The End of the Lecture

When I started teaching college freshmen in 2000, we joked that while it was nice teaching twice a week instead of three times, students didn't have the attention span for an 80 minute class. A 50 minute class, and you had their attention from bell to bell. But an 80 minute class, you lost them between minutes 60 and 70, for sure. Oh, MTV, how you've shortened our attention spans!

Ten years later, and things have changed. My students are now capable of focusing on a lecture for about 15-20 minutes at best. After that, even the best most attentive students' eyes glaze over, and they begin to fidget. And by fidget, I don't mean "jiggle their legs." I mean they check out, move on, pull out a phone, pull out homework from another class and set to work with a graphing calculator. They fidget mentally. Their brains jerk and jog onto other things.

I tried all the usual counter-measures: strict prohibition of cell phones, calling out students who sit there doing math homework. I tried making the lectures more entertaining: peppering them with ribald expressions and examples, using zesty presentation slides with lots of colorful pictures and the occasional animation. I got a few compliments on my slideshows, but the problem persisted: most students just couldn't hang onto a topic for longer than 15-20 minutes.

Then about a year ago I read in the news that MIT had abandoned the large lecture class format for physics. They explained all the reasons--students haven't been absorbing the material, or coming to class--and since this is MIT we're talking about, brain science got involved:
In an article in the education journal Change last year, Dr. Wieman noted that the human brain “can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once.”

But the number of new items that students are expected to remember and process in the typical hourlong science lecture is vastly greater,” he continued. “So we should not be surprised to find that students are able to take away only a small fraction of what is presented to them in that format.”
(Italics mine.) So I thought that if the smarty-Charlies getting into MIT needed a new classroom structure, so might my working-class heros at FAU. In the Fall of 2009 I started a teaching experiment: Tuesdays they did group work (a sheet of interpretive questions that I directed each group of four to debate and come to a consensus on), Thursdays I lectured concepts and pointed out finer details in the writing. By the end of the semester, I would describe the pattern simply as, "Tuesdays my students are alive, Thursdays my students are driftwood." Same students, two days later, but the difference was astonishing (and, for me, torturous).

On Tuesday they would talk, laugh, have thoughts -- often somewhat deep ones! -- about the novel they'd read. They'd debate the best way to phrase their answers, and the best quote to offer as evidence. They would call me over to ask about terminology, and tentatively ask about alternate interpretations to get my feedback on their relative merits. That was Tuesday. On Thursday they would watch me talk for 20 minutes, then fall asleep.

So, results in, I restructured my class again. Starting this semester, Tuesdays and Thursdays have the same format: the first 15-20 minutes of class is an overview of concepts, the following 30-40 minutes is group work on interpretive questions, and the final 20 minutes is a discussion of their various answers that I try to spin into the other important details of the book. So far, it's worked brilliantly: my students are awake, engaged, and coming up with fantastic work.

There's just one problem.

They're complaining.

That's right: they're complaining. "Oh my Gawd, group work, again?" It seems they actually want to sit in the class and stare off into space while I say things they won't remember. (Students are also increasingly allergic to taking notes in class -- they expect anything "important" to be emailed to them or posted to a website or server. But that's a post for another day.)

There is the faintest suggestion in their complaints that I'm somehow dodging my responsibilities as their teacher by having them work in groups. In actuality, producing good questions for them, working with them as they answer them, and then grading the results is far more work than just showing up and talking.

There is also some naked laziness involved: during a lecture they can sit passively, ignoring every word, learning nothing, totally anonymous and unmoved by the teacher's irritation at their silence and lack of engagement. That's obviously much easier for them, and it seems that that's what some of them would prefer to do.

But the truth is, I've never heard such smart things come out of students' mouths (and pens) as I've heard this semester. I'm making them think, and learn, and interpret, and while some of them seem to resent it, it is having a good effect, the exact intended effect, so I'm going to keep doing it. I just hope they don't try to take something out on me come teacher-evaluation time.

There's a lot to mourn about this Gallup poll on Americans' views of evolution: the raw numbers of people who believe humans have only been around 10,000 years or so; the correlation with religious activity and political party; the nearly one-quarter of people who simultaneously believe in evolution and creation, for starters. But it's a wholly unsurprising result. This is what happens when science and faith are treated as equally valid ways of looking at the natural world.

I also blame sloppy use of language in part, and I think even those who understand the evolutionary process are guilty of slipping into this from time to time. I've complained before about using the word "believe" when it comes to the evolution v. creation debate. It's a bad word to use because it's incorrect--one does not believe in evolution; one understands how evolution works--and because it shades the debate toward the mystical. Belief in this context requires a leap of faith, whether we're talking about an Evel-Knievel-rocket-over-the-Snake-River-Canyon leap (young earth creationism) or a hop over a ditch (watchmaker god who set us in motion and forgot about us), but there's no leap required for evolution. We've seen transformations of species in our lifetimes. Our entire medical system is based on understanding evolution. No belief required--just the ability to understand basic biological processes.

Science education also plays a major role in this issue, and there's plenty of blame to spread around. The lion's share, in my view, goes to the activists who have invaded school boards and pushed creationist/intelligent design nonsense into the curriculum, and who have backed politicians who either share their views or who want their money and votes bad enough to pretend to share them. Those of us who didn't fight back (or who don't fight back today) are also to blame; they were more politically active than we were, and now we're paying for it.

But I also blame universities, especially Education departments, and here's why. For the most part, this isn't an issue if science teachers actually know science, as well as education theory. But in my experience--which is admittedly limited--most people who get degrees in Education don't take more than 8 classes in the subject they're going to be teaching, and often take fewer than that. And in some cases, these are simplified courses---it's not uncommon to hear of classes called "stats for teachers" or "chemistry for teachers" by students. This isn't so big a deal when you're talking about elementary education, because the ideas being taught aren't all that complex, but middle and high-school teachers need to know their subjects, especially when it comes to science, and there's plenty of indications that they don't.

And I think Biology departments ought to be pushing back on this as well, because poorly trained teachers make them look bad, and make their jobs harder. (That's the case for every department, really.) I'd rather teachers get degrees in their subjects and do a separate accreditation period in education theory for anything above elementary education. Know your subject first, then learn how to teach it.

And finally, we have to do something to address, long-term, the problems with education in this country. I got into an argument on Twitter a few days ago with Adam Serwer, a blogger for Tapped who I generally respect, because he was all over this story about how teachers unions protect incompetent teachers instead of letting them be fired. He never seemed to get that the ability to fire teachers is a sideshow that allows administrators and administrations to ignore the real problem, which is that our classes are too crowded and teachers can't do their jobs well most of the time. Even good teachers are handicapped by having 30 kids to a class, 6 times a day. That's too much work, no matter what the pay. Let an administrator fire teachers without any due process and you'll wind up with a show of action and no real change. There will be more stats-juking, and we'll still wind up with under-educated kids.

And we'll continue where we are today, or perhaps get worse, where nearly half (or more, depending on the question asked) the population of the US believes that God created humans in pretty much their present form about 10,000 years ago. And if that doesn't depress you, well, you're in a way better place than I am.

Kick them in the public relations. And maybe have a Senator on your side. The NFL is backing off its actions (though no word on their claim) to force local merchandisers to stop selling and producing "Who Dat" merchandise. This announcement came quick on the heels of a statement from "Diaper" David Vitter daring the NFL to sue him for printing "Who Dat" t-shirts.

But here's the reality. David Vitter doesn't make that dare without some serious outrage in his state, and nationwide. That outrage was fed by lots of people both on traditional and new media, making a stink over an issue that frankly, no one individually had the money to fight over. Local retailers don't have the resources to go to court over an issue which has a pretty limited life span. Even if the Saints win the Superbowl, no one outside the Saints' fan base is going to be buying "Who Dat" gear in two months. The NFL counted on that and figured--rightly so--that they could scare locals out of the marketplace with a cease and desist letter, because this is the kind of case where the facts aren't as important as the resources each side can marshal. Sure, a local t-shirt maker could win, but by the time they did, they'd be financially ruined, and they know it.

What was different this time was the volume of the response. The NFL found itself in a shitstorm of bad public relations--a storm the Saints organization managed to dodge, somehow, though they're as much to blame as the NFL--and it didn't want this being an issue going into the crown jewel of its season, a Superbowl between the two best teams all year. They were hurt in about the only way you can hurt a big corporation--in its reputation.

I suspect it will be a temporary victory. At some point, the Saints and the NFL will seek to enforce that trademark, and a friendly judge will do so because no one will have the resources to stand up against them, and because it will happen in the off-season, or when the Saints aren't media darlings anymore, the outrage won't be as loud or widespread.

