Nov 2004 posts

Friday, November 26, 2004

Morals as an ongoing process


There are useful lessons to be learned from any religious text. But I think that there is great danger inherent in taking any of them literally, in focusing on the “letter of the law”, rather than on the “spirit of the law”. I think that if we take these texts literally, then we stop growing because we stop questioning, we stop wondering, and we stop trying to apply basic concepts to our very complicated world.

I’ve been thinking about how we all approach questions of morality. I think that when contemplating morality and fairness, it’s possible to go back to the basic values that the bible and other institutionalized moralities started with. In other words , I don’t believe I have to start my moral questioning by accepting the precepts of any particular religion. To me that’s starting my questioning too late because I’ve already limited myself with someone else’s interpretation.

I’m an agnostic. I don’t know if there is a god. And I don’t think it’s within my power to know. I think this is particularly true if there is a god, because s/he made us mortal, “human”, and fallible. It is our essence to be imperfect, according to religions. So, I actually think that if there is a god, s/he never meant for us to make texts and believe them literally. I don’t think we were meant to assume that we now “know it all” – we’re imperfect and mortal! I think that if we are created by a god, s/he absolutely wanted us to spend our lives contemplating morality, making decisions based on general and inclusive principles of fairness and goodness, facing each new situation with a fresh and open mind.

I definitely do not think s/he meant for us to have a rigid, unchanging, hateful, and discriminatory approach to the world. I think taking a text literally (based on whatever translation/interpretation you have been raised on) and then assuming that you have the answers and have no need to contemplate anymore about what is right and what is wrong, is rather like acting like a god yourself. And maybe rather lazy and insecure, too.

And while I’m at it – I really, really don’t think that if there is a god, s/he really needs to have people jump through hoops in order to get goodies later. If god needs people to tell her/him who or what country to bless, s/he is not as perfect as religions would have us believe.

Furthermore, if god will only be nice to people if they constantly praise and tell her/him how great s/he is, then I think god needs a good therapist.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Abortion and gay marriage


In her Nov. 22 column, writer Deb Price suggests that we should get politicians to vote on particulars, such as “whether to protect gay families from job bias”, “whether it’s moral to leave gay parents especially vulnerable when a child needs emergency surgery”, and others. She points out that it would be tough for them “to claim, ‘I don’t have anything against homosexuals’, if they had to defend such votes as continuing to allow Social Security to exclude elderly gay couples from its protective safety net.”

I think this is so on the money. I think it amounts to the same thing I’ve been writing about, that we need to break down the buzz words if we are really to have a discussion about our values as a society. Let’s break down and discuss “gay marriage”, “democracy”, “patriotism”, “being American”, “civil rights”, and even “abortion”.

Let’s have a societal discussion about what abortion means to us all. Abortion foes like to portray abortion as people murdering fully developed fetuses, using photos of the very rare late-term abortions usually done to save a woman’s life, implying that all abortions look like this rather than the tiny minority they actually represent. I think the discussion on abortion needs to be about women’s lives. If this has to be a discussion about rights, then let’s do it. Let’s put the rights of women, fully grown humans with feelings and lives and needs, against the rights of undeveloped cells in a women’s womb. Let’s throw the buzz words aside and actually look at the issues.

Without abortion and contraception, women – the majority of people in the world – are put at an unfair disadvantage next to the minority, the men. Just because women have the incredible ability to create life, a gift which men lack, does not mean they don’t have the same right to an education, a career, or freedom from a life of parenthood. It’s society that has said that once pregnant, a woman must forfeit all dreams in order to raise a child. If men were able to have children, they would have made sure that society was formed in such a way that they weren’t tied down to homemaking. Even the responsibility for contraception was always left up to women – until AIDS, when men suddenly found a reason to use condoms. And let’s face it – abortions have always existed. By outlawing it, you are only ensuring that women will risk their health and lives seeking abortions from unregulated abortion providers.

