Friday, April 22, 2016

Prince and the (New Music) Revolution

(I posted this on Facebook last night; I’ve made a few minor edits.)Prince playing at Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 (won by the Indianapolis Colts)

I first heard Prince a summer or two before he released “1999” and hit it big. Back then, I went to a summer camp near Cheboygan, Michigan. Most of the kids came from Detroit and Chicago with a smattering from Cleveland, Indianapolis, and other spots in the Midwest. And most were Jewish. None, as far as I can recall, was African American. Each year, many of us would bring boxes of cassette tapes featuring our new favorite artists and songs. I know that I introduced many people to Squeeze the same year I heard Neil Young for the first time. The assortment of styles and genres you'd hear from tinny boom boxes across camp was very, very broad … or so it seemed.

But one summer, I recall three girls raving about this new musician from Minneapolis who, according to them, was the best thing they’d ever heard and the “next big thing”. I will admit that I didn’t love the songs they played for me. But I’ll also admit being intrigued because the music and lyrics were like nothing I’d ever heard. (And the girls were cute, so I was willing to listen to whatever they liked…) Certainly there was a world of difference between that new sound and the music most everyone else was playing. Add to that the idea of these three suburban Jewish girls raving about this genre-bending music from a black guy was … well, that was also new.

And that new sound and its crossover appeal, was a sign that music, musical styles, and listeners were moving into a new realm where what and who you listened to would be more defined by what appealed to you than where you were from or what you looked like.

So when Prince exploded a year or two later, his sound and popularity weren’t a surprise. I was ready. I was already listening to music far removed from what most of my classmates were playing. And it didn’t take many playings of songs like “Little Red Corvette” before all sorts of people were listening to all sorts of different genres and styles.

I never was a huge fan of Prince, but that was a matter of taste (though I absolutely love “Raspberry Beret”). Yet I always recognized him as a great artist, musician, and songwriter who played a very influential role for many other musicians.

The idea that both he and David Bowie, two artists who I think belong in a category almost all to themselves, should die within a few months of each other only reinforces the sense of loss to the musical and artistic communities.

But today, as I listened to several remembrances, my mind turned back to happy days in the woods of remote Michigan. And, in the end, isn’t the stirring of memory and emotion what music is all about?


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Monday, April 11, 2016

Hillary or Bernie? Bernie or Hillary? But Not a Republican!

In just over 3 weeks (May 3, 2016), Hoosiers will get to vote for their choice to be the Democratic and Republican Party presidential nominees. As things presently stand, Indiana’s votes will once again matter, a statement that we can’t often make with regard to our primary. I will need to decide between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or John Kasich. I’m sure readers of this blog will have no problem guessing which three candidates can easily be crossed off my list (no fair looking at the title of this post!).

At present, I’m leaning strongly toward Hillary Clinton, but my mind is not completely made up and I’m persuadable if confronted by honest, well-reasoned, policy-based arguments. In some respects, my current mindset is a bit reminiscent of the period leading up to the 2008 primary that I wrote about in my post Clinton or Obama? Obama or Clinton? I Might Get to Choose After All (March 5, 2008), though I’m leaning much more strongly toward Clinton now than I was toward either she or Obama back then. You might also be interested in my post My First Chance to See a Presidential Candidate (update) (April 23, 2008).

In either event, I will not be voting for Trump, Cruz, or Kasich. No way. Neither the fascist, the Christian Dominionist, nor the far-right politician wearing moderate sheep’s clothing holds any appeal for me.

And that brings me to the point I want to make.

If I vote for Clinton in the primary and Sanders is the winner, I’ll likely experience a bit of disappointment (and the same should I vote for Sanders only to see Clinton win). But here is what matters: No matter which of those candidates I may choose in the Indiana primary in May, when it comes to November, I will vote for the Democratic candidate for President. You see, I recognize that I’m unlikely to have a chance to vote for a candidate with whom I agree on each and every single issue. And I’m equally unlikely to have a chance to vote for a candidate with no baggage or issues that cause me concern. Neither candidate is perfect and neither agrees with me on each and every important issue. But no matter whether the candidate is Clinton or Sanders, that person will be far, far better on the vast majority of issues that matter to me than will any of the possible Republicans. Perhaps I should revise that previous sentence by adding the word “far” several more times (in bold and underline, too, perhaps). And with an exclamation point.

So when I hear some people (in particular, supporters of Bernie Sanders) saying that if their candidate is not the eventual nominee that they won’t vote (or, worse, might vote for Trump), I shake my hade in dismay. No, actually, that’s not entirely right. It might be closer to say that I shake my fist in anger. I have to wonder whether people who express a “my guy or I stay home” mentality understand how elections really work. I have to wonder whether they remember Ralph Nader in 2000 or Ross Perot in 1992.

Most importantly, I have to wonder if they have given any real thought to how issues that concern them would be addressed by a Republican president. Clinton won’t be tough enough on banks for you? OK. But do you think that Trump, Cruz, or Kasich will be better? Clinton won’t be good enough on environmental issues? Do you really think that Trump, Cruz, or Kasich will be better? Do you think that Clinton is really more likely to put American troops into combat situations than Trump, Cruz, or Kasich? Really? And I haven’t even gotten to issues like healthcare, abortion, gay rights, racial equality, minimum wage, net neutrality, campaign finance reform, or … well, virtually every other issue that liberals and progressives care about.

Maybe think about it this way: If Trump, Cruz, or Kasich are elected, what are the prospects that the judges they appoint to the Supreme Court (or other federal courts) will uphold reproductive rights, overturn Citizens United, keep Obamacare in place, and issue opinions that you will approve of? Or, perhaps, think about it this way: In 2000, had a slew of Florida voters not voted for Ralph Nader, then it is highly likely that Al Gore would have been elected President. So ask yourself: Would you have preferred an Al Gore presidency to that of George W. Bush? If so, that should be your history lesson to help you understand that refusing to vote or voting for a protest candidate (or a candidate to “blow up the system”) may be tantamount to helping elect a candidate who will do precisely those things that you are opposed to. Imagine how you’ll feel if Donald Trump is elected by a tiny number of votes … and you stayed home.

Thus, whether you support Hillary or Bernie, Bernie or Hillary, I implore you to do a few things:

  1. Be sure that you base your support (or opposition) on actual policies and ideas (and not just on attack ads or sound bites);
  2. Discuss the reasons for your support or opposition with those holding different views, but do so in a civil manner and on the basis of well-reasoned policy ideas and not on the basis of personal attacks;
  3. Whomever wins, get behind that candidate and the party that will better represent the overall set of policies and ideals that are important to you;
  4. Get involved (work the phones, go door-to-door, raise money, host a party, work the polls); and
  5. VOTE.

Update (April 12, 2016): Fixed typos. Sigh.

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Attention Hoosier Women: Stop Having Sex to Avoid Potentially Breaking the Law!

Last week, in my post “Gov. Pence and Christian Legislators Have Enacted a New Law That Has a Dangerous, Discriminatory Impact on Jewish Hoosiers” (March 28, 2016), I wrote about Indiana’s terrible new abortion law (House Enrolled Act 1337). In that post, I focused on the new law’s provisions concerning prohibition of abortions in the event of a fetal abnormality, in particular the genetic mutation that causes Tay-Sachs. When I wrote that post, I was very much aware of certain other problems with HEA 1337, but I will acknowledge that I hadn’t given much consideration to the full scope of one of those problems. And it is to that issue that I turn my attention today.

I was aware that HEA 1337 (and, if I’m not mistaken another law passed in 2015), requires burial or cremation following an abortion (to be paid for, of course, by the woman getting the abortion). This requirement strikes me as mean-spirited and an attempt to create financial disincentives to abortion (perhaps, if the government showed that it cared about the well-being of children and helping out those families who choose not to abort, that sort of financial disincentive would be unnecessary…). The abortion itself may be a very difficult decision for a woman, but the State of Indiana now wants her to take the extra step of thinking about the disposition of the fetal remains (burial or cremation) as well as providing information about herself into a governmental record. Oh, and as an extra added “bonus,” this law prevents aborted fetal tissue from being used in medical research (because it must be buried or cremated); so much for trying to find cures for just the sort of genetic mutations for which abortions are now prohibited.

But it was in response to a comment I saw online over the weekend (I think it was on the Periods for Pence Facebook page … and you really do owe it to yourself to check out that page and click Like), that I went back and reviewed HEA 1337 again and discovered an even worse provision in the bill. I know that this will be a lot of legalese (which I’ll attempt to parse below), but here is the text of Section 26 of HEA 1337:


Sec. 7.6. (a) This section applies to a person or facility possessing either an aborted fetus or a miscarried fetus.