But for now, it's a win, and I love it. Still not buying any NFL merchandise though/

The Tea Party Convention is apparently floundering a little. Members are upset at the $549 ticket price and the $100,000 Sarah Palin will be getting for her appearance. (I imagine a half-empty convention hall with people screaming "tell the lipstick joke again!" before they break into Glenn Beck tears about their love for their country.) They've lost Michelle Bachmann, and when Bachmann figures a place is too crazy to be, well, be scared.

I'm sad, though, because I really hoped that this would be a turning point in American politics. For ten years now, I've been hoping for another schism on the right, for the truly insane to separate themselves from the merely greedy, and it looked like this might be the vehicle. Racism, know-nothing-ism, sexism and various other forms of vitriol all rolled together into a single, seething mass of political ugly, just waiting to get out there and drag the country back to 1843. I was hopeful because this group of people, at their most powerful, isn't more than 30% of the country--which is a terrifying number, to be sure--but it isn't enough to win power on their own. The net effect would be that Republicans would find themselves frozen out and forced to choose sides, because the one thing Democrats and Republicans have been bipartisan at is at making this a two-party country. No room for a third party to muck things up or force coalitions.

It could still happen. You can't stuff crazy back in the box, and this crazy seems to have a special yearning to be free. But crazy also tires itself out and doesn't organize well--downside to being crazy, after all. I hope they hold it together long enough to scare moderates away for a generation, though I'm not all that hopeful it will happen.

This is Your NFL

That's right--your NFL, because I don't want anything to do with them anymore. That's not to say I won't watch games--I'll be having a heart attack while the Superbowl is on just like every other Colts or Saints fan will be, and I'll watch games on tv when they're broadcast, but I'll not give them a penny in any other form, as long as they're doing this:

In letters sent to Fleurty Girl and Storyville, the NFL ordered the retailers to stop selling a host of merchandise that it says violates state and federal trademarks held by the New Orleans Saints.

Among the long list of things the NFL says is off-limits without a licensing agreement are some obvious violations like the official logo of the Saints and the team's name. But the one that stands out is "Who Dat."
There are real issues over who owns the rights to "Who Dat," but the NFL--and to be fair, the New Orleans Saints team--are throwing their considerable weight around threatening locals who use the term on t-shirts and other merchandise.

The really funny thing about this whole deal is that I don't like the phrase. I never have, even when it started in the 80s when the Saints were making their moves from full-tilt suckitude toward mediocrity, and eventually toward winning. I thought it was ignorant, and I really found it funny when I discovered that Cincinnati Bengals fans were aping it with their very own "Who Dey" chant. I even mentioned elsewhere at the beginning of the playoffs that it would be hilarious if the Saints and Bengals met in the Superbowl so their respective fans could engage in a festival of ungrammatical chanting.

And yet, now that the NFL is being such a shithead about it, I suddenly want nothing more than to find a vendor selling non-licensed Who Dat gear and stock up. T-shirts, ball caps, strap-ons--if it's got a fleur-de-lis and a #whodat hashtag, I'm all over it. And while I've never been a huge purchaser of NFL merchandise before, one thing is for certain--I'm definitely not buying anything from them now.

Not that I'm surprised by the NFL's move here. If anything, I'd be surprised if they hadn't made this move. It's who they are--corporate hogs who leech locals for every penny they can while simultaneously protecting every penny they feel belongs to them, and some that probably don't. But they have lawyers and resources and the backing of the state government and t-shirt stores have, well, rent to pay instead of lawsuits they really can't afford to get fund.

So NFL, I've got one thing to say to you. Don't ever ask for a penny from me, not in merchandise or ticket sales, not in satellite packages or taxes to fund your stadiums. You won't get it, not willingly. I'll find other places to spend my money.

Choice is Empowering

The Superbowl ad guaranteed to get the most media exposure this year won't feature animated animals or boner pills. It'll be the Focus on the Family ad featuring Tim Tebow and his mom talking about how wonderful it was that she didn't follow her doctor's advice when and terminate her pregnancy. And you know something? That's a nice story. I'm glad it worked out for them. I don't like CBS's hypocrisy on accepting what is unquestionably a political ad when in previous years they've turned down ads from MoveOn and the United Churches of Christ for the same reason, but that's another discussion. The economy is worse this year than it was then (mainly because we're paying for that bubble right now), so maybe CBS was having problems finding takers for the spot. I'm feeling generous for some reason--probably has something to do with the Saints being in the Superbowl.

Anyway, there's been some blowback about the ad, and not just among liberal bloggers and pundits. CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel about blew a gasket over the ad, not so much because of the content, but because CBS is breaking its rule and airing a political commercial during the Superbowl. He wants it to be as commercial and apolitical as possible, and I think he's right. The commenters who gave him flack said that abortion isn't a political issue, to which I can only snort derisively while extending both middle fingers at the screen. Do you have any idea how hard it is to type a reply while doing that?

And of course, Sarah Palin had to weigh in, via Facebook, because that what all the kids are talking with, too. Also. She's mad at NOW for protesting the ad, and says so in her own inimitable way:

What a ridiculous situation they're getting themselves into now with their protest of CBS airing a pro-life ad during the upcoming Super Bowl game. The ad will feature Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mom, and they'll speak to the sanctity of life and the beautiful potential within every innocent child as Mrs. Tebow acknowledges her choice to give Tim life, despite less than ideal circumstances. Messages like this empower women! This speaks to the strength and commitment and nurturing spirit within women. The message says everything positive and nothing negative about the power of women - and life.
Bolding mine. Notice the contradiction. Mrs. Tebow chose to extend her pregnancy while risking her long term health, and perhaps her own life. It wasn't forced on her by laws which restrict womens' options. And why was she able to make that choice? Because of groups like NOW which fought to empower women to be able to make it.

The extent to which Mrs. Tebow is a hero for taking her pregnancy to term is directly related to the fact that she had a choice in the matter. If abortion is illegal across the board, then there's no heroism here--there's only obedience to the law. And there's the tragedy of every woman who wasn't as fortunate as Mrs. Tebow and wound up dead as a result. If you don't have choices, it's because you don't have power--your decisions are being dictated to you by others. Sarah Palin has to know that on some level--she's not that thick.

Anti-choice groups can't have it both ways. If women are heroes for choosing to have babies, whether in difficult circumstances or not, then that means they have to actually have a choice in the matter. This is why pro-choice people argue that the abortion debate isn't about babies at all--it's about power. It's about allowing women to actually have the power to make choices about their health and their futures. So when pro-life groups talk about the courageous choices women have made in having their babies, remember, no choice = no power. Choice = power.

Yet another judge has declared Florida's ban on gay adoption to be unconstitutional, and did so while signing an adoption order completing the process. And there was no hesitation in her order either.

"There is no rational connection between sexual orientation and what is or is not in the best interest of a child," Sampedro-Iglesia wrote in her order, obtained by The Miami Herald. "The child is happy and thriving with [Alenier]. The only way to give this child to allow him to be adopted" by her.
Wingnuts had a thrombo at the news.
Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, called Sampedro-Iglesia's ruling "evidence of judicial activism" that violates state law.

"A judge is not a legislature onto oneself," Staver said. "Judges don't have the ability to write laws any way they desire. They have to follow the rule of law, and this judge did not."
Mind you, a judge's first duty is to interpret the law as it pertains to the Constitution of the United States, so as constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe said, she was "taking seriously [her] oath to the supreme law of the land."

It's pretty clear I don't have much use for people who want to treat the LGBT community as second-class citizens, and that goes double for people like Matthew Staver and Liberty Counsel, whose idea of religious freedom means Christians are privileged and everyone else can rot, and who hide behind that religious freedom as an excuse to spread hatred for anyone they find objectionable according to their narrow view of what is moral and immoral. Seriously, if their headquarters were swallowed by a sinkhole, Florida would be a better place. The world would be a better place.

But regardless, on this issue, they're on the losing side, not just with this adoption, but in the long run as well. The LGBT community will be recognized as equals sooner rather than later, and people like Staver will be viewed by history the way George Wallace and Bull Connor are today--as relics of a hateful past that most decent people are ashamed of. Our kids, and their kids in particular, will wonder what in the hell took us so long.

How did I miss this?

Examining the Empire's point of view isn't a new idea--Kevin Smith used it in "Clerks" to good effect when he had Dante and Randal and a customer debate the responsibility that contractors have for their personal safety when they take on jobs. The comparison there was between the Empire and a mob boss, with the customer taking the position that if you take the job knowing who you're working for, and you get caught in the crossfire, you have yourself to blame.

