Hillary Clinton / Margaret Sanger

ClintonWell, this is making the rounds, so I’ll say a couple of things about it.

First, it’s a pure hit piece against Hillary Clinton, and it absolutely came right out of the GOP hate machine.

Second, it’s a hit against Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, which all the more obviously means it originated with the Right.


Margaret Higgins Sanger (September 14, 1879 – September 6, 1966) was an American birth control activist, sex educator, and nurse. Sanger popularized the term birth control, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, and established organizations that evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Sanger was PROSECUTED in 1914 for her book about pregnancy and contraception, Family Limitation, under a FEDERAL LAW which forbade public access to information on contraception, on the grounds of obscenity.

There’s some question about whether she actually said or wrote this “quote.” I couldn’t find anything saying she did. I did find several articles pointing out that Sanger has long been a target of the “forced birth” party, the ones who passionately hate Planned Parenthood, and asserting that Sanger never said any such thing.

But let’s say she did say it. Here’s the thing: If you and I and everybody we know had been born in 1879, the probability is high that we would all be racists. Hell, we would have hated the IRISH. We would have highly approved of this supposed Sanger quote, and thought fondly of what the world would be like without “Negroes.”

By modern standards, pretty much everybodJudging the Past copyy in the past was, in one way or another, a tremendous asshole. But just as you don’t judge a children’s theatrical production  by the standards of a professional theatre critic, you don’t judge people of the past exclusively by modern standards. If you do, it speaks more of your ignorance of what progress means than it does the low quality of our ancestors.

You don’t judge people of the past by their imperfections. You judge them for RISING ABOVE the imperfections of the era in which they were born. You judge them in light of the culture they were born into, and overcame. You judge them for contributing their one small piece to the more enlightened age in which we live. For laying a single brick — just one — in today’s cultural house.

Even if they grew above the crowd in only in one way — that’s all it takes for history to spotlight them with greatness.

Sanger did more for women’s health, safety and reproductive rights than any 1,000 of us sitting here reading this, and she did it in the face of massive conservative outrage and opposition. They would have put her in prison merely FOR GIVING WOMEN INFORMATION on how not to die in childbirth.

So kudos to Hillary Clinton for admiring her. I do too. Sanger was a giant.

Insight Into A World Without Gods

COE 235Today I located the Facebook pages of a handful of old friends, some from my cowboy years, some from my Texas years. None of them know me on Facebook, because I’ve kept that account secret from most of them.

Part of it is because I don’t like people looking over my shoulder as I engage in an ongoing freestyle quest to figure out this thing I’m trying to figure out — you know, Life. Part of it is … I know if they see who I am now, the kinds of things I think and say, we can’t be friends anymore. And I still like to think of them out there, ready for a visit or a phone call, ready to smile as they see me coming up the road. There are people I want to see at least one more time before we all start dying.

One thing I notice, when I see the divide between us — the political divide, the philosophical divide — is that they’re ALL religious. They ALL believe in an afterlife, and God, and Eternity.

There are times when I have trouble imagining how different the world might be without religion. How it might be better, or possibly worse. There’s no way to tell how things might be, most of us would say, because we have nothing to compare it to. We have no history without religion, and so we can’t say whether it might have been better or worse.

But we DO have something to compare it to. We have each other — those of us with religion, and those without. We have the lives of staunch believers, the kinds of things they do in the world, how they react to things that happen to them. We know what sorts of things they believe, in parallel with their religion. We know the kinds of ideas they fiercely give themselves to, to defend and advance, and the kinds of things they fall for. And even the kinds of things they’re capable of understanding, or even listening to.

Sometimes when I talk to some of these old buddies, I actually feel guilty. Guilty that I wasn’t a better friend, that I let them get to where they are. Guilty that I wasn’t there for them, maybe helping them see a larger world outside religion and conservatism, or — whether they ended up agreeing with me or not — at least helping them learn to ask their own questions about gods and devils, holy books and traditional beliefs.

Herd Immunity: The Internet vs. Education

COE SquareRather than amplifying intelligence, I think the Internet and TV are taking the place of intelligence. Because information is available in instants, you don’t have to actually learn things, to commit them to memory and have them become a part of your own thinking processes. A great deal of the time, for too many of us, we don’t even have to THINK. We become less practiced at it. We become lazy data-tourists rather than farmers of knowledge.

