Thursday, December 31, 2009

I'm Not One for New Year's Resolutions, However ...

There are no doubt a few things—hell, many for that matter—about my life that a resolution to change could only help. But are these disingenuous promises we make to ourselves every January 1st really doing us any good, or do they just set us up for failure?

I can only recall one New Year's resolution I ever made that met with even the most modest level of success. Three years ago I resolved to start drinking coffee, whether self-brewed or purchased from a coffee shop, that was made of one-half regular and one-half decaffeinated coffee. My crack medical team impressed upon me the notion that too much caffeine was probably not good for someone with a history of less-than-stellar impulse control. Amazingly, I managed to habituate myself to the task of buying and brewing only semi-caffeinated java for about 18 months! Then one day I forgot to ask for half-decaf and was treated to the most delicious-tasting, fully satisfying, 100% caffeinated coffee. Wow! For several moments I wondered why my coffee tasted so good, then it dawned on me: there was no decaf in this mug! I made a new resolution on that day: to never drink half-decaffeinated swill ever again.

It's December 31st again, and I've been considering a few resolutions for this New Year that I am determined to make succeed:

1. Every day in my email in box, I receive several 'words-of-the-day' from various sources. (It's been very helpful for improving my vapid vocabulary.) Each of these words comes, of course, with its definitions as well as a sentence or two exemplifying its uses. At the bottom of each word entry is a paragraph dedicated to the etymology of the featured word. As a rule, I don't bother reading this part. On those occasions when I do, I am usually amazed, impressed, and informed to the point of giddiness. It's one thing to know a word's definition; it's quite another to be able to expound about its origins and historical significance. I am therefore resolved this coming New Year to reading the entire contents of my 'words-of-the-day' emails—including etymologies—for the betterment of my appreciation for words and how to properly use them.

2. At this point, things get a little dicey. My Dunkin Donuts habit is in dire need of intervention. For the coming year, I resolve not to go into a Dunking Donuts coffee shop more than once on any given day. Do I hear snickering? No, this is not meant as a joke. Committing to this resolution would realize a significant step forward in my quest to save a little money as well as moderate my caffeine intake. Those who know me understand full well what an achievement this would be. Well, let's just move on. I sense some of you are still laughing.

3. This is a big one. My daughter and I have to stop conspiring to buy techno-gadgets for the computer or stereo system behind Jami's back. It's really quite devious, to say nothing of immature. Besides, I think Alycia is a rat anyway; Jami always seems to find out everything. Some partner-in-crime she turned out to be.

4. And finally, I resolve to remove not just some, but all, of the rust that is accumulating on my treadmill. It's such a pain. Every time I go to use it (every January 1st) it squeals so loudly I am forced to turn it off before it catches fire. I'll just have to achieve my Richard Gere physique some other way.

This year is going to be different. There's no reason a few well thought out resolutions can't succeed. This year I resolve to stick to my resolutions. (Can you do that?) Sure you can. You just watch. This year is going to be different.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Legend for the Ages: The Story of Christmas

The beauty of mythology is that it celebrates one of man's most treasured possessions—the imagination. With the unique powers of the imagination, one can construct that which reason tells us cannot be constructed; travel to places reason tells us we cannot go; become something reason tells us we will never become. Reason, it seems, has no place in such a conjured world.

The cult of reason and rationality often fails to satisfy our collective appetite for the unreal, the unachievable, the unknowable. But we have ingeniously devised a way to go to these very places where none have gone before. The imagination takes us on these fantastical voyages to worlds which cannot become real, and yet manage to become nearly real through the magic of belief! By believing something to be true, we ground in our own reality that which would otherwise remain forever outside the world of possibility.

And so it is with Christmas. For the faithful, this holiday commemorates events believed to have actually occurred. For the rest of us, it has evolved into a legend of grand proportions—a myth worthy of the gods. And frankly, this is where Christmas belongs—as a fable among fables, the finest of folklore.

As unassailable dogma, the story of Christmas fails completely; as fruit from the tree of the imagination, however, it succeeds in grand style. Here it can be embraced for the quaint and charming fiction that it is. That being said, wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" nonetheless has the feel of a ratifying gesture many of us are not comfortable offering. Until such time as the story of Christmas is relieved of the religious burden to ground itself in reality, the seasonal greeting of choice for us skeptics will likely remain "Happy Holidays."

Perhaps in another thousand years, the Christmas tale will be told to our young without the taint of religious indoctrination, and will instead be appreciated for what it truly is—precious fodder for the untamed imagination.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Self or God: The False Choice

Auxiliary Bishop Peter Rosazza of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut was interviewed recently on the Colin McEnroe Show on Connecticut Public Radio. (Check out the interview.) It was an oddly entertaining encounter—as revealing as it was nonsensical.

First off, Bishop Rosazza is an affable figure. He engagingly interacted with the host who is self-professed in his religious skepticism. At no point did the bishop appear to be condescending, though he could not help but come across as somewhat instructive—no doubt for the benefit of the godless Mr. McEnroe. The problem the bishop had was the same one religious apologists face the world over: having to explain the inexplicable.

To every substantive question posed by the interviewer about matters of faith, God, spirituality, etc., Bishop Rosazza's responses were constructed of little more that compounded metaphors, as though he were speaking in a code only the faithful could comprehend. He didn't seem to possess the tools of articulation necessary to put forth even a modest defense of his own life of faith. Circular reasoning, ambiguous logic, and flowery ruminations were all he offered, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Many apologists amazingly find success with these tools, especially when addressing those who are more predisposed to conformity and group-think in the first place.

While acknowledging that man is indeed responsible for the condition of his fellow man, the bishop nonetheless asserts that successfully fulfilling this duty requires “faith in action.” The objectionable insinuation is that without religious faith, man is ill equipped to adequately tend to his fellow man. Scores of godless humanitarians might have something different to say on the subject.

Of particular interest was the bishop’s assertion that without God in his life, man is unalterably self-centered. In other words, by not believing in the supreme transcendence of an omnipotent and omniscient god, man is anointing himself supreme entity in all things. What other choice is there? One could easily infer from this rhetorical device that there is nothing else to put one’s “faith” in. How often it is said, We can not do it alone. About this, those who say such things are absolutely correct. We humanist skeptics understand all too well that we are powerless to manage life’s complexities on our own. We turn to a different place for answers, however. We turn to one another. We worship nothing; we worship no one. Instead, we value and respect man’s ability to strive for his own betterment by committing to that which brings out the best of his nature. This mindset not only fills our lives with meaning and purpose, it even provides a sense of worldly salvation.

The human individual—on his own—is just as impotent as any supernatural entity when it comes to conquering life’s challenges. Living, loving, and working in concert, however, man has no need to conjure an entity that serves only to condemn him for his failures.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Twenty Years and Counting

It was a day like no other — at once ordinary and unique. Having as yet to be emancipated from the sticky tentacles of religiosity, Jami and I passively relented and were married in a church ceremony.

The weight of expectations, in retrospect, was enormous. Where else would one get married? Certainly not in a civil ceremony at the Town Hall. That's just not where good Catholics tie the knot. But why? That we didn't even entertain the notion of having the local Justice of the Peace formally unite us says much about how conforming our state of mind had become.

Jami and I married one another because we loved each other and wanted our union to be recognized. We were married in a Catholic church, however, for no other reason than we were expected to be. Such is the power of religious culture, family influence, and ritualized conformity.

We take comfort in the knowledge that our marriage was recognized by the state, having met certain state-imposed criteria. In a practical sense, then, it was a civil union. Today we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of our marriage not our religious wedding ceremony. We take joy in recalling the social ritual of eating, drinking, dancing, and otherwise partying with so many who wished us well on that special night.

Our relationship is stronger today because we have freed ourselves to be who and what we really are: two human beings tethered by sweetness and good humor, intent upon learning how to better love ourselves, each other, and our precious daughter Alycia.

It may not be the perfect relationship, but it is one built upon respect, and for that reason alone, it's a fair bet we're gonna make it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

My One-Time 'Encounter' with Uncle Frank

It was the Summer of ’72. School was out, but the livin’ wasn’t exactly easy. I had just finished my second of three attempts at completing the tenth grade. Needless to say, I needed a diversion in the worst way.

Enter dear old Dad—Henry F. Cooney. Pop was not saying much, but I could tell something was brewing. For several days he kept checking the weather station telex for cities from Williamsburg, Pennsylvania to Grand Island, Nebraska. I had learned from years of “stand-up, speak-up and shut-up” indoctrination, however, not to ask questions.

