The Myth of a “Christian Nation”

Valley-Forge-031

It’s one of those things that people just know because they just know: the United States was founded by and for Christians, and all others should go promptly to hell, do not pass Go. Period, no questions asked. Few beliefs are more enduring — it’s been with us for a couple of centuries or so. Few beliefs are more widespread — anywhere from roughly a third to roughly half of Americans believe it. Few beliefs are more harmful — it can lead to the legitimization of brutal oppression and persecution (remember witch hunts?), and to government policies that plunder the environment and engage in reckless foreign policy inspired  by biblical “prophecy”. And as we’ve seen all too well, it helps unscrupulous demagogues manipulate the public with affectations of piety.

Yet the irony is that few beliefs are more easily discredited.

Actually, it’s correct in a sense to say that the U.S. is, or has been, a Christian nation. It has been so by default but not by design.  Which is to say that traditionally, Christians have far outnumbered everyone else in the country’s population, and therefore have been able to get away imposing their will on everyone else and injecting their beliefs into the legislative and legal processes. This has resulted in such practices as forced school prayer, inserting “God” into the Pledge Of Allegiance, using a Bible in official oaths, and establishing ministers as officiators at weddings.

But these things are not, as the government has finally, finally, finally begun figuring out, particularly American. (They are also not particularly Christian, but that’s another story.) First, though, let’s look at the justifications people often cite for buying into the Christian Nation myth.

1. The national motto

Yes, the official national motto is “In God we trust”. But God doesn’t necessarily mean a Christian God, or even necessarily a religious God. (As we’ve discussed before, there are many concepts of just what God means). More important, a national motto has no regulatory power; it’s essentially just ornamental, like the national seal. The latter incorporates the likeness of an eagle, but that doesn’t mean we are required to own, or even like, that particular bird.

By the way, this phrase did not become the official national motto until 1956, at the behest of President Eisenhower, who also had “God” inserted into the Pledge Of Allegiance. The constitutionality of both is highly suspect. In any case, the motto of the Great Seal of the United States, which dates back to 1782, is E pluribus unum. And the spirit of plurality and unity embodied in that phrase is quite incompatible with the theocratic implications of the later motto.

2. The Founding Fathers prayed.

Yes, they did. They also wrote with goose quills, wore powdered wigs, owned slaves and got bled when they were sick. That doesn’t mean they intended it to be incumbent upon us to do any of the above.  Furthermore, prayer is not a specifically Christian exercise, nor is it necessarily even a religious exercise.

3. The Founding Fathers were Christians.

Even if this claim were perfectly true, it would not mean that they wanted to impose their own religious convictions on all posterity. But it’s not perfectly true. Many, if not most of the founders, were immersed to some extent in Deism, a popular rationalist movement in the Eighteenth Century that was connected to Christian tradition but not strictly a form of Christianity, and indeed not strictly a religion at all. Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, dabbled in Deism and called himself a Unitarian; his religious views were so unorthodox that he often was considered an atheist.

4. The Treaty of Paris

This agreement, signed by King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the American states in 1783, formally ended the Revolutionary War. It begins with the phrase

In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity.

Aha! Surely we have here an explicit Christian reference in an official document. Apparently so. But what we do not have is a declaration that the “most holy trinity” shall be a guiding force for future generations. In fact, there is no declaration at all (more about that shortly). Furthermore, the United States Of America as we know it did not officially exist yet. It would still be 6 years before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

5. Allusions in the founding documents

The Declaration of Independence contains a few indirect references to a deity of some sort: “Nature’s God”, “Providence”, “Creator” and “Supreme Judge”. None of these is by any means an explicit invocation of Christianity.  Indeed, these references sound almost more fitting to pantheism than to Christianity. The Constitution itself contains no such allusions. However, Christian apologists have seized upon the manner of stating the date as being “in the year of our Lord” as conclusive proof that the Founders wanted all future generations to bow down before Christian dogma.

I surely don’t have to tell you that such a phrase was an arbitrary convention for framing dates. In fact, that convention (begun in a long-past era when Christianity really did rule the world with an iron fist) has carried over into modern times even among staunch atheists. Until very recently, it was standard (and still is among many people) to specify dates as being either BC or AD.

It was also customary at the time to speak in formal, stilted, sometimes bombastic prose. Such superlatives as invoking a deity were a part of this convention, and didn’t always signal sacred sentiments. Even today, all of us take our leave by saying “goodbye” which was contracted from “God be with ye”, and we think nothing of it. Look at the opening of the Declaration Of Independence. Exactly what purpose does the phrase “in the course of human events” serve? To distinguish human events from equine or porcine events to avoid confusion? It’s mere padding, but it has a ring to it. So does “Supreme Judge”.

Another holdover from this heritage is the habit of designating Sunday as a day of rest. Thus, Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution specifies:

If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a law, in like Manner as if he had signed it.

Apologists in desperation have latched onto this as “proof” that the U.S. is a Christian nation. But this clause does not mention “the Sabbath” or any other religious connection. It just recognizes that government workers, like anyone else, need a little time off.

Note that none of these references (with the exception of the newly minted national motto) is a complete statement. All are merely words and phrases. They may mention a “Creator”, but they do not declare that the “Creator” shall be recognized as the supreme authority of the land. Let’s look at some passages that are complete sentences and actual declarations of policy. They are not nearly as friendly toward the theocratic position.

1. Jefferson’s wall

Thomas Jefferson’s famous utterance about the “wall of separation between church and state” also does not carry any regulatory sway, as it appeared in private correspondence rather than an official document. But it does provide a key insight into the position of the founders, particularly the one who had such a strong hand in founding the new nation.

2. Article 6, Section 3

After the first few U.S. presidents, every one has been a Christian. As have a nearly unanimous majority of other elected officials, national, state and local. Some people think that should be a requirement — in at least one presidential debate, the moderator asked the candidates point blank if they were Christians. But that’s not quite the way the Constitution spells it out. Article 6, Section 3 clearly states:

…but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

So how do you propose having an official Christian nation if its official governing document officially prohibits requiring official officials to be officially Christian? The article also states that the Constitution (not the Bible or any other religious authority) “shall be the supreme Law of the Land”.

