Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What is patriotism?

"Patriotism is another form of isolationistic practice where one group believes it is better than another," said Ralph Minogue. For Tolstoy:

It is quite possible that governments regard this sentiment [patriotism] as both useful and desirable, and of service to the unity of the State; but one must see that this sentiment is by no means elevated, but, on the contrary, very stupid and immoral. Stupid, because if every country were to consider itself superior to others, it is evident that all but one would be in error; and immoral because it leads all who possess it to aim at benefiting their own country or nation at the expense of every other--an inclination exactly at variance with the fundamental moral law, which all admit, 'Do not unto others as you would not wish them to do unto you.' * * * Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable signification is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience, and a slavish enthralment to those in power. And as such it is recommended wherever it is preached. Patriotism is slavery.
The word patriotism itself "is not one of my words," said Oscar Wilde.

One of its perversions is the use of galvanizing symbols in place of arguments: "...Von Hoffman razzes what he called 'flagolatry,' a fetish employed in 'bamboozling the moron masses with showy irrationalities,'" said Eric Felten.

Bill Moyers bemoaned:

The flag's been hijacked and turned into a logo – the trademark of a monopoly on patriotism. On those Sunday morning talk shows, official chests appear adorned with the flag as if it is the good housekeeping seal of approval. During the State of the Union, did you notice Bush and Cheney wearing the flag? How come? No administration's patriotism is ever in doubt, only its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity from error. When I see flags sprouting on official lapels, I think of the time in China when I saw Mao's little red book on every official's desk, omnipresent and unread.

As the word "flagolatry" suggests, this can carry religious fervor. Paul Von Ward:

Leaders in the U.S. government in the 1950s wanted the phrase "under God" added to the American pledge of allegiance to evoke a supernatural religious archetype. Repeating the phrase on a regular basis energizes the sense of a chosen people whose leadership is blessed with divine power to carry out God's destiny for the country. People now resist the idea of removing it because they don't want to give up the feeling of psychological security or superiority evoked by the archetype.

Chris Hedges:

We all stoke and feed the fires of symbolic mythic narratives about our nation, our times and ourselves to give meaning, coherence, and purpose to our lives. The danger arises when the myths we tell about ourselves endow us with divine power, when we believe that it is our role to shape and direct human destiny, for then we seek to become gods. We can do this in the name of Jesus, Mohammed, or Western civilization. The result for those who defy us is the same: repression and often death.
Taking another perspective, Gandhi understood patriotism as the pursuit of a people's well-being.
My patriotism does not teach me that I am to allow people to be crushed under the heel of Indian princes if only the English retire. If I have the power, I should resist the tyranny of Indian princes just as much as that of the English. By patriotism I mean the welfare of the whole people, and if I could secure it at the hands of the English, I should bow down my head to them. If any Englishman dedicated his life to securing the freedom of India, resisting tyranny and serving the land, I should welcome that Englishman as an Indian.

If patriotism is not bad, neither is it sufficient substitute for other virtues. "Patriotism is not enough," said Edith Cowell. "I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.
" She was a nurse in World War I who treated everyone regardless of nationality.


Citations

Ralph Minogue. Responsibility To, Responsibility For. Baltimore: AmErica House, 2000. p 190.

Tolstoy's Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-violence. New York: Bergman Publishers, 1967. pp. 97, 103.

Oscar Wilde, quoted by Jonathan Glover in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2001 (originally 1999). p 18.

Eric Felten. Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. p. 240. Quoting Nicholas Von Hoffman, Hoax: Why Americans are Suckered by White House Lies (New York: Nation Books, 2004), pp. 36-37.

"A democracy can die of too many lies." An address given by Bill Moyers at the National Conference for Media Reform in 2005.

Paul Von Ward. Gods, Genes, and Consciousness: Nonhuman intervention in human history. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 2004. p. 230.

Chris Hedges. I Don't Believe in Atheists. Audiobook. CD 1, Track 6.

