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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reflections on 9/11 and What It Means to Us Today

I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

I was in my car, driving to work in Dallas, with the local CBS affiliate on the radio. In a breaking story, we were told that a plane had crashed into the side of one of the World Trade Center buildings. At first, it sounded like a small plane, like a Cessna or something. It was news, but not big news (the same thing happened to the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945, when a B-25 bomber impacted with the famous structure due to high fog and low visibility).

I got to work, and mentioned the story to a friend, who hadn't heard about it. We promptly put it out of our minds and went about our business.

But it wasn't long after that that we found out the story was much bigger than anyone had at first thought. I remember, about an hour later, crowding around a small TV in a co-worker's office and watching the first tower burn, followed by the impact on the second tower, and finally the collapse of both. I remember thinking to myself that it all looked like a special effect, something you'd see in a Michael Bay film, and then reminding myself that it was all horribly real. I remember the sense of terror we all felt, wondering what would happen next... and where.

Now, I'm an expatriate New Yorker. I lived on Long Island and commuted into the city to work for years. Although I left New York in the early 1990s - primarily due to the increasingly high cost of living - the city never left me, and a piece of my heart will always be there. I love New York as a vibrant, living city, unlike virtually any other similar metropolis in the world. And so the events of September 11 were particularly poignant for me, as I watched the towers fall surrounded by a bunch of native Texans.

My father-in-law, a volunteer EMT from Mohegan Lake - a community about an hour north of Manhattan - responded and rushed to the scene, in order to help with what was sure to be a staggering number of wounded. Shockingly,when he got there, he realized that there was little or nothing for him to do. People were either dead or they were uninjured, with almost no one in-between. He is still haunted by the events of that day, however, and will never forget that, by being at Ground Zero on that day, he breathed in the ashes of unfortunate souls who had been incinerated in the conflagration, a gruesome but sobering thought.

Two weeks after that horrific event, I was in Manhattan for my brother's wedding. He was getting married in an uptown loft, and from the balcony, where the service was held, looking over the shoulder of the rabbi who performed the ceremony, we could see the smoke rising from Ground Zero. It was an image I will never forget.

That was one of the first times I had been back to New York following my exodus nearly ten years earlier, and the city I flew into was changed. Previously a brash, constantly energized city, there was a definite sense of nervous calm about it now. Everywhere I went, I saw countless signs with pictures pleading, "Have you seen my...?" from desperate family members seeking news of a missing father or mother or son or daughter or niece or nephew or grandparent or friend. Those signs stayed with me, as they represented the fear that comes from not knowing, the fear that you may never know what happened to someone who occupied such an important place in your life. Even more than the images of the towers falling, those signs will remain, for me, the real, lasting image of 9/11.

So here we are, nine years after that tragic day, and I think it's appropriate to take a moment and reflect, not on what we lost, but on what we've learned in the intervening years. We live in a different world now than we did nine years ago, and whether it's a better world or a worse one remains to be seen.

We learned, first and foremost, that we, as a nation, are vulnerable. We've lived a rather sheltered existence for the past 200-odd years, bounded by friendly neighbors to the north and south, and major bodies of water to the east and west. The only attacks on mainland soil have been by such homegrown nutcases as Timothy McVeigh, attacks that we accept as the actions of lone, deranged individuals. But the September 11 attacks showed us that devastating incursions can come at us, from anywhere and at any time. Seeing the Towers fall rocked us out of our complacency, and upset our sense of innate safety. All of a sudden, it became crystal clear to all of us that the protections afforded to us by a benevolent nature meant nothing, and that we were as vulnerable as "those people" that we read about in the newspapers, but paid little actual attention to. Suddenly, we were confronted with the fear that many victims of violent crime feel, the fear that anything can happen at any time.

Along with that, we learned there are certain situations before which we are absolutely helpless. No matter what anyone says, there's little that could have been done to stop the attacks, and little we can do to prevent future occurrences just like it. The sad reality is that if someone is willing to die for their cause, there's almost nothing that they can't do, no goal they cannot attain. All of our military might and our grand posturing around the world can do little to combat such obsessive ideology. And, short of turning this nation into a police state, how do you reliably combat future instances of terrorism? Unless you're willing to treat every American citizen as a potential terrorist, by constant monitoring and surveillance, unwarranted searches and seizures, random stops, unprecedented information gathering, torture, and more - steps, I hope, we are unwilling to take, as they contravene everything this country stands for - the bad guys will always have the advantage. That's one of the prices we have to be prepared to pay for the freedoms we enjoy, proving once again that nothing is truly free, nothing comes without cost.

We learned, in a very real and concrete way, that there are people out there that hate us, and who are willing to lay down their lives to harm us. We had known this intellectually for years, but this vicious attack brought that lesson home in a brutally visceral way. As most of us live our lives divorced from international affairs and geopolitical realities, the confirmation of this fact came as a blinding shock to us, one that, I fear, we still haven't entirely processed.

Sadly, however, although we've learned that there are people who hate us, many of us have failed to learn just who those people are. As the terrorists who flew planes into our buildings all claimed to adhere to the faith of Islam, an ignorant minority in this country want to believe that we are now "at war with Islam," a stupid and thoughtless conclusion. Those terrorists could also have been, to a man, avid golfers or professional chefs. If that came out, would we then declare war on golfers and chefs? Of course not. Unfortunately, the attacks came as America was seeking out a new enemy, someone - or something - that we could demonize in order to make ourselves feel better.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the Communist regime, who had served as our erstwhile opponents since the end of World War II. We were comfortable having the Reds as our foes, because we understood them, and we could identify with them. They were a convenient enemy, content to posture and bluster - just like us - without ever really doing anything. One of us would step over a line somewhere, the other would pontificate and object, maybe rattle a few sabers for good measure or slam a shoe on a U.N. podium, and then we'd all back down and get back to business. As much as the threat of nuclear war loomed over us all during that time - remember Duck and Cover drills, kids? - we were pretty well assured that neither side was going to "push the button," as it were, as both sides realized the result would be mutually assured destruction, an outcome that no one wanted.

But in 1989, we lost our cozy enemy, and were desperate to find a new one. George Bush Sr. did his best to give us a new embodiment of evil, in the person of Saddam Hussein, but that never really caught on, and the combat portion of Operation Desert Storm was over quickly, with little fanfare. Without an enemy to confront, America seemed rudderless, a vast ship of state drifting without purpose among stormy international waters.

And then came the attack on September 11, and America once again had an enemy upon whom they could expend all their pent-up hatred and bile, largely unused since the fall of the Wall. In spite of the second President Bush's repeated emphasis of the fact that America was not at war with Islam (sentiments echoed and reinforced by President Obama), a certain segment of the American population never seemed to get the message, preferring a simplistic and ignorant view of world affairs in which every Muslim is a secret terrorist, out to kill our men, rape our women, and rustle our cattle. Tragically, this view is being trumpeted and reinforced by such slimy politicos as Newt Gingrich, whose latest video project explicitly supports this heinous lie.

The problem is that a "war on terror," like a "war on drugs," is far too amorphous for most people to understand. What is a "war on terror" and how do we fight it? Is it just Middle Eastern terrorists that we're supposed to hate, or are we also "at war" with Christians who bomb abortion clinics and Irish republicans who bomb police stations? Should we be against lone nuts like the Uni-bomber because they're murderers or because they're terrorists, and do the rules of engagement change depending on how we define them? Do we consider the Republican Party terrorists for opposing things like an extension of unemployment benefits (if you're depending on that money, playing politics with it may very much seem like an act of terrorism to you), or are they simply standing up for America's best interests, and making hard, but sincere, choices? In short, where is the line, and who gets to draw it?

It's clear that we have no real idea with whom we're "at war." We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan (and there are plenty of people who'd like us to go for the hat trick and add Iran to the list), and overthrew the legitimate government in Iraq, colonially replacing it with one of our own devising.
But are we "at war" with these nations? If so, what's our goal in fighting them? When we fought the Nazis in WWII, our goal was to battle them into submission, prosecute their leaders, and wipe out their ideology. Pretty clear, but what's our goal here? I don't know, and I suspect no one else does either, including the people whose job it is to know.

All this being said, we've also largely failed to learn that our actions, as a nation, have serious and direct results all over the world. The ugly truth is that the 9/11 attacks didn't happen in a vacuum or without a reason. I'm not saying that America was responsible for the attacks - clearly, the people who hijacked the planes bear the ultimate responsibility for that vile act - only that perhaps it's time to review the way we present ourselves to the world with an eye to improving international relationships. As I've written before, America has a tendency to turn pride into arrogance, especially when dealing with other countries we perceive as smaller or weaker than us, and that arrogance has far-reaching - and potentially deadly - consequences.

So let's all take a step back today and reflect on the lessons we learned nine years ago, and think about where we want to be nine years from today. Do we want to live in a world where hatred and fear rule the day, where nutcases with a yen for publicity fan the flames by threatening to burn Korans, where one of the world's largest and most influential faiths is demonized by an ignorant mass of uneducated simpletons, all because they don't have the intellectual capacity to understand a world in which international relations are complex and ever-shifting?

Or do we want to live in a world in which we, as a country, are dedicated to standing for something, rather than against something? Do we want to live in a country that is defined by its belief in a better life for all, or a country that is defined by the quality of its enemies? Do we want to create a legacy for our children of hatred and destruction, or a path on which people can come together and build an even stronger society for the future?

