Monday, December 25, 2006

Two gifts of wonderful writing...

I've added two links that I really want to call your attention to, dear readers.

As you've probably noticed if you have read very many of my posts here, I am not always that happy with organized religion. On the other hand, I greatly admire spirutual and out of organized traditions...who live out their convictions in compassionate ways. And, so I've added two links to blogs written by spiritual women in two traditions who are living their convictions and blogging about their lives and beliefs with great eloquence.

In alphabetical order, then:

Musings of a Discerning Woman follows the journey of a Catholic sister who is currently a novice in an order active in social justice issues.

The Velveteen Rabbi offers the on-line meditations of a Jewish woman in the middle of her studies to become a rabbi.

Both women are wonderful, thoughtful, insightful writers. I thought that this was the perfect day to share their blogs with you. So, please...I hope you'll read and enjoy the offerings they are kind enough to share with us in the blogosphere.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

There's no place like home for the holidays...

I'm not much of a holiday person. I admit that. But there are some holiday memories that just stick with me, make me laugh and make me mist up a bit.

There was the time when I was very little, probably four or five years old, and was in the Christmas pageant at the Methodist Church, where I went to Sunday School at the time. I remember very little of the pageant, but I remember that we almost didn't get there. When it was time to go to the church for the program, it was so foggy that we nearly couldn't see past the hood of the car. It wasn't typical southern California fog, but more like San Joaquin Valley tule fog, the kind that everyone thinks of when you compare fog to pea soup. When we stopped off to pick up my grandmother, we waited at the end of her long driveway and my dad walked up to the house to bring her to the car; he was afraid that if he drove in, he wouldn't be able to back out again without hitting a tree.

Still, we perservered and made it to the church. As we were going inside, my dad said, "Wouldn't it be funny if were clear as a bell when we come back outside later?" We all laughed and said the early 1960s equivalent of "Yeah, right." We all went inside, the program went well, I guess, since I don't remember any big mistakes being made. I think there were cookies and punch afterward. And when it was time to go, we went outside...and it was clear as a bell. The east wind (you might have heard of it as the Santa Ana wind) had come up and sent the fog back out to sea. Not that my dad was a prophet or anything...he had just lived in the valley long enough that all he usually had to do was go out and take a look at the sky, see which way the wind was blowing from, and he could usually give an accurate weather forecast.

But that's not my favorite Christmas season story. My favorite is from the Christmas about five years after that.

That was the year we were living in Blythe. In a motel room. The thing was, my dad was a produce inspector for the state of California. Sometimes he got sent away from home to work for as long as a month or six weeks at a time. Since it was just my dad, my mother, and myself, we always went along with him when he would work out of town. A few times we lived in apartments, but most of the time we would live in a motel room with a kitchenette attached. This went on for the whole time I was in elementary school; at least a couple of years during that time, we were away from home for at least six months out of the year.

That year, we happened to be in Blythe over the Christmas holidays. Down in the desert there are a number of crops to inspect at that time of the year. I think it was the only time we were actually away from home that time of year. We would have rather been at home, but we got a small tree to sit on the dresser in the room and there were the full complement of presents underneath it. But we didn't know if my dad would have the day off or not; he had had to work on holidays before, so we didn't plan anything.

When he got home after work on Christmas Eve, though, he had news. He had Christmas Day off. Then he asked if we'd like to go home for Christmas, spend the holiday in our own house. Well, of course, my mother and I both said. And so we packed up the car and off we went. Thing was, it was a Volkswagen bug...the old, traditional kind. So I shared the back seat for the more than 260 miles from Blythe to Simi Valley with the Christmas tree and all the gifts. It was a good thing I like the smell of Christmas trees.

We drove a good part of the night, got home very, very late, slept a few hours, had Christmas morning at home. Then, of course, we had to pack back up and head back to Blythe since my dad had to be at work bright and early the next morning. We stopped off at a Denny's restaurant or somewhere like that for Christmas dinner along the way, I think. But we were home for the holidays, and that was a wonderful thing.

And so, for those of you who are home for Christmas this year, treasure the opportunity. And for those who aren't able to be at home this year, treasure the memories of the times you were home and I'll send good thoughts that you are able to be home...wherever you consider home to year.

Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 15, 2006

I knew there was a reason why science wouldn't make the cut either...

At dinner this evening a friend and I were discussing the whole Harry Potter situation and what it would do to the curriculum at a school that couldn't discuss murder, greed, or violence at all. I was going through the list of things that probably could and couldn't be taught, and when I mentioned science she reminded me about all of the violence in the animal world. It's inherent in the food chain, after all. So, at least zoology would be a no-go, and probably biology generally. I'm pretty sure that physics and geology would still be okay to teach, though.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Censors Lose a Round

I see where the Georgia Board of Education has decided that Harry Potter is legal for the kids of their state. This, after a woman named Laura Mallory has spent at least a year trying to oust the boy wizard from the state’s public school libraries on the theory that J. K. Rowling’s wildly popular books are “mainstreaming witchcraft in a subtle and deceptive manner, in a children-friendly format.”


It occurs to me that some adults in this country have much more trouble telling the difference between fantasy and reality than do most children. But Ms. Mallory’s witchcraft delusions don’t worry me nearly as much as do other statements she has made. In arguing that the books are not suitable for children, she was quoted as saying that the books are full of “murder, greed, and violence. Why do they have to read them in school?”

Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

Okay. I’m back. I’d be interested in how Ms. Mallory feels about children reading the Bible, which contains a bumper crop of all three. Let’s see. Murder first appears in the fourth chapter of Genesis. That’s six pages in, in the Bible translation I have on my shelf. Now, granted I’ve only read the first couple of Harry Potter novels, but neither one of those have a murder six pages in, as far as I can recall. Greed plays its part before Genesis is over as well, and violence is fairly common all through the Good Book.

But let’s lay that aside. I’m assuming that Ms. Mallory is Christian when the article I read does not give any evidence of that. There are still other questions that are more intimately related to the school curriculum in light of her assessment: which subjects are the schools going to have to omit if there is to be no mention of murder, greed or violence in our national schoolrooms?

History would definitely be out. All those wars, you know, not to mention palace intrigue and other historical activities. Lots of violence there. Greed, too, when you stop to think about it. Economics would be eliminated simply on the greed factor. Couldn’t teach literature, either. Honestly, how many works of fiction can you think of that don’t have any violence at all, either physical or otherwise? Murder? You bet. Lots of greed in some literature, as well. The schools couldn’t teach anything about current events, as under Ms. Mallory’s theory there would be no place for the daily newspaper in school libraries, either. What about civics, aka government? Right. Gotta get rid of that, too, or at least severely restrict what is taught. The arts? Have to be very careful there, too. Math and science might make the cut, but I’m not even sure about that.

I’d be interested in knowing if Ms. Mallory shields her own children from the evening news on television; from newsstands displaying the day’s headlines; from, well, the whole world.

Now, I’m not going to argue for making kids grow up any faster than necessary. In fact, I’m a firm believer in letting kids be kids for as long as they can be. Goodness knows, that is a precious short time as it is these days. On the other hand, I also believe it is a mistake to overprotect children from the realities of the world or to give them a mistakenly benign view of how the world works. It’s a very fine line to walk, and all too easy to step off to one side or the other. But letting kids think that the world is a nice, sweet, safe place where no one will ever be mean or try to hurt them is doing them just as much a disservice as turning them into little miniature adults with all the cares and worries that implies before it is necessary.

Keeping kids from reading harmless fantasy like that found in Harry Potter is, I think, probably a good way to ease them into a knowledge of the reality that there are bad people as well as good in the world and that not everything turns out right in the end all the time, all without unduly traumatizing them.

As far as I can see, people like Ms. Mallory are much more of a hazard to children than J. K. Rowling and the books that she writes.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Turkey Day...

