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Born Free and Not Really Taxed To Death

Yesterday, I came upon this sign in Seneca County, New York. It was placed there by a member of the Seneca County Republican Party, who wanted to let everyone traveling down that road know that he had been “Born Free” but had been “Taxed To Death”. The sign urged his neighbors to remember him by revolting and voting.

What a sweet memorial to an untimely death. Damn those taxes, for killing another human being!

taxed to death

But wait a minute. If the person who made the sign and put it by the side of the road was truly taxed to death, how did he make that sign in the first place, and then tow it out to the roadside?

Furthermore, if people are taxed to death, how can they revolt and vote? Dead people aren’t allowed to vote in the United States, and they are powerless to engage in acts of revolution.

The person who made the sign was, of course, not taxed to death. He was taxed to irritation. He was taxed to grumpiness.

He was taxed to exaggeration. This exaggeration makes for an initial burst of sympathy, but then, for those who care to think about it, provokes an eyeroll, at a peevish guy who isn’t capable of keeping his complaints in perspective.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Republican Party is firmly in control of the government of Seneca County. So, if Republicans there are going to revolt, they’re going to have to revolt against themselves.

The Fear Machine at Work, Summer 2015

Number of distinct stories in American newspapers speculating about a July 4 terrorist attack on American soil, June 1 – July 4, 2015: 136

Number of actual terrorist attacks on American soil, July 4 2015: 0

Source: Proquest Newsstand

Hobby Lobby Reiterates its Bigotry: For Political Leadership, Only Christians Need Apply

Today is Independence Day in the United States, and while many people treat Independence Day as a historical commemoration of the Revolutionary War, it is not.  Independence Day marks the signing of a piece of paper on July 4, 1776 and invites us to consider the ideas animating that paper.  Some of those ideas are good ones, some elicit giggles (“manly firmness”), and some are enough to make a person wince (“merciless Indian Savages”).  We should not accept the words of the Declaration of Independence simply because they were uttered by men who are now venerated.  After all, at the time those who signed this document were reviled in some quarters as traitors. A person can read a great deal of what they already believe into the words of the Declaration of Independence, but also recognize in the document a fair amount that they may themselves not believe.  The Declaration of Independence is a good object for meditation on Independence Day, focusing thoughts not just for consideration and acceptance but for discernment and judgment.

In God We Trust: When you shop at Hobby Lobby, Mardel or Hemispheres, you support Christian religious propaganda that promotes religious bigotry in politics.  This is a full size advertisement from July 4 2015 doing just that, with naked appeals to authority.On breakfast tables across the nation this morning, Americans are unfolding their newspapers to find a full-page advertisement paid for by the company that runs Hobby Lobby, Hemispheres, and Mardel stores.  This ad promotes the notions that the United States is a Christian nation and that the powers of the United States government should be used to promote Christianity.  I won’t spend any time trying to refute the advertisement’s argument, simply because it doesn’t have any argument.  Instead, readers are simply bombarded by a list of quotes by famous people who lived in the 1700s and 1800s.  The implicit idea of this “appeal to authority” is that if famous dead Americans agree with Hobby Lobby, then you should too.  You recall what your mother thought of this sort of justification; her line had something to do with jumping and cliffs, didn’t it?

Since there’s no actual argument to dispute here, I’ll just note the most centrally-placed quote on the page.  John Jay, a Supreme Court justice from long, long ago, is quoted as saying the following:

“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

This is not the text of a Supreme Court ruling; it’s not a Supreme Court dissent, either, or the transcript of testimony or a speech or a pamphlet or a letter to the editor of a newspaper.  These words of John Jay’s come from a private letter sent to John Murray in October of 1816.  Jay’s words promote religious bigotry — the refusal to accept members of religions other than one’s own.  The idea stands opposed to Article VI of the United States Constitution (no mere private letter but the supreme law of the land), which declares that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

If you shop at Hobby Lobby or Hemispheres or Mardel, you help to disseminate such calls for religious bigotry.  If you find the idea of Christian-only standards for political leadership to be odious, perhaps you should declare your own Independence and consider shopping elsewhere.

Consuming Folklore of Crickets

cricketIt is said, traditionally, that crickets, though they are omens of good luck when they appear in a house, will exercise vengeance when violence is done against them. Specifically, the relatives of a cricket that is killed by a human being will, according to folklore, come to chew holes in the clothing of the killer, giving special vindictive attention to socks.

