Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Damaged Ones - Tale 1, "The Monkee"

The first real social engagement I attended was the homecoming dance my freshman year of high school. My parents felt that raising a family 15 miles from the rest of the world was great for keeping us protected from corrupting influences, while still keeping us close enough to the real city for things like "food" and "health care". However, the boy-that-was-me going to this first dance in his freshman year was socially backward and totally unprepared for what was about to happen to him.

I went to the dance alone, though that wasn't my plan. I had asked one girl, upon whom I had developed a minor crush... and from this perspective twenty years later, it's hard to remember exactly what her reaction was. I think it was polite, though.

But there I was, watching large children pretend to be small adults in the dim lighting. There were streamers, mirror-balls, laser lights, and a DJ playing all of the hottest hits of the day - RunDMC, Aerosmith, Chris DeBurgh, and... the Monkees. (The TV series had entered syndication on what would eventually turn into our local FOX outlet.) As I wandered the periphery of the dancing horde, I heard a small voice from somewhere behind and below me say, "Would you like to dance?"

I couldn't see very well, but there was someone down there -- shorter than even me! -- and so I agreed. We wandered out onto the floor just in time for a slow dance: the Monkees' "I Wanna Be Free". As Davy Jones crooned to us, my anonymous partner chattered excitedly. I couldn't really hear much, but I did catch her name, and that she really, REALLY loved the Monkees.

At some point, my habit of singing or humming along with whatever music is in the area when I'm bored apparently took over. She gazed up at me, utterly smitten and asked, "Do you like the Monkees, too?" Mom had a couple of their record albums - yes, the old vinyl LPs - which I had spun a time or two on our fancy new Panasonic turntable, and I nodded, "Yeah, they're pretty cool." What did I know about cool?

That really should have been it -- a geeky, but pleasant social experience. Put it in your diary, and seal it away to reflect on twenty years later. But come Monday...

Band was first hour, and afterwards I had to head across campus to Algebra, with a stop at the large banks of lockers midway. When I slammed my door shut, there was a small simian face framed by a frizzy blond Brillo pad and bristling with braces and zits. I couldn't guess at the gender, let alone the identity. It wore a Monkees tee-shirt the way most kids were wearing Def Leppard or Van Halen tees, and it chirped happily up at me, "Hi, sweetie!" Everyone whirled and stared, and I tried to melt into my locker.

Since this is just a blog entry, I'll spare you the weeks of high school torture that ensued. I'll skip over the details of my public agony at being pursued by someone who was obviously insane, and the private agony of not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. (I certainly won't dwell on the connection I made between what I was going through and what the girl I had asked to the dance must have been feeling when I approached her with my invitation.) I won't even tell you about the joy I felt when she began dating another kid -- a transfer student who proved to be an epic loser straight from a Revenge of the Nerds movie -- just to make me jealous. I don't think she planned on my reaction being one of relief.

But then, she disappeared. She simply stopped showing up at school, and her boyfriend refused to comment on where she went (though he did enjoy a perverse celebrity as the rumors flew around the school). When it became apparent, though, that she had not done away with herself or pined away for lack of my fourteen-year-old affections, I put it out of my mind.

The next year, her sister showed up. The sister had some issues herself; she was blind, and had two false eyes which she loved to take out and use in practical jokes. She would roll the eyes back and forth on her desk in class, waiting for the teacher to work up nerve to say something to her. Or she would stand around the corner from people, poke one eye around said corner and say, "I Seeeeee YOU!!" in a haunting, sing-song voice. Basically, she was really cool to be around.

At some point, I ended up talking to the sister and decided to ask where the Monkee fan had disappeared off to. It was meant to be an airy, nonchalant kind of question. The answer was neither airy nor nonchalant. She was in jail for molesting some kids she was babysitting.

Needless to say, I never developed a fondness for dances. I couldn't really work up the enthusiasm for social gatherings much at all, really. And I've avoided listening to Davy Jones since then, too.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Got to Keep the Customer Satsified

Over the years, I've argued with a lot of self-described fiscal conservatives, and because I've argued with them, they've assumed that by criticizing their worldview, I have taken up with their Opposites. They see me as some kind of hybrid socialist/hippie/anti-establishment Liberal type. But try as I might, I can't get them to see past their narrow free market vs. communism conflict and recognize that there are new problems with our corporate consumerist society that aren't being dealt with by their old approach.

