Monday, April 30, 2012

Lb4Lb#10: Black & White City Blues

I have no doubt that the city of New York has changed considerably in the nearly 25 years since Lou Reed recorded his album of songs about it - but I would be willing to bet that these songs still describe it pretty well. It's hard to know how well without going, but I do live in Baltimore, and it isn't hard to imagine some of these dark snapshots being taken on the streets here.

Because even though they grow up, die off, move away, or find Jesus in the course of a quarter century, people don't really change.

The man if he marries will batter his child
and have endless excuses
The woman sadly will do much the same
thinking that it's right and it's proper
Better than their mommy or their daddy did
Better than the childhood they suffered
The truth is they're happier when they're in pain
In fact, that's why they got married.
Endless Cycle
At the top of the liner notes, it says "This album was recorded and mixed at Media Sound, Studio B, N.Y.C., in essentially the order you have here. It's meant to be listened to in on 58 minute (14 songs!) sitting as though it were a book or a movie." That's not a bad description at all.

The scenes alternate between angry rockers and bitter down-tempo scenes of life in the Big City. He kicks off with his starker, more realistic take on West Side Story, and then goes to a Halloween Parade - first retelling the Shakespeare story with hoods and thugs, then listing the colorful & wild characters he has watched drop dead of AIDS. As he alternates through each scene, Lou describes the familiar, banal, and frustrating humanity crammed together into any large urban environment - complete with the glimmers of hope.

But they're only glimmers.
Manhattan's sinking like a rock, into the filthy Hudson what a shock
They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome
The perfume burned his eyes, holding tightly to her thighs
And something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone.
-Romeo Had Juliette
People don't change. The names do, the faces do, and sometimes their stories play out in a place that has been cleaned up, rebuilt, or improved. We tell ourselves that things can get better - and we try to make it better - but people don't change. They act selfishly, and almost universally put their short term pleasure ahead of any long term benefits they might get out of life. They sacrifice their health in favor of distraction, and they complain about the surroundings they create.
There's no such thing as human rights
When you walk the N.Y. streets
A cop was shot in the head by a 10 year old kid named Buddah in
Central Park last week
The fathers and daughters are lined up by
The coffins by the Statue of Bigotry
You better hold on something's happening here.
-Hold On
That's not good news, in itself. But the idea is that as shocking and horrible, and full of irony as that song is, it still feels familiar and immediate. Things don't change much in 25 years because there really is only so far down you can go. I always hear people talking about how we going to hell in a handbasket as if these kinds of things are new. They aren't. They've always happened.
You can't depend on no miracle
You can't depend on the air
You can't depend on a wise man
You can't find them because they're not there
You can depend on cruelty
Crudity of thought and sound
You can depend on the worst always happening
You need a Busload of Faith to get by
-Busload of Faith
Bad things will always happen, because People don't change. But we keep trusting that someone will save us. We keep thinking it could get better if the right leader or the right team would come along and show all those bad guys a thing or two.

And while you may not get the references made in some of these songs to events and people from 1989 - Oliver NorthKurt WaldheimJesse Jackson and even Rudy Giuliani- Lou's name-checking still holds its weight as he describes the world they helped shape.

It's a world you live in.

Well Americans don't care for much of anything
Land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
With human life not worth more than infected yeast
Americans don't care too much for beauty
They'll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They'll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
And complain if they can't swim
-Last Great American Whale
This is an ugly album, and an angry one - it's a photograph of each of us, living in a rundown world we inherited from people who wanted to think they were giving us something better. It's disappointment and disgust, a stark look at ourselves, whether we live in cities or not. But in the middle of it all there is a persistent, defiant hope. He never quite comes out and says it, but you can tell Lou thinks that he is better than this rat-infested garbage pit he sees all around him.

Maybe it wouldn't be so disappointing if we all weren't capable of better. Romeo Rodriquez and Juliette Bell didn't have to make the choices they made, after all, and neither do you.

