Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bobby Muckle and the Sexual Revolt

One day, I will write a children's book with this title...

Even though I hold a lot of strong political opinions, I'm frequently capable of seeing an issue from both sides. For example, I favor the decriminalization of pretty much every drug. Marijuana, ecstacy, crystal meth, black tar heroin. You name it, I think you should be able to put it in yourself without going to jail afterwards. I hold this opinion because no one has ever been able to devise an opposing argument that I find utterly convincing.

However, I can sympathize with those who feel differently. Drug addiction is a horrible, destructive thing, and the desire to keep some of the more hardcore drugs, like crack or PCP, away from people comes from a good place. I just don't think it has proven to be effective public policy.

The gay marriage issue, though? I'm sorry, I just don't see the sense of the other side on that one. If two people want to marry one another, they should be able to get married. Done. Consensual? Hey, it's fine by me.

This really only gets murky in a few rare cases. If a brother and sister want to get married, that might have unpleasant biological consequences (though I still think they should probably be able to do it). If a man wants to marry five wives, well, usually those situations indicate some level of coercion...but I still don't favor outright prohibition. And, obviously, a child under, I'd say, 16, probably is not mature enough to consent to something long-term and legally-binding like marriage.

Other than that...go to town. It's freedom, baby.

Aside from lame-ass slippery slope arguments, what has the Reich wing got on this one?

"Historically, marriage has always been between a man and a woman." Um, no it hasn't, it has always been between a man and a whole shitload of other women, plus occasionally other men and attractive animals.

"Marriage is about procreation." Um, no it isn't, we let the infertile and the elderly get married. NEXT!

"We're eradicating the meaning of the word 'marriage'." Amazingly, I've actually heard people take this position. It's terribly bad form to reduce a civil rights issue to a semantic argument about the dictionary definition of "marriage." Also, there's no evidence of any form to suggest that legalizing homosexual marriage has any impact whatsoever on the quality, quantity or duration of heterosexual marriages.

Bobby Muckle, VP of the "Connecticut Right to Life Corporation," which sounds like a charming organization with a riveting monthy newsletter, offers a bold argument against gay marriage in this video over at AlterNet. Gay marriage, according to Mr. Muckle, causes global warming. Seriously. Just go watch...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

My first favorite novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, died today at the age of 84.

It would be impossible for me to sum up the guy's genius in a little blog post, nor his impact on my life. Vonnegut books, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos (which he sometimes referred to as his favorite), essentially introduced me to literature. I had read books previously, for school or pleasure, but never attentively. They had remained little more than narrative delivery systems - authors wrote stories and I read them, finding the results either entertaining or disappointing. But Vonnegut books were funny and outrageous and packed full of ideas, some of them unconventional and new (to me, at least). Unlike most of the drab authors high school students read, Vonnegut was a fun guy to be around. His books were compelling, not like homework.

In particular, my younger self loved Vonnegut's dry, sarcastic prologues. Most of his novels open with self-deprecating prologues describing what the author was doing in the months (or, in some cases, years) before the novel's publication. His description of romantic love from the opening of Slapstick has always stuck with me. I'm not sure if it's because it reminds me of myself or the person I'm most afraid of becoming:

"Love was never at issue...It does not seem important to me. What does seem important? Bargaining in good faith with destiny.

"I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as 'common decency.' I treated somebody well for a little while, or maybe even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in turn. Love need not have had anything to do with it. Also: I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs."

In addition to brilliantly satirical science-fiction novels like the three mentioned above, Vonnegut wrote short stories, plays and really insightful, darkly funny and, of course, horribly pessimistic essays. I'd recommend Fates Worse Than Death, an extremely frank series of autobiographical pieces in which Vonnegut discusses his work, his family and his failed attempt at suicide a few years prior.

One of his best and most overlooked works, the novel Deadeye Dick, ends with this statement:

"You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages - they haven't ended yet."

This sentiment sums up so much of his writing. Things are horribly difficult and the only way we can muddle through is to hope that someday things might improve (though probably not) and to laugh at the ridiculousness of our circumstance. As a frequently lonely, somewhat alienated young person who worshipped comedy and comedians, I found this outlook entirely relatable. It summed up what my life at that time was pretty much all about - laughing in the face of pain, rejection and frustration.

The bleak pessimism, by Vonnegut's own admission, became kind of overbearing later in his life. He had sworn off writing altogether for a while, feeling incapable of rending his sour observations about the world into humor that could potentially be enjoyed. Here's a piece from Fates Worse Than Death in which he explains the nature of his humor:

"Jokes work this way: The Jokester frightens the listener just a little bit, by mentioning something challenging, such as sex or physical danger, or suggesting that the listener is having his intelligence tested. Step two: The jokester makes clear that no intelligent response is required of the listener. This leaves the listener stuck with useless fight-or-flee chemicals in his or her bloodstream, which must be gotten rid of somehow, unless the listener wants to slug the jokester or do jumping jacks.