Usually Pop and I would just fly to New Haven or Keene, New Hampshire, have a cup of coffee and turn around. But the clues were all around that a longer trip might just be in the offing. He upgraded to a bigger ‘ship’— as he liked to call his plane. A Cessna 182 with variable pitch prop! (I still don’t know what that means.) The incessant weather checks for all points west and the conspicuous reminiscing about his family and the old neighborhood further aroused my suspicions.

Sure enough, as soon as the moment was right, we took off from Brainard Airport on the wings of that old adage, Go west young man. Except Pop wasn’t so young anymore—and neither was his brother Frank who, as it turns out, was clinging to what was left of his life in a VA hospital bed in Colorado Springs. Without even telling him we were coming, the race was on to surprise Frank with a visit before his time would run out.

The trip west was almost uneventful. Severe thunderstorms chased us to the service ceiling of our aircraft before Pop finally gave up and asked Cleveland Control to vector us down through the muck. Plus a landing gear problem held us up for a day in Omaha. We sure didn’t need the delay.

The vastness of the Plains gradually gave way to higher elevations until, almost suddenly, the majesty of the Rocky Mountains was upon us. After a parallel runway miscommunication nearly landed us on the windshield of an oncoming DC9, we settled in for the night in Denver.

The final leg to Colorado Springs was a short one. The terrain between the two cities tops off at nearly 9,000 feet! Any higher and we would have had to find another mode of transportation. We rented a car, got directions and made it to the hospital without a hitch. The suspense was beginning to build. When Pop asked what room Frank was in—and managed to get an answer—we figured we had beaten the Grim Reaper to the punch. We figured right.

Upon opening the door to Frank’s room, we saw a frail old man sitting on the edge of his bed, facing the wall and clinging to his oxygen mask. Henry quietly moved closer until he could tap Frank gently on the shoulder. In a flash, Frank tossed away his oxygen mask, sprung to his feet (well, kind of sprung), looked in disbelief at who it was and greeted him with, “Henry, you old son of a bitch! How the hell are you?” I learned that day that swearing at your brother under some circumstances was a good thing. The two then embraced in a kind of bear hug only brothers know how to give.

When Frank noticed me on the other side of the bed, he asked Henry, “Who’s that?” My Dad simply replied, “Don’t mind him. He’s just the co-pilot.” At that point I figured my home for the next half hour or so was sitting in the chair—on the other side of the room.

I listened in amazement as the two aging brothers went on about the old days and how nearly everyone they ever knew had already died. It was clear Frank knew he was soon to be gone as well, but that reality only served to make this reunion all the more special.

To this day, whenever anyone asks me if I ever had occasion to meet Uncle Frank, I usually tell them “meet” is such a strong word, but that I was once in the same room with him.

The chair in the corner was my place that afternoon, but more importantly, Henry and Frank found their place on that special day—in each other’s arms.

Brotherly love is such a cool thing.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Skepticism: The Critical Commodity

In the world some of us grew up in, obedience and conformity were the rule. Questioning authority was a sin. Was that the way it really should have been?

As it turns out, obedience and conformity are necessary when the only sustenance being offered one's intellect is wrapped in dogma. Anything less is insubordinate. Rather than eagerly engaging a child when he or she invokes his instinct to question everything, those who value conformity over skepticism will instead say, "Because I am your mother, and I said so." Putting aside the fact that one's parents have decades of experience with life and, as a rule, know better than a child what is best for him or her, great pains should nonetheless be taken to indulge a child's inquisitiveness to the greater end that its natural sense of skepticism be cultivated rather than quashed. Critical thinking is not just for grown-ups.

This kind of free thinking, however, is anathema to god-driven ideology. Recalling the Jesuit master who proclaimed that as long as he had the attention of a child for the first seven years of life or thereabouts, his mind forever after belonged to him, the nefarious nature of compulsory religious education of the young is brazenly exposed.

How best then to pass down accumulated wisdom if not via the rigidity of dogmatism? When a child is told to repeat, "five times five equals twenty-five" one hundred times, odds are he will assimilate this truism. Why not the same methodology for learning about life? Compel one to memorize The Ten Commandments and he may well trust that these, too, are based on a truthfulness worthy of ritualization.

A much better approach is to instill values, and values are best shared by example. But isn't conformity a value? Yes, but the essential aspect of conformity as a value is that it functions only when not held up as a value of dimensions so nearly absolute it serves as little more than an end unto itself. Conformity at the expense of one's uniqueness is abhorrently dysfunctional.

A natural skeptic questions vigorously even those whom, and that which, he is predisposed to agree with. Being of the liberal political persuasion, I might be inclined to go along with a public health care option, but I am highly skeptical when the president claims his plan will more than pay for itself over the life of the bill. Likewise, when a conservative denounces a government health care option—for reasons other than the inane—I am immediately suspicious of my own instinct to dismiss him. If skepticism is a worthy value for one, it should be just as worthy a value for the other.

An unquestioning faith in anything, whether religious or secular, is not a value worthy of passing on to those whose intellects we are charged with nurturing. Rather it is an invitation to denigrate that which should be cherished: an independent and inquisitive mind.

In the pursuit of knowledge, skepticism most surely is—the critical commodity.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

America's Resilient Racist Underbelly

In the Srednyaya, Akhtuba province of Russia, African-born farmer Joaquim Crima is running for leading office. In a coffee shop the other day - right here in America - one Caucasian customer made his feelings about the matter very clear: "Don't worry. He'll probably end up in a ditch somewhere, just like Obama will."

This racist utterance was remarkable for its openness - its lack of self-censorship. There is obviously more work to be done at the task of marginalizing the hate-mongers among us.

It was probably too good to be true - that America might actually begin to function as a "post-racial" society. With the election of its first African American president, the signs of hope were everywhere. Throughout the grueling vetting process, Barack Obama proved himself to be cautious, deliberate and tolerant, while at the same time revealing a sense of balance between healthy idealism and necessary realism in the debates of the day. But a recent spate of events leaves one wondering what is really behind all the hostility toward President Obama:

• As congressional leaders go home for their August recess, many are taking their case for health care reform directly to their constituents in town hall meetings. In a number of Democratic-sponsored events, forces opposed to reform have taken to boisterously interrupting the proceedings and stifling the debate. The claims that these are grass-roots protesters seeking to be heard doesn't bear out. The facts point to organized groups with ties to the health care industry and conservative lobbying firms sending out virtual rent-a-mobs to intentionally disrupt the goings-on, giving legitimate Republican opposition a bad image;

• Disseminating lies about Democratic health care proposals including one that government "death panels" would tell doctors when to deny care and 'pull the plug' on aging people;

• Senate confirmation hearings over the nomination of Hispanic Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court were rife with remarks by dissenting Judiciary Committee members questioning her integrity and commitment to the rule of law. Some tried to label her a kind of reverse racist for her "enlightened Hispanic woman" remarks;

• A strange coalition of lawmakers, pundits, celebrities and others have latched onto the absurd notion that President Obama was not born in the United States, and therefore is not the legitimate president;

• Ultra-conservative media types - Rush, Glen, Bill-O, etc., - are attempting to demonize the president by giving voice to those offering extremist rhetoric, e.g., comparing liberals and reformists to Nazis and depicting the president as an Adolf Hitler clone;

• Sara Palin continues to make references to "the America I know and love" - presumably the same "real America" she referred to during the presidential election - serving only to mock the America others know and love;

• In an effort to swell their ranks with new recruits, militia groups are stoking fears about the direction the country has taken since Barack Obama took office;

• Labeling the president a "socialist" for his handling of the bank bailouts, auto company bailouts and health care reform, taps into the fears many people were programmed to feel about the very concept of socialism.

In addition, there seems to be a contingent of Americans coalescing into a lot whose substance is nebulous and yet cohesive, leading a chorus of voices with the suspicious refrain, "We want our country back." The clear implication being that a certain someone has taken their country away from them. The unnamed culprit is no doubt the newly elected African American president. What is becoming painfully clear is that many of the people voicing their dissatisfaction with President Obama are merely angry, white people who cannot stomach the notion that an intelligent and popular black person has ascended to the presidency and is now the face of the country. To these people, Barack Obama represents all that they fear. But because overt expressions of racism are not tolerated, cloaking their hatred in a veneer of populist rhetoric deceptively gives voice to their frustrations.

The larger view of these events points to a sea change in the American political landscape. The right wing of the Republican Party is plainly convulsing in the throes of death. Much as a severely wounded animal lashes out uncontrollably just before expiring, ultra-conservatives are lashing out knowing their days of political viability are numbered as well. The inane antics flowing from conservatives at the moment reveals a desperation, knowing they have lost the hearts and minds of the reasonable masses from the left and the right. The resurgence of the Republican Party lies in its moderating influences, not the resurrection of its angry, white faction.

