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Archive for the ‘Philosophy & Religion’ Category

You know those optical illusions where, at first glance, they look like one thing, but then on closer inspection, they turn out to also be something else? The vase that is also two faces is one example. Once you see it as the other thing, it’s hard to refocus in order to see it the other way again. That’s how the topic of vaccination feels to me. My transition from a non-vaccinating to a vaccinating parent was a revelation; it was like being hit on the head by a frying pan. It occurred over the course of an intense few days. While I can still rattle off the usual concerns among vaccine hesitant parents, I have a difficult time putting myself back into that mind space, because all the usual reasons for not vaccinating are not based in reality, and I see that reality, like seeing the two faces instead of the vase, every time, and through every argument. When my story gained attention, one of the first things people wanted to know was why I didn’t vaccinate in the first place. What was my reasoning? I had a hard time answering the question, because I’m just not in that mental place anymore. Recently I dug around, trying to find some evidence of my reasoning beyond just, “scary sounding ingredients and potential side effects,” and found this from April 2010:

I am so horribly torn about what to do…I read everything I can get my hands on, and I’m still not feeling like I can make a good decision. There are passionate, informed, intelligent advocates on both sides, with convincing arguments in their favor. It just drives me nuts. As a new mother I wholeheartedly admit that I care about my daughter’s welfare above all else, but I also think that what is in her best interest is not separate from what is in the best interest of everyone. It’s a really tough position to be in, especially for an over-thinking person like me. It seems like whatever I end up doing will be wrong in some way. I guess that comes with being a mom and I’d better get used to it.

And this from August, 2011:

It’s such a tough thing – when I am really thinking about it and reviewing in my mind all I’ve learned about the topic, I feel reassured that I’m doing the right thing. At [my daughter’s] last checkup, the [anti vaccine] doctor said most kids these days have had several ear infections by her age, and the fact that she’s had none is a testament to her strong immune system. Things like this reassure me. But then I don’t think about it for a while, and I see that scary pertussis commercial and read articles in magazines and newspapers about how important it is to vaccinate, and I start to doubt all over again…it is an agonizing, ongoing, uncertain kind of decision. The funny thing is, I don’t truly believe that [my daughter] would suffer from terrible side effects if I did choose to vaccinate her. I’m more worried about subtle, little things that you can’t necessarily attribute to vaccinations, but then again can’t ever know for sure. Slight alterations resulting from something artificial introduced to an immature system. I’m also deeply suspicious of “the system,” of the funding sources behind the research, and of people with an economic stake telling me what to do (when is the government ever right about how we should live our lives?). All of it adds up to an uncomfortable, tentative decision that in this case, at this time, I’m more comfortable with passive risk than with active risk.

This sentiment still resounds deeply with me, even though it is no longer attached to vaccination. As parents, we feel like the stakes are so incredibly high, and we only have this one chance to do it right. We’re not birds – we don’t raise a clutch or two to adulthood each season, able to become better, more experienced parents from start to finish several times in a lifetime. It’s a one shot deal. As a new parent, I felt a heavy sense of responsibility to do everything right, to strive to be the perfect parent, to correct the perceived mistakes my parents made and do them one better.

However, I have always had a hard time taking an ideological stand on controversial, complex issues. I suffer from a chronic case of “analysis paralysis,” where my natural tendency to see things from many sides can hamper my ability to make a decision. In the case of vaccination, my default mode was to take no action and hope for the best. I learned, at my children’s and my own expense, that passive risk can be a much worse gamble than active risk. I was afraid of somehow altering my children, of cheating them out of some unquantifiable potential, by injecting them with substances I did not understand. And even though, as my comments above illustrate, I was nowhere near confident in my choice, I did feel a sense of defensive righteousness about that choice. “Gah, her kids are sick again,” I’d think to myself. “She should have researched the dangers of vaccination and how they can compromise the immune system.” Though flawed, it’s a human tendency to rationalize and rank superior our choices against the choices of others.

While I don’t have any evidence of this other than my own observations, I have a sense that there can be an inverse relationship between the stridence with which one expresses one’s opinion, and one’s confidence in that opinion. Statements like, “I have made up my mind and no amount of ‘evidence’ you throw my way will make me change it,” are the tenuous, defensive kinds of things I hear from anti-vaccine voices. I see an incredible distrust of “big pharma,” yet a suspension of disbelief when like minded peers claim from within the echo chamber that they have a vaccine injured child, or know someone who does. I hear loud anti vaccine voices adopting a faith based ideology that has allowed itself to be tricked into trusting quacks, malcontents, false whistle blowers, and self-interested manipulators of data, over working experts in the field. We all admire the lone voice of reason in the darkness, the underdog success story, but sometimes what sounds like reason is actually lone wolf obstreperousness for its own sake. I see these things because I was there, occupying that cognitive space, believing it and even identifying with it.

