Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Banned Book Week

I’m surprised that so far The Happy Feminist is the only blog I see listed in UUpdate writing about Banned Book Week. IN PRAISE OF BANNED BOOKS
I've always thought Banned Books Week was about politics, not about the principal of free speech. There is no such thing as a "banned" book in America today, unless that book contains photographic child pornography or defense secrets. Save for those two things, no author has been jailed for writing a book, no publisher jailed for printing a book, no book is illegal to possess. Ask Salman Rushdie about real banned books.

What we have instead is a debate about what books are to be carried in specific schools' libraries. Are we to call every book not carried in a grade school library "banned"? If not, then it boils down to the question of who gets to choose which books are stocked. Since most states require by law that children go to school, and most parents cannot afford private schools, then de facto most children are required by law to go to government schools. If, therefore, the parents are not allowed to choose those books through their elected school boards, then what we have is the government denying parents by force of law the right to decide what their child is exposed to- is anyone prepared to argue that the first amendment gives government the right to force parents at gunpoint to have their children read books the parents consider obscene? If not, then why grouse about what books the school boards do decide to stock- or not?

Government should only intervene in the parents’ handling of their children when there is a compelling interest, such as the child’s health and safety. If a loonytune parent were to object to the math book on the grounds that their religion says that 2+2=5, one could argue that the resulting education would be so inadequate as to amount to no education at all, therefore a compelling interest in the child’s welfare. The same argument can of course be made for science books- but once you leave the realm of the objective, that argument goes away. Are we really going to argue that the failure to have read “Heather Has Two Mommies” will so damage a child as to amount to abuse requiring government intervention? Gee, I, and tens of millions of others, managed to grow up into an adult that believes in sexual equality without having read that particular book. I would have no problem with a child of mine reading any of the books on the “banned” list... but that’s *MY* choice. I certainly would not try to force any parent to have them have their child read them, however- that’s *THEIR* choice.

The issue is not whether those books are “banned”, for they are not- every one of them is available at Barnes & Noble, and any parent can buy them for their children if they so desire. The issue is whether the state has the right to indoctrinate children in morals and values against the parents’ wishes... and anyone arguing for that should look at what other countries are doing with that right. If that’s not what you are arguing for, stop throwing around loaded terms such as “banned books”.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What is to be the UUA’s role in the world?

In my last post I proposed the elimination of the UUA Washington Advocacy Office. Does this mean I want the UUA to stop being a political action committee? Anyone who has read my posts here, or my comments on the Chaliceblog or CFUU or Beliefnet knows my answer is *YES* When our constituent denominations were formed, churches were the only advocates the poor and the powerless had. But times change, and we must change with them. Today there is no issue that doesn’t have its own advocacy group, and almost invariably with more power than the church spokesmen. There’s a saying in football that when a team claims to have two running backs, they have none. What this means is that if they had a star, he’d be the running back... is there any issue at all in which we are the advocates? Be honest- is there any political issue in which we even make a difference? Then why are we wasting our time, money, and moral capital?

So if we’re shouldn’t be lobbyists, what is our mission? We could speak out. I don’t mean “speaking truth to power”- the catchphrase of the day- everybody and his grandmother is doing that, although nine times out of ten it merely means calling the President a nazi. In fact, so many are doing it that ours is a lost voice in the cacophony. I mean speaking truth to the people.

The Religious Right is right about one thing: our culture is sick. We religious liberals tend to dismiss that message because we disagree with the RR on so many issues- but anbody can stumble into the truth, and that is indeed a truth. Instead of calling the President a nazi, why don’t we call Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas a slut? It’s just as true, but it’s a truth none dare speak. In a communications class twenty years ago I saw a public service commercial that was never aired because it was controversial. I forget the exact numbers, but it went something like this: “Last year three African Americans were killed by the Klu Klux Klan. One was killed by the American Nazi Party. And 11,000 were killed by gangs. If you’re a gangbanger, you’re not hip- you’re a TRAITOR!” THAT was speaking truth to the people. If we can, as a denomination, denounce the Republican party for wanting to change the filibuster rule, why do we find it so difficult to denounce gansta rappers for degrading women and deadening the human spirit?

