Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Feel Like A Pig Shat In My Head

Ugh. I'm sick. And it's not the fun kind of sick, either. It's the 'every time I lift my head up off the pillow I throw up' kind of sick.

The fun kind of sick (if you were wondering) is the kind where you feel just bad enough to justify not going to work, but still feel good enough to lay in bed and read all day, eat soup, and drink some kind of lemon-lime soda.

I've got the shivers, I can't eat anything, and my body aches. No, this is not the fun kind of sick at all. To quote a line from Withnail & I: "I Feel like a pig shat in my head".

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to bed.

Good day.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My Son's First Foray In Capitalism

Little Spencer opened a 'Veggies & Fortune Cookie Stand' in front of his grandparents house last weekend. He made sixteen dollars in his first day.

This, not one week after he asked me who Warren Buffett was.

Who gave the invisible hand of the free market a key to my house?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Liberalism: The Grown Up Choice

There is a much bandied about Winston Churchill quotation that everyone knows. It goes like this:

"Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains."

Well, if that’s true, then I neither have a heart or a brain. When I was younger (before I had kids) I was a conservative libertarian (much in vogue now: I always miss the important fads!), and now that I’m older, am married with two kids and a mortgage, and am gainfully employed, I find my politics have moved steadily leftward. I may be at an evening out point now, but I’m certainly no conservative. In high school, my heroes were Penn Jillette and Dennis Miller. I don’t really have heroes anymore, because I don’t believe in saints. I don’t believe in utopias either.

What I do believe is that a society can work, and that the welfare state is worth sustaining and growing. My kids live here. I want to pass a world down to them that, although inevitably imperfect, is going to function more or less the way it was planned. And for that to be the case, perimeters have to be established and infrastructure has to be put in place that is capable of providing a safety net for them when they fail or get sick. It has to create a level playing field for them to compete on, and create spaces for them to gain an education, and allow them to deepen their experience with recreational activities. It has to encourage—and enforce—the preservation of our natural resources. This is not Beastie Boys liberalism. This is nuts and bolts grown-up stuff.

As I get older (and more invested in the success of this society), I find it difficult to understand the average talk radio listener’s version of ‘what America should be’. I always want to ask them if they have children, and whether or not they want their children to grow up in the Wild West.

You see, even those objectivists who claim that self interest and ‘the invisible hand of the market’ can be trusted to direct traffic and ensure justice don’t go far enough with their thinking. They don’t realize that it is indeed in their self interest to make sure their neighbors aren’t starving, or being mistreated by their employers. It’s in their interest to ensure that their neighbors have healthcare. Don’t they have children? Do they want those children to grow up next door to people on the verge of cannibalism?

This teabag thing, it isn’t for me. I’m willing to pay taxes in exchange for a civilized society. If we were longer out of the trees, if reason were more evident in man than superstition, I may be willing to talk about the libertarian paradise that so many people haven’t fully thought through. But until then, I will say that libertarianism (like communism) seems to work well on paper, but it would never work in reality. No pure system ever would. We’re too complex.

But we can have a system, and I think the one we’re working on is a big, clunky step in the right direction. These utopian, fantasist teabaggers are herd creatures. They’re lazy reactionaries who don’t appreciate the dull, repetitive, un-sexy work that goes into making a society solvent, and they’re apparently unwilling to put in the kind of intellectual leg work that goes into making democracy matter.

They’re a predictable bunch. Spinoza had their number long before any of them were born:

"Only under the dominion of fear do men fall a prey to superstition; that all the portents ever invested with reverence of misguided religion are mere phantoms of dejected and fearful minds; and lastly, that prophets have most power among the people, and are most formidable to rulers, precisely at those times when the state is in most peril."

Holding up the apparatus of government may not be as fun as holding up signs in front of government buildings, but it’s necessary if we want to continue thriving as a people.

cross posted at Kos

Monday, April 19, 2010

I've Got The Democracy Blues

"The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter."-Winston Churchill

Today on Morning Edition, I learned that a large percent of the American people are opposed to ‘an activist government’. Later on, I discovered that another certain amount of people feel a certain way about several other issues. Sorry that I can’t be more specific, but I was busy throwing up in my cereal bowl.

