Thursday, June 28, 2007

Random Thoughts To Confirm My Continued Existence

I was heading to Indiana on I-74 last weekend and noticed a new bit of gun poetry somewhere around Champaign, Illinois. See if you can spot the lapse in logic in this one:

When gun control
Has you beat
Criminals will
Own the street

Remember, the audience they’re trying to reach with this doggerel doesn’t happen to include writers of left-leaning blogs. No, they’re going after people who are sick and tired of the government trying to pry guns out of their cold dead hands.

And if they have to pretend that gun control means the elimination of local law enforcement agencies, well, you know, whatever it takes.

* * *

Quick update: You might remember that a couple of weeks ago I emailed my post “Still Disconcerted” to each of the Democratic candidates, asking for an explanation of why they said they would authorize the killing of Osama Bin Laden even if it meant the death of innocent civilians (Dennis Kucinich is the only one who said he wouldn’t). I also asked who they were trying to appeal to with that position, because the rabid Bush-loving kill-em-all types aren’t going to be voting in the Democratic primaries anyway.

To date, only the Kucinich campaign has responded to my email, thanking me for writing and confirming what we already knew, that Kucinich has never wavered from his antiwar stance. I made it onto Edwards’ and Obama’s fundraising email list, but I opted out—which someone at those respective campaign headquarters must have interpreted to mean I didn’t want any email from them. That’s not true: I want an answer.

I made it onto Chris Dodd’s fundraising list, too, but instead of opting out I’ve been replying to the request for funds with my own request for an explanation. Neither one of us has budged so far.

* * *

One more thing. There’s some ridiculous website now that will rate your blog as if it were a movie being submitted to the MPAA. The Electron Runes was granted an NC-17 rating, based on the fact that the word gun was used 18 times, death six times, dead five times, hell four times, gays twice, and pain once.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Enlightenment, Part 1

It’s been about a year now since a couple of roving missionaries knocked on my apartment door and invited me to come to their church. There was a woman a little older than me and one in her 20s, both modestly dressed. The younger one stood quietly while the older one went through the spiel and asked if I was confused by all the different claims made by all the different religions.

I acknowledged that there were certainly a lot of claims, though I had to admit I wasn’t exactly confused by them.

She acknowledged my acknowledgement and asked if I attended church. I said I hadn’t been a regular churchgoer for years. She politely asked why not, and I said “It just stopped making sense to me.”

She made her pitch anyway, letting me know that her church had taken all the confusion out of religion simply by following the Bible. “It’s all right in here,” she said, tapping her copy. I shrugged and shook my head and said “That’s the part that stopped making sense to me.”

I don’t know exactly when I stopped believing in deities, but I know the process began while I was still a firm believer. Anyone who’s been through the process knows that’s not necessarily a contradiction. You see things and you want to doubt but you won’t let yourself.

The table was being set. All I had to do was admit to being hungry.

Rural Indiana wasn’t exactly a hotbed of diverse beliefs when I was growing up, so I was under the impression the church was the final arbiter of truth and the rest of society was just catching up. Salvation was the ultimate goal, and I believed everyone else in the world must think so, too.

Look around you, kid. Look around at the 125 people here in their Sunday clothes, older than you, smarter than you, more faithful than you—do you think they’d be here on a Sunday morning if there weren’t a perfectly good reason to be?

I believed because that’s what you do. That’s what you do when you’re a kid and the only thing you see is other people believing. In sixth grade, 1971, I visited a Wednesday-evening Baptist service with a friend and picked up one of those little Jack Chick comic-book tracts designed to scare people into righteousness (my own church was Disciples of Christ, where nobody tried to scare anybody). This particular tract railed against hippies and stated that the peace symbol was the sign of the antichrist, and of course I, with all the critical thinking skills of a popsicle stick, assumed it was true. It had to be—it came from a church, didn’t it?

The next week we sixth-graders were lined up after recess and I noticed another friend of mine with a peace-symbol button on his jacket. I explained ever so helpfully that he was wearing the sign of the antichrist, and he responded with well-justified indignation: “Oh, I suppose God is for war.” I didn’t have an answer for that. There was a scriptural reference in the tract, but I read Revelation front to back and never did find anything about a peace symbol.