(b) Within ten (10) business days after a miscarriage occurs or an abortion is performed, a person or facility described in subsection (a) shall:

(1) conduct the final disposition of a miscarried fetus or an aborted fetus in the manner required by IC 16-21-11-6 or IC 16-34-3-4; or

(2) ensure that the miscarried fetus or aborted fetus is preserved until final disposition under IC 16-21-11-6 or IC 16-34-3-4 occurs.

The references to IC 16-21-11-6 (Indiana Code) essentially provide that a fetus must be buried or cremated with certain paperwork completed (though, in the case of a stillbirth prior to 20 weeks of gestational age, a certificate of stillbirth is not required) and the woman need not provide a name for the fetus. The rest of those cross-referenced provisions deal, primarily with transporting an aborted or miscarried fetus to a burial or cremation site.

Now I just know that you are wondering precisely how Indiana defines “fetus”, right? Indiana Code § 16-18-2-128.7 defines “fetus” as “an unborn child, irrespective of gestational age or the duration of the pregnancy.” Indiana Code § 16-21-11-2 defines “miscarried fetus” means an unborn child, irrespective of gestational age, who has died from a spontaneous or accidental death before expulsion or extraction from the unborn child's mother, irrespective of the duration of the pregnancy.”

Uh. Fabulous. And what does “unborn child” mean? I’ve searched the Indiana Code and discovered that phrase appearing throughout the statutes, but I was unable to find a definition of the term. If you have the statutory cite that defines “unborn child” please let me know! But absent a statutory definition of “unborn child” that means something else, given phrases like “irrespective of the gestational age or the duration of the pregnancy” it would appear to me that “unborn child” means any fertilized human egg.

So, anyway, let’s go back to the provision added by HEA 1337. As quoted above, the law requires that a “person … possessing either an aborted fetus or a miscarried fetus … shall: (1) conduct the final disposition of a miscarried fetus or an aborted fetus … or … ensure that the miscarried fetus or aborted fetus is preserved until final disposition …”. And that “final disposition” must be via burial or cremation.

Now think about that for a moment. Let’s say that you’re a woman. You’re pregnant and thrilled about the prospect of starting or adding to your family. And then you suffer a miscarriage. You’re likely devastated by this occurrence. But you also probably understand that not all pregnancies go as planned. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 10-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage before the 20th week of gestational age. Though saddened by the loss, you also understand that this is a part of life, part of the human condition. But now the State of Indiana has enacted a law to require you to either bury or cremate your miscarried fetus (and fill out paperwork about it). How does that make you feel?

Let’s dive a little further into the scenario. I suspect that many of you are thinking of that miscarried fetus as it might exist around the 20th week of gestational age (or even later). Maybe burial or cremation is appropriate at that stage. I don’t know (though I do think that it’s much more a matter for individual choice rather than for the State). However, what if we think of the miscarried fetus as it might exist as of, say, the 4th week of gestational age … or even earlier?

By that 4th week the fetus has grown to be the size of … a poppy seed. Prior to that, of course, the fetus is even smaller. And let’s not forget that many in the pro-life (anti-abortion) movement, will tell you that (based on their religious views), human life begins at conception (fertilization of an egg by a sperm). Thus, we really need to think about that fetus as it exists even in the moments after fertilization, when it is simply a small cluster of cells.

So what happens when that newly fertilized egg doesn’t implant in the uterine wall and is, instead, expelled as a part of a woman’s menstrual cycle? What happens when that poppy seed-sized 4-week-old fetus miscarries as, recall, 10-20% of pregnancies do? And what is a woman supposed to do if she takes the “morning after pill”?

Well, starting July 1, 2016, a woman in Indiana will have to bury or cremate that fetus (and fill out appropriate paperwork, too).

Consider the problem: A fertile woman has sex (even protected sex; recall that not all birth control is 100% effective). There is a possibility that one of her eggs was fertilized by her partner’s sperm (and let’s not even ask what we should do if the “partner” was a rapist or incestuous family member…). That woman now has a problem. You see, she won’t know if an egg was fertilized and, if one was, whether it implanted. She really won’t know if she’s pregnant for some time, right? But the State of Indiana doesn’t care about that. Nope. Rather, what the State of Indiana cares about is whether, should her unknown pregnancy miscarry, she buries or cremates the bunch of cells and fills out the appropriate government paperwork (nothing like adding a little shame, right?).

I suppose that beginning in July, Hoosier women that want to avoid inadvertently running afoul of the law, need to be sure that they capture their menstrual flow in a box that they then bury in the backyard (though I suspect that kind of burial runs afoul of the law, too; she probably needs to take the box to a licensed cemetery). Or, perhaps, women can install some sort of incinerator in their toilet bowl (though I’m not sure what they should do when they’re not at home…). I mean, what happens if a woman’s period begins when she is at a local business? Who is responsible for the potential miscarried fetus in that case (who possesses the fetus, the woman or the “facility”)? That of course makes me wonder what women who are traveling to Indiana should do (and I’m also wondering why anyone would want to travel to Indiana these days, given the State’s expressed bigotry toward … well, lots of different groups…). I mean, should hotels provide certified disposal boxes? And let’s not even think about national cheerleading competitions at the Convention Center. No. Don’t go there. Yuck.

Of course I recognize that I’m being a bit hyperbolic with this concern. I don’t really think that some overzealous prosecutor is going to start knocking on doors and asking women if they’ve properly disposed of their menstrual discharge. The problem is that laws like this are the result of a legislature that doesn’t take the time to listen to testimony, listen to concerns, think about practical effects of legislation, and then take the time and effort to carefully craft legislation to address the (supposed) concern. And if some woman (or abortion clinic) is eventually charged with failing to comply with this insane law, won’t one of the first defenses be that the woman (or clinic) is being singled out when the law is being ignored by and not enforced against literally millions of Hoosier women?

But remember: Republicans aren’t waging a war on women. Nope. Not in Indiana. Move along.

Please call Governor Pence. Please call your state representative and state senator. And please tell them to stay out of your vagina (if you’re a woman) and out of the vagina of your wife, daughter, mother, and sister (if you’re a human). Tell them to fix our roads and schools and to stop using their religious values to dictate how the rest of us should live.

So long as this law remains in effect, Hoosier women who have sex risk breaking the law. And if that isn’t the ultimate attack in the war on women, then I don’t know what is.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Gov. Pence and Christian Legislators Have Enacted a New Law That Has a Dangerous, Discriminatory Impact on Jewish Hoosiers

Have you ever heard of Tay-Sachs disease? If not, I’m not surprised. It’s a very rare illness with which few people much familiarity. But that isn’t true for Jews of European ancestry (Ashkenazi Jews) who are intimately familiar with the illness. Approximately 1 in 27 Ashkenazi Jews is a Tay-Sachs carrier which is why many Jewish couples, before marrying, are tested to see if they are carriers.

As described at

A baby with Tay-Sachs disease appears healthy at birth, and seems to be developing normally for a few months. Symptoms generally appear by six months of age. While symptoms vary from one child to the next, there is always a slowing down of development. Gradually, Tay-Sachs children lose motor skills and mental functions. Over time, the child becomes blind, deaf, mentally retarded, paralyzed and non responsive to the environment. Tay-Sachs children usually die by age five.

Another description:

The First Signs – A baby with classic Infantile Tay-Sachs appears normal at birth and typically continues to develop normally for the first six months of age. Around 6 months of age, development slows. Parents may notice a reduction in vision and tracking and the baby does not outgrow normal startle response.

A Gradual Loss of Skills - Infantile Tay-Sachs children gradually regress, losing skills one by one. Over time they are unable to crawl, turn over, sit or reach out. Other symptoms include loss of coordination, progressive inability to swallow and difficulty breathing.

By Age 2 and beyond - Most children experience recurrent seizures by age 2 and eventually lose muscle function, mental function and sight, becoming mostly non-responsive to their environment.

The prognosis for a child born with Tay-Sachs is, to say the least, bleak:

There is currently no cure or treatment for Tay–Sachs disease. Even with the best care, children with infantile Tay–Sachs disease die, usually by the age of 4. Although experimental work is underway, no current medical treatment of the root cause yet exists. Patients receive supportive care to ease the symptoms and extend life by reducing the chance of contracting infections. Infants are given feeding tubes when they can no longer swallow. Improvements in life-extending care have somewhat lengthened the survival of children with Tay–Sachs disease, but no current therapy is able to reverse or delay the disease's progress.