Once you get into something deeply, once you have made an all-or-nothing stand, you know you will break if you bend. You know you can’t give an inch. So, like old Procrustus, you’ve painted yourself into a corner of your making, and are forced to start chopping off the parts that don’t fit. This is why so many anti-vaccine voices threw back their heads and howled “fraud!” when they saw my story. It didn’t fit the narrative – I was the black swan that wasn’t supposed to exist. Like the story of “No True Scotsman,” they claimed that no one who was genuinely and truly anti-vaccine would ever switch course like I did. In one sense, they were right. It took a few years, but finally I was able to recognize I was in a bed that didn’t fit, and so I got out.

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“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

– From The Handmaid’s Tale

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was still a teenager and it had a profound effect on me. I have read it several times since. The above bit of dialogue is what comes to mind first whenever I think of the book and its relevance to our current society. Which do we want? Freedom to do as we please as long as we’re not causing harm to others (or maybe even if we are, according to the judgment of some), or freedom from a subjective list of harms that could befall us? Obviously there is a very messy line between the two, and potential for a lot of overlap, but in my mind the conceptual difference between them is vast.

I live in Chicago, a city that recently has gotten some attention for its infamous and failed ban on foie gras, and also for its recent designation by Reason Magazine as the country’s worst nanny state:

Chicago reigns supreme when it comes to treating its citizens like children (Las Vegas topped our rankings as America’s freest city). Chicagoans pay the second-highest cigarette tax in the country, and the sixth-highest tax on alcohol. Chicago has more traffic-light cameras than any city in America (despite studies questioning their effectiveness), restricts cell phone use while driving, and it’s quickly moving toward a creepy public surveillance system similar to London’s.

Chicago also has banned handgun ownership (and has made no move to reexamine said ban in light of the recent Supreme Court decision), limits trans fats in restaurants, has only 1,300 bars (compared with over 7,000 in the 1940s). I will also include in this category the unfortunate city of Bensenville, which has the tragic honor of being adjacent to O’Hare airport, and atop the new expansion site. It is now a ghost town of boarded up houses and businesses, awaiting its final and inevitable fate at the hands of the courts (let’s call this one “freedom from property”). I should also mention the ban on cell phone use, but not cosmetics application, newspaper reading or picking one’s nose, while driving (“freedom from distraction by cellular communication”), and Mayor Emperor Richard Daley’s approval and support of relocating the Chicago Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Grant Park. Grant Park’s 1836 mandate describes it as “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever” (“freedom from open public space”). Chicago is even considering a ban on text messaging while walking in intersections (“freedom from death by idiocy, OMFG, LOL”).

Nationally, to this list I’ll add our expensive misadventure in Iraq (“freedom from the presence of Islamic dictatorships in strategic oil-rich regions”), the likewise expensive and ultimately ill-fated border fence (“freedom from feeling like the government isn’t doing anything about the immigration problem”), the war on drugs (“freedom from mind altering chemicals without a prescription excluding caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and chocolate”), the government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with other bailouts and corporate subsidy programs including the Farm Bill (“freedom from capitalism”), and some dubious social programs and “incentives” (“freedom from personal responsibility”).

Add to this a plethora of local and municipal fees and regulations, vehicle and pet registration dues, sin taxes, bottled water taxes and taxes to fund mismanaged, woefully inadequate prisons and public school systems (“freedom from liquidity”).

Personally, I would like to live in a nation where “freedom to” is the guiding principle. I would like to live in a city where owners of private businesses are free to allow their customers to smoke cigarettes, with thanks to those who, thinking like entrepreneurs, also offer well-ventilated, smoke-free areas. I would like to live in a city where, in accordance with the Second Amendment, I am free to legally own a hand gun, just like city officials currently are. I would like to live in a state where I am free to decide if my child is tall enough or weighs enough to safely ride in the car without a car seat. I would like to live in a city where, while driving, I am free to take or make an important phone call. I would like to live in a state where I am free to send my child to private school using my un-property tax money. I would like the freedom, as a law abiding citizen, to talk on the phone with confidence, knowing that the government respects my right to privacy. I would like the freedom, here where I live, to breathe unpolluted outdoor air, to drink pharmaceutical and chemical-free water and to have access to a renewable energy grid. Most importantly, though, I would like my country to preserve my freedom to live under a faithfully observed Constitution, and likewise to preserve my freedom from tyranny, including from laws that attempt to protect me from myself. I’m doin’ just fine, thanks.

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Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: That’s who?

Abbott: Yes.

We all know the famous routine. But have we stopped to think about why it is so funny, and why we can all relate to this kind of humor? Abbott and Costello are talking about two different things. They have different images in their heads, different perceptions of reality. I think that is why the humor is so universal – we have all experienced this when we’ve had arguments that stem from a fundamental miscommunication.

I have been following the Creationism/Intelligent Design/Theory of Evolution issue for some time now, and was interested to learn about Ben Stein’s upcoming documentary titled “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” The premise of the film as I understand it is that “Big Science” has been working to suppress any questioning of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and that anyone with a dissenting viewpoint is blacklisted in the scientific community.