All those women who voted for Bush, when it was common knowledge he would be going after Roe vs. Wade – have you noticed that they have already attached an attack against abortion rights in a spending bill? Left unchecked, I’m certain the fundies to whom Bush is indebted will be going after contraception next. Do you have any idea what life is like for a women with no protection against umlimited pregnancies? Do you have a college education? Do you have a career? If you voted Republican, you voted to deny those things to your daughters, because it is incredibly tough to obtain those things with continual pregnancies. As far as I’m concerned, you voted against life.

So, yes, let’s break down the issues in “gay marriage”, let’s talk about the particular rights we are denying to our gay sisters, brothers, children, parents, and friends. Let’s throw away the buzz words and openly discuss what we’re really talking about…

Fear and “Big bad daddy” politicians


I find the history of sexual abuse allegations against California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be very troublesome, but what really bothers me that I don’t hear an outcry about comments he makes in the present. First he referred to people who didn’t agree with him as “girlie men”, and then he referred to Democrats as “stupid losers”.

The term “girlie men”, just like the word “sissy”, demeans both genders of the population in one blow. It means that if you’re not an ultra-butch man, then you’re less than a man – you’re like a woman. It also means that women are inferior to men. It is very politically incorrect to make racial slurs – but women and anything “feminine” are still fair game. Why is that? Women are over half the population – they are the majority.

It seems to me that there is some relation between the election of Bush and that of Schwarzenegger. In their own ways, both are of the macho school of masculinity – force, whether through physical or political strength, is more valued than more so-called “feminine” qualities of contemplation, introspection, or mediation which would allow consideration of all points of view.

I’ve heard people say that they like Bush as president because he’s the kind of guy they would like to sit down and have a beer with. Well, I don’t want Joe Blow for president. I don’t want a paternalistic, overbearing, macho man saying “I know what’s best for you (God told me)” and “my way or the highway”. I don’t want a governor who calls half of the population “stupid losers” or insults many by using phrases like “girlie men”. These comments reflect on their views on people and on the world and should say something to us.

I want a president I can look up to, someone who is intelligent, who hears the opinions of the whole country, who is well spoken, and who respects science. I can only think that as a nation we were so frightened by 9/11 (and our fear intentionally kept high in subsequent years), that we have sought out leaders who represent strong, domineering fathers we hope will keep us safe. In our fear, we give up our right and our need to know about and participate in the details of our politics. We’re scared, so we hand over the reins to the big bad daddy and go hide under the bed.

But being under the bed doesn’t afford us a view of what the big bad daddy is doing with the unchecked power we’ve given him. Are we really so sure he has what’s best for us in mind? How democratic or patriotic is it to support what can become a dictatorship?

Democracy is not just a buzz word – it needs everyone’s participation – and not just at election time. Come out from under the bed and look around – before it’s too late and we find that our inaction has contributed to a world that is more frightening than our original fears.

At the very least let’s demand professional and mature standards from our politicians! We’re not little children who need paternalistic protection – we have the strength to face our fears and the intelligence and ideas to contribute to solutions. And the world really needs our ideas right now.

Buzz words and values


I really feel that this whole presidential election was run on unexamined “buzz words”. I think that the Democrats lost because they let the Republicans lay unchallenged claim to “values”. We need to stand up and be clear about our own values, Democrats and Republicans alike, and stop relying on undefined and undiscussed values buzz words.

For example, some people say that they are against gay marriage because they value the institution of marriage, and they have heard that gay marriage will destroy it. But why does the discussion stop there? What does “the institution of marriage” mean to them? I value the institution of marriage, too – but I support gays having the same rights as straights.

I value commitment, monogamy, the safe raising of children in those families who choose to have them, and the love and safe haven provided by a family – something which instills in us those psychological qualities we need to be productive members in a sometimes cruel society.

I suspect that those people who oppose gay marriage would echo my values. So why do people with the same values have different beliefs about gay marriage? I firmly believe it’s because no one has bothered to move beyond the buzz words and actually have a discussion about what our values truly are – which I think would lead to a realization that the basic values are the same. It’s only when people remain at the buzz word level and are vulnerable to fear mongering that we seem to fall into two different camps.


