2017: In Which “The Me Generation” Earns Its Name

userpic=trumpAs I look back at 2017, not surprisingly, I’m dismayed by … Donald Trump. That’s probably not a surprise. Trump is a salesman in every sense of the word — and a great one at that — promising a lot of stuff to a lot of people. They buy the car and drive off the lot, satisfied in the deal they received. Only a few months after buying the car they discover it was held together by spit and duct tape, and that the promises weren’t quite what they seemed. This tax bill will be a great example of that. A large number of people — primarily those in areas that didn’t support Trump — get hurt immediately. Others benefit, but only for a few short years because their benefits expire after Trump leaves office. Why do they expire? Because without the expiration, they will balloon the deficit to unacceptable levels (this being done by the party that supposedly was against deficit spending). Other benefits — significant cuts for businesses, and especially for businesses where Trump is doing business — will be permanent.

Trump’s approach on what to do in office appears to boil down to the following:

  • Do anything he can do to undo Obama’s legacy. If Obama did it, he wants to undo it, whatever “it” is.
  • Do anything he can to please his most rabid and strongest base, the people that adore him unquestionably. That means acting in ways that reinforce what they do and what they believe, and constantly dog-whistling messages to them.
  • Do anything he can to please his Republican-party donors and benefit himself personally, as his biggest donor.
  • Do anything he can — in the short term — to make it appear as if promises were fulfilled. If those go away later, that’s someone else’s problem — someone else to blame.

Although he touts “Make America Great Again” (a slogan he trademarked), his actions do not fulfill those words except in the eyes of “America First” Americans. In the eyes of the rest of the world, he is a laughingstock, and he is reducing America’s stature. He is permitting non-democratic countries to become the world leaders, especially China. He is playing to the hands of thugs and dictators, and arguably increasing the risk of war. But within America, America is great if you say it is and act like it is, and downplay any attempts to tell a different story. That’s a propaganda win.

It has also been a win for selfishness. Our society has become increasingly selfish. From the growth of the selfie and the focus on MEEEE in the picture (and away from the others in the world we love), to a tax plan that people only look at from how it benefits or hurts them personally, we no longer think of the others in the world. We no longer seem to care how others are affected. We no longer think long term and think about hidden implications and impacts. If it benefits me personally now, it’s good, and that’s good enough. That’s a dangerous, self-serving attitude.

I do think this is a great country, and I hope we can survive Trump’s administration — however long it is — and we can recover afterwards. We’ve had populist demagogues before — witness Andrew Jackson. We’ve had idiots in the office. We’ve had corrupt Presidents. Somehow, we’ve survived. But during their terms, was the ride ever bumpy; further, the office was less international and there was less risk of instigating global catastrophe.

If I had a wish for 2018, it would be for sanity to return to politics. Legislation should not be passed on strict party lines. That’s what doomed the ACA because of the seeming single-sidedness. That’s what increases the hatred of the 2017 tax reform. Politicians must work to find a middle ground that can create broader acceptance. Give on some areas, gain on others, for the sake of the Nation as a whole.

In other words, America can only regain its greatness when what is put first is not Trump’s personal interests, not the personal interests of the Republican (or Democratic) leadership,  and not what benefits the political party and its donors. Even putting the “notion” of America first — that is, the flag, the symbols — isn’t the answer. It is not putting first the ideas of the 1700s and 1800s of Christianity first, of White Men first, of women and people of color as chattel, of those different from us as bad and the source of all evil.

What will help America regain its greatness is to put the American people first — and that’s ALL the American people and all future Americans — the full range of skin colors, genders, orientations, and religion. It is the full ranges of birth places: those born here and those born abroad who want to work hard and tie their destiny to this nation.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t how our leaders of 2017 acted, and come 2018, they are going to be so fired.


Trump and Religion

userpic=trumpYesterday, President Trump met with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, and with a simple question related to antisemitism, it again brought the issue of Trump and Religion again to the fore. Here are a few topics related to the subject that have caught my eye over the last few days:

  • Trump and Antisemitism. Yesterday, Donald Trump was asked, by an Israeli reporter, a straightforward question about “a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the United States” since his election. His response? A rambling response about the extent of his electoral victory, that included the following: “As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren. I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening.” Reading this, two things struck me. First, just like right after the election when there were a number of antisemitic incidents by his followers, he did not take the opportunity to strongly condemn antisemitism — and indeed, religion-based hate crimes. It was similar to his tone-deaf response on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day where he failed to acknowledge the major target of the Holocaust. Second, the “As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends…” struck me as a “Some of my best friends are…” line. Many remember when “Some of my best friends are black” was an excuse for racism — if I had a black friend, how could I be racist. Having a Jewish son-in-law does not make Trump not antisemitic: he can still hate the group while still liking a few individuals. After all, how many Conservatives have a few liberal friends but hate “libtards” (and vice-versa)? [ETA: It should also be noted that Trump tends to shout down reporters who ask him about antisemitism]
  • Trump and a Christian Resurgence. The Jewish Journal has an interesting article on Trump that strikes a few chords similar to my article last week on Trump and Apocalyptic Visions. The article notes that the anti-Muslim sentiments of the new administration are one head of a two-headed beast. The other head is a political agenda forged by a coalition of conservative Christians that is closer than ever to achieving its vision of a “Christian nation.” This linkage between anti-Muslim and “pro-Christian” policies is revealed in the executive order, which couples a thinly veiled ban on Muslims with a thinly veiled preference for Christians from predominantly Muslim countries seeking refuge in the United States. It is a sentiment I’ve seen from a few Conservative friends, who are spreading the word that the most prosecuted minority in Muslim countries are… Christians. That notion is lifted directly from the Christian right, which has long promoted the idea that Christians are a — indeed, the most — persecuted minority. It dovetails with the belief that Christians are being subjected to religious persecution in America by intolerant secularists, which has joined the claim that liberals turn a blind eye to the persecution of Christians by Muslims. Both are staples of the worldview that drives Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist and architect of his immigration policies. This is all part of a plan forged between Trump, Bannon, and the Christian Right to bring the US “back to” being a Christian Nation (something the White Nationalists love).
  • Muslims and Jews – A Surprise Alliance. With all this hatred for Muslims, and the fights between Arabs and Jews over Israel, you think Jews and Muslims would hate it other. You would be wrong. There are alliances between Muslims and Jews in a number of areas. One I particularly support is the alliance of HIAS, which just supported the National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees. This was last Sunday; I participated in the meeting we had at Temple Ahavat Shalom. There was a large rally held in parallel in New York; Jews have also been fighting for Muslim refugees right after the executive order. The underlying notion here is that Jews have often been refugees because of their religion, and that is the case with many of the Muslims coming to the US. Whereas the Christian Right portrays Muslims as a unified group, and thus how could these be refugees when they are all Muslims, they forget why the Puritans came to America — because they were hated by other Christians. That’s the same reason Quakers and Catholics and many Christian groups came to the US: because other Christians kicked them out. It is why there is religious freedom in America. In this case, there are two main divisions within the Islamic world: Shia and Sunni, and the more militant and violent group is kicking out and conducting genocide against the other group. Jews recognize this, and that is why they are saving lifes, going back to the commandment from the Torah to “Welcome the stranger”. There are additional coalitions forming, going back to 2015 when the American Jewish Committee began work with the Islamic Society of North America, when presented with FBI data showing a stunning 67 percent rise in hate crimes against Muslims.  This spurred the formation of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, or MJAC, a group of 38 high-profile business leaders, government officials and others. The nonpartisan council aims to combat discrimination with engagement at the highest levels of government. The desire to bridge Muslim and Jewish communities has intensified since the election, as both religious minorities express concerns over a White House in which presidential advisers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller have been accused of having white supremacist ties. Another group, called MuJew Antifa, protested Wednesday in response to Trump’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This group is opposed to what they view as facist occupation and actions by Israel against Palestinians (one report connects them to the Antifa group who incited violence at the recent protest against a Breitbart editor at UC Berkeley, although other accounts attribute that to a different Antifa group). MuJew Antifa says its goals are “to strengthen ties between our communities, to support each other in a time of hate and to forge a united front against fascism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”



Chum for a Sunday Afternoon: Drums, Drives, Drugs, Dust, Dresses and More

Observation StewI’ve been on travel for my daughter’s graduation, and so I haven’t had a lot of time to write about the articles I’ve seen. I’ve got two themed collections of chum that I’ll write up after last night’s theatre review (not sure when I’ll post them). But first, here’s the stuff that wouldn’t theme, but that caught my eye:

  • Bang. Bang. Bang. Anyone who has attended Drum Corps, or likely even seen a band will recognize this name: Remo. The news in recent weeks included an obituary of the man behind the name: Remo Belli, who invented the synthetic drum head. Before Remo, drums were animal skins, highly variable. As the obituary notes: “Belli was a young professional drummer in the 1950s, backing singer Anita O’Day and others, when he grew frustrated with the limitations of animal-skin drumheads, which could wilt or expand depending on the weather. In 1957, he and his collaborators perfected and began marketing one of the first artificial drumheads made of a resilient polyester film manufactured under various brand names, including Mylar, made by DuPont. He dubbed that first product the Weather King, a signal that it was durable no matter the atmospheric conditions of the gig, unlike finicky cow-skin drums.” Since then, his product has become the standard.
  • Long Commute. This article caught my eye because it deals with Las Vegas and teachers. Specifically, there is a group of teachers who live in Las Vegas, and commute daily to teach in the small community of Baker, at the gateway to Death Valley. Why? Pay, of course. The starting salary for teachers in Baker is $44,000. In Las Vegas it’s $34,000, though it will be $40,000 next year after a new contract takes effect. At the same time teacher shortages are ravaging America’s cities, however, rural schools have arguably been hit hardest. Teacher turnover is high, and many small towns are finding it hard to attract teachers. While many are attracted to Baker because of the pay, they stay because the work is satisfying, the way teaching should be but often isn’t in large urban school districts. Class sizes are extremely small: compared with the 30-50 in the large school districts, we’re talking 4-10.
  • Hacking the Brain for Fun… and to Relieve Pain. In our life, pain is a constant. My wife deals with arthritis; I deal with migraines. What do you think we would do for a good solution for the pain? Here’s an intriguing direction: A group is playing with a non-chemical solution that involves hacking the Vagus nerve. The vagus nerve starts in the brainstem, just behind the ears. It travels down each side of the neck, across the chest and down through the abdomen. ‘Vagus’ is Latin for ‘wandering’ and indeed this bundle of nerve fibres roves through the body, networking the brain with the stomach and digestive tract, the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves that are involved in speech, eye contact, facial expressions and even your ability to tune in to other people’s voices. It is made of thousands and thousands of fibres and 80 per cent of them are sensory, meaning that the vagus nerve reports back to your brain what is going on in your organs. Research shows that a high vagal tone (strength of your vagus response) makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. Said inflammation has been connected with arthritis and migraines. This article talks about using an implant to stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce pain. Fascinating.
  • Pain and Empathy. Chemical painkillers  can be insidious. For example, we all believe Tylenol (acetaminophen, paracetamol in the UK) is safe; safer than aspirin or other NSAIDs. But there have been numerous reports that even the slight overdose can cause serious liver damage, and slight overdoses are easy because it is in so many products because it is believed to be safe. Here’s another danger from Tylenol: In research published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, scientists from the National Institutes of Health and Ohio State University describe the results of two experiments they conducted involving more than 200 college students. Their conclusion: Acetaminophen, the most common drug ingredient in the United States, can reduce a person’s capacity to empathize with another person’s pain, whether that pain is physical or emotional. In fact, I’m on it right now (just took two Excedrin). Ask me if I care ;-).
  • It’s a Gas — Porter Ranch Causes . One group I do emphasize with are all the folks in Porter Ranch, the community next to where we leave. Not only did they have to deal with the Aliso Canyon gas leak for numerous months, being relocated and such, but they are still having problems even after the leak was sealed. They have now figured out why. Los Angeles County Public Health Department officials say its test of dust in Porter Ranch homes turned up the presence of metals, including barium, that could have caused the kinds of health symptoms some residents have reported experiencing even after the big gas leak was plugged. County officials said there appeared to be  a pattern — or fingerprint — of metals to which all of the homes were exposed. Those metals were barium, vanadium, manganese, lead, strontium and aluminum. The county health official said the barium was in the form of a salt known as barium sulfate, which is not radioactive. It was found at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, which is in the Santa Susana Mountains directly north of Porter Ranch homes. Barium sulfate is added to the fluids that are used in the course of oil well drilling. As I said when the leak first started, this is going to be a clusterf*ck of tremendous proportions — unfortunately, one that will affect our synagogue and many friends and neighbors.
  • Taking Offense at Everything. There are more folks these days that are just finding any hint of skin or sex offensive. We’ve all seen the bathroom wars, where a subgroup of men either believe that men will just choose to dress as a lady to go into a ladies restroom to attack women, or that some woman dressed as a man will go into the mens room and see their shortcomings. Here’s another one: a female weather reporter wearing a beautiful black beaded dress on-air was handed a grey cardigan because some viewers complained they could see her bare arms. This didn’t happen in some backwater area either — this was in Los Angeles folks. Geez, get a life folks. If something offends you, change the channel. If you can’t control your urges, that’s your problem. ETA: Then again, perhaps it was all a joke. Perhaps. ETA#2: Yes, it was a joke.
  • Cell Phones and Theatres. Here’s a very nice piece on Broadway vs. Cell Phones. It explains why they are such a problem. First, taking pictures is making copies of a copyrighted design (yes, the show and all the design elements are copyrighted, and represents significant artistic work). Second, the light these devices emit can distract the performers on the stage, and can distract and disturb other audience members. Thirdly, if they  make noise, the noise can do the same: distract and endanger performers, and disturb the audience. Power them off, or silence them and put them in airplane mode. Why the latter? The signals sometimes interfere with wireless microphones.
  • Replacing Ikea. In Burbank, California, Ikea is moving down the street to an even larger facility. So what is going to happen to the existing facility? What will happen to the dying mall next to it. A report this week gave the answer. Crown Realty is proposing to build a six-story, mixed-use project with 765 apartments and about 40,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level of the current Ikea space. They also envision converting the site into a community gathering area where an outdoor ice rink could be built and a farmers market could be held. As for the neighboring mall, one of the major proposed changes will be redesigning the entryway at San Fernando and Magnolia boulevards. A section of the second-floor roof will be removed to create an open-space feel and an escalator will be installed to allow pedestrians to get to the upper level from the street. Other amenities — such as the food court, children’s play area and elevators — will be moved around to create a better flow and atmosphere in the mall.
  • Yiddish in Poland. Lastly, in honor of my daughter’s graduation, here is a map of the Hebrew and Yiddish language frequency in Poland based on the Polish Census of 1931. Those of you who know her will understand.