3. The First Amendment

Even more specific is the opening of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

This section of the amendment is famous for enshrining the right to freedom of religion; but before it gets around to doing that, it first notes that true freedom of religion must necessarily encompass freedom from religion. Religionists often focus on the second part, but totally bury the first part. Sometimes they even maintain that the wording of the phrase (“respecting”) could be construed to mean that Congress can’t pass laws prohibiting the establishment of a religion. But since the wording definitely does designate that Congress can’t pass laws that do establish a religion, such an interpretation is automatically rendered null and void.

Another manner of tap dancing around this amendment is the old “what they really meant” tack. What they really meant, the religionists argue, is that no Christian denomination should be favored over another. That may have been the concern that provided the original impetus for the amendment, but the framers of the Constitution soon saw that the issue was much broader than that. They certainly knew the difference between “religion” and “sect”, and it was the former, and not the latter, that they mentioned in the amendment.

4. The Treaty Of Tripoli

Even though this one’s a bit problematic , it’s still worth including in the mix. Article 11 of this treaty explicitly states:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…

Here the objectors have said that Christian government is not the same thing as Christian nation. Quite so. That’s why we have drawn the distinction between default and design. A Christian nation by design would necessarily have a Christian government.

Another objection is that the original treaty was in Arabic and did not include the above passage. Even so, this is the version that the U.S. Senate read and signed off on. This was in 1797, after the Constitution was adopted. And it was passed unanimously by the Senate. Evidently, the statement that the U.S. government was not founded on Christianity was, at the time, quite uncontroversial.

But now, there are many people who know better. They just know because they just know. And they just know that if you fail to acknowledge the infallibility of what they just know, then you are being very un-American, and are persecuting and oppressing Christians.

The Big Misconception About the Electoral College

electoral-college-map-2016-final

The Electoral College has been very much in the news lately, with many people passionately calling for its eradication or staunchly defending it — usually depending on whether their candidate won or lost. There’s certainly room for debate on this matter, but what’s annoying is how frequently supporters of the institution defend it with the same misconception: the EC, they so often say, was designed to provide “balance” in the electoral process. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Electoral College, in fact, was designed to promote imbalance — i.e., to give some states disproportionate representation in relation to other states. Specifically, it was designed to give more clout to slave-holders and to advance the interests of wealthy landowners in general. And although slavery has subsequently been abolished, the EC still is doing an excellent job of keeping certain sectors of the populace “in their place” and skewing elections in favor of agrarian communities as opposed to urban communities, and in favor of wealthy white men over everyone else.

Another common phrase you hear from defenders of the EC is that it protects the country from being dominated by California and New York. So does it make more sense to have the country dominated by Oklahoma and Nebraska? Because that’s exactly what’s happening. Under the present system, many states that depend mostly on agriculture are valued far more highly than some states that thrive on agriculture plus the tech industry, publishing and media, banking, insurance, science and medicine. As an extreme example, a vote in Wyoming carries more than three and a half times as much weight as a vote in California.

And it’s getting even more lopsided. Twenty years ago, it probably would have been unthinkable for a presidential candidate to win the popular vote by nearly 3 million, yet still lose the electoral vote. But as more and more people move into cities, their votes for president will count less and less. If the trend continues, the president ultimately may be selected by a mere handful of voters. (Although technically there’s no limit to the number of votes a state can acquire, there’s a practical limit because the total must be 538.) Among other things, this means it’s going to be increasingly difficult for a Democrat to get elected — which is precisely why the system will never change: the last thing Republicans want is a level playing field. (See mandering, gerry.)

Supporters of the present system — or of the candidates most likely to benefit from it — also like to tout maps of electoral results like the one reproduced above.  This, they declare, is proof that the country overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, even though most of the voters rejected him. Makes perfect sense, eh?

Sometimes they’ll get even cuter by breaking down the electoral map into counties, resulting in a sea of red with only a few little islands of blue. Where the hell are all the libruls lurking?

2016 election results map

Such maps are bad models because they depict geographic boundaries rather than demographic density.  What we are perfectly capable of producing, and yet you seldom see, is a 3-D map revealing that “blue” voters tend to live in more densely populated areas, and often even in high-rise buildings.

election-map-3d-by-county

The two-dimensional maps are meant to reassure us that the right guy won, because he’s representing more of the country. But what they actually do is betray the big flaw of the Electoral College: the president is elected by land mass more than by the citizens who live on it. Donald Trump was not the choice of the people, but he had the overwhelming support of cows, coyotes and cacti.

Defenders of the system are fond of comparing the Electoral College to the World Series. Specifically, they often cite the 1960 match, in which the highly favored New York Yankees outscored the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates 55 to 27, and yet the Pirates still won the series — thanks to the storybook finish of a home run by a mediocre hitter in the bottom of the 9th inning of game 7. We accept and even relish this kind of unexpected drama in sports; so why not in elections?

Well, because even though the presidential election has developed into a spectacle in its own right, with its catty debates and October surprises, it was never designed to be entertainment the way baseball was. It was designed to be a way to pick the leader of the nation; and that objective is better filled by honoring what the people want and need rather than honoring where they live. Furthermore, determining a baseball champion with a series of games rather than a single game helps minimize the element of chance; but breaking up a national election into state elections actually heightens the role of chance. In 2000, for instance, the fluke of a confusing “butterfly ballot” was enough to flip the entire state of Florida — which in turn was enough to flip the entire election.

Consider a hypothetical race between 3 candidates. In state A, candidate Jones receives 5 million votes, Smith receives 4 million and Brown 1 million. In State B, Brown receives 5 million, Smith 4 million and Jones 1 million. The totals for these two states then are: Smith 8 million, Jones 6 million and Brown 6 million.  So Smith, the candidate with the most votes, is awarded no electoral votes at all. Repeating this 25 and a half times, we see that it’s theoretically possible for a candidate to win the popular vote, and yet receive ZERO electoral votes for her trouble.

