Beta Culture: The Healthy Dog Registry

COE 235Pug dogs are an abomination. There, I said it. Someone had to.

But seriously …

A few years back, I was taking pictures of people’s dogs for the fun (and sometimes money) of it, and a lady called me asking if I would take pics of her little black pug. We met to discuss the project, exactly what she wanted and expected, and I got to meet her little dog.

The entire time we talked, the dog in her arms made a growling noise. I baby-talked to him “Yes, you’re scaring me! You’re scaring me bad, you dangerous animal!” The lady said “Oh, he’s not growling. That’s just how he breathes.”

Whoa. Here’s this dog that’s been bred to have a face that’s so compressed, with nasal passages so deviated, that the poor little guy has to struggle for every breath! I’m instantly both disgusted and horrified at that, but I keep it to myself and, a few days later, take the pictures.

With vivid memories in my head of seeing my own big healthy dogs run, play, swim, dig, chase rabbits, fetch tennis balls, roll in the grass, trot happily along mountain trails, I compare this pudgy little cripple and I feel distinctly sorry for him, for the entire breed.

I’m also angry at the people who create them. Nowhere along the way can you find anyone (breeders? owners? dog clubs?) to really BLAME for bringing about this physical form that tragically limits the individual animal and sometimes even promotes suffering, but in my view it is nevertheless a moral crime.

I’ve expressed this opinion more than once in public, and the typical response is “Oh, but they’re really happy little dogs! There’s nothing wrong with them!” I can never seem to get across to those people that breeding a perfectly healthy creature down to where it is defenseless and even debilitated — for reasons of human amusement or style — is wrong.

The kicker of the story is that the lady called me only a month or so later, asking if I’d take pictures of her new dog. The first one had died mysteriously in its sleep. (Yeah, wonder why?)

I went to meet her. She’d gotten another black pug.


All of this is an intro to a single idea — the Healthy Dog Registry.

Because I’ve seen too much of that same sort of thing. Dogs with bad hips, eye conditions, cancer, so, so much more. All of it the result of DELIBERATE human action, actions — and results — which the breed registries and show dog supporters fiercely defend.

I wish there was such a thing as the HDR (and I wish it had started in 1820), an organization that followed dog lineages for many generations, with the aim of building health, longevity and intelligence into the dogs, FOR THE DOGS, but also to guarantee lasting companionship for the dog owners. Rather than breeding for, say, “cuteness” or good looks for dog shows. If it resulted in a single muttsky-looking breed called the Big Healthy Dog, I could certainly live with that.

A group of people who had the will to carry out such a project over generations — oh, call them Beta Culture — a project of reason and compassion to fix a problem that results from short-term focus on features profitable but unhealthy for the beautiful victims, I’d definitely want to be a part of that.

American Atheist: Toward a New Definition of Atheism

The following article appears in the September 2015 issue of American Atheist Magazine.

American Atheist is sold at Barnes & Noble, and a digital version is available via iTunes. Of course you can also SUBSCRIBE to it (hint, hint).


Toward a New Definition of Atheism

by Hank Fox

Sooner rather than later, every fledgling Atheist gets swept up in the definitional debate. Atheism is this, Atheism is that, agnosticism is the other thing, and one disturbingly insistent assertion pops up in every iteration: “You can’t prove a negative! It’s impossible!”

I always joke  that I CAN prove a negative — that gods don’t exist — but the proof only works with someone who’s already open-minded. In my book, “Red Neck, Blue Collar Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith”, I undertake to prove one particular negative: that Batman doesn’t exist. Given the definition of Batman — a guy who lives in Gotham City on Earth, who has a butler named Alfred and a protege named Dick Grayson, a man who is himself billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne and who swings around the streets of the city night after night after criminals — he doesn’t and can’t exist. Since the very definition of Batman provides that he lives in Gotham City, a city which doesn’t exist on Earth (DON’T give me crap about that. Batman originated in 1939; all that “infinite Earths” stuff came up only in the 1980s.), Batman — the Batman, not just some “bat man” you might make up in your own head — does not and cannot possibly exist anywhere in the universe.

All the evidence points to Batman’s non-existence. In the case of the fictional character Batman, we know the name of the man who created him: Bob Kane. We know the names of the many actors — Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, etc. — who have portrayed him in movies and animated features. If you asked any of those people if Batman is real, they might joke about it, but I doubt any of them would take the question seriously because they know they were portraying a man who is non-existent.

