Here we go again…

After the shooting the other day in Parkland, Florida, I went back and reread the twoposts I wrote following the Pulse nightclub shooting nearly two years ago.

Nothing has changed. The Republican Party still refuses to do anything to actually address the problem. As a result, nothing is even being tried.

There is one thing about this particular shooting that is different from most of the other ones: the shooter is still alive. I hope that a competent investigation can provide details into his motives and motivations.

Donald Trump’s tweet about the shooting makes a good point:

So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!

7:12 AM – Feb 15, 2018

Countless people warned us about how dangerous he was and is. Reporters. Politicians. Trained psychologists. And yet, all those millions of people voted for him and now he’s in the White House….

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A glimpse into a mindset

If you direct your web browsers to websites like Townhall, it shouldn’t take long to realize the agenda that they’re pursuing. If you don’t want to follow that link, just know that they feature articles by columnists like Ann Coulter, Todd Starnes, and Michelle Malkin, three people who, to paraphrase Will Rogers, never met an anecdote that couldn’t distort to serve their own agendas.

(Starnes is particularly gifted at this, since everything he sees is a form of Christian persecution. I’ve wanted to write a blog entry about him for some time but doing so would require a significantly greater time commitment than I’m prepared to dedicate…. There’s a reason why Ed Brayton refers to him as “Fox News’ resident hysteric”.)

But there’s an interesting article over at Townhall that I can’t look away from. Hence this essay. Columnist Scott Morefield, whose name is so far under the radar in the conservative movement, he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page (unlike Coulter, Starnes, and Malkin, as linked above), has put forth an article that’s simultaneously frustrating and, in a perverse sense, validating.

Note that I readily acknowledge that I don’t have a Wikipedia page either. But I’m pretty sure that my tens of followers don’t mind that. I don’t have a national platform like Townhall (or a comparable liberal blog) from which to share my views.

The article begins with an unnecessary and snide remark that the phrase “Christian liberal” is not an oxymoron. Listen, Scott, (may I call you that?) I get that you’re a conservative and a Christian. Demonizing the other side doesn’t bolster your credentials. It makes you look petty. If you can’t back up your position with, you know, facts, maybe the issue is your position.

What’s the adage about being an effective lawyer? If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is on your side, pound the table. But I digress…

As is true for many phrases that come from the Bible, the title of Scott’s essay is a cliche, specifically derived from Isaiah 5:20, and the warning not to confuse good and evil. I always objected to this particular verse because of the plain black-and-white nature of it. Even assuming you know and understand the difference between the two, why can’t there be shades or degrees of them?

The concept of heaven itself illustrates this. Imagine two people going to the same place in the afterlife, where they’ll be treated as equals in a perfect paradise: the racist white supremacist and the black man he tried to keep down. To the black man, being treated with a respect he never felt in life, this place might be heaven. To the guy who oppressed the black man, this place would seem more like hell.

And that’s not even getting into psychology tests involving runaway trains where doing nothing will cause the deaths of multiple people while doing something will still kill someone, but save everyone else.

But this essay takes liberal Christians to task because they object to the way modern evangelicals, like Jerry Falwell Jr, for hitching their wagon so closely to Donald Trump. Indeed, evangelicals are the only people who are. And even if I haven’t explicitly said so before, I think it’s clear my opinion of evangelicals like that: at best, they’re hypocrites.

So the liberal Christians to whom Scott objects, are taking Jesus’s teachings about loving your neighbor seriously. They’re not as concerned about, say, abortion (which is not only condoned in some bible verses, an argument can be made that, if we hew strictly to verses in Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy, then it’s acceptable until a month after the baby is born) as they are economic inequality and opening your door to strangers in need. They don’t want Trump’s proposed wall between us and Mexico, they want bridges.

Now I will grant you: the Bible is so long and self-contradictory, it’s certainly possible to find biblical justification for just about any position you might hold on just about any topic. I mean, let’s face it: both sides of the United States Civil War justified their positions on slavery using completely valid biblical verses.

