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Friday, December 31, 2010

Dog botherers

Quoth Tucker Carlson on Tuesday:
"I’m Christian. I’ve made mistakes. I believe fervently in second chances. Michael Vick killed dogs in a heartless and cruel way. I think, personally, he should have been executed for that. The idea the president of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs is beyond the pale."
So far, the most common reaction I've seen from people to this comment is that Carlson must be joking-- as heinous as Vick's acts were, we don't usually execute people for killing people, let alone dogs.  Maybe some of us would prefer that the death penalty be applied more often, but no one would seriously suggest that it be applied for the killing of animals, however heartlessly and cruelly it is done.  Would they? NBC's Al Roker tweeted yesterday that 'Tucker Carlson's bowtie has finally cut off oxygen to his brain. Only explanation for odious Michael Vick comment. Or maybe he's an idiot."  Others are wondering whether Carlson's comments are truly Christian at all, and even suggesting that he is a racist.  At Black Voices, Dr. Boyce Watkins remarks
First of all, I think that most decent Christians would not believe that Tucker Carlson is a Christian. But then again, most of the original members of the KKK also considered themselves to be Christians, so perhaps Carlson's delusional behavior actually makes sense. I'd be curious to see if Carlson believes that the hundreds of thousands of deer hunters and members of the National Rifle Association should also be executed for killing animals themselves. After all, killing an animal is the same no matter what, right?

Secondly, Carlson's insinuation that the life of this black man is worth less than that of a dog is a telling reminder of how the Right Wing is nothing more than a modern-day manifestation of those who've profited from slavery and the execution of black men for the past 400 years (they continue to profit from slavery within the prison system - the only place where the United States Constitution allows slavery to take place). If this were 1840, Tucker Carlson would surely be part of the lynch mob that would have dragged Michael Vick out of jail in the middle of the night and murdered him in front of his family. So, as much as 'Tucker the Christian' might want to deny this, he is a direct descendant of those who've been responsible for the Black American Holocaust that we have yet to fully understand in our country.
Wow. Was Carlson really saying that the life of a black man is worth less than that of a dog?  There's really no way to tell unless he elaborates further.  It's possible that Michael Vick's race is relevant, and also possible that it isn't.  It could be that Carlson would have said the same thing had Vick been white, and my suspicion is that he would have.  My guess is actually that Carlson wouldn't have said anything on the subject at all, had President Obama not called Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to praise the team for giving Vick another chance.  Call me a cynic, but I think what this was really about was Carlson seeing an opportunity to criticize the president for being soft on crime.  Just as the ACLU routinely comes under fire for protecting the rights of people who say the most heinous things and perform the most disgusting acts, Carlson saw the chance to claim that the president was "getting behind someone who murdered dogs" because Obama felt that Vick had paid his debt to society after serving nineteen months in prison and should be given another shot.  Whether you agree with the president on that or not, it's dishonest to interpret such a position as an endorsement of the acts which caused Vick to be arrested and imprisoned in the first place. 

And what to make of Carlson prefacing his remarks by mentioning his Christianity?  It seems a little odd to start out by noting that you're a Christian and you believe in second chances, and then finish by effectively saying "...but not for this guy."  Execution is, for all intents and purposes, the elimination of any second chance.  Not only does Carlson apparently disapprove of the president's policy of forgiveness, but he has come down firmly against making any effort to turn the other cheek.  It's not hard to see why that would lead Watkins to conclude that "most decent Christians" would not count Carlson among their ranks.  I wouldn't say that the Bible articulates a coherent theory of animal rights, but the fact that it includes stories of Jesus giving people fish to eat and casting demons into pigs who were then driven off a cliff leads me to at least conclude that he didn't regard animals as equal to humans. 

Nevertheless, stories of animals being mistreated-- dogs in particular-- do spark a particular kind of furor in people.  People who own dogs commonly regard them as members of the family, but definitely as more analogous to children than adults.   A dog-owner himself, journalist Radley Balko pays particular attention to cases of "puppycide" when describing incidents of police malfeasance, such as when a video of a Missouri drug raid, in which a family's pit bull and corgi were killed and injured respectively, went viral.  We have a long, complex history of interaction with canines, and it's not at all unusual for people to react passionately at the thought of them being killed, much less tortured and killed gratuitously.  That explains why so many were angry at Michael Vick when it was first discovered that he was involved in dog-fighting, but not why such cases occasionally draw more attention than those involving crimes against humans.

The answer, I think, lies in our conceptions of moral responsibility.  We grant to dogs the capacity to be loyal, loving, dedicated, and even angry, jealous, and spiteful, but not evil.  When we find it necessary to put a dog to death, it is for the pragmatic reason of preventing it from attacking anyone again, or the compassionate motive to ease the suffering it experiences from injury or illness.  Not because it "deserves to die."  Humans, on the other hand, can deserve to die.  They aren't innocents.  I think that's why stories of humans killing other humans don't seem to provoke quite the same kind of outrage that we see when humans kill animals.  Not any animal, of course-- as Watkins alludes, our compassion for animals is by no means consistent.  If dogs are regarded as half-people, pigs (for example) aren't regarded as people at all.  Or maybe it would be better to say that they just aren't regarded.  I don't want to get too far off-topic by elaborating on why I think that is, but suffice to say that the gentle, panting, tail-wagging creatures we share our lives with tend to have a special place in our moral estimation.  When humans are killed it is generally by other humans, which makes obvious the fact that humans are capable of being both victims and perpetrators, and often the two categories aren't necessarily so clear.  With dogs it's always innocent victims, and harm to innocents is what makes tragedy so tragic. 