For those that favor book burnings, criminalizing the Muslim faith, and spreading a culture of hatred, bigotry, fear, and paranoia, a culture in which secret terrorists lurk around every corner, and one in which the circle of "real Americans" grows smaller and smaller, I have just one question: How's that working out for you? Is your life better for your hatred? Is the world better? Is the culture and society you're handing down to your children better? Do you really want to bring back the days of lynching and domestic terrorism spread by hate groups like the KKK and the American Nazi Party, in which a small group runs rampant over the civil rights of fellow human beings? Did we learn nothing from the mistakes and abuses of the pre-Civil Rights Era? And how far does your hate go? How long will it be before you are one of "them," on the outside of the core group, subject to beatings, burnings, and repression? Is that your vision of America?

It's not mine, and that's perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned in the wake of the September 11 attacks: that America is strongest when it clings firmly to its core beliefs of tolerance, individual liberty, and freedom for all, no matter how hard that is at times. When we show the world our best face, when we show them an America that truly believes in the core values it loudly trumpets and acts in concert with those values, that's when we best protect our citizens.

As President Obama so eloquently put it in a press conference held yesterday,
"I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan, in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes: They are Americans. And we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between 'them' and 'us.' It's just 'us.'"
I think that should be our mantra going forward: It's not "them" versus "us;" it's just "us." That's the essence of America right there.

America is a great nation, have no doubt about it. But we're not great because we have the biggest army or the most cutting-edge weapons. We're not great because we can yell the loudest or exercise the muscle to beat our enemies into submission. We're great because we not only stand for individual freedom and liberty, we fight for those freedoms, for those whose views we abhor as fervently as for those whose views we support. We're great because we are not a monolithic culture, one that is built on conformity of thought, idea, or identity, but one that welcomes and embraces all types of people, no matter where they come from. The result is a nation that is strengthened by its diversity, not weakened.

So, on this ninth anniversary of an event that changed America forever, spend some time reflecting on what America is, and what it should be. Remember the people that died in the Towers, and those that lost their lives trying to save as many as possible. Remember the sacrifices of so many that went before them, sacrifices that were made to preserve the liberties enshrined in our founding documents. And then think about the nation you want to see tomorrow, next week, next year, and far into the future. Is it a nation of hatred and paranoia, a nation in which each and every American is forced to walk through life with a target on his or her back, thanks to a people who preach arrogance and divisiveness, or is it a strong, healthy nation, a nation that American people can rightly be proud of due to its commitment to justice and fairness?

I know which one I choose.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When Morons Play With Fire

As I mentioned a few days ago, publicity-seeking, ego-driven "Christian" nutjob Terry Jones, leader of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida intends to do his bit for world peace by sponsoring "International Burn a Koran Day," this Saturday, to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 tragedy.

Since his plans were announced, he has been condemned by such influential leaders as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, General David Petraeus, former Massachusets Governor Mitt Romney, and even His Holiness, the Pope. They quite rightly point to the grievous harm this act will cause, particularly, as Petraeus explains, to America's uniformed troops serving abroad.

Does all this reasoned and considered talk sway Pastor Loony? Of course not.

In this face of this wave of official disapproval, Jones's response was, "We are burning the book. We are not killing someone. We are not murdering people." Apparently, as of right now, their bonfire will go on as scheduled in order to, "point [a] finger to radical Islam and tell them to shut up, tell them to stop, tell them that we will not bow our knees to them." Yes, because it's clear that your little Nazi book-burning is only directed at the radical elements of Islam, and not to the millions of people worldwide that consider that text holy scripture. Sure, how could anybody misinterpret the message of your intolerant, hateful, self-aggrandizing stunt?

More than that, though, what does Jones plan to say to the mother of the first American soldier killed in Afghanistan as a result of his little bonfire, the first real casualty of his exercise in madness? Would you like to reconsider that, "We are not killing someone" line, Pastor? Didn't think so.

What's really bothersome, however, are the responses of such leading American intellectuals as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, both of whom - not surprisingly - took the opportunity to weigh in on the controversy. Pain, through the interpreter/ghostwriter/scriptwriter/trained monkey who pens her every word, said:
"Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero."

Yeah, like Sarah even knows what the word "antithetical" means. Good job putting big words in her mouth, trained monkey. Would she like to "refudiate"Jones's plan also?

Then Glenn "I don't need no stinkin' higher edjamication" Beck, that shining beacon of intellectual achievement and founder of the prestigious Beck University (call now to get your own Beck U. degree! Only $74.95! Operators are standing by!) nudged his torpid mass out of the nepenthe-like slumbers of a well-earned vacation to opine:
"I’m on vacation and trying to unplug but the news can make that hard. I just read the story about the Florida church planning to burn copies of the Koran. What is wrong with us? It’s just like the Ground Zero mosque plan. Does this church have the right? Yes. Should they? No. And not because of the potential backlash or violence. Simply because it is wrong."
Both Momma Grizzly Palin and St. Glenn of the Holy Buck have the nerve to equate burning a book with building a community center. By doing so, they're using a potentially inflammatory situation, one that could very easily cost American servicemen and women their lives, to aggrandize themselves politically. Rather than simply denounce a despicable act by a cowardly, twisted, and bigoted person, they felt the need to score points with the intolerant, redneck rabble that hang on their every self-serving word by conflating two entirely separate events. What good Americans they are, finding their own silver lining in what is sure to be one of the blackest episodes in this nation's history.

Now, I know that there are plenty of sincere and thoughtful people who oppose the building of the Park 51 Islamic Community Center in lower Manhattan, as, due to its proximity to Ground Zero, they see it as insensitive to the families of those who perished on 9/11. I respect their views. They are reacting out of sympathy for those whose lives were changed forever on that tragic day. They are not - largely - speaking out of a sense of Islamophobia, nor are they - largely - blaming all Muslims for the attack on September 11, 2001.

But here's a point that I think even these folks would agree with: building a community center has tangible, positive benefits for the community in which it's located, burning a book is purely an act of hatred and intolerance, with absolutely no positive or redemptive qualities. Thoughtfully building is always preferable to mindlessly destroying.

And this is why Beck and Palin entirely miss the point here (not surprising, as they've built lucrative careers out of intentionally missing the point and igniting the flames of ignorance). Whatever your thoughts on this particular community center, there's little doubt that community centers in general are a good thing. They provide services - both secular and sacred - for the people that live in a given area that might not otherwise be available to them. They provide a place for kids to gather, encouraging them to avoid gangs and street life. At their best, they can become the center, the linchpin, of a community, bringing together people of diverse backgrounds, and fostering understanding, tolerance, and support where they might not have existed before. Few people would argue that those are not noble goals.

Consider, then, a book burning, especially one like this that is so politically, racially, and spiritually charged. What is the larger message of Pastor Jones's act? Simply, it's "we hate you." There's no other legitimate interpretation possible from an act this violent, this bigoted, and this intentionally confrontative. Pastor Jones is spreading a message of hatred and intolerance around the world, in effect punching Islam in the face and daring them to punch back. Just don't be surprised when they do, Terry.

Some "patriots" insist that this action is taken in support of America and American ideals. Nothing could be further from the truth. America was founded on principles of inclusion, not exclusion; of freedom, not intimidation; of acceptance, not hatred. The Founding Fathers - that legendary pantheon that the Right loves to invoke whenever the question of "a Christian Nation" and the Second Amendment comes up - were wise and thoughtful men, who both preached and practiced toleration at the social, religious, and racial levels. In a quote I've cited here before, George Washington made his position clear when he wrote to his agent, in the process of hiring workers for Mount Vernon:
"If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."
Clearly, Washington judged people by their character - "If they be good workmen..." - and not by their faith, a lesson many on the Conservative Right need to learn.

This planned book burning stands in direct opposition to the principles upon which America was founded, that it's hard to see how anyone could support it on those grounds. The "Constitutional scholars"who insist on weighing in on this issue - assumedly those who learn their history and civics from Beck U. and the pretend "historian" David Barton who serves as Beck's toady-in-chief and who never met a fact he couldn't twist to his own unholy end - scream, "But they have a right under the First Amendment to burn those books! It's in the Constitution! Ha!"

Of course, they're right on that score, a point echoed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who also supports the building of the Park 51 Cultural Center) when he said:
"I don't think he would like if somebody burned a book that in his religion he thinks is holy... But the First Amendment protects everybody, and you can't say that we are going to apply the First Amendment to only those cases where we are in agreement."
Just as we protect the right of Nazis to march down the streets of Skokie, we must also protect the rights of Jones and his flock of insipid cowards to burn the Koran. That's the dark side of the First Amendment, is that it applies to those whose views we find repulsive as well as those whose views we embrace. But that also means that I have the right to denounce this Mammon-driven mountebank as a clear representation of the evil that threatens our society, and as one of America's greatest enemies. Personally, I fear people like Jones and his ilk far more than I fear any Muslim I've ever met.

So the Pastor's right to burn books is not being challenged. No official has tried to stop him from carrying out his heinous plans, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world.

You see, not everyone around the globe understands our system of freedoms, as such ideas are foreign to so many. They see an evil man announcing plans to burn a book that millions regard as holy and sacred. They also see that our government is not taking steps to stop him. Rather than interpreting that as the actions of a government bound by the provisions of the First Amendment, they see it as our government endorsing the actions of the hellish Pastor Jones. Many newspapers and editorials in the Middle East have called on President Obama to prevent this act of desecration; his failure to do so sends them a message - wrongly - that he, and thus America, approves of the action. I'm not saying that Obama should take steps to stop Jones's ill-conceived plan - he's doing just what he should, supporting the First Amendment while condemning the actions of a mad man - just pointing out that world affairs and perceptions are often more complicated than we realize.

