Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I Blame the Internet

I’ve been thinking about a lot of the divisiveness and polarization I’ve seen lately. I’ve been thinking about a lot of the strong opinions…and downright weird opinions I’ve seen lately. I’ve thinking about the marked increase of people believing weird conspiracy theories lately. And I have one thing to blame for it.

The Internet.

Don’t get me wrong…I love the Internet. For me it’s the library that never closes. I can go there to look up anything and usually get a decent answer…even if it’s one that I wasn’t expecting. It’s the mall that never closes…and that has older or specialty items that most brick and mortar stores don’t want to keep in stock. And it’s a way to keep in contact with people who are hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from me. But for all my love of the Internet, it’s caused some very serious problems over the past few decades, which have led to not only our current state of political polarization, but the whole anti-vaxxer controversy.

And it’s time we talked about it.

The good thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice. The bad thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a voice…even people who should just keep their mouths shut because they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re jerks. Or both. If you’ve looked at the comments page for any magazine, newspaper, or online forum, you’ll see what I mean.

It used to be that because of space limitations, the “letters to the editor” section only printed a small sampling of the letters, and those from nutcases were weeded out. But now, with the “unlimited space” of the Internet most of those online forums are letting everything through unless it’s been specifically flagged as abusive. And this is a problem for many reasons…not the least of which is that sometimes bad information can outshout good. Or even allowing bad information to show up in the first place lends it an air of possible legitimacy, which it doesn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s “too much trouble” to moderate these forums, but maybe those in charge could take a page from the print side, and just limit the amount of feedback they publish, and only show a sampling of what they got…an intelligent sampling.

Here’s the other problem…it used to be that if you had some whacked-out conspiracy theory, if you had some piece of misinformation or disinformation that you were spewing, or if you were just way out there in general; you were surrounded by enough “normal” people that they could talk you down from where you were with facts. Facts that came from places we all agreed were reliable sources. But now, the Internet has provided these people with easy access to the other people out there who share their opinion or believe their misinformation; and once you’ve got a group of 10,000 on the Internet, you feel a sense of legitimacy.

I used to joke that the situation is so bad that you could probably find a group that thinks that picking your nose and eating it not only isn’t gross, but that shares recipes. This was a joke until in checking this out, I found numerous links to articles suggesting that this actually wasn’t so bad after all. On the more serious side, I’ve heard of “support” websites for people with anorexia and bulimia that give them tips on how to hide their symptoms from “busybodies.”

And what constitutes a reliable source? Is it simply one that agrees with your already-held opinion? Is it the one with the best graphics? With software like Photoshop, anyone can easily and cheaply create a professional-looking graphic and put it out there as “truth”; and people will believe it without taking the time to double-check it…or won’t believe the fact-checkers because they’re “obviously biased” and “are part of the conspiracy.”

I said earlier that sometimes I get an answer that I’m not expecting. That means one that didn’t fit in with what I had originally believed. When that happens, what do I do? Well, I check for more information. I check to find out if this new information is really true.

But…the Internet also allows us to only look for “sources” that “prove it false.” It allows us to back further and further into our little corners, without considering that maybe we’re wrong and that the other person might have a point.

The result has been the divisiveness and polarization we’ve seen in the years leading up to this election season.

I said in the beginning that I blame the Internet. But in reality, the Internet is only a tool…one that can be used well or foolishly, for good or for evil. In reality, I blame laziness and our inability to be challenged by another opinion…our inability to accept the fact that we may be wrong.

Or as Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Friday, October 21, 2016

Decent Roommates, Falling in Love, and Elections

Every time I hear someone complain that they don’t feel like voting because they’re not excited by either presidential candidate, I don’t know whether to sigh, laugh, or just smack them upside the head with a 2x4. Same thing when I hear people complain about not knowing how these two candidates (and there are only two viable ones) got nominated.

Let’s start with the second issue first.

Those candidates that you aren’t thrilled with got nominated because a majority of the people in those parties voted for them. Pure and simple. Maybe they weren’t your first choice, but they were someone else’s; and they were the first choice of enough “someone elses” that they got the nomination and your person didn’t.

