Saturday, December 20, 2008

then I developed a drinking problem

For as long as I can remember, I have had a leaky epiglottis. Even as I started to write this post, some of the hot chocolate I was sipping started going down my trachea, causing me to cough uncontrollably. I’m not complaining too loudly about this physiological quirk—when so many people inherit higher risks for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, I got lucky and only inherited baldness, poor circulation (which causes me to wear gloves 9 months out of the year), and an epiglottis that sometimes makes a weak seal.

Growing up thus with the habit of choking on beverages, I very often heard the phrase “it looks like your drink went down the wrong pipe.” Because of this turn of phrase I envisioned metal pipes in my body (floating in cavernous space), one for food and one for air throughout much of my young life. As I grew up and learned more things, my vision of the two-pipes-theory was corrected and expanded; the original model I had been given was not necessarily incorrect, just too simple to be functionally useful or to mesh with deeper understandings of biology and anatomy.
As many of you know, the last few months have been very contentious in the world of Mormonism. I’ve devoted most of my blog time to arguing against the Church’s position on gay marriage and I’ve been in e-mail and phone debates with a few of you about the role of women in society and the Church. Although I am a fierce debater when I want to be (or when I am doing it competitively), I also pride myself on being fairly respectful and even-handed with the other side, conceding points readily, admitting where my argumentation is weakest, and not being purposefully manipulative (although I think I could do it better than some, if I really wanted to). One argument I’ve been hearing a lot of lately, and one that I want to clarify here, is that the gospel is simple.

Elder Caussé gave a rather good talk on this subject in the Sunday morning session of General Conference. He points out that, although God will always work on our level of understanding, and that faith and righteousness do not require a PhD in theology, that God does expect us to constantly be improving our knowledge if we expect to attain salvation. Simplistic, pat answers, laundry lists given during Sunday School (“go to Church, read your scriptures, etc.” given as an answer to every question), or a profoundly weak understanding of scripture or doctrine are good enough for those who are new in the Church, but are unacceptable for members who should have learned more in their time in the Church. I feel that there is the erroneous belief in the Church that a “simple faith”—complete with an understanding which is totally stripped of any nuance or individual opinions—is somehow superior in a gospel or righteousness sense to what those fancy-pants intellectual members believe. If you can’t already tell from my tone what I think about this stance, I would simply like to point out that Christ knew the scriptures on a very deep level and debated it often with the students of the law.

At its most fundamental level, there is an amazingly simple beauty in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in the doctrines and examples of Jesus Christ can provide the basis of ethical, socially-responsible behavior and can lead to well-adjusted, psychologically-stable development. When followed appropriately, the teachings of Jesus coordinate very well with just laws, many different political systems, and within the confines of different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.

The belief that “the gospel is simple,” however, is currently being used as poetic license to oversimplify complex issues and defend a reductive, reactionary worldview. Even if “the gospel is simple,” ethical, political, or philosophical decisions rarely if ever are. In any case, the self-satisfied, check-and-mate-attitude the Christian right exudes when debating their points is unbecoming, both to reasonable, thoughtful people but also to those who follow Christ’s examples from the scriptures (but not the political movement that has attempted to co-opt His name). Evangelicals might smugly point out that Paul preached against homosexuality, but they must then be able to defend the fact that he also recommended against marriage of any kind. I’m not trying to say that the Bible is too contradictory to serve as a basis for argument, simply that the Bible is an incredibly complex book with a complex history. You will have to forgive me for finding it scary if people believe that the Bible is a word-perfect transcript from the mouth of God, uninflected by history, culture, or the opinions and weaknesses of the individual writers.

When all is said and done, there really are two pipes that my hot chocolate can go down—the trachea or the esophagus. Although further nuance or understanding of the glottal system do not fundamentally change the two-pipe model, they do allow for an understanding why the epiglottis works like it does. If someone were to perform a surgery on my epiglottis to fix my propensity to choke on water, I would demand that they know a lot more about the organ (can I even call it an organ?) than I did when I was six (what nerve innervates it, how it interacts with its surroundings, how surgery might affect it, etc.).

We need to trade in our child-like understanding for a child-like faith. We need to trade in a culture which glories in ignorance for one that seeks to understand everything that God would have us understand. We need to abandon the notion that a testimony of the truth is based on feeling the spirit, rather than having the spirit teach us through our minds and our hearts. We need to come to a fundamentally sound understanding about what the Bible is and what it teaches before we use it as a weapon against societal change. In the long run, such tactics will only lower the credibility of the Bible as a holy book and our Church as a voice of faith and reason. If we collectively make religion a simpler, less well-thought-out alternative to science and reason, we may just find that science and reason will eventually replace religion in the public sphere entirely. There are intelligent arguments and philosophies that can be based upon Christian thought. In as far as Christians insist that the gospel is simple, and thus not worth serious argumentation or analysis, they will continue to fallaciously defend misogyny, racism, homophobia, and theocracy in the name of the "simple" gospel. Important parts of the gospel are undeniably simple; defending bad arguments by an appeal to a tacit orthodoxy, however, is worse than blasphemous--it’s simple-minded and just bad debate.

Friday, December 19, 2008

shaken, not stirred

Last night I experienced my most unique, and also unwanted stories I have ever collected. While traveling home on the train, I was robbed at gunpoint. Although the robbers only took my wallet and Zune, and the Zune was recovered when one of the suspects was arrested by the police shortly after the robbery, I had to spend almost 8 full hours identifying the suspects, filing reports, waiting for the state attorney to arrive, and then making another statement. Perhaps if I went to bed right now, rather than staying up to write this post, I might have a much more flippant or jocular take on tonight's events. As it is, however, I can't help but feel immensely lucky and maudlin in my gratitude for almost everything in my life.

For as much as I like to complain and whine about the way things are in this world, I cannot imagine loving my life any more than I do. Fear of death probably always reminds people just how much they owe to the people and organizations they love. I am no exception to this. If I haven't told you just how much I love and appreciate you all lately, shame on me.

I am pained to tears that 3 people felt that the best possible use of their time and energies would be to take and gun onto the red line and try and make their own luck. Before any of you judge these people too harshly, try and imagine how much of your own life would need to be stripped away before you would seriously consider such an option to be your best possible choice. With a gun to my chest, I realized just how much I had to lose, and how little the robbers probably felt they had to lose. These individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions (probably to the tune of 5 years in prison, to be exact), but I cannot help but feel sad and a bit ashamed that society has left these people with such bad options. When the choices I make revolve around whether to study for a few extra hours or to watch a Tarkovski film from Netflix, there's a pretty stark difference between the life opportunities and paths afforded to me versus what was afforded them.

