Friday, January 29, 2010

Fear of Sex Leads to More Book Bannings

You'd think that by the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, book bannings, especially for matters involving ... gasp ... sex ... would be ancient history (or at least history). But no. Parents of middle school students are still demanding that books be removed from school libraries and curricula because of references to sex or, even worse, descriptions of actual, real, honest-to-goodness female body parts.

First, we have the events in Menifee, California, reported in the Press-Enterprise:
After a parent complained about an elementary school student stumbling across "oral sex" in a classroom dictionary, Menifee Union School District officials decided to pull Merriam Webster's 10th edition from all school shelves earlier this week.

School officials will review the dictionary to decide if it should be permanently banned because of the "sexually graphic" entry, said district spokeswoman Betti Cadmus.
Think about that one for a moment. A dictionary had a definition for a sexual act that a parent found offensive, so the dictionaries were removed from the classrooms. Really? Come on. Who didn't look up "bad words" in the dictionary when they were a kid? Besides, wouldn't you prefer that kids get a clinical, correct definition for certain terms than the more likely (and probably wrong) definitions that they'll undoubtedly learn from classmates? But more troubling is the fact that, after a complaint by a single parent, the school removed the dictionaries. In wonder if that dictionary included definitions of words like penis or vagina. Speaking of which...

According to the Culpepper, Virginia Star Exponent, The Diary of a Young Girl (The Diary of Anne Frank) is being removed from the Culpepper school system's curriculum. Why? According to The Washington Post, it was removed because of the following passage:
There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can't imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!
So, because one parent complained about two sentences in one of the most important, most beloved books of the twentieth century, the school system pulled the book. To that one parent, the perceived harm of his or her child reading about a teenage girl, who knew she would probably die, wondering about her vagina, sex, and birth, is reason enough to prevent the rest of the children in the school system from reading a book about hate and love, heroism and hope in the face of the Holocaust.

I'm curious how the parents that complained about the dictionary or The Diary of Anne Frank would feel if their child had access to a book with the following:
He shall lie all night between my breasts.... His left hand under my head, and his right doth embrance me.... Thy young breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lillies.... Come, blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out.... My beloved put his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. Thy stature is like a palm tree, and thy breasts are clusters of grapes. I will go up the palm tree, and grasp the boughs. I am a wall, and my breasts are as towers.
Um, no wait. Those descriptions of sex are probably OK. After all, they're from The Bible (Song of Solomon). I guess it's only non-Biblical sex that probably drives these parents to demand censorship.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

How to Recapture Democracy from Corporate Money

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that campaign financing laws that prohibited corporations from directly spending money on campaign advertisements violated the First Amendment free speech rights of those corporations. In doing so, the Supreme Court overruled (or ignored) nearly one hundred years of jurisprudence and precedent (and isn’t that just the sort of “judicial activism” that so incenses the right?). The concern with this ruling is that corporations (especially large corporations) will be able to spend large amounts of money to influence elections notwithstanding that the expenditures of large amounts of money in that way is seen to have a corrupting influence on elections and also may have the effect of rendering an individual citizen’s voice even less relevant. By the way, I do recognize that the Supreme Court’s opinion also appears to let unions spend on political advertising in the same way; my comments here, though addressed to corporations, should also be thought of as applying to unions, too.

The perception (which could, I suppose, be wrong) is that this ruling benefits Republicans who are generally seen as being more closely aligned with “big business”. Just imagine what the next election will look like if the drug companies and insurance companies are able to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertisements (and you thought all of the ads for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra were obnoxious…). Or just think of the impact locally if a particular corporation was denied a zoning variance. What might the next mayoral or city or county council election look like. Another concern worth noting is the possibility that foreign-owned corporations could spend money to influence American elections. Just imagine if Hugo Chavez decided to have CITGO (now owned by Venezuela) or if China used any of the corporations that is has purchased to air campaign advertisements.

So what can be done to rectify the problem? First, straightforward revisions to campaign finance laws probably won’t work, especially while the right holds a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. For that matter, while the Republicans hold their 41-59 majority in the United States Senate, it will be tough to get anything to pass there, either. But presuming that Democrats could get a Republican or two (Sen. McCain, for example, co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and a strong supporter of campaign finance reform…), what sorts of laws might solve the problem without running afoul of free speech issues?

So, here are just a few thoughts that I brainstormed (but note that I haven’t read the Supreme Court’s opinion); I admit that I haven’t worked through all of the ramifications, but it was a fun exercise:

  • Congress (or a state that wanted to limit the actions of corporations in that state’s elections) could pass a law that provides that corporations (which, you’ll recall, must be incorporated or organized according to the law of a particular state; they’re not born like, say, humans) can only spend money on campaign advertisements if a majority of shareholders approve of the expenditure. That should have nothing to do with First Amendment issues, as the law deals with corporate governance instead. The law could even provide that only individual shareholders (not other corporations) would be entitled to cast votes in such a corporate vote. Or maybe the law could provide that only shareholders eligible to vote in the election in which the advertisement would air would be eligible to vote on whether the corporation should expend the funds to advertise in that election campaign. And imagine if the law required the prospective advertisement to be shown to shareholders not less than, say, 90 days before any vote could be taken. And maybe, to pass, the advertisement would need the affirmative approval of 60% of the shareholders (after all, it apparently takes 60% to pass any legislation in the Senate…).
  • A law could be passed that would require the CEO of the corporation (or even the entire board of directors) to be filmed and shown in the advertisement saying “I approved this ad” much as candidates have to do now in their own ads.
  • Ordinarily, the standard for defamation is much more difficult to meet when a “public figure” is the target of the allegedly defamatory statement. In many jurisdictions, to be found liable of defamation against a public figure, the speaker must be found to have acted with actual malice (rather than just being shown to have made a false statement). Perhaps we could pass a law that would lower that standard to be the same as applied to allegations of defamation against non-public figures when the alleged defamatory statement is made in the context of a campaign advertisement. While corporations may now have a constitutional right to free speech, they have no constitutional right to a different standard to be applied in determining whether speech is defamatory. At least with this approach, corporations would most likely tend to be careful of what they might say about a candidate that the corporation opposed.
  • I’m not sure if this would fly, but what about a law that taxed, at a much higher rate, the fees received by media outlets for campaign advertisements, but provide a safe harbor if the fees were received from a not-for-profit or candidate?
  • Or we could enact laws similar to those for non-profits that provide that a non-profit is allowed tax-exempt status only if it refrains from certain forms of political advocacy. We could provide a base corporate tax rate of 99% but provide that the rate would be reduced if the corporation refrained from certain forms of political advocacy.
  • We could require corporations who spend money on election advertisements to provide a copy of each advertisement to each and every shareholder of the company (imagine the cost of having to send DVDs of each advertisement to each of potentially millions of shareholders). Remember when AOL used to send all those CDs?
  • Here’s a nasty little idea: We could provide that in the event of a corporate bankruptcy, the debts of a corporation are not wiped out to the extent of spending on election advertising and that the shareholders would be responsible for those outstanding debts to the extent of that spending.
  • Or how about a law that provides that only corporations that pledge not to expend funds on campaign advertising are entitled to enter into contracts with the government.

Well, that’s all I’ve come up with so far. What do you think? Setting aside whether Senate Republicans would ever sign on to any of these sorts of proposals, would any of these ideas help restore balance to the electoral process?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seditious Words From Republican Who Believes Democrats Are Anti-American

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while (especially during the latter stages of the November 2008 elections) will know that I have a love-hate relationship with Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minnesota). I hate the things this idiotic Congresswoman has to say and I love to blog about how stupid and hurtful those things are (see Republican Congresswoman Follows Palin's Lead and Calls for Investigation Into Anti-Americans in Congress, Bachmann Misreads Herself! Huh?, Another Republican Accuses Liberals of Being Unpatriotic, and Bachmann Calls Her Own Comments an "Urban Myth"). Well, now Rep. Bachmann has really outdone herself.