Plus, you know, fictional character.

So, in fact, you can prove a negative, under certain conditions. This type of proof is argumentatively ineffective against god because “god” is never defined in any concrete way. The concept of god probably even evolved toward a non-concrete definition so as to stave off questions about its provability.

Still, this business about the impossibility of proving a negative crops up in every discussion, over and over, with debaters slinging it out in perfect confidence at every opportunity. “If you don’t search the entire universe, you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist! It’s logically impossible! Therefore, you can’t be 100-percent Atheist!”

I often come across online postings of the Dawkins Scale, which asks the question, “Where do you stand?” I’m one of the few who answers that I’m a 100-percent, Level 7, “Strong Atheist.” Inevitably, the stated reservation of many others is that you can’t prove a negative because you can’t KNOW with 100-percent certainty that a thing doesn’t exist. There’s always that 0.000000000000001-percent possibility that the thing might exist out there somewhere. Therefore, it’s logically offensive to state that you’re a Level 7 Atheist.

But given the argued one-trillionth-of-a-percent possibility, you’re not talking about a God of the Gaps. This is a god diluted to homeopathic levels — a long, long way from the full-strength supposed Creator of the Universe. Just as homeopathy is ignorable, so is such an iffy god.

Yet, the persistence of the argument that you have to KNOW there’s no God or gods to call yourself an Atheist, and you can’t, so you shouldn’t — as well as the confidence of those stating it — is a source of perpetual annoyance. It is especially so, given the fact that the concept of gods was fairly obviously — to a non-religious person, anyway — made up by humans. You can sometimes observe the process in real time if you get into an argument about the nature of god with a religious person who usually has to make up fresh assertions on the spot.

There’s a way out of the problem, it seems to me, by side-stepping the seemingly reasonable argument and redefining “Atheism” to mean something slightly different. Something not just defensible, but inarguable and, fortunately, something it already means, but just below the level of notice.

Germane to this discussion, there’s this thing we humans started doing not too many hundreds of years ago. We call it “science.” And rather than something that needed to be logically “proved,” science was a philosophy, an outlook, a way of viewing the world around us.

Distinguishing itself from earlier ways of thinking — which included gods, devils, heaven and hell, supernatural powers, and personages — science isn’t a logical argument; it’s a thought-experiment. Up until that time, we’d had the definitive assertion of all these supernatural powers. Then we had this other idea, not so much the definite statement that those supernatural thingies didn’t exist, but the attempt to see what things might be like IF THEY DIDN’T.

Science is the thought-experiment that asks, “What if there are no supernatural forces at all? What if the world and the universe around us operates solely by real-world, natural forces?”

What would geology look like if there were no all-powerful god to set it all up just so? What would physics or astronomy be like if there were no supernatural will involved? What would weather look like without evil and benign spirits (or, according to some sources, gay marriage) affecting it? How does biology work in the absence of a capricious, unknowable creator? All too obviously, science became an especially fruitful way of seeing things. Modern civilization, and pretty much everything in it, is the result. Instead of taking up the argument regarding the non-existence of gods, science just goes about exploring, experimenting, examining, AS IF there were no supernatural forces at work.

Atheism, if we want to see it like this, is that same endeavor. Scaled down to personal-philosophy size, it is the thought-experiment of seeing the world, of conducting our lives in it, as if there were no such things as gods.

WHAT IF there is no heaven and hell, no holy telepath glaring down into our thoughts and actions to see which fate we deserve? How do we understand generosity, charity, decency, moral rightness?

WHAT IF the churchly billions are mistaken about all this god business? How do we know how to celebrate holidays or which holidays to celebrate? How do we educate our kids? How do we welcome newborns or mourn the departed?

WHAT IF there is no holy-book guide to all of life? How do we figure out what to do, how to live, how to treat each other, what sorts of things we’re allowed to eat or touch, whether we can perform work on Saturday or not?

Atheism can be precisely that. Not so much the assertion that God or gods don’t exist, but the ongoing thought-experiment of asking, “What if they don’t?”

In that case, we don’t have to waffle and nitpick about minuscule possibilities. We don’t have to argue about remotely-conceivable personages hiding out in a vast universe. We don’t have to prove or verify anything. We just have to say, “I’m choosing to try this thought-experiment. For the rest of my life, I will assume there are no supernatural super-beings anywhere in the universe and see what there is to gain from that.”