I am grateful for a relatively just and responsive society. When I called 911 after the robbers left the train, I was expecting my story to be filed under the crime statistics and a half-hearted search effort to be made in a few days. Instead, a dozen police responded within minutes and two out of the three suspects were arrested within half an hour of my call. They say that there are no atheists in foxholes. I would submit that there are no Lockeans in police stations; society and how we get along matters a whole lot when civility breaks down and crimes are committed.

My sleepiness is starting to overwhelm my emotions and excitement, so I will end this here and go get some sleep. I plan on returning to my normal, philosophical, sometimes belligerent posts soon. Before I had time to really reflect upon, edit, or even rationalize my thoughts and feelings, however, I felt I should get them down. It normally takes me days or weeks to find the inspiration to write and edit a post for this blog. Today, all it took was a pistol.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A new leaf

If any of you have ever kept up a correspondance with me--any form of relationship which does not involve me seeing you and offering you food--you know that I tend to write in spurts. When I have the time, I check my e-mail every hour, write back immediately when written to, and do my best to find pithy things to say or funny things to link you to to illustrate my points. When time is not so plentiful, however, my inbox fills up with friendly letters that I want to respond to, but which I put off until I have more time to kill.

As far as I can tell, this pattern is pretty normal behavior. I read everyone's blog who reads and comments on this blog (if there are more of you who read this, let me know so that I can keep up with your blog too. I didn't realize that most of you even had blogs until you posted and I could see your profile) and I notice that my reader fills up much slower when schools have finals or midterms coming up.

My problem has always been that I have a hard time writing short e-mails or posting something here without devoting a lot of my time and chi to it. When I forget to write one of you for six months or more, I feel like it would be inappropriate to re-establish contact with a "hey [insert neglected friend's name here], how's life? I'm doing well. Talk to you later." Instead of writing something polite, yet managable, however, I feel like I need to write something epic to make up for my jerkiness in not having written in so long. Inevitably, said epic e-mail rarely gets finished; it sits in my draft folder until the details and wittiness have withered away and I delete it in shame. The longer this cycle goes on, the more awkward it becomes for me to re-establish contact with you. I usually just wait for you to write me and tell me that you've gotten married and had 2 children since I last talked to you. Somehow this seems less awkward to me than writing an e-mail that I can finish in one sitting.

So, in an attempt to combat this neurosis, and in celebration that my first quarter at Northwestern has come to a close, I decided to finish a post, just to prove to myself that I can. I have significant starts on posts on half a dozen subjects I've been thinking about for the last month but most of them will probably never materialize into a form that I would post it here.

So for those of you who still read this (I know that my mother has dropped out), I really appreciate that you still want to keep in touch with me and read what I write. If you're reading this to see how I've been doing since the last time I wrote you an e-mail allow me to apologize--there's a long message waiting for you in my draft folder somewhere, I promise.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Darling From the Lions

So Amanda and I collect offensive books. OK, that came out wrong. We collect books which are products of their time, which now seem offensive because the world has (in my view) improved, especially with regards to gender, sexuality, and racial relations. Because we have a bookshelf full of titles like The Secret Power of Femininity, The How to Catch a Man Handbook, or Dare to Be True Adventure Series: A Prophet in Palmyra (a choose your own adventure style book based on the founding of the gospel in which even mundane choices lead to either eternal, unmitigated happiness or sure eternal damnation) our friends are wont to chip in to the collection when they find more that would fit the theme. Recently, our friend Alea shipped us My Darling From the Lions by Janice Barrett Graham. I'd been hearing about this book for months; Ms. Graham's out-spokenness and proud-to-be-not-PC attitude had caused even Deseret Book to shy away from her manuscript. I had read some of her blog posts at her website and was flabbergasted by her lack of respect, her dogmatic view that everything is either a black or white issue, and her revelry in saying things "the world" disagrees with. I decided to read enough of her book that I could at least post the most offensive parts for all of you to enjoy. As it turned out, however, I managed to stomach the whole thing (there are some advantages to 4 hours on a train or bus every day) and was surprised that there were a lot of redeeming things to say about the book. There are, however, more than a few glaring flaws as well.

Simply put, the narrator (and author) is insufferable, dramatic, over-wrought, and quite probably manic-depressive. The entries--the book is a series of cobbled-together journal entries spanning a number of years--alternate between drastic lows and extreme, maudlin highs. As if the whiplash of the narrative weren't already enough, Ms. Graham sees fit to ascribe each new high or low to some new-found blessing of the Spirit or to the buffetings of Satan, she sees herself as a pawn in some epic game of chess. Such moralizing made me suspicious that she had been writing her journals with an outside observer in mind from the very beginning; no experience or emotion can remain uninflected or unanalyzed, lest her posterity read her journal and not be certain that greater forces were at play in her day-to-day life. Even near the beginning of the book, it is painfully clear that many of Ms. Graham's difficulties are often the direct result of the decisions she is making, her very unhealthy attitudes towards the gospel, and her painfully obvious emotional problems. I was very often moved to compassion for her, not only because her problems were so often beyond her power to solve them, but because her own instability inevitably exacerbated the already difficult times her family goes through.

For those of you who have never heard of the book, it documents the story of Daniel Graham's struggles with homosexuality. His experimentation with pornography and live homosexual encounters are only disclosed well after they have taken place, and in dramatic and painful ways. Although I was moved with compassion towards Daniel, who obviously regretted his behavior and wanted to change, Ms. Graham's reactions to the experiences were disturbing and very off-putting. In the moments where you would most assume Daniel would need the most comfort and love, his mother was frantically blaming everyone in her life for allowing this horrible thing to happen, was shockingly disappointed with Daniel, and at times could not even bring herself to talk to him. The good will and empathy I felt for Daniel's struggles were blunted by my horror at Ms. Graham's untoward attitudes toward her own son.

If any of you do read this book, I think that you will be surprised at how absolute and pat her answers are to every struggle. She is constantly reading or listening to a book from Deseret Book which offers her a panacea to solving her gospel difficulties. She does seem to gain some amount of comfort from her books and tapes, but it makes me a bit nervous just how much faith and time she puts in to gospel commentaries and pop-psychology. She delivers her own conclusions in the same absolutist tones as the morals in her books are delivered to her; given how many of Deseret Book's products she endorses in her book, and how well her work would have fit in with so many of their products, it must have stung to have them reject her manuscript.

