Aramink

Engaged with the World

‘Tis the Season to Talk about Religion – Believe It or Not

I just had an interesting conversation about religion with a guy working at my house.

He overheard my end of a phone call with another secular activist about a church-state violation. When I hung up he asked if those were the kinds of cases I take. He knows I’m a lawyer.

“Tis the season for violations of the separation of church and state,” I said lightly, not sure how much he might want to explore the subject or what his feelings might be on it. I’m wary when people I don’t know well bring up the topic of religion. The conversation could go well or it could get very uncomfortable very fast.

“Church and state ought to be completely separate,” he said, “especially in schools when kids are pretty much forced to go along with whatever the class is doing.”

jefferson-separation-of-church-and-state - no religion

 

I couldn’t agree more. It’s not fair to non-Christian schoolchildren to be told by their teachers what to believe about Christmas, which they may or may not celebrate for any number of reasons. For that matter, there are Christian children who don’t celebrate Christmas. There are non-Christians who do celebrate Christmas for reasons other than religion. If a child is doing religion “wrong,” the proper place for correction is home or their place of worship, not a public school.

secular christmas - religion comes in different guises this season

 

One thing led to another, and as the conversation developed he told me he had lots of questions, because the whole “god” thing just didn’t make sense to him. I told him about a certain hissy fit I threw over religion when I was a kid. It has never made sense to me, either.

Then he said that he goes to church, but he doesn’t buy everything the preacher says. Who does? I wonder.

We talked about the notion of a prime mover. I strongly suspect that Aristotle was not the first person to wrestle with the notion of what it was that tipped the first domino and set the whole universe into motion. My response to the prime mover concept is, “Okay, but what made the first mover move? Even St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest philosophers Christendom ever produced, ultimately said that God’s existence had to be taken on faith because there was no proof.

My new friend said he thought it was safer to believe, because what if he’s wrong?

Calvin's wager about Santa. It's the same as Pascal's.

 

“You’ve just described Pascal’s Wager,” I told him. If his preferred deity is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, why won’t his god know about his doubts? If what he outwardly professed conflicted with what his logical processes and his gut told him, wouldn’t that sort of god-the god our culture is typically familiar with-have a clue?

And furthermore, what if the religion he placed his bet on wasn’t the right one? What if there is some other god that really controls it all? What if there are a lot of gods who control by committee? What if those gods really couldn’t care less what people do – isn’t that the more likely scenario?

Then we talked about using the scientific method to explain things that were only explained in the past by “God did it.” I explained the concept of the God of the Gaps, and how that God keeps getting smaller and smaller with every new discovery and addition to scientific knowledge.

 

god of the gaps - religion plugs holes

 

Finally he confided that he didn’t believe in the Abrahamic god, but he would never admit that to his wife. And, ultimately, that’s why he goes to church.

There are so many of us out there, closeted and questioning.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families -a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.

benj-west

Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Vanus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers world-wide were anxious to test the theory . Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.

benjamin-wests-1769-telescope

Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the Brown brothers – founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.

benjamin-wests-diagram-of-the-1769-transit-of-venus

Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals, but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.

______

Bibliography:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097. https://books.google.com/books?id=qZ2yBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1096&dq

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993). https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=W0170

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360), http://books.google.com/books?id=HLQRAAAAYAAJ.  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906. http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss794.htm.

It’s Her Gender

Image Source: NBC News

Image Source: NBC News

When they say it’s not her gender, well, it might be her gender.

Americans love to hate Hillary Clinton, but she has been consistently rated the most admired woman in America for two decades. Why the hate in spite of all that apparent love? Is it because she has dared to shatter every glass ceiling put in her way?

They claim it’s her honesty.

It’s not. Check Politifact if you don’t believe me.

They claim it’s her conflicts of interest.

It isn’t. She can give speeches to whoever asks her to speak, including the KKK, including Wall Street, including kindergarten classes. Her family’s charitable foundation can accept donations from anyone, anywhere. Bill Clinton established the Clinton Foundation to improve the lives of people internationally.  It does good work and it has considerable bipartisan support.

They claim it’s her judgment.

Seriously? Internationally and at home, Hillary Clinton consistently ranks as the most admired woman alive.  For twenty  of the last twenty-three years, she’s been the single most admired woman in the United States. I do not suggest everyone should agree with every decision she has ever made, but come on. She’s done something right to be that popular, hasn’t she?

Her email scandal fits in this “lack of judgment” category. The press has pilloried her for doing exactly the same thing her Republican predecessors did. In fact, former Secretary of State Colin Powell  told Clinton that using a private email server was preferable to the government server in most instances.

Oh, and about Benghazi? The GOP has investigated that situation ad nauseam and still can’t find sufficient fault with her conduct, policies, or decisions. As hard as her political enemies have tried, they cannot accuse her personally of any wrongdoing.

They claim it’s her war-mongering.

Her detractors characterize Hillary Clinton as hawkish, eager to use military force. She cannot refute this point. She counseled President Obama to use military force when the country was not subject to imminent attack by any foreign entity.

Clinton voted to go to war in Iraq. She has explained her vote ad nauseam.  She cast her vote – one of a hundred Senate votes – based on the information she had at the time. That information was flawed at best and fabricated at worst. Bush lied to America and the world. Cheney manipulated for personal gain. Powell lied to the UN on their behalf. Rumsfield had no plan and didn’t listen to advisors.  None of that is Hillary Clinton’s fault, and none of it came about due to her actions. Even had she cast her vote the other way, nothing – absolutely nothing – would have changed.

That includes the use of drones. The National Security Council made the decision to use drones. As Secretary of State, Clinton was only one of the five members of that council. She could not unilaterally decide war policy. While she may have argued in favor of specific actions – the Lybian revolution during the Arab Spring, most problematically –  she did not have the final say on any of them.