(For clarification, I should stipulate that we’re talking about civil unions, which all heterosexuals have. If they get joined in a church, then they also have a “marriage”. I think that churches should be allowed to marry who they want – which is a right they already possess and use. I think that since they are like voluntary “clubs”, they should be allowed to be as hateful and discriminatory as they wish to be. But I also think that our laws, which are meant to protect everyone, should allow gays to have the same civil union that all straights have.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Religion in the public schools


Today on Talk of the Nation on NPR, they were talking about proposals to have discussions of creationism taught alongside evolution in our children’s schools – in science classes, of all things. And of course, it’s always the Christian creationism story, not any other religion’s story. The guest defending this proposal kept insisting that it came from “family values”, and when asked if her version of “family values” came from religion, she sidestepped the question. And you know, for all the years that the term “family values” has been tossed around, I’ve never once heard a definition of what exactly it entails. Why is that?

For my whole life, I have been content to have religious people have their churches, and as I became more skillful at dodging the perpetual proselytizers, they have let me have my moral secularism. But in the last year or so, religion has been increasingly thrown into my life. It’s a very unwelcome intrusion. I don’t try to get religious people to “see the light” – why MUST they take over the public sphere and force their beliefs on everyone else? Actually, it’s not “religious” people. It’s Christian people. When’s the last time you encountered a Jewish person knocking on your door, trying to get you to be Jewish?

It amazes me how “family values” has come to be a euphamism for “religion”, and how “religion” has come to be code for “Christianity”. One rolls into the other, and “values” becomes synomymous with “Christianity”. The guest mentioned that since God has been “removed” from the schools, school problems have increased. I’m assuming that by “problems” she meant violence, teenage sexuality, and the like. But if we insist on believing that the only way to teach morality or good citizenship is through religion, of course there will be a void if “God is removed”.

And of course, religion works through the carrot and stick of heaven and hell. If instead we were to remove the carrot and stick from the moral education of our children and learned to talk to them about reasons for compassion and conscious behavior which are higher than the self-interest of carrot and stick motivation (yes! loftier reasons than religion!) , we’d actually be saying that we have faith in our children and in ourselves!

I am the first to say that I’d like to see more “moral education” showered on our youths. But my views on it are more general than those of any religion. The first thing I would tackle would be the rampant bullying we allow among our kids, shrugging it off by saying “kids will be kids”. Kids don’t have to be bullies. That we could have a rash of school shootings by kids who have had years of being bullied horrifies me. Where were the teachers, where were the fellow students, where were the parents? Every time they heard a student bullying or denigrating another child, they should have been right there calling them on their behavior. Why aren’t we teaching compassion, courtesy, and acceptance of others in our schools? And I don’t mean in a certain course, I mean as a part of every class, as a part of every recess, as a part of every lunchtime.

We’ve progressed far enough to no longer allow racial slurs (though perhaps that’s also the carrot/stick version of morality – people being afraid of lawsuits). If a child in a school were to cast racial aspersions at another child, they would be reprimanded immediately. But if a child continually denigrates and shatters the self-esteem of a kid in the “out-crowd”, possibly causing life-long emotional damage, no one bats an eye or raises a finger.

Religious people want to teach the “letter” of religion in the classroom. I want to see the “spirit” of morality taught. I don’t need my child being taught that some guy named Jesus supposedly walked on some water – that’s not a value, that’s a belief. I want my child to learn honesty, compassion for others, teamwork, and fairness, to name a few things.

We really, really need to have a discussion on what “values” are. We need to see what our different definitions are, and at what level they share common denominators. Without this discussion, “values” will continue to be seen as something religious. If we do have such a discussion, we might be able to come to some agreement about what should be being taught to children in public, non-religious institutions. We might finally truly get to a discussion of values, instead of having to constantly fight straw men.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Sports and brawling


Today on Public Radio they were discussing the rapidly increasing amount of violence in sports, whether exhibited by spectators or between players. I think perhaps the fan violence is a secondary result, while player violence is a primary result, of the way that male coaches treat male athletes, starting from boys’ earliest experiences with sports.