Of course, President Obama is not in a position to call out these malcontents for their prejudice. He can only refer to them as "those who would spread lies and misinformation," leaving the crude task of exposing the racists to those who have less to lose.

There are many white people who fear they are losing their grip on this country. They are correct to point out they are losing their grip on America. Their mistake lies in fearing such an eventuality. That Whites will soon be a minority is a simple reality that holds no promise one way or the other as to whether it will be a good thing or not. What is clear is that those of color who will soon make up a majority will likely be up to the challenge of asserting a more enlightened benchmark for truly democratic reforms.

Though it won't be totally eliminated, racism will no doubt become even more offensive to an even greater number of people once this recent virus runs its course. Then, maybe, the journey toward a truly post racial society can commence.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Glenn Beck: Have Camera, Will Vomit

Hmmm. Let me see. Eenie meenie miney moe. . . A. Glenn Beck is a racist; B. President Obama is a racist. Such a difficult choice. Well fuck it. I guess I'll take A.

Very happy to help you get out your message, Mr. Beck. The vomitus has to be exposed before it is cleaned up. Keep your nonsense coming. With every hate-filled inanity you utter, the world you inhabit gets a little smaller.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Legacy of Subjugation

It must be Pick On Pat Buchanan Week. But then again, his ignorance and prejudice are such that exposing them is the only responsible thing to do. The problem with Mr. Buchanan receiving as much air time as he does is that viewers are duped into thinking that he speaks for a large number of people. The consequence of this is the further polarization of the races. The marginal thinking of Mr. Buchanan deserves marginal exposure. But the networks eat it up because nothing sells like controversy.

Newsflash: Pat Buchanan does not represent the thinking of educated and informed white people. If he speaks for anyone anymore, he speaks for an ever-dwindling fringe of backward-thinking, ultra-conservative people who have no sense of history or responsibility vis-à-vis Black Americans and their experience.

Mr. Buchanan likes to point to statistics that reveal a state of affairs in the Black community today that is, shall we say, wanting. And then he has the temerity to suggest that Blacks in America are wholly responsible for whatever blight has befallen their condition. Statistics in a vacuum of context mean absolutely nothing. What does it mean that the illegitimacy rate among Blacks is 70%? What does it mean that Blacks commit crime at a rate seven times that of Whites? What is really behind the phenomenon of so-called self segregation among so many Blacks? What does it mean when no Blacks perform highly enough on a New Haven firefighter's examination to qualify for promotion?

We could ask questions like this all day long, and those who tend to disregard the truth about the Black experience in America probably see no connection between hundreds of years of subjugation to White authority, subordination to White privilege and the state of affairs in the Black community today. Plus, pointing up only the negative statistics serves to contradict and deny the reality that despite what they have had to endure, Blacks have enriched American culture immeasurably.

When Black intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson or Cornell West make the point that White America has yet to accept its responsibility for the struggling plight of African Americans or that this country has yet to live up to its promise of equality and opportunity for everyone, they are castigated by those able to disguise their ignorance and prejudice as moderate, populist rhetoric.

The irony of Mr. Buchanan's statistical pontificating is that any enlightened interpretation of these statistics is infinitely more damning to Whites than Blacks. Rather than revealing a lack of responsibility by African Americans for their own plight, they reveal the extent to which White America has abdicated its responsibility for cultivating a society where fairness and opportunity are not just words but cherished ideals.

While it cannot be denied that much progress has been made toward realizing America's promise, it is ludicrous to pretend that we have done all that is necessary to level the playing field. As it exists today, the so-called playing field is pockmarked with craters of injustice. White America needs to grow up and accept its share of responsibility for the disproportionate levels of social ills afflicting Black America. It has had a big hand in fomenting the conditions where hopelessness and despair can take hold and complicate the struggle to thrive.

Black Americans aren't looking for excuses - just validation.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Theory vs. Fact: The Erroneous Premise

A common representation by many religious people who are skeptical of the theory of evolution is that it is "just a theory" and not "fact." Making this statement reveals an underlying misconception of just what a theory is. In the realm of science, "the meaning of theory is very rigorous: a theory must be based on observable facts and must make testable predictions." (Wikipedia: Evolution As Theory and Fact)

In some respects, theories are on a higher order than simple facts because theories serve to explain facts. Very often the word "fact" is used to convey something that is presumed to be immutable or unalterably true. This is not the case in a scientific sense. Something is factual when its predictions have survived so many tests that continuing to perform tests makes little or no sense; its degree of probability is extremely high. In this context, the consensus among scientists is that evolution is indeed a fact as well.

It's quite possible that what many skeptics intend to say is that evolution is a hypothesis, i.e., a proposition set forth as a possible explanation for certain phenomena. The problem here is that it has been a hundred and fifty years since evolution has been considered a hypothesis. It has long since graduated to accepted theory. Bearing in mind that theories are never proven absolutely true, current or accepted theories - to be more precise - have survived numerous tests to invalidate them, thereby rendering their probability very high.

At this point, we arrive at the reason something like intelligent design is unacceptable as a scientific theory: its predictions are not testable! Rational scientists do not preclude the possibility that there may be an intelligent designer behind the creation of the universe; they merely contend that such a hypothesis is untestable, ergo not fit for presentation in the scientific classroom. To be more precise, predictions made by intelligent design are not based on observable facts. They often purport to be, but so far these claims of fact have been scientifically refuted. The essence of ID is that where there is no explanation for something as of yet, e.g., gaps in the fossil record, the default explanation is there must be an intelligent designer.

In short, ID proponents thought that if they presented intelligent design as a scientific theory, it would be suitable for the science classroom. As jurisdictions throughout the country are beginning to confirm, whatever ID is, it is not science. "...[I]t is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom." (The TalkOrigins Archive: Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Best 'Health Care System?' - Not a Chance

A persistent claim by many politicians opposed to major health care reform - most of whom are Republicans - is that we here in the United States already have the best health care system in the world. Their hope is that if they can sell the American people on this feeble myth, they will be able to preserve a system they amazingly see little wrong with.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said something very stupid. Like telling Americans they can have good health care coverage too if they just "went to work for the federal government." Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) also said that people without insurance are not really denied health care because all they have to do is "go to the emergency room." Not only do these idiotic remarks need no elucidation, they are indefensible.

What are these detractors referring to when they make this claim about Americans having the best health care system in the world? What is clear is that the United States can deliver the best emergency care of any country. "Highly trained American doctors can summon Star Wars-type technology in saving patients who have become seriously injured or critically ill." (Myth: The U.S. Has the Best Health Care System In the World)

What this means is that from a strictly medical perspective, i.e., economic considerations aside, we have the best doctors and the best system for providing high-end, complicated care and procedures to people in critical situations. As remarkable as this ability is, it has little effect on the issue of providing coverage and delivering services to the every day masses who are in need of more routine - but nonetheless important - medical care including preventive medicine. Being able to safely perform quadruple-bypass surgery or highly complicated neurosurgery is great, but what about the uninsured individual who simply can't find a primary care physician?

A sustainable, profit-driven model has yet to emerge as a viable option for providing comprehensive health care to an entire society because covering everyone for all conditions would eviscerate the bottom line of any profit-driven scheme. In other words, to realize a profit in the business of health care delivery, coverage must exclude certain conditions as well as a certain segment of society.

If the goal of making any public option a self-sustaining one is to be realized, there may be no alternative other than to tax high income earners enough to achieve this. As the United States has the world's worst income disparity between rich and poor, such a tax would serve to mitigate this cruel inequity. Further, young and healthy people should be legally obliged to participate in a health insurance program because their contributions are necessary to provide for the poor, sick, elderly and indigent among whom they will one day be counted.

The American health care industry may well be profitable, but its health care system is loathsomely deficient.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Obama Shoots From the Hip - Finally

If there is one thing that has characterized President Obama's approach to sensitive or difficult situations, it has been his rock-steady sense of reserve, caution and deliberation. Something recently happened, however, which finally revealed a chink in his armor of prudence.

After admitting that he didn't have "all the facts" about the arrest of Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, he then said something that not having all the facts should have precluded him from saying. It was an unlikely reaction for someone of President Obama's stature. By saying that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" he has accomplished a near-infamous feat. Despite all he has said and done to bring wisdom to the issue of race relations in America, the president's remark holds the potential for raising tensions between the races.

That the Cambridge police might have "acted stupidly" is a matter to be determined by the facts as they are revealed. It's quite possible they did act stupidly, but it was not for the president to make this judgment prematurely. Some would argue - with good reason - that even if the Cambridge police acted with egregious malfeasance, any reaction from the president should necessarily be both measured and cautious.