Here is a classic conservative quote from the Iron Lady herself:
“As Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990 I had the opportunity to put these convictions into effect in economic policy - We intended policy in the 1980s to be directed towards fundamentally different goals from those of most of the post-war ear. We believed that since jobs (in a free society) did not depend on government but upon satisfying customers, there was no point in setting targets for 'full' employment. Instead, government should create the right framework of sound money, low taxes, light regulation and flexible markets (including labour markets) to allow prosperity and employment to grow.” ― Margaret Thatcher, The Path To Power
For me, the key flaw in fiscal conservative reasoning is captured in this article of faith:

‎"We believed that since jobs (in a free society) did not depend on government but upon satisfying customers..."

Unfortunately, in the current economy, jobs don't depend on satisfying customers any more, but upon "enhancing shareholder value" - products of higher quality or a job well done are no longer the goal, but are just a stepping stone to profitability and exploitation. The old vision of a shopkeeper hanging out his shingle and doing business in his community has disappeared under the avalanche of franchising. No one who still knows how to actually make things can get those things to market without going through some kind of distributor; and the bureaucracy of marketing departments, middle management, and the associated costs of union-mandated benefits that go along with all of them seems to keep growing, whether or not the original product or service they are supposed to be providing to satisfy the customer actually does so.

Many corporations these days have taken to blaming the government for high taxes and crippling regulation for their financial woes. They excuse the drop in quality by claiming the consumer demand for convenience and not putting the blame on the shortcuts they take; or they ignore their own internal pressure to increase sales volumes and claim that consumers won't buy their more expensive product in a tough market.  In our family, there have been a number of products we were willing to pay more for - shampoos that didn't make my wife's scalp break out, or spaghetti sauces that didn't have high fructose corn syrup in them - and we've watched them disappear as the start-up company making them was bought out by larger, more "efficient" competition. If the world worked as Ms. Thatcher and my fiscal conservative friends like to believe it does, those products would not disappear, because they satisfy customers.

To be fair, there are a lot of "regulations" that create bizarre incentives; many of these have to do with the subsidies paid out under the Farm Bill that Congress reviews every 5 years. It appears that one reason high fructose corn syrup - which we try to avoid because it appears to cause behavior problems in our son - is in so many products (to the consternation of the sugar industry) is that the artificial market for HFCS is driven by incentives to buy this stuff that only exists in such large quantities because corn production is subsidized in the first place.

We also find the pattern of lower quality in the name of efficiency and convenience in service industries, like plumbing and home repair. Those fields seem to be increasingly dominated by the home warranty market, which has the same affect on the costs and quality of professional work that insurance has on health care.  We consumers see prices go up, quality fall, and we are sold a policy that claims it will insulate us from this volatility; then the number of alternative choices contract - while the companies responsible try to blame the government for taxing them and causing "uncertainty" with their regulations.

It seems to me the real problem is that while plenty of people are willing and able to work for a living, there is a layer of parasitic scum between them and their customers sucking away jobs and money without returning anything but the illusion of efficiency and convenience. True, that *used* to be the position the government held; but the government's role has shrunk in relation to the growing population, taxes are lower than ever, and while unemployment is up, there are still plenty of "executives" running around trying to buy up companies they can make a profit from.

There is an economic revolution underway; so far, the old guard is still clinging to the old conflicts. The so-called liberals and so-called conservatives are still trying to win their old battles while the rest of us face something entirely new. The question is, which "team" is going to recognize the new shape of the battlefield first, and actually start listening to the customers instead of their corporate masters?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Search for a Church

(If you'd like to see what I did today, you can visit my Foursquare stream, or this list: Church Exploration.)

It seems to me that a week does not go by without someone accusing someone else of waging a War on... something. The War on Religion, the War on Women, the War on Life, the War on Choice... they almost make you forget that we're winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and flirting with war in Iran and Syria.

There are many voices repeating the idea that religion in America is "under attack" - particularly Christianity. Two of the GOP candidates insist that this is true, and every belief-tainted issue seems to draw that remark from believers. The often-voiced meme that "this country is driving God out" bothers me for a number of reasons. For one thing, I've been hearing it my whole life. From my earliest days in Southern Baptist Sunday School, we've been admonished not to let "them" (the "them" implied can vary based on the issue of the day) lure you away from Jesus.

If I didn't know better, I would think from listening to these people that churches have been driven out of the community altogether. Despite the reality being quite the opposite - I can't actually escape religion at all. It follows me everywhere, no matter how I try to ignore it.  From the phrase "Under God" in our pledge, to the "In God We Trust" on our money; from the tracts left in our door, to the Gideon bibles in our hotel rooms. And every day, driving down my street - there is religion everywhere.

