Sunday, March 27, 2005


The Giant Rabbit (A Morality Tale)

It's Easter again. If you've been reading my ramblings for a while, you might expect that I wouldn't, but I like Easter. It means it's Spring, or that Spring is coming. People dress in nice pastel colors--and hats, which are otherwise out of fashion. I like hats. Everybody goes to church; church is nice. You get to see all your neighbors, and feel both generous and virtuous about giving away a dollar. We eat ham. I don't know if everyone does.

What's that you're saying? How can a professed amoleist believe in Easter?

As a mental exercise, try to imagine yourself in a particular situation. You are living in a green and generous land to which you are generally well adapted. Your fellow creatures are for the most part pleasant and friendly. The laws of the country are neither too lax nor too strict for your comfort. Your prosperity is such that you are able to live without too much effort, and you understand the languages, customs, and habits of the place well enough to live without having to pay undue attention to detail. You have no real trouble finding others of like mind, for company and conversation. You have loved ones there in that country. However, there is one singular peculiarity in your fellow humans in that place, and it is this: every man and woman is of the irreproachable conviction that at regular intervals, a giant rabbit dressed in a jacket enters every house, lays colored eggs about, and goes away.

Now you’re saying, oh, yes, I’m familiar with that, that’s the Easter Bunny. But no, this is no Easter Bunny. The difference between our own culture and this land you’re in is that the majority of your fellow creatures believe in this giant rabbit passionately and literally. That is, this is not a symbolic rabbit to them. It is not a rabbit of myth or legend; it is neither a quaint remnant of folklore nor some holiday convention. It is not something your neighbors tell each other with a wink and a smile. It is no story. No, it is (according to them) an actual, real giant rabbit, certified and sanctified.

None of your countrymen has ever seen this rabbit. Despite this, the rabbit-believers are convinced that the rabbit talks to them, and they believe that if they leave their wants, needs, and requests scribbled on little scraps of paper laying around the house, the rabbit reads them--sympathetically--and then endeavors (by means of powers the rabbit has) to arrange the ineffable progress of events in the world and in their lives such that these events, in the aggregate, comprise his replies.

Now, your friends and neighbors are not insane. You find most of their various beliefs to be, if not sensible, then at least explicable--most of the time; and at any rate, when one or the other of them displays a conviction far from the ordinary, either that individual is aware that his idea is odd and acknowledges it as such, or else he exhibits certain of the signs of mental defect. Neither of these conditions obtain in the case of the giant rabbit, however. Ordinary as well as unusual people take the giant rabbit for granted. Superstitious and dull as well as supremely intelligent and well-educated people agree on matters appertaining to the giant rabbit, though they might agree on little else. People from all walks of life and from every class stratum contend endlessly over every opinion large and small, save the primacy and importance of the invisible enormous rodent--on that, they are as one.

Oh, and I should mention--there is not actually any giant rabbit.

You do know that there are no giant rabbits that dress in human clothes and visit houses, don’t you? I’m not stretching credulity here? You’re aware that it’s not an imaginary giant rabbit that directs the machinations of events in the world, and that no giant rabbit determines your own individual fate? Good, then. You’re with me so far.

There is an attendant problem you have in this imaginary scenario. For not only do all the people you live with--your neighbors, friends, and loved ones; indeed, all your countrymen and -women--believe in the giant rabbit, but they spend a great deal of energy and time simultaneously reassuring each other of their belief, and asserting the truth of the giant rabbit to the rest of the world; and part of this contending is that they are intolerant of disbelief in the giant rabbit, such that if you are frank about your doubts, you will be criticized, disapproved of, ostracized, perhaps even oppressed for your views. Thus, although you are technically free to inquire about the nature of the world and the workings of reality as if the imaginary rabbit were in fact imaginary, you are also likely to suffer for doing so.

There. Have you got it? You’ve successfully imagined this scenario and put yourself in this position? You can sense what it must be like? Good. Now all you need to know is that this is how I feel regarding the tenets and practice of extremist Christianity in America. So now you understand me.

