as a whole. But it would be incredibly dishonest to focus the entire discussion on hostility, incivility and tone in order to ignore any substantial criticism of what we've actually said.

This is what Palin has done here, and it's practically guaranteed that we'll soon see a torrent of op-eds using the latest incident to make sweeping statements about how hostility and threats are never an acceptable mode of discourse, no matter the target. But this, too, only serves to make the entire event about Bristol Palin the Victim, rather than what she actually said about our relationships and our families. Palin may or may not be aware of this, but when you try to make yourself the center of attention here, you're just running away from your own remarks. If she'd prefer to back away from her arguments - insofar as she has any - then she should issue a retraction and apologize to President Obama and the countless same-sex couples whose parenting skills she insulted.

Until then, we're not going to forget this quite so easily. Sure, Palin can talk the talk about "hate" and "bullying", she just won't admit who the bullies actually are. But it really is bullying to use your platform as a national celebrity to deny the equality of our love. It's bullying to dismiss our rights simply by uttering the word "tradition". It's bullying to assume that excluding us from marriage demands no more justification than merely vomiting out your opinion. And pretending to be the victim after you've attacked our families is unquestionably the act of a bully. Is this who you want to be, Bristol Palin?

1 comment Filed under , ,

Why Bristol Palin is Wrong on Marriage

Perhaps the most irritating thing about the Palin family is their followers: the fanbase of sycophants who endlessly praise their "bravery" whenever one of them is rightfully criticized for being ignorant, prejudiced and wrong. They serve to refocus the media's narrative onto the Palins themselves and the controversy surrounding their personal lives, with copious opportunities to portray them as the victims of liberal "attacks" when anyone disagrees with them.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Bristol Palin's vacuous critique of President Obama for supporting marriage equality, which apparently warrants attention simply because she is Bristol Palin. Now that she's set the standard for intellectual depth, we'll be forced to endure endless coverage of Twitter replies from celebrities and unoriginal jokes about her own family structure.

But if Palin really wants to talk about marriage, then let's talk about marriage. She opens with the observation that conservative Christian women running for office are sometimes asked if they would be subservient to their husbands, whereas liberal women usually aren't. (You might be wondering what this has to do with same-sex marriage, but we're getting there.)

While it's absolutely inappropriate to question someone's ability to lead just because they're a woman, there's a reason why conservative women in particular face such inquiries: Republicans are more likely to take the Bible literally, and it has plenty to say about women's obligation to be silent, obey their husbands, and never hold authority over men. If nothing else, this offers them an opportunity to reject these parts of the Bible and repudiate outdated beliefs about women's roles.

So how does this relate to Obama? Palin clumsily parallels this with his statement that Sasha and Malia have friends with same-sex parents, and they see no reason for their friends' parents to be treated differently. She proceeds to make this the centerpiece of her argument, seemingly under the impression that Obama's daughters' attitudes are the centerpiece of his. (Had she read a few sentences earlier in the very paragraph she quoted, she could just as well have chastised him for being influenced by college Republicans.)

As Palin sees it, the president "made a massive change in a policy position that could affect the entire nation after consulting with his teenage daughters". Such a claim is so ignorant of context it can only be a deliberate misrepresentation. Never mind that Obama also mentioned his personal support for equal rights, his experiences with gay staff in the White House, and his insistence that all servicemembers should be treated fairly. Palin would rather portray his principled stand as a capitulation to the whims of teenagers.

That alone is dishonest enough, but then things take a turn for the truly ugly. Realizing her argument can't rest solely on a brazen distortion we all know to be false, she suggests that Obama should "explain to Malia and Sasha that while her friends parents are no doubt lovely people, that's not a reason to change thousands of years of thinking about marriage. Or that – as great as her friends may be – we know that in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home."

Hiding behind "thousands of years" is certainly easy, but let's not forget that disregarding tradition is the longest tradition of all. For all of the undeserved deification of the past, as though it could somehow hold the answers to every issue we'll ever face, we've often managed to admit that tradition has actually been wrong. No longer do we resist the idea of treating women equally in marriage, or allowing people of different races to marry - and this progress has been made at the expense of tradition.