And so what's the final outcome here? If Jones goes ahead with his boneheaded plan to pointlessly burn Korans, does it make the world a better place, or a worse one? What message does that send to the world? Does it reinforce the image of America as an arrogant bully, ready to roll over anyone who does not share its stated values - an image we've bee trying hard to shed since the end of the Bush administration - and, if so, is that the message we want to put out there? Is that in our best interests? I don't think so.

Consider, on the other hand, the message sent by building an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero? What message does that send to the world? I'd suggest it's a message of tolerance and acceptance, a message that America is capable of supporting the freedoms we trumpet to the rest of the world, even when that support comes at a price. It says that we are run, not by blind passions and hatred, but by an undying sense of freedom and equality for all. It says that we have learned from, and moved beyond, the mistakes of our past - mistakes like our shameful history of slavery and the chilling spectre of the Asian internment camps established during World War II - and that we embrace the very diversity that built our great nation. It says that we truly believe the things we say, and that we're willing to stand up for our founding principles and put them into action on our own soil, among our own people.

It would be one thing if we could dismiss Jones as a lone nut, spouting his hatred in a vacuum, but the sad reality is that Jones is symptomatic of a larger problem, a rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment that is sweeping this country like a tidal wave of sewage. Don't believe me? Just spend a few minutes checking out the reader responses to stories on this issue posted on the FOXNews site (truly, the Mos Eisley spaceport of the Internet, as one would be hard-pressed to find "a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"). There, hatemongers from around the country - and, presumably, around the world - feel free to spread their hate-filled rhetoric, urging everything from the burning of books to the burning of people. To them, every Muslim is a terrorist, every Koran is a terrorist training manual, and every Muslim country is the rightful target of America's nuclear might. Book burning is a fun night out for these intellectual midgets, who would probably be happy to bring back such heinous practices as lynching and concentration camps as well. To be clear: those who advocate burning books - any books - for any reason are not "good Americans." They are subhuman scum who swim in a filthy swamp of their own ignorance, desperately trying to drag the rest of the country into the fetid,stinking waters that they happily call home. They are the antithesis of all that this country stands for, and should be singled out and reviled as the vermin that they are.

There's nothing wrong with speaking your mind. That's the American way. Our country is big enough to absorb ideas from all points along the political and ideological spectrum. That's what the Freedom of Speech is all about. But book burning, the intentional silencing of speech, runs counter to that ideal. By burning a book, you're not expressing your opinion, you're silencing someone elses. If Pastor Jones feels so strongly that Islam is an evil faith, let him preach that message from his pulpit. Let him fling his absurd beliefs to the mindless rabble that, zombie-like, chose to follow him. Let him denounce the Koran until he's blue in the face. Have a good time, Terry, and don't be surprised when the rest of us exercise our right to denounce you or, better yet, ignore you.

But book burning is just all kinds of wrong. It was wrong when the Nazis did it, and it's wrong now. It's wrong in whatever context it occurs, just like the attack on September 11 was wrong. "Psycho" Sarah and "Godless" Glenn would be better served comparing the upcoming bonfire with the 9/11 attacks, as both are pointless, provocative acts without even the hint of a redeeming characteristic. The perpetrators of the upcoming book burning should be condemned as loudly and as strongly as the radicals who flew planes into American buildings. That's the apt comparison, not the planned lower Manhattan mosque.

No doubt, this is Terry Jones' 15 minutes of fame, a time he's surely relishing. His time will pass, however, and he will sink back into the obscurity he so richly deserves, not even worthy of becoming a Trivial Pursuit question in the years to come. But the effects of his actions will, no doubt, having lasting consequences, painting an unflattering picture of America in spite of the efforts of our nation's leaders to denounce the insanity.

So what can we, as ordinary American citizens do? With the end of Ramadan upon us, and the anniversary of 9/11 right around the corner, I'd urge you, wherever you are, to reach out to Muslims in your neighborhood, in an effort to counteract the bigoted assault on their beliefs. Demonstrate to them, by your actions, that Jones is an anomaly, that he does not speak for America, and that real Americans support the principles of freedom and liberty enshrined in our founding documents.

In short, don't let the terrorists - like Pastor Terry Jones - win.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Stephen Hawking Solves the Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Well, he's apparently done it. Stephen Hawking, the smartest guy on the planet, has apparently determined how the Universe came into being by using such advanced concepts as gravitic theory, multiple dimensions, "vibrating strings, ... point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other objects that are more difficult to picture and occupy even more dimensions of space." You know... science. It's all laid out in his new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, due in bookstores this Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, the religious crowd is incensed that Hawking's explanation of spontaneous creation leaves out the hand of God. To them, in spite of all physical evidence, the Earth and everything in it was magically created in six days, just like it says in the Bible. Because if you can't trust a 2,000 year old book of fairy tales, written on a level that a four-year-old could understand, who can you trust?

Hawking, of course, is the theoretical physicist and cosmologist whose bestselling book, A Brief History of Time, broke new ground with its exploration of black holes, the Big Bang, and other complicated concepts, all written for a lay reader. Like Carl Sagan before him, Hawking has a talent for making the inaccessible accessible, and presenting difficult concepts in a way that a non-scientific reader can grasp and comprehend. In some circles, his theories are, to say the least, controversial.

Critics of Hawking have noted his use of the word "God" in his writings, but Hawking himself claims that his use of the term is merely rhetorical, and does not allude to a personal belief in a Supreme Being. In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Hawking said,
"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."
He's right, and the unthinking drones who deride his newly-issued conclusions do so without any actual, reliable platform upon which to stand, and merely seek to perpetuate a system of belief based on superstition and mythology, a faith that relies on incredible, unsupportable leaps of logic that we would find unacceptable in any other context.

Consider, for example, someone who claimed they could walk on water. Even if we were shown video proof of someone accomplishing this - even if we saw it with our own eyes - we would discount it as a trick, a stunt. Our sophisticated, rational minds would look for physical explanations, such as a Plexiglas sheet placed just below the water upon which the charlatan actually walked. Even worse, if we heard about this feat second-hand, if it was reported to us by someone we did not know, we'd assume that they were wrong, that they were deluded, or that they were in on the gag, and spreading tall tales for a specific purpose, like publicity for an upcoming magic show.

And yet, the faithful read about Jesus supposedly walking on water in the Bible, and they fall to their knees in prayer. Not only do they abandon any trace of critical thinking skills - the same skills they would no doubt bring to bear if they were discussing car repairs with their mechanic - but they accept the "facts"of the account without question, praising it as the unchanging and eternal word of God. And in this unthinking, unquestioning belief, they find value, praising each other and themselves for the bravery of their blind faith.

But let someone like Hawking come along and threaten to disrupt their precariously-balanced apple cart, and these believers panic. Apparently, their faith is only strong when it's unquestioned and unchallenged.

In discussing the formation of the universe, and his conclusion that belief in God is unnecessary to explain the formation of everything, Hawking says:
"Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God. In this view it is accepted that some entity exists that needs no creator, and that entity is called God. This is known as the first-cause argument for the existence of God. We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings."
He points out the intellectual fallacy of the "Prime Mover" argument: that God is beyond the principles of science and physics, and is beyond the constraints of time and creation. They insist that science is wrong because it cannot provide a solid, observable, and measurable "first cause" for its theory of the origins of existence, but then smugly lean back and proclaim that their God, the origin and creator of all that exists, is eternal and without beginning or end, thereby invoking the "magic clause" that seems to track through all their arguments. According to them, science is bad because it doesn't have all the answers, but religion is good because it doesn't need all the answers. In science, facts build upon more facts; in religion, "facts" build upon magic, folklore, and superstition.

Not surprisingly, the head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, disagrees with Hawking's conclusions, as his response to the physicist's dismissal of God from the origin of the universe was:
"...physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing."
Well, that's sort of Hawking's point, isn't it? His whole book seems to be addressing the issue of how something comes out of nothing, based on the observable and demonstrable laws of physics. Whether or not you agree with him, the Archbishop's response seems more than just a little dismissive and anti-intellectual. Just saying something isn't true doesn't make it so, any more than the church's unwavering insistence that something is true will somehow magically bring it into existence. But Hawking doesn't rely on simple insistence. He's backed up by years and years of research and observation. To simply dismiss his arguments with the wave of an ecclessiastical hand misses the point entirely, and merely serves to reinforce the belief that the Church is close-minded and rooted in the failed ideas and philosophies of the distant past.

Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in Great Britain, echoed the thoughts of his C of E colleague when he added:
"Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation ... The Bible simply isn't interested in how the Universe came into being."
But that's not even remotely true, and I suspect the Rabbi knows better than that. Actually, the Bible begins with an explanation of how the Universe came into being, in a mere six days at the hand of God. In point of fact, the first two chapters of the book of Genesis - a book shared by both the Christian and Jewish faiths - focus exclusively on this issue. Perhaps Rabbi Sacks doesn't subscribe to such a literal interpretation of Biblical cosmology, but there are plenty of folks who do. Just like the archbishop, Rabbi Sacks is trying to deflect the importance of Hawking's breakthrough work by minimizing its effect on dogmatic belief.

