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Happy not to be on that team

I can’t help wondering if, after having established his character Dilbert as the office Everyman, Scott Adams has somehow welded himself permanently into that role– in his own perception, at least. That perhaps after such a long time of speaking to the Dilberts of America and the world, Adams has managed to convince himself that he also speaks for them. 

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just your typical bigot universalism tendency. Maybe that’s what it always has been. Either way, Adams has decided that the Democratic National Convention is very likely lowering the testosterone of American men, and thereby their happiness, on a national scale. 

Why is this? Because the celebration of woman aspiring to positions of power that they have never held throughout the country’s history– specifically, the presidency– makes Adams feel defeated:

I watched singer Alicia Keys perform her song Superwoman at the convention and experienced a sinking feeling. I’m fairly certain my testosterone levels dropped as I watched, and that’s not even a little bit of an exaggeration. Science says men’s testosterone levels rise when they experience victory, and drop when they experience the opposite. I watched Keys tell the world that women are the answer to our problems. True or not, men were probably not feeling successful and victorious during her act. Let me say this again, so you know I’m not kidding. Based on what I know about the human body, and the way our thoughts regulate our hormones, the Democratic National Convention is probably lowering testosterone levels all over the country. Literally, not figuratively. And since testosterone is a feel-good chemical for men, I think the Democratic convention is making men feel less happy. They might not know why they feel less happy, but they will start to associate the low feeling with whatever they are looking at when it happens, i.e. Clinton.

I’m sure that you– but perhaps not Adams– have already heard the aphorism “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Maybe you’ve acknowledged it, though, without trying to stop and consider whether it really feels like oppression.  I can’t actually say, one way or another– I don’t know of any scientific studies that can verify it (though if you do, please let me know).

And Adams is making a scientific statement here. He’s saying that watching and listening to Alicia Keys perform Superwoman made him feel like a loser. That this feeling of non-triumph means lower testosterone, and therefore that this feeling must be spreading across the country and lowering testosterone levels on a national scale.  Wow!

So what if he’s right? Let’s just assume he is, for the sake of argument.

Power can certainly be a zero-sum game– if someone gains it, somebody else is losing it. Adams described the feeling he was having as like losing. Being non-triumphant. I believe him about that. I believe that to someone who sees the world in hierarchical terms and has bought stock in just-world bias, equality feels like losing.

He gets two things wrong about this, though.

First, he thinks that because he feels like a loser, he’s been somehow wronged. “Superwoman” apparently profoundly disturbed his worldview, and rather than question that worldview he blames the song, Alisha Keys, the DNC, Hillary Clinton, or all of the above for harming him. I feel bad, those people made me feel bad, those people are wrong!

Second, he universalizes– he thinks that all American men feel bad, or should feel bad, right along with him. He wants to bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all men against feeling bad, without ever checking to see whether everybody else who identifies as male feels like a loser too. Presumably at least some of them don’t– there were men at the DNC, right? A few of them? Was any footage captured of them bending over in agony while Alisha Keys was singing, protecting their genitalia?

That’s a common tendency of bigots– white supremacists assume that all white people are white supremacists, homophobes assume all straight people are homophobes, etc. and that anyone who isn’t is either lying or a traitor. Scott Adams, of course, assumes that all men are as threatened as he is by women in powerful positions.

Thankfully, he’s mistaken about that.

Let me restate that more emphatically– thankfully, Scott Adam is wrong. He does not get to speak for mankind, any more than any other fearful member of the majority gets to speak against a minority.

When I posted about this on Facebook, my friend Ben Pobjie commented:

He assumes that being male is like being on a team, and we all put that team first and identify with other members of that team before all else. I might be threatened by women in powerful positions if I thought I was on the same team as Scott Adams, and that the purpose of life was to be on the winning team.

When you think in those terms, it’s really a choice you make– do you define your “team” based on incidental characteristics and then push for them to win, whatever “winning” is supposed to mean? Or do you choose your team based on what they say and do, regardless of these other differences, and work together for common goals rather than common traits?

I seem to have less and less time, these days, for people who choose the former.

It’s my Grand Old Party and I’ll lie if I want to (even if it leads to terrorism)

The claim that abortion is baby-murder hasn’t worked.

More Americans are now pro-choice than pro-life. Most Americans also support the federal government continuing to fund Planned Parenthood, knowing that some Planned Parenthood clinics provide abortions. There could be many reasons for that.

Maybe they know that abortions are only 3% of the services Planned Parenthood provides, and that most of its work is actually about providing contraception, STI testing, pap smears, breast exams, etc., and they think that these benefits for the entire country are worth it.

Maybe they know that because of the Hyde Amendment, it’s illegal to use federal funding for abortions except for circumstances involving incest, rape, and/or saving the life of the woman, so concluding that funding Planned Parenthood = funding abortions is a non-starter.

Maybe they think it’s great that Planned Parenthood provides even a small number of abortions and find the Hyde Amendment an unnecessary impediment standing in the way of providing a costly procedure for frequently low-income patients.

But whatever the reason, it apparently has convinced conservative-leaning America to step up its game when it comes to the attack on women’s’ reproductive rights.  Now it’s not just about right-wing talk show hosts lying that abortion kills babies.

Now it’s about GOP presidential candidates lying that Planned Parenthood solicits ignorant women to get abortions so that it may profit off the sale of the “babies'” organs. Now it’s about those candidates swearing up and down during a debate to have witnessed video of one of these aborted babies with a beating heart, kicking its legs while a Planned Parenthood employee off camera talks about keeping it alive so that they can harvest its brain.

Never mind that it wasn’t a video from Planned Parenthood. Never mind that there’s no voice talking about keeping it alive and harvesting its brain. Never mind that it probably wasn’t even from an abortion, but rather a miscarriage.

No, let’s vote to freeze federal funding for an organization that prevents 516,000 unplanned pregnancies a year.
Let’s launch inquiries in multiple red states into Planned Parenthood’s practices in an effort to defund it on a local level.
Let’s call Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards into a hearing before Congress and interrupt her testimony repeatedly, cutting her off forty-four times as she tries to speak.