Government and laws simply cannot solve the ills of society; only a higher awareness within that society can- and who is better suited to lead a drive to social consciousness and personal responsibility than a church already known for fighting for equality? We have abdicated the fight for public morality to the Religious Right- and that was the biggest mistake the religious liberal ever made. We should be the ones out there teaching that choices have consequences, but we’re too terrified of being called “judgemental”. I believe we concentrate on politics just to avoid directly confronting situations involving “judgements”. There are so many “inconvenient truths”... that it’s far more true that crime causes poverty than the other way around... that the number one cause of poverty and indeed nearly all human misery is bad choices and bad lifestyles... that one consequence of the interconnected web is that we all have to pay for your sins.

Of course, first we’d have to have a debate within ourselves on what morality is. I don’t believe that having no creeds means having no morals, but we’re afraid to have the debate for fear of offending members and having some leave. That’s a strange one to me, for we have no fear of offending people over political issues and driving them from the church. I say we should leave politics to the politicians, and return to the issues people turn to churches for: philosophy, spirituality, and morality. I believe that even in the short term we’d have far more impact by trying to get people to do the right thing than by sending out yet another flurry of hot faxes from the Washington Advocacy Office.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How UU can grow...

... and what the UUA can do to help. There’s a story, no doubt apocryphal, from the early days of the air war over Europe in WWII. Bomber losses were intolerably high, and a crash program was initiated to make the planes more survivable. Boeing engineers were taken to a badly shot up B-17, and were told to improve the armor on all the places most heavily damaged. “No,” the engineers said, “We should armor the places that weren’t hit- after all, this plane came back!” Using that logic, I think the best way to figure out what changes are needed to grow the UUA is not to guess why people that “should” be joining in higher numbers aren‘t, ( see this discussion ), but to look at those who did join, and try to get more like them. After all, they (we) are the ones who are here, whatever the UUA’s faults.

So why do people join the UUA? One classic reason from the past is that UUs were willing to marry mixed couples when no one else would- my in-laws joined for that reason. Now, however, liberal Christian denominations are willing to marry almost as many people as we are, so that’s much less an advantage than once it was. Oh, well, our lost advantage is society’s gain.

A big reason- perhaps the biggest- today is our RE program. As this is one of the very few things that every congregation I know of actually does, it would be something the UUA could run national advertising for. I could easily see a campaign along the lines of “For parents who want their kids educated, not indoctrinated!” Run the ads on Sundays during the news and analysis programming- any parent seeing the ad will feel guilty for sitting there watching the show instead of taking their kids to Sunday School.

Another reason people go to a new church is that they haven’t been since they were a kid, it’s Christmas or Easter, and they’re lonely. We should make sure to have services on the major Christian and Jewish holidays, Islamic and Pagan, too, if you have any local experts, and run national advertising for it. I’m sure a clever copywriter could play on nostalgia and spiritual homesickness, while simultaneously reassuring people that we’re more welcoming even than the childhood services they’re missing.

The reason I joined was that Rev Clear’s sermons were intriguing, and discussions with him were like auditing a college comparative religion class. I was able to reexamine my beliefs and look at new ones. I think an adult level RE class, perhaps on weekday evenings, would be very attractive to just that set of people we would most like as new members anyway. As this would pose an intolerable burden on most ministers, I think the UUA should do it as broadcast classes, on satellite or public access or the like.

None of the things I’m proposing require us to adopt new beliefs, use the language of reverence, or change in any way- except to actually do something rather than just pass a resolution about it. And where would the UUA get the funding to do all this advertising and broadcasting I’m proposing? Well, never once in my entire life have I ever met anyone who ever said that the reason they joined their church was its first-rate Washington lobbying office. I propose shutting down the entire Washington Advocacy office, and transferring its funding to this cause. If that's not enough, I'm sure others could come up with other offices that could be "sacrificed" for the effort. I think it'd be worth it.