As President Obama himself has stated several times, we are all prone to the occasional gaffe. The problem is this particular remark smells more like a Freudian slip than an unthinking gaffe. This does not mean the only interpretation of this incident should be sinister. The hard truth is that white Americans do not know what it is like to be treated as little more than a suspect class of citizens. Racial profiling remains a stubborn stain on the otherwise honorable uniforms of many law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

The president should make a humble and unambiguous apology for his remark. This is the all-important first step toward repairing whatever damage may have already been done. Police agencies across the country should, with equal humility, move to accept his apology. Certainly Americans have achieved a sufficient level of understanding about each other to know that an incident such as this is not beyond our ability to comprehend and put into proper perspective. A mutual offer of emotional leeway should be more than sufficient to turn this incident into something everyone can learn from. And anyone looking to capitalize on this miscue for nefarious purposes should be exposed, called to account and deservingly marginalized.

Pat Buchanan: Ignorant White Supremacist

Rachel vs. Pat

You gotta love Rachel Maddow. Yes she's liberal, gay, progressive and spunky. It's also plain she has a nose for BS. In the video linked above, Maddow corrects the record as put forth by the all-too-obnoxious Pat Buchanan.

This writer once complimented Mr. Buchanan as an insightful critic who often had something of value to say despite his ultra-conservative, out-of-touch political orientation. (Pat Buchanan: Tolerable Critic?) This writer would now like to offer himself up for ridicule and derision for having ever been so naive.

Pat Buchanan represents all that is ideologically bankrupt about conservative punditry, especially concerning matters of race. He asserts that affirmative action is an institution that discriminates against white people. Allow me to put it this way: He is absolutely correct! Affirmative action does in fact put into place a system of granting favor to minorities in matters of employment, school admissions, etc. What he conveniently forgets to tell us is that affirmative action was conceived as a remedy for past illegal discrimination against minorities. He has been known to acknowledge the legitimacy of affirmative action on occasion, but contends it has long outlived its usefulness - presumably because he believes we have achieved the goal of leveling the playing field. He can't seem to wrap his head around the fact that we still have a very, very long way to go before the playing field is anywhere near level.

The MSNBC video speaks for itself, so go ahead and watch it. And to anyone who finds himself in agreement with Mr. Buchanan, may I make a suggestion: Ignorance is at the heart of your prejudice. Educate yourself, and do honor to our first duty as American citizens - our duty to the truth.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Finding Common Ground

Forty years ago today man first set foot on the surface of the moon. After eons of gazing skyward with blissful ignorance and total wonderment, our journey to the stars was finally under way. In all, twelve human beings have walked on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor, and in time others will surely return.

Why did we go to then moon? Was it, as many have so succinctly pointed out, just because it was there? Can the challenge of defining a purpose for something so grand be that simple? One reason Christopher Columbus no doubt traversed the mighty Atlantic Ocean was to find out what was on the other side. The instinctual need to know, our unquenchable thirst for knowledge, lies at the heart of what motivates us as intelligent beings.

For some the need to know cannot wait, and the need to believe takes precedence. As life goes, this is not a crime. The complexity of the universe is more than sufficient to make us wonder whether or not the goal of understanding it all will ever be within our grasp. Believing in something greater than ourselves can be a noble and admirable sentiment. We who call ourselves rationalists also sense the urge to be a part of something greater than ourselves. For us, however, that something takes the form of a purpose - not a being whose very existence is a matter of debate.

Sadly, the overriding trait of the relationship between theists and rationalists is antagonism. For a culture that celebrates diversity, this is something of a mystery. What is it about the nature of these world views that makes each so unpalatable to the other? Are we in fact precluded from sharing the things that make life most worth living? Or does the pursuit of ideological détente provide the best hopes for finding common ground?

The most obvious thing rationalists and theists share is their humanity. In the context of divining purpose, however, one's humanity defies description in terms of whether it is religious or secular. It must be conceded that ultimate truths about human nature and the universe are beyond our understanding for the time being. This does not mean that having religious faith is something to be looked down upon. On the contrary, it is eminently worthwhile insofar as it invites healthy speculation about that which we someday hope to understand.

Questioning the commitment to our own presumptions about life - and about each other - is critical to the task of understanding, which, in turn, is critical to the task of living with tolerance. Agreeing to disagree has its place, but in the quest to find common ground, there is no substitute for seeking out, even among our adversaries, that which is truly deserving of respect.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Founded on Christianity? I Think Not

Time and again many religious conservatives invoke a most fallacious claim in defense of their ideologically bankrupt perspectives regarding the founding of our nation. If it has in fact been long-settled that the United States was founded precisely upon secular precepts, why do claims that our nation was founded on Christianity persist?

It is likely many of these arguments stem from the notion that the vast majority of early American settlers were indeed Christians. Much of what they were looking to escape from was in fact religious persecution. However, it was persecution from other religious groups they were seeking freedom from.

Nine of the thirteen original colonies did in fact establish official state churches. But as time went on, the same kind of persecution they had fled in Europe began to surface in the colonies. People fled from one colony to another in search of the freedom to practice the kind of faith they believed in. When the colonies morphed into the original United States of America, a conspicuously secular governing constitution was conceived. Nowhere is there a mention of a god. Further, the First Amendment to the Constitution specifically prohibits the making of any law which either establishes a religion or prohibits the free exercise of religion.

The important distinction to be made is that while the original New World settlers were indeed very religious people, it was a secular ideology which enabled the notion of free religious expression to thrive when the colonies later united to form the nation-state of America.

It's not complicated.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Allure of the Comfort Zone

After many years of enduring criticism from others that I am too often indiscreet, impolitic, or insensitive, I am forced to wonder whether or not these observations have merit. The verdict on this score is swift—and sure: those who see me as a brazenly inappropriate envelope-pusher of social norms are spot on correct.

Conformity—or worse yet, behaving like a predictable automaton—is very overrated. Trading witticisms is a poor substitute for meaningful communication. The truth is most people do not want to be nudged from their cozy comfort zones. They go through each day clinging to convention, holding on to the familiar, never daring to be real or intimate for fear that someone might actually give them something real or intimate in return. Then what would they do?

My own propensity to rock the proverbial boat is mild by the standards of the real boat-rockers among us—true artists who live for the opportunity to dismantle the status quo. My personal knack for rattling the sensibilities of others pales in comparison to those who possess the more serious tools of social insurrection—those who are truly creative at the art of fomenting discomfort: the artists, musicians, movie-makers, writers, comedians and others who are obsessed with defying convention and conquering indifference.

What is often perceived as a lack of judgment is ironically a deliberate exercise in a judgment of a different kind, one which challenges the norms we usually hold with dutiful deference. If success comes just once every ten times we dare ask another to peer through a prism other than the one which colors their own comfort zone, it is well worth it.

There are those who are naturally intimate. Possessed of a simplicity of spirit most of us can only admire, they seem a little happier; they seem a little sadder. In short, they seem more in touch with their own emotions, readily giving hugs, kisses and saying 'I love you' as they remind the rest of us to resist—the allure of the comfort zone.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

One Must Want Hept: A Feeble Myth

One of the most erroneous assumptions of mental health care is the idea that until someone is of the mind that he or she actually wants help, nothing can - or should - be done. This notion is inaccurate, misguided and impractical.

The point being missed is that the state of being which compels one not to seek help in the face of serious illness is itself a condition which should be seen as a mental health anomaly worthy of attention. Admittedly, this state can be even more challenging than what is often seen in a crisis. Not only are there the underlying effects of the illness itself, but other factors including denial, pride, and the fear of stigma further complicate matters.

From my own experience with crisis intervention, group therapy, etc., I've come across many people who plainly did not want to be immersed in the infrastructure of the mental health care system. They did not want help, and often believed they did not need help. Judging by what I saw of their symptoms and behavior, however, it was clear these people were right where they belonged.

At the very least, advocacy is always a worthwhile option. Doing nothing is not without consequence. Much as we hate to admit it, we fail miserably in our duty to our fellow man when we stand idly by and watch him self destruct. Sadly, it has become the way of things. A most specious reasoning has perverted our priorities; a self-before-others mentality has corrupted our instinct to give. How ironic and sad that apathy has assumed 'enlightened' status.

In a world where people aspire to indifference, something is very wrong.

Good Bye, Davey

Some people don't make a big splash in life. They meander their way through the ups and downs in a sort of honorable anonymity. Rolling with the punches. Going with the flow. A reserved nature their most telling trait - or so it seems. But beneath their seemingly disinterested facades, the quiet types poignantly remind us that everyone's life is a story worth telling.

My brother David's journey had an auspicious beginning. He was fun-loving, energetic and productive. Dave especially enjoyed the outdoors. So much so he often "commuted" to work at the Connecticut Yankee Power Plant upriver from where he once lived via his trusty old canoe.

