Public opinion

In light of Minnesota’s recent law legalizing gay marriage, this seems relevant even if the column isn’t new.  Usually I ignore Cal Thomas, but his column on the dangers of following public opinion hit a nerve.

He asserts that

History is full of warnings about what happens when people follow public opinion instead of standing by their principles.

Apparently it’s lost on him the number of times public opinion or cultural norms have been misplaces, at best, or downright evil, at worst.  There seems to be some confusion about the validity of public opinion.  Thomas himself rails against following public opinion for most of the piece, but then in the fifth paragraph cites  passage of California’s Proposition 8 as proof that public opinion believes gay marriage should remain illegal.  But the proposition was passed by popular vote; does the popularity of Proposition 8 make it invalid?

The popularity of one position on a given issue doesn’t make it right or wrong any more than the popularity of a singer makes them good or bad.

The second part of Thomas’ argument is no less frustrating

Some liberals believe the Constitution is a “living” document that must constantly evolve to fit the times. It is not. Some liberal theologians believe the same about the Scriptures. They believe these, too, must evolve, because serving God is no longer the standard; serving Man is.

If the constitution isn’t a living document then why did its creators include a provision to amend it?  And why did they start amending it almost immediately.  Amending the constitution requires a change of public opinion, so does that mean that each amendment since 1791 is invalid because it bows to a change in public opinion?

As far as scripture goes, interpretation of the Bible has evolved over the past 2,000 years – or more, if you use the Talmud as an example.  Christianity was used as a basis to deny interracial marriage, as this quote from the 1958 case Loving vs. Virginia

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

The scriptural basis for opposition to gay marriage is no less tenuous than the scriptural argument against interracial marriage.  And even if there is an ironclad Biblical argument against gay marriage then we still shouldn’t be using the American legal system to enforce Biblical laws or morality.

Outlawing marriage between two people of different races seems ridiculous to us now and today’s laws against marriage between two people of the same sex will seem no less silly to people forty years from now.

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Ireland’s 20-year rain

The working title of my new, perpetually-ongoing series will be Conservapedia: real or troll?  The only way it won’t be perpetual is if Conservapedia decides to stop posting nonsense.

The site features a sidebar with the heading In the News: what the MSM isn’t fully covering. The following bit was featured there in the past couple days.

Expert says that the discovery of a 20-year long rainfall in Ireland points to the Great Flood of the Bible being historical.

Do Conservapedia’s moderators actually engage any brain cells before they post and/or approve this stuff? More likely, they see some snippet that validates their worldview and greenlight it before giving it full consideration.

Let us break this thing down just a bit. The linked article cites the “ancient Annals of the Four Masters” which supposedly records the history from Noah’s Flood to the present day. This 20-year rainfall is recorded as occurring the exact same year as the Biblical Flood, as calculated by young-earthers using the Bible to determine the date of Old Tesetament events.

Unless they are just going on an end run around all logic by saying that God inspired this “Four Masters” bit, then there needed to be people around to witness and record this 20-year rainfall. But, and here’s the tricky bit, those same people who witnessed and recorded the 20-year rain would have been wiped out by Noah’s Flood along with whatever record they left behind.

It hurts my brain just to think about how anyone can think this is rationally possible. The Bible is easy enough because you can just say “well, no one recorded what Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham and Joseph did. But God told Moses or whoever later on.”

I won’t deny that parts of this “Annals of the Four Masters” may very well be true and useful as a historical document. But if you’re going to tell me that an account, whether written or oral, survived a flood that destroyed the whole earth leaving eight people alive thousands of miles away, then I’m just going to shake my head and laugh.

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Olde Tyme morality tales

If I believed in such things, this would be quite the providential week. The timing was pretty impressive when I finished a book about education just as Libby Anne asked “What is the purpose of public education.” Now just days after reading Tracey’s recap of Elsie Dinsmore I run into the perfect response to that kind of over-dramatic morality tale.

In a collection titled The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain I stumbled across a story that I had never heard before called simply The Story of the Bad Little Boy. Apparently Mark Twain found stories like Elsie Dinsmore just as irritating and he lampoons the style to great effect. Given Elsie’s near-death experience, this part in particular tickled my funny bone.

