Thursday, September 29, 2011

Religion and Patriotism: CNN misses the point

I recently came across this article on CNN's "Belief Blog". This strange corner of CNN's website is an odd mixture of weird apologetics, inane blatherings about "modern religion", and purportedly "balanced" opinion articles on matters surrounding religion in public life. Considering all the contributors are believers, I have a had time finding any of the articles truly "balanced". They generally lean towards the apologetic, accommodating view that religion is good and necessary.  They occasionally post articles about atheism, which they generally get wrong from the start with false, yet popularly held myths about atheism and the mindset of the atheist.

In this article, the author, Dave Schecter, gives his thoughts on the findings of a Pew Poll... well... actually, no he didn't. What he did was offer his thoughts on a "Christianity Today" parsing of a that Pew Poll regarding their views of the United States. Taking just a few of the data points from this poll, Christianity Today indicates that of the subjects polled, evangelical christians were the most likely to think that America is the greatest country on earth. They went on to say:

Other Christian traditions were less enthusiastic about America's position in the world, but they still saw the U.S. as one of the best on the planet. About 40% of other Christians said the U.S. stands alone as the greatest country; around 55% said it and some other countries were equally great. As with evangelicals, only a few said there were greater countries in the world.
Then, of course, comes the truly important data: "Only one in five of those without religious beliefs said the U.S. is the best country in the world, an equal percentage agreeing that 'there are other countries that are better than the U.S.' ”

The article also goes on to also show percentage of people of various faiths, or no religion, who display the American Flag. Again, the faithful do this at a much higher rate. 

And then the article goes on to describe what the author calls a "God Gap", in which there appears to be a correlation between religiosity and patriotism. And this is where the article goes off the rails for me. I won't argue with any of the data points from the Pew poll... in fact it shows more or less what I expected. However the author is making the wrong correlation. The mistake is in equating being overly provincial by thinking your country is better than everyone else's, and displaying the flag with "patriotism". I would have answered the poll questions similarly to other irreligious folk. I don't believe our country is the best in the world, and I don't generally display the American flag prominently. This makes me un-patriotic? Don't be ridiculous. The truth is that I, and most of my godless acquaintances, are more deeply patriotic than any of your average "god and guns" 'patriots'. We think our country could be better. We think it is flawed... we think there are places where the quality of life for the average citizen is better... where the goal of government is to support the population, not control it. We love this country and want to see it rise to the ideals on which it was ostensibly founded, but has never quite lived up to, mainly due to the constant and omnipresent religious influence that permeates the fabric of American culture. 

Religious people don't think America is the best country because they are patriotic. They believe that because they have been brought up to believe that christianity has a preferential place... that christians are "chosen" by god... and that America is a "christian nation", and if we are more christian than other nations (and by all accounts, unfortunately, we are), then by rule, we are the best. And religious people don't fly the flag because they are patriotic. They fly the flag because they have been taught to worship symbols their entire lives. The cross... the eucharist, the alter, the statue of Mary, rosary beads... the flag. From the time you are old enough to walk, as a christian you are taught to look upon symbols with awe... that the symbols are as important as the thing itself. Just ask any christian. If you desecrate a cross, you are desecrating Jesus himself. To a christian, the cross is Jesus. And similarly, the flag is America. Non-believers don't revere the flag with any less respect, we just have learned not to put too much emphasis on symbolism and idol-worship. We simply don't equate the flag as being America itself the way that believers do, because we've stripped that wiring from our brains (or never had it, in some cases). That doesn't make us less patriotic. It simply means that we'd rather focus on what should be the real American symbols... fairness, opportunity, freedom, equality, and empathy. These are the things that are of utmost importance to the irreligious... not some nylon fabric, or some silly notion that we're better than everyone else. Give me people that look at America and evaluate it in those terms, and then I'll show you a true patriot. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reflections on 9/11, ten years later

I consider myself a patriot. I love my country. I spent time serving it, and would do so again if called upon. However to many of you, what I am about to write will be seen as un-patriotic. And that's a shame, because America seems to have forgotten what it truly means to be a patriot.

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the tragic attacks of 9/11/2001. It was honored throughout the country as a day of somber remembrance. And as I watched the numerous ceremonies and speeches, and reflected myself upon the past 10 years since that event, I was not overcome with a sense of pride, or patriotism. I felt shame. Shame for what my country has done in response to 9/11, and shame for what it failed to do.