Daniel is eventually "cured" of his homosexuality. He is disappointed that he can't go on a mission because of his sins, but he seems to be happy enough to be free of his homosexual feelings. I buy the thesis of the book that Daniel turned to homosexuality out of curiosity, discouragement with his lack of success with a girl he loved, and the fact that his traits and interests (music, theater, and clogging) were better appreciated within homosexual circles. Furthermore, Daniel had apparently been teased and hated by many of his peers for his un-manly ways. I suppose there is a chance that his hyper-masculine culture actually constructed and convinced Daniel that he must be gay, and should act the part.

There are parts of this book that are well worth reading. Ms. Graham learns valuable lessons about trying to love her son no matter what he does, her defense of him against ridicule in a judgmental and ridiculous culture is touching, even if it comes too late, and both she and Daniel seem thrilled that they have pulled Daniel back to a life-style that both are more comfortable with.

Ms. Graham's defense of her son unfortunately reaches a non-sequitur fever pitch by the end of the book, such that she seeks to blame her own short-comings as a mother, Daniel's poor choices, and the emotional attrition they have all suffered on "the world" and its wickedness. I will agree with her that pornography use and casual sex can be emotionally stunting or even mentally scarring, but Daniel was not trapped or even fooled into his mistakes under false pretenses; his own weaknesses lead him down his road and he willingly followed. For a woman who claims that all homosexuals can be cured of their same-sex attraction with a little self-control and counselling, she seems comically unwilling to acknowledge that her own actions, namely her frantically full schedule while her children were growing up, her draconian punishments for minor mistakes, or her unconcealed shame and disappointment at Daniel after his first confession might have been part of the impetus for Daniel's secrecy and emotional insecurities.

At various times in the book, Ms. Graham blames the wickedness of the world on Darwin, John Kerry (who refused to concede, thus dividing the nation), Bill Clinton (for shaming the US with his Lewinsky scandal), and internet chat rooms. Although she is quick to forgive herself for her unkind words to someone at church she was mean to because she "know[s] that [she is] still loved and of infinite value" (even though she does not repent or apologize), she does not grant the same forgiveness to anyone else in her life except eventually her son. Her intimation that all homosexuals must feel the exact same way as Daniel, and can thus be treated in the same way as Daniel seems to be the same form of over-simplification that led Daniel's peers to judge him as necessarily gay for liking music and theater. I know that Ms. Graham only wants to help other people like her son, but I wonder if the way she goes about trying doesn't eventually end up doing more harm than good.

For those of you who think that rampant hypocrisy is funny, or if The Office's Michael Scott isn't enough of any anti-hero for you, I would recommend reading My Darling From the Lions. The book is actually quite enjoyable if you treat the characters as fictitious and can laugh at them for their absurdities. If you slip back into a real-life paradigm, however, and are depressed by Ms. Graham's naked hatred and judgmentalism, just don't say that I didn't warn you.

Monday, November 17, 2008

absurdly long post about Prop 8

I have spent the last few weeks stewing over the gay marriage debate. Although I kept my fingers crossed that Prop 8 would fail, that we Mormons would look dumb for investing so much money into a symbolic measure, and that we could all move on in relative peace. Instead, the bill passed and we are looking down the barrel of a PR nightmare for the Church, the culture wars are only starting to get heated up, and I'm faced with another pit in my stomach from the anger and shame that we spent $20 million as a people on Prop 8.

This will probably be the longest post that I have ever done, or that I plan on doing again. Hopefully, if I do this well, I will be able to sum up my positions clearly and be able to leave the issue behind; I'd much rather be blogging right now about the heinous new wallpaper they have installed in the lobby of my apartment building, the Decemberists concert we went to last week, and my thoughts on President-elect Obama. My last posts on Proposition 8 were written more for me than for any of you, however, and I want to have one more go at convincing you all that Proposition 8 was wrong.

First things first, the Earth is a lot more than 6000 years old. Claiming that traditional marriage has remained the same for 6000 years makes a good slogan for a 30-second campaign ad or for a t-shirt, but it simply isn't true. Strict Biblical literalism is totally indefensible to anyone who knows about the history of the book, its translation, or anything about the themes and messages actually contained within the Bible. In fact, if any of you want to argue that marriage has always been between a man and a woman for Bibilical reasons, I will expect a thorough denunciation of Abraham, Jacob, Soloman, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young as well, not to mention the members of the 12 who are sealed to their second wives as well. While I'm on the topic of the Bible, I should probably touch on the shaky underpinnings of the mainstream Christian assault on homosexuality. It is true that there are a number of verses in both the Old and the New Testaments speaking out against deviant sexual practices. Asserting that these scriptures were written for our day, and with monogamous homosexual relations in mind, however, is much less clear-cut. I am not trying to argue here that homosexuality is condoned through ancient or modern scripture, but I do know my Bible well enough to assert that Christians should by no means feel that the Bible forces them into condemning it. In fact, I would guess that it doesn't make the top ten of scriptural injunctions or lessons taught by the Bible. There are many people who look to the story of Sodom as rock-solid proof that homosexuality is the harbinger of our destruction--sometimes I wonder if any of them have actually even read the story, or if they've only read the Cliff's Notes. I would submit that the story of Sodom, wherein a gang of men tries to rape a stranger and Lot offers his own daughters as sexual proxy instead, tells us much more about the wickedness of their society than a simple "gays are bad" epithet really expresses. But hey, if you are still insistent on joining the mainstream Christians in condeming gays, can we pass a law against eating strangled things next?

In all seriousness, however, I do think that religious reasons are potentially the most persuasive in convincing me that the support the Church gave to Prop 8 was not a mistake. If the Church were to come out and tell me that God--for reasons unknown and unexplainable--wanted me to support Proposition 8, I might have less venom for it. As it is, however, the Church has come out with all sorts of reasons for why they supported Prop 8. When the reasons given are as ludicrous and intellectually insulting as what they were, I am hard pressed to believe that they came from God (who I believe is far more intelligent and thoughtful than to dictate such things). I'm wondering why God hasn't come out with a list of reasons why the Word of Wisdom is a good idea, or explanations for why we keep the law of chastity? It seems to me that when God speaks, He usually just commands us to do something and expects us to realize that it is for our own good; I first grew suspicious that the Yes on 8 action was the work of men when they felt the need to justify themselves to me. Furthermore, I have prayed about this issue and feel that I am not in the wrong to speak out (Michael, as you have pointed out to me, this is absolutely not the most important issue in the world, I mean exactly what I say here that my efforts are not wrong, it is not that I feel a religious duty to speak up, just a religious confirmation that it is OK if I so choose). I'm still waiting for a "thus saith the Lord" on this one. If I get one, I'll delete this post immediately. For those of you who do believe that God has spoken on this issue, might I recommend that you keep your reasons for supporting Prop 8 to just that. The discussion need not get any messier than our simple disagreement over whether God has spoken in the case or not. When you try and enter the realm of logic and reasoning, however, you must expect to be challenged on the field of logic (cue sound of cracking knuckles here).

