Sunday, November 25, 2012

Science in the Pulpit

Senator Marco Rubio sees himself as a strong contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.  Okay, let me pause here to apologize to all those weary souls who think (not unreasonably) that it is way, way too soon to be talking about the 2016 presidential election.  Nonetheless, please forgive me as I continue to pursue this topic. 

The senator’s image of himself as a future contender for the GOP nomination no doubt accounts for his double talk about the age of the earth in his recent GQ interview.  For those who missed it, here’s an excerpt:

GQ: How old do you think the earth is?

Rubio:…I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

                                     Senator Rubio

As a number of commentators have pointed out, the age of the universe is not a great mystery.  It is no more a mystery than is the distance of the sun from the earth – about 93 million miles.

I say this with utter confidence despite the fact that, like Senator Rubio, I am not a scientist.  Okay, I am a social scientist, but I still know damn little about astrophysics.  What I do know is that there are thousands of scientists who specialize in solving these sorts of “mysteries,” and they long ago determined how far the sun is from the earth, and how old the earth is: 4.54 billion years.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know these things; you simply have to have paid attention in your sixth grade science class and be willing to speak simple truths even when they are likely to infuriate the religious fundamentalists who make up a big chunk of the GOP’s base. 

So, I have to conclude that either the senator dozed off hundreds of times during his middle and high school education and missed a lot of basic information about how the universe works, or he’s planning to run for president.  I leave you, Gentle Reader, to guess which it is.

Of course we still have to face an important underlying question here: are we going to continue teaching our children science as part of their education?  Senator Rubio implies that we should periodically disrupt the teaching of classroom science in order to allow various nonscientific religious notions to be presented to our students. 

Science teachers, as well as quite a few other citizens who are stubbornly insistent about keeping our children connected to reality, object to the idea of offering religious teachings in the science classroom.  Things could get quite nasty around this issue if we don’t find a way to deal with it.

Fortunately I have the perfect answer to this perplexing problem.  All we need do, whenever a fundamentalist preacher insists that religion be taught in the classroom, is to balance this by having science teachers explain evolution, astrophysics and other scientific fields during the fundamentalist’s Sunday sermon.  What could be more fair and balanced than this?

This fairness principle could even be applied to televangelists like Pat Robertson.  I would certainly be willing to watch his program if his biblical sermons were to be reliably followed by scientific explanations with their “alternate theories.”  Let’s say, for example, that Reverend Robertson is sermonizing about that brutal, blood-drenched day when Joshua (10:13) commanded the sun to stop in the sky so his minions would have enough daylight to continue smiting the enemies of Israel and, as the Bible explains, placing their feet upon the enemy kings’ necks, then slaughtering them and hanging their mangled corpses from the trees.  (Joshua was not, apparently, a big fan of diplomacy.) Okay, immediately following the reverend’s inspirational sermon on this biblical passage, an astronomer from, maybe, the University of Virginia could take over the podium for an equal amount of time and explain, with illustrations, how it is impossible for the sun to stop in the sky, how, in fact, the sun doesn’t actually move through the sky, and, really, isn’t this something you would expect God to know?

Joshua: Stop the sun!  I've got some smiting to do here.

A sermon about Methuselah -- who, according to the Bible (Genesis 5:21-27), lived to be 969 years old – might be followed with a biology professor’s lecture on telomeres and their role in the aging of our chromosomes.

The story of Noah could be balanced with an explanation of the food chain and the need for a lion to eat more than a few zebras or wildebeests if it’s going to be on an ark for forty days and forty nights.

                                       What's for Dinner?


I anticipate endless possibilities here, and I don’t see how anyone with a basic sense of fairness could possibly object to this plan.  So, let our motto be Religion in the Classroom Means Science in the Pulpit!

Problem solved.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

American Canvass

Here is one truth that I hold to be unalienable: there are a lot of nuts in this world and a significant number of them live in my neighborhood.  I kind of already knew this, but the last few weeks of election season have made this truth frighteningly undeniable.

