Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What Is a "Proportionate Response" to Terror?

While waiting in line to get my lunch today, I overhead two people arguing about the conflict in Gaza. One of the people made the oft-heard claim that Israel was to be blamed for using "disproportionate force". That got me thinking. What, precisely, is proportionate force and how should it be applied?

The proximate cause for the current conflict is the near-constant bombardment of southern Israel with rockets. So, should Israel, in an effort to keep its implementation of force "proportionate" simply fire one rocket at Gaza for every rocket fired at Israel? If Hamas fires 60 rockets on any given day, should Israel simply fire back 60 of its own? And if those Hamas rockets are non-targeted (i.e., they are simply pointed north and fired without any real attempt or ability to hit a particular target), should Israel's response be equally random and indiscriminate? Can you imagine the outcry if Israel were to do that?

If a Hamas suicide bomber blows up a pizza parlor, should Israel simply plant a bomb (I don't think a Jewish suicide bomber is a very likely possibility) in a cafe in Gaza? Must Israel ensure that it only uses the same amount of explosives as the suicide bomber? And if the suicide bomber used metal fragments dipped in rat poison, should Israel be sure to include some kind of chemical or biological agent it its response? If a Hamas terrorist attack targets a shopping mall, should Israel be sure that its response hits only civilians? If a Palestinian terrorist attacks a Passover Seder, should Israel's response target a Ramadan feast? Again, can you imagine the outcry if Israel were to take such actions?

If Palestinian children are taught to hate Jews, should Israeli children be taught to hate Muslim children?

If Iran should acquire a nuclear weapon and attack Israel, would Israel thus be justified in launching its own nuclear response against Iran?

And why, in all of these scenarios, must Israel wait and respond to the initial implementation of force?

If you punch me in the face over and over again, shouldn't I have the right to do something other than simply punch you back? If you won't even sit down and talk to me to try to work out our differences, must I simply allow you to keep hitting me? Or, can I take efforts to stop you from hitting me again?

I guess that the real question is what is Israel supposed to do when Hamas launches attacks from within civilian areas and with the use of civilian shields? What is the "proportionate" response to that attack? Clearly, Israel cannot simply allow the attacks to continue unchallenged; just as clearly, Israel cannot simply decide to surrender and commit mass suicide to appease Hamas. So what can and should Israel do?

I suspect that if I were able to cross-examine at length one of Israel's critics I would learn that their real answer is that Israel should not be entitled to use force at all either due to a mistaken belief that Israel is a "colonial" or "apartheid" regime or due to some form of anti-Semitism.

In any event, I believe that Israel has the right to defend its citizens. I believe that Israel has the right to do more than simply respond in kind to attacks launched against it. If the only way to stop the use of terrorist force in an asymmetrical conflict is with the application of disproportionate counter-force, then such disproportionate force should, in reality, be seen as proportionate in the situation.

Updated January 2, 2008 to add title.


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Would You Want Your Government to Protect You?

Just imagine that you live in an American community adjacent to a Native American reservation. Now, imagine that the elected leadership of that reservation argues that land belonging to Native Americans was stolen by American settlers and the American government. Finally, imagine that the police force for that Native American reservation began launching rockets from reservation land into your community and that from the time that those rockets were launched it took just 15 seconds for them to reach their terminus in your community, on your street, or in your home. How would you explain the situation to your children as they screamed in fear in your basement? Would you want the American government to simply agree to give back all of your community's land to the Native Americans? What if the Native Americans wanted not just your community, but all of America? Or, would you want your government to protect you and your family and take efforts to be sure that the rocket fire stopped?

Now, suppose for a moment that the reservation was no longer under the control of your government. Suppose that the charter of the reservation provided that the only outcome that would satisfy that the Native Americans was your complete destruction and a statement that negotiation was worthless. Suppose also that the reservation bordered a foreign country (Mexico or Canada, I suppose) that allowed weapons to be transported into that reservation to be used against you. And suppose that, in addition to the rockets, members of the Native American tribe would occasionally sneak into your community with explosives strapped to their bodies and blow themselves up in pizza parlors, nightclubs, shopping malls, and bus stations. Again, would you want the American government to give up land for a promise of peace or would you expect your government to protect you?

Finally, imagine that both the American government and the international community had provided the government of the reservation with billions of dollars to improve the living conditions on the reservation but that the leaders of the reservation had used that money to purchase weapons and to enrich themselves but had used little, if any, to improve the lives of the average resident of the reservation. And suppose that the leaders of the reservation fought vicious battles with the leaders of another reservation who at least might want to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Suppose that the leaders of the reservation taught their children that killing your children was something that they should aspire to. Suppose also, that the international community and the media only talked about the harsh realities of life on the reservation and continued to blame you for those conditions. How would that make you feel?

In case you haven't figured it out by now, the preceding is a pretty good re-telling of the current situation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Go back and read the scenario again, but substitute Israel for America, Palestinians for Native Americans, Gaza Strip for the reservation, and Egypt for Canada or Mexico. Has your viewpoint suddenly changed? If so, why? What makes Israel subject to a different standard of conduct than that which you would apply to our own government and our own behavior with Native Americans? If you're English, why should Israel be subject to a different standard than applied to Great Britain with its dispute with the IRA? (This morning I was listening to the BBC World Service and one of the hosts compared the bombardment of southern Israel by Hamas rockets to the terrorist attacks from the IRA; I would suggest that his comparison was misplaced as the IRA attacks were usually targeted rather than random and the IRA was not launching 100 attacks per day.)

Israelis have been living with an ongoing barrage of missiles from Gaza (not to mention suicide bombings and other terrorist acts). It takes just 15 seconds for a rocket fired from Gaza to reach the town of Sderot.

It is also worth noting that the rockets being fired from Gaza are not targeted missiles with sophisticated guidance systems. Instead, they are crude instruments that are simply pointed in a given direction and are, thus, indiscriminate in their "targeting".

Hamas doesn't recognize the right of the State of Israel to even exist, so how is Israel to "negotiate" with Hamas who has said that they will accept nothing less than all of the land that comprises Israel. In fact, the Charter of Hamas says: "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors." The Hamas Charter even references the historical forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as "proof" an a "Zionist" plot for world domination:

The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.
With the current fighting, many simply refer to the "cycle of violence" or the "vicious cycle". The problem with these approaches is that they create a moral equivalence in the type of conduct and refuse to make distinctions for purpose of the conduct. Consider the following, for example: If you see a man walk into a crowd firing indiscriminately, mowing down women and children, and you shoot that man to stop his rampage, is your conduct morally different than his? And if his family then attempts to kill your children in an act of revenge and your wife shoots and kills those family members as they enter your home, is their conduct morally equivalent? And after this back-and-forth continues for a period of time, when the police intervene and try to arrest the perpetrators and planners and a shoot-out results, are the actions of the police morally equivalent to those of the perpetrators? Yet moral equivalence for different types of conduct is what the phrase "cycle of violence" creates when applied to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. When you attack me and I defend myself by trying to stop you from attacking me, there is no cycle of violence at all.

