Thursday, January 30, 2014

Othering

Quote of the Day:
"MSNBC, on whose shows I have happily participated, engages daily in the othering business, of making conservatism itself (and sometimes libertarianism, and other non-Progressive ideological strains) a disreputable condition, explicable in terms of pathology. That this is done in the name of tolerance and sensitivity to punitive stereotypes is one of the ironies of our age."
There are characteristics of both proponents of conservatism and proponents of Progressivism (what is erroneously called "liberalism" in America today) that I find distasteful and unsettling, all of which revolve around an attitude of absolutism and a claimed (though rarely demonstrated) sense of moral righteousness. While there is plenty of overlap, certain characteristics are far more prevalent on one side.

On the right, the religious aspect that permeates political conservatism in this country lends itself to a disquieting, creepy certainty on some topics that doesn't admit of the slightest doubt, flexibility, or openness to new evidence, discussion, or compromise. Typically, this manifests itself in the arena of social issues like abortion or gay marriage. As the phrase goes, "God said it, I believe it, that's the end of it." Of course, not all conservatives are rigid on these subjects to that extent, but a great many are. I am always wary of, and put off by, any assertions that are declared off-limits for discussion from the get-go. "I think X, and nothing can ever change my mind" is the deathbed of human thought.

On the left, one of the most disturbing characteristics is definitely the "othering" described in the quote above. There is no respectful or honest disagreement with a Progressive. If your view conflicts with the down-the-line Progressive view, you don't just disagree. You are not merely entertaining a different perspective or voicing a different opinion, no matter how well considered or what evidence is offered.

Your opinion is not merely wrong, on the Progressive view, there has to be something wrong with you as a person. Your disagreement is only, as in the quote above, "explicable in terms of pathology." No decent person would disagree with us, therefore you are not decent. You couldn't possibly be disagreeing on any meritorious grounds, because there aren't any, so therefore, you must be disagreeing because there is something wrong with you. You must be bad, or evil, or damaged in some way. You can't just think something different, you must be something awful.

If you disagree with X, you *must* be a Y.
If you think Obamacare will damage health care, you are a racist.
If you think Hillary bears some responsibility for Benghazi, you are a misogynist.
If you question the wisdom of going eyeball deep in debt for education programs with a dubious track record of effectiveness, you obviously hate children.
If you think that raising the minimum wage will cost jobs and hurt the economy, you clearly hate the poor.

Unlike on the right, this phenomenon is not largely restricted to one area. It permeates everything. You name it, from abortion to the environment to the economy to the size and role of government--disagreement is tantamount to admitting to mental illness or moral desolation. A cigar is not just a cigar, it is an icon of your deep-seated, patriarchal, arrogant white privilege.

Just like on the right, not everyone on the left is this extreme, but a lot are. It is also worth reiterating the distinction I alluded to earlier regarding the difference between liberals and Progressives. While all Progressives are liberal, not all liberals are Progressives. It's an important distinction in this context because, in my observation, the split between those who purvey the group think mentality described above and those who do not is largely one along liberal versus Progressive lines. Progressives are to liberals what the sun is to a campfire, and the mentality is a Progressive one much more so than a liberal one.

And again, there is certainly overlap of these traits on both sides. There is ample deafness to argument and demonization of opponents at both ends. Conservatives demonize Progressives as socialists, leftists, America haters, radicals, etc. Progressives dogmatically embrace convenient narratives that fit their worldview, independent of evidence. But generally speaking, in my experience, certain traits shake out along ideological lines the majority of the time. Though I am not solidly in either camp, I am also guilty. I try to be aware of it and correct for it if I catch it, but I often fall short. Hell, I guess you could say that I am generalizing even now, perhaps unfairly. How's that for irony?

Maybe it's an inevitable side effect of passionate advocacy. Maybe it's because reasoning deeply and contemplating opposing perspectives thoroughly is hard, while dismissal and generalization are just so damn easy and tempting. Perhaps it is just the nature--or a nature--of public discourse in general. I really couldn't say. The one thing it doesn't seem to be, whatever the case, is helpful.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Yes, Everything

As the late, great Christopher Hitchens explained on many occasions, when he gave his book God is Not Great the rather contentious subtitle, "How Religion Poisons Everything," he was not simply doing what book publishers like--giving the book a controversial title to attract attention and spur sales. He really meant it. Everything.

Case in point: the "Scary Dilemma" of 17 year old Kat. Raised all of her life in the Church of Christ by devoutly religious parents in a devoutly religious community, Kat has, against all odds, been touched by the sunlight of reason. She has been an "in the closet" atheist for about five years. To this point, she has been able to keep her secret, finding plausible reasons to bow out of some of the more active parts of church life. But now, on the cusp of adulthood and the beginning of the college experience, she has been given a choice by her religious parents:

"Christian college, or no college at all."

