Happy Veterans Day! Now get up and do your part.

Happy Veterans Day! My thanks to those who currently serve and have served – both willingly and unwillingly – in  the U.S. military, providing every American with very real physical defense and security.
I feel this especially now, living in a foreign country that operates under the security umbrella provided by the U.S. and knowing that soldiers would be the first people to come to the American embassy to fetch us should things go badly.

That said, I refuse to glorify war. War is abhorrent. It is “all Hell”, as William Tecumseh Sherman put it. It degrades civilization and threatens our liberties. It allows our worst instincts as humans to flourish, while choking out our best qualities. While our veterans deserve our thanks and respect, those who promote and celebrate war deserve our contempt.

Also, I refuse to let our veterans’ sacrifices be used to justify every terrible purpose to which our military has been put. Our elected officials – and all of us in turn, if representative democracy is to mean anything at all – must be held accountable for the actions of our military. We the People must work to make sure that our military is never used for unjust or selfish ends. It is our role in a republic – especially one where everyone is not required to serve – to make sure that no soldier’s life is put at risk or sacrificed unnecessarily.
So, by all means, say Happy Veterans Day and thank those who have served. Now truly honor their sacrifices by renewing your commitment to citizenship and working for peace.

Having to answer for U.S. gun culture

We have lived in Singapore for just more than two months now, and I can confirm what we had been told before we moved: it’s a wonderful place to live. (Assuming you ignore the obvious flaws it has from an American and humanist perspective. More on that some other time.)
Every Singaporean I’ve met has been outgoing and friendly. I acknowledge that this country’s economy is largely built on being friendly to expats, but Singaporeans do seem to like Americans and the United States. Several have visited before. (One told me it was too cold there.) One cabbie, who was likely in his 70s and would have been a young man when Singapore was relatively poor and vulnerable, sung America’s praises, indicating it was like a big brother. All well and good.
Except for one topic: American gun culture.
One Singaporean said her son didn’t want to visit the U.S. for fear of guns. One cabbie asked me about it, explaining that he had been held up while visiting New York. Another Singaporean couldn’t understand how easy it was to get a gun.
Every time I felt like I was expected to explain the American obsession with and freewheeling attitude toward firearms. I did try once. Being sufficiently (but not stupidly) proud of my country, I went on for a while about our history as a frontier nation, the Minutemen, and the Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment. I also explained how our political system actually works and the inordinate power of the NRA, which he had never heard of. I certainly did try to explain U.S. gun culture. But clearly he wasn’t buying it. Let me point out that Singapore has mandatory military or security service. Every male has handled a firearm. And this is a country that is far more vulnerable to a physical invasion than the U.S. Even so, I could tell my explanation of American gun culture just sounded like a long-winded excuse. 
And I can’t blame him. Look, I don’t own a gun – never have. And I don’t hunt. But I do know people who do both, and I don’t really care. They are responsible gun owners. But it is an an enormous leap from that level of responsible gun ownership to kind of gun nuttery that we routinely show the world: unmatched gun violence statistics among developed countries; a gun-toting “Christian” who comes off looking like a jihadi; a guy patrolling his local Kroger with a rifle and a baby for body armor; the tragic case of a nine-year-old being put in a ridiculous situation by her parents who will now have to live with those memories all her life (prompting this perfect tweet); and, worst of all, a political culture that can’t even get expanded background checks passed after six- and seven-year-old children are shot to pieces. (By the way, on the very same day of the Sandy Hook shooting, there was a mass attack at a school in China – but with a knife. There were injuries, but no deaths.)
I see all of this as just plain crazy, and I can try to change it. But sadly, I really doubt anything I would do would have much impact. I’m just yet another whacked-out liberal, right? But listen to me, if you own a gun and find the kind of gun insanity that’s been on display in recent years in any way unsettling, then you owe it to your family, your friends, your neighbors, and your country to speak out. You – the moderate, reasonable gun owner – have to be the one to step up. You have to look for solutions rather than looking the other way (even though I know it’s sometimes unclear what to do).  It will be uncomfortable at first, I’m sure. You’ll catch a lot of crap from your friends. But don’t give up. You have to keep trying. It’s a matter of life and death. And the future is in your hands.

Take a moment and reflect before you dump that bucket of ice on your head

Okay, it’s curmudgeon time. I have been challenged to do the ice bucket stunt, too, but I haven’t exactly made it a priority. Part of it is the hassle of getting a bag of ice here in Singapore. (Sorry, no ice maker in the fridge.) But that’s petty, of course. Frankly, I’m not a get-on-the-bandwagon kind of guy anyway. I’m much more inclined just to quietly give to a worthy cause. Which leads me to this article from Maclean’s and to this graphicGo read those for ways to define “worthy” and come back.