Does this mean the EC should be abolished? Not necessarily. Because there seems to have been another, more honorable purpose for its existence: to serve as a last line of defense against tyranny. The founders explicitly stated that the institution should be composed of individuals better qualified than the general public for selecting a national leader; and should help ensure that dangerous, unqualified demagogues should not sneak into office just because they happen to hoodwink the voters.

But obviously, the system has failed us big time. The Electoral College has become little more than a rubber stamp; some states even have made it illegal for electors to contradict the choice of the voters in that state.

So perhaps it should be abolished after all. Just don’t hold your breath.

The Myth of a Decaying Society

the-sky-is-falling-1

How many times have you read it or heard it? The world is going (or has gone) to hell in a hand basket. If only we displayed the Ten Commandments in more places. If only we had more capital punishment. If only kids didn’t wear such strange clothes and listen to such strange music. If only parents and teachers beat their kids more like they used to . If only movies didn’t have four-letter words. If only we had another B-movie president.

This year, 2016, will go down in history as the year when one of America’s two major political parties nominated a presidential candidate with no qualifications whatsoever. All he offered (besides a galactic ego and a very long history of very shady business deals) was a vacuous slogan: Make America Great Again. But that was enough to persuade millions of voters to march behind him. Because many of them, though they’d never had it so good, had been convinced that the nation was in such rotten shape that they were willing to entrust it to a crackpot demagogue snake oil salesman.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to Twenty-First Century America; it’s as timeless as civilization itself. Some 600 years ago, at the height of the Renaissance, a poet wrote what at first appeared to be a celebration of the richness, the vitality, the color and panache of his age, but he wrapped up his poem by concluding that he’d never seen things so bad. A couple of millenniums before that, Confucius was complaining that the music of his time was corrupting the morals of society, and the celebrated Hebrew prophet Jeremiah (or someone) was authoring the Lamentations bemoaning an utterly bleak world. Go back to just about any age, in just about any country, and chances are you’ll find a record of someone complaining about how things were just not like they used to be in the Good Old Days.

Time out. If all of these wailers were correct, then that means that civilization has been on a steady plunge since day one. And the world is now in the worst shape it’s ever been. Take a good look around you; do you really believe that’s the case?

It’s not unusual to look back upon one’s formative years with fondness. But as they age, many people grow more jaded, more disillusioned, more cynical, more bitter. And, unwilling to acknowledge that they themselves have changed, they often ascribe the difference to  a worsening environment.

Today, you’ll hear many people say that “this is not the country I grew up in.” And the turning point you’ll often hear them invoke is the Sixties — more specifically, the Summer Of Love, and the few years thereafter. In their minds, everything has gone downhill since then, and we could make America Great Again if only we could return to the Ozzie and Harriet Utopia of the Fifties. But, like the Jeremiahs of ages past, they are viewing their youth through rosy glasses.  To paraphrase a popular saying, the past ain’t what it used to be — and it never was.

As it happens, I’m old enough to remember what times were like before the hippies ruined everything. And what I remember is a bit different from what the nostalgia addicts remember.

I grew up in a world where “colored people” had separate schools,  courts and water fountains. Women, if they were lucky enough to get jobs as secretaries and receptionists, could maybe earn half of what men did. Gays could be arrested and beaten for their “crime”. Adults could physically and sexually abuse children with little fear of reprisal. Police brutality occurred with impunity, since nobody was recording their conduct and posting it on Youtube. Those of us who were lucky enough to have telephones had them mounted on the wall in our homes; and we didn’t own them; they were on loan from the phone company. “Religious freedom” meant forcing kids to pray in school — and there was plenty to pray about.

We were taught to live in constant fear that we could be annihilated at any moment by a nuclear attack from the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union; and just in case ducking and covering under our school desks didn’t protect us, we wore military-style dog tags to school so our bodies could be identified when recovered from the rubble. We knew the end of the world was surely at hand when a Catholic was elected president.

Pollution and crime were sharply on the rise. Plenty of abortions were performed, but in secret by unqualified personnel; with the result that many women and girls died horrible deaths, which were hushed up and disguised as death by other means. When I was 19, men of my age not only had to register for the draft, but were drafted — it was literally the luck of the draw that kept me from being shipped off to Vietnam. In college, I knew a young man who was sentenced to 3 years in prison for possession of marijuana. Yet everyone was encouraged to smoke cigarettes, because they were just so cool.

My, but times have changed, haven’t they?

Today, while racism and racial tension certainly still exist, race relations and equality have never been better. Women can be CEOs or just about any other thing they damn well want to. Gays can get married. Religious freedom includes (in some cases at least) freedom from religion, just as the founders intended. The economy is not in the best shape it’s ever been, but it’s been much worse, even in my lifetime; in fact, it’s been improving for the past.. oh, 7 years or so. We’ve had an all-volunteer military for years. Pollution has been declining for about 35 years; and contrary to the impression you might get from the media, crime has been declining steadily for at least 25 years or so.

Sure, we still have problems. And some of those problems would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. We never worried then about AIDS, overpopulation, climate change or ISIS. But every age has its own unique challenges. What’s different now is that we have the knowledge and the technology to meet those challenges head-on. In the past, all people could do when a plague or a meteor collision or an ice age occurred was just pray and hope. And today, even though we have an unprecedented level of misinformation stranglehold on the masses courtesy of the mass media, we also have the means of counteracting it — such as, ahem, websites like this one. Not only are things better than ever in the U.S., they are, on the whole, better than ever worldwide.

In short, the better they have it, the more stridently people complain. Polls consistently show that most Americans think their country is “headed in the wrong direction”. Maybe it has been, in some ways, over the period of a year or two. But many people believe it’s been heading in the wrong direction consistently for decades. What do they want — more crime, more racism, more pollution, more war, more disease, and less freedom?

The Standardized Red Herrings of Homophobia

gettyimages-51024225

 

If you have gay-hating friends or relatives (and who doesn’t) or if you’ve been exposed to the mindless prattling of media cesspools like Fox “News” (and if there’s any way to avoid it, please let us know), then it’s almost certain that at some time or other (and probably more than once) you’ve heard something very similar to this:

I’m sickandtired of gays ramming their lifestyle down my throat. They’re a small minority, and they’ve chosen to be the way they are. They shouldn’t have any special rights.