When I wrote my first post blasting a ban on gay marriage I hadn't really culled the internet for what others were saying about the issue yet. My first post on gay marriage was essentially a straw man because the statement by the Church was so bad; even those of you who adamantly supported Proposition 8 agreed with me on almost all of my criticisms of what the Church news room was putting out.

I read a rather brilliant bit of argumentation from the Yes on 8 campaign titled "Six Consequences if Prop 8 Fails" (I've included the link to one with a rebuttal attached to it). Although I think that the author is fear-mongering and purposely misleading, they are also very effective and as a debater, and I can respect effective argumentation, even if it is patently evil (I still listen to Bill O'Reilly's talking points, for example). Although I can appreciate such argumentation, I also think that it is the root cause of the backlash the Church is now facing; gays in California are upset, not only because they no longer have the rights they feel they should have, but that they lost those rights to what was, to them, a very misleading, fear-mongering, and unethical campaign (by the way, this might be a good time to condemn the violent reaction that has since ensued. I’m all for democracy, picketing, and protesting, but I think we can all agree that violence and vandalism are pretty universally undemocratic). I try to be manipulative or overly harsh when I'm in a debate round, but I will try and be more even-handed in picking apart the arguments I have heard and read for Proposition 8 than they were themselves. If I get a little overly-animated in my criticisms, however, please don't take them personally--I'm only trying to distance myself from some argumentation and philosophies that I feel are unbecoming of any self-respecting Christian.

A generally recurring theme within the Yes on 8 camp is that gays only want marriage in order to anger conservatives, to "normalize" what they know is really just a sinful lifestyle, or to promote their liberal agendas; gays already have equal access to everything that heterosexuals do through civil unions and a little bit of legal arrangement, easily accessible through These arguments are problematic (and false) for a wide number of reasons.

First, gays do not have equal rights with heterosexuals’ marriages, no matter how much time or effort they expend with lawyers. For example. Even if equal rights were available to them after spending lots of money on legal fees, however, is it really just to force them to do that paperwork and legal wrangling in order to attain rights that come so easily to heterosexuals? I'd be curious to know how the Mormons would react, for example, if the government suddenly started charging us ten times as much for a marriage license as they charge for other Christians, simply because a majority of voters in America passed a law singling us out for our inadherance to the doctrine of the Triune God. The argumentation coming out of the Yes on 8 camp has little to do with why homosexual unions should be singled out to have fewer rights than heterosexual ones; instead, they rely on scare tactics, inherent prejudices, and Biblical injunctions against those icky, icky gays.

Debates about normalization or toleration always rile me up a bit. I hear people talking about the ills of tolerating evil all the time; however none of them seem able to explain to me where the doctrine comes from. The Christ I am aware of "tolerated" publicans and sinners, Roman rule (much to the chagrin of the powers that be), adulterers (a sexual sin, I would point out), and every person He has spoken with, past or present. This leads me to believe that we don't need to attack and punish all evil-doers in order to be righteous ourselves or build a righteous, godly society. We can call homosexuals to repentance and still give them political rights. Christ was not concerned about punishing these people in public, simply to avoid the appearance of tolerating them too much. The religious drive to not tolerate evil in society is very reminiscent of Christianity (the crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials of America, to name a few), but is only very loosely related to Christ's doctrines or examples (the cleansing of the temple is the closest I can come up with, although an intra-religious conflict seems much different to me than Christ over-throwing the law of the land in order to set up religious rule). Is it unreasonable to assume that God is powerful enough to punish the wicked without our help? I think the rub against "normalization" of homosexuality in society seems to me to rest upon the belief that sin will become more prevalent if we do not stigmatize it. Even if this were true, since when has the role of the government been to stigmatize sin? Am I missing a clause in the Constitution that grants government the mandate and the powers to provide for the common religiosity? On a more scriptural level, I would like to point Mormons to D&C 121:41. I am all for having laws which punish societal evils like violent crime and breach of contract, but I do so in order to make society safer and more livable, not because I want to stigmatize or scare people into a more Mormonly life. I would submit that Mormons are dangerously close to abusing their priesthood powers when they seek to use it (and the Church's resources and credibility) to pass laws which, as their stated purpose, are there to make homosexuals feel less loved or comfortable in society (lest they feel that we are tolerating their evil, or think it a normal or acceptable lifestyle). The proper venues for correcting sin are the pulpits and missionary messages we send out to the world, not additions to state constitutions. It is not as if the Church is really in any danger of being seen to tolerate or condone the sins of homosexuals. Moreover, since when did we really care whether the world sees us as being harsh enough on sin? I would point out that although Christ was much maligned for tolerating and loving the sinful echelons of society, he was never mistaken for an adulterer himself, nor was his doctrine confused with advocating such sins.

While I'm on this issue, I want to attack the notion that we can and do "love" homosexuals, even as we are trying to take away their equal treatment under the law. I was struck by the following quote in the interview that Elders Oaks and Hickman gave:

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: At what point does showing that love cross the line into inadvertently endorsing behavior? If the son says, ‘Well, if you love me, can I bring my partner to our home to visit? Can we come for holidays?’ How do you balance that against, for example, concern for other children in the home?’
ELDER OAKS: That’s a decision that needs to be made individually by the person responsible, calling upon the Lord for inspiration. I can imagine that in most circumstances the parents would say, ‘Please don’t do that. Don’t put us into that position.’ Surely if there are children in the home who would be influenced by this example, the answer would likely be that. There would also be other factors that would make that the likely answer.
I can also imagine some circumstances in which it might be possible to say, ‘Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy house guest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your “partnership.”
Is anyone else bothered by the intimation that parents wouldn't want to introduce their son or daughter to their friends, lest they be seen to be tolerant of their own children? Maybe it's better for the world that I don't have any children, but I would like to think that I would love and be proud of my child, no matter how sinful I thought they were. More than that, I am confused about how homosexuality is so qualitatively different from other sins that a theoretical child could commit. Would these hypothetical parents be ashamed to introduce their hypothetical child to their hypothetical friends if the child were a smoker? What if the child were sexually active, but with members of the opposite sex? I am pretty certain when I say that my parents would love me no matter what I ever did, even if they couldn't respect me. I have no doubt that my parents would come to my arraignment if I were ever arrested for some crime. I will furthermore go so far as to say that if my parents were openly ashamed to claim me, I would doubt whether they loved me any more. I will admit that these reactions that Elder Oaks is condoning (I was tempted to be a jerk and use the word tolerating, let the record show that I didn't) are probably normal. I personally think, however, that we should expect more from our members ( I have loved you, love one another). I also think that we should be more empathetic when gays feel that we are being hateful of them with our rhetoric in supporting Prop 8; we are strongly implying that their parents were right in shunning and being ashamed of their children for having same-sex attraction. No amount of telling a child that you love them will be effective in communicating that idea when you otherwise show them that you are ashamed of them, and that God supports our efforts to sweep them under the rug (or into the closet, if you will).