Despite all of that, our international allies consider her the hands-down favorite in this race. Whether or not our citizens do, our allies understand the importance of a responsible, experienced person leading the U.S.

They claim that electing her will be politics as usual.

Maybe. Not many candidates have been more qualified for the office, and there have been none so qualified in our lifetime.

They claim that it’s time for a change.

I couldn’t agree more. Personally, I’d like to see the two-party system disbanded and a different method of electing leaders that means we won’t ever have to choose between the lesser of two evils. But in this election cycle, no other candidate but Donald Trump has a realistic shot at the office. Without getting into the reasons why – that would be another blog post entirely – it is an incontrovertible fact that we must choose between two candidates.

Perhaps the nation would be better off with a man in power who rises to the bait of a tweet. Maybe the world will be safer if a loose cannon has the nuclear codes. Perhaps someone without one iota of a clue as to how to govern should have the most powerful position in the entire world.

But I seriously doubt it.

They’ll never claim it’s her gender.

Just like they never claimed it was Obama’s race.

On Orlando’s LGBTQ Victims

LGBTQ club Pulse's Facebook profile picture

LGBTQ people were massacred in Orlando.

Everywhere we look we seem to see the question, “Why?”

If we can’t see the answer to that question, we must not be awake.

The terrorist attacked a particular set of people in their safe place. For some of the victims, Pulse may have been the only place where they could be themselves. It may have been the only place they could hold hands in public with someone they loved.  It may have been the only place they could gather with others who truly “got” them, the only place they could celebrate themselves with full acknowledgment of a deeply important, integral, indivisible aspect of themselves. Some of the victims were outed as gay to their families because of where they were when they died so senselessly.

Don’t deny the obvious: this was an attack against LGBTQ people.

First and foremost, they were people. They faced and overcame challenges, they gave joy to other people, they loved and were loved by their families and friends. But their sexual orientation was the reason they went to Pulse Saturday night. Anderson Cooper, himself a gay man, was exactly the right person to tell us about the victims.  I watched Cooper’s choked-up tribute to the dead through my own tears.  The Orlando Sentinel has extended features on each and every one of the dead victims.

To say that this attack wasn’t an attack directed at LGBTQ people is to deny the obvious.

It was a deliberate attack on LGBTQ people in an LGBTQ venue. The attacker’s father said he may have been motivated because he saw men kissing.

To say “we are all victims” of this massacre minimizes the effect that hate speech, rigid religionists of various stripes, and homophobic political rhetoric has on a sizable portion of our population. This was a terroristic hate crime, plain and simple.

It was done by an American on American soil, with an automatic assault weapon legally obtained in America.

Politicians and news organizations have a responsibility to call this incident what it was. Not all of them have done so. Sky News did such a poor job of accepting this responsibility that the gay journalist being interviewed walked off the set in disgust.  Donald Trump used the massacre in Orlando to grandstand and to inflame his base’s bigotry toward Muslims in general.

A friend of mine, a gay man who has dealt with being demonized and insulted by American society and the uber-Christian elements of the Southern culture we live in, said it beautifully:

Things that piss me off: Folks saying “Oh, don’t politicize this tragedy. We shouldn’t be calling them LGBTQ Americans; they’re just Americans like everyone else.”

How motherfucking magnanimous of you.

For the past few years (and much longer than that) you’ve treated us as second-class citizens and politicized the everloving shit out of us when we wanted to take a piss or buy a cake for our weddings (that you rallied against and weren’t even invited to). You’ve put our kids under microscopes and our jobs on the line. You’ve called us every disgusting thing in the book to rally up your hateful little fan clubs from your bully pulpits and in the process, you have blamed us for every goddamn natural disaster known to man.

You’ve told us to our faces and on the airwaves and Internet that we deserve to be murdered, or to be raped, or to die of horrific diseases, or to just kill ourselves and above else that we needed to just get the hell out of YOUR country. In the past year you’ve filed over two HUNDRED bills into the laws of our land to tell us that we’re NOT like you and that we need to “know our place”.

And NOW we’re “just” Americans – now that some window-licking dipshit took your words seriously and the whole world sees exactly what you’ve advocated all this time?

Where the fuck was this solidarity before now? Did you just now find some goddamn backbone? Is it this tragedy that finally caused you to drop a set? Little remorse for realizing that WE reap what YOU sow?

I doubt it. You just don’t like that it’s, for five minutes, not all about your cushy little faux-victimized existence.

You can be as offended as you want by my existence, but let me be perfectly clear: you don’t get to make us visible only when you need a convenient bogeyman and pretend we don’t exist when we’re dead.

We’re real. We exist. We don’t go away the instant you turn your attention elsewhere. We don’t sit on the shelf until you’re ready to play with us. We have lives of our own that don’t revolve around what’s convenient for you. And if you don’t like it, that’s tough shit.

We’ve been on this planet a lot longer than you, and we’ll still be around long after you’re dust and forgotten, so if you don’t want to see us in the news, then how about you quit putting us in the motherfucking news to begin with.

OK. I feel better. Proceed with your day. Sparkles and sunshine and shit.

We cannot act surprised that this massacre happened. We cannot ignore our homegrown homophobia or our lack of responsible action to prevent these attacks from happening. Politicians – officials we elected – have publicly engaged in actions that hurt LGBTQ people as a class. (I’m looking hard at you, North Carolina.) Our religious leaders – Christian and Muslim alike – excoriate them and relegate them to a category of subhumans not entitled to the same rights as straight people. Our culture marginalizes the needs and dignity of LGBTQ people. The number of anti-LGBTQ hate groups is on the rise in this country.  Hate is hate regardless of faith.

The massacre at Pulse was not an Islamist attack on America. It was a calculated attack on LGBTQ people, perhaps by someone whose brain was polluted with anti-gay bigotry as a result of his religion but also perhaps by the American culture that surrounded him his entire life. He didn’t have to be Muslim. There are Christians in our society who say the same things, feel the same way as did this perpetrator.