Now let’s move on to the first issue.

When I think about this, I think of the roughly 35 people I lived with in the 14 years between leaving my home in East Orange back in 1974 and getting married in 1988. Now, if 35 people seems like a lot of turnover, consider the fact that if we’re talking about a three-bedroom apartment, that means only 18 *sets* of roommates over 14 years. But that leaves out summer subletters and a few *four* bedroom houses…not to mention roommates who were replaced because they graduated or spent a semester abroad. When you consider that, I didn’t do so badly. I even kept one set of housemates for *two years*.

Why do I think about the 35 or so people I lived with between 1974 and 1988? Because some of you are looking at choosing a president more like choosing a spouse or live-in lover than choosing a roommate. And let’s face it…the president is more like a roommate.

I don’t have to be all excited over a potential new roommate, I don’t have to be in love with a potential new roommate. They just have to be acceptable. They have to be clean, pay their rent on time, and not be a putz. That’s about it.

Over those 14 years, I’ve had some really good roommates and a few really bad ones. I’ve had a roommate who we asked to leave, and roommates who made me feel unwelcome in the house that had been mine for two years before I invited them to move in. There were people who I was thrilled to be getting as roommates, or to be moving in with; and there were people who were “good enough for the moment.”

And except for those few cases where either we asked someone to leave, or I decided to leave myself, they all pretty much worked out.

And then I met the Best Roommate Ever.

But, as I said before, in choosing a president, we’re not choosing a spouse or a live-in lover, we’re choosing a roommate for the next four years. We don’t have to be totally “in love” with the candidate. All that’s necessary is that they pay their bills, are clean, and aren’t a putz. So maybe your first choice candidate didn’t get the nomination.

Suck it up, deal, and pick a roommate who’s not a total putz!

Otherwise, one might be assigned to you who is.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Bible Belt

A friend and former student of mine recently went on a rant about “hypocritical Christians,” and when she used it, “hypocritical” was not a modifier. She wasn’t distinguishing between those of us who are hypocrites and those of us who aren’t. She was using the two words as if to say that one implied the other.

Well, I couldn’t let that stand, and I put a good bit of typing into trying to clarify issues for her. I put a lot of effort into telling her that as an atheist, she knew just enough about religion to be dangerous, and didn’t know all the nuances of interpretation between different groups. I tried to tell her that the people she was talking about are not the majority of Christians, but the loudmouthed nutballs that embarrass the rest of us.

She wasn’t buying it. As far as she was concerned, those loudmouthed nutballs were the majority, and people like me were in an all-too-small minority.

Then as I moved my mouse across the screen, I saw where she was. I quickly wrote back to her:

Oh wait a minute. You’re in Virginia. You’re surrounded by them. No wonder you feel that way about Christians. I understand now.

The Bible Belt. My friend is in that part of the country that we call the Bible Belt. A place where there seems to be a Bible-thumper on every corner, full of fire, brimstone, and condemnation, and more than wiling to tell her that she’s going straight to Hell (she says that at least it’ll be warm there). A place where Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans are looked at with suspicion, and where people wonder if they’re really Christians at all. I understand. I understand all too well.

And then I got to thinking a little more about the Bible Belt. What if this was a place where it was less about citing rule after rule after rule (and making up rules that don’t even exist), and more about living the kind of life talked about in both the Old and New Testaments? What if instead of appearing to be a place full of people like the Pharisee who, obsessed with his own virtue, thanked God that he wasn’t like that sinner over in the corner, it was full of people like that very guy in the corner, who begged God to have mercy on a sinner such as him. (Luke 18:9-14)

Most of us see the Bible Belt as a place full of judgment, and a place where the Bible thumper is more than willing to point out the speck in your eye while ignoring the 2x4 in his own. This is especially true if you’re “not a member of the club.” But suppose, just suppose the Bible Belt was a place where:

There was concern for the poor (Proverbs 14:31)
Foreigners were treated fairly and kindly (Leviticus 19:34)
There was care and concern shown even toward one’s enemies (Luke 6:27)

What if the Bible Belt was...the area around Lancaster, PA? Yes, Lancaster…the center of what’s commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Home to the Amish…people who would just as soon forgive you as judge you. People who see their job as being to peacefully live their faith and way of life, while not trying to force either of them on you.