Of course we don’t ALL become less practiced at thinking, at working to understand the world around us. But a significant number do. This is bad because, socially, the thing is a lot like vaccinations and herd immunity: The more kids who are vaccinated in any population, the less chance of the target disease catching on in that population.

If you have a population of 100 kids in a school, but only 10 of them are vaccinated, the chance of whooping cough sailing in and hitting every kid — except the few vaccinated — is very high. If 90 of those kids are vaccinated, you have a much lower chance of any kid — even the unvaccinated — catching it.

Just so, the more people in a group who are educated and thoughtful and rational — the more who learn to THINK — the greater the herd immunity against stupidity.

A conspiratorial idea might flow out of Fox News and catch on with one person, but other people in the same family, or school, or neighborhood, will shut it down with educated arguments. Rather than stupidity or paranoia catching on and raging out of control, the intellectual herd immunity will protect even those who are NOT educated and thoughtful.

The Internet makes it easy, not only to not think, but to become exposed to mind-pathogens — the wild ideas, conspiracy theories, hate memes and violent sectarian rants — that infect us with damaging craziness. And in this case, the epidemic is panic, unthinking followership, mob action.

I like the idea of education as a vaccination against stupidity, and even more that widely-available education, training in reason and thinking, provides herd immunity against craziness and stupidity.

But I worry that our intellectual herd immunity — likely due to the bullshit commonality of so much of the Internet — is dangerously low.

Rather than intelligence and thoughtfulness, we seem to be amplifying pugnacity, stupidity and rage.

Dawkins and Dennett in Boston

Dawkins ExplainsI got to see noted scientist, atheist and author Richard Dawkins and philosopher/author Daniel Dennett in Boston this past Thursday, June 11. I first saw Dawkins at the Reason Rally in Washington DC, so this was my second eyes-on viewing of him, but it was my first time seeing Dennett in person. I traveled down with three members of the Capital Region Atheists & Agnostics — Lizz Lloyd, Jim Piren and Ken Spencer. (A big thank-you to them for the company and the wheels.)

The format of the event, held in Boston’s Chevalier Theatre and the third of a 3-city tour featuring Dawkins and different co-speakers, was a fireside chat — a rambling, amiable hourlong talk between Dennett and Dawkins, followed by an hour of Q&A, then a book signing in the lobby.

The thoughtful talk covered mostly science-related issues, only dipping into atheism and freethought near its end.

Dennett spoke at length about The Clergy Project. He and fellow researcher Linda LaScola interviewed numerous clergymen who no longer believed, yet were still working in their field – mostly because they were unemployable anywhere else – and produced a study published as Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. Though the two researchers were careful to maintain the anonymity of respondents, some of the clergy members interviewed found each other and founded The Clergy Project, which now, Dennett said, has more than 600 core members – working clergy who are nevertheless atheists.

One questioner asked Dennett about plans for including some sort of safe house for women attempting to escape fundamentalist groups and families. Dennett admitted that The Clergy Project contained nothing of the sort at present, but he thought it a good idea.

Dawkins at one point during the Q&A said something surprising. The question was “Should atheists work with moderate Christians and churches to oppose fundamentalists?” The main part of his answer was that a team-up with moderate Christians could certainly be useful in certain circumstances, but he wasn’t in favor of it as a main strategy. He followed up by saying his primary concern at present is Islam, and added he had a quiet worry that “dismantling Christianity” might eliminate a powerful ally in opposing Islam.

A couple of beefs on my part:

First, the sound system in the theatre was subpar. Ear-piercing feedback squealed out into the auditorium for many minutes – and randomly throughout the talk – visibly annoying both Dawkins and Dennett, who soldiered on as well as possible. Dawkins even got out of his chair more than once to tinker with an on-stage speaker box. I have to wonder how it’s even possible to have such amazingly bad sound in an old, established auditorium.

Second, the ladies handing around the mikes during the audience Q&A session ignored me. I waved my hand in the air a LOT during the Q&A hour, and I watched the nearest mike-carrier’s eyes slide away from me several times. True, I was there wearing my cowboy hat, and I suspect she thought I was there to cause a scene, and didn’t want to give me the chance. (I DID consider making a joke by saying in my Deep South accent “If human bein’s came from monkeys …” before asking my real question. Ah well.)