This was not an attack on America.

This was an attack by an American on particular people in a particular venue.

It was an attack that came from a place of hate.

This was an attack directed at LGBTQ people. Don’t deny the obvious.

The Crime of Mental Illness

Arkansas’s insanity defense (Ark. Code. Ann. 5-2-312) has two prongs. A person can claim that he was (1) unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of law due to a mental disease or defect, or (2) unable to appreciate the criminality of his conduct because of his mental disease or defect. Not every mental illness will qualify for the insanity defense. In fact, most will not.

“Not guilty by reason of insanity” is a wholly separate issue from the mentally incompetent defendant who is medicated to the point that he is able to stand trial and participate in his defense in the first place. Likewise, the state is supposed to medicate insane death row inmates so they can appreciate why they are being killed by the government.

The prosecution gets to pay for the psychiatrist, and it only pays for one – generally, the same one who regularly testifies in cases where the insanity defense is raised.

While everyone has a right to counsel under the constitution, everyone does not have a right to independent expert testimony. That’s reserved for the wealthy or the defendants who have a dedicated, persuasive lawyer.

We can generally guess what a psychiatrist called regularly as a witness by the state and paid regularly by the state is most likely to report. Even the most professional and unbiased experts in such a situation will be tainted by the appearance of impropriety.  Consider the correlation: police officers who know exactly how to phrase their testimony so that the facts – whether or not the officer actually witnessed them – appear most damning. It happens this was in child abuse and neglect cases, too. Case workers are taught to phrase their testimony so that the parent appears in the worst possible light, regardless of actual facts.

If he’s wealthy or lucky, the defendant will be able to find the funds to pay for another mental evaluation – if he’s capable of cooperating with such an evaluation and capable of realizing that a second opinion would be in his best interest. Sometimes – again if the defendant is lucky – a judge will agree to allow state funds to pay for that second expert opinion. IF the judge permits a second expert, the defendant’s funds are limited. The state’s funds, on the other hand, are not. This is yet another situation where poverty means a fair trial may be out of the reach of the ordinary criminal defendant.

American law treats insanity as though it’s an either/or condition. If the defendant was insane at the time the act was committed, he is supposed to be found not guilty and sent to a mental institution. He can only get out by proving he is no longer a danger to anyone.

(Of course, when a person who is acquitted by reason of insanity gets out of the mental institution, his mental health treatment is controlled by the tender mercies of the insurance companies unless he qualifies for Medicaid.) To be acquitted, his insanity has to prevent the defendant from being able to appreciate the criminal nature of his conduct.

Since someone who is psychotic or delusional may have believed that he needed to kill or seriously injure another person, this measure of culpability falls short of what it needs to be. The notion of “personal responsibility’ gets triggered. If the defendant knew he was killing or injuring someone, no matter how his delusion played into his decision to act, he is considered capable of forming “culpable intent.”

In Clark v. Arizona (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue to the great detriment of the mentally ill. The bottom line was that the paranoid schizophrenic who shot a police officer was held criminally responsible, and was not allowed to submit evidence of his overall mental state. This defendant in that case believed that aliens had taken over his town. He shot an alien that turned out to be a police officer, but since he knew shooting a REAL police officer was wrong, he got a 70 year prison sentence instead of mental health treatment.

And we call that justice.

The United States has a habit of incarcerating the mentally ill. The reasons for this are complex, but boil down to a lack of understanding in the population at large combined with a serious lack of mental health care for many people who need it.

My family is typical. I have mental illness in my family, and despite the love other family members have for the person afflicted, they don’t educate themselves about depression, bipolar, delusions, or psychosis. They consider the mentally ill person’s actions to be a matter of personal responsibility.

This attitude is not unique to my family. It is the norm, not the exception. We are all responsible for our own actions, right? And if we can appreciate the fact that X conduct is criminal, but we engage in that conduct (no matter how our psychosis or delusions may have convinced us that such conduct was necessary), then we should be punished for it – right?

Someone who is actively experiencing psychosis is not responding to the stimuli the rest of the world responds to. Sure, there’s the normal stimuli, but because of the psychosis the person’s judgment is severely impaired, and he may well be experiencing more stimulation than a person who is not psychotic. Now let’s add delusional thinking to the mix. Not only is he responding psychotically to his environment, he can’t interpret what he sees appropriately.

Delusions can be mild and relatively harmless, or they can be severe and pervasive to the point that they control everything the mentally ill person says or does, including his personal interactions and his crisis response. (Delusion and psychosis are not the only severely crippling mental conditions.)

It’s not always apparent that someone is psychotic or delusional. The person may be able to carry on a reasonably coherent conversation, dress himself, drive a car, go out in public. One wrong response to his environment may be laughed off as “quirky” or “nutty,” people witnessing it may roll their eyes or cross the street to get away from him. But a series of wrong responses to his surroundings may result in disaster for him and for everyone around him. The time between that first wrong response and that series of wrong responses may be a disastrously short crescendo.

Now, couple the “personal responsibility” attitude of the ignorant general public with someone who appears to be rational but is actually psychotic and/or delusional. “He was just fine a moment ago” is something we hear a lot, but that is not true in the case of someone suffering from severe mental illness. He may have appeared to be just fine, but in fact his brain wasn’t working any better a moment ago than it was when he made that mistake in responding to something that happened.

When the mistake that results in harm to someone else, American society’s response is to take revenge. That’s what our prison system is – a system of revenge, not of correction or rehabilitation. There is no more mental health treatment in prison than there is in the public at large – in fact, there may be less. A series of lawsuits 40 years ago closed most of the mental institutions in this country, and insurance companies won’t pay for long-term in-patient care for the most part. Historically, very few insurance policies have paid for treatment of mental illnesses. Unless they qualify for Medicaid, patients’ families often must pay out of pocket or their loved ones go untreated.

