Opinion: What It Ain’t

Sibling Rivalry

As mentioned in a prior post (“Matters of Opinion: the Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America”), defining exactly what opinion is can be a bit tricky. But recognizing opinion when you see it is rather simpler; and even simpler still is understanding when something is not opinion.

Which brings us to turn the mirror on this blog itself. This is not a blog of opinion, but a blog of fact and analysis.  The blog’s mission statement includes the following sentence:

We offer solid fact without becoming pedantic, and personality without becoming bogged down by opinion.

This has been re-worded several times (at one point it said “without relying on opinion”), largely in an attempt to fend off the gotcha squad — or, as Michael Moore calls them, the wacko attackos. These are individuals who deem it a matter of great importance to attempt to discredit information and ideas that clash with their beliefs, and so they comb through these posts in a quixotic quest for an instance of “hypocrisy” or “contradiction”. (You’ll often spot them when they quote back every little thing you say, followed by a snide retort which they believe to be a refutation.) Evidently they believe that if they can find a single such instance, then they can discard the entire blog with a sigh of relief and a smirk of triumph. And the possibility of finding an opinion in these pages is perhaps what entices them most: find just a single opinion, they seem to believe, and they can safely conclude that the blog is nothing but opinion.

This blog is not about me, and I’m not going to allow anyone to make it about me. I don’t consider it a matter of great urgency to defend myself from attacks — indeed, I consider it of little to no consequence at all. But sometimes the gotcha squadders commit blunders which it can be instructive to examine. And they commit several in their obsession with opinion.

The most obvious mistake they make is to conclude that a statement to the effect that a blog does not focus on opinion can be taken as a claim that it contains no opinion whatsoever. Which of course is patent nonsense, and illustrates how ideologues often zero in on the one interpretation that best suits their purposes.  It’s impossible for anyone’s writing of any length to be utterly opinion-free (at least in my opinion). Of course you’ll find occasional opinions here. Even though this is not a blog of opinion, the door is open to it; it’s just never the guest of honor.

The second point is that what opinions you will find here concern relatively minor matters. I might mention in passing that I consider the Beatles to be far superior to the Rolling Stones, and you would not be wrong to classify that as an opinion (albeit a highly qualified one — I happen to have a rather extensive background in music). But since this is not a blog about music, such an opinion would never be the central concern of a post here; it would only be used to expound upon meatier topics.

But the most significant error the attackos make is to confuse, or deliberately conflate, opinion with subjectivity in general. As we discussed before, opinion is only one type of subjectivity. If I begin telling a story, and start laughing, that’s clearly a subjective response. But is it an opinion?Or have I merely flavored my telling of the story? Someone else might tell it using exactly the same words, but begin crying. The subjectivity of the teller would be very different, but how could our respective renditions be called a difference of opinion if the wording is exactly the same? If I say “this story always cracks me up”, is that an opinion? Nope; it’s just a statement of fact. And if I say, “I think this story is very funny”, that’s also, strictly speaking, a statement of fact; but in practical use it’s so indistinguishable from “this story is very funny” that we might as well call them both opinion.

I especially hear the “that’s just your opinion” refrain from Second Amendment fanatics — not surprising, since they are among the most reactionary of demographic groups. (That’s an observation, not an opinion). Which just might be a good reason why they should not own guns in the first place. (That’s speculative analysis, not opinion.) Although if they did, it’s quite possible that they would take up the slack by committing violence by other means. That’s speculation, which is also not opinion.

I certainly speculate frequently here, and you often can spot it by qualifiers like perhaps, possibly, it well may be, etc. But even without such markers, the speculative nature of the comment is clear enough. And it would be a mistake to assume that I intend such statements to represent undisputed fact. It sometimes would be a mistake to assume that I even believe them myself.

One of the most curious, and therefore most frequent, attacks I’ve received from the gun gallery concerns my comments about the killer of Trayvon Martin — specifically, that he was “aggressively stalking” Martin. Aha! they say, this is clearly an opinion. Nope. Granted, the choice of words is subjective — our word choices are always subjective, in my opinion. But still, those words describe solid facts established by the evidence including a recording of his call to police.

You may say that he was armed and Martin was unarmed, and he made some unfortunate disparaging verbal references (calling Martin one of “these assholes” and a “fucking punk”) to a person about whom he knew nothing except his race, and chose to disregard the dispatcher’s instructions to stay in his vehicle and let the police handle it, and gave pursuit on foot to confront someone he erroneously regarded as a crime suspect but who in fact was minding his own business (unlike the killer) even after expressing concern because the youth was supposedly coming toward him, and the ensuing confrontation was a big misunderstanding that spiraled out of control and resulted in the inadvertent death of an innocent person. I say he was aggressively stalking the kid. You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. It’s a difference of diction and attitude, not a difference of opinion. It would be a difference of opinion if you said that Martin got what he deserved, and I said that his killer ought to be locked up.

It’s very common these days to lump all subjectivity under the banner of opinion — essays in the media, for instance, are commonly referred to as op-ed pieces, apparently on the assumption that any type of essay/ editorial must hinge on or be infused with opinion. Opinion often is present to one degree or another, but not necessarily so.

For example, you’ve probably surmised if you’ve been following these posts that I am not a charter member of the Dick Cheney fan club. I make that fact known at every opportunity. But my expression of my distaste for the man is not opinion, nor is it opinion when I recount his many vile misdeeds that prompt this response in me. They are all matters of verifiable record. What would be an opinion would be if I stated that he is unfit to empty Lord Voldemort’s chamber pot with a soda straw. After all, it’s entirely possible that such a task would in fact be ideally suited to his particular gifts.