But the actual Easter Bunny--the real one, I mean--him I like. I like bunnies. He's easy to like, because people don't actually believe in him. We all understand that he is imaginary.

Happy Easter!

The Quotidian Meander

Friday, March 25, 2005


Mrs. Schiavo--the Bright Side

Years ago, I taught in a girls' school. The boys' school was nearby, and often the seventh- and eighth-grade boys hung out after school in the halls where the girls' lockers were. This also happened to be the place I was given to hang an exhibit of photographs of the senior class.

My exhibit consisted of a succession of pictures of the senior girls, about 5 or 6 kids per picture.

Well, the confluence of puerile boys and pictures of girls being what it is, sooner or later somebody drew prominent boobies on some of the pictures with a pen. I'm pretty sure the culprit wasn't one of the girls.

So I marched over to the boys' school during their assembly period, and held forth from the lectern. I made my indignation known, touching both on respect for artwork and (because I didn't want them to think I only cared about myself) respect for the feelings of the girls whose pictures had been defaced. I passed moral judgement on the perpetrator and insisted that the only honorable course for him was to come forth, confess, and apologize to me and to the girls in the picture he'd ruined.

After the assembly, one of the veteran teachers approached me. "You're really naive, you know that?" she snorted, with obvious scorn.

"Oh? Why so?"

"You're never going to get the kid who did that to come forward, you know."

Well, yes, I certainly did know that. But that wasn't the point. The point was to take advantage of the specific situation in order to clarify to kids what proper behavior is, and why. I wasn't talking to the one kid who did the dirty. I was talking to all the kids, hopefully getting them to think a little about respect for public artwork and the subjects of public artwork. That's how values are communicated.

In a similar way--looking at the opportunity it has afforded all of us to clarify our values and our wishes--I can see that a lot of good has come out of the case of Mrs. Schiavo. Actually, her case is far from unique. Life support is denied to hopeless patients more than a thousand times a day in this country. Overwhelmingly, the guardians of those affected agree on that course of action; and when they can't, then it's up to the courts to decide. Also overwhelmingly, Americans approve of this system of dealing with these tragedies.

Support for this system has recently been strengthening, not weakening. Ironically (if that's the right word), for the first time ever, a baby was recently taken off life support in Texas in defiance of its mother's wishes, using a new law put into place by a past Governor of that state--one George W. Bush.

The good that's come of the Terri Schiavo situation is simply that it's gotten many people to look at this unpleasant scenario and think about their own wishes and how to make them known to their loved ones. I think it's very likely that a huge number of Americans now know a whole lot more about the issue than they did a month or two ago. That's a good thing.

Americans have also seen an extremely clear example of what government ought not to do--I'm speaking, of course, of "An Act for the Relief of the Parents of Theresa Marie Schiavo," passed hastily by Congress in blatant disregard for the rule of law and the separation of powers. So far, it's the only thing that's ever gotten George W. Bush to come in to work during one of his many and prolonged vacations (since he's not really the President, I guess he's not needed that much in Washington. He's apparently resumed his pre-election habits, spending roughly two-fifths of his time on vacation). Americans have correctly seen this "Act" as a cynical political one. That's also a good thing, as it's a clear example of a distinction people haven't been making a whole lot lately.

You know the people I really feel for? Not Mrs. Schiavo, whose brain I'm reasonably convinced doesn't permit her even a remote semblance of consciousness. Last night I saw on the news a right-to-life protestor who said, through sobs, "this is tearing me up inside." I believe her. I felt genuine sympathy for her feelings.

But we as a society can't base our laws on that.

The Quotidian Meander

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Deism and whence it arises

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason were not infrequently deists, meaning that they professed to believe in a God but didn't accept the common stories concerning the particulars. This didn't stop them from laying into the Bible and the Christian mythos with gusto, hacking out great swaths with scythes of logic.