Consider this: prior to the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance policies did not cover mental health at all. Anyone with one of those policies not covering mental health treatment had to pay out of pocket or get assistance from Medicaid if they had a mental illness, even if it was situational depression.

What treatment insurance companies were willing to pay for was laughably inadequate. Even now, insurance companies may approve a series of ten visits to a therapist, but a prescription and ten visits to a mental health counselor aren’t going to “cure” mental illness.

That’s because mental illness is not an infection – it’s a chronic condition. Even under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are still in the driver’s seat when it comes to mental health treatment. That means a for-profit corporation is making the decision of whether or not to pay these bills. Which leads me to my next rant in favor of a single-payer system…

Drug Testing: the Wrong Results

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

When I was a law student, I took a class on environmental law. One of the subjects I was interested in was contamination by secondary exposure. Direct exposure is obvious and often quantifiable. Indirect or secondary exposure – in the form of things like acid rain or second-hand smoke – was more complex and harder to quantify and prove. I was also fascinated by the possibility of false positive and false negative results from the testing methods available at the time. These tests were being used to fight coal-fired power plants and to hold cigarette manufacturers liable for the lung cancer of non-smokers. They were also being used to ferret out pot smokers and recreational users of certain prescription medications.

It was 1988. The Reagans were in the White House. Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign was wildly popular among people who had no clue about how teenagers test boundaries. That year saw a wave of employers demanding that their employees take drug tests either before beginning employment, after an accident, or randomly. Aside from the 4th Amendment issues (which only applied to the government employers), dissenters raised objections to false positive test results that could damage not only someone’s career but their reputations and future employability. Being a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I was at least passingly familiar with the concept of the “contact high.” Could a person’s off-duty social associations cause him to lose his job? I decided to investigate the matter.

I researched the science, not just the law. I learned that something as ordinary as a poppy seed bagel or over-the-counter antihistamines could skew test results. There was no way to differentiate between someone who had ingested the substance illicitly or simply gone to a concert and been assigned a seat near people who were smoking weed. The science could test for the presence of the chemicals, but could not say how they had gotten into the person’s body or whether the person was feeling the effects of the substance at the time of testing.

Five years later I had a very active family law practice. I handled quite a few employment law cases, too. Drug testing came up over and over again. Knowing what I did, I discouraged clients from attacking each other for drug use unless it was seriously interfering with parenting responsibilities – and not just because of the false positives and false negatives. Usually if one parent partakes, the other parent will have been exposed, if they didn’t themselves indulge. The employment cases were the worst, though.

All it took was an accident that was someone else’s fault to trigger a drug test under most employers’ policies. I remember a truck driver who hired me who said yes, for the first time in 20 years he had smoked a joint at his college reunion a few days before the accident. He wasn’t high when it happened, but lost a $70,000/year job when a woman driving another vehicle ran a stop sign. He swerved to miss her and ended up in a ditch. He was fired because of the drug test, not because of the accident.

I remember the 60+ year old woman who was told she had failed a pre-employment drug test. This woman had been out of work for more than a year because the plant where she had worked closed. She had had to give up her home of 40 years and move in with her daughter. She was looking forward to independence again. Our investigation revealed that the test samples had probably been switched accidently, either at the lab or by whoever had collected the samples. A long-haired hippie-type person had the job she had applied for, and in a fit of profiling she just knew he was actually the one with the drugs in his system. Her preacher, though, in whom she had confided the devastating test results, had condemned her and was counseling her to get help for her non-existent addiction. She was humiliated and literally sick over it.

By 2000, there were lots of products on the market specifically marketed to people who needed to beat a drug test. Substance abuse was an issue in at least half of the custody cases I tried, and maybe more. Every single client – and every single opposing party – knew about these products. They weren’t 100% reliable, but I didn’t have any clients who submitted to a drug test without using the products if there was time for them to do so. Those who I knew used drugs were made aware that in-court testing was a possibility. While I couldn’t tell them to destroy the evidence, I could tell them to be ready to be tested. With a few exceptions, they were all smart enough to take steps.

drug testing - hair follicle collectionThen there was the grandmother who was suing for custody of her badly neglected grandchildren. She didn’t use drugs. She was asking for custody because her daughter and son in law did, and because of their drug use they didn’t take care of their children adequately. She had asked for drug testing knowing that she would pass easily and that the parents would fail any drug test they were ordered to take. The judge ordered everyone to be tested. The grandmother had gone to a James Taylor concert at Alltell Arena and breathed in that second-hand marijuana smoke. Her grandchildren ended up in foster care.

Then came hair follicle testing. Follicle testing was more foolproof and harder to beat, the testing centers and manufacturers claimed. It wasn’t long before the shampoos and rinses were marketed in the same places as those flushing solutions. “You cannot beat a hair test,” one site still boasts. It’s wrong. Even if the test shows positive, it doesn’t explain how the substance got there.

It made me think of the rumor I had heard back in the 1980’s when cocaine use was rampant in the United States. It was said that traces of cocaine could be found on nearly every American $100 in circulation. Partiers would roll the bill into a straw and snort the powder through it. This level of contamination is still the case, and the bills don’t even have to be used directly with the cocaine. They can get contaminated inside currency-counting machines at the bank. Imagine handling one of those bank-contaminated bills that you just withdrew to pay your lawyer, them smoothing a stray strand of hair. Then imagine that you are sent directly for a drug test, and despite the fact that you have never in your life even seen cocaine, much less used it, your drug test comes back positive for the drug. It doesn’t have to be in your system to count. It just has to be in your hair. And once again, you are placed in the position of having to explain how it got there, and proving the negative of the drug use that you are now presumed to engage in.

With the announcement from the American Chemical Society last week that steps taken to remove secondary contamination from hair being drug tested actually washes cocaine into the hair shaft, the most reliable of these unreliable tests just became even less reliable.