Thus, it should come as no great surprise that Jewish couples* who learn that a fetus has the genetic mutation that causes Tay-Sachs may choose to abort the pregnancy. And, it is worth noting that many Jewish authorities accept the idea of abortion in the case of a fetus with this sort of genetic mutation. Allow me to quote from one of the first posts I wrote for this blog (“Keep Your Religious Doctrine Out of My State's Laws”, January 25, 2008, on the subject of a bill that would have defined the beginning of “human physical life”):

According to Jewish law and tradition, a fetus is not a person. According to the Talmud, the fetus is deemed to be a component of the pregnant woman's body, no different from her thigh. Moreover, Jewish rabbis and scholars have been debating, literally for millennia, when “ensoulment” occurs. Even after this millennia of debate, no firm answer or opinion has emerged; thus, this is one of those issues of faith that is viewed as one of the “secrets of G-d”. …

It is also absolutely critical to understand that according to Jewish law, the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the fetus until birth. Allow me to quote, in part, some of the testimony offered in the Indiana House of Representatives in 2006 by Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso (with regard to another abortion-related bill):

Writing into state law what is essentially the doctrinal view of a particular segment of the faith community would impair the freedom of religion of Hoosier citizens whose religious traditions and ethical stances call them to a different understanding of when does human personhood begin. It is regrettable use of political and religious ideology to trump science, threaten pluralism, assault tolerance and encroach on the privacy of citizens.

The issue is not “When does life begin?” Life exists even before conception. The sperm is life. The ovum is life. Every cell and organism is a living entity. Adherents of the Eastern faith, Jainism, gently sweep the path in front of them as they walk in order to avoid stepping on living creatures.

The issue is not “when does life begin”, but when is human personhood, that intangible moral and legal category upon which hinge so many privileges and responsibilities of identity and citizenship, established. And on this issue, science offers no answers and theologians and ethicists have and will continue to differ.

While some people of faith may choose to affirm that human personhood begins at conception, at the moment when the ovum and sperm meet, Judaism affirms that personhood begins at birth. In a contest between the fetus and the mother, the Jewish moral tradition will not only permit, but require, that preference be given to the mother.

Until birth, while the fetus is certainly to be cherished and protected, it is not considered an independent legal entity. Judaism honors and protects the fetus. Ours is a tradition that celebrates parenthood and family, but in a contest between the embryo or the fetus and the mother, Judaism preeminently protects the rights of the mother as a viable human person. Both her physiological and psychological needs are to be given preferential status over the rights of the developing fetus.

I want to be clear that on this matter there is universal consensus among all Jewish denominations, from the most liberal Reform to the Conservative, Reconstructionist and most traditional Orthodox.

The Rabbinate of the Orthodox Movement, has spoken as follows:

Judaism … rejects the Catholic or fundamentalist view of abortion, particularly in those cases in which the life, physical or even mental well being of the mother is threatened…. When the life of the mother is threatened, Jewish law unambiguously prefers the life of the mother. Even when the health of the mother is threatened most authorities would permit an abortion before the onset of labor because the fetus has not yet reached an independent status.

We are fearful, therefore, of government interference with the freedom of the Jewish community to apply its time venerated Torah standards to the question of abortion. The intrusion of government into an issue which so often can be determined only by religious consciousness would involve a grave violation of the first amendment.

Why do I mention all of this? Because Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and a group of almost exclusively Republican, Christian, male legislators have have written, passed, and signed a new law (House Enrolled Act 1337) that would prohibit a Jewish couple who learns that their fetus has the genetic mutation that will cause Tay-Sachs from seeking an abortion. Gov. Pence and Indiana legislators have allowed their religious views and understanding of core questions concerning the beginning of life to be enacted into law in a way that will have concrete and severe impact upon one particular minority community that both suffers from a propensity to a disease and who has a different religious understanding of when and under what circumstances abortion is permitted.

Indiana law already erects numerous barriers that make it very difficult for a woman to get an abortion. But House Enrolled Act 1337 goes even further:

(a) A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion before the earlier of viability of the fetus or twenty (20) weeks of postfertilization age if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or has been diagnosed with any other disability or has a potential diagnosis of any other disability.

(b) A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion after viability of the fetus or twenty (20) weeks of postfertilization age if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with any other disability or has a potential diagnosis of any other disability.

Indiana Code § 16-34-4-7.

For the purpose of this new law, “any other disability” is defined as “any disease, defect, or disorder that is genetically inherited” and specifically includes (among other things) physical disabilities, mental or intellectual disabilities, physical disfigurement, and physical or mental disease. Moreover, the term “potential diagnosis” means the “presence of some risk factors that indicate that a health problem may occur”. You know, risk factors like being an Ashkenazi Jew who has a 1 in 27 chance of being a Tay-Sachs carrier. Thus, one could argue that a doctor could never perform an abortion for an Ashkenazi Jewish woman because of the presence of risk factors that indicate a problem “may occur”. For that matter, how many women don’t have “some risk factors”? Can a doctor perform an abortion on a woman that he knows smokes or has HIV/AIDS?

House Enrolled Act 1337 does allow abortions for disabilities if the disability is a “lethal fetal anomaly” which is defined as a “fetal condition diagnosed before birth that, if the pregnancy results in a live birth, will with reasonable certainty result in the death of the child not more than three (3) months after the child’s birth.” Obviously, Tay-Sachs, though always fatal, does not fit within the definition of “lethal fetal anomaly” because a child with Tay-Sachs will usually live for 4 or even 5 excruciating years. It is also worth noting that House Enrolled Act 1337 provides for “perinatal hospice” that includes “counseling and medical care provided by maternal-fetal medical specialists, obstetricians, neonatologists, anesthesia specialists, specialty nurses, clergy, social workers, and others that are focused on alleviating fear and ensuring that the woman and her family experience the life and death of the child in a comfortable and supportive environment.” However, that perinatal hospice is only available in the case of a lethal fetal anomaly, not for a fatal disease like Tay-Sachs. I guess that parents of a child with Tay-Sachs don’t need a supportive environment or counseling as they watch the child that the state mandated they give birth to wither through a painful existence to its eventual death.

Not every family can afford to care for and raise a child with a disease like Tay-Sachs. Not every family can put aside everything, including the well-being of the rest of the family, for the intense efforts necessary to care for a child with Tay-Sachs. Not every family has the mental fortitude to work through life with a Tay-Sachs child. And what about the child: “Blind, deaf, mentally retarded, paralyzed and non responsive to the environment.” We couldn’t condemn anyone to that sort of “life”. But the State of Indiana has decided to mandate that Jewish families who learn that a fetus has the genetic defect that will cause Tay-Sachs are … stuck. The State of Indiana has even given doctors a reason to fear performing any abortions if there are “risk factors” for a health problem. So, even if a family’s religious views would permit an abortion, the State of Indiana has decided that the religious interpretation of one group of one religious tradition takes precedence.**

Perhaps our Governor and legislators didn’t understand the impact House Enrolled Act 1337 would have on Jewish families. Of course, had they not rushed the bill through, without hearing testimony in committee, then perhaps these concerns could have been discussed. Or, perhaps, in their anti-abortion (or, as some have started to refer to it, their “pro-birth”) zeal, they simply don’t care. They know what they believe and they have the power of the majority to impose those beliefs upon the rest of us.

In any event, it is time for Hoosiers to stand up to those who seek to enforce their religious views by force of law. It is time to reclaim Indiana as a welcoming pluralistic society and not some kind of 16th Century theocracy. And it is time for Jewish Hoosiers to make their voices heard — loudly — to let our Governor and legislator know that we will no longer stand for their efforts to make us second class citizens in our own state.


*To be clear, Ashkenazi Jews are not the only people who carry the mutation that leads to Tay-Sachs, though it is most common in Ashkenazi Jews. The genetic mutation is also found at rates higher than the general population in Cajuns from Louisiana, French Canadians from eastern Quebec, and Acadians from New Brunswick, Canada.

**I want to relate an interesting thought experiment I encountered on Twitter recently (though, sadly, I failed to save the link so I can’t give proper attribution): Imagine that you are standing in front of a cliff. On the edge of the cliff are an infant and a petri dish with a fertilized human egg. Now imagine that the edge of the cliff begins to give way and both the infant and petri dish will fall over the cliff. You can save the infant or the petri dish, but not both. Which will you save? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? So why do people like Indiana’s Republican legislators want to continue to treat the fertilized egg and the infant as being the same when, quite clearly, they are not?

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Monday, February 29, 2016

Seven Queries About the Candidacy of Donald Trump

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself contemplating (yet again) the candidacy of Donald Trump and the danger he, his idea, and his supporters pose to our country and system of government. As I sat there thinking about these issues, I really started wondering about the upcoming election, possible scenarios, and what Trump’s candidacy says about our country and about our fellow citizens. And so, I posted the following seven queries to Twitter:

  • Query 1: Now that Trump has refused to denounce the KKK, what percentage of minority voters will turn out to vote against him in November?
  • Query 2: If other GOP leaders fail to promptly denounce Trump regarding the KKK, will the GOP lose all minority support for years to come?
  • Query 3: How does a party that has spent 7 years trying to delegitimize a black President pivot to denounce Trump’s racism? Is it possible?
  • Query 4: Do we take Trump at his word that he doesn't know much about the KKK (so he's an ignoramus) or is he just a lying piece of shit?
  • Query 5: How do we explain a populace that supports the racist & xenophobic views at the core of the leading GOP candidate's appeal
  • Query 6: In 50 years, will people ask about us today the same thing we ask about Italians & Germans in the '30s: How did they let it happen?
  • Query 7: Did Trump refuse to condemn KKK because he knows racists comprise a large portion of his base (or what he needs on Super Tuesday)?