Just let that ultimatum detonate in your brain for a minute. Think about what it is saying. "We are so intent on assuring that you believe as we do, that we are willing to cripple your future to make it happen. We would rather see you work as a waitress at Denny's for the rest of your life than risk your leaving the church."

Wow. Just... wow. If religion is so pernicious that it can actually infect the unconditional love between parent and child--making a parent willing to torpedo their own child's future--then what is left? Is there a greater bond between human beings than that of parent and child? If that bond can be displaced, corrupted... it is difficult to conceive of any relationship that could be immune.

Religion really does poison everything.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Get Them While They're Young

There is a famous Jesuit phrase, generally attributed to Francis Xavier:
"Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man."

Powerful words, and an even more powerful indictment. For even back when these words were written (the early 1500s), the great thinkers and luminaries of the church knew that of all of the methods available to them for spreading the gospel and creating converts, none of them--even conquering and converting indigenous people at the point of a sword--held a candle to being able to indoctrinate young children. Raise them in, or at least with, the church, and most likely, the church will have them for life.

This country's evangelical contingent has doubled down in this strategy of late, and it isn't difficult to see why. Church attendance is at an all time low. Recent surveys show that the "nones"--that is, those who claim no specific religious affiliation (not necessarily atheists)--are now upwards of 20% of the US population. The Information Age has done to Christianity (and religion as a whole) what centuries of crusades, jihads, holy wars, reformations, enlightenments, and the rise an fall of empires could not: it has armed people with information outside of the church, and allowed them to thoughtfully investigate the claims of religion on their own with resources for research that make the fabled library at Alexandria look like a children's pop-up book.

To the evangelical, this is an unparalleled crisis and an enormous challenge. To meet it, they have taken
Xavier's words to heart. They know that in a free Western society with free access to a world of knowledge, they cannot rely upon the fear, superstition, ignorance, societal pressures, and other traditional forces that have always kept people coming back to the church. They also know that they are losing ground badly in the marketplace of ideas. So they are focusing an enormous amount of energy and money where it will have the most effect: children.


This all seems familiar somehow...
To me, this is beyond heinous. We are biologically hard wired to trust our parents. We have to be; we'd never survive otherwise. Few would dispute the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit, short of abuse. But if the parent uses their position, even with the best of intentions, to fill their child's head with nonsense, is there some point where that itself becomes a form of abuse? This is something that could literally impede their ability to achieve success in life. If your religious teachings cause you to reject science, how can you get an education in the sciences, or a job in the lucrative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields? How does society undo this damage? Where do a parent's rights end and the child's begin?

All questions worth considering as you watch this excellent video from Seth Andrews. Andrews--a one-time evangelical Christian talk radio broadcaster who hosted one of the largest Christian broadcasts at one of the largest Christian radio stations in the US--now hosts a podcast and a rapidly growing online community called, "The Thinking Atheist." In this video presentation from the 2013 "FreeOK" convention in Oklahoma entitled "Get Them While They're Young," Andrews talks about the various ways that the evangelical movement is targeting and attracting children into the fold. Seth is a compelling speaker, and I hope you enjoy the video!


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why does a candidate's religion matter?

I'd like to share with my vast blog audience and excellent video that takes a swipe at a question that crops up every presidential election, and was a particular focus during the 2012 election: why do a candidate's religious convictions matter?

It matters because their convictions will ultimately and inevitably govern their decisions and actions. The beliefs we hold most dear cannot help but influence our thought processes. Given the awesome power of the US presidency, the central task of which is to make decisions that influence the entire country, and even the entire world, do we not want someone in the office who is adept at considering evidence, exercising reasoning, and arriving at sound choices?

This is not to say that someone with religious convictions can't do that. Far from it. But it does mean that, contrary to Mitt Romney's assertions in the 2012 election cycle, a candidate's religious convictions--just like their views on economics, foreign policy, and myriad other subjects--DOES matter, and needs to be explored publicly.George W. Bush very famously said that God had told him to 'end tyranny in Iraq'. When a president's religious beliefs commit the country to military intervention overseas, they couldn't possibly be more relevant. When a president's religious convictions lead them to reject scientific evidence in favor of ancient scriptural doctrine (witness the Republican candidates in the video professing disbelief in the theory of evolution), they couldn't be more relevant.

