Category Archives: ruminating

Blessing and Curse

13590396_656072581210333_1237927477030822866_nHonestly (and I know this was meant to be funny, but I can’t help it), I think it’s the latter. Humans in general, and Americans in particular, don’t have a great track record of being awesome in the aggregate, and despite what the Republicans will try to sell you, we’ve NEVER had our collective shit together.

I think of this the same way I think of illness; I am not sure we really DO have more incidents of cancer or heart disease per se…well, yes, I do; see processed foods and polluted air and water, but work with me for a second. What I’m getting at is that we have significantly better detection practices and can find those diseases sooner and better than we ever have before. More people have access to screenings so, naturally, we’re going to find more incidents of these problems.

The racism (and, worse, the violence it spawns) are NOT new nor, I think, is the prevalence of it. What IS new is our “detection practices.” Masses of people now have video cameras in their pockets that double as computers and mass communication devices. Now, instead of being a few column inches on page 9 of the local paper, the beatings/murders that happen in little towns and faraway places are being broadcast to the public across the country and the world. Think about it; unless you lived in the immediate neighborhood, would you EVER have heard about Treyvon if it hadn’t been for social media? Sanford is a nothing town in Florida. Neither party was famous (though shame on us for making Treyvon’s killer famous after the fact) or noteworthy in any way. There is no reason to think that we’d ever have heard about it. Sure, it would have been news in the greater Sanford area, but I, way up here in New England, would likely never have heard Treyvon’s name.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing in that we get better access to more information (and it’s harder to keep shit from the public now, though a lot of it still manages to get quashed). Curse because any idiot with a smartphone can play; there’s no IQ or minimum decency requirement.

1 Comment

Filed under concerns, critical thinking, ideas and opinions, ruminating, this is NOT a drill

We Create Reality with Our Words *Edited*

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha that says, “what you think, you become.”  The adage, as I understand it, is an effort to get people to realize that their attitudes, words, and behaviors actually create the environment we inhabit.

This is the idea that I’ve been circling around ever since this Duck Dynasty nonsense.  Leaving aside the nonsense part of it (and that part of it is impressive, to be sure), I am not willing, as some have suggested, to leave the entire thing be.  There is something ugly and pernicious at work here, and I think it’s something that bears further investigation.

Right off the bat, let’s settle that Phil Robertson is certainly entitled to his hateful opinions.  He is also entitled, thanks to the Constitution, to speak and write them, so let’s just dismiss those who are screaming that his First Amendment rights are being violated.  They’re not; if they were, he’d be in jail or facing some sort of legal prosecution, or his opinions would have been censored before they even hit the airwaves, the pages of GQ, or the internets.

No, the objection that I have to Phil Robertson’s comments is that, like so many others like him, he’s using his religion and his religious beliefs as an excuse to speak hateful things about others.  He, like so many others like him, present as gospel (no pun intended; that’s what I really mean) the idea that there are people who are “less than.”

So many people – a startling number of them, in fact – have come rushing to his defense, claiming that he “grew up in another era” or that his religious beliefs somehow justify the stances he takes.  “He’s just speaking his beliefs; he has the right to do that.”

Yes, he does, and the rest of us have the right to call bullshit on his matter-of-fact, this-is-just-how-I-see-it, it’s-in-the-Bible bigotry.

Let’s be clear; neither your religious beliefs nor your age excuse your hatred and small-mindedness.  Allowing this sort of “boys will be boys” mentality to serve as a pass for despicable behavior is a surefire way to ensure that the despicable behavior continues.  If it continues, it will escalate; there are any number of people who are perfectly willing to take this “homosexuals are sinners” trope to the final, horrifying conclusion.

996674_196830067187847_423025443_n

History – even recent history – is rife with examples of a belief taken as a justification for discrimination, torment, and murder.  I can post any number of images from all over the world that will demonstrate, in living color, the atrocities that are visited on real people by those who believe, with all their hearts, that they persecute those others in the name of some holy edict.

THIS is why I’m not willing to dismiss this.  When we say “it’s okay” for people to spout this kind of stuff, we say it’s okay for people to put those attitudes into practice.

I’m no longer wading into the Duck Dynasty melee.  It’s too close to Christmas for me to get worked up over that much stupid and ugly; I have much more important and joyful things to do with my energy.  I couldn’t let this pass, though, without reminding some folks that all our great human suffering begins with words that “other” people.  Jews, American blacks, Hutus and Tutsis, Native Americans, Roma, Armenians, gays; every people which has ever been targeted began their nightmare as the subject of a systematic program of othering by a majority party.  The only way we can destroy another person is if we first succeed in convincing ourselves that they’re not really a person at all.  Comments, particularly off-the-cuff, “I’m just speaking about my religious belief” comments, help create an environment that enables that dehumanization.

There are a number of great quotes about refusing to stand quietly by while this sort of thing happens, but I think my favorite was penned by Elie Wiesel, a man who survived a concentration camp and who exhorts us to never forget how awful we can be to one another:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

*Edited to include this, which was posted on a facebook wall:

1474538_642872225777335_1744684980_nThe things people say DO matter.