The problem that I have with the entire debate is not philosophical, not atheism (Science) vs. creationism (Religion). The problem I have is with the debate itself. The way I see it, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is an explanation for the question of how, and Intelligent Design is an explanation for the question of what. See the Abbott and Costello connection? We think we’re talking about the same thing, but in reality, the two sides are are not talking about the same thing at all. Related things, but not the same things.

We can observe evolution in action. Ask anyone who has bred domestic animals or fiddled with fruit flies in biology class. Evolution explains the process by which the earth went from a primordial soup of emerging proteins to a planet teeming with life forms of amazing biological complexity. It does not attempt to explain the creation or origin of the universe.

Scientists see evolutionary processes at work, and individually they may or may not believe that a creator, or some kind of universal intelligence, set those processes in motion. Creationism/Intelligent Design calls this intelligence God. Since we cannot prove the non-existence of something, there is little value, in my opinion, in debating the existence of God. Atheists see no evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does not exist. Creationists see evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does exist. These opposing views likely will never be reconciled even if empirical evidence one way or another is discovered. People can be stubborn creatures and will believe what feels right to them, what fits into their experience of the world.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that human beings are classified as apes, and share a common ancestry with chimpanzees and gorillas. They often incorrectly distill anthropological information into an indignant sound byte: “those scientists are trying to get me to believe that I evolved from apes.” It has emotional pull. We like to consider ourselves as special and somehow removed from the evolutionary process that drives life on earth. We wear shoes. We eat with forks and knives. We create art. We make love in private. Well, most of us.

Personally, I’m OK with my relationship with chimpanzees and all other creatures on earth. I don’t have an emotional stake in it, other than being continually amazed at the beauty and complexity of life, and feeling privileged to be able to observe and feel such wonder, such communion. On a human level, in terms of how we relate to one another, how we treat each other and how we interact with nature, religion can serve a valuable purpose. Ideally it can help us to understand that we need connections, that we need a moral code in order to live our lives in harmony so that we can sustain ourselves and our place in nature now and in the future.

Creationism is a human concept of what, or perhaps more specifically, who, is responsible for the origin of all things in existence. Who’s on first, so to speak. This is something that science can neither prove nor disprove; at least it can’t yet. This leaves us up to our own imaginations, our religions and our cultures to explain and debate. This is something that is part of the human experience, something that we can discuss in social studies classes, in church and around the table. Evolution is likewise part of the human, or really global, experience, something we can discuss and debate in science classes, in church and around the table. They are related topics, often leading into one another and twisting around each other. But they are also different ideas, answers to two different questions. We need to treat them as such.

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Lend me your ears and I’ll tell you a story…” (opening line of a song written by my father)

Stories are powerful. Stories can shape our entire outlook on life, our belief systems, our sense of identity. Storytelling ’round the fire has been an integral form of human communication from time immemorial. Think of all the stories you have cataloged in your brain – the stories your mother or father told you before bed, Aesop’s fables, fairy tales, war stories, nightmare birth stories, I-knew-a-guy-who stories, stories meant to give us some nugget of wisdom and guidance in how to live our lives.

Growing up I always loved fairy tales, but not just any fairy tales. They had to contain an element of darkness, of danger, of the macabre in order to appeal to me. In fact, I would argue that, by definition, an effective fairy tale must contain this element. Beauty has no purpose unless there is also a beast. According to Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid didn’t get her man in the end; she returned to the ocean, alone and defeated, in the form of sea foam, riding atop the crests of waves for eternity. I liked how the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty retained a sense of darkness and gloom (despite still straying wildly from the Grimm version). The wolf actually ate the duck, and likewise gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Disney, while ever in the business of happy endings, seems now to completely omit the macabre from its source stories. I was fascinated when I learned not too long ago that during times of famine in Medieval Europe parents sometimes sacrificed one or more of their children (often depositing them deep into the woods) so that the rest of the family might survive on their meager rations. Wide-eyed German children listening to the story of little Hansel and Gretel likely had reason to be afraid – very afraid.

Stories can be powerful tools to inspire fear; mothers often employ every child’s natural terror of monsters and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night to elicit good behavior from their children lest the bogeyman come and get them. Campfire stories exploit our natural human fear, as diurnal creatures, of the dark shadows and sounds unseen in the night, to delicious, spine-tingling effect.

Using this exact same concept, people have been led to believe some pretty amazing things. Think of all the ways, according to certain religious faiths, that you can get yourself a one way ticket to an afterlife of eternal misery and suffering. Or, conversely, the things you must do in order to experience eternal bliss. Think of the kind of power people can amass when we believe they hold and distribute the tickets.

Stories are the tools we use to pass on our beliefs, our ways of life, to the next generation, even when we aren’t aware that we’re telling them. We can tell our children stories about bad kinds of people and good kinds of people, and they will believe us. When people are dependent and trusting, we have almost limitless power.

Looking at the world stage, from prehistory to the present and beyond, from times of peace and war, ease and suffering, to everyday acts of personal violence and valor, I’m always asking myself these questions: Which stories are being told? Who is telling them? Who is competing with whom in the storytelling contests, and what are the agendas? How do we decide which stories we will believe? Which ones will we tell our children?

