The Midterm Mandate: Stand for something.

I recently got a trial subscription to HBO. I would never have asked for it, and I can’t imagine making enough money to ever have added it to my cable subscription; a suscription that I keep mainly because you cannot get decent reception locally, and I really love BBC America. HBO is an incredibly low priority in my life. Since I have it, though, I have been binge watching “The Newsroom”.

I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing. I loved his movies and I have loved his Tv shows since my exwife introduced me to her Sports Night DVDs back in 2001. I found copies of the West Wing up to that point and I watched every episode until it was canceled. As a person who grew up Republican and wasn’t ashamed to call myself one until the 2000 nomination (and I say that as a Texan), I love that the main character of  “The Newsroom” is a Republican with fairly moderate views.

In an episode in the second season, he is asked about his party affiliation. He then asks why no one ever asks the question, “Why are you a Democrat?”

I can answer that. The Republican Party stands for things and against things. They have a platform that is full of value statements, if very little policy. The fact that almost no one agrees with all of those statements isn’t actually a flaw. It means that people choose to be Republican because they agree with more of them than not, or, in too many cases, they have a small group of issues that matters so much to them that they are willing to vote against their interest on everything else to support those positions. That is exactly why, as happened in “The West Wing” before, people are asked why they are Republicans.

http://youtu.be/QNoauwt0NE0?t=4m57sThe Republican Party stands for things, and even when Republicans disagree with some, many, or most of those positions, it matters to them to stand for the rest and for it to be known that they would rather stand on that ground and accept the consequences than to move.

Let me say that I have come to understand how dangerous that thinking is. I also know full well how powerful and seductive it is.

The reason that few people are ever asked why they are Democrats is then threefold:

  1. The opponents tend to think in terms of issues and ask about specifics rather than the party; “How can you support more government intrusion?” “Why don’t you just say it is wrong to kill unborn babies?”
  2. They know that the average Democratic voter isn’t loyal to the Democratic party anymore; there isn’t much leadership or vision capable of inspiring loyalty.
  3. Democratic voters aren’t really loyal to the party for the above reason, and so they don’t tend to own the label strongly in the first place.

As the right has moved the conversation further and further to the right, the center has been taken in by the Democrats. More people are calling themselves Independent with each election cycle, fleeing the GOP ranks without committing to the Democrats. They have gladly tried to cater to this ground swell, such that there is no longer a real platform under the party. If every seat is thought of as building material for their platform, every candidate adding either thickness or width to a plank, then they have, to use a phrase, spread themselves thin at the expense of depth and stability. And this, I think, has finally cost them more than it has earned them in an election.

When the Democrats failed to show up with strong opinions and a defense of their leadership, both in the White House and the Senate, people realized that the platform was about to give out. Nothing more could get done, in part because the Democrats had given up on doing them. They weren’t trying to convince people that they could lead, and so the people took away their leadership. It wasn’t that the Republicans made such a better claim, but at least it seemed like giving them a chance might result in something getting done. At the very least, it reminds the Democrats that they owe the public more than platitudes. At least, I hope that it does, because what we need is progressive leadership, and the Tea Party backed GOP isn’t capable of that.

Ignorance Is Not A Sin, Pride Is: Climate Science and Congress

I am not a Mexican. I have ever even been to Mexico. If you were to ask me about the authenticity of a particular restaurant, I couldn’t help you. What if, on the other hand, you asked 20 Mexicans, and 10 of them said “Absolutely authentic,” and 5 said “Pretty close,” and 4 said “Well, not from my part of the country,” and one said “No”? I would trust that it is authentic, wouldn’t you?

I am not a coder. All code looks a little random to me. If you asked me if a bit of code were efficient or well done, I could not answer you. I would ask a few friends. If I asked 50 friends to evaluate it, and 25 of them said it looked great, 15 of them said “I think it looks good, but that’s not a language I am really skilled at, so maybe it could have been done better,” 7 of them said “It will defintely get the job done, but it could be more efficient,” and the last three said, more or less “No”. I will still use that code with confidence.