This is a very standardized comment, as if those using it had learned it at some kind of special school or seminar. It consists of four separate red herrings, which may be used separately or in combination. Let’s look at each of them.

1. Ramming down my throat

Gay haters are invariably a bit vague about exactly how homosexuality is being rammed down their throats. They can’t seem to cite a single instance of someone trying to force them to marry or even sleep with a person of the same sex. What they really seem to mean by gays ramming their lifestyle down their throats is gays existing in their direction.

But suppose gays indeed were interested in ramming their “lifestyle” down people’s throats. What kind of behavior might that entail? We don’t have to search very far to answer that. There happens to be a superb illustration in the conduct of the very people who so often persecute and malign gays.

Christians have a long history of ramming down throats. Sometimes quite literally — one of the many delightful medieval treatments for “heresy” was to pour hot lead down the heretic’s throat. There, that’ll teach ’em the proper way to love God. (Heresy, by the way, wasn’t unbelief; it was belief in a slightly unapproved fashion.) But things have changed a bit since then, haven’t they? Well, sure. We have laws now against barbaric tortures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that religious fanatics are any nicer. And it certainly doesn’t mean that religion no longer has the world — or the nation — in its grip.

Church membership, or other religious affiliation, is still the default mode, and religion is often presumed to be a yardstick for morality. Ministers perform weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage.  The official (and probably unconstitutional) motto of The United States is “In God We Trust”, which glares at us from our currency every time we make a financial transaction. Officials are sworn into office on a Bible. Witnesses in court place their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth “so help you God”.

The words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge Of Allegiance, which school children are compelled to parrot every day. Christian activists tirelessly spread the blatant lie that prayer was banned from public schools, and work overtime to turn voluntary school prayer back into mandatory school prayer — which we had when I was in school not so very long ago. Religious crusaders stick the so-called Ten Commandments under people’s noses, including on government property when they can get away with it. They also vigorously (and successfully) campaign to get fundamentalist dogma inserted into science textbooks.

Christianity is promoted on billboards, on window signs, in TV spots, in Internet advertising. Proselytizers preach on TV or in the streets in an effort to convert people to the one true faith — namely their own. Sometimes they even go from door to door soul-hunting. There are entire TV networks — quite a few of them — devoted to devotion.

Prayer is injected into as many public and private events as humanly possible. When was the last time you heard of someone asking if anyone objected before praying at the dinner table? When have you ever heard of parents asking their children if they really want to go to church? Children are dragged along because it is supposed to be “good for them”, whether they have any beliefs of their own, or even understand what religion is all about. They are baptized into their parents’ religion as infants.

But enough about religion. We could go on and on, but you get the idea — the Christian culture provides a textbook model of what throat-ramming really looks like. The question is, what exactly about gay culture is any any way, shape or form comparable to any of the above?

The only possible answer is that, just as Christians have churches to assemble in, gays have certain bars. But it’s a very weak parallel. Gay bartenders don’t aggressively recruit new drinkers, telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t come in and have a stiff belt. And they don’t ring their damn chimes at odd hours when people are trying to sleep.

2. They’re a small minority

Roughly 3 percent of the American population is either gay or bi. That’s certainly a minority, but’s it’s by no means the smallest of minorities. It’s about 6 times the number of American adults who are legally blind, for instance. So if numbers were really what mattered, then gays should be treated with 6 times as much respect as the blind.

But it isn’t really about numbers. It’s about the fact that the wielders of this red herring are confusing (deliberately?) majority rule with majority tyranny.

I happen to be part of a 10-percent minority myself: I’m left-handed. That has resulted in more forms of awkwardness than most right-handers would ever think about. Not only are most baseball gloves, guitars and books designed for right-hand dominance, but so are most pianos, scissors, can openers, and even — no fooling — kitchen knives.  No problem. I understand perfectly that in a world dominated by right-handers, most things are going to be designed for their convenience. I even realize that there is a good reason why in the game of baseball southpaws are totally barred from four positions. I’m okay with it now and I was okay with it even as a kid when I had to contend with right-handed school desks and pencil sharpeners.

What I was not okay with then and am still not okay with now is the way I was relentlessly coerced and badgered into trying to be “normal”. There is a big difference between the majority determining what the norm is and the majority trying to compel everyone to conform to it. The line between the two is not the least bit fine.

3. They chose to be the way they are

This is an all-too-common form of Christian arrogance: the presumption that cherry picking an out-of-context biblical passage that seems to support your prejudices makes you an instant expert, more knowledgeable on a particular topic than people who have studied it professionally for years –even in highly technical fields like biology, climate science and evolution.

Experts say homosexuality is NOT a choice, based on extensive biological and psychological research — though we might have come to that conclusion a lot sooner if more people had been willing to just ask gays themselves. Just about any of them will tell you that they didn’t choose it, and quite a few will tell you that they would have chosen otherwise if they could have. But of course the gay-bashers know better. They know the gays are lying. They know that they absolutely wanted to be rejected by their families, marginalized by society and harassed and beaten, sometimes to death.

Aside from being drastically wrong, the “choice” belief is drastically irrelevant. In a sense, saying that gays choose to be “the way they are” is simply saying the same thing that gays themselves say: they do choose whether or not to acknowledge their predilection, but that doesn’t mean they deliberately created it.

But does it really matter? Suppose it were true that homosexuality is chosen with as much utter volition as deciding what kind of car to drive or what flavor ice cream to eat. Whether you realize it or not, there are factors beyond your control, and probably even beyond your comprehension, that cause you to prefer a red Chevrolet to a black Ford, or strawberry to chocolate. And even if that were not the case, should people who drive red Chevrolets and eat strawberry ice cream have to live in the closet?

4. Special rights

What special rights exactly have they asked for? Do you hear gays demand to be exempt from traffic fines, or be allowed to shop half price at any store, or be allowed to vote twice, or to be bowed down to every Thursday morning?

