Saturday, July 28, 2012

Why many conservatives don't (and won't) understand the Chick-Fil-A controversy

It's been a busy couple of weeks in the news, with regards to things I could have potentially blogged about, what with the number of calls to God and atheism and whatever else being behind the Aurora, Colorado, "Batman" shooting (hint: God doesn't do that stuff on either side of the argument, btw, and it wasn't God's plan--so brazenly stupid). The ensuing debate on gun rights is an important one, and one that is unlikely to be sober and productive for the very same reason I'm about to lay out here concerning a vastly less deadly weapon: fried chicken. I'm going to talk about the controversy about Chick-Fil-A, why conservatives (particularly religious ones and libertarians) don't (and likely won't) understand it, and how that connects directly back to the gun rights question raised, yet again, by a massacre. The reason, of course, is ideological thinking.

For a very quick recap, in case anyone is not aware of the situation, Dan Cathy, Chief Operating Officer of Atlanta-based Chick-Fil-A, a fast-food fried chicken place that claims it invented the chicken sandwich, put himself in a pickle lately. It's been widely known among those who support gay (marriage) rights that Chick-Fil-A as a business is openly supportive of "traditional" or "biblical" marriage. He recently made the statement that he and his business are "guilty as charged" of this activity, and the LBGT and supporting communities pretty well went straight to full boycott in response, as I'll justify momentarily.

We might note that Dan Cathy, to everyone's knowledge, does not have concubines, multiple wives, or profess absolute ownership of his wife as a piece of his property, so "traditional" and "biblical" marriage is a dubious term in the first place. We might also make a short note, but not a fuss, out of his classic example of erroneous God-does reasoning. Cathy said on the radio program The Ken Coleman Show, "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about."

Let me also make a quick note about their careful way of wording the fact that they are against gay marriage without directly saying so. To frame yourself as "pro-traditional-marriage" instead of "anti-gay-marriage" is a semantic game. Indeed, this crafty little bit of politicking is essentially identical to saying "It's not that I'm against flipping tails, it's that I'm very, very in favor of flipping heads" in reference to a coin toss.

Now, of course, the reason that the boycott is justified should be able to go without saying (although it can't--because it seems almost no conservatives understand it). Gay rights supporters have it out in the open that this company actively donates large sums of money to organizations that directly engage in activism against their cause, being that "pro-traditional-marriage" means "anti-gay-marriage" in everything but the wording. Thus, anyone who supports the gay-rights campaign cannot support Chick-Fil-A without being in a moral quandary since they are indirectly funding the opposition to their efforts on what they see as a major moral problem. They are as justified in boycotting Chick-Fil-A as any minority or supporter thereof would be in boycotting a company that directly donates some of its profits to the Ku Klux Klan.

Predictably, the highly polarized nature of our politics right now has turned this into a culture war--fought not with guns but rather with money that might be paid for chicken. Just as predictably, those in support of the Chick-Fil-A boycott are having their minds blown by the seeming inability of those on the right to get their heads around this matter, particularly libertarians, who have to violate their central claim on "liberty" to do as they are. It's because the matter is ideological, and two essentially religious forces on the right wing are coming to the battle here.

First, there is the obvious one: some Christians, scared to find out that their views might be wrong and thus that other things they are taught, like that they will never truly die, might be wrong, are rallying in support of the traditional values that they actively support. This is to be expected, and however disgusting it is to use your religion to justify a form of bigotry and oppression (God doesn't do that either, by the way), it really surprises no one. The boycott isn't a "war on Christianity," but a lot of these folks want to find one and see it here.

Then there is the harder one, captured by this comment I read on Facebook: "All lovers of the U.S. Constitution should eat at Chick-Fil-A right now." It's literally enough to leave those of us who understand why there is a boycott scratching our heads in befuddlement. The force involved here, though, is almost the same monster as it is quasi-religious itself--the incredibly American ideology of Libertarianism.

Libertarians have exalted "liberty" as their highest moral standard. In fact, Libertarians might be qualified as those people who place liberty, as opposed to oppression, and loyalty, as opposed to betrayal, at the very highest level in their moral framework. The problem is that they don't have a very keen understanding of liberty, as the liberty they are fighting for at present literally is the freedom for those with privilege to oppress and tyrannize those without it. It may be this fundamental dissonance, in fact, that inspires so much of their anger about the matter.

Since "liberty" of the "do as you will" brand is elevated to an ideological standard for these people, and since they (rather ironically, given the history--see NB at bottom) essentially consider the U.S. Constitution to be the scriptural embodiment of that abstraction, they are willing to subvert all kinds of evidence, including oppression and even bloody massacres, to protect and support the notion. In championing the cause of doing what one will, they are even able to suppress the call to the responsibility to do what one ought. Indeed, until their ideological adherence changes and their moral framework is built anew, they cannot do otherwise. We see them hold aloft "liberty" detached from humanity.