As a general rule, female coaches tend to be more supportive and encouraging of their athletes. They are also more likely to promote a focus on competing against yourself, respecting other players, and feeling good about yourself for trying your best. Male coaches are more likely to denigrate their players, using a boot-camp style of negative leadership. I do remember watching a documentary about a well-known female college basketball coach – I think her first name was Pat – and she was so nasty and negative to her players. My first thought was, oh my god, she’s acting just like a male coach!

I think that the male style of coaching shapes the personalities of the players and leads them to become people who will be violent and impulsive with other people. The fans in the stands are likely past athletes, once subjected to the same kind of demoralizing, or perhaps the violence of the players just leads to a kind of “group think” about appropriate sporting behavior.

Athletes were once held up as clean living, hard working role models. I don’t think that it’s suprising that this has changed, because people who are routinely denigrated, taught that winning is “the only thing”, and feel they always have to “prove” themselves, are likely to resort to violence and poor sportsmanlike attitudes. I think that their experiences with sports have taught them that they can’t feel good about themselves unless they’re “on top”, either by winning a game -by whatever means necessary – or by beating someone else up.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Capitalism and Robin Hood Economics


Some people feel that social programs for the poor constitute socialism. They also protest that taxing the rich to help the poor is “Robin Hood Economics”, a form of stealing. I see a different moral issue with “Robin Hood economics”. To me, it would be immoral not to help those less privileged than oneself. Granted, I’m thinking right now about the extremes, but if we’re talking about a wealthier person having to forgo one luxury item in order for another person to have food in her/his stomach, I don’t see the moral conflict whatsoever. To me, that is not “stealing” at all. To me, the “crime” (or “moral defect”…?) would belong to the wealthier person who had a problem with it.

I think the original purpose of communities (even the original community of “family”) was to band together in order to survive together. This is not the same as outlawing capitalism and not letting some people be able to get ahead. It’s about not leaving anyone so far behind that they are suffering, that they can’t meet their basic needs or aren’t truly given the chance for improvement. If a moral reason isn’t sufficient, there’s also a utilitarian one: societies in which the gap between rich and poor becomes very great often fall victim to revolutions.

It seems to me that a purely capitalistic society will always have people who can’t “make it”, because capitalism seems to “need” the lower rung of society. The people at the upper rungs of the economic ladder, the “successes of capitalism”, and to some extent those in the middle rungs, no longer take care of everything in their own lives. They couldn’t enjoy their ten acre yard with spacious gardens, or their huge house, or even the tennis court at their country club, without minimum wage gardeners, maids, cooks, etc. They wouldn’t have time to do their job and take care of so much property and many belongings.

But even for those wealthy people who save their money and live modestly (I suppose there might be some!), their wealth may have been built on the backs of lower income workers. The CEOs and shareholders of places like McDonalds and Walmart would make far less income if they paid their many workers better wages and provided the same health care they themselves possess. (And income is not a determinant of how hard someone is working, or “what benefits they deserve”. I’ve seen many Mexican gardeners that I suspect work far harder than many CEOs. It’s just their bad luck that a capitalistic society values most what brings in the most revenue.)

So if capitalism does indeed depend upon many people not making it (in whatever terms – owning a home, having a savings acct, being able to send their kids to college, etc.), mightn’t it have an obligation to help those at the lower rungs of the economy? It’s very difficult to “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps”, when society is structured in such a way as to keep you down.

People who grow up in poor communities have so much more working against them than just their poverty. They have terrible school systems, media which let them know that they don’t look the same as those people who “deserve better”, all around they have a world which tells them on even a subconscious level that where they are is where they will stay. So some of them perhaps don’t try, some try but don’t have the tools, and some have the tools but are turned away. It’s just not as simple as “if they want/deserve it, they’ll pull themselves up by their bootstraps”.