The time has just flown by. I think of coming over here and commenting on something almost every day...goodness knows there have been more than enough things to comment on in the news in the past little while. I mean, we've had a whole election, among other things. But that pesky real-life stuff just keeps getting in the way and keeping me busier than any three people really need to be. And so I think about writing, but then I don't do it.

I've also been sick for the past couple of weeks, preceded by a week of trying not to get sick...which, shall we say, was a waste of time and energy. That means I've had about enough energy to do the work I get paid for, keep my place tolerably clean, and not much else.

But,'s Thanksgiving, my cold is almost gone, and the sun is shining, which it hasn't done much of around here in several days. I don't have to cook, which means I won't have to clean up. So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Eat big, take a good nap, and get all prepared for the Christmas shopping season that starts tomorrow. I'll be thinking of you when I'm avoiding the stores tomorrow, because I never, ever shop on Black Friday if I can possibly get out of it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Can I just say that this has me, oh, a little upset...

Sometimes, you know, you see a headline and you just know you shouldn’t click on it but you do anyway. Inevitably, you realize that you should have followed your first instinct.

Well, I saw this one: “Nuclear meltdown may have caused cancers”, and I knew…I just knew…what it was about, and I knew I shouldn’t even look. But, of course I did. And this is what I found:

A 1959 nuclear reactor meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory may have caused hundreds of cases of cancer in the community, and chemicals threaten to contaminate ground and water, according to a report released Thursday.

The report by an independent advisory panel estimated it was likely that radiation released during the meltdown caused about 260 cases of cancer within a 60-square-mile area around the reactor.

The lab's former owner, Rocketdyne, has said for years that no significant radiation was released. But the independent advisory panel said the incident released nearly 459 times more radiation than a similar one at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979.
You can read the whole report on the KTLA website.

This is one of the main reasons why I don’t trust my government to tell me the truth, and tell it in a timely manner. The meltdown in question took place on July 26, 1959. The public didn’t find out that there was any contamination, really didn’t find out that there had even been a meltdown, until the release of an Energy Department report that said widespread radioactive and chemical contamination had been found around the site. The owners of the Lab, past and present, have been fighting tooth and nail to say that there wasn’t’ really any contamination, and that if there was it wasn’t really harmful. Well, guess what, folks? It was harmful.

You might be wondering at this point why this report has got me so upset, why the continuing revelations since 1989 have gotten me angry. Well, on July 26, 1959 I was a little less than a month away from turning three years old, and the lab in question was what I saw from my bedroom window, up on the mountain two, maybe three, miles as the crow flies from my house. In other words, I was in just about the perfect location to be contaminated by radioactivity released into the atmosphere from that meltdown.

No, I haven’t got cancer, so far as I know. Not yet. But I have got reduced thyroid function, which could very well have resulted from that contamination, or from the rocket fuel leaks during the time they were testing rocket engines for the space program (including the rockets that took Apollo - and men - to the moon). Both, apparently can cause that, as well as some very nasty kinds of cancer.

So, yeah. I’m not happy right now. Nice to know that my government (and the corporations it protects) is, and for decades has been, perfectly fine with using me and my family and friends as guinea pigs. It’s nothing new, of course. Ask all the soldiers who were marched out into the Nevada desert to witness atmospheric nuclear tests with virtually no protection or shielding whatsoever. As the military men who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the ones who have been sick since their participation in the first Gulf War and who the Pentagon are still telling that there’s really nothing wrong with them. And ask the people who lived at Love Canal and all the other place where the government dumped, or allowed to be dumped, or released into the air, land, and water, substances that they knew to be toxic.

But, somehow, it is different when it’s you who were the guinea pig. Just call it the government’s personal touch, I guess.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Short Subjects: Because There's Just Too Much Going On...

...and I've been way too busy.

First of all...It's banned books week. Celebrate. Go out and read a book that someone says you shouldn't. Read a Harry Potter book. Read To Kill a Mockingbird. Read Catcher in the Rye (you read it...I've had to read it three different times for classes, and I hated it worse every single time, but you might like it, so read it).

This is the week that libraries promote all of the books that people complain about because they're too politically correct, or not politically correct enough, or that they're took explicit, or have too many "bad" words. The flyer I got at the library refers you to, so I will, too. If that link doesn't work for you, try Googling "American Library Association". That'll probably get you there.



Over at the United Nations the other day Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, called George Bush "el diablo"...that's "The Devil" for all you non-Spanish speakers.

Now, I'm not a big Dubya fan. You'll know that if you've read this blog. Didn't vote for him. Don't trust him as far as I could throw a piano. But that "el diablo" stuff didn't set well with me. I thought about that for awhile, because it bothers me when I feel like I'm siding with him. But if finally occurred to me. It's like family. You can insult your own family all you want, but when someone outside the family does it, well, them's fightin' words. He's our president, part of our national family, and those of us who don't like him and don't agree with his policies criticize him liberally. (Get it? Liberally?...Ah, sheesh. I know it was bad. Never mind.) But when someone from outside the family starts in, it just doesn't sit right.

Anyway, Hugo was wrong. George Bush isn't the Devil.

As we all know, Dick Cheney is "el diablo".


And then there's the Pope.

First, a disclaimer. I'm not Catholic. I don't have any interested "side" in this one. But...

I don't think that anyone who hasn't read the full speech that Benedict XVI gave in Germany on Septebmer 12 has much of a place commenting on it, much less criticizing it. I've read the full text. And, yeah, you can argue, I suppose, that he could have used another example to make his point. But he did use that example. He didn't say it was what he believed. He just used it as a "for instance".

The thing is, he was arguing what I think is a really good point: that violence doesn't have any place in religion, but that reason does. In this day and age, when few enough people subject their faith to any serious reasoning and when way, way too many people think that the first thing they should do when they feel that any of their deeply held beliefs...religious or secular...has been insulted, is to go out and blow up a few buildings and kill a few people, this is a very important message that everyone needs to hear, no matter what side of the God thing you come down on.

So, you know, leave the Pope alone, on this one at least.


Oh, and one personal thing.

Some slimeball tried to steal my car the other night. Didn't get away with it, but they managed to jam the ignition all to hell and I'm going to have to have it replaced. And I've had to rent a car to get around in because the parts have to be flown in from Ohio or somewhere, and the guy who's doing the work won't be able to have it fixed until Wednesday or Thursday. Which is fine. He got out to look at it when he said he would, he's charging me a reasonable price for doing it, and I didn't have the car towed because he has a mobile service.

But it is costing me money to get it fixed, and to rent the car for several days. Just because some idiot doesn't understand the concept of "if it isn't yours, don't freaking touch it." And I've thought about it seriously. An academic exercise...the very nice police officer didn't dust my car for prints, but another car parked within feet of mine was also broken into, and Slimeball was wearing gloves, so they won't be catching him, at least for this caper...but I've decided what his punishment should be. No, not jail. Not flogging. Not having his right hand chopped off.

No. If they ever were to catch him, and let me assign punishment, I know exactly what I'd do. I'd make him write, "If it is not mine, I will not touch it" one million times. And the whole time, he'd have to listen to a continuous loop recording of Whitney Houston singing "I Will Always Love You", Celine Dion singing that horrible song from Titanic, and Britney Spears singing anything.

That'd teach him.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Apology? What Apology?

There has been a hue and cry among the conservative media that "someone" owes an apology to Karl Rove because it has apparently turned out that it wasn't Rove, but Richard Armitage, who outed Valerie Plame to the media as a CIA operative.

All I can ask is, "Why?" Republicans have been telling lies about opponents ever since before I can remember. They never apologize. In fact, they often repeat the same lies over and over, long after it has been conclusively settled that they have lied. They do this, presumably, because they think that if they same something often enough it will magically become true. Some of the pundits are still trying to make us believe that Al Gore somehow claimed that he "invented the Internet," years after that was shown to be a gross and deliberate misrepresentation of what was said and what was meant. Which makes that assertion, oh, a lie. And that is far from the only example.

So, no. Nobody owes Rove an apology.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Isn't there some, oh, real news to report?