5 Comments

Filed under compassion and connection, concerns, critical thinking, doing my duty, dumbassery, frustrations, GLBTQ/Ally issues, Home and Family, politics, ruminating, social issues, technical difficulties, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties, WTF?!

I Am a Non-Believer

So, I went to church today.

I KNOW, RIGHT?!  It freaked me out, too.

The reason I went is because Martin (you remember Martin, right?) was invited to speak at my in-laws’ church this morning on the theme of reconciliation for the occasion of Veterans’ Day.  He had tipped me off about the gig when I emailed him a love note a week or so ago, so I got a sub for my yoga class, put on a skirt, and for the first time in my adult life, went willingly to a Sunday service so I could be there to support my friend.

The Earth did not tremble.  The maw of Hell did not open to swallow me whole.  I did not spontaneously combust.

I KNOW!  I’m a little surprised, too!

I DID leave the experience with a fair bit to think about, however, and I’m going to try to render some of that thinking here.

Here’s the thing; I love the idea of community.  I love the idea that people can come together and fill in each others’ gaps, or hold one another up, or challenge one another to their best and most authentic selves.  I love the kinds of communities that band together to do good; the ones that see a deficiency or a need and pool their resources – their money, their talent, their time – to address those shortcomings as best they can.  I like communities that are inclusive and welcoming and accepting.

My in-laws’ church is like that, and though my husband has told me that it hasn’t always been so (there was a fire-and-brimstone pastor who scared the shit out of him as a kid), it has been mostly lovely since well before Mr. Chili and I were married (Mother and Father Chili wished for us to be wed in their church and, since the pastor at the time was the aforementioned inclusive and welcoming and accepting – not to mention kind and lovely and funny – I agreed.  That was the first time in my adult life I went willingly to church on a Saturday, in case you were wondering).

Sitting in the Chili pew this morning (yes; they have a pew), I remember thinking that while there was nothing that was specifically offensive to me as a non-believer, I was still a little weirded out by the message that was being subtly sent that the REASON these people are lovely and welcoming and accepting is because GOD DEMANDS IT, and while they never actually said those words in that way, the implication that there is a mandate that originates outside of ourselves to be generous and kind was pretty clear.

This is not a new concept for me.  I’ve been told plenty of times that people are good because it’s what their god requires of them; in fact, this is a direct quote someone said (well, wrote) to me just recently:

“I love other people, my neighbors in a global sense, because God calls me to” (emphasis mine).

I think that this is part of where some of the mistrust of believers toward non-believers comes from.  I don’t NEED a god to tell me how to treat people, and I wonder if those who feel they do don’t understand how someone can be the originator of their own compassion.  I don’t NEED to fear a divine punishment (or seek a divine reward) to be a good person.  My morality is centered on my humanity and my capacity for empathy; it is not driven by a desire for Heaven or a fear of Hell, and it is certainly not based on the edicts of an ancient text which contradicts itself more than it makes sense.

For the most part, the service was lovely.  I don’t really feel a need for the ceremony, but I suppose I don’t begrudge the people who do.  I do think that the service would have been more lovely, however, if we’d been able to leave the idea of a supernatural, external influence out of it.  How about we take ownership of our own behavior?  How about we accept that we ARE strong enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough to take good care of one another; we don’t NEED a god to tell us to be those things because we’re completely capable of doing them on our own.  Reliance on an external force feels weak to me – and emotionally and intellectually dishonest – and even though the people in the elder Chilis’ church have never given me any reason to mistrust their motives, I really do wish that we as a species could finally figure out how to evolve enough to grow beyond what I see as an almost compulsive need for religion.

1383504_370633499735403_889121664_n

11 Comments

Filed under compassion and connection, critical thinking, doing my duty, family matters, Friends, frustrations, General Bitching, Home and Family, ideas and opinions, messages from the Universe, Questions, ruminating, social issues, strange but true, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties

Monday Musing

So, my brother Marc posted this on his facebook wall today:

Marc:  Right?

Screen Shot 2013-10-07 at 8.46.10 PMAtheist Jesus
Some people believe I am gay because I am supportive of gay rights. Does this mean I’m a pregnant woman because I support the right to have abortions? An animal because I am against animal cruelty? African American because I am supportive of African American Civil Rights?

Well… You are right.

On the internet no one knows you are a gay African American womanly pregnant animal…

It sparked this conversation.  The only thing I’ve done is change the names and skipped over an exchange between Charlie and Marc (my brother) about Charlie’s tone.

I don’t think it’s over yet, but this is as far as we’ve gotten as of this writing:

Chili:  I think this speaks to our collective difficulties mustering up simple empathy. It continues to astonish me that people will ask me “why do YOU care; it doesn’t affect YOU” when they give me a hard time about how passionate I get about some topics.

Charlie:  Have you ever answered the question “why do YOU care”? I am mean really dug deep to figure out why you care?

Chili: Yes, I have. What’s your point?

Charlie:  Well I was expecting a full answer to at least one of the topics where someone asked you “why do YOU care?”

Chili: Pick one; I’ll answer

Marc:   Why, Charlie? You didn’t ask why she cared; you asked if she had ever thought about it?

Charlie:  I don’t care which one she picks, I want to understand how she comes to the conclusions she does. My line of questioning is going to be about the approach to understanding not the subject matter. Choose the one you’ve thought about the most.