So, to prove that point, I had an idea.  I called up Lydiandude, and asked if he wanted to go on a FourSquare tour of the churches in our neighborhood.  He lives about 6 miles from me on Harford Road. I had to pick up my Boy Scout from the church at Putty Hill and Harford Road - almost 7 miles from his house - so we figured we'd just check in from every church we could see along that route, with a slight detour along the street my house is on, so we could catch the 3 churches there.

I kind of figured there would be more than a dozen - I counted 15 on the way down to pick him up, but I wasn't really looking. If you follow the link at the top of this post, you should be able to see how many we caught: 33 of them! And that's not counting the 3 Christian bookstores and the "Christian Soldier Gun Shop" - or the psychics, New Age stores, etc. I tried to stick to just churches - places of worship - and just the ones on the two roads in question.  There were several we "missed" because they were off on a side street, though I could have added another half dozen just using my guilty knowledge of the neighborhood.

But really: more than two dozen halls of worship in a 7 mile stretch?  Think about how many people are supporting each of them.  These are all tax-exempt businesses collecting donations and returning something - supposedly - to the community. How much do you suppose it costs to operate - rent or mortgage on a large, old building; power and HVAC; maintenance; worship materials like hymnals? And what do they return to the community? Community service projects?

The first thing most people will say in defense of churches is that they do charitable works - running soup kitchens, hospices, etc. I didn't see any of these things along our road. We didn't pick the road that St. Joseph's hospital was on, so I didn't have to decide whether it qualified for our project today. I ignored all of the schools - though several of the churches we checked in at today operate private schools. Do those count as a business or a "benefit" to the community? It's not something I've seriously questioned before, but what is the appropriate way to look at a church's impact on the neighborhood around it?  Do they make themselves "worth" the tax exemption, or are they essentially just an economically dodgy way to justify propping up neat-looking old buildings?

One thing you may or may not have noticed is the absence of worship centers OTHER than the Christian variety. That's because there weren't any - at least not visible ones. I did find a Hebrew congregation (by moving one mile out of our chosen route), but no mosques, temples, ashrams, or secular centers. There were VFW and American Legion halls - one each, actually - and a few Recreation centers, but there is no atheist church, so I wouldn't have looked for that. Where are all of the encroaching non-Christians who are supposedly waging warfare with the faithful? (Maybe they were at Red Emma's Coffee House?)

It all makes me wonder, if religion is under such a relentless attack, how do all of these places survive? How can you run the two Baptist churches I found next door to each other in a nation that has "lost god"? How do you claim to be an oppressed minority when you are everywhere, and your opposition is no where? Or do I need to do this again, only focusing on the real competition - the strip clubs, the bars, the liquor stores, the golf courses... is even that comparison fair?

At the end of the day, this atheist didn't find anywhere to go comparable to the 33 churches that are here for the faithful, other than my home. And yet I am expected to continue to ignore that, and accept the notion that the poor Christians are "under attack" when I refuse to say "Under God" or insist that they not force my children to pray in the classroom. Judging by the behavior of Christians online, in politics, and in general, it's everyone else who is under attack.  But that couldn't be right, because all of these faithful people are supposed to be preaching love and peace, aren't they?

That was my adventure, though. Take whatever lesson you like; it was a lot of work, but worth hanging out with Lydiandude for an afternoon.

Oh, and the other thing I didn't see on this journey? Jesus.  I think he was probably home watching basketball.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Gay Constitution

To sum up: I have heard lots of very silly things uttered about The Gays. That they have a political agenda is true - and the goal is to guarantee the same protection under the law that they are already supposed to have.

That is all.

I heard a friend go off recently about how "they have more rights" than the rest of us, because of new domestic partner benefits. I have heard friends go off about unfair tax advantages for homosexual couples or the damage that gay couples will do to our society. These are all lies. See this post from one of my favorite Christian bloggers explaining how those lies work, and why they are bad.

I'm not here to reinvent that wheel or to convince those friends that they should stop believing the lies. I'm here to point out that no matter what you may believe about homosexuals or the broader GLBT community, they have the law on their side. When it comes to the question of whether or not they should be "allowed" to marry, adopt, insure each other, claim spousal benefits, etc. they are currently, actively, and illegally being discriminated against by State, local, and federal statutes.

This is wrong.

