Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Exceptionally exceptional exceptionalism

We're #1 You hear a lot these days from the teabaggers about what a remarkable place America is.

I don't dispute that; it is a remarkable place, in ways both good and bad. The same country that produced Thomas Jefferson also embraced slavery for several decades; the country that enacted ground-breaking civil rights laws a few decades ago still discriminates against a significant portion of its citizenry; it is a country of breathtaking beauty and one of urban decay; ours is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, and we still have people starving and going without medical care; the same country that gave us Barack Obama (and if you still think he's not an American citizen, please just go bore me) also gave us Sarah Palin.

Yeah, it's a mixed bag all right.

I love my country. I am proud of our accomplishments, but realize that there is still much to be done. I don't believe we're perfect, and we have made mistakes. I believe it is important to take responsibility for that, and to apologize to those we have wronged. We are a young nation, and we are a work in progress.

So I resent the hell out of it when people like the aforementioned Sarah Palin say that I'm not patriotic because I find fault with some of the things that we've done, or dare to declare that perhaps we are fighting a war we shouldn't be. I may love my country, but that doesn't mean that I'm willing to goosestep in agreement with everything we do, or adopt that ultra-nationalistic jingoism of "my country right or wrong." What I find amusing is that what is truly most exceptional about America is what teabaggin' idiots like Palin, O'Donnell, and others would do away with first.

When Jefferson, Adams, and other framers of the Constitution began working on it, they were still witnessing the effects of religion upon governments. They had recently won independence from a country that had established a state religion. It was called the Church of England, for pete's sake. In a remarkable act of courage, rebellion, innovation, and vision, they broke from centuries of tradition and expressly forbade that our government would ever be capable of promoting any religion above another, forcing people to believe a certain way, or taking away their freedom to worship--or not worship--as they chose.

The world acc to Americans What an amazing and precious thing they gave us in their foresight to prohibit such a thing. All one has to do is look around the world at countries that operate as theocracies and see what is happening in their countries. Stonings for adultery; hangings for homosexuality; prison for those dissidents who would question the status quo and go against the state-sanctioned religion. Every time someone like Palin talks about how our Constitution and our laws are based on the ten commandments, or a Paladino talks about children being brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is a valid option, or Christine O'Donnell shows her unbelievable ignorance of this most basic tenet of our freedoms, they disrespect the framers of our Constitution and show their ignorance of just how amazing that document is.

We've seen some pretty astounding things in the past few months, but I think O'Donnell's ignorance of the First Amendment takes the cake. Naturally, her campaign is trying to spin it that she was saying expressly that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the First Amendment. I wish Chris Coons, her opponent (and the front runner, thank science), had been more forceful in saying that no, it is not, but the sentiment is there, it has been proven over and over again in the writings of Jefferson and others, and it has been upheld and strengthened throughout repeated court rulings. Her complete lack of comprehension of the deepest meaning of the First Amendment and its importance to our freedoms as individuals is absolutely mind-boggling to me. Anyone who wants us to get back to our "Christian roots" is also ignorant of the framers' intent and beliefs. I would remind them that if they get their wish and Christianity is declared a state-sanctioned religion, kids are led in prayer in school, Bible study classes are on the curriculum at every school in the country, and their religion is the law of the can just as easily be taken away and replaced with a different religion at some point. Perhaps one day we'll have our first Jewish President, and he or she will declare that Judaism is the primary religion in the country, and it must be taught in our schools. I wonder how much they would like that? Or maybe one day, we'll have a Muslim President. (Let me state again that if you still think Obama is a Muslim, just go away. Seriously.)

For all their talk of protecting our freedoms and our liberty and the Constitution, they are certainly quick to subvert that document, and they seem eager to take away one of our most fundamental freedoms of all: that of religion. Apparently as long as it is done in the name of their own personal religion, they think it is just dandy. Jefferson and others did their best to protect us and our country from such demagogues. We need to make sure that we carry on their vision and not let our country or our freedoms be usurped by these people.

For Palin, O'Donnell, and all the others that just can't seem to wrap their simple little brains around the concept of it all, I have the same questions that they ask of anyone who wonders about our motives and our actions when we question things in our country: Why do you hate our founding fathers? Why do you hate America? YOU do not get to decide who is a patriot and who isn't. YOU do not get to tell me that I hate my country, or hate our troops. YOU do not get to dictate morality based on your religious beliefs. Your actions and ignorance show what I think is a deep-seated disrespect for the fundamental rights laid out centuries ago by those men who were the sort of deep thinkers and philosophers that you seem to ridicule as elitists today.

This is MY America, too. And you can't have it.American leaf

Books instead of kooks

Draculas My plan was to write about Christine O'Donnell and her bizarre comments concerning the First Amendment, but I wrote plenty on Facebook today, and I find that I'm feeling just way too mellow to write anymore about the perky little idiot tonight. I can only handle so much ignorance in a day, and it seems that I have reached my limit.