What do you think? Let me know.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

When Restaurant Employees Endanger Customers

On Friday, February 5, 2016, my wife and I had one of those rare parental opportunities to go out to dinner. Not a long, fancy, dinner, mind you. No. No time for that. But we had time to go and get a burger together before going to our son’s Winter Drumline ensemble percussion performance.

A few months ago, a Smashburger restaurant opened near us. My son and I have been once or twice, but my wife hadn’t had an opportunity to go. She knows about Smashburger because we’ve eaten there in Louisville a few times (while attending cheerleading competitions) and so she has wanted to try the one near us. So we decided that would work well for us. Grab a good burger and then go to the percussion performance. What could go wrong with that plan?

When it was our turn to order, my wife, as she usually does, asked whether the burger was seasoned. Why did she ask this? Those of you who are regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware that my wife suffers from a rare illness. The details aren’t worth going into other than to say that certain (many) foods trigger what appears to be an allergic reaction (actually anaphylactic shock of differing severities). Thus, she needs to be aware — very aware — of the ingredients of the food she eats.

In response to her query about seasoning on the hamburger, the cashier said, “Just salt and pepper.” Unfortunately, all too often, we’ve seen restaurants where there were “hidden ingredients” in the food, and so my wife said to the cashier, “I have allergies. Are you sure the seasoning is just salt and pepper?” Often, in response to this sort of query, the restaurant employee will ask something like, “What are you allergic to?” and my wife will usually respond with something like, “Too many things to mention; it’s easier if you just tell me what’s in the food”. This is exactly what happened that night, and the cashier assured my wife that the seasoning was “just salt and pepper and a buttered grill”.

So my wife ordered a burger with goat cheese.

But after three bites she put the burger down and told me that something was wrong. Over time, she’s become hypersensitive to ingredients in her food that trigger an anaphylactic reaction. Within moments she had a massive rash on her chest and neck, her cheeks were flushed and warm, and she was beginning to feel very sick.

I noticed a man whose nametag identified him as the Assistant Manager. I called him over and asked him about the seasonings on the burger and explained that my wife appeared to be having an allergic reaction. I don’t think he was taking me particularly seriously at first. He wasn’t ignoring me, but I didn’t get the impression that he thought the situation was dire, either. He told me that he thought that the seasoning was just salt and pepper. I asked if he could check. I think he finally realized the gravity of the situation when I said that I really needed to know what was in the seasoning so that I could explain to the doctors if I had to take my wife to the emergency room.

The Assistant Manager walked back to the kitchen. When he returned a few minutes later, he told us that the seasoning was mostly salt and pepper with some garlic powder and onion powder, two of my wife’s biggest triggers. He apologized profusely, said that he’d been in the restaurant business for many years, and took allergies very seriously. And he gave me two $5 coupons and said that he hoped we’d try the restaurant again. As my wife got up to get some water, he once again told her how sorry he was and asked if there was anything he could do.

We left to attend the percussion performance. Sadly, we had to leave early. My wife was just too sick to stay, especially in that sort of environment (a high school gym). At least we were able to watch the first of our son’s two performances before we left. The rest of the evening was something that we’ve sadly grown accustomed to over the years, as she took virtually all of the medications that she can to help ward off the sort of severe reaction that would have landed her in an ambulance for a trip to the local hospital. Thankfully, since she’s been on her current drug regimen with the freedom to “double up” her dosing when triggering, we’ve managed to avoid what had, for a while, been annual trips to the emergency room (including emergency rooms in both Disney and Maui!). But it was a long, difficult night, that even included bringing our daughter back from a planned sleepover at around midnight (so that if we did have to go to the ER, our son wouldn’t wake up to find everyone gone).

I guess we should feel fortunate that she has learned how to exert some small degree of control over her illness when she triggers.

During all of this, I took to Twitter to both blast Smashburger (@smashburger) and to tell friends what had happened.

By Saturday morning, my wife felt much better, though the extra medicines that she had to take made her feel like she had a bad hangover.

Late on Saturday afternoon, I did receive a call from Smashburger’s Assistant Manager asking how my wife was, offering his renewed apologies, and explaining that there were discussions being held at the restaurant. I also received an email Saturday evening from a person who I believe is Smarshburger’s General Manager:

I want to personally apologize regarding your experience at Smashburger. Our customer satisfaction and safety is our top priority. I have personally spoken to my staff regarding the incident. I truly hope your wife is ok.  I would like to send you coupons and ask you to give us one more opportunity if willing.

If you give me your address I'll be more than happy to mail you coupons.

And, coincidentally, while typing this post (I wrote it last week, but held off publishing so that my wife could review it), I received a response from Smashburger’s Twitter account apologizing and asking me to direct mail them with more information.

But here is the really ironic thing: When I looked at Smashburger’s website, I discovered that they have an entire page dedicated to Nutrition and Allergens, including an interactive allergen menu. When I use that allergen menu and click on a few of my wife’s biggest triggers (onion, garlic, shellfish), the option for a burger tells us “no burger seasoning”! Seriously.

Am I particularly angry that the cashier didn’t know what was in the seasoning? No. I guess not. Though given that the place is called “Smashburger” and hamburgers are their prime focus, you’d think that employees, especially those who deal with customers and orders would know. But the idea that the cashier didn’t know how to handle a customer who made specific reference to allergies is very troubling, especially given that the chain has that interactive allergen menu. How hard would it have been to direct my wife’s attention to that menu (or to read the list of ingredients included in the seasoning that can be found via that interactive menu)? It is also quite troubling that the Assistant Manager didn’t know what ingredients were in the seasoning without having to ask.

I’m also a bit miffed at the notion of trying to apologize via coupons. A coupon is a great way to respond when a customer received poor service or the food isn’t prepared properly. A coupon is a great way to say “sorry” for a minor inconvenience. But when the situation was as serious as this one, when the ingestion of ingredients could have led to hospitalization (or fatality), then a coupon is … um … not the best response. Instead, I’d like to see Smashburger talk more specifically about the sort of training that all employees will receive about allergens and how to deal with customers who inquire about ingredients. I’m glad that the General Manager has “spoken to [his] staff” but I’d like to know what he told them, what he told the higher-ups in the corporate hierarchy (or franchise), and so forth. Perhaps, instead of offering me a coupon, Smashburger could make a contribution to a local hospital to help with treatment of illness caused by allergens (or to The Mastocytosis Society which helps fund research into my wife’s rare illness).

Hopefully some good will come from this. Hopefully, Smashburger’s employees will be more sensitive to allergies and to the problems that exposures to allergens can cause. Hopefully other restaurants and their staff will read about this experience and consider how they handle patrons will allergies. And hopefully, next time my wife — or anyone who suffers from allergies — inquires as to the ingredients in a particular dish, they will get a thorough and complete response.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Should Indiana Schools Be Required to Teach Cursive Writing?

Growl. Wrote this a few days ago and forgot to publish it.

Once again, Indiana State Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) has introduced a bill (Senate Bill 73) to require Indiana students to … wait for it … learn to write in cursive. Seriously. And the Indiana Senate passed this bill by a vote of 30-18. Again, seriously.

Look, I’m not particularly opposed to cursive writing (though I print and have done so since the first day that a teacher didn’t require me to write in cursive, circa 1976 or so). But to add cursive writing as a requirement for students who are already over-burdened and falling behind on subjects that both matter and have real world implications, seems stupid. Moreover, to presume that on an issue this narrow, the state legislature — the often fact- and evidence-averse state legislature — thinks that it knows better than local school districts seems ridiculous.

I think that I understand the arguments in favor of requiring cursive instruction. For one thing, writing in cursive is faster than printing. It may be faster than typing for some kids. Thus, cursive proficiency may — I repeat may — be a valuable workplace skill for Indiana students. But is it more valuable than other skills that we could use that time and energy to teach? I also recognize that students (and later adults) who have received instruction in cursive may have an easier time reading old documents that were written in cursive. And that is obviously more important than, say, learning to use modern technology that will be used by students in most career paths, rightt?

As Sen. Leising, the bill’s author put it:

“Our children should not be denied the opportunity to learn such a valuable skill,” Leising said. “Medical professionals have found that proficient handwriting is linked to adult-like thought processing and higher test scores. Much of history is written in cursive, and it is important that we give our children the tools and skills they need to reach their full potential.”

But those reasons don’t seem to be good enough to support this proposal.