Science gives us a lot, but it is not a panacea and never will be. It answers some questions, but answering those tends to lead to more that need to be asked. Whether in the courtroom or just in everyday life, we need to remember to ask those questions that logically come next. Science can then begin investigating them and working to find the answers.

Drug testing is too fallible to be reliable. A positive drug test tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t prove frequent use or addiction. It doesn’t prove use at all – and it never has.

Worthy of Plants and Society

I confess that yesterday did not go as expected.

I got a text about 1:30 yesterday afternoon from my friend Sarah.  Sarah and I serve on a couple of nonprofit boards together. We get stuff done. She said she needed to ask me something in person. Since she never, ever does that, my heart just about pounded out of my chest.

My mind was racing. Had I said something inappropriate to someone? Had I screwed something up? Was I about to get bad news? Holy shit, what was it? I wanted to vomit.  My heart was beating in my throat. I couldn’t think of anyone I might have offended recently. I couldn’t think of any projects that I’d flaked out on. I needed a Xanax. My eyelid was twitching.

Not Worthy

My Inferiority Complex

Sarah rang my doorbell about 20 minutes later. She wasn’t alone. I could have sworn that I heard my sister’s voice before I opened the door. That was just craptastic. The last thing I wanted was for my sister to be here if Sarah had something awful to talk with me about. I mean, Mom has proof that my younger sister’s smarter than I am = we had IQ testing done when we went to boarding school 40 years ago, so it must be true – and that fact just feeds megadoses of Little Shop of Horrors-level superfood to my inferiority complex. I really didn’t want to be humiliated in front of her….stop it, Anne. Jesus!…I opened the door.

Sarah was there. Susan was there. And so was my mom. Fuck. Sarah was holding a big flower arrangement. What was THAT all about? I wanted to get rid of Mom and Susan so Sarah could talk to me about whatever it was she had texted me about. But before I could even say “come in,” all three of them shouted, in unison, “CONGRATULATIONS!”

Garden Club flowersSarah handed me the flower arrangement. “You’ve just been elected to the Little Rock Garden Club,” she said.

 

Holy mother of meatballs and spaghetti sauce.

 

This garden club is pretty hard to get into. Like, you can’t get into it if you ask. You can’t buy your way in. There are only 70 active members, all of them female. My great-grandmother was in that club, as was my grandmother. My mom and sister are both in the club.

I don’t have a lot of friends in common with them. See, I’ve spent most of my adult life in offices and courtrooms and working long hours. I didn’t have time for book clubs, golf or tennis, coffee klatches, lunching with ladies, or dinners with friends. Even now that I’m not working anymore, I spend long hours in front of my computer and I rarely go out. When I do, it’s usually with my heathen friends, who tend to be focused on other things. I mean, I just don’t run in the same circles as these ladies. I never expected to be invited to join their club.

To get into the Little Rock Garden Club, someone unrelated to you who knows you well has to nominate you without your knowledge, then someone ELSE has to second the nomination, then a secret committee gets a chance to blackball you. And then the whole board gets a shot at saying no.

It seems that the board said yes. It seems that I did not get blackballed in committee. Apparently Sarah nominated me and another friend seconded the nomination.

I have officially arrived in society. Me. The activist. The outspoken freethinker. The agitator. The socialist. The foul-mouthed, overweight, loud, obnoxious, ultra-liberal, Charlie Brown-hating, rabble-rousing…me. I suddenly had tears in my eyes. Dear sweet baby Cthulhu, where did this gift come from?!

I know nobody gives a rat’s ass, and I know that I shouldn’t give one either, but I have felt my whole adult life that I am unworthy of being around “nice” people like the members of this club. For the last two days, my phone has been ringing with congratulations from the people I know in the club. I had no idea I knew so many of them! Maybe I do belong there after all. Maybe this will help heal my imposter syndrome, just a little.

Today, I am suddenly worthy.

I intend to enjoy the hell out of this.

Voting Right

In honor of today’s primaries, here’s a an old argument about voting rights. It hasn’t yet died.

Even though Arkansas’s Supreme Court struck down the voter ID law on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, many other states still have burdensome voter ID laws. These laws effectively prevent legally eligible people from voting. There’s another problem, as well: too many young people think their votes don’t matter. (Spoiler: they DO!)

President Jimmy Carter, that stalwart champion of international democracy, supports voter ID requirements, at least to an extent. He has cautioned that voter IDs must be free and people living in remote locations must have some way of getting them. Proponents of Voter ID laws heard the first part of Carter’s statement, but not the last.

Republicans seem to promote these laws, while Democrats oppose them. Why? Because these laws target the young, minority, and elderly voters. These voters are the least likely to have an official government ID that is accepted at the polls.

Why are all those silly liberals so upset about this? The Founding Fathers didn’t let poor people or minorities vote either. They even had the good sense not to let women vote!

According to the Brennan Center, which conducted a notable investigation into the issue, as many as 11 percent of the voting population does not have one of these state-issued IDs. That’s a lot.

Seriously, many Republicans touted these laws as a way to ensure voter fraud doesn’t happen. The only type of voter fraud these laws address, though, is in-person voter impersonation. The ID laws are an undue burden intended to address a problem that simply doesn’t exist.

voter fraud stats

Source: voterfraudfacts.com. Check out the site for more info about the frequency and types of voter fraud in the United States.

 

To prevent 13 fraudulent votes from being cast, we should prevent 65 million votes from being cast. That certainly ensures a good representative democracy, now doesn’t it?

Republicans knew this. They still promoted passage of these laws, claiming that floods of illegal aliens inundated the polls and entire cemeteries emptied as their zombie residents tried to vote progressive politicians into office. A zombie without an ID could be turned away only if this law was in place.