But this take on it is more subversive, in part because of the comparison--the destruction of the Death Star is compared to the attack on the Twin Towers, complete with a nod to the controlled demolition conspiracy theory--but mostly because of which side gets identified with the Empire.

The US's national mythology casts us in the position of rebels, and that's how we continue to see ourselves individually (and in many cases, as a nation). I expect our collective cognitive dissonance about how we can simultaneously be the world's sole hyperpower and its great rebel could be the subject of several very large books. But the reality is that we're the Empire--our aircraft carriers are Death Star, if you will, projecting military power around the globe. We've made jokes about this recently--Darth Cheney, anyone?--but I haven't seen anyone make the point as deftly as the makers of this video did.

We like to see ourselves as the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, the scrappy underdogs fighting to throw off the oppressive chains of the Empire, because we've internalized our mythology. But we're not the 13 colonies fighting for the right to keep our own tax money, and we haven't been for a long time. We've been an empire in our own right for more than a century at least, and since the end of World War 2, we've been dominant on the world stage, sharing the spotlight with the Soviet Union for a while and with China now. There's nothing rebellious about us.

But disturbing as that realization might be to some, the really subversive part of this video, the thing that no doubt makes heads explode, is the subtext. If we're the Empire, which is looked at as oppressive and domineering, then who does that make the Rebel Alliance? Who's Obi-Wan Kenobi? The notion that Al-Qaeda could very plausibly fill the role of the hero in the Star Wars story would send lots of people around the bend. But they could, depending on your perspective and on how you identify yourself in the narrative.

What else does this video do? It humanizes the Stormtrooper, which doesn't happen in the films. Again, this isn't new--other web videos have played with this idea in the past. One of my favorite is the one which puts Stormtroopers on Tatooine as cops on patrol with a camera crew riding along. That one, though, doesn't have the same affect this one does because we see the Stormtrooper at work. This video, though, has them at a bar, having a drink after work. If it weren't for the costumes, you wouldn't know they were Stormtroopers. But by doing that, the filmmaker makes the Stormtrooper sympathetic. They're no longer the soldiers who can't shoot straight--they're guys with lives, with friends who were killed at the Death Star, who were supposed to be there that day, who are trying to put some meaning into what happened that day. They're no longer ciphers, and as a result, we're forced to recognize them as humans and acknowledge that not everyone who wears the armor is either evil or a mindless lackey of Darth Vader. If you're still identifying with the Rebel Alliance as the heroic side, this might make you uncomfortable, since you're now faced with the idea that your heroes killed some people who weren't wholly evil, i.e. the Rebels killed people, as opposed to caricatures.

Put simply, this video made me re-examine the Star Wars saga to a far greater degree than all the prequels put together. I'd pay to go see a movie about these guys--as long as Lucas didn't direct it.

Aw, what happened?

Did your team lose last night, Kevin Berard?

Between God and a Hard Place

James Wood has a terrific op-ed in the NY Times today with the above title about theodicy and responses to the Haiti earthquake. One of my favorite things about the piece is how Wood gets at the ugliness behind the notion that earthquakes (and by extension, any natural disaster) are examples of divine wrath. After addressing Pat Robertson's comments, Wood moves on to someone you might not expect: President Obama.

In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors?
Well, I can think of a few prominent people who worship said God, and they've got some followers who would agree, but Wood's point is a good one, because it illustrates that most people don't actually think about what they're saying when it comes to religious truisms. They mouth the platitudes and then go on with their lives, because if they actually looked at what they were saying, they might be horrified by themselves. Wood continues with this:
If the president simply meant that most of us have been — so far — luckier than Haitians, why didn’t he say that? Perhaps because, as a Christian, he does not want to believe that he subscribes to such a nonprovidential category as luck, or to the turn of fate’s wheel, which is really a pagan notion. Besides, to talk of luck, or fortune, in the face of a disaster seems flippant, and belittling to those who have been savaged by such bad luck. A toothache is bad luck; an earthquake is somehow theological.
I disagree that to talk of luck in such a situation is flippant or belittling--blaming God, or worse, people who have refused to serve God in the manner he apparently demands seems far more belittling to me, because of the way it makes God look. If I were a believer, I think I would be angry at people who cast my deity in such a horrible light, as the kind of god who would punish innocent and guilty alike and without distinction.

This was something that always bothered me when I was a believer, but it's gotten more pronounced in the last few years, the reconciliation of the notion of a just God with natural disasters and human suffering. Wood sums up this conflict nicely in the conclusion to his piece:
Terrible catastrophes inevitably encourage appeals to God. We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether believers or not, might reflect on the almost invariably uncharitable history of theodicy, and on the reality that in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense. For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.
And I would only add that to worship the former would make me an accessory to that cruelty, and to worship the latter would be useless. There are more important things to worry about.

Yesterday was Blog for Choice, marking the anniversary of Roe v Wade. I didn't blog at all yesterday, so I guess you can consider this my entry.

Scott Roeder's trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller is going on right now, and much of the early commentary on it has revolved around Dr. Warren Wilbert's decision to let Roeder's attorneys put on a voluntary manslaughter defense, even though there's no guarantee the jury will be allowed to consider it. Roeder's attorneys are going to argue that Roeder believed that by killing Tiller, he was saving the lives of unborn children.

Inside the anti-abortion movement, there's a wide range of beliefs. There are some who identify as "pro-life" who also claim to support the finding in Roe v. Wade. We call these people confused. Others think there should be restrictions on 3rd trimester abortions but think Roe means the state can't do that. We call these people misled. If I had to guess about where the majority of anti-abortion people come down, I'd figure they're the folks who want exceptions to an abortion ban for rape and incest and the health of the mother, and if pressed would acknowledge that there's some inconsistency in their stance. They think abortion is icky and think that sluts who got pregnant should have to pay the price by raising a kid. Or something.

And then there's this woman, who gave me the reason to write this blog post.

A Roeder supporter seated in the public gallery grinned widely and swayed visibly in her seat as the gruesome photos were shown — leading a sheriff's deputy to quietly issue her a stern warning.
This is during the part of the trial when the pictures of Doctor Tiller's corpse are being presented to the jury. And while I will not nut-pick and claim that this woman represents the entire anti-abortion movement, I think it is fair to say that most anti-abortion activists have much more in common with her than they do with pro-choice activists.

Long ago, a friend of mine gave me this advice about politics: look at the nuts, and decide which ones you'd rather be lumped in with, because it's going to happen. That's a big part of the reason I'm a liberal, and why I'm pro-choice--because our nuts aren't the kind of people who would show glee at the death of a person who was carrying out a completely legal act.

In her scathing piece for Slate about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Dahlia Lithwick compares the Supreme Court's actions to those of the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, saying that they turned "a corporation into a real live boy." Lithwick doesn't try to peer into the future (like Greg Palast does), but she does highlight what is, to me, the most important issue in this case, and in any case involving corporations--their legal personhood.

Lithwick quoted an earlier case in which former Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that treating corporate spending as the First Amendment equivalent of individual free speech is "to confuse metaphor with reality," and that the metaphor won a real battle before the Supreme Court. And it did, no question. My question for the Justices who made this opinion is this: where will corporate personhood stop? Will Coca-Cola get to vote soon? Can the corporation run for President? It's over 35 years old and a natural-born citizen of the US, after all. And who would actually make the day-to-day decisions the President makes--the CEO of Coke? The shareholders? But we didn't elect him or her, or them.

We can take it farther, of course. If a corporation breaks the law and is convicted, who goes to jail? If people incorporate themselves, will they get two votes--one for the person and one for the corporate person? If corporations are truly citizens, should they be counted in the census for the purpose of apportionment of Congressional representatives?

See, this is where the metaphor starts to have problems--when it clashes with the real world. Because even at their most effective, metaphors are only analogs, descriptions, comparisons. They're necessary for communication, but they never do more than approximate the world they try to describe or inform, and when you try to subject them to the rigors of actual existence, they fall apart because they're not real.

Which is not to say that the conservative Justices who wrote this decision haven't thought out the consequences of their decision--I suspect they have thought them out very carefully, and decided they wanted to play the part of the Blue Fairy and bring Pinocchio to life. And like the Blue Fairy, they'll be able to avoid the fallout of their decision for the most part--they are protected by money and privilege and age and the fact that they're the least accountable political figures in the country. They can flit away and concern themselves with other matters, while the rest of us get to figure out what to do with the new kid who's a hundred times our size and is a bully besides.

Crossposted at The Rumpus

Not good.

Someone, anyone, tell me a part of this story that's not effed up, because I can't find one.

Coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ are inscribed on high-powered rifle sights provided to the U.S. military by a Michigan company, an ABC News investigation has found.

The sights are used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the training of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers. The maker of the sights, Trijicon, has a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army.
Old Testament verses wouldn't be a big deal, seeing as Yahweh was an ass-kicking, name-taking, Rowdy Roddy Piper of a god. Taking out the Egyptian army by letting the Red Sea wash back over them? No problem. Toasting the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and only leaving a survivors a guy who offered the citizens his daughters as sex toys and those daughters? Gangster. Knocking down the walls of Jericho and slaughtering everyone in there? That's his style.

But Jesus? New Testament God was all love and peace and sacrifice. He was the new way, right? Healing Calchas's ear after Peter cut it off and going to his death willingly so that all mankind might be saved doesn't quite jibe with high-powered rifle sights. I doubt that the man who reportedly said "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life," would have been cool with a reference to that inscribed on a part of a weapon. Jesus wasn't George Lucas or whoever owns the rights to The Simpsons these days--I think he'd have a problem with some product endorsements.

And via Pandagon, the story gets even worse.
However, a spokesperson for CentCom, the U.S. military's overall command in Iraq and Aghanistan, said he did not understand why the issue was any different from U.S. money with religious inscriptions on it.

"The perfect parallel that I see," said Maj. John Redfield, spokesperson for CentCom, told ABC News, "is between the statement that's on the back of our dollar bills, which is 'In God We Trust,' and we haven't moved away from that."
Let me explain it in small words for you, Major. God is a vague term, which could reference Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or Zeus, or any of a thousand other deities, which basically leaves only hardcore atheists bothered by it (and some of us don't figure it's worth the aggravation). But the second you reference the New Testament, you specify a god (sort of--the whole nature of Jesus has been up for debate since the earliest days of the church), or at the very least, a particular set of beliefs, something the US government cannot do under the First Amendment.

Not to mention that it's just stupid. It really puts the lie to any claims made by the military that these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are anything other than Crusades, religious wars. How do we deny it now?

Oh, the irony

Do you think the Palins understand what they're saying here?

I especially like that it's on the cover of In Touch magazine. That couldn't be more precious.

I've written in the past about how this country needs to rethink the way it deals with sex offenders--the story about how parolees in Miami have to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway because there's nowhere else they can go without violating their parole is just one example of how ridiculous our system is.

But this story is worse, and it pains me because it comes from a city I love, namely, New Orleans.

New Orleans city police and the district attorney’s office are using a state law written for child molesters to charge hundreds of sex workers like Tabitha as sex offenders. The law, which dates back to 1805, makes it a crime against nature to engage in “unnatural copulation”—a term New Orleans cops and the district attorney’s office have interpreted to mean anal or oral sex. Sex workers convicted of breaking this law are charged with felonies, issued longer jail sentences and forced to register as sex offenders. They must also carry a driver’s license with the label “sex offender” printed on it.
There's a part of me which would like to follow any district attorney or cop who's been involved in one of these arrests and convictions with a video camera, and see if I can't catch them involved in a "crime against nature" myself, because I'd take any odds that they're all guilty of it, given that definition.

And the cruelty here is unspeakable. We're talking about people who are at the bottom of the economic food chain, who are already abused daily, and the legal system--because I can't call this justice--is crapping on them even more. We're not even talking about cops being able to consider the number of condoms you're carrying as evidence when deciding to make an arrest for prostitution--we're talking about a sex offender tag that gets marked on your driver's license for 15 years.

Again--we're not talking about child abuse here. We're not even talking about a crime where the person being arrested is harming anyone. And most importantly--we're talking about actions which over 90% of the population take part in regularly. I'd think that this law is unconstitutional after Lawrence v Texas, but what do you suppose the chances are that one of the people who gets arrested for this will be able to mount that sort of a defense?

The rest of the article will break your heart. People who are trying to get themselves straight are being tagged as sex offenders--and seriously, no one on this planet thinks "prostitute" when they see "sex offender." We think "kiddie diddler"--and so can't get hired for jobs. And if you wonder why some of these people don't challenge their sentences, well, according to Josh Perry, a former attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders office, “The way Louisiana’s habitual offender law works, if you challenge your sentence in court and lose, and it’s a third offense, the mandatory minimum is 20 years. The maximum is life." Why would you take the chance, if the system has already crapped on you like this?

Usually, this is the part of the post where I urge people to get involved, where I ask them to change the way they look at the world and try to do something about it, but right now, I'm at a loss. I'm despondent over this, because I don't know how to respond to this sort of hypocritical cruelty, to this willingness to actively ignore the humanity of others. It makes me angry--it makes me want to punch the next smug, moralistic sonovabitch I see right in the goddamn face. And then find another one.

Luck and Circumstance

This is going to come off as real hippy-dippy, I imagine, but it's what's on my mind right now. The Haiti blogging here and The Rumpus has really driven home to me the fact that people who live in first world countries are incredibly fortunate and we have little to complain about, especially if we're in relatively stable economic conditions.

I'm feeling right now what some of my religious friends mean when they say "I've been blessed," only I don't ascribe my situation to God--it's just dumb luck or circumstance that I was born in the US white, male, pretty healthy, moderately intelligent, and that I made it to adulthood with no more scars than anyone else.

And I remind myself of that in order to make sure I don't start thinking I've accomplished something on my own, or worse, that my life is crappy because even when I'm at my most stressed, even when I'm at my most broke, I've got a life that 90% of the planet would kill to have, and I didn't do a thing to earn it. I just got born in the right place.

This is what I've been able to find so far about local universities organizing relief efforts. If anyone out there finds something I've missed, please forward the information to me at incertusblog-at-gmail-dot-com.

Florida Atlantic University is working with student organizations such as Konbit Kreyol and the Caribbean Student Association with support from Student Government, to collect donations for relief efforts. Donations of canned food, non-perishable items and clothing may be made on the Breezeway of the Boca Raton campus from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the remainder of this week. All donations will go directly to Haiti for disaster relief. Links if they become available.

The University of Miami is working with the United Way and the medical school already has a presence in Haiti. Five doctors are on-site and casualties could be flown back to Florida for treatment.

Florida International University recommends donations be made to the Red Cross, and has made resources available to their students and faculty who have been affected by the earthquake.

That's all I have for now. I'm sure students at Broward College, Nova Southeastern, and the other local colleges are making relief plans, but I couldn't find anything on the university websites.

I probably shouldn't get as mad at Pat Robertson when he says something as horrifyingly stupid as he did in the clip below. After all, he's not the only religious freak who thinks his god kills innocent people for the "sins" of their ancestors, or who equates resistance to slavery with resistance to Jesus. And it's not like he's never done this before. He connected abortion to Hurricane Katrina and agreed with Jerry Falwell when he famously linked "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way" to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I would be surprised if he hadn't said something stupid today.

And yet it still set me off, and I don't really know why.

I suppose it has to do, in part, with the story Pat Robertson sells. Religion is already (as Amy likes to say and will hopefully write about some day) the most successful fiction ever, so successful that most people take it as a literal reflection of the world they live in. But Robertson's story is insultingly stupid. It's SyFy Original Movie stupid. Haiti wasn't the victim of plate tectonics--it was another example of God's revenge on them for making a deal with the devil two hundred years ago in order to throw off their chains. New Orleans wasn't hit by Katrina because hurricanes are natural occurrences--it was hit because abortion is legal and his god doesn't like that.

It's also because Pat Robertson isn't just some crank. Robertson is a powerful man in the religious right. His "ministry" takes in nearly $500 million a year, and he established Regents University Law School, which gave us Monica Goodling and a large number of other lawyers in the Bush administration. Politicians of all stripes show up on his tv show in order to reach his audience--an audience which presumably doesn't have any problem with his claims about his god smacking around innocent bystanders for the supposed sins of nonbelievers or the long dead. Even though his story is dumb, it's still popular.

And it's dangerous. It's dangerous because the more people believe that a god is able and willing to send a hurricane spinning toward a city, the less they're likely to believe that sounder construction codes and levees will save lives, and the less they're going to believe that emitting carbon into the atmosphere will eventually result in more powerful storms.

Most of the Christians I know look at Pat Robertson like he smells bad. They're also people who know the basics of plate tectonics, who understand that AIDS is not a plague sent to kill gays, who understand the basics of biological evolution and are worried about the environment. They're not stupid, and the god of their stories is more complex than Robertson's, who seems to be a two year old autistic child. I should just ignore him, because the chances his "ministry" is harmed by this latest inanity are small, and what people do walk away will likely return before long. And if things go well, I won't think about Pat Robertson for a long time, perhaps until he dies.