It makes me think of this cartoon that Barry Deutsch drew after the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, committed by anti-abortion terrorist Scott Roeder:

Only now, the man screaming accusations stands for the entire Republican party, including its presidential candidates.

And the acts of terrorism include:

Guess what, GOP? This is what you’ve created.

I wish I could believe it was unintentional.

In the virtue stakes, reverence leaves empathy at the starting line

In France, individual citizens run a satirical magazine, the Charlie Hebdo, which publishes cartoons making fun of Muhammad among countless other current world leaders and historical figures.

In retaliation, terrorists storm the office and murder 12 people at that office, as well as five more at a kosher market. As far away as Sudan, angry mobs attempt to swarm French embassies, and people call upon the government to expel their French ambassador.

In Saudi Arabia, people are imprisoned, tortured, and even beheaded by the government for such victimless offenses as apostasy and “sorcery” on a regular basis. That same government arrests a blogger, Raif Badawi, for blasphemy and he is sentenced to suffer ten years of imprisonment and 1,000 lashes with a whip, at a rate of 50 per week.

In retaliation, Americans trickle out to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Houston and politely wave signs asking for Raif Badawi to be freed. Nobel laureates from various places around the world gather to jointly ask Saudi Arabian academics to join them in vocally condemning Badawi’s imprisonment and torture.

Now, I’m absolutely not saying that we should adopt the tactics of terrorists and ransack and pillage Saudi Arabian embassies, or anything like that. I am, rather, asking the following:

Why the hell can’t the West seem to muster even a fraction of the same outrage concerning the ongoing torture and murder of human beings for exercising their freedom of speech, as some Muslims are able summon concerning the fact that some people, somewhere in the world, feel that the same freedom protects their right to make the occasional joke at the expense of religion?

The rich and the poor alike are forbidden to stand on dogs

On New Year’s Day, a group of photos showed up in my Facebook news feed. It turned out to be a
holiday greeting from Sarah Palin. “Happy New Year!” she said. “May 2015 see every stumbling block turned into a stepping stone on the path forward. Trig just reminded me. He, determined to help wash dishes with an oblivious mama not acknowledging his signs for ‘up!,’ found me and a lazy dog blocking his way. He made his stepping stone.”

No, I’m not Facebook friends with Sarah Palin– I don’t even follow her. The post showed up in my feed because one of my friends had commented on it. I clicked over without any real expectation of finding their comment, but rather to skim the comments the other several thousand people, already by that point, had made. Because if there’s one thing the internet hates, it’s cruelty to animals. I wanted to see if that hatred could be counterbalanced by political and/or religious affiliation, and my answer was…yes, apparently. At least, for some.

Didn’t bother commenting, and didn’t think any more about it until I saw this article this morning by Sarah Palin, TODAY contributor (hey, it’s what the byline says):

PETA needs to chill. At least Trig didn’t eat the dog. Where have they been all these years? Maybe enjoying a good steak when their Woman of the Year, Ellen DeGeneres, posted the exact same sweet image of a child with her dog. Or maybe they were off moose hunting when their Man of the Year, Mayor Bill de Blasio, dropped and killed a critter at a political photo op? Who knows what they were doing when their Man of All Time, Barack Obama, admitted to actually EATING dog, and enjoying it! C’mon PETA — where’s the beef? . . . Again, I’m thankful these double standard bearers proved my entire point in that post: do they think their threats and efforts to shut me down are a stumbling block? Nah, this is a stepping stone for any American with common sense and love for kids and dogs — we just proved the haters’ double standard nonsense, and, thus, their irrelevance. — Sarah Palin P.S. Should Jill Hadassah [Palin’s dog] have not enjoyed Trig’s playing with her, guess it would have reminded us another important lesson – sometimes life jumps up and bites you in the okole, but you don’t stop moving and baby you just Shake It Off.

“Okole” apparently is a Hawaiian word for “ass” or “butt.” I had a moment of wondering why on earth Palin would use a Hawaiian word before realizing– oh, of course. It’s a way for someone who
thinks even “butt” is a bad word to avoid saying it, but be able to express exactly the same sentiments generally expressed using the word, by borrowing it from another language. I guess God doesn’t understand Hawaiian.

So I looked up what Ellen Degeneres did, and found myself looking at a site called Conservatives 4 Palin, which was kind enough to host a photo which supposedly appeared on the Facebook account for The Ellen DeGeneres Show six months ago. It shows what appears to be a three (?) year old girl brushing her teeth while standing on top of a large adult labrador, accompanied by the caption “Well, that’s one way to reach the sink.” That little girl wasn’t Ellen’s daughter, btw, and the online appears to also have been largely negative.
response to the picture

Whitney Pitcher, author of this article entitled “PETA Woman of the Year Posts Photo of a Child Standing on a Dog,” has the grace to note, “My post is neither a condemnation or an approval of the photos shared by Governor Palin or Ellen Degeneres.” Which is good, I suppose, because presumably it would be bad form for a web site called Conservatives 4 Palin to say anything that would amount to a “condemnation” of her, even for something so obviously stupid and abusive as allowing a child to stand on the back of the family dog– a special needs dog, who is “lazy” according to Palin (what, for not getting up when a toddler tries to use her as a stepstool?) — and then share the photos with the world as part of an exhortation to enjoy their new year.

If Jill Hadassah the dog had in fact objected to a boy (who is now seven years old, according to Wikipedia) standing on her back, stood up, and bitten him in the “okole,” what do you think the response would’ve been? Do you think everyone involved would have learned a lesson that sometimes “life” jumps up and bites you, but you don’t stop moving and just Shake It Off? You know, “life.” (Hey, they say life’s a bitch…) Yeah, me neither.