First, let’s look at Sen. Leising’s reasoning. She is worried that students may be “denied the opportunity to learn such a valuable skill”. First, nobody is denying that opportunity to students. Schools currently have the option to teach cursive if it fits into the curricula. And parents certainly have the right to teach their children. But there are lots of “valuable skills” that our schools don’t presently teach our students (fire-building, car maintenance, ability to see through political rhetoric and bullshit, proper techniques for oral sex…). Why single out cursive?

As to whether medical professionals have found proficient handwriting to be linked to “adult-like thought processing” … I have no idea. Maybe yes, maybe no. But “handwriting” dosn’t necessarily mean cursive. More importantly, do those studies (if they exist) demonstrate that competent note taking via other means aren’t also linked to adult-like thought processing”? And why, do you suppose, do the views of medical professionals matter when it comes to things like cursive instruction, but not to things like the value of early pre-school education, safe drinking water, sanitary and safe conditions in childcare ministries, the existince of global warming, and the medical truths surrounding abortion (e.g., it doesn’t cause breast cancer or depression and early-term fetuses do not feel pain)? It seems to me that GOP legislators love what science says, but only when science supports their pet issue; otherwise, science is a liberal construct that is to be ignored and distrusted.

Think about this: Could the time spent teaching students to write in cursive be spent teaching them to take notes via online, potentially collaborative, note-taking platforms (think Evernote)? Could that time be spent providing typing instruction to increase students’ speed and reduce errors when using a keyboard? I suspect (though I haven’t done any research) that people who are truly proficient typists have a higher words-per-minute output than the fastest cursive writers. After all, if writing in cursive was so fast, then why would stenographers and court recorders use shorthand and keyboards?

It’s also worth noting that SB73 also requires accredited private schools to teach cursive, too. I thought that part of the “charm” of private schools was not having to follow certain state-imposed curricula requirements.

Finally, there is one other odd quirk that I noticed about SB73. In addition to mandating that cursive writing be added back into the curricula, SB73 also adds a requirement that students be taught reading. That requirement is listed separately from the existing requirement to teach language arts, including English, grammar, composition, and speech. It would seem to me that it would be difficult to teach language arts without teaching reading, but I don’t think adding that one extra word is harmful. It just struck me as odd. I don’t know… Are there some schools in Indiana that aren’t teaching students to read?


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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Happy New Year & What I've Been Working On

I haven’t posted since early December. Oops. But the lack of visible output doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing or working on this blog. I have. In fact, I’ve been working on two “deep dive” posts and a larger project.

Similar to my deep dive into RFRA last spring, I’ve been working on an analysis of the amendment to the Indiana civil rights laws to add protection for sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill needs a deep dive because it is fatally flawed. Rather than helping to end discrimination, the bill provides a license and roadmap for those who want to discriminate with a poison pill to stop those who dislike parts of the bill from challenging it in the courts.

I’ve also been working on a post about the newest fight in terms of LGBT equality issues: Transgender equality. I plan to discuss both the “bathroom issue” as well as the “man in a dress” stalking horse so prevalent among those who are afraid of transgender individuals. And I plan to talk about some of the other difficulties faced by the transgender community.

Finally, I’ve been going back through all of my old posts with the plan to try to clean up typos (I’m not the best proofreader of my own material at the time I write it) and, to the extent possible, fix broken links. But that’s a long-term project that I’ll work on here and there when I get to it.

Oh, and just to add to the fun of things, the application that I use to write my blogs (Microsoft Live Writer) suddenly stopped working with Blogger. So I need to either find a workaround (two things I've tried haven't worked) or find an alternate application.

I’m here. I’m busy. I'm annoyed.

In the meantime, is there anything that you’d like to hear my thoughts on?


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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

I’m Too Depressed to Write About Donald Trump’s Hate and Ignorance

I really want to write something about Donald Trump. I want to write about the hate that seems to permeate every utterance. I want to write about his utter disregard for truth or accuracy and his belief that if he says something happened, then it must be thus. I want to write about the narcissism that seems to run at the core of his entire persona. I want to write about his pandering to the most xenophobic, nativist, racist parts of our society in his quest for the ultimate victory for his ego. I want to write about the way he is throwing jet fuel on the powder keg of racial and religious tensions that have boiled to the surface in recent years.

And I want to write about the Americans who endorse his messages of hate, cheer his ignorance and lies, and feed off the fear and anger that Trump stokes.

But I can’t. The very idea of recounting his numerous lies, examining the way he categorizes and denigrates groups of people on the basis of discrete characteristics, stereotypes, or prejudices, or discussing the way he is tearing at the seams that delicately hold the fabric of our society together leaves me depressed. Seriously depressed. I’ve spent nearly eight years writing this blog, writing about our need for civility, about our need to work together, about our need to solve problems and treat one another with respect. I’ve been writing about our need to put aside prejudice and bigotry and to respect diversity and those different from us. And it looked like things were, at least in some small respects, getting better.

And then came Donald Trump and the groundswell of Americans who have gravitated to his views, buoyed by his hateful, xenophobic rhetoric that is devoid of any substance beyond fear and loathing. And hate. Pure, unadulterated hate driven, I’m sure, by fear. Hate and fear.

I find myself almost too paralyzed to address the things that Trump is saying or the damage that he is causing.

So, rather than focus on Trump, I’ll focus, instead, on We the People and what we have at stake.

We’ve worked, collectively as a society, for many, many years, trying to realize this more perfect union of ours. We’ve had a lot of successes mixed in with some failures. And it’s taken us a long time, through painful experiences, just to get to where we are now. We have a long way to go but we should be rightly proud of what we have achieved over these last two hundred and (almost) forty years.

But now it’s time to look at the bigger picture and to think about what voices and ideas like those expressed by Trump really mean for our country and the society that we’ve worked to build.

At some point, this isn’t about tax policy or marriage equality; it isn’t about black lives mattering or reproductive choice; it isn’t about gun control or religious freedom; it isn’t about prayer in schools or funding for the arts. It isn’t about Social Security, Obamacare, or No Child Left Behind. No. At some point, it’s about America. It’s about what it means when we say “America”. It’s about what it means when we feel that tingle of pride at the first bars of The Star Spangled Banner or the sight of an Olympic athlete proudly wrapped in the American flag. At some point, our politics and our civic discourse can no longer be about the issues that divide us and about which we’ve spent so much time arguing. At some point, we have to take a step back and do all we can to rescue the idea of the America envisioned by the Founding Fathers when they drafted the Constitution and adopted the Bill of Rights, the idea of America that prevailed after four years of bloody civil war, the idea of America for which an underclass of people were willing to take to the streets and risk their lives, the idea of America that has drawn immigrants and refugees from long before the Statue of Liberty shined her light of welcome.

Donald Trump’s hate is the clear demarcation line showing that we’ve reached that point. It’s time to recapture the idea of America from demagogues like Trump. It’s time to recapture the idea of an America in which competing ideas can be discussed civilly and in which the notion of a melting pot, of e pluribus unum, is celebrated. It’s time to put hate and fear aside in favor of efforts to make friends across barriers and to take the time to learn about others who may be different than we are. We can disagree on policies but recognize that we are all Americans who value the concept of America. We can disagree on those policies but learn to discuss them without hate or rancor, without viewing those with whom we disagree as the enemy or intent to destroy the idea of America.

It’s time to take America back from those for whom hate, xenophobia, and intolerance are values. It’s time to take America back to it’s core as the land of the free and the home of the brave where all men — and women — are created equally. And treated equally, too. The land that recognizes liberty and justice for all. A land that has no use for ideologies premised on hate, fear, and lies, such as those expressed by the likes of Donald Trump.


Update: Before this post went live, I came across an editorial cartoon that struck a chord. I’m usually not a fan of Gary Varvel, editorial cartoonist for The Indianapolis Star, but with his image “Trump’s New Motto”, I think that Varvel got it just right.

Trump's New Motto

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Syrian Refugees (and Terrorism)

I started this post a week or ten days ago with a somewhat different focus; I may get back to the broader issues that I was going to discuss. But for now, I want to focus on the issue of refugees.

America is a nation of refugees. For centuries, people have found their way to our shores, often to avoid persecution, violence, or economic privation. Most of my ancestors came to America in the late 1800s, in large part to avoid institutional anti-Semitism and pogroms, but also to try to make a better life than the abject poverty found in the Eastern European shtetl. Recently, America has seen waves of Central American children trying to escape gang violence and poverty. In years before that, America has accepted refugees from war zones across the world, from the Hmong to the Somalis, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Cuba. America has accepted refugees and worked to integrate them into the broader fabric of a ever more diverse American culture.

Sadly, I can’t say that America has always welcomed refugees. Even a cursory review of our history will show a degree of discomfort that waves of immigrants and refugees caused in the American population, whether it was the Irish, the Chinese, the Mexicans, or others, we have a history of not living up to our ideals when it comes to our treatment of and the welcome shown to refugees. And, of course, we have true stains on our history when we think about some of the refugees that we turned away, most notably (perhaps) the Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany but who could find no refuge and were thus forced to return or Americans of Japanese descent who we imprisoned on the basis of their race (while Americans of German and Italian ancestry were fully integrated into our armed forces).

