Sunday, April 12, 2009

Liberal Elite[s]

"...if by a liberal they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties—if that is what they mean by a "liberal," then I am proud to be a liberal." John F. Kennedy


Oh, Yes They Are

that stupid. As I did not do anything for April Fools’ Day, I am offering short bits on real fools.

1) North Texas Representative Betty Brown raised a stir when she suggested that Asian-Americans might change their difficult sounding names to make it easier on poll officials – and other Americans. Betty’s immortal words:

Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?

The first thing to note is that Betty was addressing the representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans, Ramey Ko. (There’s a tough one to pronounce.)

To make it worse - or better, depending on your sense of humor - Betty felt compelled to carry on:

Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?

Betty has ‘apologized,’ after several days of refusing to do so. Really, it was all just a misunderstanding. Presumably, someone has pointed out to Betty that Chinese Americans who vote are, in fact, here and citizens.

2) Brown’s being a Republican has garnered some predictable attention, so let’s turn to a Democratic legislator: Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Massachusetts.

Kathi-Anne has proposed amendments to the state’s porn laws to include any photographs or video of ‘elders’ naked or engaged in lewd activity. ‘Elders,’ here, means anyone sixty years of age or older. Some of us better get those pics taken soon.

As Feminist Philosophers observes, The law is not limited to hardcore porn, nor is it restricted to commercial porn. Elderly lovers who take rude pictures of each other will be liable for prosecution.

Especially illuminating is that the amendments treat ‘elders’ and the mentally disabled in one fell swoop – as equally incapable of governing their own lives.

An additional fact of Kathi-Anne’s legislative service worthy of note is her promise to have the Flufflernutter declared the Official Sandwich of the Sate of Massachusetts.

Some bulbs never light.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Retreat of the Religous Right?

Following a lead from Liberal Values, I read an article in the Washington Post written by Kathleen Parker entitled “Is a New Generation of Christians Finished with Politics?” Partly because I hope the answer is a resounding ‘YES!’ I am interested in what Parker describes as a “generational shift” in the Christian Right’s attitude towards political activism to advance ‘Christian values.’

According to Parker, younger Christian fundamentalists believe their elders have compromised those values for a place in the political limelight – specifically within the Republican Party. These younger folks, and some older ones such as Cal Thomas, argue that “the heart of Christianity is in the home, not the halls of Congress or even the courts. And the route to a more moral America is through good works — service, prayer and education — not political lobbying.”

Indeed, Parker notes that James Dobson, former head of Focus on the Family, recently acknowledged that the cultural battles near and dear to the hearts of his followers have been lost. Thus, the compromise of principles has been for naught, in the eyes of many. She quotes Thomas as saying, “If people who call themselves Christians want to see any influence in the culture, then they ought to start following the commands of Jesus[,] and people will be so amazed that they will be attracted to Him. The problem isn’t political. The problem is moral and spiritual.”

I want to be honest, here: I am glad to hear this news largely because I am tired of the culture wars and particularly of the Christian Right’s prominent place in U.S. politics in recent years. While having a conversation with students after a class this past week, I realized that they cannot remember a time when politics, especially at the national level, was not permeated with religious language and religious ‘issues.’ The possibility of someone’s running for the Presidency and not flaunting his/her religious bona fides is utterly foreign to my students. That Americans have not always been politically preoccupied with school prayer, creationism, abortion, and same-sex marriage fascinates them. I, myself, can hardly remember what we used to discuss and dispute. Guns and butter, I guess.

Yes, I would like to get this stuff off the main page of our public life. And I would be very happy if our state and national coffers were no longer tapped to adjudicate the newest effort to undermine science education or to slip prayer-by-another-name into every school and public event. I would be thrilled to never again see Republican politicians and elected officials cravenly pander to the Christian Right; we might have a two-party system which offers us a choice worthy of serious reflection. Holy cow, we might hear no more of the Palin Family Circus!

But, I have other reasons for hoping this reported retreat from politics by the Religious Right is accurate.

One is based on a certain –brace yourselves – respect for religious faith. I’m a complete non-theist and not even vaguely ‘spiritual;’ nonetheless, I recognize that faith plays a profound role in the lives of many people. Further, for all the historical horrors we can trace to religious fervor, faith has also played a moderating role – even a civilizing one. Our increasingly secular world [parts of it] is an historical anomaly, and we have yet to see how it will all work out. My own guess is that it will be an improvement, but I still appreciate the place of faith in individual lives.