It might be fun to have a kid I could pass something on to
Something better than rage, pain, anger and hurt
I hope it's true what my wife said to me
She says Lou, it's the Beginning of a Great Adventure
-Beginning of a Great Adventure
The truth is that's how we make it better. People don't change, so it's up to us to make them better from the Beginning.

Maybe following that glimmer will lead us out of the trash.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Damaged Ones - Tale 3, "The Thriller"

(Originally writtern Tuesday, September 12, 2006; the events described would have taken place in the early 1980s.)

This will come as a shock, I'm sure, but I've never been within spitting distance of what you would call "hip." I've always been a couple steps out of phase of the rest of the band... which is fine when you're in 4/4 time. D'oh... there I go again! (You see, it's not really cool to know too much about band!)

But things do change; I have come a long way since the sixth grade and my violent opposition to popular music. What... you didn't hear about the time I bit a kid on a field trip over "Thriller"? Well, sit back:

It was a Christian school in Phoenix, and my parents had sent me there because they didn't like the friends I was making in public school. At the scandalous age of 9, I was learning dirty words and dirty jokes on the playground, MAD magazines were showing up in my school bag, and I was showing signs of interest in female genitalia, so they were worried about my influences.

I spent three years in the Northwest Community Christian School, and to be brutally honest.... it wasn't Christian enough for me! You see, I was Born Again at age 11, which made my family very proud, and I meant it. I was a True Believer, right down to my Holy socks, and it made me angry to see the other kids around me at this supposedly "Christian" school constantly reveling in everything Satan put out in the world to tempt them -- slasher movies, raunchy TV shows, naughty magazines and book, and worst of all Rock music!

I proudly listened only to Family Life Radio, where every night Dr. James Dobson would talk on Focus on the Family about the dangers of letting your children be exposed to harmful and worldly things. I took every word to heart.

 You have to give me credit: I was genuinely worried about my classmates. I honestly believed that their souls were in jeopardy, and that they would end up running around campus with their pants down, setting fire to cars and buildings, doing drugs while they mutilated pets... picture Bill Murray, a la Ghostbusters -- "Dogs and cats, living together... Mass Hysteria!"

That was my fear.

And then came the field trip. One of the girls in my class was the daughter of an extremely wealthy construction mogul in the area, and he sponsored a field trip to his house for our class, complete with a fleet of limousines for the students. Looking back, this makes no sense; I have no idea what the educational value was in tramping about on his huge estate looking at his antique car collection and his enormous pool. But, there we were, and on the way back to the school, someone discovered the radio.

There were several of us in the car: my friends Robert and Scott, and the class bully, Todd. Upon discovering the controls for the radio, they promptly tuned in a Top 40 station. I protested... arugments flew... and I accused them all of loving Satan. This may be where the break-down in civility occured.

Somehow I ended up pinned to the back seat by Scott, while Robert cranked the volume. "I love this song," he crowed. It was "Thriller". You have to understand that in my mind "Thriller" represented everything that was wrong with our society at that time. It was about zombies (the undead, a tool of Satan), it encouraged dancing (think "Church Lady"), and worst of all: Michael Jackson was a Jehovah's Witness!!!

Yeah, lame. But I was so mad that I leaned up and bit a chunk out of Scott's sternum.

In retrospect, it was extremely stupid, and for so many reasons. But until it happened, I didn't realize what a completely unreasoning dogmatic prick I was growing into. Receiving four swats from the principal of the school (I pleaded with him that I was defending the faith while he tried valiantly not to laugh at me) was a wake-up call.

That certainly wasn't the point where I started questioning God. That wouldn't come for at least another 5 years.  But it was the point where I began to doubt myself. It was the point where I realized that being "saved" did not wrap one in a blanket of righteousness where I could do no wrong.  It did, however, wrap my in self-righteousness, and made me an insufferable prick.

I can still be an insufferable, self-righteous prick, but thanks to that experience I learned to watch for the danger signs. When I first discovered Socrates - "it is not in the nature of things that a bad man should injure one better than himself" - I thought back to the kid I was in that limo.  A kid so sure that my attitude and actions were justified, that I could physically assault someone out of righteous rage.

I don't bite people anymore. It's not a very Christian thing to do, of course.  But more importantly, it isn't moral.