Gandhi. Quoted by Sari Nusseibeh. What is a Palestinian State Worth? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. pp. 199-200.

Cowell made the statement in Brussels on Oct. 12, 1915. It is inscribed on a statue in St. Martin's Place, London.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The 'Evolution Academic Freedom Act' and the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools

The teaching of evolution in public schools in the United States has long been held in deep suspicion by a large portion of the population. More than half of Americans believe literally in the Biblical creation story (CBS News poll, 2004). This sort of belief varies widely by region. In the southern states of Alabama and Arkansas, three-quarters are Biblical literalists, whereas in the northeastern states of Vermont and Massachusetts, less than a quarter are Biblical literalists (Rasmussen poll, 2006). As public education standards are determined on the state level, certain states have repeatedly battled to keep evolution in their science curricula.

Attempts to replace the teaching of evolution with creationism "has been before school officials, legislators and courts in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia" over the past several decades, according to CNN. Louisiana passed a law branded as "academic freedom" encouraging the "critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." A similar law called the Evolution Academic Freedom Act passed the Florida Senate on April 2, 2008. Democrats had criticized that bill for demanding protections for teachers who discuss creationism but not for those who discuss birth control and abortion, which the bill's Republican sponsor had refused to include.

In recent years, opponents of evolution have promoted the idea of "intelligent design," which maintains that some intelligent force set evolution into motion. Most scientists reject this theory as vague, scientifically indefensible (91 percent, according to a Case Western Reserve University poll in 2002), and a front for religious ideology.

In Texas, amendments to the education standards initially proposed in January 2009 were debated at the Board of Education's subsequent meeting in March. The amendments included attempts to discount, highlight weaknesses in, or encourage debate on accepted scientific theories of the common ancestry of life, plate tectonics, radioactive decay, and the origin of the solar system.  On March 27, 2009, the Texas board decided to require students to study "all sides of scientific evidence."  The National Center for Science Education, which supports the teaching of evolution, called this a "flawed" approach. Finally, in July 2011, the board approved educational materials from nine publishers. One of the publishers, Holt, was under fire from a creationist, and as a compromise Holt agreed to work with the Texas Education Commissioner. The final version approved the next month supported the theory of evolution. Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network which exists "to counter the religious right," said: "The release of Holt McDougal's finalized materials puts an end to a campaign to undermine science education in Texas that began with the board's adoption of flawed science curriculum standards two years ago."

The Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2008, allowed teachers to "use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique and review scientific theories"-in other words, to teach religious viewpoints in science classes-regarding theories including "evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." Supporters refer to this as "teaching the controversy." In April 2011, a Baton Rouge high school student protesting the LSEA presented a petition to the state legislature that had been signed by 42 Nobel laureates. On May 26, 2011, the Louisiana Senate Education Committee upheld the LSEA. A letter from a science professor supporting the LSEA and "academic freedom" argued that "LSEA does not permit teaching for or against any religious viewpoint."

It is unclear how a scientific approach, while presuming to base itself upon objective fact, can avoid offending or contradicting any religious viewpoint. Indeed, the LSEA itself only states that it should not be understood to "promote discrimination" based upon religious belief or the absence thereof. Even while eschewing intentional discrimination, it is hard to see how science teachers can avoid incidental disagreement with conflicting positions. For this reason and for many other reason, debates on the teaching of evolution remain unresolved in the public opinion and are likely to continue.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 27, 2011.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A teenager’s vision of utopia: Kill off the criminals!

'Death Note' is a clever, absorbing manga series about a teen who acquires supernatural power to kill people.

"Death Note" is the clever, absorbing, illustrated tale of a teenage boy who stumbles across a supernatural tool. Simply by writing someone's name into the so-called Death Note, a book originally belonging to a death god, the teenager is able to determine the time and manner of their death.

