Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Subtle Bigotry Of The Educated Mind

When we think of bigotry, we tend to recall the pictures and videos of groups of white policemen attacking black marchers on their way to Selma, Alabama, or Klu Klux Klan marches through the streets of sleepy towns, or protesters with placards decrying Mexican immigrants, or Japanese Americans being herded into internment camps after Pearl Harbor. We tend to believe that bigotry only expresses itself on the grand scale, and that those who make up such groups that perpetrate and perpetuate it are somehow less influential, less offensive in their individuality, where they can be safely ignored.

We also believe that bigotry only really expresses itself through large differences in people, like race or religion or sexual orientation, but we would be mistaken. Bigotry is any form of intolerance of prejudice or discrimination; it is the manifest extension of an ancient survival instinct, which tells us to be cautious around, or frightened of, anything or anyone that is superficially different than us. This instinct, millions of years in the making, resident in the corridors of our primitive brain, still holds sway, a siren call to the cerebral cortex, reminding it to remain cautious and exaggerating the differences between people to make discrimination easier. In its best form, it makes us wary in situations where we are unfamiliar; in its worst form, it creates paranoia.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Color Purple

Today, people across the nation will be wearing various shades of purple, to show their solidarity with the LGBT community and to remember the recent deaths of six gay teens, who committed suicide due to bullying and/or through denigration by peers. We do this, not as a one-off moment, but as a resolution, that no teenager, gay or straight, deserves to be bullied for who and what they are. Hatred and fear can no longer be allowed to carry the day; Americans of good conscience must stand up, as one, and proclaim from every corner of the nation: "No person born to freedom and liberty shall have theirs infringed by anyone."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Know Your Rights

An interesting thing happened this morning: a candidate for public office was revealed to have a very incomplete knowledge of the Constitution. During a debate with her rival Chris Coons, Delaware Senate Candidate Christine O'Donnell, darling of The Tea Party, was perplexed by the idea that the separation of Church and State was explicitly spelled out in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It apparently came as something of a shock to her. She was further knocked off her game by a question about whether she would repeal the 14th, 16th, or 17th Amendments, confessing: "I'm sorry, I didn't bring my Constitution with me."

To be part of a party that claims the present administration is subverting the Constitution, and wanting desperately to "restore" it, wouldn't it be nice to know exactly what's in it?

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Real Pledge To America

The Republican Party revealed its “Pledge To America” to great fanfare, as if to say: “We've heard you, and here's what we're going to do.” Sadly, what they intend to do if the regain control of Congress, is to do more of the same that got them ousted four years ago, and which imperiled the country by allowing the recent economic collapse of two years ago. Having learned little from their most recent stint on the bench, their pledge is little more than window-dressing for a return to “trickle-down economics,” unsupported tax cuts, and the savaging of social programs and departments necessary to keep Americans safe. In addition, there will be the requisite attempts to undo the new health care law and find a way to outlaw abortion.

Somewhere in this mass of iniquity, there is a sincere desire to help America, though its execution leaves much to be desired. The problem comes, much as it does from the Democratic Party, in an adherence to the party line and an inflexibility born of partisanship. If every political issue is made into a two-sided debate, with neither side willing to compromise, and more importantly, no consideration of the needs of American citizens, then it can be said that our representative system of government no longer works as intended. George Washington, in his farewell speech to America at the end of his last term, counseled as much, warning of the dependency on political parties over sound individual judgment.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Social Networks

The conviviality and comradeship expressed in a human get-together cannot be simulated nor synthesized. It is a product of the multivariate social interaction of people with so many different points of view and experiences, that whatever commonality brings them together, the end result is a Brownian soup of interplay. Whatever we may be, as humans, we are a social species, starting with the act of parenthood, all the way up to the formation of nation-states. It is our interaction and interlocking that built the greatest works of humanity... and, occasionally, wrought our worst upheavals.

The world we live in now, a world our ancestors would no doubt find exhilarating and confounding, is a global village, where the barriers between continents are breached as easily as between localities. Our planet is girded by highways of earth, air, and sea; the rarest and most precious things, the greatest sites, the most palatable foods, are now close at hand, rather than longed for at titanic distances. Where we cannot go physically, we are not barred, flinging ourselves across wires and into the depths of space, to reach across the breadth of our home, touching others with words, and pictures, and sounds.