Before I move on to the supposed societal harms that gay marriage may pose, I want to address the issue of language change which seems to be oh so troubling to so many people. Homosexuals did not steal the word gay, nor is our language any less communicative because the word means something else. I've never met anyone who still speaks in Shakespearean iambic pentameter or still declines their nouns to mark their parts of speech, like we did in the Old English phase of our language. Language is constantly changing, and society is both helping to cause that change, and adapting to the changes in language. There are always multiple ways to describe any action, group, or political stance. Just as we have been asked to call ourselves "members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" rather than "Mormons," in order to avoid the stigmatized label which brings up negative stereotypes in the minds of some, any political movement will seek to define itself using politically neutral or favorable terms like "pro-choice" rather than "pro-abortion" or "pro-life" rather than "anti-abortionist." I think the key to understanding the issues at hand are to cut through the convenient, but often misleading labels and focus on what each really stands for. Although the meaning of words and concepts is important in our society--much of law is an attempt to find socially agreed upon standards of words and concepts ranging from where life begins and ends or what constitutes taxable income--it is equally important that we never slip into the fallacy that the meaning of words defines us, rather than the other way around. Our spirituality or righteousness is not contingent on how our society defines our beliefs, rather on how God judges us. I detect an intense fear within many people that if society can redefine what marriage means, that our marriages will somehow be less important or valid in the sight of God. Are we really so insecure in our own beliefs? Does it really matter to you that other people claim to be married (keeping in particular mind our beliefs in eternal marriage, and that no marriages are complete in the sight of God unless they are sealed in a temple)? I would submit that, from a Mormon perspective, a gay marriage is no more or less valid in the sight of God than any marriage that is not sealed in a temple. There, I know that that will sound really offensive to some, but it was the elephant in the room and needed to be pointed out.

The issues of how gay marriage can affect society will be markedly more difficult to parse because there is so little data out there and so much double speak on the issue. People seem Hell-bent on citing civilizations that have collapsed "because of gay marriage or homosexuality," but then walk away from historicity when I can cite dozens of better studies, or even religious quotes to prove that such was not the case. I'm not going to stage both sides of the debate for you, especially since most of you won't agree with everything that Sonja Eddings Brown believes in anyway. Instead, I'll address what I think are the most persuasive arguments that I've heard and also anything that I have heard from any of you.

"Children have a right to be raised in a home with a mother and a father." This statement is an abuse of the word right. Children might be better off in a home with both a mother and a father, but such does not translate into a legal right. Seriously, should we ban the raising of children in single-parent homes? If so, Prop 8 does not go nearly far enough, and ends up doing essentially nothing; the law would be straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

"Gay marriage steps on the rights of our children... by changing marriage for everyone." The notion that gay marriage somehow cheapens heterosexual marriage frankly baffles me. For those of you who are married, please respond to this post (if anybody is actually reading this far!) and tell me if you love your spouse less because people you disapprove of have been allowed to marry. If so, did your love go down when Massachusetts allowed gay marriages? How about the recent change in Connecticut? I don't mean to be rude, but if you honestly love your spouse less because other people are joining the same club you're in, I sincerely think that you should never have gotten married in the first place. I wrote my last post with the subtext that I would not leave the Church simply because there are some people in it who I consider jerks. Marriage is valuable and beautiful, even if people you do not like or respect are able to take part in it. Do we really owe our children a society where only men and women can marry each other? Go ahead and show me the data (or at least the internal logic) which shows that banning gay marriage will increase a given child's chances of being raised by both a mother and father. Barring that, Ms. Brown's statements are more of a smokescreen than really an argument. If you want a society in which all children are raised by both a mother and father, pass a law that demands that all children be raised by a loving mother and father. Good luck making it work, but it will be really fun for me to watch you try.

"Having a traditional definition of marriage is a society stabilizer." Really? Do you have any examples of this? If traditional marriage really has been around for 6000 years, where are all those societies which had traditional marriage? Besides, what is really the definition of a "stable society?" Iraq was pretty dang stable under Saddam, so was the USSR throughout most of its history. Rather than argue for anything sane, the Yes on 8 group is spinning long strings of positively-connotative words (preserve and tradition, to name just 2 that show up frequently) together and hoping that most people won't look at them hard enough to realize that they're making this up as they go along. Once again, I have to respect them for pulling it off--they clearly won this round of the game. What I'm trying to show is that it's not true, even though lots of people in California believed it. If you want something to chew on for examples of stable societies which rejected the traditional definitions of marriage, I would urge you to do a little research into ancient Greece or Rome. They clearly rejected the notion that marriage is one man, one woman, and 2.3 children living a luxurious middle-class life-style. If homosexuality was the poison that eventually led to the down-fall of their empires, it sure took its sweet time about finally collapsing them; they are arguably the two most successful and longest-lasting civilizations the world has ever seen. Seriously though, I invite any of you to ask me to do this research for you if you honestly believe that there are historical traces of societies collapsing due to gay marriage. You must, however, do me that favor in return of not asserting that there are societal ills that will come from gay marriage if we allow it unless you can prove that fact.

"Gay parents will teach all children--especially those that they are raising--that it's OK to be gay." I would submit that it is a fundamental right of parents or guardians to teach their children whatever they feel is right. Had we put it up to a vote in 1850, how many people in America would have voted that it was a "societally good" thing that Mormons be allowed to teach their children the doctrines of polygamy? How about the pre-1978 doctrines on race? Would any of you have been down with the government coming in and raising our children for us, because they didn't like what we were teaching them? How much sociological data would they have to bring in before we caved, finally acknowledging that our pedagogy was causing "societal harms" like functionally single-parent homes (how many children can a polygamist father really be a good father to?)? I'm sorry to be so blunt on this point, I just feel like we Mormons should have recognized by now that we have the biggest glass house ever, yet we're still throwing the most stones out of anyone (20 million of them at last count).
There's yet another problem with this argument, however. I don't think that any studies have shown that gay parents raise a higher percentage of gay children than straight parents do. I haven't done extensive research on this, but I'd be willing to wager a nickel that there is not a statistically significant difference between the different types of marriages and number of gay children that come out of them (as long as I can count the numbers of gay children in extremely religious and conservative homes that commit suicide rather than face the shame (ahem, stigmatization) of "coming out"). By contrast, do gay children only come from being taught poorly by bad or broken homes? Anyone who knows any homosexuals knows that the unequivocal answer to that question is absolutely not. Even if you believe that homosexuality (and same-sex attraction) is 100% a choice, I feel that it is unjustifiable, offensive, and ignorant to assume that people become gay because of some parental deficiency. If any of you reading this have gay children, you did not "turn them gay." If any of you reading this are gay, you are not broken, or the product of bad parenting. I invite any rebuttals on this point if any of you have read good research on this issue. Be forewarned, however, that I am a scientist myself, and I will demand that the research be both credible and quality--no Kinsey please.