He struck his little sister on the temple with his fist when he was angry, and she didn’t linger in pain through long summer days, and die with sweet words of forgiveness upon her lips that redoubled the anguish of his breaking heart. No; she got over it.

There’s a matching story, The Story of the Good Little Boy, that comes at it from a different angle. The good boy, Jacob Blivens, cannot catch a break no matter how good he behaves or virtuous he is.

According to a University of Virginia site dedicated to Mark Twain, the naughty boy’s tale was first published in 1865 and the story about the virtuous boy came out five years later.

So it’s mildly satisfying that there has been eye rolling about Elsie Dinsmore and its ilk for at least 150 years.

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Against abortion

Many opinionated bytes were thrown around about ‘Monster’ Grosnell and his abortion clinic and, now that it has taken me so long to get this post whipped into shape, he’s been convicted.  Much has already been said about the root problem being lack of access to abortion, so I’ll just say I agree and won’t flog that horse any more.

The argument that has always grated on me, and seems forever tethered with anti-abortion rhetoric, is the idea that abortion sprung up suddenly in the 1960s after a decline in American morals.   One side effect from taking forever with this post is that it coincides nicely with Libby Anne’s dissection of an anti-abortion blog post.  Kae Am implies that something has changed for the worse when she writes

…in a culture in which women are considered things for use, the results of such use are likewise considered things to use or to throw away. In other words, when women are regarded as things for sexual use and then as things for disposal afterward, then natural result of this use (the conception of children) are likewise regards as things for disposal.

To challenge that narrative here are two stories gleaned from books I recently read tied together with one I read some time ago.

From The Wild Place by Kathryn Hulme, a heartbreaking story that shows how much grey area there is in this discussion.

An almost parenthetical bit of the plot in The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins reveals that abortions weren’t at all uncommon for women over a century ago.

If we can’t completely eliminate abortions, the story found in This Common Secret by Susan Wicklund gives an ideal that abortion doctors can strive to emulate.

In The Wild Place, Kathryn Hulme describes a Polish woman in postwar Germany’s Wildflecken Displaced Persons (D.P.) camp. The woman had become attached to an American soldier who told her he would take her home with him when his service ended. Then he was transferred to another location in Germany she never heard from him again.

Some months later Hulme writes that the body of a baby was found in a dumpster, having been strangled after birth. Some investigation found that the same Polish woman left stranded was responsible, having been impregnated by the American soldier before they parted.

After consulting with the presiding military officer, and at his suggestion, Hulme declares in the official report that the woman killed her baby as a result of post-birth insanity.

Keep in mind that Hulme was a devout, lifelong Catholic and expressed absolutely no reservations in the book about letting this woman go unpunished for what was not even an abortion, but the killing of a newborn. Why did she let it go? I believe it was because Hulme new the woman was already struggling and would have kept the baby had she been able to stay with the father and if there wasn’t a stigma attached to being an unwed mother. She didn’t ruin the rest of the woman’s life because this circumstance led her to make the unconscionable decision to kill her child. Likewise, I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to make a woman ‘pay’ for a mistake by requiring her to keep a baby or carry it to term for adoption and I don’t think society should stigmatize those who do elect to have an abortion.

In The Murder of the Century, Collins writes about a killing and dismemberment that captivated New York City and its tabloid newspapers in 1897. Augusta Nack was in the middle of a love triangle that turned deadly, but her profession is the pertinent part. She was a German immigrant and performed abortions around the neighborhood in her capacity as a ‘Licensed Midwife’ – even though there was no licensing body at that time.

Although it’s but a tangential subject to the book, the brief explanation seems to make it clear that abortions were outlawed at least as much because it was as likely to kill the woman as much as end a pregnancy. Nack’s work was used against her in court as the prosecution wondered why she would have any compunction about killing a man if she already killed babies for a living.

It was a bit amazing to learn that women were struggling to control their reproduction even prior to 1900, dispelling the myth that women suddenly became selfish with the advent of feminism, the Pill and legalized abortion. And they weren’t accepting constant pregnancy meekly but willing to attempt risky procedures by questionably-qualified people.

Finally, in her book, This Common Secret, Susan Wicklund details the harassment that anti-abortion groups are willing to put abortion doctors through. She also outlines her philosophy and methods as an abortion provider.