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A reader recently left the following comment on my “about” page. (Sorry, Marjana, I’m going to delete it since I’m addressing your question here in a lengthy post and, well, no offense or anything but I kind of like my about page to just be my personal “about” statement). Anyway, here is the question:

Hello. I was wondering whether or not you ever looked into what Islam has to say about the world…its perspective of reality…? Just curious. I take it you are not one to be fooled by the news media and what it has to say about Islam. I take it that you are one to read with an open mind/heart and not with prejudice/bias.

First of all, I’m happy that I come across as open minded. That’s what I strive to be. Second, I’m not going to go into what the question may or may not imply. Well, I will a little bit. I don’t know if Marjana is Muslim or not, and I think the answer would make a difference in how I read the question. At any rate, here goes:

1) It is commonly understood (meaning I am not going to provide sources) that the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago resulted in people organizing themselves into larger groups such as towns and cities. This seemed to first occur in the “fertile crescent,” the area of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and also the Nile delta. When large groups of people come together, there must be some way of keeping order so that people can go about their daily lives in relative comfort and safety.

2) There seems to be a universal human tendency to feel that there must be a force larger than us, a being or intelligence that gave rise to all of the amazing aspects of life on earth. When good things happen to us, we must somehow be in the favor of this being, and when bad things happen, we must have done something to displease this power.

3) Over the course of the next several thousand years, people living in the fertile crescent developed some pretty complex civilizations, with many different religious systems. Often rulers claimed the divine right of kings; that is, they themselves were divine and had the approval of the gods to rule the people. To question the authority of your leader was to question the will of the gods. Religious systems often were nature-based, with animals, agricultural symbols and even insects taking on religious significance in the turning of the agricultural seasons.

4) One group of people, the Jews, were among those who believed in a single, all-powerful deity, rather than a hierarchy of different gods. This monotheistic group believed that God was intimately involved in human affairs – he could bring his wrath upon humans for their wrongdoing, and could likewise smile upon them with grace and love. Monotheism began to spread throughout the Middle East.

5) Religious upheaval and changes mirror human upheaval and change. Jesus, the humble Jewish prophet, arose at a time of great social unrest, at a time of conflict when many changes were afoot. Likewise, 600 years later Mohammad, the Arabian prophet, also arose at a time when things were rapidly changing (mainly due to trade and broader contact with the greater world) on the tribal Arabian peninsula. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, came to prominence during a time of rapid expansion and change in America and gave birth to the first homegrown Christian religion (some would say sect or cult) in this country.

6) For a religion to be successful long term, it has to be flexible in order to reflect the changing needs of the society it serves. For example, the early Christians worked with the Pagans, or nature-based religious adherents, to incorporate their rituals and beliefs into the growing Christian tradition. The winter solstice became Christmas (the birth of the Sun/the birth of the Son). The spring equinox and all of its fertility rituals became the return of the Sun/Son to earth. As people change, so too do religions. Religions that do not adequately reflect or address human needs, desires, fears or joys will eventually be amended or die out in favor of something else.

7) Peoples’ faiths have been used, for many thousands of years, as a means to control and manipulate people. This doesn’t mean that religions are bad. It means that abusers of power are bad. According to Mohammad, the only requirement in order to become a Muslim is to submit to the will of God. Unfortunately, the holders of power were generally the ones who got to decide what the will of God was, depending on their particular agenda. They are still doing this. Those with an agenda are telling young, disenfranchised people with no prospects that the will of God is to martyr themselves (and those within the reach of the explosives they carry on their bodies) in order to further their political goals.

8) Christianity and Judaism, as religious faiths, are flexible in the sense that today they can exist and flourish within secular states. Islamic leaders, on the other hand, tell people that there cannot be a separation between faith and government. Islamic law must also be state law. Again, this is not necessarily an inherent flaw within Islam specifically – it is a flaw of the people who use Islam to further an agenda, in the same way the Spanish Inquisitors used Catholicism to abuse their power, in the way Rome ruled political affairs in Europe.

9) Because of internal problems and external meddling, Middle Eastern societies are in turmoil and appear to be collapsing. One of my favorite sayings is, “there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.” How true this seems to be in regard to acts of terrorism.

10) I studied Islam for a year in college (using the excellent Marshall Hodgson’s “The Venture of Islam” as a guide), and have come to no profound conclusions. People are imperfect creatures. People and societies under certain types of stress behave in predictable ways. The Germans under the weight of reparations after WWI were easily seduced by the Nazis, who gave them somebody to blame. Islam itself is not the problem. The political upheaval that has been going on in the Middle East for the last two thousand years is causing pressure cracks, and things are about at the tipping point, especially as world demand for oil increases, while supply decreases. It’s a whole big mess, and if it weren’t nutty terrorists who happen to be Muslim, it would be somebody else. If it weren’t for the Jews and Palestinians, it would be some other toxic combination. The recipe for this particular type of disaster is flexible like that.

