Sunday, March 20, 2011

Headline Issues

Tonight's episode of 60 Minutes included a feature on Archbishop Dolan, the Archbishop of New York that many people say is the best candidate for an American Pope in the near future. It was an interesting interview; he's a very gregarious guy, and it's not hard to see why he has risen so high in the church.

Much of the interview dealt with his "very conservative" views on the major politically controversial views held by the Church (homosexual marriage, female clergy, abortion, etc.). His reply was: "Instead of being hung up on these headline issues, let's get back to where the church is at her best."

Interesting response; I would be curious to hear his views on where the church is best. More than that, though, is it's a very good point. The Catholic Church, and religion in general, does so much more than usually gets discussed; we get hung up on specific policies and all the "Thou Shalt Not" language, and forget about helping people grow spiritually and emotionally.

But it's also a response that cuts both ways. He's essentially saying, "forget about this issue so we can focus on the important stuff". Well, fine, but in the face of pervasive and radical social change, why is it the congregation that must forget about it rather than the church?

These issues have become distractions. They steal focus and resources from the things we should be focusing on. It says something about the Church that they point to the debate around these issues as a distraction, but continue funding it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Work Ethic

A short one:

The Protestant work ethic is frequently held up as the core of America's productivity. Work hard, don't complain, never ask for or expect anything for yourself, and feel bad if you fall short of expectations, whether internally or externally applied.

This is what makes a good Protestant. It is also what makes a good worker.

It is also what makes a good slave.

Was this Protestant ethic the beginning of our modern version of feudal society? If we're not there already, we're quickly moving towards that point. Strong inequalities between the "upper" and "lower" classes, educational and cultural divides, and financial systems that keep the less-well-to-do indebted to their corporate masters.

If so, is this a case of a system turning on itself, with hypocritical or oblivious Protestants profiting from their fellows, or a case of religious exploitation where another group came in and took advantage of the Protestants' hard-working nature?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oboist? Really?

Check out these fun charts on Three Jews, Four Opinions:

The online comic strip xkcd sometimes includes funny charts and graphs showing the number of google hits for variations of a phrase or sentence. For example, "x bottles of beer on the wall" shows a spike at x=100. I figured I would try a few Jewish themed ones just for fun.

Are we equals?

I'm never quite sure what to make of things like this:

I support the cause of women's equality, and agree that the problems enumerated by narrator Dame Judi Dench are serious ones, but I feel like the type of equality she's asking for can never quite be reached, in the same way that we can never completely eliminate crime, homelessness, and violence. It's an asymptotic thing; we can get close to, but never actually reach, zero.

So at what point do we say enough is enough?

Her closing remark answers that question: "Until the answer is yes, we must never stop asking." Her statement is a reminder that, though we may never complete the work, we are not exempt from it. That perspective recasts this entire video for me and redirected my opinion on it. There will always be that last bit of equality to strive for, and as things stand today that "last bit" is pretty large.

That said, as I watched this video I was reminded of the epidemiologist that observed AIDS patients are now living long enough to die of other things. The video points out that two women a week are killed by domestic violence in England; that's tragic, but in 2008 (the most recent year I could find numbers for) murder rates for male victims were 225% higher than for female. So if we want to talk about violence as an indicator of inequality, let's consider the full picture.

The gender salary gap in America is still a problem, but during the recession unemployment is significantly higher for men (pdf). Furthermore, college admissions are skewing strongly female (57% since 2000), and young boys are more likely than girls to be illiterate, drop out of school, and go to jail. All factors likely to lead to lower lifetime earnings.

Remind me again which way that "inequality" arrow is assumed to be pointing?

My goal is not to play a game of "Who has it worse?"; that's a game you only lose by winning. The answer, of course, is to work on improving the environment for everyone. But that's part of why I have trouble with messages like that in this video, whatever the oppressed group in question. Archaic assholes aside, and I think we all can agree that is a demographic that needs to be quietly and quickly shuffled to the side, most members of the "privileged" group tend to honestly believe these "equality" problems were already settled. So seeing a video like this causes...confusion.

"I thought this was taken care of", the internal monologe goes. "What, exactly, still needs to be done? Am I supposed to apologize? Write my Senator? Donate money?" Compassion, and confusion, have been generated, but without a clear channel for these energies the mind deals with the stress by converting the emotions into something easier to deal with.

Like anger, or resentment.

I appreciate a good piece of messaging; I liked the video for the narration, even if I didn't understand what they hoped to achieve with Daniel Craig. For most of it, though, my primary emotional reaction was defensiveness. "Those poor women," I thought, "how they are suffering! What wicked, shameful group is oppressing them so?

Men? me?"

I thought one of the goals of equality was to prevent media messages from making people feel bad about themselves because of gender, race, or equality; how does it help the cause to turn the tables on the "oppressor"?

Harry Chapin set a good example (in an interview that I now cannot find, dang it!). He talked about coming back to school the day after Thanksgiving break, and having the principal address the class, saying, "We did a great job with our food drive, collected a lot of food for a lot of families! Now let's talk about what they're going to eat tomorrow..." 