A Matter of Perception / Why People Who See the World Differently are Wrong – A Lunchtime Post

userpic=aughhIn a recent discussion in response to my Facebook post on Starbucks Red Cups, a very rationale friend of mine wondered by people became religious fundamentalists. I responded back that I didn’t know, but noted back “Well, lots of people have beliefs. But some people have beliefs that can be challenged or modified, and some are so convinced that they are correct that they won’t accept any evidence that contradicts their beliefs.”. While reading through my RSS feeds over lunch, an article came across with the intriguing title “Why you often believe people who see the world differently are wrong“. The article, which appears to be a transcription from a podcast I need to explore, explores what shapes our perception that we see the world as it truly is, free from bias or the limitations of our senses (which is termed “naive realism”). Naive realism leads us to believe we arrived at our opinions, political or otherwise, after careful, rational analysis through unmediated thoughts and perceptions. In other words, we think we have been mainlining pure reality for years, and our intense study of the bare facts is what has naturally led to our conclusions. As such, we can’t understand why others don’t think the same way. In fact, on most emotionally charged issues, there is no objective perspective that a brain can take, despite the fact all the people on each side of any debate believe their side is the one rooted in reality.

Here are some interesting quotes from the article:

…since you believe you are in the really-real, true reality, you also believe that you have been extremely careful and devoted to sticking to the facts and thus are free from bias and impervious to persuasion. Anyone else who has read the things you have read or seen the things you have seen will naturally see things your way, given that they’ve pondered the matter as thoughtfully as you have. Therefore, you assume, anyone who disagrees with your political opinions probably just doesn’t have all the facts yet. If they had, they’d already be seeing the world like you do. This is why you continue to ineffectually copy and paste links from all our most trusted sources when arguing your points with those who seem misguided, crazy, uninformed, and just plain wrong. The problem is, this is exactly what the other side thinks will work on you.


When confronted with people who disagree with your estimations of reality, even after you’ve pushed a bunch of facts in their faces, you tend to assume there must be a rational explanation for why they think and feel the way they do. Usually, that explanation is that the other side is either lazy or stupid or corrupted by some nefarious information-scrambling entity like cable news, a blowhard pundit, a charming pastor, or a lack thereof. Since this is where we often end up, they say what usually happens is that our “repeated attempts at dialogue with those on the ‘other side’ of a contentious issue make us aware that they rarely yield to our attempts at enlightenment; nor do they yield to the efforts of articulate, fair-minded spokespersons who share our views.” In other words, it’s naive to think evidence presented from the sources you trust will sway your opponents because when they do the same, it never sways you.

This is something I see happen continually on Facebook and other discussion forums. It is a very important thing to understand, and in many ways, it explains arguments with both fundamentalists and Republicans quite well 🙂 . I will have to go listen to the full podcast.