What they want is to be able to marry whom they choose — like anyone else. They want to enjoy the full legal benefits of such unions — like anyone else. They want to be able to partake of the services of government agencies and private businesses without discrimination — like anyone else. They want to be able to live openly wherever they choose without fear — like anyone else. It is the gay-haters who are special, not the gays themselves.

When I was a child, some adults suggested that I used my left hand in order to stand out and gain attention; in reality, what I wanted was just the opposite. That’s true of most gays as well. They may attend a Pride parade to combat the years of stigma thrust upon them, but at the end of the day they want to be thought of as friends and neighbors rather than oddballs and outcasts.

It’s quite interesting — and more than a little amusing — that at the same time they’ve been insisting that homosexuality is a choice, the gay haters have also tried (successfully) to portray it as a disease, a mental disorder. Is that supposed to mean that people consciously choose their mental illnesses?  But recent research (not to mention an overwhelming weight of anecdotal evidence) strongly suggests that it is in fact homophobia and not homosexuality that is connected to mental dysfunction.

A popular quote on the topic, falsely attributed to actor Morgan Freeman, is a bit more blunt:

I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.

That’s true enough in some cases, but not always. Not all homophobes — and there is indeed a fear factor at work — are candidates for the Westboro Baptist Church. Many are, despite their virulent homophobia and perhaps other forms of bigotry, otherwise decent folks who would make good friends and neighbors to gays and transgenders, as long as they don’t know those people are gays and transgender.

But they are still folks who fall prey to ridiculous knee-jerk soundbites odiferously loaded with red herrings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transgenders and Restrooms: Myths, Ironies and Insanities

transgender-bathroom-choices-500x263

Every now and then — and with increasing frequency these days, it seems — Americans totally lose their minds and make a towering Mount Everest out of the tiniest of molehills. At the moment, the nutcake cause du jour is spreading panic about transgender-friendly restrooms.

A firestorm erupted in the media –and social media — after an announcement from Target stores that it would make its restrooms accessible to transgender persons. This was by no means a radical shift in direction; it was just a reaffirmation of the same policy that Target, and many other retail chains, have followed for years without incident.

But all of a sudden, reactionaries proclaimed that the sky was falling. Facebook exploded with comments like this:

For those unaware: Target will be allowing men in the girls’ restrooms of its stores, and will also allow women in the boys restrooms of its stores — all to support queerism and confusion.

This utterance of righteous indignation was posted by two Ohio men who later were arrested because for the past  year they’d been protecting a girl in their family from “queerism and confusion” by keeping her chained up in the basement. Which is something I’m pretty sure the CEO of Target has never done.

Meanwhile, a man in Illinois was arrested for causing a disturbance when he showed up at a Target store to protest the chain’s supposed lack of family values and its supposed endangerment of children. Two days later, he was arrested again when his wife reported him for being violent toward her and their 8-year-old son. And so on.

Many have made the declaration that Target was caving in to pressure from LGBT activist groups (nope) and even from President Obama (double nope). The president did later issue a letter to school districts nationwide reminding them that discriminatory practices are as unconstitutional in the bathroom as they are elsewhere. This shouldn’t have come as a great shock; it’s sort of included in his job description.

Yet many proclaimed that he was trying to be a dictator, “shredding the constitution”. Evangelist James Dobson flew into a frothy-mouthed, holier-than-thou fury, which he justified by citing (I kid you not) his own mortification as a child when he wandered into the girls’ restroom by mistake:

Who is it that is warping our children? It is Barack Obama, one of the worst presidents in American history, and it is time we stood up and said so!…Obama, acting like a king, is wielding dictatorial powers never envisioned in the law. He is determined to change the way males and females relate to one another, and worse, how children perceive themselves…The president has already maneuvered the courts to undermine a 5,000-year-old definition of marriage, after experiencing his infamous epiphany. Now he is determined to change Western civilization forever. He becomes more reckless and defiant as his second term comes to an end. Never has an American president been so absorbed with the use and abuse of power…The bottom line is that [“feminists and LGBT activists”] want to destroy human sexuality and take with it the foundation of the family. That is their goal, and they have a president in office who is willing to use his executive authority to force this nonsense on us all.

Don’t mince words, James; how do you really feel about the president? Yep, Obama must be the worst president ever if he defends the rights of people you hate. As refreshing as it may be to hear a fundamentalist demagogue rally to the defense of “human sexuality”, Dobson’s  unhinged rant is as irresponsible as it is delusional. Sure Obama wants to destroy the American family; after all, he’s never had one of his own, has he?

While it’s unfortunately not surprising that this issue has been so intensely politicized and polarized — isn’t there an ironclad rule that Americans have to politicize and polarize every frigging little thing to the nth degree?– the reactionaries have gone overboard even by their usual standards. They’ve also been exceptionally errant in assigning blame.

Here’s a popular little Internet meme of the day:

James Woods

 

Aside from the straw man about “men peeing in the ladies’ room” and the absurd implication that a person can fight for only one cause at a time (in fact, people who fight terrorism, starvation and disease are likely to fight social injustice as well), the venerable Mr. Woods misses a crucial little detail: it is by no means Democrats alone, or even primarily, who have pushed this issue center stage.

President Obama, like Target, was responding to drives by the legislatures of several states to pass laws that discriminate in a constitutionally questionable fashion. Foremost among them is North Carolina, which succeeded in enacting such a bill. The legislature of North Carolina is 62 percent Republican. Furthermore, of the 9 states in which such laws have been proposed, the GOP dominates the legislatures in 8. It is they if anyone who are obsessed with regulating who can use what bathroom, and ignoring other pressing issues in the process. (And incidentally, Dobson above seems to be unaware that the Supreme Court decision “redefining” marriage was passed down by a court dominated by right-wingers who defy Obama at every turn.)

Of course, you might counter that North Carolina was (over)reacting to an ordinance passed by the city of Charlotte. But use of restroom facilities within city limits is a perfectly appropriate matter for municipal governments to concern themselves with. The state, however, imposed a heavy-handed edict over restrooms throughout all cities and towns in the state –a law that ultimately can be enforced only by requiring people to show their birth certificates before they can go take a whizz. Did we mention that the GOP prides itself on being the party of “limited government”?