Dave's struggles began when the decommissioning of Connecticut Yankee left him without a job. The loss seemed to take the wind out of his sails. He struggled to find his way. It wasn't long before hopelessness set in, and loneliness and despair became his emotional nemeses.

By the most meaningful measure of success, however - the ability to love - Dave somehow managed to excel. He found a purpose amid the turmoil. He seemed to sense that being there - at least for one other person - was one sure way to be there for himself. Dave committed to regular day trips and visits with another person in need, his dear brother Vinny. For every sunset he and Vinny shared at Mystic Harbor, a moment in time became their reason to be alive. In a joyful symbiosis, they sustained one another with brotherly love.

Over matched by life's demands for some time, and living with a loneliness too bitter to even confront, Dave proved all too human in his struggles to cope and survive. Alcoholism is, after all, a most insidious disease. Yet somehow he always managed a smile and a selfless query about the well-being of those who were important to others. And when inquired of his own state of well-being, in the face of ominous evidence to the contrary, Dave always revealed a willingness to put on his best face. "Hey, Willy. I'm doin' great. How're you doin'?" You'll understand, Davey, if I didn't always believe you.

If there was a way to find dignity and purpose amid the chaos and suffering, David surely found it. Such was the resilience of his remarkable spirit.

We will sorely miss you and your gentle ways. Thank you for being such a good brother. Good Bye, Davey.

David Michael Cooney
Born February 20, 1954 • Died June 9, 2009
"Rest in Peace"

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Rights of the Child

On February 16, 1995 Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. To date only Somalia and the United States have failed to ratify this Convention.

One of the more controversial stipulations of this international treaty is expressed in Article 14 Part 1 which says "States . . . shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." This provision has no doubt been one of the main sticking points for conservative members of the US Senate who are charged with ratifying the CRC. Citing inconsistencies with the Constitution, balking Senators appear on the surface to have reason to reject the accord. Impinging on its sovereignty is after all something our country takes very seriously. Nonetheless, it is an embarrassment that the United States is virtually alone in its rejection of this Convention.

Parental rights groups claim the CRC would usurp their responsibilities and disavow many of their rights, among them the right to bring up children in the religion of their choice. Granting children redress for being forced into a life of superstition and dogma holds the threat of denying religious institutions an advantage they have long possessed. What better way to swell the ranks of your church with obedient soldiers than to indoctrinate them as children before they can grant their informed consent? In addition, the crude practice of squelching a child's natural tendency toward independence of thought is central to this fallacious process.

The very first issue of FREE INQUIRY (Winter 1980-81) published the following from the Secular Humanist Declaration:
We do not think it is moral to baptize infants, confirm adolescents, or to impose a religious creed on young people before they are able to consent. Although children should learn about the history of religious moral practices, the young minds should not be indoctrinated in a faith before they are mature enough to evaluate the merits for themselves...
So deeply rooted into the fabric of our culture is the practice of inculcating children in the religious ways of their guardians, it is considered entirely normal and acceptable to do so. As long as children are denied the rights enumerated in the CRC, religious ideology will maintain its stranglehold on the minds of the very young, a stranglehold many are only too happy to perpetuate.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Deft Maneuvering - Or Bait and Switch?

Only a few months into his presidential tenure, Barack Obama is already managing to confound most political observers. But what are the qualities frustrating them most? Is the new president being independent, vexatious, or simply traitorous to those who got him elected?

President Obama's inconsistencies are exasperating both liberals and conservatives alike. On the one hand, he seems unwilling to take full advantage of what's been afforded him, i.e., majorities in both congressional houses, an exorbitant reservoir of political capital, and a minority clearly on the run. On the other hand, his caution may be very sapient. The last Democratic president to overreach was rewarded with a furious political backlash. Does 1994 ring a bell? Newt Gingrich? The Contract With America? The Republican resurgence?

The latest 180-degree turnaround by Mr. Obama involves his decision to fight the release of photographs allegedly depicting abuse of detainees. This decision seems to fly in the face of campaign promises that an Obama presidency would operate with transparency. Is president Obama deferring to pressure from the military, or is he surreptitiously contriving the circumstances under which he can appear to be placating conservatives knowing full well these photos are likely to be ordered released anyway? If so, the more deserving tag for the president may be "smooth operator."

Should the president be tiptoeing around Republicans, or is he wasting a mandate to roll right over them? Perhaps the trick he is trying to pull off is rolling over them but without actually appearing to do so. He could - and should - claim that he is bound by both U.S. and international law to investigate accusations of torture. While this would not sit well with Republicans, it should provide enough political cover to disarm many of his detractors.

As for the impending Supreme Court vacancy, a more predictable choice seems more predictable. Surely Mr. Obama will attempt to seat a liberal justice whose jurisprudence recognizes the evolving nature of the Constitution. A modicum of judicial activism is not only wise, it is essential. History is replete with stories of things once legal yet misguided being given the proverbial boot by a modest but enlightened measure of judicial activism.

With contradictory pronouncements emanating from the White House regularly, it's difficult to say precisely where the president's lead will take us on any given issue. And the game of mollifying the opposition can be taken to extreme, in which case the president's true leadership abilities will rightly be called into question.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Science vs. Religion: Is This Even Necessary?

Though it was a valiant effort, converting the greater part of civilization to atheism was probably too much to hope for. Judging by the predictable responses of so many among the god-fearing masses, it is clear the words of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) held little sway with those predisposed to religiosity.

Some who claim to be immune to the influences of either intellectual camp - religious or rational - make the argument that because religion, theology and philosophy are not the domain of the scientific endeavor, the forces of reason are therefore ill-equipped to make judgments about man's origin and purpose. The truth is the rational sphere is no less impotent than the religious sphere when it comes to answering life's most compelling questions.

The assertion that rationalism is just as much a faith as religion because all inquiry presupposes certain truths about that which it is attempting to reveal misses the point. (NY Times Blog Think Again, Stanley Fish) To the extent rationalism presupposes anything, it presupposes only antecedent truths which the very processes of the scientific method have already affirmed. Yes, rationalists do possess a certain kind of faith, a faith which tells them a stone dropped from a tall building will fall to earth. Rationalists are right to question any faith which claims there is an explanation founded in reason for a human being arising from the dead and bodily ascending into a euphoric netherworld a few days later. What rationalists object to is not someone having religious faith, but rather claiming a rational explanation for those tenets of their faith which defy such explanations.

The perpetual clash between science and religion reveals the lengths to which many will go to claim reason as their ally. It is as though reason were the holy grail of intellectual commodities, and whoever absconds with its persuasive prowess will somehow command the intellectual high ground. Reason is so valued a commodity, some will go so far as to propose the inane to fetch its prize. (Fides et Ratio: Making Sense of the Senseless)

Could it be as simple as accepting the notion that science and religion are unique and independent domains as Stephen Jay Gould's non-overlapping magisteria suggests? Gould's proposal does seem to provide an honorable retreat for the warring ideologues in this debate. The implacability on both sides, however, tells us many think this is a war that can be won, Gould's efforts to disarm the combatants notwithstanding.

Instead of hyper-educated principals trying to convince each other of the enlightened premise of their arguments, perhaps what we need are more humble notables demonstrating the plausibility of a working, and yes loving, co-existence between those who have religious faith and those who do not. Can't we all just get along?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Torture(d) Logic: Defending the Indefensible

It's beginning to look as though one of the highest ideals of democracy, the rule of law, will win the day. The tide is turning in the battle over what to do about allegations that the Bush administration gave not tacit, but explicit approval for interrogation techniques widely described as torture.

Now that President Obama's first 100 days have elapsed, perhaps he will dispossess himself of the need to continue carrying on in "honeymoon mode." For some time now, he has been in the embarrassing position of honeymooning alone anyway. Staking out the moral high ground over the issue of torture and how a responsible democracy deals with it could give the president the annulment his shaky marriage to the congressional minority needs right now.

Another ideal of democracy - transparent self policing - is attempting a comeback. It's not clear yet president Obama sees the situation for what it is: an international, prime-time reality check. Whether he understands it or not, the whole of the civilized world is waiting with bated breath to see if there will indeed be a new kind of America under the leadership of a new kind of president. And rather than attempting to steer events for political gain, Mr. Obama should simply present himself as duty-bound to proceed with investigations because the aforementioned ideals - not to mention a few treaty obligations - demand nothing less.