And people who wouldn’t care whose wedding they were baking a cake for.

Ah…what if the Bible Belt was full of Amish/Mennonites, rather than Evangelicals and Pentecostals? How would my friend feel then?

Hmm…maybe she should spend some time in Pennsylvania.

I may come back to this later.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Paul is Paul Because We are Not

A while back, I was sitting in the van, listening to Paul McCartney play some song, and lamented, as I have many times over the past 40 or so years about my own guitar and piano abilities. I lamented the fact that had I only practiced and put more time into either, or both, of those instruments, I’d be as good as he is…and maybe even halfway as famous.

In short, I was a loser.

But then a thought occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before; and this thought changed everything. What was this thought? Well it’s really quite simple, and it’s so simple that I can’t believe I missed it all these years…

It’s not just me.


I’m not the only one.

Come again?

For the first time, I realized the very obvious fact that I’m not the only person in the world to ever pick up a guitar and not become a Paul McCartney, a Les Paul, or a Pat Donohue. I’m not the first person to ever sit down at a piano and not eventually become a Stevie Wonder, an Elton John, or a Billy Joel. The world is littered with millions of guitars, abandoned by people who picked them up with such good intentions, and such enthusiasm, only to find that it was too hard, they weren’t as interested as they thought, or that there were other things in life that interested them more.

The same goes for the millions of pianos around the world, abandoned by people who tried it out, but just didn’t have the real desire…or talent…to stick with it after reaching a certain plateau.

We can’t all be losers, can we? Despite our many hours with Music Minus One and other methods of self-instruction; and who knows how many teachers, we can’t all be losers…after all, we gave it the old college try. Or as I said in the report card comment about a student who desperately wanted to become a computer programmer, but had abysmal math skills:

Perseverance is a trait that is often to be admired…but only up to a point. There does come a time, however, when one must admit that no matter how much arm-flapping is done, the hippo will not fly.

Does this mean that this particular student was a loser because he couldn’t program his way out of a paper bag? No…it simply meant that perhaps his skills and talents lay elsewhere.

And what about those of us who have picked up an instrument, tried it for a few years, and came out something less than a virtuoso at it? Are we losers?

By no means. As I said before, we tried it…we tried it, and found other things we were better at.

More important though, and this is the biggie…if we were all as good as Paul, then Paul wouldn’t be Paul. Imagine a world where everyone was Gershwin, or Marsalis, or Ma. If everyone was that good, then being that good wouldn’t be special.

In short, Paul is Paul precisely because most of us aren’t.

But there’s another side to this that we don’t often consider…as good as Paul is at what he does, there are many things that he’s not that good at…and that some of the rest of us are. So, conversely, you could say that because Paul is Paul, the rest of us get to be who we are, and good at what we’re good at.

There is one more thing though, one very important thing that I had to stop to consider…

Because I’m not as good as Paul…or Elton…or Billy…

I met my wife.

And that’s better than being Paul any day.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

How Many Molecules?

783 Tuesdays ago was that one horrific day. The day that you could call our generation’s Pearl Harbor. And 15 years later it’s still a raw wound for many of us. Especially those of us who knew people who died that day, lived or worked near those places, or had any other connection.

I’m one of those people. I grew up within the shadow of the towers, watched them go up, and suppressed my fear of heights to go to the top…twice. I knew people who died that day, I know people who escaped with their lives that day. And I’m a torn person about it.

Why? Because as a human, as a human who had skin in the game, I want the bastards who planned and pulled off those attacks to roast in Hell for at least eternity. But as a Christian…as a Christian…I’m not supposed to hope that anyone goes to Hell. I can warn them of it being a consequence, but I should always be hoping and praying that at some last moment, they seek, and receive forgiveness. It ain’t easy, and if you think it is, ask the Amish about it.

