Sunday, October 24, 2010

Meeting An Old Friend

Today I had lunch with fellow blogger Nance and her husband. Up until today, Nance and I had pursued our friendship via a joint blog post, emails, comments on each other's blog posts and membership in two blog coops--Swash Zone and Hen's Teeth. Come to think of it, I actually think that I have communicated more with Nance than with some people whom I see every day.

We met in Chapel Hill, a town that I lived in for 25 years. I currently live about 35 miles away in Raleigh. I suggested that we have lunch at a popular Chapel Hill Restaurant, Breadman's--not my best idea. Breadman's is a fixture in Chapel Hill; it was in existence when I came to town in 1973. It has a large menu but it seems that they don't serve all of the menu all the time. For some reason, there is nothing on their menu to indicate that certain items are not available except a few asterisks next to a list of vegetables. Neither Nance, nor I, nor her better half read asteriks (clearly a dead language) so when we innocently attempted to get cornbread and fried chicken we were told, "Sorry, but we don't serve either for lunch on the weekend but it's available after 5:00 o'clock." As you may have noted, neither cornbread nor fried chicken is a vegetable so we didn't even have the benefit of an asterisk to clue us in as to the unavailbility of these items. Nonetherless, we were able to find some tasty items on the menu that were being served for lunch.

There was so much conversation that I can no longer recall all the particulars of what we discussed, just that it was lively, and entertaining, and a totally delightful 2+ hours. I did share my fascination with the television show 24, a violent spy drama starring Kiefer Sutherland; however, I thought it best to save discussion of my other favorite shows for our next visit: Criminal Minds (about the FBI Behavorial Analysis Unit that profiles serial killers), and Dexter (about a serial killer who works for a police department but he only kills people who deserve it). Did I mention that I'm a pacifist; I just like to watch make-believe violence.

Just in case you're curious, Nance is a beautiful woman; her outside reflects her inner beauty. She is as interesting to chat with as her post are interesting to read. Her husband is also a charming conversationlist. I can't recall if Nance refers to him in her blog as DT, DH, or DJ. With my bad memory, the answer is probably none of the above.

 P.S. Nance took pictures; I forgot my camera!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Unholy Trinity: Beck, O'Donnell, and Palin

A fellow blogger who goes by the handle of Capt. Fogg inspired what began as a comment on his post, Masters of Mendacity, but grew into a post of my own. The Captain's post adroitly dissects the fallacies at the heart of the ongoing proclamations by Palin, O'Donnell, and Beck that feed the clamor from the Tea Party of, "We want our country back." The basic reasoning appears to follow the lines of, "America is a Christian nation, founded by God or at the very least endorsed by God and it (America) must be saved from liberals." One of Palin's latest proclamations is that that the Constitution tells us that our "Unalienable rights" come from God. Christine O'Donnell has declared that the Constitution isn't merely a legal document but a covenant based on divine principles. Glenn Beck appears to have anointed the Constitution to be his Gospel, and himself as the Second Coming.

They aren't just liars, they are flat out wrong. There is no mention of God or unalienable rights in the Constitution; perhaps Palin, have confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. That document states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

What fascinates me about the language regarding unalienable rights is that Jefferson's concerns weren't about worshipping a particular God but about declaring that there were rights inherent to being human that could not be usurped and that the purpose of government was to protect those rights as opposed to curtailing them or taking them away. I think that his use of the term Creator reflected the broader concept that such rights were natural rights, innate rights that were not given but existed without being conferred or bestowed by any government.

Beck, Palin etc. have chosen to harp on this language as proof that this is a Christian nation. Based on the varied writings of Jefferson, Madison and others, I'm of the opinon that the furtherest thing from their intent was founding a Christian nation. I think that a modern debate on this matter fails to understand the worldview of the founders. These men were readers of Locke, Rousseau,Hobbes, and Aristotle. They struggled with the philosophical concepts of who are we and what is our purpose, not some fight over whose God was better. They actually thought about the purpose of government and concluded that it was to serve the people and that the power of the government came from the consent given by the governed.

It was a revolutionary idea, Certainly the English Monarchy didn't recognize its power as coming from the people but viewed its power as God given and superior to the will of the people. The Declaration took that philosophy on with its bold proclamation about unalienable rights endowed by the Creator. It was an assertion against the then ruling idea that the government decided which rights to grant the people and which ones to deny them. It wasn't a proclamation supporting Christianity but a declaration against tyranny.