Again, I think Carlson's comments were primarily a façade. I don't think he is an idiot, rather that he went overboard in trying to make the president look bad.  But had he tempered his rhetoric a bit, he would have tapped into a common thread among average Americans, people who don't see dog-killing as equivalent to person-killing but as a heinous act nevertheless, and find no conflict in their faith or moral reasoning in sharing Carlson's opposition to Obama's statements on the matter.  Me, I side with the president on this one.  But I can understand why others do not.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Who do you admire?

At The Daily Dish, Conor Friedersdorf contemplates the results of a recent Gallup poll asking Americans which men and women they most admire.  Barack Obama won out for men, whereas Hillary Clinton came out on top for women.  Friedersdorf thinks the fact that politicians make up the majority of people on both lists is "all about" name recognition, and I agree. He also says that "I'd never cite a living politician if asked who I admired most," and I agree with that too.  Nor would I cite a religious leader who is heavily involved in politics, several of whom also figured highly in the ranks (Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama).  In fact, the only people at the top who wouldn't qualify for either of those two descriptions are Angelina Jolie, Oprah, and...Glenn Beck.  Dear god.

The poll asks "What man/woman have you heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?  And who is your second choice?"  I admit that if you called me on the phone and asked me this question impromptu, I would have some trouble coming up with my "best" answers.  I don't keep a list of heroes in my head, because usually it's not something important to consider unless you are asked for a Gallup poll, or, say, a job interview (why having a good answer to this question is an important quality in a receptionist, I'm not sure).  I couldn't tell you my top five movies or bands, either.  It's not because I'm apathetic or without preferences, just that ranking such things never really seemed that important.  But since I'm pooh-poohing the top answers given by the Americans polled, it seems like I should be able to come up with some I might actually give, at least for right now.  Such as...

Radley Balko:  Radley is a journalist.  To sum him up as a journalist, however, would be a little like summing up Norman Borlaug (someone who would absolutely be on my list, if he hadn't died last year) as a farmer.  Radley's work is decidedly political, but it is the kind of politics which any person with an ounce of compassion should praise, yet of which most are completely ignorant-- seeking out and revealing the cases of people who have been oppressed by America's justice system, whether by oversight or quite deliberately.   He's written extensively about the harm caused by no-knock drug raids, prosecutorial cover-ups, asset forfeiture, the necessity of access to DNA testing for convicts, and general police malfeasance.  His work bring injustices to public attention-- "My reporting helped get a guy off death row, helped win a new trial and acquittal for a 13-year-old murder suspect, and led to the firing of a corrupt medical examiner in Mississippi."  His blog, as you can probably imagine, is frequently a depressing read.  But it's a necessary one, and I admire him for doing this sometimes very dirty work.



Joel Salatin:  Joel is a farmer-- but not a regular one.  To quote Wikipedia, he is
"a self-described 'Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer'" who "produces high-quality 'beyond organic' meats, which are raised using environmentally responsible, ecologically beneficial, sustainable agriculture."  To unpack that, it means that he doesn't just farm without using pesticides or genetically modified animal foods, which is what "organic" usually implies.  Hence the 'beyond organic'-- the goal of Polyface Farms is to start with grass and build a progressive and decidedly non-industrial food chain off of it.  Cows, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, all living off and contributing to the grass and each other's...err...products.  No pollution production, no pesticide runoff, no tight confinement of animals in dark spaces eating food that makes them sick.  No docking of tails for depressed pigs.  No government subsidies, because the government doesn't subsidize growing grass, or cows that were fed only grass or chickens that were fed only grass and the grubs of other animals that ate grass. Just a circular, self-perpetuating cycle of food production-- something you'd think was the norm until you found out otherwise.  I admire that immensely. I also admire Michael Pollan for making sure the world has the opportunity to know who Salatin is.


Eugenie Scott:  Eugenie, who sometimes goes by "Genie," is an anthropologist who heads up the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) and is, incidentally, one of the biggest fighters against creationism in public schools and promoters of evolution in America.  See Kitzmiller v. Dover.  Eugenie generally operates behind the scenes, but she is probably the foremost authority on the evolution/creationism controversy in the country.  And it's not just about Dover-- it's about a country-wide ongoing tireless battle to make sure that what is taught in public school science classrooms is actually science, and she's been contributing toward that effort for more than 20 years.  I find a lot to admire in that kind of dedication. I also admire Lauri Lebo for writing about the Dover trial in a way that could make everyone understand it and feel like they know everyone involved in it, because that's absolutely necessary if people are expected to care. 