Chili:   Okay, Charlie; I offered to answer, so here’s one; abortion rights. I am a loudmouthed, insistent proponent of choice, and I always have been. I cannot get pregnant anymore (at the risk of TMI, I am ‘fixed’), so there is only something like a .000009% chance that I’ll ever need an abortion. Whether or not abortion is legal really doesn’t affect me in any kind of personal way, right?

Except that it DOES. Not only do I have daughters whom I want to be able to have access to all the medical care they may ever need in their lives, but I feel that ALL women should have access to all the medical care they may ever need.

Beyond that, even if I DIDN’T have daughters (and even if I weren’t a woman), I would still be pro choice, and for a number of reasons. First, if a person – ANY person – does not have full and complete autonomy over their own bodies – the only thing, it can be argued, that we TRULY own – then they are not fully human. If someone else has enough power over you to tell you that you may or may not treat YOUR body in a particular way, then you are essentially a slave. Religious or ontological arguments aside, telling someone they can’t have an abortion is tantamount to telling someone they are not fit to make their own choices. That’s degrading for ANYONE, and I’m not down with degrading people.

Second, I have no right – ZERO – to tell someone else how to live their lives (and yes, that includes my children, but that’s a discussion for another day). I do not live anyone else’s experience; I do not feel anyone else’s feelings, so I have NO BUSINESS telling someone what they can or cannot do with their lives. It is a STUNNING act of hubris to tell another person that they may not or can not do something that they feel they should do with THEIR LIVES. Can we encourage, as in the case of alcoholics or drug addicts? Sure, but in the end, we have to accept that adults get to make their own choices – that’s part of the point of being an adult. I may not LIKE their choices, but they’re not MY choices.

Finally, and I don’t know if this is going to be acceptable to a bunch of you who are probably reading this, but it doesn’t MATTER that something is going to have a direct effect on me or not. I am a human being living in community with other human beings. I truly believe that everyone does better when everyone does better, so I nurture my capacity for empathy and compassion at every opportunity. We’re failing to do that more and more; we’re taking on an attitude of “it’s not MY problem” or “I got MINE, you’re on your own,” and I find those sentiments repugnant. Gandhi asked us, “if you can see yourself in others, whom can you harm?” I work hard to foster a sense of decency and humanity and compassion toward everyone; though I am human and often fail at this, particularly when I’m met with anger, ignorance, fear, and aggression, that doesn’t stop me from trying. I think the world would be a better place if we were a little more gentle with each other, so I’m trying to set a good example.

Charlie: That is a great response and since I am incapable of an equivalent response in under a week(it would take me a week just get the grammar close to being correct, not a joke) I will ask more questions because that is how I best learn and understand.

I too believe(feel) “I have no right – ZERO – to tell someone else how to live their lives” (children included). I also have a massive feeling of burden when faced with having to earn enough money for my family and myself over then next 20 years, expessily with my diabetes.

My question is if I can’t take care myself and my family for the next 20 years should I force someone else to help me? Knowing that it goes against my our belief that “I have no right – ZERO – to tell someone else how to live their lives”.

Chili:  Here’s the thing Charlie; remember when I said that I live in a community with other humans? Part of the social contract we have (and I think I pointed this out to you before in a previous conversation we had around insurance), we’ve collectively agreed to at least marginally care for one another. We have settled on a minimum of care – emergency rooms for people without insurance (though that’s about to change with the implementation of the individual mandate of the ACA), welfare and other assistance for the very poor or disabled – that are funded by those of us who are lucky and privileged enough to not need them.

*I* personally don’t feel that I’m being “forced” to care for anyone; in fact, I’d like it if MORE of my tax dollars went to programs that helped people, rather than to programs that bought bombs and funded wars. Further, I don’t see that care and assistance as “telling someone else how to live their lives,” though I’m going to gather, given how you framed your question, that on some level you do. I don’t know how I can adequately address your concern until I understand it.

Let’s say that you can’t provide for your family because of your disease. There are a number of programs that are designed to assist you in meeting a minimum standard of living (though we can argue whether that minimum standard is adequate – or even decent – but that’s another argument). If you’ve worked AT ALL in the United States, then you’ve already paid into the programs that will be helping you later; Social Security and disability insurance taxes are taken from everyone who earns an “over the counter” paycheck, so you’ll be participating in programs that you’ve – at least partially – helped to fund.

Those programs do not dictate HOW you live, though. They don’t tell you that you have to live in a certain town or a certain kind of apartment. They don’t tell you what kind of work you can or cannot do as a condition of your receiving your benefits (though there are MAJOR changes that need to be made to the systems that allow people “runways” or “off ramps” off those programs, rather than just cutting them off wholesale if they make a dollar more than the minimum required for them). They don’t tell you what kind of food to eat (though I would argue that there SHOULD be limits on what kinds of things food stamp money can be used to purchase; I’m not crazy about people buying cigarettes or lottery tickets with EBT money, but I AM okay with them buying aspirin or diapers). They don’t check in on your living conditions, they don’t require you to check in with any kind of report or evidence of your having spent your benefit in a particular way, so I’m not really sure how being the recipient of aid is tantamount to being controlled in any way.