Does this answer the question of how I think Islam in particular views the world? No, it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s really possible for a non-Muslim to answer this question comprehensively. But I view Islam as a religious path that contains many truths, yet ultimately gets snagged on the particulars of how people should live their lives. I think all dogmatic faiths have this in common. However, as members of the human species, religious or not, we need to ask ourselves: do our actions help make the world a better place? Or do they cause yet more suffering and misery? After all, we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.

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People are funny creatures. At a time when the right wing is warning us that we need to keep vigilant lest we find ourselves wearing burqas here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, it is apparently failing to take a peek at itself in the mirror. It just might find a teenage girl who has embraced the “modesty” movement and has officially “devoted her virginity” to her father before God and her peers.

During the Cold War, the United States inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The idea was that we wanted to show the world that it was our national spirit, not our bombs, that made us an invincible nation. A godly nation. We needed to prove to the Soviet Union that our people had superior moral and spiritual fortitude, that our hearts and minds were united and pure. We wanted to look, feel and behave differently, to make a moral case for ourselves in our quest to come out as the government truly by the people, for the people. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was doing basically the exact same thing.

Since our focus has shifted to the Middle East, we hear daily reports of human rights abuses in the Muslim world. Young girls being murdered by their brothers, uncles and fathers in honor killings. Women being tortured and killed for allegedly not wearing their burqas correctly, or for being in the presence of an unrelated male. Even in India we hear about bride killings, where a new wife dies in a mysterious house fire, leaving the husband free to remarry and obtain a second dowry. And anywhere male sons are prized (because they are their parents’ retirement plan, whereas daughters are a financial and social liability), female infanticide and abortions of female fetuses remain a tragic human rights failure. The World Health Organization estimates that about three million girls, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, are subjected to genital mutilation each year. There is one cultural tenet that unites all of these practices: women’s bodies are not their own. They are property.

Now there is a new and growing trend in America. Christian teenage girls and their fathers are attending “Purity Dances,” which look and sound a lot like wedding ceremonies. Father and daughter walk down an aisle, daughter vows to remain chaste until marriage and father vows to “protect” his daughter’s virginity. Father gives daughter a ring. Daughter gives father a key (the key to her vagina, apparently), and father keeps the key until daughter’s wedding day, when he hands it over to the groom. According to the Chicago Tribune, one in six teen girls are signing virginity pledges. Also according to the Tribune, 88% of them will wind up having premarital sex.

American Christians are also embracing a move toward more modest dress. This I can truly get behind, as long as it is voluntary and falls into the parameters of what I would consider reasonable. Butt cracks and exposed pierced navels just aren’t what I’d consider to be attractive, and I think that women and girls (and men, for that matter) who don’t leave a single thing to the imagination are doing themselves a disservice. However, the advertising can go the other way. Girls are now announcing their chastity, with t-shirts that read “Abstinence Ave. Exit When Married,” and, even more creepy, underwear that states, “Notice: No trespassing on this property. My father is watching.” Whose property is it? The daughter’s or the father’s?

The idea of a father “owning” his daughter’s virginity is fraught with problems. What does this say about the relationship in terms of sexuality? What happens when daughters break their vows (as, apparently, 88% of them do)? Do they tell their fathers and face the possibility of being disowned? Or do they feel guilty and ashamed, in silent anguish when their fathers fork over their virginity key to their new husband, who is not their first lover? Do they feel they betrayed God and their fathers when, at as young an age as ten, they were asked to promise to remain virgins until their wedding night? Is this a fair thing to ask of such young girls? Would we even dream of asking boys to do the same?

Back to my original thoughts. We are told we have a new enemy now, an enemy that doesn’t treat its women so well. An enemy that holds double (and triple) standards, where girls are property but boys will be boys (with girls held responsible for their irresistibility). An enemy that condemns our fast and easy western lifestyle, yet when the cat’s away will often attempt to emulate it with a singular fervor.

So the Christians are buckling down and waging their reactionary cultural war. They are dressing more modestly, covering themselves up more, if you will. They are advertising their virginity with as much zeal as a prostitute advertises her lack thereof. They are conducting ceremonies wherein daughters embrace their status as sexual property in a patriarchal religious system. They are beginning to exhibit a similar world view to the very people they feel most threatened by, and they are too myopic to even realize it. Different war, same old human nature.

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After posting about the school prayer issue in Illinois, my sister mentioned to me that her attorney friend was a little skeptical about my argument. He noted that the establishment clause simply prohibits the official establishment of any particular religion over another (B, let me know if I’ve got this wrong). I appreciate all reasoned comments and questions, because they cause me to continually rethink and evaluate my opinions (as they should).

At any rate, I think this is a common point with respect to school prayer, and to religious expression in general in the United States. And it is precisely one of the reasons why I don’t support mandating school prayer in public schools. Mandating “moments of silence” or other thinly veiled, similarly worded directives is, in my mind, basically saying, “we won’t tell you which religion you should be, but you ought to be some religion. A religion that involves praying to a god or higher power.”