Both Scott and those he demonizes, justify their positions with their cherry-picked bible verses of choice. Scott clearly favors the verses that consider blacks and women as second class citizens and a generally prevailing tribalism. I get that. He can be a bigot all he wants.

And I can cite him as yet another example of how I agree with Isaiah about calling evil good and vice versa. That’s why the folks at Townhall shouldn’t object when I emphatically state that their website, and the Bible they so love, are evil.

Woe unto them for calling them “good”.

Kind of pathetic, really…

When I was a sophomore in college, I stopped into a theatrical prop store off campus one day, and picked up a large prosthetic nose that actually looked a little like a penis.

With this prop as a central figure, I assembled a cast of friends and directed the famous balcony scene from Cyrano de Bergerac, which we performed at the “night of scenes” for budding directors at the on-campus dramatic society.

During the repeated practices, I confess that I started to develop — if I’m being both modest and polite — strong feelings towards Helene, whom I had recruited to play Roxane (the only female character in my one scene; feel free to criticize me for my non-adherence to any Bechdel Test standards, but that’s not what this blog entry is about).

As director, I had a position of power over her so I knew better than to act on those feelings, even at age 19 or 20. Furthermore, I learned that this is actually quite common for directors: developing some form of — I hesitate to call it “love” but most people do use that word as a substitute for whatever it really is — for cast members whose gender happens to be consistent with the sexual orientation of the director. For a straight, male director like me, that would be the women… (Or later, when I was in community theatre performing for a gay male director, he expressed similar feelings towards me and my male cast mates).

It doesn’t help that acting, like most arts, require a fair bit of passion in their execution.

When my soon-to-be former congressman, Pat Meehan, was all of the news a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of how I fell in love with Helene all those years ago. For a quick summary of the scandal that enveloped him, he was accused of sexual harassment of one of his employees, fired her when she rebuffed him, and paid her hush money from a public funds.

If that were the full story, there wouldn’t be much to tie in with my Cyrano de Bergerac scene. It’s the interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer and other news stories that make allow me to make the connection. When you look at what happened in the lead-up to her firing, he felt the same things I felt all those years ago: he spent a lot of time with her, they talked a lot, made what he felt were undoubtedly real connections with her, intellectually and emotionally.

(I don’t know how many times I ate a meal with Helene in the cafeteria before and after classes in that time, but it was undoubtedly multiple times. It didn’t help matters for me that she came from Harry Chapin’s home town.)

The big difference, then, between me and Meehan, is that I knew that, if there was a foundation for anything more serious than friendship between me and Helene, it was made of sand and could crumble easily and quickly. I’m not even sure I ever told her what I felt. And I have no reason to think my non-verbal cues made her uncomfortable.

Meehan, on the other hand, told her they were soul mates and that he was in love with her, despite being married to someone else. His words were — again, if I’m being my most polite — juvenile. And if I could tell that my emotions were little more than a byproduct of the circumstances of my being with her a quarter century ago, I would hope that Meehan might have been more introspective than he was.

So yeah, he was pathetic. Even without a prosthetic nose that looks like a penis.

State of the union

Every year, by law and by tradition, the president of the United States must present a report on the state of the union to congress.

The tradition of doing it in the form of a formal address to Congress is only about a century old. Because of the timing of the report relative to Inauguration Day, a newly sworn-in President gets a pass on providing a formal state of the union but, at least in the age of television, they still give a speech before a joint session to set out their agenda.

Donald Trump’s first State of the Union is officially in the history books now. I don’t want to speak of the content of the speech (although I would like one exception: there is no war on coal other than market forces, and there’s no such thing as “beautiful clean coal”).

Instead, there are two aspects of this speech I want to call attention to that we really should do away with in all future SOTU addresses, regardless of the political leanings / partisanship of both the president and congress.