"What the listener most likely will do is expel those chemicals through the lungs with quick expansions and contractions of the chest cavity, accompanied by grotesque facial expressions and barking sounds.


"But jokesters are all through when they find themselves talking about challenges so real and immediate and appalling to their listeners that no amount of laughter can make the listeners feel safe and perfectly well again. I found myself doing that on a speaking tour of campuses in the spring of 1989, and canceled all future engagements. This wasn't at all what I enjoyed doing to audiences, and yet there I was doing it. I wondered out loud onstage, for instance, what I and my brother and sister and our parents might have done if we had been German citizens when Hitler came to power. And reply would be moot, but almost certainly depressing. And then I said that the whole world faced a problem far worse than the rise of another Hitler, which was our destruction of the planet as a life-supporting apparatus of delicate and beautiful complexity.

"I said that one day fairly soon we would all go belly-up like guppies in a neglected fishbowl. I suggested an epitaph for the whole planet, which was: 'We could have saved it, but we were too darn cheap and lazy.'

"It really was time to quit."

He felt badly not because humanity was on the verge of wiping itself out (things have not improved since '89, I'm afraid), but because, in some way, he felt like the Earth deserved better than us, like there had been some promise or hope for the world out there on the horizon but never delivered upon, possibly because people had come and mucked it all up with our selfish, lazy thoughtlessness. And this guy was a humorist. As he says in his last published work (I think), the autobiographical A Man Without a Country:

"Do you realize that all great literature - "Moby Dick," "Huckleberry Finn," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Red Badge of Courage," "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," "Crime and Punishment" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" - are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?)

"Evolution can go to hell as far as I'm concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet - the only one in the whole Milky Way - with a century of transportation whoopee."

So what to make of all this now that he has passed on? I'm not sure.

I suppose it would be wrong to be terribly overwrought and sad on this occasion, and Vonnegut was never one to romanticize death. (Perhaps the most famous, iconic phrase from his writing is the resigned "So it goes," repeated throughout Slaughterhouse-Five whenever something tragic happens). This "calypso" from the fictional Bokononist religion of Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, sent to me this evening by a particularly alert and web-savvy friend, feels somehow appropriate:

God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"
"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars."

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud
that didn't even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!

Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
Good night.

(True, Vonnegut wasn't much of a God guy, nor a "Last Rites" guy, but it's the sentiment that counts.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Evangelical Atheism

I use this phrase sometimes as a joke, to refer to the more militant anti-religionites in my family. Really, I get that it doesn't make a ton of sense. To "evangelize" is not merely to preach or to persuade, but to spread the message of the Christian gospels. Still, even if I swapped the verb into "proselytizing" atheist, it's still only a half-sensible statement, because it then implies that a person could potentially preach a lack of belief.

There is no inherent belief behind atheism. It doesn't definte what I think, but what I don't think. So how could I proselyize?

But you get what I'm saying when I say "my cousin Michael is an evangelical atheist." It means, he dislikes statements of religious faith and desires for all the other people around him to stop believing in God.

I have never believed in God, pretty much since Day One, but I frankly don't give two shits about you. Believe whatever in the hell you want, just leave me alone, that is my Spiritual Philosophy in a nutshell. I deeply, deeply resent uptight assholes attempting to push their ludicrous, baseless beliefs on me. I want to do drugs, have pre-marital sex with girls who can potentially go and get abortions if they're not 100% satisfied with my seed, watch unseemly movies, buy beer on Sunday mornings, attend gay weddings, sponsor stem cell research and forget that there was ever such a thing as "The Da Vinci Code." And I hate the fact that pushy moralists want to stop me from doing these things.

But that's all I hate about religion. Nothing about the specific rituals and beliefs themselves, really. I mean, yeah, they're wrong, but a lot of people believe a lot of things that are completely wrong, and it usually doesn't bother me. (I've talked to individuals who actually enjoyed Garden State!)

I think my general, overall misanthropy probably has something to do with this. I think religious people are wrong about everything, but I think non-religious people are wrong about everything too, so there's no need to single anyone out specifically. I'm not one of these people who believes that we'd all be way, way better off without religion, either. Human beings are just massive pieces of shit, and we would be whether we all believed in Jesus, Satan or nothing at all. Our problems are all about tribalism, ignorance and avarice, not faith. Come on...this is obvious...