When I logged on to AOL today, I was met with the headline that Jessica Lynch is pregnant. You remember her. The was the soldier who was held as a prisoner of war for a period of time at the beginning of the Iraq war, suffering severe injuries int he course of being captured.

Well, apparently she and her boyfriend are going to be parents. I'm happy for her. I really am. I'm glad she's got good things going on in her life now, after having to go through all of that courtesy of George and Dick and the boys and their little adventure in misdirection. But her pregnancy is not news. Surely there are many more important things going on in the world.

And by important, I don't mean the landing in Colorado of the plane carrying that Karr guy who says he's the one who killed Jon Benet Ramsey. But, apparently, MSNBC, which carried the landing live this afternoon, did. It was under the category of "Breaking News", and I guess they thought it was absolutely vital for us all to know that his plane had landed the very moment it happened.

It is very possible that this guy is simply a raving nutjob who is looking for publicity, or is playing out some perverse fantasy, or even just getting some kind of private jollies out of confessing to an infamous crime. In that case, the media is playing right into his...whatever it is that he's doing. Even if he did murder that little girl (something I'm still more than a little skeptical about, honestly), his plane landing is not breaking news. If they find his DNA on crime scene materials, that might be breaking news. Maybe. Personally, I can wait until the next scheduled newscast to find that out.

Then again, I've never seen an adequate explanation as to why the media is so obsessed with this particular killing. Lots of kids get murdered, but the media doesn't spend day and night on the story. Hell, just over two years ago right here in Fresno a man murdered nine of his children and grandchildren (some of the victims were both) one spring afternoon. After an inital spate of publicity, there was very little said about the whole thing in the national media, despite the sensational aspects of the case - incest, polygamy, weird religion, antique coffins, and an apparent obsession with vampires. When the perpetrator was convicted, there was mention in the national press, but just barely. The difference? The victims here, some of them younger than Jon Benet Ramsey, were of mixed race, not especially photogenic, didn't have much money.

I'm not saying that the murder of one child isn't a horrible thing. Of course it is. But the idea that one murder is more horrible, or more important, or just more worth covering because the victim's parents were rich and the victim herself was pretty, is disgusting. And I'm not advocating not reporting any of the cases just because they can't all be covered in depth. All I'm saying is that there is reporting and then there is obsession...and the Jon Benet story long ago reached the level of obsession on the part of the media.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Evolution: it isn't just dissed in the United States anymore...

Most people, at least here in the United States, think that this is the only place where the theory of evolution doesn't get any respect. But I ran across a couple of stories this week that show this isn't the case at all.

First up, in Nairobi, Kenya, according to the Telegraph, evangelical churches in that nation are lobbying the national museum there to put its collection of hominid fossils in a "back room" because evolution is "just one theory". Dr. Richard Leakey, whose team discovered many of the fossils in the museum called the churches' plan to force the museum to downplay anything that looks like evidence for evolution "the most outrageous comments I have ever heard", and that the museum should "be extremely strong in presenting a very forceful case for the evolutionary theory in the origins of mankind". He called the Pentecostal churches in question "fundamentalist" and said that their view of human origins "far from the mainstream".

The public relations manager of the museum was less forceful in his statement, saying that the museum has a responsibility to show the fossils in a way that gives the public "a full understanding of their significance", but that doing so can "get tricky when you have religious beliefs on one side, and intellectuals, scientists or researchers on the other, saying the opposite."

The thing that I don't understand is why people with religion think that they have a right force others to present their viewpoints. I doubt that Richard Leakey has any intention of going into their churches and lecturing them on evolution; they don't have any more right to march into a museum and expect the curators to mount exhibits that cater to their particular beliefs.

In another report, meanwhile, this time from Yahoo news, Greek scientists are calling on their nation's education ministry to begin teaching evolution, which they say is almost unheard of in the country's schools. They say that while information on evolution appears in the textbooks the schools use, it is situated at the end of the books, and most teachers never get to that material before the end of the school eyar. Two hundred scientists signed a petition setting out their request to the ministry. Evidently the influential Greek Orthodox church, which favors creationism, didn't have any comment on the appeal from scientists.

NOTE: Unfortunately, the Yahoo news report has apparently expired, so I've removed the link.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ready, set, conclusions...

I was on vacation last week. It was nice - didn't have to work, didn't have to cook, didn't have to do dishes. I had plenty of time to just sit and veg. That was good; I needed the relaxation. It's been a fairly stressful couple of years since I was last able to get out of town. But it was bad, too, becasue there was plenty of time to read the papers and watch the television, including the news.

Lots of strange stuff going on in the world, and I heard all about it. Even broke my usual rules and watched a high-speed chase...I'm not sure why they cover those things live in Los Angeles, but they do. I would hope that anyone affected by the chase wouldn't be actually watching the reports of it while they are driving. I think maybe I watched because earlier in the week, as I neared my destination, I managed to inadvertently drive into the middle of some kind of police action and almost got hit head-on by a police car. No lights, no siren, no nothing...just pedal to the metal driving down the wrong side of the street. So, my perceptions of such chases are a little different now. Also, they were chasing someone who was very ambitious. He didn't just weave around the surface streets or go freeway hopping. Instead, he headed north, over the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley. At night, with all the truck traffic, on Interstate 5, which has one stretch that is so severly downhill that they provide escape ramps for trucks that lose their brakes, because that's the only way to get them stopped if there is any traffic in the way at all.

Anyway, strange was the byword of the week in the news. Should have figured it would was full moon during that period of time. There were two stories, both of which had started earlier but which still had what the news business calls legs. One was the drunk-driving arrest of actor Mel Gibson and his ensuing tirade, which allegedly included both sexist and anti-Semitic rantings. The other was the ongoing controversy over Tour de France winner Floyd Landis's alleged doping during this year's competition. When those stories first entered the news, I figured neither one of them would be more than a three-day wonder. We should have been so lucky. The ongoing nature of both show more than anything, I think, how eager most people are to jump to conclusions in the absence of any sure knowledge of the circumstances of a particular event.

I don't know if Floyd Landis took synthetic testosterone before his big comback day near the end of the Tour. I wasn't there. Two tests of that day's urine sample say that he did. He says he didn't. I think that the jury is still out. But it amazed me how often I heard comments that he must be guilty, because the tests don't lie. Well...maybe they do and maybe they don't. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that there were other ways for that substance to get into his urine sample than for him to have deliberately taken a banned substance. Someone could have slipped it in something he ate or drank. Someone could have slipped it into the samples after they were taken. I'm sure there is security around the samples the riders are required to give, but security, as we all know in this age of terrorism, can be gotten around. In any case, as I understand it the substance that was found in the samples is something that must be taken for a period of time in order to have any effect on performance, and as far as I've heard, his earlier samples did not test positive. So, I can't quite figure out why he would have taken it then. He doesn't strike me as an excessively stupid person. Still, much of the commentary I've heard just jumps to the conclusion that Landis is a cheater. Not sure I understand that, either.

And then there's Mel Gibson.

I don't have any idea whether or not he is anti-Semitic...there doesn't seem to be much discussion of whether he is a sexist or not, based on his other reported statements the night he was arrested, but I guess anti-Semitism trumps sexism or something. I don't think either position is ethically tenable, but that's just me. Apparently, he was raised by an anti-Semitic father, which could predispose him to such attitudes. On the other hand, several people who know him well have insisted publicly that he is not anti-Semitic at all. Still, so many of the commentators have dragged out the old saying "in vino veritas" or however it goes (my Latin is a little rusty at the moment), that statements made while inebriated show the true feelings of the one making them. It has been my experience, however, that a lot of the things that a lot of people say while drunk don't have any relation to that person's real feelings or attitudes. Either way, the fact remains that none of those professional pundits who have been so quick to condemn Gibson are in a position to know his mind or his heart on that or any other subject. Still, they don't have any problem jumping to the conclusion that Gibson is a horrible, evil person who should never be allowed to pursue a living again.