Carol Tavris:  Carol is a social psychologist who studies human bias.  She is co-author of a very important book entitled Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, which is a lesson in intellectual humility that everyone-- everyone-- needs.  I could make a list of science-based books that have made my head spin with possibility...and will, at some point.  But reading this one, and hearing Carol talk about it in the interview below and this one, really punched through for me.   As often as people throw around the term "cognitive dissonance," they don't really seem to understand it.  It's not the simple fact of holding contradictory views-- it's the discomfort that arises from realizing that your views are contradictory.  Intellectually honest people feel cognitive dissonance and seek to resolve it by changing their views.  Intellectually dishonest people either don't feel it to begin with or they find a way to avoid the discomfort by rationalizing their views to make them seem consistent, which is what Mistakes Were Made is all about.  We're all regularly intellectually dishonest-- it's the norm, not the aberration.  Bias is in our nature, and bias is, in my view, infinitely fascinating.  That willingness to brave that chasm of human folly and make it easier for the rest of us to do so as well is why I find Carol so admirable.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Factoid from The Omnivore's Dilemma that I learned today

Pigs raised in factory farms have their tails docked (i.e., cut off) because they are weaned from their mothers at about 12 days.  They would normally wean at about three weeks, but the feed they are given causes them to grow at a much faster rate than their mother's milk would.  However, pigs who are weaned early retain an urge to suck on and bite things, which in a confined operation means the tail of whatever neighboring pig is closest. Normally when this happens the pig in question would retaliate in order to make it stop, but in a CAFO they experience a kind of learned helplessness which demotivates them to do anything about it.  Hence, tail removal for demoralized pigs. 

I could really go for some bacon right now...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The sociology of peeing in public

From Graphic Sociology:
Of all of the things to study academically, public urination has to rank pretty highly. Doesn't it?

Laura Norén remarks
This was something I used to help me think through the two main axes that determine peeing behavior – biological and social control. Urination is a biological function that has been subjected to a great degree of social control. Unfortunately, urban design has not kept pace with the demand for clean, easily accessible public restrooms for humans. And there has been no attempt to create any kind of system to deal with canine urine. In most cities it is illegal for humans to pee in public but both legal and widely accepted for dogs to pee where ever they like (in New York, they cannot pee on the grass in parks). 
There's a pretty strong discrepancy between countries on this, as well-- not only can you get arrested in the U.S. for urinating in public, but in some cases you may be placed on the sex offender registry too.  Child molesters, rapists, and...people who peed on the street. Seems a little odd.  I suspect street pee-ers in the U.S. are more likely to fall on the "ashamed" side than in Denmark, where it's not unusual to see a parent out shopping with her son ushering him off into a side alley so that he can relieve himself against a building. I have a hunch that the fact that public toilets require payment just might have something to do with this relative laxness of laws. For those who can afford it, what looks like a large metal box on the sidewalk with a sliding door opened via insertion of a coin into a slot will be their refuge. My only issue with these is that they aren't quite as numerous as one might prefer.  I once gave up looking for one and popped into a McDonald's, hiking up three flights of stairs to find that they had a pay toilet.  But at that point I was only too happy to pay.

Women squatting in the street is awkward and obvious, not something that sounds like a good idea at all unless you're been imbibing...a lot. I've never seen a woman use one of these to pee in public, which is probably due partly to it just being weird and partly because that would require having the foresight to actually bring one along.  Wonder what the sales for the "magic cone" are like? 

The idea of framing it in terms of "liberation" is interesting.  I think this is one area in which people don't actually care to be very liberated-- maybe to the point of not being put on a sex registry, but most of us don't really care to be "unabashed" public pee-ers.  I've known people who won't even use a public restroom if at all possible, and would probably faint if you suggested urinating in public outside of a restroom.  Guys, by and large, won't pee next to each other if they can help it, and who can blame them?  How many women would urinate in public restrooms if there were no stalls surrounding the toilets?  Okay, yes, urinals have walls and men don't have to uncover as much of themselves to pee.  Still, it doesn't seem to be very private.  Clearly I'm not the sort to write my name in the snow-- maybe for those who are, things look a lot different.  Talk about unabashed.

So the Fort Worth transit authority made a decision...

...ban all ads relating to religion.  Well, that's one way of going about things. 

I suppose this could be called an exercise in not rocking the boat.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Survival and reproduction are in fact most definitely amoral."

This was a remark made in the breeder comment thread. An odd one, I thought.  It sounds sensical at first-- surviving is something we all need to do individually, and reproducing is something we at least need to do as a species, so how can someone apply "right and wrong" to them?  But I think what the commenter was actually saying is that you can't apply notions of right and wrong to the matter of how we survive and reproduce, which is definitely a more complex issue. 

Reading Michael Pollan's books lately has made me hyper-aware of the extent to which eating is a moral matter, for example. Eating, the thing we have to do to survive.  We also have to breathe to survive, but generally speaking it's hard to hurt someone else or the planet by breathing-- we cause harm by preventing others from breathing.  But it seems weird to think that there's a moral dimension to going to the grocery store, buying a package of ground beef, taking it home, and making chili or a taco salad or something.  After all, that's just making a meal-- you didn't steal the beef, did you? 