There are other implications as well that are truly frightening. If a president believes that the Bible is inerrant when it comes to Genesis, then are they equally convinced of the veracity of Revelations? Given the authority of the president over the world's most powerful military--including the world's deadliest nuclear arsenal--the degree to which he (or she) embraces apocalyptic prophecy becomes exceedingly relevant, does it not?

If Mitt Romney truly believes that he has magic underwear and that he will be inheriting his own planet upon his death (as in his Mormon doctrine), or that the Milky Way was ruled 14 trillion years ago by an intergalactic warlord named Xenu (Scientology), or that two of every animal could be housed for forty days and nights on a ship smaller than the Titanic (Christianity), I don't see how anyone can, with a straight face, profess that this would not call into question their reasoning in other areas. Has anyone ever known someone who believed in alien abductions, or that the moon landing was a hoax, or that Elvis was still alive, who was stone cold rational in every other area of life?


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Monuments Men


I am extremely enthusiastic about the release of "The Monuments Men." I think it is telling a powerful story of the Second World War that has been FAR too long ignored.

To truly understand the history of the period, you have to understand that Adolf Hitler's goal was not merely to conquer and subjugate the peoples of Europe, it was to utterly destroy their identity as a people separate from their existence as subjects of the Reich. He did that in the most calculated way possible--by systematically looting or destroying their cultural heritage. As Clooney says in these trailers, you can kill millions of people, burn down their homes, destroy their cities, and they will survive. When you obliterate their greatest achievements of thought and expression in literature and art, it's like they never existed.

To me, the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) unit is an exemplar of the very best
aspect of the American character. The Soviet Union's "trophy brigades" acted as a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking everything in sight back to Moscow never to be seen again (as all conquering empires throughout history have done). Contrast that with the United States not only NOT confiscating everything in sight as the spoils of war, but actually spending extra time and money to repatriate these cultural treasures to their rightful owners (the MFA&A worked until 1950, five years after the war ended, to return artifacts)... I can't possibly think of an example that more clearly illustrates the difference between "us" and "them."

The United States not only liberated half of the world, but rescued and restored the cultural heritage of Europe and the entire world. The US is far from perfect. We have done shameful things, and made many mistakes. We are not perfect. But this accomplishment is something that every American can point to with unequivocal pride and say, "this is what we are about."

Friday, January 3, 2014

Kentucky's House of Horrors

A creepy, primitive, frightening reptilian predator, posing
with an animatronic velociraptor.
Take one part ignorance, one part zealotry, and one part used car salesman, wrap it up in an Aussie accent, and you get Ken Ham, huxter extraordinaire. If there is a bright intellectual center to the world, Ken Ham has created the district furthest therefrom -- his own shining refuge from the torment of honest inquiry and critical thought.

Science, you see, with its tedious and tiresome habit of teasing out facts about the universe that contradict his beloved tome of Bronze Age desert nomad scribblings, was simply a bridge too far for poor Ken. He took on the daunting task of arresting human progress, gathered donations from his flock of equally feeble - minded simpletons, and erected a state-of-the-art, multimillion dollar, fully interactive monument to ignorance in sunny Kentucky.

Prepare to go backwards... not in time, but in the mind.
The Bluegrass State, known for music, horse racing, basketball, and bourbon can now add this curiosity to its CV, a pilgrimage destination of sorts for the blind faithful and those who wish to gawk at them--participants and spectators in the Ken Ham sideshow. Humans and dinosaurs, living side by side, just like in the Flintstones! Look at the little girl riding the triceratops! To think, this was only 6,000 years ago!

The Flintstones was daddy's favorite
documentary series!
Would that it stopped there, it would be harmless enough. Like a bizarre curio on display at the Ripley's "Believe it or Not" museums--simply take it in, shake your head at the twisted diversity of our little world, and move on. But no, the Kentucky House of Horrors has a mission, an agenda aimed squarely at the next generation. The dramatic dioramas and technological dazzle of animatronic dinosaurs is a carefully crafted multimedia blitz designed to plant a mutant seed of credulity and denialism in the fertile soil of a child's mind.


Anything that conflicts with Ken Ham's one and only bedside book--or, at least, his interpretation thereof--cannot be true, and he's not above the cynical misappropriation of scientific language, lies, and outright child indoctrination, to prove it. The village idiot can be entertaining, but the village idiot with a multimillion dollar budget can be downright dangerous. The Creation Museum is YEC (Young Earth Creationist) agitprop disguised as an educational family attraction. Ham wants to open your childs' skulls, and take a big, steaming dogma dump on their impressionable brains. The malevolent hobgoblin from Down Under is here to stay and, like a less charming version of Firefly's Captain Mal Reynolds, he aims to misbehave.