Only the Best People

 

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
— Maya Angelou

In a recent poll conducted by Civic Science, 56% of Americans responded “No” when asked if Arabic numerals should be taught in the nation’s schools. Such breathtaking ignorance, as well as presumed bigotry, is enough to make the other 44% of Americans take to alcohol. Algebra would be more difficult without using Arabic numerals, even if there are a lot of letters mixed into the formulas. Substituting Roman numerals would only make the subject more confusing.


Civic Science also asked if the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre” should be taught in science classes, and 53% said “No”, and of that percentage 73% were Democrats. That theory is actually the basis of the Big Bang theory. While the responses of the majority to both questions point up biases, the two questions do not do it in exactly the same way and therefore the responses are not entirely equivalent.

Arabic Numerals origin
The evolution of Arabic numerals, from top to bottom. Rendering by Vispec.

The key word in the first question is “Arabic”, a term for people living predominantly in North Africa and the Middle East, most of whom are Muslim. By itself, the term describes only an ethnic group. Loading “Arabic” with negative bias is entirely the work of those responding to the term. The wording of the poll question does a good job of not giving anything away to tilt respondents’ attitudes toward the term.

The wording of the other question does not do as good a job since it includes the loaded phrase “creation theory”. It is most likely the case that most respondents had never heard of Georges Lemaitre and his “creation theory”. It is also most likely the case, however, that they had heard the phrase “creation theory” before, a phrase freighted with associations to fundamentalist Christian pseudo-science, even if it was more widely known as “Creationism”.

In as much as the respondents to both questions were reacting with knee jerk tribalism to a word or phrase embedded in each question without really understanding the question, then they are equivalent in their wrong-headedness. In both cases, a more truthful response would have been “Don’t know”, although apparently the poll takers offered only “No opinion” as a third option, a slightly different idea in logic, and not in mere semantics. In that way, both questions tease out the victory of tribalism over knowledge, but it is only the majority responses to the question about “Arabic numerals” that betray bigotry as well as ignorance, much as some might say they are part of the same continuum.

A clip from the “Primacy of Number” section of the 2002 meditative documentary Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. Philip Glass wrote the music, Godfrey Reggio directed the film, and Jon Kane did the editing.

There are a fair amount of assumptions here in parsing the answers to these two deceptively simple polling questions, and assumptions after all play a big part in bigotry. There are also the words of wisdom from the poet Maya Angelou which led this post. We can make educated inferences based on our experience and not have them fall into the well of roiling, unreasoning emotional assumptions and inferences that is bigotry. We can wake up and smell the coffee, as it were, to what only the best people, as they would have us believe they are, are up to in their bad faith quest to subvert the best intentions and best efforts of many, many others to improve human and animal lives and conserve the gifts of the Earth.
— Ed.

 

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The Body in Question

 

On Monday, five Georgia state legislators introduced a bill that would require all men over the age of 55 to report to law enforcement every time they ejaculate sperm. The bill obviously has no chance of passing, and is meant to make a statement about a bill that did recently pass which makes abortion illegal in Georgia after about six weeks of pregnancy, when doctors can detect a heartbeat from the fetus, but also more generally about how men, particularly older, white men, use legislation to exercise control over women’s bodies.

 

The nation’s abortion laws are constantly under attack, predominantly from groups on the religious right. They seem to think they are the only ones concerned with the ethical issues surrounding abortion, as if the women facing that choice have little or no concern about ethics. There are women as well as men in the anti-abortion groups. The women should know better than the men the difficult nature of the decision to abort a pregnancy, yet they still favor taking the decision away from the person most concerned with making it.

Spermatozoa-human-3140x
Micrograph by scanning electron microscope of human sperm cells magnified 3140 times. Pore size of the polycarbonate filter in the background is 1µm, or 1 micrometer.

Since the ethical questions will likely never be sorted out to the satisfaction of all parties, we can only resort to legal answers. There is in this country something called the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Since it was adopted shortly after the Civil War, it was initially intended to apply to recently freed slaves, to ensure they received equal protection as citizens under the law regardless of their former status. The Equal Protection Clause has been invoked on behalf of many other causes in the past 150 years, and it seems it should apply to the abortion debate regarding how one class of citizens – women – are subject to laws that do not apply to another class of citizens – men.

Of course there are many physiological differences between men and women, perhaps the most important being that men do not carry an egg, fertilized or not. Men do contribute their sperm toward fertilizing women’s eggs. It seems that if men are not willing to cede legal control of their sperm to make sure it does not contribute to unwanted fertilization of eggs, then they should be willing to relinquish all legal oversight of fertilized eggs in women’s bodies. The eggs reside in women; that’s just the way it is.

Michael Palin sings “Every Sperm Is Sacred” in the 1983 film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. It’s not only Catholics who espouse this philosophy, but religious people generally.

Until such time as legal, medical, and ethical considerations are sorted out regarding whether men can have fertilized eggs or fetuses implanted within them, it seems they should have very little to say about women’s unwanted pregnancies. That a woman is contemplating aborting her fetus suggests a man has already expressed himself inappropriately. Men should leave women in peace to make the hard decision to abort or not to abort. It’s in the complications following the latter decision, after all, that men and all of society can contribute positive energy to the new mother and her baby to make life better for them instead of continuing to add to their troubles.
— Ed.

 

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Long Live the Monarch

 

The Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, may not seem to have any connection to Halloween other than its orange and black coloration, but in Mexico, where they overwinter, the butterflies are hailed as the spirits of friends and relatives who have died in the past year and are returning at the time of Halloween for one last visit with the living. The important dates for Mexicans, and indeed for many Hispanic peoples, are October 31st, and November 1st and 2nd, known as The Days of the Dead, or Los Dias de los Muertos in Spanish.