But I'll even take it one step further! I genuinely find the subject of religion fascinating. And so does every hardcore atheist I've ever met! If they didn't find it terribly interesting, they'd just be another lackadaisical, semi-religious American who never thinks about religion except when they are participating in it. It's counter-intuitive but true. The people who spend all their time wrestling with the Big Questions of religion and the universe are the non-believers. Those who have faith don't really bother with the small stuff, like the fact that the shit they believe makes no sense. "Who cares? I'm already saved already! Let's go get ice cream and hate sins but try our best not to hate sinners too bad!"

Sure, there are thoughtful, philosophical types who are also religious, but not many. It's not a worldview that lends itself to introspection. Your more inquisitive types kind of get turned off by any book that tells what to think and when to think it. This is how you can have a nation full of self-identified devout Christians who don't know shit about their own book.

That USA Today link is about Professor Stephen Prothero, who did a survey which made Americans look very silly. Many of Prothero's subjects were unable to name the authors of the Four Gospels and believed that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. (I guess the test was multiple choice?) The Professor takes this data and concludes...that we need to educate children more about religion in public school.

Wait, what? To me, that data suggests that America's churches are doing a shit job, spending all their time ministering against abortion and for the Republican Party and not getting around to the part about this guy Jesus and all the swell things he said and did.

I've argued on the blog a whole bunch that Christians don't seem to pay attention to what Jesus was all about any more, and this news just advances that theory.

Prothero, who is after all a Professor of Religion at Boston University, clearly disagrees with yours truly. It's not that Americans don't really care about religion and just go to church to be social or to fit in, he seems to believe. It's not false piety that they're constantly exhuding, along with nacho breath, flatulence and megalomania. The problem with Americans is that they're not taught from a young age what grows in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Olives, but I had to look it up).

The idea of World Religion or Comparative Religion education itself is a solid idea. I had a great class like this when I was a sophomore, and it really was my initial exposure to all non-Jewish religion. And it was great! We visited a Hindu monastery (where we took a tour led by the inimitable Swami Viprananda), discusses the wisdom of the Tao, and Mr. Antenore became the first in a long string of people over the years to get mildly frustrated with me after having to explain the concept of a "three-personed God." Catholics, PLEASE, do something about this...It's really confusing...

(For some reason, my parents had raised me and my brother Jewish, despite none of us really believing any of it. We later joined an entire congregation full of Jews who met weekly despite not believing in anything about Judaism, and openly admitting as much. I guess they were all just bored?)

So, I'm all in favor of teaching the older kids a bit about religion, provided you give equal time (say, two weeks each, as I seem to recall we did in Mr. Antenore's class) to all the religions and not frontload one or two preferred subjects. This, of course, will never happen, because most religious Americans don't want to teach children about the beautiful diversity of faith around the world. Rather, they want public schools to indoctrinate. Teach kids about how Christianity is the One True Faith and that all the Eastern religious are adorable but, you know, essentially incorrect and therefore subservient. (This message, I should note, is already taught in public schools to some degree, with the aid of movies like 300 on the side to reinforce the same concepts about Western, white dominance).

My point is, I don't think we need to pretend religion isn't there, like it's not one of the predominant forces behind human history. Because it totally is.

Which brings me, at long last, to an intriguing discussion at PZ Myers' place (another Professor!), Pharyngula.

PZ received a letter, which I will reprint in part:

Today I went to get my car inspected as my state requires it annually, and you will get a ticket for having an expired inspection sticker. The inspection place I went to had a Christian radio station in the waiting room. I politely asked the guy at the desk (who I later confirmed was the owner) to change the channel to one that was not religious. He said he would not.

Eventually, the letter writer left the shop after the guy behind the counter flat-out refused to change the channel.

Now, I'd agree that this is not the best business practice for this guy, turning off anyone who differs with him on religious grounds and kindly makes a simple request. But still...could the letter-writer be any more of a whiny, petulant little child? I mean, I wouldn't listen to Christian radio on my own, but it's hardly going to actively hurt me to hear it for 10 minutes while I wait to have a smog inspection or whatever in some guy's place of business. The letter doesn't say what the Christian DJ was actually discussing, but it's highly unlikely that anything being said was actually Offensive with a capital O. Probably just a lot of God-this and Jesus-that. Maybe a little Satan-the other thing.

Who gives a shit? I mean, to me, it's almost more silly and superstitious to believe that 10 minutes of Christian radio is going to somehow hurt you than it is to listen to the stuff in the first place! I mean, yes, a lot of people are very devout and it's very difficult to take seriously, but God talk isn't Atheist Kryptonite or anything. Unless you're ridiculously weak-willed, you can still be a freethinker with James Dobson on in the background.