All I can do is sit back and shake my head and wonder why people are so eager to think the worst of people. And why they seem even more eager to believe the worst of someone who is successful at what they do. It is almost as if there is the belief out there that anyone who is successful must have lied, cheated, or stole their way to their success. While I know that such is the case in some instances, even I'm not cynical enough to think that everyone who has ever been successful at anything is an evil human being.

And, God knows I'm pretty might have noticed that here before.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Still here...

Just so you'll know, dear readers...I haven't abandoned ship. It's just that, well, there is a real world out here, and it gets hectic sometimes. Also, there are vacations to go on...just finished one of those, which was a nice break. But I'm still thanks to that police car in southern California that tried to hit me lights, no siren, no nothing, but charging down the wrong side of the street chasing someone. If you've ever been thinking that it might be fun and exciting to drive into the middle of a police, it's not.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Speaking Truth to Power - But Watch Out For Your Job

I've been stewing about this for awhile, trying to decide whether to write about it or not. I was going to, and then it seemed like it had become old news, so I thought I probably wouldn't do it. But it is still bugging me, so I suppose I'm going to have to go ahead and get it out of my system.

It all started with a June 4, 2006 opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune. It was written by Brigham Young University philosophy instructor Jeffrey Nielsen. Spurred by a direction from the General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormons) for members of the church to call their U.S. Senators and urge them to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman and therefore outlaw gay marriage, Nielsen felt constrained to write and submit an essay explaining why he found the amendment, and the call by the church to support it, "troubling", as Nielsen described it. It was a moderate and well-reasoned piece of writing.

Nielsen's piece publicly disagreed with church leaders. Since the LDS church owns BYU, Nielsen soon found himself dismissed from his teaching job there. A university spokesperson said, as quoted in a June 14 story in the Deseret News (also a church-owned concern) that Nielsen was let go because his op-ed piece "publicly contracicted and opposed an official statement by the First Presidency." Nielsen countered, according to a June 14 article on his dismissal in the Salt Lake Tribune, that it was not his intent to attack any religious or theological claims of the church, but simply to comment on a moral issue.

And why is this significant? Employees get let go all the time for saying or doing things their employers don't like. Legally speaking, BYU certainly has its collective butt covered six ways from Sunday on their decision to let Nielsen go. That isn't my concern here, although it puts BYU's claim that it allows its faculty academic freedom. No. My concern here is instead the school's - and the church's - utter disregard for the principle that being able to voice an opinion on a topic about which well-meaning individuals might disagree without fearing job loss is - or should be - a basic human right.

A church is entitled to believe and to teach pretty much whatever they want. That is settled by the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. And if people wish to live by even the most draconian strictures of one of thsoe religions, well, I suppose that is their right as well, although I seem to recall that it is against the law to bind someone to a contract that deprives them of their constitutional rights. That's what makes those master/slave contracts illegal.

However, there is another part of the First Amendment - the free speech clasue. While there is legal opinion in existence that those guarantees do not bind private institutions, it seems kind of disingenuous to me for a group to insist on its First Amendment right to worship as they wish and then to refuse to allow their adherents the rights conferred in another clause of the same article in the Bill of Rights. That is exactly what the LDS church seems to be doing here by letting Nielsen go for simply stating a dissenting opinion.

It isn't that any of this surprises me much. The Mormons put a huge premium on obedience and do not brook any public dissent. There have been a number of disfellowshipments and excommunications in years past, as well as firings from BYU, after individuals have expressed opinions contrary to that of the First Presidency of the church. These disciplinary actions have not always been explained as reactions to dissent, and they have not been limited to BYU faculty. Former Australian Bishop (congregational leader) Simon Southerton was excommunicated in 2005, ostensibly for adultery. However, he and his wife had not been active in the church for seven years at that time and from what I understand his behavior had long been known. I suspect that it was not simple coincidence that Southerton had published in 2004 and vocally promoted his book, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church (Signature Books) in 2004. This book discusses the fact that DNA evidence does not support Mormon claims about the peopling of the Western Hemisphere. Similarly Grant Palmer, a long-time employee of the Church Educational System, was disfellowshiped for writing a book, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, which calls into question the official version of church history.

No. The Mormon hierarchy does not like dissent at all. It wants obedience from its members above all else, and it does not want outsiders interpreting the church and its doctrines and history. That is why it issued such a detailed and emphatic dissent to Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which I've written about here before. That is also why the church's historical archives are largely closed to anyone except those known to be sympathetic to the church and its teachings.

What the church wants more than anything else, and this gets to the crux of what is bugging me so much that I needed to get this out of my system, is unquestioning obedience from its members. And it wants everyone to be associated with the church. That's why they send out all those missionaries. This insistence on obedience is illustrated in a talk by one Mormon official and published on the church's official website after appearing in one of its magazines, the Ensign, in July 2005. The talk, by Elder Robert C. Oaks of the Presidency of the Seventy, is titled "Believe All Things". The gist of the talk is that it is important to belive all the things the church teaches because that belief will leed to obedience to the leadership of the church.

Oaks's talk idealizes what he calls "childlike submissiveness", saying "...we are instructed to be like children, who are willing to be taught and then to act without first demanding full knowledge." In other words, Mormons are expected to do whatever their leaders tell them to do without question and without regard to their own well-being. To illustrate this, Oaks holds out the example set in the Bible by Mary, the motehr of Jesus. He says that she accepted the assignment of bearing a child as an unmarried woman without "reservation or restraint" even thought her culture would demand that she be stoned to death for being an unwed mother.

That's nice. What he is saying here seems to be, do whatever the church tells you to do without question even if it means your very life, which you should sacrifice gladly. Even the US military, a noticeably obedience-based institution, expects its members to evaluate and refuse and illegal order. But not Mormons. No, they are supposed to just bow their heads and say yes (which I understand is something that is required in secret temple rituals, but since I've never been to the temple except to do dunkin' for the dead, I wouldn't know firsthand) to whatever they are asked.

This sort of obedience is not an abstract principle in the church, either. Members, especially temple Mormons who have pledged to give everything to the church, are expected to never, ever say no to any request from their superiors in the church. And one of the cute little things that local leaders like to do from time to time is to go into a meeting of, for instance, the Relief Society (the women's organization) and announce that Salt Lake City (where the chruch is headquartered) has instituted the United Order, just to see how many members will go along with the story without question and how many will raise objections. The United Order is a sort of communalism in which everyone's belognings - including homes - are pooled and then redistributed according to need. If that plan were ever actually to be activated, all the members would be expected to go along with it without a word of dissent.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I was raised to Question Authority. No surprise, then, that I never made a very good Mormon. It honestly frightens me that in 2005 anyone could have given a talk, with as straight a face as church leaders always give their talks, instructing the membership of the church that they are supposed practice "childlike submissiveness" whenever the leadership tells them to do something. The thing that is even more frightening is that a certain proportion of the membership will, indeed, bow their heads and say yes, and do anything these people ask them to do. This sort of authoritarianism is just pernicious, and those who promote it, leaders and followers alike, should be ashamed of themselves.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Read This Book: "The Time Traveler's Wife"

First of all, fair disclosure makes it essential that before I review The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003, San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage), I must tell you, dear reader, that I am mad for anything dealing with time travel. It might very well be my favorite science fiction/fantasy theme, and I will read just about anything that even hints at dealing with the concept.

That disclosure taken care of, this is a fabulous book. I can’t think of any better descriptive word. I was entranced by the story, by the way the story is told, by the characters - it is just a fabulous story, fabulously well told. I’ve been having trouble finding books that will hold my attention just lately. This one grabbed my attention and did not let go; I only didn’t sit and read it straight through because of things like, oh, having to work.

We are taken into the life of Henry DeTamble, who is able to travel through time. Well, able might not be the best word - he spontaneously travels through time, not able to control when he goes, or where, or how much time he spends in the past or, less often, the future. This turns out to be a genetic trait, something that eventually comes to be called Chrono-Displacement Disorder. Because, after all, every condition must have its own name here in the twenty-first century. Different things trigger his travels. The first time it happens is on his fifth birthday. His parents have taken him to the Field Museum in Chicago for his birthday, and he just does not want to leave. That night, he travels there again and spends the night with an older version of himself. It will not be the last time he spends time with himself in an older or younger edition.

