Monday, July 29, 2013

It's Dangerous To Go Alone

So I went to an informal dinner party the other day. It was close by, perhaps only 250 yards or so as the crow flies. With flashlights and a decent knowledge of Morse code, we could converse from our windows without needing cell phones. There are no other residences between their condominium building and our apartment complex. But since we're on opposite sides of the expressway, the total walk is about 1 half mile.

In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, my girlfriend expressed concern about me making that trip after dark.

Now, she didn't follow the whole Trayvon Martin case closely, and wound up getting most her information about the whole affair second-hand. And, in doing so, came away with the idea that the end result of the verdict is that it's dangerous for me to be on the street once it gets dark. Given that we live in the Seattle area, we're about as far away from Sanford, Florida as you can get without leaving the lower 48. Still, my girlfriend has an increased concern for my safety after dark. This strikes me as worrisome.

Florida's "stand your ground" law is, as nearly as I can tell, being neither a legislator or a lawyer, poorly written. As I understand it, a person may pick a fight and then resort to deadly force to extricate themselves if it goes badly, and attempt to cover themselves with the law. But, it is Florida's law. Not Washington's. While the Zimmerman case may or (more likely) may not be a springboard to a national conversation about race, the legal system and justice, one effect that it is having is to make certain segments of the population feel unsafe. Which is ironic, because the whole point behind "stand your ground" was to combat a feeling of being unsafe while out an about - even if that feeling of "unsafety" was courtesy, at least in part, of National Rifle Association fear-mongering, given that violent crime has been trending downward recently.

The smaller the segment of the population that feels safe, the smaller the segment of the population that tends to be safe, as people who feel threatened often come to feel that the best defense is a good (and proactive) offense. Laws that simply shuffle insecurity around, or worse, increase it, don't help deal with that.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Laundering the Pie

This is the sort of thing that results in angry customers. And it should.

"[Tide] Pod is killing the laundry detergent category," [James] Craigie, [chief executive of Church & Dwight Co.,] said at an industry conference in February.

New products ought to expand the revenue pie for manufacturers and retailers, not shrink it, he said. That is what innovation always did in the past, he said.
And just what are Tide Pod capsules doing to "kill" the laundry detergent category? They're eliminating customer overuse. Many people, it turns out, tend to use more laundry detergent when necessary when washing their clothes. And many industry players, Church & Dwight included, count on that overuse to drive profitability. But when Procter and Gamble's Tide Pods began to take off, other detergent makers felt that they needed to follow suit, entering the "unit dose" market, and sales (and profits) started to decline.
"Now, what kind of a new product is good when it's hurting the total category?" [Craigie] said.
Translation: Who do Procter and Gamble think they are, creating a product that doesn't help drive more profits for everyone else?

Now, businesses are in business to make money. I get that. After all, it's the point. But part of the point behind competitive markets is to drive efficiency, which benefits customers. It's one of the few ways in which the Adam Smith ideal of people benefiting others through looking out for their own interests is realized. Craigie, on the other hand, is calling for a certain level of what can be thought of as a sort of backdoor collusion, where a business's first loyalties are to the people who are supposed to be the competition - just not enough to get themselves into legal trouble.

Granted, Procter and Gamble aren't doing this out of the goodness of their capitalist hearts. Tide Pods cost about a nickel a load more than liquid Tide, a premium of about 25%. And they say that Tide Pods are drawing customers away from rival products. So it's not like they're hurting themselves to help out the customer. But, on the large scale, anyway, it does come across as a win-win for Procter and Gamble and their customers, at the expense of other industry players.

So score one for both Big Business and the Little Guy. And let's see if this inspires more companies to look for innovations that operate in this fashion. Granted, there will be obstacles - as Adam Lowry, co-founder of Method Products Inc., points out, a format that completely eliminated customer "overdosing" would lead to anger among shareholders. Of course, when new innovations help the bottom line at the expense of the competition, they don't mind so much...

Thursday, July 25, 2013


The question had been a simple one: "Is Cancer a "Gift?" Although the author's answer had been no, I had expected that someone in the comments would take the opposite view and answer, "yes."