Thus, I have been sorry to see people of faith in this country falling over backwards to de-exceptionalize religiosity. I do not mean [here] what I regard as the vulgar tendency towards bumper-sticker religion. Rather, I have in mind the desperate efforts to substitute ‘moments of silence’ for prayer, to have religious monuments approved for public display on the grounds that they are merely historical artifacts or pretty decorations, and in general to deny that religious views are different in kind from non-religious comprehensive views. For whatever’s-sake, if you want to pray, then pray and be happy to do it where it is appropriate. If you want to keep the deep meaning of your monuments, let them be removed from public parks and playgrounds. And if you live in this country and feel you are excluded from public discourse because of your faith, do not argue for entry by claiming that evolutionary theory and atheism are just other religions.

My other reason for hoping that religion will gracefully back away from the public stage is personal, but equally grounded in respect for perspectives other than my own. I am afraid that I am becoming what I have previously derided as militantly atheistic, even anti-religionist. I’m going to be blunt: the ugliness, intolerance, and prejudice that have been prominently displayed by many on the Christian Right in recent years is turning me into an intolerant and prejudiced person; ugliness may yet be lurking in the depths of my psyche. I do not want to become such a person.

That I find myself resenting those whose discourse and political influence ‘make’ me feel intolerant is not helping. It has been a cumulative effect, and I have only recently become aware of it. No doubt, the rise of militant Islam is a factor, as I watch the world become infected with the same kind of religious antipathies that characterized – and haunted - Europe for centuries. But it is what has been happening here, in my country, that has most affected me.

So, please, young Christian fundamentalists, keep your faith and let us share our nation – if not for the sake of my soul, then for your own.

Photograph from The Reading Eagle

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Normalcy and Disability

In commenting on a post of Michael Berube's on Crooked Timber, I found myself thinking - as I have many times - about the meaning of 'normalcy' and 'disability' and about our on-going efforts to find ways to think and speak about both.

No one wants to be denigrated by others, and it is wrong of us to denigrate others on the basis of conditions that can be characterized as ‘disabilities.’ But I think we go too far in our efforts to avoid being denigrating or discriminatory if we suggest that everything is a matter of ‘difference’ or diverse ‘abilities.’ It may be generally regarded, in our culture, as offensive to refer to someone as ‘abnormal’ because of a physical, psychological, or cognitive disability. But our current views about polite language and our current state of linguistic sensitivity do not eliminate the fact that there is some range of human functioning accurately – if imprecisely – denoted ‘normal.’
My mother was deaf for most of her life. Had she lived to discover others insisting that she was not handicapped but ‘differently-abled,’ she would have been infuriated. Being deaf was a burden to her, not just an alternative way of experiencing the world. Perhaps this was because she became deaf at about age 7; so, she was acutely aware of having lost something. Perhaps those who are deaf from birth, not having this sense of loss, do not feel burdened. Indeed, insofar as the deaf can be quite high-functioning, it is not surprising that Def culturists argue that it is not a genuine ‘disability.’
Nonetheless, it cannot be wrong to acknowledge that humans are better off, ceteris paribus, when all their senses work. In the same way - perhaps less precisely - mental disabilities are not as desirable as mental ‘normalcy.’ The standard of normalcy may be vague, but there is meaning to the idea of the normal. Whatever the language we use – handicapped, disabled, X-challenged – to be unable, because of a physiological condition, to do something that or experience something as the majority of humans can is less than optimal.
Those of us who are old enough to begin feeling the debilitating effects of aging typically do not think of it simply as another stage of life, just as jolly as being young and hale. Our failing vision, failing hearing, aching joints, and decreased strength are not merely 'differences' - they are changes for the worse. Like permanent disabilities, these effects of aging are perfectly ‘natural’ in at least one sense of that term. Indeed, they are inevitable for all ‘normal’ humans who live long enough to experience them. It is unsurprising that we would like to find ways to prevent or minimize those changes. So too, it is reasonable that we want to prevent, or minimize the effects of, permanent disabilities.

None of this leads, de facto, to a denigration of persons who are disabled. My mother was a strong and capable person, and to some extent her deafness may have contributed to her strength. But she did not think it was desirable to be deaf, and I believe she was correct.
Photograph from Belchertown, Winter 2007