Hawking's work was also criticized by Ibrahim Mogra, an Imam associated with the Muslim Council of Britain, who stated:
"If we look at the universe and all that has been created, it indicates that somebody has been here to bring it into existence. That somebody is the almighty conqueror."
Only if you value the unquestioned testament of faith over the observations of science. There's nothing that exists in the universe to "indicate" the presence of some kind of supernatural creator; there's no signature in the corner of the canvas. The only "proof" such believers offer when asked why they believe a Supreme Being created the universe is that: 1) it says so in whatever holy book they subscribe to, or 2) the universe is more complex than they can possibly imagine, and therefore had to be the work of a Guiding Presence. There is, no doubt, a great deal of complexity in this system that has developed over countless eons, complexity that few of us untrained in astrophysics, cosmology, higher dimensional theory, and other advanced sciences, can understand. Faced with such a vast panorama of existence, we insist on boiling the facts down to something we can reasonably comprehend. Enter religion.

Religion provides easy answers to complex questions, answers that we, as humans, can consume and digest easily, without too much thought, and with little education or insight. It's much like the way children learn about the world. In backyard games, kids play "Cops and Robbers," complete with "bad guys" and "good guys." At the age of five, such hard-line distinctions work well: the five-year-old believes that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, classes divided by a solid and uncrossable line. As those children get older, however, they begin to realize that life is made up of shades of gray. What about the man who steals - a classic "bad guy" - in order to provide food for his starving family - a recognizably "good" act? Where does he fall on the "good guy/bad guy" continuum? As we grow up, we shed the childish insistence on black and white answers to all questions, and learn to evaluate the shadings inherent in everything. No one wants to go through life with a five-year-old's understanding of the way the world works, so why does religion treat us as if we're perpetually stuck at infancy, unable to understand more complex concepts? It's time to grow up and adopt an adult view of the universe, free from the black-and-white constraints of religion.

This, then, is the heart of the Church's consternation over Hawking's latest findings, the fact that he, by publishing this book, is challenging believers to grow up in their faith and really deal with adult questions. Like spoiled five-year-olds, however, they insist on throwing a temper tantrum, taking their ball and going home.

We're no longer a pre-literate, pre-industrial society. We understand genetics and geology and cosmology and physics and much more. We no longer need the reassurances of mythology to explain our place in the world and how it came about. That's not to say that there is no value in faith. There's no way, for example, for science to explain what happens to our consciousness, if anything, after death. That is, and will likely remain, the Great Unknown, and faith can provide comforting answers in that regard to the often terrifying prospect of dying.

But things like the Big Bang, the life-cycle of the Earth, the creation of the Universe, etc., these are, more and more, things we can know and understand. We do not need to rely on dusty fairytales and outrageous fables to provide these explanations. If we approach the subject with an open mind, we will discover all kinds of wonderful things, such as traces of the oldest light in existence - more than 14 billion years old - light that was released just after the Big Bang and captured by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2006. This astounding find provides direct evidence of the theory of rapid expansion, in which the universe expanded from the size of a marble to its current proportions, all in a trillion-trillionth of a second following the Big Bang. Now that scientists have recovered this data, they can begin searching for the reasons for, and mechanisms of, rapid expansion, all of which will increase our understandings of the origins of the universe even more.

It's findings like these that cause Church leaders to wet themselves. They know that if the faithful ever start to actually question the fantastic dogma they've been force-fed since time immemorial, the clergy's gravy train will be instantly derailed. Once people start questioning one aspect of Biblical mythology - like the cozy yet improbable Creation story - they'll start questioning other parts, like the miracles of Jesus and the existence of Hell. And that, for a clergy grown fat on the backs of their followers, is a terrifying proposition.

One argument that believers use is the "you can't disprove it" stand. It goes something like this:
"My belief in Creationism is every bit as valid as your belief in Evolution/the Big Bang because you can't definitively prove or disprove either." This argument is the very essence of blatant stupidity dressed up, like a cheap transvestite, in the clothes of pseudo-intellectualism.

Consider this argument for a moment. It says, simply, that in the absence of physical, objective proof, any theory is as valid as any other theory. OK, let's test that out.

We observe that when I flip a light switch, the light goes on. Untrained in electrical engineering or physics, I wonder why. My friend says that it's because when I flip the switch, I make a connection between a power source and the light, allowing electricity to flow between the two and cause the bulb to achieve a state of incandescence. Ignoring his big words -words that I don't understand anyway, so they must be meaningless - I decide that, when I flip the switch, it sends a pre-prepared prayer up to Heaven, where it is received by God, who grants me the gift of light. If the bulb burns out, or if it, somehow, does not light, it is clearly the work of Satan trying to thwart God's will that I be able to see.

After hearing my theory, my friend laughs in my face and calls me a moron. "Maybe so," I say, "but my theory is every bit as valid as yours, since you can't definitively prove or disprove either."

"But," my friend counters, "I can show you a textbook on electrical engineering that explains just how such a light switch works."

"And I," I say, smugly triumphant, "can show you THE BIBLE, a book that has sold far more copies than your puny textbook, that supports my theory of God being the creator of light and the provider of all things. Besides, your textbook is written by someone with a pro-science, anti-Christian agenda, and is therefore worthless."

"But countless scientists have tested and confirmed the principles upon which your light switch works," my friend says, feeling his brain melt into a miasma of madness simply for engaging in this brain cell-destroying discussion. "They understand the fundamental concepts of electricity."

"But they can't absolutely prove where electricity comes from," I say, "and scientists have been known to be wrong before, so my theory is every bit as good as yours. Therefore, children must be taught that each time they flip a light switch, a miracle occurs and a prayer is answered."

With that, my friend leaves in search of a very large drink with which to quiet the voices that are now screaming in his head.

The real irony of this whole argument is that Hawking's book hasn't even entered general release yet. In the US, it won't hit the bookstores until Tuesday. The Times of London published an excerpt, and it's this brief fragment that has caused all the uproar. God only knows what the reaction will be when we all get to read the actual book! If this were four hundred years ago, I'm sure the Church would already be preparing the stake upon which to burn the heretic Stephen Hawking, tossing as many copies of his book on the blaze as they can get their hands on.

Today, however, they'll settle for the next best thing: mindlessly and ignorantly smearing and trashing his work without ever reading it. Because who needs such inconvenient things as facts when you have faith instead?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Return of Mosque Madness

The controversy over the proposed Park 51 Islamic Community Center just won't go away. As the Center is set to take over an old Burlington Coat Factory building in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero, a certain segment of the population has reacted negatively, claiming a "Mosque" located "at this sacred site" is a slap in the face to all those Americans who perished in the terrorist attacks on September 11, Certainly, many of these critics are sincere people who feel deeply about this issue. Just as certainly, the Conservative Right is using this controversy to score political points with their base.

The latest to wade into the fetid waters of Mosque Madness is former Speaker of the House, primary author of 1994's Contract On America, anti-Islamist, and disgraced adulterer Newt Gingrich. Now, Gingrich has been an outspoken opponent of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" since day one. In August, he compared the building of a mosque near Ground Zero to the Nazis putting up a sign near the Holocaust Museum, claiming that they "don’t have the right to [do that]." Of course they do, Newt. It's called the First Amendment, and it applies to all Americans, even the one you don't like.

Regardless, Newt has now gone even further in his anti-Islamic rhetoric. Speaking on pretend-historian David Barton's "Wallbuilder's Live" radio show (you remember Barton; he's the buffoonish puppet of Glenn Beck who incessantly promotes the delusional idea that all the Founding Fathers were devout Christians and that they formed America as a tribute to that belief. I'm sure he also believes that Jesus signed the Declaration of Independence, and that the American Eagle guided Noah's Ark to the dry land of Plymouth Rock), Newt said:
"I think the Congress has the ability to declare the area a national battlefield memorial because I think we should think of the World Trade Center as a battlefield site; this is a war.

The Attorney General of New York, Andrew Cuomo, could intervene because frankly he has the ability to slow it down for decades if he wants to.

I am surprised that Mayor Bloomberg said it was okay and I think that if he reconsiders it, he'll decide its not.

There are a number of different steps that could be taken. There's no reason this has to occur and whether it's city, state, or federal there are plenty of ways for America to stop it."
Let's consider this bold proclamation for a moment, as there's quite a lot to parse out. We'll start with:
"... I think we should think of the World Trade Center as a battlefield site..."
Consider such historic sites as Gettysburg (a national military park), Manassas (a national battlefield park), and Antietam (a national battlefield, all classified by the US National Parks Service). Significant battles were fought there, battles in which brave men fought and died - on both sides - for a cause they believed in. According to the National Parks Service, there is currently only one national battlefield site in the US: Brice's Cross Road near Tupelo, Mississippi. It was there, on June 10, 1864, that a small Confederate force, led by Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis, defeated a much larger Union force, claiming three Northern men for every fallen Southerner. Although the battle was considered a major tactical victory, it was overshadowed by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's historic "March to the Sea," widely considered to be a turning point in the American Civil War.

Under the American Battlefield Protection Act of 1996, these areas are defined as,
"...sites where historic battles were fought on American soil during the armed conflicts that shaped the growth and development of the United States..."
Using that definition, it's easy to see how Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Shiloh - all sites of major and decisive battles of the Civil War - qualify. It's frankly harder to see how the World Trade Centers fit the bill.

Make no mistake: the events of September 11, 2001 were a tragedy of epic proportions, and a significant event in the life of this country. But is it fair to say a "battle" was "fought" there? Were the 3,000+ people who happened to be in the Trade Centers on that day willing combatants, or were they victims of a heinous attack? Did they die defending a country or a cause, or were they senselessly murdered by a handful of madmen? By asking this question, I'm not minimizing their loss, or suggesting that what they suffered is any less important than the suffering of a soldier who loses his life in armed combat. I grieve for the fallen, and I sympathize with the families of those that lost their lives that day. All I'm saying is that it's a different event. If we do designate the World Trade Center area as a national battlefield site, what about the area surrounding the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City or the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas? American citizens died in each of those tragedies, American citizens whose families are bereaved to this day. Would anyone suggest that their loss is less than those who perished on 9/11? Is it because the latter two tragedies were committed by Americans, and the vile act of 9/11 was committed by foreigners? That way lies madness.