It’s very, very difficult to change your life when you don’t feel hope and don’t have anyone showing you the ropes. I’m a strong supporter of mentoring programs (such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or those corporations which sponsor disadvantaged youths by providing role models), because I think that the need to foster hope and dreams in these communities is as real as the need for basic necessities – very similar to the hope that is essential to get even a middle-class person out of a depression.

I would bet that most of us “succeeded” not just because we worked hard, but because we had a lot of support throughout our lives – parents, teachers, etc., encouraging us, directing us, inspiring us. I think it’s easy to take the effects of encouragement, guidance, and hope for granted when they’re a regular part of your world. Perhaps if we really appreciated the role they played in our own lives, we wouldn’t be so quick to begrudge those less fortunate some help. We all deserve a personal world where people encourage us and guide us to a better life – but some of us are luckier than others. First we had the luck, and then we worked hard.

So I don’t see “Robin Hood economics” as “stealing” – I see it as “sharing the luck”. Social programs aren’t about handing a wad of one person’s cash to another person – they’re about creating better schools, teaching better parenting skills, instilling hope, cleaning up neighborhoods… they’re about one part of society banding together to give to other people what they themselves were lucky enough to be born into.

I don’t think that the best system is the one which produces the country with the wealthiest individuals – I think the best system would be one in which everyone is housed and fed. The U.S. leads the industrialized nations in numbers of starving children. But all we seem to focus on is the fact that we produce more multimillionaires than other countries.

Religious symbols and public property


I have heard people complaining that the Ten Commandments are not allowed in courthouses, and that this is yet another example of the left trying to engineer a society devoid of God. But I think that when Christians worry that they are being run out of town, they are forgetting that for a very long time they have had the field to themselves. Ask one of these people how they would feel about the Star of David – and only the Star of David – being prominently displayed in a courthouse. Trust me, they won’t feel that religion is being allowed back in public life.

While I can’t speak for everyone, it seems to me that what is really happening is that many people recognize that if the most powerful (and proselytizing) religion is allowed a monopoly on societal institutions, then this will suggest that everyone is religious, that they are all of the same religion, and that religion is better than non-religion. Seeing only one kind of symbol for “values” or “religion” makes it too easy to un/consciously view what that symbol stands for as some sort of “universal truth” or bedrock of our society.

There is a large cross on a mountain where I live. It can be seen for miles and miles. Every year there is a public discussion about whether it should be allowed to stay, because it is on public property. To subvert the community discussion, it was sold to a private party so that the cross could remain. The courts have since ruled that manuever illegal. I think that if the cross is the only religious symbol allowed on such a prominent location, it should be taken down. However, if Jews are allowed to put a huge star of David on a local mountain and Muslims are allowed a local mountain for their own symbol, then I have no problem with the displays.

Likewise, the Ten Commandments are not only religious, they are of a very specific religion. Personally, I don’t think they belong in a courthouse -but if they were to be allowed, I think they must be in a “special” place along with equal displays of other religions and with a display of values of non-religious people.

Because this push for the Ten Commandments in courthouses is not really about religion in general, and it’s not about values in general. It’s all about Christianity – about Christianity being omnipresent, and about it being the sole voice recognized by societal institutions.

The discussion shouldn’t be promoted as “religion vs. the government”. Instead, it should be centering around fairness and an equal playing field. Equating “values” with “religion”, and “religion” with “Chrisitianity”, disenfranchises many, many people – and I don’t think that’s appropriate for societal institutions, whose job it is to represent all of us, and to protect minorities from tyranny by majorities.


Religion: A means to an end or an end in itself?


To me, the issue at the bottom of the divide in our country is whether people see religion (Muslim, Christian, Judaism, or any other) as an end in itself or as a means to an end. Fundamentalists seem to see religion as an end in itself, which to me guarantees that we (the world) will continue to have wars, the majority imposing itself on the minority, powerful faiths impugning science, the end justifying the means (unnecessary wars), people insisting that “patriotism” means unquestioning blind allegiance, and religious people denying that secularists have values.

