Monday, October 17, 2016

The Christian Case against 776

On Facebook, I'm seeing a lot of arguments that are similar to the following:

This kind of sentiment seems to be the basis for Oklahoma State Question 776 - a law that, in effect, says that nothing can be considered cruel and unusual punishment when it comes to the death penalty.  This is designed to protect Oklahoma when it executes an inmate using a bad combination of drugs, a combination that could cause the inmate to writhe in agony for 40+ minutes, as in the case of Clayton Lockett.  (Side note: The Atlantic has a marvelous write-up on that execution.)

I've written about Lockett's execution previously, so I'll skip any talk about the case or the concept of execution, and jump right into this idea of suffering as it pertains to the Bible. 

Many people quote the Torah:
 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind. (Genesis 9:5-6)
(That passage always invokes the Boondock Saints police station scene for me)
But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:23-25)
As if to say that God is on the side of visiting punishment like-for-like upon those who have committed crimes, without remembering the words of Christ, who took this passage from Exodus and turned it on its head:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
(Matthew 5:38-45)
Jesus was all about forgiving those who committed harm, as He proved when He was executed.  Here he is, on the cross, and he prays:
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Earlier, when Judas leads men to arrest him, and Peter cuts off one of the men's ears, he tells us that he is perfectly capable of seeking retribution:
Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53)
But Jesus is not alone in these sentiments.  Paul echoes them:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
And here, Paul is quoting Proverbs 25 (for the last part) and Deuteronomy for the first part:
"It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
    In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
    and their doom rushes upon them." (Deuteronomy 32:35)
Vengeance belongs to God alone, should He desire to take it; we, however, are called upon to love our enemies, and we know of love from Paul that it is first "patient" and second "kind."

As for me, I do not believe in the death penalty excepting where an inmate might ask for it (it might be kind if an inmate is suffering in prison); but that said, it is far more kind to execute someone through non-painful means, even if that means we have to be patient and wait for a better drug cocktail to become available.  Love demands we do these things for even those who have committed ghastly murders.

The alternative is that we become just as violent and horrible as those who we seek to execute.  We become Pontius Pilate rather than Christ crucified.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The New Republican Arguments for Trump

This is a decidedly NSFW article, as you might imagine...

Since tapes were released of Trump saying he likes to grab women "by the pussy", major Republicans have been fleeing the sinking ship of Trump left and right.  Many of the everyday people who support Trump, however, have been doubling down on their support, as we would expect.  Here, then, are some of their biggest arguments:

This is a Tu Quoque fallacy, which is Latin roughly for "You too."  Imagine using this defense against someone when you've been accused of murder.  "Did you kill Mr. Soandso?" The prosecution asks, and you say, "Well sure, but you killed a man once, too!"  See how ridiculous it is?  In this case, you're both wrong.  If I had said anything vulgar about someone, I was in the wrong as well.  That doesn't justify Trump's statements, it merely shows that I am an equal offender if I made such statements, too.

This argument pops up in lots of different ways.  For instance, one go-to for many Trump supporters - and, indeed, for Trump himself during the debate - is that Hillary Clinton's husband is worse.  This comes from two distinct groups - three women accusing Bill Clinton of wrongdoing, and one woman who is generally universally acknowledged to have had an affair with him.  We'll come back to the former group in a moment, but the latter group brings up some interesting arguments. 

I cannot bring up the exact text now, because Facebook removed it, but one person complained that Clinton had sodomized an intern with a cigar.  While Clinton has not acknowledged this, and there is no physical evidence supporting the claim, the intern in question was Monica Lewinsky, who claims that her relationship with Bill Clinton was entirely consensual.  That means, if he did sodomize her with a cigar, that was her choice to participate.  (A note: the Starr report refers to Clinton inserting the cigar into Lewinsky's vagina, which is not "sodomy" by most definitions.)

As for the other three women, they are Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey.  All three allege that Clinton made unwanted sexual advanced on them - Jones that he exposed himself to her, Willey that he groped her, and Broaddrick that he raped her.  In all three cases, there was not enough evidence to go to trial for criminal misconduct, though Clinton did settle a lawsuit with Jones. 

These three issues are major, and we shouldn't be quick to dismiss them.  But, with that said, at this point they are allegations, not confirmed attacks.  If we accept allegations as true, then we have to do that for both Clinton and Trump - and Trump has his own share of rape allegations.  In such a case, we cannot say either one is better or worse, but rather that they're both horrible people.