There's a risk of over-romanticizing the events of 9/11, of painting the tragedy with so broad a brush that we risk turning it into something it's not. Yes, it was a horrendous and inexcusable act of violence committed by political and religious extremists, but we cannot allow ourselves to reach the point that "Remember 9/11!" becomes the same kind of rallying cry against "the enemy" that "Deus Volt!" - "God Wills It!" - became during the Crusades. Muslims aren't - and have never been - our enemy. Muslims are a part of the fabric of American life just like Jews, Catholics, pagans, Mormons, and atheists (all groups, it should be noted, that have been demonized at one time or another in this country's history). To treat them any differently is a crime of he basest nature against America's most deeply-help beliefs and principles.

Moving on, Gingrich then states bluntly:
"...this is a war."
A war against whom, Newt? A war against Iraq, a nation we invaded and whose lawful government we overthrew in the wake of 9/11? A war against Afghanistan, the Middle Eastern country to whom we've more recently turned our attention? Perhaps a war against Islam itself, in direct contradiction to statements made by both Presidents Bush and Obama? Be specific, Newt: with whom are we at war?

"War" is a charged word, one that arouses and enflames the emotions in an "us against them" kind of way. "War"connotes an all-out, "take no prisoners," commitment to obliterating an enemy. That's the way we approached our conflict with the Southern States during the Civil War, and it's how we approached our struggle against the Axis powers during World War II, a conflict that ended with an undeniable expression of our willingness to wipe our opponents off the face of the earth when we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Consequently, "war" isn't a word that should be thrown around lightly.

According to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution, a section normally referred to as the War Powers Clause,
"[Congress shall have Power...] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;"
The fact is, Congress never issued a declaration of war following the attacks on September 11. Instead, they avoided the issue by passing "The Iraq Resolution," H. J. [House Joint] Res. 114, which states, in part:
"The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to—(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq;"
(It should be noted, however, that this resolution was passed in the false belief that Iraq possessed dreaded Weapons of Mass Destruction, a belief now proved to be false, and one based on lies and disinformation spread by the Bush Administration. Had the actual facts of the matter been allowed to surface - that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack, and that it did not possess significant WMD's - there's little doubt that the President would never have been given such wide-ranging authority. The lesson here is that lying to Congress about receiving oral sex from an intern results in impeachment proceedings, but lying to Congress about the need to invade a foreign nation, and consequently causing the deaths of over 4,000 American soldiers, gets you...what, exactly? )

Let's be clear, though: H. J. Res. 114 was not a declaration of war, but an authorization to use military force against a country that was deemed, at the time, to pose a threat to American security. By any standard of proof, Iraq is no longer a threat to America, according to President Bush, who declared "Mission Accomplished!" on May 1, 2003, or, more recently, President Obama, who ended all combat operations in Iraq. With all that in mind, I ask again, Newt: With whom do you believe we are at war?

He goes on to say"
"The Attorney General of New York, Andrew Cuomo, could intervene because frankly he has the ability to slow it down for decades if he wants to."
The plain fact is, he doesn't want to. In July, Cuomo said:
"I agree with mayor Bloomberg on the mosque. I agree with the community board that approved the site of the mosque...It could offend some people’s sensitivities to have this mosque where it’s located. It could offend some people to have this religion memorialized and a monument to this religion, but this nation is about religious freedom. Period."
Could he be much clearer than that? Could he, as Attorney General of the State of New York, derail the construction of Park 51? Sure he could. But Godzilla could rise out the East River and trample it, as well. One event is just as likely as the other to occur. This is merely Gingrich feeding the trolls, and inciting his base to pressure Cuomo into taking a stand he doesn't believe in. Again, Gingrich is merely pouring gasoline on an already burning fire in order to score political points and further his own unholy ambitions.

Moving on, Gingrich says:
"I am surprised that Mayor Bloomberg said it was okay and I think that if he reconsiders it, he'll decide its not."
What would make you think that, Newt? Mayor Bloomberg made an impassioned speech regarding the Park 51 Center, appropriately backgrounded by the Statue of Liberty, on August 3, 2010. During that speech, he said:
"...our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked..."
Again, that seems pretty clear. If Gingrich has had subsequent conversations, with Bloomberg, I, for one, would like to hear about them. As recently as August 25, in fact, at a Gracie Mansion dinner honoring Ramadan, Bloomberg said:
"...If we say that a mosque or a community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom...We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims. We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam..."
To suggest that Mayor Bloomberg believes something that he clearly does not is vile and base, and shows that there are no depths to which someone with no moral character like Gingrich will sink (remember, this is a man who insisted on discussing the details of the divorce he sought from his cancer-stricken wife - a divorce he was insisting upon so that he could marry the mistress he had previously had an affair with - while she lay in the hospital recovering from surgery. How are those "traditional family values" working out for you, Newt?).

And then there's the kicker:
"There are a number of different steps that could be taken. There's no reason this has to occur and whether it's city, state, or federal there are plenty of ways for America to stop it."
In other words, "Screw the First Amendment. That only applies to real Americans!"

Do I need to quote the First Amendment again, the part about "Congress shall make no law...?" I didn't think so.

Basically, Gingrich wants some governmental agency to step in and strong-arm the Center's developers, much like Stalin oppressed and virtually eliminated the Russian Orthodox Church during his reign of terror. Is that really the type of America that Gingrich is advocating, a totalitarian dictatorship in which founding principles are ignored or flouted in favor of political expediency? It's certainly not the kind of America I want to live in, and I suspect it's not the kind of America that even those in opposition of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" would support.

There are those who have proposed that the so-called mosque simply be built at another location, and, in fact, New York Governor David Patterson actually floated a proposal that, if the developers of Park 51 would agree to relocate, he would allocate the disbursement of state-owned land:
"Frankly, if the sponsors were looking for property anywhere at a distance that would be such that it would accommodate a better feeling among the people who are frustrated, I would look into trying to provide them with the state property they would need."
While on the face of it, that's a nice offer, it's also blatantly unconstitutional, as it amounts to state sponsorship of a particular religion. Had the developers accepted, what would Patterson have said to the next religious organization that came to him, hat in hand, looking for a land handout? "Sorry, free land is only for Muslims. Come back after someone professing your faith runs a plane into a building." Ridiculous.

To be fair, those who hold the belief that Muslims have a right to pray and worship as they choose, and that they should voluntarily move their planned center in a demonstration of sensitivity to the grief of the 9/11 families, miss the point entirely. To do that would be to establish a "Muslim-free zone" in Manhattan, and would be the first step to obliterating the First Amendment. By doing that, we would be admitting that we treat Muslims differently from all other faiths, that they are, in effect, a "second class" religion. Once we do that, what faith is next to receive second-class status? Mine? Yours? And who gets to decide? Is that the America we want to show to the world, an America that trumpets their "freedoms" to the heavens, but abandons them when things get tough? I think we're better than that.

If, however, we take Newt and the others at their word, and agree that the area surrounding Ground Zero is sacred, what then are we to make of New York Dolls, a strip club located on Murray Street, a mere two blocks from the holy site, or the Pussycat Lounge, or Thunder Lingerie, all as close or closer to the "battlefield site" as the proposed community center? Unless Newt is more a student of history than I thought, and equates the dancers in these establishment to the sacred temple prostitutes of the ancient world, I'm not sure I see the connection. These are the same type of businesses that Rudy Giuliani chased out of Times Square, in order to make that area more "family friendly." So you don't want your kids to see adult businesses, but locating them in a holy site is OK? That's a theology with which I'm obviously unfamiliar.

Would Newt and his cronies object to Goldman-Sachs putting up an office building near the site, considering their contribution to this nation's current economic meltdown? What about a Target two blocks away, considering that their upper management gives money to known anti-homosexual groups? Or perhaps they'd prefer a Catholic Church, amid the seemingly unending reports of priests sexually abusing young boys, and the church itself covering up such abuses for decades? What do you say to that, Mr. Gingrich? How exclusionary do you suggest we be?

To be sure, such examples as a new church being built near Ground Zero are far from hypothetical, but, not surprisingly, have caused little comment or stir in the press of late. Indeed, Bill Keller, the founder and head of LivePrayer, a successful Christian on-line site, has announced his intentions to build a physical church near the site of the September 11 attacks. Within a block of Ground Zero, to be exact (it should be noted that Keller is based in Florida, and received his degree from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world. Just sayin', is all). Until that structure - the aptly-named 9/11 Christian Center at Ground Zero - can be built, however, he'll be holding services at the New York Marriott, also one block from the holy site. His first sermon, he reports, will focus on his opposition to the "Ground Zero Mosque." Nice. A good ol' dose of racism and divisiveness to kick things off. Nothing like stating your principles right up front.

Let's be absolutely clear about one thing: assuming Keller follows all applicable local laws, he has as much right to build a church on private property as anyone, and at any location he chooses. But I find it hypocritical to trumpet your building project while at the same time working to deny someone else theirs. Is there a provision of the Constitution - at any level, Federal or State - that I'm missing, that gives Christians in this country more rights than Muslims? I don't think so.