A certain unrepentant former vice-president may also turn out to be an unwitting ally of president Obama's. The more Dick Cheney asserts the utility of "enhanced interrogation techniques," the deeper the mess he finds himself in. Publicly criticizing a sitting president by stating that his policies have "weakened" the nation serve only to arm the president with fuel for any potential fire fight down the road. Say what you want about George W, at least he has had the sense to keep his mouth shut since leaving office. As for Mr. Cheney, the best he can hope for is to go the way of a sacrificial lamb. To be revered as a political martyr is probably too much to ask.

What the Republicans need right now is a Lowell P. Weicker for the times, he of Watergate notoriety for his willingness to go after President Nixon. Today's GOP, however, might be too busy "luxuriating in loathing" the new president (to steal a phrase from George Will). But, like the sinking Titanic Watergate turned out to be, it probably won't be long before a few Republican rats see the light and scurry for cover. (Condoleeza Rice: I didn't authorize anything; I merely conveyed the authorization...) Eventually, Republicans more concerned with the long view of their political careers will demand justice for the principals in Torturegate and disavow the utility of standing behind those who defend torture.

The problem with defending the indefensible is that it takes on a kind of mission creep which eventually exposes the cavernous flaws in its 'tortured' logic. The Republican minority will make certain any investigations or hearings become politicized and take on the aura of a circus. President Obama, nonetheless, must not shrink from any unpleasantness doing the right thing will bring. The world is watching.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Christian Political and Moral Influence: On the Wane

In his recent Newsweek submission The End of Christian America, Jon Meacham discusses the waning influence of Christianity in American life. Citing research from the American Religious Identification Survey and the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life, Meacham makes note of the declining numbers of self-identified Christians - down 10% since 1990; the doubling of the religiously unaffiliated - to 16%; and the quadrupling of those willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic - to over 3.5 million.

While these statistics indicate a clear trend toward an increasingly secular society, the matter of convincing those disposed to a religious way of life that this is a good thing not only for secularists but for Christians as well, becomes an important issue.

First, regarding concerns of those who fear that becoming more secular means becoming more evil, this patently absurd myth must be exposed - and expelled. Equating secularism with amorality is a serious misjudgment based upon profound ignorance and fear - an entirely unenlightened perspective that is increasingly, and thankfully, being understood as the relic of religious prejudice that it truly is.

Preserving the richness of religious aspects of our culture is dependent precisely upon the disentanglement of church and state. While the constructive engagement of religion and politics is an integral aspect of our cultural makeup, keeping church and state the separate entities they were intended to be gives us all that is good and honorable about religious influence. Affairs of the state, however, are rightly managed in a wholly secular sphere. As Barack Obama once stated, "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values."

As secular interests grow their influence, the question arises as to whether they can truly offer a more enlightened brand of morality. Analyzing the impact religious morality has had on civilization reveals both its positive as well as negative effects. That a newer, secular morality might better serve modern humanity is a notion that, while disconcerting to many religious conservatives, has much about it to celebrate. Not only have many plainly misguided values been propagated largely by religious concerns, but these very same concerns have also been credited with promoting many positive values the origins and essence of which are by no means uniquely religious.

As to whether or not political matters are rightly the purview of religious institutions, recent experience in America plainly reveals just how maladaptive such a condition can be. The most conspicuously political religious group - Christian evangelicals - have proved to be a divisive force in American society, compelling many of their leaders to rethink the wisdom of infusing the body politic with overtly religious morality and rhetoric. In fact, the emergence of so-called moderate evangelicals is stemming the tide of political influence by their more traditionally hard-core brethren.

With Christian influence presently in decline, the time may be right for secular interests to prove themselves up to the challenge of promoting a kind of morality that in practice is capable of serving not only the dynamic and diverse culture that is America, but also mankind itself.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Labor of Love: A Caregiver's Reward

One of the most kind, gentle and loving men I have ever known was my dear father-in-law, Edward Jagoda. From the first time I met him, until he passed away some nine years ago, Eddie was a man I held in very high esteem, not because he did extraordinary things, but rather because he did the ordinary things in extraordinary fashion.

What made Eddie so special as a man were characteristics which often eluded many other so-called men. He was sweet, gentle, amiable, soft-hearted, and above all had a supremely understanding nature. During the worst of my personal crisis of mental health, Eddie never once stopped believing in me. Not only did he have faith in me, but he also had faith in his daughter's decision to choose me as her companion for life. Through several hospitalizations and a long recovery road, he displayed a kind of loyalty to me I had never known, and amazingly he did so with few words. It was his calm and reassuring demeanor that was so important in my struggle to relearn trust.

A photographer by trade, Eddie captured many memorable moments while in the Navy during WWII in the Pacific theater. Later he applied and perfected his skills in a long career at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. He kept busy after retiring with a small business of his own in video production and, his first love, still photography.

Fate was beginning to catch up with my father-in-law just as I was seeing some real progress in my recovery. As it turned out, for the both of us, the timing couldn't have been better. I was at a point where relieving some of the self-absorption that often accompanies mental illness needed to be addressed, and, as fate would have it, Eddie's deteriorating health needed something - or someone - to help mitigate his hardship.

The illness that was taking hold of Eddie was not so gentle as he. As liver cancer usually does, it invaded with a virulent aggression. It was Eddie's wish that he die amid the company of his family at home, and because he had already been living with us for several years, he was right where he belonged. The Visiting Nurse Association arranged for home hospice care and, by virtue of my mere availability, the consensus was that I would be Eddie's main caregiver whenever the nurses were away which, much to my challenge, was quite often.

Very soon it was my charge to feed, clothe, bathe, cleanse and otherwise tend to Eddie as he began his voyage home. I never considered these chores as being undignified in any way. On the contrary, before long it was clear to me this task of intimate care was both my gift to Eddie as well as my duty to my fellow man. The struggle was mighty, and the tasks were demanding, right up until it was plain his hours were numbered. At a propitious moment, I was compelled to gaze upon him and utter my profound thanks for all he had done for me. With a firm clasp of his hand and a gentle kiss upon his forehead, I conveyed my subtle remorse for doing 'only' what I had done for him in his last days and not more. The symbiosis of the moment was not lost on me. Eddie and I parted knowing we had given the very best of ourselves to each other.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think my labor of love would be so thoroughly rewarded. I miss you and think of you often, Pop. Thank you for showing me what it really means to be a man.

Friday, March 20, 2009

You Just Don't Get It, Billy

Silence can be so deafening. What's understood between the lines is often more to the point than what's actually written or spoken. Even now I am contemplating an intentionally furtive or ambiguous approach to this very entry so intent am I on putting my message between the so-called lines.

First of all, just what is it I don't get? Apparently, I don't get the viability or wisdom of doing nothing for someone I care deeply about in the face of intractably persistent mental illness and great suffering. But there is nothing wise, courageous or enlightened about inaction in such circumstances.

Many notable people have contemplated the dangers of inaction at moments of challenge:

  • Theodore Roosevelt: "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing."

  • John Stewart Mill: "A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury."

  • Norman Vincent Peale: "Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all."

  • Winston Churchill: "I never worry about action, but only inaction."

  • Meister Eckhart: "The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake."
At the very least, failure to advocate for a better solution simply because its adoption is unlikely or may cause discomfort, is a spineless capitulation to the forces of ignorance and fear. The allure of inaction is quite understandable, however, when one recognizes the fear that resorting to action will bring one hurt or pain, or elicit a hostile response. Indeed, we are usually clever enough to remind ourselves of those times in the past when our attempts at intervention, reason or intimacy were met with profane rejection and caused serious emotional pain. What comes to mind here is a slight variation of an old adage: Hurt me once, shame on you; hurt me twice, shame on me.

The goal in these circumstances should therefore be for us to evolve and mature enough to achieve insulation from the effects of anticipated abuse - not shrink from any unpleasantness doing the right thing might bring. Of course this is not at all an easy task given a lifetime's experience in dealing with precisely such hostility and unpleasantness.

There's an unlikely culprit, seemingly always at the ready, offering what is more often than not an excuse for the option of inaction. Reinhold Niebuhr's well worn Serenity Prayer is all too often invoked as a call to achieve the first of its three divine solicitations, the "grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed." As for the "courage to change the things that should be changed" as well as the "wisdom to distinguish the one from the other," these are plainly secondary considerations in the practical application of this prayer. In other words, when someone is touting the utility of the Serenity Prayer, often what he or she is really saying is, "Let it be. There is no point in even trying to do anything." It seems this prayer is seldom employed as a call to action born of courage, as if that option is really only there for show.

Also, it matters not that the Serenity Prayer is an appeal to a personal god. An appropriate secular interpretation can plainly be construed for the purpose of casting a favorable light on its essential meaning.