P.S.: Mental Floss has published an article on NPR’s new Podcast finder, earbud.fm. What’s interesting about this is that is it curated: the editors don’t just list good podcasts, but they recommend specific episodes as entry points for that podcast (and often, that’s not the first episode). I’d say I need to explore it, but I’ve already got more podcasts coming in than I have time to listen to. There’s loads of good stuff out there.


Why Freedom of Belief Is So Important

userpic=schmuckThe response to my post of yesterday regarding Starbucks, the Red Cups, and Christian Privilege (at least on Facebook) has been tremendous, if not a little off-point: over 83 likes, over 33 shares, and lots and lots of comments. I was thinking about it over lunch, and about the movement in our country by some Christian groups to bring God more into the discussion, to have laws that are more in-line with biblical teaching.

To me, that is the absolute wrong thing to do, and will destroy what is special about America. I understand the fears behind the laws, especially as these folk see Islam rising in other countries, and they see more and more people with strongly different beliefs. I understand they are scared and that they believe there is a “war on Christianity” — an attempt to wipe out Christmas and other holidays.

C’mon. Retailers will never let that happen.

Seriously, however, what keeps America strong and special is precisely its freedom of belief, and freedom from government imposed belief. I do not believe that any other country has this. Everyone in America has the right to their beliefs (or non-beliefs) and to observe them as they see fit. If the government does things right, it will not force a belief on you, will not prevent you from holding your beliefs and worshipping how you will, and it will ensure that one person’s beliefs do not infringe on another’s beliefs. It is on this latter point that we have been failing miserably of late, falling into the Christian notion of “If I believe an action is a sin, not only do I have to not do it, I have to prevent you from doing it as well”.

By strongly ensuring that every individual can believe as they wish, and does not have the right to impose their belief on anyone else, we keep this country strong. We not only ensure that people are free to practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, FSM, atheism, or any other belief system, but we ensure that any belief system cannot take over the country. Enforcing Christian morals and practice on non-Christians through law or policy is just as bad as in Islamic countries, where Islamic morals and practices are enforced on non-Muslims through law or policy.

So, tying back to yesterday: I don’t care what designs are on Starbucks cups. They are free to observe — or not observe — holidays that occur during the winter season as anyone else, in whatever fashion they want.


Seeing Red for a Different Reason

userpic=schmuckEarlier today, I posted the following comment in response to one of the many responses I have seen to the Starbucks Red Cups this holiday season. If you don’t know about this latest skirmish on the “War on Christmas”, the skinny is this: Starbucks, this holiday season, is using plain red disposable cups with their green logo. Many Christians are up in arms about this, seeing it as yet another attack upon Christmas. One response going around (the one that I shared to start my commentary) seethed about the upset in a very good way, noting: “Because, seriously, do you think Jesus would rather we remember his birthday by putting it on a coffee cup that’s going in the trash? Or would he rather we remember it by no longer treating one another as disposable?” [By the way, that commentary is well worth reading]. However, much as I agree with what was said, I saw a deeper issue, and thus I posted the following:

I keep seeing this going around, with various messages: either from Christians upset at Starbucks, or people asking whether Jesus would care about a red cup. What I see, however, is a presumption that infuriates me. Why do we assume a business must venerate Christmas? After all, we’re in a country where there is freedom to practice your religion. In fact, we see devout Christians going to the courts for the right to practice their religion, even when it trods on the rights of others. We’re also in a country where there is no official national religion. So why are we getting upset at a business that might choose not to even tangentially observe a Christian holiday. I’m not insisting that the cups be blue and white. I’m not insisting that they be the colors of Kwanzaa. I don’t care what color they are (I use a refillable mug). Starbucks has as much right to make their cups devoid of holiday symbolism as In-n-Out has of printing bible verses on each cup (which they do). The hidden “Christian Privilege” in this country is amazing. Observation of any religious holyday is a personal matter, not something to plaster on cup. … or be upset if it isn’t there.

The subsequent discussion has been far ranging, with many agreeing, and many not seeing the Christian privilege in this country. If you don’t see it, try looking at things from the someone who is not Christian, and especially who is not of an Abrahamic faith (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) or Atheist. In fact, the number of likes and the discussion surprised me — I have no idea who reads what I write. But there is a strong notion in this country that businesses are expected to do something to observe Christmas and that everyone is expected to hold “Christian” values — and that expectation bothers me in a country that is so proud of its heritage of having freedom to worship. [Of course, that emphasis is actually new. Just look at the history of Catholics in America. I never knew that at one time, the most popular novels were exposes written by nuns.]