First, before I get to her newest statement, I think that it is absolutely critical to contemplate her words in the full context of her prior accusations. During the campaign, she said that the "people that Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large" (she was, in part, referring to Bill Ayers, the 60s-era terrorist who bombed American installations and advocated violence against the government) and she expressed concern that then-candidate Obama "may have anti-American views." And, of course, her classic plea: "[N]ews media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would, I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they are pro-America or anti-America." And so, with those statements firmly in mind, here is what Rep. Bachmann said on a radio program this past weekend:

And really now in Washington, I’m a foreign correspondent in enemy lines. And I try to keep everyone back here in Minnesota know exactly the nefarious activities that are taking place in Washington.


I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing, and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States....

(Emphasis added; you can listen to her comments over at Think Progress) These statements were made in the course of a discussion about President Obama's proposed "cap and trade" environmental legislation (now being spun as an "energy tax" by Republicans).

Think for a moment about what Rep. Bachmann has really said. In response to proposed environmental legislation with which she disagrees, she has suggested that her constituents be "armed and dangerous," be ready to "fight back," and called upon the words of Thomas Jefferson advocating a "revolution every now and then". In other words, a sitting member of Congress has, essentially, incited other citizens to armed rebellion to defeat the will of the democratic majority.

Now, to be totally fair, Rep. Bachmann's spokesperson told a Minneapolis newspaper that Rep. Bachmann was speaking metaphorically and only meant that she wanted people to be armed with information. Furthermore, at the point in the interview when she made her inflammatory comments, she was urging people to come hear a speaker and learn more about the issue. But still...

I'm sorry. Any adult, let alone an elected official, let alone a sitting member of Congress, let alone a sitting member of Congress who has expressed concern about the possibility that other members of Congress and/or the President might be "anti-American," should recognize the danger of speech that could be perceived as an incitement to violence. The words that Rep. Bachmann used are the sort of words that we would expect to hear from a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi, not from a member of Congress. And words, whether spoken metaphorically or otherwise have consequences. Just look to the bombings of abortion clinics or the Oklahoma City federal building. Or look to the Middle East and the violence to which influential Muslim leaders (clerics, in particular) lend tacit if not overt approval.

As anyone who has read what I've written in the past knows, I'm a firm believer in free speech, even speech that I don't like. But there are limits (and not just crying "fire" in a crowded theater to borrow an over-used cliche). Incitement to violence and advocating for armed revolution certainly seem to approach that line, if not cross it (and not just barely...). And just for reference, 18 U.S.C. § 2385 (for the non-lawyers, that is Title 18, Section 2385 of the United States Code) states:
Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government ... Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.

So let's compare, shall we? Rep. Bachmann accuses then-candidate Obama and other members of being "anti-American" (because Obama "associated" with a person who advocated and used violence 40 years ago and on the basis of economic views -- oooh, socialism, remember? -- that she disagrees with) but is herself willing to "metaphorically" incite people to take up arms in revolt against the American government. So you tell me, who is the real "anti-American" of the bunch? It seems to me that Rep. Bachmann isn't really so far removed from Bill Ayers...

I don't think that Rep. Bachmann should necessarily be indicted for sedition (though can you imagine what Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh would be saying if a Democrat had suggested armed rebellion?) but I do think that Rep. Bachmann's statements -- at best careless and at worst dangerous -- are the exact type of speech that I've been writing (and worrying) about for months. I think that jailing people for what they say or think, rather than for what they do, is generally a bad idea and not in furtherance of our democratic principles and ideas. But at some point speech crosses a line from being protected and in furtherance of those democratic principles and becomes ... oh, I don't know ... it becomes something else, something dangerous, something that civil society cannot condone. I don't know if Rep. Bachmann's speech reaches this level; after all, she was only speaking "metaphorically," right? But even if her speech isn't seditious or even if sedition itself should not really be punishable, in our democratic system, the electorate certainly has a chance to "punish" Rep. Bachmann the next time that she stands before them.

The people of Minnesota still only have one senator because of the ongoing Franken-Coleman litigation. Rep. Bachmann is one of their elected representatives in the House. I would have to say that the people of Minnesota are not presently being very well served. And I think that the people of Minnesota need to have a real conversation with their Congresswoman about the outer bounds of what is and is not acceptable political speech. And I think that "we the people" need to demand more, much more, from our elected officials. If she wants to express her opposition to a particular proposal, she is certainly welcome to do so. After all, that is the beauty of democracy. But when she voices that opposition, she should have a competing proposal and she should voice her opposition with facts to back up any position that she may take (she continues to claim that science shows that global warming is not caused by human activity). But under no circumstances should a member of the United States Congress advocate, even metaphorically, for armed insurrection against the government. That way lies danger.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ben Stein, Chain Emails, & "Happy Holidays" (Part 2)

Now that you've had a chance to read (in Part 1 of this post) the original commentary and embellished chain email, it is time to turn to my response. Some of my friends and family have already read this, but after receiving yet another version of the Ben Stein chain email, I decided that it was finally time to share. As you will see, my response was written as a direct response to the woman who first posted the chain email to the mailing list. Rather than try to rewrite my response, I've simply removed specific references to her but left the overall tone and message intact:


I have a number of grave problems with the "Ben Stein this is great..." [some versions are entitled "Ben Stein Food for thought"] email that is being circulated. On most days, I might have just brushed my concerns aside and not worried about it. But at the time that I first read this email, I was trying to figure out how to answer the concerns of my very sensitive then7year old daughter who was upset that she had to listen to "Santa stories" in her public school classroom and who didn't want to make a Christmas stocking in art class [and ironically, the same week that I'm posting this response, I've had to deal with concerns from that same daughter, now 9, who was upset that she was being made to draw images of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the Three Wise Men in her elementary school Spanish class]. It was in this frame of mind that first I received the email bemoaning the absence of God from our schools and public life. Thus, I experienced a visceral response that prompted my original drafting of this essay.

As you will see, the separation of church and state is a major issue for me; perhaps it is simply because I am a part of a religious minority or because I have been on the receiving end of prostelyzation and religious bigotry. In any event, I have long been an advocate for the separation of church and state and even lobby the Indiana General Assembly on behalf of the Jewish community of Indianapolis on church-state issues [and let me reiterate again that what I say on this blog and in this essay in particular I am saying for myself and am not speaking on behalf of anyone else or any agency with whom I am affiliate]. I have no problem with people expressing their faith. Nor do I have a problem if a business elects to follow a religious path or erect a religious symbol. And obviously, I have no problem with a church or other house of worship taking steps to foster its religious viewpoint.

However, I do have a problem when the government becomes enmeshed in religion, especially when the government my government tries to tell me that I must pray, how or to whom I must pray, or which religious holidays or religious beliefs meet with "official" approval (or, conversely, chooses to ignore other equally valued religious beliefs). I have a problem when others are not satisfied with prayer in their homes, churches, or other private places and, instead, feel the need to force their prayer upon me, whether or not I agree with their religious beliefs, especially when they want to force their prayer and religious beliefs upon me through the government. And I really have a problem when people want to force those religious viewpoints upon my children in the public schools. I am old enough to make my own religious decisions; I know enough about religion to know what I do and don't believe; I am not worried about peer pressure; and I am confident enough in myself to stand up and so "no" when asked to do that which violates by sincerely held beliefs. But my now 9year old twins should never have to bow down to public pressure to believe a certain way, be made to feel different or an outsider, or be forced to consider their own religious beliefs all because someone else is not satisfied with prayer in their own home or church. I'm curious to know how comfortable you are that your children would be able to handle prostelyzation from another religious faith, especially if your child were confronted by questions or accusations that go to the core of your religious beliefs or involved questions of religious understanding to which your child had not yet been exposed.

Before delving further into some of the issues raised in the email, however, there are few important preliminary points that must be addressed:

First, the email begins by attributing the text to Ben Stein (and, I must say, that it is getting somewhat tiring having the opinion's of a single Jew thrown in my face, almost as if because one Jew believes a certain way, those of us who disagree must be wrong; I suspect that many Christians would take offense if I were to pick and choose the words of a few particular Christians and use those words to paint broadly the viewpoint of all Christians or to challenge the legitimacy of contrary opinions held by other Christians). Anyway, while Mr. Stein did, indeed, make some of the comments attributed to him in the email, his comments end before the paragraph that begins with "In light of the many jokes..." See Mr. Stein's website for the full text of his comments (which, by the way, differ slightly from those that he actually gave on CBS Sunday Morning).