Here is the kind of program I was speaking of above. If Yale can do it, surely the UUA can do it. Maybe even attach a forum to it- get people hooked, then direct them to their nearest UU church. Why not?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Humanist Vs. Theist redux

Well, the old battle between the UU Humanists and UU Theists hasn’t ended yet. Thanks to The Wild Hunt and WitchVox for pointing out these articles about an event at a UU church in Rhode Island. Pagan Pride Day event and Unitarians spark controversy with Pagan Pride Day .

In this case, it isn’t the Pagans stirring up the controversy as much as the UU’s; it seems that this congregation hosts a CUUPS chapter who has organized a “Pagan Pride” day, and the Humanists aren’t happy about it. They quote a letter being circulated, but any UU Theist already knows what it says without having to read it; we’ve heard it so very many times before- “superstition”, “flakey spirituality”, “occult practices”, “the God myth”... the only one they missed is “psychotic break”. And actually, even that may be in there; they didn’t print the full text. It’s good that UU is such a welcoming religion.

I’ll tell you old-school UU Humanists out there something: you should thank Bertrand Russell that you don’t always get what you wish for... if all the UU Christians and UU Pagans left, the average age of the average congregation would approach triple digits, and the membership list would drop down to double digits- and half of them would be Buddhist. We irrational, superstitious psychotics are keeping your doors open; the least you can do is sneer at us behind our backs instead of right in our faces.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

This I believe, part 1

Public radio has been reprising a program from the 1950s, “This I Believe”, in which people are invited to send in essays about what they believe. I have decided to post mine here from time to time- here is the first such entry.

I believe that President Bush is a decent, honorable man who believes that he is doing the right thing.

I believe that Al Quieda members were the only ones involved in the events of 9/11.

I believe that those white things following airplanes are ConTrails, not ChemTrails.

I believe that Apollo 11 went to the Moon and returned.

I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and that all shots were fired by him.

I believe that the greatest threat to America is posed by the increasing cynicism, despair, and disengagement among the American people.

I believe that truth cannot be determined by a poll.

I believe that aside from literature, the arts went into decline with the first world war, and that since then the finest poetry is to be found amongst singer/songwriters, not poet laureates; the finest visual arts are found on album covers and posters, not in museums, and the finest of the plastic arts are found in industrial design and neighborhood craft fairs.

I believe that hunger and want can be ended within the lifetimes of some of the people readings these words if we have the will to do so.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Vindication for CC

Chalicechick has written a lot about WalMart lately, both in her own blog The ChaliceBlog: How being anti-Walmart is hurting the Democrats , and as comments in others. Hers seems to be a minority opinion in the UU blogosphere. This morning’s Indianapolis Star has an editorial, It's not Wal-Mart, stupid; how about important issues?
, that echoes everything CC has ever said about WalMart, including its use as a campaign issue. Interestingly, the author is the Efroymson Professor of Economics at Butler University- and Efroymson was a UU!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Update to 9/11 conspiracies

On this fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, the talk shows are still full of the conspiracy theorists. Although I have tackled the subject before, CUUMBAYA: 9/11 Conspiracies I thought I would take one more stab at getting those who still believe in those conspiracies to see reason.

The central issue is “Would the buildings really have collapsed in the manner we all witnessed?” All else hinges on this; if the buildings really were brought down by the aircraft that hit them rather than by demolition charges, all the other silly claims fall like the buildings themselves did. As all the explanations as to why they couldn’t have been brought down in the manner explained by the 9/11 commission are based on misunderstandings of physics and construction techniques, I thought I’d try to explain it in lay terms. Disclaimer: I am not a working engineer, but I did start in engineering at Purdue before changing to another trade- I feel that may be an advantage as unlike a graduate engineer, I still speak English rather than technobabble.

Most materials are much stronger under tension (pulling on it, like a rope) or compression (just what it sounds like) than any other type of stress. For example, an arrow is strong enough under compression to punch all the way through a large animal like a deer- but has so little strength under a bending load that you can easily bend and break it with your bare hands. In fact, the impact energy that arrow shaft withstands is probably greater than your weight, unless you’re as fat as I am. So could we use an arrow as the shaft of a bar stool?
No- because that arrow is only so strong when all the forces acting on it are perfectly aligned along the shaft, as in flight. In fact, even then if it doesn’t hit straight, it will shatter- ask any bow hunter. There is no possibility that you could sit on it without causing it to bend, which will cause it to shatter. Suppose we were to use a dozen arrow shafts, spaced evenly, so that the stool resembles a bird cage, making it twelve times as strong- would that work? No- strength wasn’t the issue in the first place; bending was. Each of those twelve shafts would be just as likely to bend and break as a single shaft would; there is nothing to prevent this flexing. Now suppose we put several shelves inside the birdcage, rigidly attached to the arrow shafts- they are no longer permitted to flex or bend, and we now have an enormously strong, lightweight stool. This is how the Trade Center towers were built.