So I have a few conclusions on this subject:

  • Sarah Palin, and the parents of that little anonymous blonde girl, need step stools. Many of them. In the kitchen, the bathroom, and any other place there’s a counter that a small child might need to reach. Maybe a charitable organization can supply them with a couple.
  • PETA needs to stop being the banner organization for giving a damn about animal suffering. They do not speak for everyone with concerns on the subject. They’re not even good at representing the cause, themselves. I seriously doubt most of the people expressing concern about the welfare of Jill Hadassah the dog on Facebook had or have any affiliation whatsoever with PETA. The internet, perhaps, is guilty of caring way, way, way too much about animal cruelty, but PETA doesn’t speak for the internet in that regard. 
  • Tu quoque, also known as an “appeal to hypocrisy,” is a logical fallacy. It refers to an attempt to legitimize, or at least distract from, a critique aimed at yourself by pointing out a similar crime (or endorsement of such) made by the person or group making the criticism.

    Not one word of Palin’s essay on Today: Pets amounted to anything like an apology or an acknowledgment of wrong-doing. On the contrary, her standpoint is made abundantly clear: “we just proved the haters’ double standard nonsense, and, thus, their irrelevance.” She honestly thinks that the arguments of critics (excuse me, “haters”) are proven irrelevant by her pointing out the presumed acceptance of said critics haters of a similar crime perpetrated by someone they approve of.

    Of course, we don’t even know whether PETA even saw, much less approves of, the photo posted on The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Facebook wall. We don’t know whether the people who criticized Palin’s New Years wishes post on Facebook ever saw it, much less approve of it. Or de Blasio supposedly shooting a dog. Or Obama supposedly eating one. We certainly don’t know whether everybody who thinks it’s wrong to allow a seven year old boy to stand on a dog’s bag and post “cute” photos of it on Facebook has seen and approve of those things. 

    And if we did, that still wouldn’t make it okay. That’s what tu quoque means. 

Sarah Palin, take a logic class. Everybody else, class dismissed. 

Things you might not want to say about hot car deaths

I live in Wichita, Kansas. Kansas is a place of extreme temperatures– it can get bitterly cold in the winter, and deathly hot in the summer. Today, for example, the high is supposed to be about 106.

On Thursday, a baby died here in the heat. Another hot car death. She was 10 months old, and left in the car for two hours while it was 90 degrees outside.

In this case her was name Kadylak, and she was the foster daughter of two men in their late 20’s who also have several other foster children.

If you live in any place where it routinely becomes very hot in the summer, you’re probably familiar with the story– the father forgot that the child was in the car. He went about his day somewhere else while she remained there. In that confined space, the baby died of heat stroke. The father is distraught. He didn’t mean for this to happen. That father, in this case named Seth Jackson, wants to die himself, according to his mother.

On average, 38 children die in the United States every year from hyperthermia, or heat stroke, inside of hot cars according to the advocacy group Kids And Cars. Over 600 have died in this way since 1998. In roughly half of the cases, the parent/driver forgot that the child was in the car.

Proposals have been made for technological solutions to this problem; a way to force parents to remember that there is a small child in the car. A child who may be asleep and therefore making no noise him/herself, a child whose car seat is in the back of the car because he/she is too young to sit in the front seat of a car with airbag technology, a child whose car seat might not only be in the back of the car, but facing the back of the car so the driver won’t even see his/her face without a mirror installed.

A high school student from Albuquerque (another hot place) named Alissa Chavez won an award last year for designing an alarm system called “The Hot Seat” which notifies the driver if a child is left in a vehicle. There are also, as you might expect, apps for that. Kids And Cars has a petition to the White House asking for funding to be allocated to the Department of Transportation to research technology (the nature of which isn’t specified in the petition) to tackle the problem of children being left in hot cars, and also to “require installation of technology in all vehicles and/or child safety seats to prevent children from being left alone left alone [sic] in vehicles.”

After so many years of hearing about children dying in this way, and listening to people’s reactions to the stories, I’ve noticed a few trends in these reactions. Not positive trends. Trends that sound, quite frankly, a lot like concerted efforts at empathy avoidance. I’d like to address a few of these and explain why I find them so problematic.

1. “I can’t believe he/she forgot that she had a child.”

In the roughly 54% of occasions on which a child was left in a hot car because he/she was forgotten, it wasn’t because the parent forgot that he/she had a child. He/she forgot that the child was left in the vehicle. Big difference.

2. “This parent must have been drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid/evil.” 

In this case, at least,

Neighbors described Jackson and his partner as doting parents. “They are two of the most kind-hearted guys that I have ever met. And I hate that there’s so much controversy right now with babies’ being left in the car, because I truly don’t feel from the bottom of my heart they would ever do this on purpose,” said Lindey TenEyck, who lives across the street.

3. “This parent should be ‘forgotten’ in a jail cell for about 50 years and see how he/she likes it.”

Never mind, your capacity to empathize is clearly broken. I dearly hope you have no children of your own– not because you might leave them in a hot car, but because I can see you banishing them to Siberia the moment they first burst into tears at the hospital. They wouldn’t even make it to car.

4. “I just can’t imagine doing/having done this with one of my children.” 

All right, this is the big one. This is the main thought I want to address.

The fact that you can’t imagine something like this means very, very little on the one hand, and quite a lot on the other.

Your not being able to imagine something means very, very little, I should say, in terms of its truth value. Not being able to imagine something is called a cognitive constraint, in that it’s hard to meaningfully process a concept if you lack the ability to get your mind around it in the first place. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Plenty of people misconstrue evolution, for example, because they just can’t get their minds around the length of time it would take for the genetic structure of a species of organisms to change sufficiently for their progeny to become a different species, and so you get bizarre straw man characterizations of evolution that have no correlation to reality, like the crocoduck for example.

Now, just because Kirk Cameron is unable to properly imagine how evolution really works, that doesn’t mean that evolution doesn’t work. It just means that his poor brain, for whatever reason, is unable to grok the concept. He can’t grasp that evolution is true because the only version of it he’s willing or able to entertain is a caricature.

Likewise, your inability to do something like forget your own child in the back of your own car might be a caricature of a different sort– an unwarranted but entirely understandable mental distancing from the idea that such a horrendous tragedy could have ever happened, or especially could ever happen in the future, to one of your own children because of your own negligence.