No, no, no, the proponents say. You can meditate. You can reflect on your life. You can send good wishes to your aunt in Tulsa. You can work on that chunk of dry skin on your lower lip while scheming up ways to get back at your little brother.

Feh. What is the point, then? Why are some state legislators so adamant about enacting these laws if the time can be spent in sheer idleness? It is certainly not to protect a child’s right to let his mind wander aimlessly – that clearly isn’t the goal of institutionalized education – and in institutionalized education today, kids usually have more than enough opportunity during the day to take a mental vacation or two. It isn’t about giving kids a break – they get that at lunch, recess and study hall. That narrows it down to…could it be? An agenda to inject religion into public schools?

Oh, it is all so silly (and more than a little scary) and unnecessary anyway – unnecessary because all public schoolchildren already have the right to pray, and the government doesn’t have the right to tell them to, or not to:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

It doesn’t say “an establishment of a religion” (a particular religion over another). There is no article. It may certainly be implied (i.e. we don’t want a Church of America), but still – mandating prayer in public schools is an establishment of religion – not of one denomination over another, but just religion, period. It is mandating that administrators and teachers set aside time for religious practice in a public school.

A few quotes to chew on:

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (from the Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate by unanimous vote in 1797)

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” (James Madison)

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“[I am] denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian.” (Ethan Allen)

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion…has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…” (Benjamin Franklin)

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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While the Illinois legislature could have been doing other things like, I don’t know, BALANCING THE BUDGET, two weeks ago it passed a law mandating a moment of silence in all public schools. As a person who has been in the trenches of the public school system, I can say unequivocally that silence can be a good thing. That’s why I, and most teachers I know, start off the day with just that – a brief period in the morning when students have some quiet time to do independent work (often called “Bell work”). For example, I gave my students a grammar exercise (written on the board) and a math review sheet. This gave me time to take attendance and to collect homework and lunch money. It was a time to focus, to center and to prepare for the day. This “moment of silence” lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, and at any time, any student who so wished could use a moment of this time to reflect, to mentally focus, or to pray.

Similarly, at lunch time, I dismissed students to get their lunches (we ate in the classroom) based on the noise level in the room. Hungry students are quiet students, if that is what the teacher requires. Same thing for dismissal at the end of the day. Students who want to go home are quiet students, if that is the expectation. My point is that students usually have several “moments of silence” built into their school day, not because is it legally mandated, but because teachers recognize the importance of establishing certain times that are calm, quiet and focused. For religious families who wish that their children take a moment to pray silently during the day, all they have to do is ask their children, or the teacher if they say they don’t know, if there are any such times during the day when this would be possible. Teachers, by the nature of their profession, need to be accommodating.

Over the course of the past two weeks, the op-ed pages have been chock-filled with opinions on the issue. The assumption, of course, is that this “moment of silence” is code-speak for “mandated prayer.” When I was in grammar school in the early eighties, my school instituted a moment of silence. After the principal made the announcements for the day, she presided via intercom over “sixty seconds of silence,” and a little beep let us know it was over. Ever the inquisitive one, I asked my fourth grade teacher what it was all about (she just loved me, by the way). She said, “So you can pray.” Then she caught herself and added, “or whatever.” Because, you know, she apparently remembered that our Constitution has this little detail about prohibiting the establishment of religion.

When I heard about the new law (vetoed by Governor Blagojevich and overruled), I just rolled my eyes and figured, well, there are bigger issues out there to get all worked up about. Like global warming, pollution, crime, poverty, immigration, terrorism and a few minor skirmishes in the Middle East. But yesterday I stared open-mouthed at an article in the Chicago Tribune that cited the official title of this bill: the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” Come again? There is no assuming about it. This is about mandating prayer. It does not say “Silent Reflection OR Student Prayer.” It does in the body of the act, but not in the title. Notice also that the “reflection” part comes first in the title. Pretty sneaky, eh? It’s first about reflection and then about prayer. Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

For someone who wavers between agnosticism and a sense that there must be some kind of universal intelligence, I have mixed feelings about the role that organized religion has played in our history. OK, some of those feelings aren’t so mixed. But I’m absolutely opposed to anybody telling me or my children, “you have to be silent right now to pray. Or whatever.” This is death by a thousand cuts to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Like Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the “or whatever” is just a politically correct add-on. That’s why I was relieved to find that I’m not the only one who feels this way. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, in response to a suit brought to him by an Arlington Heights parent, decided that the law is “too vague and ‘likely unconstitutional.'” I hope this isn’t the first such ruling. I’m going to go have myself a moment of silence to thank God for people who care about one of our most fundamental freedoms. Or whatever.

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Something has been nagging me ever since Condoleeza Rice categorized the recent violence between Hezbollah and Israel as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” I like the language of the analogy, but it set me thinking. We are seeing changes in the Middle East, for sure, and the Middle East in a hundred years will most likely be a greatly changed region. My question is, how will it be different? It seems like the Middle East is approaching some kind of tipping point, but which way will it go? In the last episode of the first season of Deadwood, Al Swearengen muses that “announcing your plans is a good way to hear god laugh,” and I think the same could be said for making predictions. However, what we can do is take another look at things and reevaluate where we are, and be willing to change course based on a deeper understanding of the issue.