So how do I reconcile these two parts of myself? I think back to a sermon I delivered two years ago about the concept of the refiner’s fire mentioned in Malachi 3:1-4, and everyone’s favorite poster child of someone who should absolutely never enter the gates of Heaven…Hitler. I thought of how many good molecules of him would be left after all the evil (and there was much of it) was burned off. And then I thought about the millions of people whose deaths he was responsible for, compared to the thousands that the September 11th hijackers were responsible for.

And then I thought something that maybe I shouldn’t think. Something that maybe I’ll burn in Hell for, but you know…I’m human, and believe it or not, I have emotions…emotions which are still raw.

I thought of the fact that Hitler was almost totally pure evil, with no good intentions anywhere. The September 11th hijackers, however, had misguided intentions. They thought they were serving God. What could be worse than to find out when you met God face to face that you totally effed it up, and that he was not happy with you? What could be more painful than finding out that you’ve totally disappointed the one you were trying to impress?

And suppose the flames of the refiner’s fire were fueled by the disappointment that they couldn’t bear?

But there’s more…we Christians talk a lot about grace. You know, totally undeserved forgiveness. Suppose the 11 hijackers were met face to face by each of the people whose deaths they were responsible for, and offered not the hatred they expected and could understand, but an unbearable forgiveness. An unbearable forgiveness that seared off even more of the evil in them.

And suppose this went on for 100 years…until the last person who could remember that horrible day, or was directly affected by it, had finally died, and was able, from a new perspective, to offer that same painful forgiveness. After that last person came through, and the refiner’s fire had gone out, how many molecules of those 11 men would be left to join with those who suffered because of what they had done?

It’s a deliciously evil thought…the idea of tormenting someone by giving them grace that they know they don’t deserve. But it’s a double-edged sword.

Because now the focus turns to us, and the evil we’ve done since that day.


The evil we’ve done by trying to avenge the deaths of our friends and family members by taking the acts of 11 extremists out on members of an entire religion…an entire religion most of whose adherents were as appalled by the events of that day as we were.

We can gleefully think about how many molecules will be left of the September 11th attackers, but when it comes our turn to go through the refiner’s fire, and all the hatred is burned off of us…by those who are forgiving for the evil we've done since that day...

How many molecules will we have left?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What is Gay?

“That’s so gay!”

I’ve always hated that phrase. I hated it when my students used it, and I’d always ask them what it meant. What did it mean for something to be gay? And why was it used as a pejorative? Knowing a number of gay people among their friends and parents of their friends, and knowing a number of gay people among the people they admired, none of them could come up with a good answer, and they stumbled along saying things like, “Well, it’s spelled differently…it’s G-E-H, and not G-A-Y.”

To which I said, “B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T.”

But why was it considered an acceptable pejorative to call something gay?

I think that in order to get to the bottom of this, we need to leave our current, “enlightened”, times, and go back a few decades to when we saw and understood things a lot differently. It was only when I did so that I got it, and it finally made sense to me.

We need to go back about 40 or 50 years, and consider a word that was commonly used before the word “gay” gained wide currency, and before the word “gay” used to mean anything but a state of happiness. The word I’m thinking of begins with the letter “f,” and no…it’s probably not the word you’re thinking of.

The word I’m thinking about is “fairy.” As a middle-schooler in the late 60s, I didn’t know from sexual orientation, but I did know about fairies, sissies, and pansies. Effeminate guys who sashayed around and acted like girls…or rather, acted like bad caricatures of girls. And come to think of it, this is probably what the general population thought of what we then just called homosexuals; because we had no clue that they existed among “tough, he-man” types. Those people were still closeted, and would be for a long time. To our limited understanding, being a homosexual guy was about being a fairy, being a sissy, not acting like a “normal” guy, and wanting to be a girl.

So when we said that someone was acting like a fairy…or that other f-word, we meant that they were being effeminate, or that they were acting weak and helpless. And there was definitely something seen as being wrong with that.

So fast forward to the present, and what do we have? A generation of kids who use “gay” as an insult, but that doesn’t necessarily have only the “sissy” image to go with it, because they know lots of gays who are anything but fairies or sissies. Complicating matters is the fact that there are plenty of gay men who are “light in the loafers” who use gay precisely to describe others like them who fit that stereotype, and things that fit the “fruity” gay stereotype. And this creates a problem similar to that of blacks using the n-word.