Charlie: Can you explain the community of humans better to me? Others have brought this up to me as well, not using your exact phasing but the same idea.

Personally, I have so much burden on my shoulders and it is unfair to give, even if they want it, or force that burden on anyone else. Doing so would go against my good concuss and only burden me with more guilt because I know they could be doing better things with there lives then taken care of me. Not burdening others is my why of giving back to the community.

Chili:   Charlie, we live in a society, right? We’re a bunch of people living together. We aren’t a loose collection of independent farmer/homesteaders anymore who fend for ourselves and owe everything we have to our own guile, sweat, and effort; we’ve formed INTERdependent communities. Mr. Chili and I were just talking the other day about the fact that, if the whole system were to collapse, we’d be dead in a month. We both work with our heads (I’m a teacher; Mr. Chili’s a space science engineer). Neither of us knows how to farm or hunt, and I have NO idea how to get a chicken from the back yard to a cooking pot. We rely on other people to provide things that we can’t. When people live together – in families or tribes or neighborhoods or towns – they make both implicit (cultural norms) and explicit (laws and rules) agreements about how they’re going to behave, and how they’re going to treat each other.

Some societies do this better than others. Look at the example of the Nordic states; they’ve managed to get their poverty under control, their educational systems are working, their crime rates are admirably low, and they don’t have a huge unemployment problem. This is not my opinion; look at the facts. They manage to hit all those high points by agreeing, collectively, to care for one another to a level that they find acceptable, and they do that through “the State.” Everyone pays in to the collective pool, and those resources are allocated according to what the society has decided is important.

A lot of people (perhaps you, perhaps people you know) call that the “Nanny State,” which is a derogatory term implying that people don’t DO anything to earn these benefits; they have a “nanny” who cares for their every need and whim. They DO earn those things, though; they pay in to them, and the country’s collective wealth – which is generated by its people – pays into them. People in the Netherlands work, just like we do, but they don’t live under the same kind of pressure and fear that you’re feeling; if they get sick, they know that there’s a system in place that isn’t going to force them or their families to live under a bridge when their preciously meagre resources are exhausted because the system THEY’VE PAID INTO is going to pick up the loose ends..

The thing is, WE do this, too; we pool our collective wealth (taxes) and allocate it to what we think is important. The problem, as I see it, is that “what we think is important” isn’t being dictated by us anymore. Dig into some history and you’ll see that the burden for tax revenue has shifted DRAMATICALLY in the last 100 or so years from companies to individuals. The monied few have been manipulating our laws and policies to the extent that the individual (who is likely struggling) is paying FAR more than the companies (which are FLUSH with cash right now). Seriously; *I* paid more in taxes last year than Exxon, GE, and Bank America COMBINED (and you did, too – and what’s worse is EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE COMPANIES GOT SUBSIDIES PAID FOR BY OUR TAX DOLLARS).

Further, the way we allocate our funds has been hijacked, too. We’ve spent enough on wars (mostly for oil…hmmm… who’s benefiting THERE, I wonder…?) to wipe out every bill we would EVER need to pay – like, forever – AND take care of every single human in our borders to a humane and decent level without and STILL have enough left over to fund things like science and medicine. When you hear people screaming that food stamps and Social Security are driving our country into financial ruin, ask those people to prove it. It’s not the social programs that are killing us, it’s our irrational and incessant need to fund bigger and more involved wars (and to prop up banks, oil companies, and other businesses that, I assure you, aren’t adding much to the general welfare).

While I understand that you don’t want to be a “burden” on society, I think that your way of thinking is a direct result of the “nanny state” narrative that’s been pushed by people who don’t want to be bothered taking care of their neighbors. This “I got mine, you’re on your own” attitude is short-sighted and inhumane, and doesn’t take into account things like privilege, opportunity, and sheer, random luck. I don’t think FOR A MINUTE that I got where I am ALL ON MY OWN. I was LUCKY; I grew up in a poor (and abusive) home; the ONLY reason I am where I am today is that I had good people in my life who helped me (some emotionally, some financially) and encouraged me to be bigger than my past. I’m white. I was born in a relatively affluent part of the country (imagine if I’d been born in back-woods Appalachia, or if I’d been born black in the projects of some big city somewhere). I’m able of both body and mind. NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THOSE THINGS WAS IN MY CONTROL; they were all the result of fortune and luck – luck that I was helped into a position to take advantage of by people who cared enough about me to put out the effort. That those things are true contributes to my privilege; I have it easier than a LOT of people (though not so easy as some, but that’s always going to be true, regardless of who you are). Do I have ANY right to stand there and say “you’re not working hard enough” or to admonish people to “pull themselves up from their bootstraps” when it may be true that they don’t even have boots?

The short version of this story is that *I* (and a lot of people who think like me) WANT to help you. I would MUCH rather my tax dollars go to funding disability and Social Security and Head Start and Food Stamps than go to subsidies for EXXON or GE or Bank of America – or to fund more war toys. We KNOW how to be decent to one another; we know how to be encouraging and helpful and humane, we’re just choosing not to be those things. That’s what I’m working to change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civics on Saturday, compassion and connection, concerns, critical thinking, doing my duty, frustrations, health, ideas and opinions, politics, ruminating, social issues, strange but true, teaching, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties, WTF?!