To hear a cricket singing is supposed to be a sign of good luck. However, for a cricket to suddenly stop singing and leave a house is an omen of coming illness.

What, if these folk beliefs have any validity, will happen to the people of Wadsworth, Ohio, who have taken to drinking milkshakes thickened with cricket powder as part of “a growing trend in cricket consumption”? Will the entire town become sick and naked?

Wedding Cakes and Same-Sex Marriage: Does the Right to Not Be Upset Trump Free Speech?

Yesterday, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ruled that a bakery in Gresham, Oregon must pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake.  You can read the ruling for yourself right here.  Some salient facts:

  • Gresham, Oregon is a city of more than 100,000 people (a fifth of the population of Wyoming), and is also a part of the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area with 2.4 million people.  The couple looking for a wedding cake had many options, and indeed when their case was publicized they had many offers.
  • The owners of the privately owned cake shop that refused to make a cake with both brides’ names on it explicitly referred to their religious beliefs when making their refusal.
  • The body of the ruling focuses on Oregon state law 659A.409, which declares that “it is an unlawful practice for any person acting on behalf of any place of public accommodation as defined in ORS 659A.400 (Place of public accommodation defined) to publish, circulate, issue or display, or cause to be published, circulated, issued or displayed, any communication, notice, advertisement or sign of any kind to the effect that any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, services or privileges of the place of public accommodation will be refused, withheld from or denied to, or that any discrimination will be made against, any person on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age if the individual is 18 years of age or older.”
  • The body of the ruling also focuses on the emotional upset experienced by members of the couple as they considered their religious, family and relationship history in light of this interaction and their subsequent decision to file a complaint.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to try to evaluate whether the Gresham bakery violated Oregon law.  But the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a higher law supporting freedom of speech.  As the Supreme Court has affirmed, it is the right of same-sex couples to enter into a marriage regardless of whether it upsets anyone else.  There is, after all, no right for Americans to not experience emotional upset.  When the shoe is on the other foot, why must a private bake shop be forced to make a cake celebrating same-sex marriage, in direct contravention of the owners’ beliefs?

So long as Americans in same-sex couples were discriminated against in law, forbidden from marrying, such discrimination remained the primary point.  Now that same-sex couples have a universal right to marry across the United States, it is important to protect the right of dissenters to refrain from participation in the nationwide group cheer.  I support same-sex marriage freedom.  I support freedom of speech, too, and I hope that the Gresham wedding cake decision is decisively overturned.

 

P.S. The decision by government clerks in Kentucky to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples is a very different case.  Instead of private actors, these are government employees acting on behalf of the government who swore when hired to uphold the law and who, through their inaction, prevent same-sex couples from exercising their full legal rights.  A lemon-custard legal tort should be launched firmly and at high speed toward the faces of these recalcitrant clerks who use their positions of power in government to enforce illegal bigotry.

P.P.S. Who said law has to be boring?  Never before in the history of the universe, and possibly never again, will we be treated to this particular sentence: “Just prior to the ceremony, Duff Goldman’s free cake was delivered by an incognito motorcyclist.”

 

The Supreme Court Has Silenced Us, Say Anti-Equality Bigots

On June 26, the National Organization for Marriage reacted to the news of the Supreme Court’s Obgerfell v. Hodges decision by declaring, “The Supreme Court has overridden and silenced over 50 million Americans on marriage.”

In a friend of the court brief on the case, a coalition including individual preachers such as

– Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas
– Robert A.J. Gagnon of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
– Mark L. Bailey of the Dallas Theological Seminary
– Eric Metaxas of BreakPoint
– Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
– Owen Strachan of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

as well as organizations such as

– the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
– National Religious Broadcasters
– In Touch Ministries
– Samaritan’s Purse
– the Chuck Colson Center For Christian Worldview

wrote that, as a result of the mere request for the legal equality of heterosexuals and homosexuals, “religious dissenters from same-sex marriage have been silenced by state actors and thereby denied access to the marketplace of ideas,” and warned that “the Republic may be harmed by the silence of those who were too afraid to speak.”

Have these opponents of same-sex marriage really been silenced?

silenced preacher

Last night, the National Organization for Marriage held a gala event, where Rick Santorum was keynote speaker and at which, all evening long, preachers delivered sermons about the evils of marriage equality. Since the Supreme Court decision was announced, NOM has also published 10 articles, 62 tweets and 9 Facebook posts in protest against the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and President of Samaritan’s Purse, appeared on Fox News soon after the Supreme Court decision, broadcasting his opinion against marriage equality around the world. The organization proudly declares that “The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is reaching more people than ever” and also has announced that “In 2016, Franklin Graham is traveling to all 50 states to share the Gospel and encourage Christians to boldly live out their faith.”