To me, the point that swings the balance is the fact that, again, these are allegations, and have not been proven in court yet.  Given that, we can't say Clinton or Trump are worse on the allegations alone; therefore, we have to go to other sources.  For only one of the two people do we audio where he brags about molesting women. 

"But this was ten years ago," some Trump reporters will say, "and he has become a Christian since then.  That means he is forgiven, and we need to forgive him, too."

A person's religion is a deeply personal thing - what a person claims to believe cannot be examined with a microscope.  As such, we only have Dr. James Dobson's words that Trump has accepted Christ - words he later recanted - and similarly we have both Bill and Hillary's claims to Christianity.  By any measure, if we must forgive Trump, we must also forgive both Bill and Hillary for any perceived wrongdoing.

For most Evangelicals, there is a belief that sin can only be forgiven if:
  1. The sinner is a Christian (apparently a checkmark for all three people);
  2. The sinner seeks forgiveness; and
  3. The sinner turns from his or her sin.
That's important because Trumpeters will argue that Hillary has never asked for forgiveness for Benghazi, nor has Bill sought forgiveness for his alleged attacks on women.  Hillary has shown remorse for Benghazi, calling it her "biggest regret" and taking responsibility for it, but that isn't good enough for many people.  As for Bill, it's impossible to apologize for something you never did - and since he maintains his innocence, any apology would be an admission of guilt that could open him to severe criminal liability. 

But let's talk about step 3 of that - the sinner must turn from his or her sin.  This means not trying to deflect blame, as Trump immediately did, and it means ending the sin that started this - a fundamental disrespect of women.  A person cannot love another person and hold such disrespect in their hearts that they would joke about sexually assaulting said person.  Trump shows in more recent quotes that he is still the same person.

At the same time as the comments of groping came out, we were offered audio of Trump saying that he goes backstage during the Miss America pageant specifically to try to catch the young women and teenage girls nude.  And then there are all of his other comments about women, especially those that he tweeted at 3am on the night of the first debate, long after his supposed conversion to Christianity.

"Yes," the Trumpeter might say, "but Trump is a baby Christian.  Give him time to fix these things."

You're absolutely right.  But a baby Christian is never put in a position of power over other Christians!  A baby Christian is someone the author of Hebrews describes as follows:
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.  (Hebrews 5:12-14, NIV)
 Indeed, when we elect elders in the church, this is how we are taught to do so:
an elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.  Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.  Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.  He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. (Titus 1:6-9)
Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.  He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.  They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.  They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons. (1st Timothy 3:1-10)
These descriptions do not sound at all like Trump.  With the exception of the obvious focus on gender, they sound marginally more like Hillary (she has long been the wife of only one husband, and has shown herself not to be quick-tempered or unfaithful, is temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, gentle, able to teach, and not quarrelsome).

So electing a "baby Christian" who hasn't mastered these things is not only setting the country up for failure, it's setting that Christian up for failure.  The job of the president is a big job that is very taxing on a person.  A man or woman should already have a strong moral compass before taking on the job, and it's clear that Trump is not there yet.  Maybe he will be, some day, but not if we elect him now.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


I thought I ought to write a blog post on the topic of Oklahoma State Question 779, the one-percent sales tax that promises to raise teacher wages by roughly $5,000 per year.  If you would like to read the full bill, it is available on

Many people are for this bill for some very good reasons; however, there are better reasons to oppose the bill.

Before we get into that, however, let's talk about the current crisis in Oklahoma.  According to, Oklahoma has the 8th lowest starting salary for teachers out of all states, and the 3rd lowest average pay.  The result is that teachers are leaving the state for higher paying jobs in neighboring states.

And this year, in light of reports like that, Oklahoma legislators made drastic cuts to education funding - so drastic, in fact, that they were the biggest cuts made by any state, almost 6% larger than the next worst on the list.

The problem is two-fold: First, our state faced a record budget shortfall this year, which forced drastic cuts to a variety of programs to stay afloat; Second, planned increases in the education budget, even before those cuts, were not large enough to keep up with rising costs.

So the next question is, how did we end up with a huge budget shortfall?