I did the whole confirmation and baptism thing in seventh grade. In our church that meant taking a few weeks of special classes to prepare you to say Yes to the question “Do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

But honestly, they might just as well have skipped the classes and said “We’re going to line you up in front of the church and ask you a question, at which point you will say Yes.”

Saying Yes meant we publicly acknowledged that 2000 years ago a supernatural being took human form, died, and came back to life. Keep in mind that for years we’d all been brought up to believe that 2000 years ago an all-powerful supernatural being took human form, died, and came back to life, so this wasn’t a huge stretch for us. Nobody had ever challenged us to think seriously about the believability and likelihood of the story, nor did they have much reason to. Everyone else believed it, so why shouldn’t we?

(Or, more accurately, everyone else believed it, so it must have happened. This is why they set the confirmation and baptism age high enough that you’ll want to answer correctly and join the rest of the crowd, but not so high that you’ll say you need to think it over first. Implausibility, I now realize, isn’t sufficient reason for believing in something.)

So on that Easter Sunday in 1973, they chalked up eight new souls. Our names were added to the church membership, and after the ceremony we were all congratulated by our families and the church elders and whatnot, as if we’d walked on water and not just toed the company line.

Of course, it was a pretty big deal to me at the time. Who couldn’t get behind salvation? Who wouldn’t choose eternal life? It was nice knowing we had virtually automatic forgiveness for our sins, but the way I understood it, our magical baptismal dunking had washed away any desire we might have had to sin in the first place.

So that was the cloak I wrapped myself in for the next several years. As a point of clarification, I was never a Bible-thumper, never an evangelical, never a crusader. I was never obnoxious about my faith and I never tried to convert anyone else. It was personal to me.

It was also a tremendous handicap. While I’d always had a thirst for knowledge, I was only willing to receive it up to the point where it conflicted with my religious beliefs. I attended a well-respected liberal arts college and was surrounded by great literature and humanist thought, but I’m pretty sure my GPA would have been higher if I hadn’t had to filter everything through Biblical literalism.

I was protected by the Armor of Truth. Fortunately, it had a few chinks.

(to be continued)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Evolution #9

According to a recent Gallup poll, 70% of Republicans don’t believe in the theory of evolution. That seems outrageous when you think of the GOP as the party of bankers and millionaires, yet it’s perfectly understandable when you realize that a whole lot of people call themselves Republicans simply because they don’t have a Christian Fundamentalist Party to belong to. They’re throwing off the curve, though in fairness I’m not sure they’re as much to blame as the Republican politicians who pander to them.

The poll also revealed that only 53% of Americans believe evolution is “definitely or probably true.” Most of the blogs I read regularly have already covered this, and have lamented quite rightly that it shows a depressing ignorance about something that should be one of the basic building blocks of every person’s education.

Of course, some of the folks who reject evolution do so because they’ll get kicked out of the club if they don’t. When religious leaders frame the debate as “evolution vs your immortal soul,” it’s no surprise that anyone with a superstitious, credulous approach to life is going to line up on the side of not burning for eternity.

There are churches where the people believe in theistic evolution, where the Bible is considered a mix of history and metaphor, and where people are encouraged to use their powers of reason. I suspect Gary Bauer doesn’t go to one of those churches. Remember Gary Bauer? He ran for president in 2000 and is known for such hysterical announcements as “Our society will be destroyed if we say it’s OK for a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman.”

Bauer’s never been known for intellectual nuance, but USA Today trotted him out anyway for a quote in a story about the evolution poll. Now, one thing you can count on from evolution deniers: They love reducing this complex scientific topic to the level of a cartoon.

Not a funny cartoon, either. More like a Mallard Fillmore. True to form, Bauer told USA Today that “Most of us don’t think we’re just apes with trousers.”

(I’m looking into the rumor that Charles Darwin’s original title was The Origin of Species: Apes With Trousers.)

If you take a hundred evolution deniers and ask them to sum up their opposition in a single sentence, 90 will say “We ain’t related to monkeys.” (Five will start spouting the pretend-science of Intelligent Design proponents, and the other five will ask what you mean by a sentence.) Given enough time, you might make a handful understand that we are related to monkeys—and apes and wombats and figs and amoeba. Maybe.

But every time a dimbulb like Gary Bauer misrepresents the theory of evolution by making a joke about trouser-wearing apes, another mind closes a little bit tighter.