I’ve spent many a Sunday afternoon this past September and October canvassing for the Obama campaign in Winter Park.  In fact, I did the same during the 2008 campaign along with my canvassing partner Ashley and our team of dedicated students.

Actually, the first time I canvassed for the Good Guys was in 1972 when I trekked through some of the poorer neighborhoods of Riverside, California, knocking on doors.  The most memorable encounter I had then was with a young African-American woman who responded to my knock by pulling the door halfway open and brandishing a knife in my face.  This wasn’t as scary as it sounds, because she was obviously zonked on something and appeared barely able to hold the knife in her hand.  In my mind’s eye, I see her with her eyes closed, though at this point, I can’t say for certain I’m remembering that detail correctly.  She was, for sure, so bleary and weak that she might as well have had her eyes closed.  At any rate, she wasn’t very interested in my spiel about her need to get out and vote for George McGovern.  Given the way that election turned out (Nixon 520: McGovern 17 in the electoral college), my failure to convince this citizen to vote was probably not the cause of the Democrats’ downfall that year.

George McGovern, who died just a week ago, was one of the most decent, intelligent and worthy men ever to run for president.  I actually became a Democrat largely because of him.  It doesn’t speak well for the sanity or the judgment of the American voter to note that he was soundly trounced by the most nefarious and underhanded man ever to slither his way into the White House. 

What were my fellow citizens thinking in 1972?

George McGovern - Honest, Intelligent, Decorated World War II  Veteran Bomber Pilot, Dedicated to Promoting Peace

Richard Nixon - Devious, Paranoid War Monger and Bigot
 Re-elected in a Landslide

Well, in 2008 Ashley and I discovered what some of our fellow Americans were thinking when we canvassed right around the block from my house.  One gentleman, who came to the door with shaving cream on half of his face, but who nevertheless genially engaged us in conversation for several minutes, will serve as an example.  Mr. Shaveface (as we came to call him) was apparently a lifelong Democrat, but one of those who remember the good old days when Strom Thurmond and George Wallace were the face of the Southern Democrats.  He kept insisting that he had no prejudices, but would follow these claims up with statements about how he wouldn’t want to live in Atlanta these days, given who lives there now, and the Boy Scouts shouldn’t be mixing up black and white scouts together since the black scouts are so sloppy, etc.

You get the idea.  This man lives about two blocks from my house, a fact that Darla found deeply upsetting when we (perhaps foolishly) described him to her.

Living less than one block from our house was a lady who, upon responding to our knock, insisted that she would NEVER vote for Obama.  She was going to vote for “the other guy.”  She couldn’t remember his name.

Since this Anti-Obama voter was somewhat plastered when we spoke to her that Sunday afternoon, we toyed with the idea of leaving a pint of bourbon on her doorstep on Election Day, which I was sure would keep her from making it to the polls. 

This year, the most interesting prospect I encountered was a young man I ran into in a working class apartment complex where I was canvassing alone.  He was wearing a tank top and appeared to be solidly covered with tattoos from the neck down.  I saw him approach as I was coming down the stairs and I asked him if he was registered to vote.

“Do I look like I vote, man?” he asked in an incredulous and distinctly snarky tone.

“Well,” I said, “at least you don’t look like a Romney supporter.”

“That’s true,” he replied.  “Romney is worse than Obama.  But really, I don’t give a fuck.”

OK, so I just continued on my way.  My motto, you could say, was to leave no stoner unturned.

This is not the Tattooed Dude that I saw, but he kind of reminds me of him.

Let me conclude by showing some of the nutty signs that the anti-Obama types in Winter Park have on display in their front yards.  I feel sure that if George McGovern were running against Nixon today, these households would still vote for Nixon, even knowing what they now know about him.

Why do I call these signs nutty?  Well, my criteria for nuttiness include:

a.       Claiming “Obama failed,” even though he stopped the hemorrhaging of the economy in 2009, saved the auto industry, killed bin Laden, made it possible for millions of poor people to afford health insurance, and so on.