I really believe that if we all took a more moderate approach and could see religion as a means to an end, we could then accept that a person doesn’t need religion to have values, that religion is but one way to find values, and that there are different kinds of religions, no one “more right” than another – in other words, that humanism and the various religions are merely different “means” meant to lead to the same “end”.

What is that end? That would be a great discussion to have. I’m guessing it would involve very general ideas and principles, concepts which would be very inclusive. I think that we would find again the “spirit” of the law and the “spirit” of religion, and move away from the human-made, era-biased “letter” emphasis.

For instance, the current controversy about gay marriage – I wasn’t around when marriage was invented, but I’m aware it had a lot to do with protecting paternity rights and claiming legal rights to female chattel. Religious people would say marriage has to do with God proclaiming without explanation that the only love that can be recognized is between a woman and a man. Those two explanations fall under the letter of the law. But what about the spirit of marriage? How can we look at the “spirit” of marriage sans “letter”, and think that qualities such as love, compassion, protectiveness, caring for children, teamwork, etc. should be supported and validated in only one type of coupling? Are not the VALUES the same? It’s only the gender combination that is different…

I think that only when we see religion as a means to an end, and one of many means, will we be able to focus on the spirit of the law and have a true discussion of values.


“Values” and the election


When I was at the University of Iowa, I participated in several Take Back the Night marches. Women and many men were incensed that would-be attackers were “stealing” the night-time streets from women.

I propose that it’s now time to “take back the words”. After hearing so many times that Bush won because people with values voted for him, I have become very angry. I have values and I voted for my values. And I did not vote for Bush. The problem is that the neo-conservative right has hijacked the word “values”.

As a matter of fact, I think the first step to taking back our country and helping it more closely resemble what it purports to be is for us to open up a country-wide discussion of the meaning of certain words and phrases. At the very least, we need to stand up and lay our own claim to these concepts. I’d like to see a discussion of “values”, “freedom”, “strength”, “defense”, “democracy”, “Christian values”, “family values”, “intolerance”, “faith-based”, “security”, “patriotism”, “special interests” , “conflict resolution”, “morality”, “violence as a last resort”, and most notably, “pro-life”.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I realized that those who say they are “pro-life” are really “pro-human-cell”. I am pro-life. I support contraception, the right to choose abortion, and programs for the poor because I value life. I value the life and quality-of-life of women; I do not want to see their goals for education, careers, marriage, and happiness being shattered by unwanted children. I value the life and quality-of-life of children who are born to those parents who either didn’t want them or don’t have the emotional or financial resources to raise them. I am pro-life because I am concerned about the problems of overpopulation and people having babies simply because they are physically able to.

I am pro-life because I think a world-wide conversation is long overdue about the ethics of killing upwards of 10,000 actual innocent civilian lives of another culture in order to hypothetically prevent an unknown number of possible losses of our own. Isn’t such a “pre-emptive” war saying that innocent people of a different culture are less important than we are?

I am pro-life because I do not believe that we have the right to execute criminals. I am pro-life because I think that if a living being is able to feel pain and experience fear, it has a right to its own life; I think it is ‘might’ not ‘right’ that leads us to cause pain and death to sentient creatures, animal and human alike. I am pro-life because I believe that a priority of governments should be to make sure that the elderly, handicapped, and poor are taken care of. I am pro-life because I think the environment is a living organism itself and should be one of our biggest ongoing priorities.

Isn’t religion a “special interest”? Wouldn’t “family values” mean supporting the love and happiness of those children raised in gay households? Do “Christian values” include supporting the death penalty? Is “faith-based” of more utility than “fairness-based”? Doesn’t “democracy” suggest “live and let live”? Does “patriotism” mean “blind allegiance”, or could it mean mean driving a fuel-efficient vehicle?

Are you feeling angry? Depressed? We don’t have to wait 4 years to make a change. Don’t let the neo-cons define our value-laden words. Let’s help the spirit of the law triumph over the letter of the law! Think about your own personal definitions of these and other words. And let’s stand up together and take back the words!!




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