And, most importantly, remember that the alleged "cycle of violence" could be brought to an end via negotiation. Israel has always been willing to negotiate, has given up land for peace, has unilaterally disengaged from certain land, and has offered the Palestinians almost everything (but not quite) that they demanded. Yet that was never enough. Without going back too deep into the depths of history, recall too, that Israel accepted the UN partition plan; the Palestinians and Arab nations did not and they attacked the fledgling State of Israel. And lost.

I contend that there is an enormous difference between firing a rocket at a civilian area and a targeted missile strike against a terrorist training camp. I contend that there is an enormous difference between the suicide bomber with a belt of explosives and ball bearings dipped in rat poison who kills himself and innocent civilians in a pizza parlor and the assassination of the terrorist who built the bomb and planned the bombing. I contend that there is a differtence between a culture that tells people to "martyr" themselves in suicide bombings and a culture that encourages peace and open dialogue. And I contend that there is an enormous difference between the government that says "we don't recognize your right to exist and will continue our armed struggle until you cease to exist" and the government that says "we want to live in peace with our neighbors but, if necesssary, will act to protect our citizens".

I could go on at length about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I could talk about Pallywood (the Palestinian "industry" of creating faked confrontations or staging atrocities to inflame prejudice against Israel). I could talk about the ridiculous misinformation that comes from Palestinian sources that is often swallowed, without comment or question, by the media (remember the "massacre" in Jenin that was widely reported, yet even the UN had to later admit that no massacre had occurred). I could talk about the horrible instances of anti-Semitism that are endemic in Palestinian education (not to mention education throughout much of the Arab and Muslim world) such as the frequent re-telling of the Blood Libel (the suggestion that Jews drink Muslim blood as a part of religious rituals) or airing on government-run TV a mini-series based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I could talk about the charitable efforts of Israel (Israeli hospitals will treat any patient without regard to whether the patient is Israeli or Palestinian, Jew or Muslim; Israel offered to send assistance to Iran following an earthquake a year or two ago, but the offer was rejected) or the corrupt Palestinian government structures that enrich their leaders while many Palestinians still live in "refugee" camps (you could ask why refugee camps still exist givent that the Palestinian authority has controlled those areas since the mid-'90s). I could talk about Israeli efforts to have open and honest discussion and debate about history and the impact upon the current situation and the Palestinian efforts to rewrite even basic history that cannot, in the exercise of intellectual honesty, really be disputed (for example, Yasser Arafat famously claimed that there was no historical evidence of Jewish links to Jerusalem; of course that allegation directly impacts Christianity, too). I could talk about the unfair treatment meted out by the United Nations and other international organizations. (Did you know that until 2006 the International Committee of the Red Cross recognized the Red Crescent in Islamic countries by not Magen David Adom [the Red Star of David] in Israel? Even today, the Red Star of David is only recognized for use in Israel while a special Red Diamond is to be used for relief work outside of Israel.) I could talk about how Hamas treats a captured Israeli soldier (refusing to even allow the International Red Cross to ascertain his condition and holding public demonstrations where the captured soldier is ridiculed). I could go through nearly a century of history that so few really know or understand (or seem to care to understand).

Instead, I will finish by asking again this one simple question: Why is Israel, among all nations in the world, held to a different standard in its conduct?

I've obviously got lots of things to say about the Israeli-Palestinian (Arab-Israeli) conflict in general and the current conflict in particular, but I'll save that for another day.


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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

IN Touch: Frivolous

My second post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. I wrote the piece last week, but it didn't make it onto the website until yesterday. (Incidentally, my proposed name for the post was "Frivolous Lawsuits Not Newsworthy".)

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ben Stein, Chain Emails, & "Happy Holidays" (Part 2)

Now that you've had a chance to read (in Part 1 of this post) the original commentary and embellished chain email, it is time to turn to my response. Some of my friends and family have already read this, but after receiving yet another version of the Ben Stein chain email, I decided that it was finally time to share. As you will see, my response was written as a direct response to the woman who first posted the chain email to the mailing list. Rather than try to rewrite my response, I've simply removed specific references to her but left the overall tone and message intact:


I have a number of grave problems with the "Ben Stein this is great..." [some versions are entitled "Ben Stein Food for thought"] email that is being circulated. On most days, I might have just brushed my concerns aside and not worried about it. But at the time that I first read this email, I was trying to figure out how to answer the concerns of my very sensitive then7year old daughter who was upset that she had to listen to "Santa stories" in her public school classroom and who didn't want to make a Christmas stocking in art class [and ironically, the same week that I'm posting this response, I've had to deal with concerns from that same daughter, now 9, who was upset that she was being made to draw images of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the Three Wise Men in her elementary school Spanish class]. It was in this frame of mind that first I received the email bemoaning the absence of God from our schools and public life. Thus, I experienced a visceral response that prompted my original drafting of this essay.

As you will see, the separation of church and state is a major issue for me; perhaps it is simply because I am a part of a religious minority or because I have been on the receiving end of prostelyzation and religious bigotry. In any event, I have long been an advocate for the separation of church and state and even lobby the Indiana General Assembly on behalf of the Jewish community of Indianapolis on church-state issues [and let me reiterate again that what I say on this blog and in this essay in particular I am saying for myself and am not speaking on behalf of anyone else or any agency with whom I am affiliate]. I have no problem with people expressing their faith. Nor do I have a problem if a business elects to follow a religious path or erect a religious symbol. And obviously, I have no problem with a church or other house of worship taking steps to foster its religious viewpoint.

However, I do have a problem when the government becomes enmeshed in religion, especially when the government my government tries to tell me that I must pray, how or to whom I must pray, or which religious holidays or religious beliefs meet with "official" approval (or, conversely, chooses to ignore other equally valued religious beliefs). I have a problem when others are not satisfied with prayer in their homes, churches, or other private places and, instead, feel the need to force their prayer upon me, whether or not I agree with their religious beliefs, especially when they want to force their prayer and religious beliefs upon me through the government. And I really have a problem when people want to force those religious viewpoints upon my children in the public schools. I am old enough to make my own religious decisions; I know enough about religion to know what I do and don't believe; I am not worried about peer pressure; and I am confident enough in myself to stand up and so "no" when asked to do that which violates by sincerely held beliefs. But my now 9year old twins should never have to bow down to public pressure to believe a certain way, be made to feel different or an outsider, or be forced to consider their own religious beliefs all because someone else is not satisfied with prayer in their own home or church. I'm curious to know how comfortable you are that your children would be able to handle prostelyzation from another religious faith, especially if your child were confronted by questions or accusations that go to the core of your religious beliefs or involved questions of religious understanding to which your child had not yet been exposed.