From the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum as a murderous and greedy self-anointed preacher sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, while Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper protects the children inside her house from harm.

Before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples believed Monarch butterflies were returning human spirits. After the Spaniards imposed Catholicism throughout the region, the Native Americans transposed some of their ancient beliefs onto the new religion. In the case of the Monarch butterflies, since their annual migration brought them to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico more or less at the end of October and the beginning of November, it was a simple matter for Native Americans to meld their traditional celebration of the dead and honoring of the return of the butterflies at that time of year with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Eve (Hallow e’en, or evening) on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.


This mixing of indigenous traditions with Christian beliefs and holidays follows a pattern seen in Christian communities throughout the world. In Ireland, for instance, where the version of Halloween celebrations started in a way that most Americans would recognize, the Christian holidays were overlaid on existing Celtic harvest festivals and honoring of the dead. It seems in the northern hemisphere at least, where the harvest occurs approximately in September, October, and November, that honoring the dead at the same time was commonplace. People prayed to their honored dead for a good harvest, and when the work was done they often symbolically shared the bounty with their dear departed at altars in the home. It was a short step for the Church to substitute, or merely add, saints and martyrs to the list of honored dead.

Monarca 1 (60725860)
Overwintering Monarch butterflies in November 2005. Photo by Samuel from Toluca, Mexico.

Monarch butterflies, meanwhile, have troubles beyond being Halloween symbols for human beings. Habitat loss, pesticides, and destruction of food sources have all led to a general decline in their numbers over the last few decades. They are not yet under the protection of the Endangered Species List, and they may not be anytime soon given the hostility toward environmental protection of the current presidential administration.

The ending of the 2010 version of True Grit, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, with Iris DeMent singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”.

It is more important than ever, therefore, for individuals to do everything they can to assure the continued survival of Monarch butterflies, rather than relying on governmental entities to take the lead. It’s not hard; the butterflies don’t ask for much. Leave some tall weeds standing at the edge of a property rather than mowing absolutely everything down to half inch high grass. Among those tall weeds, plant or encourage some milkweeds as fodder for the caterpillars, and some wildflowers as nectar sources for the adult butterflies. Stop using pesticides and herbicides, at least the general purpose ones that kill all insects or all vegetation. Pay attention, be observant and respectful, and in the end enjoy what you have helped along in a way you could not possibly enjoy yet more grass or asphalt. The spirits are watching.
― Vita

 

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Separated at Birth

 

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
― Jesus Christ, quoted in Matthew 22:21 (King James Version).

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . “
― excerpt from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

 

The two quotes above seem straightforward in their meaning, even if some people with self-serving agendas insist there is room for interpretation in both. Some religious groups, but by no means the majority, chafe at the straightforward interpretations and would rather see the federal government allow them to get involved in partisan politics while maintaining their tax exempt status. They applaud any effort to roll back enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code, which forbids charitable or non-profit organizations with tax exemptions from directly endorsing political candidates. In May, the current president signed an executive order relaxing those restrictions, essentially directing the IRS to use discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Since the law would have to be changed by Congress, court challenges to the executive order will probably crop up, though none have as of yet.

 

The simple solution for religious groups who want to submerge themselves in the American political process is to forgo tax exempt status. That appears not to be an option they care to consider. They want their cake, and to eat it, too. The Johnson Amendment, added to the IRS code in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson, at the time a Democratic senator from Texas, has always been laxly enforced by the IRS, revoking the tax exemptions of only the most egregious violators. That’s not good enough for some people. They want the wall separating church and state torn down.
LBJ and Diaz Ordaz
President Lyndon B. Johnson hosts the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, at his Texas Ranch in 1964; photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

 

But not necessarily torn down completely. Muslims, in the view of the Christian Right, should probably not be included in a law respecting an establishment of religion by allowing them to funnel their congregants’ money to chosen political leaders, just like their Christian counterparts. Not so sure about the Jews, either. Catholics? We’ll have to think about that one. Once we start making exemptions for the exemption, we have to decide who gets it and who doesn’t. What would Jerry Falwell do? His son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University President and leader of the evangelical Christian Right, believes the Johnson Amendment has to go because it infringes on the free speech rights of religious leaders.

In this scene from the 1980 film Caddyshack, Bishop Pickerling, played by Henry Wilcoxon, plays golf during a thunderstorm, with groundskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, serving as his caddy. The Bishop exercises his free speech rights at the end, with consequences. Note that the music quotes the score from the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.

That argument ignores the reality of religious leaders already expressing themselves freely, just not being allowed to funnel money to candidates while maintaining their own tax exempt status. What religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., really appear to mean is that the Johnson Amendment is an infringement on their free speech rights in the sense that was addressed by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was violating the free speech rights of corporations, both for profit and non-profit, when they limited campaign contributions. Money talks. Now some religious groups, such as Mr. Falwell’s, want the same kind of special dispensation, while also maintaining their exemption from paying taxes. That’s called the Sweet Deal!

George Carlin, a man who really did “tell it like it is”, in a bit from his 1988 performance What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Warning: foul language.

For the week beginning August 21, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is organizing what they call Hometown Congressional Visits to express support for the Johnson Amendment. This is a country of many faiths and to allow one vocal minority – regardless of it’s billing of itself as “The Moral Majority” – to usurp the voices of the many would be not only wrong now, but unconstitutional from the founding of the republic.
― Ed.

 

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