Speaking of public officials appointed by Supreme Court fiat, it once seemed rather anomalous to speak of court decisions as “opinions”. A judge’s task is presumably to interpret law and the constitution, not to mandate opinion into law (even if opinion inevitably comes into play). While it may be semantic hairsplitting to differentiate between interpretation and opinion, there is a distinct line between ruling based on how one reads the constitution or the law and ruling based on one’s personal ideology. At least there once was.

The current majority of five “conservative” justices, however, have crossed that line repeatedly and blatantly. The watershed moment was Bush vs. Gore, in which among other things they halted the Florida recount because it was their opinion that protecting Bush’s claim to victory was more important than finding out who really won. (No, that’s not an exaggeration.)  This arrogant act has paid off in further dividends for the worshipers of opinion; the “president” they installed was in turn able to appoint two young replacements for members of their gang who were running out of gas, assuring a steady stream of such rulings for at least a generation.  Most recently, these five male Catholics decreed that religious conviction takes precedence over law — at least provided the religious convictions are their own and the law is one backed by a president whom the wingers have determined to despise at all costs.

If you would have a little practice in identifying and distinguishing between observation, analysis and opinion, try reading a few movie reviews (of which I’ve written quite a few in my time). All three are generally present in any given review, and they’re often organized in more or less discrete chunks.

Typically, a review will begin with observation and analysis. How long is the film? Is it in black and white or color? Is it a comedy, drama, thriller, slasher, mystery, satire, sci-fi/ fantasy, or some combination thereof? Who are the actors, writers, directors and designers? Does it appear to be influenced by Hitchcock or Bergman or some other master? Does it contain elements of film noir, nouvelle vague, or cinema verite?  There may be some subjectivity, of course, involved in answering such questions. The answers sometimes may even cross the border into the Domain Of Opinion. But there are usually definite “correct” answers that even critics can supply. (That’s a joke, critics.)

Then the second part of a review tends to focus on opinion. Is the ending effective? How well did the cast perform? Is the pacing good? Is the gore excessive? Should Woody Allen have quit while he was ahead? There are no definite right or wrong answers here. (Well, except maybe for the part about Woody Allen). Such opinions will give the readers a better idea of whether or not they should see the film, based on their opinions of the reviewer’s opinions.  But while reviews almost always contain opinion, and often are largely opinion (or at least highly opinionated), that isn’t always the case. When I wrote reviews, I considered it more important to give prospective ticket buyers an idea what to expect for their buck than to bring the world up to speed on my personal tastes. Accordingly, I kept opinion in the background just as I do with this blog.

The next time your immediate impression is that something in a review, or a blog post, or anywhere else, is opinion, you might want to take a closer look. You may find that you’ve been painting with too broad a brush.


Bill Maher and “Zombie Lies”

Bill maher

Bill Maher was in fine form, as he often is, on July 11 when he coined the much needed term “zombie lie”  for a lie that keeps coming back and making the rounds even after it has been thoroughly killed. He is referring specifically to GOP lies about the ACA (or, as it will be forever branded, “Obamacare”), but he quotes other notable examples. And makes some pertinent observations:

Look, I get it. Neither party has a monopoly on lying. And in fact they all do it so often they invented their own word for it. “I misspoke”. .. But how come the rule for one party, the Republican Party, is that when they get caught in a lie, they don’t have to stop telling it?

It’s a question worth asking. And a video worth watching.

Obama Haters + Benghazi + Iraq = More Spinning Than a Dervish on a Carnival Ride


A couple of brief but worthwhile articles by Steve Benen at MSNBC highlight the dizzying heights of lunacy to which the cult of Obama hatred has ascended. One is about the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected terrorist mastermind behind the attack in Benghazi in 2012. Remember Benghazi? It’s one of the many “scandals” that the Obama Haters hoped would spell the end of the guy in “their” White House.  Terrorists attacked an American consulate in the Libyan city and killed 4 Americans, so somehow President Obama must have been to blame for something or other, right?

But now that the Obama administration has bagged the suspected mastermind of the assault, they’re all ready to give the president credit for at least trying to compensate for his (as yet unidentified) misdeeds, right?  Well, about the best they can come up with (Courtesy of fairandbalanced Fox)  is that the capture of Khattala is “good news, I guess”.  The rest of the radical wingers have kept piling onto their already massive heap of hatred, hyperventilation and hilarity, ever striving to come up with fresh and inventive ways to embarrass and humiliate themselves.

Benen’s piece lists a “top ten” of right-wing talking points on this development, including the claim that the whole thing is a publicity stunt to promote Hillary Clinton’s book tour. And an especially amusing twist is that, after frequently alleging that anything and everything the president does is a “distraction from Benghazi”, they’re now saying that his focus on Benghazi is a distraction from the (other) phony IRS “scandal”. You have to wonder at this point if there’s a limit to how far they’re willing to go, or if they’ll continue to “reach the bottom of the barrel,  (then) drill deeper.”

That phrase comes from another piece Benen wrote about Obama’s critics (and I use the term as an overwhelming understatement) on Iraq — quite often including many individuals who not only have  been themselves tragically and catastrophically wrong about Iraq in the past but, in at least one case, was among those responsible for creating the Iraqi nightmare that Obama is now trying to clean up. That would be one Richard Bruce Cheney, who for some reason is still not behind bars, and was, according to the Supreme Court at least, vice president for 8 years.

It’s a sort of unwritten rule of civility among members of former administrations that they don’t badmouth current administrations. For one thing, it generally just makes the former appear petty and puerile.  But Dick Cheney, as always, is the epitome of class, as witness his suggestion on the Senate floor that a colleague “fuck yourself”. Accordingly, he has made disparaging comments about the current president not just once but numerous times. That’s particularly galling from someone whose own ascension to his office was, to put it charitably, highly questionable.

And now he and his daughter Liz (who, one gathers, is another foreign policy expert of equal caliber) have co-written a diatribe in the Wall Street Journal about the Iraq quagmire which opines that

Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.