Here's PZ's advice:

I think a smart strategy in this kind of situation is not to go after the shop owner, but go after the source. Write a letter to the paper, highlighting some offensive stupidity from that radio station, and make it clear that you won't frequent businesses that play that kind of inanity.

Geez, really? Make trouble for a Christian radio station just because they're talking about being Christian? I don't really believe all this right-wing distracting rhetoric about a "war on Christians" or anything, but that's cutting it pretty close. How about you just don't listen to that station? And bring a magazine when you go to get your car smog-checked? Or go somewhere else? Or, you know, you could start a boycott...Either way.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Truly, You Have a Dizzying Intellect

Words fail me...Some idiot named Chuck Missler makes what has got to be the stupidest anti-evolution argument I, personally, have ever heard. The weird thing about these Creationism/Intelligent Design advocates is their hideous confusion about the VERY BASIC scientific underpinnings of the Theory of Evolution.

See, I am no scientist. In fact, I was never very good at science. I find biology fascinating, and enjoy reading about it, but I'm bad at math and am generally out of my element in studying hard science. Words and conceptual ideas were always more my forte than the complex formulas, cycles and chemical equations of the Life Sciences.

But anyone capable of taking a high-school biology exam could explain to this douchebag why his little peanut butter "experiment" is deeply, deeply flawed. For those of you not bothering to watch that 2 minute clip (it's worth me...), the guy attempts to disprove evolution by opening a vacuum-sealed jar of peanut butter.

See, evolutionists believe that, occasionally, the combination of energy and matter will create new life. But experience tells us that dead matter will never spawn new life. Therefore, evolution is wrong.

Missler is just confused. He has actually disproved Spontaneous Generation, which has been disproved already, over and over again, throughout the history of Biology. (If I recall 9th grade science correctly, Louis Pasteur famously debunked the theory.) In fact, near as I can tell, the exact origin point of life from non-life isn't really a major focal point of evolutionary science. Rather, it's the study of how life progressed from single-celled organisms to the complex forms we have come to know and love.

My point is not that Missler's wrong. He's obviously, OBVIOUSLY wrong. (And what's with his constant insistance that evolution is wrong because the FOOD INDUSTRY says so. Why should we trust what the food industry thinks more than scientists, professors and other experts? The food industry thought Lunchables and New Coke were awesome ideas.)

My point is that ANYONE could tell that Missler's wrong, including young children and particularly attentive housecats. Either he knows what he's saying is ridiculous, and just hopes to win over one or two lunkheads, or he's just an extremely silly person. It's amazing he's capable of operating a video camera or, failing that, convincing someone who knows how to operate a video camera to assist him.

An Open Letter to My Mexican Neighbors

Dear Mexican Neighbors -

Don't worry...This isn't some anti-immigrant screed where I'm gonna single you all out as responsible for this problem or that. To be honest, by and large, you seem alright. Like a solid bunch of people. I got no major problems with you. I don't think you should have to vote in English or pay the government money to stay here or put up with the racist LAPD or any of that crap. Seriously.

So, Mexicans living in my general vicinity, now that you know I'm alright - not one of those - I just have one question...What's with the accordian music? Several of you have been bumping it all weekend. And I know for a fact you're not extremely old people or anything. In fact, as far as I can tell, you're holding a gathering of individuals around my age.

Surely you've heard some of our contemporary musical genres? I mean, there have been HUGE progressive developments in the music industry since polka's heydey. Maybe, every once in a while, as a lark, I could understand throwing on some accordian music, just to keep the cultural heritage alive or whatever. Like the obnoxious American hipsters who swear with a straight face that Leadbelly is, seriously, their all time favorite songwriter. But non-stop mariachi songs and sea chanties for a few days on end? It's like living in Tortuga.

So, to sum up, not trying to offend anyone. I think 48 hours of the Chicken Dance is causing me to go a bit sideways. Thanks for your continued understanding. Best of luck with that whole "President trying to steal away your civil rights while no one's looking" thing.


Your President, Ladies and Gentlemen

Now, I'm not saying that I'd actually like something violent to happen to the man. Don't get me wrong. But it would be spectacularly hilarious, you must admit, if President Mobil McChevron bought the farm from plugging in an electric car.

Credit Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally with saving the leader of the free world from self-immolation.

Mulally told journalists at the New York auto show that he intervened to prevent President Bush from plugging an electrical cord into the hydrogen tank of Ford's hydrogen-electric plug-in hybrid at the White House last week.

This is, what, the fourth or fifth photo op from which the President barely escaped with his life? We should start making him wear a helmet and pads everywhere he goes, just in case, like a spazzy 6 year old.

Merry Easter

Hopefully, this will become a new beloved American holiday tradition...

Yes, I know it's old, but Ten Things I Hate About Commandments remains hilarious.