So, for these Libertarians, the whole controversy arises because they see it as an attack on Dan Cathy's liberty to do what he will with his company, and thus by extension they see it as an attack on their own liberty and on the abstraction of Liberty itself (rather like the abstraction many people call God). They see other people telling Dan Cathy what he can and cannot do with his own business or company profits. That, of course, is what they see because they want to see it, and it is not at all what is going on. What is going on is straightfoward: people refusing to support a business (and discouraging others from supporting it) that openly engages in behavior that they strongly disagree with, i.e. that people have the liberty to use their money as they will and their speech to truthfully defame a business (as that does not qualify as libel). Unsurprisingly, then, we're witnessing a group who insists that the business and people only have the right to do as they please if it agrees with the views of the members of that group. As noted, this is a very narrow definition of "liberty" and one that can only be enforced by a contradictory method: authority.

Also predictably, then, all kinds of bad arguments and distractions are flying around. For instance, there is a common call to the hypocrisy of those who boycott Chick-Fil-A but not other Christian businesses (given the recent article in Businessweek, Marriott hotels, owned by a devout Mormon, makes a good example). There is no hypocrisy there, though, unless those other Christian businesses are directly and openly donating large sums of money to anti-gay-marriage campaigns. Still others accuse hypocrisy for not boycotting other "evil" businesses like the fossil fuel industry, which does raise a larger moral question just now than does gay marriage. That's a matter of practicality, though. Most Americans do not possess the level of capital needed to effectively boycott the fossil fuel industry, but all have the ability to choose not to eat a chicken sandwich for lunch.

What does this have to do with the shooting in Colorado, or any of the other dozens that take place in the United States with stunning regularity? Everything.

The same people can and do make the same arguments about gun rights. They can take the liberty of gun ownership and lawful operation and place that ideal under the glass of sanctity, preventing any reasoned discussion of the matter--and in this case, amazingly, the glass is apparently bulletproof. The liberty to own guns and ammunition, whatever the costs, outweighs the innocent blood of everyone killed by them, enabling the bizarre disconnect between killing and death exhibited widely in American culture. I have to wonder if this disconnect has its roots in the Christian religion, which actively denies death and thus teaches people to think in very unclear terms about it.

Now, please note that I do not claim to know what the right answer is about gun rights, nor do I call for gun bans or even, necessarily, more gun control. Certainly I don't deny the fundamental right of people to defend themselves against attack or danger. All I'm calling for is non-ideological conversation about it, looking at data and statistics and wading our way through the muck to effective rules and regulations surrounding the topic. Bad arguments need to be taken off the table, including Bruce-Willis-movie fantasies about gun fights, so that sober discussions can lead to a better situation for everyone. So long as guns, like the rights of corporations, are mired in the quasi-religious wasteland of the American ideology of Liberty, this is impossible, though.

So long as Liberty is an ideological ideal in our culture with a quasi-religious following, these problems will be as common and heated as those surrounding every religious movement--and this religion will produce dangerous fundamentalists and extremists just like every other (even if some, like peaceful Jainism, only produces fundamentalists and extremists that are dangerous to themselves).

Somehow a cult of Liberty has wound its way through American history, occasionally, as now, rearing its head in a way to create problems that force us to ask hard questions--while trying to suppress the asking of them--like "how much innocent blood and oppression of the pursuit of happiness is an abstract concept like Liberty actually worth?" Some folks now are calling all of this discord and death the "high price of liberty." Is it really worth it, or is there some balance that can be struck where we are all still free to do literally anything that free, civil people have a reasonable right to be doing and yet limits are placed to keep the uncivil more in check, even if imperfectly?

EDIT: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told FOX News that the matter of whether or not the Second Amendment "freedom" covers the right to bear "rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes" is one that "has to be decided." This is a clear indication that an abstract notion (Liberty) has left the realm of the reasonable and pragmatic in the minds of even representatives of the highest court in the United States. View the video just below.



Nota bene: The irony of the Consitution being held as the American scripture of Libertarianism is in its establishment--which is why many Libertarians favor the more appropriate Declaration of Independence as their central scripture. Essentially, following the revolution, starting immediately in 1776, the Articles of Confederation were drafted, and by 1781 they were ratified by all thirteen states. Those articles made for a very loose, very Libertarian-style government, and over the following decade, the problems caused by this situation led directly to the need to draft a Constitution that established a relatively strong federal government, giving birth to the Federalist Party that dominated late eighteenth-century American politics. The capstone moment really came at Shays Rebellion, and it motivated even many of the Republicans (though not Thomas Jefferson so much) to aim for a more consolidated federal government as outlined in the current Constitution, in response to the sentiment expressed by Abigail Adams in her January 29, 1787, letter to Thomas Jefferson: "Ignorant, restless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretence of grievances which have no existence but in their own imaginations." In other words, the U.S. Constitution is a document that was written in its current form specifically to address the societal ills created by attempting to govern via purely Libertarian ideals--and that at a time when single-shot, barrel-loaded weaponry was state-of-the-art. It is starkly ironic, then, that the people who wish to be governed as if there were no Constitution at all hold it up as a scriptural standard to rally around.