But ironically enough, it’s not a confession about the administration he served. It’s another sleazy attack on the current administration.  In Benen’s words:

Yes, the failed former vice president, a man whose catastrophic failures and misjudgments are the stuff of legend, has decided the president cleaning up Cheney’s messes has been wrong about everything – according to the man who was wrong about everything.

Just how much credibility has Mr. Cheney earned on Iraq? About as much as George W. Bush on the English language. Or Sarah Palin on American history. Or Bill Clinton on marital fidelity. Or Alex Jones on mental health. Not just because of his incompetence, which lord knows is considerable, but also because of his dishonesty, which he’s served up in equal doses. He and other members of his administration repeatedly lied and pushed fraudulent evidence to make a case for the invasion of Iraq.

My favorite instance of Cheney chutzpah was when he appeared on Meet The Press in 2002 and solemnly declared:

There’s a story in the New York Times this morning — this is — I don’t — and I want to attribute the Times,” said Cheney. “I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge.

Was he possibly referring to the “ultra-liberal” New York Times, the kingpin of the librulmedia cartel that controls what we see and hear, and is never to be trusted?  Well, it turns out a little skepticism would have been in order, because the article by Judith Miller turned out to have been based on phony intel — supplied by the administration itself. That’s right: the Cheney administration first supplied fraudulent information to a journalist, then cited that journalist’s obedient parroting of that phony information as justification for its plans to invade Iraq. Classier and classier. Somehow, this guy reminds me of the anecdote about the kid who killed his parents and then implored the court for leniency on the grounds that he was an orphan.

This man’s colossal blunders and duplicity have cost thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of lives, and trillions of dollars — but coincidentally have made a tidy profit for Halliburton. And he expects people to lend him an ear as he savages the current president. Don’t look now, but the media are doing just that.

At the conclusion of his essay about the Cheneys, Steve Benen asks,  “Is the nation comfortable with a degree of political madness this severe?” The answer, alas, appears to be yes.

Matters Of Opinion: The Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America

Buckley and Vidal

Back in 1968, ABC News did something really revolutionary. It made opinionated commentary the centerpiece of its evening newscast.  Because, as its anchors explained in announcing the stunning innovation, opinion was something that had been sorely missing from news coverage. (We’ll pause while you catch your breath.) It wasn’t the first time commentary had been used on newscasts, of course; but ABC’s bold move in programming at this particular time proved to be groundbreaking, the opening of what many consider a Pandora’s box of domination by opinion.

It was perhaps an ideal time to try such an experiment, an explosive year at the height of the Vietnam conflict and the civil rights movement, with vociferous student protests and other civil unrest, a presidential election, violent clashes between police and civilians in Chicago, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As part of its fare, ABC  made an honest attempt at being fair and balanced by featuring frequent debates between the preeminent voices of “conservatism” and “liberalism” : William Buckley and Gore Vidal. At one point the affectedly suave, urbane and unflappable Mr. Buckley became so flustered that he threatened to “sock you right in the goddamn mouth”  — not the only time he threatened to punch out a debating opponent — and suggested that the “queer”  stick with his “pornography”, a reference to Vidal’s racy novel Myra Breckenridge. (And it’s an illuminating comment on American culture, such as it is, to note that when Buckley’s tirade aired, the network censors bleeped out only the word “God”.)

ABC’s revolutionary new format was short-lived, but it left a lasting impression; commentary remained a standard feature of its newscasts, and other networks followed suit. While network officials may have been rather uneasy about the way Buckley and Vidal clawed at each other like rival faction leaders in a schoolyard, the public ate it up. One might argue that 1968 helped pave the way for George Putnam and Wally George and Morton Downey Jr. and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck etc., etc., etc., etc,, planting the seeds for the “infotainment” establishment so prevalent today in media coverage of current events.

Today, opinion is the coin of the realm in the public forum. People believe  not only that it’s important for them to have an opinion about everything, but that it’s urgent to express it, and that the world has an obligation to deem it of great importance.  Everybody has a blog, and everybody comments on everyone else’s blog, and Facebooks and Tweets every little reaction they have to every little thing. In theory, there’s something healthy about this unprecedented level of exchange; but read the discussions on many of these blogs and you’ll almost always see them degenerate into catty, juvenile bickering that benefits no one. (I have to remain vigilant to prevent that from happening even here.)

It’s also a great irony that when we have such a phenomenally unprecedented source of knowledge as the Internet, it’s so often used to promote and reinforce pre-existing beliefs.  If you have concerns about the safety of vaccines, you can pull up all the legitimate research you’d ever want in a matter of minutes; instead, people often just Google-channel Jenny McCarthy.

I recently saw an online poll about whether people think Michelle Obama’s attire aboard Air Force One was disgraceful. Seriously, people? This is how you choose to spend the precious hours of your life that will never come again? Yet however frivolous such a discussion may be, it is at least a genuine matter of opinion, as there are no absolute standards about what a first lady should wear while traveling.  All too often, there’s a public avalanche of opinion about topics that aren’t matters of opinion, such as evolution. Evolution is a scientific fact, and none of your opinions (yes, including your opinions about the meaning and significance of biblical passages) will alter the reality one whit. It can be interesting and illuminating to discuss the facts; but trying to discredit them with opinion is like trying to conceal the Grand Canyon under a napkin.

We’re awash with opinion, drowning in opinion. Americans have become intoxicated with the notion  that opinion is inherently interesting. But opinions are only as interesting as the facts or ideas they’re attached to; and all too often, both are sorely absent.

Case in point: game show host Pat Sajak recently generated a great deal of free publicity that his career desperately needed when he Tweeted the following:

I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night.

