They touched a nerve…

About a week ago, there was an article in GQ magazine (or at least on their website). I readily confess that I wouldn’t have known about it if it hadn’t been for the reaction of the religious right.

Before I get to the actual article, I have to say that I like the idea. Sometimes I wonder if certain required texts in high school English class might do more harm to a young person’s love of reading than good. And it is with that in mind that GQ collected a list of 21 books you don’t have to read.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Side note: we can agree or disagree about any or all of these books (including the alternatives they suggested). That’s what lists like this are for. My 13 year old son asked me a similar question just the other day and I listed a few books I don’t care for either.

Book number 12 on their list is The Bible, and it’s kind of hard to disagree with the justification for its inclusion alongside books like The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and A Farewell to Arms. One line that I’m sure will rankle the so-called true believers is “It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.”

Repetitive? How many times does the word “begat” appear in Genesis alone?

Self-contradictory? It is literally not possible to construct an accurate timeline of what happened between Jesus’s burial and the opening up of the tomb, based upon all of the gospels.

Assuming the true believers know what “sententious” means, how can they disagree that that’s basically the whole purpose of the books of Leviticus, Psalms, and, to a lesser degree, just about any of Paul’s epistles?

Foolish? Admittedly, I had a hard time with this one. Is there an easy example of a passage in the Bible that’s foolish on its own without falling into any of the other adjectives outlined in that sentence? My mind kept going back to Psalm 14:1 about how the fool hath said in his heart there is no god, despite Matthew admonishing us not to call others “fools”. But that’s self-contradictory. Ultimately I decided that the first (or the second, contradictory) description of god’s creation of the universe, complete with him talking to himself and having the daytime light before an actual source of that light is foolish enough.

Ill-intentioned? Children are often the subject of some real malice in the Bible. From god telling Abraham to kill his only son as a test of faith (Genesis) to the kids in 2 Kings who were mauled by a bear for making fun of Elisha’s bald head, to the psalm that says that dashing children against the rocks is the key to happiness… Yeah, I think “ill-intentioned” is the polite way of putting it.

As you can probably guess, the right-wing outrage machine is not pleased. It started, as these things often do, with Breitbart, and almost immediately got picked up by Franklin Graham on his Facebook page, and then, more recently, Movieguide, which is actively seeking an apology from GQ, complete with the canard about how they wouldn’t have the guts to say the same about the Qu’ran. Maybe that’s because, when you look at the other 20 books, they’re books that a lot of Americans are asked to read.

I’m not sure the Notebook by Agota Kristof is a suitable alternative to The Bible and we can certainly quibble over that point. (I’d recommend 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Goldstein, personally.) But they didn’t suggest either the Qu’ran or the Book of Mormon (or the Bhagavad Gita, or the I Qing or any other holy text) as alternatives to the Bible or any of the other books on the list. That’s probably more than enough.

Most telling about the articles of outrage, if you ask me, is the fact that not a single one of them tries to refute the content of the relatively simple paragraph in GQ. They talk about how statements like these offend the sensibilities of the faithful, or the sales figures, or, in the case of Movieguide, how they’d like an apology…

(In fairness, Breitbart did criticize GQ for other choices on the list, too, in a disjointed anti-PC screed that still doesn’t even try to rebut the points made, as though not wanting to prop up white male privilege was, in and of itself, a fault…)

It’s weird. These people claim to be anti-PC but are really sensitive when someone says or does something they deem offensive. I’d just like to see them actually offer a real rebuttal to the statements that offend them, rather than just be outraged. Can they answer the message without impugning the messenger?

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Entitlement

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen or spoken to Bill H. I want to say I was in either eighth or ninth grade when I saw him last.

He and I went to elementary school together. We met in kindergarten and then were together in school through the fifth grade. After that, he went off to a local private school.

When I last saw him, he told me that he was taking classes with Ennis Cosby, the son of comedian Bill Cosby. And that he thought the younger Cosby was “a real asshole.”

I’m not trying to speak ill of the dead here and I don’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but I remember not being particularly surprised by this fact. After all, Ennis grew up with an extremely rich, famous, and influential father. Surely there was a sense of entitlement that came from his upbringing. Add in how hard it is to navigate the teenage years for anyone, and, yeah, it would be more of a surprise if he’d been totally down-to-earth and, for lack of a better word, normal.