While he cannot control his travel, Henry often travels to particular places and events. He visits his mother’s death in a car crash over and over. And he often goes to a particular meadow, where he gets to know a girl named Claire. The first time they meet, Claire is six years old and Henry is thirty-six. As they meet again and again through the years, Claire falls in love with Henry while he already knows that they will eventually marry. After a two-year period in which they do not meet, Claire comes across a non-time-traveling Henry when she visit’s the library where he works. She is 20, he is 28. She practically jumps him; he has no idea who she is since all of the times he has time traveled to visit her he has been older than he is on that day. She tries to explain who she is, what their relationship is, but he is clueless and she has to ask him out.

The story, like Henry, jumps back and forth through time. That might have been difficult to follow, except that the author indicates for every scene what the date is and how old both Claire and Henry is at the time. It also brings a heartbreaking tone to the telling, as the reader waits for something to happen that we know will take place but some of the characters do not know. It all works wonderfully, though, to draw the reader into the story.

The characters are wonderfully drawn. We see them warts and all, intimately. I can’t recall too many novels where I have felt so much a part of the lives of the characters, as if they are living people rather than ink on paper with just a semblance of life. It is easy to care for these people, and to worry about what will happen to them.

If I have any quibble with the book at all, and it is a small one and probably just a relic of my own perceptions, it is that it often seems to be taking place in an earlier time. Despite the pop culture and pop music references to places like McDonalds, to people like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, the book had a feel of taking place in some earlier era. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it was sometimes jarring to me to see some of the modern references.

On the other hand, the inclusion of actual historical events provided what was, for me, one of the most poignant moments in the book. Henry, having traveled into the future as well as the past, knows what will take place on the morning of September 11, 2001. He has told Claire about it, and on that morning she wakes up early only to find Henry and their daughter sitting in front of the TV. “How come you’re up,” she asks him. “I thought you said it wasn’t for a couple of hours yet.” His reply to her is, “I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to listen to the world being normal for a little while longer.” That scene brought tears to my eyes. It made so much sense to me. I miss that normal, non-paranoid world, that world where a congressman hearing a construction worker using a nail gun didn’t automatically think it was weapons fire and cause a panic and the shutdown of a whole office building in Washington, D.C., which happened yesterday, as I write this.

Enjoy this book for just what it is, an extremely good story. Or enjoy it for the ideas it presents the reader to think about at leisure - and there are plenty of them in there. But please, read this book.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Oooooh. Secrets...

In his Senate hearings today, General Hayden - he's Bush's nominee to head the CIA, in case you haven't been keeping up with the circus that is Washington - said something today that I thought was interesting. He said that the CIA needs to get out of the public eye and back into the business of learning secrets. Not a direct quote, but close enough to his gist for government work.

It made me laugh. That secrets thing always does.

Now, I know that in what passes for the real world, the gathering of things people and governments try to keep secret and then keeping them secret is part of the cat-and-mouse game that is the intelligence establishment.

I know that.

But it just sounds so childish.

"I know something you don't know! Neener, neener, neener."

And it isn't just the government that does it. It's all those secret societies. The Masons. Skull and Bones. All those top businessmen and government boys who gather at the Bohemian Grove in northern California and do whatever they do every year. It's religions, too, some of them. The Mormons act like the world would come to a screeching halt if someone told what goes on in their temples. Never mind that anyone who wants to know can find out on the internet. It's even some businesses. I used to work for a company that acted like the next week's work schedule was a state secret or something. They would never let anyone see it until the day before it began.

People seem to have the notion that knowing something no one else knows, or that very few other people know, makes them all special or something. They don't mind letting you know that they know something you don't. In fact, sometimes that seems to be the whole rationale for having secrets - so that they can brag about it. I think of it as the "if I told you, then I'd have to kill you" syndrome.

But, God forbid you let on that you don't care about their secrets. Or that you tell them you think they're acting like a five-year-old about the whole thing. Then they'll tell you that you're just jealous that you don't know what they know.

No. I'm not.


You all can go play with your secret decoder rings all you want. I'm going to go do something, oh, intelligent.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Warren Jeffs, Osama bin Laden, and the FBI

The FBI has finally gotten with the program and put Warren Jeffs on their 10 Most Wanted list, right alongside fellow polygamist Osama bin Laden. Jeffs was profiled on "America's Most Wanted" on Saturday night, from what I understand, and the mainstream media is finally waking up to the fact that there is a cult right here in the United States that marries off girls as young as 12 years old to much older men and kicks teenage boys out of the community because they constitute "competition" to the older men who want to marry these children.

Don't believe it? You can read about this so-called "prophet of God" on the ABC News website. Jeffs is the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as the FLDS, an offshoot of the Mormons. The two churches have been separate entities for several decades, as the LDS church in Salt Lake City are anxious for everyone to know. The FLDS follow doctrines that the LDS officially quit teaching long ago, such as plural marriage (or polygamy, with one man having many wives). The Salt Lake church still has the scriptures teaching plural marriage as part of their official canon, even though their official position is that they excommunicate anyone found to be practicing polygamy - but that is another topic for another time. The FLDS church never stopped the practice, and in fact it is one of the main tenets of their belief. A man, they believe cannot enter the Celestial Kingdom (their highest degree of glory) and become a god himself without having at least three wives. Many FLDS men have many more wives than that. Jeffs himself is said to have at least 50 wives.

Understandably, the government has a bit of problem with all of this and has indicted Jeffs on several charges having to do with sanctioning - indeed, arranging and officiating at - the marriage of such young girls as well as for molesting a male relative. This has sent Jeffs on the run, and no one outside of his followers, which number as many as 10,000 or more in the US and Canada, have seen him for over two years. I don't know what has taken the FBI so long to make catching this man a priority, unless they are afraid that they could have another situation on their hands like they did in the 1950s when they police raided the FLDS headquarters in northern Arizona in the 1950s but ended up with few or no convictions and much sympathy given to the poor fundamentalist Mormons for having their religious rights stepped on.

By letting this go on for so long, there is a very real possibility that when the Feds to catch up to Jeffs they are going to have another Waco on their hands. People who know much more about the FLDS than I do, people like Jon Krakauer (quoted in the ABC News story linked above), who wrote a book called Under the Banner of Heaven, which touches on the FLDS and their practices, fear that is what will happen.

I think the real point here is that just because someone cites a religious belief for something, that does not mean that it should be tolerated if it otherwise violates laws such as those protecting children from abuse. I'm a big fan of the First Amendment, but I don't think anyone ever intended the free exercise clause to protect people who marry off 12 year old girls to men sometimes in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. And I don't think it was meant protect people who kick teenage boys out of their own homes, ostensibly for things like watching television or talking to girls, because those boys constitute a threat to the older men who want to accumulate a collection of young wives.

If this has piqued your interest in the situation with Jeffs and the FLDS and you'd like to know more about some of the unbelievable things that have been going on right here in the United States for longer than most people realize, I would recommend that you read Jon Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which I mentioned above. I wrote a review of that book (scroll down to the second post; it will have the title of Krakauer's book in the post's title) in January, which will give you some idea of the territory Krakauer covers there.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Things just aren't going that well for the Bush administration right now, are they?

I shouldn't read this stuff. I know it'll tick me off. But sometimes I just can't help myself.

I spent a good deal of last Sunday reading two articles about the Bush administration. I'm sure the White House isn't happy about either of them. The first, “The Iran Plans”, by Seymour M. Hersh, appears in the April 17, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. The other, available in the online edition of Vanity Fair, is “Senate Hearings on Bush, Now”, by Carl Bernstein (yeah, of Woodward and Bernstein, for those of you old enough to remember Watergate). The first article discusses an administration plan to bomb Iran in order to stop its nuclear development program. The second calls for Senate hearings to investigate the Bush administration. In light of the revelations in the first article, the plea in the second takes on more importance and immediacy.