The first is using guests of the president as props in the speech. The first time a president did this was in 1982, when Ronald Reagan called out Lenny Skutnik for his bravery two weeks earlier in rescuing a passenger on Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed into the Potomac River. That was a legitimate, honest, and heartfelt moment 36 years ago.

But now, these parts of the address are not intended to help illustrate what’s great or right about America. Instead, they’re little more than props, human metaphors for a political agenda. In two addresses before congress, Trump has used grieving family members of someone who had died — either in combat or gang violence — in this manner.

I’m sorry but in a time of grief, that’s the last thing you should do is have a huge (and obviously unwelcome) spotlight shining on your loss. Look at the faces of anyone Trump called out in this manner as they struggle not to burst into tears. Do we not have the simple decency to let them come to terms with their loss as they would want to?

If we can’t at least leave the bereaved alone, then the whole human prop in a speech should be done away with.

The second is excessive applause lines. It never fails: when the president says “we need to do X” or “we’ve achieved Y” (and it doesn’t matter what X and Y are), the members of his party or all of congress starts applauding. Sometimes they stand up. I can’t think of any other type of public speech that gets broken up by applause as much as any presidential speech given to congress. And it cheapens the gesture.

There are legitimate applause lines in speeches of any type. “We passed a budget” shouldn’t be one of them. (Although, in fairness, given that the modern Republican Party seems incapable of doing that, maybe it should be….)

So here’s my advice for Donald Trump and all future presidents: just tell us the state of the union. No fanfare. Nothing to gossip about. Maybe a little bit of agenda setting and the usual lie about how the state of the union is “strong”.

Then maybe, just maybe, we’d be hitting both the letter and the spirit of this requirement of the president.

Net Neutrality

One thing that Barack Obama did during his presidency that gets him some criticism from his detractors and fans alike, is he issued a very large number of executive orders to get things done.

In his defense, not once during his eight-year tenure did he get the support of a single Republican member of congress for his initiatives. When the democrats had a slim majority for the first two years of his first term, he got some things (like the ACA and the fixes to the financial crisis). After that, everything other than simple procedural votes and the budget came to a grinding halt.

Everything else, if Obama wanted to accomplish something, he had to do it via executive order.

The thing about executive orders, is that any order that one president can do, the next one can overturn. There’s been a ping-pong game among presidents going back to Reagan with regard to what’s known as the “gag rule”, which dictates whether or not foreign agencies receiving US assistance can talk about options related to an unwanted pregnancy.

I want to talk specifically about one executive order from 2015, commonly known as “net neutrality”.

At issue in this particular topic is whether or not broadband internet access can or should qualify as a utility (like the phone lines, electric lines, gas lines, etc.). If it does, then it can be regulated as such under the terms of the Federal Communications Commission.

There are two legitimate sides to this debate.

On the one hand, we have the content providers. We don’t want the internet service providers to decide who gets to view which web pages. At its most innocent, the ISP’s could charge an exorbitant fee to allow you to watch The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt on Netflix. At worst, ISP’s could restrict access to news and information that’s either critical of them or the politicians they support. In other words, just because the government can’t censor content, private industry sure can.

One the other hand, we have the ISP’s. They argue, not entirely inaccurately, that overregulation is will do nothing but stifle innovation (either in the short or longer term) and, hypothetically, prevent everyone from getting faster and more reliable internet service. If ISP’s are just regulated to prevent monopolies and similar unfair trade practices, that would be in the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC.

So what about someone like me? Outside of this blog, I’m not a content provider (and this one little-read blog doesn’t really qualify as much of anything other than to serve as an outlet for my own thoughts and the few people who actually read my words). I make no money off of this blog and I have no expenses related to it (unless you count the fact that, about a week ago, I had a one-time expense of $25.00 to upgrade the software I use to compose these blog entries.

What I care about, then, is having the most up-to-date technology to provide my broadband access while at the same time not being restricted in what I can see when I do go online.

