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Posts in Category: Current Posts

Islamic State of Mind

Yesterday morning began inauspiciously, with me reading of an awful op-ed that attempted to divorce ISIS’s horrific pattern of sexual enslavement from the Islamic faith. Among other defenses, the author, Boston University assistant professor of religion Kecia Ali, pulls out a couple of old chestnuts: that the Qur’an “arose” in a world where slavery was a given, that ISIS’s fundamentalism is “superficial and selective” (unlike those who choose to ignore the pro-slavery, pro-rape passages in the Qur’an?), and that the west, not Islam, is to blame for all of this.

I’d like to dissect that a little bit, but first, let me tell you how the day closed: with the news that ISIS blew up a 2000-year-old religious temple in Palmyra. This news comes less than a week after the news that 81-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who spent four decades in charge of the Palmyra excavation, was interrogated, tortured, and beheaded by ISIS. Afterward, they strung his body up from a lamppost and placed the head below.

Early reports stated that they were looking for gold, but over the past week, it has come to light that the true agenda of the militants is to “purge paganism” from the world. They believed al-Asaad had secretly buried antiquities. Since they overtook Palmyra in May, it has been reported that ISIS has destroyed several other religious artifacts, including the first-century Lion of al-Lat, believed to be the “consort” of the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess of Mecca. Now, they’ve destroyed a temple to Baalshamin, alternately a god and a title for other gods, including famed Yahweh competitor Ba’al.

These actions beg an obvious question: is this about religion, or isn’t it? Apologists like Kecia Ali would have us believe that the violence perpetuated by ISIS might use scripture as justification, but it is not really religion driving the behavior. If it was, then why don’t all Muslims behave this way? The simplest answer is that social attitudes progress in spite of religion. Ali criticizes the “superficial and selective” interpretation of the Qur’an, but as I love saying of any holy book: all that bad shit is still in there. If you “choose” to interpret the horrible passages as the inerrant word of God, how can anyone tell you that you’re religiously wrong? It’s right there.

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Gun Control

Here’s the deal, guys: gun violence doesn’t only matter on the days high-profile shootings get endless media coverage. I’ve seen an uncomfortable number of posts today suggesting the shootings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward have shed new light on the gun control debate. This is not true; the only difference between it and any other shooting is the fact that it happened live on television.

In Chicago alone, nearly 300 people have been shot dead so far this year. Over 1600 people have “merely” been wounded in a shooting. Just in Chicago. Just this year. This is a problem every single day, everywhere in this country. When a violent shooting saturates the media for a day or two, I would ask that you pause and reflect on the fact that such shootings happen so often, the media views them as mundane. It’s only when there’s a “sexy” angle that they pretends to care, and a new angle on a mundane problem doesn’t make it different or more important or more urgent. It makes it frightening—frightening that the thousands of others murdered by guns in a given year aren’t acknowledged by the media until an “interesting” or “compelling” shooting occurs.

Now, for those of you who are less than sympathetic to the endlessly expanding list of shooting victims: the Second Amendment, in its vagueness, is not a tacit endorsement of anyone who chooses to collect a dozen assault rifles to store in a secret floor vault along with some gold doubloons and a package of Food Insurance. I agree with the spirit of the Second Amendment, in its original historical context: a new nation, with a new view of personal and political freedom, surrounded by European colonies and Indian settlements with uncertain allegiances, having recently fought and won its freedom from a powerful empire’s formidable military, believed that to prevent the reemergence of tyranny, the only rational way to protect both citizen and nation was to empower the individual to arm him or herself. History shows this belief was not exactly incorrect, but the framers failed to anticipate a time and place when guns would outnumber men, and the need of guns to fight for freedom would be outweighed by the want of guns to murder people for really, really lame reasons.

“But wait!” you’re bellowing. “What about the need of a well regulated militia for the security of a free state?” You’re looking at the American military, the most powerful force the world has ever known, and you’re cowering in your makeshift bunker, surrounded on all sides with chalkboards scrawled with paranoid nonsense, and you’re ascared of what will happen if the wrong person(s) gain responsibility for that force.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also worry about that, sometimes. But remember the following: A ragtag group of untrained civilians, led by nerdy political philosophers, won their independence from the British Empire, which boasted the most powerful military the world had ever seen. History is rife with examples of small forces defeating enormous, well-organized military powers, from the Greeks at Thermopylae to, unfortunately, ISIS in the Middle East.

You don’t need to be Goliath to beat Goliath. So relax, and learn to embrace a world where you’ll maybe get to keep one handgun and one hunting rifle, registered and plugged into a national law enforcement database. When the time comes to rise up against the government, at least they’ll know the names of the people coming after them.

What’s that? You’re a lifetime member of the NRA worried about how this will hurt your beloved arms-manufacturing industry? Relax; the federal government spends $600 billion a year on “defense,” and they sell a shit-ton of American arms to foreign militaries. The arms trade won’t go anywhere, so neither will your limited, well regulated number of personal weapons.

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We Need the Eggs

A friend recently brought to my attention a conspiracy, a real conspiracy, to destroy a company producing egg-free mayonnaise. The article originally sent to me pitches this as an “anti-vegan” conspiracy, but the reality is much less exciting; at best, it’s a pro-egg conspiracy. The questions on my mind have little to do with the mayonnaise itself. I want to know why and how there would be, of all things, a pro-egg conspiracy.