With close to a thousand people attending, a LONG line developed for the book signings at the end. Dawkin’s final comment after the Q&A was to ask the people at the beginning of the line to be generous with the time of those at the end, and suggested no selfies, to general laughter.

Dawkins and Dennett sat approachably at a small table, and signed book after book, hundreds of them. This time I did get to make a joke, by first handing Dawkins The God Delusion to sign, then giving him a copy of Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist, explaining quickly that it was my own book, and that the bull rider on the cover was me. I’m pretty sure nothing like that had ever happened to him – he looked momentarily baffled as he examined it, then smiled big and graciously thanked me.

In the end, I got to personally thank both Dawkins and Dennett: “Thank you for existing! And for all you do.”





Boston Scenes:


The Book of Good Living: Solve It Once

BGL copySomething I used to do all too often was to have a recurring problem that I feebly failed to solve. And I know I’m not the only one.

“I put my glasses down somewhere and now I can’t find them.”

“Darn it, locked my keys in my car again. Third time this month.”

“I forgot to pay the phone bill again and they cut me off. Again.”

Most of us do it. Each time, we’re forced to deal with the small emergency that results, in a way that costs time, annoyance, and even money.

The worst cost is that you feel like such an idiot each time. (Typically, generous friends are glad to pitch in and point out that you ARE an idiot.)

But there really is an easy way to deal with them. I call it “Solve It Once.”

The Solve It Once strategy is just this:

  1. Figure out some foolproof way to keep from having the thing happen the next time.
  2. Start doing it that way now.
  3. Never do it different.

Keep losing your glasses? Decide on where to put them – say a particular spot on your desk – so that you’ll always be able to find them. Never put them anywhere else.

Lock your keys in your car? Before you lock your car door, visually verify that your keys are either in your hand or in your pocket. Never do it any other way.

Or: Go down to the dealer and have a spare key made. Put it in your purse or billfold or pocket. Never leave the house without it.

Forget to pay the phone bill? The day the bill comes in the mail, sit down and write out a check, slip it into the envelope, slap a stamp on it and put it where you won’t forget to mail it. Never vary from the practice.

Or: Put all received bills in one specific tray on your desk. Pay them ALL each Tuesday, whether due or not. Never change the habit.

The power of Solve It Once is that the solution quickly moves from the conscious part of your brain to the unconscious, making it automatic, painless and easy.

Best of all, you’ll never lose your glasses again. Or lock your keys in your car. Or …

Dawkins in Boston, Oh Yeah

dawkins_tour_landing-page-6Owing to … well, owing, I don’t often get to attend the big atheist events. But this time there’s one near me, so I’m going to see and hear Richard Dawkins in Boston this Thursday, June 11.

I’m carpooling with some of the cool people of the Capital Region Atheists & Agnostics Meet-Up group.

I’m pretty excited about it. Always wanted to meet the guy, and I hope that will be possible here.

Tickets are $35. I’ll be the guy in the cowboy hat.


I’ll also be posting a followup with some pictures, a day or so later.

The Book of Good Living: Tools 2

BGL copyTools are under-appreciated by most of us officey types. Whether it’s a circular saw, a drill, a planer, an arc welder, or just a simple car jack, too many of us aren’t ready to get our hands dirty.

It’s not the dirt, of course. It’s just that certain tools can be outside our bubble of competence, and it’s human nature to shy away from getting involved in something we probably, in the beginning, won’t be much good at.

But here’s the really great thing about tools: If you have the right tools – and the skills to use them – you can turn anything into anything.

You can turn a discarded old oak pallet into a beautiful jewelry box. You can turn scrap metal into sculpture, or a rusty steel pipe into a gleaming barbecue pit. You can turn a ragged old house into a welcoming home.

You can turn garbage into gold. Metaphorically, at least.

Three rules for tools:

  1. Buy the best tools you can afford.
  2. Learn to use them safely and thoroughly.
  3. Never lend them out for any reason.

Rule 1: Anybody who’s bought a cheap tool has lived to regret it. That bargain socket wrench set that LOOKS just like the more expensive ones, is not. It’s a cheap knockoff of something better, and it will neither last nor perform as well. And there’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a critical job and having your socket or screwdriver or router bit fail on you. The cheaper ones are also dangerous. If you’re leaning on a wrench to try to break free a rusty nut, and the socket breaks loose, it’s gonna hurt. Buy the best, always. Good tools are made well enough to last pretty much your entire lifetime. Which means they’re cheaper in the long run.