A lot of it has to do with the cost of gas right now.  When you see prices at less than $2 for a gallon of unleaded, that seems like it should be a great thing - it helps you meet your own budget obligations much better, after all.  However, the price represents huge losses for oil and gas companies, companies that have to compete with oil shipped in from the Persian Gulf.  OPEC largely controls the price of gas thanks to the sheer volume of oil produced in that region, and as they've increased production in recent years, the price of gas has fallen.

The move by OPEC was seen largely as a way of eliminating competition, as The Economist reports: "When, in November 2014, Saudi Arabia forced OPEC to keep the taps open despite plummeting prices, it hoped quickly to drive higher-cost producers in America and elsewhere out of business."

But if we think back just before this price glut, part of the reason OPEC was seeking to eliminate American competition was the fact that at high prices, we were experiencing an oil renaissance.  As Luc Cohen and Joshua Schneyer report,
Before the recent 60 percent decline in oil prices, a drilling bonanza minted millionaires and billionaires in Oklahoma. The boom turned sleepy Oklahoma City into a thriving hub for drillers like Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy and Continental Resources - the troika that lobbied hardest for the tax-break extension. The rebuilt downtown hosts top notch dining, hotels, arts venues, and a top NBA basketball team.
That was a golden time for oil businesses basing operations in Oklahoma, and we can see evidence of the bonanza in the vastly increased number of earthquakes:

Originally from USGS, now available on Wikipedia

That chart was done in February of this year, so the chart is incomplete for 2016; however, the oil price glut began in 2014.  Rather than reducing the number of quakes in Oklahoma, as you might expect if oil companies are truly going out of business, it has increased that number.  That likely indicates that the amount of drilling in the state has gone up (earthquakes in Oklahoma are caused by the injection of wastewater, water that is used in the process of fracking for oil; thus, an increase in earthquakes indicates an increase in wastewater injection, likely the result of increased use of fracking).

So, what's happening?  Companies are drilling more for oil now than ever before.  However, their profits are slimmer - they are making less per gallon than they did before the price drop.

And that's the real impact of the OPEC change - as Cohen and Schneyer note, Oklahoma drastically reduced taxes on oil and natural gas during the big boom years, as though expecting the price of gas to remain perpetually high forever.  In contrast, other states have much higher rates - they point to North Dakota, a state with a 11.5% oil and natural gas tax. Ours is around 1 to 1.5%.

These states are doing much, much better financially.  North Dakota, interestingly enough, raised its spending on teachers by 31.6%, and Alaska was second in increases at 16.4% (Alaska is another state that makes a killing on taxing oil and natural gas).

And now, with the price glut, North Dakota also has a stockpile of money that cushions the blow.

It's like the Biblical story of Joseph, who, interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh, stockpiled food ahead of a famine.  When the famine hit, other countries who weren't prepared for it begged Egypt to tap into their stockpile.  That's what Oklahoma has to do now - beg for resources from the federal government, while North Dakota (Egypt in this story) weathers the storm just fine.

We didn't learn from the book our state is so quick to erect monuments to.

Oil and natural gas, however, are not the entire reason for the budget crisis.  They are responsible for some 400 million of the 1.3 billion we found ourselves in the hole, but the rest was all our legislature.  Despite a strong economy and budget shortfalls, the state continues to cut taxes further, and while most of these were built into the tax code before the shortfall started, legislators have refused to put any safeguards into place (and sometimes eliminated them completely).

Case in point, our top tax rate.

As the Oklahoma Policy Institute reports, the top tax rate continues to fall:

As they note, this affects the budget in a big way:
The annual cost of cuts to the top personal income tax rate enacted since 2005 is $1.022 billion, according to an analysis conducted for Oklahoma Policy Institute by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a non-partisan national research organization. This amount includes the reduction of the top income tax rate to 5.0 percent from 5.25 percent that took effect in January 2016.
One billion dollars.  That plus our losses in oil and natural gas easily add up to well more than the 1.3 billion dollar budget shortfall.

The result is that we've slashed the education budget, and now legislators are asking us to fix it through a sales tax.

Note that the income tax that lost us 1 billion is part of a progressive tax - that is, as people make more money, we expect them to pay a larger share of their money back to the state.  That helps take the economic burden off the poor, but it also makes sense for a variety of other reasons I won't go into here.

Sales tax, by contrast, is a regressive tax - that is, it makes more of its money off the poor.  There's a simple reason for this, and we can use simple logic to suss it out.

