Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bob Saget on Thanksgiving

Oratory and literary national treasure Bob Saget has written an essay for The Huffington Post about Thanksgiving.

An excerpt:
I do have a wish for you all. May all your holidays be filled with the blessings that life can bestow. And though, for all of us, in different ways, this has been a tough year, try to remember something my father taught me. Something I reflect upon that occasionally has helped me through a tough time... That at your moment of suffering, somewhere in the world, some unsuspecting turkey is about to have a fistful of gravy shoved deep into his ass.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Watch an American Bishop Make the Case for Theocracy

Here is a clip from Hardball, as Chris Matthews spars with Reverend Thomas Tobin, the Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island. In it, Tobin and Matthews debate over the influence religious leaders seek over secular, governmental policy.

Interestingly, the segment starts out with an excerpt of John F. Kennedy's religious speech, in which the former president explicitly affirms the separation of church and state. But at about 2:21 in the video, Tobin says that a politician's "first commitment must be to his faith," and "if your job gets in the way of your faith you need to quit your job," presenting a position diametrically opposed to the thesis of Kennedy's speech. Further, the point Tobin is really making is to say that unconditional obedience must be given to the church, placing it above constituents, laws and procedures, or any other person, group, or institution. This is, by definition, the essence of theocracy.

In this clip we get a brief but fairly complete enunciation and criticism of the power wielded and pursued by those in religious positions. Whether Tobin recognizes it or not--and his fumbling answers later in the segment suggest he has not thought about it--the implications of his position are not all that different from an Islamic fundamentalist who would institute Sharia Law. The church, as represented by Tobin, requires absolute capitulation to its decrees and the modification of existing laws to conform to religious dogma. This position would blur and ultimately erase any kind of distinction between the religious and the secular, with the former overtaking the latter.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Berkeley Protests

Students in California are protesting the decision by the University of California's Board of Regents to increase tuition by thirty-two percent. According to the Los Angeles Times, the hikes will add $2,500 to undergraduate fees by next fall, bringing basic annual fees to $10,302. Room, board and books can add $16,000.

In response, a group of students occupied a classroom on the Berkeley campus and were later arrested. According to The Times:

Campus police entered Wheeler Hall about 5 p.m., and the demonstrators were taken into custody without incident, campus officials said in a statement. The protesters were charged with trespassing and released, the statement said.

The arrests ended a day of tumult that began before dawn when the students took over classrooms on the second floor and locked four exits. They unfurled a banner that read "32 Percent Hike, 900 Layoffs."

A rally outside Wheeler grew throughout the day, said Maggie Wheeler, a freshman at the campus. By early evening, hundreds of students and union activists were shouting slogans and banging on drums, Wheeler said.

Dozens of campus police in riot helmets were watching the crowds but didn't move against the barricaded students until late in the day, she said.

Campus officials said an attempt at negotiation was made but their efforts "were refused."

Three students were arrested earlier in the day and no injuries were reported, said Emily Strange, a media relations assistant.

Puck Lo, 29, one of the students inside the locked room, disputed the university's contention that the demonstrators refused to negotiate. Students were demanding that 38 custodians who lost their jobs be reinstated and that the protesters be given amnesty, Lo said.

Here are some Youtube videos of the protest:

Students hang the banner:

Protest at the front line:

Protests at the front line part 2:

Police try to hold back protesters:

An earlier protest from September 2009 over budget issues:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Obama Lost Without Teleprompter

From The Onion:

By the way, the Onion news anchor used to be Fox News anchor. Make of that what you will.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Can Our Justice System Handle Them?


SALT LAKE CITY - The case of one of four teens who were cited after rapping their order at a McDonald's in Utah appears headed for trial.

Police in American Fork, about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City, cited the teens for disorderly conduct last month after the drive-through rap.

The teens have said they were imitating a rap from a popular YouTube video, which begins: "I need a double cheeseburger and hold the lettuce."

Monday, November 09, 2009

Is a Military Base Right for Your Neighborhood?

This article in the New York Times takes a look at the violence at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, the site of last week's shooting. The article finds:

  • Reports of domestic abuse have grown by 75 percent since 2001. At the same time, violent crime in Killeen has risen 22 percent while declining 7 percent in towns of similar size in other parts of the country.
  • Since 2003, there have been 76 suicides by personnel assigned to Fort Hood, with 10 this year.
  • A crisis center on base is averaging 60 phone calls a week from soldiers and family members seeking various help for problems from suicide to anger management, with about the same volume of walk-ins and scheduled appointments.
  • Col. Edward McCabe, a Catholic chaplain at Fort Hood, said signs of fatigue and other strains are “rampant” on the base. “The numbers of divorces I’ve had to deal with are huge, the cases of physical abuse,” Colonel McCabe said.
  • Crimes, especially domestic violence, increase when troop divisions return home.
  • Children of soldiers attending local schools suffer from not getting the parental guidance they need, leading to poor grades and behavioral problems.
We don't know the cause yet of last week's murder spree. The motive may be religious, mental illness, stress related, or some other reason. But regardless of what happened last week, these numbers give pause when we consider the help, or lack thereof, that soldiers are receiving as they transition from the battlefield to the home front. It also raises the question of what kinds of people the military culture breeds and how the presence of a military base may impact the local community.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Why We Fight

The Daily Beast has an article by Lauren Sandler on a rift developing in the atheism movement. According to the article, there is a dispute over how aggressively atheists should make their case. On one side is a combative, in-your-face attitude that actively seeks to disabuse people of their religious faith. The other side is passive-aggressive, suggesting tolerance for all attitudes and perspectives.