But not quite in this way.

"I would consider it a gift. I cannot take anymore of this wretched life but am too cowardly to commit suicide."
It's hard to know what to do, when confronted with such obvious pain from a total stranger, but sometimes, it's just as hard to do nothing. So, I did the only thing that I could. Even with throwing proofreading to the wind, it felt like painfully slow going. I am an indifferent typist at best, and, unlike so many other Things on the Internet, this wasn't something that could simply be dashed off and entrusted to the "cloud." It felt more important than that, and so I measured every word, and considered it carefully (And even so, I made some missteps.), before clicking "Reply."

And finding that I was too late.
The post you are trying to reply to has been removed by a moderator.
Why the moderator had removed the post, I don't know. There was nothing else under the user's profile. No trolling, no flames, no cynical and malicious political baiting. Only the single lie, "[User Name] hasn't commented yet." And the forlorn "1" for her "Comments" count. Whoever she had been, and whatever her intentions, she was gone, her digital presence persisting only as long as the window. Clicking a link, clicking "Back" or refreshing the page would scatter what was left of it to oblivion. And so, I scattered her, destroying her ghost. Mostly. An image remains, plucked from the screen and frozen in place. Forever unchanging, a still life of reaching out, and finding no-one there.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Everybody Needs a Hobby

Am I the only one who finds this fishy right out of the gate?
 In the time it took me to walk back to my office after seeing this ad on the side of a Metro bus, I was able to turn it over and over again in my head. I knew, from having tangentially kept up with such things, and having seen some of the earlier salvos in this teapot tempest, that this was a response to bus advertisements put out by a pro-Palestinian group. One which had called for Equal Rights for Palestinians. (It's a position that I have a certain amount of sympathy for, although I'm convinced that in the Grand Scheme of Things the Palestinians are screwed. Israel has little to gain from making concessions, and the Palestinians have little to offer to incentivize them.)

Curious as to whether or not the group sponsoring the ad, which calls itself "The American Freedom Defense Initiative" (not a good sign), was simply being disingenuous or downright dishonest, I quickly Googled them later, and found that this was an umbrella group run by one of the people who'd lead the opposition to the "Ground Zero Mosque" (another not-good sign). When I found out that one of the groups under this umbrella, "Stop Islamization of America" has been called out by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate group, my suspicions that this ad was not to be trusted were confirmed. (Just in case I'd forgotten about a push for a two-state solution, or something.)

But I wonder - what real purpose do these ads serve? After all, I wasn't alone when I saw this. There were nearly two dozen other people walking along as well, and none of them appeared to even notice, let alone take any interest in, this particular ad. It seemed unlikely that they would convince anyone that way. And it's not like the Seattle area is exactly a hotbed of pro-Israel activism. And spending thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars simply to be able to say "I can do this too," seems odd, especially in light of the fact that the older, pro-Palestinian ads had more or less been forgotten. (I'd forgotten them myself, until I saw this.)

Oh, well. I guess it beats being bored...


One thing that I've often noticed with mutually antagonistic groups is that they have a distinct tendency to talk past one another, even while they seek to refute each other. Last month, one Larry Alex Taunton penned an article for The Atlantic in which he prescribed that churches be more authentic in their dealings with young people if they wanted to stem the flight of youth into apostasy. It was an interesting enough article, even if it raised some red flags for me. Apparently, I wasn't the only one with concerns. To wit:

When Larry Alex Taunton talked to young atheists about why they left Christianity, he interpreted their objections as matters of style, not substance. That's not accurate or fair.
Jeffrey Tayler then proceeds to lay out why he feels that Mr. Taunton's "deeply problematic findings" serve to "peremptorily dismiss these atheists' valid objections and present snippets from the interviews in such a way as to insult the sincerity of their nonbelief and foreclose other possible explanations for their apostasy."

But there is an assumption there, that Mr. Tayler cannot, since he does not know the people in question, back up; namely that Mr. Taunton arrived at an incorrect understanding of why the particular subset of atheists that he speaks of left Christianity. The fact that that a nonbeliever may understand Mr. Taunton's conclusion (as presented by Mr. Tayler) "that if church services had been more 'meaningful' or if preachers had preached more convincingly, these lost sheep might never have strayed from the flock," to be conveniently self-serving does not mean that it was necessarily insincere. Or, more simply, we can't know, given the information at hand, that it was inaccurate.