Maybe there are a couple of things my antagonists just don't get: First, that there is strength in numbers. A coordinated and cooperative effort to inject sober, loving and direct appeals would have a much greater likelihood of achieving a connection. Second, inaction is the worst option. Throwing in the towel on a loved one is inexcusable. Moreover, people sense when others have given up on them, and it only brings them loneliness and self-loathing, a sure recipe for hostility.

After all this, I am left to simply cogitate: Who is it that really doesn't get it?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Was I Ever a True Catholic?

Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn posed an enticing challenge recently to his readers. After detailing his own efforts to have himself excommunicated from the Catholic Church, he solicited suggestions on how to achieve this divorce from one's religious past. After giving it some thought, I came up with something I believe may have merit. I submitted my idea to Free Inquiry via email:
Re: Tom Flynn’s delightful dilemma (Let My Person Go!), I too, contemplated the very same course of action, i.e., seeking excommunication from the Catholic Church, so badly did I want to be disassociated from this organization. Though I never went so far as to actually solicit excommunication from local church officials, I believe I have legitimately achieved the substantial equivalent of excommunication via another approach.

The approach I am referring to involves delegitimizing my association with, or membership in, the Catholic church from its inception. How, you ask? By asserting my belief in the self-evident truth that membership in a religious organization can only be achieved with the informed consent of the individual in question. And, since I was never informed sufficiently enough to grant my consent to becoming a member—I was an infant when I was baptized—I was never truly a member of the Catholic Church in the first place, all those church records notwithstanding.

Of course this approach asserts that the Catholic church is wholly unenlightened as to the self-evident nature of the truth I am avowing. In much the same way our founding fathers invoked self-evident truths in asserting their independence from the throne of England, so, too, can we former Catholics affirm our emancipation from the church by invoking similar self-evident truths.

The beauty of this solution is that no official act of excommunication is required because our membership in the church from the outset was never legitimate owing to the absence of our informed consent!

Now if I could only get back the years wasted on my unrelenting religious inculcation . . .

To my way of thinking, therefore, I never was an authentic member of the Catholic Church. What was visited upon me in my early life was child abuse in the form of perverse and illegitimate religious indoctrination. I categorically reject the notion that the brainwashing of children for the purpose of making them members of a church can, in any way, be considered an honorable - or legitimate - enterprise.

So to the Jesuit master who proclaimed that as long as he had the teaching of a child up to seven years of age or thereabouts his mind belonged to him for life, I have a message: No, it does not. There is always hope that reason will prevail even against the unrestrained forces of religious ideology.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rush and the Rudderless Right

When the political opposition's leadership contenders assume the formation of a circular firing squad, it's probably best to stand clear. The ineptitude with which the Republican Party has attempted to package and sell an ideological spokesperson capable of responding to the Democratic mandate of November's elections has been amazing if not entertaining.

Among the more bizarre goings-on has been the over-inflating of the already gargantuan ego possessing the persona of a one Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Limbaugh has achieved novel heights of inanity with his newly found pastime of dictating delirium. The allure of spawning fresh young ditto heads to perpetuate his fringe-anchored agenda is apparently too much for him to resist. Astonishingly, efforts to anoint himself de facto leader of the GOP nearly succeeded! That the rank and file would even flirt with the idea of such a divisive character ascending to this coveted throne speaks volumes as to the remarkably unrestrained level of disarray afflicting the Republican Party at the moment.

Ironically, liberals stand to win whether the soul of the GOP is possessed by emerging moderates or by out-of-touch conservative elements. The days of conservatives piloting the Republican Party appear numbered, and further clinging to the far right wing would likely bring about even more Democratic gains in 2010. The path to Republican resurgence lies in its moderating influences. And while emerging moderates would likely pose a greater electoral threat to Democrats, the point would still be that the core of the Republican Party will have turned decidedly centrist in its bid to remain competitive.

As for the gamesmanship of Mr. Limbaugh, it seems his propensity to offend is by conscious design, a la Ann Coulter. The indignity he displays at the 'lunacy of the left' is as hollow as it is feigned. Nuance just isn't Rush's game. The louder he gets, the less he persuades; the bigger the fish he becomes, the smaller the pond he swims in. Even conservative writer David Frum points out in his Newsweek article this week Why Rush Is Wrong that "Limbaugh's language is not that of politics. It's the language of a cult."

Conservatives aren't going anywhere. They're likely to be with us a long time. It's just that disturbed personalities like Rush Limbaugh serve only to marginalize their cause - which is good news for the rest of us.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Same-Sex Marriage: Simply Semantics?

Is it possible all the fuss over same-sex marriage is essentially about semantics, or is it the inevitable result of the entanglement of church and state as University of Wisconsin student Kevin J. Mack points out in his recent op-ed piece in The Daily Cardinal titled Separate Church, State in Same-Sex Marriages?

One definition ascribes to the term "semantics" is the study of linguistic development by classifying and examining changes in meaning and form. The meaning and form of the term "marriage" appears destined to undergo some changes despite ongoing attempts to codify its traditional definition with controversial legislation.

Mack suggests that church and state are hopelessly intertwined over the issue of marriage, and if they weren't, much of the disputation would dissolve. His solution is for the state to remove itself from the marriage business, and instead simply "recognize" couples - and confer appropriate legal rights upon them - according to its own criteria. Churches would, of course, be allowed to continue marrying whomever they want under whatever criteria they choose to impose.

Maybe the real dilemma is over 'ownership' of the construct of marriage itself. Churches seem to want control over who decides what a marriage is. Some applications of the term, however, are strictly secular - or civil - in nature. When we submit our tax returns to the IRS, the filing status "married filing jointly" refers to a legal status not a religious status - a status conferred upon us by the state. It would seem that if churches have complete control over who is married, the IRS may have to come up with a whole new set of filing status labels. Civil union filing jointly perhaps? Only for these purposes, the term "civil union" would necessarily apply to those considered married by churches as well.

Religious marriages are recognized by the state because they have met certain state-imposed criteria. If churches want to restrict recognition of religious marriage to that of a man and a woman, they are, of course, free to do so. It would be unreasonable, however, to attempt to deny states the right to perform strictly secular or civil marriages of same-sex couples.

While the definition of marriage that prevails would likely prove symbolic, it would be a capitulation to religious interests if marriage were to be legally defined as a union between a man and a woman, thus allowing them to define not just marriage, but whether or not we are an ideological melting pot. This would no doubt be a victory for the forces of intolerance and discrimination.

Perhaps Kevin Mack is correct: church and state need to be cleansed of the influence each has in the affairs of the other regarding marriage. Without this disentanglement, it may all indeed be just a matter of semantics.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Don't Do It, Billy!

Tonight I was tempted - tempted to do something I have told myself a thousand times I would never do: walk up to perfect strangers and leave them with a home-made booklet espousing all the wonderful benefits of a life without God. What made me even entertain the idea of doing something so selfish and disrespectful? As some may guess, the idea was not an original one.

I was sitting at a table in a coffee shop reading through a booklet I made consisting of all my blog entries posted here on Living Without God - A Life of Reason (a couple of people expressed an interest in having such a booklet so they could peruse it at their leisure) when several people walked into the shop and sat down at a table nearby. At first I noticed one of them had what looked like a smudge of some kind on his forehead. I wondered if this person had any idea his face and forehead were in need of a good cleansing. A moment later, I noticed the same smudge marks on the foreheads of the other three people as well. Then - the light bulb went on over my head. It had to be that Catholic rite of Ash Wednesday. (Apparently I was making some progress toward vacating my mind of all those old religious rituals.)

For a moment I was experiencing what had to be the same feeling those annoying bible thumpers have right before they pounce on their unsuspecting prey and inflict their religious inanities on them all because they want to save their lost souls. Then suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I glanced over and saw a little demon - pitch fork, horns and all - looking up at me and urgently muttering, "Go ahead. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Throw that booklet on the table and tell them to have a nice read!"

I rubbed my eyes to cleanse them of the apparent apparition, but to no avail. That little devil just kept looking at me and tempting me in that special way only a real demon knows how to. Then, a moment later, another tap. This time on my other shoulder. I looked down and noticed a little angel - wings, halo and all - looking up at me and urgently muttering, "Don't do it, Billy. You know better than that. Two wrongs don't make a right."

I rubbed my eyes again, but the visions persisted. For several minutes these minions of my imagination took turns attempting to seize my will. In a trance, I got up, booklet clasped firmly in hand, and began making my way toward The Table of the Ash Heads. Just as I was about to invite myself into their sanctuary and point them toward the light, I suddenly emerged from my deep daze and instead offered a polite greeting to my caffeine cohorts before ambling toward the exit knowing in my heart I had just done the right thing.