Today, many in America, including many governors, want to turn their backs on refugees from Syria. I think that is wrong. I think that is un-American. I think that flies in the face of the very concept of American exceptionalism of which we are so proud.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

That poem by Emma Lazarus is inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty. That is who we are and who we must aspire to remain.

Let me be clear: I don’t think that it is America’s job to solve every refugee crisis; nor do I think that it is our obligation to accept every refugee. But as the world’s sole remaining superpower, as the largest economy on the planet, as a country with vast resources and vast territory, as a people who are more diverse than any other population on the globe, then I think that we have a duty to help when and to the extent that we can. It is part of the role of being that economic and military superpower. It is part of the role of being American. It is part of the role of being human.

“But, many of these Syrians are Muslim!” I hear many of you say. Yes. They are. So what? Are you honestly arguing that all or even most Muslims are terrorists who want to harm you or America? Seriously? Let me remind you that our Constitution has a specific prohibition on religious tests for public office. Do you really think that the Founding Fathers would have included that prohibition if they wanted a religious test for immigration or admission of refugees?

I understand, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris, that people are nervous about accepting refugees who might have among them members of ISIL or other groups who intend to do harm to Americans. I get that. And I think that it is a legitimate concern for which we must take appropriate cautions. But on that point, I think that there are several things to consider. First, the comparison between Syrian refugees flooding into Europe and those who might be admitted to the United States is a flawed comparison. For one thing, refugees have been walking into Europe in the hundreds and thousands, completely overwhelming the ability of governments to account for and deal with those refugees, let alone take the necessary time to do thorough background checks and isolate those will bad intent. Compare that situation to those seeking sanctuary in the United States who must undergo background checks often taking several years before they are permitted entry. If you were a terrorist intent on acting against Americans, would embedding yourself into a multi-year asylum process (with no sure success) that included detailed background checks be your best choice?

Furthermore, Germany alone is estimated to be taking in somewhere between 800,000 and 1,000,000 refuges compared to a far, far smaller number that has been proposed for the United States (about 100,000 over the next few years). Don’t forget that Europe, especially Germany, France, the UK, and the low countries, already have enormous Muslim populations that are often segregated (self-segregated in some instances, economically in others) and exist as a sort of permanent underclass in those societies. Compare that to the United States where Muslims of Arab descent are a much smaller percentage of the population and much more dispersed throughout a much more diverse population. While Muslims and Arabs may be disfavored by many Americans, there isn’t the degree of underclass quality that defines America’s Muslim and Arab populations.

On that note, take a guess as to just how many Syrian refugees have already been settled in Indiana. Go on. Take a guess. 10,000? 1,000? 100? How many? According to Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration, since 2010, Indiana has been the refuge for forty Syrian refugees. Forty. But that may be overstating it. According to the Indiana State Department of Health Refugee Report Federal Fiscal Year 2014 (page 5), the number from 2012-2014 is just twelve. Review that report to see how relatively few refugees are settled in Indiana and where they originate.

Consider further how we treat other refugee populations and others who simply want to visit the United States. Visitors from the European Union don’t need a visa to enter the United States. Query then, whether we have more to worry about from terrorists bearing the passport of a European Union nation or a Syrian refugee who has undergone a multi-year background check? Most of the 9/11 hijackers traveled on (I believe) Saudi Arabian passports; none of them were here as refugees. Yet I don’t hear calls for bans on Europeans or Saudis from traveling to the US. Similarly, a refugee from Cuba need merely get his or her feet onto American soil to be entitled to claim asylum and stay in the United States. Yet until earlier this year, Cuba was on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism. So how did we know that a Cuban refugee wasn’t here as an agent for the Cuban government to engage in terrorist acts? But I guess the Cuban lobby is more powerful than the Syrian lobby, even if Syria has never housed nuclear armed missiles pointed at the United States.

I think we also need to remember that, while it is possible for ISIL to embed a terrorist within the Syrian refugees seeking shelter in the United States, the brutality of ISIL is one of the things that those refugees are seeking shelter from. It would be a bit like telling a boat load of Jews fleeing the Holocaust that they aren’t welcome in the United States because we are worried that there might be a few Nazis hidden among them.

Consider further our role and reputation within the international community, both in terms of other nations and in terms of Arab and Muslim (and related) populations around the world. At least to some, the so-called “War on Terror” (and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) are part of a larger clash of cultures between Christianity/Western democracies and Islam/repressive regimes. While that is far too simplistic for most purposes, it is a lens through which many may look at the United States and our actions. When we stand up and claim to be the shining beacon on the hill and a nation and system to which others should aspire, do our actions match our rhetoric or do we appear as hypocrites who allow for repression of people that we either fear or can be perceived to simply not care about? Ask the question more simply: If we turn away Syrian refugees, will we make America more or less popular among the Arab Street? Will more Muslims turn to America as a sign of hope and strength or will they turn to ISIL as the force standing up to America? I believe that we need to show that our interest is not just in those who look and pray like the majority of Americans; rather, we need to show that American idealism and exceptionalism can extend to all people, no matter their race or religion.

I want to note two other points. First, I understand the fear of Islamist terrorism directed at America and Americans. We need to be vigilant and cautious. But we also need to take serious the threat of far right domestic terror. When Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center, we went to war. But when Christian nationalists destroyed the Federal building in Oklahoma City … we yawned. Four Americans were killed in Benghazi and we’ve had hearing after hearing after hearing and investigations ad nauseum. Nine Americans were killed in a church and, after much gnashing of teeth, we took down a flag. And what will we do after yet another attack directed against an abortion provider? Probably nothing. But what would we have done had that attack been by a Muslim and targeted a church or Hobby Lobby or Chik-fil-A? For that matter, what is the likelihood that we will hear a Presidential candidate suggest that Christian immigrants, Syrian or otherwise, be asked about their views on abortion or other social issues to be sure that they are not potential terrorists? What is the likelihood that we’ll hear a Presidential candidate suggest that Evangelical Christians be registered with the government or that their churches be monitored for radicalization or incitement speech?

Finally, there is one reason why we should be more concerned about the prospect for terrorism in the United States than should Western European countries: Guns. Those who perpetrated the attacks in Paris apparently had to smuggle their weapons from Eastern Europe. Compare that to America where even al-Qaeda has recognized and publicized just how easy it is for a prospective terrorist to acquire weapons. And don’t forget that the NRA — and those who accept NRA blood money — continue to allow those who are on the “no fly” or terrorist watch list to buy guns.

We should accept Syrian refugees. To be certain, we should subject those refugees to a vigorous background check so that we can be confident that we’re accepting refugees who mean us no harm. But we should apply that same rationale to other refugees seeking shelter on our shores. And, while we should certainly take seriously the threat of terrorism, we should be rational in our understanding of from where that terrorism may emanate and act accordingly. We can’t simply equate Islam to terrorism, just as we can’t preclude some Christians from those that we need to be cautious about. Our approach to refugees and terrorists must be both cautious and broad, without jumping to conclusions or making broad assumptions about huge groups of people on the basis of just a few and without ignoring potential threats because of a failure to directly line up to preconceived notions of who might be a terrorist.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Helping Friends in Need: Sometimes Teenagers Can Make Altruistic Choices

One of my son’s friends is hurting. She put out a semi-public message describing her predicament, but she never actually asked for help. She offered to do some tasks for people — for ridiculously little money, thus, I think, showing how desperate her situation must really be. She is not one of my son’s closest friends, but she is in his broad group of friends. He was troubled by her situation and wanted to find a way to help her.

As I drove home the night that I learned about this situation, I pondered what my son could do. And I wondered how much of himself he would really be willing to give in order to help his friend. When I got home, I told him that I had several ideas. But before I could even really present those ideas, my son told me that he’d already decided what he was going to do to help. For his birthday, my son received some cash from his grandparents and his uncle. He decided to hire his friend to perform one of those tasks — one for which she wanted to be paid a paltry $15 — and then give her a $35 “tip”.

I told my son that I was very proud of him, both for wanting to help in the first place and for being so generous with his own money. After all, $50 is nearly the cost of a new Xbox game!

But I became even more proud a few minutes later. My son’s twin sister heard us discussing the situation. She doesn’t even know my son’s friend (I’m not even sure if they’ve met before), but my daughter decided that if helping was so important to my son, then she would also give the friend $50.

I think that both of my kids recognize that $50 is a lot of money; but I also think that they view it as a small amount over the course of a lifetime. And I think that they each recognize that the value of that $50 to them, measured in terms of books or games or Starbucks pales in comparison to the worth that same amount of money has for someone in need.