In the 1980s, most people loved Bill Cosby. He was a very funny comedian, had a popular family-based sit-com, sold Jell-O… His public persona definitely was beloved and maybe even to be envied.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, we’ve seen a decidedly more sinister private side of him that… I don’t need to go into the details since they’ve been all over the news lately. In a sense, the same entitlement that Ennis displayed to my friend Bill, is what led the elder Bill to think he could get away with some truly repugnant behavior that is unacceptable under any circumstances.

It’s been a long time since the allegations first came to light (well over a decade) and we can be forgiven for not initially knowing whether or not to believe them. But as the evidence mounted, you’d need to be willfully ignorant (at best) to think they’re anything but credible.

I don’t know who said it, but justice delayed is justice denied. Bill Cosby is now 80, and any punishment he will receive can rightly be perceived as too little too late.

At the same time, this is the first real trial in the MeToo era. Bill Cosby’s accusers themselves may feel some degree of vindication, to be sure. May they stand as monuments, against anyone whose sense of entitlement is overblown, undeserved, or otherwise wrong. And it doesn’t matter if he’s a famous comedian or his asshole son.

Movieguide’s New Low

I've written before about the Christian movie review site Movieguide. I've come to expect dishonesty if it furthers their worldview but they've got a new article that's appalling even by their standards.

Entitled "Wake Up Google," I first thought (hoped?) that maybe they'd take a stand for simple human decency and condemn the so-called Google manifesto that's been circulating on social media for about the past week. That manifesto is the stuff of another essay, but I'll just say that diversity is almost always a good thing and you look stupid if you try to argue otherwise.

No, Movieguide is up in arms about the supposed hypocrisy of Google for simultaneously supporting The Equal Justice Initiative while lobbying congress in opposition to changes to the controversial Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Let's ignore, for a moment, that whatever lobbying is done by Google's parent company, Alphabet, is completely unrelated to its social outreach. But the CDA is problematic on simple first amendment grounds. If any right guaranteed by the constitution is sacrosanct, it's the freedom of speech. No matter how outrageous the speech is, it is protected. It's why we have the right to protest outside of military funerals with signs reading "god hates fags." If that kind of speech is legally protected, I can't imagine what wouldn't be.

Certainly not pornography. And the CDA is thinly veiled censorship. When you hear people say things like "what about the children?" you know they don't know how to protect their children from some of the less desirable aspects of the world and/or things the children are not yet old enough to see and hear. Google is right for not wanting to expand the CDA.

Movieguide then goes on to list six murder victims in defense of their position that we need to get violent pornographic images off the internet. Since they didn't provide any links to their stories, I decided to google their stories (ironic, I know…). And damn, did they mislead its readers about what happened in their cases.

What do the six victims have in common besides being female? First off, they were all citizens of the UK, which means that nothing related to changes to American law would have made a difference in their cases. Five of them were strangled, and the sixth we simply don't know how she died because her body was never found and the killer isn't talking. Of the other five killers, only one could claim to be influenced by violent pornography he found online. But even he said that he was interested in erotic asphyxia before he found the porn of it. And the sex was consensual with his girlfriend/victim as he choked her. He went too far and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of murder anyway.

I get that sites like Movieguide are big on censorship and they have no use for sexually charged imagery. But let the truth get in the way of a good narrative when the lie serves your purposes much better?

Profiles in … something

The popular TV show The Twilight Zone has seen multiple reboots since it first went off the air in 1964.   I’ve been thinking a good deal about one particular tale from the mid-1980s reboot.  “Profile in Silver” envisions a world where time travel is possible, and a “field historian” named Joseph Fitzgerald from about 200 years in the future is observing the events of the presidency of his ancestor, President John F Kennedy.  

The episode begins with Dr. Fitzgerald giving a lecture at Harvard on November 21, 1963 and he gets a visit from one of his colleagues from the future.   He expresses the great existential crisis of every field journalist: why must he only be observer and not participant?  She tries to talk him out of going to Dallas the following day but he’ll have none of it.   

In what appears to be an unplanned moment, he trains his camera on the open window in the book repository, sees Lee Harvey Oswald leaning out with his rifle, and panics.  He calls out to the president to duck, and effectively saves the president’s life.   How Gov. Connally didn’t get hurt, isn’t answered.  