As for attributing such language to the Constitution, it just raffirms my belief that most of the people shouting about the Constitution as being a covenant based on divine principles have never read the document with even a modicum of comprehension. The Constitution is a secular document that establishes the practices and laws governing the operation of the government. The Preamble states the purpose of the Constitution clearly and succinctly: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (There are many sites on the Net with info on the Preamble and the rest of the Constitution. I cited to Wikipedia here because it was the best of about a dozen sites that I checked. Up to date, and fully documented.)

Citing the United States Constitution as a religious text makes about as much sense as declaring that my telephone book contains the secrets of the universe.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Tea Party: Full of Insignificant Sound and Fury

I find myself again needing to wash my mouth out with soap, having engaged in another round of WTF with no expletives deleted. When I was a child my mother temporarily banned me from watching Lassie. I would cry so hard every time Timmy got lost, fell down an abandoned mine shaft, or was otherwise in peril (pretty much a weekly occurrence) that my mother was concerned about my emotional well being. I'm thinking that maybe I should ban myself from watching or reading any news; my vocabulary is in danger of becoming that of an old sailor.

My latest round of profanity was in response to Tuesday's debate between Christine O'Donnell (R) and Chris Coons (D), both candidates for Delaware's U.S. Senate seat. Although nominally a Republican, O'Donnell has aligned herself with the Tea Party platform. During the debate, held at Widener University Law School, the subject of religion and the law arose. Coons asserted that the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution prohibits teaching Creationism in public schools (O'Donnell prefers the term Intelligent Design). O'Donnell countered with, "Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?"

The audience, consisting mostly of law students gasped in horror but before you join them, take a gander at O'Donnell's follow-up observation to Coons assertion that the First Amendment establishes a separation of church and state, "The First Amendment does? ... So you're telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase 'separation of church and state,' is in the First Amendment?" (emphasis added)

Technically, O'Donnell is correct. The text of the first amendment does not include the phrase "separation of church and state." The phrase is not found in the U.S. Constitution at all. The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

O'Donnell is a nut job but already the conservative media has put a different spin on her remarks, declaring that O'Donnell was pointing out the lack of any specific phrase in the Constitution proclaiming that there is to be a separation of church and state. I doubt that O'Donnell was really parsing out the language of the Constitution but was instead clueless as to the consistent interpretation of the 1st amendment. Technically, the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear at all in the Constitution. The concept of separation of church and state is derived from the Establishment Clause of the 1st amendment. I wish that Coons had countered with that observation rather than sparring with O'Donnell as to whether the First Amendment literally contained the words separation of church and state; it doesn't.

I'm not just nitpicking. I've been thinking about how the far right has commandeered this election year and determined the parameters of the issues up for debate. I think that we have to reframe the argument. We can't afford to be sloppy with language.

O'Donnell didn't lose any votes because of her gaffe. If Coons had acknowledged that the precise phrase is not in the Constitution but that the language that is there was interpreted in the writings of no less than Thomas Jefferson to mean that there is a wall of separation between government and religion, then he would have deflated O'Donnell's argument and her ego. Many historians and students of the law trace the phrase "separation of church and state" to a letter written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson in which he observed that the First Amendment built "a wall of separation between Church and State." There is also a couple of hundred years of jurisprudence that has consistenly interpreted the language of the First Amendment regarding religion, aka the Establishment Clause, as calling for the government to refrain from being in the business of promoting or censoring religious belief or lack thereof. In spite of O'Donnell's protestations to the contrary, separation of church and state has long been established as a valid Constutional interpretation solidly grounded in the First Amendment.

Of course the audience of law students scoffed because they understood the jurisprudence interpreting and applying the 1st amendment, but has the average American even read the Constitution outside of a cursory reading in some middle or high school civics class, let alone studied it? Even if they have read the Constitution, it's likely that they will agree with O'Donnell that there is no mention of separation of church and state in the Constitution. To understand the meaning of the U.S. Constitution takes more than simply reading the words.

Die hard Tea Party members are not likely to be persuaded to change their beliefs no matter how succinct and valid the argument. However, there are a lot of people who are angry with the status quo and bewildered by all the voices claiming to offer solutions. They need clear, straightforward information that they can use to make jugments as to which voices speak with truth and honesty. O'Donnell speaks as if she's their friend and there are a lot of disenchanted people who are anxious to believe that she has their best interests at heart.

