Editorial: Pope Benedict’s charisma masks his church’s inability to adapt

I wanted to take a brief moment to highlight an editorial published by Haaretz, which is an Israeli newspaper of record. Anshel Pfeffer recently wrote an article that beautifully illustrates why Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church has not inspired the same awe or respect in me as it has for other people around the world.

The last paragraph of the article is, I think, the best:

“The cardinals are well aware that there’s no chance in the present generation to solve all the theological problems that the Church faces, and that it will take years until the reverberations of the sexual and financial scandals die down. They chose Bergoglio this time not because he is a revolutionary – they don’t want a pope like that. They crowned him to serve as their flak jacket; as Francis, the user-friendly face of a church that is still unable to adapt itself to modern times.”

Click here to read the full editorial.

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Is organized atheism hostile to conservatives and libertarians?

Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, got himself into some hot water with secular, liberal ideologues recently.  He made some remarks to Roy Edroso, who authored a Raw Story article about Silverman’s attendance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Silverman’s remarks to Edroso were as follows:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

Then, Edroso writes:

“Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.”

To which Silverman replied:

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Such a reply, in my mind, was relatively uncontroversial.  To simply admit that there are secular arguments against abortion doesn’t, as far as I can tell, amount to an endorsement of those arguments.  As J.T. Eberhard has pointed out, Silverman has explicitly said that he is “vehemently pro-choice.”  Some, however, have criticized Silverman for making the remarks.  Consider the following from a post by Steve Ahlquist:

“Silverman did not have to say it outright. By floating the inane concept that there may be reasonable secular arguments against abortion rights, he was offering a space to compromise on the issue.”

Read this quote carefully.  The mere suggestion that he was “offering a space to compromise” to a conservative is the offensive action for which Silverman is being asked to answer to critics. On what is he compromising?  Simply put, Silverman is making the following compromises: 1.) a secular argument against abortion exists and 2.) secular support for abortion rights may not be as “clean cut” as is the case for other issues, like school prayer.  Essentially, the idea Silverman was expressing was merely that secular people who oppose abortion may have a place at the atheist debate table.  That’s it.

Some are criticizing him for such innocuous statements.  For example, PZ Myers recently authored a post asking, “Who is Dave Silverman representing?”  In his post, Myers admits that organized atheism has a “decidedly liberal bias” and he laments that Silverman tried to “appease the 0.0% of atheists who think abortion should be illegal” by allegedly pandering to potential secular conservatives in attendance at CPAC.  How inviting conservative atheists to the table amounts to pandering is something I’m still trying to understand.  But let’s return to that question Myers asks: Who is Dave Silverman representing?

American Atheists bills itself as “a nonprofit, nonpolitical, educational organization dedicated to the complete and absolute separation of state and church” with aims and purposes that include stimulating and promoting freedom of thought and inquiry.  In describing itself as a nonpolitical organization, it seems to me as though Silverman’s attempts to represent American Atheists at CPAC are consistent with the organization’s goals.  In fact, since organized atheism is predominantly filled with liberals and Democrats, it is actually exceptionally courageous of Silverman to appeal to secular conservatives.  The fact that Silverman is using the gravitas of his position to appeal to a woefully underrepresented political minority within the ranks of organized atheism demonstrates his commitment to broadening the appeal of American Atheists, which I believe is a step in the right direction.

American Atheists is an organization with a very specific purpose.  Thus, while it may not please some liberal members, the goals of the organization are advanced when it works to appeal to as broad an audience as possible while remaining consistent with the goal of advocating for the separation of church and state.  Silverman recognizes that there is a key constituency within traditionally conservative circles that may be receptive to church-state separation.  He should be commended for this politically astute observation, not condemned for it.

With that in mind, I’ll pose this question: Is organized atheism hostile to non-liberals?  I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and I think there may be something to it.  I’ve attended atheist and skeptic events both locally and nationally and, without fail, complaints about conservatives and libertarians are inevitably aired openly and aggressively at many of these gatherings.  Of course, I’m not saying that the ideas many conservatives or libertarians express don’t deserve criticism.  Many of them do.  But, I get the general sense that the distaste runs deeper; it seems as though the mere notion that an atheist or skeptic may identify as a conservative or a libertarian is what evokes the animosity.