Our society's conventions are surely not eternal; they once had to be justified like any other idea. If there are good reasons for a tradition, these reasons can stand on their own merits, with no need to appeal to longevity. Using the past to veto the future is often the hallmark of those who just don't have a better argument.

However, Palin's contention that the children of same-sex parents are worse off than those with a mother and father is a decidedly empirical matter. This is an active area of research, and the results are not in her favor. Though the sample sizes have often been small, existing studies show no significant differences in the children of same-sex couples. They're just as healthy, psychologically well-adjusted and academically successful. (The study most commonly cited by anti-gay conservatives to show that "kids do better growing up in a mother/father home" didn't even include any same-sex parents.) The evidence-free expectation that gay couples must be inferior parents has no possible basis outside of simple prejudice.

But this argument isn't just incorrect - it's also completely irrelevant. Even if it were demonstrated that same-sex parents tend to be worse for children than opposite-sex parents, this still shouldn't matter, because proficiency at raising children has never been used to define who has the right to get married. The institution of marriage isn't limited to whichever demographic groups have shown optimal parenting ability.

Children of families in poverty are more likely to have adverse outcomes, but there's no income qualification for marriage. Even prisoners and convicted child molesters retain their right to marry - as long as it's to someone of the opposite sex. This is a standard that no one else is subject to, and Palin's demand that same-sex couples alone must meet this requirement is purely an artifact of homophobia.

Most disturbing of all are the implications of her attitudes: she's actually blaming the president for not seeing happy, loving, normal same-sex parents as unqualified deviants who are irreparably harming their children. And she expects him to teach his own daughters to view these innocent people with doubt, suspicion and fear - the same distrust and disrespect Palin has often faced as an unwed teen mother.

Our families deserve better than this. I believe our children do best in a world where my partner and I aren't seen as a threat to them just because we love each other. I believe they should get to grow up in a country where the other kids don't think they've been damaged by having two caring and devoted parents. And I believe they deserve to say with pride that their moms are happily married.

2 comments Filed under , ,

Politics is wide, shallow, and disgusting

The 2008 primaries and general election were the first in which I could legally vote. They were also the first that I had ever taken a substantial and meaningful interest in. I followed the campaigns and speeches and commentary every day, and after witnessing all of the stunning and ridiculous events leading up to that historic November, I started my YouTube channel. I promised myself that when the next presidential election came around, I would be there to cover every moment of the madness.

Let it be known that I was four years less experienced and four years less intelligent. At this point, I'd rather catch norovirus than endure another six months of predictable trivialities, uninformative news and distracting nonsense. I have no interest in covering the same banal and meaningless stories, or making the same obvious points as everyone else, because that would be a waste of time. But I've now realized that this actually rules out an enormous fraction of events in the political sphere, simply due to the nature of modern politics.

Because the presidential election is such a major event, with ramifications for most of the world, it's already being covered from almost every possible angle. Truly unique insights are bound to be rare, and if I can't offer that, then what's the point of even saying anything? But more than that, there's just not that much to talk about. There should be, but there isn't. Instead of taking actual policy positions for us to examine the effectiveness of, candidates keep themselves flexible, refusing to anchor themselves to a specific stance in case they need to change their position in the future. Since they need to appeal to as many voters as possible, they tend to speak in general terms and try to make their ideas seem agreeable to everyone.

In the absence of meaningful stances on important issues, we all start to focus on irrelevant minutiae, such as who we'd like to have a beer with, or who transported a dog on the roof of their car, or who attended a madrassa as a child, or who's perceived as being too "stiff". Media coverage reinforces this, because delivering the news to a general audience requires simplifying many aspects of it and presenting it in a way that's entertaining and attention-getting. In this way, political campaigns and the accompanying coverage become ensnared in a self-perpetuating cycle: the shallower their content is, the more people it appeals to, and the more people who are following the events, the shallower the associated ideas and narratives become.