Imagine a person who makes $20,000/year.  Such a person pays rent, car repairs, food, clothing, and so on out of that income.  Their budget is extremely tight, with little room for spending on niceties.  They tend to save very little money, and when tragedy hits, they are more likely than average to have to go into debt to deal with it.

Now imagine a person who makes $40,000/year.  This person still pays rent, car repairs, and so on, but has a little bit more wiggle room.  In fact, such a person could theoretically live on the same budget as the person making $20,000 - the only reason they might not is if they spend more on a house, more on a car, more on clothing, and so on.  Because their expenditures are more by choice than necessity (that is, if necessity strikes, they can cut back), they are more likely to save, and less likely to have to go into debt to deal with tragedy.

And as income increases, those trends continue - the expenses get bigger, but the person can choose to save a larger portion of their income.

Second, think back to our two people - the $20,000 and $40,000 person.  The car that the $20,000/year person gets is likely used, because he or she can't afford the monthly payments on a new car.  The car that the $40,000/year person gets might be new, or at least recent enough used to be like-new.  That newer car, on average, is going to need much, much less work than the older car.  As a result, the person with the newer car ends up spending much less of a portion of their income on the car than the person with the old car will.  The person with the old car, additionally, is worrying constantly about the car breaking down, as such a breakdown might lead to expenses that person can't afford, leading to greater stress (and greater health problems) for the person with the older car.

This means that a person making more money not only can buy nicer things, but have them for longer, thus reducing their expenses.  This is a well-known phenomenon.

Thus, people who make less spend a larger portion of their income in ways that can be taxed.  A person making $20,000/year might spend $20,000/year on taxable items, such that a 1% increase in taxes represents a $200/year increase in their expenses.  A person making $40,000/year might only spend $39,000/year on taxable items, such that a 1% increase represents a $390/year increase - which is less than 1% of their income.

Rather than being progressive, the tax is regressive.

So the result of all of this is that Oklahoma legislators have given huge tax breaks for the most wealthy residents (both in income tax and oil tax), and are asking us to fund the shortfall caused by those tax breaks by increasing taxes on the poor.  They are trading progressive taxes for regressive taxes.

And this, my friends, is wrong.

While we need the money, we cannot let our legislature get away with selling our children's future away for higher corporate profits.  We cannot approve of their ridiculous tax mistakes by fixing them on the backs of those who need public education the most.

This might be OK if we were doing this only temporarily as a stopgap measure; however, this amendment changes the state's constitution. It makes this law in perpetuity. Constitutional changes are notoriously hard to repeal. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

That English Vocabulary Size test is wrong

You've probably seen it shared on Facebook, with a graph that looks like this:

A 50-question test that purports to tell you how large your vocabulary is based on a smattering of words and your ability to identify synonyms and antonyms of said words.  As with all such tests, it's really just a chance for you to feel superior to other people by posting your scores and comparing them with your friends.

But is it even remotely accurate?

In short, no.  In long, nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

To explain why, let's take a look at the words we're given:
Word Comparison type A B C D
Love Synonym Left Life Live Like
Much Synonym Less Many Rather Deal
Child Synonym Kid Chill Call Forget
Large Synonym Tiny Faded New Big
Deal Synonym Sale Recoup Claim Plea
Companion Synonym Fool Mirror Entrapment Partner
Trash Synonym Crack Squeeze Punch Junk
Above Synonym Pierce Slow Over Work
Specify Synonym Designate Capitulate Arcane Assail
Fall Synonym Spit Squeal Drop Succeed
Old Antonym Tell Small Age New
Yes Antonym Notice Yep No Nice
Come Antonym Try Most Go Live
Fly Synonym Hop Peer Drink Soar
Active Antonym Unable Passive Inability Disagree
Dangerous Antonym Silly Careless Safe Sadness
Distant Antonym Disease Flex Obey Near
Narrow Antonym Scold Punish Near Broad
Separate Antonym Weak Ordinary Unite Break
Normal Antonym Doubt Standard Protracted Extraordinary
Spade Synonym Shovel Needle Club Oak
Done Synonym Embellished Squeaked Finished Talk
Beg Synonym Implore Recant Fancy Answer
Lax Synonym Negligent Mindful Neurotic Delectable
Quash Synonym Evade Enumerate Assist Defeat
Minor Synonym Crude Trivial Presidential Flow
Drab Synonym Admissible Barbaric Spiffy Lackluster
Related Synonym Steadfast Pertinent Alien Intrinsic
Annoying Synonym Facile Clicker Counter Obnoxious
Incipient Synonym Galling Nascent Chromatic Capricious
Foul Antonym Repelling Nasty Fair Dirty
Compensate Antonym Underpay Coordinate Extortion Hooking
Acquiesce Antonym Inept Resist Gentle Irascible
Adamant Antonym Disdain Adjunct Vacillant Aerate
Alienate Antonym Reunite Away Sluggish Aggressive
Avulse Antonym Suture Aver Timid Dry
Catalyst Antonym Current Damp Nadir Prevention
Amorphous Antonym Allay Abridge Inimical Definite
Aggrieved Antonym Recalcitrant Buoyant Warped Exacerbate
Apologist Antonym Physicist Critic Fidelity Canon
Widow Synonym Sire Fiend Spank Dowager
Omen Synonym Opulence Harbinger Mystic Demand
Querulous Synonym Fugacious Vapid Fractious Extemporaneous
Hightail Synonym Abscond Report Perturb Surmise
Gargantuan Synonym Promiscuous Niggardly Equestrian Titanic
Avarice Antonym Deny Dependence Generosity Yoke
Alacrity Antonym Intimate Provoker Soother Sluggishness
Altruism Antonym Apocrypha Noisome Egoism Extraneous
Affinity Antonym Disperse Antipathy Needy Warped
Baneful Antonym Blighted Jejune Inveigled Salubrious