The book's new owner doesn't write in the names of his personal enemies, as one might expect some teenagers to do. Rather, as an excellent student and the son of a police officer, he immediately begins a social experiment by writing in the names of jailed criminals. He believes he is crafting a crime-free utopia over which he will eventually rule as a righteous dictator (after he graduates, of course).

His mentor in this project is the death god himself. The being's name is Ryuk, and he is one of many shinigami, the Japanese word for the death gods. Ryuk does not outwardly express loyalty to any particular person or social agenda, but he occasionally reveals one of the supernatural rules that govern the use of the Death Note. He also proffers the Faustian bargain of additional magical powers in exchange for a reduced lifespan.

Ryuk wins the award for the creepiest, most evil invisible friend ever. In the art by Takeshi Obata, the death god has the physique of an orangutan and the wings of a pterodactyl. He has bulging, unblinking eyes and a freakish, fixed grin that looks as though it was carved into his face with a knife, revealing pointed teeth. He follows the protagonist around, but no one else can see him or hear him.

The godlike power to kill people mainly by the power of imagination is reminiscent of the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life," based on a 1953 short story by Jerome Bixby. In that episode, a six-year-old boy can make anything on earth die or disappear simply by wishing it. The narrative flaw in "It's a Good Life" is that the existence of the entire planet depends on a boy's petulance, so the world - and therefore the story - ends too quickly.

Death Note's writer Tsugumi Ohba avoids this plot pitfall by restricting its protagonist's powers. The teenager who possesses the death god's notebook can ordain anyone's death, but only if he knows the victim's name and face. This is a clever restriction, as it enables potential victims to protect themselves by remaining total strangers and hiding their identities, and it also enables them to guess at the killer's identity based on the assumption that all the victims' names and photographs were available to the killer.

The mystery is not resolved in the first volume. The full story is told across 12 volumes.  It is available in English translation with "unflopped" art – that is, it is still laid out to be read from right to left, as originally designed for Japanese readers. The font used for the English-language Death Note is both funny and creepy.

At the time of Death Note's publication in 2004, Japan was the only industrial democracy apart from the United States that still practiced capital punishment. (This remains true in 2013.) This, no doubt, helps drive the teenager's assumption that it is acceptable for him to target incarcerated people by imposing his own death sentence. He thus plays into the death god's ruse.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Sept. 9, 2012.

Image: Soul Eater cosplay - Shinigami, 2009. Wikimedia Commons. Originally posted to Flickr by user 'Gurney5'. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Hundreds of Dera Sacha Sauda followers castrated in their ashram?

India has received news of the alleged forced castration of some 400 followers of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the leader of the religious group Dera Sacha Sauda. One of the followers, Hans Raj Chauhan, age 34, who was a cult follower for 15 years, claimed that he and other followers had been castrated with the promise of some kind of elevated religious experience. He said that the castrations occur monthly in the ashram and that individuals who receive the "very painful" operation must rest for over a month afterward.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court said on Dec. 17, 2014 that such an incident should be considered inhumane even if Chauhan had given his consent, and on Dec. 23 the court ordered an investigation. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is also facing rape and murder charges. India Today reported: "Senior advocate Anupam Gupta, appointed amicus curiae by the court in the Rampal case, had told the court that the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda were being trained by Army men to handle arms."

"I would get my head chopped if I ever asked anyone either in Satsang or in alone to do so...not even once since 1948," Rahim Singh swore, denying the charges.

Hollywood celebrities protest hotel owned by the Sultan of Brunei

The Sultan of Brunei is one of richest people on the planet. He recently imposed a harsh form of sharia law upon his small country. Americans have reacted by boycotting his hotel. This article was originally posted to Helium Network on May 10, 2014. Photo: Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei, taken by Sam Garza of Los Angeles © Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license Wikimedia Commons.

Hassanal Bolkiah, the 67-year-old Sultan of Brunei and one of the wealthiest men in the world, recently announced that the country would be held to a form of sharia law beginning May 1, 2014. "Sharia" refers to law based on Muslim religious principles. Brunei is majority Muslim; the one-third of the population that is non-Muslim will also be subject to at least parts of the law.