Instead, I'm going to write about books and e-readers. I'm fortunate to be friends on Facebook with one of my favorite authors, F. Paul Wilson. He writes the Repairman Jack novels (I just got the penultimate one!), one of my favorite characters in modern fiction, as well as many other excellent horror/science fiction novels. Today, he posted that his latest book, a collaboration with three other authors, was available for download. Draculas is on Amazon for a measly $2.99! You can't beat that with a stick—or a crucifix! I popped on over to Amazon, used one-click ordering, and badabing, badaboom, I've got the book.

I don't have an actual Kindle (yet!), but Amazon offers free Kindle downloads for PC and Mac. (Just go to the Kindle store, and look for 'free reading apps.') I honestly can't recall if I've written about it here before, so if I have, please pardon my redundancy. Until I can get an actual Kindle, this is a pretty nifty option, and you can sync your Kindle editions so that you have your books on all of them. There are millions of free books available, some through Amazon, others through Project Gutenberg and other digital book sites. It really is amazing what you can find on there, and I've already got a bunch waiting for me.

As amazing as the e-reader technology is, can it depose printed books? Most of the avid readers that I know love our hard copies...but most of us are also embracing the ease and convenience of the e-reader. After posting the link to the Kindle edition of his book, Mr. Wilson commented that the extras available with the Kindle version would never see the light of day in what he called "p-books." (I'm assuming that means printed books.) There are tons of extras included, like the emails that the four authors exchanged when discussing, planning, and writing the book. This is an amazing thing; I liken it to the evolution from VHS tapes to DVDs. The deleted scenes, alternate scenes, outtakes--all of those are easily accessible on DVD. Including large quantities of notes, discussions, and correspondence concerning a book would never happen with a traditionally published book. This really changes the game, and readers are the big winners here.

Books and DVDs There has been much speculation about what would happen to printed books, bookstores, and especially libraries, with the advent of e-readers. As someone who reads a lot of online content but still treasures holding a book in her hands (as you can probably guess from the bookshelves pictured here), I foresee a peaceful coexistence. If I'm sitting up at the table, it's easy to read online. If I want to relax on the couch or in bed while I read, I don't take the laptop; I have a book to hold in my hands...and eventually let drop as I doze off trying to read just one...more...paragraph. (To be honest, I always try to place my bookmark and set the book aside before I doze off. I don't want to harm the book.)

I read a really interesting article the other day about how libraries are coping with e-readers. Many thought that it spelled the demise of the public library. [climbing on soapbox] We must not let this happen. Libraries serve many functions beyond lending books. They provide access to computers for those who don't have them at home, they offer meeting rooms for community groups, they conduct reading groups for kids to encourage them to read.

They are one of our most precious treasures, and we must preserve them. (And oh yeah...they're a government program!) [climbing down from soapbox] Anyway, some libraries are purchasing and loaning out e-readers! I think this is a fantastic embrace of the technology, and a way to stay current. Libraries must go along with current trends and advances in technology if they want to remain viable, and I applaud them for doing so. (By the way, I remember using card catalogs. Does anyone else?)

It's a brave new world, people, and I welcome our e-book providing overlords. It will never take the place of what Mr. Wilson calls p-books, at least not for me, but it's a fine addition to my reading experience. I look forward to finding many classics and essays that I normally wouldn't have read. When it comes to reading, it’s not like the Highlander. There can be more than one.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Separation anxiety

Church sign Halloween A recent big story in my area was about a local school district, Fairfield, that was sued by the ACLU for offering a Bible study class on school time. A local news station asked a question on their Facebook page: "Should religion be offered in public schools?" The comments came fast and furious, and I was happy to see that the majority of my fellow Hoosiers said that no, such things should stay out of public schools and left to parents and churches. Of course, there were the usual scripture-quoters, and a troll who seems to either hate me or have a fascination with me was doing his best to engage me, by saying things like "Beth won't be happy until all schools teach are socialism, evolution, and the misinterpretation of the Constitution." (I'm surprised he didn't spell it 'evilution.') You should all be proud of me for not taking the bait and completely ignoring him! It's not often I can show such restraint, but I'm not wasting my time on that guy any longer.

I mentioned the question on my own page, and it also generated a good discussion. WSBT worded the question poorly, because you could interpret that a couple of ways. I took it in the context of the story about the Fairfield district; this was an actual Bible study class given by someone coming in from a local Christian church, and it was done during school time. The child whose mother generated the lawsuit was given no educational instruction at all during this time. This is unconstitutional based on the First Amendment, which states that the government cannot promote any religion over another. The Supreme Court has upheld the spirit of separation of church and state in stating that religious instruction cannot happen in public schools during school hours. Of course, various groups can offer such study groups after school hours, and can do so in taxpayer-funded facilities like public schools.