He later insisted he was just joking, but the purpose of the “joke” was to ruffle the feathers of the “alarmists” (i.e. scientists and those who support their work). No explanation of how he acquired greater knowledge of science than scientists — apparently from years of watching Vanna White play with the alphabet — but anyone who challenges him is, if not an “unpatriotic racist”, at least an “alarmist” and a “liberal”. Opinion is supreme, and fact mustn’t dare infringe upon it.

That selfsame Bill Buckley who yearned to settle differences of opinion pugilistically also once commented that

“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

This remark is touted by his disciples as a clever putdown of “liberals”, but it actually betrays a common problem among “conservatives”. No, I don’t mean that it often seems their greatest joy in life is attacking them librulz, though that’s certainly a consideration. I’m referring to a common fallacy they exhibit or pretend to: the premise that respecting other people’s beliefs would entail presuming that all beliefs are created equal. Just because I respect your right to believe that AIDS is caused by peanut butter doesn’t mean that I’m going to take such a belief seriously. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m going to stand by idly while you try to make such a belief the cornerstone of public policy.

“Conservatives” have a habit of pushing for policy based on passionate beliefs that are unfounded at best, and often ill-informed, irrational and sometimes squarely in collision with solid fact and even their own convictions. These include the following: that capital punishment deters crime; that aggressive warmongering discourages aggressive warmongering; that having more guns makes us safer and an armed society is a polite society and citizens use guns to prevent millions of crimes a year ; that homosexuality  is both an illness and a voluntary “lifestyle”; that creationism is a substitute for science; that outlawing abortion will reduce its incidence, and doing so makes a person “pro-life”; that “Obamacare” is “socialized medicine”; that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War; that government assistance to the needy encourages indolence, while government assistance to the wealthy encourages industriousness; that the U.S. was intended to be a Christian nation and God is on our side and Christian morality is more moral than everyone else’s  morality.

Their only “evidence” for such beliefs is that somebody else said that somebody else said so.  Yet they want these tenets not only to be treated as the equals of fact-based beliefs, but given unquestioned supremacy — if you dare request some substantiation, they are likely to play the “liberal intolerance” card just as Buckley did. (Technically, there’s a distinction between belief and opinion, but the two are so closely allied, and so often used interchangeably, that we’ll let it slide for the moment.)

And oh yes, there’s the matter of global warming. Having an opinion about global warming is like having an opinion about the boiling point of water or  the number of days in a week. You either know the facts or you don’t. You either accept them or you don’t. Opinion is superfluous and irrelevant.  But that doesn’t prevent Pat Sajak from drawing his brilliant conclusions. Or Sean Hannity from saying “global warming is a myth, in my opinion.” At least these two had the decency  to acknowledge, in these particular instances, that they were merely expressing an opinion. Not so with James Inhofe, perennial senator from Oklahoma, who called climate change

the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state

And this, mind you, is a person who is in a position to shape legislation, a person whom the citizens of Oklahoma have voted into office repeatedly. Again, there’s no hint as to why Hannity’s or Inhofe’s opinions on such a topic should matter. We just know that they should somehow — apparently to a very great degree.

There are many subjects that I’m not an expert on; so when discussing such subjects, I’ll gladly defer to people who know more about them than I do. Which is why you’ll never hear me join the Sajak/ Hannity/ Inhofe chorale in proclaiming global warming a “myth” or “hoax”.  Am I suggesting that you never should question authority? Not at all. But quite often there’s a difference between authority and expert. George W. Bush was the ultimate authority on this planet for 8 long years. But he never exhibited expertise in anything except lies and deception, mangling the English language, destroying international goodwill, and magically transforming black ink to red. And he also. by the way, behaved, like many other “conservatives”, as if he considered scientific truth negotiable, heavily subjugating it to political ideology.

By all means, question authority if you feel so inclined. But if that also entails challenging the experts in their own fields, you’d better be armed with a lot more than opinion. You’d better have a level of knowledge at least equal to theirs. That is, if you don’t want to make a Sajak of yourself.

Do you really care if I believe that Bogota is the capital of Peru, or that the Baltimore Orioles won the American League pennant in 1944? Then why should you care what Pat Sajak or Sean Hannity or James Inhofe thinks about global warming? Or Pat Robertson thinks about evolution? Or Alex Jones thinks about government policy? Or Sarah Palin thinks about… well, anything?

The correct answers are (a) Lima — Bogota is in Columbia; (b) the St. Louis Browns, who did not become the Baltimore Orioles until a few years later; (c) it’s very real; (d) likewise; (e) he’s long overdue to be fitted for a new white jacket, and (f) she has achieved an extraordinary level of ignorance on a wide range of topics.

Those are the verifiable facts. Any contradictory opinions are probably — in my opinion, at least — a big waste of your time.





Heaven? For Real?


Despite being a hardcore skeptic, I’ve always wanted to believe that there is some kind of afterlife. One lifetime is just not enough to watch “Lost” reruns as many times as I’d like.  And speaking of great things to watch, Daniel Petrie’s 1980 film Resurrection has been on my all-time top 10 ever since it was released — for several reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a compelling, deeply moving (and mostly secular) portrait of renewal, redemption, and hope in the face of death. And I can’t think of a more haunting cinematic sequence than that of the windmill collapsing to indicate the passage of time.

But I digress. The point is that unlike a good many other people, I don’t allow myself to believe something just because it suits my fancy (hence this blog). Nonetheless, I’m always quite curious to hear alleged evidence about this thing that so many people accept merely on faith. And thus, I was quite interested in reading the book Heaven Is For Real, which now has been made into a motion picture.

The book, written by Todd Burpo in 2010, recounts the experiences of his nearly 4-year-old son Colton a few years earlier.  After nearly dying during emergency surgery, Colton later reported that he’d briefly visited Heaven, where he even sat on the lap of Jesus — who he says rides, I kid you not, a rainbow-colored horse.  While many Christians have dismissed his story as absurd and even contrary to “scripture”, many others have latched onto it as “proof” that their dogmatic views on cosmogony are spot-on. Note that Colton never actually flatlined during surgery, which means that these folks maintain he visited Heaven while he was still alive.