I think the real shame about this whole debate is what was said between the lines. Claiming that children would be better off in state custody or in a single-parent home than in the home of a loving homosexual couple says one of a few things about that couple: either they cannot really provide a stable, loving environment for a child, they cannot teach a child how to flourish in society any better than a foster-home could, or they are such intrinsically horrible people because of their sexuality that society is at a net-loss if they are allowed to raise children. I'm actually fine with any or all of these things being said, if you actually believe them, but please don't do us the disservice of pretending that that is not what you are actually saying, if you actually are. This is where the Sonja Eddings Brown interview gets rather ridiculous; if she is so quick to praise the loving, successful relationships of the gay people she knows, how can she then turn around and claim that gays in general are damaging children? I might be more likely to believe that gays should not be given marriage rights if some overwhelming number of their marriages or child-rearing led to abuse, pedophilia, or socially inept and maladjusted children. If that's what you are claiming, however, it's probably not a very good idea to praise homosexuals up and down--just a bit of free debate advice, Ms. Brown.

I know that there are some of you re-reading the Proclamation to the World, worried that "the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets." Although I do not wish to argue that this is not true, I would submit that homosexuals being allowed to form marriage-like monogamous units in which they love each other in every substantive way except for one is not a disintegration of anything, but rather a closer approximation to the model of the family that society so desperately needs. I would like to also point out that the members have been called upon by the Church to spend anywhere near $20 million to stop the more serious problems in the status quo (or at least they are not doing it if they’ve been asked). In our society that is rife with pornography, prostitution, rape, incest, pedophilia, and adultery, I somehow doubt that God is pacing the floor that we might get to call gay civil unions marriages in California. If you want to look to the disintegration of the family, don't look to the symbolic, but the real-life degradation of marriage as witnessed by crime, abuse, divorce, and unwed motherhood. Also, please allow me to feel that the Christian right was being a tad bit disingenuous by clamoring to defend the family, while simultaneously supporting John McCain, a known philanderer, for the highest office in the land. Also, the notion that heterosexual marriage is intrinsically holy for including only one man and one woman, and gay marriage is intrinsically bad, regardless of other indices is the same logic that claims Hitler (or Bush) will be exalted for being a Christian, yet the Dali Lama is Hell-bound, despite living like one.

If you'll permit me to be a bit snarky for a moment, I would like to give a few examples of marriages that the Yes on 8 crowd would like to call godly: Britney Spears had a "just for fun" marriage for all of 55 hours in 2004 before it was annulled. Anna Nicole Smith married a billionaire 63 years her senior and spent the years after his death fighting legal battles for his money. Hundreds or thousands of people (far too many of them LDS) meet and get married after knowing each other for only a few weeks or months, only to later get divorced.

In closing, I would like to once again ask what right we have to define marriage on a pubic policy level. Is it only because this issue is important to our theology? I would submit that baptism is far more important for the salvation of humankind that marriage is, and yet there are no laws dictating proper baptism (thank heavens). Is homosexuality worse than other sins in our society like adultery? Will Proposition 8 actually prevent any sin from taking place? Barring any real answers to these questions, I esteem the efforts to define marriage as irrational, reactionary, and totally wasteful.

If homosexual marriage really were the harbinger of the apocalypse, I think that we should be galvanizing internal strength in Christ, rather than concerting efforts to punish and restrict the outer world for its sinfulness. If you want to avoid catching a cold, the most effective way to respond is by washing your own hands, not by eliminating all pathogenic bacteria in the world (because you never will). This fight against Prop 8 has been a bruising, costly, and marginalizing distraction from the very serious, very urgent issues of perfecting the saints, redeeming the dead, and sharing the gospel.

If I feel like it, I might respond later to the post-prop-8 conflict between the gays and the Mormons. Although I think that both sides have committed lots of sins (Garth, I'll send you an e-mail on this, because I don't want to make accusations and expose our specific sins in public), and both sides share some of the blame. Mostly I just think it's funny that we Mormons get off on feeling persecuted and hated. Freedom of speech is wonderful when it gives us the right to speak out against gay marriage and get our laws passed, but it is suddenly horrible when it is used to criticize and mock us after we get our way (even though, in this case, the other side has gone too far, unfortunately turning us, the aggressors, into martyrs). If churches are too holy to be picketed, they are too holy to be used as political staging grounds. Referees in football are usually wise enough to give both sides of a fight a penalty, even if they only see one punch; I think you have too much faith in the virtue of people, Garth, if you want to lay all the blame for this conflict on the angry gays. I'm also very hesitant of the "by their fruits ye shall know them" scripture because I know so many horrible people on both sides of the conflict. If I strictly applied that scripture I don't know if there would be any good people left worth knowing at all (myself included).

Friday, November 7, 2008

Caveat to my rage

While I was an undergrad at BYU, a student organization ran a soapbox. Once a week, students could stand on the quad with a microphone and bellyache about whatever they wanted to; needless to say, I was an active participant. One of the rules was that no student could "speak evil of the Lord's anointed." I was never kicked off of the soapbox, so I'm pretty sure that I never broke this rule, but I must admit that I am not sure that I even knew what the prohibition meant. Now, after my own (failed) personal campaign against California's Proposition 8, and after a lot of anger and doubt, I think I finally understand what that rule meant.

Throughout my life as a Mormon, I have been taught to defer to the prophet and the apostles with reverential awe. Watching General Conference every 6 months only added to their aura of other-worldliness; these men spoke from a massive wooden pulpit, their image projected on a movie-screen-sized wall in the darkened chapel, and they said things, not only that I had been taught, but things that I knew and felt were true. It's not so much that the theatrics of it all were meant to confuse me--I was regularly taught about their personal histories, their families, and the fact that they were people just like me--but for whatever reason, I still believed that they were somehow different--better even--from mere mortals like myself.