Microaggressions are often brought up in the context of gender and race.  For those who are unfamiliar, Wikipedia offers a pretty decent, general description of the phenomenon.  Essentially, what microaggressions amount to are brief, non-physical acts of aggression aimed at a minority group.  The notion of microaggressions seems to resonate for those who endure acts of racism and sexism that fly under the radar because they are not as prolonged or overt.  I wonder if, perhaps, microaggressions can occur at multiple levels of society and if they can be aimed at members of dominant groups when those members are in certain contexts.  For instance, while one may be a white, straight, cisgender male in society at large, could identifying with a particular political group make one a prime target for microaggressions when that person is among atheists and skeptics?

I’m one of those socially liberal, fiscally conservative types that PZ Myers complains about.  While I do enjoy the privileges afforded to me as a white, straight, cisgender male, I’ve sometimes felt the pressure to keep my mouth shut about my political views in atheist and skeptical circles.  During some of my more courageous moments, when I’ve hinted that I’m not a textbook liberal, I’ve been met both with welcome curiosity and with uncomfortable silence.  The recent hype over Silverman’s remarks has only served to illustrate that my suspicions may be true: conservative or libertarian atheists and skeptics may not be welcome in these movements, or, maybe they’re only welcome if they conceal their political affiliations from others.  It isn’t unusual to see atheist or skeptic content sprinkled with remarks like this:

“On the other hand, Silverman was being true to the spirit of Libertarianism, which is, “I’ve got mine, fuck you.” – Steve Alquist

Or this:

“You know, I’m getting really tired of the schtick of so many people that they are “socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” – PZ Myers

At the heart of these remarks is not criticism of particular conservative or libertarian ideas, but attacks on people who identify with these political positions.  Has Steve Alquist considered the possibility that the so-called “spirit of Libertarianism” may not be the same from person to person?  Has PZ Myers thought about the fact that, for many people, libertarianism isn’t some sort of schtick?  Are these microaggressions?  I don’t know.  But I’m bringing the issue up to facilitate debate on the matter.  I think it may be worthwhile to think of the ways microaggressions against non-liberals within the skeptic and atheist movements may create a hostile atmosphere toward secular conservatives and libertarians.

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Firefighter detained by CHP officer during southern California traffic crash

This incident genuinely puzzles me.  Here’s what happened, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“A California Highway Patrol officer handcuffed and detained a Chula Vista firefighter for refusing to move his engine out of traffic at a crash scene Tuesday night, prompting a nationwide storm of online commentaries on Wednesday.

The firefighter had parked the engine behind an ambulance in the fast lane of Interstate 805 near East Naples Drive, where a sedan had flipped over a concrete guard rail and two people were reported injured.

Chula Vista Fire Chief Dave Hanneman said fire crews are trained to position their rigs to block oncoming traffic.”

From what has been publicized so far, it seems unlikely that the CHP officer had a legitimate reason for the detention of firefighter Jacob Gregoire.  If fire department personnel can articulate a prudent rationale for blocking traffic at the scene of a traffic crash, I think it is probably wise for law enforcement to allow the fire department to act accordingly.  It is unclear, to me, where the CHP officer expected the engine to be parked, if not behind the ambulance that was also on scene.

Clearly, incidents like this are not in the best interests of either department or the general public.  It is my hope that officials from both departments do use this incident as an opportunity to discuss best practices for responding to such incidents and to train together.  However, I’m also hopeful that the CHP will publicly discuss the officer’s justification for detaining Gregoire.

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Filed under emergency management, emergency response, fire service, law enforcement, quick bits

Romanian American orphan aspires to film a documentary about orphanages

The Washington Post recently published a story about Izidor Ruckel, a 32-year-old man who lived in an orphanage in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania.  Izidor was adopted from the Hospital for Irrecoverable Children in the 1990s.  He now lives in Denver and advocates for orphans that continue to suffer in horrid conditions in Romanian orphanages.