Winter Park Yard Sign 1

b.      Claiming that an Obama victory would be the end of America, or democracy, or all things that God loves.  Come on, people, America does not have to be “saved” from Obama.  Let’s face it, if Romney wins (Inshallah, he will not), it wouldn’t be the end of America.  It would mean that unscrupulous rich people would gain more leverage through which they could continue to screw the middle class and the poor, it would almost certainly mean more economic troubles of the type the Republicans gave us under Bush, and it would mean more questionable types a la Scalia would take their place on the Supreme Court – all bad things to be sure, but not the end of America.

Winter Park Yard Sign II

c.       Claiming that Obama is a Communist or a Socialist or a Muslim or a Kenyan or even an Extreme Liberal. 

        Down the Street from Our House - A Romney Household

                  Same House, from Earlier this Year

Welcome to America, everyone, the land that somehow manages to prevail despite the nut cases that flourish within its borders, and the losers and scoundrels that it sometimes sends to the White House.

                   Would you open your door to this canvasser?


Sunday, September 30, 2012

When Liberals and Conservatives Debate...

One of my proudest moments in recent years was seeing my name in David Horowitz's book, "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America."

However, I was disappointed and resentful that Horowitz didn't include me as one of his "Most Dangerous Professors."  In fact, he barely mentioned me, merely misrepresenting a conversation we had in such a way as to fit his conservative narrative about liberal professors.  I know, I know, I should have gotten over this by now.

I mention this incident because last week I again engaged in a mini-debate with a conservative, but this time not with a well-financed blowhard whose scheme is to bully scholars, but with young Tracy, who is both very bright and very dear to me.  Our discussion (which also included other participants) started with my expressing disgust at the Republican Party's hostility to democracy as shown in its efforts to suppress the votes of minorities and poor people.  Tracy's objections included the idea that poor people aren't really so poor that a small registration fee should pose a problem for them, since a survey she cited had shown that over 60% of poor households in America had 2 to 4 televisions.

Leaving the GOP-suppression-of-democracy issue aside for the moment, I'd like to consider the way perceptions of "what's going on with poor people" starkly divide liberals from conservatives.  The conservative image is somewhat reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's old claim (the one whose significance he totally made up) about a welfare queen who "...has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000." Reagan's implied message: "This typical welfare case shows why we have to end our current system."

OK, this was a bald, conservative lie designed to reinforce voters' prejudices against poor people, especially African-American poor people.  Shame on you, Ronald Reagan, for grubbing after votes by promoting bigotry with this outrageous misinformation.

But the television-rich-households-of-poor-people story is not so easily dismissed as is the welfare queen myth, being based, as it is, on real and responsible research.  The question for me then comes down to, "What do these televisions mean?"

As a liberal, my instinctive reaction to Tracy's data was to come up with possible explanations: "How many of these households comprise families foreclosed on, who bought their TVs in better days?  Or, how many are single-parent households, where a recently divorced or abandoned mother with a couple of kids still has the household detritus from better times?"  And so on.  The point is, my liberal instincts told me I had to hold on to my image of poor people: these fellow citizens are desperate and in need of support despite their television inventory.

Tracy's conservative instincts, I'm pretty sure, told her to hold onto the conservative narrative of "poor" people as essentially gaming the system by looking for good times at the taxpayers' expense while enjoying a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

One reason these debates go on year after year is that each side clings to a justifying narrative.  Evidence that contradicts each narrative, even when presented by respectable sources, as was the "television-and-poor-people" study, needs to be somehow "tamed" so that it doesn't threaten the preconceived, politically appropriate narrative.

And yet, I still see poor people, despite their access to Honey Boo Boo and other glories of American TV culture, as hard-pressed.  I have a number of reasons for this.  One is my recognition that television has become, not exactly a necessity, but a near necessity in contemporary life.  I first took note of this while doing fieldwork among Maya Indians in the Yucatan about 40 years ago.  My Maya friends in the village of Pustunich were poor, no doubt about that.  Buying a soft drink for most of them was kind of a luxury.  And yet I was astonished one evening as I strolled down a village path, to come across a thatched hut through whose open door I could clearly see and hear a television - and looking up, sure enough, I saw an antenna poking through the thatching of the hut's roof.  That's an image I'll never forget, a loud and lively television program blaring out of an otherwise darkened Maya thatched hut.  (The other thing I'll never forget was my Maya friends telling me, "Beware the Ides of 2012!" but I don't know what was up with that.)

