Monday, November 23, 2009

It Isn't Always About You...

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an article from Esquire which I found interesting. It’s an article by Shane Claiborne, who is described as a radical Christian missionary who does outreach to the poor.
What made the article interesting to me was that it was addressed to unbelievers. The gist of the article was that he was apologizing for the crappy behavior of some of his fellow Christians: “I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians.”

While I admire Mr. Claiborne’s work with the poor and underprivileged, and while I think if I met him I would probably get along well with him, his comments show a profound misunderstanding of those of us who are atheists.

It is, indeed, true that I have had unfortunate encounters throughout my life with self-professed Christians - some of whom have been the biggest assholes I have ever met. It is also true, however, that I have had the pleasure of knowing Christians who were kind, generous and willing to help others. For that matter, I can say the same thing about atheists I have known. Like any other group of people, some are cool and some are boneheads.
But to imply that “the biggest obstacle” to my finding god has been the poor behavior of certain Christians is simply not true in my case. And among the atheists whom I have known personally, this also has not been their experience.

I became an atheist after years of thinking about issues such as philosophy, logic, cosmology, science and history. Simple as that. It had nothing to do with “Christians Behaving Badly”. In my mind what one thinks of the adherents of any particular religion is a separate issue from the question of whether a deity exists.

Even if every Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shintoist, Jew, (insert names of other religions here) suddenly became as cool as Shane Claiborne seems to be, I would still remain an atheist. And I suspect my life would be just as fulfilling as any of theirs. The reason I became an atheist is – as expressed so well by a host on the Non-Prophets podcast (whose name escapes me… sorry) – I realized it was important to me that what I believed was true, insofar as truth can be determined.

And, as I said, that’s a completely different matter than the behavior of individual members of various religions.

Shane Claiborne has done me no harm and as far as I’m concerned, he owes me no apology. I have a different view than he does on the existence of a god, but I can still respect his work with those who need it most. But it's his human compassion I admire, not his religious viewpoint.

The existence of a deity is a matter open to theological debate. The existence of humanity isn’t. I think if we can all work together – regardless of our belief or lack thereof - to help each other out in this world, things could be a lot better for us all.

Friday, November 20, 2009

E Pluribus Unum?

Back when I was a young child (which, contrary to the belief of my children, was during the 1960’s rather than the early Paleolithic Era) around this time of year you would generally hear the phrase “Merry Christmas” in stores, among friends, or generally wherever you would go. As the years went by, people became more sensitive to diversity and recognized that an ever increasing number of Americans celebrated other holidays at this time of year. As a result, it became more common to hear the phrase “Happy Holidays”. To me, that wasn’t in any way “anti-Christmas”, but was merely a way to include and recognize our fellow Americans who celebrated other traditions and beliefs.

A few years ago, however, some conservative commentators such as Bill O’Reilley twisted this into an imagined “war on Christmas”. Even leaving aside the historical fact that many of the trappings of “Christmas” were actually stolen… uh… “borrowed” from pagan celebrations such as Saturnalia, Solstice and Yule, the claim that saying “Happy Holidays” is somehow a reflection of anti-Christian bias would be laughable if so many gullible boneheads (see my previous post on the subject) didn’t take it seriously.

And so, under this pressure from the Christian right, many retailers backed off from “Happy Holidays” and reverted to “Merry Christmas” in order to avoid threatened boycotts of those that failed to buckle under the demands of the conservatives.

Throughout this, I had always suspected the outcry over the supposed “war on Christmas” was less a matter of the Christians wanting “Christmas” restored to what they felt was its rightful place, but that they actually wanted Christmas to be the ONLY year-end holiday to be given any recognition, and those who celebrated anything else be damned.

And now there is evidence to back up this contention. The clothing store The Gap has produced a commercial for the holiday season which mentions Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and… by golly… even Solstice! When my wife and I saw it, we were surprised and happy it was so inclusive. And since it mentions Christmas specifically, there’s nothing for the religious right to be offended by, right?


The American Family Association is ticked-off by this inclusive marketing campaign and has called for a boycott of The Gap. Apparently, it wasn’t enough for the AFA that The Gap commercial mentioned Christmas. They seem to be peeved by the fact that Christmas had to share the stage with those other yucky… non-Christian holidays!