Like so many members of Congress, I am not a scientist. Like members of congress, I have not really studied the issue of climate change and I could not hope to make reasonable predictions about the effects of greenhouse gasses and global temperature shifts. Like Congress, I am not ashamed to say that I don’t have the expertise to make predictions or reasonable hypotheses  about the effects of energy or economic policy on the atmosphere and how that will change the habitability of the planet. That isn’t my job.

Honestly, that is what should be great about having career politicians; we should elect people who know about policy and law and economics to handle those things for us because we can’t all be experts in all things. Like us, politicians call for plumbers when they have a leak or doctors when they are ill because, like us, their job focuses on a different skill set and knowledge base. Like us, they shouldn’t all be scientists, because they need to know the legal system, the financial system, how our highways are built and repaired, and many other aspects of creating policy to make the country run better.

The problem is that many of these politicians are looking at the science, reading the conclusions of scientists, and, not understanding it for themselves, they are ignoring what the professionals are trying to tell them because the truth is comfortable.

The federal government has several divisions that are paid to do research and make predictions. Those divisions have helped us prepare for tornadoes and hurricanes. They have helped us target missiles and fly aircraft into dangerous situations. They have taken us to the moon and landed a robot the size of a small SUV on Mars. They have proven that they are good at science, and they warn us that climate change is real, and that humans are impacting it in a substantial way. That means that we could change our actions and have an impact on the course and rate at which this change is happening, and that certain actions will improve the stability of the countries and infrastructures currently in place.

When it comes to war, the Republicans are on the record saying that the government, and especially the current president, should trust the generals. They believe that the people who have fought in and risen to lead our military are trustworthy on issues of national security. The Pentagon has had military scientists looking at this, and the US military has concluded that Climate Change is a threat and that renewable energy needs to be a priority in national security. Why aren’t we listening?

When it comes to atmospheric science and the ability to look at the big picture here on Earth, few human institutions come close to the resources of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They put most of our satellites in orbit, and they track weather patterns and changed to geography. We pay them to do it, because we need that information. Their mission is the advancement of science with the intent to “benefit all humankind“. They have been tasked with the non-partisan job of making the world a better place for people. They warn that climate change is a real threat to human civilization as we know it.

Over 97% of the papers taking a position on the cause of global warming agreed that humans are causing it.

97% of scholarly papers from scientists working on the issue take the position that humans are driving climate change.

More importantly, as with the examples I opened with, we can trust that the people who know what they are talking about agree that human activities, especially the release of carbon that had previously been trapped underground in fossil fuels like oil and coal, back into the atmosphere, are making the problem much worse. Scientists who are working in the field of climate change overwhelmingly agree that it is a problem, and that we can make changes that will lessen its impact.

Now, of course there are some who look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. That happens in every field. Literary scholars argue about author intent. Music scholars may argue about the historical value of certain composers. Biblical scholars are the reason that there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity. And, this is a really good thing in science, as the point of peer review is to be skeptical and make sure that the facts point to the conclusion reached. We need curmudgeons and malcontents to keep everyone on their toes and honest. Sometimes, the facts available require a change to the conclusions that science has been working from. That is how we discovered climate change to begin with.

What we see here, though, isn’t scientists arguing about methodology or conclusions. What we see here is an overwhelming consensus of professionals who are being ignored anyway because what they have to say is inconvenient. We have lawmakers admitting that they are not scientists, in the same way that the President of the United States is not a general, and instead of listening to the experts and taking the advice of the majority, they are choosing to do nothing on an issue that threatens us all.

“I am not a scientist” should be a bold statement of ignorance and willingness to listen to professionals. Instead, it is being used as a smoke screen to dishonestly claim that no one knows what the facts are. The folks doing so should be ashamed of their hubris.

I am not a feminist, but you can call me that if you want to.