The other day I was watching the News Hour, and the discussion was about Bush’s statement that “failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to U.S. security.” My first question to Bush would have been to ask him to define “failed states,” so as to clarify any ambiguity. Does he mean “failed democratic states,” or “states that have descended into anarchy,” or “states that are ruled by terrorists,” or “states in the throes of civil war”? It seems to me that the level, nature and cause of the failure would be an important factor in assessing threat to the United States.

One of the guests, Ralph Peters (retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of the book, “Never Quit the Fight”) had this to say:

…I draw on the definition of failed states…as far as Iraq goes, it hasn’t failed yet. We need to remember that. The odds may only be 50-50. But if it does fail, the president’s assumption that it’s a direct threat to us may not prove right. A failed Iraq with Sunni and Shia going at each other may be al-Qaida’s Vietnam.

You know what, failed states, and certainly in the Middle East as well as elsewhere, tend to concentrate on their internal problems. They don’t generate terrorists. The terrorists that attacked us on 9/11 and elsewhere came from stable states, I would argue other kinds of failed states in the Middle East.

The danger in a failed state, as Afghanistan was briefly, is it throws up a radical movement that provides a safe haven for terrorism which then directly threatens the United States. But if Iraq comes apart, they’re going to be preoccupied with their own problems for a long time.

…we are without doubt witnessing something without precedent, the crash of a once great, still proud civilization, that of Middle Eastern Islam. And the problem is that the Middle East is not competitive in any sphere…[a]nd it’s a problem of humiliation and jealousy, but it is homegrown. Again, you know, we made mistakes in the Middle East. We made a bad problem somewhat worse.

…it’s the classic heart-breaking problem I encounter in the Middle East, where last week I was in Israel sitting down with senior Israelis. And the senior Israelis were looking at what was going wrong and criticizing themselves, their own system, “How do we make this right?”

I also sat down with a group and Saeb Erakat, who’s about as good as the Palestinians get. Erakat immediately went into, “It’s all Israeli’s fault. It’s all the United States’ fault.” And, you know, the plumbing doesn’t work, so it’s [the] CIA and Mossad.

The other guest during this discussion was Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. While he pointed to foreign occupation and meddling in the Middle East as large determining factors in the region, he nonetheless acknowledged that the Middle East had some serious preexisting problems:

But it’s true. Before the United States was involved, there were deep, profound problems in the Middle East. One of the things I talk about in this book, one of those problems was external intervention.

This is the most strategically important region in the world. This is a region which, since the British discovered oil in Iran in 1901, has most of the world’s oil reserves. The degree to which it has become a penetrated system — Britain, Russia, later on the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Germany, and now the United States — are a large part of the problem in that region.

To say that there’s no indigenous problem would be false. Of course there are profound indigenous problems. I wouldn’t put it in the kind of stereotypical terms that Colonel Peters has. Of course there are.

I started to feel like I was onto something big – here we have two people with fairly different perspectives agreeing that there were big, even fundamental, problems within Middle Eastern civilization, independent of foreign “penetration.” This is a starting point, a premise, that clearly others have thought of long before me. To me, things start making a whole lot more sense when I frame related events with the idea that Middle Eastern, or more specifically, Arab, civilization is unraveling, and in fact has been for hundreds of years.

Lieutenant Colonel James G. Lacey, in his article, “The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization,” notes that,

on the Arab League’s website there is a paper that details all of the contributions made by Arab civilization. It is a long and impressive list, which unfortunately marks 1406 as the last year a significant contribution was made. That makes next year the 600th anniversary of the beginning of a prolonged stagnation, which began a dive into the abyss with the end of the Ottoman Empire. Final collapse has been staved off only by the cash coming in from a sea of oil and because of a few bright spots of modernity that have resisted the general failure.

Lacey goes on to outline the general condition of the Arab world, getting his statistics from the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report and the OECD, and it is very grim. Only 1.6% of Arabs, for example, have Internet access, 60 million people, mostly women, are illiterate, and GDP (after adjusting for inflation) is declining. Based on population trends, Lacey asserts that,

Things are indeed bad in the Arab world and will get much worse.

This statement should not be read as mere opinion. While predictions of the future are usually fraught with peril, those based on demographics are, barring some unforeseen plague or truly catastrophic war, uncannily accurate. Using even the most optimistic assumption—that fertility rates drop by fifty percent in a generation—the respected Population Resource Center, based in Princeton, New Jersey, expects Arab populations to grow from 280 million to almost 460 million by 2020 and to over 600 million a generation later. On the face of it the Arab world is staring political and economic disaster in the face. Arab governments and institutions are already failing to meet basic human needs in many Arab countries. It is hard to imagine how they will cope with the stress of such a massive population increase.