Those who would spread fear about the implications of a decision to repeal net neutrality aren’t entirely off-base. The people who have money and power don’t want an informed populace. This is nothing new. After all, the Catholic Church opposed the use of the printing press more than 600 years ago, because they knew that an educated populace could spell trouble for the power they sustained. (And, when you consider what happened basically a century later, they weren’t wrong…

A few years ago, there was a study that held that people who watch Fox News are less well-informed than people who don’t watch the news at all. What would happen if the ISPs decided that this was the only acceptable source of “news”?

The main saving grace on this point, is that this can’t and won’t happen too quickly not for technological reasons but instead for logistical reasons. The ISPs know that if they just shut off access to unfavorable news sources, they’d face such a massive backlash they’d effectively undermine their own arguments.

So what appears to be inevitable, is that when a republican administration comes in, they’ll repeal net neutrality regulations, and when a democratic administration comes in, they’ll reinstate them.

This is no way to run a country. The real solution is not regulatory; it’s legislative.

In 2010, republicans retook control of congress and followed a policy of obstruction, which they have continued up until this year.

What we’re seeing now, with the republicans in charge of both congress and the White House, is that they don’t actually know how to govern. Ignoring their actual positions on, well, anything, and without regard to whether you approve of or agree with those positions, they’re not really accomplishing what they would otherwise want to do.

So there’s little hope of getting a legislative solution in the short term. I should hope that, if the punditry is accurate in their predictions of 2018 being a wave election year, (a prediction bolstered by the special election in Alabama the other day), then maybe we can hope for a real solution in time for the next presidential election.

Religious Exemptions to Public Laws

On the dating website OKCupid, there’s a question that asks about religious exemptions to marijuana laws. Now on my profile, I not only answer the question with its multiple choices, but I often add my own comments and color to those responses. And this question begs for additional color no matter where you stand on the question of legalizing pot (assuming you can remember where you left the petition).

You don’t need to be a lawyer to look through all of the laws on the books in your city / state / country and see things that need to be changed, modified, repealed, or otherwise revised with changing times. Not everything needs to be changed, of course, but it shouldn’t be that hard to draw the distinction.

I genuinely don’t believe marijuana should be illegal to possess or distribute. If nothing else, given the size of the black market for it, it would be a great source of tax revenue. If tobacco and alcohol are legal — as they should be even though they’re significantly more dangerous than marijuana — then so too should marijuana. Feel free to place restrictions on where it can be smoked. And on the minimum age to buy it sell it. But don’t outright ban it.

For the record, I’ve tried it and it did nothing for me. I have no interest in trying it again.

Which brings me back to the OKCupid question. I said I am no fan of marijuana laws but at the same time, I’m also not a fan of hiding behind the fact that the first amendment protects “the free exercise” of religion as a means of subverting a law that was otherwise passed by the legislature, signed by the executive, and interpreted by the judiciary. If a law is unjust, it should be repealed, pure and simple.

Let me make it clear that I acknowledge that I’m treading dangerously close to making a slippery slope argument. The thing about slippery slope arguments is the plausibility of the end result. Letting gay people marry won’t (or doesn’t have to) lead to allowing people to marry their dogs. That said, if there weren’t some question of public good before we restrict the things that can be done in religious ceremonies, how long would it be before people tried to get around manslaughter laws because their “religion” advocated human sacrifice? There’s no shortage of religions — past and present — that do have this as a part of their tradition. (And yes, I do count Christianity as one that does even if they don’t do it any more. But the Catholics do encourage a form of cannibalism as a part of that same tradition.)

Which brings us to a case heard by the Supreme Court earlier this week. A Colorado bakery that specializes in wedding cakes refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding, which ran afoul of the state’s anti discrimination law. Take a look at their web page. The first link in the top right corner is for wedding cakes, although if you click on it, they say they’re not currently accepting requests for new wedding cakes.

At the end of an article in the Washington Post a little over a week ago, the decision to stop doing wedding cakes has cost the Masterpiece Cake Shop 40% of its business. Think about that: if you’re earning $100,000 per year in your bakery, how bigoted do you have to be to be willing to cut those earnings down to $60,000 just because you don’t like the idea of two guys or two girls bumping uglies after they eat your food?