Or until there's another natural disaster, and he blames it on rap music.

Shorter version--Haiti got hit by an earthquake because they did a deal with the devil for their freedom from the French.

Haiti--Ways to Help

This is the post I put together for The Rumpus, which has a readership a thousand times larger than I do, but I figured it might be helpful here as well. I'm updating as I go.

I can't begin to tell you how bad the destruction is in Haiti after the massive earthquake yesterday. Reports right now are that the death toll is expected to be in the thousands and that bodies are being piled in the streets. I'm going to post a list of links for places where you can follow the news, but first, here's how you can help.

If you want to donate money but are a little short right now, the State Dept. has set up a way to donate via text message. Text "Haiti" to 90999 and a donation of ten dollars will be added to your next phone bill and forwarded to the Red Cross.

You can also give directly to the Red Cross here.

Mercy Corps is also there--you can donate to them here.

Partners in Health is already on the ground in Haiti.

Save the Children.

Yéle Haiti was established by Wyclef Jean and is also on the ground (though his server is really slow right now). You can also donate here via text message. Text "yele" to 501501 to donate $5 to the relief effort in Haiti.

The Mennonite Central Committee has been in Haiti since 1958 and is planning their efforts right now.

Mother Jones is also following the story and providing aid information.

Democracy Now! speaks with Edwidge Danticat and Kim Ives.

Richard Morse is in Haiti and tweeting details.

Some really rough photos posted through Twitter.

If you have suggestions for links to add, send them to me at I'll be updating this as the day goes on. Spread the word, but also open your wallets.

Haiti Relief

If you want to donate to the Red Cross for them to help with Haitian relief and you don't have any money right now (like us), the State Department has a solution for you. Text the word "Haiti" to 90999 and ten dollars will be added to your next cell phone bill as a donation to the Red Cross.

If you're on Twitter or Facebook or some other social media network, please post the link to the State department's website. And if you're on Twitter and you think you've been raising awareness and doing your part by re-tweeting other peoples' posts, you haven't been. Make a tangible contribution.

The Nazz

It's not Lord Buckley, but I couldn't find a full version of Lord Buckley doing this piece. It'll have to do.

The Freak Show Begins

The news today of Judge Warren Wilbert's ruling that Scott Roeder could present what is basically a justifiable homicide defense in his trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller got about the reaction you'd expect. Pro-choice people like me are outraged because of the fear that more people like Roeder will consider a 5-year term a small enough penalty to pay for doing what they consider to be the Lord's work, and that abortion providers who already face intense danger for doing something that is completely legal will be put in greater jeopardy.

I would like to point out that abortion is a great example of how, for most people who consider themselves pro-life, the walk doesn't match the talk. After all, if abortion is murder--and that is the common construction used--then the mother who gets the abortion is guilty of premeditated murder, isn't she? The medical personnel who perform the procedure are guilty of the same, presumably, and anyone who either helps the mother get the abortion, like a husband or boyfriend or relative or close friend, is guilty of being an accessory. But you never hear much from your run-of-the-mill anti-choicers about suggesting that anyone but the doctors going to jail, and sometimes not even them. And you really don't hear much about people like Scott Roeder who, if you take the anti-choice movement's stated claims about abortion seriously, are doing what follows logically, namely, trying to stop a holocaust.

And there's a simple reason why you never hear any of that from mainstream anti-choice groups--because they know that if most people who claim the tag of pro-life just stopped for a moment and thought about what they're arguing, they'd shrink in horror from the conclusions, because to do anything else makes you a monster. Their support would dry up faster than Randall Terry can make an ass of himself at a press conference, and they know that. So they hide behind slut-shaming and nonsense about life beginning at conception (even though 40% to 60% of fertilized eggs never implant and many of those spontaneously abort) and support ever more onerous restrictions on women who are already making a very difficult choice and they never acknowledge that they created Scott Roeder.

That's right. They created Scott Roeder. He took what they said literally and went to the logical conclusion, which was that Dr. George Tiller was committing murder and that the law wasn't going to stop him, and that it was worth whatever penalty the law could place upon him even unto his own death if it meant that Tiller wouldn't kill any more babies. That's the case Scott Roeder is going to make now, thanks to Judge Warren Wilbert (assuming he doesn't change his mind after hearing objections today). It would be easy for me to sit back here, as a blogger and English teacher, and say "bring it on!" (as our numbskull former President did once upon a time). "Let the freaks get in front of the camera like they did with Terry Schiavo!" It's easy for me to say because no one will be taking a shot at me for doing my job--a completely legal, constitutionally-protected job in the case of abortion providers.

But they will shoot at abortion providers, and the volunteers who escort patients in and out of the clinics, and the patients themselves, and they'll be encouraged to do it more if Roeder is allowed to present this defense to the jury, because there are more people who are willing to sacrifice five years of their lives to God than are willing to go the whole hog and really stick their necks out for their beliefs.

The only good that can come out of this ruling, assuming it stands, is if the media actually covers the freak show and shows it for what it is. If that happens, maybe, just maybe they overreach like they did with Schiavo--same people were involved in that fiasco--and the anti-choice movement takes a hit with people who are on the fence. But that's a longshot, and it's not worth it to me to take the chance that truly innocent people might be murdered by a psychopath who doesn't understand biology and thinks God has his back.

Ross Douthat and Faith

If I were feeling less generous, I would suggest that the only interesting idea in Ross Douthat's column today was the pull-quote on the front page: "If you treat your faith like it is too vulnerable to be disputed, you ensure that nobody takes it seriously." It's a great pull quote, and kudos to whichever editor grabbed that gem out of Douthat's piece, a piece, I will say, which is better than his usual attempt.

Indeed, I found myself nodding on multiple occasions while reading Douthat's column this morning, which might be a first for me. His description of the theoretical deal liberal democracies have struck with religion is cogent, as is his breakdown of the situation as it exists currently. His description of the reaction to Brit Hume's ridiculous comments about Tiger Woods is a bit over the top--"A great many people immediately declared that this comment was the most outrageous thing they’d ever heard" seems a bit hyperbolic to me, but I will admit that I too found some of the reaction against Hume's comments a little ludicrous. Of course, that's because my reaction was a little closer to Ta-Nehisi Coates' than most of the others I heard, namely that Hume's error was in doing it on a news show rather than in private.

I even liked the general thrust of this paragraph:

The tendency to take offense at freewheeling religious debate is widespread. There are European Christians who side with Muslims in support of blasphemy laws, lest Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad have his reputation sullied. There are American Catholics who cry “bigotry” every time a newspaper columnist criticizes the church’s teaching on sexuality. Many Christians have decided that the best way to compete in an era of political correctness is to play the victim card.
Douthat describes the current situation pretty well, I think, though it's not political correctness that created the current environment, but a backlash against it.

But while Douthat is ecumenical here, he leaves out one group who also criticizes religion. Other than a nod to non-believers in the opening paragraph, Douthat doesn't mention atheists, even though we're often portrayed as the greatest attackers of religion on the planet, and we're constantly accused of lowering the tone of the discourse. The funny thing about this is that if Douthat really believes his thesis, that "if you treat your faith like it is too vulnerable to be disputed, you ensure that nobody takes it seriously," he ought to be thanking the New Atheism, because we dispute, we challenge, we question the very premise of religious belief. When Douthat says "Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them," we agree--we just tend to emphasize the negative aspects a little more and suggest that there are other ways to achieve the positive ones.

And if the debate Douthat wants to have really does center around the question How then should we live?, then atheists should have a place at that table, because we'll offer insight on the perspective that this life is the only one we have, that our resources as a species are in many cases finite, and that if we want our species and our accomplishments to live beyond us, we'd better take concrete steps to ensure our descendants have an environment and eco-system they can survive in. Not believing in an afterlife can have that effect on you.

Of course, not every atheist looks at the subject this way. There are many who look at the lack of an afterlife--particularly one which doesn't result in punishment--and use it as an excuse to indulge in every possible excess. But even that is a perspective worth debating alongside the rest.

The most interesting thing to me about the question Douthat poses, though, is that it's a question we really don't want an answer to, nor, I think, should we. The human race would be awfully boring if we worked out the answer to "how then should we live?" Theology at its best doesn't provide answers--it provides more questions for adherents to explore. Atheists mostly look at the world that way already, as a jumbly mass of unasked questions--we've just taken God out of it.

Ted Olsen's conservative bonafides are unquestionable--he was at the first meeting of the Federalist Society, he ran The American Spectator and was one of the leaders of the Arkansas Project, which did everything it could to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency. He was lead counsel in Bush v Gore and was considered for the Supreme Court slot that Harriet Miers was nominated for and which Samuel Alito eventually filled (after some nomination switcheroo-ing).