Ironically, this is also the tactic used on Biggest Loser; let's acknowledge our successes, celebrate them, and talk about how we continue moving forward. This is a format most people respond well to; it acknowledges both the work done and that still remaining, and provides a gentle, irresistible pressure to continue. Leave the stark, bleak, frightening messages for actual life-and-death scenarios, and politicians trying to raise money.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


[I wrote this back in August 2009, and it got lost in my Drafts folder after that. I still think it's interesting, and decided to post without heavy updating or editing.]

Science news from last week is that the appendix does, in fact, have a purpose. Unsurprisingly, religious bloggers have jumped on this as "proof" of science's fallibility and therefore, by extension, religion's truth. Many suggest, as did Rabbi Yonason Goldson, that "... knowledge and understanding have caught up with yet another aspect of Creation ...", asserting the position that eventually science will learn enough to see religion was right all along (the writer somehow connects this to mixing wool and cotton; not sure I follow that particular leap).

I disagree with Rabbi Goldson, largely because he tries to strengthen the artificial divide between science and religion. The part of his article I do agree with is this:
"But jumping to the conclusion that anything we cannot explain must have no purpose or rationale demonstrates one of the most common forms of human arrogance. How often have science and medicine had to rethink their positions after new research has turned long-held truths upside down and inside out?

Even the greatest among us are prone to this kind of error. King David questioned the purpose of spiders and of insanity. (Personally, this author has a problem with mosquitoes.) The Almighty did not explain Himself to David."

This arrogance, as he terms it, exists on both "sides" of the debate. Just yesterday, while discussing the topic of belief, a friend determined the question unanswerable, the existence of God therefore irrelevant, and belief therefore foolish. But this is the same mistake biologists made for years; everyone "knew" the appendix had no purpose because we had been unable to find that proof. How, then, does lack of evidence disprove religion?

We cannot dismiss any idea or concept, whether the value of the appendix or the existence of God,  because of lack of evidence. All an unanswered question proves is that the question has not been answered.

Of course, that works both ways. Assuming there is a God, and the Torah/Bible/Koran contains his literal words is also incorrect, because it too is unproven. There exists a tension between the two positions, and it is within that tension that belief can exist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Jews vs. NPR? It's a trap!

I read this today:
The oldest and one of the largest pro-Israel groups in the country is urging American Jews to call their congressmen and demand they de-fund NPR following the release of an undercover video showing two National Public Radio (NPR) executives agreeing as men pretending to be members of a Muslim Brotherhood front group lament “Zionist” control of U.S. media.
My first thought? Bullshit.

My second thought? Someone's trying to start a fight.

Several commentators have noted that parts of the conservative (political, not religious) movement of the last few decades has slowly but steadily worked to drive wedges between various segments of middle (as in class) America, slowly eroding most of the protections put in place to limit what Big Business can do to us. Unions? Check. Teachers? Check. Safety regulators? Check. 
That's what this feels like. First of all, it sounds like the ACORN and Planned Parenthood "sting" operations; people pretending to be Muslim Brotherhood members? Seriously? And they just happened to be recording the meeting? Shocking. It's amazing how often these things happen by accident.

Oh wait; these things don't happen by accident. Sure, meetings get recorded that shouldn't, and those recordings get leaked, but people don't "accidentally" impersonate Muslim extremists and badmouth Israel in front of network executives. 
My thought? The Republican Party has been after NPR for years. They have been opposed by Democrats and patrons of the arts, both groups in which Jews are over-represented. So if you can stir up some false controversy to move Jews away from NPR, then you can politically kill it.
Don't fall for it. NPR is important; it brings us a TON of amazing programing (Sesame Street? This American Life?). It puts the Arts on TV in a way that no other basic cable channel, and few premium ones, do. That is important to us as Americans, and as Jews. Art and education, especially education, are vital parts of Jewish culture. Look at how often the two are combined: we use operatic-level cantoral music to teach children prayers and Torah. Our religion began when God gave us a book and told us to study it, and shortly thereafter told us to decorate it prettily.

If you really are upset by this "gotcha journalism", you still should support NPR. Insist on the removal of those executives if you must, but keep network.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pakastani leader murdered for opposing blasphemy laws

This is why rule by theocracy should never be permitted.
Christians say their community, and other minorities, no longer feel secure in Pakistan. Few believe government promises the killers will be brought to justice."They have neither the ability nor the will," one Khushpur mourner, Nasreen Gill, told AP.

In January, an MP from the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, dropped a bill to reform the law, because her party leaders would not back it.

She has all but disappeared from view amid concerns for her security.
And it's legal, see? Because it was made into law.

The blasphemy laws, the policies being protested, make it a  capitol offense to insult Islam. Apparently it's now "insulting" to request that the law be removed. Next, I can only imagine, it will become an insult to Islam to oppose the Prime Minister's new export plan. Or object to an increase in taxes (except for Muslims, who receive a 100% "no insult intended" deduction).