The email then goes on with a series of other statements and quotations (without recognizing that these statements or quotations were not made or quoted by Mr. Stein). The first of these references an interview between Jane Clayson and Rev. Billy Graham's daughter Anne Graham (Lotz). The email suggests that this interview and Ms. Lotz's response were "regarding Katrina". However, considering the fact that the interview took place on September 13, 2001, it obviously was not in reference to Katrina (but, just as obviously, was in reference to the events of September 11, 2001). Moreover, the statements the email attributes to Ms. Lotz, while close in substance, are not accurate and include far more than what she actually stated [in particular the numerous additional statements noted in blue in Part 1]. For additional information, see She Said He Said at BreakTheChain. One of the dangers of the Internet is the ease with which people can be misquoted, quotations taken out of context, or entire quotations fabricated, and then those mistakes are given a life of their own. Before attributing statements, we owe it both to those whom we are quoting and to those whom we want to influence to check the source material for accuracy. Similarly, before forwarding a chain letter (or email), it behooves us all to check the accuracy of the statements therein; after all, when we send that email we are, in essence, putting our name and reputation behind the content of that which we distribute.

The email also goes on to suggest that "recent events" (such as terrorist attacks and school shootings) began when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (her name is actually spelled Madalyn Murray O'Hair) complained that she didn't want "prayer in our schools". For information on Ms. O'Hair, see the entry for her at Wikipedia (I know, I know, but it is a decent starting point...). In fact, Ms. O'Hair complained of coercive prayer in public schools in the early 1960s! And, by an 81 majority, the United States Supreme Court agreed that it was improper for coercive prayer or bible study in public schools. More information on the decisions can be found on the Wikipedia pages discussing Abbington School District v. Schempp and Engel v. Vitale. It is worth noting that four of the Justices on the Supreme Court that decided those cases were appointed by a Republican President. Yet Ms. O'Hair is somehow being blamed for Islamic terrorists attacking America. Timothy McVeigh, perhaps... but the lack of coercive Christian prayer in American public schools does not seem to be one of the things that has sparked fundamentalist Islamic terrorists to attack America. Generally speaking, we Jews don't believe in prayer in public schools, yet I haven't seen many Jewish children engaging in school shootings or terrorist attacks; nor, for that matter, have I seen adherents to other religious faiths behind the trigger in school shootings, either.

The email next furthers the foregoing argument by suggesting that America is in trouble because we no longer read the Bible in schools and it is the Bible that teaches "thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself". I guess, that we are to understand that, if we still taught the Bible in our public schools, we wouldn't kill or steal and we would love each other. First, just because our children don't read the Bible in public schools doesn't mean that we can't (or don't) teach our children not to kill or steal or can't or don't teach them to love one another. And even when children did read the Bible in public schools, bad things happened: Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting or forced them to sit at the back of the bus (and sometimes left them hanging from a tree), but I would be willing to wager that supporters of those laws prayed quite a bit. Murder and burglary did not suddenly start the day that prayers ceased in the public schools; it seems that those societal ills have been with us (and with all of humanity) from the beginning of time, whether or not people prayed (and irrespective of the type of prayer or the deity to which those prayers is offered). It is simply too easy to say that things are bad and to place blame accordingly without empirical evidence supporting the allegation.

Next the email implies that people have been wrong to follow the advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock and appears to ridicule Dr. Spock's advice because, according to the email, Dr. Spock's son committed suicide (as if to suggest that if Dr. Spock's own son committed suicide, then Dr. Spock's child-rearing advice must have been wrong). While this suggestion is, itself, almost uncertainly unfair, it is wholly misplaced given that Dr. Spock's son did not kill himself. Rather, Dr. Spock's grandson killed himself after a long battle with mental illness (for more information, see Doctored Spock and the entry for Dr. Spock on Wikipedia).

[I added this paragraph after receiving some of the alternate versions of the chain email that added the text that was not in the original version.] Some versions of the email then proceed through a litany of social issues in the buildup to the general premise that the "world is going to hell" as a result of American society's decisions on those social issues. The authors of the email want us to believe America is in danger and that God is angry because we oppose corporal punishment of our children by teachers and principals, because we support a woman's right to choose and oppose certain restrictions on that right, because we support giving condoms so that kids who are sexually active don't become pregnant or get sexually transmitted diseases, because we support the notion of privacy, especially within the confines of our own bedrooms, because we allow pornography to exist, because we allow child pornography (I'm stumped by this one given that child pornography is not only illegal, but it is not protected by the First Amendment and mere possession of child porn is punishable), and because some segments of the entertainment industry espouse viewpoints that may not conform to mainstream beliefs and practices. I could just as easily turn the entire discussion around and argue that America is in danger and God is angry because we don't take care to properly feed the poor and house the homeless, because we allow children to go without proper health care and make some of the elderly choose between food or medication, because we glorify greed and allow the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, because we use violence rather than diplomacy and include torture as an accepted way of getting information, because we don't uphold our own democratic traditions and allow our civil rights to be trampled, because we are willing to discriminate against people on the basis of their religious beliefs or their skin color or their national origin or their sexual orientation, because we use the airwaves to espouse hate and bigotry and to talk about our political opponents as the enemy, because we allow our environment ("God's green earth?") to be polluted, and because we are egotistical and/or stupid enough to suggest that natural disasters have anything whatsoever to do with human thought.

Finally, the email offers a number of statements that repeat the general allegation that the "world is going to hell" because "public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace".

Which leads me back to the main point. Those of us who feel strongly about the separation of church and state do not suggest, not even for a moment, that children are not or should not be allowed to pray in public schools. Nor do we argue against public "discussion" of God, gods, or religion. Rather, we argue against public prayer. We argue against government sponsorship or endorsement of particular religions or particular religious viewpoints. We argue that our children should not be compelled to pray in public schools and that the government should not compel a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. If a child wants to pray in school, he or she can do so any time, whether on the bus, at recess, at lunch, or even quietly seated at his or her desk. But the government should not tell my child (or your child, for that matter) that the child must pray (and certainly not with a particular prayer or to a particular deity).

And before you say, "but without prayer in public schools, our country has gone to hell", just consider for a moment what you are really saying: Either, you are saying that we, as parents, have failed at teaching values to our children (because, if the schools aren't teaching values and children aren't learning those values, then who else is there to blame but the parents who are not properly teaching and raising their children?) or you are saying that the U.S. should be a religious country in which minority religions are merely tolerated. As to this latter point, remember that the U.S. was initially settled by many people looking to escape religious persecution and bigotry. More importantly, which religious viewpoint should be the dominant one? Assuming that Christianity would be the "national" religion, would that be from a Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, or other viewpoint? Who's interpretation of scripture would be correct? Who would get to pick which prayers are to be said in our public schools?

For that matter, which Bible would we be using? The Jewish Bible (the Old Testament)? The Catholic Bible? The King James Bible? It is worth noting that the different versions of the Bible have very different texts and meanings. Just consider the Ten Commandments, about which so much has been made recently. Many people want the Ten Commandments posted in the schools and courts. But which version would that be? A simple Google search will reveal a number of examples of different versions of the Ten Commandments. Consider simply the commandment quoted in the email that "Thou shalt not kill". The use of the word "kill" finds its way into certain translations, while other translations (in particular those that do not go through an intervening Greek and/or Latin translation) usually use the word "murder" instead (and just consider the difference in meaning between those terms). Or, consider that some versions of the Ten Commandments do not include a prohibition against graven images. Even the Bible itself has several versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). For more discussion of the differences and meanings, see the Wikipedia entry on the Ten Commandments. And which Biblical lessons would we be teaching? I suppose that we should teach how to place a proper monetary value upon our daughters when we sell them into slavery (as permitted by Exodus 21:7). We should teach men how to recognize when a woman is having her menstrual cycle so that we can avoid touching them (as prohibited by Leviticus 15:1924). Perhaps we will need to revisit our teaching of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights movement; after all, Leviticus 25:44 states that we may possess slaves. We will also need to settle once and for all whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the true Sabbath (just when exactly did God tell Christians to move the Sabbath from Saturday [the last day of the week on every calendar that I've looked at recently] to Sunday [the first day of the week]; after all, I thought God rested after finishing creation not before getting started)? Why is this important? Because Exodus 35:2 requires that we put to death those who work on the Sabbath. It seems best that we know which day not to work on and schools would be a good place to teach that. We will also have to be sure that our schools don't serve any kind of shellfish as eating it is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10). I guess, too, that the hippie movement will be forced to make a comeback as our schools should probably teach that trimming a man's hair, especially around the temples, is forbidden (Leviticus 19:27). I am worried about forcing schools to stop playing football, but given that touching the skin of a dead pig makes a person unclean (Leviticus 11:68) it would seem, at bare minimum, to require that we switch to a synthetic ball. For that matter, ham sandwiches and hot dogs will certainly have to go (Leviticus 11:68) and cheeseburgers will be a thing of the past (Exodus 23:19). And I can't wait to see how school dress codes are modified to take into consideration that prohibition against wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread; alas, no more cotton/polyester blends (Leviticus 19:19). And I'm particularly looking forward to the part of the curriculum that deals with the proper way to make animal sacrifices.