Even so, great gulfs remain, made not of stone or sand or tectonic stress, but human gall and greed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Don't Think Pink

October is officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the United States, though it might be more accurately termed "Breast Cancer Exploitation Month." Pink is everywhere: ribbons, bumper stickers, T-shirts, water bottles, bracelets, charms, key chains, even on the shoes and gloves of NFL players. The profusion and panoply of pink-tinged items cannot help but catch the eye and assault the senses. One wonders, though, if the energies put into organizing this explosion of pink paraphernalia are wasted in the cause of awareness, reducing breast cancer to a Disney-esque parade. For as surely as the avalanche began, it became an Internet meme, perverted into something which had less to do with awareness of breast cancer, and more to do with frat boy frolics.

If we are going to talk about awareness of the prevalence and dangers behind breast cancer, let's look at the statistics:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are

Today, October 11th, 2010, is National Coming Out Day. It is intended as an encouragement for those in the LGBT community; it is a way of saying that being who they are is more important than remaining in the shadows, and that there is a wide and varied community that supports them.

They definitely need the support.

The Ocean Blue

Columbus Day is not the holiday it once was.

A century ago, Columbus was the toast of many a school, and his importance in the grand scheme of things  could not be understated. He discovered the "New World," a strange name for a place that had always been there. He opened up a route to trade in the Caribbean and brought Western sensibilities to the "barbarous tribes" of the region. He brought religion, he brought technology, and he brought commerce, and lifted the natives up from their primitive state; those who fought against the changes, were backward, and often had to be destroyed.

In more recent times, under the agitation and encouragement of the surviving native tribes of North America, a movement has been afoot to set the record straight about Christopher Columbus and those who came after him. Columbus, far from being the noble explorer, was by turns the greedy impresario, a charlatan looking for easy riches, and the world's worst seaman, completely inept when it came to navigation. His finding the Caribbean was a happenstance, a dangerous one, as it turned out, for those who lived there peacefully. Columbus and his retainers began an unending series of depredations against native tribes in the Americas, leading to their wholesale destruction in some cases, and their marginalization in others.

There can be no doubt, as we look through the lens of history, that the day Columbus stepped off his ship and into the lives of the natives of The Bahamas, was a seminal moment in history. The native tribes of the Americas, safe in their isolation, with fully formed civilizations of their own, were now intruded on by strange, alien visitors, who brought with them sights unseen, things unimagined, and concepts utterly foreign to the self-assured tribes. They welcomed the visitors at first, perhaps thinking of them as gods, or perhaps merely long-lost cousins; their hospitality was repaid in disease, rape, slavery, and death. From those tenuous beginnings, the influence of Western culture spread, a virus engulfing and infecting everything in its path, rendering once proud nations of natives impotent to stop them. No matter what the reason, the infiltration of Europeans into the vast and open continents of the Americas altered the course of history irrevocably, and lead to death on a scale unimaginable, even in the great wars that would be fought in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries.

October 12th, 1492 is a bittersweet day, depending on what side of the divide you are on. If you are Italian, Columbus, native son of Genoa, brought great pride in his accomplishment. If you are from Spain, Columbus represents one of the high-water marks of Spanish domination of the seas, and Europe. If you are a modern native of one of the many South or Central American countries, you have him to thank for your existence. If you are a member of any tribe of North America, there can be only bitterness and betrayal. If you are American, you got here because of what he did.

Let us not belabor the issues, because the history of the "New World" is fraught with pitfalls; the events that sprang forth from it are so wide and varied and divisive, that to bring coherence and consensus is virtually impossible. I sit here, now, a product of a nation built on the backs of natives who were forced from their homes, exterminated in large numbers, and robbed of their existence as a people. My success as an American comes at the price of so many who came before me, and I cannot undo, to any sufficient degree, what was done. I can only try and move forward, and as I do, remake my nation into one that accepts what it did, is genuinely sorry for what it has done, and makes whatever reparations it can. In the meantime, I can work to understand what Columbus' voyage meant to America as a nation, and mourn for all that was lost because of it. Instead of celebration, may Columbus Day become a time of reflection,  when we seek understanding and make peace with a troubled past.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Burning Down The House