Mostly, this stemmed from the same concern the ancient Romans had: that religion was necessary to help keep social order. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?" Voltaire, especially, was anxious about the societal ramifications of unleashing a godless rabble on the world.

But one error the great rationalists themselves made was to presume that all people in all times have commonly conceived of a God and worshipped accordingly. This isn't so; hundreds of millions of people over half the Earth and at all times in history have practiced religions that don't posit a God. The religion I profess, Buddhism, doesn't have or need Gods, at least in the forms in which I choose to understand it.

Insofar as the apprehension of God is a common or usual human trait, it seems to me that it arises from two things. The first is the psyche: to Freud's Id, Ego, Superego we might add Ultraego, which could be defined as the individual's needs and wishes regarding morality and fairness, revenge and punishment, comfort, sympathy, and protection from terror, detached in the mind from the realm of the relative and removed to the plane of the absolute. And the second thing is merely that every human being has had parents. The God-idea is the child's perception of the father elevated in the mind to the transcendent. It's right there in the language, at least of Christianity.

The Quotidian Meander

Wednesday, March 23, 2005



In the beginning of Jennifer Hecht's delightful book Doubt: A History, there's a brief quiz readers can use to gauge themselves on the scale of belief and doubt. I scored as a "hardcore" atheist.

Funny, but I've never considered myself an "atheist" at all. Belief in a thing is one thing, but not-belief is not a proper subject for belief! How can somebody reasonably define themselves in terms of something they don't think exists?

Let's put it this way. I don't believe in mole people who live in cities a mile underground, or a population of fire-people living on the surface of the sun. Let's designate "people who believe in mole-people" as "moleists" and "people who believe in sun-people" as "sunists." According to those definitions, I'm both an amoleist and an asunist. (Aren't you? I hope you are.) But I would never define myself according to those things.

Being an amoleist, you see, is not much of a thing to be. It is not a proper peg upon which to hang one's hat. It doesn't make much of an introduction: you wouldn't shake a stranger's hand and say, "Hi, my name's Mike, and I'm an amoleist. So, where do you stand on mole-people?"

I would assume that most people, rather than proudly identifying themselves as amoleists, simply never think about mole people, because there is no evidence for any such thing, and the idea violates science, probability, and logic, and is completely preposterous.

And so there you are.

The Quotidian Meander

Monday, March 21, 2005


The News 2009

America, 2009 -- In a stunning development, the United States has its new official religion.

The new "Faith-Based" Congress, having overturned the separation of Church and State in the United States and added "The God Amendments" to the Constitution, has for two years been struggling with the question of which Christian faith shall be the new officially sanctioned religion of the country.

The voting has most emphatically not gone as planned.

The Protestant coalition, originally considered the front-runners, were devastated by internal dissention between traditional Protestants on the one hand and Pentacostals, Baptists, and other "born again" faiths on the other. The Born-Agains' insistence that non-Born-Agains are not actually Christians perhaps understandably antagonized the latter.

Atheists, who are after all citizens and do get to vote in the national referendum, were upset by "The Hebrew Initiative" of the charismatic Catholics, which called for re-instituting "Separate But Equal" doctrines for Jews, calling for certain run-down areas inside large cities to be set aside for Jewish residents. So they threw their support behind the tiny extremist ecstatic group known as the Snake Handlers.

"It was just a joke at first, really," said a spokesatheist.

Mormons, whose claim to be the only home-grown religion at first seemed to give them an advantage, eventually threw their weight behind Catholocism in an effort to stymie the more aggressive Protestant groups. Faith-healing groups offered to support the taking of multiple wives if Mormons agreed to support laws requiring the Laying-On of Hands, so Mormons formed their improbable alliance with the Snake-Handling party also.

Frightened by a conservative Evangelical threat to have the Pope declared a devil in "The New America," and unsure of how a religion headed by a devil could receive equal treatment under the law, Catholics also shifted their endorsement to the Snake-handlers. This survived the announcement by Snake-Handler leader Alby "Venom-Breath" Fugstead that his group would have no objection to official protections for priest pedophilia.