In short, the whole “war on Christmas” hubbub has never really been about the mere recognition of Christmas, it was about squelching the mention of any other holidays, regardless of the fact that increasing numbers of Americans either celebrate other traditions or that many of those who DO celebrate some form of “Christmas” do so in an entirely secular fashion. (A friend of mine, in fact, has suggested we recognize the obvious and just call it “Giftmas”.)
I think what is happening here is reflected in the story of our national motto. The Founding Fathers, whom the Christian Conservatives are always so quick to invoke when it suits them, gave us a wonderful national slogan: “E Pluribus Unum”. “Out of many, one.” What a wonderful motto! It says we’re a grouping of individuals, all with different backgrounds and beliefs coming together for a common purpose. Our diversity is our strength. It proclaims we don’t have to be the same to be good Americans.

But what happened? In 1956, during the depths of McCarthy’s war on “atheistic Communism”, the national motto was changed. “E Pluribus Unum” was tossed into the dustbin and replaced by “In God We Trust”. Instead of the all-inclusive message of the original motto, the new motto implied that “we” trusted in God and that, by logical extension, those who DIDN’T trust in God weren’t one of “us”… and thus weren’t real Americans.

In much the same way the Christians hijacked Solstice and Saturnalia and turned them into Christmas while falsely claiming it was ALWAYS a celebration of Christ’s birth, they hijacked our nation’s motto and transformed it from a wonderfully inclusive phrase into a narrow statement of faith that excludes all those who don’t believe in a deity. And now they have the nerve to question the patriotism of American non-believers when, in fact, it was the Christians who rejected and altered the nation’s original motto!

As for my own views on the subject, I think Thomas Jefferson said it best:

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

In other words, my neighbor doesn’t need to agree with me to be a good American. He or she simply has to... you know… BE a good American.

America is at its best when many cultures and ideas come together and people are free to explore them all and choose the ones they believe work best.

And when these many traditions come together, the result is a stronger America.

Or, as that sentiment would be expressed in Latin: E Pluribus Unum.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Generic Haiku

This should pretty much cover everything:

Rain...or snow...or sun.
Stuff about cherry blossoms.
Snails and trees and stuff.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

There's Something Fishy About That Pronunciation...

I have long been an advocate of good science journalism since, as Carl Sagan pointed out, the benefits (and risks) of science affect us all. If we as a society are to make wise choices about the use of science, we would be well advised to learn at least its basics.

That, of course, suggests there should be a role in society for journalists who are knowledgeable about science. Or, like Sagan, scientists who are adept at communicating the wonders and ideas emodied in scientific research.

For that reason, I was dismayed by a reporter on MSNBC who reported on a rare video of a juvenile Coelacanth taken by Japanese researchers.

Nothing wrong with that. They showed snippets of pretty Coelacanth video and spoke briefly about its rarity.

What got me, though, was way the reporter pronounced the word "Coelacanth". As any schoolkid who has ever sat through a unit on evolution can tell you, this classic example of a "living fossil" is pronounced "SEE-la-kanth". But our intrepid MSNBC anchor repeatedly pronounced it as "ko-ELLA-kanth".

On the one hand, I could be accused (with some justification) of being a pedantic butthead making a big deal about the simple mistaken pronunciation of an admittedly unusual word.

But the story of the Coelacanth is incredibly important in the history of science. It should be part of an intelligent person's lexicon, I would think. If the regular MSNBC anchor was THAT unfamiliar with the fish, why didn't they get a correspondent dedicated to science journalism to report the story?

I know... I just ask for too damned much, don't I?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Critical Inability

Recently, my wife received an e-mail from someone we know claiming that if she forwarded the e-mail to eight people she would get a free T18 laptop computer from Sony/Ericsson. If, furthermore, she forwarded it to twenty people, the laptop would be upgraded to a fancier model. My wife, having a functioning brain and being familiar with such e-mail scams, deleted the message and from this point on will probably assume the sender is, if not dumber than a bucket of gravel, at least gullible as hell. Had the sender simply done some basic research, they would have found not only that this is an obvious scam that has been going on for years, but that there are inconsistencies in the e-mail itself - such as the fact that the “Ericsson T18” isn’t even a laptop… it’s a cellphone. But REALLY… who could spend even a few seconds thought on the premise of the e-mail without realizing that A. If Sony Ericsson gave away laptops to each person who sent out eight e-mails, they would go bankrupt faster than a Wall Street executive on a derivatives trading bender and B. if the benefits of sending out the e-mails WERE in fact so great, wouldn’t a large corporation like Sony/Ericsson be able to… you know… send out the e-mails THEMSELVES for much less expense than would be incurred by a one-laptop-per-eight-e-mail ratio?