I’m Sick of polls. I’m sick of hearing about them on the radio, and I’m sick of reading about them on websites and in newspapers and magazines. I don’t care what percentage of Americans believe in evolution theory versus intelligent design, I don’t care who wins on American Idol. The fact of the matter is that the same people who elected George W. Bush for two terms also elected Barack Obama. Clearly, the criteria that the masses are using to make important decisions about their lives and the future of our country is not sober assessment and deep consideration of the complexity of different issues.

When George W. Bush was shirking public opinion by continuing the war in Iraq, talk radio was hailing his dedication to ‘principle over polls’. When Barack Obama sticks to HCR in (apparent) opposition to popular opinion, he is ‘ignoring the will of the people’.

I’m glad that opinions about HCR have begun to turn around now that it has passed, but on another hand, I’m deeply disturbed by it. It’s very hard for me not to think of the general American public as a bunch of clones of Kenneth the page from 30 Rock.

And this saddens me. I’m an individualist, and a believer in democracy. Well, maybe not the ‘one person one vote’ kind of democracy; the fickleness, and poor ability of my fellow citizens to pay attention and dispassionately assess issues makes me a firm supporter of our delegate system. We change our minds all the time, but woe is the elected official that has a change of heart. I completely understand an elected official that wins the public’s heart and then squirts some hand sanitizer on her hand and says with a dismissive smile to all of us, ‘Thanks, y’all. I’ve got it from here.’

No wonder Presidents age so fast. The American public is like the pregnant wife that sends her husband out for freezer pizza at midnight, and decides that pizza makes her sick when he gets back home. She’d rather have pickles and chocolate milk.

But, alas, democracy is the best game in town. Even though she makes you go to the store late at night. Even though she hates 'activist' government. Even though she has deep, steadfast opinions about things that can be turned around by a clever catch phrase, a disarming smile, or--in the case of Sarah Palin--nipple zippers. It's better to have the zany Lucy and Ricky relationship we have with her than the Ike and Tina relationship other people have with their governments.

cross posted at Kos

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Bacon Of Eternity, part 2

Tonight, my 4 year old son accompanied me to the grocery store to buy roses for my wife. While we were in the self check out line, a little girl (a year or two older than my son) shouted 'Jack!' and came over and gave my son a hug. I said, 'Where do you know her from, Jackie?' and he told me that she rode his bus. Then he said, 'Can I give her one of those flowers?' I laughed and said, 'Sure', working one of the roses out of the bouquet. I handed it to him, and he ran over to the other self check out lane where the little girl and her mom were and gave it to her. She sheepishly said 'thank you', and the little girl's mom and the woman who was overseeing the self-check out line simultaneously melted. 'Sooo sweet.' The grocery clerk said.

I'm not sure my son completely understood how awesome what he just did was, but he seemed happy with it. 'She's my girlfriend now.' he said as I buckled him into his car seat.

It was just one of those countless little things that my kids do from time to time that shocks me into the awareness that they are approaching adulthood at a rapid pace, and that the days of playing with Legos on the carpet of my bedroom with them are numbered. Pretty soon there will be sleepovers with friends, followed by facial hair and rock concerts, followed by minimum wage jobs and driver's permits.

Jesus Christ. I need to pay attention.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Coming Out Of The Closet

I suppose my writing this may be akin to a homosexual person coming out of the closet to a room full of people who had known they were gay the whole time. Maybe I, like that person, am the last to acknowledge an important truth about myself.

I am an atheist.

I’ve been hedging on that issue for years now. Once, I was a devout Christian who took God more seriously than anyone I knew. I was that Christian who was always pestering his Christian friends to stay true to the teachings of the bible, and to remember to constantly have Christ on their mind. Yes, I was that pain in the ass. I never understood why my fellow Christians didn’t seem that interested in talking about, reading, and living the bible. God wrote a book for us! You’re not impressed by that?

The word of God was profoundly important to me, and I wrestled with it. I wrestled with things in it that I found deeply immoral. I knew that I had to be wrong about the things that I found to be immoral (because God can’t be wrong), so I went to work creating elaborate explanations for all of God’s many sins. I, like many intelligent Christians today do, tied myself in knots concocting word games and throwing up obfuscatory clouds of dust in the faces of my many challengers.

Eventually, I came to realize that I was putting way too much effort into defending the divinity of the bible, and I slid into a popular kind of cafeteria Christianity (actually, is there any other kind?) where I began to claim that only the New Testament was reliable. Eventually that claim slid to ‘only the words of Jesus are reliable’, and then, inevitably, I yielded to reason and evidence. The bible was written by men. Some of the things written in the bible are deeply immoral, and Christ was most probably not God in the flesh.