Sharia — spelled "Syariah" in news reports coming out of Brunei — is subject to variations and interpretations, and different regions have their own versions of it. In Brunei, the new law will be implemented in three phases.

In the first phase, women will be punished with prison and fines for becoming pregnant while unmarried or for violating the dress code. The law's Section 197, "Indecent Behaviour," defines as criminally indecent any act that "upsets eyewitnesses"; an officer of the new law admitted that indecent dress would be defined subjectively and that people should "look to public opinion" for guidance. People would also be punished for failing to attend Friday prayers.

Later this year, a second phase will see theft punished by amputation, while women who have abortions will be flogged, as will people who consume alcohol or who have sex with a person of the same gender. Next year, in 2015, a third phase will permit death by stoning for sex outside of marriage or with a person of the same gender. Blasphemy against Islam would also be punishable by death.

About Brunei

Brunei is a small country that borders Malaysia and the South China Sea and is near Indonesia and the Philippines. Fewer than a half-million people live there, and they enjoy a good material standard of living. Brunei's economy relies on oil exports.

The Sultan has a palace for each of his two wives. One of these palaces is bigger than the Vatican. In 1987, he spent an estimated $185 million for the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Many women residents of Brunei voluntarily cover their heads. Alcohol has long been banned there, and sexual acts between men has been illegal since colonialism, punishable by 10 years in prison. Scott Long speculated that "probably (as in Pakistan, which also formally embraced Sharia years ago) most gay cases will [continue to] be tried under that provision, because proof is easier." Several witnesses to the crime will be required under the new Sharia law before a person can be sentenced to be executed for same-sex acts.

Hotel boycott

News of this particular law was taken personally by some Americans, thousands of miles away from Brunei. They were concerned that the Sultan of Brunei owns the Dorchester Collection chain that manages the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air, both in Los Angeles.

On May 5, a sign-waving crowd including comedian Jay Leno protested the hotel. Other celebrities calling for a boycott included Ellen DeGeneres and Richard Branson. On May 8, the Beverly Hills City Council voted unanimously for a resolution, urging Brunei to sell its property in Beverly Hills.

The boycott of a luxury hotel (or two) does not put much pressure on the Sultan of Brunei, who already has an estimated $20 billion, making him one of the richest people in the world. The people who will be more immediately affected, rather, are the roughly 1,000 employees of the two hotels. The CEO of the Dorchester Collection, Christopher Cowdray, warned that the boycott "will affect the livelihoods" of hotel employees in Los Angeles who have no connection to the Sultan of Brunei. Cowdray continued to say that "we are an exemplary employer, exemplary contributor to society and to the finances of this city." Another argument may be advanced that, if the Sultan were compelled to sell the hotel, he would simply stand to gain money from the sale.

It is nonetheless understandable why some people may wish to boycott. The activist culture in Hollywood, featuring many accomplished actors, is supportive of women's rights and gay rights. It is understandable that these rich celebrities would feel uncomfortable paying to hold and attend functions at a hotel owned by someone who is instituting a draconian law.

Americans' fear of sharia law

Throughout the United States, especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some people have felt and spread fear that Muslim culture and religion will somehow overtake the country. This is unlikely, as only a fraction of 1 percent of Americans are Muslim.

Nevertheless, as an expression of this fear, several U.S. states have passed laws to prevent judges from considering "foreign laws" in their rulings. (Previously, some states had explicitly tried to ban "sharia," until federal courts ruled that it would be unconstitutional to specify sharia in the ban.)

The sense of proximity to sharia law that is felt by some Americans when walking into a hotel owned by the Sultan of Brunei — however tenuous that connection may be — may leave them feeling uncomfortable and personally threatened, in addition to the moral outrage they may assert when analytically considering the impact of sharia law on others who actually live in Brunei.