I still believe that these people are apostles and prophets. I honestly think that God has chosen these people to lead His Church, to try and help people to live better lives, and to do the administrative chores that come with any organization as large and complex as the Church.

I'm also coming to realize, however, that these leaders are also people.

Maybe BYU's rule of not "speaking ill of the Lord's anointed" is not so much an attempt at unrealistic optimism--holding to the belief that the glass is half-full, even when it clearly isn't--but rather an acknowledgement that nobody ever does anything that is totally good, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Focusing on mistakes and personal flaws of Church leaders unduly detracts from the good things they undeniably do. Furthermore, the belief that sins or mistakes necessarily invalidate good deeds is the quickest way to nihilism and total gridlock. If only perfect people were allowed to be apostles then there wouldn't be any. Or if, for example, serving in a community organization with someone who had sinned (maybe even committed acts of domestic terrorism) in the past made the whole endeavour an act of "tolerating" their evil, then nobody could join any organizations at all. Isn't the whole foundation of Christianity that everybody, to some degree or another, is a horrible sinner?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't consider myself an apostate, just because I feel that the Church is totally dropping the ball on this whole gay marriage thing. I don't plan on leaving just because they have made, are making, and will most definitely make mistakes in the future. I just think that it's important to acknowledge when mistakes are being made and try to correct them. I am still going to rail against policies and actions that I feel are unbecoming of God's church.

There is a natural tendency in the Church to try and hide our mistakes from others. Perhaps it's because we don't want our "enemies" to know that we are human and prone to the foibles of our historical time and culture. We don't want anti-Mormons to gloat over our mistakes as proof that we are not what we claim to be, God's church restored to the Earth through a prophet.

I guess I can only hope that my ranting about the mistakes of my Church does not distract you from the fact that it is, on balance, a great organization. I want to speak out against the mistakes we Mormons make for the same reasons that the Church speaks out against sins during General Conference--to correct them and to improve our standing with God.

I realize that for many of you, this caveat is meaningless. Either you won't accept that the Church is making a mistake with its stance in California, regardless of what I say, or you have been complaining with me for months and already need no convincing. Before I started my next post, however, which will be another indelicate assault on the faulty logic and PR nightmare that is Proposition 8, I wanted to make sure that all of you (myself included) knew exactly where I stand. Isn't that what blogs are about?

Saturday, October 11, 2008\creedthoughts

For whatever reason, I have always placed a lot of importance on being able to define myself, rather than being defined by others. Although I would like to think that other people's opinion of me means very little--and for the most part that is true--I have a pretty strong internal need to feel justified in what I'm doing.

I've been going through somewhat of an existential crisis lately with my opinion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although I still feel passionately about trying to live a good life, and I still believe that the Church holds a uniquely important role in distributing critical ordinances, I take serious issue with its recent official stance in favor of California's Proposition 8. I didn't really want to have to do my dirty laundry in public, but I don't think it would be enough to simply say that I disagree; there are some fundamental untruths being told that I want to distance myself from.

First, the Church reports that it "has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a husband and a wife united in the bonds of matrimony." Although I do not take issue with this standard, it does not necessarily follow that this standard need necessarily lead to supporting a law against sexual immorality. Furthermore, the Church does not, as far as I am aware, support legal bans on other violations of its sexual code (although I personally think that adultery should be tried as a breach of contract). And lastly, how does banning same-sex unions prevent any violation of this sexual standard? Are we to believe that there are droves of celibate homosexuals who are waiting to have sex until after they get married? For those who have married since the CA Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, are they going to return to their celibate lifestyle if Prop 8 passes?

I would really like to know who wrote this "The Divine Institution of Marriage" document. Here are just a few of the things which are fallacious, disrespectful, and extremely poorly written about the treatise.

"The sacred nature of marriage is closely linked to the power of procreation"

It is true that the sacred, religiously valuable part of marriage has to do with procreation. The societally beneficial part of marriage (monogamy as a tool to curb STDs, a public health problem, just to name one), however--something this document often conflates with Mormon dogma--has absolutely nothing to do with procreation.

"Marriage is not primarily a contract between individuals to ratify their affections and provide for mutual obligations."

The writers of this cannot even bring themselves to use the word "love"; it would be totally unacceptable to believe that homosexuals could feel the same way about others as they might feel about their spouses. Moreover, even if I buy that marriage is "primarily" about raising children in a Christian-friendly manner, the very wording here implies that there are other reasons for marrying. Surely, ratification of "affections" or mutual benefits are at least marginally important, are they not? Am I to believe that a union based on these motives is intrinsically bad, just because no biological children can come from it? If so, let’s unmarry anyone who either cannot or will not reproduce naturally, reserving this sacred title for those people who create and then raise their own progeny.

"throughout the ages governments of all types have recognized and affirmed marriage as an essential institution in preserving social stability and perpetuating life itself"

Either the writers are being willfully deceptive about marriage's history (examples of marriage as a political tool, for example, are not hard to find) or they are dangerously naive. In any case, historical examples, especially those which are so vague as to details or consequences, seem to me to be disingenuous. After all, governments of all types have also recognized and affirmed slavery, brutality, corporal and capital punishment, needless wars, and demagoguery as essential institutions and practices to preserve social stability. If the Roman Empire jumped off a cliff would you?

"It is true that some couples who marry will not have children, either by choice or because of infertility, but the special status of marriage is nonetheless closely linked to the inherent powers and responsibilities of procreation"

This makes sense because it makes sense. Hey look over there! If I use the word "nevertheless" it will make it sound like I have a rational, well-thought out position without actually having to have one. Genius!

"This is not only because of the substantial personal resources that two parents can bring to bear on raising a child, but because of the differing strengths that a father and a mother, by virtue of their gender, bring to the task"

I do not believe that all males or all females have certain characteristics simply because of their gender. Even if there were magical characteristic inherent in every man or every woman that is unique to people of that gender, surely there are indices that are infinitely more important in deciding who would make the best parent. Also, it is a difficult argument to make that a woman’s talents cannot be at least partially (and probably tolerably) reproduced by a man. Furthermore, since all people are different, chances are good that neither partner in a marriage will have all of the “personal resources” that these writers would need necessary to raising good children.

"Marriage is fundamentally an unselfish act: ... Societal recognition of same-sex marriage cannot be justified simply on the grounds that it provides self-fulfillment to its partners"

No action or belief is automatically altruistic. A heterosexual marriage is not fundamentally unselfish (even when children are involved, as this document is implying), nor is a homosexual marriage automatically a merely selfish desire for self-fulfillment.

"the all-important question of public policy must be: what environment is best for the child and for the rising generation?"