This book is hardly unique. Other recent volumes that recount similar putative glimpses of the Great Beyond include Proof Of Heaven, 90 Minutes In Heaven,  The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,  and, in the interests of equal time, 23 Minutes In Hell.

Nor is this a new phenomenon.  For ages, there have been accounts of what have come to be known as near death experiences (NDE).  And quite often, individuals undergoing such experiences have reported afterward that they perceived existence on some kind of spiritual plane during their period of recess from physicality.  In 1975, psychiatrist Raymond Moody published a popular book called Life After Life (not to be confused with the recent novel of the same title) which examined 150 such cases. By no means do all of these purported travelers between planes describe the same kind of itinerary. In most cases, it’s much more vague and general than the Colton cruise: just a sense of white lights, love, and sometimes the presence of lost loved ones.

Since I began on a personal note, let me mention  that I’ve been well acquainted with two individuals who had undergone clinical death at some point in the past. Both convinced me that at the very least, their experiences were profound and life-altering. Neither’s recollections of their perceptions were of a religious bent. One became a progressive Christian, though she admitted she had no idea why she felt drawn to do so, and the other eventually became a Sufi. Both were broad-minded, compassionate, dynamic personalities who credited their NDEs with bringing focus and perspective to their lives.

Then there was another of a much briefer acquaintance, who apparently had been a Christian even before her episode, yet she still did not indicate she glimpsed anything like “Heaven”. And while her incident seemed to have transformed her positively in some respects, she still was quite judgmental toward certain groups of people, particularly gays. It’s hard to see how a genuinely spiritual experience could leave a person bigoted; the bigotry was particularly striking in her case because she was African-American.

It appears that what people see when they die — or at least when they temporarily “die” — hinges on their personal beliefs, or at least on the belief paradigm they feel most at home with. And Todd Burpo, Colton’s father, is — surprise — a Christian minister. The child grew up in a home saturated with fundamentalist dogma. What did you expect him to see when he momentarily checked out of his body?

He was also a big fan of Star Wars action figures. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he reported there would be a big battle ahead in which the Blessed Ones in Heaven would clash with the Forces Of Evil using swords. What kind of paradise is it if you get drafted to go go war? With a sword, no less?

Discussing the book’s popularity in The Washington Post, Susan Jacoby writes:

What is truly disturbing about this book’s huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans. (The book is way down in the ranks on Amazon.com in the United Kingdom.) The Americans buying the book are the same people fighting the teaching of evolution in public schools. They are probably the same people who think they can reduce the government deficit without either paying higher taxes or cutting the military budget, Social Security and Medicare benefits. In this universe of unreason, two plus two can equal anything you want and heaven is not only real but anything you want it to be. At age four, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary.

This “universe of unreason” that Jacoby bemoans seems to have three major root causes: (1) the nearly universal desire for immortality in some fashion; (2) confirmation bias – the common tendency to select those facts which support one’s convictions and discard those that don’t, and (3) the extremely pervasive, extremely influential Christian fundamentalist arrogance that presumes to know not only how everyone should live their lives, but how everyone will live after their lives are completed. She is talking about how absurd the whole “Heaven Is For Real” phenomenon is on the face of it; but Christians often have a response to such a criticism: things that seem absurd or improbable or nonsensical to us are just things that are beyond our limited human understanding, yet they fit perfectly within the divine scheme of things. But if you actually read the book — and do your homework — you’ll find plenty of details that validate Jacoby’s alarm over the gullibility of the American public.

For one thing, young Colton mentions that he saw the nail scars in Jesus’ hands. Why shouldn’t he? We all know that the resurrected Jesus had nail scars in his hands, because there are countless paintings, poems, songs and sermons that tell us so. Trouble is, it’s highly unlikely that victims were crucified through their hands, because under normal conditions the weight of the body would have caused the nails to rip right through. Most scholars concur that the nails were driven through the wrist instead. But “nail-scarred palms” or “nail-scarred hands” just sounds so much cooler.

Colton also says everyone in Heaven has wings and halos. In other words, we all are transformed into angels after we die, provided we have a reservation in the upper suite. And we all know that angels have wings and halos, right? Well, if they do, they’ve only done so since the Middle Ages; the Bible doesn’t say anything about angels having either one. (These iconic traditions may have started with someone confusing angels with cherubim and seraphim, which are winged critters of a different order. As for the halos… well, probably just visual metaphor, perhaps of pagan origin.)


One interesting bit of “corroboration” of Colton’s story is his take on the likeness of Jesus.  After rejecting several portraits his father had shown him as having something “wrong” with them, he zeroed in on one that he insisted was “right”, which his father took to mean that it was the spitting image. The portrait in question was painted by art prodigy Akiane Kramarik (pictured) when she was eight.

Akiane also had visions of paradise when she was 3 (apparently the spirit world likes to get them while they’re young) but without a near-death experience; after which she began putting her visions on canvas, including her take on what Jesus of Nazareth looked like. And because she was born into an atheist household, the believers insist that she must have obtained her inspiration straight from the source, without outside influence. Which is utter poppycock. It’s unthinkable in this day and age that any child could possibly be unexposed to Christian iconography (except perhaps in such drastically totalitarian societies as Iran or North Korea). What’s much more likely is that because of her godless upbringing, she was unexposed to the Westernized likenesses of Jesus that have become standard in American culture, and somehow tuned in to the more authentic Middle Eastern features that Jesus would have had; and that Colton either also picked up on this or just singled out her portrait because it was different.