Scam artists rely on gullible people for their schemes to work. They need people who believe what they’re told without thinking and without researching the facts for themselves. What they rely on, in short, is a large population of comfortable brain-addled suckers just arrogant enough to think they know more than their neighbors but without the critical thinking skills to back up that contention.

Before continuing, I should pause to point out what critical thinking is. It has been defined as the careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.

Or, to put it more bluntly, one needs a healthy dose of skepticism when examining claims. Sadly, in our society, the term “skeptic” has been viewed in a derogatory light. It was synonymous with “unbeliever” or “doubter” (or “cynic” although that term is itself woefully misunderstood by most people). Our society has been conditioned to accept that belief is a virtue and that skeptics are the killjoys who piss on the fantasy world of Heaven and unicorns and angels (and free laptops).

But critical thinking can not only save you from the embarrassment of getting suckered into an e-mail forwarding scam, it can also prevent you from looking like a bonehead for believing things that are easily proved false. On the same day my wife received the aforementioned e-mail, for example, I received a phone message at work from a woman upset that the news media wasn’t reporting that President Obama refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and she challenged any news organization to find footage of Obama reciting the pledge. I performed a simple Google search and in less than thirty seconds I was watching video of then-Senator Obama not only reciting, but leading the pledge on the Senate floor. (It followed an annoying and - I feel - inappropriate prayer to Jesus from the Senate guest chaplain, but that’s another rant entirely.) What I wondered was why the woman who called didn’t do the same damned thing I did before making a fool of herself by parroting a falsehood she heard from right-wing rumor-mongers?

And speaking of right-wingers, I am amazed at the number of claims made by the right that simply fall apart when examined critically.

One recent example: the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank concerned with educational matters, commissioned a survey of Oklahoma high school students on questions about citizenship and government. The survey was carried out by a conservative polling outfit called Strategic Vision. The results they obtained were shocking. They claimed, for example, that only 23% of Oklahoma high schoolers knew who the first President of the United States was, and that only 14% knew who wrote the Declaration of Independence. The results were distributed via press release and the lazy media reported them uncritically. People familiar with survey techniques, however, began to suspect there was something wrong with the results. (For example, according to Strategic Vision’s supposed data, not a single Oklahoma high school student out of the 1,000 students supposedly surveyed got more than seven of ten questions correct. NONE! Do they really think that out of 1,000 high schoolers there wasn’t a single brainiac-outlier-know-it-all who knew the answers to all ten questions - let alone eight or nine? From a mere statistical point of view, that’s close to impossible.) To make a long story short, the survey was replicated by others and this time the results were very different. In this instance, it turned out that 98% knew George Washington was the first President and 81% knew Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. (And that was with a sample set that included special-education students!) When asked for their interpretation of the discrepancy between their results and the replicated survey, Strategic Vision had no comment.
A skeptical view of this incident would seem to show that a right-wing organization paid a right-wing polling company to “obtain” results showing the public schools were failing. They would report this to the media in an attempt to show public schools are in sorry shape and should be defunded and that private voucher systems and home schooling are the answer. And hey, if the facts inconveniently show that public schools DO work, well, just make shit up and the gullible folks out there will eat it up while waiting for the UPS van to roll up the driveway with their free laptop.

Luckily, in the case of the Oklahoma survey, there were some knowledgeable people with enough skepticism and critical ability to expose what appears to be a fraud.

Same as with a recent clip on the Daily Show, which recently caught and exposed Fox News faking video footage to make a conservative rally appear more heavily attended than it actually was. Skepticism appears to be on the rise. It seems more common nowadays that when people or organizations try to pass off bullshit as truth, they’re more likely to be called out on it.

And I hope this trend continues. People who have selfish agendas rely on an uneducated and gullible populace to push these agendas on their behalf. Thus the private insurance industry can spread rumors of “death panels” if a government-sponsored health care bill is passed. And they hope enough people will uncritically fall for these lies to derail any hope for the passage of such health care reform. The reality, of course, is that the private health insurers are more likely to “stand between you and your doctor” than a government-run health plan ever will. In fact, I know a medical biller personally who has informed me that private health insurers routinely demand doctors change diagnoses of their patients if they want to be reimbursed for their services. Don’t believe me? Good. You’re learning. I don’t want you to take my word for it. Ask a medical biller and find out for yourself. They'll tell you.