Where I shared the heartfelt grief was in simply remembering the tragic and innocent lives lost... not just those killed in the attacks but in those killed while trying to help their fellow man. There were true heroes in those days... both on the ground and in the air... men and women who sacrificed their lives in the simple, altruistic act of trying to help another. These things should be remembered... should be mourned and celebrated. It is good to hold those memories near, because those are the lessons of 9/11 that we should all have taken. How we can all come together to help our fellow person... how we can find strength in unity in the most tragic of times. These are important things to remember. But those are the only things we should still be carrying from 9/11. And therein lies the problem for me. Because we, the American people, are carrying far more to this very day than we ever should be from that event. We have become a nation of the fearful and paranoid, fed by a leadership that continues to enact policies that feed into those emotions. We have become nationalistic, jingoistic xenophobes who have completely forgotten their own scattered origins and have all but abandoned their core principles. And it fills me with shame and sadness.

What we have done...
Since 9/11 we have engaged in 3 separate wars that have cost billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, both foreign and American, both military AND innocent civilian, under the guise of "acceptable collateral damage", which might be one of the most ghoulish terms in military vernacular. We have not paid for these wars in any way, shape or form as we have in prior wars with appropriate tax increases. And as a result it has had an enormous negative impact on our nation's economy and our almost unimaginable debt. The entire military campaign from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya and all the "operations" in between... over 100,000 innocent civilians killed in Iraq alone, is nothing short of appalling. In one day, 19 terrorists, mostly from Saudi Arabia, killed almost 3000 innocent American civilians. As a response, in 10 years we have killed hundreds of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi citizens (the total death count is almost impossible to estimate correctly due to the nature of the culture and lack of first-world facilities and communications, but some think it could be 10 times that number) and lost twice as many American lives as we lost in 9/11. To call this a "disproportionate response" would be the understatement to end all understatements.

We've also engaged in actions that Hollywood has dramatized as villainous for decades: indefinite detention without due process (even WITH due process this is unconscionable), no access to supposed "prisoners of war", torture.... this is film noire stuff, but it has become an everyday reality of American policy in the name of "keeping us safe".

And what about that mantra, anyhow... "keeping us safe". Are we really any safer? In addition to the over-reactions I listed above that impact non-US citizens, we've blithely gone ahead with policies that undermine the freedom and privacy of our own citizens with insidious legislation like the completely erroneously named "Patriot Act". What a sham of a name, by the way. That's like slapping your kids around while you tell them "I'm only doing this cause I love you". There's nothing remotely "patriotic" about illegal wire-taps and other invasive provisions in this act. In the meantime, we've made it difficult to the point of embarrassing to travel by air in this country, which in addition to subjecting potential travelers to ridiculous delays, outright racial profiling and occasionally invasive search procedures, has also had a fairly negative impact on the travel industry. Additionally, one of the little-discussed collateral impacts of 9-11 and the reaction to it has been a renewed nationalism bordering on xenophobia that has manifested itself in an outright attack on the alien population of this country. It has become fashionable, especially among the most "patriotic" of our right-wing assclowns, to take aim at anyone who not only wasn't born in the US, but all those who even LOOK like it and can't prove it on demand. Have any of you people even read the plaque that accompanies the Statue Of Liberty?

At any rate, all of the above was done, and is still being done, ostensibly to "make us safer". So ultimately, there are two questions: Are we safer? And is that perceived safety worth the price we've paid (and continue to pay). The answers are a resounding NO to both questions. Of course we are not safer. I mean, is it likely that we will fall victim to another airplane-kamikaze attack of the 9/11 kind? No. But are we really any safer from radical groups finding unique and insidious ways of attacking innocent Americans and American institutions? No. Of course not. And the reason is because the kind of "safety" that these policies presume to afford is virtually impossible in a free society. As Ben Franklin wisely noted: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety". The only way we can attempt to ever be truly "safe" is to lose that freedom. And the unfortunate truth is that THAT is exactly what we've begun to do. We've gone along with invasions of personal privacy, with unjustified searches and seizures, with forcing people to provide proof of citizenship for simply looking like the need it. And we've done so fairly quietly, and with barely a complaint. And that is that most frightening part of all. When we become a citizenship that has become complicit in the slow erosion of our constitutional liberties, we are truly lost.

Finally, I wonder if it has occurred to our political leadership that the reason we have not had a repeat attack from terrorists akin to the attacks of 9/11 is not because of these fear-driven, over-reaching Orwellian policies and torture-aided intelligence... but because it has simply not been necessary! The goal of those attacks was to instill fear into the American population, cripple the American political  and military leadership and weaken or destroy the American economy. That is why the targets were chosen as they were. And they worked all too well! In fact better than they ever could have imagined. In the 10 years since 9/11 we have become a society of fear-driven, paranoid xenophobes with a penchant for making war, we have attacked the personal liberties and freedoms of our own citizenship, we have crippled our economy and shot our debt through the roof with unpaid wars and military campaigns, and have undergone an invasion of jingoistic, ideological fundamentalists (the Tea Party) that has completely crippled our already dysfunctional political system. All the while completely trashing our international reputation and making us the bullies of the modern world. And while some may go along with the bully to avoid being a target... in the end nobody likes a bully.