As our kids have matured, my wife and I have stressed how important we believe it is for each of us to try, in whatever small ways we can, to make the world around us a better place and to find ways to help those who are less fortunate than we are. I may ride my kids from time to time; certainly I’m critical when they don’t do as well on their schoolwork as I know they’re capable of and I’m not shy about voicing my opinion when they do something that disappoints or angers me. But this episode demonstrates, I think, that when it really matters, when it comes to those things that my wife and I stress as being at the core of who we are and who we want our kids to be, my kids are good people whose hearts are in the right places.

My son wants to take the lead in seeing if he can get any of the rest of his group of friends to help, but he doesn’t want to brag to them about what he did or make them feel bad if they are unable or unwilling to help. So he isn’t sure if he is going to push his friends to help; he’s going to have to tread those waters on his own. But perhaps he won’t need to prod his other friends at all; perhaps they, too, will react in a spirit of generosity on their own.

Let’s hope that my son’s generosity is not unusual; let’s hope that this situation becomes a lesson of the goodness of humanity and not a lesson in the rarity of altruism.


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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why Does Starbucks Hate Jews? (Sarcasm Alert!)

Why does Starbucks hate Jews? Is anti-Semitism an ingrained part of the Starbucks corporate culture? Given recent events, I’ve been forced to ask these difficult questions.

“What the heck are you talking about?” I hear you ask.

By now I’m sure you seen or read that some Christians are angry at Starbucks because this year, Starbucks has chosen to use red cups with the green Starbucks logo for the holiday season instead of having symbols of the season on the cups.


Apparently, some Christians have taken offense, arguing that Starbucks “hates Jesus” or is trying to take Christ out of Christmas. Even Donald Trump is now suggesting that a boycott of Starbucks might be worth discussing.

Now, to be fair, there are a lot of people who are rightly recognizing that this newest battle in the “War on Christmas” is utter and total bullshit and that the color of a coffee cup has nothing to do with Jesus or Christmas. Some have gone to far as to suggest that if you need your coffee cup to promote your religion, then you have bigger troubles.

But the whole situation did get me thinking and made me ask one important question: Why are the cups red and not blue?

Red is the color of Christmas, but blue is the color of Hanukkah. Starbucks has chosen, year after year, to use red cups instead of blue cups. Why? Why does Starbucks celebrate Christmas and leave out their Jewish customers? Clearly the answer is that Starbucks is hates Jews. That is the only possible explanation, right? The red cups don’t symbolize a War on Christmas; rather, they are a symbol of Starbucks’ Christian values and a weapon in the War on Hanukkah, which is merely the first campaign in the War on Jews. Removing symbols of the season from the red cups merely allows Starbucks to focus its efforts on the color of Christmas without any possibility of any symbol being thought of as generic or having any applicability to Hanukkah or Jews.

And guess what? Starbucks even sells a “Christmas Blend” coffee.


Where is the Hanukkah blend? Where are the potato latkes? Why isn’t anyone else talking about the clear examples of anti-Semitism being exhibited by Starbucks?

Starbucks may be taking the Christ out of Christmas, but it looks like they must be trying to shove it into the coffee served to Jews. That is the only explanation that I can think of.

So stand with me. Stand up to the corporate juggernaut of anti-Semitic coffee. Take a stand and make Starbucks end their War on Hanukkah! Do it now, before it’s too late! Do it now before we have to eat fruitcakes instead of latkes and replace Hanukkah gelt with over-priced, fair trade, non-GMO chocolate.


Any of you who weren’t able to tell that this post was entirely sarcastic should probably seek help. But, for the record (because I’m sure that someone somewhere will try to claim that I was serious): I do not believe that Starbucks hates Jews, is anti-Semitic, or is waging a War on Hanukkah. But you know what else? I also don’t believe that Starbucks hates Jesus, is trying to take the Christ out of Christmas, or is part of the so-called (bullshit) “War on Christmas”. It’s just a damn coffee cup.

Happy Holidays!

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Friday, November 6, 2015

The Beginning of the End for Ben “It’s Not Something I Made Up” Carson?

In mid-October I wrote about Dr. Ben Carson and his penchant for, shall we say, colorful statements and claims: Victim Shaming, Invented Stories, Ignorance of History, and Comparisons to Lucifer: The Scary Worldview of Ben Carson. Well, in the few weeks since I published that post, Carson has become the frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination (eclipsing Donald Trump). However, with the rise in popularity and polling numbers comes something that Carson really hasn’t faced much of in the past: Careful scrutiny. Unlike many of the other candidates, Carson doesn’t have years of political office and a voting record to review, but he has given many speeches and written several books. And now that the media and others are reviewing his prior statements and claims … well, the wheels may be coming off.

For example, earlier today, Politico reported that Carson has admitted to fabricating his claim that he received a scholarship to West Point.

Ben Carson’s campaign on Friday admitted, in a response to an inquiry from POLITICO, that a central point in his inspirational personal story was fabricated: his application and acceptance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The academy has occupied a central place in Carson’s tale for years. According to a story told in Carson’s book, “Gifted Hands,” the then-17 year old was introduced in 1969 to Gen. William Westmoreland, who had just ended his command of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and the two dined together. That meeting, according to Carson’s telling, was followed by a “full scholarship” to the military academy.

West Point, however, has no record of Carson applying, much less being extended admission.

“In 1969, those who would have completed the entire process would have received their acceptance letters from the Army Adjutant General,” said Theresa Brinkerhoff, a spokeswoman for the academy. She said West Point has no records that indicate Carson even began the application process. “If he chose to pursue (the application process), then we would have records indicating such,” she said.

When presented with these facts, Carson’s campaign conceded the story was false.

Oops? But remember that when people challenged Carson’s claim to have been held at gunpoint during a robbery in a fast food restaurant (a robbery that the police can find no record of), Carson said that he should be believed because he was a “God-fearing Christian, it’s something that happened. It’s not something I made up.” I’m curious to know if G-d-fearing Christians who don’t make up stories about being held at gunpoint do make up scholarships to West Point.

Or we could look to CNN’s efforts to verify certain formative events that Carson describes in one of his books:

In his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story,” Carson describes those acts as flowing from an uncontrollable “pathological temper.” The violent episodes he has detailed in his book, in public statements and in interviews, include punching a classmate in the face with his hand wrapped around a lock, leaving a bloody three-inch gash in the boy’s forehead; attempting to attack his own mother with a hammer following an argument over clothes; hurling a large rock at a boy, which broke the youth's glasses and smashed his nose; and, finally, thrusting a knife at the belly of his friend with such force that the blade snapped when it luckily struck a belt buckle covered by the boy’s clothes.

“I was trying to kill somebody,” Carson said, describing the incident — which he has said occurred at age 14 in ninth grade — during a September forum at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

But nine friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson told CNN they have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described.

That person is unrecognizable to those whom CNN interviewed, who knew him during those formative years.

All of the people interviewed expressed surprise about the incidents Carson has described. No one challenged the stories directly. Some of those interviewed expressed skepticism, but noted that they could not know what had happened behind closed doors.

Gerald Ware, a classmate at Southwestern High School said he was “shocked” to read about the violence in Carson’s book.

“I don't know nothing about that,” said Ware, who still lives in southwestern Detroit. “It would have been all over the whole school.”

CNN was unable to independently confirm any of the incidents, which Carson said occurred when he was a juvenile.

It appears that tall tales and false denials are par for Carson’s course. Remember this sequence from the last GOP debate:

“There’s a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a ten-year relationship,” Quintanilla asked. “They offered claims that they could cure autism and cancer. They paid $7 million to settle a deceptive-marketing lawsuit in Texas and yet your involvement continued. Why?”

“Well, it’s easy to answer,” Carson quickly replied. “I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda.” He then backtracked a little. “I did a couple of speeches for them. I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches,” he told the crowd before switching back to a full denial. “It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.” Then he again acknowledged a role. “Do I take the product? Yes, I think it’s a good product.”

You know where this is going, right?

As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, Carson’s relationship with the company deepened over time, including “four paid speeches at Mannatech gatherings, most recently one in 2013 for which he was paid $42,000, according to the company.” The company disputes that Carson was a “paid endorser or spokesperson,” according to the Journal, and claims his financial compensation went to charity.

National Review also highlighted Carson’s connections to Mannatech in January and how Carson’s team went to great lengths to distance themselves from the company. Some of his video appearances have been removed from the Internet, but those that remain appear to show a deeper affiliation than Carson claimed during Wednesday’s debate.

In one video for Mannatech last year that remains online, Carson discusses his experiences with nutritional supplements while seated next to the company’s logo. “The wonderful thing about a company like Mannatech is that they recognize that when God made us, He gave us the right fuel,” Carson explained. “And that fuel was the right kind of healthy food … Basically what the company is doing is trying to find a way to restore natural diet as a medicine or as a mechanism for maintaining health.”