Thought for Thursday

So, this afternoon, I discovered – and facebook posted – Dan Savage’s latest outreach effort.  He’s joined up with a number of progressive (or, at the very least, not batshit crazy moderate) Christians who are trying to speak up and not allow the batshit crazy among them to highjack the conversation about what Christians do and do not believe.

One of my former students re-posted the link from my page and posited a question to his friends (most of whom are, I’m assuming, like him; fundamentalist, evangelical Christians).  Understand that this kid is someone for whom I have a healthy dose of respect; we disagree about nearly everything, but he’s a thinker, and he’s curious about the world and willing, I think, to modify his beliefs to accommodate new information.

Clearly, though, his friends are not.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Exhibit A:

1291819_10202090229604235_1637616563_n

A couple of observations here:

First, wow.  It doesn’t MATTER what we think?  Uh… okay.  I could stop right there.  I mean, really; here’s a perfect, real life,  from-the-horse’s-mouth example of people trading their intellect (and, not for nothing, the difficulty that comes from having to wrestle with the nuance that hard questions ask us to appreciate) for religion.  “NOPE!  I get to hate gay people and never question the rightness of it again.  Says so right here!”  Alrighty, then.

Second, WOW.  What kind of hubris is required for someone to say that they KNOW what God thinks?!  So much for being humble before the Lord, huh?

Finally, this whole exchange (which was “liked” several times after I took the screen shot) prompted me to private message my student to ask if I could jump into the conversation (see above, re; respecting him and his way of thinking).  He asked me not to; he wanted to keep the conversation to his Christian friends, and I had to admit that I, too, was curious to see what they’d say without the big, bad atheist stirring up their pot.  We ended up having a lengthy private conversation about the nature of the Bible and how people do or do not interpret its various edicts.  As a consequence of that, I’ve come to understand that I still disagree with him on just about everything, but he’s reinforcing that my respect for how he comports himself with those who disagree with him is well founded.

*this will likely be edited to continue the conversation as more of my student’s friends chime in.  Watch this space.

Leave a comment

Filed under admiration, compassion and connection, concerns, critical thinking, doing my duty, dumbassery, frustrations, General Bitching, GLBTQ/Ally issues, ideas and opinions, messages from the Universe, politics, ruminating, social issues, strange but true, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties, WTF?!

Quick Hit: Why do YOU Care?

I get asked, shockingly often, why I get “so worked up about stuff that doesn’t affect” me.

1235528_208811179282400_1976350184_n

Their reasoning goes something like this: I’ll never need an abortion. I’m not gay. I currently experience no roadblocks to exercising my right to vote. I don’t carry student debt anymore.  As a result, people – far too many people – can’t understand why I’m so passionate about these issues.

I sometimes wonder if I can explain to them why I care so deeply about justice for others whose lives are so different from mine; I’m not always sure I understand it on an intellectual level myself.

I have always been an empathetic being.  I feel very deeply, and I have a keen sense of right and wrong.  I am profoundly bothered when I hear about – or witness – injustice;  *I* feel less human when someone else is degraded, abused, or disrespected.

This story goes around on facebook every once in a while, and it’s as close as I can get to how I feel about this, big picture:

An anthropologist proposed a game to children in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run, they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats.

1240273_10151803615285155_515865477_n

When he asked them why they had run like that when one could have had all the fruits for himself, they said, ‘UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?’  ‘UBUNTU,’ in the Xhosa culture means, ‘I am because we are.”

I guess, in a very real way, I AM affected by those things that people think don’t (or shouldn’t) matter to me.  How can I enjoy access to the things I want and need when others struggle and suffer?  Don’t I owe it to the Universe, to myself, and to my brothers and sisters to use the gifts I’ve been given – the privilege I enjoy – to try to lift others up, too?  If not, why not?  How is it that so many people are content living an attitude of “I got mine, you’re on your own”?

I close my yoga classes by saying “I am because you are; all that is good and true in me honors all that is good and true in you.”  Sometimes, I choke up saying it; too few people understand that we are all connected, that we all belong to each other, and that we have the power to make one another’s lives so much easier and more joyful if we just figured that out and started behaving like loving people.

Sadly, I don’t think the people who give me crap for “caring too much” could even begin to understand.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under celebration, compassion and connection, critical thinking, doing my duty, ideas and opinions, messages from the Universe, my oh-so-exciting life, politics, ruminating, social issues, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties, yoga - theory and practice

Thought for Thursday: What’s a Right? *Edited*

This is gonna take a while; you might want to grab yourself some coffee and a comfy seat.

So, my Anam Cara posted this article on his facebook page yesterday and asked me to chime in on it (you don’t have to read it now; I’m going to copy it section by section here in a bit).  It was written by Bill Whittle who is, I gather, a conservative figure; I don’t have much familiarity with him, so I can’t tell you whether he’s got any kind of credibility in that community, but he’s someone I’ve encountered a few times here and there on friends’ websites and facebook walls.