For some time it looked inevitable that the Evangelical coalition would triumph in the referendum anyway, surviving the Falwell-Robertson schism--that is until the arch-conservative Reconstructionist component of the Evangelical Coalition made it known that it would militate for a sweeping overhaul of the nation's laws, seeking to place Leviticus over the Constitution. Leviticus calls for death by stoning for any number of sins and sinners, including people who won't barbecue in their back yards (that bit about the sacrifice of a bull making an "odor pleasing to the Lord").

It appears that the threat of numerous death penalties for various sins of cooking were too much for gourmet Protestants, and these defected in sufficient number in the referendum for the improbable result to occur:

The Snake-Handlers have won. Ecstatic Christian Snake-Handling is now the official religion of the United States.

All citizens will be required to handle poisonous serpents in an ecstasy of the Lord's protection, while singing hymns and "witnessing" aloud the Lord's triumphs.

If you do not have access to poisonous serpents, they will be provided for you.


Copyright 2005 by Michael C. Johnston
The Quotidian Meander:

Saturday, March 19, 2005


Law and Sin

Law in a free, modern, pluralistic, cosmopolitan society should not be based on religious concepts of sin. The Congress right now is attempting to act as a Taliban, or as something similar to the ruling council of the Mormon Church: determining private matters on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the terms of a religious ideology. Congress is attempting to pass a "law" to keep one particular brain-dead woman on life support.

Where you or I happen to stand on this particular issue in terms of our own values is irrelevant. The point is, we don't want the government meddling in private affairs.

I've noticed recently some examples of basic misunderstanding of the simple term "blind justice." A group protesting a court decision featured a woman with a large sign that said "JUSTICE IS BLIND," and of course there's now a pop TV show called "Blind Justice" that features a blind cop as the hero. Wrong connotations in both cases. What "justice is blind" really means, of course, is that laws are instituted for the good of everyone based on democratically agreed-upon* principles of rights vs. freedoms, and then applied "blindly" to all alike. In other words, real justice doesn't take into account your wealth or social status, your skin color or ethnic group, or the absolutist dictates of a particular religious faith. And law must be monolithic: we do our best to establish generalized codes of behavior, and then we depend on empowered authorities to apply the laws as fairly and impartially--as "blindly"--as possible.

That is, we're not interested in having authorities apply their own standards. We don't want cops in a southern town agreeing among themselves to persecute local blacks, for instance, or judges favoring certain defendants because they go to the same church. We don't want authorities exercising their power for its own sake, or according to the dictates of small groups to which they happen to belong.

When the public body that makes the laws begins to apply prejudiced individual standards on a case-by-case basis, something is seriously wrong in America.

The Quotidian Meander

* They are "democratically agreed-upon" in that a majority of our elected representatives must approve them.

Friday, March 18, 2005


We're All Cousins

I got this nice idea from Richard Dawkins, the evolutionist.

Everybody knows that we all have a lot of ancestors. We each have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so forth--the number doubles each time you step back another generation.

If you go back to approximately the time of Jesus, say 32 generations, that means you have approximately 8 1/2 billion ancestors. Go back only a little further, and you have trillions.

Trouble is, there weren't eight and a half billion people on the Earth when Jesus was alive. In fact, there have never been eight and a half billion people on Earth--there are only six and a half billion now, and there are more people alive now than have ever been alive at once before.

So what does this mean? Only that not all of your ancestors were unrelated people. Jeff Foxworthy has a joke that goes, "If your family tree has no branches, you know you might be a redneck." But the fact is, somewhere back in everybody's family tree, distant cousins were marrying distant cousins. As Dawkins points out, the metaphor of a family "tree" only works for a small number of generations. Then, the metaphor becomes that of a river, because human DNA, and bloodlines, are constantly dividing and recombining, dividing and recombining.