I guess I'm just not an evangelical atheist after all. As strongly as I feel about my views, I was determined never to stoop to the level of the thumpers. As for the next time one of them approaches me, when I begin to contemplate my evil responses, I hope that little voice will be there to say, "Whatever you're thinking, don't do it, Billy."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A God Concept I Can Work With

A recent visitor to my blog who goes by the user name Budha left a comment that was actually more of an invitation to view his site and engage in what he hoped would be a substantive discussion about "God concepts." Being curious, I checked out his site and his three latest posts having to do with this enticing subject.

There were a number of comments from thoughtful contributors suggesting various definitions of "God." Some were rather ethereal and defended the popular concept of God as the omnipotent and omniscient presence so many of us were brought up to believe was true. Others were clearly skeptical and mindfully critical of traditional God concepts.

(As a rule, I resist the urge to take part in "commentary wars" on blog sites, but the tone of most of the discourse on this site was very civil. Though many no doubt held strongly to their views, the discussion avoided deteriorating into mindless flaming, which is a prerequisite for my participation.)

But did I have anything of value to contribute? What, in fact, was my understanding of the concept of God? After some initial trepidation, I decided to accept the challenge of quantifying this idea in my mind and leaving a brief comment.

What were the essential components of my understanding of "god?" My nearly life-long process of attempting to construct a concept that both reflected my true feelings on the matter and offered a meaningful convention for others led me to submit (and properly credit) something that was actually not my own original idea. The most meaningful explanation I have come across for so many people's insistence upon God's reality comes from none other than Sigmund Freud.

Freud essentially posited the following: "...owing to feelings of helplessness and guilt, the need for security and forgiveness arises, so man creates for himself an entity that can provide precisely these things." In other words, "religion is seen as childish delusion and atheism as grown up realism." (Sigmund Freud: Religion as Wish Fulfillment) God, therefore, is rightly understood to be a construct of the imagination, and its creation is artfully explained as a 'necessity' arising out of psychological considerations.

I closed my comment to Budha's God Concepts, Part 3 with the following: "So where do I turn in times of need? To my fellow man. If I've developed a 'faith' in anything, it is in our ability as human beings to provide the love, solace and comfort we so often need from one another."

Thank you, Sigmund Freud, for a God concept I can work with.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Religious Delusion: Faith In the Extreme?

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I really am a tenth-grade dropout. The views expressed in the following essay should be taken in this light. For a professional introduction to "delusions" see Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders: Delusions.

It is widely understood by mental health professionals that religious delusion is a common symptom experienced by many people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses. This observation, however, requires a certain convention be adopted for the purpose of defining just what religious delusion is.

Broadly speaking, a delusion is a persistent false belief in something despite contravening evidence or reason. Under this working definition, is it fair to describe those who have religious faith as delusional? For the most part, it would seem not. Practically speaking, it seems whether or not a belief rises to the level of delusion can be gauged by its relationship to behavioral anomalies. If someone says God commanded him to commit murder, it would be understood that religious delusion is at work, not because God's existence can be disproved, but rather because the belief in God's existence resulted in antisocial behavior. Delusion is not necessarily dependent upon the false premise of any particular belief, but rather on its propensity to negatively impact behavior.

But what about other more subtle manifestations of questionable belief? It may not be considered delusional for someone who believes in God to tell those who do not they will go to hell, but if this belief is so deep-seated it interferes with relating to people in general, the label of "delusional" could surely apply. Given that achieving and maintaining stable, loving relationships is one measure of positive mental health, the absence of such relationships in the life of someone possessed of extreme religious faith suggests a delusional aspect to such beliefs.

Another symptom commonly associated with religious delusion is obsession. The religiously obsessed see all things through the narrow prism of their own religious faith. Such thinking is unhealthful because it is dismissive of those who employ any of life's other prisms of discernment, thus complicating the building of relationships based upon more universal concepts or even trust. In addition, the religiously obsessed often endure profound stress at the thought - or experience - of having their religious beliefs questioned.

Among other reasons, one could be said to be suffering from religious delusion if:
  • the beliefs in question impede one's ability to cultivate and maintain meaningful relationships, or;
  • they are the direct motivation for overt acts of antisocial behavior.

Finally, it is important to remember that those experiencing delusions of any kind are, by definition, grappling with mental illness, and as such are deserving of compassion and understanding, not ridicule or contempt.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Abortion: Failure of the Human Condition?

Few things invite the polarity of mindset the subject of abortion does. For many, a certain moral absolutism bespeaks the adamant perspective that abortion is an evil stain on the fabric of humanity deserving of nothing but condemnation. For others, the value of personal choice appears to supersede the value of life itself.

One telling aspect of this debate seems to be that many of those who defend a woman's right to choose also allow that it is their aim to reduce the need for abortions altogether. Does this position expose a chink in the armor of pro-choice constituents? If abortions truly occurred in a vacuum of morality, why then any aversion to it at all? As a candidate for president, Hillary Clinton said she hoped for the day when abortions were "safe, legal and rare." (Emphasis added.) Why the need for abortions to be rare if not for some underlying moral imperative disavowing their utility?

The absolutist approach, while appearing to flow from the moral high ground, is nonetheless dysfunctional. Once a context is assigned, the absolute defense of life at any and all costs simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Many of the same people have no compunction when judging some to be deserving of capital punishment. Some lives are apparently not worthy of defending.

For the time being, however, the genie is out of the bottle, the tooth paste is out of the tube, and the tail is wagging the dog. These tiresome clichès notwithstanding, the prudent course of action would seem to be to allow safe and legal abortions while at the same time cooperating in ways to reduce the primary impetus for abortions: unwanted pregnancies.

But this is where cooperation becomes elusive. Choices which allow for the healthy engagement of sexual activity while preventing pregnancy at the same time are non-starters for so many conservatives. Like it or not, "abstinence only" is utterly dysfunctional insofar as it disregards the basic human need for intimacy. The purpose of sex is not only to procreate, but also to achieve this very intimacy by sharing the urge to satisfy both the physical and emotional needs of one's self and one's partner. While an even greater sense of intimacy can arguably be achieved when impregnation is possible or even likely, it nonetheless holds that the intimacy achieved when pregnancy is not possible is more than sufficient to justify its role in fostering a meaningful and healthy lifestyle.

One of the best ways to help get beyond the political impasse in the abortion dilemma is for all concerned to unambiguously avow that improving the quality of life for everyone is one way to promote the sanctity of life in general. Perhaps the practical solution lies not in making abortions illegal, but rather in making them unnecessary.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dick Cheney: The Righteousness Resumes

The vacuous essence of Barry Goldwater's haunting words from his 1964 Republican nomination acceptance speech notwithstanding, not only is extremism in the defense of liberty a vice, but immoderation in the pursuit of justice is equally bereft of mindfulness. One need look no further than the execrable practices of the man in charge of the recently departed administration, Dick Cheney, and his puppet president, George W. Bush, to attest to these potent political truths.

One irony of the Bush-Cheney legacy may turn out to be the fact that their approach to the nation's post 9/11 security concerns was replete with impetuous expressions of bravado which yielded precisely the opposite reactions they were designed to elicit. The more confrontational and threatening the approach to Iran, the more intransigent and defiant Iran's posture became. The more the administration abused detainees, the more reason the detainees' ideological compatriots had to inflict abuses of their own. The more misguided the aggression in Afghanistan, the more resurgent, resentful and oppressive the Taliban became. In short, the Bush-Cheney solution has merely emboldened those it was intended to disarm.

In an interview with Politico, the former vice-president staunchly defended the measures taken after the attacks of 9/11, while at the same time questioning the wisdom of the new administration's less aggressive stance:

If it hadn’t been for what we did — with respect to the terrorist surveillance program, or enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees, the Patriot Act, and so forth — then we would have been attacked again,” he said. “Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the U.S. . .

. . . I think there are some who probably actually believe that if we just go talk nice to these folks, everything’s going to be okay. . .

. . . They may be able, in some cases, to make progress diplomatically that we weren’t. But, on the other hand, I think they’re likely to find — just as we did — that lots of times the diplomacy doesn’t work. Or diplomacy doesn’t work without there being an implied threat of something more serious if it fails.

More than anything else, waging wars of dubious necessity, spying on its own citizens and torturing prisoners, etc., all reveal an ignorance of the more subtle demands of leadership as well as a failure of the imagination on a grand scale. Whatever sympathy the civilized world had for Americans immediately following 9/11, it is now painfully clear this reservoir of good will has been all but depleted. The perverse efficiency with which America's moral standing in the world was eviscerated in the ensuing seven years is nothing short of astonishing.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are no doubt relying upon history to provide a more sympathetic assessment of their official deeds than their present-day detractors, but the likelihood of such an agreeable verdict - for the moment - appears remote.