This does a disservice to the voters, the candidates, the political process, the country, and the world as a whole. It seems like nearly everyone is failing to delineate the pertinent issues we face and focus on finding viable solutions. The modern political landscape is dedicated to almost anything but actually getting things done in a sensible way.

Let's take a look at what Vice President Biden said last Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press:

The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.

What followed were days of speculation about what this means. Does he actually support full marriage equality? Or does he only believe they should have the "same exact rights" in the sense of civil unions offering everything but the title of marriage? He used the word "marrying", but said nothing about whether he believed gay marriage ought to be legal or what approach to gay marriage should be taken at the state or federal level. His remarks could be interpreted in many different ways, and Biden did nothing to clarify this. If he wished to eliminate the ensuing confusion, he could easily have done so in a followup statement explaining that he either does or does not support legalizing same-sex marriage. But he didn't.

In light of this, it seems probable that what he said was intended to be ambiguous - it's not hard to say the words "I support same-sex marriage" if that's what you really want to tell people. Instead, he more likely wanted to appeal to gay people and supporters of equality while trying not to drive away voters who oppose gay marriage. The result was a barely coherent statement that hardly qualifies as taking a stand on anything, because how can you possibly have this both ways?

If Biden had been more honest and simply said, "If you re-elect us, we'll legalize gay marriage and ban gay marriage!", everyone would see how bizarre and ill-considered this approach is. But by being subtle and evasive about it, he managed to generate a few days of news about what amounts to nothing at all. It wasn't until this Wednesday when the president himself actually said "I think same-sex couples should be able to get married" that we were able to get a clear answer out of the administration. Was that really so difficult? It shouldn't have been.

Now let's examine a story from TheHill.com: "GOP plans East Coast missile defense shield to counter Iranian nuclear threat". The only significant information I obtained from this article is that we currently have two missile defense sites in the United States, and Republicans and Democrats disagree about the need for a third site and the potential threat posed by Iran or North Korea.

Does the story say anything about where our existing missile defense sites are located? No. Does it tell us which areas of the US they're capable of covering? No. Does it tell us how vulnerable the East Coast actually is? No. Does it tell us how effective our missile defense systems would be in the event of an attack? No. Does it say which countries we're currently prepared to counter a missile attack from? No. Does it tell us how close Iran or North Korea are to developing a missile that could strike the United States? No. Does it tell us anything that would help us decide whether an East Coast missile defense site is actually necessary or would successfully fulfill its alleged purpose? No. Did the writer of this article expect that we would care about any of these facts? Apparently not.

Instead, the politicians involved have seemingly turned this into an issue of making the other party look bad, and this reporter has gone along with that narrative. The question of whether our country is at risk of a nuclear attack and how we should best prepare to defend against this has been reduced to a conflict between Republicans and Democrats. For the record, the current Ground-Based Midcourse Defense sites are located in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and the system has successfully intercepted targets 50% of the time during tests. The Pentagon has stated that the current sites are sufficient to defend against an ICBM from Iran, and plans are already underway to station sea-based and land-based interceptors in the Mediterranean and in Europe. To find this out, I had to go to Wikipedia and Wired.com, where this information is actually considered relevant to the issue.

And then there's a slideshow on CNN listing some of Mitt Romney's possible running mates. While this is certainly an important question, this piece isn't going to tell us anything useful until they can narrow it down to fewer than 19 potential candidates - at least 9 of whom have already said they don't want the job. The story tells us nothing but "Mitt Romney might pick one of these people, or he might not." Wow, thanks! I'm so informed now.

And the daily parade of bullshit marches on: Ron Paul picked up some delegates in a race Mitt Romney is still going to win. A prisoner got 40% of the vote in West Virginia's Democratic primary, as though we expected that West Virginia would be enthusiastic about Obama. Mitt Romney restated his opposition to gay marriage, to the surprise of no one whatsoever. Then he apologized for allegedly attacking a gay classmate in prep school, which will be mostly forgotten in the next 48 hours unless something worse comes to light. Evangelicals seem likely to support Romney - who else are they going to vote for? MSNBC provides us with Obama's "Voter Confidence Index", a quantity whose current value tells us nothing about what Obama's chances of victory will be six months from now. As MSNBC describes it, "The VCI is not meant to be predictive of any specific outcome". No, really?