Haha! Gotcha, Democrats! If your zombie base can’t vote, you don’t get elected! Those cocky Republicans just couldn’t resist tweaking the noses of their Democratic counterparts once the laws were passed. They brazenly admitted on multiple occasions that these laws were intended to prevent Democrats from being elected-not by keeping down the hoards of immigrants and stopping the zombie apocalypse, but by preventing the poor, young, old, and minorities from voting.

In one hotly-contested 2014 election in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, the Democrat lost to the Republican by less than 2500 votes. There were 386,434 registered voters in the 23rd District, and only 115,429 actually voted. A research team from the University of Houston and Rice University conducted a poll of a representative sample of the 271,005 registered voters who did not vote in the midterm election. They found that 12% of those polled believed they did not have the type of ID required to cast a ballot. Upon further questioning, the survey established that only 2.7% of those polled actually lacked proper identification. Still, that accounted for more than enough votes to have changed the outcome of the election.

Voter fraud is anything that tampers with a fair voting process. Inciting fear of non-existent fraud to pass laws that effectively disenfranchise a tenth of the population ought itself to count as voter fraud on a massive scale. It sure worked in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District in 2014.

Arkansas Republicans were not above inciting this kind of baseless fear. In 2012, when these laws were being promoted all over the country, our Republican Secretary of State’s spokesperson publicly claimed that there was rampant voter fraud being committed in all 75 Arkansas counties, mainly by Democratic county clerks who let illegal immigrants register to vote. According to Alex Reed, who used to handle press relations for Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin, it was absolutely essential to get rid of all county clerks who ran for office on the Democratic ticket because of this.

They might even illegally register on their illegal voter registration forms in Spanish that the Secretary of State’s office resented supplying. (All illegal aliens are Hispanic, and all Hispanics are illegal aliens. That’s a Venn Diagram with only one circle. Really.)

Almost the moment he was elected, Martin made it clear that here in ‘Murica English ought to be the official language. As if the Arkansas Secretary of State has any power over such things. (Source)

In August 2012 Reed spoke to the Union County Republican Party while on the state’s clock. He was there because he worked for the Secretary of State, who is the state’s chief election officer. In response to a question from the audience about how illegal immigrants get on voter registration rolls to begin with, Reed said:

Under federal law, we are required to print Hispanic voter registration applications and send those out. Then they send them back to us. The Secretary of State, they’re not the main registrar of voters. It’s the county clerks. That’s why I preach around to the county officials that it’s so important to have a Republican county clerk in every county. Because that’s the main person there and that’s who we work with the most. Either through error, or, they register and have the wrong address and it’s, ‘Oh well, they’re registered voters.’ … I don’t know what to say about it, other than it’s kind of a disgrace.

“It’s kind of a disgrace,” he said.

We suspect we know where the disgrace lies, and it isn’t with phantom illegal alien voters or county clerks.

Understandably, the county clerks in Arkansas were somewhat bemused by these irresponsible remarks. The Association of Arkansas Counties checked into Reed’s allegations and released a statement. The Association found no evidence in any of the 75 counties that Reed’s claim was accurate. Stung by the accusation of rampant misfeasance, Crystal Gaddy, the Republican secretary of the Association and a county clerk herself, rebuked Reed:

“I’m a proud Republican, but what’s important to me is to serve the people of Arkansas and my county regardless of political views. I am disappointed by the comments and the ensuing false perception of county clerks. I think it is vital to represent your office in a nonpartisan manner.”

Association president Rhonda Cole, a county clerk of the Democratic persuasion, agreed. “We’re here to serve the taxpayers regardless of political affiliations…. To describe county clerks or their actions as ‘disgraceful’ is unjust, unwarranted, and uninformed.”

If only all elected officials remembered that they represent all taxpayers, and not just those who share their party affiliation! Why, there might be less nasty rhetoric among politicians. We might even get some governing accomplished.

Might anyone in Washington be listening? No? I thought as much. Certainly local partisan hacks like Jason Rapert aren’t. If a constituent doesn’t support him 100%, that constituent gets blocked from Rapert’s social media, and maybe even gets threatened.

This man has a future in politics. (Source)

 

What the flap with these voter ID laws around the country underscores is not that there’s fraud-there’s precious little of that-but that partisan politics have sunk to a new low.

Then again, maybe it’s the same old low that Jim Crow enjoyed.

A voter denied his voting rights and an eligible voter whose ballot isn’t counted have both been disenfranchised. Disenfranchise enough people and the outcome of an election changes.

I keep hearing that Millennials feel their votes won’t count, so they don’t bother going to the polls. Guys guys guys guys guys! If your vote didn’t count, the people you’d vote against wouldn’t be so dead set on preventing your peers from voting. Your vote counts, and if you vote in large enough numbers, your votes rule.

 

Americans have long made a big deal of sending high-profile politicians to other countries to observe voting as fledgling democracies get off the ground. President Carter has gone on these poll-watching romps regularly. Why do we make a big deal out of observing the democratic process in new democracies? Because the validity of the election, and therefore the validity and authority of the elected government, depend upon those elections being conducted openly and honestly.

The validity of the election depends on the validity of the voting process.

Supporters of the voter ID laws claim that illegal voters will swarm the polls and elect the crazy “liberals” if swift, certain measures are not immediately taken.

Proponents of Democracy counter that the more people who vote, the better the people’s chance of being represented by someone they can tolerate.

VOTE. It matters.

Why I Don’t Want My Country Back

I keep hearing people say, “I want my country back.” I don’t understand why they want to regress rather than progress.

We have within our voting booths, email accounts, and voices the ability to make this country truly great. We should use them to make great things happen.

But, to go back?

I would not want to take my country back to a time when a state religion was mandated. The autodidacts of the Enlightenment gave us a gift when, first in the Virginia Declaration and then in the First Amendment, they mandated that states have to stay out of the religion business. By necessity this meant that religion also has to stay out of state business. The last “established church” (in Connecticut) was done away with in 1813 .

conn church

Congregationalist Church in Enfield, Conn. Remember Jonathan Edwards and his bombastic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“?