If you're following this, you probably can see another implication of this: you, and I--each human being on Earth, in fact--have ancestors in common.

It's just a question of how far you have to go back in time. With your first cousins, you only have to go back two generations. With your next door neighbor, maybe you have to go back twelve or fifteen generations. With some guy in another country, maybe twenty or thirty. But somewhere back there, you share common ancestors with every other person on Earth.

Note that you don't have to be an evolutionist to believe this, either, because it completely squares with the Bible. According to that story, we're all descendents of Noah, and before that, Adam and Eve.

It turns out that every human being on Earth is fairly closely related, too. Dawkins says that you and I both share more DNA in common with an African Pygmy or an Australian Aborigine than a yellow Labrador retriever has in common with a black Labrador retriever.

Oddly enough, the two strains of human DNA on Earth that are most distant from each other are both black Africans. How that happened, nobody's quite sure.

In any event, one doesn't have to be very observant to notice that we human beings spend an awful lot of time and energy focusing on our differences, on separating ourselves and our group from every other group. And of course, fighting with each other.

It might be a good idea, then, once in a while, to remember that we're all cousins.

The Quotidian Meander

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


Smack-Dab in the Middle

We're at this moment smack-dab in the middle of an exciting and active day in practical politics in the U.S. What's happening is that the Republican-everything government is trying to ram a budget through before Congress, the press, or the American people have time to discuss and digest it. One sneaky thing they attempted was to tack on a special-interest giveaway allowing the oil companies to drill in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.

Well, thanks to a hastily-mobilized grassroots firestorm, they didn't get away with the sneaking part. Debate on the amendment commenced at 10: 15 this morning, and the vote is set for 10:00 or so tonight, and everybody who pays attention now knows what's going on.

This is another example of the radical Republican leadership being completely out of touch with the will of the people. 80% of Americans favor environmental protections--subtract 10% for a worst-case number if you're feeling argumentative--and 90% of Americans don't want drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge! Fudge that number however you wish, the will of the people on this particular matter is clear as the water in an arctic mountain stream. And whatever the exact number is, it has to include an awful lot of hunters, NRA members, Red-Staters, and Republican voters, too. This isn't just some partisan issue.

It might be different if the drilling could make a difference in our dependence on foreign oil (not that our leadership cares a fig for energy conservation, but whatever). But it wouldn't make so much as a dent. The only reason to do it is to allow the corporate greedheads yet another opportunity to make easy profit at the expense of the national interest.

Stay tuned for the results; should be an interesting evening.

The Quotidian Meander

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


I'm Sure I Don't Want to Know

This weekend marks the second anniversary of our attack on, and occupation of, Iraq. I'm sure I don't want to know how few Americans are even aware of this fact.

The House of Representatives votes tomorrow on whether to spend another $82 billion on the occupation. (As I've mentioned before, this $82 billion dollars is not included in the Bush Administration's record-busting deficit calculations.) According to True Majority, Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan (USN ret.), who fought in three wars and commanded the North Atlantic Fleet, reminds us that the Vietnam War finally ended only when Congress refused to continue funding it. What we should all do is contact our Congresspeople and urge them not to hand over the funds until the Chicken Hawks in Washington at least have developed an exit strategy.

I'm sure I don't want to know how few Americans can even name who their Congresspeople are.

Personally, I think we should pass a liberal Amendment to the Constitution: It would state, "Remember Section 8, Clause 11, of the United States Constitution? Ditto, except we really mean it this time." Or words to that effect.

Section 8, Clause 11 says that Congress shall have the power to declare war. Not rogue Presidents and a handful of their unelected (or, in Cheney's case, self-appointed) advisors. Congress. It's Congress's authority, Congress's responsibility, and Congress should reclaim it. If they were to do so, then maybe we could hold them accountable for the war and the expenses thereof.