“That Kind” Takes the Cake

userpic=sheriffjohnRecently, over on Facebook, I’ve gotten into a discussion with some of my more devout friends about the recent court case in Oregon. You may be familiar with it: This is the case where the former owners of an Oregon bakery have been ordered to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple who were refused a wedding cake. The large amount was for pain and emotional distress. The bakers had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage in refusing to make the wedding cake for the lesbian couple. The court decision was based on the fact that Oregon law bars businesses from discriminating or refusing service based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot turn away customers because of race, sex, disability, age or religion.

The discussions on Facebook at times has been heated. To many of my devout friends (by that I mean folks who hold strong scriptural Christian views as well as Orthodox Jewish friends), this is a case of the courts impinging on the freedom to practice their religion, or upon their freedom of speech. To many of my more liberal friends, this is a case of Oregon simply enforcing their anti-discrimination laws. The whole recent issue of same-sex marriage has highlighted the tension that exists between these three legal concepts, and Facebook discussions do not easily permit a suitable exploration of the issues. As this issue is swirling in my head, I request your indulgence to do so here.

Lets start by looking at some constitutional amendments:

  • First Amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Next, there’s the Oregon law:

  •  659A.403 Discrimination in place of public accommodation prohibited. (1) Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation, without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age if the individual is 18 years of age or older. [A public accommodation is defined to include “Any place or service offering to the public accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges whether in the nature of goods, services, lodgings, amusements, transportation or otherwise.” but to exclude “An institution, bona fide club or place of accommodation that is in its nature distinctly private”]

Let’s start by exploring whether baking a cake is an exercise of religion. To my interpretation, free exercise of religion is a personal matter. What I wear. What I worship. How I worship. My ability to do that exercise stops at the point where it starts to infringe on someone else’s exercise or beliefs. Same sex marriage is actually a good example of this: Some believe it is not within their religion, others believe that it is. Within my church, I don’t have to do such marriages; I should not be able to prevent those that believe in it from doing it. To do so would be to impinge on their free exercise of religion. In the case of a public business refusing to bake a cake, even with a message on it, that’s impacting someone else. It is not preventing me from going to my church, worshiping my deity. It is trying to impose my view of what is proper, based on my religion, upon someone else. As I’ve said before: My freedom to exercise my religion stops when it impinges on someone else ability to follow their beliefs.

Here’s another way to look at it: In general, my religion should not care what the heathens do; my religion should only care about what I do and what I need to be a good and righteous person/get into [Heaven-concept]. Imposing my religious morality upon the heathen is imposing my religion upon the heathen, and preventing their ability to freely exercise their heathen religions (damned that they may be for doing it). [Unfortunately, the Christian majority in this country far too often wants to do just that to us “heathens” (non-Christians), and the first amendment exists to make it clear that they can’t]

What about freedom of speech? After all, what is on a cake is a message. Perhaps the producer of the cake didn’t want to deliver the message. This would be similar to a private publisher refusing to publish a letter to the editor because they did not want to appear to be condoning the form of speech in the letter. Such refusal is legally allowed — we don’t require all letters to the editor to be published, and permit hateful comments on news articles to be deleted. I think this might be a plausible argument … depending. Whether it really applies in this case depends on information we do not have, such as whether they attempted to order a plain wedding cake with no message, no topper, no decoration indicating it was a same-sex marriage after the original cake with a message was refused (the LA Times article did not say). If they did, then then only “speech” would be their delivering the cake, which could be accommodated by having the cake be picked up by the people that ordered it. The mere presence of a cake, with no attribution, provides no speech on behalf of the baker. Further, even if the cake was baked with a message, if there was no attribution to the bakery, there is no speech by the bakery. Lastly, there is nothing that could have prevented the bakery from requiring a disclaimer to be present on every cake they sell: “Any message on this cake does not represent the views of the owners and management of xxx bakery.” Put it on every cake, and everyone is equal.

Lastly, let’s consider “equal protection of the laws” and the Oregon discrimination law. When is a particular refusal discriminatory? I think a good test would be to substitute “that kind” or “them” — if that is your reason, you’re being discriminatory. For example, “I wouldn’t rent a room to “that kind”” or “I wouldn’t bake a wedding cake for “that kind””. If by “that kind” you are referring to a protected class under the laws of the nation or state, you’re being discriminatory. Just as “I won’t marry them because of their skin color” doesn’t work, “I won’t marry them because of their sexual orientation” doesn’t work. Going to the previous paragraph, if they had refused to allow the couple to pick up a plain cake, that would have been discriminatory. Refusing to pick up a cake with a message depends on attribution; without anything connecting the bakery to the cake, it is likely not freedom of speech and thus discriminatory.