But I still don't really care much for Michael Jackson.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Existence Is Not an Attack On You

You may have noticed a trend in my recent posts. I don't consider myself an activist or "evangelical atheist," but circumstances over the years - like those I've related in the "Damaged Ones" stories - have shaped me and when I feel provoked, I don't usually hesitate to respond.  With increasing frequency I have felt provoked, and the reactions people have had to my responses have been interesting; most of my friends stay silent, while some express relief that they aren't alone. And inevitably, a few react as though I'm attacking them personally, or they at least find my position to be threatening. I'd like to take a whack at explaining why they should not feel that way.

I've used Doctor Who to illustrate points about religion before, and I'm about to do it again. I will tell you this now just so you won't feel shocked and betrayed later: I don't "believe in" the Doctor.  Meaning, of course, that while I thoroughly enjoy the program, I don't think he's real - he does not exist in any concrete way. Of course, I derive a lot of inspiration from the show, and love the stories. I have even purchased "action figures" (aka, "idols") to display in my workplace and my children have created Who-inspired things with Legos and various other media. We all enjoy the time we spend together watching and laughing over the episodes (aka, "worship").  And as you read this, you're witnessing an act of Who-vangelism... sort of.

But let's say you aren't into the Doctor or his story, and you don't understand its value to the millions of fans. Maybe you can't fathom why people would spend time and money going to Gallifrey One to pay homage to the immortal British nerd-god.  Maybe it disturbs you that Dr. Who (or at least his TARDIS) is omnipresent (can travel anywhere in time and space) omniscient (can find anything out) and omnipotent - at least, he hasn't been completely beaten, yet.  The character borders on immortal, and finds his way into the history of our little planet, constantly saving us from disaster (and occasionally causing it) and sacrificing himself because he loves us. Sound familiar?

If you're reasonable about the whole thing, you either get hooked, or you make your nerd jokes and move on.  Maybe you enjoy the shows but ignore the rest of the fan culture as harmless fun. At least no one insists that you believe all of this fantasy to be literally true, and no one insists that you respect their beliefs in a real Doctor by pretending to lend them credence. It's all good, harmless fun! Allons-y!

Or maybe you've run across that one Rabid Super Fan(tm) who ruins it for everyone around him. The guy who wears the 20-foot rainbow scarf and trenchcoat everywhere, and shows everyone his scrapbook of "actual" Doctor sightings; the guy who insists that the whole premise is real and that the Doctor is going to show up and take him away some day.  Nutter, right?

Consider though: what if everyone was that guy? What if everyone you knew believed at some level that the Doctor was a real person? Maybe they don't all dress up and go to the cons, but they get uncomfortable when you question their belief system - which is clearly built on nothing but a TV show. What if they all treated you like an amoral outsider, and when you ask for evidence backing up their claim that the DVDs and numerous fansites and BBC-produced encyclopedias are all factual they accuse you of attacking them.  How frustrating would it be to watch them get angry at you for not believing in what, to them, seems so obvious and logical - and for that anger to become irrational when you ask them to tone it down, or not bring it up in schools, courtrooms, or other public arenas where it really has no place.

Sadly, it's not much of a stretch to suggest that this could happen. It has happened before - fantasy intruding on reality.  Take the lady who insisted on showing up for jury duty in Starfleet uniform in 1996. Or take the example of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard's fabricated faith, against which a French court upheld a fraud conviction recently. Or consider the Mormon church... and at what point do you stop me and say, "But you're not talking about something that's made up for entertainment any more. You're talking about religion!"

You would be right to ask where the line between the two is located, and if you saw that coming from the second paragraph, good on you.

You see, from my point of view, there isn't any substantial difference between religion and sci-fi/fantasy fandom. I can't blame you if my saying that makes you mad; emotions tend to run high when you appear to slight something that someone else holds dear. I've seen the heated arguments that can break out after someone confuses Star Trek and Star Wars around a pack of nerds.