To a degree, both Messrs. Taunton and Tayler make the same error - they treat the small handful of people that Mr. Taunton speaks of as being representative of a much larger community of people. Mr. Taunton may be absolutely correct about that small group. That doesn't mean that theirs is a majority or even a plurality opinion. As I noted at the time, "The young woman who decides that the Christian God is non-existent because a specific prayer wasn't answered or disavows a belief in the afterlife because she wants a hated relative consigned to oblivion, is not the same as someone who doesn't believe in something because the burden of proof they ask for has not been met." Perhaps what's at work is as simple as self-selection bias - the group of people who would find it worth their while to speak to someone who actively seeks a way to prevent others from following their path just may be those who would rather not have walked it in the first place. Personally, I felt that Mr. Taunton, the Fixed Point Foundation or both had likely engaged in a bit of cherry-picking, focusing in on those people, out of the "flood of enquiries" that were received, that were most likely to tell them what they may or may not have realized that they would be receptive to.

In any event, I'm not sure it makes a difference, except to the degree that, just as Mr. Taunton finds atheism "historically naive and potentially dangerous," Mr. Tayler finds that Christianity requires one to believe "improbable and troubling stories." For each then, they are playing a zero-sum game, where any member of one camp is to be jealously guarded and protected from the destructive blandishments of the opposition. Otherwise, is it at all relevant what (or why) Mr. Taunton, or anyone else, believes or disbelieves?

Monday, July 22, 2013


In gaming, there is the idea of "Wrongfun;" sometimes termed "Badwrongfun." It's been floating around for at least the past 25 years, perhaps much longer. It is, in a nutshell, the insistence that even with an activity that's meant to be fun, you can be having fun, yet still be doing it wrong and should be set on the correct path, because doing it right is an end in itself, and the simple fact that your activity suits your purposes isn't good enough.

The picture, gleaned from social media (Where else?), that opens this post reminds me of that concept, although, to be sure, it's not an exact analogy. But there's something strange, and annoyingly self-serving, about criticizing people not for ignoring injustice, but for not being upset enough over the proper injustice. For the people who are outraged enough by the verdict in the Zimmerman case to turn to rioting, "Government [sic]assasinations" are fairly low on their list of worries. Primarily because they're more concerned with the idea that their fellow citizens, government operatives or not, have been handed carte blanche to gun them down in the streets over some nebulous (and, they feel, often racially-motivated) idea of being "threatening." Drones hunting down people on the other side of the planet are of lesser concern.

The grousing of some good government types notwithstanding, the government of the United States does, more or less listen to it's citizenry. Of course, there are exceptions, and some elements of the government are intentional insulated against public opinion. But when legislators, especially, get the idea that doing what the public wants is essential to their chances of re-election, you can bet that many of them will act (or overreact) first, and worry about the consequences later, if ever. Similarly, legislators are often quick to oppose things that they feel their constituents are against. Amateur internet activists realize this (no less so than any politically-attentive organization) and, accordingly, understand that a certain level of public outcry is required for them to realize the changes they want. What they often don't seem to understand is that they are not entitled to that outcry.

Sophisticated political advertising doesn't tell people what to think or feel. It shows them a situation, real or imagined, and allows the audience to take it from there. The rage at the Zimmerman verdict is born of the same sort of phenomenon - just not an intentional one. People see a situation that frightens and angers them, and they react accordingly. Telling them that they're wrong for not getting their rage right isn't going to sway them.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Little Culture

I needed a break, and so I let Google decide what would be the next page I visited. It took me here. For a search engine, it's a pretty good tour guide.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Law and Robots

Cool, but WAY underutilized in the movie.
 So I went to see Pacific Rim. And one thing struck me about this movie, when the protagonists of the movie pull off their inevitable victory, everyone cheered. Everyone on screen that is. Everyone in the theater, even the children, was quiet. The movie had failed at the one thing that it really needed to do to be a really good movie - convincing the audience that the foregone conclusion at the end of the movie might not actually come to pass. And then what we were left with was a giant robot procedural. Now, there's nothing wrong with procedurals: Law and Order lasted forever, and Doctor Who has revived and is going strong. In these shows, you know that Messrs. Stone or McCoy and company will put the perps behind bars or that the Doctor, with or without companions, is going to outwit the alien threat. That's a foregone conclusion. So you're not watching to find out if they're going to succeed, you're watching because the how they're going to succeed is interesting.