Before delving further into some of the issues raised in the email, however, there are few important preliminary points that must be addressed:

First, the email begins by attributing the text to Ben Stein (and, I must say, that it is getting somewhat tiring having the opinion's of a single Jew thrown in my face, almost as if because one Jew believes a certain way, those of us who disagree must be wrong; I suspect that many Christians would take offense if I were to pick and choose the words of a few particular Christians and use those words to paint broadly the viewpoint of all Christians or to challenge the legitimacy of contrary opinions held by other Christians). Anyway, while Mr. Stein did, indeed, make some of the comments attributed to him in the email, his comments end before the paragraph that begins with "In light of the many jokes..." See Mr. Stein's website for the full text of his comments (which, by the way, differ slightly from those that he actually gave on CBS Sunday Morning).

The email then goes on with a series of other statements and quotations (without recognizing that these statements or quotations were not made or quoted by Mr. Stein). The first of these references an interview between Jane Clayson and Rev. Billy Graham's daughter Anne Graham (Lotz). The email suggests that this interview and Ms. Lotz's response were "regarding Katrina". However, considering the fact that the interview took place on September 13, 2001, it obviously was not in reference to Katrina (but, just as obviously, was in reference to the events of September 11, 2001). Moreover, the statements the email attributes to Ms. Lotz, while close in substance, are not accurate and include far more than what she actually stated [in particular the numerous additional statements noted in blue in Part 1]. For additional information, see She Said He Said at BreakTheChain. One of the dangers of the Internet is the ease with which people can be misquoted, quotations taken out of context, or entire quotations fabricated, and then those mistakes are given a life of their own. Before attributing statements, we owe it both to those whom we are quoting and to those whom we want to influence to check the source material for accuracy. Similarly, before forwarding a chain letter (or email), it behooves us all to check the accuracy of the statements therein; after all, when we send that email we are, in essence, putting our name and reputation behind the content of that which we distribute.

The email also goes on to suggest that "recent events" (such as terrorist attacks and school shootings) began when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (her name is actually spelled Madalyn Murray O'Hair) complained that she didn't want "prayer in our schools". For information on Ms. O'Hair, see the entry for her at Wikipedia (I know, I know, but it is a decent starting point...). In fact, Ms. O'Hair complained of coercive prayer in public schools in the early 1960s! And, by an 81 majority, the United States Supreme Court agreed that it was improper for coercive prayer or bible study in public schools. More information on the decisions can be found on the Wikipedia pages discussing Abbington School District v. Schempp and Engel v. Vitale. It is worth noting that four of the Justices on the Supreme Court that decided those cases were appointed by a Republican President. Yet Ms. O'Hair is somehow being blamed for Islamic terrorists attacking America. Timothy McVeigh, perhaps... but the lack of coercive Christian prayer in American public schools does not seem to be one of the things that has sparked fundamentalist Islamic terrorists to attack America. Generally speaking, we Jews don't believe in prayer in public schools, yet I haven't seen many Jewish children engaging in school shootings or terrorist attacks; nor, for that matter, have I seen adherents to other religious faiths behind the trigger in school shootings, either.

The email next furthers the foregoing argument by suggesting that America is in trouble because we no longer read the Bible in schools and it is the Bible that teaches "thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself". I guess, that we are to understand that, if we still taught the Bible in our public schools, we wouldn't kill or steal and we would love each other. First, just because our children don't read the Bible in public schools doesn't mean that we can't (or don't) teach our children not to kill or steal or can't or don't teach them to love one another. And even when children did read the Bible in public schools, bad things happened: Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting or forced them to sit at the back of the bus (and sometimes left them hanging from a tree), but I would be willing to wager that supporters of those laws prayed quite a bit. Murder and burglary did not suddenly start the day that prayers ceased in the public schools; it seems that those societal ills have been with us (and with all of humanity) from the beginning of time, whether or not people prayed (and irrespective of the type of prayer or the deity to which those prayers is offered). It is simply too easy to say that things are bad and to place blame accordingly without empirical evidence supporting the allegation.

Next the email implies that people have been wrong to follow the advice of Dr. Benjamin Spock and appears to ridicule Dr. Spock's advice because, according to the email, Dr. Spock's son committed suicide (as if to suggest that if Dr. Spock's own son committed suicide, then Dr. Spock's child-rearing advice must have been wrong). While this suggestion is, itself, almost uncertainly unfair, it is wholly misplaced given that Dr. Spock's son did not kill himself. Rather, Dr. Spock's grandson killed himself after a long battle with mental illness (for more information, see Doctored Spock and the entry for Dr. Spock on Wikipedia).

[I added this paragraph after receiving some of the alternate versions of the chain email that added the text that was not in the original version.] Some versions of the email then proceed through a litany of social issues in the buildup to the general premise that the "world is going to hell" as a result of American society's decisions on those social issues. The authors of the email want us to believe America is in danger and that God is angry because we oppose corporal punishment of our children by teachers and principals, because we support a woman's right to choose and oppose certain restrictions on that right, because we support giving condoms so that kids who are sexually active don't become pregnant or get sexually transmitted diseases, because we support the notion of privacy, especially within the confines of our own bedrooms, because we allow pornography to exist, because we allow child pornography (I'm stumped by this one given that child pornography is not only illegal, but it is not protected by the First Amendment and mere possession of child porn is punishable), and because some segments of the entertainment industry espouse viewpoints that may not conform to mainstream beliefs and practices. I could just as easily turn the entire discussion around and argue that America is in danger and God is angry because we don't take care to properly feed the poor and house the homeless, because we allow children to go without proper health care and make some of the elderly choose between food or medication, because we glorify greed and allow the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, because we use violence rather than diplomacy and include torture as an accepted way of getting information, because we don't uphold our own democratic traditions and allow our civil rights to be trampled, because we are willing to discriminate against people on the basis of their religious beliefs or their skin color or their national origin or their sexual orientation, because we use the airwaves to espouse hate and bigotry and to talk about our political opponents as the enemy, because we allow our environment ("God's green earth?") to be polluted, and because we are egotistical and/or stupid enough to suggest that natural disasters have anything whatsoever to do with human thought.

Finally, the email offers a number of statements that repeat the general allegation that the "world is going to hell" because "public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace".