After all, $82 billion is kind of a lot of money. It would pay for about a third of the new transportation bill. It would pay for the complete overhaul of the nation's public school system for nearly three years. It would pay for National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts until the sun experiences heat death and the solar system comes to an end.

In the years 1865-1900, "walking wounded" were a common feature on the American scene--Civil War veterans on crutches, with eye-patches, or one sleeve pinned to their jacket-fronts. I hope most Americans do know that there have been 1693 coalition casualties in Iraq and an absolute minimum of 15,000 innocent Iraqi non-combatant civilians killed, but I hope we also don't forget the 8,000 or so young Americans who have been permanently injured, and whose lives and futures have been shattered along with their bodies. Although the Pentagon and the Administration have striven mightily to keep them out of the news, they, too, have sacrificed enormously. As for how much of their rehabilitation and lost future productivity could be compensated for with $82 billion, I'm sure none of us want to know.

The Quotidian Meander

Monday, March 14, 2005


Is the President a Sociopath?

Antisocial Personality Disorder is also known as psychopathy or sociopathy. Individuals with this disorder have little regard for the feeling and welfare of others.

Antisocial Personality Disorder is chronic, beginning in adolescence and continuing throughout adulthood. There are ten general symptoms:
People with this disorder may exhibit criminal behavior. They may not work. If they do work, they are frequently absent or may quit suddenly. They do not consider other people's wishes, welfare or rights. They can be manipulative and may lie to gain personal pleasure or profit. They may default on loans, fail to provide child support, or fail to care for their dependents adequately. High risk sexual behavior and substance abuse are common. Impulsiveness, failure to plan ahead, aggressiveness, irritability, irresponsibility, and a reckless disregard for their own safety and the safety of others are traits of the antisocial personality.

Psychotherapy, group therapy, and family therapy are common treatments. The effects of medical treatment are inconclusive. Unfortunately, most people with Antisocial Personality Disorder reject treatment. Therefore, recovery rates are low.

The Quotidian Meander

Friday, March 11, 2005


"The Ones Who Work For Them" vs. the rest of us

It's fascinating to watch this Administration work. Recently it has dispatched Republican Congresspeople home for the explicit purpose of selling the President's Social Security plan to constituents. Currently, Administration heavies are on a 60-city tour with the same marching orders.

Isn't this backwards? Our representatives are supposed to represent us, aren't they? Shouldn't they be listening instead of selling?

I suppose that wouldn't work, though, because if they were to listen, they'd hear loud and clear that Americans don't want Social Security "reformed" (i.e., dismantled).

Meanwhile, the model for the Republicans' Social Security plan is becoming clearer. It appears to be Chile, where the private-account investment scheme has been in force for a decade and a half.

The Chilean model works extremely well...for salaried full-time employees.

The only problem with it is that half the Chilean work force consists of unsalaried, self-employed, part-time, or seasonal workers. Chile's investment-based retirement plan doesn't work for them. It also doesn't work for the poorest Chileans, who live hand-to-mouth. They can't afford to set aside the mandatory 10% for their retirement, so they don't.

• • •

My growing suspicion is that the current socio-governmental crisis in America is most accurately framed as a war between corporate culture and the rest of us. Corporate culture doesn't want universal health care, for instance, because corporations already provide health insurance for their employees. Beyond the subset "the ones who work for us" of the set "all Americans," they don't care. It explains why the Bush Administration spends extremely heavily on the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex (President Eisenhower's original name for the phenomenon), while shorting individual Americans, such as, oh, you know, soldiers. And their families. It explains why Congress would make bankruptcy harder on people than it already is, even though the whole point of bankruptcy is to give people a second chance--because, after exhorting the public at every turn to pile on the credit card debt and trade away its hard-earned home equity, lenders want to squeeze every last drop of blood out of the turnips that fall off the truck. The new bankruptcy law is lender-friendly, not citizen-friendly.

Within this framework, it makes perfect sense that the Bush Administration would support a Social Security retirement plan that will primarily benefit salaried corporate employees, but that shortchanges the very people who will need it the most.