Let me emphasize those two words again– entirely understandable. It’s entirely understandable to banish from your mind the thought of something like this happening in your own life, because if a parent went around seriously considering that any and all tragedies which have ever ended the life of any child could happen to his or her own children, he/she could be rendered paralyzed with fear. It’s possible that this person would become unable to function as a parent if that happened, because parenting involves risks, and imagining the worst possible consequence of every risk has a way of preventing people from being willing to take any risks.


Okay, but here’s the problem with that, and this is the part that means a lot, as I mentioned– being unable or unwilling to conceive of yourself doing something, especially a thing which involves forgetting something important with disastrous results, has the effect of inhibiting your ability to empathize with people who have done that thing. People who– this is important–  it’s very likely also would’ve said that they would never forget their child in a hot car, who would have themselves condemned any other parent who did so as drunk/mentally disabled/pathologically stupid and/or evil. Yes, I’m quite sure that Seth Jackson himself would’ve said that.

So what ends up happening is that when someone like Jackson does forget, and a child ends up dying, there are endless other parents out there, who aren’t necessarily any smarter or more responsible or loving or conscientious, who nevertheless have to condemn what he did in the strictest terms. This person who is described by his neighbor as lying on the ground near his car, “practically in the fetal position,” experiencing the sort of pain that no parent ever wants to experience. The kind no parent could ever forget. This person is assumed to be the worst sort of human being imaginable. And it’s very likely that right now, he would not disagree.

Except the problem is, he isn’t. He’s a parent who made a mistake. The problem with shutting off empathy to this person out of a sense of self-preservation, or rather a preservation of the image of oneself as a good parent who would never do this, is that it doesn’t fix anything. It does absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening again. And again, and again, and again. Which brings me to the last thought.

5. “Pushing for [insert proposed safety measure here] means blaming [insert manufacturer here] for this sort of thing instead of the negligent parent.” 

No, it doesn’t. No more than any other safety device invented since the beginning of time has meant this.

When you and I were babies, we didn’t travel in super-safe car seats in the back seat, facing backward. Maybe we were in car seats. But they weren’t the same kind, and they were probably in the front seat or maybe even on the floor. In such a position, I can’t help thinking that our presence there, even while asleep, was more of a reminder to Mom or Dad driving us around that we were in the car.

Does that mean that the backward-facing seats in the backseat are bad, and the practice should be ended? No, of course not. It means that in the act of moving car seats to the back seat, which was done in the first place because of the introduction and standardization of air bags because one of those being triggered could be dangerous to a small child in the front seat, may have created a new risk of its own which deserves its own safety concern. It makes absolutely no sense to slam on the brakes (figuratively speaking) when it comes to this concern, and insist that this is where safety measures end, that nothing should be done to prevent parents from forgetting a child in a car because it’s just their own fault. They’re horrible people and deserve to suffer, and that’s where it ends, right?


Do you care more about making sure parents suffer when their children die, or do you care more about preventing the children from dying? Because trust me, the first one is going to happen regardless.

Parents can make horrible mistakes. Good ones. Smart ones. Capable ones. That’s the risk of being a parent– you’re going to screw up sometimes. If you’re lucky, the results won’t be devastating. That of course doesn’t mean that it’s all up to luck, but there is definitely a lot of luck involved.  It’s okay to acknowledge that. It doesn’t mean you’re admitting to being a terrible parent. If it helps, you don’t have to announce it to the world– I’ll do it for you.

I know that the pressure to appear perfect is neverending. But don’t let that get in the way of empathizing with people who have clearly experienced tragedy, because they’re already suffering enough. And certainly don’t let it get in the way of supporting help for parents who need it. Because in the end, it’s better that they get that help, isn’t it?

Who knows, you might even benefit from it too. Or your kids will. Or their kids.

Sex without fear

“Consequence” is one of those words that has taken on a connotation of the negative, even though the denotation does not require it. Strictly speaking, a consequence is an effect, an outcome, a result. That’s all. Consequences are the reasons we do things– if our actions had no outcomes, there would be no point in performing them. Everything we do, we do for the consequences.

The consequences of Colorado recently making some forms of birth control, IUDs and implants, free or nearly free to low-income women through the Colorado Family Planning Initiative have been very good indeed:

The teen abortion rate dropped by 35 percent from 2009 to 2012 in counties served by the program, according to the state’s estimates. Young women served by the family planning clinics also accounted for about three-fourths of the overall decline in Colorado’s teen birth rate during the same time period. And the infant caseload for Colorado WIC, a nutrition program for low-income women and their babies, fell by 23 percent from 2008 to 2013. “This initiative has saved Colorado millions of dollars,” Governor John Hickenlooper said in a statement. “But more importantly, it has helped thousands of young Colorado women continue their education, pursue their professional goals and postpone pregnancy until they are ready to start a family.”

If you’re taking issue with my use of the words “free or nearly free” right now…stop. Yes, I know full well that “provided by the government” does not mean “free.” Nothing is free. However, please read that first statement by Governor Hickenlooper– providing birth control to low-income women has saved the state money. Quite a lot of money, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Nobody, that is, who is familiar with the notion that when women can’t afford babies, they often can’t afford abortions either, and so become stuck with those babies they can’t afford to have. And then who becomes responsible for paying for those babies? The state– which means all of us, via welfare.

So between the cost of contraception, the cost of birth, and the cost of welfare, contraception is chronologically the first cost, which also happens to be the lowest cost, and also prevents the following two costs. That, in a nutshell, is how the state saves money by spending money. Spend a small amount now, save a large amount later. You could call that an “entitlement” if the notion of chronology is tricky for you, but for someone with no such difficulty, it just makes common fiscal sense.

You’d think.