Which leads me back to the main point. Those of us who feel strongly about the separation of church and state do not suggest, not even for a moment, that children are not or should not be allowed to pray in public schools. Nor do we argue against public "discussion" of God, gods, or religion. Rather, we argue against public prayer. We argue against government sponsorship or endorsement of particular religions or particular religious viewpoints. We argue that our children should not be compelled to pray in public schools and that the government should not compel a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. If a child wants to pray in school, he or she can do so any time, whether on the bus, at recess, at lunch, or even quietly seated at his or her desk. But the government should not tell my child (or your child, for that matter) that the child must pray (and certainly not with a particular prayer or to a particular deity).

And before you say, "but without prayer in public schools, our country has gone to hell", just consider for a moment what you are really saying: Either, you are saying that we, as parents, have failed at teaching values to our children (because, if the schools aren't teaching values and children aren't learning those values, then who else is there to blame but the parents who are not properly teaching and raising their children?) or you are saying that the U.S. should be a religious country in which minority religions are merely tolerated. As to this latter point, remember that the U.S. was initially settled by many people looking to escape religious persecution and bigotry. More importantly, which religious viewpoint should be the dominant one? Assuming that Christianity would be the "national" religion, would that be from a Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, or other viewpoint? Who's interpretation of scripture would be correct? Who would get to pick which prayers are to be said in our public schools?

For that matter, which Bible would we be using? The Jewish Bible (the Old Testament)? The Catholic Bible? The King James Bible? It is worth noting that the different versions of the Bible have very different texts and meanings. Just consider the Ten Commandments, about which so much has been made recently. Many people want the Ten Commandments posted in the schools and courts. But which version would that be? A simple Google search will reveal a number of examples of different versions of the Ten Commandments. Consider simply the commandment quoted in the email that "Thou shalt not kill". The use of the word "kill" finds its way into certain translations, while other translations (in particular those that do not go through an intervening Greek and/or Latin translation) usually use the word "murder" instead (and just consider the difference in meaning between those terms). Or, consider that some versions of the Ten Commandments do not include a prohibition against graven images. Even the Bible itself has several versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). For more discussion of the differences and meanings, see the Wikipedia entry on the Ten Commandments. And which Biblical lessons would we be teaching? I suppose that we should teach how to place a proper monetary value upon our daughters when we sell them into slavery (as permitted by Exodus 21:7). We should teach men how to recognize when a woman is having her menstrual cycle so that we can avoid touching them (as prohibited by Leviticus 15:1924). Perhaps we will need to revisit our teaching of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights movement; after all, Leviticus 25:44 states that we may possess slaves. We will also need to settle once and for all whether Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is the true Sabbath (just when exactly did God tell Christians to move the Sabbath from Saturday [the last day of the week on every calendar that I've looked at recently] to Sunday [the first day of the week]; after all, I thought God rested after finishing creation not before getting started)? Why is this important? Because Exodus 35:2 requires that we put to death those who work on the Sabbath. It seems best that we know which day not to work on and schools would be a good place to teach that. We will also have to be sure that our schools don't serve any kind of shellfish as eating it is an abomination (Leviticus 11:10). I guess, too, that the hippie movement will be forced to make a comeback as our schools should probably teach that trimming a man's hair, especially around the temples, is forbidden (Leviticus 19:27). I am worried about forcing schools to stop playing football, but given that touching the skin of a dead pig makes a person unclean (Leviticus 11:68) it would seem, at bare minimum, to require that we switch to a synthetic ball. For that matter, ham sandwiches and hot dogs will certainly have to go (Leviticus 11:68) and cheeseburgers will be a thing of the past (Exodus 23:19). And I can't wait to see how school dress codes are modified to take into consideration that prohibition against wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread; alas, no more cotton/polyester blends (Leviticus 19:19). And I'm particularly looking forward to the part of the curriculum that deals with the proper way to make animal sacrifices.

And before you say that we don't need to follow all of those commandments from the Bible, please tell me just who it is, precisely, that gets to decide which commandments we keep and which ones we ignore; which commandments still have a place in the modern world and which should be relegated to the past? I don't recall God saying that we get to pick and choose the rules that we want to follow. But then I guess that will be part of the school curriculum as well.

And how are we to reconcile all of this with Jesus' own prescriptions against public prayer:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret....

(Mathew 6:56). It would seem to me that coercive (or even optional, but organized) prayer in the public schools would violate this admonition. But maybe our new Biblical public school curriculum will include proper instruction on how and where and to whom to pray, too.

Perhaps we can settle these questions in the civilized way that Europeans have used over the millennia: War. Consider, for a moment, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which all of Europe was embroiled in a war over competing versions of Christianity (Catholics v. Lutherans v. Calvinists). By some estimates, millions of people died during this particularly bloody war. European history is filled with examples of war over religious doctrine and dogma. The Spanish Inquisition was a particularly pleasant way of addressing religious differences. And don't forget Henry VIII who created an entirely new church just because he wanted a divorce. More recently, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants have seen fit to blow each other up. Christians aren't alone in their use of violence to resolve religious disputes. Just look at the violence between Muslims and Hindus over Kashmir, between Muslims, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox in the Balkans, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, if we were to decide that blowing each other up was the best way to resolve our own petty religious differences, then we wouldn't be much different from the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims presently engaged in their own conflict in Iraq in which wholesale kidnapping, torture, and slaughter is apparently an acceptable way to address religious differences.

Consider the following statement from ReligiousTolerance:

Religion is a unique force in society. It motivates individuals to do both good and evil. Historically, it has promoted: an end to slavery, racial integration, equal rights for women, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. It has motivated individuals to create massive support services for the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the broken. Conversely, it has been used to justify slavery, racial segregation, oppression of women, discrimination against homosexuals, genocides, exterminations of minorities, and other horrendous evils.

Religion motivates some to dedicate their lives to help the poor and needy. (e.g. Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa.) It drives others to exterminate as many "heretics" as they can. Consider the mass murders and genocides in Bosnia, East Timor, Indonesia, India, Kosovo, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tibet, etc.

Religion has the capability to generate unselfish love in some people, and vicious, raw hatred in others.

Americans love to stand up and say how proud they are of their country and the freedoms and liberties that America stands for. Yet, when those freedoms and liberties challenge us, how many of us are still ready to stand up and support the rights of those with whom they disagree? You pray the way you want, I'll pray the way I want (if I want), and we'll leave the schools to teach our children about math and reading and science (and let's not even get started on the whole issue of creationism or "intelligent design").