Eventually, it just becomes exhausting. Every day, you skim through headline after headline of pop-news that ought to be inconsequential, but has become consequential by virtue of everyone treating it as such. Let's not forget that this election is one of the most important decision processes in the world. We're going to select the candidates who we think would be best at running our nation and writing its laws, and they're going to be faced with the problems of reducing unemployment, provisioning healthcare when millions of people have no coverage, addressing massive income inequality, and handling conflicts around the world. Also, these people are going to be in charge of thousands of nuclear weapons. It does matter how our country is run, yet voters, reporters and politicians themselves treat this process with all the solemnity of someone who goes to a NASCAR race in the hopes of seeing drivers crash into each other and catch on fire. Can't we do better than this?

Instead of keeping their positions amorphous and poorly defined so that they can force us to focus on their "likability" and never be accused of changing their mind, why don't politicians endorse specific goals and strategies that can be supported by actual evidence? If they turn out to be wrong, there should be no shame in changing their views, and the rest of us shouldn't hold it against them if they've done it for a genuinely good reason.

Considering that politicians have made themselves so untrustworthy in the pursuit of re-election, the media have chosen to focus on whatever sensationalized nonsense will draw the most attention, and voters have abdicated their responsibility to take politics seriously, it seems unlikely that we could even do something as basic as working together and putting some actual thought into solving the problems we face. Yet those problems will remain until we address them in a meaningful way. We can either flounder in a morass of self-imposed ignorance forever, or figure out how to make things better. Isn't that what the political process should be about?

1 comment Filed under

Is Jay Michaelson ignoring the Bible, too?

In his now-infamous remarks at the National High School Journalism Conference, Dan Savage made two crucial points: that the Bible says some terrible things, and that we can choose to ignore these things because they are terrible. Though the resulting firestorm of controversy focused as much on his choice of words as what he was actually saying, it reaffirmed that such ideas are still unacceptable in mainstream American discourse. In two articles at The Daily Beast, author and activist Jay Michaelson further argues that Savage is simply wrong to recommend that we "ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people".

As Michaelson sees it, this amounts to "affirming that one must choose between sexuality and religion, between God and gay", leaving no place for gay religious people and reinforcing the idea that homosexuality is incompatible with religion. Yet Savage did no such thing; instead, he offered a completely viable means to reconcile one's faith with support for the equality of gay people. Christians can just ignore the parts of the Bible which conflict with their pro-gay values.

We know this is a realistic option because, as Savage pointed out, even conservative Christians already ignore aspects of the Bible - such as its apparent support for slavery - which conflict with their own values. If they chose to accept gay people, they could likewise disregard any portions of the Bible which contradict this stance. This is not a novel proposal; it's fully compatible with most modern Christian attitudes toward the Bible. And it offers all Christians, queer and straight, a way to maintain both their personal faith and their support for gay rights. Whatever one may think of Savage's idea, there's no way that it forces anyone to choose between gay rights and religious belief. They can easily choose both.

Michaelson, however, suggests that there's no need to ignore any part of the Bible to support gay equality, as the verses which appear to be anti-gay actually aren't. He contends that "the Bible says nothing about gay people at all", because the idea of homosexuality as an enduring, exclusive orientation did not exist at the time it was written. Instead, he says, verses such as those in Leviticus 18 pertain solely to anal sex between men as a kind of idolatry, and can be disregarded as part of Old Testament ritual law.

I struggle to see how this is anything but a more detailed formulation of Savage's suggestion to "ignore the bullshit" - Michaelson has just provided Christians with an easily understandable rationalization for ignoring such verses as irrelevant. (Of course, it's unclear whether this also gives Christians an excuse to disregard other prohibitions of Leviticus - such as having sex with one's mother - as long as one does not do so anally or in an idolatrous manner.)