What matters

The new law in Brunei is an offense against human rights, according to the International Commission of Jurists. Many people will suffer greatly if these penalties are carried out; many others will suffer simply from the threat of these penalties. The reality of this surprisingly brutal penal code should remind people everywhere of the need to work for a more peaceful world.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

You can write your essay now: Demystify and enjoy the writing process

Addressing some common objections that students raise about writing essays. Change your attitude from negative to positive!

Your teacher has just assigned you the task of writing an essay. Well, not just...it was, in fact, assigned two weeks ago. Now there's only one week to go, and every time you think about it, you tense up. You hate everything about this writing assignment, and your hatred of it gives you writer's block.

Wait a minute: That little piece of insight could drop down the drawbridge to the castle. The reason you have writer's block about your homework assignment might be that you hate the idea of it. Let's run through some common objections that students raise about writing essays. If you can change your attitude from negative to positive, chances are that you won't feel creatively blocked anymore.

"The topic is too depressing"

History: What a downer, yeah? Slave traders kidnap and imprison people and sell them at auction, after which slave masters whip and rape the victims and make them work in fields until they fall down. Political dissenters are censored and assassinated. Children are lined up by mass graves and shot. Poets are warehoused in frozen trains whose journeys end at gas chambers. Who could enjoy researching this and spending time writing arguments about it? Just when you finally start to get involved in the topic, you feel a twinge of guilt for being alive and free.

The objection has been heard. But take a different viewpoint for a moment. Consider this: someone survived to tell this story. Someone may have found the will to survive precisely because they wanted to tell this story. Today, you have the power to keep the story of the past alive on their behalf, and you may additionally be one of the few people with the ability and the desire to interpret what its significance will be for the present and future. Instead of feeling irrationally guilty for events you had no connection to - which is really a form of discomfort with belonging to the human species, so no wonder you're procrastinating writing this essay - you could imagine that you have a sacred charge to use this precious information to make the future brighter.

Maybe your essay topic isn't even about an atrocity or an existential threat. Maybe it's something a little more mundane: a person spends her whole life working and saving and is swindled in her old age, or a beloved dog is hit by a car. No grief is small-scale to those who are affected by it, and as a writer, you, too, may initially find these subjects unbearably unpleasant.

There is a key to unlock this broken heart, and its name is "redemption." Through life's struggles, people become stronger, more courageous, more sensitive, more deeply human. After documenting the unpleasant facts of the subject matter, which it is often best to do in a detached, journalistic manner (as opposed to painting the blood spatter on the wall), consider it your responsibility as a writer to lay out the redemptive message. Depending on the topic, seeking the "silver lining of the cloud" may be too flippant an attitude, and there may not quite be a "positive outcome." However, you can always look for a transformative take-home message that ultimately helps you and your readers to understand and accept your own humanity. In every tragedy, there's always a relationship, a narrative or at least a gesture that made all the difference, without which the world would have been colder and the story would have been lost. Find it. Talk about it.

"The topic is too exciting"

You really like Justin Bieber. You liked him when his hair was in a little-boy mop, you liked him more when he cut his hair short, you danced to every song he ever sang and you even forgave him when he abandoned his pet monkey at an airport in Germany. You really want to write an essay about him. But you can't sit down because he's just too exciting. How can you focus so you can get the words on the page and not sound flaky?

Give it some gravity. Contemplate, if just for a moment, how a monkey feels when it is abandoned at an airport. This lends interest and credibility to your essay. It makes you sound grounded and reveals that you've considered multiple sides of an issue.

As another example, you may be an enthusiastic advocate of a woman's right to choose to abort her pregnancy, but consider acknowledging that some women feel depression, shame and guilt after an abortion. Focus on this mitigating information long enough to research a little bit about it and write it down.

Why should you give air time to the "other side," if you already know what you believe and are totally stoked about it? You should do it because concessions and counterarguments can attract the attention and sympathy of readers who, although they may ultimately still disagree with you, will at least feel that you are connected to their wavelength, and therefore they will intuit that you would be able to hear them if they were to speak. When your reader feels validated, they feel more sympathetic to what you are saying.