I've bolded, italicized, or underlined words as follows:
If I've bolded the word on the left if the word did not have an answer listed on (that is, none of the words on the right matched the list of synonyms or antonyms for that word)
In that case, I've italicized a word on the right that most likely fits the definition.
If a word on the right IS listed as a synonym or antonym, I've bolded that word instead.
Finally, if there could be multiple answers, I've underlined possible alternatives (leaving words bolded if they are listed as a synonym or antonym).

As you can see, we already get into trouble with the sixth word, "Deal."  This word has a few basic meanings:
  1. a usually large or indefinite quantity or degree ...
  2. the act or right of distributing cards to players in a card game ...
Transitive Verb:
  1. a. to give as one's portion :  apportion ...
    b. to distribute (playing cards) to players in a game ...
  2. administer, deliver ...
  3. a. sell
    b. trade
Intransitive Verb:
  1. to distribute the cards in a card game ...
  2. to concern oneself or itself ...
  3. a. to engage in bargaining :  trade ...
    b. to sell or distribute something as a business ...
  4. a. to take action with regard to someone or something ...
    b. to reach or try to reach a state of acceptance or reconcilement ...
(definitions from, heavily edited to remove characters that were screwing up my html)
So you could determine that the synonym for Deal is "Sale" under the belief that the action being described is the "sell" action described by both the transitive and intransitive verb definition 3, but you just as easily could decide it is a "Plea" as part of the act of bargaining (intransitive 3a).

"Related" similarly has two possible answers - "Pertinent" and "Intrinsic".  While "Pertinent" is listed as a synonym on, "Intrinsic" could be as well.  "Related" has a definition as follows:
...belonging to the same group because of shared characteristics, qualities, etc... (, "Related" simple definitions).
Those shared characteristics and qualities could be "intrinsic" - that is, they are "belonging to the essential nature of a thing : occurring as a natural part of something" (, "Intrinsic" simple definitions).  Things are often related by their intrinsic qualities, as in the case of relationships between members of a species.

The worst offender, however, is the last one: Affinity.  It is defined as:
  1. relationship by marriage...
  2. a :  sympathy marked by community of interest :  kinship...
    b (1) :  an attraction to or liking for something...  (2) :  an attractive force between substances or particles that causes them to enter into and remain in chemical combination...
    c :  a person especially of the opposite sex having a particular attraction for one...
  3. a :  likeness based on relationship or causal connection...
    b :  a relation between biological groups involving resemblance in structural plan and indicating a common origin...  (, again heavily edited)
What we're looking for is the antonym of that.

If we were to negate each of those, we would find that 2b(2) becomes a repulsive "force between substances or particles" - causing them to disperse.  My guess is that it's looking for "Antipathy" - "a strong feeling of dislike" (, simple definition), as that runs better as an antonym to what we might consider the "colloquial" definition, but clearly both words are appropriate.

