Sooooo…
capital punishment…

I’m sure this one won’t be controversial at all.

We’re reading The Last Day of a Condemned Man, by Victor Hugo, for my monthly book club. It’s the journal of a man in 1820s France who has been sentenced to execution. Needless to say, we will be talking at great length about capital punishment at our next book club meeting, because this book is very much against it. I suggested that everyone in the club write down what their current opinions on capital punishment are, to see if/how they change after reading the book. I’ll probably be the only one to actually do that.

I know this is a rather volatile topic, so only read on if you’re open to considering opinions that may be different from your own. And that’s really all this is – opinion – and I’ll try to avoid using any biased information. As always, if you disagree, please let me know – nicely.

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Determining our fates
with cold, apathetic,
wonderful math

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Minnesota is currently debating how to redraw our state district borders, as we do every 10 years, with new census data to guide us. Creating fair, impartial boundaries seems impossible, because it’s always tempting for the party in power to gerrymander everything to give themselves more power. I’ve long been critical of the shape of our 6th district, home of state shame Michele Bachmann. It conveniently bends around liberally-leaning downtown areas and grabs many of the richer, fiscally-conservative parts of the state and merges them with rural, socially-conservative parts of the state.

But how the hell do you draw fair, unbiased district boundaries? On the one hand, people don’t want their communities split down the middle. On the other, it’s really easy to lump certain communities together to create districts that are easy for one party or the other to control.

Here’s one way that’s pretty interesting: math.

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Our #1 priority: change the way our leaders are elected

If you’re anything like me, you’re racked with anxiety, fear, frustration and rage over the state of modern US politics. News story after soul-crushing news story, I feel like I’m being mentally beaten with hammers, and I want to just shut it all out and pretend that everything is ok. I used to look down on the people who were oblivious to the goings-on of the world; now I envy them.

We seem to be stuck in a never-ending cycle between a party of high-order incompetents (the Democrats) and a party of angry, hateful zealots (the Republicans). Both are only interested in power. Both are firmly entrenched. Both are crooked to the bone. Neither represents what America needs or even wants.

I ask myself, how can we fix our political system? I come up with some answers I think are pretty good: term limits; public funding of elections; more oversight and transparency. Simple solutions like these could go a long way toward fixing what’s wrong with America. There’s just one problem: none of it will ever happen. Not in any meaningful way.

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Who’s to blame for the National Debt?

As a Graphic Designer by trade, an artist in general, and a scatterbrain in particular, I like to see data in graphs and charts. To me, it’s just much more useful to see information graphically represented (see my previous post for a good example) than to examine tables of raw data. So when I see a good chart, it makes a big impression on me.

This chart (or others like it) isn’t exactly new. It’s been floating around the net for a few years, and it clearly shows that the National Debt increases at a significantly greater rate when we have a Republican president. I’ve seen this chart pop up on Digg and in message board comments all over the place. There are apparently a lot of people who have it bookmarked and are ready to post a link to it at the first sign of praise of Republican fiscal policy or criticism of Democrat fiscal policy.

However, one of the first criticisms this chart gets is always something along the lines of “the President doesn’t really have much control over the economy” or that it’s really a problem caused in the Senate, since they’re the ones who come up with the bills. The inevitable response to that is “yes, but the President can veto those bills”. Who’s really to blame?

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Merry _ _ _ _ _ mas

1196856652_fChoose your poison.

If you haven’t noticed by now, the “Holiday Season” is upon us once again. Bleh.

I don’t pay much attention to right-wing “news” sources, but apparently they’re once again blowing the “War on Christmas” horn, to rally the faithful against the rampaging atheist hordes. Never mind the fact that the atheist hordes are such a small part of the population, or that they’re most likely armed with library books and cappuccinos.

I think fellow non-believing Minnesotan PZ Myers said it best: “The war on Christmas is over. We won.” Some time in recent history, perhaps even in the past decade, Christmas went beyond its Christian origins and became something that everyone can celebrate, like Halloween. It has become less about the birth of Jesus, and more about getting together with friends and family members and share gifts, or even just enjoy their company.

For Christians, it’s naturally still about Jesus, and that’s perfectly ok. No matter what Bill O’Reilly says, nobody* wants to stop you from going to church or putting an angel on your tree or putting one of those little manger scenes on your table (in fact, I’m tempted to do it myself, because they’re pretty neat). In fact, feel free to put a big inflatable light-up Jesus on your front lawn if you want. It’s your property.

But issues arise when these things are set up in public places, and this is where the disagreements (and the only fuel for the War On Christmas fire) appear. Some government and public facilities allow local Christian groups to set up manger scenes on their property during Christmas (and 10 Commandments displays year round, but let’s not bring that up right now), and when the atheists, secularists, Church/State separationists, and non-Christian religious groups make an issue of it, they’re labeled as bad guys.