Do we honestly believe that simply offering a public prayer that conforms to a particular religious viewpoint will suddenly cause all children to be good, that burglars and murderers will suddenly repent, that terrorists will leave us alone, and hurricanes will limit their destruction to Mexico or Cuba? Just think about it: Canada allows gay marriage, but it doesn't appear that God has punished Canada. For that matter Massachusetts also allows gay marriage, but Hurricane Katrina landed far to the south of Boston. So maybe, just maybe, the fact that we don't allow prayer in public schools has little or nothing to do with how God views our country. Or, perhaps, if God is angry at the U.S., it is because we have not lived up to the challenge of always acting as we should when we support dictators, don't give enough money to help impoverished nations, continue to allow the environment to be destroyed, rely upon torture to obtain information, and continue to use God and religion as an excuse for political viewpoints that demonize those with whom we disagree. Or maybe, God just wants us to allow gays to marryY

Just consider my own childhood in which the principal at my public elementary school used a derogatory term to describe my mother after I (a somewhat precocious 5thgrader) expressed discomfort at singing "Silent Night" in the school's Christmas program. When I asked the music teacher if I could simply remain silent during that song, I was given the choice of singing (and not just "mumbling", I was reminded) or quitting the choir. Or consider that Good Friday was a recognized absence for the Catholic children, but Jews had to call in "sick" to be excused for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Or consider that every student at our public high school had to sit through a performance of Handel's "Messiah" by the school choir (and rise at the appropriate moment). I was told that if I did not attend the performance, I would be suspended. When I later asked the music teacher why that particular piece of music was chosen, she claimed that it was due to the beautiful harmonies and not for its religious content. So, I asked her why it was not included in the spring music program and she replied that it "would lose its meaning". I could go on and on with examples of the government, through the public school system, attempting to impose a particular religious viewpoint upon me. It was clear to me, as I grew up, that because I was not Christian, I was different and something less than a full participant in my own country. That is wrong. That is not American. I am no more a guest here than any other citizen, whether a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Wiccan, or any of the myriad other religions that make up America. And an atheist is no less a citizen than any believer. I am not a guest and my country should not make me feel that I am anything less than on equal footing with every other citizen, no matter my religion (or lack thereof).

And finally, back to Ben Stein. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Stein that it doesn't bother me when people refer to Christmas trees as such. Nor am I particularly bothered if someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas". My wife even likes to listen to some Christmas music (I have allegedly been caught humming "Frosty the Snowman") and our family will occasionally drive around and look at our neighbors' Christmas lights. However, while I am not offended, I do wonder what is so wrong with saying "Happy Holidays" as that term is fully inclusive of all people, of whatever religion (or none the phrase includes New Year's Day and Thanksgiving and maybe even the winter solstice) rather than being exclusive. So, while I have no problem with Wal-Mart deciding that its greeters should say "Merry Christmas" (can anybody explain why Wal-Mart needs to greet me?), I also have no problem giving my business to Target where diversity is welcomed and inclusiveness is valued. That said, I am offended when someone who knows me says "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Holidays" because that tells me that the person doesn't care enough to be considerate toward me. If I know that someone is Christian, I will try to remember to say "Merry Christmas". Otherwise, I usually say "Happy Holidays"; I want to be inclusive and be sure that my greeting is appropriate for everyone (but, I'll acknowledge that when an acquaintance who knows that I'm Jewish wishes me a "Merry Christmas" I am likely to respond with "Happy Hanukkah" if I'm in a bah humbug sort of mood).

Like Mr. Stein, I am not offended by a manger scene. The church on the corner near my home has a lovely living nativity each year. I am, however, offended, when my government chooses to erect a manger scene or allows one to be erected on public property. Why exactly does the government need to erect a manger or to celebrate the birth of Jesus? Don't churches and private homeowners (not to mention stores and businesses) do a sufficient job of that? The hue and cry about the "attack" on Christmas would make one think that those of us who favor the separation of church and state want to prohibit churches and individuals from showing their faith and devotion when that simply is not the case at all. By all means, hang up your Christmas lights, decorate your tree, erect your crèche. Just do it at your home or at your business or at your church and not on government land and do it without government tax dollars. Is that really too much to ask?

I also agree with Mr. Stein that America is not an "explicitly atheist country". I am unfamiliar with that claim. Instead, I believe that America is a country that is (or should be) neutral toward religion. America is not atheist any more than it is Christian or Jewish or Muslim or tied to the earth and ancestor spirit faiths of Native Americans. America is all of those things. America is made up of hundreds of different religions (and of those who have either no particular faith or who don't believe in a god or gods), each of which may be a valuable contribution to the fabric that makes our country (and each of which may also have negative influences as well). But that does not mean that America as a country and through its institutions should show favoritism toward any particular religious belief or form of worship (or lack thereof). To exclude coercive prayer from public life, to recognize that not everyone shares the same religious views and beliefs, to value diversity (and the rewards and challenges that diversity can bring) is not "atheist". But it is American.

Happy Holidays.


Well, I did warn you that this would be long. If you've stayed with me the whole way, thanks. If not ... well, I guess that you wouldn't be reading this would you? Anyway, as I'm sure you can tell by now, the issues that I discussed above are very important to me and about which I tend to get very exercised.

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Ben Stein, Chain Emails, & "Happy Holidays" (Part 1)

Let me apologize in advance for the length of this post and of Part 2 (which I'm actually posting at the same time). Unfortunately, to do justice to the subject, I found that I had to write even more than my usual relatively-lengthy posts. Sorry. And with that, away we go...

First a little background. I'm sure that you've received numerous chain emails on a whole host of different topics. Usually, I just hit the delete key and move on, but every now and then one of these chain emails either interests me or offends me or both. I participate in a number of mailing lists related to various subjects. One of these mailing lists pertains to certain health care matters and is supposed to be limited to that topic. Nevertheless, one particular poster frequently feels the need to send cute little jokes and inspirational messages that I ignore (the jokes aren't funny and the messages aren't inspirational). She has also been prone to sending chain emails to the mailing list and, on more than one occasion, these chain emails have been untrue (hoax virus warnings, the crying baby on the doorstep urban legend, and other similar things that have been debunked by Snopes and others). When I receive these messages, I often send her (or others from whom I receive similar messages) a private email noting that the chain email is a hoax or urban legend and offering some suggestions on how to identify hoaxes in the future. Again, this may be an annoyance, but it isn't really harmful.

But then one day, she posted a message that got me angry (I'll discuss the subject matter in a minute). After reading the message several times, I started doing a little online research of my own. I found that part of the message was an mostly accurate transcript of an original commentary but that it had been combined with a number of other bits and pieces without proper attribution and which were incorrect. Moreover, even ignoring the numerous errors in the message, I found the subject matter and the conclusions reached by the authors to be highly objectionable. So I decided to write a response. Over the course of a number of lunch hours I drafted my response. I wrote and tweaked and edited until I was happy with my response. My only real concern was that the tone of my response was much harsher than the tone I usually use, but I felt that the circumstances warranted that tone. Finally, before I posted my response, I sent it to my wife to review. She told me that it was a well-written message that did an excellent job of addressing the issues; however, she told me that if I posted the message she would have to kill me. All I would accomplish, she explained, would be the creation of a flame war on the mailing list (in which she is a frequent participant). We argued, but eventually I relented and decided to hold my tongue. I tucked my post away in my drafts folder where it has stayed for quite some time.