And that was missing in Pacific Rim, where it was Main Characters to the Rescue. Because, well, they had right on their side, and were just that badass. Not because they did anything particularly interesting or unexpected. Action movie aficionados often complain that people look for too much development with their action, but in this case, that was something of a valid critique, because that overall lack of development is what prevented the movie from really working in either of the two modes that I mentioned above. In a way, Pacific Rim was racing against the clock, and unlike in the actual movie, the clock won. It likely needed to be 50 to 100% longer to have really worked in the ways that it needed to, but with such a large budget, there was simply no way that a television mini-series could have made back that investment.

But I'm glad I went to see the movie, if for no other reason that I'd never actually thought about the art of movies (and television) in that way before, and I feel that I learned something. That, and I'm a giant robot junkie. So if someone else, or even Mr. de Toro, gives this genre another shot, I'll plant my butt in a seat and see how well they learned this film's lessons.

Monday, July 15, 2013


About 20 years ago, I was walking North on Newgard Avenue, in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the far North Side of Chicago, heading back to my apartment from the grocery store. It was about noon or so on a bright, sunny weekday.

Walking towards me was a White woman, apparently somewhat older than I was at the time. I halfway noted her presence, but really didn't pay her much attention. After all, this was Chicago. It's kind of hard to walk even a block without encountering someone else who's also out walking. As she came closer, she reached into her purse, and pulled out a key ring, and turned to her left, towards the street. Again, I couldn't really be bothered to care. Okay, so she'd parked her car on the street. Not a big deal. But she kept her keys in her hand, and crossed the street. That got my attention. Once she reached the opposite sidewalk, she continued walking South until we'd passed each other. At which point I watched her as she put her keys back into her bag, crossed the street again, and walked on. I finished going home.

For a while, that incident kind of bugged me. I didn't like the fact that I'd been called out as a potentially dangerous person simply for being out on the street. As I grew older, however, the sting died down, and I became more sanguine about the whole affair. As far as this woman was concerned, I could have been a mugger, Schrödinger's Rapist or a violent gang-banger. As much as it had irritated me at the time that I wasn't considered worthy of the benefit of the doubt, from her perspective, passing me on the sidewalk was a much higher-stakes gamble than it would have been for me.

Looking back on it, both of us were responding, not to the other person, but to deeply ingrained patterns that were all around us. She saw what she had learned to see, a possible hazard approaching her while she was out alone at a time when most other people were at work. I saw what I had been taught to see - a White person presuming that I was an imminent threat simply because of the color of my skin. And we each responded accordingly. Whether or not she registered my reaction to her, I don't know. It's not as if we then went out for coffee and discussed the social conditioning that had just played itself out.

This memory stays with me, because at the time, it had an emotional resonance for me. Having been a Black person living in the midst of Whites for most of my life, I had been made keenly aware of the potentials they represented - from minor reminders of my supposed "second-class citizenship" to potentially deadly encounters with law enforcement - and the deep and abiding unfairness that underlay it all. And, having been taught that racial prejudice was always hidden out of sight, I'd been taught to look for it in patterns of people's behavior, and to assume that it was a 1 to 1 correlation. Now, in my old age, I realize that the whole world is simply one pattern overlaid atop another and hopelessly tangled. And so, this is the last memory I have of such a thing, even though I'm sure that I've encountered similar episodes in the intervening decades. And, it too, grows older and fades. Eventually, it will die, and part of the pattern will fade away. And the world will be a better place for it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Queen Takes Pawn

An afternoon game of Chess at Seattle's Westlake Park, downtown.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hate to Love

Seattle, Washington has a problem with homelessness. A big one. For the most part, the solution has been people attempting to provide enough services to enable to homeless population to get back on its feet with dignity. But this has lead to the city earning a moniker of “Freeattle” and an enduring belief that other locations will send people here to access services. Unfortunately, for all that, we don’t seem to me making a dent. And that doesn’t even take into account a relatively clement climate that doesn’t punish being homeless as much as it does in other areas. For people coming from other places, even larger metropolitan areas, their sheer numbers can be a shock.