To one extent, I felt freed by my admission that Christianity was not a divine religion. I drifted into a kind of deism, where God was beyond knowledge, and even to talk about God was to reduce him somehow. I was a big one for writing ‘God’ as ‘G-d’ for awhile. I felt freed because I knew that there was no boogie man up in the sky making a mark in his notebook with a big coal pencil every time I masturbated. On the other hand, I was prevented from ennobling myself with the thought that I was somehow connected to the divine truth, and that I was part of a bigger plan. I couldn’t vouch for the mind of the God that I had come to believe in, or his intentions. I had to come up with a new way of understanding and behaving. At one point, if I knew someone had a bad opinion of me, I would say to myself ‘God knows the truth’, and let it go at that. I had to rethink my sense of self. I would look for signs in my environment, and would act on whims that I had decided were sent from above. It could be exciting from time to time, but not necessarily the most practical way to make decisions.

At the end of high school, I found a new way of looking at Jesus Christ through the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. I still value his interpretation of Jesus above all others. I always knew that it didn’t make sense to judge Jesus by the actions of his followers, or the silliness of the religion that was erected in his name. Vonnegut gave Jesus a voice that resonated with me, that I was able to keep after I had thrown away nearly everything else that had ever been written about him.

I took Vonnegut’s Jesus with me as I began taking my family to a local Episcopal church. I saw a lot of that Jesus in the sermons the reverend gave, and I liked it. I had begun to ease back into a compassionate Christianity that urged social action and love over ‘thou shalt nots’ and concern over what you believed about the divinity of Christ or the bible.

I thought I had found a spiritual place to settle. That is, until one night, when I was laying in bed with my then 5 year old son. I was getting ready to kiss him goodnight and go to my own bed when he said, ‘Daddy, I found a way to trick the devil so he can’t get me.’ And all of the bad stuff came rushing back to me. However benign the kind of religion I was practicing seemed, it was all based on unreason: Commandments handed down through revelation and by authority. However nice and progressive the religion I was practicing may have been, there were no tools in place to lead a person to follow its dictates. However benign it all seemed, it was inherently irrational, and grew out of the same soil as its scarier iterations. Religion—any religion—is a house built on sand. I wasn’t going to subject my kids to that. I wasn’t going to ask them to believe things that I myself didn’t know. I certainly didn’t want them to live in fear of demons, or make their way in this world with a dowsing rod; especially not while the tools of skepticism and reason were available.

That was the beginning. I had read all of the books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens before this point, because I have always run towards, rather than away from, things that frighten me. I read them antagonistically, but many of their arguments had gotten through. I began to think critically about the whole business, and I realized that it took a much cleverer person to defend religion than it did the non-theistic position. You have to be much cleverer to defend religion, because it is bunk. All a non-theist has to do is to ask for evidence, and be on the lookout for sophistry (which will be everywhere when you are debating a religious person). Eventually, my vague deism or ‘ethical monotheism’ slipped into atheism, although I haven’t called it that until now. I am an atheist, and the reason I am one is because, as I stated at the beginning of this piece, I have taken God as seriously as God deserves to be taken.

I am a college educated person, and that was not enough to ward of the demons of religion. A person who is committed to believing something can believe it no matter how intelligent they are. It took personal exploration, and intellectual integrity for me to challenge my faith, and eventually I shed it. For a few years now, I’ve been teaching my kids about the arts, religions, science, and history, and have been trying to instill in them the necessity of reason and skepticism. It seems to be working, and we are close. Now that I have abandoned religion, I am able to teach my kids how to think, not what to think, and am not personally offended when they come to a different conclusion that I have.

So, all of this is the case, and I’ve written about it a lot. But still, I haven’t used the ‘a’ word on myself. Alcoholics will know what I am talking about when I talk about the power a word or label can have. Since I have been on facebook, my ‘religious views’ section has always said cute things like ‘I enjoy wild speculation as much as the next guy’, or ‘apples were made for eating’. When asked, I would say, ‘I would never say there wasn’t a God’ as a kind of hedge. But how lame! Even Richard Dawkins wouldn’t say ‘there is no God’.

We are all agnostics, Christians and Atheists alike. When I was a Christian, I would tell you that yes, there is a God, and this is what God thinks, and this is what God wants us to do, and this is the book that he commissioned.