Since June 26, National Religious Broadcasters has issued written statements and social media posts in protest of the Obgerfell v. Hodges decision, and has released a video of a debate it hosted on the topic of “Cultural Controversy Through the Lens of Scripture: What does the Bible say about homosexuality?”

In Touch Ministries has continued to make its daily radio broadcasts without interruption, and has published eight new articles.

Chuck Colson is dead, but that hasn’t stopped the Chuck Colson Center For Christian Worldview from issuing daily admonitions to its followers to keep on speaking loudly. These include two articles since June 26 specifically warning about “the cycle of silence”, and another explaining why Christians need to silence their opponents, advising that, “Our desire in seeking to silence those who traffic in lies is not to put them down, show them up, or try to make them look bad in any way. We will issue our sharp rebuke in private, if we can, but in public if we must.”

The same friend of the court brief that complains that opponents of same-sex weddings have been silenced also brags that Robert Jeffress “has made more than 1,500 guest appearances on radio and television programs,” and “hosts the daily Pathway to Victory radio program, appears on a weekly television program that is broadcast on 1,200 television stations throughout the nation, and is the author of 21 books.” The brief also proudly declares that Robert A.J. Gagnon “has been quoted in or written for The New York Times, NPR, CNN, and Christianity Today,” Mark L. Bailey “has written numerous articles and books,” Eric Metaxas is a “New York Times #1 bestselling author” and has “a radio commentary that is broadcast on 1,400 radio outlets with an audience of eight million,” while Albert Mohler “has been quoted in the nation’s leading newspapers,” and “has also appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” NBC’s “Today Show” and “Dateline NBC,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” PBS’s “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” and Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”” Owen Strachan, the amicus brief says, “has written seven books and will publish three more in 2015.”

In what way are these people silenced?

Rick Perry: Act First, Then Discuss Policy

“Once you get the border secure, then you can have a conversation about immigration.” This insight came from a Fox News appearance last night by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, who was so proud of the idea that he reposted the comment on his campaign Twitter feed after the show was done, and then retweeted his own tweet about it on his individual Twitter feed.

rick perry get the border secure

If Rick Perry is so fond of this act first, talk later approach to immigration, maybe he could expand the idea to other policy areas. I suggest:

– Once you lower taxes, then you can have a conversation about how to keep the government from falling apart.
– Once you install offshore drilling rigs all along the coasts of the United States, then you can have a conversation about pollution.
– Once you create a travel ban from West Africa, then you can have a conversation about whether there is any significant threat to the United States from Ebola.
– Once you send people to Mars, then you can have a conversation about how to operate a colony on another planet.
– Once you invade Iraq, then you can have a conversation about coming up with a plan for the war.

Oh, wait. Rick Perry already did that last one, back in 2003. Word is that he’s trying to bring that idea back for his new campaign.

The Agenda Of Anthony Ciotti For President

Out in Southern California, Anthony Ciotti has begun his independent campaign for President of the United States.

Ciotti’s platform:

anthony ciotti for presidentEnd the Fed.
End Citizens United.
End the Corporatocracy
End Planned Obsolescence.
End the For Profit model.
End the Revolving Door of Politicians to High Level Exec’s and visa versa.
Start Fixing what we have broken.
Start spreading Truth.
Start using Tech for the good of Life.
Now, let me get into that a bit more. Yes, Nationalize the Banking Industry. No more of this Too Big to Fail Too Big to Jail crap. Game over, they get nationalized. Period. Yes, the Fed Reserve too.
Taking a lesson from ancient cultures who knew that these debt bubbles get too outrageous, a Time of Jubilee, Debt Forgiveness. Slate is getting wiped clean. Restart!
Those families that were part of predatory loans and such, let’s get them back in their homes. Deed and all.
People in homes are a bit more stables, and can get trained up to help work on all the infrastructure we need to build. That’s right, JOBS.
So what do you guys think of that, Debt Forgiveness, Jobs, Homes, and Infrastructure? Things the People really need after all these games these Fat Cats have been playing.

Ciotti writes that “To get to become an official candidate, I need to raise at least $2500 and then spend it on campaign costs to aggregate $5000.” So far, he has raised $30.