Furthermore, awareness of other opinions will challenge you to articulate your beliefs with greater complexity and strength, and it will improve your essay overall. You may even end up changing your mind, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If you reason yourself into another position, at least you'll know why you changed your mind, so you aren't likely to feel confused or threatened by your own position shift.

"I'm better at science and math"

Great. Use it in your essay! Find separate data sources about weather patterns in Chicago and the number of homeless people who are turned away from shelters there. Does demand for beds rise as temperatures fall? If so, at what temperature does a person stand a better-than-even chance of being turned away? The data may not be your original work, but the calculation will be your work; you can cite the data, and then you can claim the conclusion as your own.

Some people have the impression that to be a "real writer," you have to write in some special, mystical way. This is incorrect. There's no need to aim for flowery prose. In fact, please don't. You weren't asked for an ornament; you were asked for an argument. If your writing seems needlessly awkward or you feel that you are making it deliberately incomprehensible, then it is and you are. Writing in an inauthentically academic or literary voice isn't what you need to do to succeed in the humanities. Just state your methods, your logic and your conclusion as clearly as possible. Think of it as writing a scientific report that is accessible to a wide readership of non-scientists. Then, add a few words about why the subject should matter to ordinary human beings - in other words, make it seem as universal as possible - and you've got an essay.

"I'm better at poetry"

You're a poet and you know it. You know that a word can mean multiple things. You may have once pulled a verse from your subconscious that contained a word that meant four things simultaneously.

Fabulous. In your essay, make these meanings explicit. You can do this, even if you are a poet who has to write about...taxes. As you read essays about libertarian opinions on taxation, you might notice that the authors tend to use the word "freedom" quite a lot. Ask yourself: What does the recurrence of this word "freedom" mean to them? What do they want to be free from? Surely, they want to be free from government coercion that takes some of their money, and indirectly, usurps their time that they must spend earning that extra money. But even if they were not taxed, wouldn't they still be trapped in an economic system that requires money as a mediator between work and food? Haven't other people - deep spiritual thinkers - spoken about trying to free themselves altogether from attachment to money? That is a different kind of freedom, no? Perhaps a more profound freedom? You can write a poetic essay on taxes if you reflect upon different kinds of freedom and whether taxes have or haven't got anything to do with them.

"I'm stuck on the introduction, so I can't write the rest of the essay"

You're probably having trouble with the introduction precisely because you haven't written the rest of your essay yet - not the other way around! Although the introduction appears at the top of the essay, writers often write it last.

What is the purpose of an introduction? To tell the reader what the essay will be about. How do you know what the essay will be about if you haven't written it yet?

Skip the introduction. Write down your evidence, interpretations, arguments and conclusions. When you're finished, go back and put the little crowning announcement at the top of the page that warns the reader what they're about to read. That's your introduction. Oh, by the way, you're done.

"I hate this deadline"

You merely think you hate this deadline. In fact, you are going to love this deadline, because that's the day when this essay ceases to plague your life.

Maybe you will get an extension of the deadline. Fine; that's your new deadline. Love that deadline.

Is there any way to run past the deadline without writing your essay? Yes, but you may not want to go that route. As Shel Silverstein put it:

"If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won't let you
Dry the dishes anymore”

In other words, if you have attained a certain age, and if you refuse to turn in your homework, then – to put it subtly – maybe there won't be any more classes in your life. This is not a threat. This is an observation about the normal, non-lethal, fair-enough rules of the game. You can get an A or an F. You can graduate or not graduate. But, at some point – you are guaranteed of this – one way or another, this essay will be over. The deadline has a lot to do with making that happen. So, you may as well embrace the deadline, write your essay and have a wonderful life.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 7, 2014. Image from a collection: Letter from Acting Secretary of State Robert Bacon to U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Whitelaw Reid, US National Archives. No known copyright restrictions Flickr. "There's no need to get all dramatic about it."