This seriously damages the fabric of time.   As history tries to restore the original trends, first a tornado touches down in Dallas but when that doesn’t work, Nikita Khrushchev is assassinated, and his successor seizes West Berlin.  As the history computer analyzes all possible outcomes from this turn of events, the world would be completely annihilated within a century.  The only solution is for the Kennedy presidency to end as history originally intended.  Of course, this is The Twilight Zone, so there’s a twist at the end.  I won’t reveal the twist but you can watch the episode below.  

There’s a scene in this show where JFK and Dr. Fitzgerald are aboard Air Force One, and Kennedy talks about how maybe his father might have been wrong about the importance of power.   “No one man should have that kind of power.   No man should have to have it.”

There is no question that Donald Trump has long had a love affair with power, and this goes back to long before he announced his candidacy for president in June, 2015.   Recall that this isn’t the first time he sought the presidency: back in 2000, he sought the nomination on the Reform Party ticket.  (Side note: I admit to being surprised that the party still actively maintains its website…)

They say that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.   There’s a truth to that, but part of the problem is that once people get a taste of power, they tend to want more and more.  Someone with such blatantly narcissistic tendencies like Donald Trump would fall into this trap more quickly than the average person.  (Note that I’m not holding myself to a higher standard here.  If I were given more power than I could handle, I doubt I’d be any less vulnerable to its appeal…)

During one of the Republican debates last year, Trump all but admitted his corruption, albeit from a different angle than where he currently resides.  As his opponents, most notably Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, tried to illustrate that he’s not a true republican, they pointed out that he had invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to his wedding.   He shrugged off the charges, pointing out that he would do things like that to gain favors.  Nothing necessarily illegal about it but telling all the same.  

Which brings me to the recent firing of FBI director James Comey.   Let me make it clear that the president has the right to fire the FBI director at any time and for any reason.   Based upon that fact alone, this is neither an abuse of power nor a constitutional crisis.  

Or at least it ought not be either of those things.  After all, Bill Clinton fired director William Sessions a few months into his first term and nobody batted an eye over it.  

But it’s clear that this is a function of all of the negative trappings of power.   Comey had just requested more funds and personnel to investigate reports of collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign power, Russia.   I suppose it’s possible that these facts are unrelated and that the real reason for Comey’s dismissal is as the White House said: the way he mishandled the reporting of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server.   Then again, it’s also possible that Gary Larson got it right in his old Far Side cartoon when he explained how the dinosaurs became extinct.

The congressional investigation into the Trump-Russia affair doesn’t seem to have much in the way of force.  With the status of the FBI investigation up in the air now that Comey’s gone, we should really consider an independent investigation.  

Oh, and it needs a flashy name, too.  May I suggest Russi-a-Lago?
Profile In Silver

I have even less respect for Trump now

On January 29, 2017, a mere nine days into the nascent administration of Donald Trump, a US Special Operations force carried out a raid on the village of Yakla in the nation of Yemen.

While all of the details of this raid will be the stuff of investigations that, if they’ve even begun, certainly haven’t been completed. But here’s what we do know:

The initial groundwork for the raid was started during the Obama administration but Obama himself never greenlighted the mission. Donald Trump did that.

One US Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in the raid, as were some number of civilians. The number of civilians killed, depending on which reports you might read, ranges from the low teens to as many as 25.

Very little, if any, intelligence was gained from the mission.

To his credit, Donald Trump was present when Owens’s body was returned to the states and to offer condolences to his family.

Now let me make it clear that any number of factors can lead to the success or failure of any given mission, most of which are outside of the control of anyone who’s not on the ground in the middle of the mission. I’ve seen some articles from the fringe political left refer to Trump as a “murderer” because of the results of this raid. If I’m being at my most polite, this characterization is grossly inaccurate.

But there’s plenty of fallout from this raid that should fall squarely on Trump’s shoulders. First and foremost is the fact that he tried to shift the blame for the raid first to Ex-President Obama and then to the generals who oversaw it. I’m sorry, Mr. Trump, but you authorized the raid and therefore it’s up to you to accept the consequences, good or bad. By trying to deflect the blame, Trump has turned this mission into more of a news item than it needed to be.

The President of the United States is often called upon to make extremely difficult decisions. This particular decision involved him serving as Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces but not all decisions need to involve that particular responsibility. Some decisions prove, in hindsight to be good decisions while others prove to be, um, not so good. (And, as I’ve written before, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it was a good decision.).