Consider, though: to the intense Trekkie and the Old Republic padawan there is a huge difference between their chosen worlds, just like there is a huge difference between being Catholic and Protestant, or Shiite and Sunni. To the objective outside observer, it's all just spaceships and weird aliens, or different flavors of Jesus or Allah.

And that's supposed to be Okay! As long as no rogue Jedi show up to the Star Trek Hilton strapped with thermal detonators and a yen to join the glowing line of martyrs on Dagobah, we should all be able to get along. There is room in the real world for your chosen fantasy role play - and in that real world, it's okay for the objective observer to call it that.  Or at least it should be.

Because while it should be perfectly acceptable for me to say that all of this fiction IS fiction, many of you with deeply held religious faith will inevitably take it as an attack on your identity. In reality, though, my failure to buy into your fantasy world is not the same thing as hating, attacking, or attempting to legally ban your freedom to enjoy it as you see fit. If you were to strip away the artificial status and respect that is reserved for religion, it would be no more or less valuable to me - a non-believer or non-fan - than Doctor Who is to someone who doesn't like the show.

I am sorry if that comparison offends you, but all I can offer you as consolation is the assurance that I don't say that in order to mock you. After all, I really like the Doctor, remember? It's not like I'm comparing your holy faith to something I find repugnant - like WWE.

Regardless, by this point the Faithful are already complaining about a lack of tolerance on my part. This is not fair, because really, I already tolerate quite a lot of fandom around me every day. There are plenty of cultural touchstones that I ignore because they simply don't do anything for me; I shy away from Dungeons & Dragons, Mech Warriors, and various other fad franchises even when they are being constantly thrust in front of me.

But I don't have to leave "Thundercats, ho!" out of the Pledge at Scout meetings, and my money doesn't change value depending on the roll of a 20-sided die. And after marketing campaigns wind down, most of these cultural pleas for my fealty fade away.  Religion is different, because no matter where I go or who I talk to, I have to face it - and I have to give it a layer of respect that I don't feel, and don't have to pretend to hold for these other cultural artifacts.

There is another wrinkle: I used to be one of the Faithful. If you read my stories, you should be able to see how painful that was for me, and how hard it was for me to leave behind. And it's never really gone, because of all of the well meaning friends and family who think they are helping me by trying to "win me back to the Lord". That's something that's not an issue with other kinds of fandom. But I put up with that behavior as politely as I can for their sake. I don't yell or argue with those who care about me; heck, I'm even nice to the strangers who show up on my door step with leaflets.

If you saw the earlier post about my little Foursquare stunt, you see that if I really couldn't tolerate religion, I wouldn't really have many options for leaving my house. In our culture, I'm surrounded by churches, church people, and Jesus at every turn. If I "hated" religion or religious people, I couldn't enjoy a lot of things I enjoy doing with my family, like taking the kids to Scouts; I couldn't enjoy old gospel songs that mention God or Jesus.

But I do those things, and mostly don't complain. I only really get angry about it when there are clear lines drawn - like the U.S. Constitution - which are supposed to keep one group's fandom from intruding on everyone else's reality. Or when my sons are faced with a false choice between "duty to God" in their Scout requirements and their own reasoned non-belief. When it comes to a point where I either have to lie and say "sure, I believe" or tell the truth, I will tell the truth - and that's when things seem to go wrong.

All I really want is the same tolerance I show all the time - which isn't often forthcoming.

You see, for all of the unreality that people embrace, there is a common ground we should all be able to agree on. We have a universe around us in which we all live, and it has rules we can see and prove. You may take great comfort in your belief in an afterlife, and you may require an ancient authority to compel you to be good, and that's fine. But you can't belong to them and ignore what they do in your name. Even if you aren't personally forcing your beliefs on people like me, you need to recognize that your church often is - and by extension, I'm perfectly right to ask you to stop trying to make me pretend that your beliefs stand on the same solid ground that the rest of our real universe stands on.