Anyway, the article was published after a presidential debate in October of 2008 during which then-candidate Obama stated that he believed that health care is a right.  Marc and I (and some of Marc’s other friends) were engaged in a long and, frankly, infuriating conversation with another of his friends about the individual mandate (the provision of the ACA which requires everyone to carry health insurance, which this guy is pretty enthusiastically against).  One of my arguments was that we, as a society, have collectively decided (whether we believe it on a person-by-person basis or not) that we will NOT let someone die because they can’t afford the care they need.  I explained to the holdout that he can certainly choose not to participate in the program, but that there is no provision in our society that will exclude him – even by his choice – from, say, emergency care.  He’s welcomed to die alone in his apartment if that’s his wish, but if he gets into a horrifying car wreck (or has a heart attack or an aneurysm in the grocery store), he’s GOING to receive care, whether or not he has the ability to pay for it. That led to a number of us doing some really good, critical thinking about the way that we think about care, and how we’re going to collectively work out how to provide it equally to everyone.

So, Marc asked me to break down this article in the context of that conversation.  I thought it was an interesting exercise both for the content and for the practice (I’m getting back into the classroom next week, and I’m looking for opportunities to exercise my critical brain).  Here goes:

Whittle opens thusly:

During the presidential debate Tuesday night, Barack Obama was asked if he thought health care was a “right.”

He said he thought it was a right. Well, if you accept that premise, I think you can ask some logical follow-up questions: Food is more important than health care. You die pretty quickly without food. Do we have a “right” to food in America? What about shelter? Do we have a “right” to housing?

• Okay – let’s stop right there and have a look at what we’ve got so far.  I’m not entirely sure where Whittle’s objection to food and shelter as rights are coming from – though he’s clearly presenting them as objectionable – and when I brought that up in the facebook post – pointing out that our nation’s charter, the Declaration of Independence, states that we have not only rights, but unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that food (and water) and shelter are required for life – someone else chimed in that the Declaration is not the Constitution.  I have no idea why that matters; the Declaration is, as I said, the charter – the purpose document – for the country and the Constitution is, essentially, the by-laws that help dictate how the government is going to operate in the service to that charter; they are integral to one another.  So, yes; food and shelter ARE rights.

And if we do have a right to housing, what standard of housing do we have a right to? And if it is a right, due to all Americans, wouldn’t that mean that no one should have to accept any housing, or health care, which is inferior to anyone else’s… since it’s a right?

• Here’s where Whittle makes a leap into logical fallacy, however; elevating something to the level of a “right” does NOT mean that a) everyone is “given” anything (which is where I’m assuming his “due to all Americans” comment is going (followed up by the question about “accepting” “inferior” provisions) or b) that everyone is entitled to equal levels of that thing.

For starters, the United States has a long tradition of protecting rights, not necessarily of providing them.  One of the core purposes of government is to level the proverbial playing field in an effort to see to it that all people have equal access to the things they need; the level to which you attain these things depends on a myriad of factors (your socioeconomic status, your gender, your age, your education, etc. etc.).  You may choose to participate or not in programs that offer assistance for these resources if you need them, and people throughout our history have had to “settle” for less than standard access to food and shelter because that’s the best they could do under the conditions in which they found themselves (most often, through no fault of their own.  I’m not going to get into the idea of privilege just now; we’ve got enough to work with as it is).  It comes off as arrogant and privileged for Whittle to pose his “inferior” question the way he does.

In the case of food and water, there should be minimum standards of safety, cleanliness, and nutrition that form a baseline for everyone.  The government has a responsibility to set, maintain, and enforce those standards on producers (we all know how well self-regulation works in nearly any industry, but it’s particularly troubling in food production and water safety).  You may be able to obtain better for yourself, but no one should ever have to settle for worse, and it IS the government’s job to see to it that the minimum is maintained.

Do we have a right to be safe? Do we have a right to be comfortable? Do we have a right to wide-screen televisions? Where does this end?

* Well, that didn’t take long, did it?  He’s clearly reaching here.  Yes, we have a right to be safe.  Why wouldn’t we?  Again, minimum standards; we have laws and law enforcement, we have standards for housing and appliances and toys and vehicles and workplace safety.  Yes, we have that right!  The requirements for safety are essentially the same for every human; the requirements for comfort are not, however, and here’s where Whittle starts to get unreasonable.  *I* require a minimum of 73 degrees to be comfortable and am perfectly happy in the mid 90s; my husband is fine at 60 (and lower) and is miserable in the heat.  Comfort is defined by the individual and is attained through his or her effort.  The question about the television is inflammatory and ridiculous and completely irrelevant, which Whittle goes ahead to admit:

See, by taking something to a ridiculous extreme, we can illuminate the problem here… what is a right? How do we know? What’s the difference between the right to free speech — which is enshrined in the Constitution — versus the “right” to health care, which is not?

• The problem here is that Whittle doesn’t make a distinction between REASONABLE questions and the “ridiculous extreme.”  He’s equating rights to things like food and shelter and safety and health care to questions about comfort and wide-screen T.V.s.  He’s engaging in the false equivalence fallacy here by giving these things equal weight.