I would argue that, with regard to this particular decision, Trump was lucky in that he received near-immediate feedback that caution would have been the more advisable path. Someone with good leadership skills would have taken this miscue as cause for introspection, reflection, and a changing of tactics for the next time a similar decision might be warranted.

Last night (February 28, 2017), President Trump gave an address before a joint session of congress. It had its high moments and low moments, to be sure, but the lowest moment of the night was when he called out Carryn Owens, the widow of the slain SEAL from that mission. It was arguably two minutes of the most uncomfortable television I’ve ever watched.

I don’t blame anyone who gave her a standing ovation, but she clearly was still grieving over her loss, and rightly so. What I saw was someone whose wounds from a traumatic event were still fresh, praying for strength, crying. I don’t know what was going through her head and whether or not she appreciated this gesture, but when Trump doubled down and claimed the raid to be a success despite the casualties, it was clear that he learned nothing from this basic lesson in on-the-job training for the presidency.

If I were Mrs. Owens or any other member of Ryan Owens’s family, I’d be furious at being used as a prop in his speech, his totally misguided attempts to defend the indefensible. And I do question if we’d even know about this raid had Owens not died.

I don’t know if this raid would have come out differently if Trump had waited longer before authorizing it. I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog post if either Owens, or the Yemeni civilians, or both, had survived. It’s a lot harder to get a learning experience from having made a successful decision.

But Trump had a golden opportunity to demonstrate himself as being up to the nuances and complexities of the presidency — something I previously doubted. After all, when was the last time a new president’s decisions were tested this soon after he took the oath of office? (By comparison, September 11 happened nearly eight months into George W Bush’s presidency and the standoff with David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, started a little over a month into Bill Clinton’s presidency and ended a month and a half later. Trump wasn’t even president for two whole weeks when Yakla happened.)

I may have previously doubted Trump’s fitness to be president. I don’t doubt it any more. I’m convinced that he’s unfit to be president.

Edukayshun in Pencilvainya

My parents bought a house in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, when I was five months old, and my mom still lives in that house. Langhorne is located in the Neshaminy School District and my entire undergraduate career was spent in the schools of that district.

Earlier this week, the Neshaminy School District School Board voted to close two of the schools in its district, including the elementary school that I attended from Kindergarten through 4th Grade, and then 6th Grade as well.

My interest in the fact of this closing is more sentimental. If I still lived in the district, I would probably oppose the closing on the grounds that the plans to replace the closed schools involve building a massive, sprawling school that would have far too many students in it. But as a resident of a different school district in the state of Pennsylvania, I’m simply watching it closely and hoping that something similar doesn’t happen where I live. But yeah, I’m sad that the school where I have so many memories soon will be no more.

The decision to do so is undoubtedly a cost-cutting measure. I would like to believe that, no matter what else might or might not be true about this vote, the long term results will be some degree of cost savings, regardless of the question of whether or not it would actually improve what the students actually learn.

On the same date as the vote to close those two schools, the Pennsylvania House Education Committee approved House Bill 1640 and sent it to the greater PA House of Representatives. I don’t know when they’ll vote on it, but I’ve already called my local representative to tell him to vote against it.

This bill, if passed, would compel the phrase “In God We Trust” to appear in every school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

I’ve written before about the phrase “In God We Trust” as our national motto and feel that it’s shameful that it is our motto.

I think it’s interesting that the text of the bill that’s coming up for a vote lays out in no uncertain terms that the person who first pushed for the usage of the phrase on our currency, Pennsylvania Governor James Pollock, was known as “The Great Christian Governor”.

Doesn’t this fact alone contradict the 1970 Federal Court Ruling in Aronow v. United States, which held that

It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. …It is not easy to discern any religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted ‘In God We Trust’ or the study of a government publication or document bearing that slogan. In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet Congress has directed such uses. While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has ‘spiritual and psychological value’ and ‘inspirational quality.'”

No. It’s not obvious that the national motto has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. In fact, it certainly seems to push for exactly that.

As I said above, I called my local representative and asked him to vote against the bill. I gave three reasons, actually.

I maintain that direct references to any deity in official government writings is absolutely an establishment of religion as not all religions worship the same deity. It effectively excludes any different religion as well as non-religion. It shouldn’t be our national motto but as long as it is, there’s no compelling need to post it everywhere unless you want to pander to Christians who are pushing for their religion in places where it doesn’t belong.