There are political leaders today who claim they want to take the country back to a time when religion invaded every nook and cranny of political life. They’re asking for witch trials, criminal prosecutions for wearing lace, fines for not going to church, taxes that support one church but not anther.

Whose religion will the state support in that scenario? And whose interpretation of that religion? Will we end up in a bloody civil war over predestination and evangelism? Will atheists be burned at the stake? We have a lot of work to do in this area so that the American public understands what the founding fathers did: a secular state is the only one that can possibly serve all of its citizens. I sure wouldn’t go back to a time when states were able to mandate religion, before the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1864 that finally required all of the states to abide by the Bill of Rights. I don’t want that country back.

Other important Amendments to the Constitution were also passed in those heady days immediately following the Civil War, like the one that abolished slavery and the other one that extended the right to vote to every citizen regardless of race. I wouldn’t want to take my country back to a time when an entire demographic was enslaved and marginalized, disenfranchised and dispossessed of even basic human dignity.

30VOTING-tmagArticle

Credit: Bob Daugherty/Associated Press, 1964

We’ve already lost some of the protections minorities had against the privileged majority with the loss of the Voting Rights Act. The ballot box is still under siege from people who would make it harder for the poor, the young, and the elderly to vote. We have to get more people to the polls on every election day, and we have to pass laws reforming campaign finance so that elections are actually decided on the merits of the candidate’s platform and not on the size of their sponsor’s bank accounts. Who wants to live in a country where elections go to the highest bidder? Not me.

As a woman, I wouldn’t want to take my country back to an era when I would not have  had a voice in politics. That means I wouldn’t go back to a time before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919.

suffragettes

Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912

I wouldn’t ever want to go back to a time when a woman’s “place” was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Shackling women to their homes and children, shaming them for working and for success in other endeavors, removing from them their rights to own property or even have guardianship of their own children does an extreme disservice to half the population. That means I wouldn’t take my country back to the time before World War II, when so many women joined the iconic Rosie the Riveter in the workforce.

apron and satan

Discouraging girls from achieving their dream occupation shortchanges not just them, but our entire society. We can all benefit from the power of a brain enthusiastically focused on doing something worthwhile. If we tell boys they can be firemen or doctors  but tell girls they’ll be someone’s wife, we effectively tell our daughters that they will identify themselves by someone else’s name and someone else’s achievements. We send our girls the message that they aren’t good enough tall by themselves.  If that’s what we would return to, I don’t want that country back.

MRS degree

We hear people say they want to return to the values of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver vacuumed her comfortable home in heels and pearls, when Wally and the Beav could roam the neighborhood without supervision, where Ward wore a suit and held the same white collar job for years without stress. I have news for those people: The Cleavers were fiction. They didn’t exist except on television. Neither did that perfectly well-adjusted, large, blended Brady family in the 1970’s. When we say we want our country back, we say we long for only the good parts of a fictional, idealized era where no bad happened. It doesn’t exist and it never did.

Now is better, but it still isn’t good enough. There aren’t enough women yet in positions of power.  Women are capable business and community leaders. There still aren’t enough female CEOs of major corporations, there aren’t enough women in politics, there aren’t enough women of high rank in the military, there aren’t enough women in STEM fields, and women still don’t have the earning power of men.

We made progress in this country when becoming pregnant didn’t automatically trigger wedding bells at the business end of the proverbial shotgun.  We made progress when not just women but men were given the option of leaving bad marriages without suffering social opprobrium. We still need to improve our laws so that single parents have more support from society, so that they can earn a living wage and still have time to spend with their children. Child care needs to be more affordable and widely available so that single parents as well as married women who want financial independence aren’t prevented from reaching for it because they can’t afford to. Truly, as a society, we can’t afford for them not to.

I wouldn’t go back to a time when Jim Crow was not only the unwritten law of the land, but enshrined in statutes. This means I wouldn’t go back to a time before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, or even before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

Let’s not take our country back to a time when a family was prevented from moving next door to us simply because of the color of their skin, or when our a playmates were prevented from going to the same school as we did – again, because of the color of their skin. This means I wouldn’t want take the country back to a time before 1968 when the Fair Housing Act became law. My hometown’s schools were integrated in 1968 – the year I started first grade – and I’m glad it didn’t take still longer.

No, I would not want to take this country back to a time when people I knew and enjoyed as friends were treated like second-class citizens, not considered good enough to drink from the same water fountain as I could or to use the same public restroom as I did. We got rid of those statutes and are still fighting an uphill battle for racial equality and equal opportunity. We still have to deal with privilege and marginalization. It’s better, but it still isn’t good.

We haven’t made enough progress in this department: we are incarcerating practically the entire demographic of black males, forever foreclosing their capacity to contribute to society or even to their families in any meaningful way. Young black men get profiled and executed in the streets. The sentences imposed for minor crimes are not only excessive,m they are applied disproportionately along racial lines. Our prisons are focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and successful reentry to society. They days of lynchings aren’t really over – they just look different. We have a lot more work to do.

15.0212.lynching

Image from a 1920 lynching in Texas, via Wikimedia Commons

Our society made progress in my lifetime when women were finally granted the right to defend our bodies against unwanted intruders, be they marital rapists or unwanted pregnancies. We haven’t made nearly enough progress in this area, even though we thought we had won it 40 years ago; a woman’s right to decide how and when her body will be used is under a concerted and coordinated attack from those who would reduce women to incubators.  That means I don’t want to take the country back to a pre-1973 world, where Roe v. Wade didn’t protect my body from involuntary servitude to an organism that might kill me. I was eleven years old when that case was decided. No, I wouldn’t go back, even though summers seemed to last forever back then.

I would never, ever want to go back to a time where education of the young was the province of churches, or that religion was allowed in the classroom. We made excellent progress in this regard – again, within my lifetime – and it is under constant threat from teachers who tell children they aren’t Christian enough (this is a state mandating religion again) or who deny evolution and other proven scientific theories (because their preachers tell them to).