But when you do what Pollan did and trace the "food chain" back to the original source (or, much easier, read about him doing it), things become murkier.  For example, how much am I morally responsible for the way the steer which provided that beef lived?  Is it my fault that he was slaughtered at just over a year old after standing in his own manure in a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) for almost his entire life?  How much am I responsible for the way the corn on which he was fed was itself raised, government-subsidized and fed to him because it makes cattle fatten quickly even though it also makes them sick (being ruminants, "designed" to eat grass, not grains) and necessitates giving them antibiotics which in turn lowers the communal resistance of everyone to disease?  How much am I responsible for the pesticides that run off the fields of corn raised to feed this steer, and pollute the rivers from which people take their water?   None of these things are necessary to produce beef for me to eat, and of course there's the obvious fact that it's not necessary for me to eat beef in the first place.  It's a luxury, really-- that much can be seen in how costly it is, and not just in terms of the cash that came out of my wallet.  Which is, by the way, less than it otherwise would be thanks to those subsidies.  

It's generally understood that if you contribute financially to an act, you are in part responsible for it, because you are encouraging it to happen-- that is the entire basis for laws against possession of child pornography.   If nobody bought meat from animals raised on factory farms, factory farms would not exist.  Period.  We fool ourselves into thinking that our purchasing choices don't matter, but if that's the case-- why boycott?  Why do people organize to express collective disapproval of the ethical practices of businesses by refusing to purchase goods or services from them, if they think it accomplishes nothing?

I think the view that we bear moral responsibility for our purchasing decisions, especially those regarding what we eat and drink, is so hard to accept mainly because it's both difficult to learn exactly how we are affecting other people and the world by our choices, and the fact that it costs, both in time and money, to change the choices we make.  It's a pragmatic objection-- buying ethically is both more expensive to do and more difficult to know how to do, which causes people to conclude that anyone who is concerned with such must have a lot of free time and a lot of money.  Food ethics is an ivory tower enterprise.  But it doesn't have to be that way, and it is that way in large part because the corporations that produce our food and the government which regulates that production collude to make it so. The industrialization of food deliberately creates a vast chasm between us and the actual origins of the food we eat, which encourages us to be ignorant about it and thereby not care.  So long as we're fed, and the food is tasty and cheap. 

I'm not touching so much on the "meat vs. no meat" discussion here, because I think that's a somewhat different issue.  Certainly that's an ethical matter as well, but I think bringing the discussion of whether eating meat is inherently unethical into the general topic of how to eat ethically muddies things quite a bit.   There are more and less ethical ways to eat meat, and generally speaking they coincide with the more and less healthy ways to eat meat.  For example, I think that people who object to factory farming but aren't vegetarians should be big fans of hunting, which often involves shooting a deer, putting it in the freezer, and eating from it for much of the winter.  That white-tailed deer has lived in the wild all of its life, eating the plants that Odocoileus virginianus traditionally eats as opposed to dining on corn and standing in its own feces, and later is killed by a hunter to provide a family with meat that is nutritionally superior to that of a CAFO steer.  And we have in this country a ton of deer, as anyone who habitually drives in the country and has to worry about accidentally hitting one can testify.   Of course not everyone can hunt for their food due to constraints on both geography and population, but it's something that meat-eaters who are concerned about the interests of animals should enthusiastically endorse. 

And it bears mentioning that food has a powerful connection to tradition, to family, to our notions of what is normal.  Nobody wants to think that the dishes Mom prepared or even the brands with which they've grown up are in any way bad choices, much less immoral ones.  Those things are ingrained and sacred.  I think that's actually a huge part of the automatic defensiveness that meat-eaters tend to experience when confronted with the idea of vegetarianism, even if the vegetarian in question isn't remotely militant about it.  The assumption is that the vegetarian believes he/she is morally superior, that the omnivore who eats according to how he/she was raised is inferior.  But summing up someone's entire moral worth according to what they eat isn't exactly a rational way to evaluate things.  I feel compelled to Godwin things by mentioning the oft-repeated story that Hitler was a vegetarian....

...but I'm sure you've heard of that one.  In any case, I think it's pretty clearly that eating is absolutely a moral issue.  Reproduction has already been partially covered in the last post, but I'll try to cover that more later.

Friday, December 17, 2010

This makes me happy

Constitutionally protected tattoos
 “The tattoo designs that are applied by me are individual and unique creative works of visual art,” the tattoo artist Johnny Anderson claimed in a 2006 lawsuit. They are therefore constitutionally protected speech, he argued, so the courts should strike down a ban on tattoo parlors within the city limits of Hermosa Beach, California.
In September a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, holding that “the tattoo itself, the process of tattooing, and the business of tattooing are forms of pure expression fully protected by the First Amendment.” It’s the highest-profile victory yet in the tattoo trade’s long battle against the regulatory state. . . .

Unlike previous precedents on the topic of tattooed speech, the 9th Circuit’s ruling limits state action from Alaska to Arizona and is likely to influence other jurisdictions around the country.
The Supreme Court has long recognized that symbols are speech, which entails that if the meaning of an act, image, or any other form of expression is what is considered objectionable, it is a protected freedom under the First Amendment.  That's why amendments against flag burning have always been and hopefully always will be deemed unconstitutional, as well as laws against styles of dress.  There are justifications that can be used for outlawing activities on the grounds of safety, but not on significance.  This would, I'd think, mean that obscenity laws are also unconstitutional, but it will most likely be a long time before SCOTUS agrees with me on that.  Especially since it would probably require the dissolution of the FCC.