And yet, some things still seem decidedly “gay” in the classic sense to many people. I mean really, who among us doesn’t know what a kid means when he says he doesn’t want to take dance class because it looks “gay,” or because people will think he is? Or fathers who don't want their sons to work with flowers because it will “make them gay.” Let’s face it, we know exactly what they mean.

So from all of this, three questions arise. The first is why are we defining gay by the old stereotype even though we now know better?

The second is when did “gay” overtake “sissy” and “pansy” as the word to use for something that seemed effeminate?

Third, and perhaps most important, why does it even matter if a guy is a little “light in the loafers”…or if a girl seems a little “butch”? Why can’t these all be seen as variations as natural as hair or skin color?

After all…when was the last time anyone was ever given grief over their skin color?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Hand of God?

I was slowly catching up on reading my old magazines, something much more easily done now that many of them are available online, and I can read them on my iPad, when I stumbled across an article in one of my religious magazines about the fight to prevent the execution of Kelly Gissendaner for her role in the murder of her husband in 1997.

OK, let me say it now and get it out of the way…I’m no fan of the death penalty, but not for the “touchy feely” reasons you might think. I’m against it for two reasons. First of all, mistakes get made. A photo of a man who was a dead ringer for me, right down to his eyeglass frames and the shirt he was wearing, being arrested for dealing drugs in Washington DC in a late 80s issue of Newsweek made it apparent how easily a case of mistaken identity could happen. But there’s also the case of flawed evidence, and mistaken assumptions. Sometimes the state of the art of science, and what we think we know at the time, can lead us to find the wrong person guilty. And if we execute that person, we’ve made a mistake that can’t be corrected or made up for.

Second, I just can’t imagine anyone wanting the job of being the executioner. Now, from what I’ve heard, I know that they try to set it up so that more than one person is involved in the execution, and there’s some doubt as to who actually did the deed, but still…I can’t imagine having to live with that…especially if it’s discovered later that “mistakes were made.”

Oh wait…there’s a third reason. The unfairness and unevenness with which the death penalty is administered. Some populations are sentenced to it statistically more than others. But that’s an issue for another time.

Frankly, if we are to have a death penalty, I’d much prefer for it to be a “smoking gun” death penalty. By that I mean, we have to have clear video of you committing the murder, or there has to have been a crowd of people nearby who saw you, chased you down, and caught you. There can’t be any of this “reasonable doubt” stuff. It has to be absolutely certain that you did it. That’s a death penalty I could live with. Otherwise, you get life in prison.

But enough about that. Let me return to Kelly Gissendaner.

The article talked about the many appeals to spare her life, especially after she converted to Christianity, turned her life around, and completed a Theology degree through a program offered by Emory University. It talked about how one of the many postponements of her execution clearly showed “the hand of God” at work.

And this is where they lost me.

I’m not a hard-hearted person. I’m not an “eye for an eye” person…at least not in the incorrect way that most people interpret it. But I had to ask, “Where was the ‘hand of God’ when Douglas Gissendaner was being murdered?” Why did God suddenly decide to “show his hand” in procedural delays in order to further the appeals process for Kelly, and spare her life?

I also had to ask, and have asked before in similar cases, “If you’ve become a Christian and have turned your life around, why are you asking for special treatment?” I especially ask this of someone who has completed a Theology degree, and should understand this better than the average person in the pew. If Jesus went, uncomplaining to his death when he was totally guiltless, why are you filing appeal after appeal (or allowing your lawyers to do so) to prevent you from dying for something you’ve admitted to being guilty of?

It just doesn’t work for me. And it especially doesn’t work for me after finding out that she studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

So what finally happened? Was her sentence commuted? Was she granted clemency? Did an appeal from Pope Francis save her life?

At the time that the article was written, it was unclear how the story would end, and I wouldn’t find out until the next issue…a true cliffhanger.

But no matter how it ended, I still have problems with the idea of seeing “the hand of God” in the process.