And yet, in 2009, he joined with David Boies to challenge California's Proposition 8 which outlawed same-sex marriage, and in the latest Newsweek, he's written a good editorial outlining why he feels federal recognition of same-sex marriage is a conservative cause, or at least it should be. The whole thing is worth reading, though I doubt many minds will be changed by it. Yes, there's movement toward greater acceptance of same-sex unions in almost every poll, but I think that's due more to younger people who aren't hung up on homosexuality replacing older people who aren't willing to address their bigotry.

None of the arguments Olsen puts forward are new to anyone who's been engaged on this issue, but I like the way Olsen wraps his editorial up. Look at these two paragraphs.

California's Proposition 8 is particularly vulnerable to constitutional challenge, because that state has now enacted a crazy-quilt of marriage regulation that makes no sense to anyone. California recognizes marriage between men and women, including persons on death row, child abusers, and wife beaters. At the same time, California prohibits marriage by loving, caring, stable partners of the same sex, but tries to make up for it by giving them the alternative of "domestic partnerships" with virtually all of the rights of married persons except the official, state-approved status of marriage. Finally, California recognizes 18,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the months between the state Supreme Court's ruling that upheld gay-marriage rights and the decision of California's citizens to withdraw those rights by enacting Proposition 8.

So there are now three classes of Californians: heterosexual couples who can get married, divorced, and remarried, if they wish; same-sex couples who cannot get married but can live together in domestic partnerships; and same-sex couples who are now married but who, if they divorce, cannot remarry. This is an irrational system, it is discriminatory, and it cannot stand.
California's marriage laws are a clusterfuck of epic proportions and I doubt they'll stand, but I fear that the Supreme Court's conservatives, terrified that if they overturn Prop 8 and reinstate same-sex marriage in California will have to hear a Full Faith and Credit case soon afterward for someone in another state, will instead find a way to invalidate the 18,000 marriages that were performed when it was legal. And Scalia will probably lead the way, ignoring all his previous rhetoric about states' rights in the process. (Olsen takes a nice shot at Scalia on page 2 of the piece, which is nice.)

It's also nice to see Olsen completely dismiss those who argue that homosexuality is a choice. He could have done it in stronger terms--I think that it's better to argue for LGBT rights on the basis of individual liberty rather than biology--but he states quite clearly that being gay is no more a choice than being left-handed, and he uses the dreaded s-word, science, to make his point.

Like I said, it's a good piece all the way around. It's worth the 15 minutes or so it'll take you to read it.

A Note on Comments

I close comments on posts that are more than 30 days old. This is why. The widget I used to have on the sidebar that posted recent comments was wonky at best, and it cluttered up an already full sidebar. What this means is that if you comment on a post that's, oh, over a year old, the chances you'll get a reply are insignificant. If you're hoping for a conversation, you'll be disappointed, and if you're taking a shot, no one other than me will notice, because it gets shipped to moderation and I deny them out of hand.

If either I or Amy have something else to say on a subject that we've blogged about--and we often do--we'll address it in another post rather than carry on a conversation that's long since died. If you're a regular visitor--and I hope you will become one if you aren't already--then you'll get a chance to add to the conversation then.

One other thing. We don't get many conversations going here, but I still have no problem deleting comments I find offensive, racist, sexist, or which don't deal with the subject of the post. I allow for drift, certainly, but I won't hesitate to slap down threadjackers or spammers.

Religion and Women

Oh, Nicholas Kristof, now you've gone and done it. You've said aloud, and in the Sunday Op-Ed pages of the nation's biggest newspaper what anyone who has looked at religion objectively has long known--that religion is used as a tool to oppress women.

Notice what Kristof (and I) didn't say. We didn't say that religion oppresses women, because that removes the agency from the oppressors. It's a tool oppressors use to justify what they were going to do anyway; instead of oppressors having to acknowledge that they think women aren't as valuable as men, they use their holy writings (and interpretations of them) to say "God thinks women aren't as valuable as men, and we have to agree with God."

But Kristof isn't going to catch hell because he said anything inaccurate. He's going to catch hell because he said it at all. Those who defend the oppressive system will accuse Kristof of being intolerant of religion and will completely ignore the latter part of his article where he notes that some churches are trying to empower women. Others will accuse Kristof of painting with too wide a brush, as though thousands of years of history filled with example after example of male-dominated power structures oppressing women in the name of whichever god or gods are dominant in that area don't warrant a brush the width of I-95.

It's good that there are some religious groups which are trying to change the way women are treated and provide them with greater power. I applaud all efforts in that vein, even if I think the structures these groups are working within are hopelessly compromised. Obviously, I think a better way to do it is to remove god(s) from the equation, if only because it's clear that the god(s) created by the current dominant religious structures are misogynist. The holy writings of these religions are clearly opposed to equality between the genders--the best you get is when there are calls to limit the abusive treatment of women. Religious groups which argue for gender equality have to start from the premise that the holy writings their religion is based on are faulty, which immediately makes both doubters and fundamentalists wonder why they accept any of it as holy writ.

And both groups have a point. As a doubter, I think that most of the positive things one can get from religion are available from outside--the friendship and fellowship, the emotional support, the acceptance and the drive to make this world a better place aren't limited to religious groups. When I was a fundamentalist, I had an all-or-nothing attitude toward the Bible, though I'm still not clear on how we finessed the whole slavery thing, and so people who played the "some of the Bible is symbolic" card in an argument immediately lost any credence I'd given them.

Which isn't to say that all atheists are champions of gender-equality--we've got our share of misogynists as well. We just don't have a god to blame that misogyny on.

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods is a douchebag--this isn't really in question. He's anti-union, he claims to be a libertarian, and the latest is story is that he's a global-warming skeptic. And he's gotten rich by pandering to progressives--people like me who worry that big-agriculture and the processed meat industry are taking shortcuts with food quality and safety that can affect both our short and long-term health.

We don't shop at Whole Foods, but not because of the recent movement to punish the company for Mackey's political stances. We don't shop there because we can get the quality of food we want, organic and otherwise, from Publix, which is cheaper and closer (though there's a Whole Foods not far from where we live). But the reason we can do that is because of John Mackey. Douchebag or not, he proved that there was a market for organic products, even if the word organic is now starting to get stretched to cover things it shouldn't. We have better selection at Publix now because Whole Foods grabbed that part of the market and Publix responded by changing their selection.

And it's not just organic produce and organic processed foods I'm talking about here. Grocery stores everywhere now are offering specialty items like artisanal breads made in-house--ten years ago, that was hard to find outside of high-income or major metropolitan areas. Not so much anymore. And in a way, we have John Mackey to thank for it.

But thanks is about all I think I'll give John Mackey these days. He's rich enough, and I have other options.

While I'm on the subject...

Perhaps I'm thinking about crappy drivers and traffic because I'll start the commute again next week, or perhaps it's just a coincidence that I saw both these stories on the same morning, but after reading the piece below, I think I'd like to see more places take up this theory of handling traffic violations.

In 2002 Swiss voters approved a system that replaces prison terms for some offenses, including speeding, with fines based on your income. According to the Zürich based Tages Anzeiger (english translation here), the 53 year old man has an annual income of more than $820,000 and is worth well over $20 million.

And another tip if you are caught and given a hefty fine in Switzerland, don’t make any big claims to try and get out of the ticket. The Testarossa driver was initially fined almost $90,000 by the local jurisdiction. That fee was raised to more than $145,000 by the next court. The driver had claimed diplomatic immunity saying he is diplomat from the Republic of Guinea-Bissau.

Apparently that didn’t sway the courts and the fee was raised again to the $290,000 fine.

“The accused ignored elementary traffic rules with a powerful vehicle out of a pure desire for speed” the court said.
I have to admit that when I read this story, the first image that came to mind was the scene from "The Breakfast Club" where John Bender and Principal Vernon get into a pissing match which ends with Bender receiving seven (or eight) weeks of detention, depending on who's counting. But then I realized that I was siding with Vernon and I felt old, which wasn't cool at all. But then I realized that in no universe is anyone who drives a Ferrari Testarossa as cool as John Freaking Bender and it all worked out. I'm rambling.

I don't know where I'm going with this, really. I guess I just liked seeing someone with money and power get smacked down, even in some small way, by a locality that decided he deserved a smack.