What happened here? According to the LA Times:

When Aaron Klein was told there would be two brides, Rachel and Laurel, he responded that he was sorry, but the bakery did not do wedding cakes for same-sex couples because of his and his wife’s religious convictions, according to the report.

Based on the knowledge at hand, it appears the court made its decision based on the fact that the bakery was a public accommodation, and they did not provide equal privileges based on sexual orientation. We’ve shown that free exercise of religion doesn’t come into play here (as the baker’s decision impinged upon the couple’s exercise). Freedom of speech might have come into play — the article says nothing about the message requested for the cake or how the cake would be presented at the ceremony. For those who believe they should have just gone to another baker: if the issue was simply freedom of speech or freedom of religion, you would be right. If the issue was discrimination, you would be wrong. Consider the analogy of the south in the 1960’s, and a restaurant refusing to serve blacks in defiance of the civil rights laws. The black patron should not be told to just go to another establishment; under the law, they have the ability to use any public establishment of their choice. That is what seems to be the case in Oregon: The law says they can use any public accommodation. If the accommodation does not want to follow the Oregon law, they should either move to a different state or become a distinctly private organization (e.g., only members can order cakes).

Note: This simply goes to the question of whether the action appears to be legal or not. It doesn’t go to the amount of the damages for emotional suffering. Quite often, those amounts are set by the judge or jury to send a message to other groups: is this a slap on the hand (minimal damages) or something to be prevented in the future (major damages). It appears this judge and jury went for the latter. To my point of view it seems excessive, especially in light how how the public reacted to this before the decision:

The bakery’s car was vandalized and broken into twice, he said. Photographers and florists severed ties with the company, eventually forcing the Kleins to close their storefront shop in September 2013.

To me, the vandalism was uncalled for, and should have been taken into account in the damage calculation.

[Update: It appears the damages were the norm, and were partially because the bakery owners indicated they would continue to publicly discriminate against gays.]

[Update 2: It is clear after reading this the damages were justified. The bakers doxxed the couple, subjected them to harrassments and death threats, and almost lost them the foster children they were trying to adopt. They also made clear that the refusal was because they were gay, and they clearly knew they were in defiance of the law.]

Do I think this was the right legal decision? Yes. If you are a public business, you agree to serve the public even if you find it distasteful.† Just as it would be wrong for an innkeeper in Oregon in 2015 to refuse to rent a room to an unmarried couple or to a gay couple (right, they’re just roommates 😉 ), it is wrong for a business in Oregon to refuse to serve gays because they are gays and doing what gays do. A business cannot impose their morality upon their customers. Was it acceptable in the past? Yes, and many forms of discrimination from the past are not acceptable today (such as discriminatory housing practices). Did it force the bakery or the bakery owners to send a message that they approved of gay marriage? Only if any message on the cake was accompanied by information about who produced the cake — and even then the issue could have been sidestepped through a disclaimer. This was discriminatory because there were options and ways for the business to have served the customer without implying they personally approved of the ceremony, and their refusal to serve the public like that makes it clear that it was solely because of their sexual orientation (disclaimer: at least based on the facts as I know them). [† Similarly, it is wrong for a government employee to refuse to take a Federal action because it disagrees with their religious beliefs. When you become a Federal employee, you make an oath to follow Federal laws. If you can no longer abide by that oath, you must resign.]

This case illustrates well the impact on the devout, who are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side they have an unchanging scripture, which they view as the word of God, unerring and eternal. It dictates particular societal norms, and prohibits what is perceived to be abnormal behavior. On the other side they have secular society which has an ever morphing definition of what is normal and acceptable — what was clearly unacceptable 50-60-100 years ago is now acceptable today (be that same-sex marriage, living together, children outside of marriage, interracial marriage, premarital sex, etc). The choices for the devout are not pleasant. They can attempt to find a loophole or interpretation that permits what they view as sinning. It has been done in some cases, but can’t be done in all. They can grouse about how the changes in society are preventing their exercise of their religion and their ability to impose what they view as normal morality on everyone. They would be right, but they would also be forgetting that freedom to exercise your religion has the implication that others have the freedom to exercise their religion and beliefs as well, even though you might not like it, and even though you believe your God will condemn them for their behavior. Lastly, they can isolate themselves into communities of the like minded, where the problematic issues just won’t raise their nasty head unless an interloper in the community forces it (and communities mores and pressure make that unlikely). This has been done before with numerous Orthodox, Amish, and Mennonite communities, and I’m sure there are many devout Christian communities that may do the same thing.