Look, ALS is clearly a terrible disease. Degenerative diseases always are. I’ve seen the impact of MS in my wife’s family. But thinking perhaps a bit selfishly, I can testify that other diseases also interfere profoundly with daily life.

I’m thinking of food allergies, specifically. While both of my boys had food allergies at some point, my younger son – now nine years old – still has multiple, severe food allergies that can kill him if he eats the wrong thing and doesn’t get immediate medical treatment. Those of you who have seen up close our daily routines and concerns (paranoia, really, but of course, he has a real enemy) know just how all-consuming this condition is in our lives. We’re fortunate in that he has recovered from every incident. Others haven’t been so lucky. If you need to know how heart-breaking it can be, please see this.

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I should have come up with a creative, viral fund-raising hook. Or maybe I should have spent less time volunteering for other groups and run a FARE Walk for Food Allergy when I lived back in the U.S. Shame on me. Maybe all that’s left to me now is to ask every single person who dumped a bucket of water on his or her head to donate to a food allergy advocacy organization. Personally, we give to Food Allergy Research & Education.

But, of course, is our disease “worthy”? Maybe not – especially if you go by the criteria listed in the articles I’ve linked to. Fair enough. But I guess please keep this in mind: Every person’s life is precious. And as the Mclean’s article says, “We, as individuals and as a society, have finite resources to donate to medical research and other worthy causes.” So please choose carefully and wisely. If you have already done the ice bucket challenge, I don’t want you to feel bad about it. I just want you to take a moment, do some research, look at those around you, and don’t stop giving after you’ve changed your clothes and posted to Facebook. Thanks.


Scouting and Atheism – Part 2 of 2

Yesterday, I wrote about how Boy Scouts of America is a quasi-church and how, regardless of BSA’s position on homosexual members, its biggest customers view “duty to God” as the central premise of Scouting.

I also mentioned that I’m a secular humanist – and yes, that means atheist – but that I support the values of Scouting and gladly was a registered Scout leader for five years.

How did that work?

First off, during my time as a Scout leader, my Pack was chartered by a public school PTO. (That’s changing.) It had to abide by the same restrictions on discrimination as any other public entity, so religion didn’t come up in the leader application process. Yes, it’s a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell“. Given the state of the world today, sometimes secular humanists just have to live by their own version of “passing“.

Second, I knew very well that there was religious content in Scouting when I took on the job of leading my son’s den. After all, every year’s badge has a “duty to God” component in its requirements. However, being a publicly sponsored Pack, it wasn’t appropriate to discuss religion anyway. So I simply assigned that part to be done at home.

As an aside, I don’t see how having churches sponsor Scouting units gets around this problem. The Scouting units with which I’ve been familiar accept all comers, regardless of whether their religious denomination matches that of the chartering church. (I suppose some Scouting units are exclusive, but that hasn’t been my experience.) Now, I was raised Roman Catholic, and my boys are being raised Roman Catholic. Suppose I still adhered to that religion and had begun teaching the “duty to God” sections according to strictly Catholic dogma. I doubt that would have gone over well. It seems to me that fulfilling the “duty to God” requirements would have to be done by families at home, anyway.

Third, I had no intention of proselytizing during Scouting events. Anyone who knows a secular humanist knows that’s not really in our nature. We don’t want people hassling us regarding religious affiliation, so we tend not to hassle others. (Of course, we still advocate for public policies that preserve the secular nature of our government, but that’s one step removed and not a direct attempt to convert another individual to your religious worldview.) Furthermore, I made a point of following the rules and customs of Scouts, despite my disagreements with them. For example, I taught the Pledge of Allegiance as required, complete with its reference to “under God”, and I always recruited a person to say grace at meals.

Fourth, and most important, I do really support the values and virtues promoted by Scouting. If we all tried to live by the Scout Oath and Scout Law, the world would be a much better place. In fact, the Oath and Law are very much in line with secular humanist values, with the exception of duty to God. During my time as a Scout leader, I did my best to teach and model these values and virtues for my Scouts. Scouting is an excellent program if you just follow what’s in the handbooks. The various controversies surrounding Scouting are separate from that. For example, no where in any handbook that I used did it say discriminate against homosexuals. That’s a separate BSA policy that interprets what’s in the handbooks.