The ecological morality of breeding....or not.

This and the other card can be found here.
When I saw Reason magazine tweet about an article entitled "Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been a 'Breeder'?" and clicked through to see an image of the "breeder bingo board," I expected to see a commentary on how harshly people tend to judge those who opt not to have children-- such as myself.  That's not what it turned out to be, however. Instead, science correspondent Ronald Bailey links back to an essay by Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill entitled "Our Brave New World of Malthusian madmen" arguing that society is turning into a real-life version of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel The Wanting Seed, in which
overpopulation is rife. There’s a Ministry of Infertility that tries desperately to keep a check on the gibbering masses squeezed into skyscraper after skyscraper, and it does so by demonising heterosexuality - it’s too fertile, too full of ‘childbearing lust’ - and actively promoting homosexuality.
It’s a world where straights are discriminated against because there’s nothing more disgusting and destructive than potential fertility, than a ‘full womanly figure’ or a man with ‘paternity lust’; straights are passed over for jobs and promotion in favour of homos, giving rise to a situation where some straights go so far as to pretend they are gay, adopting the ‘public skin of dandified epicene’, as Burgess describes it, in a desperate bid to make it in the world. There’s even a Homosex Institute, which runs night classes that turn people gay, all with the aim of reducing the ‘aura of fertility’ that hangs about society like a rank smell, as one official says. ‘It’s Sapiens to be Homo’ is the slogan of Burgess’s imagined world.
 We haven't gotten there yet, says O'Neill-- there's no Homosex Institute.  Still,
there is a creeping cultural validation of homosexuality in Malthusian terms, where the gay lifestyle is held up by some thinkers and activists as morally superior because it is less likely to produce offspring than the heterosexual lifestyle, in which every sexual encounter involves recklessly pointing a loaded gun of sperm at a willing and waiting target.
Seriously? That's what we should be concerned about? 

This lengthy screed by O'Neill was prompted by an op-ed in a newspaper which argued for legalizing gay marriage on the grounds that it will "indirectly limit population growth," since the sexual relations between two homosexuals in a monogamous relationship will not naturally lead to children.  The first problem with that is the idea that we should ever consider it legitimate to acknowledge or suspend human rights based on ecological concerns.  If there is a right to marry, there's a right to marry whether there are 100 people on the planet or 100 billion.  And secondly it's pretty silly to argue that allowing gay marriage will be some kind of relief for overpopulation even as a side benefit, unless we're supposed to assume that otherwise all of these gays who want to get married are going to shrug their shoulders, find someone of the opposite sex to marry, and pop out of a couple of kids.  In short, become breeders.  That is what my boyfriend's father did, and it did not turn out well for the most part-- though I'm grateful for it having brought my boyfriend into the world-- but these days?  Not so likely.  Now that acceptance of homosexuality has become so widespread, a far more attractive option is to come out of the closet, find another gay person to be with whether you can marry them or not, and if you want kids...adopt.  And that's precisely what millions of gays are doing. 

"Breeder" is not, however, simply a term to use for people who have children.  Historically it has been a derisive term used by gays to describe straight people in general, since we're the ones whose couplings have the natural potential to create children whether we actually take advantage of that opportunity or not.  Unlike those boring white-bread judgmental breeders, gays could live kid-free lives, stay out late, be irresponsible, and so on.  "Breeders" were mainstream; gays were the outsiders looking in.  And they were and still are punished for it.  But these days, the term doesn't seem to be used by gays so much as by the voluntarily childfree, sometimes for any and all parents but usually just for the bad ones.  "PNB" (Parent, not breeder) is a term for a good parent, someone who makes the effort to raise well-behaved children and who takes care of them properly.  There are a variety of reasons why people opt not to have children-- some people have inheritable illnesses that they don't want to pass on or current disabilities which would make it too hard to parent, some people like children but don't feel that they would be good parents, some feel that they truly have no maternal or paternal instinct, and some flat-out hate kids.  And some people, yes, argue that having children is wrong because it's bad for the environment

And you know what?  It is bad for the environment, viewed objectively.  Sure, some of us may birth little Norman Borlaugs who find ways to feed the masses of starving people on the planet, but for the most part every new child brought into the world represents another mouth to feed, another consumer of fossil fuels, another contributor to greenhouse gasses.  On the whole, opting not to have children might be the single best thing a person can do for the environment:
A study by statisticians at Oregon State University concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environment-friendly practices people might employ during their entire lives — things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. . .

Under current conditions in the United States, for instance, each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average parent – about 5.7 times the lifetime emissions for which, on average, a person is responsible.
The impact doesn't only come through increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — larger populations also generate more waste and tax water supplies.
So people who have children are evil, right?  They're harming the planet, and that makes them bad, and they should feel guilty, and maybe send their existing children to Madagascar or something where their carbon footprint won't be as big?   No.  It means they're obeying a biological imperative without which our species-- no species which reproduces sexually-- would not exist.   It's hard for me to relate since I have no desire to reproduce whatsoever, even if doing so actually helped the environment, but people really, really, really, REALLY want to have children.  To the point that some of them regard those of us who are voluntarily sans sprogs as rather suspect, perhaps even immoral ourselves.