Moreover, it's plainly disingenuous to claim that the Bible couldn't be talking about gay people merely because its authors had no explicit concept of being gay as a romantic and sexual orientation. Unless one believes that gay relationships never have a sexual component, a condemnation of homosexual intercourse does pertain to gay people, even if the Bible makes no reference to people who were identified as gay or exclusively gay in their sexual habits.

Michaelson himself later refutes this argument, describing homosexuality as "a particular, modern, European concept that has no parallel in Ancient Near Eastern Biblical literature, save perhaps in the story of David and Jonathan." Apparently, the modern-day idea of homosexuality has no parallel in the Bible, except when it does.

In chapter 12 of his 2011 book, God Vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality, Michaelson says:

What is clear is that Jonathan loved David in an intense emotional way that is far more than mere platonic love or friendship ... and that both he and Saul had relationships with David that would conventionally have been understood as including an erotic element.

Even if the Bible's authors had no concept of homosexuality, they still describe a committed emotional relationship between men that went beyond mere friendship and probably included sexual activity. So it's clearly impossible that Leviticus 18:22 was describing homosexuality - unless it actually was.

Michaelson points out that "about 40% of Americans believe the Bible to be the word of God", asking us, "Do we have nothing to say to them, except to demand that they ignore the bullshit?" The answer, challenging as it may be, is yes. Just as we expect people not to be prejudiced against women, racial minorities, or the disabled, we can expect them not to be prejudiced against gays - no matter what theological contortions this requires of them. Indeed, ignoring the bullshit is precisely what Michaelson teaches them to do.

The problem, however, lies in the assumption that we must always find a way to make the Bible appear compatible with modern morality for the sake of that 40%. If we're going to develop whichever interpretations are needed so that the Bible is congruent with the prevailing values of the day, how is this not tantamount to ignoring the Bible altogether? When we can make the Bible say anything, it no longer matters what it actually does say. There's nothing wrong with that, and as an avowed atheist, I agree that it shouldn't matter at all. But let's not kid ourselves about what's going on here.

If these literalists need to change their interpretations so they can believe the Bible supports whatever they want it to, then their own values have already prevailed over the Bible. Pretending that the Bible backs our preferred values is a cheap, lazy way of harnessing the trust society has placed in the Bible to lend support to what are really our own morals. Michaelson's proposal is actually much more insidious than Savage's coarse suggestion to "ignore the bullshit", because Michaelson aims to grant Christians a license to disregard the Bible at will, while still claiming they follow every word of it. At least Savage, and myself, are open about our intentions: If the Bible is wrong, it's okay to put it away.

2 comments Filed under , , , ,

Dan Savage is right about the Bible

A couple weeks ago, Dan Savage was the keynote speaker at the National High School Journalism Convention, where he discussed social media, anti-gay bullying, and his It Gets Better Project. While addressing the role of religion in homophobia, he said:

We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things. The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document.

He went on to explain how the Bible contains specific instructions about keeping people as slaves, and not once does it prohibit the practice of slavery. While he was speaking, a number of students got up and walked out, to which he responded:

It's funny, as someone who's on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-ass some people react when you push back.

Two weeks later, this has now become the latest manufactured controversy of the Christian right. Breitbart.com devoted their entire front page to stories about Dan Savage, accusing him of "bullying high school kids" with a "profane Bible rant". The gay conservative group GOProud claimed that Savage was "attacking high school students who were offended by his outrageous remarks" and demanded that he apologize. Michelle Malkin accused "the activist left" of "anti-Christian bigotry" for having Savage speak to student journalists, and the president of the Family Research Council called him a "disciple of division and intolerance". Todd Starnes of Fox News has written a handful of melodramatic stories about the Christian students who were present at the speech. Starnes describes their decision to leave as follows:

Some will say what happened next took courage - but [student Jake] Naman said he was simply following the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Isn't that just so brave?

Of course, this reflexive outrage at any criticism of the Bible is really nothing new. This January, the National Organization for Marriage demanded that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie withdraw his nomination of a judge who had criticized arguments against gay marriage that appeal to tradition and pointed out that slavery was also a tradition endorsed by the Bible. Clearly, this is something that many right-wing Christians just don't want people to talk about.