Regardless, the test is trying to guess your knowledge of a language based on a very tiny sample.  Worse still, the first 30 of those are relatively easy - that is, they're words that are very common in the language.  It's only the last 20 that really test your knowledge (beyond the silly "Deal" problem).  This is not remotely large enough, as different schools would teach different words to different people.  It might represent a significant sampling, but all it could do is tell you how well you place as a percentage of the population, and NOT how many words you know. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Liberty - it's ingrained in every child of America as an ideal not to be reached, but already acquired by the people of America.  The story of our country's independence is almost mythical now, a story of gods on earth fighting for a transcendental ideal. 

But what does liberty actually mean?

Even among the party ostensibly of liberty - the Libertarian Party - the definition sways wildly.  Almost no one agrees that people should be free to do anything they want.  At the very least, people shouldn't be free to commit murder, for instance.  We can pretty much all agree that murder and child rape are too far to take the liberty argument, but many would take it right up to that edge.  (And for those few who would take it that far, they say that we should be able to defend our lives and the lives and welfare of our children, or we didn't deserve them in the first place.)

Case in point - the current spate of Republicans who are earning Libertarian votes for their votes on education.  One of the common themes in the Libertarian Party is the destruction of public education.  They see giving tax money back to the people and letting the people spend it on education as they choose as "Liberty" - that is, you now have the freedom to get your child educated by whatever organization you see fit, and, if you prefer to homeschool, you have that extra funding to pay for educational supplies.  It's a win for everyone with the money to afford it, and a major loss for poor people (who, many of these Libertarians argue, don't deserve it anyway).  The official party line is that the destruction of public education would give poor people who work hard to send their children to school a greater incentive to make sure that child succeeds, and remove from the school children who don't want to be there.

This desire to completely eliminate governmental structures is truly ultimate freedom - but only for the subset of people who can independently afford to pay for the things that government previously provided.  For the rest, it greatly reduces liberty, reducing the ability for people of lower incomes to rise to higher incomes.

Image from the Economic Policy Institute
In the image above, lower numbers correlate with greater income mobility - that is, people in Denmark are far more likely to earn more than their parents than people in Slovenia.

If we want to talk about freedom, then we need to talk about it in terms of freedom to pursue dreams, to rise up out of poverty, to change your life no matter who you are.  In the U.S. - a nation notably more driven by the idea of "free market" than the countries listed below it on the above image - it's actually harder to do that, rather than less hard.

And this makes sense with even a little investigation.  When you have to work yourself to death to provide an education for your children, you're not also able to provide them with secure housing, food, clothing, and other basic necessities, as explained by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

To be able to learn, a child needs the immediate physiological things on the list (barring sex, which doesn't start being a driving need until later in life) - food, water, sleep, etc.  He or she also needs those things listed in the safety column, as safety can create such a driving fear that it blocks out the ability to learn (found in the Esteem category).  When you're going to bed every night wondering if you or your family are going to be shot in your sleep, or worrying about the cockroaches crawling over your body, or worrying about your mom's untreated heart condition, you're not going to be able to sleep.  And that will make you less productive at school, if you can even pay attention there while these issues are eating away at your mind.

Instead, true freedom occurs when these two tiers are secure, when you're free to pursue love and belonging, confidence and achievement, and so on.  Then, all people are free to live as they choose, to pursue their dreams, to be amazing, to rise above their circumstances.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bathroom Buffalo Bill

By now, you've probably already formed an opinion about the bathroom bills being considered across America. Arguments from the left often seem more reasoned to me - that there has never been a single instance of a transgender person attacking anyone in the restroom, that there have been many instances of trans people or people or cis people who are mistaken for trans being attacked, that laws intended to stop voyeurism, molestation, and rape can still be applied to non-trans people who try to abuse the laws - but this post is not to talk about that.  Rather, I'd like to examine the source(s) of where transphobia comes from, given my own past about it.

As a child, I experienced gender dysphoria.  That's the DSM-5 word for when the gender in your mind doesn't match the gender of your genitalia, and it's a fairly common problem for children, moreso than for adults - as many as 6% of boys and 12% of girls may experience it.

Most also outgrow it.

In my own case, my "outgrowing" it took a rather convoluted path.  When I was a very young child (under 10), I used to sneak into my mom's room when my parents were busy entertaining guests or what have you, when I was fairly certain I could get away with it, and put on my mom's clothes.  I preferred to play games with girls, was better friends with girls, and enjoyed playing with stereotypically girls' toys (My Little Pony long before "bronies" were a thing).