As an atheist I will tell you that I do not know that there is a God. That being the case, I won’t be telling you what God thinks or wants us to do. I will tell you that the probability that God commissioned a book—especially the bible, Koran, or Torah—is highly improbable, although I am always open to new evidence.

I feel much better, and much humbler, having adopted this position.

cross posted at The Daily Kos

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Refurbished Feminist

My sister has started a blog, and I would like to recommend it. It's called The Refurbished Feminist, and her first post, Guilt & Gluten Free, is about her transition from vegetarianism to veganism.

Adrienne is one of the funniest, smartest people I know. It will be worth your time to keep up with her.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fantasy SCOTUS League

John Paul Stevens is leaving the Supreme Court. A profile of the person I think President Obama should nominate to fill the vacancy can be viewed here.

You know, I've never gotten into fantasy baseball, or basketball, or football, or anything like that, primarily because sports bore me. I could, however, imagine myself getting into an alternate reality game that allowed participants to compose their ideal supreme court, and try different cases in them. I guess the outcomes of each case would be based on speculations about how each judge would be likely to rule based upon the precedents they established in their careers up until the point of their fantasy nomination.

I realize that I've probably reached the ultimate edge of nerdiness with this post, but I can't help but believe there are other supreme court junkies out there who might enjoy the same kind of thing.

Aside from believing that my pick is a brilliant scholar and would no doubt be a great, moderate judge, I get a deep sense of satisfaction from knowing that the mere fact of his nomination would make Glenn Beck's head explode.

Are there any of my fellow SCOTUS nerds out there that would like to submit their ideal picks?

Does anybody else out there think that SCOTUS is a very dirty and inappropriate sounding acronym?

"He kicked me in the SCOTUS!"

Friday, April 9, 2010

'New Species Lives Without Oxygen"

Awesomeness, at The Telegraph:

"Three species of creature, which are only a millimetre long and resemble jellyfish encased in shells, were found 2.2 miles (3.5km) underwater on the ocean floor, 124 miles (200km) off the coast of Crete, in an area with almost no oxygen.

The animals, named Loriciferans due to their protective layer, or lorica, were discovered by a team led by Roberto Danovaro from Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona, Italy."

One of the creatures:

pretty cool, right?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

No One Cares That He's Black: A Post For Bill Stevens

An anonymous commenter going by the name 'Bill Stevens' stopped by the other day to chastise me for the 'biggotry' I displayed in a recent essay entitled The Psychic Cowboy and The Many Wives Of Glenn Beck. I've certainly been wrong before.

His message to me:

"The biggotry knows no bounds. No one cares that he's black, no cares he has a funny name. No one except the progressives who would rather scream racism when someone has legitimate concerns about policy. It's much easier to snipe at those who disagree than to actually explain a position. Please tell him that he doesn't have to be a fascist dictator, that seems to be what he wants to be. I'm tired of labeling socialism wrapped with arrogance as progressive. Especially when these horrid ideas are many steps backwards when comes to promoting freedom. Remember freedom, it was being able to choose not to have insurance without government punishment. Freedom is not being taxed into submission. Freedom is busineeses not having to shell out millions, remember BO saying businesses were going to save money? Remember him saying the people would have 5 days to review bills before he would sign them, remember the transparency that was suppose to be the most ethical congress, remember BO, the speaker and Reids anti war tirades accusing the troops of horrible crimes, wanting to give up and go home, remember closing Gitmo, remember the laser like focus on jobs? Those three are not progressive, they are dictator want-to-be. I say these things not because pelosi is black or reid is black, (oh, wait they aren't) I don't agree with Clarence Thomas and Walter Williams because they are white (oh, wait they are black). Obama is just the latest of big government control of people and that is why I stand against him and all he represents. In the 70's women proclaimed keep government out of the womb, today we should all be screaming don't let them touch my body. There are ways to help people who really want insurance and can't afford it with out this travisty. Helping someone does not require punishing others and to do that would truly be progressive."

So, I've got it all wrong, and tea party opposition to Barack Obama's policies have nothing to do with race.

Just to be clear, I don' think that opposing liberal policies makes you a racist. I don't believe that George Will is a racist. I don't think that the decent, common sense conservatives I know in my own personal life are racists.

The teabagger however, is a different animal entirely.