When you have a population explosion like this, you get what Lacey calls a “youth bulge,” or a large percentage of young people making up the population. We know, also, that acts of terrorism are largely executed by youth who are fueled by Islamism’s warped ideology and economies that cannot offer stable, fulfilling employment. Lacey explains that, “In socially and politically repressive societies, found throughout the Middle East, there are very few outlets for pent-up frustrations except for violence or immersion into religion—a combustible mixture.”

Taking this premise to an applicable conclusion, one that we can use to help stabilize the world while this collapse plays itself out, Lacey argues that,

By accepting that we are facing the collapse of Arab civilization we can, for the first time, create a grand strategic concept for success. We no longer have to engage in a war against terrorism, which is a method of fighting and not an enemy. Additionally, we now have a strategic explanation for what is going on that does not make Islam the culprit. Hence we do not have to fight a religious war to win.

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Are we smart enough to win the “War on Terror”? Has the very term, “War on Terror,” set us up for failure before we even embarked? It seems to me that eradicating Islamism’s guerrilla and terrorist tactics will only be possible if we come to better understand human development, on both an individual and global scale.

Can you negotiate with a two year old in the throes of a hysterical tantrum over not being allowed a third piece of candy? Does this two year old understand that too much sugar is bad for his teeth? Do you even bother explaining this fact to him? Well, you might try, but probably to little effect. If you are the parent, and your child is having his fit at, say, the mall, what do you do to stop it? Do you reason with a screaming two year old, or do you outsmart him, distract him, or ignore him until he realizes he hasn’t got a taker? Can you sweet talk him into thinking there are better things than candy? More importantly, when your two year old becomes a three, four and five year old, does he continue to have tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants, or does he eventually grow out of it? Is it because you, wise parent, have done something extraordinary to permanently alter his behavior, or would his behavior evolve naturally in a healthy social context, as he became better able to communicate his needs and wants?

I tend to view people as going through certain stages, both as individuals and as parts of larger societies. If a society is made up of mostly two year olds, well, we could probably imagine what that would look and sound like. Even if that society contained a few infants, some teenagers, some young and middle aged adults and some elders, it would still be a society dominated by two year olds.

As with an individual’s development, I believe that nearly all societies contain people at various stages on the human spectrum of potential, and that environmental factors serve to both limit and promote progress. Just as a human being goes through stages along the path to maturity, so does a society. First you (or your society) are focused solely on your physiological needs: food, shelter and some measure of emotional comfort (think of infants and very early man). Then you realize you are part of a larger world, and you begin to learn through trial and error your culture’s mores and how to communicate your needs in that context. Next you become more self-centered, focusing on your own wants, often referring to a god or gods to justify yourself. Then you learn the importance of governance, and of sacrificing yourself for the good of the community, followed by an awareness of the importance of not only pursuing your own goals, but also doing what you can for the wider community. Next you realize that you are part of a holistic system, which includes everything on earth, and while you still strive to achieve your own goals, you do it in a way that is in harmony with all life. There is no way of knowing how far we can go beyond this, but the possibilities are only limited to our ultimate, currently unknowable cognitive potential.

Of course, in this context, not every human being or society will realize its full potential. This is where we return to the issue of terrorism. Without a society to support it, it would not exist. Terrorism, in my opinion, clearly thrives in an environment where the culture is at the level where one sacrifices oneself not for the good of community, but in the context of justifying one’s actions in reference to a god, in pursuit of an aim that does not necessarily benefit the wider community (but convinces it that it does). It will take a critical mass of people within this culture to evolve to the next level, one that recognizes that one’s actions can only be justified if they benefit one’s society (and hopefully eventually evolves to a more holistic view, but one careful step at a time).

Where is the majority of America on this path? I believe we are actually regressing, responding to fundamentalism with fundamentalism. We need to move in a better, more holisitic direction, one that recognizes and works on the premise of systemic health, both environmentally and socially. While we cannot currently reason with terrorists and their networks, I do think that we can at least attempt to mitigate the circumstances that help them flourish.

We cannot forcefully impose our will on others and expect them to comply, no matter how fervently parents, executives, legislators and diplomats may hope otherwise. Terrorists will not stop terrorizing until the people who produce and support them feel that their needs are being met, until they learn to process information critically, and until they have reached a level of development that transcends their current understanding of the world. Before people can contemplate higher issues of equality, humane justice and democracy, they must have a certain level of basic comfort, security and education. We cannot achieve a successful and stable democratic revolution from without. Lasting change, by nature, comes from within.

I don’t have a cure for terrorism, but I believe our current actions only provide the proverbial aspirin tablet to a cancer patient. We can keep on slappin’ ’em with the flyswatter, but, like flies and other profoundly successful procreators, we can’t with our current methods get at their source without devastating and extreme measures. We need to outsmart and out-humanize them. They need their people to hate us in order for their engines to continue to run. I believe it is better to use honey in terms of attempting to soften and hopefully, eventually, reverse this hatred. We need to value and use reason, logic and knowledge of human and cultural development especially when dealing with people who are unable to do the same. We need to take the higher, more enlightened path, using our brains rather than our guns.

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