My sexuality, however, was always straight.  I was 5 when I had my first sexual encounter with a girl, and I absolutely loved it.  My pursuit of further encounters pretty much dominated my life until... well, let's face it, it still dominates my life.

My mom caught me more than once playing dress up, and punished me for it.  She drilled into my head this passage:
A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Eventually, I gave it up, partially over shame about that passage and my desire to serve God.  I became convinced that men who dressed up in women's clothing were silly at best (and deserved to be ridiculed), weird, and blasphemous.  As with so many other people, I took to shaming them.  Now, I've fully embraced my masculinity, and any dysphoria I felt during childhood is long gone (although as with many other people I don't fully conform to masculine ideals, I conform to more of them than to feminine ones). 

But, it was largely this one verse that pushed the issue when I was a child.

Now, it'd be easy to write this off, as so many do with the debate over homosexuality, as a person cherry-picking the Bible, picking the things that back up their beliefs and ignoring the things that don't.  In that argument, people note how there are prohibitions about mixing fabrics, about eating shellfish, and so on.  But understand that among many in the Fundamentalist movement, even those things are bad.  I didn't eat shellfish until I was in my 20s.  I believed that getting a tattoo was evil.  I believed that those who committed adultery should be executed.  I believed that women should be silent in church.

As a result, it's not so easy to just write this off as people cherry-picking, because for many people, it's not.  Even among those who do (I still mixed fabrics, for instance), it takes a supreme amount of effort to justify any deviation from the laws of Moses.  Generally speaking, those deviations took the form of, "that was appropriate for the ancient church because the laws were simply protecting the people from mold" or "that was appropriate for the Jews because they were set apart for God and thus were the image of God on Earth to the gentile peoples; they needed to look perfect." 

But these weren't arguments applied after someone already believed the opposite; that is, for those who believed in not blending fabrics, that was an important part of their faith, a defining factor of how they worshiped God.  No amount of argumentation could get them past that.  These arguments were, instead, apologies (from the definition: "a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine") for deviations from a "literal" interpretation of the Bible that we already believed.  

Such arguments could, of course, be applied to homosexuality and gender identity, but because they aren't already believed, they are fighting against the mountain that is "sincerely held belief" - a shortcut for saying "I believe this and no amount of argument or education will move me from that belief."  Showing people how they make similar apologies for other things might work, but often doesn't, because they can then make an apology for why a certain one is followed and another is not.  Cognitive Dissonance kicks in whenever people are faced with idiosyncrasies within their own beliefs, and prevents them from exploring those idiosyncrasies.  

Is the situation impossible?

Well, not exactly.  One of the things we do in our society is bury non-conformity.  That's not an illness of civilization, but rather our particular culture.  As our culture shifts and embraces non-conformity, more things pop up that will make people uncomfortable.  But the key, always, is exposure - the more people are exposed to such non-conformity, the more open and accepting they are of it, especially as it relates to relationships.  A person who is friends with someone who is gay, for instance, is more likely to internalize the conflicts their friend experiences, and to transition from attacking homosexuals as a group to defending them.  As that transition progresses, they will be faced with new moments of cognitive dissonance between their new beliefs and their old beliefs, and be forced to reevaluate their old ones and modify to fit their new ones.  That's how change occurs. The secret, then,  is to share people's stories - both in public and in private.  When people read someone's story or hear it told first hand, it's often easier for those people to internalize the emotions of the other person. It's easier for them to understand.

I'm working on a new book about the issue at the moment. I won't share more for fear of not writing it (when you tell people about something you're working on, your brain thinks you've finished it).  But, the more stories we can tell, the more we'll slowly force people to confront their beliefs, and change them.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


I actually heard Hillary supporters sway Bernie supporters away during the Iowa caucuses by saying that Bernie was too much of an idealist. 

What the hell is wrong with idealism?

Idealism is what led our founding fathers to proclaim that people had an inalienable right to self-governance. Idealism is what urged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Idealism spread the right to vote to women and minorities. Idealism landed a man on the moon. 

HRC supporters think they're being pragmatic, but JFK said it best: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

We need to be reminded that when we come together, we can overcome challenges, that we can succeed in the face of adversity, that we can see a day when our reality matches our ideals.