I drew a specific conclusion about television at that time: "As soon as people can scrape together a few dollars in this twentieth-century world, the first thing they want - even before a refrigerator or a motor scooter - is a television."  This impression has stayed with me ever since, and even been reinforced.  In Hong Kong in the 1970s, I noticed that virtually all of the Chinese families I visited owned televisions, even though many of these families were desperately poor.  One night I was astonished to notice a Chinese squatter family that did not even own a house, but who had thrown together a kind of hodgepodge roof-shelter for themselves in a Kowloon alleyway, watching television in the open air of their dark-alley home.

I think that for people in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, television is the equivalent of a window on the world.  To not have access to TV feels like living in a windowless room cut off from any knowledge of the world outside.

All of this is connected to my sense (as a liberal) that poor people are bad off, even when they have televisions.  To really settle the question of what the meaning of two or more televisions in a poor household means might require an ethnographic study.  But short of that, I'm going with the narrative that my liberal instincts tell me makes sense, though, I'm guessing, a conservative's instincts will tell her or him to be leery of television-owning people claiming that their lives are dominated by a desperate struggle for money.

I've lived among poor people in Asia and Latin America, but I've never lived in a truly poor neighborhood in the U.S.  I do know someone, however, who suffered from poverty in their youth to such an extent that the single parent in charge of the household would routinely hide when police came to the door because of the debts owed by that parent.  Life was a struggle in a dozen different ways for this family - a family that was suddenly plunged into poverty because their insurance company declined to cover an expensive and debilitating illness suffered by one of the parents.  But they did have television.  I feel for the children of this family, but should I begrudge them their television entertainment?  Should I tell them they don't deserve food stamps until they sell their television(s) to buy food?  My instincts tell me no, this is not reasonable, but then, my instincts are liberal.  People with different political philosophies may think differently.

           Rural Chinese  Hut with Satellite Dish
                             (from Travellerspoint)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who Hates Democracy?

Some truths really are self-evident.  Like, for example, that the Fonz was cool, that Kate Middleton is a cutie, and that Republicans hate democracy.

Well, to be fair, not all of these are equally self-evident to everyone.  So let me rephrase my premise: some truths are self-evident to everyone except to those people who watch Fox News instead of keeping up with current events.

For those who do keep up with current events, the truth about Republican hostility to democracy is as self-evident as the Fonz’s coolness and Kate’s cuteness. 

Let’s set aside Governor Romney’s expressed contempt for 47% of the voters that he revealed last week, and focus for the moment on GOP attempts to strip Americans of their right to vote.

The claim promoted by GOP leaders - but dismissed by every honest observer as bogus - is that they are worried about voter fraud.  Actually “Voter Fraud” is so rare and inconsequential as to be no more worrisome than boa constrictors in the bedroom, yet this is the battle cry the Republicans are raising as they fight to keep voters, particularly Democratic-leaning Black and Hispanic voters, from voting.

In Florida, the GOP has succeeded in cutting short the early voting period and has specifically eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day.  This is their way of sticking it to African-American voters, who in the past have gathered at their churches on Sunday to be bussed to their polling places to vote.

More well-known are Republican efforts to require voters to have picture IDs, the very kind of identification that has not been required in the past, but that will prevent thousands of poor voters who lack drivers’ licenses to exercise their rights.  As Republican Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania’s House Majority, announced last June, the voter ID law in that state “… is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.

Of course, some may argue that Republicans define democracy differently from the way the rest of us do.  To Mitch McConnell, for example, democracy apparently means “ensuring that the president doesn’t get re-elected.”

And in 2000, Governor Jeb Bush believed that it was his duty, as the elected representative of the people of Florida, to get his brother George into the White House.  Or, as he petulantly put it, not let Al Gore make him (Jeb) forget who his brother was.