That's what science is supposed to be for - establishing that common ground.  It doesn't require any "belief" or "faith" - just study.  When we learn things about the world around us, and can demonstrate through repeatable experimentation that certain physical laws hold true, that makes it possible for us to understand the real world. Some concepts are harder to demonstrate than others. Some experiments you wouldn't want to repeat. Some ideas involve complex systems that defy conventional wisdom. Too often people who don't understand how all of this works confuse the worlds of science and fiction, or they begin comparing the acceptance of scientific facts they don't understand with taking them "on faith." It is this confusion which allows them to start classifying reality as just another set of beliefs.

"Believing in Science" is not about belief - there's no leap of faith, there's not really any need for it. You observe, you predict, you test. Sometimes you have to accept a specialist's word for things you can't test or observe for yourself, but that's about trust, not belief. Trust, but verify, if possible. Of course, I can attest that when you start doing that and applying even a little bit of rigor to your less concrete beliefs, the mystical tends to suffer.

It's worth recalling the case against Scientology in this context. Very few of the religious folks I know would consider that to be a "real" religion, and because of that, it makes a good candidate to test the legal waters. If people of faith are willing to punish Scientologists for conning followers, doesn't that open their own churches up to the same legal inquiry? If we all band together - believers and non-believers alike - to protect Scientologists's beliefs without challenging their validity, doesn't that leave us all vulnerable to any con man who "sincerely believes" his own con? And how do you measure or prove sincerity?

A lot of people making this point come off as if it's a foregone conclusion that you have to accept Science and abandon Religion - but I still think that there is room in our society for that to be up to each individual. Because I understand how people use faith to get through difficulty, I would not presume to force them to give it up - no matter how uncomfortable it makes me. And because I know how much everyone values imagination and fantasy, I wouldn't take those things away, either.  They are a part of us that I value, too.

So while I will push back when I see your chosen fandom intruding on my life, I have no intention of "attacking" your faith. I would never deprive you of your lofty dreams, your exciting tales, or your darker escapist fantasies.  But at some point, everyone has to decide what world they actually live in.

And in reality, we don't really have a choice in that matter.

(Note: this has been edited for grammar and to update/remove dead links.)

Friday, April 6, 2012

B.S. of America

(Originally posted September 21, 2007; this was my first impression of Scouts, before we found a more welcoming Troop.)

I don't remember whether I talked about this before... I don't read these things, after all... but tonight was the night. My first-ever Boy Scout meeting.

Alright, technically it was Cub Scouts, but it's for the boys: one Tiger, and one Bear. But it was a first for all three of us. Except that it all seemed so very, very familiar somehow.

When I was in the third grade, my dad tried to get us involved in the Royal Ambassadors. That's the "Royal Ambassadors of Christ", by the way... the Southern Baptist Convention's version of Boy Scouts. We went to a few meetings at our church (which were like Sunday School, only on Wednesday night), and one camping event. One. Some moron kept us up all night screaming along to "Father Abraham", and I was so exhausted that when I fell asleep, I wet my sleeping bag.

That tinge of Sunday School and psycho camp leaders, crossed with the psychological scarring left over from Air Force Basic Training -- and I know I've blogged about THAT before -- is what I've been dreading ever since July, when Kater finally prevailed upon me to sign the boys up. She wore me down; convinced me that it wouldn't be like the R.A.'s. That it wouldn't be like Girl Scouts, with the cookie sales and screaming girls. It is a lot more expensive than Girl Scouts, though, because the patches and awards come out of the dues. Fine. I would rather pay dues than do fund raisers.

Speaking of raising money, guess what we got to talk about first at our first ever meeting: that's right. Specifically, we got the half hour sales lecture about how to sell popcorn. I guess cookies are too sissy.

It was the usual fundraising snow job you've seen if you have elementary school kids. They passed out the traditional glossy sheets with "fine, high-quality" prizes pictured next to perfectly reasonable goals. (Sell 10 units, take home a talking light-up wristwatch... just like the one worn by Duran Duran vocalists on the reunion tour!)

But, it is all for a good cause. After all, the money is used to fund our camping trip. Where we get to do fun things like the morning flag raising, the evening vespers, and - if we're lucky - one of the priests will come along and have a mass on Saturday night!

