Friday, December 15, 2006

Book Censors Try, Yet Again, To Restrict Ideas

Once again, the Harry Potter books are under attack. This time, a mother of three elementary school children in the suburban Atlanta area has been petitioning the library to remove the books from the shelves. She says the books are "mainstreaming witchcraft in a subtle and deceptive manner." She also complains that children don't need to read about murder, greed and violence. In rejecting her petition, the Georgia Board of Education said the books encourage reading and help develop imagination and creativity. The board added that a ban on all books referring to witchcraft would end up including classics such as "Macbeth'' and ''Cinderella."

This is an old argument. Since 1999, the Potter books have been at the top of the American Library Association's list of most-protested books. The complaints come from religious groups - some of which have banned the books to their congregations - who find the subject of witchcraft in opposition to their reading of scripture. In fact, in 2001, a church in New Mexico held a bonfire in which Harry Potter books were burned, along with CDs by Eminem and copies of Walt Disney's Snow White film. "Behind that innocent face is the power of satanic darkness," said Jack Brock, the pastor of the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, N.M. "Harry Potter is the devil and he is destroying people."

Another minister in Lewiston, Maine, wanted to burn the books, but couldn't get a permit from the city. Instead, he cut them up in public. Penecostal minister Douglas Taylor was quoted as saying "I wanted to burn the books because the Bible gives me the authority to burn magic books." This was in 2002.

Book burnings (and book desecrations) have always been around, going back at least to medieval times. In the 20th Century, the government of Nazi Germany famously burned books in massive bonfires, often accompanied by rallies of the Nazi party. In the 1960s, U.S. groups burned stacks of records by The Beatles, after John Lennon commented that rock and roll was more popular with kids than Jesus. (A statement which, even 40 years later, continues to be misunderstood.)

Religious groups are certainly entitled to believe what they will, but why do they need to see that the books are banned? What about people who don't follow their brand of fire-and-brimstone beliefs? By banning the books, they would deny an entire population access to them. So what if the books do encourage witchcraft? (We don't think they do.) Just because witchcraft may be in opposition to what some people believe doesn't mean it represents an illegal activity. People like the suburban Atlanta mother of three seem to have confused legal rights with religious doctrine. Has separation of church and state ever been taught to these folks? (Perhaps they burned the book that had that particular lesson.) As silly as much of this seems, those who would ban books, or music, or speech should be taken seriously. They could end up being successful.

The lack of a law prohibiting that which religious groups consider offensive doesn't preclude them from staying away from it, or telling their children to stay away from it. What they're really saying is that theirs is the only right and true belief system, and any opposition to it should carry the penalty of law. Their lack of understanding of the principles of American democracy is staggering.

Banning and censoring books, music, film or speech in general is a profoundly un-American activity. It's not an accident that the Constitution's prohibition on Congress making any law to restrict speech is the first amendment.

The failure to grasp this most basic principle of freedom is not surprising, given that these same groups failed to acknowledge a spoof that appeared in The Onion ("Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children," July 2000) as satire, and the article was e-mailed as proof that the Harry Potter books made children turn to Satanism. Even some would-be leaders don't get it. Just last month, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich advocated new restrictions on speech as a tool in the "war on terror." Evidently, Gingrich believes that one can save democracy by suspending democracy.

Vigilance against ignorance is the price for an enlightened society.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Pit Bull Politics Come Home To Bite

Dick Cheney has a problem. The pit bull of American conservative politics is seeing his supporters take nasty shots at his daughter Mary, who is both openly gay and pregnant. For most people, this would be a very happy time, and we are sure the Vice President is happy for his daughter and his family. But he can't be happy that his supporters - those voters he courted and nurtured into being the Bush-Cheney base - are being so venomous about his daughter and this happy time in her life.

Take, for example, Robert Knight, from the Culture & Media Institute at the Media Research Center, who said "I think it's tragic that a child has been conceived with the express purpose of denying it a father." Knight also said Cheney and her partner Heather Poe were "shortchanging" the child. The couple lives in Virginia, which won't recognize Poe's rights as a spouse or a partner.

Focus On The Family, perhaps the most venomous of all the so-called Christian rights' groups, issued a statement that criticized all same-sex couples who raise children. Republicans want a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and conservatives would oppose Cheney and Poe getting hitched. Forget marriage, they don't even want them to raise a child.

But why? There's no evidence that children brought up by same-sex couples fare any worse or any better than those in different-sex households (see: American Psychological Association study). The issue for these folks is cultural - they object to homosexuality and changes to the culture of child rearing they know and understand. Consistent with the Bush administration's practice (not pledge) of being dividers, not uniters, Cheney and the politicians with whom he aligns himself have repeatedly spoken in agreement with the issues that the Christian right promotes.

The Christian right should realize they're being suckered. The Bush administration doesn't care about them, and the Republican Party just wants their votes. In mid-October, a former official with Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives published a book, Tempting Faith, that disclosed that while national Christian leaders get public support from Bush and his Republican allies, they are called "nuts" behind the scenes and only used in efforts to mobilize voters. Anyone who examines the legislative objectives of Bush and the Republicans can see that their true concern is with giving aid to the objectives of corporations and the very rich. If they were truly religious people, wouldn't they have learned the lesson about the camel and the eye of the needle?

Still, Republicans are unlikely to admit the facade they've been using for so long and support gay rights, especially the right of gay marriage - not when fostering opposition to that worked so well in bringing out the votes of the intolerant in 2004. That's consistent with the history of conservatism. As various times in the life of the American politics, conservatives have opposed the right of women to vote, the right of black citizens to vote, Social Security and the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the creation of Medicare, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, among others. None of these measures - which benefit the people and democracy - are consistent with the wishes of the business constituency or the religious voters that the Republican party currently needs to mobilize to get elected.