Walking around downtown Seattle, especially in areas such as the Pike Place Market or Pioneer Square, can mean running a gauntlet of people passed out on sidewalks, panhandling (sometimes quite aggressively) or relieving themselves in public. Not only is this bad for the homeless themselves and bad for visitors to the Emerald City but it’s also bad for business. Being unwilling to effectively criminalize homelessness - or to create the appearance that they have - the city had limited itself to handing out civil citations to a population that is basically the very definition of “judgment proof.”

While “bleeding-heart liberal” orthodoxy in Seattle declares that the only role of businesses in dealing with the homeless problem is to open their wallets, coughing up some of their “fat profits” so that people can feel the problem is being solved without having to actually cut checks themselves, many business owners and managers are fed up with a problem that seems to have spiraled out of control, and favor a greater role for law enforcement in dealing with it. And some of them are willing to go on the record saying so - especially those who have been left out of Seattle’s latest plans to deal with the problem, and are skeptical that they will work.

Which brings us to one Shari Druckman-Roberts. Stating a less-than-charitable solution to a problem faced by another business in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle, she has given people yet another way of proving to themselves that they care about the homeless: reacting with umbrage to a social-media posting that attributes to her a bogus “solution” to the problem of homelessness in Seattle, backed by selectively edited comments. Because that’s easier than taking the time to read a 5,000+ word piece that presents a more complete, more accurate and more nuanced picture of the problem. Not to mention her comments and the context in which she presents them. The smug self-assurance that we’ve proven our compassionate bona-fides isn’t going to help a single street person to transition into more permanent housing, get the mental health or substance-abuse care that they require or return them to employment.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bed of Thorns

According to this NPR piece, "author and anti-gay activist" Orson Scott Card wrote the following in 2008:

"Marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down."
Now, in 2013:
"With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute."
Attitude is difficult to discern from writing, but it seems that Mr. Card is setting himself up to be a "victim" of "intolerant" "proponents of gay marriage." This is unfortunate, and disingenuous. Correctly or not, we have a tradition in the United States of equating support for the works of an artist (or anyone else, for that matter) with support for their attitudes and activities. When you declare that a government that gives rights to a people that you dislike a "mortal enemy," the expectation that they're going to give you a pass simply because that government ignored you is misplaced.

Christianity does not universally come off as subscribing to "live and let live." This can be especially true in the United States, where God is often portrayed as meting out collective punishments that make the actions of any given group everyone's business. And Americans in general, liberal or conservative alike, tend to bristle at the idea of being made to bear the costs of another's freedoms. (The American Left tends to be no more sanguine about the risks of being shot because someone wants the right to keep and bear arms than reactionary Christians are about the idea that today's "immoral" society might result in God sending an earthquake or tsunami or terrorist bomb with our name on it.) In this sense, Mr. Card's opposition of the extension of marriage rights and privileges to same-sex couples is perfectly understandable. Like anyone else, Mr. Card should be expected to behave as if what he professes to believe is true. But that doesn't free him from having to own publicly taking an oppositional attitude towards others. If Mr. Card felt that he needed to go on the record that marriage equality was flat-out wrong, he should have been prepared for everyone who disagreed with him to turn their backs on his works, and to become toxic to the people that he collaborated with - to be considered the "mortal enemy" that he sought to make the government out to be.