In fact, we as a society don’t do enough to ensure that our population is educated. There is a significant segment of the American population that is anti-intellectual and proud of it. (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin.) These people not only stymie the efforts of good brains, they threaten our nation’s ability to compete in the world’s markets, our health, and our standard of living. We have a lot more work to do in this area. Until every person in the country has access to affordable higher education, we undermine our growth both intellectually and economically.

And this brings me to pseudoscience. We may not have stereotypical snake oil salesmen on every street corner, but we do have quacks on television and Playboy Playmates (TM), all of whom have large soapboxes from which to sell modern-day snake oil in the form of fad diets, homeopathy, and “nutritional” supplements, and who undermine and misrepresent scientific progress.

Polio has become almost nonexistent in my lifetime. Diphtheria has virtually disappeared during my parents’ lifetimes. Smallpox was eradicated in my lifetime.  I would never want to take my country back to a time before antibiotics, vaccines, and modern surgical techniques. That means I don’t want last year’s country back.

But we need to do more to improve health and welfare. We can’t do it if our teachers won’t teach the theory of evolution and idiots without scientific training claim vaccines cause autism. We also can’t do it if every poorly-tested drug is advertised to the uneducated masses. We need to make more progress in this area.

I’ve now brought us into the present. I definitely don’t want to go back to any of what I’ve described.

Moving forward is the only option I see.

country back

You can get this on a t-shirt. Click the image to order.

Vote for the best solution

A number of my friends have said they will not vote for the Democrat if their preferred candidate isn’t the nominee for president.

Vote for Bernie or Hillary

copyrighted image: Nigel Parry for CNN

I think that’s short-sighted. There is an awful lot at stake in the 2016 election, not the least of which is the Supreme Court.

Sometimes our vote can’t be for the change we really want to see. Sometimes our vote has to be for the person who we think will do the least damage to the world, who will do the least to wreck the world as we want it to be.

No, it’s not a perfect solution. But because we have a two-party system, it’s the best option we have.

I’ve held my nose in the voting booth a lot over the years, mostly because the lesser of two evils really was significantly less evil. I’ll be doing it in one of the judicial races for the Arkansas Supreme Court. I don’t like either candidate, but one is likely to do less harm than the other, so he will get my vote.

I despair for our country if any of the Republican candidates win the presidency. I have read and heard nothing to indicate that any of them want to make the country a better place for all citizens. I am smothered by their bully attitudes, their regressive policies, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism. I see them pander to fears whipped up by Fox News. I see a theocracy in the making.

Neither Hillary nor Bernie is perfect. I have an opinion as to which would be better for the country, but if he doesn’t win the nomination I will vote for her. She’s the most moderate of all the Republicans running and the one who is likely to do the least amount of damage. She calls herself a Democrat. If it comes down to it, then she will have my vote, because I won’t be responsible for allowing one of those bombastic fools on the Republican side get elected. The blowhards, the bigots, the theocrats, the loose cannons – I cannot help them into office by abdicating my vote for their Democratic opponent. And, yes, if I end up voting for Hillary it will twist my guts knowing that yet another corporate sycophant is being elected. But that’s what happens when we choose who is the least of the evils – they’re all evil. We have to determine where the harm is likely to be done, and vote accordingly.

If the Republicans get into office, we can say goodbye to all the progress made in the last 45 years on women’s rights. We can expect that the Supreme Court will be stacked with intellectually dishonest conservatives like Thomas and Scalia. We can expect that the line between church and state will be blurred even further. We can expect people to lose insurance coverage, we can expect families to be ripped apart as half of their members are deported, and we can expect that children will go hungry.

I just can’t live with myself if I help that happen.

I like the way Allen Clifton put it in his post on Forward Progressives:

If you don’t plan to “vote blue, no matter who” this November because your candidate didn’t win and you didn’t get your way, before you cast your “symbolic vote,” I would encourage you to:

    • Find a Mexican family (or any immigrant family for that matter) that has lived here for years and has been praying for immigration reform to get passed so they can become American citizens. Tell them that it doesn’t really bother you that they’ll likely be deported if a Republican becomes president.
    • Find someone who’s living in poverty, who obtained health care thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Tell them you don’t care that a Republican president will take their health care away from them.
    • Find a Muslim and tell them you’re okay with a Republican president spending the next four to eight years vilifying their religion, potentially setting up registries where they would be tracked like criminals.
    • Tell every woman you meet that you’re okay with a Republican president potentially appointing 3-4 Supreme Court Justices who will almost certainly deem abortions illegal, thus taking away her right to have control over her own body and putting millions of women’s lives at risk as they seek out desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies.
    • Find a homosexual couple and let them know that you’re not concerned with a Republican president potentially appointing 3-4 Supreme Court Justices that will almost certainly deem bans on same-sex marriage legal and strip away gay rights any chance they get.
    • Find non-Christians and atheists and let them know that it doesn’t bother you that a Republican president will undoubtedly try to force Christianity on Americans, thus violating their First Amendment rights. Rights that will also be under attack if that same president stacks the Supreme Court with 3-4 ultra conservative Justices.
    • Find someone with a pre-existing condition. Tell them that you don’t have a problem going back to the “old system” of health care where individuals born with pre-existing conditions could be denied coverage and discriminated against by the health insurance industry, because a Republican president will damn sure repeal the Affordable Care Act.
    • Find climate scientists and everyone you can who cares about combating climate change. Tell them that it doesn’t really bother you that a Republican president would undo all the progress we’ve made to try to save our planet.

Please do all of that before you vote. Because when you don’t support either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, everything I just listed is exactly what you’re saying.

To those who have said they’ll vote for a third party candidate or decline to vote at all, please reconsider. Your vote, and the votes of people who feel the same way you do, really matter. It’s important.

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