And before you say that we don't need to follow all of those commandments from the Bible, please tell me just who it is, precisely, that gets to decide which commandments we keep and which ones we ignore; which commandments still have a place in the modern world and which should be relegated to the past? I don't recall God saying that we get to pick and choose the rules that we want to follow. But then I guess that will be part of the school curriculum as well.

And how are we to reconcile all of this with Jesus' own prescriptions against public prayer:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret....

(Mathew 6:56). It would seem to me that coercive (or even optional, but organized) prayer in the public schools would violate this admonition. But maybe our new Biblical public school curriculum will include proper instruction on how and where and to whom to pray, too.

Perhaps we can settle these questions in the civilized way that Europeans have used over the millennia: War. Consider, for a moment, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which all of Europe was embroiled in a war over competing versions of Christianity (Catholics v. Lutherans v. Calvinists). By some estimates, millions of people died during this particularly bloody war. European history is filled with examples of war over religious doctrine and dogma. The Spanish Inquisition was a particularly pleasant way of addressing religious differences. And don't forget Henry VIII who created an entirely new church just because he wanted a divorce. More recently, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants have seen fit to blow each other up. Christians aren't alone in their use of violence to resolve religious disputes. Just look at the violence between Muslims and Hindus over Kashmir, between Muslims, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox in the Balkans, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, if we were to decide that blowing each other up was the best way to resolve our own petty religious differences, then we wouldn't be much different from the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims presently engaged in their own conflict in Iraq in which wholesale kidnapping, torture, and slaughter is apparently an acceptable way to address religious differences.

Consider the following statement from ReligiousTolerance:

Religion is a unique force in society. It motivates individuals to do both good and evil. Historically, it has promoted: an end to slavery, racial integration, equal rights for women, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. It has motivated individuals to create massive support services for the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the broken. Conversely, it has been used to justify slavery, racial segregation, oppression of women, discrimination against homosexuals, genocides, exterminations of minorities, and other horrendous evils.

Religion motivates some to dedicate their lives to help the poor and needy. (e.g. Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa.) It drives others to exterminate as many "heretics" as they can. Consider the mass murders and genocides in Bosnia, East Timor, Indonesia, India, Kosovo, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tibet, etc.

Religion has the capability to generate unselfish love in some people, and vicious, raw hatred in others.

Americans love to stand up and say how proud they are of their country and the freedoms and liberties that America stands for. Yet, when those freedoms and liberties challenge us, how many of us are still ready to stand up and support the rights of those with whom they disagree? You pray the way you want, I'll pray the way I want (if I want), and we'll leave the schools to teach our children about math and reading and science (and let's not even get started on the whole issue of creationism or "intelligent design").

Do we honestly believe that simply offering a public prayer that conforms to a particular religious viewpoint will suddenly cause all children to be good, that burglars and murderers will suddenly repent, that terrorists will leave us alone, and hurricanes will limit their destruction to Mexico or Cuba? Just think about it: Canada allows gay marriage, but it doesn't appear that God has punished Canada. For that matter Massachusetts also allows gay marriage, but Hurricane Katrina landed far to the south of Boston. So maybe, just maybe, the fact that we don't allow prayer in public schools has little or nothing to do with how God views our country. Or, perhaps, if God is angry at the U.S., it is because we have not lived up to the challenge of always acting as we should when we support dictators, don't give enough money to help impoverished nations, continue to allow the environment to be destroyed, rely upon torture to obtain information, and continue to use God and religion as an excuse for political viewpoints that demonize those with whom we disagree. Or maybe, God just wants us to allow gays to marryY

Just consider my own childhood in which the principal at my public elementary school used a derogatory term to describe my mother after I (a somewhat precocious 5thgrader) expressed discomfort at singing "Silent Night" in the school's Christmas program. When I asked the music teacher if I could simply remain silent during that song, I was given the choice of singing (and not just "mumbling", I was reminded) or quitting the choir. Or consider that Good Friday was a recognized absence for the Catholic children, but Jews had to call in "sick" to be excused for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Or consider that every student at our public high school had to sit through a performance of Handel's "Messiah" by the school choir (and rise at the appropriate moment). I was told that if I did not attend the performance, I would be suspended. When I later asked the music teacher why that particular piece of music was chosen, she claimed that it was due to the beautiful harmonies and not for its religious content. So, I asked her why it was not included in the spring music program and she replied that it "would lose its meaning". I could go on and on with examples of the government, through the public school system, attempting to impose a particular religious viewpoint upon me. It was clear to me, as I grew up, that because I was not Christian, I was different and something less than a full participant in my own country. That is wrong. That is not American. I am no more a guest here than any other citizen, whether a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Wiccan, or any of the myriad other religions that make up America. And an atheist is no less a citizen than any believer. I am not a guest and my country should not make me feel that I am anything less than on equal footing with every other citizen, no matter my religion (or lack thereof).

And finally, back to Ben Stein. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Stein that it doesn't bother me when people refer to Christmas trees as such. Nor am I particularly bothered if someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas". My wife even likes to listen to some Christmas music (I have allegedly been caught humming "Frosty the Snowman") and our family will occasionally drive around and look at our neighbors' Christmas lights. However, while I am not offended, I do wonder what is so wrong with saying "Happy Holidays" as that term is fully inclusive of all people, of whatever religion (or none the phrase includes New Year's Day and Thanksgiving and maybe even the winter solstice) rather than being exclusive. So, while I have no problem with Wal-Mart deciding that its greeters should say "Merry Christmas" (can anybody explain why Wal-Mart needs to greet me?), I also have no problem giving my business to Target where diversity is welcomed and inclusiveness is valued. That said, I am offended when someone who knows me says "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Holidays" because that tells me that the person doesn't care enough to be considerate toward me. If I know that someone is Christian, I will try to remember to say "Merry Christmas". Otherwise, I usually say "Happy Holidays"; I want to be inclusive and be sure that my greeting is appropriate for everyone (but, I'll acknowledge that when an acquaintance who knows that I'm Jewish wishes me a "Merry Christmas" I am likely to respond with "Happy Hanukkah" if I'm in a bah humbug sort of mood).

Like Mr. Stein, I am not offended by a manger scene. The church on the corner near my home has a lovely living nativity each year. I am, however, offended, when my government chooses to erect a manger scene or allows one to be erected on public property. Why exactly does the government need to erect a manger or to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Don't churches and private homeowners (not to mention stores and businesses) do a sufficient job of that? The hue and cry about the "attack" on Christmas would make one think that those of us who favor the separation of church and state want to prohibit churches and individuals from showing their faith and devotion when that simply is not the case at all. By all means, hang up your Christmas lights, decorate your tree, erect your crèche. Just do it at your home or at your business or at your church and not on government land and do it without government tax dollars. Is that really too much to ask?

I also agree with Mr. Stein that America is not an "explicitly atheist country". I am unfamiliar with that claim. Instead, I believe that America is a country that is (or should be) neutral toward religion. America is not atheist any more than it is Christian or Jewish or Muslim or tied to the earth and ancestor spirit faiths of Native Americans. America is all of those things. America is made up of hundreds of different religions (and of those who have either no particular faith or who don't believe in a god or gods), each of which may be a valuable contribution to the fabric that makes our country (and each of which may also have negative influences as well). But that does not mean that America as a country and through its institutions should show favoritism toward any particular religious belief or form of worship (or lack thereof). To exclude coercive prayer from public life, to recognize that not everyone shares the same religious views and beliefs, to value diversity (and the rewards and challenges that diversity can bring) is not "atheist". But it is American.