In the two years following, I received that same email several times. A few months ago, when the election was heating up, I received the objectionable email from a close family friend (who I think secretly hopes that he can drag me over to the political right). And then, unsurprisingly, here shortly before Christmas, I've received yet another copy of the message. Each of the versions of the email that I've received are virtually identical with only little bits and pieces changing from one to the next. An online search will reveal several versions of the same general chain message. However, all of the versions of the chain email have warped and expanded the original commentary on which they are based and which they quote.

So finally we get to the actual content of the original commentary and the chain email that it spawned. In late 2005, actor/game show host (and now advocate for creationism and the position that belief in evolution was a root cause of the Holocaust) Ben Stein gave a commentary on CBS Sunday Morning about Nick & Jessica and Christmas (sorry the video cannot be embedded). Mr. Stein posted a version of that commentary on his website (it is worth noting that the commentary on the website is subtly different from that which he gave on CBS Sunday Morning, but the differences are essentially non-substantive). Here is the full text of the commentary as posted on Mr. Stein's website:

Herewith at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart:

I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are. I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I am buying my dog biscuits and kitty litter. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores. They never know who Nick and Jessica are either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they have broken up? Why are they so important? I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is, either, and I do not care at all about Tom Cruise's wife.

Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I am a subversive? Maybe, but I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are. Is this what it means to be no longer young. It's not so bad.

Next confession: I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him?

I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

I disagree with some of Mr. Stein's thoughts (though not about Nick and Jessica or Tom Cruise...), but don't really care what he has to say. If those comments were the extent of the chain email I would probably have just hit the delete key. Unfortunately, someone, somewhere, decided to embellish Mr. Stein's comments and tried to make them into much more than they really were. As embellished, Mr. Stein's comments are then used to try to advance both the simple position that Mr. Stein was commenting about but also to advocate on behalf of prayer in public schools and to attack those of us who support separation of church and state. And, as I mentioned previously, not only are many of the additional points not from Mr. Stein; they are also factually inaccurate. Yet because they appear to have the imprimatur of being spoken by an "expert" (or at least a third-rate celebrity; some people seem to have trouble telling the difference), they are taken at face value. (I find it troubling that Mr. Stein has not added and addendum to the page with his originally commentary noting that he is not responsible for the additional thoughts attributed to him that are so readily found floating around the Internet.) Moreover, and more importantly, because Mr. Stein is Jewish (and "confesses" as much in his commentary), his comments (including the embellished additions) are used as a club against Jews (like me) who have a different viewpoint.

So, below is the full text of the chain email that caused me to become so exercised in the first place. As you will see, it is fairly lengthy. Thus, my response (the one that I've kept in my drafts folder for two years now), with some minor corrections and edits, but with the original tone largely intact, will be in Part 2 of this post. It is also worth noting that some versions of the chain email completely omit the portions that I've posted in green (and change the subsequent reference to "Nick and Jessica" to "celebrities") while others add the portion that I've posted in blue.

Something not to laugh about.

If they know of him at all, many folks think Ben Stein is just a quirky actor/comedian who talks in a monotone. He's also a very intelligent attorney who knows how to put ideas and words together in such a way as to sway juries and make people think clearly.

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

Herewith at this happy time of year, a few confessions from my beating heart: I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are. I see them on the cover of People and Us constantly when I am buying my dog biscuits and kitty litter. I often ask the checkers at the grocery stores. They never know who Nick and Jessica are either. Who are they? Will it change my life if I know who they are and why they have broken up? Why are they so important?

I don't know who Lindsay Lohan is either, and I do not care at all about Tom Cruise's wife.

Am I going to be called before a Senate committee and asked if I am a subversive? Maybe, but I just have no clue who Nick and Jessica are.

If this is what it means to be no longer young. It's not so bad.

Next confession: I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don' t feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution, and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica [alternately: celebrities] and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him?

I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too.

But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this Happen?" (regarding Katrina)

Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.

And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about and we said OK.

Then someone said teachers and principals better not discipline our children when they misbehave. The school administrators said no faculty member in this school better touch a student when they misbehave because we don't want any bad publicity, and we surely don't want to be sued (there's a big difference between disciplining, touching, beating, smacking, humiliating, kicking, etc.).. And we said OK.

Then someone said, let's let our daughters have abortions if they want, and they won't even have to tell their parents.. And we said OK.

Then some wise school board member said, since boys will be boys and they're going to do it anyway, let's give our sons all the condoms they want so they can have all the fun they desire, and we won't have to tell their parents they got them at school. And we said OK.

Then some of our top elected officials said it doesn't matter what we do in private as long as we do our jobs. Agreeing with them, we said it doesn't matter to me what anyone, including the President, does in private as long as I have a job and the economy is good.

Then someone said let's print magazines with pictures of nude women and call it wholesome, down-to-earth appreciation for the beauty of the female body. And we said OK.

And then someone else took that appreciation a step further and published pictures of nude children and then further again by making them available on the Internet. And we said OK, they're entitled to free speech.

Then the entertainment industry said, let's make TV shows and movies that promote profanity, violence, and illicit sex. Let's record music that encourages rape, drugs, murder, suicide, and satanic themes. And we said it's just entertainment, it has no adverse effect, nobody takes it seriously anyway, so go right ahead.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves. Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "WE REAP WHAT WE SOW."

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell.

Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says.

Funny how you can send 'jokes' through email and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

Before moving on to my response (in Part 2), take a moment and comment on Mr. Stein's original commentary and the embellished thoughts attributed to him.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Valuing Intellectual Achievement

Shortly after the election, I wrote:

I have great hopes that we will, indeed, leave behind the days when "intellectual" was a derogatory term and enter a new period in which those willing and able to engage in "deep thought" and careful, intellectual analysis of complex issues and problems will be valued.

So, you can imagine my reaction to something that President-elect Obama said in yesterday's news conference in which he nominated Arne Duncan to be Secretary of Education:
If we can get young people focused on education; if we can change our culture so that we are once again valuing intellectual achievement; and if we are willing to all pull together around making our schools better, that's going to be the single biggest determinant, in terms of how our economy does, long-term.
(Emphasis added.)

What do you think? Has the President-elect been reading my blog?