That's what the bingo board above is meant to represent-- "bingo" is a term used to refer to a comment that denigrates the choice to not have children, implying that there are so many of such comments and they are used so often that the recipients could play a game of Bingo with them.  So, for example, one childfree person might say to another "My cousin was bingoing me hardcore at the family reunion. She couldn't believe that I still don't have kids-- said she was sure I'd change my mind, and I'm not a proper woman if I don't."  Some people do, of course, change their mind about having kids at some point in their lives.  But informing someone that they will change their mind about something about which they've thought long and hard is, needless to say, pretty darn arrogant.  Nobody would inform a friend that they're sure said friend will convert from Judaism to Catholicism-- at least, nobody who wants to keep their friends-- but people don't seem to understand the rudeness involved in informing someone smugly that they will want children later, whether they think so now or not.  Or worse, actively wish failed birth control on them, which to a childfree person is kind of like wishing a car accident on someone.  I have a personal established policy of urging anyone who is certain I'll change my mind and is obnoxious about it to put their money where their mouth is-- there's a certain psychologist out there who owes me $50 if I'm still childfree by age 35. 

And I'm not gay, by the way.  But currently, gays who do want to become parents have a lot of options-- they could get a sperm donor or surrogate, they could adopt, they could take in foster children (as many gays in Florida have done where gay adoption has until recently been illegal, but the state didn't have enough foster parents available), and eventually science will find a way to create a child by combining genes from two potential fathers or mothers-- they're already working on it.   We have gay parents, and we will have more of them in the future.  Homosexuals may not be able to reproduce "recklessly"-- as Dan Savage points out, it's hard to get drunk and adopt-- but they can and do become parents. 

As for the government promoting homosexuality and demonizing heterosexuality in order to limit population growth-- I'm no stranger to theories about well-intentioned plans to fix broad problems through legislation failing abysmally and harming the populace, but.....come on.  There are plenty of people who think that homosexuality is something people are persuaded into, but the technical term for those people is "idiots."  Okay, I'll be nicer and more accurate, and say that they're grievously ignorant.  Homosexuals have most likely never been more than 10% or so of the population and we have no reason to believe that they ever will be, no matter how many slogans are shouted at them or how bad they're made to feel about their 'womanly bodies' (I've seen quite a few lesbians with womanly bodies, but it doesn't seem to have any connection to their wanting to reproduce, no matter how happy they are about them).   

O’Neill's essay, to put it plainly, sounds like a thinly-veiled argument against legitimizing "the gay lifestyle" (gee, that doesn't send up any red flags) and granting homosexuals all of the same rights that straight people have based on the ridiculous idea that it will enable homosexuality to someday be forced on us by our government on ecological grounds. Or at the very least, an argument that we shouldn't a) acknowledge that having children can increase the strain on the environment and b) have any normative opinions about that, because it will enable the government to forcibly stop us from having as many children.  To both of which I say.....bosh. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

An exercise in getting the last word


So now a Christian group in Fort Worth has hired a "mobile billboard" truck to follow around the buses with the "Millions of Americans are good without God" ads on them.  The truck's billboards read "I still love you - God" and "2.1 billion people are good with God."

One of the financiers of the truck interviewed said "These are business owners and individuals that really just want the atheists to know that God hasn't given up on them."

Umm....thanks?   The nearest church to me with JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON in 5 foot tall letters out next to the road must be all of five blocks away.  Who knows what would happen if I happened to see a bus drive by reminding me that godless people aren't evil if it weren't immediately followed by a message reiterating that people with God* aren't either? For one second life amidst the normal deluge of pro-Christian messages that is living in DFW might be interrupted by someone saying "Hey, we're okay too."  Best to drown that out immediately.  Hire a stalkermobile, stat!

Edit:  Somebody on Dispatches commented:
 How about a bus to follow the bus that follows the bus that says "1 billion hindus are good with gansesh" or "1.5 billion muslims are good with allah" or "ancient greeks were good with zeus" or "the norse were good with odin".
Hee.  If everybody joined in, we could get a good long caravan going...

* Only 2.1 billion?  I guess "good with God" only refers to the Christians. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Real-life trolls

Westboro Baptist Church to Protest at Elizabeth Edwards' Funeral

As Elizabeth Edwards' family makes the final preparations for her funeral, members of a controversial church known for picketing at the memorials of fallen soldiers, says they will protest outside her funeral.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church are planning to disrupt Edwards' funeral Saturday, saying the wife of former Senator John Edwards is "going to hell" because she admitted to doubting her faith when her oldest son died in 1996.

Edwards, a political spouse who became a staunch advocate for affordable healthcare, died of complications from breast cancer Tuesday. She was 61.
The funeral is planned for Saturday at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C. She is then expected to be buried at Oakwood Cemetery alongside her son Wade, who died in a car accident when he was 16.

"God heard self-absorbed Elizabeth as she rode the talk show circuit spewing blasphemy," Westboro said in a statement.
I just...these people are a joke. It's hard to believe that they actually believe what they're saying, the reasons they say they're protesting, and if they do, they're insane. Normal Christians do not protest the funerals of people they believe are going to hell, and not just because they don't have the spare time and money for transportation.