The answer is deceptively simple. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) apportions $1.3 billion per year to a division called the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which among other duties currently administers 22 “Research & Promotion” programs, “requested, funded, and driven by industry.” The AMS states that it “provides oversight, ensuring fiscal responsibility, program efficiency, and fair treatment of participating stakeholders.” That sounds just lovely.

One of the 22 programs the AMS administers is called the American Egg Board. They came up with, among other things, the “Incredible Edible Egg” slogan and the annoyingly amusing Kevin Bacon & Eggs t-shirt. As you might guess, they put a lot of effort into the “promotion” half of “Research & Promotion.” The Board states that it is funded through roughly $20 million in annual assessments of egg sales (ten centers per 30-dozen case of eggs sold).

Appointees to the Board are selected by the Secretary of Agriculture, from a list of egg producer nominees. The Board itself sprung fully formed from Congress’s thigh in 1974, as part of the “Egg Research and Consumer Information Act.” Among other things, the law states that “[i]t has long been recognized that it is in the public interest to provide an adequate, steady supply of fresh eggs readily available to the consumers of the Nation… It is therefore declared to be the policy of the Congress and the purpose of this Act that it is essential and in the public interest, through the exercise of the powers provided herein, to authorize and enable the establishment of an orderly procedure from the development and the financing through an adequate assessment, an effective and continuous coordinated program of research, consumer and producer education, and promotion designed to strengthen the egg industry’s position in the marketplace.” Luckily, “[n]othing in this Act shall be construed to mean, or provide for, control of production or otherwise limit the right of individual egg producers.” What a relief!

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Sensitivity Straining

In the past, I’ve made light of a concept I find absurd: the notion of atheist discrimination and persecution. It’s absurd generally, but especially in a mostly free country like the United States. I’m aware that in less free, more religious countries, an individual’s atheism is a brave, dangerous choice. I’m also aware that in some cases, atheists publicly speaking out against religious atrocities has led to threats, violence, and murder, which is why a handful of atheist critics choose anonymity. I think, when I’ve mocked the idea of “atheist discrimination” in the past, I’ve made that distinction clear.

However, until recently I’ve never taken the time to properly think through the notion of atheist discrimination in the U.S. One reason it always strikes me as laughable is because it’s always couched in terms of government and employment. Although it obviously happens, it is neither appropriate nor legal for government officials to discriminate on the basis of their (or your) religious beliefs. The same goes for employers. So naturally, I think it’s silly when I read articles complaining that the U.S. military “discriminates” against atheists (they don’t). I think it’s equally silly when government discrimination is painted with the same brush as private discrimination, as when the Boy Scouts of America disallow atheists. That’s their choice and their right as a private, Christian organization. You want an atheist scouting organization? Start one.

What is both more concerning and upsetting to me than the vague notion of unprovable discrimination by unseen forces is the very real human cost of atheist discrimination.

A few weeks ago, I watched a video of a lecture given by an atheist activist, Katie Kruse. The video is 46 minutes long, but I’d recommend watching it if you feel the way I do. The lecturer, Katie Kruse, explains how her experiences as a missionary in China led to her loss of faith. In order to do justice to that, she explains her entire faith journey, from a childhood as an evangelical Christian to a young adulthood obsessed with learning the roots of the faith, to her missionary work and subsequent loss of faith, and finally, to the aftermath of “coming out” as an atheist.

I understood the journey. I know people like Kruse who haven’t lost their faith, so the early story was familiar. The atheists and agnostics I know are of a stock that never started out particularly religious; it was foisted on them by parents, but they never bought in. Some feared the consequences of their parents (or others) finding out; some tossed it back in their parents’ face as a form of rebellion. I’ve even read accounts of religious folks who faced dire consequences for abandoning their faith (even Scientologists), although I’ve never personally met any.

What resonated with Kruse’s story was the particular challenge of continuing to live in a world she had built around evangelical Christianity. In many of the accounts I’ve read, people are either excommunicated, or they’re forced to flee a brutal regime; in both cases, they mostly lose contact with the loved ones who wouldn’t necessarily understand what had changed or why. Kruse stayed where she was. She had to reckon with family and friends who would, at best, struggle to understand the shift in point of view. As someone whose biggest frustration is being misunderstood, this hit me hard.

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We’ll Always Have Paris

“Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”
Four Lions (2010)

I’m going to be a little bit of a dick here, because I don’t like a lot of what I’m seeing here on social media, which I’m too dumb to ignore at a time when I know I should. Don’t get me wrong, the outpouring of sympathy is nice; guilt-tripping memes, renewed calls to prayer and/or arms, and victim-blaming is not.

Prayer will never work. People need to take action, but not the kind of action that has been taken thus far. The western world’s fourteen years of Whac-a-Mole® in the Middle East has not worked. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe diplomacy can succeed, either. The U.S. has been secretly and not-so-secretly backing political coups, most of them leading to tightly controlled dictatorships, for more than half a century. This form of “diplomacy” is unacceptable from a country that is supposed to value freedom of choice.

But even diplomacy in a more honest fashion, in which we step back and try to talk to Middle Eastern leaders like grown-ups, will not work. When Muslim extremists gain political power through legitimate means, they do not talk to anyone like grown-ups, not even the moderate Muslims—their alleged brothers and sisters—stuck under their thumb. When they gain power through conquest, they talk even less like grown-ups.

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