I also recognize that this has many faith communities up in arms. Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, and devout Muslims all see this as a perversion of God’s word. But the key underlying fact is: this is not a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. It was founded by Deists, and there was no intent that biblical laws would govern. There is no government approved religion; government is secular and reflects the overall morals of society — which change over time. Much as the devout may believe that same-sex marriage will lead to the destruction of the world per God’s word, secular government doesn’t give that word authority. In fact, if someone tried to hold a particular scripture as “the authority” for our laws and decisions, I’d point out that such an action is essentially establishing a religion — it establishes one religion’s scripture and interpretation over another’s. If one wants a particular casting of God’s word to have such authority, a religious state with a state religion must be created. Although some would like that, history has shown that it is not very good for those on the short end of the favored religions. The tension we have in America between the secular and the devout is not perfect, but it is head and shoulders better than other systems. The reality (which is often forgotten) is that the devout will not use same-sex marriage, and the urge to have “God’s word” be “America’s word” is really an agenda to have a state religion with everyone subservient to the same scriptures. The better attitude for the devout is to let same-sex marriage be for the heathens that want to use it; they will get their punishment in the end (per the devout’s beliefs). For the devout communities, there should be no temptation.

Lastly, I’m sure you’re wondering what I think about same-sex marriage. My answer is that I don’t. If they want to recognize a commitment and call it marriage, it has absolutely no impact on my marriage. As for the government dictating it: as long as the government makes a distinction between “married” and “single” in any law or regulation (tax filing, social security benefits, etc.), there needs to be a common definition of what constitutes a marriage across all the states, otherwise confusion reigns. The government’s dictate only applies to government organizations and government officials. No house of worship is required to conduct such ceremonies or recognize the status from non-religious ceremonies (which is what we have now: there are sects within Judaism that won’t recognize marriages performed secularly or by different movements, especially if there was a halachic Jewish marriage before and no halachic Get).


Religion’s Influence in America

userpic=levysAs I sit here and eat my lunch, the headline in today’s LA Times screams “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more“. The article notes that only about three in 10 Americans see the Obama administration as “friendly to religion.” About four in 10 rate the administration as neutral and another three in 10 call it unfriendly. To me, I find the article infuriating. Here’s why.

We don’t have freedom from religion in the country; we have freedom of religion (and I consider atheism to be a religion as well — religion is a faith that cannot be proven or disproven without the use of miracles). Every individual in America has the right to practice whatever religion they wish, and to let it influence their lives and behaviors as they wish. Churches have the right to speak out as they wish (as long as they don’t endorse specific candidates). So, if religion is losing influence, it is because we the people have chosen to make it less influential. The government has nothing to do with it.

But, you say, there is a war against Christmas or against Christians. Sorry, there isn’t. You can personally be as Christian as you want. Wear your cross. Wish me Merry Christmas. What appears to be a “war” is one of two things: a government institution attempting to not show favoritism of one religion over another (as the constitution prohibits establishing a state religion), or bureaucrats going above and beyond to be “fair.”

Before you claim there is a war, put yourself in a minority religion’s shoes: I’ve had miss about 5 meetings scheduled by others, including an award lunch, because they were scheduled for this Thursday (which, if you look at your calendar, is Rosh Hashanah). But do they miss meetings because someone schedules them on Christmas or Easter?

Further, the same people that bemoan religion losing influence are equally quick to condemn those areas where religion has undue influence — especially when that religion isn’t theirs. Look at the fears of Sharia (Islamic Law) or the areas with Orthodox Jewish law. Alas, in American, fears of religion losing influence are actually fears of Christianity losing influence (which doesn’t even consider the fact that the type of Christianity often pushed by those wanting it to have more influence is not the type of compassionate Christianity this non-Christian believes Jesus would have taught).

For all the arguing about whether religion has influence, the truth is: religions still have a lot of influence. We all have a common moral code that eschews murder and encourages honesty. We all strive to make lives better for the poor, to help the hungry, to heal the fallen, to care for the widow and orphan. We all work for a society that emphasizes love and emphasizes that children should be raised in a loving family. These, my friends, are universal qualities found in all religions — I know them to exist in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What no longer has influence is intolerance driven by religion, or arbitrary punitive codes anchored in practices from ages ago.