Thanks, Jeb.

No doubt it was their success in getting George W. Bush into the White House over the objections of the voters that inspires current GOP efforts to subvert democracy.  In swing states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, one law after another is being pushed forward by Republicans, all aimed at making it harder for those voters they don’t like to vote.

In fact, Republican efforts at voter suppression are so ruthless that Abraham Lincoln would surely be shocked and disgusted by the party that he helped establish.  Of course, if he were alive today, Mr. Lincoln would be angrily rejected by the anti-Black, anti-democratic and anti-government right-wingers that dominate the GOP anyway.  As I’ve said before, the Republican Party has so thoroughly abandoned the compassion, wisdom and virtue that Lincoln embodied, that it has no longer has any right to call itself the “Party of Lincoln.”  A much more appropriate title today is “The Party of Nixon.”

Now some readers might object that they actually know Republicans who are reject their party's voter suppression campaign, and I don’t doubt that there are some, though I’d like sure to hear from them.  Still, even self-evident truths have their exceptions.  After all, Fonzi wasn’t always cool; he did once literally “jump the shark.”  And Kate Middleton probably isn’t always cute.  I can imagine that if she were to wear a Mitch McConnell mask, she wouldn’t be cute at all.  

                        Kate Middleton in Disguise

 So the fact that some Republicans are embarrassed by their party’s voter suppression doesn’t take away from my original point: Republicans hate democracy.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grover World

Polls indicate that President Obama is likely to win in November.  Naturally we don’t want to be overconfident about this, but, just for fun, let’s consider what the Republican Party has come to look like as it faces its probable loss under Mitt Romney's banner.  Such a loss, by the way, would be the fifth out of the last six elections, if we think strictly in terms of how people voted, and not in terms of who managed to bamboozle their way into the White House in the face of voter opposition.

The GOP has gradually become the party of rich, white guys and those foolish enough to identify with them.  The prototypical Republican is Grover Norquist, a fanatically anti-tax white guy who grew up in cushy privilege and who has dedicated his life to making sure that people in desperate poverty have no opportunity to escape this fate.  I’m not sure why Grover holds poor people in such contempt, and, of course, he doesn’t actually say, “I want to stick it to poor people,” at least not in so many words.  What he says are things like “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.

But what does this bathtub murder scenario imply?  Its primary message is that those people who live on the brink of starvation and despair would be absolutely on their own in Grover World. People whose homes have been lost as a consequence of Bush era deregulations and pro-business policies would be told, “Hard cheese on you, losers.  Hope you and your kids like living in your Corolla, because you’re gonna be staying there for quite a while.”

People who do the back-breaking work of vegetable harvesting, (so that the rest of us won’t starve), who get paid minimum wage for this, and whose children are trapped in a migratory world where adequate schooling is impossible without government assistance, will be told in Grover World, “Thanks for the food amigos, but screw you and screw your niños también.” 

Grover’s main device for sticking it to poor people is his anti-tax pledge.  This pledge depends on a lot of Republicans - who lack the guts to tell Grover to shove it - kowtowing to him by promising not to support any legislation that includes tax increases no matter how reasonable they may be.  I think it’s fair to say that this pledge is the main reason for America losing its top credit rating last year.  It is also one of the reasons that our government is in danger of going “over the fiscal cliff” in December if a new budget has not yet been agreed to by then.

This “over the fiscal cliff” scenario would entail a worldwide depression that would likely last for many years.  But at least poor people wouldn’t be getting any help from the government!
Score one for Grover.

The good news is that the GOP has continued to identify itself as the party of rich white guys to such an extent that its base is steadily shrinking as the population grows diverse.  At this rate it may eventually shrink to such a size that even a poor migrant worker’s child could drown it in a bathtub.  But, of course, this idle talk is beside the point because the migrant workers I’ve known have large and generous hearts. Such cruel and ghastly imagery doesn’t seem to come naturally to them.

                              Grover Norquist      

I was born rich and privileged.  The rest of you can just suck on it.”*

* Editor's insightful interpretation of Grover's thinking.