A troll, in online parlance, is a person who says things to get a reaction.  They may be sincere or they may have adopted a false persona, but their intent is to stir people up, usually in anger.  The general understanding is that you should not feed the trolls-- you shouldn't give them what they want, because that will just encourage them.  I think that this is half true, to the same extent both online and in real life.  Ignore them if you're inclined to take them seriously-- if you are the type of person or in a frame of mind that will cause you to get stirred up by what they say and do, then pay them no mind at all.  If you are capable of mocking them, however, and desire to do so, well....go ahead.  Ridiculous ideas should be ridiculed.  That's what the marketplace of ideas is all about-- freedom of speech entails and requires the freedom of criticism, lest anyone reach the conclusion that absurd, insane beliefs should be treated as credible. 

A lurker is a person who observes an online conversation without commenting.  Sometimes people engage trolls in those conversations "for the sake of the lurkers"-- not because they personally feel the need to engage the arguments of the troll, but to demonstrate for those observing why what the troll is saying is at best not worth taking seriously, and at worst actively harmful.  When people say that the proper response to hateful speech is more speech, they're talking about speaking for the sake of the lurkers-- allowing those who harbor hateful or ridiculous thoughts to voice them out loud, and then publically repudiating them for the benefit of those who might otherwise not understand why they ought to be repudiated.  I think that's a good thing.  That's why I am what some would call a free speech extremist, though I'm not a free speech absolutist.  There are some areas that should clearly be out-of-bounds-- copyright infringement, libel, incitement to violence-- but those are tightly circumscribed, pertaining to speech which causes direct harm to people, not just speech which offends, regardless of how much it does so and for what reason.  I want the people to always be the ones deciding which speech is objectionable, and voicing their objections to it loudly and clearly-- not the government trying to silence it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Another atheist bus ad controversy...

...this time in my neighborhood.  Well, not my immediate neighborhood, as the Dallas transit authority has refused these ads.  But Fort Worth has not, and local clergy are raising a big stink:

Ministers Justice Coalition of Texas thinks in the wake of the controversial campaign, the T should get rid of all religious ads.
“We have requested and asked that the T would review and revisit the policy and have it changed,” said Rev. Julius Jackson.
A second group of ministers aligned with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference threatened to organize a boycott if the signs are allowed.
The controversial ad slated to go on a total of four buses in Fort Worth that has them so agitated?

Hmmm...doesn't seem so terrible to me.  A reminder that there are non-believers in the country, and they aren't evil.  It doesn't say that denying the existence of God is what makes them good, thus implying that believers aren't.  It doesn't say anything negative about religion at all, actually-- just that people can be and are good without it.   The ads were paid for by the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason (DFW CoR), a subdivision of the United Coalition of Reason:
"The point of our national campaign is to reach out to the millions of humanists, atheists and agnostics living in the United States," explained Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason. "Nontheists like these sometimes don't realize there's a community out there for them because they're inundated with religious messages at every turn. So we hope this will serve as a beacon and let them know they aren't alone."
 I found that statement at the DFW CoR web site, since the Fox News video gives the Fort Worth ministers a good deal of time to be outraged, the Fort Worth transit representative a bit to say that they're just shooting the messenger by threatening to boycott buses, and the head of DFW CoR Terry McDonald about four seconds to say that he didn't expect people to throw such a fit about it. 
“Dallas decided no. Fort Worth decided to go with it. That’s saying something in terms of courage. Who has the courage to stand up for God!” said Rev. Kyev Tatum.
 I don't know that it's the responsibility of city transit authorities to stand up for God, Rev. Tatum.  I thought their job was to accept ads for buses from people who pay for them-- that's what they've been doing with pro-religious ads for quite some time without incident.  But apparently sharing that forum with a group of people who are just saying "Hey, we're here, we don't believe, and we're okay" is just too much.  Trying to prevent the posting of a message that contradicts your beliefs sounds like the opposite of courage, to be honest.  More like taking your ball and going home.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Disabled vet stalks WBC members, invites heckler's veto

A disabled Afghanistan veteran was arrested today in my hometown of Wichita Kansas on charges of stalking members of the Westboro Baptist Church:
Prosecutors charged [Ryan] Newell, 26, with five misdemeanors Thursday, including stalking and three counts of criminal use of a firearm in an incident involving the Phelps family of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. He also was charged with false impersonation of a law enforcement officer. . .

Sedgwick County sheriff's detectives arrested Newell mid-morning Tuesday in the Wichita City Hall parking lot after a detective saw him following a van that carried Westboro church members.

The church members were meeting in City Hall with police officials. Detectives found Newell in a vehicle backed into a parking space. In the vehicle, investigators found two handguns, a rifle and more than 90 rounds of ammunition, sources have said.

The stalking charge accuses Newell of actions targeted at Westboro members and putting them in fear for their safety.

The weapons charges accuse him of unlawfully carrying and concealing or possessing with "intent to use" an M4 rifle, .45-caliber Glock handgun and .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun.

"I just can't imagine him wanting to hurt anybody," his grandmother, Bonnie Crosby, said.

Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went to Newell's home, and his wife turned over items — including firearms — to law enforcement, said a source close to the investigation.

Newell, who appeared in the courtroom through a video connection with the Sedgwick County Jail, was seated in a wheelchair and was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit. He was ordered to have no contact with members of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Phelps family.

Two lawyers appeared in court offering to represent Newell, who grew up in Goddard. He told Judge Ben Burgess that he had also received offers from a number of other lawyers.

Burgess quipped, "The more the merrier, I suppose."

Newell remains in jail on $500,000 bond.
I've already seen sentiments along the lines that the police should've looked the other way and allowed him to shoot some people, that the WBC's protests should be banned on the grounds that they will provoke this kind of reaction, even that the members of Westboro should have their children taken away because their protests are subjecting them to violence.  Probably no body of people comes as close to being universally reviled in the United States as the WBC, but even so the idea that this justifies murdering them is too insane for me to contemplate.  I can't even giggle sarcastically about the idea, though I fully understand people's reasons for loathing the group.

I've been aware of the WBC before most people outside of Kansas, probably, given that they showed up at my brother's 1995 law school graduation at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  Guess they thought someone gay was graduating?  I was in high school at the time and wanted to confront them, but my mom said it would be a really bad idea.  They've gained steadily in notoriety over the years, first rocketing into it in 1998 with their protest of Matthew Shepherd's funeral and subsequent funerals of gays waving signs declaring that God hates fags, and then in 2005 when they started protesting funerals of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds that their deaths are punishments from the Lord for the country's moral decline.  I think pretty much everyone knows who their patriarch Fred Phelps is by now.  He's a former civil rights attorney who attended the same law school as my father (though not at the same time) but was disbarred and apparently went a bit insane.  He has thirteen children, four of whom are estranged from the family, and I believe the rest have been trained up as diligent sign-waving homophobes.  People make parties out of counter-protesting them now-- they show up in crazy costumes waving signs of their own, usually vastly out-number the WBC crowd (not a big church population), and have a grand time.  But the WBC's practice of protesting the funerals of soldiers has infuriated people to the point that the Supreme Court is currently trying to decide whether they have the right to do so. 

That being the case...with these claims that their right to protest in general should be taken away, and even that their children should be taken from them, I'm hearing "Ground Zero mosque! OMG!" all over again.  It's the heckler's veto-- the argument that we can restrict people's freedom of speech on the grounds that it may provoke violence.  Effectively, it allows people who are willing to be violent to restrict the rights of those whose speech they would use as justification for violence, by punishing the speech rather than the violent response.  We cannot do that, whether the speech in question is admirable or despicable.  Hecklers are people who prevent the speech of others by drowning them out.  Violence attempts to silence others by frightening them, physically incapacitating them, or in the case of a heckler's veto by getting the government to outlaw certain kinds of speech in the name of their own protection.  It really disturbs me that, hated as the WBC is, people would leap to this conclusion upon hearing that a potential candidate has stepped up to the plate.  Contributing to this man's defense or expressing "wry" disappointment that he didn't actually kill anyone, to my eyes, looks like an expression of sympathy for his actions and gratitude that someone (not us, of course) was willing to show up and do the dirty work.  Rather like the remarks at various points between half-hearted condemnation and whole-hearted support that came from various pro-life activists when Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller last year, also in Wichita.

Everything about that is wrong to me.  I can't be that kind of cheerleader, no matter who the gun is aimed at.  And I can't use the fact that someone else is willing to aim the gun as justification for legally preventing his target from doing whatever is angering him (and maybe me) so badly.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

God doesn't like shopping on Sundays

From CBC News:
A debate over Sunday shopping has led P.E.I.'s transportation minister to suggest God had struck down the leader of the Opposition, who fell and injured herself after introducing a bill to allow Sunday openings year-round.
Opposition leader Olive Crane introduced the private member's bill earlier this week. It would remove Canada's last restrictions on Sunday shopping. Currently on the Island, stores must close Sundays between Christmas Day and Victoria Day. The bill passed second reading Thursday.Following an appearance on CBC Television's Compass Monday, Crane slipped on the television set, injuring her ankle and wrist. Transportation Minister Ron MacKinley brought up the incident during the debate on the bill Thursday.
"I'm not what you call a saint, but I believe in God and I believe in [doing] the best I can do. You were at CBC pushing Sunday shopping, were you not? On TV?" he asked Crane. "Right after that interview what happened?"
"We had a bit of an accident," Crane responded.
"Does that not tell you something?" said MacKinley.
"Like what?" said Crane.
"Like the Lord works in mysterious ways, and maybe you should start worrying what's going on here? We are going all the time, we're getting farther and farther away, whether it's prayers in the schools or whatever it is," said MacKinley.
If that's the tack Mr. MacKinley wants to take, I assume he will accept any future accidents involving himself, his family, friends, or anyone who happens to share his ideology as judgments from God.  Because apparently God expresses disagreement with positions on local politics by breaking people's ankles-- perhaps MacKinley actually worships Don Corleone. 

Facepalm of the day

Yes, these are real shoes.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Quote of the day

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. ” — H.L. Mencken

Someone quoted it in response to this case, but I see examples which fit just as well or better all of the time.