Of course, just as most Christians don't read or accept everything in the Bible, so we see with many Libertarian activists and their central scriptures.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Stop calling it the God particle and get your theology out of the Higgs boson

On the fourth of July of this year, scientists at CERN announced that they are certain, by particle physics standards, that the elusive Higgs boson exists. After what might be one of the most extensive searches for something ever (if you factor in the required equipment--an enormous particle accelerator using superconducting magnets stretched in a circle several kilometers in circumference) scientists have amassed enough data to conclude that the Higgs boson exists. This discovery is a critical piece for verifying the Standard Model of physics, validating much of our understanding of the fundamentals of particle physics (and thus the rest of stuff), and so we should all be mega excited (even if stupid American politics prevented American scientists and engineers from completing the SSC in Texas and thus handed the find to the E.U. instead--a point not missed by astrophysicist and outspoken science advocate Niel deGrasse Tyson).

What's the problem, then? A stupid nickname.

The story about how the Higgs boson acquired the unfortunate monicker "the God particle" is almost literally everywhere on the Internet, so it doesn't need to be repeated here. Indeed, I'd rather call it by Leon Lederman's alleged preferred title, the goddamn particle, if I must use a nickname for the particle, which already has a name--the Higgs boson. That said, stop calling the goddamn particle "the God particle" already!

Why? Well, to get to the point, other than that it's foolish, inaccurate, and useless to do so, sometimes I toy with the idea of starting another book that would have the working title Bad Metaphors Called God. The essential premise of that book would be to elaborate on a point I make in God Doesn't, "God" means different things to different people, and thus it makes a rotten choice of metaphor for whatever particular set of meanings the speaker assigns to the term "God."

Take, for example, what several notable folks in different walks of life have to say about this discovery.

First, Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he states that "the God particle has nothing to do with God" and yet in which he went on to state that through understanding natural laws, as this find helps us to do, we are better able to understand the "personality of the one who fashioned those laws," whom we can assume he means God. 

This, of course, is the same line of rubbish that the clergy always feed us when trying to marry science to religion. If we wanted to give God credit for creating the universe and use it to determine anything about his personality, we'd have to surmise that he's very capricious and seems to get a certain thrill from watching his creations teeter on the brink of destruction in a universe that is almost overwhelmingly inaccessible and inhospitable. 

This, of course, helps to render as empty his addition that, "The mysteries revealed by modern science are a constant reminder that reality is bigger than our day-to-day lives." Philosopher Dan Dennett refers to statements like this as "deepities," meaning that they're trivially true and yet somehow fundamentally incorrect while posing as being profound. Here we see the bad metaphor thing in full action, though. God as "bigger than our day-to-day lives" is a rather benign definition unlikely to be the limit of the understanding of a fundamentalist who is, in all likelihood, far more interested in an Old Testament (when it serves him) understanding of God's personality, which he is likely to believe more substantial now that a particle bearing God's name has been discovered, despite his lack of understanding of the physics or the unfortunate nickname.

Second, fellow scientist, though skeptic, Lawrence Krauss (a cosmologist) has a very different view of the matter. Writing in Newsweek (mirrored here on The Daily Beast), Dr. Krauss (author of A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, Free Press, 2012) put the matter of the goddamn particle much differently than any Vatican scientist: "Humans, with their remarkable tools and their remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step toward replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge." He went on to point out, "If we can describe the laws of nature back to the beginning of time without any supernatural shenanigans, it becomes clear that you don't need God."

This analysis, besides being clearer in scientific understanding, is not awash in the kind of misleading metaphorical nonsense that we read from Consolmagno, and so while Krauss's words may infuriate fundamentalist believers and cause them to shove their goddamn fingers in their ears, they aren't likely to lend any support to their dangerous worldviews.

Third, we need look no further than master metaphysicalist Deepak Chopra, in some YouTube videos on the topic, to listen to him butcher the topic, physics, and common sense while he presents his "God is energy" metaphor via the goddamn particle.

In one, he says, "So, what does this do to our idea of divine creation? Well, it certainly changes the idea of divinity, but it doesn't really get rid of the idea that this divine field of possibilities [stretchingly referring to the Higgs field] could be infinite consciousness itself." Excuse me, but WHAT? (Especially if one listens further in the video than that point, which is incomprehensible jibber-jabber until he gets to a classic argument from ignorance about a minute down the line!) He goes on to directly call this whole mystery, the field of infinite possibilities, God and to conclude that this mysterious field, which requires a Large Hadron Collider to even gather data about it, is "the mind of God.