Happy Holidays.


Well, I did warn you that this would be long. If you've stayed with me the whole way, thanks. If not ... well, I guess that you wouldn't be reading this would you? Anyway, as I'm sure you can tell by now, the issues that I discussed above are very important to me and about which I tend to get very exercised.

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Ben Stein, Chain Emails, & "Happy Holidays" (Part 1)

Let me apologize in advance for the length of this post and of Part 2 (which I'm actually posting at the same time). Unfortunately, to do justice to the subject, I found that I had to write even more than my usual relatively-lengthy posts. Sorry. And with that, away we go...

First a little background. I'm sure that you've received numerous chain emails on a whole host of different topics. Usually, I just hit the delete key and move on, but every now and then one of these chain emails either interests me or offends me or both. I participate in a number of mailing lists related to various subjects. One of these mailing lists pertains to certain health care matters and is supposed to be limited to that topic. Nevertheless, one particular poster frequently feels the need to send cute little jokes and inspirational messages that I ignore (the jokes aren't funny and the messages aren't inspirational). She has also been prone to sending chain emails to the mailing list and, on more than one occasion, these chain emails have been untrue (hoax virus warnings, the crying baby on the doorstep urban legend, and other similar things that have been debunked by Snopes and others). When I receive these messages, I often send her (or others from whom I receive similar messages) a private email noting that the chain email is a hoax or urban legend and offering some suggestions on how to identify hoaxes in the future. Again, this may be an annoyance, but it isn't really harmful.

But then one day, she posted a message that got me angry (I'll discuss the subject matter in a minute). After reading the message several times, I started doing a little online research of my own. I found that part of the message was an mostly accurate transcript of an original commentary but that it had been combined with a number of other bits and pieces without proper attribution and which were incorrect. Moreover, even ignoring the numerous errors in the message, I found the subject matter and the conclusions reached by the authors to be highly objectionable. So I decided to write a response. Over the course of a number of lunch hours I drafted my response. I wrote and tweaked and edited until I was happy with my response. My only real concern was that the tone of my response was much harsher than the tone I usually use, but I felt that the circumstances warranted that tone. Finally, before I posted my response, I sent it to my wife to review. She told me that it was a well-written message that did an excellent job of addressing the issues; however, she told me that if I posted the message she would have to kill me. All I would accomplish, she explained, would be the creation of a flame war on the mailing list (in which she is a frequent participant). We argued, but eventually I relented and decided to hold my tongue. I tucked my post away in my drafts folder where it has stayed for quite some time.

In the two years following, I received that same email several times. A few months ago, when the election was heating up, I received the objectionable email from a close family friend (who I think secretly hopes that he can drag me over to the political right). And then, unsurprisingly, here shortly before Christmas, I've received yet another copy of the message. Each of the versions of the email that I've received are virtually identical with only little bits and pieces changing from one to the next. An online search will reveal several versions of the same general chain message. However, all of the versions of the chain email have warped and expanded the original commentary on which they are based and which they quote.

So finally we get to the actual content of the original commentary and the chain email that it spawned. In late 2005, actor/game show host (and now advocate for creationism and the position that belief in evolution was a root cause of the Holocaust) Ben Stein gave a commentary on CBS Sunday Morning about Nick & Jessica and Christmas (sorry the video cannot be embedded). Mr. Stein posted a version of that commentary on his website (it is worth noting that the commentary on the website is subtly different from that which he gave on CBS Sunday Morning, but the differences are essentially non-substantive). Here is the full text of the commentary as posted on Mr. Stein's website:

Herewith at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart:

I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are. I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I am buying my dog biscuits and kitty litter. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores. They never know who Nick and Jessica are either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they have broken up? Why are they so important? I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is, either, and I do not care at all about Tom Cruise's wife.

Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I am a subversive? Maybe, but I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are. Is this what it means to be no longer young. It's not so bad.

Next confession: I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him?

I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

I disagree with some of Mr. Stein's thoughts (though not about Nick and Jessica or Tom Cruise...), but don't really care what he has to say. If those comments were the extent of the chain email I would probably have just hit the delete key. Unfortunately, someone, somewhere, decided to embellish Mr. Stein's comments and tried to make them into much more than they really were. As embellished, Mr. Stein's comments are then used to try to advance both the simple position that Mr. Stein was commenting about but also to advocate on behalf of prayer in public schools and to attack those of us who support separation of church and state. And, as I mentioned previously, not only are many of the additional points not from Mr. Stein; they are also factually inaccurate. Yet because they appear to have the imprimatur of being spoken by an "expert" (or at least a third-rate celebrity; some people seem to have trouble telling the difference), they are taken at face value. (I find it troubling that Mr. Stein has not added and addendum to the page with his originally commentary noting that he is not responsible for the additional thoughts attributed to him that are so readily found floating around the Internet.) Moreover, and more importantly, because Mr. Stein is Jewish (and "confesses" as much in his commentary), his comments (including the embellished additions) are used as a club against Jews (like me) who have a different viewpoint.

So, below is the full text of the chain email that caused me to become so exercised in the first place. As you will see, it is fairly lengthy. Thus, my response (the one that I've kept in my drafts folder for two years now), with some minor corrections and edits, but with the original tone largely intact, will be in Part 2 of this post. It is also worth noting that some versions of the chain email completely omit the portions that I've posted in green (and change the subsequent reference to "Nick and Jessica" to "celebrities") while others add the portion that I've posted in blue.

Something not to laugh about.

If they know of him at all, many folks think Ben Stein is just a quirky actor/comedian who talks in a monotone. He's also a very intelligent attorney who knows how to put ideas and words together in such a way as to sway juries and make people think clearly.

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

Herewith at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart: I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are. I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I am buying my dog biscuits and kitty litter. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores. They never know who Nick and Jessica are either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they have broken up? Why are they so important?

I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is either, and I do not care at all about Tom Cruise's wife.

Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I am a subversive? Maybe, but I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are.

If this is what it means to be no longer young. It's not so bad.

Next confession: I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don' t feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution, and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica [alternately: celebrities] and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him?

I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too.

But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this Happen?" (regarding Katrina)

Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.

And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about and we said OK.

Then someone said teachers and principals better not discipline our children when they misbehave. The school administrators said no faculty member in this school better touch a student when they misbehave because we don't want any bad publicity, and we surely don't want to be sued (there's a big difference between disciplining, touching, beating, smacking, humiliating, kicking, etc.).. And we said OK.

Then someone said, let's let our daughters have abortions if they want, and they won't even have to tell their parents.. And we said OK.

Then some wise school board member said, since boys will be boys and they're going to do it anyway, let's give our sons all the condoms they want so they can have all the fun they desire, and we won't have to tell their parents they got them at school. And we said OK.

Then some of our top elected officials said it doesn't matter what we do in private as long as we do our jobs. Agreeing with them, we said it doesn't matter to me what anyone, including the President, does in private as long as I have a job and the economy is good.

Then someone said let's print magazines with pictures of nude women and call it wholesome, down-to-earth appreciation for the beauty of the female body. And we said OK.

And then someone else took that appreciation a step further and published pictures of nude children and then further again by making them available on the Internet. And we said OK, they're entitled to free speech.

Then the entertainment industry said, let's make TV shows and movies that promote profanity, violence, and illicit sex. Let's record music that encourages rape, drugs, murder, suicide, and satanic themes. And we said it's just entertainment, it has no adverse effect, nobody takes it seriously anyway, so go right ahead.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves. Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "WE REAP WHAT WE SOW."

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell.

Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says.