Sweatshops are Good, Says Head of Think Tank Funded With $1.7 Million Grant made possible by Sweatshops

Benjamin Powell uses his position as head of the “Free Market Institute” to argue that sweatshops are good for sweatshop workers. “I never understand, if you’re not making a living wage, how come you’re alive?,” jokes Powell in a standard stump speech line.

With his funding and position as head of the “Free Market Institute,” Benjamin Powell travels around and casts aspersions over and over again on the worth of the anti-sweatshop movement because he says it gets its money from unions and is therefore ethically tainted.

If it’s acceptable to cast doubt on the stance of anti-sweatshop organizations with the observation that they’re funded with union money, as Powell has done all over the country, it must be acceptable to evaluate Powell’s stance on sweatshops with reference to his funding.

The Free Market Institute is supported by a $1.7 Million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Benjamin Powell defends sweatshop wages of $2 a day, but apparently he feels he needs more than $2 a day to do his work. Grants from the like of the John Templeton Foundation (including additional anonymous multimillion-dollar grants) allow the Free Market Institute to pay undergraduate students $1,000 a semester to read free-market books and follow discussion prompts of a FMI faculty member; apparently, Benjamin Powell feels the students are worth more than $2 a day to do their work. The John Templeton Foundation providing $1.7 Million to support Benjamin Powell’s activities can engage in such funding because it holds the wealth of the late Sir John Templeton, who made his fortune in no small part through the Templeton World Fund, an investment fund that has long generated income for wealth holders by investing in companies operating in third world countries (“emerging markets”) some of which invest in further companies with further subcontractors that find advantage by paying low, low wages. You and I know some of these as “sweatshops.”

20th Century ad for the Templeton World Fund

If the arguments of anti-sweatshop organizations are less worthy for receiving union money, what is the worthiness of pro-sweatshop arguments funded by sweatshop money?

Theism, Even For Atheists, Courtesy of Anthropology

Yesterday, I came upon the latest issue of the journal Social Analysis, which focuses on the anthropology of atheists. The issue, with the title: Being Godless: Ethnographies of Atheism and Non-Religion, was edited by Ruy Llera Blanes, of the University of Bergen, and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic, of University College London.

These two also wrote the introduction to the issue, which I was able to review only in the abstract yesterday, as Berghahn Books, the publishers of Social Analysis makes it difficult and expensive for people outside academia to read material from the journal.

Anthropology Journal Social AnalysisNonetheless, even from what I saw in the abstract for the introduction, I was concerned. I wrote, “The anthropologists writing for Social Analysis seem to have taken on a theism-centric perspective in their studies. In their introduction to the issue, Ruy Llera Blanes and Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic describe atheists as ‘people who seek to thin out religion in their daily lives’. In doing so, they confuse religion in general with theism in particular. Not all religion is theistic. More importantly, they presume that atheists start out as theists, with their lives thick with religion that needs thinning out in order to achieve atheism.”

“Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic further describe atheism as a “reluctance to pursue religion”, as if atheists’ relationship to worship of gods is one of mere hesitancy. This position doesn’t even do adequate justice to many agnostics, who, rather than being indecisive, have chosen a path of determined refusal to commit to any position on a question as inherently unanswerable as whether divine beings have any true existence. Atheists go even further, being divided philosophically into two camps: 1) Positive atheists, who have the belief that no gods exist, and 2) Negative atheists, who lack any belief in gods. Neither atheist position is characterized by reluctance.”

Yesterday afternoon, I made my way to a nearby university library, where I got distracted by some other fascinating material, but eventually gathered the content of the godless issue of Social Analysis as well. I’ll provide a review of each article’s ethnographic examination of atheists as the week progresses, but for today will focus on the introduction.

The introduction begins on a shaky note, describing atheism as “a way of disengaging from religion.” The editors define atheism as a state of progressive removal from religion, promising a study of “processes of disengagement from religion”, and stating that, “‘being godless’ is an important empirical reality that encompasses processes, aspirations, and practices that purposefully or inadvertently lead to the attenuation of one’s religious life.” Atheism can include the experiences of people who are removing themselves from theist religion, but it can also include the experiences people who are religious in non-theist ways, and the experiences of people who have never been religious at all. Once again, the editors have overlooked a distinction that is key to understanding the cultural perspectives of atheists.

These errors would be expected in an article about atheists from the popular press, which is typically unfriendly to atheists and ignorant about their thoughts and lives. For such clumsy inattention to the cultural distinctions of atheist identity to come from anthropologists, who are supposed to be expert at understanding the intricacies of cultural identities, is profoundly disappointing.

When Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic describe atheists as having “aspirations to move away from one’s religious tradition”, they trap atheists within religious traditions – presumably theist traditions. Their implication is that atheists might aspire to move away from religious traditions, but they actually remain members of those traditions, though perhaps on the margins of them.

The simple fact that the editors don’t seem to grasp is that everyone is born an atheist. No one comes into this world possessing a belief in gods. When we’re born, we don’t even have a belief in dogs. Increasing numbers of atheists are people who simply stay this way, never having any belief in gods at all. They aren’t attenuating a belief in gods, or disengaging from a belief in gods. They never had a belief in gods in the first place.

The editors write that “terminating all religious connections” is an “impossible task”. They seem to believe that membership in religion, and in theist religion especially, is a universal and natural part of being human, and that trying to be atheist is like trying to be hairless. No matter how often we shave away our stubble, it keeps growing out, and Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic expect us to believe that belief in gods is like that, too.

This presumption suggests that the editors of the current issue of Social Analysis haven’t spent enough time out in the field with the people whose culture they claim to be able to describe.

To support their claim that we’re all really steeped in theist religion, and can never get out of it, Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic refer to the example of a young man in Macedonia who was given the inherited social position of a mystical leadership of a Sufi community at birth. No matter how he tries to get away from the social obligations created by his religious entanglements, they say, he just can’t do it.

However, this man isn’t an atheist. He isn’t godless. He’s a theist, and doesn’t want to end his theist beliefs. The editors write, “This shaykh did not renounce religion. On the contrary, he claimed that he was a “staunch believer” in God, angels, and demons as described in the Muslim Holy Book, the Qur’an. The young leader was eager to advertise and sell his services as a spiritual healer to Muslim and Christian clientele, but he was reluctant to reinvest his income into the leaning walls of the lodge and sweep the dirty carpets around the tombs of ancient saints.” Essentially, this young man was a theist through and through, but was simply reluctant to comply with some of the local cultural expectations about what theism entails.

No one who has spent much time with atheists can confuse atheism with the experience of people like the young Sufi. Atheism is not doubt. It is not rebellion within theist social circles. It the state of being outside of theist religion.

Trying to prove their point that no one can ever truly live outside of theism, Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic write, “This impossibility of open defiance is apparent in Louis Frankenthaler’s (pers. comm.) incisive account of how ultra-Orthodox Jewish men gradually negotiate their way out of obligations and regulations imposed on them… Similarly, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola (2010) have encountered atheist Christian priests, who hesitate to abandon religion completely.”

When I read this paragraph, I actually slapped my forehead in disbelief. Yes, in disbelief. The editors are missing a huge range of human experience when they assert that Christian priests experiencing doubt, Sufis with inherited religious responsibilities, and people born into culturally-insulated ultra-Orthodox communities represent the full scope of rejection of theist religious belief. Some atheists emerge from such backgrounds, it’s true, but many do not.

Any anthropologist who can write the sentence “Muslims of Kyrgyzstan are atheist not because they do not believe in God…” is thoroughly muddled. An atheist is without theism. The definition of an atheist is a person who doesn’t believe in gods. It’s as if Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic are claiming to study Canada by going to Minnesota. They are simply not studying atheists.

These editors are so unfamiliar with atheist cultures that they don’t even have the most basic understanding of atheist vocabulary. They write, “We are reluctant to coin a new term — ‘godlessness’…” without understanding that the term “godlessness” is already in common use. Look – it’s in the Free Dictionary! It’s at Thesaurus.com, and Dictionary.Reference.Com! You can’t coin a term that’s already in wide usage!

It seems as if what Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic want to study are theists who are experiencing some kind of struggle about their theism. That’s fine, of course, but they ought to label their project accurately, instead of pretending to study atheists. Let them call this issue of Social Analysis something like Struggles Within Religion: Conflicted Theist Identities.

If I’m wrong, and Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic really do want to study actual atheists, they should come and talk to us. They should spend a few years in the field, and understand how atheists define themselves. They should acknowledge that we really do exist, and that we are not really just theists with an attitude problem.

They should show a little respect for the subjects of their study, and learn to use our language. That’s what anthropologists are supposed to do.

Jumping at the Conclusion

There is nothing more to this video than a piece of the world around us.  I stopped for a moment yesterday and was amazed at what I found right before my feet.

The world is worthy of our wonder.