Wait a holy minute there... what the fuck? I'm shilling popcorn so I can earn cheap trinkets and the chance to go out in the woods to worship fucking GOD with an alleged non-pedophile? My first meeting, and I already have to suffer through 30 minutes of live "paid TV", complete with screaming audience, not to mention a 15 minute sermon about earning a religion badge, and all so we can pay to go have church time in a forest?

Oh... oh, calm down... it's nonsectarian. They only require that you have "a" faith. They welcome all Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Ba'hai.... wait a minute. No "Pastafarians"? No room for di-agnostics? (FYI, that means I don't know if there's a god or two... but I can tell you what's wrong with your religion.)

I can hear the song and smell the urine as I write this.

Don't worry. I kept my mouth shut in the meeting. They didn't make me pray. They didn't make me swear fealty to any great mythical Beings. But they did slip in a few snide remarks about how "The Boy Scouts is one of the FEW organizations that still think getting closer to God is important." And somehow, that really wound me up. Are they completely clueless? Are they victims of Bill O'Reilly's fake "War on Christmas" conspiracy? Have they not heard about this George Bush guy that's moved into the White House? Honestly.

But the part that burns me up is that I feel like I have to do this. My boys see all the "fun" that the Girl Scouts get to have (I personally would rather have all of my soft tissues abraded with a lemon peeler than have the kind of fun that they have at Girl Scouts, but I guess we're all different), and they want to go camping and do the pinewood racecars and all that good stuff. They want to bond with me, and I want to bond with them. I want to give my boys something special, and make them feel like we are doing something together.

I just can't help thinking, if I wanted to shill crap door to door and go pray in the forest... I'd have become a Mormon Amway salesman.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Damaged Ones - Tale 2: "Who Saved Whom"

(Originally written Sunday, December 24, 2006; the events described took place in 2002 and 2003.)

It was not a very good time to be us.

We had just moved 3,000 miles for a job, only to be told that the processing to reinstate my security paperwork would take 18 months. Sorry, they said. I made a conscious effort to say nothing that could jeopardize that illusory job a year and a half in the future, and tried to figure out how to support a family of six living hand to mouth in an over-priced two-bedroom apartment.

I looked around; after all, Paul Harvey had said that in America, if you are willing to work, all you have to do is open up the want-ads, and there is work available! Mr. Harvey, have you checked your want-ads lately? There were jobs in there, and I was willing to work; but those jobs fell into three unsavory categories:

  1. Jobs that required a pre-qualification I didn't have. (Like a specific degree or expensive certification.)
  2. "Jobs" that required an up front investment of anywhere from $500 to $X thousand dollars. We had $30.
  3. Jobs that didn't pay enough to buy the gas it would cost to get to them (Restaurant jobs offered $3/hr; security guard $7 -- but they weren't hiring).

The first category was right out the window.  I already owed several thousand dollars for my failed attempt at truck driving. I started putting in applications for jobs in the third category, figuring if I got several jobs it would make up for the meager wages.  I even tried carpet cleaning -- a category 2 & 3 job -- for 13 days; but my brakes went out after putting more than 1,000 miles on the car, and I managed to make a grand total of -$130 for my troubles. I only came out ahead because I could legitimately put the $800 in brake repairs on our taxes as a "business expense".

In case you don't read subtext well: we were desperate. That's when the owner of a franchise of a prominent national hotel chain took pity on me and offered me two jobs: shuttle driver and desk clerk. The pay wasn't great, but it was near our apartment, and he offered me all the hours I could legally work. I am still grateful to him. After a few weeks, he decided to let me train on the night audit; a great position of trust that included a significant raise. That was where I met "Wallace".

Wallace was a very neat, and proper man. He was the kind of person the word "fastidious" was created for. When he tallied the receipts at the end of the night, he was fast and accurate, and scrupulously honest. The other clerks had made some remarks about him, mildly mocking but not very informative, and he seemed somewhat scornful of them. I learned why when, after finishing his duties for the night, he pulled out his Bible and some study materials, and began to read and pray. It wasn't hard to figure out the usual dynamics of a deeply religious person working amongst those who don't share his faith. I had been there myself once.