So, that’s how I got through my time as a Scout leader being a secular humanist. To finish up, here are a few more thoughts on Scouting and atheism:

This might be surprising, but I don’t oppose the right of Boy Scouts of America to bar atheists from being leaders. I wish it was different, of course. As I’ve tried to make clear, Scouting has much to offer young people and much of its content is in line with secular humanist values. But secular humanism is a worldview. I don’t see it as an in-born trait. And I am leery of forcing private groups to accept people of all worldviews. I hope BSA will eventually come around – and I will advocate for that – but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Regarding my reference to “passing” above, is passing a form of dishonesty? A key value of Scouting – and of mine, as well – is honesty. Should I have publicly declared my secular humanism and risked getting thrown out as a registered Scouting leader? Perhaps.

Finally, with BSA formally taking steps to dissociate itself from public institutions so that it can discriminate in the ways it sees fit, should it still be allowed to recruit in public schools and use their facilities? My Pack owes much of its recruitment success to being able to talk directly to boys at school, usually during lunchtime. And it regularly uses school facilities for its major events. I’m now very uncomfortable with it doing these things. But don’t worry. I’m not going to press the issue.

Scouting and atheism – Part 1 of 2

As I wrote yesterday, after five years, I have resigned as a registered adult leader with Boy Scouts of America. The local BSA council is currently taking proactive steps to sever the ties between local public school PTOs and Scouting units so that it can freely implement its discriminatory policies targeting homosexual adults. This will effect my local Pack, and I decided I just couldn’t stand by anymore.

That said, I also wrote about how I support the values of Scouting. I still stand by that – mostly.

I say mostly because I am a secular humanist, and yes, that also means I’m an atheist. And atheists are also unwelcome in Scouting. In fact, they are more unwelcome than homosexuals.

The evidence for that comes from the reactions by national church groups when BSA released its revised policy back in May. While some national churches condemned the change to allow openly homosexual youth to become Scouts, others were quite fine with it. Of special importance was the reaction by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). Writing in the The Washington Post, Michael Otterson of the LDS Church explained that it could accept the change because the BSA’s resolution explicitly re-affirms “duty to God” as a central tenet of Scouting. He goes on to quote a speech by the Presiding Bishop of the LDS Church, Gary E. Stevenson:

It is this common belief in duty to God that has forged the iron-strong connection with Boy Scouts of America we (i.e. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have shared over the last 100 years. One hundred years of evidence has shown that this impact-proof, non-rusting core principle works better than whatever has been, historically, the next-best idea. Duty to God is where the power lies. Duty to God is what changes lives…

Some may not see the sacred gatekeeping role scouting plays. They may see only fundraising and not a foundation. Others may brand scouting activities as merely outdoor recreation, but it can and must be shown that BSA is not a camping club; it is a character university centered on duty to God. I quote again from Robert Baden-Powell: ‘The whole of [scouting] is based on religion, that is, on the realization and service of God.’

Had God been written out of Scouts – had secularism and atheism been let in – the LDS church would have bolted.

To understand why that’s important to the BSA, you have to understand that local units are chartered – kind of “owned” – by local groups. Mostly these are churches. It’s a bit like a franchise agreement between BSA and the local groups. But it’s even more like a customer relationship. The churches are BSA’s largest customers, and if national churches stop buying what BSA is offering, it would crumble overnight.

So, according to its biggest sponsors, Scouts is first and foremost a quasi-church, with duty to God being its supreme purpose. Yes, it will accept just about any kind of theism. But it’s theism or nothing.

But I said I was an atheist. And that I still support Scouting’s values. And I was a registered leader for five years. How did that work? I’ll expand upon that in part 2 tomorrow.

I’m resigning as a Boy Scouts registered leader. Here’s why.

I believe in Scouting. I believe in the values and skills it teaches. I believe in the experiences it provides. Both of my boys have participated in Scouts. I have gladly volunteered as a registered leader with Boy Scouts of America for more than five years. I led a Cub Scout den for most of that time, and for two of those years, I also served as a Cubmaster. I was all in.

This week, I resigned.

This past May, as was widely reported and discussed, the Boy Scouts of America reconsidered its policies toward homosexual individuals. Wonderfully, it chose to allow openly homosexual children to participate in Scouts. However, it also chose to continue to discriminate against openly homosexual adults by barring them from serving as leaders.

Now, the local BSA council – W.D. Boyce – is taking proactive steps to ensure that it can implement these discriminatory policies free from challenge or interference.

The council is approaching Scouting units that are chartered by public school parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) and giving them advice that will lead to their severing their relationships with BSA.