Funny how you can send 'jokes' through email and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

Before moving on to my response (in Part 2), take a moment and comment on Mr. Stein's original commentary and the embellished thoughts attributed to him.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cal Thomas Offers Truly Xenophobic Ideas

In today's issue of The Indianapolis Star, columnist Cal Thomas offered his opinion on the events in Mumbai and how those events relate to Muslim immigration to Britain and the United States. On one level, Thomas' essay can be seen as simply a call for vigilance by western governments to be sure that they are not allowing terrorists to immigrate and to try to prevent terrorist breeding grounds from sprouting up amongst Muslim immigrants. But then Thomas goes off the proverbial deep end:
At the very least, all non-Western immigrants to Britain and America should be told prior to their arrival that our intention is to westernize them. They must learn English, study and embrace the history of their host nation and, if they are Muslim, they will be allowed to worship only in existing mosques. No new ones should be built. Existing mosques must be monitored to make sure that hate is not taught and aggressive behavior toward their host countries is not promoted. If such behavior and speech are detected, the mosques should be closed and the imams arrested or deported.

It appears that Thomas forgot why many of America's original settlers immigrants found their way to our shores: They wanted religious freedom. Apparently, Thomas is not willing to extend that right to certain religious groups and is not willing to allow other "non-Western immigrants" to retain their own cultures. While most of the terrorists that we've seen blowing up buses or attacking hotels or flying airplanes into buildings have been Muslim, it is also fair to say that there are are large number of Muslims -- both worldwide and in the United States -- who are not terrorists. Yet, because some Muslims are terrorists, Thomas would deign to tell new immigrants which mosques they can worship at, would "monitor" the sermons of imams, and would arrest or deport those who don't have nice things to say about America?

If someone engages in speech that rises to the level of incitement to violence, that speech is probably punishable (if I recall, that is one of the areas where courts have found an exception to the First Amendment). And I have no problem with the idea of allowing investigative authorities (be it the police or FBI or whomever) to follow up leads and probable cause to see if incitement to violence is occurring. But I'm curious to know how Thomas' monitoring would work. Would an FBI agent have to attend each and every service at each and every mosque? Should we plant listening devices at each and every mosque? Maybe Thomas would prefer if we just rounded up each Muslim and threw them out of the country or into a detention camp like we did with the Japanese during World War II.

To tell immigrants that they cannot worship where they want or to censor critical speech (so long as it doesn't amount to an incitement to violence) is simply not among the core values that have made America great. There has to be a better way to lessen the threat of domestic-bread Islamic terrorism.

But I think that it is important to recognize a few more things as well. Not all terrorism directed against Americans has been carried out by Muslims. Timothy McVeigh killed hundreds in Oklahoma City, abortion foes have killed dozens (hundreds?) in bombings of clinics where abortions were performed, and white racists have been responsible for bombing black churches. Perhaps we should also monitor evangelical Christian churches (or even mainline Christian churches) and prohibit the construction of any new ones so that we can be sure that preachers aren't inciting their parishioners to violence against the United States government or abortion providers or blacks. In India, some Hindus have carried out terrorist acts against Muslims, so we should obviously be limiting the worship rights of Hindus as well, shouldn't we?

And it isn't just religious groups that we should watch out for. G. Gordon Liddy has talked on the radio about his plans to kill journalists and has advised his listeners on how to kill federal agents. I doubt that Thomas thinks that Liddy's show should be taken off the air. In the past, certain Native American groups have advocated or engaged in violence against the US government. Perhaps we should be sure to monitor all Native American religious celebrations and prevent them from holding unauthorized prayer events. Maybe we should restrict the civil liberties (oh, such as free speech rights) of racists like Cal Thomas.

And I'm not sure how Thomas equates his concern for safety and protection from terrorists with the notion that we must try to "westernize" non-Western immigrants. Is he suggesting that Japanese and Chinese and Korean immigrants should not be allowed to retain aspects of their respective cultures? Is he suggesting that immigrants from Africa give up their culture, too? As I read Thomas' suggestion, he is essentially saying that America is a place for European whites and that if you're not "one of us" then you are only welcome if you are willing to act like "one of us". I'm curious to know if Jews fit into Thomas' view of America. In any event, the suggestion that "non-Western" immigrants should sacrifice their culture for the privilege of immigrating to America is both un-American and racist.

Look, I understand that, right now, the primary threat to our safety comes from Muslim terrorists and that we need to take steps to keep ourselves safe from that threat. But I don't think that, in the name of keeping ourselves safe, we need to sacrifice one of the core values that makes our nation great and I don't think that we need to become a nation of xenophobic racists. We should continue to investigate, as vigorously as possible, potential threats to our safety and our nation (better inspections at our borders and ports might be a good starting point...). And there is no reason that we can't perform more vigorous and thorough background checks on those seeking to come to our country legally. But to tell one group that they are under a cloud of suspicion solely due to their race and to then limit their religious freedoms is simply wrong.

I think that we can find the balance to keep ourselves safe without destroying civil liberties and without denigrating the diversity of cultures that have made America great.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

God on License Plates

Indiana, like many other states, has numerous "specialty plates". There is a environmental plate, a children's education plate, a disabled veteran plate, a breast cancer awareness plate, and a host of others. Several years ago, Indiana introduced a new plate with "In God We Trust" emblazoned upon a waving American flag.

Personally, I have trouble with this plate because, to me, it certainly seems like a governmental endorsement of religion or, if not religion per se, at least monotheistic belief. Whether this license plate is appropriate is (or was...) a discussion for another day and is not the purpose of this post.

Shortly after the plate was first unveiled, it was challenged in court. It is important to recognize that the court challenge was not about whether the plate violated the First Amendment (or Indiana's equivalent); instead, the challenge had to do with whether Indiana could offer this plate without requiring motorists to pay the $15 administrative fee that it required when people chose other speciality plates.

(Two quick asides: Last year, when I went to get a new plate, the BMV clerk asked me if I wanted a "regular plate or a special plate". I told her that I wanted a regular plate. She then asked me which regular plate I wanted: the plain one or the In God We Trust plate. Second, based on the driving skills that I've seen exhibited, it is clear that a number of people with the In God We Trust plate certainly must trust God to keep them from killing other motorists, because their own driving skills sure aren't doing the job.)

Just recently, an Indiana appellate court ruled that the BMV did not have to collect the administrative fee for the In God We Trust plate. It is not clear whether that ruling will be appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court.

However, days after that ruling was issued, the question of God on license plates was in the courts yet again. This time, the issue was a woman who wanted to renew her personalized license plate that said "BE GODS". Apparently, in 2007, the BMV adopted a new policy for personalized plates that allows the BMV to prohibit plates that refer to drugs, alcohol, bodily functions and parts, political parties, violence, race, gender, religion or a deity. On the basis of that policy, the woman was denied her "BE GODS" plate.

Of course, the obvious question is how the BMV can support a plate that specifically references a deity as a specialty or regular plate but prohibit a plate that references a deity as a personalized plate. If anything, it would seem that those policies are exactly backward. After all, with the personalized plate, it is not the state endorsing the particular religious viewpoint; rather, the state is essentially providing a platform from which individuals may make their religious preferences known. Contrast that to the In God We Trust plate which is issued by the State of Indiana.

Not surprisingly, the BMV was slammed in the press for its decision and shortly thereafter changed its position (essentially, the woman's plate was grandfathered in; she had been using that as her plate for years, but had mistakenly missed the deadline to renew). But that position, too, was criticized.

So now, the BMV has changed its policy again. According to a report in The Indianapolis Star, the BMV's policy is now for a committee of BMV employees to examine each request for a personalized plate and decide whether the plate "carries a connotation offensive to good taste and decency or would be misleading." I understand that policy to the extent that someone wants to use profanity or an obscenity on a plate (imagine a plate with "FUCK" or "EAT SHIT" or whatever else your dirty little mind can imagine). I can even understand the policy as it might related to veiled sexual references ("IMNXTC69" being the classic example) or suggestive of illegal behavior ("DO COKE"). But I'm troubled by the general standard of "offensive to good taste and decency". Whose taste and decency? Mine? Yours? Could a Hoosier choose a plate that was critical of the government or that indicated support for a controversial political position or minority viewpoint? And if the answer to that is no, then of course, one has to ask first, why, and then, who should be making that kind of determination? How have we gotten ourselves into a position where a group of state employees gets to determine whether a particular religious message "carries a connotation offensive to good taste and decency"? Are we comfortable with that?

And here are my final questions: What would the BMV do if a Hoosier motorist wanted a personalized license plate that said "ALLAH" or "BUDDHA" or "KRISHNA"? And what would happen if a Hoosier motorist wanted a personalized license plate that said "NO GOD"?