In another, he spouts more arguments from ignorance about "infinite possibility fields" which is "self-interacting consciousness," which he ties to yoga, samadhi, infinite interconnectedness, and God. As this definition of God is undeniably different from Consolmagno's definition and from the definitions of God held by typical believers as well as fundamentalists, we have to accuse Chopra of using a bad metaphor called God.

So, to finish my point, why should we stop calling the Higgs boson the "God particle"? Besides the obvious reasons, mentioned above, it creates yet another opening into a very bad, substantially dangerous metaphor that we're all better off without.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

George Zimmerman says the death of Trayvon Martin was part of God's plan

This post is surprising to me for a couple of reasons. First, the subject matter itself: I've heard the "it's all God's plan" thing about a bajillion times, growing up and living in the South and all, but it is almost always reserved for some tragedy that happens to you, not a tragedy that you directly caused. In this case, because the tragedy is the death of a young man by a firearm carried by the person calling "God's plan"--a person being tried for murder for this very crime--it's especially stunning and disturbing to hear it invoked. Second, this post surprises me because I'm actually going to link to a Fox News article because it was to Sean Hannity that Zimmerman uttered this ridiculous line, in response to whether or not he regrets anything about the night Trayvon Martin was shot.
"I feel that it was all God's plan, and for me to second guess it or judge it," Zimmerman shook his head. [Quote from Fox News article, link above]
This is mind-boggling, if that term means anything, and it's precisely the kind of problem I have attempted to highlight with God Doesn't: We Do. God simply doesn't do this kind of thing (or anything, for that matter). God doesn't make plans to have a man with a gun and without regrets bring about the death of an unarmed seventeen-year-old while self-defense under very dubious circumstances and difficult-to-justify "stand your ground" laws.

Trayvon Martin's family doesn't accept this statement, and they put it quite plainly what it would mean if they were forced to do so:
"I don't understand what he was thinking by saying it was God's plan that he murdered our child. I really don’t understand what God he worships because it’s not the same God that I worship." --Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father
"Why would God have him kill an unarmed teenager? It makes no sense." --Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother

Indeed, it makes no sense at all, and no rational, reasonable person should accept the excuse for a moment. The question we have to ask ourselves is what follows from teachings about God, particularly the dogma of the infallibility (or moral perfection) of God. To accept this belief, is to realize that Zimmerman is correct--a sentiment already being echoed from more fundamentalist believers on comment threads on articles about this piece of news (ex: Here, CNN's Religion Blog).

What happens when we combine the dogma of the moral perfection of God with the belief that He is just? We are forced to accept that Zimmerman is right again and that, essentially, God chose him for indiscernible reasons to be the tool of Trayvon's justifiable death.

What happens when we combine those dogmas with the notion that God is all loving? We are forced to accept that God somehow knew that the incredible suffering caused by this, including the collective suffering and division of an nation, is a loving act by God brought about through the death of an unarmed teenager by a bullet fired under very questionable circumstances.

This is bull, and it is astounding that people can hold these beliefs. Astounding and obscene--and insane. Absolutely insane.

Of note, Zimmerman is aware of the suffering, including its scope, and has expressed that he is sorry for it: "I do want to tell everyone, my wife, my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America that I'm sorry that this happened," he said. "I hate to think that because of this incident, because my actions, it's polarized and divided American. And I'm truly sorry." Still he is willing to call it "God's plan," though, and attempt to absolve himself of any responsibility for it. Almost most obscene of all, he claims he prays for the family of Trayvon and others concerning the tragedy he sits at the center of.

It has past the time in our society to let such patently empty statements serve as any kind of buffer against the reality of tragedy, particularly in cases like this in which it is essentially being claimed to try to shift the burden of guilt off Zimmerman's shoulders. If anyone wants to read Zimmerman's words differently, they are encouraged to watch the video of Hannity's interview with Zimmerman here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why the lessons of Colorado Springs won't be learned by the people that need to learn them

I’m proud to be American and strong in my beliefs
And I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again
Because I never need a government to hold my hand.

                                             -Aaron Lewis, "Country Boy"
...until you do.

As essentially everyone in the United States now knows, among a sure majority in the wealthy Western democracies of the world, the state of Colorado was the location of one of the most horrific wildfires in recent memory (not to suggest that there haven't been some rather serious contenders in the past few years, particularly in California), certainly considered to be the worst in Coloradan history. The Waldo Canyon fires, which were caused by a lightning strike in the very dry canyon just northwest of Colorado Springs, consumed more than fifteen thousand acres of forest, displaced more than thirty thousand citizens, destroyed hundreds of homes, killed a handful of people, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, if not more than a billion. The scope of the tragedy is enormous.

But what does this have to do with Lewis's lyrics?