And "tolerance," or even indifference, has rarely equaled "instant forgiveness" especially for the unreconstructed. Hurt feelings die hard, and for Mr. Card to hold on to his own bitterness, yet rub other people's faces in theirs is ungracious of him to say the least. I'm sure that he's been unpleasantly surprised recently at how everything he touches turns to manure and how his simply being associated with something has been enough to call out the virtual pitchforks and torches. And if you take his religiosity at face value, regardless of the vitriol, he does (sort of) mean well, in the grand scheme of things, anyway. So, to be sure, it's not fair. Other people have taken the same stand that he has, and aren't in a position of watching a vocal segment of society turn on them. But fair is where pigs go to get prizes, and not the world we live in. He's simply going to have to keep his head down, and, if he's unwilling to make amends, simply ride out the storm.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Man Up. Or Else.

While driving a lot less media coverage than the Steubenville case, the sexual assault of a young man by other members of his high school wrestling team, and the reaction to it, is perhaps important for us to examine.

While "Rape Culture" is generally perceived to be a particularly literal front in the "Battle of the Sexes," Abigail Rine makes the point that victimizing someone weaker than ourselves, and reserving sympathy only for those who behave in a manner that we find to be appropriate transcends male-female relationships. Or sex.

In 2007, Dana Lynne Snyder was charged with telephone harassment against Brett Karch. Karch was a member of Snohomish High School's Marine JROTC program. He was injured when a cannon that was fired before football games and to celebrate home-team touchdowns exploded, shattering his leg. Concerned that the cannon tradition would be halted, people began phoning and visiting the Karch home, threatening retaliation if they cooperated in the investigation of the incident. Once the incident began to blow up on the internet, "[t]he mayor and school district superintendent later spoke out, saying most people were unaware of the severity of his injuries, or his emotional distress."

While not quite a classical blame-the-victim response (I'm unaware of anyone who claimed that Karch "had it coming.") the similarities are there - anger at a victim for jeopardizing a town's image of itself, and officials stepping in to downplay, rather than deplore, the behavior.

The Karch case bears a much greater resemblance to what happened in Norwood, Colorado than directly to Steubenville, but I think that Rine is correct to link all such actions into a broader culture of enforcing gender stereotypes with the threat of violence, especially in cases where deviation from those stereotypes is perceived to carry consequences for the community. As she concludes we live in "a world that polices the boundaries of gender to the detriment of all."

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ends and Means

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment IV.

In the wake of the leaking of documents concerning the National Security Agency's PRISM program, there has been a renewed focus on the Fourth Amendment. And while many high-ranking Republican lawmakers have seized the opportunity for a potential wedge between the Obama Administration and the broader public (especially the more Liberal-minded citizens that Republicans would prefer stayed home on Election days), conservatives have themselves been accused of “brush[ing] off constitutional concerns with the bromide ‘the Constitution is not a suicide pact’.”

1. Does the president have inherent powers under the Constitution to conduct surveillance for national security purposes without judicial warrants, regardless of federal statutes?

Intelligence and surveillance have proven to be some of the most effective national security tools we have to protect our nation. Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive and the President should not hesitate to use every legal tool at his disposal to keep America safe.
Mitt Romney Q&A
But as much as the civil liberties crowd seeks out, and responds to, signs of insufficient reverence for Constitutional rights, the conservative bromide, as insincere as one might take it to be, raises a question that perhaps we have been avoiding answering - Do civil liberties have a purpose? And if so, what is it? Or are they their own purpose? To compare the Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments, there is an understanding that the Ten Commandments are not absolute - the fact that the Sixth commandment is commonly translated as “You shall not kill,” does not prevent the next page from prescribing the death penalty for manslaughter. The commandment is not an end itself, but a means to an end. An end which it was felt was better served by execution of those guilty of manslaughter. Does the Bill of Rights work the same way?

Whether our ideals serve our interests or are our interests is not, perhaps, a difficult question to answer. “Give me Liberty or give me death,” may make for a rousing quote, but many are perfectly willing to forgo the former rather than face the latter, as “Liberty” serves an interest that death renders moot, rather than being a goal in and of itself. For proof of this, the public panic that served as the impetus for the passage of the PATRIOT Act serves admirably. Ideals were hastily chucked out of the nearest window - not because people suddenly decided that they no longer needed them, but because they were more attached to freedom from the fear of swarthy terrorist bombers then they were to freedom from government intrusions in their lives. (And it didn't need to be a majority that expressed that fear - members of Congress act on those public sentiments that they believe will drive voting behavior. When the number of votes a Congressperson may lose and/or that a potential opponent might gain becomes enough to make the difference between a victory party or going home after the next election, you'll start to see legislation designed to forestall that possibility.)