If you understand Atheism as a thought-experiment, you can confidently call yourself an enthusiastic, fully-engaged, 100-percent Atheist. Every one of us can be a 7 on the Dawkins Scale.

The powerfully positive outcome of the thought-experiment of science compared to the millennia-long, pre-science era when we tried that other mode of thought, religion and superstition — which is transparently also a thought-experiment — suggests there’s a great deal to gain, both as individuals and as a worldwide society, by simply choosing to be full Atheists and following through in every part of life.

Power: The Source is the Limit, the Source is Us

powerWould you believe me if I told you “government” doesn’t really exist? That when we talk about government, there’s nothing really there? It’s as fictional as religion?

So where do I think all those government buildings come from? What’s all that business you see in Washington DC — Congress and the White House, the Supreme Court and all those museums and monuments and stuff? What’s the deal with all the cop cars, and the uniformed people driving them? What do I think the IRS is, or the U.S. Army? What exactly is the local fire department, the school district, the Water Board, the city and county office buildings? What about all that sheer government POWER??

It’s just this: People pretending — or agreeing — government exists.

Oh, the buildings are there, sure enough, but they’re really no different from other buildings. They’re things people build for some purpose. But the something-or-other inside them, that’s just a bunch of people playing an elaborate game of make-believe. The game of “Let’s Pretend Government Exists.” And the power?

Let me see if I can explain it.

Say John Smith wants Bob Jones to do something for him. There’s a range of persuasions that can be called into play to make this happen. At one end is the generosity and goodwill of Bob toward his friend John, and all John has to do is suggest he needs the thing done, and Bob will jump to do it. At the other end, John holds a gun to Bob’s head and orders him to do it.

In between is John the cop flashing his lights at Bob the driver, John the distant tax collection official and Bob the annual tax-return-filer, John the teacher announcing a pop quiz to Bob the student, John the storekeeper telling Bob the shopper the total will be $27.16, John the preacher telling Bob the parishioner to say ten Hail Marys.

But in each case, and all the cases between those two extremes, there’s a hidden agreement. Bob agrees that John has the power over him. He PERMITS it.

The agreement is “You pretend you’re a teacher, I’ll pretend you’re a teacher, and we’ll proceed as if that’s something real.” For human social reasons, it’s real. But in any other way, it’s a pretense.

Even if John is President of the United States, or a four-star general, he’s just one guy, right? And so is Bob. Discount for a second the fact that one of them might be physically stronger than the other, and you have one unit of human power facing one unit of human power. EVERYTHING ELSE is that agreement. Bob agrees that John has the right to tell him what to do. Bob agrees to do it.

He doesn’t have to. He can say no. You might say “Well, John might kill him for it,” and yes, that’s true. But how many civilized situations really involve the imminent threat of death? Very few.

But in reality, John has one unit of human power, and only one … until Bob AGREES that he will lend John his power by doing what John wants.

Toss some other people into the mix. Say John is a four-star general. Surround him with a thousand obedient soldiers. In addition to his own single unit of human power, now John has the power of a thousand soldiers, plus the power of Bob. But only so long as the thousand-and-one people AGREE they will obey John. Only as long as they willingly PERMIT the general to have that power over them.

Fame is a sort of power. So is wealth. Every aspect of human social and political power is this same sort of thing. Put a billionaire — or a rock star, the leader of a country, a military dictator, any sort of powerful person you might imagine — into a huge empty stadium by himself, and he will again have only one unit of human power. This is why “powerful” people MUST be constantly surrounded by legions of sycophants — servants, toadies, secretaries, guards, henchmen, flower girls and all the rest.

Power in the human sphere comes only by the agreement of the people in the sociopolitical structure within which the power displays.

The democratic model of government is fairly open about this. In nations where political office depends on voters, there’s a recognition that “the people” are the ultimate deciders as to who has power and who doesn’t.

Every “rise to power” — think political campaigns, but also the rise of Hitler — occurs along a lengthy road on which the people being powered-over become gradually convinced, one by one, that they’re willing to cede their own power to the leader. They PERMIT the leader to become powerful by agreeing that he is powerful, and by acting, or refraining from acting, according to the leader’s wishes.

A totalitarian government works no differently as far as the source of power, but it conceals from the underlings any suggestion that their leader — or tyrant — is anything but massively more powerful than them. Yet his power comes only through consent of the henchmen and carriers-out-of-orders, and the fearful-but-willing acquiescence of the populace. You can scare people into fearful obedience, and it works for exactly as long as you can keep them scared.