The left needs to take a lesson from Toto and pull back the curtain to reveal that O'Donnell is just a bad magic act, hiding behind a curtain, pretending that she's the Wizard of the Right. To do that we have to stop merely shaking our heads in laughter and declaring O'Donnell and her political cohorts to be appropriate objects of ridicule. We need to offer people another reality by exposing that the Tea Party rhetoric is filled with sound and fury but signifies absolutely nothing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Eugenics Redux: Sloppy Research Again Masquerading As Significant

I just read the following headline which made me go, "WTF!" followed by additional expletives: Study: Gay Parents More Likely to Have Gay Kids. Walter Schumm, a family studies professor at Kansas State University, has released a study proclaiming that gay parents are more likely to raise gay children than straight parents. His study appears to support the theory of right wing zealots that people can be taught to be gay.

I've done a great deal of research in my professional career, and I can tell you this, the questions that you ask have a direct correlation to the answers that you find. According to Schumm, he was looking for a connection between parenting and sexual orientation, "His study on sexual orientation, out next month, says that gay and lesbian parents are far more likely to have children who become gay. 'I'm trying to prove that it's not 100 percent genetic,' Schumm tells AOL News."

Schumm's research methodolgy consisted of reviewing other people's studies on gay parenting. In his meta-analysis of 10 such studies, Schumm extrapolated data that adult children of gay men and/or lesbians are statistically more likely to identify themselves as gay.

Whoop-di-do! This anecdotal evidence proves nothing except that children who grow up in a straight household may be far more reticent to self-identify as gay. In other words, a child who grows up in a home with two loving parents who are gay may feel more comfortable in acknowledging their own orientation. This so-called lighting bolt of insight is nothing more than the logical result of growing up in homes where sexual orientation is not a basis for disowning or ostracizing one's children.

Think about the number of people who are gay and stay in the closet for years, afraid of the reaction from their parents and other family members. That the adult children of gay parents are more likely to identify themselves as gay is not an indicator that sexual identity is determined by parenting;  growing up in an accepting environment just means that you don't spend part of your life denying your authentic self. 

I might actually read Schumm's study when it's released. I'd like to know if he addresses the conundrum that there have always been gay people. Who taught them how to be gay? What about gay children with straight parents? Did the straight indoctrination just not take?

This isn't research. This is a man who read a lot of books on gay parenting and then drew conclusions based on the answers collected by a variety of other studies. There is no control group, no methodology for isolating relevant data, or to account for variables because Schumm didn't interview any of the people on whose responses he bases his conclusions. Were the respondents in each of the ten different studies asked the identical questions, phrased in the same exact language, and under the same conditions? I doubt it; each of these studies produced its own independent report. Schumm just read them all.

Studies like this grab headlines. I find such studies to be the height of irresponsibility, feeding into the prejudice and hysteria of homophobia. Ultimately they are shown to be meaningless but the harm has already been done.

In the late 1960s and well into the 1970s, well credentialed researchers such as Arthur Jensen and William Shockley produced studies that proclaimed that intelligence was predetermined by genetics and that Black people were intellectually inferior to Whites. However, Jensen also concluded that Asians were intellectually superior to Whites. Although these studies were later largely discredited they still influenced policy makers in making decisions regarding public education.

Jensen and Shockley were not a one time anomaly. In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published a book in 1994 clearly directed at policy, just as Jensen and others had in the 1960s and 1970s,The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Herrnstein and Murray posited among many theories about IQ that Blacks were genetically inclined to have lower IQs than Whites. They also advised that the government "stop encouraging" poor women to have babies and contaminating the gene pool. In 2007, James D. Watson, 79, co-discoverer of the DNA helix and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine, told the Sunday Times of London that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really."

Research can be used to support any position and its validity is only as good as the methodology of the researcher. The harm done by pseudo sociological research is like a tsunami; it hits the shore destroying everything in its path and then recedes but the damage it leaves behind is catastrophic. WTF were you thinking Mr. Schumm?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

It's Time for Liberals to Get Their Groove Back

Liberals used to be exciting; we tended to think outside of the box and we believed in the power of advocacy. We championed peace; fought for justice; attacked racism and sexism with gusto. But not any more, here lately we whine a lot about what President Obama has not accomplished and insist that he needs to be more aggressive.