And, on a somewhat related note, several years ago, my wife and I attended a conference in Chicago (at Northwestern, actually) for education-related businesses (my wife has a tutoring service). One of the speakers at that conference was Arne Duncan (who, if I recall, was relatively new to his job with the Chicago public schools). While I don't remember the specifics of his talk, I do recall thinking quite highly of him. I specifically recall discussing with my wife the fact that Mr. Duncan seemed more than willing to talk candidly about the issues that were facing the Chicago public schools and he seemed very open to listening to and thinking about ideas. I haven't followed his progress in the intervening years, but my gut reaction on hearing of Mr. Duncan's nomination -- based solely upon the impression formed from listening to him speak and honestly and candidly answer questions -- was very positive.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

IN Touch: Double Bailout Standard

My first post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Questions Would You Ask Obama?

President-elect Obama's transition website has launched a new feature called "Open for Questions" that allows the public to propose questions to be asked of (and presumably answered by) President-elect Obama. What makes this new feature more interesting is that, in addition to proposing questions, members of the public can also vote on which questions should be asked. Whether these questions are ever answered or not, I find it interesting to note that the Obama transition team is at least soliciting public involvement and is likely using the voting system to see what issues the public is prioritizing.


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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Left Is Not Unhappy!

Over the last few weeks, numerous news organizations have run stories or articles suggesting that "the Left" is unhappy with some of President-elect Obama's choices for his cabinet and senior advisors. I certainly consider myself to be part of that big amorphous blob called "the Left". Am I absolutely thrilled with each and every choice that has been made? No. Might I, in a perfect world, have preferred someone else for some particular job? Maybe. But then I doubt that anybody has ever been absolutely thrilled with each and every choice that anyone has ever made about much of anything and I bet that we can all name someone else that we think would be better in a particular role.

The bigger question is not, whether I or "the Left" have issues with this selection or that selection, but rather, whether we generally approve of the broad spectrum of appointments and nominations that President-elect Obama has made. At least for myself, the answer is a unqualified "yes".

Shortly after the election I wrote that this election was a victory for thought and about my perception that President-elect Obama wanted to (and was able to) think deeply about the issues and that it was important that he surround himself with the best and the brightest people. As I analyze his nominations and appointments, I think that President-elect Obama has continued with that philosophy. With the breadth of talent, experience, and differing viewpoints that will be surrounding our next President, we can be confident that no good idea will be left unspoken for fear of ideological disdain or because a viewpoint was not welcomed to the discussion. And that will be good for our country.

So, speaking for this member of "the Left", I wish that the mainstream media would stop suggesting that we are unhappy with President-elect Obama's choices. We're not. Shut up.


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Monday, December 8, 2008

The Indianapolis Star IN Touch Blog

I've agreed to start writing for The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog (my profile is available at the bottom of this page). I'm not quite sure yet what I will write about on IN Touch (as opposed to this blog), but I will provide a link to my IN Touch posts. The real challenge for me in writing for IN Touch will be to keep my posts short. Some people have told me that I'm a bit long-winded. I have no idea what they're talking about. But IN Touch wants posts to be in the neighborhood of 150 words. I find that I burp and 150 words show up on the page, so trying to limit my thoughts to that degree of brevity should be an exercise in both writing agility and frustration.

I've written my first IN Touch post already (on the spike in gun sales following the election). Unfortunately, that first post, which I was able to write very quickly over a bowl of lunchtime chili, ran to almost 400 words (and I felt as if I'd only scratched the surface of what I wanted to discuss). So, before I submit the post, I need to try to find a way to reduce it to the CliffsNotes version. This should, if nothing else, prove ... um ... interesting?

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Things for Auto Industry to Thing About Before Asking for Our Money

Now it is the auto industry's turn to ask Congress for a bailout (or loan). In all honesty, I really haven't given enough thought to whether I think this is a good idea or a bad idea (I'm leaning toward good but I could be swayed) and I'll readily admit that I do not have anywhere near enough information to make a truly informed decision on the issue. Having said that, there are a few things that I think that the auto industry ought to think about as part of their survival plans.

Let me preface this discussion by asking two semi-rhetorical questions: 1) Do you enjoy the process of buying a car? 2) When I say "car salesman" what words come to mind?

Retailers like Best Buy have made shopping for technology fun. Borders and Barnes & Noble make book shopping a pleasant experience (although I do miss some of the quality independent bookstores). And most retailers of other products have endeavored to make their own shopping experience a happy one. But not the auto industry. I don't know about you, but I absolutely dread the process of shopping for a new car, so much so, in fact, that I will put it off as long as possible. If the auto industry really wants to sell more cars -- and let's face it, at the end of the day, that is really what the industry is all about -- then they have to find a way to get people like me excited about the actual process of shopping for and buying the car. It should be pleasant, not painful. (And note that there is a distinction between excitement for the car itself and excitement in the process of shopping for the car.)

When I buy a widget at Target, I know that I'm paying the same price as everyone else. Sure, the item may have been on sale last week or might go on sale next week, but for the most part, everyone buying that widget that week will have paid the same price for it. My widget will have come with the same warranty as your widget (unless I paid for some kind of "protection plan"). In a lot of cases, I can even return my widget if it doesn't live up to its advertised qualities. I can even make a rough guess about what the retailer paid for the widget before selling it to me.

Of course, none of that holds true when buying a car. I have no idea whether the price that I'm paying bears any resemblance to the price that you're paying. Perhaps I'm a better negotiator than you are; then again, maybe I'm a miserable negotiator. In either event, neither one of us really knows if we are paying the "best" price for that car; instead, we are at the mercy of our respective "skills" in negotiating matched against the skills of the particular salesman that happens to shake our hands when we first walk onto the car lot. I don't begrudge the salesman and dealer making a living from selling the cars, but I don't ever want to feel as if I might have been cheated or taken advantage of and that, all too often, is precisely how I feel after buying a new car. I may have gotten the absolutely best possible deal and yet I still feel is if I've been played and worry that someone got a better deal.

Factor on to that the fact that certain people are treated differently by the salesperson (I seem to recall readings studies about how women and certain minorities are treated at car dealerships) and the problem is magnified. I know that my wife would not be amused to learn that she paid more for the widget at Target simply because the salesperson knew that she didn't know as much about the product and could, therefore, be "taken for a ride".

Besides a house, a car is just about the largest purchase that most people will ever make. So why should we be put in a position where we feel bad about that purchase? And if we do feel bad about that purchase (even without real reason), why would we look forward to our next purchase?

Maybe there is something that I fundamentally don't understand about the auto industry. But I don't see why the car can't simply have a price tag on it that tells me the price that I and everyone else must pay for that car. And I don't see why that price tag has to have "extras" that are nothing more than thin disguises for the dealer to steal a few more dollars from my wallet. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want to negotiate the price of my car and I don't want to worry that someone else was able to negotiate a better deal. I want to decide which car I want, be able to compare one to another on the basis of features and the known price, and then make my decision. I don't want to have to play games with the dealers. The mere fact that there are so many services available (CARFAX and Consumer Reports, for example) who offer services to help a consumer try to learn the "right" price to pay for a car illustrates the problem.