What’s more, he’s making a version of the appeal to ignorance when he says that, because the specific right to health care is not spelled out in the Constitution, it cannot be a right.  That’s patently ridiculous, and here’s why.  Let’s imagine a middle school classroom, shall we?  The kids get together with the teacher on the first day and make a list of “classroom rules”  – a common first day activity – in which they agree upon and enumerate things like “we don’t use swear words in this classroom.”  A few weeks later, little Mikey gets pissed off at the teacher for making him read for 10 minutes, so he flips her the bird.  In the principal’s office, Mikey makes his case that he didn’t use a WORD, so he technically didn’t break the classroom contract.  He did – and he knows it – but he’s also correct in his defense (which is why I never wrote out classroom rules).  Whittle’s argument about the presence or absence of an enumerated right in the Constitution doesn’t hold; we have PLENTY of rights that aren’t spelled out in the Constitution, and we have plenty of limits on our freedoms that aren’t in there, either.

Well, back in the day, we would simply say that a right has legal authority — it’s in the Constitution and therefore it’s a not just a right, it’s a birthright. So why shouldn’t we amend the Constitution to include the rights to health care, food, housing, education — all the rest? What’s the difference between the rights we have and the “rights” Obama wants to give us?  

Simply this: Constitutional rights protect us from things: intimidation, illegal search and seizure, self-incrimination, and so on. The revolutionary idea of our Founding Fathers was that people had a God-given right to live as they saw fit. Our constitutional rights protect us from the power of government.

•  Again, with the appeal to ignorance.  I’m not sure about what the distinction between a “right” and a “birthright” is; undocumented immigrants still have rights, and naturalized citizens have rights as Americans following their swearing-in, and there are these things called human rights, so I’m not sure what line Whittle is trying to draw here.  (*Leaving aside the very real case to be made that there’s no such thing as a ‘right’ at all, and that the things we call ‘rights’ are merely privileges that can be revoked under the proper conditions).  If we’re going to agree that ‘rights’ actually exist, it would seem to me that they’re a binary thing; either we have them or we don’t.  The shades of grey that Whittle is trying to call attention to don’t actually exist in the context of the idea of ‘rights’ at all.

More to the point, he’s still stuck on the Constitution as the be-all, end-all for American civic life when that’s simply NOT the case.  Congress has passed untold numbers of laws that affect our day-to-day; some of those laws gave us rights (the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example) and some of them take (or, rather, took) rights away (the Defense of Marriage Act).  Taken a step further, we’re not even living up to the orders of the Constitution; though Congress has passed no law respecting the limits on the freedom of speech, one CAN be prosecuted – in federal court, even! – for one’s speech.  We’ve been subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures for quite some time now (hello?  Warrentless wiretapping?  The current NSA mess?  Anyone?).  Do we REALLY want to have a conversation about intimidation when peaceful protestors are being pepper sprayed and wrestled to the ground and hauled away in handcuffs for singing?  If you’re going to talk the talk, be prepared to explain yourself when you don’t walk the walk.

But these new so-called “rights” are about the government — who the Founders saw as the enemy — giving us things: food, health care, education… And when we have a right to be given stuff that previously we had to work for, then there is no reason — none — to go and work for them. The goody bag has no bottom, except bankruptcy and ruin.

Does that ring a little familiar these days? Because isn’t the danger here that if you’re offered something for nothing… you’ll take it?

•  First of all, the Founders DID NOT see the government as “the enemy.”  They understood – perhaps far more than we living now ever will – that there’s a very real danger of overreach and tyranny when too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few, but they also understood that some form of organization and guidance was required for a people to live together in peaceable and productive ways.  For crying out loud; these guys formed a congress before we were even an official country, so ease off on the anarchist talk, okay?  Government is not a boogie monster, and the Founders knew that.  Gah.

Further, it’s NOT ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT GIVING US THINGS.  We’ve already established that one of the government’s primary roles is to ensure equal access to the things which help us succeed as a people.  If we do a close reading of the Preamble to the Constitution, it very clearly states that the purpose of the government is to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense [and] promote the general welfare (emphasis mine).  I’m certain that things like food, water, shelter, education and healthcare fall very clearly under that provision.  For someone who’s so enthusiastic about what the Constitution does or does not say, I find it curious that Whittle doesn’t seem to take this important bit into consideration.

Where is the evidence that people will somehow stop working because of universal health care?  Here’s another example of argument from ignorance (Whittle really likes that one): he’s assuming facts not in evidence by basically saying IF people get “free” health care, THEN people will stop working.

Look, I know the system gets played.  I know people – like, personally know people – who game the system.  Part of the problem with the system is that it’s designed to be played that way, which doesn’t make the gaming right, but does make it necessary.  For example; in order for, say, someone to keep their disability insurance, they need to keep their income under a certain level because exceeding that level, even by a dollar, cuts that person off from vital medication and services that that one dollar over the limit wouldn’t even begin to cover.  That person chooses not to engage in activity that would increase his or her salary to the point where the disability is threatened (cutting that person off from necessary medications and therapies).  If we’re going to get serious about keeping people from cheating the system, we need to make the system much more reasonable and humane than it currently is.