Rule 2: Power tools aren’t kid stuff. Get some safety training if you’re unused to, say, a circular saw or a jointer-planer. If you use it wrong, it really can take your hand off in a split second. The same blade that rips into a length of pine can put you in the hospital, or worse. Keep your insides on your inside by being damned careful.

Rule 3: Can I borrow your new mower? Can I borrow your expensive wheelbarrow? Can I borrow your paint sprayer? No, no, and no. Find a way to gracefully beg off, or just be blunt about it, but don’t lend your tools to your neighbors, your friends, or your kids. Go over and use the tool for them, if you must, but don’t lend it out. It sounds harsh, even unfriendly, but there are some good reasons for it. First, if your chainsaw rips into some kid’s arm, or your powerful mower slings a rock into somebody’s eye, oh boy are you going to feel bad. Not to mention the lawsuit. And then there’s this: Nobody loves your tools like you do. They WON’T take care of them the way you do. The guy who loves tools as much as you do – and yes, there are plenty of them out there – probably has his own, and won’t be asking to borrow yours. There’s also the fact that most tools have a service period built into them. Well-maintained, they just might last forever. Poorly taken care of, they won’t. You do the math.

Finally, Rule 4: Use them! Turning garbage into gold is exciting! Satisfying! Fun!

God, The Wet Blanket

COE SquareOne of the things I enjoy doing on my daily van trips — I’m in transportation at an addiction recovery facility, and I drive every day a round trip between Schenectady, NY and New York City — is play tourguide. Since the trip is close to three hours long each way, there’s plenty of time to point out interesting details of the scenery along the way. I often see deer (today I saw a doe with a newborn fawn in the roadside grass), sometimes wild turkeys, occasionally great blue herons. There are apple orchards along the way, cattle, horses, a grass-field airport, hills and forest.

But I also drive through numerous road cuts which bare sections of Upstate New York’s fascinating geology. Most of the rock here is sedimentary — that layered, sometimes multicolored stuff — and almost all of it has undergone folding or uplift. It’s common to see the layers standing on edge, or at some angle quite far from the horizontal, and you’ll sometimes see it humped and bumped so that the naturally flat layers are rippled into a crude sine wave with red and white layers alternating.

My knowledge of geology is rudimentary. I have wished all too often that I could drive the roads of New York with a qualified local geologist, so I could learn how old the stuff is, what era each layer originated in, how far back in time I’m seeing.

Anyway, today I’m driving two clients, a man and a young woman from New York City, and pointing out bits of this and that along the way. (Orange County Choppers, the motorcycle customizers from TV, is right along the way, and that always piques interest.) But as we come up to a section of vivid vertical layers in a road cut, I start to explain about sedimentation and layering, and how significant it is that these normally-horizontal layers of stone are now almost completely vertical.

For myself, I LOVE knowing that this stone MOVED, over however many millions of years, and is, in fact, still in ultra-ultra-ultra-slow motion. And I love imparting that tidbit of knowledge to others.

But this time, as I’m in mid-explanation, the man breaks in and says happily “And you know who did all that? One guy! God! He made EVERYthing! He did it all! Ain’t that amazing!” He wasn’t correcting me or anything, he was just sharing HIS knowledge, adding his own remarks to what he thought I was getting at.

That was the last of the tourguiding on today’s trip. For the next hour or so I thought about how limited, how disturbingly frozen and ungrowthy is religious thinking.

I’ve often reflected that the entire world around us, every aspect of it, projects information at us. If you have ears to hear and eyes to see, the entirety of existence is this constant COMMUNICATION, and that fact in itself is endlessly fascinating. For the open mind, the world burns hot with knowledge — throwing off the sparks of pictures, processes, drama, wonderfully deep sequences of ideas and understandings — and it just makes me laugh to think of it.

But religious thinking of the “God did it all!” sort is a wet blanket tossed on that fire, dousing it to ashes. Nothing remains but the dead gray cinder of faith, separating each believer from an entire world of luminous knowledge.

Damn. That’s just so … sad.