But no, the same people who trumpet fiscal responsibility for the government most reliably are, astonishingly, not in favor of measures like this. That is, of course, because their dedication to ending abortion in America does not lead to the ardent support of contraception that one might logically conclude they should have. And that is, unfortunately, because the goals of ending abortion and encouraging fiscally responsible government are both ultimately supplanted by yet another goal: to prevent “consequence free sex.”

Now, let’s ponder this notion for a moment. “Consequence free”?

Sex using effective contraception such as an IUD (the objectionable form of birth control cited by Hobby Lobby in its Supreme Court case, which Erickson is addressing in the above tweet, and which Colorado made attainable for women on low incomes) is anything but consequence free. The consequences of sex using effective contraception potentially include:

  • Intimacy between partners without fear
  • Pleasure between partners without fear
  • Bonding between partners without fear
  • Enjoyment and creation of memories between partners without fear

The fear in question, of course, taking two possible forms:

  1. Unwanted pregnancy
  2. STDs
So since it’s clear that sexual intercourse using contraception doesn’t prevent consequences, and that there are certain consequences which are in fact the point of having sex using contraception, desirable, good consequences, it appears that actually Erickson’s tweet should have referred not to consequence free sex, but to fear free sex. As in, nobody should be able to have sex without fear of creating an unwanted pregnancy or contracting an STDs. 
Why should nobody be able to have sex without this fear? 

Because they don’t think people—young people, poor people, unmarried people, gay people—should be able to enjoy “consequence-free sex.” Because it’s sex that they hate—it’s sex for pleasure that they hate—and they hate that kind of sex more than they hate abortion, teen moms, and welfare spending combined. Knowing that some people are having sex for pleasure without having their futures disrupted by an unplanned pregnancy or having their health compromised by a sexually transmitted infection or having to run a traumatizing gauntlet of shrieking “sidewalk counselors” to get to an abortion clinic keeps them up at night.

Yeah, I’m inclined to think so.

So hey, conservatives? At least, social conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson? Try just saying what you mean, okay?

You don’t think people– especially women and gays– should be able to have sex without fear. And it’s easier to makes sure poor women and gays can’t have sex without fear, because it’s easier to make sure that poor people don’t do anything that costs money. And contraceptives? They cost money.

Just say it. Sexuality should be controlled, and it’s best controlled by fear, so you want to preserve the fear.

It won’t happen, in the end…but hey, at least you can say you were honest.

Rambling diatribe about atheism, politics, and the word “secular”

I don’t know American Atheists president David Silverman, but he strikes me as kind of a brash guy. The kind of person who thinks that atheist activism means pissing off religious people, and if you haven’t succeeded in that then you’re doing it wrong.

But apparently he’s now trying to get along with religious people, or at least with America’s political party most known for being religious, because he tried to get a booth for American Atheists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. The booth was denied, because it turns out (who knew?) that CPAC feels threatened by atheists. Silverman decided to attend the conference on his own anyway, where he was interviewed by The Raw Story’s Roy Edroso.

It’s not a long interview at all, so read the whole thing. If you do, you’ll see that Silverman initially characterized the positions that social conservatives commonly take on “gay rights, right to die, and abortion rights” as “theocratic” which means that they’re not “real conservatives” (real conservatives aren’t theocratic?) before being interrupted by Edroso, who said that the “Right to Life guys” would object to being told they aren’t real conservatives. At which point Silverman replied:

I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.

 …which seems to have annoyed a few atheists into temporarily forgetting what “secular” means. At Skepchick, Sarah Moglia writes:

If by “secular argument,” you mean “a belief based on personal feelings,” then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a “secular” argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using “secular” to mean “a logical, science-based, or rational” belief, then no, there is no “secular argument” against abortion. The supposed “secular arguments” against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.

Which PZ Myers read and replied to with his own blog post entitled There’s a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head. So?  in which he says “I’m trying to figure out what this secular argument is.”

Really? Actually there are a lot of secular arguments against abortion. They include, among others:

  • A fetus is a human. It’s wrong to kill any human. 
  • A fetus is the property of the man whose sperm helped to create it as much as it is of the woman who carries it. Therefore no woman should be able to abort without the permission of the man who inseminated her.
  • Fetal pain
  • Abortions are expensive and hard on a woman’s body, therefore wrong. Something to be avoided if at all possible. 
Note: I didn’t say they were good arguments. 
This is because all that is required for an argument to be secular is that it not be based in religion. That’s it. It has nothing to do with “personal feelings,” which could be religious feelings just as easily as they could be non-religious, and a secular argument is by no means necessarily logical, science-based, or rational, let alone moral. So yeah, you could make a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head, which is why it’s sort of baffling not to be able to grok secular arguments against abortion. 
Something which, as we saw, Silverman only “admitted” when pressed. He clearly is not pro-life himself, so isn’t it a little odd to make a big deal about him acknowledging that secular arguments against abortion exist when he’s not even the one who brought it up? 
Maybe not too terribly odd. See, there are some other important things to consider.
The first is that of course, arguments that are phrased to be secular often come from non-secular motivations. See, for example, the entire Intelligent Design movement. There is no shortage of people on the religious right who see the strategic advantage in trying to Lemon Test their beliefs into law and classrooms by expunging all religious terminology from it, and “Fetuses are people” is the clearest example of that when it comes to abortion. “Person” is a legal category, but the notion of fetal personhood is generally endorsed by people who think God is the one who makes people, therefore when God puts a person in a woman’s uterus she has no business trying to get rid of it. 
You don’t have to believe in souls or even God to make this argument (that is, you can put it in secular terms), but people who make this argument almost inevitably believe in God and souls. The same is true for people who argue against gay marriage by complaining that it’s an aberration of “traditional” marriage, when “tradition” is merely code for “that’s the way God wants it” (and never mind that the Bible is absolutely brimming with nontraditional marriages if that’s what “tradition” means). 
Really, what underlies this reaction to Silverman simply acknowledging that there are secular arguments against abortion is anger at him for trying to market atheism to conservatives in the first place. For being rather conservative himself, albeit not your typical conservative, and then– here’s the kicker– claiming that he’s a true  conservative whereas abortion opponents, opponents of gay marriage– social conservatives– are not. Sorry Dave, but it comes off as a little ridiculous to play No True Conservative when the people you’re saying aren’t True Conservatives (TM) just got done booting your booth from their conference because they felt threatened by you. Surely he should be reserving these comparisons for when CPAC feels threatened by pro-lifers and homophobes. That is, ironically, when it’s no longer actually very conservative at all.