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Tolerance Remains an Elusive Goal

I'm sure that many of you have read about the Florida high school principal who not only refused to help a student who was being taunted by other students because she was gay, but who actually told her that her sexual orientation was "wrong" and then "outed" that student to her parents, told her to stay away from other students, and then suspended her friends when they wore gay pride shirts and buttons as a sign of support. (See the AP story which has been reprinted numerous places.) I find this story so disturbing on so many levels, I'm not really sure what to address or which element offends me most. So, I'll start at the beginning.

First, I cannot believe that any school official would ever knowingly allow a student to be taunted. Isn't part of the role of the school to protect children? How mad would you be if your child came home and said that she was being taunted at school but the principal wouldn't do anything about it? We'd all be outraged if the principal's reasoning was the student's race or religion; but why are some people willing to treat the student's sexual orientation differently? Is it OK to string a gay man up on a fence post and leave him to die just because he's gay?

While I can understand the principal's desire (although I completely disagree) to set the student "straight" (pun intended), I cannot believe that he would tell her that her lifestyle is "wrong". Sure, if what she was doing was illegal or dangerous then "wrong" might be appropriate, but telling a teenager that being a lesbian is wrong is no better than telling a Jewish student that his religious choice is wrong, telling a Republican that his political affiliation was wrong, or making any pronouncement related to a student's other conscious and personal choices. How offended would you be if your child came home and told you that the principal told her that her religious affiliation or political affiliation was "wrong". Why is her sexual orientation any different?

And I cannot believe that the principal "outed" the student to her parents. I'd be curious to know if he did it out of a sense of moral superiority (as in, "if her parents know, they'll "fix" the problem") or malice (as, in, "if her parents know, they'll beat some sense into her") or xenophobia (as in, "if her parents know, maybe they'll move her out of my school where I won't have to deal with her"). But what right did the principal have to give this type of information to the student's parents? Would you feel differently if the principal told the parents that the student had expressed an interest in a different religious viewpoint or was seen wearing a campaign button for a political party different from the parents' choice? What if the principal told the parents that their daughter's boyfriend was of a different race or different socio-economic class? I'm sure that teachers and school administrators learn private information about students all the time, but so long as that information does not impact upon illegal conduct or poor performance in school, then by what right are the school administrators disclosing that information to the parents?

I'm not even sure how to address the principal's telling the student to stay away from other students. Was he afraid that homosexuality was contagious or that she would rape other kids?

High school is difficult enough for most students, even without worrying about coming to terms with their sexual orientation. But to have the school principal tell you that you're "wrong", tell your parents, and punish your friends...? How much more difficult can life get?

And let's talk about those friends for a moment. I have a hard time believing that there are many principals left in America who aren't somewhat familiar with the limited free speech rights still available to students. Of course, the most famous case dealing with the subject is Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the Supreme Court upheld the right of students to wear black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War. In that case, the Court noted that students do not "shed their constitutional rights when the enter the schoolhouse door." But apparently, the principal at one Florida school was either unfamiliar with this doctrine or simply thought that it didn't restrict his behavior, at least not when the issue was ... gasp ... homosexuality. Once again, can you imagine a principal suspending students for wearing a t-shirt endorsing the politician of their choosing? For wearing a button opposing the war in Iraq or supporting Greenpeace? So how could anyone think that it was OK for the principal to suspend students for simply wearing shirts or buttons to support their friend? I'd be curious to know if the principal stops students from wearing shirts or hats with Confederate flags?

And, if all of that wasn't bad enough, the principal starting asking students whether they were gay or associated with gay students. Apparently, this principal went to the McCarthy school of government administration which conveniently ignores such fundamental concepts as privacy rights and the constitutional right to freely of associate. Of course, all of that pales in comparison to the fact that the principal apparently lifted students' clothing to see if they'd written "Gay Pride" or "GP" on their skin. How would you feel if you learned that the principal at your daughter's school had lifted your daughter's shirt to see if she had written "Obama for President" or "WWJD" on her skin?

Also I can't let the reaction of the citizens of the town go without comment. They are religious people. Fine. They think that homosexuality is wrong. Fine. I'm not telling them that they should change their own particular views, religious or otherwise. They can feel and think however they want about homosexuality. That is one of the joys of America. You are free to be an idiotic, homophobic bigot if you want to. But you cannot force those beliefs upon others. The AP article says that townsfolk feel as if outsiders are forcing beliefs on them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, they are simply being told that they can't force their beliefs on everyone who happens to share their town. Stop for a minute and ask if the situation would be any different if, instead of homosexuality, the issue was race or religion. Would anybody think it OK for the community to burn a cross on the yard of the new black or Jewish neighbors? They don't have to invite the girl over to dinner or let their son or daughter date her. They don't even have to talk to her. But she is still entitled to the same constitutional rights and protections as the rest of the community.

The principal went way beyond what was right, let alone legal. That is terrible. But the support that the townsfolk expressed for his actions is, perhaps, worse, because it demonstrates a complete failure to comprehend constitutional rights, including the right to be different. It is somewhat ironic that this lack of understanding comes to light with regard to the failings of the educational system. It makes me wonder what else the people in that part of Florida have been (or not been) taught. I wonder if they still think that slavery was a good idea?

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Indiana Limits Freedom of Speech Where the Content Might Be Harmful to Minors (update)

Yesterday, I posted the essay "Indiana Limits Freedom of Speech Where the Content Might Be Harmful to Minors". Apparently, I am not the only one with concerns about the new law requiring business to register with the state if they will sell "sexually explicit" materials. In today's The Indianapolis Star there are not one, but two editorials voicing concern and opposition to this new law.

First, on the main editorial page, the editorial staff of The Indianapolis Star offers the opinion "Bad law for a good cause invites volumes of worry" (although it should be noted that I used the example of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition in my blog yesterday...). The editorial makes several good points, one of which is worth repeating:
[B]usiness people who wish to avoid trouble may feel pressured to pay their $250 and sign up, in effect incurring a fine and a public black mark for purveying words and pictures.

That's censorship. It's also the sort of feel-good governance the elected class can't seem to resist or dares not oppose in the face of public distress over morals and commercial blight.

Also of interest in the editorial was the statement from Governor Daniels' spokesperson:
The spokesperson for Gov. Mitch Daniels says he signed the bill because it
sailed through both chambers of the legislature and he wasn't aware of any
complaints, even though booksellers say they asked him for a veto.

So, as I read that explanation, Gov. Daniels doesn't bother to think independently about a bill before he signs it into law; if it passed the General Assembly by a wide margin, it must be a good law. I think that we should expect our Governor to bring some independent thought and critical analysis to any action that he takes, especially something as important as signing a bill into law.

In addition to the editorial from the editorial staff, columnist John Ketzenberger also wrote about the new law in the Business section in "'Adult' law is too broad to be workable". The point to take away from this editorial is the idea that the State doesn't intend to actively enforce the law.

The problem, however, as I read the law, is that it is not up to the Secretary of State to decide who to prosecute; rather, that would be up to a county prosecutor. Moreover, prosecution is not triggered by the act of registration with the Secretary of State, but rather, the act of selling "sexually explicit" materials without having registered. Thus, if a zealous, conservative prosecutor (or a zealously conservative prosecutor or, perhaps, even a zealous liberal prosecutor) were to walk into a new bookstore or grocery store and see a copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition (let alone something more "scandalous" like, say Playboy), then that prosecutor could commence an action against the seller of that material for failing to register (a Class B misdemeanor). The prosecutor should know who is registered because the law requires the Secretary of State to notify the county of registrants in that county. In other words, this becomes just another crime on the books that may or may not be enforced from county to county (and which, don't forget, may be interpreted differently from county to county, as well, on the basis of differing community standards).

So, in essence, we have an unconstitutional law targeting a narrow problem that snares an overly broad class of businesses that may or may not be enforced and which the Governor signed into law simply because it "sailed" through the General Assembly. Government at its finest, no?