Once again, it comes down to the First Amendment and how you interpret the Establishment Clause. I personally (and other Church/State separation supporters) support the interpretation by Justice Souter: “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion“. Yes, Christians are the majority in the US, but to favor any religious group over others necessarily restricts the freedoms of people who aren’t part of that group. And that’s bad.

Generally, there are two ways of dealing with the issue of religious displays on public land: either everyone gets to put one up, or nobody does. If you allow a manger scene from the Christians, you have to allow a menorah from the Jews, various Winter Solstice displays from numerous other religions, a bust of L. Ron Hubbard from the Scientologists, a bust of the Flying Spaghetti Monster from the Pastafarians, a disrespectful deliberately inciteful sign from the atheists** (see below), and who knows how many others. Eventually, you may run out of room for displays, you have to deal with vandalism and theft, people will no doubt complain about the placement of the displays…sounds like way more work than it’s worth. I recommend just not allowing religious displays on public ground at all.

Health care debate

I had a hell of a time finding this. MPR really needs a better search engine.

Last Thursday, as I was riding home from class, I turned on NPR to listen to the news. I don’t do this very often, because I normally have my MP3 player with me, so I listen to podcasts. But, I’ve gotta replace its hard drive, so I was forced to listen to whatever happened to be on the radio at the time. On-demand media has spoiled me.

I’m glad I did though, because NPR was broadcasting a debate on health care between E. Richard Brown and Daniel Kessler, advisors to Obama and McCain (respectively) on issues relating to health care (possibly other issues too; the beginning of the audio is cut off).

Sounds really boring, but it was actually pretty fascinating. Brown calls out Kessler repeatedly on his distortions, and generally flogs him. The audience even began to turn on Kessler too – when he says that nobody actually wants single-payer health care, the audience actually boos him. This is the type of audience who would go and watch a health care debate, and they booed someone.

Needless to say, I think Obama has the superior health plan. I firmly support universal health care (not just because I’m broke and healthcareless), and he’s planning to take steps in that direction.

Funding for what?

I was just reading the newspaper (it’s like a web site without links) and there was a story about McCain’s insane new VP choice, Sarah Palin. The story mentioned something about how Palin thinks that abstinence-only education needs more funding.

FOR WHAT? What could they possibly be spending the existing abstinence-only budget on? Books? Here, let me write you an abstinence textbook:

Abstinence is Fun! (No, Really)
by Bevans

Chapter 1:
Don’t have sex until you’re married, because God says so.

The End.

Maybe they’re spending all the money on little action figures with extremely well-articulated hands, so they can teach kids how to hold hands instead of doing what every single other source of information in the world (including their own bodies) is telling them they should do. The high cost could come from the fact that the figures are rigged to explode if two of the same gender get too close to each other.

Protesting, within reason

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When you imagine that this is a top-down view of the elephant, it looks like it’s been crushed to death by a tank, complete with treadmarks.

I’m trying to find a word that describes how I feel about the Republican party that isn’t "hate". Loathe? Sure, that’s good. I loathe the Republicans. They’ve consistently shown that they don’t give two shits about this country, and seem to be actively working to destroy it.

Ok, that’s a bit harsh. But needless to say, I want to do whatever I can to make sure that "Bush Light" McCain isn’t elected. Shockingly, he’s currently tied in the polls with Obama, which just goes to show that there are a lot of people who still haven’t learned from their mistakes.

Well, "good" news: the Republican National Convention is being held here in Minnesota, in St. Paul, which is only 15 minutes away from where I live. So, maybe I should join one of the protest groups!

Well…maybe not. Here’s the thing: there aren’t really a whole lot of level-headed, reasonable protest groups out there. Where they say "get out of Iraq NOW", I say "come up with a sensible plan to get out of Iraq while at the same time stabilizing their government, helping their citizens, and preventing full-scale civil war". That’s not something that fits on a protest sign very easily.

There’s another protest for immigrant rights. I’m certainly in favor of treating people like people! What a novel concept! Except…there’s a whole lot of Spanish on the information page. I don’t mind Spanish (I even know a little bit of it) but I think providing non-English translations for everything is the wrong way to go. It basically allows for a language-based caste system. People who don’t know English in this country don’t get nearly the same benefits and opportunities that English-speaking people do. And part of the reason why there are so many people in this country already who don’t know English is that our immigration system is currently pretty poor, which is why I support immigration reform in the first place…

And then there’s a music festival of some sort. In other words, HIPPIES. I guarantee that’ll be nothing but white people with dreadlocks, people wearing hemp necklaces, dirty people poorly playing poorly-written songs on cheap acoustic guitars, and drum circles.

But the worst part? All of it will probably be completely ineffective. For one, the police don’t seem to be allowing anyone near the Xcel center in any meaningful way. Second, these are Republicans. They don’t care what the common people have to say.