If the gullibility and lack of critical thinking only affected the people directly involved, it would be a mere annoyance that could be accepted. But that isn’t the case. It affects us all. If a sizable portion of our population can be swayed by the truthless blustering of a television commentator or stump speaker or religious leader, we may all suffer.

If people would stop being gullible and do a bit of skeptically-minded research and fact checking, they would realize it’s highly unlikely you will receive a free laptop for forwarding a few e-mails, it is provably false that President Obama refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, it is statistically unlikely only 23% of Oklahoma high school students can name the first President of the United States, it is a scientifically-verified fact that vaccines do FAR more good than any potential harm, there's overwhelming evidence we really DID land on the moon, numerous scientific disciplines demonstrate evolution via natural selection is a fact, it is provably false that the ACLU is trying to ban crosses from Arlington Cemetery, it is – at minimum - not a politically expedient move for the government to appoint a “death panel” to kill your granny if they want your vote in the following election and it is exceedingly unlikely a divine being will reward you with 72 beautiful virgins in exchange for crashing a hijacked plane into a skyscraper. And our lives would be better for that realization.

In summary, skepticism, contrary to its bad PR, is a very good thing. Belief without evidence, meanwhile, far from being virtuous, is foolhardy at best and dangerous to yourself (and others) at worst. There’s nothing more anathema to a warm fuzzy ideology than a cold hard fact.

And for those who refuse to accept it, be assured reality has a nasty habit of kicking ones ass.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November Haiku

The silent sunset...
Leaving behind a sky of
Infinite azure.

Friday, November 6, 2009

CD Review: Jerry Morris - Snap Your Fingers

Among the detritus of WFUM’s once-flourishing existence is a cardboard box containing dozens of demo CDs by musicians once hoping for a spot on the station’s long-cancelled musical showcase: AfterHours.
These poor bastards actually labored under the impression that a demonstrated musical talent would land them a spot on the show.
In response to that, may I merely point out that Yours Truly was featured on that program not once but twice. I will leave it to those readers familiar with the dulcet tones of the Guilty Bystanders to determine whether that was due to our musical talent or to the fact that my desk happened to be located next to the desk of the AfterHours producer.

But alas, that’s all in the past now and that CD box now has to be moved to make way for the tenants who will be taking over the WFUM offices. While going through the CDs to see what – if anything – would be worth salvaging, my co-workers came across a CD they KNEW had to come into my possession. It’s a demo CD recorded in 2001 by some Nashville musician named Jerry Morris. My co-workers, you see, are familiar with my passion for all things bizarre and horrible. And this, my dear blog readers, certainly qualifies. A cursory glance at the CD cover proves the listener will be in for a treat. It’s a poorly-printed low-resolution mishmash combining two photos of the musician - apparently the product of Sears Portrait Studio on a bad day. One is a standard headshot though the poor printing quality makes Mr. Morris appear to be a blurry cousin of Howdy Doody. The second picture is more disturbing. It shows the musician peering over a pair of sunglasses with a leather jacket flung over his shoulder. It’s the classic “I’m trying-so-hard-to-get-chicks-to-dig-me-that-I-actually-scare-chicks-away” pose.

Although I must confess I know nothing about Jerry Morris save for the evidence available via this CD, strangely I feel that’s enough to “get” this guy. Based on this evidence, he seems to be the kind of guy who drags his ailing grandmother to Karaoke Night at the local burger & brew joint to hear him sing. Between wheezed inhalations from her portable oxygen tank, the grandmother proudly announces to anyone within earshot: “That’s my grandson up there! Isn’t he great?” The irritated patrons, between bites of greasy cheeseburgers and not wanting to be responsible for the death of the fragile granny, pause to give her a forced smile and a “thumbs up”. After an interminable number of horrible Karaoke Elvis ballads, Mr. Morris asks granny how he did. “They loved you!” she replies with a toothless grin. And sadly, he believes it. He believes it, in fact, enough to record a demo CD in Nashville on his way to the big time!

Which bring us to the actual CD. These vocals are… well… how DOES one adequately describe them? They seem to meander randomly between what sounds like a drunken Elvis and a severely brain-damaged Roy Orbison. It’s obvious there’s an Elvis influence in there somewhere- but not in a good way. Then I get it! This guy isn’t an Elvis impersonator… he’s an Elvis impersonator IMPERSONATOR! He’s not attempting to copy The King so much as he’s mimicking the myriad wretched Elvis clones who infest Holiday Inn lounges throughout the Southland.