The Dobson/ Woods mentality holds that you are born either male or female and that’s that. Even if that were perfectly true, it wouldn’t begin to account for the malicious campaign of hatred, misinformation, and defamation being waged against transgenders. But it’s not perfectly true.

Some individuals are born with one of a variety of genital anomalies that prevent them from being easily classified as either male or female. So how do they fit into a Dobsonian black-and-white universe? Which bathroom should they use? Should they just cross their legs and wait for their state to deliver a ruling? And if external and internal physiological gender can be so muddled, why is it so hard to accept that psychological gender can too?

The James Dobsons of the world would have you believe that transgenderism is a very recent development, a contemporary subversive plot concocted by the Evil Obama and the rest of them librulz to destroy the family, destroy American society, convert everyone to Islam and leave Americans powerless against an impending invasion by the lizard people from outer space. In fact, there is nothing at all new about transgenders.

Better duck! Here comes a history lesson…

The first sex reassignment surgeries were performed in Europe in the early 1930s. Which is a rather short time ago in the grand scheme of world history. But long before modern surgical advances made such a process possible, there were individuals who made the decision to live as a gender other than the one they had been assigned in early life. This extends back into ancient history. Some Native American tribes, before the arrival of white settlers, recognized transgender or third gender members. Hundreds of female-born persons secretly fought in the Civil War  passing as men, and at least a couple of them continued living as men after the war was over — there were probably many others that have not been documented.

In short,  transgenders have lived among us for ages — probably from the very beginning. In some cases, they have even (shudder) used the same facilities as the rest of us. There is little if any evidence that they have caused problems; at least the family unit and civilization have still survived. But now, because they can live in somewhat less secrecy than previously, we’re supposed to believe that suddenly they’re going to turn violent. We’re supposed to believe that, because James Dobson is as morally confused as an adult as he was directionally confused as a kid, individuals who have struggled long and hard to establish identities as women are suddenly going to develop an interest in molesting little girls in public restrooms.

Sorry, but it just hasn’t happened. What has happened is that transgenders themselves have been the victims of harassment and violence. What has happened is that yahoos have attacked individuals they wrongly suspected of being transgender. What has happened is that transgenders have been falsely blamed for invasive bathroom incidents, even if they do not involve transgenders, children, or transgender-friendly bathrooms. What has happened is that “Christian” agitators have dressed in drag so they could sneak into women’s restrooms. Hey guys, if that’s really how you get your jollies, you don’t need Target’s permission.

Capture

It’s especially ironic and hypocritical that so much of the fear and loathing directed toward transgenders should come from the religious culture. Not just because Christianity (so it is rumored) was intended to be a path of love and compassion rather than bigotry and hate. Nothing new there; Christians (or “Christians”) have been spitting in the face of their own avowed values for centuries. But what makes the pious protestations of concern for the safety of children especially jaw-dropping is that children are more likely to be molested in a church setting than in a public restroom. Far, far, far more likely. Infinitely more likely.

Quick, how many known cases have there been of children being molested by transgenders in a public restroom? Answer: a grand total of zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. And how many known cases have there been (Are you paying attention, Mr. Dobson?) of children being molested by church leaders? Thousands upon thousands. And those are just the known cases, which are surely just the tip of the iceberg; experts agree that this phenomenon is vastly underreported. Nor is it just a matter of Catholic priests abusing choirboys. Churches of all flavors provide a perfect haven for predators, giving them a goody-goody persona and ready access to many vulnerable young lives they can ruin forever, children who look up to them with respect, trust and loyalty.

Meanwhile, many of their fellow congregants (and in some cases the predators themselves) are scrambling to cherry pick biblical passages they can brandish in support of their prejudices and their declaration that because President Obama defends constitutional protections for all citizens, America has surely turned its back on God.

Fueled by this ironic, hypocritical, bigoted Bible-thumping zealotry, state governments are wasting time and resources that could be wasted more entertainingly elsewhere. Even worse, they’re wasting time and resources in pursuit of a problem that doesn’t even exist. Insanity indeed, Mr. Woods.

By all means, let’s protect our children. Which might mean, among other things, that it’s not a good idea to send them unescorted into a public restroom of any kind. But hysteria and scapegoating benefit no one. And when it comes to laws regulating bathroom usage, it would make much more sense to check church affiliation at the privy door than birth certificates.

 

 

4 Dangerous Beliefs About Guns (1)

obama weeping

Finally, President Obama stood up to Republicans in Congress and the gun lobby that owns them.  And not surprisingly, his announced plans to take action on gun violence triggered a volley of loony objections from the Second Amendment cult: “IT’S UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!! HE’S PLANNING TO TAKE AWAY OUR GUNS!!! IT WON’T STOP GUN VIOLENCE!!! IT’S JUST LIKE HITLER!!!

Media Matters did a good job of addressing most of the negative comments about the president’s specific proposals. But there are certain general attacks that always greet any kind of proposed action to reduce gun violence. They are based on certain beliefs that are not only false but dangerous. The most common are these:

  1. The Second Amendment was intended to ensure that citizens can do battle against their own government.
  2. “Gun Control” is a hallmark of tyranny.
  3. Armed civilians can successfully defend themselves against malicious government forces.
  4. Guns make us safer, and the more guns we have, the safer we are

We’re going to look at each of these in its own separate post. Let’s get started with this one:

Dangerous Belief # 1: The Second Amendment was intended to ensure that citizens can do battle against their own government.

This is actually  a subsidiary myth, with the primary myth being that the Second Amendment was intended to guarantee all citizens a right to be armed. But thoroughly dismantling the immense stack of falsehoods surrounding that claim will take more space than we’ve got here (we’ll get to it in due time).

Yet it should be obvious to anyone who actually reads the Second Amendment and has a basic grasp of the mother tongue that it is, to say the very least, a semantic swamp that leaves a great deal of ambiguity about the supposed right to own firearms for private use; and wherever there is any ambiguity at all, there are no absolutes. Thus, there is no absolute right to own a gun. Which means the notion that there is a right to own a gun to defend yourself against the big bad guvmint is a non-sequitur.