The emphasis on the portrait as “proof” of the accuracy of  traditional Christian set dressing illustrates a common problem with dogmatists: the presumption that any unexplained phenomenon can have only one possible explanation — namely the one that suits their beliefs. Many individuals (including Colton) who have undergone near-death experiences subsequently have conveyed information that they supposedly could not have obtained except through a transcendent out-of-body experience (e.g., supposedly overhearing a distant conversation or recounting an encounter with a long-deceased relative identified from a decades-old photograph the subject supposedly has never seen). But this discounts the extraordinary capacity of the subconscious mind to assimilate information from only the most fleeting exposure. In addition to that faulty conclusion, the belief about Colton catching glimpses of Heaven commits two more: (a) that if he had a genuine transcendent experience, it necessarily validates his account of Heaven, and (b) that even if we could grant his visit to Heaven was reasonably authentic, it necessarily validates Christian dogma in general.

Maybe most of us do want to believe that we will live forever. Maybe there is even some respectable (if less than airtight) evidence that this is true. But when it comes to convincing hardcore skeptics of the reality of something on the order of the traditional concept of “Heaven”, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more proof than this.


9 Nutty Narratives About the Nevada Standoff

nevada standoff

Every now and then, an event occurs which takes the term “media circus” to a whole new level. This was the case in recent days when the media elected to make a cause celebre out of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy after he placed himself above the law.  His refusal, over a period of decades, to stop grazing his cattle on BLM land or pay the taxes for doing so, landed him so much in the spotlight that a gaggle of armed “militia” characters flocked in from elsewhere in the country to confront government officials who were there to enforce the law. Miraculously, nobody was hurt, but it certainly wasn’t because the media didn’t make an all-out endeavor to draw blood.

Irresponsible media demagogues have nothing to lose if they incite violence, but they have a great deal to gain. They’ll have fodder for more sensationalism. They’ll be more revered than ever by their gullible fan base. They’ll greatly stoke the flames of hatred toward all the people whom you’re supposed the hate: the government, them librulz, and above all, the President of the United States. Thus, we saw them pursuing certain readily identifiable story lines, all of which were quite comical — or at least would have been, had it not been for the fact that so many people took them seriously. (A curious exception to the almost unanimous chorus of frenzy among wingnut babbling mouths was Glenn Beck.) These narratives were among the most common:

Narrative # 1: A noble hero

While denouncing President Obama as being, somehow, “lawless”, the punditocracy exalted Bundy, who has broken the law repeatedly, and even threatened violence against government officials. But somehow he’s a hero. Oh yes, and according to Sean Hannity, his disregard for the law will help bring down the price of meat. But listen carefully when Sean’s caught off guard, and you’ll hear him seem to inadvertently acknowledge that Bundy is a criminal.

There are legitimate ways to challenge a law a you don’t like, and not one of them involves a gun. If, as Bundy asserts, he owns the land in question, he should be able to produce a deed or some kind of documentation.  But after 20 years of fighting the BLM he’s been unable to establish a claim to the satisfaction of the courts. You’d think he might take the hint that he’s in the wrong. Instead, he and his supporters draw the conclusion that the Big Bad Guvmint must be evil. The best he can produce is a bogus claim that his ancestors have been freeloading just like him for nearly 150 years — he seems to be off by 75 years or so.

This noble “conservative” hero, by the way, used his newfound celebrity to air his intellectual views on race. (Don’t even bother trying to affect an astonished expression.) After a delayed reaction lasting several days, some — only some, mind you — of the wingers who’d exalted him backed off, even though his rhetoric was quite similar to some of the things they’ve said in the past.

Narrative # 2: Armed thugs

The wingers made a big deal out of the fact that law enforcement personnel who descended on the scene of the crime were — gasp — armed.  They ignore the fact that in 2012, unarmed federal authorities were threatened with violence when they tried to round up Bundy’s rogue cattle. Whoever heard of law enforcement being armed, anyway? We all know that only deranged, radical citizens who hate the government need guns. So they can plot how to kill federal agents when they get the chance.  And intimidate residents of the surrounding community. There, that’ll teach the guvmint to be thugs.

Narrative # 3: God is on our side

By now, nobody should be surprised that in any given conflict, the right-wing loony fringe will claim to have received its marching orders directly from the Almighty. Always.  And yet there is invariably a jaw-drop factor to it. One of the signs displayed at the “militia” orgy read “Liberty – Freedom – For God We Stand”. Never mind trying to diagram that grammatically. Just try to diagram it logically.

Narrative # 4: States’ rights

Wouldn’t matter. The state is constitutionally bound to honor the directives of the United States government. Not necessarily by the U. S. Constitution, but by its own constitution. Nevada attained statehood in 1864, which was well before the Bundy clan moved in and took its own turn at taking the land away from the Indians. When it did so it adopted a constitution, still in effect, that included something known as the Paramount Allegiance Clause (Article 1, Section 2) which mandates not only Nevada’s primary allegiance to federal law, but the use of force to ensure it.

Bundy has stated that he is loyal to the laws of Nevada, but doesn’t even recognize the existence of the United States of America. No word on what country he believes Nevada belongs to, or why he likes to strut around brandishing the flag of a nonexistent nation, but his utterance is nonsensical: allegiance to Nevada necessarily entails allegiance to the U.S.

Narrative # 5: Patriotism

So what do we call someone who hates the president, hates the government, flouts the law of the land, threatens government employees, and denies the very existence of The United States? Why, a patriot, of course! Bundy and his cohorts in the Tea Party/ “militia” crowd believe that their hatred for their country proves how much they love their country.

Ah, but you see, this country is not really THEIR country. THEIR country has been stolen by the big bad black guy in the formerly White House. THEIR country hearkens back to the Founding Fathers like…well, George Washington. Now there’s a president they really could stand behind.