The fact that Masterpiece Cakeshop is still in business despite the publicity makes me weep for society.

Now before you ask why the gay couple couldn’t have gone somewhere else, I’ll answer that of course they could (and should) have, if for no other reason than to do some comparison shopping before choosing the baker who would ultimately make their cake. But what would have happened if the next cake shop also refused? Recall the story of Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island high school student who got a religious plaque — which was also in violation of the first amendment because it constituted government endorsement of religion — taken down off the wall of her public school. After her victory, Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation tried to send her flowers, but three separate local florists refused to accept the order.

Finding the one bakery that actually abides by the anti discrimination law could test anyone’s patience.

I also want to draw the distinction between requesting offensive imagery or messaging on a cake and what happened here. A Nazi who requests a cake with a swastika on it would rightly be rebuffed. If the only difference between a cake for a same sex wedding and one for an opposite sex wedding is the apparent genders of the figurines on top of it, you should be laughed at for trying to draw a distinction between them. And I’d even support the cake shop if the customers asked for something truly inappropriate on it.

A lot of bigots complain that they don’t like being called bigots. There’s an easy solution to that one: don’t do things that make you look bigoted. Jack Phillips, the owner of the cake shop, is a bigot. And if he’s complaining that he’s being called a bigot, he’s a fragile little snowflake too.

Now there’s one thing I can think of that specifically pertains to the catering industry that I worry about, assuming the Supreme Court does the right thing and rules against the cake shop. (Not a given, considering a relatively recent ruling that I thought was equally obvious.). We’ve already seen bakeries risk their reputation because of the religious views of their owners to varying degrees of success. I would worry that they’d be willing to risk their reputation even further by tampering with the food they prepare. May it not come to that.

You don’t need to be a prophet

Chapter 38 of the Book of Ezekiel (and to a lesser extent, chapter 39) speaks of a war in which a man known as Gog, from the land of Magog, will threaten the land of Israel, but who will be destroyed by God itself. You don’t need to be a historian, theologian, or biblical scholar to read verse 8 of this chapter and see parallels with the conditions of the founding of the modern nation of Israel. Read it yourself (NIV translation, basically copied verbatim from the above link):

After many days you will be called to arms. In future years you will invade a land that has recovered from war, whose people were gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate. They had been brought out from the nations, and now all of them live in safety.

Many fundamentalist Christians see this war between Israel and Magog as a necessary prerequisite for the end of days described in the Book of Revelation.

Let’s ignore the obvious fact that there’s currently no country in the world known as Magog. And I’m not sure there ever was. A large-scale war between Israel and any of its neighbors has been a possibility since the founding of Israel in 1948. Call it Magog, or the Palestinian authority, or Iran, or Levantine, or whatever other group of people who don’t feel adequately compensated and protected might want to call themselves.

Which brings us to the unofficial announcement yesterday, and the likely official announcement today, that Donald Trump is moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Before we get into that, I want to make it clear: the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is located in Jerusalem. By that definition alone, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

What’s not so clear is what the true boundaries of Jerusalem actually are. By a declaration of the Knesset in 1980, it includes the area of East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. The United Nations disagrees. There’s an excellent map on Wikipedia that illustrates the different parts of the city.

Jerusalem is an extremely important city for each of the three major monotheistic religions. And when you consider this simple fact, the claiming of this city in its entirety for any one of them — especially at the expense of either of the other two — is a recipe for disaster.

There are no other countries in the world that have an embassy in Jerusalem. If we want to have any hope for a lasting peace in the region, it is best not to antagonize either side. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem buys the United States nothing and only antagonizes the Palestinians.

Donald Trump sold himself as a great dealmaker during the campaign last year, and that he’d put America first. This latest decision is evidence that both of these statements are outright lies.

The only people truly celebrating this move are the ones who see Israel as a stepping stone to help us get to the Rapture.