It would behoove the NRA crowd to realize that there is more to the Constitution than just one amendment. If they could only extricate their combat boots from the muck of the Second Amendment, even just long enough to move a few steps back to the original seven articles of the Constitution — the ones written before the Sacred Second or any other amendment was appended–  they might learn that a true “militia”, such as they fancy themselves to be, answers to the President Of The United States, rather than trying to plot his downfall:

(Article 2, Section 2)

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…

So if they are an actual militia, then President Obama would only have to call them into “actual service”, and they’d be obligated to take orders from him, if they truly are the  “patriots” they style themselves. Doesn’t matter whether or not they like him or his complexion — oops, I mean his policies, of course. Furthermore, if they have the fortitude to read only a little further, they might learn that taking up arms against their country not only is not patriotic, it’s the very definition of treason:

(Article 3, Section 3)

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort…

Treason is a very serious crime. It’s often been punishable by death. And yet you really believe that the Founders went to all the trouble of inserting an amendment into the Constitution so that U.S. citizens would have the opportunity — nay, even the right and duty — to commit such a serious offense?

This myth is particularly dangerous because since the Second Amendment does not mention tyranny, it of course does not define tyranny. That leaves the gun culture to dream up its own definitions, which tend to be deranged and egocentric. Quite often, “tyranny” is anything that happens when they don’t get their way one hundred percent: hence the slogan “if ballots don’t work, bullets will”.  Many of them consider President Obama a tyrant because he wants to make sure they have healthcare.

At this writing, one cringe-worthy example of what often happens when children of white privilege have too much time on their hands and too many toys to play with is taking its course in Oregon, where an armed “””militia””” has taken over an isolated pit stop and threatened violent action if they don’t get themselves excused from the penalties of law that apply to everyone else.

No matter how valid their complaint may have been to begin with, does it really justify this kind of behavior? So far, their actions have not resulted in any violence, but what do you suppose would happen if the big bad guvmint responded to them the same way it responded to UNARMED protesters for Black Lives Matter?

GTY_protest_minnesota3_cf_151223_16x9_992

These “””patriots””” supposedly came to defend a couple of Oregon ranchers who were duly convicted of arson after setting fires on public land to destroy evidence of other crimes, boasting about their deeds and vowing to “light up the whole country on fire”.  Those two, meanwhile, have faced up to their punishment and have said they don’t want the “””militia””” representing them.

Doesn’t matter. The “””patriots”””, led by a couple of other ranchers from Nevada, have decided to take up the gauntlet against the evil guvmint, from whom they receive several forms of assistance to fatten their purses, and have drastically rewritten the nation’s history in the process. And they’ve expanded their narrative to pose as constitutional and legal experts in making the case that the federal government in general has no authority to administer public lands — even though the Constitution and the courts say otherwise.

They have pledged to stay until the death if they are not crowned emperors; yet, while they remembered to bring plenty of weapons and lead, they apparently didn’t think they might also need food during their mission of indefinite duration. Consequently, they have appealed for more handouts — this time from their admirers, but the survival rations are to be delivered by the USPS — another branch of the evil guvmint.

It’s scary enough that people like this are armed at all, much less that they take it upon themselves to decide what kind of “tyranny” needs overthrowing.

(Related Post: “9 Nutty Narratives About the Nevada Standoff”)

 

 

 

 

Myths About Myths About Vegetarianism

Cow

I’ve been a strict vegetarian for more than 20 years. Before that, I was a half-assed vegetarian for at least 20 more. In all that time, I’ve frequently researched nutrition, and experimented with and reevaluated my diet. And I’ve always been happy to discuss the matter with people who express an interest, either because they’re vegetarians themselves or because they’re just curious. But there are two things I have not done: I have not criticized anyone else’s diet, and I have never tried to recruit anyone to the “cause”. Not once. I’m annoyed by proselytizers myself, and I know many other people are too.

Many meat eaters, however, are not nearly so accepting. They remind me at every opportunity of what I’m missing, as if I’d never eaten meat before in my life. They warn me that I’m committing suicide by not ingesting animal flesh. If we eat out together, they never pass up an opportunity to comment on my meatless regimen. Never. Sometimes it’s all in good fun, and I have no problem taking a good, er, ribbing. But some of them are highly judgmental in their missionary zeal, and behave as if they consider it a personal insult that I don’t eat the same things they do. (Yes, I’m certain that some vegetarians are just as obnoxious.) Some people are just as defensive about their meat as they are about their guns or their religion — and often for reasons just as ill-informed and irrational.  Just recently, the Gotcha Squad descended on me with accusatory soundbites ablaze (“You’re obviously a so and so who believes such and such”) after I dared mention here in passing that it’s perfectly possible to live a perfectly healthy life without meat — a fact that anyone can readily verify. I was denounced as a pseudoscientific, bigoted, propagandizing mountebank after mentioning a proposed discussion of this topic that I haven’t even written yet!

Well, I’m not out to improve anyone’s manners or reasoning skills any more than I’m out to improve anyone’s diet. But I am out to correct misinformation. And there’s quite a bit of it propagated in the name of the meat cause. Accordingly, I’ve been planning for some time now to do a series about popular meat myths. But it seems I should first address the myths about vegetarianism and the people who practice it, as these also have gained a great deal of traction.

This became apparent after I read an article called Myths & Truths About Vegetarianism. I’m rather embarrassed to confess that I’ve discovered it only recently, as it’s been around since 2000, and it has become something of a staple among meatsters, a standard piece of propaganda they cut and paste and hurl in the faces of vegetarians with a “chew on that, rutabaga head”. This piece is often transmitted in a digest version that makes its argument even more oversimplified and dogmatic than it already was.