I think phrases like "be more aggressive" are meaningless. Be more agressive in what way? What would you have Obama do that he has not done on those issues? He has no authority to compel Congress to do anything. To get the cooperation of Congress is a process of negotiation; there is no presidential authority to push any legislation through Congress.

What would you have him do? I want to know precisely what it is any of the folks who keep saying that the president should be more aggressive on progressive issues want him to do? I don't mean some nebulous concept such as act tough, I mean what specific actions do you think that he should take that he has not taken? He supports repealing DADT and has said as much to Congress; he even got the military leadership to state that it favored repealing DADT. What now, pimp slap John McCain and the other recalcitrant senators?

Some assert that this administration should prosecute the former administration for its use of torture. The actions of the previous administration were immoral but they were argubably within the parameters of executive authority and not, therefore, prosecutable. As for the Patriot Act, bad law but once again it is not within the authority of the president to simply declare that it no longer exists. Guess who? Congress. Instead of undermining the president, how about we direct our resources towards holding Congress accountable and insisting on changes.

Some of my friends insist that the president's efforts at bipartisanship are a demonstration of weakness. They think that we need to be tougher, adapt the tactics of the right for our own use. I reject that notion, not because I'm interested in making nice; I'm interested in accomplishing our goals. How does stooping to the same level of deception, rudeness, and unethical standards as the right, move forward a progressive agenda?

The one thing upon which liberals appear to agree is that the left is more intellectually astute than the right. Frankly, I don't believe that this is an absolute, but liberals pride themselves on being thinkers. Exactly to whom does a policy that adapts the approach of the right appeal? It doesn't appear likely that the intelligent minded folks on the left will be influenced by negative strategies; besides, they are already on our side. So who are we trying to influence?

As for the Tea Party, it is a lost cause and there is nothing that the left can say that will sway them to change their position. Calling the right on the lies that it perpetrates may provide some personal satisfaction but it will not change their minds. You can't show them that they are wrong. It's a waste of effort. Their beliefs aren't based on logic; no matter how many facts you present to the Tea Party faithful they will continue to believe what they want to believe. For heaven's sakes, these people believe that Obama is a Muslim, a socialist, and a supporter of the terrorists in spite of there being nothing to support these allegations and everything to contradict them!

The progresive left needs to focus on the independents and young people who played a key role in winning the presidential election in 2008. Is the dumbed down, angry attack mode of the right really going to be an effective tool in persuading the disenchangted progresives who were so enthused in 2008 to rally? Is engaging in a shouting match with the right to assign blame really an effective strategy for influencing these intelligent, undecided people?

We don't need the Tea Party in order to win in November but we do need those disillusioned independents and young people who put Obama over the finish line in 2008. Those are the people who are threatening not to vote; those are the people who feel betrayed. They are disillusioned and tired. 

Long time liberals will snarl and complain but we will still vote, but without these disillusioned folks, our votes won't be enough and the TP will triumph. So how do we rev up the independents, the "this is the first time I've ever voted in 30 years crowd," the idealistic young, how do we get them to replicate the dedication that they displayed in 2008? Somehow, I don't think that a lot of whining and complaining because unrealistic expectations have not been met will get them to come back to the fold.

All of this leftist carping isn't a minor thing. We have to get these people back. We can't afford for them to sit out the upcoming elections. We have to help them see a reason to have hope. 2008 was alll about hope; now progressives have turned into a whining, bitter bunch out for blood. I don't object to this solely because I personally find such behavior childish but because it is not only useless, it's counterproductive. It only confirms for the disillusioned that there's nothing worth fighting for because hope is a myth and change is impossible. If I believed that, I'd stay home on election day too.

We cannot afford to suck the life out of the progressive movement with sour attitudes and a sullen sense of defeat before the battle is even fought. The next time that someone challenges Obama's effectiveness in his less than two years as president, give them this link to 244 things that Obama has accomplished thus far. Then direct them over to his recent interview in Rolling Stone Magazine. If you need a fact sheet explaining why the repeal of DADT is not within the president's power, let me know. I've generated one and will be happy to send it to you. Don't waste your efforts on TP members but do remind those who voted for Obama in 2008 that change has always been incremental and that the president is moving us in the right direction. Most of all, pick yourself up, stop whining, and remember that at the bottom of Pandora's box, when all the evils of the world had been released was a bright and shining creature called "Hope."