And looking at Keller's website, his brand of Christianity is certainly of the variety that would most appeal to such staunch defenders of freedom as Gingrich: the glaringly for-profit variety. Even the most cursory visit to LivePrayer.com will show you what's really important to Keller. Right there on the front page, "above the fold," as it were, is an ad for "Gold for Souls," a unique program in which Keller exhorts the faithful to send him their, "gold jewelry of all kinds: brooches, earrings, rings and ornaments," and in return they will receive not money, but "a tax deductible donation receipt for what you send in... [and] eternal dividends since the funds will be used to help lead this nation back to God and Biblical Truth and the souls of men to faith in Jesus Christ!" What a deal! I'm sure Glenn Beck is frothing at the mouth that he didn't think of that scam first! Getting gold for free is even better than selling overpriced gold!

What's really offensive about Keller's "ministry," however, isn't its blatant commercialism, its transparent attempt to take advantage of the poor and needy in a time of national crisis. No, what's really offensive about Keller's message is that it's one of undisguised hatred and intolerance. Keller's brand of Christianity is one of elitism and exclusion, an "us against them" faith that does more to polarize than to heal. Keller roundly denounces all faiths but his own, driving a wedge of intolerance and misunderstanding between his flock and everyone else in the world. To illustrate this point, consider this quote from one of his daily devotionals:
"I already know that there will be thousands of very angry emails about how intolerant I am, how the Christian faith is horrible for excluding so many good people. Does this mean your Jewish friend who is a "good person" but never accepts Jesus is going to hell? YES! Does this mean that the family member you love but rejects Christ is going to hell? YES! Does this mean those kind people you work with that embrace Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or some other false religion are going to hell? YES!"
Tell me, Mr. Keller, compared to, say, the Dalai Lama, how much have you done in the cause of worldwide peace, freedom, and justice? When all is said and done, what will your legacy be compared to his? Who's really walking the walk here, and not just talking the talk for a buck? Based on their actions, whose theology will make the world a better place, and whose will merely serve to line his own pockets? In other words, who serves God and who serves Mammon?

Aside from donations, the subject about which Keller is most outspoken is, not surprisingly, Islam. In discussing the role of his new church, he claimed that it was,
"...there to bring hope and to help people. It's not designed to be a place where we preach against Islam, although we will preach against Islam and Mormonism and any other false religion."
So although it's not designed to be anti-Islamic, it will be anyway, 'cause that's just how we roll.

In the same conversation, Keller went on to say,
"Islam is a religion of hate, violence and death," he said. "You can candy-coat it as the religion of peace, but when you boil it down, every time you see a potential terrorist attack, the common thread is they have all been perpetrated by Muslims."
Hmm. One wonders what Keller thinks about such recent events as the bombings directed against the Police Service of Northern Ireland, acts typically ascribed to dissident Irish republicans, or the Canadian anarchists who firebombed a bank in Ottawa in protest against the Olympic Winter Games held in Vancouver, and the upcoming G8 and G20 Summits, or the bombing of the Athens Stock Exchange, an act allegedly perpetrated by a Greek extremist group, Revolutionary Struggle. Despite Keller's assertion, terrorists come in all shapes, sizes, races, and creeds. In his myopic view, however, it's either "us" or "them," and if you're not "us" - like anyone who's straight, white, and Christian - you're "them" and you're going to Hell.

And so here we have an admitted and confirmed hate monger, someone who uses the language an rhetoric of hatred and racism to inflame his flock into lining his pockets, someone who represents all the worst aspects of narrow-minded, bigoted Christianity, and we have no problem with his building a church - a monument to his greed and avarice - within the shadows of the Twin Towers. But let a neighborhood of peaceful, hard-working Muslims - Muslims who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, or with any terrorist action - dare to try and build a community center to improve the quality of life for them and their children, and we instantly move to cast them out, to purge them from the "Muslim-free zone" we've decided should be established around Ground Zero. Strip clubs? Welcome. Liquor stores? Come on! Keller's Church of Hate and $$$? Glad to have you! Muslim Community Center? Um, sure, just not in my neighborhood.

But why shouldn't the Muslim's move their center to a patch of ground selected by the city? After all, relocation to reservations has worked out so well for the Native American population, hasn't it? And what's wrong with "separate but equal," as long as their water fountains and bathrooms are as nice as ours? Sigh. It's hard to realize just how little we've learned from our past, but in a day when Glenn Beck and David Barton seem to be the primary source of American "history" for an increasing number of zombiefied, FOX-washed people, I guess that's not really surprising.

I'm not advocating denying a building permit to Keller. Not at all. If he can afford the land, and if he conforms to all applicable laws in the building of his church - just as the developers of Park 51 have - more power to him. All I'm pointing out is the blinkered hypocrisy of allowing him to build, and denying the same right to the Park 51 facility. Could the Muslim center move? Yes, and we could also cut out pieces of the Bill of Rights to accommodate such political grandstanders as Newt Gingrich and religious opportunists as Bill Keller. But we're not going to.

This is America, and to compromise our principles is to allow the terrorists to win. When those planes were flown into the sides of the World Trade Centers, their goal was to cripple America, to change our way of life, and to eliminate the freedoms we hold so dear.

If we go down the role we're currently on, and insist on treating Muslims as outsiders, as unworthy of the same protections and freedoms we cherish, then we've given up and given in. By doing so, we'll do more to destroy this country than 100 planefuls of radical extremists could ever do.

I don't want to see that happen, and I don't think you do either. That's why it's important to stand up for the things you believe in - things like the Bill of Rights - even when it hurts to do so. That's what this is all about: doing the right thing, even when it's hard.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What I Believe...

Writing this blog has been an interesting experience. It's challenged me to really examine what it is that I believe, and to put those beliefs down in words. I've learned a lot from doing it, not only about my personal beliefs, but about the world in general. I thought that today I'd crystallize things even more by actually creating my own statement of belief. Your mileage may vary.

WHAT I BELIEVE:

  1. I believe that the most precious freedom we have, the one that undergirds and supports all other freedoms, and the one that must be defended most zealously, is the Freedom of Speech. The freedom to express ourselves, without fear of reprisal, is necessary to ensure Freedom of Religion, Freedom of the Press, the Right to Assemble, the Right to Petition the Government for Redress of Grievances, and more. A society that supports, encourages, and protects the free exchange of ideas - through policies like Net Neutrality - is a society that is capable of growing and prospering; a society that does not is doomed to stagnation and failure. Make no mistake, there are those who have a vested interest in limiting this freedom. The Bush administration tried with their insidious Patriot Act, which includes provisions to prosecute any individual who engages in peaceful, lawful acts that the government feels supports an identified terrorist organization. Who those "terrorist organizations" are is a decision left up to shadowy bureaucrats. But in spite of the best interests of these opponents to Free Speech, the First Amendment lives on, and, in spite of the maniacal ravings of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Jan Brewer, and other malignant maffickers, it remains the greatest gift ever bestowed upon us.

  2. But I also believe that the Freedom of Speech carries with it a terrific responsibility. Wisely, we have placed limits on the unbridled freedom to say whatever one wants. Libel and slander, for example, are justifiably against the law, as is speech that incites to riot or contributes to a breach of the peace. Hate speech, that speech that is specifically designed to incite violence against, or cause damage to, any person or group based on specific characteristics such as race, color, sexual orientation, gender, etc., is also widely exempt from the protections of the First Amendment. And rightfully so. Speech, and the ideas it conveys, are powerful weapons, and must be used carefully and with sufficient thought. Stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment, as the Right has done over the past weeks and months, has already resulted in the stabbing of an innocent cab driver. Must people be killed before they realize that their hate speech was the spark that enflamed such heinous actions?

  3. I believe that the principles codified in our core documents - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - should be applied equally to everyone, regardless of age, social/economic status, sexual preference, spiritual belief, country of origin, etc. Christians aren't "better" than Muslims, whites aren't "better" than blacks, heterosexuals aren't "better" than homosexuals. And yet we, as a society, have attempted to build up various strata to keep one group "on top," and the rest somewhere below. This goes against everything America stands for. Proper Health Care, for example, shouldn't be available only to the wealthy, but should be the birthright of all. Any other system betrays the ideals expressed in those documents that we, as Americans, hold most dear.

  4. While I believe that everyone should be rewarded for hard work and achievement, I also believe that it's incumbent upon us, as a compassionate society, to take care of those members who, for one reason or another, cannot take care of themselves. As a nation, we have a poor track record of caring for the elderly, the disabled, the disadvantaged, and it reflects poorly on us. As one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, with perhaps the highest standard of living of any civilization in human history, we should be able to find a way to ensure that the basic human rights of all our citizens are met. We may preach compassion and concern to the world, but when we fail to lift up the weakest and the poorest among us, our true character is fully revealed. Call it "socialism," call it "redistribution of wealth," call it what you will, it's simply the right thing to do.