That’s right: I rarely refer to myself as a feminist. I don’t like the term. I don’t think it applies to me. This frustrates my significant other at times, and so I thought I might share my thoughts, because others might find them equally maddening, and that is good for page hits. Let me explain further with a comparison:

I am not gay, transgendered, or otherwise “Queer”. I don’t cal myself a part of the LGBT community, though I fully support their right to be heard and included and their civil rights. I do not have their experiences, and I cannot rightly claim to be one of them. I mess up all the time when talking about the issues of homosexuals, including the fact that many of them now dislike the term “homosexual”. I certainly mess up when speaking about and with transgendered persons and it is nearly impossible to speak about the gender-nonbinary without an introductory lesson in each person’s preferred lexicon.

I am, likewise, uncomfortable calling myself a feminist. I support equality and representation and empowerment, but I do not have the personal experience with discrimination to draw from. I do not have a connection with “feminism” that runs any deeper than my connection with the LGBTQ community: I love these people, and I support them, but it feels wrong to claim to be a part of their struggle. I am an ally for equality and justice, but that is the only label I am comfortable with. It is not that I am against feminism, or even just the word; it just doesn’t speak to who I am or what I am for.

I am an ally for all those people who need to be heard and who need to be treated better. I am strongly against gender bias, and actually against the concept of binary gender even as I am very happy and comfortable as a man. I want my penis to matter less in other people’s valuation of me than what I give back to the world. I want that for everyone no matter what their biology, how they dress, or how they identify. If you think that makes me a feminist, then so be it. I don’t call myself by that term except when it must be defended against people who use it as a slur.

To the School Board (any of them)

This post is an open letter to all school boards and administrators, but it was written in repsonceto this post about Strasburg, Colorado by author John Green over on his Tumblr.

I have read that there are some members of your community who have registered complaints that certain books currently being used to educate your teenaged students are “profane, pornographic, violent, criminal, crass, crude, vile, and will result in the irreparable erosion of my students’ moral character.” I am familiar with most of these books, and with the broader world. I counter their claims by saying that the world is profane, pornographic, violent, criminal, crass, crude, and vile, and that we need young adults who are prepared for that. We need them to learn empathy and problem solving. We need them to be aware of the struggles of others and to be able to imagine the thoughts of people who have lead very different lives. That is what fiction can do for us.

We can only protect children for so long. That time is better spent preparing them to be adults. We can give them books full of bad words and bad decisions, and offer a safe place to talk about how those choices effect the outcomes. We can show them young people involved in adult situations, and if those situations are written well, as in “Go Ask Alice” and “The Fault in Our Stars”, our children can learn to make better choices while at the same time learning empathy for those to whom life has been less kind.

There are bad books written for young adults. There are good books which were not written for young adults. Don’t let the content be the primary thing on which you judge them. Look at the language, the style, the overall theme, and determine if there is something in them that your students can learn from. We don’t learn unless we are exposed to new ideas. We aren’t even able to judge our values if they are never questioned. If you want your students to be able to defend the values you hope to instill, then you have to train them in that defense, and this can only be done by challenging those values in safe, structured environments, like the classroom of a dedicated teacher.

Please consider the value that comes from bringing the big, crude, profane world to your children on your own terms before they are let loose into it. We don’t teach kindergartners about witches and wolves anymore. We shelter our kids far too long. As a member of Generation X, I can tell you that the tendency to sterilize fair tales and choose impotent novels has set up a lot of young adults for failure. They don’t know how to make the tough choices. No one taught them how to have emotionally healthy relationships or to defend their ideas and values in a world where you have to stand for something.

Children need fiction. They need stories that challenge them and ask them to look at the world very differently. They need to learn from the mistakes of others, or they will have to go out and make those mistakes themselves.

Thank you for your time.
Thomas Earthman

Why Unitarian Universalist Must Embrace Evangelism

My normal blog entry works up to a point. I spend time on the facts and details and build my case before making the statement that I am trying to convince readers of. Not today. Today, I think my point is pretty clear, and while I will back it up below, I want to make it now and tell you exactly why Unitarian Universalists need to create a form of evangelism that works for us:

People need us to tell them about our loving, inclusive faith communities. We need people to join us in our work to create and expand our beloved community.