The USA Today story also quoted someone named Don Racheter, described as a “fiscal and cultural conservative who heads a free-market think tank in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.” Racheter says “People have a right to their own view on how life began and how [that] should be taught.”

No arguments there. You’re free to hold your own views, no matter how kooky. You’re free to believe your kookiest views should be taught, too. But speaking of kooky views, Racheter says he’s surprised that Democrats don’t agree. He says Democrats “ought to be for choice in religion and choice in education as well as choice in reproductive rights.”

Huh? I don’t know any Democrat who’s anti-choice on religion. I think most of us are pretty much behind choice in reproductive rights as well. But choice in education? What does that even mean?

If it means teaching a valid scientific alternative to evolution, go for it. But since such a thing doesn’t exist, I can only assume Mr Racheter thinks creation myths are a worthy use of science-class time. I found a list of 46 at this site, so that ought to take up a semester or two right there.

One More Thing

On Monday I sent a copy of the post titled "Still Disconcerted" to each of the Democratic candidates, asking if they honestly thought it was acceptable to assassinate Osama Bin Laden if it meant the deaths of innocent civilians. (On the email to Dennis Kucinich, of course, I acknowledged that he answered that question No in the New Hampshire debate.) So far I've received automatic replies from Clinton, Edwards, Obama, and Dodd. If anyone actually answers the question, I'll let you know.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Cup of Ice

If this were one of those what-I-had-for-breakfast blogs instead of whatever the hell kind of blog it actually is, you’d already know that in the past month I visited New York City for the first time and became smitten with the city and one of its inhabitants. You’d already know that some guy turned left into the path of my car in a little town in rural Illinois, causing $2100 worth of damage and prompting me to get out of the car and yell “goddammit” at the top of my lungs (and that I was surprised not to receive a citation for disturbing the peace: “We don’t say the GD-word in these here parts, boy—at least not in such a public forum”).

You’d also already know that after 28 years of being a fan of the Roches, I finally saw them perform live in Iowa City—and actually got to meet and chat with them afterwards.

It was all very exciting, obviously, but it’s not the sort of thing I want to write about here at the Runes. However, something absurd happened last night that I thought my twos of readers might enjoy hearing about.

My younger daughter and I were returning home from a trip to Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, where Phillies righthander Jon Lieber had just tossed a three-hit shutout against the Royals. I stopped for gas at a Shell store just off 435 North, and after filling the tank I went inside for a drink. As is my custom in convenience stores, I got a bottle of pop out of the cooler, then filled a cup up with ice. (For some reason I find this preferable to fountain drinks.)

The woman at the counter informed me that I could save money by getting the ice in a larger cup. “There’s a special,” said she. “You can get the 44-ounce cup for 79 cents, as opposed to the 32-ounce cup for a dollar-nine.”

“Yes, I noticed that,” I noted cheerily, “but I’m not getting a fountain drink. I just want the ice.”

“OK, I’ll give you an ice cup,” she replied, proffering a cup much smaller than the 32-ouncer I had already filled with ice.

“But I want more ice than that,” I said by way of rejoinder.

“Then I’ll have to charge you for a fountain drink.”

“Balderdash, good woman! Prithee explain why thou wouldst charge me for both a fountain drink and the bottled beverage I selected myself from yon cooler?” (I’m kind of paraphrasing here.)

“Our distributor says we have to—”

“You know what? It’s not that important.” Since I’d already paid for my gas at the pump, I left the store in very non-dramatic fashion, leaving her to deal with about a nickel’s worth of ice and plastic cup, which I assume and hope she threw away. Distributor’s rules or no, I didn’t care to stick around and listen to why it’s okay to gouge customers by charging $1.09 for a 32-ounce cup of ice.

Most stores just give you the ice, and some charge a dime or fifteen cents. The store down the street, Pour Boys, was nice enough to give me the ice and will now be my official convenience store of choice for future trips to Kansas City.

Coming soon: What I Had For Breakfast.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Still Disconcerted

I’m still kind of disconcerted about the moment in the Democratic debate in which all but one of the candidates raised a hand to signify that “Yes, I would fire a missile into Osama Bin Laden’s guts even if it meant killing some innocent civilians.”

I’m disconcerted because I can’t figure out whom they’re trying to appeal to with that response. Have they forgotten November? Have they forgotten the mass turnover in the House and Senate? Have they forgotten the message we intended to send back then?