No one enjoys being afraid, though. It’s why we came up with the democratic social model in which leaders are chosen by the people, each with his one vote which says “Yes, I’ll pretend you have the right to tell me what to do, and I’ll allow you to pretend to lead me.”

But in this social model, just how much “right to tell me what to do” do we give away? To answer that, we first have to realize that in the democratic model, the “leader” position exists not for the purpose of ruling over people, but for doing certain larger social work the individual knows needs to be done, but is unable to do, or chooses not to do, himself. The “ruling over” part of it exists ONLY in the pursuit of that larger work.

So here I am, John Q. Public, and I’m lending out some power to a police officer. How much do I lend him? Exactly the amount needed to do the job of keeping the peace and enforcing the necessary regulations. No more.

If you picture power as gasoline, and imagine a cop needs 13 gallons to do his job each day, we-the-public would provide him 13 gallons, possibly a touch more for unforeseen circumstances. But no more. We wouldn’t give him 38 gallons, or 70 gallons.

So a police officer does NOT have any extra power outside the bounds of his job. And even in his job, there are limits.

We don’t give him permission to beat his wife, for instance, to intimidate his kid’s schoolteacher into giving all A’s, or to beat down some guy he takes a dislike to in an after-hours bar disagreement.  All of those are clearly abuses of power, and we cut it off as soon as we find out about it. If the driver in a traffic stop gives him lip, we don’t agree that he can shoot the guy 36 times, killing him.

There’s some inevitable slop. You and I don’t have free rein to drive 90 miles per hour on the highway, but we somewhat grudgingly allow cops to do it. Not to race to get donuts, or to pick up his laundry before the cleaners closes, but to attend to NECESSARY duties which we assume he’s doing. As we don’t know what he’s doing, though, he’s free to skate over the line at least a little bit for his own purposes.

It’s this “skating over the line” I really want to talk about, though.

The job of policing, tax collecting, being a Congressman, operating a toll booth, all require a certain amount of lent power to accomplish the official duties. We lend exactly the amount necessary, and not one jot more.

A police car is a bit of borrowed power. We might agree that a police officer could need to take his patrol car home with him, but we’d end his power to drive it after he gets home.  If he leaves home for a shopping trip, or to take his daughter to a Little League game, we’d expect him to take his own car. Taking his patrol car would be a clear abuse of his borrowed power.

One of the consequences of such actions, if we assume power lent to do a job comes in limited amounts, is that every bit of power diverted to private goals makes the person less able to do his job. There just isn’t enough power.

There are two main points here.

One is that borrowed power has limits, the limit in each case being the boundary of permission of those lending the power. We all of us lend out our power for officials to do their jobs, but we lend out EXACTLY the amount of power to do the job, and no more.

So every official who uses the power of his position to accomplish his own private goals or feather his own nest is not only abusing the power of his office, he is also making himself less able to do his job. Just as if he used 5 gallons of provided gasoline to run his own private errands, he’d be 5 gallons down on the amount needed to perform his duties.

Second is that the power can be taken back. We can do it through the voting process, by removing the person from that office. Or we can do it ourselves by refusing to recognize the power of that one PERSON to order or rule us.

So what does all this have to do with day-to-day living? Not much, admittedly, under normal conditions.

I still think it’s important to keep in mind the situation, though, the origins and limits of power, in case you (we!) ever decide to make other choices about how much and to whom you’re lending it.

Power is purely a belief. There are no powerful people, except those we pretend are powerful. 

The Book of Good Living: Self-Contained Living

BGL copy“The right to swing your fists ends where your neighbor’s nose begins.”

I first heard that saying something like 50 years ago, and it made immediate sense. Obviously, you have no “right” to be hitting other people in the nose, accidentally or deliberately. Besides the fact that Fist vs. Nose is a fight nose always loses – meaning you hurt this other person – it also sparks Other Fist into action, putting your own nose in danger. Other people can be drawn in, starting a melee. Property can be damaged. Police and ambulances can become involved, expensive medical bills can be incurred, jail time can be levied.

But the saying – or the thought behind it, anyway – applies in a much broader sense than that of mere physical violence. In my view, it applies to almost every aspect of life. The thought behind it is fairness itself. Fairness to the people around you. Living your life within a space that doesn’t lap over onto others.

For instance: When I was a kid, I peed in the pool. I don’t mean I did it occasionally, I did it EVERY time I was in a pool.