But let's get one thing straight: The Bible is unequivocal in its support for slavery. This isn't a situation where there are a variety of conflicting verses that can be interpreted as for or against slavery. In every instance that slavery is mentioned in the Bible, it is never condemned. Instead, the authors of the Bible only address how slaves should be acquired, how they should be treated, and how they should obey their masters. And despite every apologetic argument about how the context of this enslavement of human beings was different from the more modern forms of slavery, the Bible consistently and indisputably endorses the buying and selling of people as the property of other people. If this is wrong, then the Bible is wrong - and if we can choose to disregard the Bible when it comes to slavery, we can likewise disregard it on the topic of sexual morality.

So regardless of Dan Savage's tone or how terribly offended some Christians were, his underlying point is completely valid. And its impact was only amplified by the incredible sight of devout Christians literally fleeing from the truth about their Bible and their own moral hypocrisy. In doing so, they made his point even better than he did. After all, if you're so pious that you won't tolerate anyone speaking ill of your Bible, then how can you be so completely unprepared to face the reality of what it actually says? What the hell kind of Christian are you?

And if this was your reaction as a student of journalism, then what the hell kind of journalist are you? Make no mistake, this was an event where attendance was voluntary. It was not a mandatory school assembly and they were not a captive audience. And while they certainly had no obligation to stay there and listen to him, I have to wonder whether they really understand what journalism is about. Journalists may often have to talk to people with whom they disagree. They'll find themselves covering events that they find objectionable. Yet these aspiring journalists decided there was no need to listen to Dan Savage as soon as he said something that offended them.

Now, I'm no journalist, but when the Westboro Baptist Church came to my neighborhood, I didn't run away from them. I walked right up to them and asked for an interview! I consider the human equality of gay people to be fundamentally truthful, but that didn't stop me. And many Christians consider their alleged "word of God" to be fundamentally truthful as well, yet these journalism students were unwilling even to be in the presence of someone who criticized their beliefs.

Considering what Savage actually said, it's remarkable that conservatives would call his comments "outrageous", "bigoted", "hostile", and "bullying". Do they not agree that slavery is bullshit? Because if you think supporting slavery is bullshit, then the Bible's position on slavery is also bullshit. It doesn't get much clearer than that. If these particular Christians haven't yet found a comforting explanation for the slavery, stonings, and other unpleasantness in the Bible, then they should either cut those parts out of the book, or stop being offended when we quote what it says. Why should there be anything offensive about saying that a text which endorses slavery is not the best source of moral guidance? And why should such a book be immune from criticism merely because some people believe in it strongly?

Just because something is part of your religion, that doesn't mean it can't be wrong. And slavery is wrong, even if it's in the Bible. No matter how much these people whine and scream and cry about it, the all-knowing, eternal God of the Bible apparently saw fit to instruct us on who we can buy and sell, whether we can keep their spouse and children as slaves, and how badly we're allowed to beat them. Complain all you want! It's still in there. If you have to grapple with the unpleasant realization that even you yourself have ignored the Bible's antiquated teachings, then great! But that's your problem - not our fault. You might walk out on us, but good luck walking out of your own mind.

53 comments Filed under , , ,

Dog meat isn't special, whether you eat it or not

Recently, much has been made of a passage in Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father where he speaks of eating dog meat as a child in Indonesia. He described it as "tough", though not as tough as snake meat. Others have claimed that Obama has never apologized since then or expressed any regret over having eaten dog. But regardless of the veracity of these claims, or the ethics of other dog-related acts such as transporting a live dog on the roof of a car, there's little reason why this would be newsworthy. And even if Barack Obama were completely unapologetic about eating dog and continued to enjoy dog meat to this day with no compunctions whatsoever, this still should never have become an issue. Whatever your views on the morality of eating meat, there's no reason why the ethical status of eating dog should be substantially different from that of eating cow, pig or chicken. The concerns that apply to the raising of dogs for meat are equally applicable to other livestock as well.