Second, it actually wouldn’t do anything to improve education in the state. At best, it would do nothing (positive or negative) in a given school. At worst, it could create two classes of students as officially recognized by the state: those to whom the statement applies in their day-to-day religious life and those to whom it doesn’t.

And finally — and probably most importantly — is the cost. I hardly think that the Neshaminy School District is unique in having budget issues. Why waste scarce educational resources on something like this?

If it’s a foregone conclusion that my elementary school will be little more than a pile of rubble in the near future, let’s at least not let the same thing happen to the concept of education itself.

If you live in Pennsylvania, call your representative and ask him or her to vote against it, just like I did.

They Lack Simple Human Decency

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to vote in an online poll thereby skewing the expected results of the organization that hosted the poll. The group that hosted it, the Minnesota Family Council, asked whether same sex marriage ought to be legal and I, along with many other people online, voted that it should be. This is, of course, despite the stated goals of this group.

Side note: I resent the fact that so many organizations that use the word “family” in their names teach hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, and scare tactics, which are most certainly not values I teach my children.

The cost of voting in the MFC’s poll, was my email address, and I have been receiving emails from them with some regularity ever since. In recent years, as same sex marriage has become legal throughout most of the United States (and with cautious optimism that the Supreme Court later this month will overturn the remaining laws later this month), they have shifted their rhetoric to opposition of other worthwhile topics, such as transgender rights, legalization of marijuana, and surrogate motherhood.

About a week ago, on June 11, 2015, I received an email that solidifies the notion that the people who communicate on behalf of their organization, have absolutely no human decency or any compassion. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: if the ideas they express are in any way reflective of mainstream Christianity, I can not possibly ever picture myself calling myself a Christian.

The email exists on their website, and I recommend that you read it here.

(Note that this came out before the Rachel Dolezal scandal, and they have since sent out a mea culpa not knowing that transracial is a thing.

But even before we get to their hypothesizing about other “trans{blank}” attitudes, we can see how disgusting they really are.

Without even getting into the issues that the transgender community has to deal with, here’s a little thought experiment: whether we like it or not, society asks us all to play certain roles in our lives. Some of those roles are a result of the accident of our birth, others happen with the normal passage of time, and others still are ones we find ourselves playing by virtue of choices we actively make.

That explains how we are given the roles we play. How much we feel those roles fit who we really are can vary from one role to the next. And some of the roles we might even be bold enough to say don’t apply to us, despite society’s expectations.

As specifically pertains to gender, there are no shortage of expectations that society places upon those of us who are considered “male” and others for those considered “female”. Very few, if any, of us, meet all of these expectations without regard to the gender assigned at birth.

So can you really blame someone — anyone — who might identify primarily as the opposite gender?

So when the MFC says this:

The push for “transgender rights” is based on the false ideas that you can divorce your mind and feelings from your body, and that however you feel you are or should be–that’s what you really are, regardless of the physical reality. And you should receive social recognition, honor, and legal rights based on your perception of who you are.

Or when they say this:

All along the way people who disagree will see their religious freedom rights trampled upon, people who truly need compassionate help and counseling won’t receive it and instead face greater turmoil and in some cases even fatalities, and the privacy and legal rights of others will be taken advantage of.

Or when they offer this advice:

Stand firm on the Truth, and be ready to run towards the cultural, media, political, and societal bullets boldly sharing the Truth and Hope you have in Christ, in love. Our darkened culture needs the Light YOU have so fear not!

They’re demonstrating how repulsive they really are. The LGBT community has asked for little more than tolerance of the fact that they’re different from the mainstream.

Tolerance is an exceptionally low bar if you think about it. All it really takes to be tolerant of something is to acknowledge its existence and not try to wish it away. It’s not acceptance of the concept and certainly isn’t embracing the idea or the people seeking tolerance. And you certainly don’t have to like it or even agree with it.

When you tolerate people, really all they’re asking is that you not want to destroy them.

These people are so completely devoid of human decency, it makes me angry. People can be excused for not understanding some ideas and concepts when they’re far enough outside of our own experience. But when the information becomes available to them and they cling to what they thought they understood, that’s when they need to be cut loose.

I’m glad I get those emails. It reminds me that there are truly awful people out there. And however much I’m reluctant to use the word, maybe even “evil” might be appropriate for — if not them, then at least their attitudes.

But I will be shocked if they ever take a position with which I agree.