The Raw Story article goes on: 

But why is this his battle? Why not let conservatives be conservatives and just vote for the candidates he likes? “Because I want a choice,” said Silverman. “I don’t get a choice at the voting booth, ever.” He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

It’s not unusual for libertarians– which is what Silverman actually is, so far as I can tell– to talk this way. Not at all. And it’s not so much that they’re wrong per se, as completely unaware that someone listening has no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t, for example, know what the words “fiscal conservative” mean when coming from the mouth of someone who just called himself a “strong supporter of the military.” There is nothing fiscally conservative about having a defense budget larger than that of the next ten most militarily spendy countries in the world combined.

The term “fiscal conservative” is a libertarian dog whistle, or actually I suppose just a whistle because everybody knows that’s what it means. Is supposed to mean. The problem, of course, is that nobody who calls him or herself a fiscal conservative actually is one, which makes it an even more aggravating theft of terminology than Republicans claiming ownership of the word “family.” Liberals don’t speak up about this more often because they don’t believe that government spending is bad by default and taxation is theft (nor should they; that’s quite sensible of them), but they also recognize that when someone calls him/herself a fiscal conservative what he/she generally means is that he/she is anti-welfare. Anti-government spending, when it might help out minorities, women, and the poor. And liberals don’t think it’s so gosh darned important to be fiscally conservative in the first place, so they rarely point out that ending the drug war, legalizing sex work, cutting back on the military campaigning, even giving out birth control for free (literally, as opposed to mandating that health insurance cover it), you know, the things that make conservatives scream? Would actually save the government boatloads of cash.

The existence of libertarian atheists is, you might say, vexing to liberal atheists. It’s vexing to me as well because libertarians are often morons, prone to doing things like complaining that a sexual harassment policy for a skeptical/atheist conference is a violation of their rights, said rights apparently entailing the freedom to be a sexist boor at a conference without repercussions. Discussions about topics like sexual harassment shouldn’t have to begin with explaining, for the 9,000th time, what’s wrong with sexual harassment in the first place, or how freedom of speech doesn’t apply to private venues where other people have spent good money to get together and exchange ideas and “Sleep with me or you’re a bitch” is not generally one of the ideas they have in mind.

So I can absolutely– totally– understand why someone who has worked for years to connect skeptical/atheist activism with social justice issues, actually improve the world instead of sitting around arguing about whether God does or doesn’t exist, would be infuriated by the notion of the president of American Atheists trying to, in effect, pour some white paint into the enormous black pool of “theocracy” that Silverman even acknowledges is “holding down” a brand of political conservatism that doesn’t involve stepping all over minorities and the poor and taking ownership of their reproductive capacities (since I seriously mixed metaphors there, just imagine the black pool holding things down is the goop that killed Tasha Yar in TNG).

However, differences of political opinion amongst atheists and skeptics also makes me very happy, because it forces us to confront some often inconvenient facts. Like the fact that “secular” only means “without a religious basis.” Like the fact that being right about some very important things does not make you right about everything, and conversely that being very wrong about some things doesn’t make you wrong about others. Like the fact that when you find yourself on the same side as someone you normally disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that and counting them as an ally to the extent that they’re willing to be one. Like that refusing to do this comes off as petulant and tribalistic, because it often is.

I want everyone who claims to be skeptical to actually be  skeptical. To make good arguments. To be civil, analytical, and willing to work together for the greater good. Needless to say, I don’t always get what I want. But come on, people…we can do better than this.

Barney Frank, atheism, and representation


So Barney Frank came out last night– again. This time as a “pot-smoking atheist” on Real Time With Bill
Maher, when Maher gave himself that label and Frank responded by jokingly asking Maher which one he meant:

Bill Maher: … you were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those Congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show, and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you…
Barney Frank: [Pointing back and forth to himself and Maher] Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?

Maher was saying this in the context of asking whether Frank felt “liberated” now that he’s no longer in Congress, which is apparently the only time a congressperson can be liberated– when he/she is an ex-congressperson. Presidents can be liberated when they’re ex-presidents. They can start claiming to honestly believe and support things they should have openly believed and supported while in office, but it was too “dangerous” to do so (read: it might damage their chances of re-election). Gay equality. Ending the drug war. Secularism. Etc. It can leave a person wondering if “no taxation without representation” still applies when elected officials will only represent you when they’re no longer in office, that is, when it no longer matters.

Okay, yes, there has been only openly atheist sitting Congressperson– Pete Stark, who was actually the second longest-serving congressman until he lost his seat last year to another Democrat. But given that people without religion are believed to comprise roughly 10-20% of the American population, depending on how you define things, shouldn’t we be at least a little better represented than that? Among 535 voting members…maybe?

Whenever discussion of representation of demographics in government comes up, there is an inevitable argument which comes from people who– quite frankly– seem to oppose a particular candidate and everything he/she stands for, regardless of whatever demographic is applicable, which goes something like this: elected officials should represent the people, which means they should represent everyone. We shouldn’t want officials who represent only those like themselves, which means that demographic shouldn’t matter which means…basically, shut up and be happy with more old white heterosexual Christian men. (I’d say “wealthy,” but that’s so beyond being a given it’s already given before it was given.)

When you hear people talk about the “other” or “othering,” and they’re not talking about Lost, this is what they’re referring to– the unspoken assumption that there is a default, and the default represents everyone, whereas everyone else, that is everyone who is not the default, represents only their specific factions– whatever those may be.  Women can only represent women, black people can only represent black people, gays can only represent gays, secularists can only represent secularists, but straight white old religious guys? They are generic; they are Everyman; they can represent all of us.