The need to spare the animal as much cruelty as possible has been raised, but it's not as though dogs have a greater ability to perceive and suffer from pain and discomfort than other meat animals. They feel pain just as much as dogs do. While we might find ourselves much more disturbed and emotionally pained at the sight of a dog being deliberately slaughtered or kept in inhumane conditions, there's no reason to assume that our own unique suffering must mean the dog suffers uniquely as well. If we feel that the circumstances in which a dog is raised or killed cause undue distress to the dog, then we should be just as insistent that pigs or cows be treated equally humanely - whether we prefer that they be treated well before slaughter, or not be killed at all.

Others seem to regard dogs as special due to their intelligence and ability to learn. However, pigs have also proven capable of learning commands and remembering them for years. They've also shown their competence at playing video games designed for chimpanzees. The intelligence of dogs is not qualitatively different from that of other animals, and it seems arbitrary that dogs should define the level of intellect that would rule out using an animal for meat. And even if we do subscribe to that definition, it would still encompass more than just dogs. Yet nobody finds it especially notable if a presidential candidate is found to have eaten bacon.

The question of food safety is an important one, since the unpopularity of dog meat in many areas means that it's often processed and sold with little or no oversight. But this problem is not limited to dogs, and can be remedied by bringing dog meat within the purview of a proper regulatory framework, just as with other meat animals. A lack of regulation is not inherent to the use of dogs as livestock.

Another objection I've heard is that dogs are an inefficient source of food because they don't provide enough usable meat relative to the resources used to raise them. While I haven't been able to find information about the resource consumption of dog meat farming, the raising of cows, pigs and other livestock is remarkably inefficient as well. 100,000 liters of water are used to produce a single kilogram of grain-fed beef, whereas only 2,000 liters of water are required to produce a kilogram of rice or soybeans. The grain being fed to livestock in the United States could be used to feed 800 million people, and livestock production is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions.

If the environmental effects of livestock dogs are a concern, the environmental effects of all livestock should be a concern - and if one is willing to overlook the impact of all other livestock, there seems to be little reason why dog would stand out as unacceptable. In any case, livestock dogs could simply be bred to have more usable meat, as has been done with cows, chickens and turkeys. In fact, there's already a breed of dog in South Korea specifically meant to serve as a source of meat.

Finally, many people have appealed to the history of canine coexistence with humans to justify why dogs deserve special treatment. Given that they're considered "man's best friend", often exhibiting a great degree of personal devotion and serving a variety of useful purposes to us, it's been suggested that we owe it to dogs not to eat them. But the consumption of dogs is just as much of a historical tradition as the companionship of dogs - their relationship to us hasn't ruled out their use as food before, so why would it now? Either tradition can justify eating dogs as well, or their history as pets is as irrelevant as their history as food.

And if a certain lifeform deserves to be treated respectfully and humanely, then they deserve dignity regardless of what services they can offer us or how much they like us. Their entitlement to respect is not contingent upon any particular alliance we have with them. When it comes to devotion, other domesticated livestock are quite capable of exhibiting similar attachments, and people are likewise able to form bonds with these animals as well - it's just that most of us don't have a pet cow or pig to greet us when we come home. Conversely, while cows are deeply respected in India, not many people elsewhere seem to find this a compelling reason to refrain from eating beef. And if canine allegiance to humans is still troubling, we could always try to breed dogs that, while docile, have no special attachment to people. If that's not enough to make them acceptable as food, then it's hard to see why any other livestock would be acceptable, either.

Ultimately, the cuteness and friendliness and unique companionship of dogs is less like a serious argument, and more like an anti-abortion billboard that says, "Your baby's heart is already beating!" - true, but irrelevant. In the present context, highlighting Obama's consumption of dog meat as if there were something strange about it is likely meant to depict him as some kind of alien "other" who's violated one of our most deeply held taboos, marking him as part of a foreign culture and mindset. Meanwhile, few people have bothered to question whether this taboo has any actual merit. If we're looking for a reason not to eat dog, there are plenty of better arguments which don't rely on the assumption that dogs are categorically different from other livestock. Unfortunately for some of us, treating other livestock as not categorically different from dogs may have undesirable implications.

5 comments Filed under , ,