Oops. It appears that they know about as much about history as they do about civics. Because by their standards, The Father Of Somebody’s Country was more badass than Obama has ever even dreamed of being.  Not only did he believe in people paying their taxes, but during his time two anti-tax revolts were crushed (or at least suppressed) by military might. (And if you don’t love Jon Stewart already, you will after you’ve seen him school Sean Hannity about this.) President Washington himself led an army to stop the Whiskey Rebellion. And a couple of years before he became president, Shays’ Rebellion resulted in four protesters being killed during armed conflict and two of them being hanged afterward. And please note that the rebels in these skirmishes were countered by militias in the true sense of the word: civilian forces mobilized to fight for rather than against the government.

But Obama is no George Washington. Rather than saddle up and ride out to smash the insurrectionists like bugs, he called off the troops for the time being, thereby thwarting the protesters’ grand scheme to achieve a Darwin Award. What a scumbag. (Incidentally, that great “conservative” demigod Ronald Reagan also didn’t do much to warrant the adulation of the anti-tax mob. He raised taxes during 7 of his 8 years in office and even issued an executive order setting the grazing fees that Bundy now owes.)

Narrative # 6: The tortoise

Because the disputed land was home to an endangered species of tortoise,  the story line developed that this was the whole reason the government wanted “Bundy’s” land. Because, you see, according to perennially popular narrative, the government cares more about animals than it cares about people.

But the tortoise, which has progressed from endangered to threatened, was not really the feds’ main concern. And it’s interesting that at the same time the wingers were asserting that the government cares more about the tortoises than the people, they were also circulating the rumor that the government was euthanizing the critters.

Narrative # 7. Hamburger holocaust

And then there’s the one about the government slaughtering Bundy’s cows — yep, the same cows that were being seized to satisfy his tax bill. The “proof” of this allegation is that the BLM killed TWO of the cattle out of safety concerns; and apparently 3 or 4 additional cows were killed accidentally, or humanely because the animals were injured.  That sort of thing is not unusual in cattle roundups even under the best of conditions, and the conditions here are very far from ideal. The result has been very minimal cow-lateral damage considering all that’s going on. But it’s enough to fuel winger rumors about bovine extermination and “mass graves” — which they substantiate with a photo of dozers pulling three animals out of the ground.


So let’s see: the government will send in armed forces because it loves tortoises more than humans — and yet it also will slaughter scores or hundreds of cows, which are an animal that most humans depend on heavily for food, and a very valuable asset needed to resolve a tax debt?

Narrative # 8: The solar energy scheme

No matter what the issue, the incomparable Alex Jones can be counted on to pump up the lunacy quotient. And he came through once again, helping to spread the rumor that Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid was behind the “land grab” so his son could profit from using the land for the site of a solar farm to be built by a Chinese company. Like a good many other rumors, this one began with a couple of facts that were twisted into a pretzel.  Chinese developers were interested in a solar farm in the Nevada desert, but they abandoned the plans. Furthermore, the proposed site was nowhere near the disputed property. But what is perhaps most interesting about this narrative is that it bluntly contradicts another common talking point: that the feds should just grant Bundy free access to the land because “nobody else wants it”.

Narrative # 9: Victory! (for Liberty, of course)

The official spin is that these “militia” dudes, by not getting their dumb asses blown away, defeated the Evil Empire ruled by that lawless dark-skinned dictator who had the audacity to win two elections, and thus scored a huge victory for liberty, God, truth, justice and the American way (or the way of whatever country they believe they live in). But the feds have made it clear that they’re not giving up on collecting Bundy’s taxes. They just decided it wasn’t worth risking the safety of their agents or spilling the blood of civilians, no matter how much the civilians may be begging to have their blood spilled. Trouble is, their withdrawal sets a very dangerous precedent; it likely will embolden “militia” types to try further stunts and become even more confrontational in the future. The only victory here is a victory for insanity — and media ratings.

These people like to invoke the specters of Waco and Ruby Ridge because they are under the delusion that in those episodes government was entirely at fault — just as they are convinced the government was at fault in the ‘Battle of Bunkerville”.  But there is at least one major difference between those past cases and this one.  This time, the government had the option of stepping down.

It’s quite possible that sometime in the near future, another incident like Waco or Ruby Ridge will arise, and once again senseless violence and even deaths will result. And when that happens, it’s a good bet that Fox “News” and friends will be on the sidelines cheering it on.



Gay Activism and the Christian Persecution Complex: the Mask of “Religious Freedom”


If you live in the U.S., you’ve no doubt heard that the state of Arizona recently issued one of its periodic warnings to the rest of the world not to drink its water — this time in the form of SB 1062, a bill that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gays for “religious” reasons. The measure was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer, and it’s no big secret that she likely did so on the basis of economic rather than moral concerns. And as you might expect, fundamentalists now claim that her veto was a slap in the holier-than-thou face of “religious freedom”. Some even refer to the torpedoed bill as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” — as if religious freedom needed to be “restored”. As always, the spin is that prohibiting discrimination against other people by religious fanatics constitutes “religious discrimination”.

“Religious freedom” is a very predictable defense that some people offer for bigoted behavior. It’s also a very bullshit defense, because it can be used, and has been used, to mask just about anything and everything — from slavery and racism to child marriage to capital punishment to genocide to beating the crap out of little kids. But while true religious freedom means that you have the right to belong to whatever religion you choose (or, we hastily and emphatically add, to no religion at all), it doesn’t automatically mean that you have the right to practice whatever any religion preaches; it’s a case-by-case consideration that always must balance the freedom to indulge in a behavior with its impact on other people. Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. You’re perfectly free to adhere to a faith that maintains some sectors of the population are second-class citizens (or “sinners” in fundie lingo) but that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to actually treat some people as second-class citizens.