A house catches fire. A phone call is made. Within minutes, racing red machines blare a warning of their approach, and stop before the conflagration. Men and women leap from their trucks, clad in their heavy, fire-retardant armor, connect canvas hoses to bright brass connectors, and charge forward, aiming pressurized streams of water at the flames, intent on snuffing them out. Hopefully, no one remains inside at the mercy of the inferno, but if they do, these brave souls will battle heat and flame to pull them to safety. It is the ultimate act of selflessness, to give your life -- potentially -- for a stranger, to put yourself in harm's way, casting aside fear and the desire to flee, to rescue someone you do not know from the jaws of the malevolent beast.

Not more than a few in a thousand have the ability, the guts, and the selflessness, to do this. They become our heroes: firefighters, police officers, soldiers. They would risk life and limb, and not for consequential amounts of money, for they are not paid nearly as well as they should be, but because inside them is a commitment to their fellow citizens, to protect and to serve. They do what they do partly out of honor, but more out of a sense of duty.

Then how horrible must it be to know a fire burns, that lives may be threatened, and a family's life destroyed, and to be told to do nothing, because the family did not pay a fee? That is what happened recently in rural Tennessee. A family's home, set afire by the ill-considered burning of leaves, burns to the ground, because they did not pay a seventy-five dollar fee to the local township, a fee required to extend fire department services into the rural areas. The family forgot to pay the fee, and the result was the destruction of their life. The sad irony: when the fire threatened a neighbor's house, the fire department did respond, because they had paid the fee.

Now, having a fire department is not cheap. The equipment is specialized, the training of firefighters is extensive and on-going, and the maintenance of an effective firefighting force is intensive and expensive. Still, few would argue that letting a home burn down for lack of any firefighting force is a good thing; so how could it be that letting a house burn down when there is a fire company available is allowable or even acceptable? Couldn't a portion of tax revenue in the surrounding county be used to provide the service to rural homes? Did someone really think charging a fee was a good idea? What bureaucrat would let a home burn by quibbling over the payment of a fee?

That this was a shameful occurrence was bad enough; that people are making light of it in national media is worse. A family's home is destroyed, their pets are dead, their possessions gone, and they find themselves homeless, dependent on the kindness of others. What makes this a situation for mirth and offensive humor? Apparently, if you are Glenn Beck, champion of our nation's "honor," that it happened, and that it serves them right. Yes, apparently, if you don't pay your fee, you deserve to have your house burn down:

And it goes nowhere if you go onto “compassion, compassion, compassion, compassion” or well, “they should’ve put it out, what is the fire department for?” [...] If you don’t pay the 75 dollars then that hurts the fire department. They can’t use those resources, and you’d be sponging off your neighbor’s resources. [...] It’s important for America to have this debate. This is the kind of stuff that’s going to have to happen, we are going to have to have these kinds of things.
So, yes, the social contract, which is at the heart of organized society, that says despite our differences we shall live as one nation and obey all the same laws and rules, is nothing but a fabrication of "socialism," a desire for the poor and weak to "sponge" off their country. This is the "debate" that Glenn Beck wants to have.

Well, Mr. Beck, I will take you up on your challenge. I will have this debate with you, any time, any place. Because my reading of the Constitution, which makes the general welfare of the people a paramount priority, and my understanding of the social contract, which was the basis of so much of what would become our Constitution and the laws of our land, and the desire of our Founding Fathers to build a nation that ran through the good graces of its citizens, goes contrary to this idea that somehow services that benefit all American citizens are sponging. If anything, the rich in our country are sponging off the hard-working and dedicated employees of the companies that make them their fortunes. Still others are sponging off Americans by filling the airwaves with abject ignorance, petty nonsense, and unsupportable hypocrisy, but you wouldn't know anyone like that, would you, Mr. Beck.