The article was written by a doctor, the late Stephen Byrnes, ND. And to many people, that means he must have been an expert nutritionist. As it happens, he was also a registered nutritional consulting practitioner. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. An astounding,  shocking, horrifying, disgusting secret. Ready? Here goes: most doctors receive woefully inadequate training in nutrition. Most medical schools do not even meet the absolute minimum recommended standard of 25 hours. (That’s for the entire 4 years, folks.) In many cases, students receive far less than that — often only three to four hours, even at the nation’s top schools. Dr. Andrew Weill says that he received only ONE hour of nutritional training at Harvard — only slightly more than your plumber or barber. Moreover, the bulk of this training tends to come early in the curriculum, when students are learning basic material.

Hippocrates seems to have recognized 2400 years ago that food is medicine; but many medical practitioners today still have not caught up with him. Of course, doctors are qualified to speak about matters of health, which is related to nutrition — whether they realize it or not. But all too often, they’re perfectly content to jump on the conventional wisdom bandwagon, and recommend that everyone eat meat because that’s just the way things are done.

It may not always be fair to judge people by the company they keep, but it may be useful to note that Dr. Byrnes republished his article for the Weston A. Price Foundation, of which he had been a board member, an organization often denounced for quackery that advocates, among other things, the consumption of raw milk and large amounts of animal fats. It was named posthumously after a dentist, Dr. Weston A. Price (1870-1948) who developed some unorthodox theories of nutrition that earned him a quack badge himself. The interesting thing is that his nutritional recommendations were rather different from those of the organization that purports to honor his legacy.

Despite all of this, Dr. Byrnes does manage to include some accurate and useful information. He is quite correct in pointing out, for instance, that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, run a greater risk of vitamin B-12 deficiency, which can have some serious consequences. But he is quite misguided to shoehorn that bit of information into the premise that we absolutely must eat meat in order to survive and thrive. The B-12 problem is an interesting and important one, and it isn’t quite as simplistic as Byrnes and other flesh pushers would have you believe. We’ll be examining it in a little more depth in the future.

Unfortunately, Byrnes mixes his truths with half-truths, distortions, fabrications, and bizarre out-of-the-ass utterances, so that the end result is he promotes more myths than he debunks. And he didn’t restrict his commentary to the topic(s) about which he was an expert, but also spoke authoritatively on matters which he appears to have known little about. Agriculture and ecology, for instance, in his very first “myth”:

Myth #1: Meat consumption contributes to famine and depletes the Earth’s natural resources.

There are several environmental and socioeconomic concerns about the livestock industry — it contributes as much as 22 percent of greenhouse gases, for instance (yep, that cheeseburger is producing a big chunk of climate change). But Dr. Byrnes chose to ignore these (other writers he quotes give them a cursory nod) and just focus on the “myth” he thought he could dispose of handily.  His conclusion is that grazing land “is being put to good use”, but the case he presents is very far from convincing.

He is correct that only about a third of the earth’s dry land is being used for agriculture, and that only about a third of that (some 11 percent of the total land mass) is used for growing crops. But this does not mean, as he suggests, that little of the remaining land could be used for crops. With today’s technology, cropland has been established in deserts and other areas that once might have been the most unlikely of farmland. In fact, the increased demand for crops to feed a growing population has led to cropland expansion that has embraced deforestation and other practices that have an additional negative impact on the environment. If land is suitable for large-scale ranching, then chances are it’s either suitable or adaptable for farming as well.

Just for good measure, he throws in a few red herrings that reflect circular reasoning:

Furthermore, at the present time, there is more than enough food grown in the world to feed all people on the planet. The problem is widespread poverty making it impossible for the starving poor to afford it.

Even if perfectly true, how does that alter the equation between the land used for meat versus the land used for crops (except for emphasizing that meat is more expensive)? And while acknowledging the prevalence of  “business-besotted farmers running intensive livestock units, battery systems and beef-burger bureaucracies”, he insists that ranching when “properly practiced” will not damage the environment. Ah, but there’s the rub. Those alliteratively described “business-besotted farmers” [ranchers] are almost inevitably the norm when there is such a rapacious global appetite for animal flesh. Meat producers, like many other business owners, want to maximize their profits.

He quotes another author who states that “[s]ince ancient times, the most destructive factor in the degradation of the environment has been monoculture agriculture.” That may have been true in “ancient times” when there were no factories or automobiles, but today? Furthermore, farming need not be monoculture, and ranching is quite likely to be.

He also quotes yet another source:

The fact is that over two-thirds of the feed fed to animals consists of substances that are either undesirable or completely unsuited for human food.

Yes, but one reason is that a portion of the land is designated specifically for raising feed for animals rather than humans. And he notes that animals are a “renewable resource”. Okay, but what does it take to “renew” them?

Not content to don the hats of agriculturalist and ecologist, Dr. Byrnes also puts on his wizard hat and gazes into his crystal ball to predict what would happen if the world embraced vegetarianism on a large scale.  The results, he assures us, would not be pretty: “there would be less food available for the world to eat”.  His source for this conclusion is another article published by (ahem) the Weston A. Price Foundation, but since I haven’t been able to find a copy of it, I can’t tell you what (mis)information that author drew on. I can tell you, however, that it flies in the face of what actual experts say. Researchers at the University Of Minnesota, for instance, found that:

Currently, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet (as meat and other animal products). …We find that, given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people (more than the projected 2–3 billion people arriving through population growth). Even small shifts in our allocation of crops to animal feed and biofuels could significantly increase global food availability…

Furthermore, as reported in The Guardian, leading scientists at the Stockholm International Water Institute have issued a projection that is quite at odds with that of Dr. Byrnes — who somehow neglected to mention that livestock production also requires massive quantities of water. These scientists’ projection is also even more apocalyptic: the worldwide population, they warn, may be compelled to embrace vegetarianism by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic global famine.

Notice, by the way, how Dr. Byrnes slyly reframes the issue, shifting from a question of whether meat production has preventable disastrous consequences to a question of whether vegetarianism can eliminate world hunger. In so doing, he sets a very high bar that meatism itself has been failing miserably to attain for quite some time. This tactic is not at all uncommon among people who want to ridicule vegetarianism; they redefine its success in terms they believe it inevitably will fail to satisfy. We just might be seeing more of this tactic in future discussions.