The article, which tells Izidor’s story, begins by describing the conditions within Romania that led to the abandonment of many children:

“The footage is not easy to watch, even for those who remember seeing it on television more than two decades ago. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, and Eastern Europe’s communist dictatorships were rapidly collapsing. A few months after the execution of Romania’s leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989, Western journalists discovered a desperate underworld of abandoned children warehoused in unheated orphanages.”

The footage mentioned above was recorded by ABC’s 20/20, which filmed at Izidor’s insitution in 1991.  The media coverage spurred hundreds of adoptions.  More on the sociopolitical conditions that led to the widespread abandonment of children:

“Under Ceausescu, birth control and abortion had been banned, and women were pressured to bear at least five children to provide workers and fighters for the nation. Countless children were institutionalized, sometimes because of disabilities but often simply because their parents couldn’t afford them.”

The story goes on to describe Izidor’s goal of filming a documentary about the orphans that still live in Romanian orphanages today:

“He is the rare one from that original cohort who can live on his own, and certainly the most activist. From personal experience, he knows what a powerful tool a video camera can be. And so, along with another Romanian American adoptee, Izidor plans to make a documentary about Romania’s current “orphans.” [...] They figure they need $30,000.”

To read the full story, click here.

I’m incredibly lucky that my father left Romania, which was still under the Ceausescu regime at the time, and built a life for me here in the United States.  I hope Izidor’s efforts are successful and that people continue to listen to his story and his call for aid to those children who still suffer in Romania’s orphanages.

2/17/14 (update): Izidor has launched a fundraising campaign to fund his documentary about the orphans who remained in the orphanage he left when he was adopted.  Click here to donate.

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Young boy dies after saving six relatives from trailer fire

Sometimes, examples of profound heroism emerge from the most unexpected of places.  From a CBS News report:

“Local firefighters have adopted as one of their own a 9-year-old boy who died saving six relatives from a fire that destroyed his grandfather’s upstate New York home.”

The story goes on to describe the incident that sparked this young boy’s heroism:

“Tyler [Doohan] died early on the morning of Jan. 20 as fire consumed a single-wide trailer in Penfield. Fire officials say Tyler awoke six other relatives – four adults and children ages 4 and 6 – sleeping in the trailer but was killed when he tried to help his disabled grandfather.”

In an especially poignant gesture, firefighters everywhere have adopted Tyler as one of their own.  The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports:

“Tyler’s actions were immediately recognized by local firefighters, and eventually by firehouses around the world. This week, firehouses across the country added Tyler’s name to their riding assignments, according to posts on a Facebook tribute page.

At the church, firefighters from around western New York lined the lobby walls wearing dress blues and white gloves. Outside, fire engines lined the streets and firefighters braved frigid temperatures to direct the traffic of the more than 200 people who attended the funeral.

“We consider him an honorary firefighter,” said Penfield Fire Chief Chris Ebmeyer, who presented Vrooman with a red and white helmet with a shield bearing her son’s name.

Word of Tyler’s heroics quickly spread on social media websites and prompted tens of thousands of dollars in donations to his family to pay for his funeral.”

Add me to the list of those who admire and praise Tyler’s efforts.  Someone should nominate Tyler for the Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience.

(Note: I’ve seen news reports stating that Tyler was eight, while others state that he was nine years old.  Either way, he was a young kid.)

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Filed under emergency response, fire service, heroism

Let’s dump the war metaphor

Our language is replete with references to wars.  The War on Women.  The War on Cancer.  The War on Poverty.  The War on Christmas.  However, using the metaphor to frame every debate has perilous consequences for civility and constructive debate.  I propose a new rule: Unless your “war” actually has combatants, a significant portion of which are severely injured or killed in combat, let’s avoid describing your commitment to your ideology or cause as a war.

For one thing, using the term “war” so loosely trivializes the term for those who have sustained loss from actual wars.  Second, war should be a last resort.  Implied in the notion of war is the idea that you are fighting a conflict that you are willing to die for.  But, I propose that you should not be so willing to die for a majority of the ideas you hold so strongly.