And speaking of games, does anybody else go absolutely berserk when the salesman says, "Gee, let me go talk to my sales manager," before disappearing for 20 minutes? What's that all about? And how many times have you watched the salesman and sales manager stand around and laugh during that time. Are they laughing at a good joke or are they laughing at us? I'm sorry, but that just isn't the way to make me feel good about the process of shopping for and buying a car.

One more quick point on the subject. When you take your car in for warranty work, do you trust that you are getting the best service work? And when you ask a question of the service department, do you trust that you are getting the correct answer? If you are anything like me, I suspect that you did not answer either of the foregoing questions with an unqualified "yes" and that, of course, is demonstrative of yet another problem in the auto industry. A car is a complicated machine and most of us are at the mercy of the mechanic to tell us what is wrong and how to fix it. The fact that many people don't trust what the mechanic tells them but are, essentially, powerless to do anything but act on the basis of that mistrusted information is yet further illustration of the problem and of the disconnect between the auto manufacturers and the car-buying public.

So, by all means, the car manufacturers should rethink their approaches to automotive design and fuel efficiency and employee benefits and a whole host of other corporate business decisions. But I think that they will be doing themselves an enormous disservice if they don't use their bailout request as a chance to rethink their relationship with their intended customers to try to find a way to make us want to buy cars.

And why can't I buy a car on Sunday in Indiana?

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Prop 8: The Musical

Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Margaret Cho, Andy Richter, and others present: "Prop 8: The Musical"!

(The video is from Funny or Die which sometimes won't embed properly; if you can't watch it, click here to go to Funny or Die's website.)

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cal Thomas Offers Truly Xenophobic Ideas

In today's issue of The Indianapolis Star, columnist Cal Thomas offered his opinion on the events in Mumbai and how those events relate to Muslim immigration to Britain and the United States. On one level, Thomas' essay can be seen as simply a call for vigilance by western governments to be sure that they are not allowing terrorists to immigrate and to try to prevent terrorist breeding grounds from sprouting up amongst Muslim immigrants. But then Thomas goes off the proverbial deep end:
At the very least, all non-Western immigrants to Britain and America should be told prior to their arrival that our intention is to westernize them. They must learn English, study and embrace the history of their host nation and, if they are Muslim, they will be allowed to worship only in existing mosques. No new ones should be built. Existing mosques must be monitored to make sure that hate is not taught and aggressive behavior toward their host countries is not promoted. If such behavior and speech are detected, the mosques should be closed and the imams arrested or deported.

It appears that Thomas forgot why many of America's original settlers immigrants found their way to our shores: They wanted religious freedom. Apparently, Thomas is not willing to extend that right to certain religious groups and is not willing to allow other "non-Western immigrants" to retain their own cultures. While most of the terrorists that we've seen blowing up buses or attacking hotels or flying airplanes into buildings have been Muslim, it is also fair to say that there are are large number of Muslims -- both worldwide and in the United States -- who are not terrorists. Yet, because some Muslims are terrorists, Thomas would deign to tell new immigrants which mosques they can worship at, would "monitor" the sermons of imams, and would arrest or deport those who don't have nice things to say about America?

If someone engages in speech that rises to the level of incitement to violence, that speech is probably punishable (if I recall, that is one of the areas where courts have found an exception to the First Amendment). And I have no problem with the idea of allowing investigative authorities (be it the police or FBI or whomever) to follow up leads and probable cause to see if incitement to violence is occurring. But I'm curious to know how Thomas' monitoring would work. Would an FBI agent have to attend each and every service at each and every mosque? Should we plant listening devices at each and every mosque? Maybe Thomas would prefer if we just rounded up each Muslim and threw them out of the country or into a detention camp like we did with the Japanese during World War II.

To tell immigrants that they cannot worship where they want or to censor critical speech (so long as it doesn't amount to an incitement to violence) is simply not among the core values that have made America great. There has to be a better way to lessen the threat of domestic-bread Islamic terrorism.

But I think that it is important to recognize a few more things as well. Not all terrorism directed against Americans has been carried out by Muslims. Timothy McVeigh killed hundreds in Oklahoma City, abortion foes have killed dozens (hundreds?) in bombings of clinics where abortions were performed, and white racists have been responsible for bombing black churches. Perhaps we should also monitor evangelical Christian churches (or even mainline Christian churches) and prohibit the construction of any new ones so that we can be sure that preachers aren't inciting their parishioners to violence against the United States government or abortion providers or blacks. In India, some Hindus have carried out terrorist acts against Muslims, so we should obviously be limiting the worship rights of Hindus as well, shouldn't we?

And it isn't just religious groups that we should watch out for. G. Gordon Liddy has talked on the radio about his plans to kill journalists and has advised his listeners on how to kill federal agents. I doubt that Thomas thinks that Liddy's show should be taken off the air. In the past, certain Native American groups have advocated or engaged in violence against the US government. Perhaps we should be sure to monitor all Native American religious celebrations and prevent them from holding unauthorized prayer events. Maybe we should restrict the civil liberties (oh, such as free speech rights) of racists like Cal Thomas.

And I'm not sure how Thomas equates his concern for safety and protection from terrorists with the notion that we must try to "westernize" non-Western immigrants. Is he suggesting that Japanese and Chinese and Korean immigrants should not be allowed to retain aspects of their respective cultures? Is he suggesting that immigrants from Africa give up their culture, too? As I read Thomas' suggestion, he is essentially saying that America is a place for European whites and that if you're not "one of us" then you are only welcome if you are willing to act like "one of us". I'm curious to know if Jews fit into Thomas' view of America. In any event, the suggestion that "non-Western" immigrants should sacrifice their culture for the privilege of immigrating to America is both un-American and racist.

Look, I understand that, right now, the primary threat to our safety comes from Muslim terrorists and that we need to take steps to keep ourselves safe from that threat. But I don't think that, in the name of keeping ourselves safe, we need to sacrifice one of the core values that makes our nation great and I don't think that we need to become a nation of xenophobic racists. We should continue to investigate, as vigorously as possible, potential threats to our safety and our nation (better inspections at our borders and ports might be a good starting point...). And there is no reason that we can't perform more vigorous and thorough background checks on those seeking to come to our country legally. But to tell one group that they are under a cloud of suspicion solely due to their race and to then limit their religious freedoms is simply wrong.

I think that we can find the balance to keep ourselves safe without destroying civil liberties and without denigrating the diversity of cultures that have made America great.

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