For someone so concerned about the faith and honor of his country, Glenn Beck treats Americans as disposable commodities, nothing more than a cigarette butt to be ground under his heel, as he blathers on, filling the hearts and minds of the sycophantic with delusions and demagoguery. He is more than happy to sit atop his piles of cash, bemoaning the "socialism" he sees as rampant in this country, apparently unaware that the whole idea behind unity as a nation is the support of our fellow citizens. His claims of a need for restored faith fall on deaf ears, where his hypocrisy is so transparent, perfectly willing to watch Americans suffer and do little of substantive value to change the causes, even as he pins targets on the backs of those trying to make the changes necessary to keep our country afloat.

remediate the lives of those touched by misfortune. It is not just the way of religion, but it is the way of the human, our human duty to do whatever we can, however little it is, to help our fellow humans. It is that core value that made civilization rise up from the dirt, and it is a lack of humanity that now threatens to cast us back into the dust. Humanity is burning, and it's time to pick up a pail and put the fire out.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

It Gets Better... Far Too Slowly

Of late, the number of LGBT teens who have committed suicide seems to be staggering, though this may be an artifact of increased news coverage of issues involving the gay community. The fact is, these children are not the first, and, sadly, will not be the last casualties of a culture war that has been brewing for centuries. While homosexuality may have been a run-of-the-mill occurrence in ancient Greece or Rome, the advent of Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, and other such events led to the persecution of homosexuals. Is it any wonder that the common slur used for homosexuals, "faggot," is derived from a Medieval word for a bundle of sticks used to start a fire, a fire no doubt started at the base of a pole that an unfortunate gay person would find themselves tied to, to be burned before God in hopes of redemption?

What is most troubling, aside from the waste of potential good in those who have left this world by their own hand, is how these incidents came about, through the bullying of others, who found it convenient to hurl epithets and treat them as if being gay were a crime, making them out to be social lepers, or worse, God's trash. This goes beyond the bullying that has been prevalent in schools for a seeming eternity; it is vicious and virulent, a blatant attempt to torment teens who may be having trouble with their sexual identity, trying to convince them that this somehow makes them pariahs.

This bullying, and the accompanying social unrest that follows it, is, in no small measure, amplified by the vitriol and invective that floods the airwaves daily, from social, political, and spiritual leaders across this nation.  To give just a few examples:

  • Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who declared that if someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn't be teaching in the classroom
  • Boyd K. Packer, the second-highest leader in the Mormon Church, said in a sermon broadcast to millions yesterday that same-sex attraction is "impure and unnatural" and can be overcome, and that same-sex unions are morally wrong. [Courtesy, the Human Rights Campaign]
  • Focus on the Family has accused gay-rights groups of using tolerance and anti-bullying programs to introduce curricula and books into schools that promote political aims such as same-sex marriage. [Courtesy, ABC News]
  • Fred Phelps, pastor of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, regularly organizes demonstrations at military funerals with anti-homosexual rhetoric displayed prominently on their picket signs
With intolerant and bigoted people and groups dominating the news cycles, it should not shock us that such homophobia works its way down into our schools. Far too many parents either agree with these sentiments, or are loathe to talk about controversial subjects, perhaps because of personal discomfort or mere reticence to discuss actual issues of the day with their children.

However, a groundswell is beginning to occur, as famous personalities begin to speak out about the horrors being perpetrated and the difficulties of being a member of the LGBT community when you are young. From Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, to heartfelt pleas from the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin, or Tim Gunn, people are beginning to speak up in a meaningful way, trying to steer the conversation away from rhetoric and toward the realization that these are, above all, human beings, people with feelings, people who may be scared, people who simply want to live their lives in peace.

Centuries in the making, the battle over the true place of homosexuality in the human race is starting to come to a head in this century. It is by no means a matter of a short amount of time; this topic and the intractable dogma surrounding it, are not so easily dispatched. There is, however, hope, for time has caused us to see more clearly the world we inhabit and our place in the scheme of things. No longer tied to the fear and fervor religion used to control humankind, our reason has shown us that homosexuality is just another human trait, another variation of the theme. It does not necessarily confer any kind of advantage, but it also does not confer any harm on the human race. Any harm that homosexuality presents to us is self-inflicted, the product of the ravings of madmen and the ignorance of the petty and tyrannical.