The Quotidian Meander

Sunday, March 06, 2005


The Greatest Threat to Freedom

I have felt for some while now that he single greatest threat to freedom is not terrorism, not George Bush, but corporate ownership of the press.

The Wall Street Journal is a conservative but still fundamentally honest newspaper. Jerry Seib, the paper's Washington Bureau Chief, recently returned to his beloved Alma Mater in Lawrence, Kansas, to receive a journalism award. Here are a few of his comments from his acceptance speech.

"Briefly put, I fear that 2004 became the year when many Americans decided they could go out and get the news not as it is, but as they want it to be. Technology and the proliferation of pseudo news outlets on the Internet and cable TV have made this possible. Our country's intense political polarization has fed the urge. Mainstream journalism's own failings have fueled it.

"And left unchecked, I think this trend is extraordinarily dangerous, not merely for journalism. I fear it is dangerous for our society.

"What do I mean, specifically? Well, if you don't like the facts as presented by the mainstream press, you now can cruise around cable television or the Internet and find somebody, somewhere, who will present the facts not as they are but as you WISH they were. If you're a liberal and you want to think that John Kerry really won the vote in the state of Ohio and therefore should have been declared the winner of last year's presidential election, you can find somebody on the Internet masquerading as a journalist who will tell you it is so. And then you can choose to ignore the findings of the squadrons of real reporters who dug into that question and found out otherwise.

"If you are a conservative and you want to believe that Democrats planted votes on electronic voting machines in Pennsylvania, or broke into Republican party offices, you could find that last fall too. These things are the kinds of rumors that float into newsrooms every day, but don't come out. But now they are distributed by people who care little, or not at all, whether there is any evidence to support a charge, or have no system for checking it out."

Incidentally, if you happen to be looking for a good, honest, pollution-less newspaper that hews rigorously to old-fashioned standards of journalist integrity and impartiality, you might try The Christian Science Monitor Treeless Edition. Its committment to Christian Science extends to the inclusion of one article about the creed in every edition. In every other way, it is a fine independent newspaper--even for an atheist.

Click the link to

The Quotidian Meander

Ruination of Nature

March 11th

The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on the Clear Skies Act:

"This week, a Senate committee is preparing to vote on President Bush's Clear Skies Act — an initiative that will overhaul the nation's emission standards. Contrary to its name, Clear Skies is an industry-friendly bill that actually weakens environmental laws already on the books and relaxes controls on toxic power plant emissions. Under current provisions of the 35-year-old Clean Air Act, mercury emissions from power plants must be reduced to five tons per year by 2008. Clear Skies would permit 26 tons of mercury — or five times as much — to be released each year through 2010.

"When the Clear Skies proposal was drafted in 2001 (using language largely written by representatives of the power plant industry), scientists were forbidden by the White House to commission studies or present information that might undermine the proposed changes to mercury emission standards. And last week, two national organizations that went on record in opposition to the Clear Skies Act because it is "far too lenient" were ordered to turn over their financial and tax records to the federal government. If President Bush's initiative becomes law, it would be the first time in the history of the 1970 landmark Clean Air Act that pollution rules were relaxed instead of made more stringent. Congress must not allow our country to move backward on critical environmental issues. The health of our nation's children is too important."

To the above, all I have to add is that in the entire State of Wisconsin, where I live, there is not one single lake that is not polluted by mercury poisoning, such that anglers have to limit the number of fish they catch that they can eat. What is worth this kind of ruination of nature?

The Quotidian Meander

Saturday, March 05, 2005


Dictate This

The annual Parade list of the World's Ten Worst Dictators is in for this year. Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan tops the list, with North Korea's paranoiac Kim Jong Il coming in a close second. Bashir gets the nod for doing socially progressive things like bombing villages in his own country because they're Christian rather than Muslim. What a sweetie.