So…I’m probably not going to go to a protest. I’ll probably wind up sitting at home and blogging about it. And honestly, making fun of the Republicans is fun. I just wish they didn’t have any control over our country.

It seemed like a good idea, at first… (the Boy Scout coin)

I was listening to Atheist Talk this morning, and their guest, Lori Lipman Brown, brought up an issue that I had assumed was settled, for good or bad.

The issue is the minting of a special coin to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America. The bill was introduced months ago, but apparently it’s being held up due to lobbying by people like Brown.

I want to tell you exactly why the hell I’m opposed to this bill, but first I need to talk about my history in Boy Scouts.

For most of my childhood, I was involved in Scouting. I started in Tiger Cubs when I was really young (I don’t even remember when that was…6 or 7 probably) and then moved up to Cub Scouts, working my way up the ranks until I entered Boy Scouts. I went on nearly every camping trip, I made a lot of friends, and learned a lot of important stuff. As I got older, I took on certain leadership roles in my troop, and held the position of Scribe, Patrol Leader, Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, and eventually even Senior Patrol Leader (the non-adult leader of the troop). I earned at least a dozen and a half merit badges and got to the rank of Life Scout (which is one step down from Eagle), and even became a member of the Order of the Arrow before I succumbed to being a teenager and lost interest.

So it’s with great sorrow that I say that I can no longer support the Boy Scouts. And here’s why:

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members." (source)

Religion has always been a part of Boy Scouts, of course. And I always just tried to ignore those parts as much as I could when I was a member. However, the unstated premise here is: no atheists or agnostics. Interestingly, they don’t seem to care which religion you practice, just as long as you believe in God (or, presumably, gods). It’s worth pointing out that 62% of all units (troops, packs, etc.) are sponsored by religious groups, the largest being the Mormons, Methodists, and Roman Catholics.

Then there’s this:

"Boy Scouts of America believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed. The conduct of youth members must be in compliance with the Scout Oath and Law, and membership in Boy Scouts of America is contingent upon the willingness to accept Scouting’s values and beliefs." (source)

So, they discriminate against atheists, agnostics, AND homosexuals.

I could point out that they also don’t allow female members, but then it IS called the BOY Scouts. And besides, seeing female leaders, camp counselors, and even the occasional scout wasn’t that uncommon in my time.

And I should also point out that not all scout groups are discriminatory. In fact, most of them aren’t. Most are led by people who live by the morals that they teach and know to treat all people with respect and dignity, no matter what the official position of the organization is. And I think that eventually, the whole organization will change its stance on these discriminating issues. However, right now, the official position of the BSA is to discriminate against atheists, agnostics, and homosexuals.

Now, for some Libertarianism: I believe that any privately-funded organization is fully within their rights to discriminate against whomever they wish. I don’t have to like it. However, the BSA is NOT a private organization. Which brings us back to the coin. Remember the coin?

According to the bills, they intend to mint 350,000 of these coins and sell them for $10 per coin, with all of the profits going directly to the BSA. That’s $3.5 million going to a religious organization with discriminatory policies and practices. Why don’t we just send the Pope a check?

This bill is clearly in violation of the First Amendment and Church/State separation. The government should/must not fund religious organizations, no matter how much good they do. And it certainly shouldn’t fund organizations that discriminate against ANYONE. Indeed, this bill seems to be a very sneaky way to support religion, disguised as a way to honor one of this country’s most beloved organizations.

Just for the hell of it, here’s what I think the BSA needs to do:

  1. Stop discriminating against atheists and agnostics. Stop discriminating against homosexuals (and bisexuals and all that). Stop discriminating against females. In fact, just stop discriminating against anyone.
  2. Modify your programs to allow for alternate paths for the nonreligious. For example, where advancement regulations currently require a scout to attend their church/temple/mosque and discuss what they saw with a leader, allow them to visit a secular center or read a secular book, watch a secular documentary or TV program, or something like that. It’s kinda hard to say what exactly, since atheists don’t have churches.
    In fact, even better: require kids to attend a church AND a temple AND a mosque AND a secular…thingy, and so on. Having kids learn about different cultures is one of the most worthwhile things the BSA could do.
  3. Stop with all this "you need God to be moral" nonsense. You don’t. This is definitely a topic that needs its own post, but I did post an article I found recently that is a good start.
    How about replacing "reverent" in the Scout Law with "moral"? It seems to me that the inclusion of "reverent" instead of "moral" indicates that you think that they are one and the same. However, how is it moral to discriminate against someone else? Again, a topic for another day.

I really hope the BSA shapes up. My memories of my time as a scout are some of the happiest I have, and it makes me sad that I can no longer recommend it as it is today.

I also recommend an episode of Penn & Teller’s show Bullshit (season 4, episode 1), which tackles the boy scout/church & state issue specifically (though not the coin bill).