Nobody ever said not to, and it felt natural to do it. When I was around the sound of flowing water, or immersed myself in water, the signal came down, “Now! Now! Do it now! Ahhhh.”

Considering that it IS sort-of natural for us humans to pee when we get in water, you’d think there would be signs in every municipal pool admonishing people about it. DON’T PEE IN THE POOL. But we’ve always been squeamish about open discussion of natural functions. (Hell, today we’d probably have an instant screaming pro-pee lobby: “Oh my god, you’re pee-shaming! Peeing is perfectly natural! I just don’t know why people are so hateful, trying to stop innocent children from natural functions!”)

I had to figure it out on my own, embarrassingly late in childhood, that this was something you never, ever did. It wasn’t a matter of getting caught or not getting caught, it was a matter of respect for others. If I had a pool, would I want other people peeing in it? Did I like the idea of swimming in other people’s pee? No, and no. Therefore, I should never do it to others.

There’s another saying that applies to the broader idea of fairness to the people around you, something you probably heard from your mom a thousand times: Pick up after yourself.

Don’t leave your clothes lying around the house. Don’t leave your dishes on the table. Don’t leave your toys in the driveway.

The unwritten second half of “Pick up after yourself” is “… so other people don’t have to.” Don’t leave your clothes lying around the house so I don’t have to deal with them. Don’t leave your dishes on the table so others have to clear and wash them. Don’t leave your toys in the driveway so someone else has to pick them up.

Taken together, the two sayings express this more general idea: Live your life in such a way, minute to minute, and for a lifetime,  that others aren’t unnecessarily inconvenienced, impacted or injured.

Some of this stuff is personal-scale petty:

Back to the subject of pee again – when I go into a public men’s room and find that person or persons before me have peed on the toilet seat, rather than, say, lifting the fucking seat out of the way before urinating, it strikes me as self-involved. Not just ignorant self-involved, but self-involved to the point of aggression against others. If the next guy comes in to use the toilet, but has to first wipe up your piss, you might as well have slapped him.

When I’m shopping with one of those little carry-baskets at the supermarket, and I get to the register and empty it out, then go to drop it on the stack of other baskets, I find about half the time that the last person dropped their basket so that one of the wire handles flopped across. I have to move that wire handle so I can drop-stack my basket. I’d bet most of us feel the same way.

The point isn’t that it’s a lot of extra trouble, the point is that it’s something you shouldn’t have to do. You’re picking up after that guy that came before you. If YOU are the guy who came before, it’s not like the world will end if you don’t do the right thing, but again, other people shouldn’t have to come behind you and fix things, or pick up things. You don’t have the right to live your life so blithely that it adds the “weight” of your life onto theirs.

For me the rule extends even into those areas where people are paid to pick up after you. You don’t leave your garbage on the table in a fast food restaurant. You don’t drive away and leave your shopping cart loose in the parking lot. And sure, your city probably has street sweepers and sanitation workers, but you still don’t drop trash or cigarette butts on the streets or sidewalks.

A lot of this stuff is so basic, so noticeable by others when you fail to observe the rule, that it should go without saying. But … it has to continue to be said, for the sake of all those others – of whatever age – still growing into adulthood. You don’t play your music so loud it annoys people. You don’t waft your cigarette smoke in their direction. You stay in your lane, you drive at the speed of traffic, you signal your lane changes and turns.

The rule scales up to the decidedly non-petty: Industry dumping toxic wastes in rivers, or pumping it into the ground where it can contaminate drinking water, in both cases, this is so obviously wrong it should never even come up as a question. Wall Street bankers wrecking the national economy for their own amusement or profit is a no-no of massive proportions.

When you think about it, the underlying regard for the rights of others is the foundation for ALL our big social rules and laws. Don’t Steal. Don’t Cheat. Don’t Kill.

The rule extends even beyond human rights and concerns. The business about not poisoning fish in rivers with toxic wastes isn’t just about injuring fishermen who might want to eat what they catch. It’s about the fish too. It’s about eagles and elephants, mantas and manatees, raccoons and redwoods.

Because we have to live in society with others, because we have to live on this planet, and because we’ve gone long past the point where natural forces will clean up our messes, conscious self-contained living is not simply an admirable social ideal, it’s pretty much a planetary necessity.

Live your life in such a way, minute to minute, and for a lifetime, that others aren’t unnecessarily inconvenienced, impacted or injured.