Contrary to what the “religious freedom” crowd might have you believe, the United States government has always provided special dispensation to persons with strong religious convictions. Among other things, this has appeared in the form of exemption from military service, from property taxes, and now from certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Since such programs require mass participation to be effective, allowing some individuals to opt out places an undue burden on those who do participate; yet this has been deemed perfectly legal and constitutionally defensible from day one. Far from being the victims of discrimination and persecution, as they so often proclaim, Christians have been and still are the beneficiaries of reverse discrimination and even extraordinary privilege.

Likewise, the government has been, if not supportive, at least indifferent to, misguided and misinformed efforts by pharmacists to deny women access to medication on “moral” grounds. Many states have even passed legislation specifically authorizing such campaigns. And as despicable as it may be to contribute to the inconvenience, distress and even suffering of individuals in need of medical services in order to bolster one’s sense of moral superiority, it appears that such a position does not clash with constitutional ideals. Why? Because the “moralists” generally are tendering smug condemnation of individuals for their actions rather than smug condemnation for their demographic groups. (We say “generally” because in some cases women are prescribed birth control for medical conditions rather than for contraception. And we can’t help noting that sometimes, as in the case of Hobby Lobby, the “morality” dictated by Christian arrogance takes a backseat to Mammon.)

Homosexuality is another matter altogether. While the anti-gay factions try to portray homosexuality as something one does rather than something one is — to depict being gay as a “lifestyle” that one chooses — the fact is that one has no more control over one’s sexuality than one does over race, gender or age. That makes discrimination against gays as much prohibited by law as discrimination against Asians or women.  Interestingly — and ironically — there has always been a virulent, overreaching protection against religious discrimination — even though religion, unlike age, race, nationality or sexual orientation, is entirely voluntary.

If someone operated a business that did not allow Christians on the premises, that would be religious discrimination. But it’s perfectly fine to prohibit religious activities — e.g., baptism, foot washing, pot smoking, circumcision, or snake handling. Similarly, a restaurant certainly could forbid patrons from engaging in overt displays of amorousness, whether gay or straight. But just because you can prevent customers from brushing their hair or applying makeup or wearing bikinis at the table doesn’t necessarily mean that you can bar women from entering.

Why should the government get involved at all? Why can’t we just adopt a Libertarianoid invisible hand policy and let those customers whose business isn’t wanted in one place just take their trade elsewhere (which they probably will anyway)? Get the government off our backs and let the markets decide. Live and let live. Cool and groovy, baby.

Ah, if only things really could work that way. But alas, ideological solutions work perfectly only in a perfect world. And in this particular world, people will not conduct themselves consistently in a civil manner if left to their own devices. Of course, it would be equally fallacious to suppose that government intervention is always the best answer. But it is, all too often, the only answer — it is frequently the only available mechanism by which the best of humanity can pull everyone else up, or at least prevent the worst from dragging everyone else down. Without it, we risk sliding into what “moralists” like to call (at least when condemning the actions of other people) a “slippery slope”.

By allowing some businesses to discriminate against a demographic sector, we invite an avalanche of such exclusions, which very well could result in a situation such that this group and others would find it difficult if not impossible to obtain certain services at all — at least in the “red” states. This is discrimination, oppression and persecution, no matter how many Bible verses you quote while doing it. And there is the very real risk that such exclusionary discrimination will escalate into persecutional discrimination and even violence. This isn’t just idle speculation; it’s gleaning from the shameful pages of history.

Many people are alive today who can remember when African-Americans were not allowed to attend the same schools, eat in the same restaurants, sit on the same park benches, or drink from the same water fountains as Caucasians.  It was bad enough that black baseball players were confined to “Negro leagues” instead of major leagues; what made it even more undignified is that after playing their hearts out in a game and traveling by bus to their next destination, they often were denied lodging at hotels, and even the use of restroom facilities en route. And even worse still, they were subjected to endless harassment, threats and physical attacks.

And guess what? “Religious freedom” was the rallying cry of many who indulged in these evils. Going back even farther, slave owners used select biblical passages to justify the ownership, oppression and brutalization of fellow human beings of a different complexion. (And I won’t go into detail lest I be accused — quite inaccurately — of running into Godwin’s Law, but there was also a Christian ethnocentric dogma underlying Nazism.)

But things are very different now, you say? You bet. And if you believe that the changes just “happened”, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Social evolution is generally much too gradual to effect such a drastic difference in such a relatively short time. For kids growing up today, it may be hard to imagine there was ever a time when racism was so prevalent, so officially sanctioned. That’s because we’ve had a couple of generations for equality (relative if not total) to become the norm. But before that, there were many, many generations in which blatant, extreme racism was the norm. And overturning that norm required legislative, judicial and executive intercession — goaded, to be sure, by persistent and courageous activism.

Today, “faggot” is the new “nigger”; gays are the target of choice for Good Christians (and others) who feel that they absolutely must target someone, and no longer can get away with overt racism. In the past few years, American civilization (or what passes for it) has made tremendous strides toward respect and equality for gays. Now, the legislators of Arizona, among others, are trying to turn back the calendar. If they succeed, there almost certainly will be more Matthew Sheperds. And more Fred Phelpses saying they got what they deserved.

If even one person criticizes the religious right for its bigotry — or makes a vitriolic comment about them even in tasteless jest — then that individual will become an icon of “religious persecution” . And, of course, “proof” that “liberals” are intolerant and hateful. Meanwhile, when World Vision (which, lest we forget, is itself a Christian organization) announced that it would begin, in one measure at least, treating gays like human beings, it was bullied into reversing that decision by the reactions of hundreds of thousands of Good Christians outraged by its support for “immorality”. This even entailed cutting off financial support for World Vision’s programs that fight global poverty and greatly benefit children.

And what do we call this kind of reaction? Christian Love, of course. With a heavy dose of “religious freedom”

(See previous posts on Gay Activism and the Christian Persecution Complex:  Playing Chikin, A Tale of Two Legal Judgments,  The Kirk Cameron/ Anita Bryant Delusion, and Ducking Responsibility.)



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