Granted, the overwhelming majority of her procedures was routine, but I was surprised as Wicklund described counseling a young woman against having an abortion since she wasn’t ready to make the decision. Wicklund went out of her way to keep from coercing the girl into making a premature, regrettable decision. The descriptions of the circumstances that women come to her with are some of the most impressive parts of the book. If for no one else, I want abortion to remain legal for those who are trying to keep from being tied to an abusive relationship by a child or for those whose birth control has failed and they can’t afford a pregnancy much less a child.

An explanation of my general view of abortion didn’t seem to fit earlier in the post, but I’ll lay it out for those keeping score at home.

I am pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean I like abortion. If I could snap my fingers and make all abortions disappear then I would do so. The difference between me and most on the pro-life side is that I wish to solve the problem – unwanted pregnancies – rather than addressing symptoms – outlawing abortion and even extramarital sex.

I cannot in good conscience look a woman in the eye and declare that she must carry a baby to term if she otherwise does not want or cannot afford to do so. I am willing to call a fetus a baby because I know, and everybody else knows, that if allowed to come to term and birthed, it will be a baby.

 I agree that the ban on late-term abortions should remain, but I don’t believe a baby should be afforded legal status until it leaves the womb.  I am perfectly aware that pre-term babies survive and I’m also aware that there is no physical difference between a baby on the day before birth compared to the day after. So is it arbitrary to fix birth as a human’s legal designation as personhood? Certainly, it is arbitrary, but no more so than designating legal adulthood at age 18.

I will celebrate as loudly as anyone when there are no more abortions, but outlawing abortions will not solve the root problem. If the pro-life side wants to work with pro-choice side to eliminate the need for abortion then we should be working to reduce unwanted pregnancies to the greatest degree possible.

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HSLDA and other conservative logic

I know it’s not a flawless parallel, but the HSLDA’s position and response to Libby Anne’s recent posts reminds me very much of three other issues: prayer in public schools, abortion and gay marriage.

Anti-abortion advocates seem to assume that outlawing abortion will remove both the need and desire for abortions. In their eyes the answer is so simple because making abortion illegal will magically make women think twice about engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage and, when they do, abortion’s illegality will make them magically want to carry a child to term and keep or seek adoption.

Likewise, it reminds me of the over-simplistic argument against gay marriage. In particular, the idea that children need a mother and father so gay marriage will take away one or the other from a child, stunting their development. I guess if gay marriage is kept illegal then the family will magically revert to a mother and father who live together and are sexually attracted to each other.

Finally, I hear repeatedly that if we could just put prayer back in schools then our country would return to the wholesome, wonderful state it was in sixty years ago. Never mind that students can still pray on their own in the school and the “Meet You at the Pole” event is perfectly fine with schools, apparently there is something magical about prayer when sponsored and led by the school.

Maybe it’s because I subscribe to more liberal thinking that I see this sort of across-the-board simplistic thinking from conservatives. I would certainly assume that the HSLDA and its members are against gay marriage and abortion and for prayer in public schools (even if they are a homeschool organization) although that might not describe every single member.

Some might think it a contradiction because I argue as an atheist that people are fundamentally good and that Christians assume people are fundamentally bad since inheriting original sin. This isn’t really a contradiction. I still believe that the vast majority of parents love their children and act in their best interests.

It seems, however, like the HSLDA intentionally overlooks the possibility that there might be a few bad parents in their membership and seem steadfast in their refusal to help the children caught in those situations.

The HSLDA’s overarching mission is to free parents of any restrictions to homeschooling with the assumption, I assume, that when parents are free of restrictions then they can turn their full attention and energy to providing the best education possible to their children.

As Libby Anne has pointed out, though, the idea that some parents are not fit to provide that education or are even abusive seems to be completely outside of the HSLDA’s comprehension. It’s pretty telling that their mission isn’t to provide the best possible homeschooling environment to kids but rather provide the freest possible environment to the parents. They assume that parents always want the best and provide for their children while working to eliminate any safeguards.

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What is the purpose of public education?

I recently finished a book that has altered my perception about the purpose of education. E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know brought up some very interesting points, even if the book was published nearly three decades ago.