What we haven't done... what we should have done in the first place. Stuck to our core values. Clung to the constitution. Gotten back to the basics of who we are as a nation and a people. We should have stood in stoic defiance of that display of terror. We should have stared it down and not blinked. We should have told them "do what you will... we will not compromise our principles. We will not let a few radical thugs fundamentally change who we are, and how we live. We will continue to adorn our citizens with the freedom to live as they will... to travel and work with as much ease as possible. We will risk our security to protect our freedom. You may hurt us... but you will never change us. We will never turn our backs on the principles of fairness, humanity and freedom.

And then we should have ACTED in a way to reflect that posture. Instead we could not have acted more fearful, vengeful, and paranoid. We went to war to remove a government that we suspected may have harbored the mastermind of the attacks... we killed thousands... tens of thousands and then left an already unstable, thrid-world region in rubble and utter chaos. We then used the events of 9/11 as an excuse to wage war on another country, citing, in subtle vague references,  a totally invented connection to Bin Laden, and the eminent danger of weapons that simply did not exist. We removed their government... killed their leaders, killed tens of thousands more... lost thousands of American lives in the process. And once again... left an already struggling, unstable region in rubble and utter chaos. And we are there still... knee-deep in the mire of the mess we created, unable to leave because of the vast hole we caused, and again the fear of what might fill that void if we left. It's a disgrace. And all because we didn't do what we should have done. All because we decided to act as a country of frightened, vengeful adolescents instead of proud, unwavering, strong and stoic Americans... we did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Watching the videos the news media were broadcasting all this past weekend, and remembering with keen detail the events of the Tuesday morning 10 years ago... I remember being struck with a sense of patriotic pride at watching people run towards danger, with no thought of their own safety or protection, to help those in need. Helping others... self-sacrifice... giving what you can... living for another human being... the entire voice of a country saying almost in unison "how can we help?". That was what being an American was all about. That was the America I wanted the rest of the world to see... the caring... the empathy... the togetherness and effort... I was truly proud. And then when the dust settled, the spotlight turned away from the day to day citizens and on to our leadership... our representatives to the rest of the world... the public face of America... and we furrowed our brow and we sneered. We talked of enemies having nowhere to hide, of "smoking them out of their holes"... we talked of destruction and vengeance. We showed the world the terrible face of a country scorned, bent on revenge. And under that leadership we acted on it. We waged war. We sacrificed twice as many people as we lost in the attack, we turned our backs on international law, we took away basic human rights of those we saw as "enemies"... we even stripped away some of the protections and freedoms of our own citizens. We showed our ugly side.

In just the few days following 9/11, we showed the world what America truly could, and should be... and then we spent the next ten years showing them what we really are. That's why remembering 9/11 fills me with pride... and shame.

Friday, September 2, 2011

As if you needed another reason...

...To wonder why any decent, rational person would ever want to vote republican... well, process this story:

Of course you all remember the horrific shooting spree that nearly killed Arizona democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. She was shot with a Glock pistol. So what do you do if you are the Pima County, AZ (a county in Gifford's district) Republican Party? Why, you decide to raffle off a Glock in an effort to raise funds, of course!

Really, is there no bottom in the bucket of ooze that is the Republican party?

There's a poll on the site I linked to... of course it's far too soft. They give you the option of agreeing or disagreeing that the raffle is "insensitive". And of course there's an option for "i'm in between" for the wishy-washy accomodationists out there. But what there needs to be is an option for calling it what it is: Callous, uncaring, despicable, ghoulish and bordering inhuman.

And predictably, the Rethuglicans are stepping up to defend the action with the tired and grossly disingenuous "guns don't kill people" argument. Mike Shaw, the GOP Chairman for Pima County made this deplorable analogy: "That Glock is no more responsible for those deaths and for that congresswoman's injuries than a number two pencil is responsible for cheating on a test"... as if that had a fucking thing to do with the point. Putting aside the stupidity of that argument on its face*, let's say that a blue number two pencil with yellow stripes was used to cheat on a test, and then used to stab a very popular teacher through the eye and kill her. I think any reasonable person with even the slightest bit of empathy would see how disgusting and callous it would be to give away blue number two pencils with yellow stripes on the first say of school following such an incident.

But once again republicans show a staggering lack of understanding, caring and empathy. Seems like I've heard this song before.

*honestly... it's a stupid argument that isn't used in any other arena because it's a laughable premise. Using that logic, we can also say the following: poison doesn't kill people, guillotines don't kill people... for that matter nuclear weapons don't kill people. And toasters don't toast bread... and ovens don't cook food, and cars don't drive people. It's absurd, and anyone with half a working brain knows it.