Every Scouting unit is technically “owned” by a chartered organization. That chartered organization signs a contract with BSA that says, in part, that it will abide by all of BSA’s policies. The problem, from the council’s perspective, is that PTOs can’t discriminate since they are affiliated with public institutions. So, BSA wants to get PTOs out of the chartering business somehow. It’s doing that by advising the PTOs that, if they approve a homosexual leader, the charter contract is void, and the PTOs won’t be protected by BSA’s insurance policies should anything go wrong in their Scouting programs. The council is portraying this as each PTO’s choice, but of course, it’s really no choice at all. Once the PTO is out of the way, the council is helping the Scouting units find churches or private civic organizations that are still legally allowed to discriminate. My local Pack in Morton is one of the effected Packs, and these steps by BSA to proactively seek out a path to discriminate are steps too far for me.

I’ll readily admit it took me a long time – probably too long – to get to this point. It hasn’t been a secret that BSA has had a long-standing discriminatory policy toward homosexuals. But as I expressed before, I believe in Scouting. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have invested so much time and energy into it. I did try investigating other youth programs that are similar to Scouts. But in downstate Illinois, those programs really don’t exist. Also, thankfully, the issue of discrimination never came up. And I always comforted myself that, even if it did, somehow my Pack was in a special position because of its chartering by a public institution. Now, that’s ending. Like so many things with people, it’s different when it comes home.

I continue to hope that BSA will realize its error and further correct its policies. But for now, I can no longer be party to such institutionalized and active intolerance.

Why I quit mainstream journalism and embraced liberal politics

The debate over whether to bomb Syria feels just like run-up to the invasion of Iraq. It’s on a much smaller scale, and some of the facts are different. But the similarities are enough to make me think back to why I left mainstream journalism and openly embraced liberalism.

Mainstream journalism was once a comfortable fit for me. I grew up in a newspaperman’s household. My father spent three decades in the business, eventually rising to become an editor at major dailies. I started to follow that path, getting a journalism degree. I worked in public radio and TV journalism for about six-and-a-half years, mostly covering business issues and filing reports for a program called Marketplace and occasionally for NPR.

I long had a vague sense that something was wrong with the conservative story of the world and that I was more of a political, social, and economic liberal. But I was born in 1969. I grew up in Reagan’s America and in the decades of conservative ascendancy. The liberal vision and story had been under attack and in decline nearly my entire life.

I was also content to remain in non-partisan, “objective” journalism. Being a good, liberally educated person, it appealed to my need for evidence and multiple, contradictory voices. Also, having known a few journalists in my time, I think it’s a way to burnish your ego. There’s a pox on everyone else’s house, but hey, you’re an objective journalist. You’re better than all that.

Then, in the early 2000s, I was radicalized into politics by the Bush administration and the national media that enabled it.

I supported the war in Afghanistan as a way to bring to justice those who attacked us on 9/11. But after that, it’s obvious to me that the Bush administration was willing to do anything it could to get us into the war with Iraq, including lying and bullying. They also laid the ground work for the ongoing “War on Terror” – the endless war – with its drone attacks, privacy violations, and civil liberties abuses. For goodness sake, my country became a nation that systematically tortured people!

At the same time I saw the top practitioners – the so-called leaders – of my chosen profession of journalism roll over. They became cheerleaders to war. They covered torture with euphemisms. My pet theory is that they were overcome by fear. The places where these journalistic leaders lived – New York and Washington, D.C. – were attacked. Anyone would be afraid after that. But they were also supposed to have some professional distance. That turned out not to be so.

I gladly left mainstream journalism in 2006. I became a stay-at-home dad. I had every intention of doing some writing, but with my new political perspective, I still hadn’t sorted out what that would be.

Then along came the bursting of the housing bubble, the financial system crisis, the bailouts, and the ongoing economic crisis of unemployment and falling wages. To me, this has left naked the power the plutocrats. The wealthiest have recovered while the economic lives of most people in the country have stagnated.

So, due to war and economic collapse and the people who made it possible, I’ve become a liberal activist. Sometimes I felt like I had no choice. As the saying goes, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

So where does this leave me as a journalist? I would guess that the keepers of the profession would say I’ve gone beyond all redemption. They’d say you can’t openly espouse liberal values and causes and be a journalist.

I partly agree with that. Some journalism is just plain, old factual reporting. Sometimes you just want to know what someone said or what the numbers are, and you want to be confident that the details are reported faithfully. Also, evidence still matters to journalism. Journalists should demand evidence and be skeptical when they receive it. The rules of good journalism never change.

But meaningful journalism comes from a perspective – more specifically, from a moral perspective – from a perspective of what is right and wrong. This is true whether the moral perspective is openly acknowledged by the journalist or not. By writing this, I’m making my perspective clear. And from here, I hope I can start producing some journalism worth reading.