"Will this bother you," he asked me, that first night. I told him it wouldn't. I had been raised in a Southern Baptist church, but had "gotten over it," I said, a little too flippantly. I felt badly, then; I try not to insult people. But I also try to discourage them from trying to save me.  "I've learned a bit about 'live and let live' since my zealous youth," I told him, hoping to make both an apology and a barrier to further delving. He didn't press the issue then, but after a few nights, we fell into a discussion about it.

I recognized all of the classic signs that I was being "witnessed to"; it's not a subtle thing. He led me through the usual set up, asking what I thought about Jesus and the Bible, working his way toward presenting The Choice. The way it is supposed to work, the one being witnessed to is supposed to be backed into a corner, whether by their own ignorance of scripture, or by the patiently logical way the witness frames his questions. The Choice is that loaded question, "Why do you reject Jesus?" What it really means, though, is, "Why do you reject me and my belief system?"

I let him lead me through to the point where he asked me, "Do you know what will happen to your soul when you die?"

"Not to be rude," I said, "But isn't that between me and God?"

"Well, yes," he said. "I am just concerned that you might not know what you're missing in your life."

"I know all too well what I'm missing; but there isn't a church out there that is going to support my family for me. Letting a particular group of people into my head to tell me what I should and shouldn't do, or think, isn't going to get me a better job or a cheaper apartment. I am quite satisfied with the state of my relationship with the Creator of the Universe, and I don't see a need to give other people a way to manipulate my mind."

He blinked.

"Look," I continued, "I have nothing against you, and if what you are studying and learning is helpful to you, and makes it easier for you to make good choices and cope with your life, then please, continue doing it. But in my experience, even the most well-intentioned religion aims to control the individual members through their doctrine and through their social structure. It amounts to brainwashing, and no matter how benign or well-intentioned it may be, I have no use for it. I have spent years trying to free myself of outside claims on my soul, and I'm not about to give that up now."

He blinked again. Then he said, "I understand completely. But the last thing we would want to do is 'brainwash' you!"

This was a lie.

He smiled, and pushed a packet of photocopied pages from his study book toward me. "Here; take these. They are little 'prayers' that I read, and what I suggest you do is take them home, and read them over and over again. And while you're reading, try to believe what you are reading as hard as you can. You'll see, after about twenty-five times, the truth of the words will start to sink in!"

He looked proud, as though he had brilliantly countered all of my years of struggle with myself and with my family, and had answered the innermost questions of my soul. He didn't look like a pusher of poisonous ideas. He didn't look at all like a man who had just proven my deepest qualms about religion, and justified my discomfort with evangelism.

I looked at the packet he had given me. "I am a sinner, without value." That was the first line. "Nothing I do can save me." It went on; it got worse. There was even a version of the old "Footprints" poem -- the one where the writer accused God of not walking beside him as he went down the "beach" (the symbol of his life), and God told him "That is when I was carrying you."

They were words I had grown up with; words I had worked hard to believe, hating myself for hating their trite smugness. They were words that had caused me unbelievable pain, because I was afraid to disappoint the people who had taught them to me.

I looked back at Wallace, and I could feel the anger welling up. I wanted to throw the papers back at him, and scream in his face in frustration. I wanted to make him understand that if I went down that path again - if I started believing I had no value again - it would destroy me. But he was there, telling me about his life, and how this church of his had broken through his ego and helped him overcome his self-destructive past. It was the same old testimony I had heard from hundreds of people while growing up, and I hated that he was trying to use it on me again...

But, I saw that he needed that crutch. He needed that faith in something outside himself. He needed to believe that his morality was enforced by something greater than himself, or he wouldn't be able to stick with it. If I let him, he would try to convince me that I didn't deserve credit for keeping my own life together, and while I wasn't about to let him do that to me... who was I to kick his crutch out from under him?

"I'll take these home, and let you know how it goes," I said. He patted my hand. It reminded me of my grandfather, who used to pull us kids aside and whisper small sermons in our ears until he was satisfied he had taught us something. We all got good at smiling and nodding, mouthing whatever platitudes would show grandpa how devout we were, so we could go back to playing. I did that to Wallace, now, too.