School prayer It can also be taken as whether or not any studies of religion should take place in public schools. This is different from religious instruction; a comparative religion course, for example, would include many different world religions, and teach about the effect of religion on cultures; a course in religious literature would look at various religious texts. This could be beneficial to any child, by teaching them that there are many faiths and many ways of worshiping. It could do a lot to reduce the rampant xenophobia we're seeing lately, and go a long ways towards reducing intolerance.

However, in rural areas like mine, I see a massive can of worms being opened. Which religions would be included, and which wouldn't? Would there be discussion of atheism and agnosticism? Of course, those aren't religions (although some seem to think that they are...they are completely misunderstanding not only the concept, but also the meanings of the words), but shouldn't any discussion of religion and religious practices include the fact that there is a significant portion of the world's populace that practices no religion whatsoever? This is not to say that such a comparative religion class shouldn't be attempted in high school or even grade school. Of course, students in Bible Belt areas would probably be receiving a significantly different curriculum than those in larger cities and more multi-cultural areas. Could teachers manage to keep their personal views out of the discussion? Who would check these curricula to make sure that one religion wasn't being favored over another? Some people said that religious classes (and I assume they mean religious instruction, rather than a study of diverse religions) should be optional in public schools. Why should my tax dollars go towards religious instruction of any child when I believe such a matter is unconstitutional--and so does the Supreme Court?

One thing that I've noticed, and it has been borne out by the recent Pew Forum survey about religion, is that there are many people who believe that the Supreme Court sided with the godless heathens in saying that there can be no mention of religion or the Christian God at all in public schools. Less than one third of Americans polled knew that it's okay to read from the Bible as an example of literature; such an action is not religious instruction. A teacher stating that the only way to heaven is by accepting Christ as your personal savior is another matter entirely. I remember my Dad asking me if I thought it was okay that prayer isn't allowed in schools. I said, "That's actually not the case. Any kid can pray on their own time. But a teacher can't lead the class in prayer." He couldn't understand how I thought that was okay. I said, "Dad, not every person in this country is Christian. There are other religions. There are people who aren't religious at all."

People can scream all they want about religion being taken out of our schools. What has been taken out of our schools is religious instruction and indoctrination. Here is an example of why that is a good thing. The woman quoted is a parent of a child at the Fairfield school in question:

Last year they were told that Halloween is the devil’s birthday, and that is not right.

The kids learn things, such as the meaning of the snake symbol on ambulances. It comes from when Moses lifted up the serpent to help heal the Israelites. I didn’t know that.

Rod of Asclepius You didn't know that because it isn't true. It came from the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. The Bible may have used similar stories (it seems to be big on serpents), but many are the same myths and memes that have been handed down throughout centuries and throughout civilizations. Things like the virgin birth. And Halloween is the devil's birthday? THAT is what these people were telling these kids? How much idiotic information did they pass along in three decades, and how much damage did they do? (At least this woman understood that it was false information, and I hope she told her child so.)

For anyone who says, "Oh, it's really harmless," I would ask you this: do you think it's harmless to purposefully pass along misinformation to kids? Letting them believe in Santa for a while is one thing; teaching them false facts about mythical creatures in school when they should be learning facts is something else entirely!

Anyway, it was a very interesting discussion, and made me think about a lot of things. One of the things that the troll who is fascinated by me mentioned a couple of times was that all of us commenting on the thread were completely misunderstanding the separation of church and state thing. Not only does it not appear in the Constitution, it was actually intended to protect religion from the government, not the other way around.

Church and stateThis shows a real misunderstanding on a couple of levels. It’s true that the exact phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, but the wording is pretty clear in its “freedom of religion” phrasing, and even a cursory reading of various papers and letters from Jefferson, Adams, et al, shows that their intent was very much to keep both the government out of religion and religion out of the government. They saw the connection between the Church of England and the monarchy; they knew that just as those in charge of a government should not dictate how people should worship, neither should any sort or sect of religion dictate how government policy is made and government affairs are conducted.

If you didn't read the linked article, the Fairfield school board voted 5-0 to discontinue the Bible study; they were greeted with boos from many of those attending the school board meeting. Apparently some attendees, when speaking before the board, began to say derogatory things about the woman who contacted the ACLU to file a lawsuit. I applaud the school board for their appropriate vote, and I applaud the woman for having the courage to say that what was happening was not right. I would hope that the attendees who booed the decision will take a little time to step outside their rather narrow world to read the Constitution as well as the Supreme Court decisions that resulted in their own school board’s unanimous decision. No one is stopping anyone from teaching their kids any sort of religious instruction. They can indoctrinate them to their hearts' content. But do it at home. Do it in your church. Do it after hours in our schools, even. Just don't do it in our schools during time that should be used for proper education. gotta keep 'em separated. (Thanks for the inspiration, Darren!)

The Offspring - Come Out And Play