In reality, we all have experiences, and those experiences teach us. And those experiences are shaped by our demographics. Our race, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our religious affiliation (or lack thereof), our class. Etc. No matter how empathetic a white man is, unless he’s John Howard Griffin, he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black man. Griffin did not know what it’s like to grow up as a black male. The reason that colorblindness is misguided and actually racist rather than racism-alieving is that it ignores the experience conveyed to a person growing up as a human being in their particular race. Experience gives perspective; colorblindness pretends that it has all of the perspective (or that perspective doesn’t matter) without the experience.

Wanting to be represented is wanting people who have shared your experiences, and therefore have the ability to understand your perspective, standing for you. Representation is standing-for. When it comes to government, it is also making-decisions-for.

Unfortunately when it comes to politics, the populist trend pretends that we only want people who have had similar experiences to ours (or at least, what we would like to pretend our experiences have been) representing us, and so you get ridiculous feats of pretension like George W. Bush dressing up as a cowboy. We often use the word “pretension” to refer to elitism, but actually it’s closer to just pretending, in this case pretending to be just folks. To, of course, white heterosexual Christian middle class folks. They want to be represented. In regard to three out of four of those attributes, they always have been and always will be. It would be nice if they’d notice and pay attention to the fourth, as well as the equal need and desire for representation by the rest of us.

Or at least…stop saying that it doesn’t matter.

It matters.


Niall Ferguson

So, just as I’m finishing reading comedian Jen Kirkman’s book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, historian Niall Ferguson goes and claims that people who don’t have children don’t care about society or the future. Or at least, he claims that about economist John Maynard Keynes, while suggesting that Keynes was gay:

Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive. It gets worse. Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

That was on May 2nd. For two days the blogosphere discussed whether Ferguson is a homophobe, and on May 4th he apologized— kind of. He went to great lengths to disavow any possible homophobia, including suggesting that it would be impossible for him to be homophobic since he’d asked Andrew Sullivan to be godfather to one of his sons. The reader is treated to a lecture on how absurd and idiotic it would be to think that Ferguson of all people might harbor any bigotry toward homosexuals, as well as the fact that Keynes himself was not immune to such, being somewhat xenophobic toward Poles and Americans. Which is relevant because…I’ve no clue. The apology ends with a flourish of snark so abrupt it threatens rhetorical whiplash:

Shock, horror: Even the mighty Keynes occasionally said stupid things. Most professors do. And—let’s face it—so do most students. What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.

Be warned! All who took offense to Ferguson’s remarks and fail to accept his apology given here are forthwith declared members of the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere and enemies of academic freedom! Criticism is censorship! Free speech! The ability to speak one’s mind openly is in peril when people object too stridently to illogical and offensive smearing of widely respected economists! Geez, you’d think he was a comedian who made a rape joke.

And one common theme that exists in both Ferguson’s “apology” and the reactions of people who took exception to his remarks is this: the emphasis on homophobia. Being anti-gay is wrong. Nobody should suggest that gay people are selfish, impetuous, nihilistic, or otherwise deficient in character in any way because they are gay, say the detractors. I didn’t mean to suggest that, don’t believe it, and don’t attack me too much for accidentally claiming it or else you’re the speech police, says Ferguson.

Okay…but how about what he suggested about the childless?

Ferguson remarked on the added stupidity to his comments arising from the fact that Keynes’ wife did actually get pregnant but suffered a miscarriage, implying that it’s underhanded to criticize that particular couple for not having children because at least they apparently tried, and it would amount to pouring salt on the wounds of someone who has lost the baby they hoped for to claim that no such hope ever existed. Which, indeed, it would be…although considering that Keynes died in 1946 and his wife Lydia Lopokova in 1981, it’s safe to say that those wounds have long since scabbed over. More fundamental to the point, however, is the fact that Ferguson’s characterization of Keynes as selfish and shortsighted due to not being a parent is equally a catastrophic failure of logic and fairness whether he and his wife had attempted to procreate or not. This is because not only does not having children count as character flaw; neither does not wanting them.

Childless by choice, otherwise known as childfree, is not a bad thing to be. Really.

Jen Kirkman

I frequently make the same joke as Jen Kirkman makes in her book’s title– how could I be a parent, when I can barely take care of myself? But let’s be clear…it’s a joke. Mostly. In addition to being a quasi-memoir and thoroughly enjoyable read, Kirkman’s book tears to shreds a lot of popular misconceptions of what it’s like to not want children, as well as countering arguments– yes, arguments— people make for why you should have children, even though you don’t want to. Especially if you’re, you know, female. People without children don’t understand how precious life is. They won’t have anyone to take care of them when they’re old and infirm. They have no legacy to succeed them. They are doing a disservice to their parents and partners (who, presumably, not only want children/grandchildren themselves, but require them). They are not truly fulfilled and actualized women (not applicable to men, seemingly– they don’t tend to get this one, even from Niall Ferguson).

Along with revealing the extent and nature of homophobia in the United States, the culture war over gay marriage has revealed a lot of other kinds of prejudice and narrow-mindedness that tend to overlap with it. They’re like a Darwinian tree of bigotry, the root of which is basic sexism. From that root sprout a seemingly infinite array of stringent and ingrained beliefs about what men and women should do, say, and in general be, and one of the things they should be is parents. With a person of the opposite sex. Naturally. That is, by a combination of the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg achieved via sexual intercouse within the context of marriage, probably in the missionary position with the lights off. Not artificially, whether by adoption or in vitro, not outside of marriage, not with a partner who has the same type of genitals you do, and absolutely, positively, not not at all!

It’s sort of like atheism, in that a religious person would prefer that you be of the exact same religion that they are (after all, their belief is the Truth with a capital T)…but they can deal if you’re, say, of another denomination. Methodists can get along with Presbyterians when they need to get things done. And hey, when it comes right down to it, if you at least agree on a lot of traditions and have a similar basic history underlying your respective belief systems…okay, Protestants can get along with Catholics. And then, well, you know, in the spirit of ecumenicalism, they can also manage to get along with Jews and maybe even Muslims. And then, hey, I guess if we’re going to try and all be on the same page, in the end what matters is that we all worship God, right? In our own ways, but everyone has a different path up the mountain and what matters is that you get there.