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Indiana Limits Freedom of Speech Where the Content Might Be Harmful to Minors

I'm not quite sure how I missed it during the recently completed legislative session, but the Indiana General Assembly adopted, and the Governor signed into law, a bill that is a direct affront to the Constitutional protections of freedom of speech and of the press. I first became aware of House Enrolled Act 1042 in the article "Booksellers incensed over sexual content law" by Tim Evans in today's The Indianapolis Star. The new law requires anyone who "intends to offer for sale or sell sexually explicit materials [to] register with the secretary of state the intent to offer for sale or sell sexually explicit materials and provide a statement detailing the types of materials that the person intends to offer for sale or sell." Indiana Code § 23-1-55-2. After registration, the Secretary of State must notify the appropriate officials in the county where the business is located. At the time of registration, the registrant must pay a $250 fee. (It is interesting to note that this fee is three times greater than any other fee to be collected by the Secretary of State under pursuant to Indiana Code § 23-18-12-3.)

So what exactly is "sexually explicit material"? House Enrolled Act 1042 also addresses that with the the addition to the Indiana Code of § 24-4-16.4-2 which provides:

(a) As used in this chapter, "sexually explicit materials" means a product or service:

  (1) that is harmful to minors (as described in IC 35-49-2-2), even if the product or service is not intended to be used by or offered to a minor; or

  (2) that is designed for use in, marketed primarily for, or provides for:

    (A) the stimulation of the human genital organs; or

    (B) masochism or a masochistic experience, sadism or a sadistic experience, sexual bondage, or sexual domination.

(b) The term does not include:

  (1) birth control or contraceptive devices; or

  (2) services, programs, products, or materials provided by a:

    (A) communications service provider (as defined in IC 8-1-32.6-3);

    (B) physician;or

    (C) public or nonpublic school.

For the sake of argument (and to limit the scope of this discussion), I'll ignore (a)(2) for the moment, although I'm not sure why the government really cares what people want to do in the privacy of their own homes (and query, whether a person selling this time of material over the Internet must register...). Instead, I'll limit the discussion to (a)(1) and products or services that are "harmful to minors ... even if the product or service is not intended to be used by or offered to a minor".

So what does Indiana Code § 35-49-2-2 says is "harmful to minors"?

A matter or performance is harmful to minors for purposes of this article if:
(1) it describes or represents, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse;
(2) considered as a whole, it appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors;
(3) it is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for or performance before minors; and
(4) considered as a whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

Please understand that I'm not suggesting that any of the foregoing is good for minors; however, I am a bit troubled by the government -- rather than parents -- deciding that these matters are harmful to minors. Moreover, I can think of many other matters or performances that are far more harmful to minors, such as depictions of drug or alcohol use, violence, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other similar things. Just consider for a moment that the State of Indiana is worried about minors seeing nudity (unless it has "serious" artistic merit...and query who, precisely, makes that decision) but does not say anything about minors seeing examples of drug and alcohol use throughout popular culture, not to mention the extreme violence that permeates the media (forget about Die Hard or Saw; just watch an episode of Tom & Jerry!). Watch a hip hop video on MTV or an episode of CSI or listen to some of the proponents of the recently defeated immigration legislation to see examples of things that are far more harmful to minors than depictions of sex. And has anyone every met a teenager (still a minor) who did not have a prurient interest in sex? Even sex education classes cause many a whisper and giggle, and the American Pie movies didn't make tons of money because of their metaphysical observations on the human condition.

I'm also troubled by the reliance upon "prevailing standards in the adult community" as a touchstone for determining what is harmful to minors. What troubles one adult may not trouble another adult. And why should material that is acceptable to minors in some places be unsuitable for a minor in another place? Just witness the recent attempt to adopt a "wholesomeness" ordinance in Carmel (where I live) because some uptight women were offended by the window displays at Victoria's Secret. Should my access to literature have any basis on what those women view as "decent"?

Unfortunately, this is a discussion for another day. The point of reflecting on what is "harmful to minors" is to see how that relates back into the new registration requirement. Recall that the definition of "sexually explicit materials" means products or services that are "harmful to minors ... even if the product or service is not intended to be used by or offered to a minor" (emphasis added). In other words, if material might be harmful to a minor, even if not is not offered or sold to minors, the person offering that material must register with the State of Indiana.

Consider a few examples:

  • A book store that sells bestsellers (which most of the literary elite would probably say do not contain serious literary merit) which portray sexual acts (how many romance novels don't portray sexual acts) must register before it can sell those books; as one bookseller quoted in The Indianapolis Star article noted: "the law could potentially cover 'just about any coming-of-age novel and books on health, hygiene and human sexuality'".
  • A movie theater that plays R-rated movies that contain nudity might have to register, even though minors cannot attend those films (without a parent).
  • A video store that rents or sells many PG-13 (let alone R or NC-17) films would have to register (just think about many "teen comedies" like Porky's or American Pie); recall, that it doesn't matter whether the movies will be sold to minors or not, only that they are available.
  • A marital counselor who sells books to her adult, married clients regarding sexual techniques and positions, might have to register before she could sell those materials.
  • Have you ever walked into a Spencer's Gifts store in the mall?
  • What about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition? After all, it certainly "describes or represents" nudity and sexual excitement.
  • A liquor store (into which a minor may not enter) must register before it can sell Playboy.

Is that what we really want? Is that right? I understand the idea of requiring the local "adult" book store or the business that provides lingerie "shows" to undergo some kind of regulation, but most communities use zoning laws for that sort of regulation. And, while it appears that those are the types of businesses that this law is aimed at, it uses a shotgun approach that targets far too wide and captures far too many business and far too much content and material.

And now we finally come to the real problem with the law: It is unconstitutional. It is worth looking at the often-ignored Indiana Constitution, not just the United States Constitution.

No law shall be passed, restraining the free interchange of thought and opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print, freely, on any subject whatever: but for the abuse of that right, every person shall be responsible. (Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 9)


Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press .... (United States Constitution, Amendment I)

Yet this new law will do precisely what those provisions seek to prevent. It will restrain the free interchange of thought and opinion because it will require businesses to self-censor to avoid being tagged as purveyors of sexually explicit material. Moreover, it will require business to pay a fee to the state solely on the basis of the content of material that may be legally sold. How many people might refuse to shop at a bookstore or video rental store that is known to sell "sexually explicit materials"? And what if a local government decides to enact zoning regulations that prohibit business that sell sexually explicit materials. Just imagine a community with no bookstores or theaters because some material might be harmful to minors in the opinion of some adults in the community.

Why is it that we as a society are so worried about our children being exposed to sex, but we don't seem to have a problem exposing them to violence. We are reluctant to let them to hear one of George Carlin's "seven dirty words", but we don't have a problem letting them hear hate speech from their religious leaders. We don't want them to learn how to practice safe sex (and I don't mean just abstinence), but we don't have a problem teaching scientifically inaccurate material if it will prevent sex. We don't want them to drink, but we don't mind letting them see beer commercials everywhere they look. We don't want them to have sex, but we don't mind when American Idol or Monday Night Football is interrupted with advertisements for Viagra, Cialis, and their ilk (and have you tried to explain to an 8-year-old what erectile dysfunction is?). We don't want the government to trample on our rights, but we don't mind asking the government to trample on the rights of "others".  We don't want our children to be exposed to "sexually explicit materials", but we are loathe to pass laws that will be effective in keeping those children away from guns. We want our children to learn to think for themselves, so long as they think the right things...

Let's keep the government out of deciding what kind of books and movies and magazines can be sold. Let's not start down the slippery slope of censorship, whether by government, community, or self-censorship to avoid governmental regulation. Let's not force booksellers and video rental stores and other businesses to register with the government on the basis of content that is protected by the Indiana and United States Constitutions.

I understand that many people disapprove of obscenity and pornography; that's fine. But in a state and nation with protections for freedom of speech, press, and expression, the disapproval of some should not be the basis for the government to limit what content others may have access to. There is (probably) nothing wrong with limiting materials that is available to minors (especially if the parents have access to that material to share with their children at the parents' discretion), but it is absolutely wrong to limit an adult's access to that material on the basis of whether that material might be "harmful to minors", especially when that limitation is based solely on sexual content and completely ignores the other societal matters that are far more harmful both to minors and adults (guns and drugs, for example).

Ask your elected representatives to honor the concepts of freedom of speech and freedom of the press; ask them to step back from government censorship; ask them to repeal this law next session.

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