A few weeks later, I managed to get hired pulling cable. It doubled my salary, and with the overtime available, we would be able to pay all of our bills, AND start to dig out of the crater that the transition from Air Force life had left in our bank book. On my way out the door of the hotel, Wallace shook my hand, and beamed. He said something about God providing, if we just believe on Him. I smiled, and nodded, and walked out the door.

I left Wallace there with his God, and I walked on alone. If there were any footprints left next to mine, I couldn't see them in the concrete.

But I won't waste any more time looking for them. I have work to do.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Playing Cute With Racism

This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.

This time, it's a slip of the tongue on the campaign trail:

And, of course, everyone starts gabbling.  "Did he start to say THAT word?" Oh, no!

Frankly, I've got much bigger problems with Rick Santorum's candidacy than whether he's "secretly" a racist who wants to terrorize the countryside with the "N" word. His positions on civil liberties across the board are odious; he's openly theocratic, he has no understanding of the Constitution, and he when he lies - as politicians do with aplomb - his lies are unbelievably, demonstrably untrue things that he "believes are true in his heart."

It's rather pointless to quibble over the specific words a person uses, anyway. Words only matter because of the meaning they convey.  Intentions, not vocabulary.  I don't think Santorum is a racist in the sense that most people mean to convey by using that term. I think he "believes in his heart" that certain people want a free ride, and while he wouldn't ever accuse them openly as a group, or attack them physically or do anything overtly hateful to them (that would be un-Christian!), he believes They are against Us, and wants to use the power of the presidency to put them on the "right track."

He (and Newt Gingrich, and many others over the years) have said many times that they want the freeloaders in the system to take personal responsibility for their lives and stop dragging the rest of us down. That, to them, is not a racist message - because they usually don't specifically say that the freeloaders are black people (and certainly don't use the "N" word).  They simply choose to ignore the factors that keep people unemployed, under-educated, and under-represented, and that ignorance - to them - is not racially motivated.  At least, that is how their message is crafted.

Unfortunately, to the people who feel trapped in the system, what these privileged white men are saying sends them a clear message.  Whether it is the right or wrong interpretation, this position comes off as racially charged, racially motivated, and offensive regardless of the word choice.

Ice T put it better (and more credibly) than I ever could (and if you're offended by the screen grab, you will definitely be offended by the content):

A lot of actual racists claim that they are the victims of a double standard because Ice T "gets away with" using that word - many times - while they aren't "allowed" to say it.  They miss the point completely.  This is, after all, America, where you are "allowed" to say whatever you like.  Their real complaint is that expressing their actual views leads to negative consequences - that "personal responsibility" that we talked about earlier.  They completely miss the point by thinking that the consequences are only due to the specific words they choose, and not due to the frustrating disconnect between reality and the narrative they constantly express.

I personally don't care what words anyone chooses to use in any given circumstance.  I look at what you say, and do my best to tease out the meaning you intend to convey. If you seem earnest, and your meaning could go either way, I assume noble intent. If you're just a troll, I ignore you. But if I choose not to support you for office, or if I choose to confront you on the internet, that choice will not be based on whether you did or didn't say half of a naughty word.  It's going to be based on your meaning and intentions.

So, you might as well be honest.  Do you think that you're right? Say so. Stand up for yourself.  Don't play the victim card and whine about being misunderstood.  Don't wallow in your own misbehavior and blame others for your actions. Are you truly afraid of what someone else will do to you for expressing yourself?  Maybe you should rethink your position.  Maybe you should seek out ways to understand their position better.

Are you a white person who thinks that black people are racist because of the way they behave around you? Maybe you should volunteer at an inner city school, or get involved in Big Brother/Big Sister programs so you can help change their perceptions.  Are you a black person who feels oppressed and trapped in your life? Maybe those suggestions are a good idea for you, too.

But if you're going to stake out a position, you should own it. Don't play cute with your words and don't indulge in the same softsoap and doublespeak that you hate in your opponents.

Put yourself out there, and defend it.