And then there are the hopeless lyrics, penned by Mr. Morris himself. They’re the verbal equivalent of the creepy cover photo. He’s trying SO hard to be sexy that this stuff would just HAVE to backfire in real life. At least I sincerely want to believe that. If this stuff actually works on women, please don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

And to that must be added the wonderfully bizarre disconnect between the na├»ve exuberance of Jerry’s vocals and the soulless zombielike playing of the Nashville session musicians. Granted, these guys are technically competent, but their playing has all the passion and sincerity of a used car salesman abusing Quaaludes. I can just picture these broken and desperate Nashville note-grinders whose only viable life options are laying down play-by-numbers demo tracks for the likes of Jerry Morris or the blissful release of suicide. If it is possible for technology to capture chronic despair in audio form the sound of the backing musicians on this CD has accomplished it.

So I suppose by now you have reached the conclusion that I hate this CD.

If so, that conclusion would be woefully wrong. I LOVE it! It is now among my prized audio possessions… along with my 45 rpm vinyl copy of “The Ballad of Evel Knievel” by John Cullington Mahoney and my White Wolf promo “with the triple-guitar attack!” flexi-disc.

“Snap Your Fingers” by Jerry Morris is a true gem. Certainly it’s for reasons unintended by the artist, but dammit, it’s great in its own twisted way. Its sincere attempt at mainstream appeal was SO far off the mark it became an unintentional masterpiece of “outsider art”.

So if there’s a silver lining to the immanent demise of my workplace, the rediscovery of this disc was it. Five stars and two thumbs WAAAAAAAY up!!!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Nearing the End

I'm confronted with ever more signs the end of WFUM is near. We are no longer ordering new office supplies so I'm now printing out the station's record schedules on the back of old letterhead.
And this morning the people who will be moving into my office showed up, taking measurements and discussing amongst themselves where their furniture would go.
Somehow, that really got to me. I knew this day would arrive, but that knowledge made it no easier to bear when it finally happened.
It's somewhat like attending a funeral. On one level, you already know the person is dead, but for some reason actually seeing the coffin or urn really pounds the finality of it all into one's psyche.

When stepping out into the hallway, I even found it strange the sun was shining. I had an almost metaphysical feeling it "should" be gloomy and overcast...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The More Things Change...

So last week we received the word that WCMU in Mt. Pleasant will be buying the WFUM transmitter and will be running their signal through it as soon as technically possible.

WCMU has announced their hope this will take place in mid-November. A discussion with one of their engineers, however, leads me to believe it may be closer to early December before this can take place. I have made arrangements to have a schedule ready to air from our end through December 15 just in case.

Currently, my last day of employment is scheduled to be the last day of November, subject to extension. And once the WCMU signal gets to the WFUM transmitter, I’ll be about as useful as air-conditioning in an igloo. Regardless of whether that takes place in November or December, my remaining time here is measured in weeks.

After months of uncertainty and extensions, I'm now at a point where I can finally start preparing myself mentally for unemployment.

But enough about that. The real reason I’m scribbling today is I came across some remarks made by Harry S Truman in a speech delivered on March 29, 1952. Despite having been delivered nearly 60 years ago, they still sound surprisingly relevant:

"The real Republican campaign is not going to be fought on the issues. The Republicans are going to wage a campaign of phony propaganda. They are going to try what we might call the "white is black" and the "black is white" strategy.
The Republicans are all set to try this "white is black" technique. And this is the way it will work. First of all, they will try to make people believe that everything the Government has done for the country is socialism. They will go to the people and say: "Did you see that social security check you received the other day—you thought that was good for you, didn't you? That's just too bad! That's nothing in the world but socialism. Did you see that new flood control dam the Government is building over there for the protection of your property? Sorry—that's awful socialism! That new hospital that they are building is socialism. Price supports, more socialism for the farmers! Minimum wage laws? Socialism for labor! Socialism is bad for you, my friend. Everybody knows that. And here you are, with your new car, and your home, and better opportunities for the kids, and a television set—you are just surrounded by socialism!"

Yep. Nearly 60 years have gone by and the Republicans are still using the same tactics! I suppose when an organization has no new ideas, rehashing the old ones is the default. They’re using the same tired arguments hoping nobody remembers they’re the same scare tacticts they’ve used before.

And I may as well just go ahead and say it: as far as I’m concerned, a democratic socialism, such as is practiced in the Scandinavian countries, would be just fine with me!

Give 'em hell, Harry!