Further, I can’t honestly say that I know ANYONE who works JUST to get health insurance (edited to include that I am in no way saying that this never happens; I just don’t personally know anyone for whom this is true).  There are plenty of things that motivate people to employment, but I’m not sure that healthcare is even in the top 5 in the list of reasons most people work.  In the context of this discussion, this isn’t even a valid point to make because the ACA is mostly a restructuring of a system that already exists; the law is just an effort to make it a) more accessible (there’s that equal access thing again…) and b) more efficient, cost-effective, and humane.

And now, for the big finish:

Only it’s not something for nothing. “Free” health-care costs us something precious, and no less precious for being invisible. Because there’s a word for someone who has their food, housing and care provided for them… for people who owe their existence to someone else.

And that word is “slaves.”

Really?  No… REALLY?!  Universal healthcare equals slavery?  Really?  First of all, “free” healthcare isn’t free – and I DO NOT understand how the Obamacare haters just can’t seem to get this through their fear-fevered brains; WE ALREADY PAY FOR HEALTHCARE FOR THE UNINSURED, and we pay for a LOT more than we should have to BECAUSE they don’t get basic services.  A healthy person is a LOT cheaper to care for than a sick person.  I WANT my insurance premiums to help poor people get vaccinations and well-baby visits.  I WANT the government to promote the general welfare by promoting public health, safety, and wellness standards.  Everyone does better when everyone does better, and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why some people are so enthusiastically, morally, and practically religiously opposed to giving other, less fortunate people a hand up.  I think that’s what really bothers me about this whole article; there’s an underlying message of mistrust, anger, and hatred running through it (and the whole of the anti-Obamacare argument) that basically tells people that they deserve to be neglected; that they’re lazy and incompetent and useless, and if they’re poor and sick, well,  it’s their own damned fault; that they should get off their fat asses and pull themselves up from their bootstraps, just like everyone else.  What this attitude fails to consider is the idea of privilege.  “No one ever gave me anything!” says the guy who grew up in a white, middle class home, got a decent education just by virtue of where he grew up, then went to college with government-backed loans and got a decent job because his privilege put him in a position to be hired by a company that pays a living wage.

Healthcare is not slavery.  Food assistance is not slavery.  Disability programs are not slavery.  Giving people a leg up when they’re members of disadvantaged populations is not slavery.

The kind of thinking that Whittle’s promoting, though?  THAT I’m not so sure about.

Footnote:

Okay, so here’s where I get back to the conversation I was having about the ACA’s individual mandate (which, not for nothing, was a Republican idea.  All KINDS of prominent Republicans were ALL FOR IT until, you know, the black Democrat got hold of it and actually made it work.  Sorry.. where was I?  Oh!  Right!).  We’ve decided, as Americans – as human beings, even –  that people DO deserve to be cared for.  We’re ALREADY doing that; if you drop on the street, or you get into a car accident, or you show up at an ER with an illness or an injury, YOU WILL BE CARED FOR.  The level of the care you receive will very widely depending on a zillion different factors, but efforts will be made on your behalf to keep you alive/make you well again whether or not you have the ability to pay for that care.

The cost for caring for those who cannot (or do not) pay is already being born by those of us who can (and do).  This is why our insurance premiums have been steadily rising and why we’re charged $8 for an aspirin in the ER and why basic tests cost far more in this country than they do in places where they’ve mostly figured the universal healthcare thing out.  Putting everyone into the insurance pool does a number of things; it works to lower costs across the board (collective entities have much more bargaining power than individuals), it helps to ensure that the quality of care is consistent, and it demands that everyone has equal access to the kinds of care they need (there’s that pesky equal access idea again).

*Edited to include* Mr. Chili and I were driving home from dinner tonight, and we got into a conversation which made relevant my reading him this post.  The point that he asked me to make, in addition to what I’ve already said here, is that, with EXTREMELY rare exceptions, no one lives entirely on his or her own.  “I’d be dead in a month,” he said, “if I weren’t part of the larger collective.”  He’s right; we are dependent on the grid, we don’t grow our own food, and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to go from, say, a live chicken in the yard to a chicken in a stew pot.  The fact that we are no longer homesteaders – that we have developed into an inter-connected society where everyone participates in different ways and contributes different skills and services – means that we cannot take a literal reading of the Constitution (which, he maintains – rightly, I think – was never intended to be taken literally in the first place).  It’s a flexible document, intended to grow and change as the country did, but Mr. Chili feels (again, rightly, I think) that too many people view the Constitution as they view the Bible; they pull out the bits they LIKE (‘the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’) and just ignore the inconvenient bits (‘A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State’).  I’ve already heard the arguments of what the Founders meant by “happiness,” and to that I say, if we’re going to go with the 18th century definitions for SOME things, we’re going to have to go with them for ALL things, which means you can have all the balls and muskets that you want.

Thinking people understand that, unless you’re living off the grid and TRULY making your own life, you are inextricably linked to your neighbors, both literal and figurative.  The cost for participation in a society is figuring out how to make things as fair and equitable and safe as possible.  The arguments against considering as rights things like food, water, shelter, health care, and education is mean spirited and ignorant, and I’ve yet to hear someone make a compelling argument that it isn’t.

4 Comments

Filed under Civics on Saturday, compassion and connection, concerns, critical thinking, doing my duty, duh!, dumbassery, frustrations, health, ideas and opinions, politics, ruminating, social issues, technical difficulties, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties, WTF?!