Whether the law in question is DOMA, DADT, Prop 8, or any other voter or legislative act curbing the rights of U.S. citizens, it violates the Constitution. I also hear a lot of people - whether friends or politicians - who repeatedly criticize the courts for holding the Constitution up against their illegal laws. Mitt Romney just did it when criticizing the Ninth Circuit for striking down Prop 8, saying: "unelected judges cast aside the will of the people of California who voted to protect traditional marriage..."

The problem with that is that the independent judiciary is SUPPOSED to protect minority groups against the majority in precisely these cases. Not understanding that is frightening in an everyday citizen - let alone a U.S. Presidential candidate.

Of course, to this point in the post, I have only asserted that the Constitution already protects gays - I haven't proven anything.  The Supreme Court should be hearing this case soon, and their opinions will have the weight of law - unlike my own - but this explains why I take the position that I do:

First, understand that there are two competing theories for WHY people are gay. Most of the research done to date indicates that biology or genetics are the driving factor in a person's orientation. Most actual gay people believe they are born that way. Most of the opponents of the Gay Agenda insist that orientation is a choice. I contend that under the law, it does not matter which is the case.
The Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
That is what the courts have upheld. And as far as I can tell, that is all anyone promoting the so-called Gay Agenda is asking for.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pot and Kettle: Former Facebook Friends

Is it just me, or are the people wailing the loudest about Political Correctness also the ones who are quickest to cry about how offended or oppressed they are?

Tonight it was something a Facebook friend posted - a real God-and-Country painting of school children holding an American flag and pledging allegiance. Underneath was a typical rant about how this picture "isn't allowed" in our schools any more because "someone might be OFFENDED" and a dare: "I wonder how many Real Americans will share this." I usually ignore and move on, but in this case I called out the lie of the pledge not being "allowed." It didn't lead to a productive discussion (mainly because the poster mostly ignored me - good for him).

But it bothers me every time something like this floats by in the stream. There is this persistent lie that "American values" are under attack by some shadowy Other out there who is using "being offended" to control the rest of us. It seems particularly silly when you dig down into specifics. The reality is that the Constitution is being violated constantly by people who insist on having the government maintain the worship of their god as the official religion. Aren't we still in a War in a country where that was happening. (Psst - it was Afghanistan!) We have people sacrificing their lives over there to combat a practice that we can't stamp out here at home! That's the real absurdity that we "aren't allowed" to mention.

Which, of course, means that I have to address the number of veteran friends I have who are involved in spreading the lie. Every time someone cries about how they fought to protect the flag and freedom (usually in that order), and then turns around and tells someone else to shut up - looking at you, Allen West - the rest of us who served should be allowed to line up and kick them square in the junk. Serving in the military not only does not give any of us the right to shove our personal opinions down someone else's throat, it should make us more aware that claiming that right is a disgrace to everyone who has ever worn a uniform. I usually don't say that to people out of respect for their feelings - should I start saying it more often?

Because all of this is really about applying the law of the land to everyone equally. When you have the recent example from Cranston, Rhode Island staring you in the face of just how hard it is to uphold that law, you have to recognize that it's more than a matter of hurt feelings. It takes courage from the minority to stand up and demand it in the face of a cranky, surly majority. It doesn't matter if most the majority "is not like that",* no minority is safe if the law is not respected. When you consider how many people claim to be in the majority the problem becomes one of protecting everyone else from them - not the other way around.

But it's easier to sneer over the word "offended" than to stick to principles. I find that sneering to be a bit telling, as well; how trivial it sounds to say that the only reason you aren't "allowed" to speak your mind is that someone might be offended. It makes you and your "freedom of speech" sound like the real victim. By all means, if offense is the only result of your speech, let it fly. There is a great difference between causing mere offense and, say, making a lie of your claim that you fought to uphold freedom and the Constitution. If you really feel strongly about something, you shouldn't hold back. We might learn something from you!

I have noticed, though, that of those who chafe under the burden of Political Correctness, most of them are simply upset that they aren't allowed to state their deeply seated beliefs and convictions. Shouldn't they make those convictions clear, so that we can all address them? Don't you want to know who believes that women are inferior to men, that darker colored skin means someone is lazy or violent, or that speaking with an accent and/or not yet having the linguistic versatility of a native English speaker means someone is a terrorist/drug dealer/migrant worker. I, for one, have noticed how often one of those delightful old chestnuts is the American value the poor, muzzled victim is being forced to keep bottled up for fear of causing offense.

But point that out to one of them and see how quickly they will complain about your nasty stereotyping. How dare you hurt their feelings!?!

*The majority IS like that. Every majority is.