Carson stopped short of making substantive medical claims about Mannatech’s products. “You know, I can’t say that that’s the reason I feel so healthy,” he said. “But I can say it made me feel different and that’s why I continue to use it more than ten years later.” His apparent hesitation is understandable. Seven years before Carson appeared in that video, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who was elected governor of Texas last year, sued Mannatech for running a illegal marketing scheme under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Abbott claimed that the Dallas-based company and its sales representatives repeatedly exaggerated the medical efficacy of their products.

Or, to quote Jim Geraghty, a prominent conservative writer for the National Review who has previously investigated and written about Carson’s involvement with Mannatech:

His declarations that “I didn’t have an involvement with them” and “absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them” are just bald-faced lies.

(Emphasis added.)

Now that people are (kinda) taking Carson seriously as a candidate, they are starting to ask him serious policy questions, only to learn that he doesn’t seem to know much about the issues. For example:

“I’m a little different than most of the candidates,” Carson the author told the Miami Herald in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m looking more nationally at everything that’s going on across the country.”

Before Carson the candidate campaigns to Miami-Dade County’s Cuban-American Republicans, though, he might have a little catching up to do.

Carson’s national approach means he didn’t take a close look ahead of his trip at a key issue in local politics: U.S.-Cuba policy.

In the Herald interview, Carson appeared stumped by questions about the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain here, and about the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who arrive in the U.S. to apply for legal residency after 366 days.

He was candid about not being up to speed.

“You’re going to have to explain to me exactly what you mean by that,” Carson said, asked about wet-foot, dry-foot. “I have to admit that I don’t know a great deal about that, and I don’t really like to comment until I’ve had a chance to study the issue from both sides.”

On the Cuban Adjustment Act, he gave a similar response: “Again, I’ve not been briefed fully on what that is.”

When a reporter explained the outlines of the policy, Carson said, “It sounds perfectly reasonable.”

The reporter then informed him of abuses to the policy by Cubans who obtain residency and claim federal government benefits only to make frequent trips back to the island. The abuses have been documented extensively by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

“I think the way to fix that is not so much to abolish the act, but dealing with the specific area where the abuse is,” Carson said, noting that Medicare and Medicaid fraud is “huge — half a trillion dollars.”

“We definitely need to focus on that,” he said.

Um, “half a trillion dollars” in Medicare and Medicaid fraud? Really? What Carson doesn’t seem to know is that the total spending on Medicare and Medicaid last year was only $980 billion. In other words, he suggests, in a seemingly offhand comment, that over half of Medicare and Medicaid spending is fraudulent. Oh, and his failure to have been briefed on the issues might have something to do with the fact that he is on a book signing tour, you know, to sell books, instead of, perhaps, studying the issues. You’d think that someone who wants to be President would take the time to get “up to speed”, wouldn’t you?

But this isn’t the first time that his analysis of an important issue left some wondering about his knowledge, capacity, and fitness. Recently, Kai Ryssdal, the host of Marketplace interviewed Carson on fiscal policies. Witness this exchange:

Ryssdal: All right, so let's talk about debt then and the budget. As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, “We’re gonna run out of money, we’re gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November.” Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?

Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.

Ryssdal: To be clear, it’s increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You’d let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.

Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, “Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we’re not raising any spending limits, period.”

Ryssdal: I’m gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that’s already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?

Carson: What I’m saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You’re always gonna ask the same question every year. And we’re just gonna keep going down that pathway. That’s one of the things I think that the people are tired of.

Ryssdal: I’m really trying not to be circular here, Dr. Carson, but if you’re not gonna raise the debt limit and you’re not gonna give specifics on what you’re gonna cut, then how are we going to know what you are going to do as president of the United States?

Carson: OK, let me try to explain it in a different way. If, in fact, we have a number of different areas that are contributing to the increasing expenditures and the continued expenditures that are putting us further and further into the hole. You’re familiar I’m sure with the concept of the fiscal gap.

Ryssdal: Why don't you explain that a little bit, though.

Carson: OK, well, the fiscal gap is all of the unfunded liabilities that the government owes. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, all the departmental programs, all the agency and sub-agency programs extending into the future, which is a lot of money, versus the amount of revenue that we expect to collect from taxes and other revenue sources. Now if we’re being fiscally responsible, those numbers should be fairly close together. If we’re not, a gap begins to occur. We bring that forward to modern day today’s dollars, and that’s the fiscal gap, which sits at over $200 trillion and is continuing to grow. Now the only reason that we can sustain that kind of debt is because of our artificial ability to print money, to create what we think is wealth, but it is not wealth, because it’s based upon our faith and credit. You know, we decoupled it from the domestic gold standard in 1933, and from the international gold standard in 1971, and since that time, it’s not based on anything. Why would we be continuing to do that?

First, the whole “fiscal gap” notion — and the attached figure of $200 trillion — is a right-wing stalking horse that has been heavily criticized by many economists, including Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman. Read Krugman’s article if you’d like to understand, briefly, the major flaw in the calculation of the fiscal gap as quoted by Carson. More importantly, go back and read Ryssdal’s questions about the debt ceiling and what you’ll see is the Carson simply does not understand the questions or what the debt ceiling really is. Instead, all Carson can do is offer platitudes along the lines of “cut spending”! You’d think that before talking to the host of a show about economics and economic policies, Carson might have done a little homework on one of the top economic issues that was facing then being debated in Congress. But Carson, once again, simply isn’t “up to speed”.

Or take this example:

In his 2012 book, “America the Beautiful,” Carson says America should have gone into Iraq and leveled entire cities. Further, he suggests the reason America is afraid to do so is because “political correctness dictates we cannot kill innocent women and children in the process of destroying the enemy.”

“I would have announced via bullhorns and leaflets that in seventy-two hours, Fallujah was going to become part of the desert because there were substantial numbers of terrorists hiding there,” he wrote. “This would have given people time to flee before the city was destroyed, and is a tactic that would actually save lives not only of women and children, but also men.”

I really hope that I don’t need to spend time explaining why this view is so very wrong in so very many ways. Can you imagine a man who thinks like this as Commander in Chief?

One policy position Carson has stated that differs from some of his GOP colleagues is that he would not eliminate the Department of Education. However, his reason for keeping that Department:

“I actually have something I would use the Department of Education to do,” the doctor smirked in response to the question.

“Would it be pack boxes for the State Department? The IRS?” Beck joked.

And then Carson’s serious recommendation: “It would be to monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny funding if it exists.”

Excellent. He’s going to transform a federal agency into a form of speech or thought police.

I’m sure that I could spend a lot more time on his policy ideas (to the extent he has any real ideas), but I think you get the point.

Carson has also been found to hold some unusual views:

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson said. “Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don't think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”

In the same speech, he went on to say, “[W]hen you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they’d have to be that way for various reasons. And various of scientists have said, ‘Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that’s how—’ you know, it doesn't require an alien being when God is with you.”

I’m not sure which part of this is more frightening: The idea that his belief in a literal Bible tells him (despite what archeologists claim) that the pyramids were built to store grain or his belief that scientists say that alien beings came down with special knowledge.

Carson previously said that he didn’t think a Muslim should be elected President. When people pointed out to him the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests for office, Carson tried to backtrack:

“I would have problems with somebody who embraced all the doctrines associated with Islam,” Carson said. “If they are not willing to reject sharia and all the portions of it that are talked about in the Quran — if they are not willing to reject that, and subject that to American values and the Constitution, then of course, I would.”

Well, then, by that standard it should be fair to examine what Seventh Day Adventists like Ben Carson believe, right?

Ben Carson’s church believes the United States government will bring about the End Times.

According to mainstream Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, the Second Coming of Christ will occur after the U.S. government teams up with the Catholic Church — which Adventists believe is the “Babylon” of the Book of Revelation, with the pope being the Antichrist — to compel Adventists and others to worship on Sunday, rather than Saturday.

That may seem like a small hook on which to hang the fate of the world, but for Adventists, it is a core belief, taught at “prophecy seminars” and elaborated in excruciating geopolitical detail by key Adventist leaders.

Is it awkward for Ben Carson to run for president, if his faith believes the U.S. government will team up with the Antichrist? Will it matter to his evangelical base if he, like his denomination, believes that the government will join forces with the Whore of Babylon, to persecute religious minorities and compel Sunday worship?

Now isn’t that interesting? Wouldn’t you like to hear one of the debate moderators ask Carson to look at fellow candidates Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio (not to mention undercard candidates Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum) and explain whether he views their religious belief as being a part of the “Whore of Babylon”. Awkward. In any event, should other Americans have “problems” with somebody who “embraced all the doctrines associated with” the Seventh Day Adventist faith? I’d like to hear someone pose that question to Carson.

Oh, well. I’m sure this publicity will help Carson write and sell more books; after all, he’ll have time on his hands because he won’t be our next President.

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