Although the answer may be something of a foregone conclusion, it's worthwhile to ask the question, if for no other reason than we understand our thinking around it - and whether we're okay with it.

Friday, July 5, 2013

World War Nothing

I live in an unincorporated part of King County, Washington. Because of this, last night, my neighborhood sounded something like I imagine a war zone to sound like - the same way it does every Fourth of July (although they may have some ringers in last night - they'd dialed it up a notch). Now, I say "Imagine," because the closest that I've ever been to a war zone is a night confidence course. So I don't actually know what one sounds like.

And this was on my mind last night as I sat on my bed and listened to the thumps, booms and rumbling echoes (the nearby hillside is good for this) of my neighbors enjoying themselves by blowing up small packets of explosives and colored pyrotechnics. Despite the mayhem going on outside my window, I had no worries. I could piggyback on the local festivities without fear or flashbacks and turn in without needing to wait for them to run out of ordinance. And this is a stroke of good fortune that not everyone shares in.

And that realization left me with the nagging question of "How can I share this? How does one go about creating a world without war?" Of course, better people than I have tried and failed to achieve this goal, and I wouldn't know where to begin. And so I filed it away, as the crackle and pop of the fireworks drifted in through the open window, to placed on the pile of issues to be whittled down to a manageable size. Later, when I figure out where I'd find a big enough knife.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Give Till It Hurts

The narrative that human beings are inherently selfish creatures, who require a certain amount of outside pressure to engage in actions that might be considered "altruistic" is an old one. But I've always wondered about it. The apparent default assumption, that charity and giving are religiously motivated is not unreasonable. Judaism and its descendents all have a certain focus on charity, and they are often quite vocal and/or visible in carrying out that work, as well as their religious affiliation.

I, conversely, am neither. My girlfriend and I had been dating for a number of years before she learned where I would occasionally disappear to on Sunday mornings. And when asked "What church group are you with?" I will answer, "I'm not with one," but I don't volunteer that I'm not religious.

Part of it is that I'm not a member of an organization that expects me to be charitable. Accordingly, since I'm not fulfilling an obligation, there is no reason for anyone to know what I'm doing or why I'm doing it. I don't need the recognition, and I have no use for it, so why advertise? Another part of it is that while I don't feel a need to actively hide the fact that I am an unbeliever, I have never really outgrown an unwillingness to volunteer the same in person, especially with strangers.

So I understand why Joe Klein, when he "stepped outside the line of his narrative" felt comfortable remarking: "funny how you don't see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals..." (Although, for the record, I'm not a secular humanist, either.) I don't see what point there would be in secular humanists drawing attention to their charity work or their secularism, except as a rebuttal of the idea that their lack of religiosity also translates into a lack of charity. (Which, honestly, I doubt would work in any event.)

Of course, the real point is much broader, as being charitable is really only a facet in a larger discussion. While Katherine Stewart's article in The Atlantic concerns itself with "the agendas and assumptions behind the idea that secularists aren't committed to relief efforts," the actual question being debated seems to be more are secularists invested in any of the commitments that we often perceive hold society together. Whether the concern is that the secular have simply exempted themselves from certain religiously-based obligations in the service of being free riders or that they are active (if perhaps unwitting) servants of a divine Adversary, the question of how much active religiosity is required to honestly be an American is still an open question.

And as long as we generally recognize a set of civic virtues that we expect people to adhere to (regardless of their necessity) and understand ourselves to be in danger of shortfall or poverty, people will search for reasons to declare that one group or another is lacking in said virtues, and thus is ineligible for the full panoply of rights, privileges and/or assistance that are due to "full citizens." The United States has never been as unified as we often imagine it to be, we tend to cover up the fault lines, even as we also try to trigger them.