This would seem to be our moment, when humanity would take the next step forward toward unity, or cast all civilization asunder in a flash of global inhumanity. For those who must continue to suffer, to fend off day-after-day the assault on their psyche and body by ignorance and intolerance, it can be said that it will get better, but perhaps not soon enough to abate the terror. Many may still have to suffer, may still have to hide their true selves in fear for their sanity and their life. They are the current soldiers, those who must steadfastly stand up, with our help, to put an end to the depredation and denigration of their kind. It is their fight, but it our war, and only together can we hope to strike down the last bastions of bigotry.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lack Of Decency

The current climate in the United States is one that makes a fact very plain: the idea of the "decent" American is dying. As sure as the American Dream is slowly sliding into the sunset, it drags along with it the very fabric of the country, the decency and honor of its citizens. It is hard to notice, perhaps because of the shouting and vitriol which spew forth almost constantly. The better angels of our nature are being engulfed in a cacophony of bitterness, bigotry, ignorance, and insolence. We have moved from "one nation, under God," to "Us versus Them."

Americans certainly have a right to be angry, when the inequities of life are so plainly written across the front page of the newspapers or splashed across the bottom of their TV screens. Wall Street, cause of our economic woes, goes from bankrupt to propped up, and all the while no one is called to account for their actions. Big oil, heedless of the cost, sprays oil into the sea, and still manages to reap large profits. Jobs, once so plentiful, are slowly eroded away by cheaper labor overseas, and its attendant lack of quality. Washington, D.C. is awash in partisanship and seat counting, leaving governance at the doorstep to the Capitol. Rogue nations and extremist religious groups wage a campaign of hate against us, attacking us outright, and thumbing their noses at our demands. Families are forced to leave behind all they have worked for, as those who precipitated their poverty continue to reap their profits.

But anger, while prevalent, is the wrong emotion for what ails the nation. Yes, anger is natural, given what we see, but anger does not solve our problems, for after we are through being angry, our problems are still there before us. Anger also blinds us to the truth, to reality, to the root cause of our problems, and makes many simply lash out at targets of opportunity, rather than iniquity. Too broad a brush is applied to some problems, too narrow a focus to others, resulting in wasted energy and effort, and the maintenance of the status quo.

It reaches deeper than that, though, for the cauldron that is stirred up by the rage of our nation feeds the next generation, planting the seeds of newer and greater anger. Passed on from parent or teacher or clergy to the children we raise, is this whirling maelstrom of ignorance, bigotry, malfeasance, obfuscation, and bitterness, swallowing up the innocent and helpless. Children are taught who the bogeyman is, and do not question the motivation that belies this. They believe what they are taught to believe, and dogma replaces reason.

We see it all, in what happens daily: fired people returning to places of business with weapons, exacting revenge. Repressive bullying of homosexuals, driving them to suicide. The shouting down of those who are trying to have reasonable debate. The eruption of bigotry, homophobia, racism, and sexism by varied groups, flung into the light of day from the dark corners where it used to hide. Impartiality replaced by politics. Rampant theft, both at the point of a gun and threw stacks of paper. Hypocrisy in the name of morality. Quashing freedom in the name of "restoring America."

This is not how it should be. This is not the country in which I have so much pride. This is not the country that believes in individual liberty. This has become a nation of ne're-do-wells, fame seekers, hucksters, and reprobates; it is now a home for the greedy, the covetous, the self-righteous, and the conscienceless. Hard work, honesty, reason, and excellence have been subordinated to flashiness, boosterism, abject ignorance, and mediocrity.

America deserves better. If we are truly the nation we think we are, then it should cause us no amount of inconvenience or irritation to work together toward bettering ourselves and our nation. If our Pledge of Allegiance is to be more than a hollow joke, the we must be one nation. It does not mean conformity, or obedience, or rejecting the right to question authority; it does mean that all our laws, all our precepts, everything we hold dear, must apply to everyone who is a United States citizen, no matter their stripe. Nothing of the individual should make them less human, less able to enjoy the fruits of freedom and liberty. There can be no difference between us as individuals that invalidates our ability to be of one nation or one law. Our differences make us unique; our similarities make us strong.

We, Americans all, must unite under the one flag we fly, if for no other reason than to divide us, to erect barriers between ourselves, is to crush that which so many sacrificed to make. As has been said, a house divided against itself cannot stand, and even now, one can hear the creaking and tottering that the shifting fortunes of our nation are causing to reverberate throughout. It is time to strengthen our resolve, and thereby strengthen our nation; only then, will we regain the sense of freedom and liberty handed to us by our ancestors.