This movement has been birthed out of the fearful minds of self-isolated cultural backpedallers, the bored and unfulfilled imaginations of loyal and frustrated talk radio junkies, sycophants, and conspiracy theorists in tin-foil hats. Surely there have been some decent folk caught up in this carnival show. People get caught up in things. People like to feel meaningful, and to have their private beliefs validated. We like to feel ennobled, like we're part of something bigger. No community is stronger than the one that is formed in the face of adversity, even if that adversity is all smoke and word games.

Sure, there are some decent people on board, but I wouldn't bet my money that they represent fifty percent. It's not Dwight D. Eisenhower or William F. Buckley marching in front of Capitol Hill, or clapping until their hands bleed at inane Michelle Bachmann speeches. The fact of the matter is that there is no smoking gun, and reality is much more subtle and boring than the average teabagger will accept. To quote Dennis Miller:
"The biggest conspiracy has always been the fact that there is no conspiracy. Nobody's out to get you. Nobody gives a shit whether you live or die. There, you feel better now?"

But I hear you loud and clear Bill. Thanks for stopping by. I wonder though, have you read this study yet? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Oh, and yeah. There's nothing racist about the tea party movement at all:

a slightly different version of this post has been cross posted at The Daily Kos.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Psychic Cowboy and The Many Wives Of Glenn Beck

After high school I went to work at a loading dock, because I had read a book about Gandhi and decided that my calling was that of secular saint rather than college graduate. While the experience would change my mind—it’s easier to be Gandhi when you have throngs of adoring followers—I did meet a few interesting characters, and learned the difference between a ‘skid’ and a ‘pallet’.

One of the characters I met was a guy we all called The Psychic Cowboy. He was compulsively clad in a big rimmed cowboy hat, was about fifty years old, 300+ pounds, and living on social security. Something was wrong with his legs.

He would come to visit his wife on lunch, and would talk to us occasionally about prophecies that had been revealed to him and fringe pseudo-science. He was really into a book called ‘psycho-cybernetics’, and talked a lot about a thing called biofeedback, and the mystical experience that can be had by those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. The Psychic Cowboy was good to talk to, because our job was so mind-numbing and physically strenuous. From time to time, the cowboy would snap into a creepy-growly voice and make a sudden proclamation: “The Jordan River, which I believe to be a holy place…it is! It is a holy place!” After doing this, he would rebuke his creepy voice in his normal voice, and continue on talking about whatever he was talking about.

Over the course of about a year, I started talking to his wife more often, and learned that her family had disowned her over her marriage to the Psychic Cowboy. They thought he was crazy and dangerous, and apparently some of his prophecies and revelations had led to financial and emotional hardship for their family. Her family urged her to leave him, but she stayed true to him, and believed that he was who he said he was. She was content to live in a little apartment stuffed with strange books and newspapers, and to drive a broken down old hooptie as long as she could be with her prophet.

After a while, I realized that I wasn’t Gandhi. I switched jobs, went to college, and got a degree. While I was at school, word got to me that The Psychic Cowboy had fallen down dead in the parking lot of a local grocery store. It turned out that he had a gigantic tumor in the middle of his brain. After realizing that this was no doubt the source of his strange beliefs and behavior, my thoughts immediately went to his wife, who had allowed her life to take a fairly radical path based on the delusions that her husband suffered from. I wondered if she connected the tumor to the prophecies and weird hobbies that the man had. God only knows what other strange things may have passed from him to her over the years. Did she understand that he was suffering from an illness, and not a divine gift?

I haven’t run into her since then, but I hope she’s okay. She popped into my head as I was driving to work today, listening to Glenn Beck’s radio show. The connection was hard not to draw. There’s no way that Beck will be able to keep his fans all revved up and full of horrible anticipation over a prolonged period of time. Eventually, when the revolution doesn’t come, when white Midwestern conservatives realize that a black president with a funny name needn’t be a fascistic dictator, or that a handful of progressive policies may actually do the country some good, Glenn Beck’s influence will greatly diminish. I have to wonder if the reckoning that the Psychic Cowboy’s wife experienced will be analogous in any way to the reckoning all of those tea-partying housewives across America are going to experience when they begin to get a hint of what really animates their talk-radio icon.

Maybe the experience will be analogous. I mean, it's not like their going to start listening to Laura Ingraham again, right?

cross posted at Kos

UPDATE: This is the first essay I've written at Daily Kos that has made the recommended list. Pretty awesome.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

As I approach 30...

I find I have much more appreciation for this:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven”

~ From 'Why I Write', by George Orwell.