According to Hersh’s article, the Bush administration, led by civilian leadership in the Pentagon, are determined to attack Iran and destroy its capability to carry out the enrichment of uranium. While the administration claims to be pursuing diplomatic solutions to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear development program, Hersh’s sources say that Mr. Bush sees “saving” Iran as his “legacy” and that the administration thinks the only solution to the problem is regime change, which they believe will only come with war. Perhaps the most troubling claim is that the administration is ready and more than willing to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event such an attack is launched. Also troubling is that Hersh quotes one diplomat as saying that there are clearly those in the administration who would be “unhappy” if a diplomatic solution is actually found and that, at any rate, according to one of Hersh’s European sources, the Bush administration believes that “diplomacy is doomed to fail.”

America’s European allies are not any happier with the idea of a nuclear-capable Iran than the administration is, to be sure, but they think that bombing is a bad idea and that if the US persists in its apparent determination to bomb, it will only strengthen Iranian President Ahmadinejad rather than convincing Iranians to run him out of office. On the other hand, the Bush administration seems to believe that Ahmadinejad will only respond to threats. That is not, apparently, the view of some of the military advisors in the Pentagon who, again according to Hersh’s sources, have been trying to talk the administration at least out of considering the use of nuclear weapons. Some are said to be ready to resign rather than approve of such an action. I don’t know about you, but I find all this quite disturbing. We apparently have a president with a messiah complex, surrounded by top-level advisors - Dick Cheney his vice president, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld leading the pack - only too ready to encourage him. The White House has been incredulous at the military reluctance to use nukes, saying that the option came from them in the first place when it is questioned.

Taking into consideration the contents of Hersh’s article, Carl Bernstein’s article calling for a Senate investigation of President Bush and his administration takes on added importance. Urging such an inquiry is certainly a serious step, but I’m sure Bernstein knows this, given his role in the Watergate affair that culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. In fact, one of the things he addresses in the article is the care with which any investigation should be approached. It must not, he says, be a “fishing expedition”, but be focused on very specific issues and concerns even though, as he says, there are a lot of fish to be had.

Bernstein identifies several possible lines of inquiry that should be pursued in an investigation of the Bush White House. There are the lies Bush and his administration have told, and whether they have been used as a “matter of policy” to hide and defend the president’s and the administration’s actions. What kinds of lies does Bernstein mean? He is referring to the insistence - without any concrete proof produced - by the administration that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to gain support for the war in Iraq, to statements after the fact that “nobody anticipated the breach of the levees” in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina in the face of evidence that the possibility had been reported to Bush before the hurricane made landfall, among many others. There seems to be an almost reflexive concealment by the administration of anything that it feels might reflect badly on it or that might lead to it not being able to do whatever it wishes.

Another issue that Bernstein says should be addressed is the competency of the president, the vice president, and some of his top-level appointees. More than just the competency of the president should be looked at because, as Bernstein writes in the article, there is a good deal of evidence that the policies and ideas of the administration that some see as illegal or unconstitutional come as much from Cheney as they do from Bush. While Bernstein does not come right out and say it, this goes to the question of who is really running the administration. In this regard, the observation of Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, himself a retired colonel, that it seems to him that Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld form a decision-making “cabal” outside the bureaucracy. Also worrying is Bernstein’s report that Colin Powell has been known to make statements in private that call Vice President Cheney’s emotional stability into question. Because Powell served with Cheney in the first Bush administration, he would be in a position to recognize changes in the vice president’s mental state.

A huge issue that Bernstein feels should be investigated is the way that the Bush administration has evaded responsibility for its actions, not only by lying about various issues but also by concealing their actions by claiming executive privilege in order to avoid disclosing information and by fashioning the doctrine of “unimpairment”, through which the administration claims that the president, especially in a time of war, can essentially do anything he wants to do. This harks back, as Bernstein points out, to Richard Nixon’s famous (or infamous) statement to interviewer David Frost that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Even conservative columnist George Will, writes Bernstein, has called that attitude as dangerous as terrorism.

Some of the practical applications of the doctrine of unimpairment are chilling. They include wiretaps without court order (one of the things that got Nixon in trouble all those years ago); the claimed authority to hold prisoners of war, even US citizens, indefinitely and without habeas corpus; and the administration’s unusual attitude toward torture and that position’s repudiation of the Geneva conventions, the provisions of which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reportedly called “quaint” in a memo written when he was White House counsel. Of course, Mr. Bush has claimed that his administration does not condone torture. What he did not say was that it all depends on how one defines “torture”. Another manifestation of the attitude that nothing must stand in the way of what the Bush administration wants is their common tactic of painting any critic as a malcontent, a traitor, or a coward. This has been seen in the leak of Valerie Plame’s position as a CIA agent in order to discredit her husband after he wrote an article contradicting administration statements on the issue of WMDs. It was seen in the attempts to marginalize Representative John Murtha, an ex-marine, after he spoke out against the administration’s position on Iraq. It may also be working in the recent firing from the CIA of Mary McCarthy on allegations that she was one of the sources for information on a network of covert CIA prisons, published in articles that won journalist Dana Priest a Pulitzer Price recently. Not coincidentally, there have been comments by partisans of the administration that journalists who publish such articles should be tried and sent to prison for writing about such things.

The case Bernstein makes for an official investigation into the Bush administration is persuasive. That he isn’t the only one worried about the things the administration is doing only adds to his argument. There are the retired generals who have called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation (they, too, are being subject to a campaign of marginalization by the administration, by the way). There are the members of Bush’s own party who are beginning to question some of the administration’s actions. There are the European diplomats, cited in the Hersh article, who worry that the administration might be about to do something one called “catastrophic” in Iran, as well as the high-level US military personnel who are said to be ready to resign rather than acquiesce to the use of nuclear weapons by the administration. In light of all this, such an inquiry as Bernstein proposes in his article seems an urgent priority.

There is a lot more in these articles than I've been able to outline here. Both of them make some very good points, and whether you think you will agree with them or not I don't think you'll regret reading them.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Random thoughts...and a bit of a rant

I was going to be better about writing here. I really was.

I've been collecting little items I want to write about, writing little notes to myself about things I want to comment on or explore.

But I just haven't found the time to sit down and write. Or I haven't made the time to do so. Or by the time I'm finished with work every day (my job involves a lot of writing), I just don't want to sit down and string words together anymore for awhile.

For example, for some reason the other day I thought it might be fun to start a secret society. Don't know what spawned that thought. Might have been an ad for The DaVinci Code. They're really pushing that movie ahead of its release. But, anyway, I got to thinking about how that might be a hoot. Then, again, I've been told I have somewhat of a twisted sense of humor.

And then, when I was watching The Breakfast Club on tv the other day, it occured to me that it is an amazing thing that anyone survives high school. It's brutal. I mean, I liked school and I still threatened to quit near the end of my senior year. You see, there was this riot or street fight or whatever you want to call it the day we got out for spring break that year and they locked down the school (although way back then, that isn't what they called it) and there were police helicopters circling the school and shots were fired and the whole thing. Scared the crap out of me, and I did not want to go back.

But it isn't just that. It's the games that go on, the mental torture that anyone who doesn't fit in is subjected to. I think that whoever decided that it was a good idea to put that many bodies with all those raging hormones into such a small space and force them to stay there all day, five days a week, must have been a sadist of the first order. It creates a meanness, a ruthlessness that I think you probably don't even find on the battlefield in a war. Like I said, I liked school, or at least the process of learning. But junior high and high school were torture, mostly, because I was the two things one simply cannot be at that age - smart and overweight. The casual cruelty was almost overwhelming sometimes.