Let’s use the “War on Women” as an example.  We can endlessly debate the extent to which women suffer, as a group, from the privileges afforded to men.  That’s not a bad thing.  Similarly, people will often become passionately engaged in these debates and in debates about issues that are somehow related to gender, such as contraception, abortion, etc.  But, passionate debate and disagreement does not, by itself, lead to the death of women.  Now, it’s true that a debate may feature commentary about topics that involve the theme of harm to women (ex. rape), but debating such issues is not equivalent to the actual harm suffered in a war.

When we use war metaphors, we encourage people to plant their feet on one side of an ideological battleground.  In doing so, we discourage people from trying to understand their opponent’s point of view.  In real wars, encouraging such behavior may have tangible benefits to actually winning the conflict.  But, when the “war” you are fighting is merely one of intense, ideological disagreement, the goal should not be to harden your position.  You may have good reasons for your position and you may wish to convince your opponent of those reasons, but that convincing part becomes elusive when you view the other side as your opponent in battle.

Political discussions are divisive enough without warring with the other side.  Can we put an end to this damaging characterization and engage in constructive dialogue?

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MPAA uses ICE agents to bully Google Glass wearer at Columbus movie theater

A man, armed with nothing more than a prescription pair of glasses equipped with Google Glass, was recently questioned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents for several hours at an AMC movie theater at Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio.  Here’s an excerpt from The Gadgeteer:

“What followed was over an hour of the “feds” telling me I am not under arrest, and that this is a “voluntary interview”, but if I choose not to cooperate bad things may happen to me. [...] I kept telling them that Glass has a USB port and not only did I allow them, I actually insist [sic] they connect to it and see that there was nothing but personal photos with my wife and my dog on it. I also insisted they look at my phone too and clear things out, but they wanted to talk first. They wanted to know who I am, where I live, where I work, how much I’m making, how many computers I have at home, why am I recording the movie, who am I going to give the recording to, why don’t I just give up the guy up the chain, ’cause they are not interested in me. Over and over and over again.”

According to The Washington Post, an ICE spokesman made the following statement:

“On Jan. 18, special agents with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and local authorities briefly interviewed a man suspected of using an electronic recording device to record a film at an AMC theater in Columbus.  The man, who voluntarily answered questions, confirmed to authorities that the suspected recording device was also a pair of prescription eye glasses in which the recording function had been inactive. No further action was taken.”

It doesn’t take a genius to conceive of a different way this incident could have been handled.  For starters, officials from the Movie Picture Association of America (MPAA)  simply could’ve asked the guy to remove his glasses or, perhaps, to leave the theater.  By using ICE agents to do their bidding, the MPAA was able to leverage the power of the federal government in a highly inappropriate manner.  While the involvement of even one ICE agent in this instance was ethically dubious, the show of force that occurred that day seems to have been spectacular.  Again, from The Gadgeteer account:

“It was quite embarrassing and outside of the theater there were about 5-10 cops and mall cops.”

I can’t think of a tactical reason why one would need a group of 5-10 ICE agents and mall security to detain and question a suspected movie pirate.  There is no indication from the Glass wearer’s account or from the ICE spokesman’s statement that violence was ever an issue in this incident.  However, enlisting the assistance of so many agents serves to intimidate a non-violent person without just cause.

I’m not particularly pleased with the ICE agents’ reported behavior either.  If The Gadgeteer’s account is true, the suspect seems to have practically begged the agents to simply search his device for the alleged offending video.  Despite such an opportunity, the above-linked account states that the agents proceeded to question him for several hours before searching the device.  In the end, it was all for nothing.

Incidents like this diminish the public trust in law enforcement, which compromises our national security in the long run.  If people perceive that agencies such as ICE are busy pursuing the interests of organizations like the MPAA, they are less likely to work with these agencies in situations where legitimate and valuable law enforcement work is done.  In addition to being unethical, the involvement of ICE agents in this incident is also incredibly wasteful.  There are likely a myriad of other, more important things that ICE officials could be investigating.  Some dude who forgot to take his Google Glass off of his face hardly tops my list of high priority safety concerns.

Such an incident clearly demonstrates the need for the judicious use of law enforcement resources.  In this case, nearly everyone involved failed to take a more prudent approach.

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