I recently took the time to again listen to a presentation that Peter Morales and Don Southworth gave in 2000 about Unitarian Universalist Evangelism. It is a great presentation, and I highly recommend listening to it. There is an MP3 for it, which can be found on UUA.org, near the top of an article entitled “Evangelism: Letting Our Love Reach Out“. In this presentation, Rev. Morales say that he feels shame when he hears people say things like, “I was a UU for 20 years, but didn’t know it.” He says, rightly in my opinion, “…it means that we haven’t done the very simple thing of communicating who we are.”

On that same page, the UUA itself claims that we have a responsibility to reach out to others, and tell them who we are while we are working to improve our communities. As they put it, “Evangelism is the natural result of a deep belief that we Unitarian Universalists have something important and precious to offer. Evangelism is founded on the beliefs that people have a need for religious community, for deep relationships, for spiritual exploration, for social involvement.”

That is the first half of my claim: People need us. They need to know that they can be loved for who they are, even as we encourage them toward spiritual and personal growth. There are people looking for what we provide. They want us to find them, and we should want them to find us.

I feel like the second part of my thesis shouldn’t need to be defended, but I’m not known for being brief.

We need to share our Principles. They are 7 imperfect statements that form a very functional framework for how humans can share our planet and its limited resources with the rest of creation. If we agree that we should “affirm and promote” them, then we should be eager to tell people about them and how they shape our lives, individually and as communities who gather around them. Certainly, not everyone is ready to embrace them all, but if we can find even one that a person agrees with, then we can find problems that we can agree to work together on.

More over, I firmly believe that people who are exposed to diversity learn to see it as a positive thing that makes a community more adaptable and capable of addressing a wider range of problems. I believe that an educated person will see that a rational approach to the world, as opposed to one guided primarily by superstition, will see that reason and scientific study have solved many more problems than has faith alone, and I hope they will see that science and religion do not have to be at odds when each is given its proper authority. Crucially, I believe that a person who has embraced both diversity and education will find themselves more drawn to liberal religion. It is a position held by a great many fundamentalist, too, who denounce reason and learning, lest their flock find their teachings too constrictive.

If we share, we will grow. Even those who do not join a UUA-member congregation will still be better allies for our social justice and outreach. Our willingness to speak up and define ourselves will help us find partners, and it will help those who already embrace our values become members of our communities and our movement.

We have to be willing to speak of the salvation we offer; salvation from oppression and self-doubt. We need to believe that we have a message worth sharing. We need to stop being embarrassed by the language of religion, and start challenging ownership of ideas like God, Sin, and Spirit.

We need a Unitarian Universalist form of Evangelism that involves more than protests and Pride floats. We need to wear our affiliation proudly when we go out in the world and do good, whether it is volunteering at a food bank or just giving a tourist directions. We need to let the world know that our faith shapes our lives, and that there is a faith for those who want to bring a type of heaven to everyone here on Earth.

Privilege: Oppression by Omission

“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Gloria Steinem

That is the goal, isn’t it? People, all people, having choice and self determination? What can you do to help us get there? Well, if you are anything like me, then it starts with an admission that we have to participate in the process by getting out of the way. If you are a man by biology and personality, are of northern-European decent, or are attracted primarily to those of the opposite gender, then you have a cultural privilege. It isn’t your fault that other people have prejudice, but it is your responsibility to stand up to it and refuse to allow it to be part of your culture any longer. If you won’t do it, then the discrimination goes on until the discriminated are powerful enough to overthrow the system or are exterminated.  We’ve seen extermination in Europe, and we’ve seen both outcomes in various parts of Africa. We can do better, and we have to. We need equality, and it can only come peacefully if straight, white men (and everyone who fits into one or more of those categories) demand it of each other. We are the dominant groups in our culture, and like it or not, we are the problem.

People will tell you that their family isn’t racist, “It’s just my Grandfather and a couple of uncles, so we just don’t provoke them.” People will tell you that a political movement isn’t racist, sexist, or homophobic, or biased against minority religions if only some of the people it represents hold any or all of those views. People will tell you that they aren’t biased, but their company, their industry, their department, their culture has a problem, and they don’t want to rock the boat.