It became a much more poigniant question - how do we survive high school? - when I happened on the film Bowling for Columbine yesterday on tv. I suppose they were showing it because it was the anniversary of the massacre. Michael Moore seems to blame it on the gun culture in the United States. And that might be part of it. But I think most of what caused that, and what causes much of the violence that goes on in schools, stems right from the way some people get picked on, to the point of mental torture, in high school culture. This is not to give those boys a pass on what they did. That was not the way to handle their hostility. On the other hand, if the reports of the sort of ridicule they were subjected to are even partly correct, it isn't hard to see where the hostility came from. The huge problem, I think, is that no one ever really does anything about the bullying, about the way teenagers treat each other. It is always just passed off as "the way things are". And that's a shame, because it doesn't have to be that way.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Follow: Weekly Anamnesis

I don’t follow very well. Never have, probably never will. I think it’s genetic.

It hasn’t made life easy, either, not being a good follower. It’s pretty much made faithful adherence to a religion out of the question. God knows, no pun intended, that I’ve tried, but it has just never been a good fit. And it isn’t just religion. Membership in any organization tends to be a problem sooner or later. And school. Well, that is just a pain in the…well, you know. Because not following usually at least implicitly connotes leading. And leading can really cause headaches.

It all has to do with out unofficial family motto: Question Authority.

Seriously, that’s been a part of the family for at least three generations now, beginning with my grandfather way back in World War I. Grandpa Frei was in the German army (my other grandfather was on the American side, but that’s another story), and not all that pleased about it. Family legend goes that he didn’t like an order he was given one day and punched out his commanding officer. Fortunately for the family’s posterity, he somehow managed not to get a date with the firing squad. I understand it was a pretty close thing.

My father continued the tradition in yet another arena. His family, being German (although by then they had made it to the United States), were Lutheran. I don’t know if they were good Lutherans - Grandpa died before I was born and I don’t recall Grandma ever going to church - but they sent my dad to confirmation classes at the Lutheran church. Which was fine until the priest (minister? I’m not quite sure what Lutherans have) informed his class that once they had been received into the church, they were not to associate with nonbelievers any more. Well, my dad was a friendly kind of guy and that didn’t sit very well with him. The way I hear the story, Dad abruptly stood up, told the guy to go to Hell, and never went back. He attended church services very rarely after that, and not very happily. When I had my bout with authoritarian religion (and it was a doozy), he respected my space, but he tried his darnedest to reason me out of it. I think my only regret is that he passed before I came to my senses.

And then there’s me. I should know not to even try to follow. But I get these bouts of wanting to “fit in”. I’ve mostly learned my lesson by now, but its been a rough road sometimes. There was the religion thing. I’m still recovering from that. I’ve tried, from time to time, to join organizations. That has rarely worked out, either. The most successful effort was community college honor society, but that had a lot to do with the fact that I found myself in leadership positions fairly quickly. Alas, that was also where I discovered that leading can be just as much of a pain as following. That was a lesson that was only reinforced once I transferred to university to do my upper division work.

The university I attended was small, private, and very good. Most classes were small (I was in a few that had less than ten students each), and many of them were either seminars or involved a lot of small group work. My sociology of religion course was like that. Groups were not usually assigned, and after the first few weeks of class they became more or less static. The group I ended up in were all good students, but not necessarily very ambitious. Once they discovered that I always did my reading, several group members began to slack off. I would know what was going on; all they had to do was come along for the ride.

I finally got tired of that, and decided one evening when I was feeling particularly lazy that I wouldn’t do my assigned reading for the next day’s project. Well, I skimmed it, I think, but that was just me being my typical OCD-prone self. The next day in class, after we got into our groups, I just sat there. Pretty soon someone asked who had done the reading. Everyone looked at me. I said something along the lines of, “Don’t look at me. I didn’t do it.” They thought I was joking. Panic ensued when they realized that I was absolutely serious. No one else had read because they were so used to me guiding them through the projects. So we had nothing to offer when the professor called on our group. My group-mates didn’t like that very much at all. Let's just say that they were a bit irritated at me for letting them down.

And so they learned a lesson (I hope) that I had already figured out. Following is not something you want to do blindly because, more often than not, if you follow without paying attention to where you are going, you may very well end up where you don’t want to be, in circumstances that you might not find comfortable.

If you want to find out more about Weekly Anamnesis, check out

Monday, April 03, 2006


There has been some talk in the news lately about GawkerStalker, a new feature at that allows people to post sightings of celebrities in Manhattan along with maps to the locations in a very nearly real-time manner (the site says it takes something like fifteen minutes for a sighting to be put up). Apparently the whole point of the exercise is that people viewing the site can see where their favorite celebs are and, if they are close enough, try for their own sighting.

All this has created somewhat of an uproar, with some celebrities complaining that real stalkers could use the site in ways that could cause the celebs to come to harm. The management of claims that this isn't so, and that the celebs should not complain because they trade their privacy for fame. I'm not so sure how much of a threat the site really is - I think if someone is determined enough to stalk someone, star or not, they'll find a way to do it. On the other hand, I think it adds to a culture that has already taken celebrity-worship to ridiculous lengths. And, I don't think anything that could even conceivably help a stalker is really necessary. I've never even seen the point of the whole southern California "Maps of the Stars' Homes" phenomenon.

Then, again, I don't understand celebrity worship in the first place. They're just like everyone else, only better known. I'm not saying that there aren't artists whose work I really like and whose careers I follow. But it is their careers I follow, not them. And I'm not going to pretend that I don't think it is cool that I've met a famous person or two myself, and seen others differetn times and places. But those encounters were just that - kind of cool - not life-changing experiences that define my existence.

Perhaps my perspective on the whole thing has to do with having grown up in Southern California, with the famous (and infamous) pretty much all around. I went to school with kinds whose parents who were in show business; people I knew in high school had dated people in the business. The first six and a half years of my life, I lived across the road from a film director who was quite famous in his time, and whose work is still considered classic today. After we moved from that house and my grandmother moved in, he would come down and talk to her across the fence while she did yard work. My dad knew a number of actors who happened to live in our area. So, the famous and semi-famous were not exotic creatures, but neighbors. Additionally, part of my feeling about celebrity worship also likely comes from having known a few people who were (and I imagine still are) caught up in that lifestyle. I knew a girl when I was in junior high who was so fanatic about one star that she went to each weekly taping of his television show. When she wasn't there, it was all she talked about, something her whole life revolved around.

Whatever has caused it, my attitude has always been that any performer only owes the public the best performance he or she can give. Where they shop, who they date, what they do with their spare time - none of that is any of my business. Anyone or anything - such as GawkerStalker - that tries to promote the idea that these celebrities owe us any look into their private life is simply wrong-headed. I don't imagine the people who run that site would like it very much if one of us walked up to them while they were having dinner in a restaurant and demanded that they give us a formal seminar on website creation, right then and there. Because that's what they are doing - they are demanding that because someone is a performer, they are obligated to perform on demand, even when they are not receiving any compensation for it. Which is just unreasonable.

Anyway, I saw a report yesterday that George Clooney, who is on record as being fairly antagonistic toward intrusiveness into performers' private lives, has come up with a solution to the GawkerStalker problem. He has asked the celebrities themselves to flood the site with fake sightings in order to render it useless. I think it is a wonderful idea. It doesn't call for abridging anyone's free speech or for censorship of the internet. It simply takes GawkerStalker's claim that it is exercising its free speech and demonstrates that free speech is a two-way street. You go, George.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Conspiracy Theories

First of all, I have to say that I love Jon Carroll. Carroll writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is probably the best -consistently the most interesting - columnist I’ve ever read. I want to be able to write as well as he does one day. One of the things I like so much about Carroll’s column is that even though he is published in the Datebook section of the Chron, the entertainment section, he writes about everything - the silly and the serious, the trivial and the essential.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m going to share a Carroll column with you all. Well, yeah. It was inevitable, I suppose, when I found myself hunting through my purse for scraps of paper to make notes on as I read the thing in the restaurant at dinner last night. That’s always a bad sign.