  5. I believe that education is the most important thing that we can provide for ourselves and our children, and that it should be our #1 priority going forward. There has been an insidious attack on education waged over the last few decades by the Conservative Right, one that we must not allow to continue. Media demagogues like Glenn "A High School edjumacation is all the book-larnin' I need!" Beck recently compared American universities to Vietnamese re-education camps, making plain the Right's disdain for higher education. Of course, it's fair to say that listening to Beck talk about a university education is like listening to Helen Keller's review of Gone With The Wind ("I've been told it was good, but..."), but his point is clear: education is bad, ignorance is a virtue (which should be the motto of his newly-founded on-line Beck University). This attitude has resulted in the branding of anyone with a post-high school education an "elite," a disparaging word that has become common in the rhetoric of the Right, especially since the election of Barack Obama, a graduate of both Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he graduate magna cum laude. Frankly, I want the smartest guy in the room to be President, not the guy who barely scraped by with a public school education. The result of this campaign against education (and the devastating rise in home schooling that comes from the Fundamentalist Christian belief that their delicate children need to be shielded from any form of knowledge not strictly based in the Bible)? America now lags far behind most other developed nations in terms of educational achievement, ranking 35 out of 57 in math, and 29 out of 57 in science, according to a 2006 survey. Our standing in reading, by all accounts, is equally poor. How do we expect to thrive in the future if we don't educate our children today?

  6. I believe that elected officials should be the servants of the people, responsible to the citizenry, and not the puppets of an amorphous "party." I don't particularly care which side "wins" in any particular issue, as long as the American people are the ultimate winners. I'll support anyone - Republican or Democrat - who's truly working in my best interests. Too often, however, representatives on both sides appear openly hostile to their constituency, more focused on preserving their own careers than on doing the work of the people. We entrust these people with our futures, as we send them to Washington to make law and policy that will improve our lives. We don't send them there so that they can profit from backroom deals, or line their pockets with funds from lobbyists, or suck off the system so that they can spend more time on the golf course. These people work for us, and we need to hold them accountable, as we would with any employee. We need to hold their feet to the fire, and require them to answer questions about their policies and their statements (yes, I'm talking to you, Jan Brewer) so that we, the voters, can make an informed choice when it's time to go to the polls. Since we pay them, they are answerable to us. The arrogance and condescension shown by some candidates in this time of mid-term elections is appalling.

  7. I believe that America should exist for the benefit of its people, not its corporations. Business is good, and the growth of business should be encouraged in this country, but not at the expense of the lives and property of the American people. I support regulation that places more controls on businesses in order to safeguard the welfare of the American people. Greed and avarice cannot be allowed to run rampant over the broken and bleeding bodies of the American people, helpless before its inexorable advance. One of the prime responsibilities of government is to protect us from threats that are too big for us to defend against individually. Thanks to President Obama and his recent Wall Street Reform bill, steps in that direction are finally being taken.

  8. I believe that we are stewards of this world, not conquerors, and I believe that we have a responsibility to take care of the Earth and safeguard it for future generations. I believe that the Earth is a living, breathing thing that we have the power to harm, a power we exercise far too often. I believe that long-term good trumps short-term profits, and that the good of humanity is more important than the good of big business. I believe that each species' death that we cause is an irreversible tragedy, one that bodes poorly for the future of bio-diversity. We need to start thinking of the Earth as something that we are a part of, not as something we exist separately from. No matter how hard we try to isolate ourselves from the Earth - by paving it over, clear-cutting forests, limiting the range of wild animals, and constructing bigger and bigger enclosed structures - we can never forget that we are as much a part of this incredible bio-sphere as the mountains, the trees, the whales, and the birds, and the future of the Earth is inextricably linked to our own,

  9. I believe that is marriage is a great thing, and that everyone who wants to should be able to participate in it. Same sex marriage isn't a threat to our national security, and heterosexual couples don't have a monopoly on love (a quick glance at the divorce rate between hetero couples should prove that). No one has a right to tell anyone else who they can or cannot love; likewise, no one should have a right to tell anyone else who they can or cannot marry. To insist otherwise is cruel and hateful, a xenophobic response to an imaginary problem.

  10. I believe that faith is a good thing, but blind faith is dangerous. I believe that the message of the Bible and the incontrovertible facts that science presents to us are not incompatible, but to conflate both requires education, insight, and an open mind. Sadly, those qualities are in short supply by those who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible. The vitriolic response to Stephen Hawking's new book - in which he provides an origin of the Universe that does not depend on God - is telling, in that his rational, intellectual approach terrifies those who rely on their flock's unthinking, unquestioning belief in an outdated mythology.

  11. I also believe in religious freedom, but if I support your right to believe in a book of magic and fairy tales, it's incumbent upon you to support the rights of others to the religious beliefs of their choice. Freedom of Religion means not only "freedom of all religions," but it also means "freedom from religion" for those who chose not to partake. No one faith should be prioritized over any other, and that means no prayer or Ten Commandments in public schools or courthouses. If you want to practice a particular faith, more power to you. There are plenty of houses of worship that would love to have you as a member. But you need to support the rights of the rest of us to live a life unencumbered by your chosen faith. Freedom of Religion doesn't mean "Freedom of YOUR Religion," it doesn't mean that your faith is better than any others, and it doesn't give you the right to characterize all practitioners of a faith you don't understand as "terrorists." Pray to whomever or whatever you want, but remember that the freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.

  12. I believe that being "progressive" is a good thing, no matter what Glenn Beck says. The opposite of "progressive" is "regressive," something I don't think anyone wants for America. Do we really want to go back to the day of poll taxes, slavery, women as chattel, and Blue laws? Maybe Tom Tancredo does, but I don't.

  13. I believe that you're not entitled to an opinion as much as you're entitled to an informed opinion. The Internet is the greatest information resource ever created, and there's no excuse for at least having some level of understanding of whatever subject it is you're discussing. Don't take Sarah Palin's word about "death panels" or Jan Brewer's word about "headless bodies" or Glenn Beck's word about "re-education camps"... or my word about anything. Use the limitless resources in front of you and find out the truth for yourself. Then you can enter the conversation armed with something more than just the maniacal ravings of some random lunatic. As someone much wiser than me once said, "You may be entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts."

  14. I believe that there are plenty of people who are going to violently disagree with everything I've written here, and that's OK. This blog is part of the national dialogue, intended not to be the last word on any subject, but to be the beginning of the discussion. We need to evolve past the mindless shouting of epithets and the lame chanting of three-syllable slogans, and be willing to argue, to debate, and to discuss. Arguing doesn't mean name calling, it doesn't mean personal attacks, it doesn't mean seeing who can yell the loudest. It means a reasoned argument, supported with facts. If you think the Health Care bill is evil, tell me why. If you're really opposed to gay marriage, tell me why. And tell me in real, concrete terms, without resorting to a ridiculous "because the Bible says so," defense.
So that's my personal statement of belief, at least as of today.I make no guarantees that I may not change, revise, or eliminate any or all the points listed above at some time in the future, based on new evidence and experience. I don't see any value in beliefs that are carved in stone and unchangeable. That's not "integrity" to me, it's stupidity. I prefer to be open to new things and new ideas, and to adjust my beliefs accordingly.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

When Fear Meets Politics, We All Lose

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can paralyze or provoke, motivate or devastate. Since the earliest days of civilization, fear has been an efficacious tool when used to govern the masses. As Nicolai Machiavelli said in his classic work on politics, The Prince, written in 1513:

“[S]ince love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
Since the most ancient of days, rulers have used fear to maintain control over their populace. The Emperor Caligula, at least during the latter part of his short reign, was known to execute on the slightest whim anyone he believed was against him. His cruelty and arrogance were legendary, making him one of the most feared – and despised – rulers in history. Say what you will about Caligula, he learned early on the power of fear to control an entire population.

Even more adept at the politics of fear was Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia in the fifteenth century, who made a name for himself as the infamous “Vlad the Impaler.” His cruelty was epic; his favorite activity was to impale political and military enemies vertically on long pikes, a method that – properly done – could prolong death for hours or even days, while he dined in the midst of the carnage. His methods of spreading fear and terror throughout the land worked; it’s widely reported that an invading Ottoman army, coming upon Vlad’s forest of impaled corpses, turned away from Wallachia in fear of their lives and abandoned their invasion plans. Tepes was known as a merciless ruler, proscribing horrific punishments for even the most minor infractions, such as skinning the feet of convicted thieves, coating their soles with salt, and allowing goats to lick the salt off their flayed feet, or nailing the yarmulkes of devout men – head coverings required by their faith – to their heads when they failed to remove those caps in his presence. Surviving accounts tell of a man who was capricious and bloodthirsty, who would have men, women, or children executed for the most insignificant slights, all to satisfy his lust for power and control. The phrase “reign of terror” could have been coined to describe this legendary despot.

Of course, one of the most effective – and infamous – fear-mongers of the twentieth century was Republican Senator Joseph “Tailgunner Joe” McCarthy from Wisconsin. On February 9, 1950, McCarthy gave a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, during which he claimed to have in his possession a list of 205 known Communists currently working in the US State Department. His assertion, and the ensuing panic it touched off, ignited the “McCarthy Era” in America, a time in which Americans were seeing Commies under every bed and flying saucers behind every tree. The resultant paranoia and panic cost many innocent victims their careers – those determined in sham “hearings” to be Communists or Communist sympathizers – and some of the less fortunate their lives. It is widely regarded as one of the darkest and most shameful periods in American history, a time when fear of an abstract “other” dominated American life and politics.

The use of fear as a method of control is hardly limited to political leaders. The basic foundation of the Christian Church is fear, fear of damnation, or eternal torment, or separation from God. Of course, it’s the church itself that offers the only remedy to this fear through a path of salvation, a path that can be paved by donations from those fearful of the consequences of dying without the church’s blessing.

In the Middle Ages, this fear was invoked to promote the sale of Indulgences. The concept was that someone who had committed a sin could be forgiven…for a price, and thus avoid eternal damnation. The practice was so widespread that it led to the creation of a new job category: professional “pardoners” who went around selling such indulgences, usually to raise money in support of everything from the building of schools, churches, and hospitals, to the construction of roads and bridges. Of course, indulgences were also sold solely to enrich the coffers of the clergy. It was due to the abuses associated with this practice that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church at Wittenberg, and began the Protestant Reformation.