Anyone want to guess how long until they decide it's an insult to belong to any faith besides Islam? And, of course, no one will be able to fight back or defend themselves, because violence is against the law.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

This is what obesity looks like

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, and a report on today finally provided the impetus. According to the report, "only" a quarter of Canadians are obese, an approximately 5% lower obesity rate than the US. It seems a strange thing to celebrate, along the lines of promoting that your bottled water now has "5% less arsenic!", but that's not my problem. I object to the BMI chart used to categorize obesity; according to those charts over a third of American adults are obese.

And I am one of them.

According to the chart, at 6'5" and 270 pounds my BMI is 32 (30 and above is obese). If I lost 20 pounds, I would still be categorized as overweight (BMI 29.6). In fact, I would have to lose 60 pounds to reach a BMI of 24.9 ("normal weight") at 210 lbs. That's 20 pounds lower than I've ever been in my adult life, even when I went on a successful diet program and lost so much weight I had to replace every piece of clothing I owned because everything was too big.

For reference, I look like this:

No, wait; sorry, wrong picture. I look like this:

Yes, I have some weight around my gut I could afford to lose. Yes, my waist size is 42, which is 4" above my all-time adult low and  recommended Waist-to-Height ratio. I will accept "overweight" as a label, ignoring for the minute the societal commentary inherent in the idea.

But obese? That doesn't seem right.

Now the chart does admit that "athletes" might have skewed results due to higher muscle mass, and I am off the bottom of the standard chart based on my height, so I might just be in the point where things break down. But while I do have a couple "athletic" hobbies, I've never considered myself an "athlete". Especially since most weeks those hobbies only occupy two nights total. And there's a big difference between "slightly skewed results" and "need to lose 25% of your current weight".

It makes me wonder, though, when I hear these big national numbers. I'm hardly the most "athletic" person out there; if the statistics are (wrongly) labeling me obese, how many other people are falsely propping up these numbers? Should they actually read, "30% of all American adults, minus all professional athletes and people over 6"4"? How inaccurate are they at lower levels? For that matter, if these are based solely on height vs. weight but ignoring the source of that weight (ie, muscle vs. fat) so that an Olympic athlete and a couch potato can show up at the same BMI, how is this a valid predictor of health?

If this were purely a matter of scientific labeling it would be no big deal. But obesity has, over the past decade or so, become both a major political and social issue. And being the "fat kid" has been a major social stigma for much longer than that.

There is serious debate about charging obese people more for certain things, such as airplane tickets and health insurance. This is partially practical (obese people generate higher fuel and medical expanses), but mostly stems from the American Puritanical philosophy of "personal responsibility". Meaning we should punish these people for their sloth and gluttony.

Much better writers than I have pointed out that "fat" is one of the last acceptable forms of public discrimination. Magazines can call out people for their weight in ways they would never be allowed to based on race, religion, gender, or sexuality.

Being labeled overweight, let alone obese, can be emotionally and socially damaging for adults and even more so for kids. I agree that obesity is a major social health problem, and parents that allow (or cause) their children to be obese are performing them a disservice that borders on neglect, if not abuse. But we are throwing around this stigma and labeling and punishment based on a measurement that is flat-out broken.

Regardless of whether charts and measurements are the way to approach this issue at all, making such important measurements using a broken tool is beyond irresponsible.

Pope finds Jews "Not Guilty"

I'm so glad Pope Sidious has finally decided that I did not, in fact, help commit a murder that occurred 2000 years before I was born. That's nice of him. Really.

Do people still really believe this? Of course they do; silly question, really. Heck, I've had people - friends even! - tell me they fear for my soul because of it.

Will they magically stop believing it now that the same guy telling them not to have sex (usually) or use condoms (ever) has told them it's not true?

I hope so. But somehow I doubt it.

Wikileaks, Excessive Punishment, and Reasonable Discourse

The latest in the anti-Wikileaks jihad is the piling-on of 22 new charges to Private Bradley Manning, the alleged leak, including "aiding the enemy," a capital offense.

That's right; they now want to kill the guy.

Regardless of your feelings on Wikileaks in general, I hope we can all agree this is excessive. It is the definition of excessive punishment.

Which is why I liked this post on ReadWriteWeb.

Curt Hopkins, author of the piece, does something very rare in American public discourse; he looks past his personal opinions and focuses on what is right, rather than simply on what he wants.

For the first half of the post or so I disagreed with much of what he wrote. I found know what? My opinions on it are irrelevant. Suffice to say I disagreed strongly with both content and tone. But then he shifts:
Adding 22 additional counts, including a capital charge, is the kind of disproportionate and deadly political theatre I have come to expect from a country like Burma or Iran. American exceptionalism aside, this action flies in the face of every ideal the U.S. claims for itself and promulgates abroad - ideals which I claim as my own.
On this we are in perfect agreement.

And that is what I liked so much about his post; it's become sadly rare to see two people in public discourse come from wildly opposing viewpoints and end up in agreement. The political, social, religious, and other divides have become team sports, where making sure your team wins is the most important only goal.

Thank you Curt, for being a reasonable voice in what has become a very heated and unreasonable debate. Keep on writing!