But wait….you don’t even believe in God?
You don’t even want children? 

The brain seems to short-circuit here, as in a conversation Kirkman recounts having had at a wedding with someone she’d just met:

“I know you’re not even married yet,” Lucy lectured, “but at your age, you have to think about making a family while you’re planning the wedding.” Five minutes ago I was too young to know that I was going to change my mind and suddenly I’m too old to waste any time after my wedding to plan on making a family? Which age bracket am I in? Young and stupid or old and barren? And “making a family” is another expression that grosses me out. I pictured Matt standing over me in a lab coat with a turkey baster. Lucy took a big sip of her red win, wiped her lip, and leaned into me. She may have been a little drunk or a little dehydrated or a little both, because she had that dry “wine lip” that looks like someone poured purple paint into the cracks of a sidewalk. She leaned in close and whispered, “What would you do if you accidentally got pregnant?” I didn’t even understand the question. “Oh, I would never cheat on Matt,” I answered. “No, Jen, I mean what if you got pregnant, by accident, with Matt’s baby?” “Are you asking me, someone you barely know, at our friends’ wedding, if I would have an abortion?” “Well,” she said, “it’s something you have to think about if you don’t want kids. I mean, I personally think that abortion is something for teenagers who couldn’t possibly raise a child. But ever since I decided that I wanted to try to become a mother and I see how difficult it can be to get pregnant, I realize that it’s a gift to be pregnant and if a married couple who are both employed accidentally get pregnant, I don’t see how you can give that up.”  A total stranger tried to small-talk me about abortion. I have never had an abortion. I never want to have an abortion. I also don’t want to have a baby. 

And trust me…we’ve thought about it. We’ve heard all about how Jesus wants to be our lord and savior how great parenting can be, how fulfilling, how important, how necessary. And by “necessary,” I mean we’ve heard about how it’s necessary for everyone who is capable of procreating, especially the rational and intelligent ones, to partner up and make some babies already, for the sake of the human race!

But really…we don’t. We have our reasons. And it’s okay.

How to be a moralizing blowhard

Have you always aspired to be a moralizing blowhard, but just can’t seem to get your message down pat? Are you unable to find that mix of condescension, ignorance, and absolute certainty that together make the perfect blend of sanctimonious grandstanding fit to publish on the editorial pages of newspapers across the country? Well, let me instruct you on how to make it work, using the Cal Thomas patented method:

1. Pick something either totally harmless or potentially harmful only to the individual practicing it, what is often called a “victimless crime”– that is, if people think of it as a crime at all– and condemn it vociferously.

2. Pick a few more.

3. Never shut up about them. Ever.

4. Seize upon every incidence of great catastrophe to blame it on the particular behavior(s) you have chosen, without demonstrating the slightest concern for establishing any kind of causal link between them. Exercise special diligence in doing this when behaviors that are far more closely connected to the catastrophe in question happen to be things you consider God-given rights.

5. Now, seize upon absolutely anything in order to blame the behaviors you’ve chosen, especially if you can manage to connect them causally with other behaviors you consider objectionable, again without troubling yourself at all to show that there is any actual link between them.

6. Excellent! You are now well on your way to becoming an established moralizing blowhard, in the longstanding and grand tradition of luminaries such as Robert Bork, Pat Robertson, and Tony Perkins. Hoorah! Result:

There are no new arguments about abortion, and most of us can probably recite the old ones by heart. It’s a woman’s right. It’s her body. No, it’s a separate life that is initially dependent on the woman for nourishment, but is independent of her in that it is a separate human being. Who will take care of the unwanted child if it is born? Meanwhile, adoptive parents wait desperately for a child to love. If one adopts the utilitarian view, the 55 million abortions in the U.S. robbed America of potential taxpayers. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last week about the availability of guns in America. “When I travel abroad and talk to foreigners about the American passion for guns,” he wrote, “people sometimes express a conclusion that horrifies me: In America, life is cheap.” He doesn’t say why he thinks foreigners believe life here is cheap, but let me try to explain it. I believe it begins with the killing of unborn babies. Once the value of life is diminished in the womb, it seems to be a short step to devaluing life at other stages, such as killing people for their sneakers or gunning them down in the street for no reason. If one wishes to stretch the point even further, add easy divorce, neglected children, out-of-wedlock babies (which is better than aborting them), spousal abuse, sex trafficking and pornography. All of these – and more – contribute to a cheapening of life and of what it means to be human.

Read more here:

Never mind that it’s right there in the Kristoff quote why the foreigners he spoke with believe that Americans consider life cheap; Thomas is certain it’s abortion. And things like pornography, divorce, and single parenting, to which foreigners are also notoriously opposed. </sarc>

Never mind that there is no established causal link between the legality of abortion and high incidences of abuse, murder, suicide, or general violence– aka what normal, sane people would use as a means of measuring perception of the cheapness of life. Have America’s lately-rather-frequent serial killers been pro-choice as a pattern, let alone as any sort of rule? I haven’t checked, and I somehow doubt Cal has either.  I do know that there is no shortage of people willing to commit violence, even murder, who are “pro-life”…

Never mind that, generally speaking and notwithstanding these serial murders, America has become less violent since the 1960’s; not more. So in addition to there appearing to be no individual correlation between acceptance of abortion and propensity toward violence, there is no societal one either.

An important point in blowhardsmanship you would do well to learn before this lesson is over: Whatever you do, in the process of tying the behaviors which you’ve chosen as the focus of your moral scolding to the downfall of society, be sure that you don’t make claims which are anything near concrete, anywhere near falsifiable, anything that could easily be disproven! Because it tends to take a bit of hot wind out of the sails.

But only a little bit. Because if you’re like Cal Thomas, there’s no shortage of people willing to donate a few puffs to the cause.

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