Coming in at #5 for the second year in a row is our President's and his Dad's good buddy Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. You may have heard that the bloated tribe of autocrats that rules our principal Middle-Eastern Arab ally is "holding elections"--an apparent grudging nod to regional American rhetoric. But the other half of that story (don't you just love "half stories"? Like when my local TV news reported that 262,000 new jobs were created in February, but not that the unemployment rate went up at the same time) is that those elections are limited to low-level municipal posts. And here's the part I like: women can neither run for office nor vote, not due (no!) to any cultural bias, but because of "technical difficulties": not enough women have the picture ID cards needed to vote, and even though some do, there are not enough female election workers to register them. Saudi men cannot register women (Allah forbid) because, under the oppressive thumb of Wahabbism, men and women are forbidden to mingle in public.

Don't they just sound like nice folks who share our ideals and values? (To see the Ten Worst Dictators list, which was written by David Wallechinsky, click the title of this entry, which is a link.)

The Quotidian Meander

Friday, March 04, 2005



I was pleased to learn recently that, apparently, "The Quotidian Meander" may be blocked from at least some government computers. Scott L. (his identity has been hidden to protect him from C.H.A.O.S.) writes that his brother tried to access one of my posts and was met by a box that said, "STOP! This URL cannot be accessed from a government computer!"

I'm not sure if the exclamation points were actually there on the original screen, but I hope so.

The Quotidian Meander

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


The Two Commandments

I'm almost too weary of the argument to weigh in on the matter of the Ten Commandments being displayed on Federal property, which, in two separate cases, is now before the Supreme Court. The only interesting thing about it is that it might tell us if the Supreme Court has gone completely insane, since there is only one proper Constitutional outcome.

I'll tell ya, though, I'd almost be in favor of putting the Ten Commandments on display wherever, if it would actually get some people to read the dang things.

If people would read them, they'd see that the Biblical list--famous, ancient, and honored as it may be--is not the foundation of our laws. The Magna Carta, English Common Law, and the Constitution claim that distinction. (In America, you can worship all the graven images you like.)

Secondly, they might even see that the Ten Commandments don't comprise a very good moral guide. Only six of the ten concern ethical behavior at all, and one of those (number 5, about honoring thy mother and father) is filial and can't have much to do with statute. The rest, if you're a believer, are religious edicts. (And if you're not a believer, they're kinda cultish.) The best one of the bunch in moral terms, number 6, "Thou shalt not kill," is widely ignored: we slaughter animals, Arabs, and capital criminals, and don't get me started on land mines and the bombing of non-combatant civilian populations. I like number 6, but I think Moses should have waited around for more clarification.

Then there's the little problem of just what the heck the Ten Commandments are. Moses got p.o.'d and smashed the first bunch (Exodus 20) and went back to the mountaintop for a second set, on which Yahweh said He'd "write the words which were on the first"; despite which, He got a lot of the words completely different (Exodus 34). . . proving something that comforteth me, that even Yahweh has trouble with rewrites.

In the rewrite, for instance, number 3 is "The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep in the month when the ear is on the corn," and number 10 is "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk." Okay, so no veal in cream sauce. Nothing about killing 1200 cows a day with a pneumatic hammer between the eyes, though.

Next, there's the little problem of the recap in Deuteronomy 5, which gets number 4 differently. In Exodus 20 it says we rest on the 7th day (the Sabbath, which is actually Saturday, but never mind), whereas in Deuteronomy it says we refrain from working because the Lord brought us (us?) out of Egypt.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that the three major "religions of the book" for whom the Ten Commandments are important--Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism--each have their own differing versions of the list. For instance, in the Hebrew and Protestant versions, number 6 is thou shalt not kill; for Catholics, thou shalt not kill is commandment number 5. In others, the wording varies.

Personally, I like the Two Commandments better. As told in William Least Heat Moon's book Blue Highways, the Two Commandments of the Hopi Indians are, "Try to understand things" and "Don't go around hurting people."

I wouldn't object to having those graven in a few more places.

The Quotidian Meander

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