What's the problem with gay marriage? By what authority do conservative groups dictate who can love whom in society? They will claim by the authority of God, but religious text has been the subject of debate for thousands of years, and besides, with a separation of church and state, those who don't choose to follow a particular religion should be able to have the rights that are due them under the law. It is not the place of law to codify any religion, nor to measure what kind of love between two people is more worthy of recognition than another.

Ten years ago, in an interview with The Advocate, Bruce Springsteen said of the right to marry:

It does matter. It's very different than just living together. First of all, stepping up publicly- which is what you do: You get your license, you do all the social rituals- is a part of your place in society and in some way part of society's acceptance of you. [...] Coming out and saying whom you love, how you feel about them, in a public way was very, very important. Those are the threads of society; that's how we all live together in some fashion. There is no reason I can see why gays and lesbians shouldn't get married. It is important because those are the things that bring you in and make you feel a part of the social fabric.
Excluding people from the social fabric is exactly what this is all about to the conservatives. Republicans made a point of showcasing themselves as defenders of "family values." How does preventing gays from marrying or raising children value the family?

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Moving To The Moon

In the 1970s, television screens showed images of "Moon Base Alpha," a virtual colony on the surface of the moon, on the British-produced "Space: 1999." They might have gotten the date wrong.

Yesterday, in the latest example of making science fiction into science fact, it was reported that NASA plans to establish a permanent base on the moon by 2024, four years after the agency plans to resume manned trips there. For more than 50 years, a moon base has been the stuff of imagination in books and movies, and of scientific conjecture. NASA's plan is to equip the base with several lunar rovers to explore the surface of the moon.

The base would be set at either of the moon's poles, which have access to more sunshine than the rest of the surface, and which will better serve the base's solar-powered energy system.

Of course, the question is what to make of all this? On the one hand, is it really justifiable to spend the kind of money that space exploration requires when we have people without enough to eat or without healthcare? (Whether money can solve those problems is another matter, and it seems unlikely that money alone would be sufficient to break through the corrupt governments that block humanitarian aid in some parts of the world, or to solve the problem of corrupt corporations that gouge people for healthcare coverage and pharmaceuticals.)

Once President Kennedy set the goal for lunar exploration, Americans spent a good deal of the next decade and a half with a hopeful purpose. The space race had a positive influence on the culture, and saw people rooting for new achievements in science rather than rooting for their side in the latest global conflict. (How much more positive an influence that era would have seen but for the Vietnam War is something we'll never know.) Kennedy said of the plan to reach the moon, "new hopes for knowledge and peace are there." Sadly, those were never realized.

Significantly, however, the discoveries of the space age fueled many industries for the next several decades. Cell phones, iPods, personal computers and microwave ovens all owe a debt to the experimentation and achievements that came from that period. Even architecture was more bold and hopeful, as Googie design utilized lines and angles -- and imagination -- that soared. A return to the moon, and the realization of fifty years of thoughtful design in films, drawings, even toys, could be the catalyst for a new era of a hopeful, positive influence in the culture. All of that assumes that the intentions of international cooperation for the base are genuine. Using space for military purposes, as Donald Rumsfeld reportedly intended when he became Secretary of Defense, would be a profound negative, and a betrayal of hope.

In 1968, as violence at home and abroad reached a peak, and as the divide among Americans and among older and younger generations grew wider, astronauts from the Apollo 8 mission to the moon sent back a picture of earth, as illuminated by the sun and seen from the surface of the moon. The picture has been called one of the "most influential environmental photographs ever taken," and as an anonymous telegram to astronaut Frank Borman put it, "saved 1968" in its depiction of a finite planet, a small part of the vast universe.

That's the kind of thing the world could use right now.

More info: Wikipedia: Apollo 8

Manned Moon Base Within 20 Years

Saturday, December 2, 2006

'The Great Wealth Transfer'

"The Great Wealth Transfer" is essential reading in the new issue of Rolling Stone. Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist and Princeton professor, describes how what appear to be good economic numbers aren't good for the vast majority of people in the U.S.

The blame, he says, goes to corporate wealth - which is not shared with workers, and is instead lavished on corporate executives at historically astronomical rates - and the politics of conservatism - which make way for tax cuts to the wealthiest among us, and also work to weaken labor unions and keep down the minimum wage. The assault on unions and the minimum wage began, Krugman writes, in the 1970s, but kicked into high gear when Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. The situation got only slightly better in the 1990s, but the current Bush regime has gone beyond what was seen in the Reagan years.

All of this has brought American society back to a time before the New Deal when the very rich lived far apart from the rest of the nation. Indeed, that seems to be the conservatives' goal, and it has been for some time. In the 19th Century, the distribution of money and power was far different from what we came to know in the 20th Century, and if the conservatives have their way, the nation will continue on a path like that before the New Deal, labor unions, government oversight of business and so on. Rather than creating a democracy in which all classes of people have a chance to share in the nation's wealth, the conservatives and those corporate leaders whom they truly represent would prefer a system more akin to feudalism.

If for no other reason, this is why it is important to vote against these kinds of interests and support more progressive candidates. It's also why it is important to support, and if possible join, a labor union. Here is an iron-clad guarantee: Corporate America does not have your - or the public's - best interests at heart.

["The Great Wealth Transfer" can be read online here. The article is also in the Dec. 14 issue of Rolling Stone.]

More info: New Deal Network