Carroll’s March 31 column - which I had a link to here, but which didn't work, but you can find him on the Chron's website - addresses the subjects of conspiracies, conspiracy theories, and September 11. He begins by noting that some of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 are beginning to attract more serious attention. He mentions some other subjects that attract conspiracy theorists - the JFK assassination, UFOs, the princes in the Tower - and allows that the people who study these conspiracy theories are in it for the truth, for the most part, rather than for the notoriety of it. But he also says that most conspiracy theories are built on coincidences that cannot be proved to be any more than that. Then he floats the idea that speculation about conspiracies surrounding 9/11 are really irrelevant, although of historical interest, because there are so many real, ongoing conspiracies that affect our daily lives an that we have more of a chance of doing something about. But, he says, we go off in pursuit of these amphorous, historical conspiracy theories to avoid thinking about the real - and frightening - problems that face the world.

I have to admit that I both agree and disagree with what Carroll says in this column. I do think conspiracy theories are a way of diverting ourselves. Its kind of like watching a horror movie. We know we live in a big, bad, scary world and we occasionally need to look for even bigger, worse, and more frightening things that might or might not be true or possible in order to occupy our minds so that we won’t worry so much about the thins we know are true and real and can harm us.

I also agree that we have much more provable theories than “who really drove the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” right in front of us. Carroll mentions the current culture of government secrecy, for example. We really should pay more attention to these conspiracies than we do. They affect important issues that affect millions of people in their daily lives, and if we don’t attend to them, the people perpetrating these actions are going to get away with what they are doing.

However, I do not agree that it follows, as Carroll implies, that all of this makes the question of what really happened on 9/11 irrelevant. If things were not as we have been told on 9/11, I want to know. It is something we need to know. Now, some of the conspiracy theories floating around about the events of September 11 are very big, bad, and scary. Some of them are, frankly, pretty unbelievable. I hope all of them are simply built on a bunch of coincidences that do not mean anything. Still, given some of the things that have gone on since then - passage of certain provisions of the Patriot Act, more and more government secrecy, warrantless wiretaps (didn’t anybody learn anything from the Nixon administration?), the seeming nonchalance with which certain folks in the government regard the use of torture, among others - I want to be very sure that those theories are built on nothing but coincidence.

At this point, I’m not quite sure which frightens me more - that there are enough of Carroll’s “coincidences” around for people to find enough material to float these theories in the first place, or that from what I’ve observed about how some of the people in my government appear to think and operate, it isn’t that big a stretch for some of the theories to start sounding rational.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

True Belief taken to its (Il)logical Conclusion

I came across this on CNN yesterday, dateline Badshahkili, Pakistan:

A battle for the airwaves between two Islamic preachers with their own FM radio stations in Pakistan escalated into bitter fighting that killed at least 24 people.
You can read the entire article here:

Apparently what happened was that supporters of the two clerics decided to fight it out after the men started criticizing each other's beliefs during their respective broadcasts. A local tribal council banned them both from the airwaves and they were banished from the region, but followers of at least one of the men have continued to run a radio station from a nearby village.

Now this was not just a riot or even a gunfight, like they used to have in the Wild West. Among the weapons used by these religious believers were assault rifles, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. There were 24 killed in the fighting, and among the 14 injured were two children. And these were not the first deaths in the conflict - five were killed in February in earlier fighting between the two groups.

There are larger issues at hand in the region, of course. The region in question is in northwestern Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani government, according to the CNN report, has less than firm control of the region, and radical religious groups, including members of the Taliban, have a certain amount of influence. But the fact remains that this is violence based on the theory, I suppose, that anyone who disagrees with one's religious beliefs deserve to die.

And that is one of the issues I have with religious belief taken to the extreme. This theory is not found just in radical Islam. It seemed to be pretty popular during the Inquisition. You saw it during the Protestant Reformation, because goodness knows that it wasn't only the Catholics burning the unbeliever and the unorthodox believer at the stake or torturing them until they confessed their (often nonexistent) sins.

You also see this feeling in practice, if not admitted to, by those who would withhold things like condoms in AIDS ravaged Africa and vaccines against cervical cancer from those deemed too young to be engaging in sexual intercourse. You see it in those who would make abortion illegal again. Most of those on that side of those arguments likely wouldn't admit it, but at bottom their idea is that anyone who has sex who they think isn't supposed, or who decides for some reason to end a pregnancy, deserves to die. You an hear it when they claim that allowing the vaccine or condoms "just encourages them to go out and have sex."

Sometimes, the true believer's contempt is only thinly veiled. I have personally seen one very prominent televangelist say on television that while he "couldn't" advocate the execution of gays on the airwaves, that he knew his followers knew "how it would be" when "we take over." The statement was accompained by a wink that left no doubt exactly what he meant.

I have to say that while there are people in this world who I disagree with very much, who I disagree with violently, I have never wished even one of them any physical or mental harm. Maybe that makes me soft. Maybe it makes me stupid. Maybe it makes me a loser. I don't know. But it seems awfully, oh, uncivilized, to want to destroy all difference in the world.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


You hear it all the time: “Don’t shoot the messenger.” But sometimes it’s really, horribly, almost impossibly difficult not to want to do so, at least figuratively.

The job of the electronic media is to be a messenger, and the messages those who participate in that endeavor are entrusted to deliver are the daily stories of what is happening in the world, in our country (whatever nation we happen to live in), and in our communities. Some do that better than others, but they usually manage to do that to at least some extent - although sometimes what they find important doesn’t quite jibe with my idea of what is important to know. But that’s another issue for another time.

The problem I’m having with the messenger is that they seem to think that it is also their job to relay another set of messages. Apparently we, the public, have been deemed not to be intelligent enough to know what to think and how to feel about the events the media reports to us. So, sometimes in not especially subtle messages, the reporters and the newsreaders try to instruct us in those areas. The national broadcast networks aren’t as bad about it as the cable networks and local news broadcasts are, but it seems to be a growing trend at all levels. The local media in my own area in central California tend to be especially blatant about it.

I hear it every day. Things never go wrong anymore; they only go “horribly wrong”. Funny, I never had anything go “wonderfully wrong”, so that if something goes wrong, that it might well take a horrible turn seems like a foregone conclusion. And there are no accidents anymore, it seems. Each one is a “tragic accident.” Well, while I’m willing to concede that some accidents could be classed as “comic accidents”, usually no one is hurt in those and they end up on America’s Funnies Home Videos instead of on the evening news.

That isn’t the worst of it, though. The worst of it is how those accused of certain crimes are tried and convicted in the media long before they ever go to trial in the judicial system, sometimes before they are even arrested. If you think the rest of the United States got hit with the circus surrounding the Scott Peterson trial, where a man was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for killing his wife and unborn child, just think how it played where I am, where it was a local story. Before there had even been any revelations that the husband might have been involved in what was initially called a “disappearance”, there were some in the local media detailing what tactics the prosecution might want to use in convicting him of the crime. Not saying that I don’t think he did it; I’d bet money that he did. It just seemed to me that finding an impartial jury after all those messages from the media would be fairly difficult. And so it turned out to be; the trial was held in another jurisdiction. The media got its message out quite successfully on that one.

It’s tempting to think that this sort of message-sending by the media is a relatively new phenomenon. It isn’t. I happen to be re-reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff at the moment, and I came across this passage, where he is describing the press conference where the seven Project Mercury astronauts were introduced to the public. “It was as if the press in America,” Wolfe writes,
for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950s (as in the late 1970s) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail;…the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! (Wolfe 1979, p. 101; emphasis in the original)

In truth, this probably goes back far further than the 1970s or the 1950s, but it certainly prevails and seems even more fervently served up today.

All this probably bothers me a lot more than it really should, and I tend to take it a lot more personally than I likely should. Still, I feel insulted that someone, some organizations that do not know me at all, have decided that I am so stupid - that the community is so stupid - that we need to be sent messages telling us how to feel about the issues and events of the day.

This entry was created as part of a project called Weekly Anamnesis, which you can find at