A Modest Proposal

There's only a couple of ways I can think that automakers putting the internet on the dashboard of your car is a good idea. The first--and I'm serious here--is that it will force a leap forward in computer-controlled cars and massive automated traffic systems. The more potential distractions drivers have to deal with, the more traffic accidents there will be, and by extension, the more traffic fatalities there will be. There's no way we're going backwards and removing the potentially distracting devices, that's clear, so the next logical step is to remove drivers from the equation and turn the driving over to something else.

I expect there will be some intermediate steps--bans on anything that might distract the driver, for example, as is being tried (with not much success as I understand) with mobile phone use--but in the end, I think we end up with computer-driven cars, which would be terrific for people like me who often get out of the car after a commute questioning the collective intelligence of the human species. For the people who invoke that feeling, it's probably not a good thing, since control of their toys will be taken away.

The second way that automakers putting the internet on the dashboard of your car could be a good thing is that it could potentially thin out the gene pool of people who aren't showing the good judgment necessary for driving anyway. And I have a recommendation--once this hits the streets, certain lanes of traffic should be designated for non-internet capable vehicles, and one lane--both ways--for those which are internet-capable.

The Republican primary for the Senate is on. Marco Rubio, thanks to the support of teabaggers, has pulled even in his race with Charlie Crist to be the Republican nominee according to Rasmussen Reports. Side note about Rasmusses--it's a partisan outfit who polls Democrats low, but I have no idea if he's polling this Republican race straight or not. When they're running legit polls, they're good, as is shown by their performance around every election. But otherwise? No clue.

The NY Times is running a longish piece on the Crist-Rubio race in this week's Magazine. If you've been following the race, there's not much new here, but if you haven't, it's an easy way to catch up. For me, the race is only mildly interesting, because I wouldn't vote for either of them if you paid me. Kendrick Meek's my guy in November, which should be no great surprise. But I can't help myself when it comes to gaming this sort of stuff out--who, if anyone, should I pull for in the Republican primary? Even though it goes against conventional wisdom, I think my answer is Charlie Crist, and the reason is embedded in that NY Times article.

It's an article of faith that Meek can't beat Crist straight up for the Senate, and I agree. Crist is a moderate on enough issues that he'll pull independent voters to his side in any one-on-one matchup. And there's no question that Meek would have a far better shot one-on-one against Marco Rubio--Rubio is not a moderate, and his most vocal supporters are, to be kind, our of their damn minds. They could damage him incredibly with independents, and that could lead to Florida becoming one of the Democrats' hopeful spots in what's looking to be a rough midterm election cycle.

But it's not a given that Meek would beat Rubio straight up. Like I said, I like his chances better than against Crist in an identical situation, but it's not a sure thing, if only because Florida voters are, often, out of their damn minds on the whole. So why root for Crist in the primary?

A couple of reasons. One, he really is a moderate, and if he replaced Mel Martinez it wouldn't be the worst possible outcome in the Senate. Marco Rubio's hero in the Senate is Jim DeMint of South Carolina, after all. But second--and more importantly--if Crist wins the primary, I don't think we'll see a one-on-one matchup. The official Tea Party word is that even if it "nominated its own candidate, it would ask him to quit if it appeared that he were helping Meek," but that won't stop angry Tea Party members from writing in Rubio's name or just staying home. The rhetoric coming out of the tea party side of the movement is that of schism with the Republicans, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if this stayed a three person race after the primary. And Meek can certainly win that sort of race.

So if these are my options looking at the Republican primary: the potential of a three-way race with the Republicans split, or a two way race against a hard conservative that is by no means a sure thing and could result in a Tea Party Senator, then I have to hope for the first option, because that gives the best chance for the outcome I most want, and the smallest chance for the option I least want, which is Senator Marco Rubio.

Dealing With Death

I read this piece by Greta Christina after Amanda Marcotte tweeted about it saying "The possibility of annihilation after death doesn't bother me. My ego just doesn't work that way," which is a sentiment I share in part from the afterlife stories I was raised in. More on that in a minute.

The main question Christina's article asks is whether atheism offers as much comfort in death as religion does, and her answer is, well, it depends on the individual. And I think she's right. Jehovah's Witnesses have a view of the afterlife that's unique (so far as I can tell) among the Christian faiths, at least for the vast majority of adherents. See, the Witnesses believe that there will be a limited number of people who will go to heaven after Jesus's return--that's the 144,000 that they mention from time to time--and the rest will live on earth, which will be restored to paradise conditions by the faithful who survive Armageddon, the faithful who have been resurrected from the dead who didn't make the cut for heaven, and those people who never had a chance to convert, with a helping hand from God, presumably. The big thing they offer in this vision is detail--an end to strife and war, peace even between the animals, harmony with nature, food for all, and so on. Compare that to your garden variety Christian afterlife, which offers heaven (with no detail at all) and hell (in excruciating detail).

I've asked dozens of Christians, both when I was a believer and since, what heaven is like, what they expect to find after they die, and usually I get some sort of bemused smile as a response. Often there will be some talk about being reunited with dead friends and family, but there's never any talk about what they will do in heaven. When I was a Witness, I never thought about that question because I never had any expectation of being one of the 144,000--my place was going to be on earth (and potentially, in space, proselytizing the stars--I was a weird one).

Oddly enough, my religious beliefs might have helped me transition into atheism, at least as far as an afterlife is concerned, because of what I didn't believe in. Witnesses don't believe in a burning hell. It's at odds with their concept of Jehovah as a just and loving god, and they argue that the concept of eternal torment is something added in by later churches who corrupted the True Faith (which, of course, they are the only carriers of now). So death wasn't something to be feared; it was looked at as a sleep, a period of non-existence while you waited for Jehovah to resurrect you if you were faithful. And if you weren't, well, you didn't wake up. Hell, for us, was separation from God's favor, not an eternity in burning pitch being stabbed by a demon with a pitchfork. The only punishment that an unfaithful person would receive is being left outside the party, so to speak, a feeling Witness kids knew all too well since we didn't celebrate holidays, but with the benefit that since you were dead, you wouldn't even know you'd been snubbed.

So when I left the church, I left without any worry of post-life consequences. I hadn't believed in hell before, and there was no reason for me to start now. The thing I held onto, I suppose, was the notion that this life is all there is. The only difference is that now I felt more of an impetus to actually live this life.

Which isn't to say that I don't fear death. I do, though I'm not paralyzed by it. I'm more afraid of not being able to live well, though. My grandmother spent the last ten years of her life with Alzheimer's, and my father was diagnosed with it some years ago, though his memory problems may have had more to do with pernicious anemia (we don't talk anymore, a downside of the Witness experience, so I don't know his current health situation), so I'm more freaked out about the chances I'll lose my mind than my body. I'm completely in favor of medical technology that extends life spans--I hope to live long enough that I can be transformed into a cyborg (and I'm only half-joking here). As long as I can be a viable part of the human race, I want to be here, experiencing, learning, writing, you name it. I don't want to disappear.

But I'm not afraid of what will happen once I'm gone either. Humans did just fine before I came along and will do fine afterward, and some day, I'm sure, an asteroid will hit this planet or the inhabitants will over-pollute and all die or the sun will go nova or a super-massive black hole will eat our galaxy and all evidence this planet ever existed will disappear. None of us are immortal, though we try to make ourselves so.

I comfort myself with this. Even if there isn't an afterlife, I can be pretty sure that I won't be spending it sitting on a cloud for eternity, plucking a harp. Unless that's hell.

What Will the NFL Do?

I got into a nice little discussion with a couple of other commenters at the CBS Sports website over this Gregg Doyel column about Tim Tebow, the Florida gators quarterback who most analysts think will have a rough go of it in the NFL. Doyel's argument is that Tebow should refuse to go pro, that he's going to leave the college game as the best college quarterback ever and could do so after a masterful Sugar Bowl game. But that's not what I was interested in. It's his eyeblack that I want to talk about.

But I wasn't even going to write about that until I saw Rachel Sklar's piece titled "Tim Tebow is Magic, which is riffing off the Sarah Silverman film "Jesus is Magic." Sklar notes--as Doyel did--that Tebow is known for more than just his football skills. He's known for the "inspirational messages" he chalks onto his eyeblack before every game. They usually take the form of a Biblical citation, and the day after games, google searches and tweets including that verse are off the charts, according to Sklar.

I don't have a problem with Tebow "spreading the word" this way, nor do I have an issue with his true believer persona. He might even be that guy--I have no idea--though the odds are against that he'll stay that guy if he has an average-length pro career. And if he falls, it'll make the Tiger Woods fall look like a stumble. In fact, Tiger? If you want to get your name out of the tabloids, make Tebow a gift of Rachel Uchitel's party-planning services for the next couple of months.