That is the defining point of “institutional” discrimination; a segment of the population, no matter how large or small, sees the problem, but doesn’t think that they can effect change because the problem is small, or wide spread, or any other of a number of excuses for letting it happen to other people. That kind of discrimination, whether it is sexism, racism, or discrimination against those with handicaps, requires a group with power which uses their power to oppress others. A person can be prejudiced, but only a culture can have institutional discrimination; it requires a group of like people who are empowered to protect their status, and who are allowed to do so.

That is the definition of cultural privilege. I can speak of privilege; I have plenty of it, and the places where I am an outsider are so far outside the norm that we aren’t even really talking about them. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m male. I am the default hero in a romantic comedy (most kinds of comedy, really), and I look a lot like the action hero, too. Since we don’t see religion as a major theme in a lot of movies, television shows, or books, my most prominent sticking point isn’t really talked about much. We talk about Islamophobia and antisemitism, but we don’t really have discussions about the privilege of being Christian in the US, and that is clearly one of the biggest problems I may ever face with discrimination in this country.

So, I am speaking from a place of privilege, to people with varying degrees of privilege. We cannot ignore our position in the dominant culture, because of gender, race, primary language. We have to be aware of the advantages that come to those in the US with fair skin or the appearance of male-ness, or simply a functional English vocabulary, or an understanding of Christian culture and symbolism. More over, we need to understand that any one of those things is still privilege, even if you only have one working in your favor. A Black man who is a baptist still has advantages over his sister or a black man of similar build who was raised Islamic, or to whom English is a second language, even where his skin tone causes him trouble. A white woman will still face less scrutiny than a black woman, or,in many cases, a black man. While it might not come up as often, I can tell you that a white man who has turned away from Christianity, even though he was raised to it and knows it better than most believers, will face discrimination over the choice. It has never cost me a job, that I know of, but I am certain that it would have if it had ever been known to at least one employer.

I don’t say this to compare my struggles with those of anyone else; I refuse to believe that we can compete for equality and I know I have it easier than most. I say that I have faced some discrimination in my own life to illustrate that I don’t take my privilege lightly. I try not to use it as a crutch, and I never hold it over anyone else. We cannot have an unequal fight for equality.

What I am saying is that Privilege is real. To deny that it exists is to literally deny the institutional nature of the discrimination faced by women, by persons of color, by those with disabilities, or by those from minority cultures or religions. It is fine to say that it can be hard to be a man, living up to expectations, but to do so must come with the understanding that those expectations are unfair to all genders and that it is still men who hold most of the power. Your ex-wife wins custody “because she’s the woman”? That’s not fair to her, either, because it presumes that she’s more willing to suffer in her professional life. It is the system punishing you for not properly owning your family, in a manly way, and letting your marriage “fall apart”. That isn’t women oppressing men, it is a male dominated culture claiming that women are better suited to raising kids. Feminists don’t want that, either.

You didn’t get the job you wanted because, all things being equal, a minority was hired instead? Or even someone who wasn’t quite as qualified, but had darker skin? Well, then let’s remember that the qualifications they have were harder to earn. Let’s remember that black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to repeat a grade, and that more than 70 percent of K-12 students who were arrested or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black. The people who make it through all of that deserve a little more consideration for the effort.

Ultimately, the thing about privilege is that we have the choice to ignore it. Being white factors into almost none of my decision making in a given week. Being a man, I can go to the store or for a walk and have very little concern about what I am wearing because anything it does say about me isn’t really going to bring me any real trouble. if I look good, then I just look good with very little chance of sexual assault. If I look like a slob, there is little chance anyone will feel compelled to comment. It is up to me to notice that my relatively positive treatment is a privilege, and to use it to stand up for those who aren’t being treated fairly. It is up to me to use my visibility, my better chance at an education, a job, or a television appearance, to speak up and demand equality for those who don’t have the odds in their favor the same way.