Suppose while you’re sitting on the stool somebody kicks it and breaks some of those shafts- does your stool break in half and fall over to the broken side? No- because those rigid shelves prevent the shafts from bending, so the force is distributed to the remaining shafts... but the stress on them is enormous. Now break one of those shelves- what happens? The remaining shafts will instantly shatter at the point where they are now allowed to flex- it will happen so fast that your butt will still be centered over the base. There is simply no time for the weight to fall over sideways; the shafts will go with explosive force and you’ll fall vertically.

There is actually an experiment you can do at home to demonstrate this phenomenon; it requires an empty beer can and two pencils. Stand the can up on end, kneel down, and place one foot on the can. You can put quite a bit of weight on it- in fact, if you use two people (one to steady the other) the can will support the weight of a small adult... as long as that weight is PERFECTLY centered. Now reach down with the pencils and poke both sides of the can. (we poke both sides so that the metal will bend rather than pushing the can sideways) The can will instantly collapse, completely vertically, leaving a flat disk! This is also, by the way, what happened to the plane that struck the Pentagon, and why there is such a small hole- an airplane is a nearly empty hollow aluminum tube, just like that beer can, 99% air.

But back to the building. I can hear the conspiracy nuts now- “Yes, yes, I get it- the floors of the Tower were like the shelves in your bar stool; once one or two went, the structural members shattered and the towers dropped vertically... but it’s a scientific fact that jet fuel does not burn hot enough to have melted those floors! get around that one, smart guy!” Never- with the possible exception of Paris Hilton’s attempt to prove herself an actress- has so much bandwidth been spent trying to prove a non-issue. Nobody ever claimed the floors melted! Metal begins to loose strength at temperatures far below their melting point; jet fuel burns at a temperature high enough to weaken structural steel by nearly half- but the real damage was done by temperatures even lower than that. Hot metal expands- look at any steel highway bridge and you’ll find it sits on rollers or pivots, to allow for several inches of expansion; you’ll also find expansion joints where the steel meets the road, and in-between two steel sections... and that’s just for a hot summer day! At hundreds of degrees, those floors would have expanded a couple feet or more, and probably twisted and bowed as well- instead of preventing the structural shafts from flexing, they were introducing flex where none had been before, while simultaneously those structural members were carrying a greater load than they had been designed for. Of course they went bang- the forces concentrated on those points were greater than the energy contained in the demolition charges normally used to raze a building.

“But look at the cleanup,” the conspiracy nuts say, “weeks later, girders pulled from the hole were still cherry-red and dripping! Jet fuel couldn’t have burned hot enough for them to still be cherry weeks later; it must have been thermite charges used to melt the floors!” As I said before, the jet fuel didn’t melt the floors; in fact, it would have burned itself out within minutes- the fuel merely served as lighter fluid. And yes, thermite could have melted the girders- but a thermite charge burns out in seconds, perhaps minutes if it were a really big one. For the steel to still be hot weeks later merely proves that the fire was still raging under the rubble! Those building were filled with things that are not normally particularly flammable, but if adequately fueled would have burned long and hot- and adequate fuel there was in abundance. The many lower levels of the building contained many machines with flammable fuels and greases; large gas and diesel tanks for emergency generators; natural gas lines- and, of course, a hundred stories of carpets, paneling, and furniture. There are coal-mine fires that burned for decades underground, and a used tire fire burned for nine months - these fires are nothing in comparison.