Although the practice of selling indulgences was done away with centuries ago, the concept of scaring the faithful into compliance by summoning vivid images of Hell and damnation has not been lost on later generations of clergy. Nothing brings in the offerings like a good old fire and brimstone sermon, complete with threats of eternal torment at the hands of hideous demons. What’s a few bucks in the collection plate compared to an eternity spent up to your neck in molten lava with succubi poking at your eyes and demons burrowing in your ears?

Consider such rabid televangelists as Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn, who regularly hit their followers up for cash donations with the promise of God’s favor as a reward. The dark, often unspoken, side of their pitch is that if you don’t donate, God will turn his back on you, and allow you to be cast into Hell. Appealing to people’s better natures – asking them to support something altruistically - isn’t nearly as profitable as scaring the crap out of them, a lesson these preachers-for-profit have learned quite well. Their line brings in so much money, it seems now that even Glenn Beck, once the darling of the political right, is shedding his Constitutional vestments for the preacher’s robes and warning the faithful about God’s coming judgment on America – instilling a vague fear in the gullible - the better to encourage his flock to invest in overpriced gold, and to buy his ever-increasing stream of books, DVDs, and audio recordings. Beck has discovered that there’s hardly any difference – in his mind, at least – between God and Gold, a convergence he is currently exploiting to the hilt.

As in the examples above, fear is usually coupled with either money or power, or both. Clearly, why invoke such a powerful feeling if there’s not a way to profit from it? The most creative, and often the most powerful, leaders have not only capitalized on fear, they’ve created it, just like McCarthy. His “list” of 205 Communists was never made public; chances are it never existed in the first place. But he created something to fear out of whole cloth, not only making himself one of the most powerful men in America for several years, but creating a whole for-profit industry – the military-industrial complex that existed solely to “keep pace” with the Russians in everything from weapons development to space exploration. None of that would have come about but for McCarthy’s rabid fear-mongering, demonstrating just how powerful a tool fear can be.

Clearly, Adolf Hitler was also a master of manipulating the fears of the German people. Downcast and discouraged after the devastating events of World War I, Hitler gave his followers a specific group of people – the Jews – to fear and focus on. He raised the fear quotient to a high degree, invoking such obscenely racist – and patently absurd – documents as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claimed, among other things, that Jews were engaged in a massive, yet entirely secretive, plot to achieve world domination. By providing a tangible group upon which the German people could focus their fear – and proposing his own “Final Solution” as a way to eliminate that group and solve the very problem he had created - Hitler rose to an undreamed of level of power, and led Germany down a path to destruction.

We see the same techniques being used in American government today. The Bush administration understood the power of fear, and used it to an ever-increasing degree after the tragic events of September 11. Bush knew that a fearful public was a compliant public, and that, given the right motivation, they’d do everything from empty the stores of duct tape – after widespread fear mongering regarding “imminent” poison gas attacks by terrorists – to avidly supporting an invasion of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

That administration perfected their technique of instilling fear into the American people by creating the Department of Homeland Security, a bureau that has been roundly criticized for excessive waste – running into the billions of dollars – fraud, and mismanagement. One has to question why this department was even created, given that the FBI and CIA have been dealing with such security issues for decades. It seems clear upon reflection, however, that the DHS was established for one reason and one reason alone: to keep the threat of terrorism at the forefront of the American consciousness and to keep this country’s citizens in a perpetual state of fear.

Their chief tool in this regard was the otherwise-pointless Homeland Security Advisory System, otherwise known as the “Terror Alert Level.” The HSAS is a five point scale with associated colors that ostensibly provides a guide as to the level of terrorist threat that currently hangs over American heads. By raising the level – from Yellow (“Elevated”) to Orange (“High”), Americans, especially those who travel frequently, can be aware of impending danger and take appropriate steps to protect themselves.

That sounds good in theory, but the reality is quite different. The criteria used to raise or lower the threat level from one category to the next has, tellingly, never been disclosed, making it impossible to verify the validity of the scale at any given time. Also, it’s worth noting that the threat level has never fallen below Yellow (“Elevated”), never reflecting a condition of Blue (“Guarded”) or Green (“Low”) in its entire history. The timing of its changes is also suspect; critics note that the level was raised in 2004, an election year, leading to charges of political manipulation. Indeed, Tom Ridge, the initial director of the DHS, revealed in his book, The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege… And How We Can Be Safe Again, that he was pressured by top Bush aides, including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, into raising the threat level as the 2004 election approached, ostensibly in order to bolster support for President Bush. They knew that instilling fear into the general public at that critical moment could translate into a win at the polls. And they were right.

And who could forget the spectre of non-existent “death panels” that haunted the recent Health Care debate? A lie cobbled together out of thin air by that great political scholar Sarah Palin, and spread by such mindless drones as Se. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), this was the idea that some unnamed government panel was going to decide whether or not Grandma got to live for another year. If not, it was off to the euthanasia chamber with her! Based on nothing but an illiterate reading of a provision in the bill that would allow insurance to cover end-of-life counseling –such as a living will – with a physician, the panic over these “death panels” swept the nation, inflaming passions, and making an actual, reasoned debate about the pros and cons of the Bill impossible. The unthinking sheeple that followed Palin’s inflammatory Facebook post blindly believed her uninformed rhetoric, disrupted town hall meetings, and succeeded in hijacking the issue, turning it into something it never should have been.

The level of fear mongering in America has only increased in recent days. Now, according to the Conservative Right, we’re supposed to be afraid of Mexicans (at least those who cross the border illegally, spreading leprosy – according to CNN Correspondent Lou Dobbs – and decapitating American citizens in the Arizona desert – according to increasingly insane Arizona governor Jan Brewer), Muslims (after all, they’re all terrorists, whose only goal is to obliterate America. Some, like rabid anti-Islamist Pamela Greer, actually favor criminalizing Islam in America, a flagrant violation of the First Amendment that also protects her rights to spew her venomous screed), same sex couples (they’re coming for your children!), liberals (we’re all secret Communists, don’t you know, who want to take your hard earned money and distribute it to welfare cheats, illegal immigrants, and terrorists), and atheists (they want to take away your Bibles!). Indeed, many of these issues, such as same-sex marriage and illegal immigration, have become platform issues for Republicans, who are increasingly running on these hot-button topics. Taking a page from Bush’s playbook, they figure that if they can whip up enough fear, the increasing mass of uneducated, unaware Americans will vote for them, even if their proposed “solutions” are entirely draconian – “Repeal the 14th Amendment!” - and run counter to all the best principles upon which this country was founded.

But the problem with fear is that it dissipates over time. What was terrifying, once familiar, loses its ability to frighten. Think about the first time you saw a really scary movie, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the Thirteenth. The first time you see it, it’s terrifying. Each and every shocking moment makes you toss your popcorn in utter horror. But see the movie a few more times, and the shock value is greatly diminished, as you know what to expect, and the terrifying becomes the familiar.

The same is true with political fear. One criticism of the HSAS was that, by keeping the threat level at “Elevated” or higher, the American public became used to living at such a level and began to ignore terror warnings. In short, their fear was diminished over time, as the threat became a familiar part of their lives. In order to overcome this, those in charge have a vested interest in upping the ante. If they want us to continue to live in fear, they have to provide increasingly terrifying things for us to be afraid of. It’s like TV shows that count on shock value for their programming, like the Jerry Springer Show. It’s fine to start off with topics like, “I’m in Love With Your Sister,” but the public soon grows bored with that, meaning you have to move on to, “I Slept With Your Sister,” “I Deserted You For Your Sister,” “Your Sister is Having My Baby, “ and, finally, “I Had a Sex Change and I Am Your Sister.” Where do you go when you’ve hit the bottom? Your choice is either to keep digging – “I Butchered Your Sister and Served Her for Dinner” – or give up. I guarantee you that the Right is not going to give up.

So what is the antidote to fear? Knowledge. When you know objectively that Lou Dobbs and Jan Brewer are full of crap – that illegal Mexicans aren’t spreading leprosy and chopping people’s heads off – you can begin to examine the actual issue of illegal immigration and take steps to address the real problem, and not the problem created by those who, like Joe McCarthy, simply want to control – or profit – from you. Terrorism is a problem in today’s world, to be sure, but just like there weren’t Commies under every bed in the 1950s, there aren’t suicide bombers on every plane today. “Terrorists” are simply the new bogeyman we’ve been conditioned to fear, just like “Huns” and “Commies” in times past. Again, that’s not to say that terrorists don’t exist, and that there aren’t those extremist groups that really do intend harm to America and her people, just that it’s not as widespread and immediate an issue as certain politicians would have you believe. There are things to fear in the world, but we should take steps to ensure that the things we’re afraid of are real, and not just the deluded product of a mind warped by the love of power and control.

In addition to knowledge, we need to demand more of our politicians, insisting that they work in our best interests and not their own. We need to hold them accountable, and insist that they stick to the facts. In this Internet age, fact checking is easier than ever, but we have to make a commitment to do it. Don’t let the Sarah Palin’s of the world get away with creating phantom “death panels,” don’t let the Glenn Beck’s of the world convince you that President Obama is a “secret socialist” or a “closet Muslim.” Look at the facts objectively, and find the truth within the lies. If we all do this, politicians on both sides will lose fear as a governing tactic, and we’ll be all the better for it.

I fear, however, that we won’t.