Is it really our right to define what the best environment for children should be? If I teach my children incorrect things, is the CA constitution going to step in and decide that another family might provide a better environment for my children to learn, and take them away?

"Traditional marriage provides a solid and well-established social identity to children. It increases the likelihood that they will be able to form a clear gender identity, with sexuality closely linked to both love and procreation."

Wow. I don't even know where to start.

"These developments will create serious clashes between the agenda of the secular school system and the right of parents to teach their children traditional standards of morality."

My telling you something does not take away your right to tell your children something else.

I’m realizing now that writing this post has only agitated me further. Although I would love to continue, picking apart wanton lies from the pro-prop 8 campaign, expounding on the history of marriage, homosexuality, or the politics of marriage, I don’t want to spew any more venom here than I already have, lest I isolate anyone still reading (my family reads this blog too). My purpose in writing this was to distance myself from what I feel to be an unacceptable politicization of my religion, not attack or defend the Proposition 8 movement. I suppose that I should probably define what I still do believe in another post, for those who are interested, but for now I want to leave it at this.

By the way, for those of you who are interested, I actually do not support gay marriage, per se. I personally believe that marriage is a religious sacrament, not a political designation. As such, the government should, in my opinion, not recognize any marriages, my own included, but should instead give everyone equal civil unions. If I want to go to a church and designate my union as a marriage in a religious ceremony, that’s my right. If homosexuals want to either find a denomination that will call their unions “marriages”, or if they want to start a new church that will do so, their being married takes nothing away from my being married any more than your being baptized takes anything away from my being baptized. For you Catholics out there, you probably believe that my baptism is moot before God; I’m OK with that. The reason for all of these culture wars is that religion insists on claiming special rights for itself, even at the expense of trying to legislate religious definitions, and those shafted by the religious establishments are trying to gain redress through the power of the government. If anyone wants to try and explain to me how defining marriage isn’t a violation of the establishment clause, I’d love to hear it. Also, I would be willing to post any rebuttals any of you might want to write, if you would prefer to write something longer than will fit in the comments section.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

We'll always have Paris (?)

America has apparently been much maligned lately because our little credit meltdown has accidentally destroyed the economy of the entire world. Rather than defend America and its actions, I figured it would be much easier to defame Europe to prove that they deserve what they are getting. Don't think about it. It makes sense.

This wedding took place in a mall in Magdeburg. That's right, a mall. This is a continent full of beautiful, needlessly ornate churches that nobody is using for any other reason and you chose to get married in a mall? What were you even doing getting married in the first place? Europeans are just supposed to co-habitate, spurning the religious institution of marriage.

That's a potato with a condom on it. The writing on the poster warns Germans to buy condoms before they go on their vacations because AIDS is very prevalent all over the world and the quality of condoms might be lower outside of Europe. Although I can support the message of this poster, I'm pretty sure that I disapprove of putting condoms on potatoes for any reason.

Since when did the Europeans start having children again? They have obviously started copying us, they've started having children like we do, they invested in cdos, and before they knew it, their economy was tanking, NYSE-style.

Don't the Europeans know that the basis of any healthy economy is large automobiles? This offering from Amsterdam could easily fit into the trunk of an Escalade.

There are many sins hidden in this picture. First, who decided that this vending machine would look good in fuscia? Second, this vending machine sells Warcraft and Magic: the Gathering trading cards. And last, look how many of their packs are sold out. Some of the selections that have been snatched up cost upwards of 10 euros a pack. American sub-prime mortgage defaults? I think the blame for your financial ruin lies sqaurely with Wizards of the Coast.

While our aging women shop at Forever 21 to regain their youth through over-priced, chintzy fashion, the Germans have decided to one up us, keeping themselves 3 years younger looking. Of course the lack of a drinking age means that the Germans can get away with convincing their customers to look younger; Americans wouldn't want to have to choose between looking young and being able to drink alcohol. You win this round, Germany.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I was wondering how to broach this subject of experience without a) being overly political or b) without rehashing things all of you have heard a million times in the last 6 months. I think it might help if I mention that Sarah Palin, although the impetus for this post, is not the only reason I'm writing this. As I am in the process of gaining deep specific knowledge for the first time in my life, and grappling with fears that I may never get into medical school, issues of knowledge, expertise, and training have become increasingly pertinent for me.

I'll just come out and say it: I am scared to death that someone as unapologetically average as Sarah Palin could possibly become our next president.

Sure, I've whined a lot in the past 8 years about George W. Bush not being as bright as some sixth-graders I've known, but at least he'd gone through the motions; he pretended that he was competant. Ms. Palin hasn't gone to college. More than that, she seems to demean the importance of intelligence and experience, relying on the innate goodness that supposedly comes from being normal.

For these last two weeks I have been going to a graduate-level Principles of Neuroscience class. During the course of the three-hour class, Dr. Singer seamlessly switches between complex physics concepts, math I've never seen, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology. Although I'm not expected to have as deep of mastery on all those subjects as he has, it's becoming clear to me that it is simply not possible to understand the human nervous system without having a pretty substantial chunk of other branches of science down pat.

I'll admit that it can be uncomfortable (read: humbling) to listen to Dr. Singer lecture. His brilliance adds a layer of seperation between himself and anyone who hasn't done the preparatory work to understand his lectures. It's not that he can't explain difficult concepts simply, it's that difficult concepts need to be understood within their natural context if they are going to be of any use; "Shia=good, Sunni=bad" might get you through a high-school history test if it's multiple choice, but would-be presidents require a slightly more nuanced understanding.

Palin has proven that she can be charismatic, but I worry deeply about her ability--in the same way that would worry about any other Joe six-pack--to understand the world in complex enough ways to lead our country.

I recognize that I am in no position to pass judgement. Ms. Palin has had a lot of success and some real-world experience in governance. Furthermore, she is probably much more intelligent than the Couric interview would lead us to believe; heaven knows that I stumbled over arguments all the time in debate.

I guess what finally gets me angry in the end is that I am struggling so hard to gain expertise, only to have the very concept mocked by national politics. Since when was being average a virtue? What self-respecting company would hire the most middling applicant they could, simply because they were unexceptional? Do you go to the most average mechanic you can find? The most average dentist? So for those of you Republicans out there (and I know that some of you read this blog), when you vote for McCain/Palin, please do so because you think they will be the best suited to run the country, not just because you can relate to them better.

Note: I stand corrected about Palin attending college. I misinterpreted her statement in her interview with Katie Couric in which she said: "I’m not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world.No, I’ve worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life until I had kids. I was not a part of, I guess, that culture. The way that I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world."
Thanks to Charles for pointing that out to me.