When Libby Anne first posed the question I had just started listening to the Cultural Literacy audiobook and honestly couldn’t have written this post. The book helped crystallize my thoughts although I now sound like a Cultural Literacy disciple.

The big educational reform in the past decade was No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With NCLB has come a backlash against the increasing number of standardized tests and the amount of time spent by teachers preparing kids for those tests. Keep in mind that I don’t think there is anything wrong with the intent, but here’s what’s dangerous about the practical implementation of something like NCLB.

The purpose of public education should not be merely to crank out individuals with good test scores. Hirsch provides ample evidence and a persuasive argument that schools should provide students with a shared knowledge because life is a collection of interaction with other people, not just a series of individual achievements.

My purpose isn’t to recap the book, so an example would be that instead of giving young readers an arbitrary fiction book, like Cat in the Hat or Go Dog Go, that beginning readers should learn something about history or geography or literature in those books. Hirsch argues that treating reading as a skill – decoding the words – is fine until students look for meaning in what they are reading. Understanding the meaning in the words requires a backlog of knowledge and that knowledge can only be gained through learning – usually through memorization.

This memorization is not an end unto itself, though. The purpose of having this knowledge is to provide clear, articulate communication and understand incoming communication. Education doesn’t occur in a vacuum and students don’t depart from school into a vacuum. We need to ensure that public education prepares them for social interaction. And one way to smooth that interaction is to ensure they are taught a broad swath of what is considered common knowledge by the rest of the nation.

This doesn’t mean doing away with programs and classes that encourage and develop critical thinking, just a realization and acknowledgement that knowledge and understanding require more than just pure logic. Critical thinking skills, for instance, won’t help you know the importance of the year 1776 or what states fought on which side in the Civil War.

Even without this social component, the general importance of public education cannot be overstated because of the need for informed citizens as part of democratic politics in the United States. Since much of the world now has some form of democratic government and the globe has shrunk with the advent of worldwide trade and communication via the internet, the need for a high standard of national education is necessary for the U.S. to remain relevant economically and scientifically.

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Understanding evolution

I can’t help myself – Conservapedia is my favorite site when I need a good laugh.  It’s like the proverbial car wreck you can’t look away from.  A link to a Vox Day post about evolution comes from the front page of “The Trustworthy Encyclopedia.”

I’m not sure if Vox Day is being deliberately obtuse or if they have a mental block similar to my own before I learned more about evolution.

The post gleefully quotes from Pharyngula as PZ Myers explains that evolution can’t really be called Darwinism any longer because

We aren’t using Darwin’s model anymore; he had no accurate notion of how inheritance worked, for instance — genes and alleles, the stuff of most modern theory, are not present anywhere in his works.

That makes perfect sense to me, but not to Vox Day.  Vox apparently thinks it’s the beginning of the end for evolution.

Today Darwin, tomorrow “natural selection”, and, sooner or later, the entire concept of one species coming into existence from another less evolved species through mutation and environmental pressures will be cast into the incinerator of scientific history.  It is merely a matter of time.

Vox operates with a typical Christian viewpoint, one that I held before I became more knowledgeable about evolution and science in general.  Christianity in particular operates under an ‘all or nothing’ set of rules when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  If one part of the Bible is disproved, then it can’t possibly be divinely inspired and the rest can be called into question.

Science does not work that way.  Science takes the bits that work and runs with them, building as more research is done.  Does that mean that scientists are perfect or get it right the first time?  Of course not – but that is a completely foreign concept to people like Vox Day.  They have to continue believing that the authors of the Bible got it right the first time and that is good for all time while I am willing to accept that science frequently doesn’t get it right the first time and is in a constant state of flux.

When I was a Christian my particular mental block went something like this: I couldn’t wrap my head around evolution because I thought that meant offspring would be genetically different than the parents.  That would make it impossible for that new life to mate because there would only be one.  What I didn’t understand was that populations evolve, not individuals.

I’m not certain where I heard this explanation, but it clarified things for me:  a given generation in a particular evolutionary chain would be able to successfully mate with the preceding and proceeding generations, but the members at the beginning of the chain wouldn’t be able to mate with those at the end of the chain.

So I’m willing to give Vox Day a little slack because I was once in the same boat and maybe one day the light bulb will light up for them as it did for me.

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