These two philosophies are fracturing organizations at the top of the atheist activism food chain. Consider the Center for Inquiry, atheism's top think tank and one of the groups behind New York’s “Good Without God” campaign. The Center’s founder, Paul Kurtz, one of humanism's eminences grises, preaches maximum tolerance. His life's aim, he told me, is to “make it so a person can be a nonbeliever in our society and be respected and accepted.” As such, he thinks it’s counterproductive to preach against religion. “You can't begin by calling people names,” says the 85-year-old Kurtz. “It's self-destructive to nonbelievers.” When Kurtz’s own organization supported international “Blasphemy Day” in September (a day dedicated to openly criticizing all things God), Kurtz wrote a column in Free Inquiry magazine, an atheist publication put out by the Center for Inquiry, comparing the day to “the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi era.” He continued, “There are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention.”

One of Blasphemy Day's supporters was, in fact, Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry’s editor-in-chief and Kurtz's colleague at the Center. Flynn sees a loud, proud, and socially unacceptable atheism as the best chance to achieve Kurtz's declared goals. He also draws constructive parallels to the raucous gay-rights movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. “If you think back to deliberately outrageous activism like ACT UP and Queer Nation, somehow after 10 years, gay was mainstream,” he says. “There were gay characters on sitcoms. How did this happen? That brashness and outrageousness, it desensitized America. It got everybody over that taboo.”

* * *

Barry Kosmin, who directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, suggests that neither active approach will ultimately be successful in mainstreaming atheism. “My own belief is that actual religion will be hurt more by creating a climate of indifference,” he says, imagining a time when godlessness will be met by nothing more than a shrug. Kosmin says we're not far from that now, especially if you take a historical perspective.

It's easy to see why there would be a reaction against the proselytizing and combative elements of the atheist movement; the aggressive tactics resemble the kinds of obnoxious displays of faith of Christians and Muslims that spurred atheists to action in the first place. However, there are a few very good reasons to embrace the pro-active elements of the movement.

First, as Richard Dawkins states in the article, tolerance and politeness have been used for a long time and haven't gotten anywhere. This speaks to a larger issue of relativity and political correctness within the culture. As diversity appreciation has spread--which has been a mostly positive influence--it has had a side effect of creating a relativistic fog in which no one is allowed to criticize other cultures or religious beliefs; no one is superior or inferior just different. But if the point of the atheist movement is to convince people to abandon superstition, then they have to do just that, which means passing judgement on other people's beliefs.

Second, if atheists take the non-existence of god to be a matter of scientific fact (which it is), then the application of words like "proselytizing" or "dogmatic" do not really apply. The very thing that separates science from faith is reason. We cannot be dogmatic about the non-existence of god any more than we could be dogmatic about the earth being round.

Third, the "shocking" act of desecrating idols is important to making them relative. As Tom Flynn correctly asserts, the obtuse actions of gay rights groups in the 1970s paid off later to normalize homosexuality and overcome many stigmas, although much remains to be done. By exposing the flimsiness of the symbols of faith we can begin to break society's sense of reverence toward them.

Lastly, the stakes are simply too high. From the Crusades to the War on Terror, from the Inquisition to Al Qaeda, from the Scopes Trial to Proposition 8, religion has been an embarrassing handicap on human culture. It is not merely an annoying habit of a small group of people; these superstitions have powerful reach socially, politically, and economically across the world. And with nuclear weapons now in the hands of those who actively look forward to the Day of Judgement, we had better do our best to convince them that there is no paradise waiting for them over the rainbow.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Criticizing Hate Crime Legislation

I've had some experience as a diversity advocate, first in my undergraduate college career and now as a GLBT ally and a supervisor of student workers of mixed nationalities. But I've recently found myself revising some of the ideas and positions that I've long held. My views on religious tolerance have shifted (ideas should not be above criticism, even--or especially--ideas of faith) and I've been disturbed by how popular and academic discourse is negatively affected by nice sounding but half-baked concepts of "equality" and "equal representation" (watch any talking-head-television show to witness false equivalency). I've long been uncomfortable with hate crimes legislation. The idea of a hate crime has always troubled me, as hate is a thought or an emotion and making that a crime is fundamentally a problem.

As you may have heard, last week President Obama signed the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Act which expands the definition of hate crimes to include victims who are gay, lesbian, and transgendered. Feministing recently included a link to this compilation of critiques of hate crime legislation featured at blackandpink.org. I suggest you read the whole thing but here are two responses I find especially pertinent:
Hate crime laws are an easy way for the government to act like it is on our communities’ side while continuing to discriminate against us. Liberal politicians and institutions can claim “anti-oppression” legitimacy and win points with communities affected by prejudice, while simultaneously using “sentencing enhancement” to justify building more prisons to lock us up in.
Hate crimes legislation is a liberal way of being “tough on crime” while building the power of the police, prosecutors, and prison guards. Rather than address systems of violence like health care disparities, economic exploitation, housing crisis, or police brutality, these politicians use hate-crimes legislation as their stamp of approval on “social issues”.

Hate crimes don’t occur because there aren’t enough laws against them, and hate crimes won’t stop when those laws are in place. Hate crimes occur because, time and time again, our society demonstrates that certain people are worth less than others; that certain people are wrong, are perverse, are immoral in their very being.
Creating more laws will not help our communities. Organizing for the passage of these kind of laws simply takes the time and energy out of communities that could instead spend the time creating alternative systems and building communities capable of starting transformative justice processes. Hate crimes bills are a distraction from the vital work necessary for community safety.