The results of the November elections did more than just quantify public dissatisfaction with the Iraq quagmire: They repudiated everything President Poor Dope stands for: corruption, aggression, cronyism, and a stupidly undiplomatic approach to foreign policy. The voters demanded change. (And the fact that we haven’t seen a whole hell of a lot of it will be the subject of a future post.)

The voters demanded change, but their response to the Osama question shows that the Democratic candidates (with the exception of Kucinich) still don’t get it. Reasonable people understand that blowing up Bin Laden solves nothing. Reasonable people understand that killing more innocents in pursuit of a criminal the current administration has given up on is unacceptable.

And since I would define reasonable people as those responsible for keeping the poor dope’s approval ratings in the low 30s, I have to ask again: Who were the Democratic candidates hoping to reach with that mind-boggling show of hands?

Were they honestly trying to appeal to the 28-32% still loyally, stubbornly, desperately clinging to their belief that the poor dope knows what he’s doing? Here’s a news flash: Those people aren’t voting in the Democratic primaries. They don’t care how many innocent civilians die, and they don’t particularly care how many American soldiers die, either.

They’re the ones offering such brilliant political solutions as “Pave the whole Middle East.”

They’re not you. They’re not us. They don’t matter.

If you want to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice when you become president, you’ll have a grateful nation behind you. But if you’re just going to shoot first and ask questions later like you’re applying for a position in the current administration of thugs, then stop pretending you have something different to offer.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Bloodthirsty Bunch

I’m a little concerned about a couple of things I heard in Sunday’s Democratic debate. The first is Hillary Clinton’s statement that “We’re safer now than we were.”

If she’s talking about those of us within U.S. borders right now, her comment is immeasurable and therefore meaningless. If she’s talking about American troops serving in a country they should never have been sent to in the first place, it’s downright insulting.

Hillary looked very confident and poised at the debate, and she had enough good things to say that I might eventually be persuaded to let her out of my Republican-lite doghouse. But “We’re safer now than we were” is an empty phrase, and we’ve already spent six years with a president who can’t communicate in anything but empty phrases. Give us some substance, please.

The other thing was much more disturbing. Moderator Wolf Blitzer posed the following question, which I’m paraphrasing: “If the intelligence community knew the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, but that he would only be there for 20 minutes, would you move to eliminate him even if that meant killing innocent civilians?”

Now, you and I both know that’s a bullshit question, for a lot of reasons. When you have a field of eight presidential candidates eager to explain their positions to the public, why in the world would you be asking yes-or-no questions? What would have been wrong with asking something more open-ended, like “As president, what would you do to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice?”

Instead they turned it into a ridiculous hypothetical, a situation the candidates might encounter if they were playing Osama: The Video Game.

And unfortunately, with the shining exception of Dennis Kucinich, the candidates blew the response.

Kucinich, who’s been consistent in his antiwar sensibilities since he ran in 2004, was the first to respond: “I don't think that a president of the United States who believes in peace and who wants to create peace in the world is going to be using assassination as a tool, because when you do that, it comes back at your country.” That’s a bit of wisdom completely lost on the current administration of asshats, by the way.

Barack Obama took a different approach: “Osama Bin Laden has declared war on us, killed 3,000 people, and under existing law, including international law, when you've got a military target like Bin Laden, you take him out.” Well, aside from the fact that I think you have to be a sovereign nation before you can declare war on one, this completely dodges the “innocent civilians” issue. How many hundred thousand dead Iraqis are there now? Did the death of any particular one of them bring us closer to finding Bin Laden?

Blitzer then posed the question to the whole panel as a “show of hands” type thing (which, even though he’d been doing it all night, still came off as kind of simplistic and surreal), asking who among them would fire a missile that would kill Bin Laden and anyone who happened to be in the neighborhood.

They all raised their hands, except Kucinich. And that’s pretty freakin sad.

Do we need another bloodthirsty president? Do any of the candidates honestly believe that terrorism dies with Bin Laden, that blowing him up closes the book on 9/11?

I’m not saying Osama Bin Laden doesn’t deserve to die. I’m saying a dead Bin Laden wouldn’t make us any safer, especially if he’s surrounded by a bunch of dead people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And by the way, if President Poor Dope really wanted to find Bin Laden, he could have invested a small percentage of what he’s wasted in Iraq to do so. If he isn’t going to make the effort, why is the question important enough to ask the Democratic candidates?