Ferguson, police, and race

Here I am writing my first public thoughts about Ferguson. Awfully late, you say. Fair enough. But I had my reasons. Race is complicated and delicate, of course, and it’s not something I study consistently, so I was inclined to wait for the Justice Department reports and read other commentary. Also, let me say this: when it comes to these issues, I know what’s expected of me by some of my liberal and leftist friends, and I’m not sure I can deliver. “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” of course. And while I’m a liberal (which any leftist will tell you is not much of a lefty at all, no matter what conservatives say), I am also a middle-aged white guy, raised in a certain amount – and certainly living in a certain amount – of privilege. That brings certain reactions and preconceptions, not all of which I will go into here.  But I have attempted to put those reactions and preconceptions into context and to learn. I guess in the end what I’m trying to do here is clarify my own thinking. You can judge, praise, or condemn at your pleasure. Here we go:

Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice released twin reports on the events in Ferguson.

For the record, I agree with the conclusions reached by the Department of Justice and the state grand jury about Darren Wilson. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, even under the best of conditions. And I am sympathetic toward police. They get to see the worst sides of humanity and have to somehow deal with it, rather than look away (although it’s important to note that policing is not specially dangerous). Also, as a practical matter – unless we want to go down into some libertarian or survivalist fantasy land – I believe we all want to know that there is someone to call when things get bad. And yes, I want the police to protect my property, if necessary. And I refuse to endorse the use of the word “pigs” for the police that I’ve seen used in places lately. Police can serve and protect when – and this is the key – they are policed themselves.

And that’s where things are breaking down. Police are given wide latitude, discretion, and power in our society. And with those should come strict accountability. But this is very difficult to do, given the way police are generally treated preferentially by the justice system. Body cameras might someday help with accountability. Police training needs to change. And we need to definitely stand down from the militarization of our police (and certainly of our entire society).

I see these as all good directions to go, but of course, sometimes police just get out of control. And that’s why I also agree with the other report from the Department of Justice regarding the Ferguson Police Department. It’s a terrible list of offenses – made all the uglier by the pattern of racism that’s evident in them. Any community targeted by its police force like this would be primed for violence – even if it was an ethnicity that gets defined as white. (I’m thinking of the Irish or Italians in my immediate ethnic circle. They were both viewed unfavorably at one time, to say the least.) That’s why I agree with characterizing the protests as a rebellion or an uprising and not a riot. Incidentally, the pattern of using police citations as a way to fund the local government sure strikes me as a variation of taxation without representation, and when has that ever pissed people off before? (Sadly, this practice seems to be widespread in the St. Louis area.)

Regarding the larger issue of race in the United States, I’ll say something obvious: racism is real; it is pervasive; and it effects people’s behavior, even when they don’t realize it. (Incidentally, it’s also worldwide. Singapore, where I live now, became an independent country in part because of severe racial and religious tensions.) Be honest with yourself: even if you don’t consider yourself a racist, have you ever felt even the slightest bit uncomfortable around a person of another color? Maybe it was just because you wondered what that person thought of you because of your color? Or maybe you were wondering if they would perceive you as racist in some way? I’ll bite the bullet: I have. That’s racism hard at work.

So, racism is ubiquitous, but it’s effects are not felt equally. The danger comes when racism gets connected to power. And there are few examples of power that are quite as clear as the criminal justice system. The justice system literally holds power over freedom and incarceration, life and death. And what we find here when we look for racial patterns is profoundly disturbing, with minorities being disproportionately subjected to criminal justice power – even to the point of death.

So what’s to be done? I don’t know. My opinion on that is for a future post (or dozens) after more reading. All I’ve tried to say is where I’m coming from. I guess doing that – talking about racism – is a start, at least for me. Of course, sometimes that conversation will be uncomfortable and will get hot – perhaps even bleed over into the streets. But that’s just like any conversation that’s about something that actually matters.

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.