So come on, people, do a little research before you call the talk shows or write your chicken-little blogs or- God save the mark!- teach a college class . The Dixie Chicks are embarrassed that Bush is from Texas? I’m embarrassed that a third of my countrymen can swallow a camel of a conspiracy theory and strain at a gnat of logic.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The myth of overpopulation

Whenever politics or environmentalism is discussed, the “fact” that the world is overpopulated is bound to come up. It is a central tenet of groups like “Earth First!” and “ZPG”, and has even been an issue agreed upon by GA vote of the UUA... but these votes don’t make it true. The arguments are based on two things: world hunger, and mankind’s “footprint”. Let’s discuss hunger first.

Is hunger caused by there being too many people for the available food supply? Not according to the United Nations! George McGovern, (U.S. Senator, 1963-1981; Presidential candidate 1972; first Director of the United States Food for Peace Program, United States Ambassador to the United Nations agencies on Food and Agriculture in Rome) writes in the United Nations Chronicle : “Hunger is a political condition... the world now produces a quantity of grain that, if distributed evenly, would provide everyone with 3,500 calories per day, more than enough for an optimal diet. This does not even count vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, poultry, edible oils, nuts, root crops, or dairy products.” I took the initiative of counting those foods he left out (the numbers are readily available from the UN and the US Dept. of Agriculture): including protein cakes and edible oils from soybean, rapeseed, cottonseed, groundnuts, etc; fish; eggs; meats, including beef, lamb, pork, and poultry; milk and cheese; vegetables; and fruits: 2.59 billion metric tons per year! That’s .43 metric tons per person per year, or 2.6 lbs of meats and vegetables per day- on TOP of 3,500 calories worth of grain products! That’s enough to make every man, woman, and child on Earth morbidly obese- so why is there world hunger?

Is it because the developed countries refuse to share? Not according to the U.N.- again quoting Ambassador McGovern: “...78 per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in countries with food surpluses.” What he doesn’t say, and again is readily available information, is that nearly all the rest live in countries bordering those with surpluses. The answer is politics. War. Dictators routinely withhold food to punish provinces that revolt. Civil wars prevent food distribution. Remember the famines in Ethiopia and Eritrea? Remember those commercials with Sally Struthers telling us that pennies a day would save those starving children? What she didn’t say was that even as she was begging for pennies, the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea were spending millions a day on a twenty year long war!

So much for food- what about the damage Humankind is doing to the Earth? Again, it’s a matter of mismanagement, not necessity. For example, outside of the G-8 nations, agricultural practices are- and let’s be generous- 100 years out of date. In large portions of the third world, agriculture still means a wooden plow pulled by an ox, with the ox providing the fertilizer as he goes. Production per acre in the U.S. has increased twenty-fold in the last 100 years; if the third world were to build tractors and combines instead of tanks, and processing plants instead of nuclear weapons programs, world output could easily be increased three-fold in the next ten years. As there is already enough food, that means we could reduce the number of acres under cultivation by two thirds, allowing tens of millions of acres to return to nature! That means enough vegetable protein to replace most fish production, giving the beleaguered oceans a break! And if we used modern mass hydroponics technology, even those acres needed for farming could be moved to the deserts and badlands, where there’d be plenty of solar power to run them!

How do we get there from here? Not by unencumbered foreign aid- only the oligarchies in the countries involved will ever see any benefit of that. If there’s any lesson to be taken from the last half-century, it’s that one. Even though McGovern does call for some money in the article I referenced, he stumbles into the real necessity: “Education and democracy may be the most powerful combatants in the war on hunger and poverty.” That’s George McGovern talking, not the much-hated neo-cons. Democracy is the answer. During the 1930s, there was real hunger in both the US and the USSR... Stalin solved it liquidating the kulaks; FDR started government food programs and the WPA. If the North Korean people were allowed a vote, I’m guessing they’d prefer food to nuclear weapons.

Blaming the world’s problems on overpopulation is, it seems to me, a cop-out. Since population cannot be reduced in the short term, blaming overpopulation allows you to think that passing a resolution about zero population growth is actually doing something about hunger. If you blame overpopulation, then you don’t have to do anything about the evil regimes that starve their populations into submission. It allows you to be non-judgmental about other cultures, while assuaging those faint nagging doubts by denouncing excessive consumption in the West instead.