But while I don't have a problem with Tebow Jesus-ing up his face for the cameras--and the most interesting thing I learned from Sklar's piece was that Fox Sports had one camera dedicated to him for the entire Sugar Bowl--I wonder if the NFL will. The NFL, as Chad Ochocinco can attest, doesn't much like individualism on the field. They prefer that the players not make themselves stand out from everyone else, even down to the uniforms. And this is not a new thing. Jim McMahon caused a ruckus when he started putting messages on his headbands--headbands, it should be noted, which weren't visible while McMahon was on the field, because they were under his helmet.

So what will happen when and if Tim Tebow gets on a pro field? Will the NFL take Tebow aside and quietly tell him that the eyeblack witnessing has to end or that he'll be fined? Or will they let it pass? The NFL doesn't like either option, I'm sure. Fining an NFL player, even one who won't likely be on the field much, for putting a scripture on his face won't go over well with a vocal percentage of fans. But let him do it, and the NFL opens itself up to no end of players using their faces to send messages. I'd love it, I'm sure, as would many fans. This could be Twitter condensed--6-8 characters max to get across some message, and some players would be changing eyeblack between series, just to get themselves on camera more often. I could see offensive players who are having good games updating their stats just to shove it in the defense's face. The possibilities are mind-boggling.

Which is why, I think, Tim Tebow has probably done his final eyeblack witnessing, even if it upsets the Christian fans who love it so. And that's sad, because it would be a small price to pay for the chance to see what Chad Ochocinco would put on his face.

Good Question

Sean Lovelace at HTMLGIANT asks "When was the last time you read a book you didn’t really want to read? How did that go?"

One of the great things about not being in graduate school anymore is that there aren't too many occasions when someone can really force you to read something you don't want to read. These days I'm only pushed to read something I didn't find on my own when I'm asked to review a book (or more accurately, consider reviewing a book) for The Rumpus or elsewhere. But I'm not sure that even gets to the point of the question, since I'm not starting from a point of resistance to the book itself.

If the answer requires completing the book, then I guess I have to go back to graduate school and the Romantic Poetry class I took with Dr. Wilkie who, for some reason I will never understand (and he was the second of my professors to do this to me), assigned a Jane Austen novel, and what's more, made it a center-point of the class. We read Pride and Prejudice, and I hated it. Yes, I'm a Philistine.

Okay, hate is too strong a word, because I didn't actually get worked up over it. I just found it tedious, and I didn't care about any of the characters in the slightest. I was actively wishing bad things to happen to all of them by the time I finished the book, and have managed to forget it almost completely in the years since. Like I said--Philistine.

If I get to include a book that I started but never finished, then the answer is more recent--the book An Irreverent Curiosity by David Farley. The Rumpus needed someone to review the book, and if you scan the site, you'll notice no review ever appeared. That's because none of the three people who offered to take the book on managed to finish it. I was the middle person. The subject of the book is supposed to be this search for a really odd relic of the Catholic Church which has been missing for a long time--Jesus's foreskin. I'll leave it to you to figure out how that story didn't make for compelling reading, to imagine what the writer had to do to that premise to make me not want to finish the book.

So what about you? When was the last time you read a book you really didn't want to, and how did it go?

I don't watch TV ads much anymore, thanks to the DVR (which may be the greatest quality-of-life improver of the aughts--sorry, smartphones), so I can't say I've seen this one other than via YouTube. Thanks a lot, Farhad.

Yeah, that's right. Charmin is advertising fewer left-behinds. Its claim--and I don't even want to know how they test for this--is that you'll get fewer pieces of tissue left clinging to your winkie compared to other tissue.

What's more effed-up, though, is the way they set it up. Mommy bear is checking Baby Bear for his/her day in the world--clean hands, clean teeth, clean...ass? I raised a kid, and not once (after she was out of diapers) did I do a bunghole inspection to make sure there were no toilet paper bits. Was I a neglectful parent? Because I'll cop to that, if the other option means I was supposed to take a chance on getting a face-full of something noxious before my kid--who was not going out bare-assed, I'd like to point out--hit the streets for the day. No thanks.

Simple Rule

Always always always, if you're using a debit card, enter your PIN instead of signing as a credit card. This is especially important if you're shopping at a locally owned business, whether it's a restaurant, gas station, or store. And it doesn't matter whether you're using a debit Visa or Mastercard--though as the article points out, Visa is really dickish in its behavior--entering a PIN is better for businesses, especially local ones whose margins are tighter.

Bad Comparison

Terry Hummer posted this link to Facebook, which then led me to this editorial from the Boston Globe on how American students are lazy, especially compared to their foreign counterparts, and I'm amazed by the giant, glaring error in both pieces. I'll get to that in a second.

Kara Miller, writing in the Boston Globe, compares her American students to her foreign students and notices a difference that anyone who's taught college classes notices--foreign students tend to work harder on average than our precious American snowflakes do. Maybe this is different at elite universities--never having taught at one, I can't say--but in my experience in grad school and at my current job, which makes for over nine years in the classroom, it's true. I had an example that mirrors Miller's just this past semester, as a matter of fact.

One girl from Shanghai became a fixture at office hours, embraced our college writing center, and incessantly e-mailed me questions about her evolving papers. Her English is still mediocre: she frequently puts “the" everywhere (as in “the leader supported the feminism and the environmentalism") and confuses “his" and “her." But that didn’t stop her from doing rewrite after rewrite, tirelessly trying to improve both structure and grammar.
My student was from Tokyo, but the rest is pretty much the same, and her effort earned her a B+ in a class where I gave only one grade higher than hers (that class was rough all the way around).

Miller's mistake--and the mistake of those who both applauded and criticized her piece--is that she's comparing two different groups. Foreign students are, in general, at the top of their classes either academically or economically or both, which means they've had access to learning opportunities that many of their cohorts in their home countries haven't had. We're getting some of the cream of their countries' crop. We're not getting the Bolivian football player whose girlfriend did his homework for him--but we do get the American version of that. We don't get the Chinese kid who doesn't really want to go to college but is because her parents demand she either do that or get a job, but we do get the American version--in every class.

In short, Miller is comparing a slice of elite-only students (spreading the term elite a little thin, admittedly) to a population which includes a number of decidedly non-elite students. No wonder the average American student comes off weak by comparison.

Which is not to say Miller's larger points about the problems in our education system aren't valid. They are. Many students are often unprepared for college, and a number of them go to college when they would probably be better off starting their careers. Our K-12 educational system is horribly overstressed and we seem to try to fix it in really stupid ways.

Maybe this stands out to me because I teach an unusually large number of foreign students. A large part of our student population comes from overseas and many went to high school in the US, so while they're foreign, they also fall into the category of "I'm going to college because that's what I'm supposed to do next" rather than having some push to go. They're Americanized, in other words, and would not be in an American university if they weren't already here. They might have gone to college in Venezuela or the Bahamas or wherever had their parents not come here--these aren't stupid kids--but they probably wouldn't have come to a US school otherwise. And their work ethic shows why. They get by, or they don't. They're not inherently hard workers just because they were raised in a different educational system.

The foreign students who bust their asses would do so no matter what educational system they were in, because they're the kind of kids who bust their asses. We're just lucky to have them in our classrooms.

It would be amusing to watch these evangelical ministers try to crawfish their way out of their connections to Uganda's treatment of gays and lesbians, amusing if people weren't dying, that is. And I have absolutely no confidence that they'll take away anything helpful from this experience, even if they say things like "I feel duped,” and "Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people.” Because even now, even faced with the reality that they have helped enrage a population to the point where they are ready to murder people for being gay, they're not backing down from their essential claims: that gay people can be converted to heterosexuality, and that gays recruit children into their lifestyle. Even seeing the sort of hatred their teachings can foster isn't enough to make them reconsider their point of view, which makes their claims that they didn't want something like this to happen ring a little hollow.

These three men--Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundige and Don Schmierer--have made a living spreading lies and more importantly, fear about gays and lesbians, not just in the US, but around the world. But now that there's a government which wants to take their claims to their violent but logical conclusion, they want to back away? No way--you own this. If you tell enough people, loudly and with a cocktail of religious argument and pseudo-science to back your claims, that a group is a threat to them, then you can't be surprised when some of those people decide to act on that threat. It doesn't even take that many of them--they just need to either be really committed or they need to be connected. Sound familiar? I just described Operation Rescue, especially in the early days. I just described al Qaeda. Only now the target isn't abortion doctors or the Great Satan--it's the LGBT community in Uganda.

And I hope both the US and other donor countries who provide aid to Uganda tell its government that its "compromise" to change the death penalty for being gay to simply life in prison isn't good enough. The law needs to disappear completely or the aid stops.

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