Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Devil Does, Indeed, Wear Prada

So I read this compelling article saying, essentially, that it's high time to address rising income inequality. 

I have a couple of really loaded friends who might take a few moments from chasing their capitalist dreams to read this entry, so I'm going out on a limb when I say this, but: duh. 

In my Catholic high school, Fr. Caffrey taught us the following definition at the beginning of one term: "Religion is the answer to the questions of the mysteries of life." An intellectually playful man, he had a glint in his eye when he told us weeks later that to some people, sports are a religion. I was all like, "What?" and he happily supported his thesis that to some people, sports are the answer to the questions of the mysteries of life. I can't remember how, but that's not important; what's important is that critical moment in my life when I started to wonder, "What's so sacred about religion?"

I personally know some people who regularly worship a supernatural deity, and who live in accordance with the principles of humanism--which is not the subversive philosophy I was indoctrinated to believe when I learned about the Scopes trial. These people are a credit to humanity and a testament to their religion. But let me put them aside for a moment. 

I think we all know people whose actions evince worship of other gods, regardless of where their dress slacks sit of a sabbath morning. Some of them are alchemists who have discovered a magic formula. "P" stands for power here: 

$ + P = 2$ + 3P. 

Talk about the magic of compounding! 

It is my contention that the upcoming elections are not about witchcraft, small town folks, Main Street, big government, tax relief, deregulation, race, masturbation, gun control, family values, global warming, marriage equality, small business, and certainly not the Constitution or the principles upon which our country was founded, EXCEPT--and this is a big except--to the extent they serve the First Church of Getting Richer. 

For more on this, I invite you to read what I consider Justice Stevens's swan song, his brilliant dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. FEC. It's long, but never tedious. If you don't have the time or inclination, perhaps it can be summed up in its sad reference to the following quote from Thomas Jefferson: "I hope we shall crush . . . in [its] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." That's in footnote 54. 

OK, I'm going to go enjoy this gorgeous, sunny day with my dog now. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Wall of Separation is a Load-Bearing Wall

So let me tell you about last night's local city council meeting. I'm going to give you the version that won't appear in the papers, because it's subjective, subtle, and based in part on hearsay and a little guesswork, but it is quite revealing--and hey, this is my blog, not court. 

It was a light agenda, only three items. One of them was "Council will consider whether to move Halloween trick or treating, from Sunday, October 31, 2010 to Saturday, October 30." This proposal was raised by a newly elected city council member at its previous meeting two weeks ago. The reason? Because of church. He made some noise about how it was also out of concern for Sunday's being a school night, but given that Radford traditionally has trick-or-treating on Halloween, without regard for the day of the week, this can be striken as an obvious pretext. 

I should be a judge [Correction: see comments]. 

Citizen comments come near the start of the meeting, before council begins discussing items of new business. The agenda contains two instructions for citizen comments: state your name, and limit it to five minutes. The goodly mayor repeated these instructions at the beginning of this portion: state your name, and limit it to five minutes. 

One citizen (OK, she's one of my best friends, but that's not relevant here) stated her name and spoke about the inconvenience, confusion and significant disruption this would cause. She made a great case and kept it under five minutes. 

The next person did NOT state his name. He did, however, offer a rebuttal to my friend, saying, "What you've gotta realize, this is on a church night." At one point, he pointed toward my friend and questioned her religious beliefs, and not in a nice way; he said, "I don't know what HER belief is, but . . ." I'm calling him The Pointer. 

The next citizen also neglected to state his name [Correction: see comments]. He said, "[It's] a matter of keeping the Sabbath day, that's . . . what it is for me and him" (indicating the previous speaker). 

I'm assuming that's what it was too for the city council member who brought it up in the first place. See, the reason no one asked The Pointer to state his name is because, as I later learned, he's the council member's father [Correction: see comments]. I'm guessing the next speaker is also known to the council member, perhaps through his church. 

Three more people (including me) presented opposition to the move. We all stated our names, we all kept it under five minutes. If I'm not mistaken (public speaking throws me into my own personal hell of anxiety, so I don't remember everything perfectly), each one of the four of us expressed respect for others' religious beliefs

Apparently, respect is a one-way entitlement. I was told later that the council member who raised the issue, as well as the other recently elected member--who included church involvement in his campaign materials--could be seen rolling their eyes during comments in opposition.