It is the responsibility of those who have privilege to reach out to those in need of recognition, because we need their ideas and we need their participation in our society. They have things to share and to teach us. They can help us be a better culture. It is up to those of us with more options to work to share those options with everyone, because equality isn’t equality if it only applies to some groups. It is, by definition, still privilege. You cannot refuse to believe in privilege without also disbelieving the underlying discrimination that comes with it. You can’t ignore racism, sexism, ablism, or many other forms of institutional discrimination without ignoring not just statistics, but millions of individual identities across the nation. When you say “That’s just Grandad” or “Boys will be boys”, what you are really saying is “I’m Ok with a little discrimination”. Only, discrimination is insidious, and there is no such thing as “a little bit”; it is always either being consciously fought with education and active changes to policy and practice, or it is hurting more and more people, denying them their rights and depriving us all of their full potential.

FYI: A reply to Mrs. Hall

As a father with 2 boys and 3 girls in my care, I feel I have to respond to FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). If you haven’t read it, and don’t care to click through, let me give you a quick breakdown.

This is a mother who loves her kids. She clearly understands that she needs to be involved in their social lives, and monitors their social media, looking with them at posts made by their friends. The thing is that she is putting on notice the young girls who are friends with her sons: if mom thinks a post is too provocative, the friend is blocked. No warning and no second chance. She doesn’t initiate a conversation. She doesn’t tell her sons that she has high expectations of them. She puts it on the girls not to temp her boys. And she does it in a post that features pictures of her sons, topless, in their bathing suits.

I applaud the effort. I thank her for being a concerned and involved parent. I question her assertion that a teenaged girl bares the responsibility for her sons’ impure thoughts. I disagree, strongly, with her assertion that one picture that she finds mildly offensive is grounds for ending a friendship, or even just an on-line connection. I dispute her claim that “once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it”.

Girls do not owe it to the world to hide their bodies. You are allowed to find it offensive or appealing, but they do not owe you their modesty any more than they owe the world their nudity. Each of us has a body, and it can be argued that it is the only thing that we truly own. I’m sure that you are teaching your boys to respect women, but they need to know that every woman, and every man, deserves respect. Even the scantily clad woman on the street corner could be an  addict in need of health care she can’t afford, a single mother trying to keep food on the table, or even an undercover police officer. Who are you to judge any of them? It isn’t the job of a woman to guard herself against the impulses of men. That is the job of society as sure as the need to guard one person against the murderous rage or the felonious greed of others. We teach that it is wrong, we instill responsibility and respect in our kids, and we prosecute those who act on their impulses.

As I have said before, though never written into a full post, this is the kind of misogyny that is as damaging to men as to women; it claims that men can’t help themselves, and that they shouldn’t be blamed when they act on impulses that they were never told to control. I can see a woman in a towel, in a hospital gown, or a burqa, and still get to know her as a person of inherent worth and dignity who deserves the chance to earn my respect. And a second chance. And if the second goes badly, there are always opportunities to earn another by embracing your inherent worth and being good for the world. But, unlike Mother Hall, I not only believe people can change for the better, and that teenagers can do so in a very short time, but that you can change the world for the better while wearing a bikini. That’s what I teach my kids, too.

If you just can’t get through those two points, though, please remember that people do change. People learn from their mistakes, and they do it faster and more effectively when the people around them help them, lovingly, to see the errors that they have made and support the effort to fix the problem. Everyone can be better today than yesterday, but they have to believe that there is a reason to try. We all have inherent value, as humans, to one another. Each of us has experiences that we can share with the rest of the world. When we recognize that and nurture it in those around us, we gain so much more than we ever could through shame or derision. These young women might be the ones most in need of good boys in their lives, who will value them for more than their appearance. They may be looking for validation, and by refusing to let your sons communicate with them, they might continue down a road of self doubt and manipulation when all they really needed was a good friend. Then again, they might just be that self-aware, which could make them excellent influences on your own kids.

In short, congratulations; you are a good mother who clearly wants the best for her kids and who hopes to instill in them a sense of self confidence and self respect. Your heart is in the right place, and I am sure that you are doing many things well. This policy, though, is not one of those things. I doubt you will read my reply, with over 600 comments on your blog already. I couldn’t ignore the core of your message, though, because I think the consequences of your actions will be at odds with the intent, and I hope that writing this will help someone, if not you, see that there is a better way to teach your boys to respect women than by telling them that these young girls are unworthy of their friendship.