The relationship between church and state in our country has become almost incestuous in recent years. It's not supposed to be this way. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine went to great lengths specifically to ensure that it wouldn't.  

The rest of my story is that no council member made a motion to consider the proposal, so they neither discussed nor voted on it. Trick or treating will be on Halloween. 

Thank you, Founding Fathers. Over 200 years later, and you've still got our backs.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

If It Says "Lib" on the Label

"Lib" as in liberal, of course. 

Labels on canned goods are a good thing. They provide a lot of information you need--what's in the can, how much is in there, whom to sue when you get sick. 

But with people--we know not to judge a book by its cover, right? Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, "If you label me, you negate me?" 

People are complicated. Liberal, conservative, moderate; Catholic, Sikh, atheist (maybe I should capitalize that to give it more gravitas); straight, gay, bi; big-endian, little-endian, vegan; capitalist, Nazi, Stalinist; pro-life, pro-family, pro-choice;  environmentalist, clean coal advocate, BP stockholder.      

When I was a kid, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare had a PSA that must have run during Saturday morning cartoons, because--like the Preamble to the Constitution (props to Schoolhouse Rocks!)--I can recite it by heart. An old man and his grandson are fishing in a rowboat on a quiet lake. Gramps calls out the kid for being a bigot--do you remember this? "Jimmy is one of my Jewish friends." "Well then, you are prejudiced. You think of Jimmy as your Jewish friend, and not your friend." 

Sometimes, people do you a favor by telegraphing their own prejudices*. For instance, "I'm not a racist, but . . ." has never in the history of mankind been followed by anything but a racist comment. Most Facebook postings using the plural "liberals" or "conservatives" telegraph the writers' prejudices (and fondness for straw man arguments).  

But like life, like people, using labels is complicated. If I have a vegetarian over for dinner, I know I should make some meat-free foods. If I'm having a happy hour and invite a Mormon friend, it's hospitable to offer Fresca and root beer in addition to margaritas and microbrews. Labels aren't all bad. 

Maybe the point is to start with the cover, then look deeper into the book. Or maybe the point is that it's really not our place to judge human volumes at all.   

*Also be wary of any statement following the words, "I'm gonna be honest with you," or "Trust me," or "Of course, you know that . . ." People rarely argue with "Of course." Trust me. I use it a lot, to be honest with you. Check the first line of this entry. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

I Don't Believe In Peter Pan - But I Will Quote Barrie

"All this has happened before, and it will all happen again." I am reminded of the opening lines of Peter Pan when confronted with people who don't want evolution theory taught in public schools.

Earlier this year, I attended a local school board candidates' forum. One question from the audience asked each candidate if s/he would support teaching evolution in science class as a fact or theory, and if s/he would support teaching intelligent design in science class as a fact or theory. Having studied constitutional law, I recognized this as a well-settled legal question, a no-brainer. 

Of the six candidates, two--including one chemistry professor--answered that evolution is a theory, not a fact, but that it's currently the one best supported by scientific evidence and is therefore a proper subject for study in high school science. Conversely, intelligent design is incapable of support or disproof using the scientific method, and has been held by the courts to be a thinly-veiled religious argument. Therefore, it does not belong in the science curriculum. 

Each one of the other four candidates (including two incumbents, who should have at least a basic understanding of the separation of church and state) said, "If you teach one, you should teach the other," or some variation thereof. 

To present intelligent design in a public school science class would be unconstitutional. The first and fourteenth amendment prohibit public schools from trying to advance a religious theory, including the teaching of creationism as science. The only federal court to have considered the question ruled that "intelligent design" is a religious ploy to get around the laws prohibiting creationism-as-science, and therefore has no place in a public school science curriculum. 

The Flying Spaghetti Monster depicted at the top of this page was a fortunate by-product of this controversy. I entreat you to read the Wikipedia article by the same name, which includes the story of Pastafarianism's genesis, along with lots of context. I love context.

Back to the school board race. Only one of the two candidates who answered appropriately was elected to the school board; fortunately, she's also the chairman. Unfortunately, the professor didn't make the cut. So now at least two of our five school board members publicly support a hypothetical curriculum that is in blatant violation of well-settled constitutional law. 

It occurred to me that the current noise about evolution theory is similar to the upheaval about heliocentrism that lasted from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. "I don't care how much so-called 'evidence' you have; it goes against what scripture says, so it's wrong." 

All this has happened before, and it will all happen again, be the disruption theological or economic. Global warming, anyone?