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Scooting update

August 21, 2007
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As I wrote about recently, we have become a one-car, one-scooter family. (If you want to see a picture, check out the recent American Ethical Union Dialogue newsletter, p. 11.) So how’s it going? I estimate that I’m getting over 80 mpg, which with my short commute translates to less than a gallon of gas a week. I’ve bought plastic over-pants and a plastic hooded jacket, so assuming I remember to put them on before it starts raining, I stay dry (unless it really pours). As for the heat, although it’s not comfortable waiting at a red light in the sun, I’ve found in some ways that it’s better than a car—the breeze feels great, and you don’t have to wait 5 minutes for the a/c to kick in. I ride at night and feel safe, as the lights on the scooter are nice and bright. And I love all the conversations with big-car drivers who roll down their windows to ask me what kind of mileage I get.

I found an old ski suit to wear when it gets cold—that’ll be the next hurdle. But so far, it seems like it was the right decision to solve my ethical commuting conundrum. If you’ve had an experience with alternative transportation or questions about what can work for you, let me know.

Humanism today

August 10, 2007
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I’ll be in the mountains of North Carolina next week, attending the American Ethical Union’s Summer School II. (The brochure is on the aeu web site–feel free to test me on all these topics when I get back.) I look forward as always to connecting with Ethical Society members from around the country, as well as being able to walk outside without passing out from the heat.

In the meantime, those of you looking for some humanist-related summer reading, check out Humanism Today, the magazine of the Humanist Institute. Most of the past issues are online, with lots of good articles on every aspect of humanism you could think of. If you see any that you particularly like, let me know.

Gentrification

August 6, 2007
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If you didn’t hear Jim Thomas’s excellent platform address in person, I highly recommend checking out the podcast of his talk, “Gentrification: The good, the bad and the ugly.” Jim did a great job of exploring some of the very difficult issues that come up as the “new urbanism” movement brings newcomers into older neighborhoods, including issues of class and race.

Sherwin Wine

August 1, 2007
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Hello everyone, and thanks for all the great summer reading suggestions. I’m back from vacation, and while I was away I was very sad to hear of the death of Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism. There is a nice tribute to him on the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy blog; I especially recommend watching some of the clips of Wine speaking at the New Humanism conference. He’s a clear, engaging, and funny person. Humanism will miss him.

Go see SiCKO

June 30, 2007
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I’ll be back in August, but in the meantime, my summer advice is Go See SiCKO–and make everyone you know go. And even though you’ll want to move to another country after you see it; don’t. Stay here and help fix this one.

The [insert your adjective here] Court

June 27, 2007
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I was too depressed to write about the Supreme Court this week, but luckily the NY Times said it for me.

I don’t want to reveal my historical ignorance by going on a rant about how the Court is “becoming” political or “losing” any pretext of objectivity, as I’m sure that it’s gone through such periods before. But I’m particularly alarmed at how quickly this Supreme Court is revisiting issues in order to assert the values of its new conservative majority. I worry that the Court is going to make itself irrelevant, ethically, and then what?

Summer reading

June 26, 2007
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I’ll be taking July off, including a hiatus from blogging. As I’m planning my vacation, I’d appreciate suggestions of good books–any genre, pretty much. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, science, philosophy, although I spent my first winter in St. Louis plowing through all the “Master and Commander” books by Patrick O’Brian.

So, read any good books lately? Or heard of any good ones you’re hoping to get around to yourself?

Wal-mart takes a step back

June 22, 2007
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America’s largest retailer has decided not to fund LGBT-rights groups anymore because of threats of boycotts by right-wing fundamentalists. Wal-mart’s new policy specifically says they will not nationally fund “controversial” groups or issues anymore. I look forward to the day when it’s more”controversial” to bow to misinformed prejudice than to support human rights.

If you read the article, note the patient and understanding attitude of the spokespersons for the LGBT groups. One might say they are turning the other cheek.

Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy site

June 18, 2007
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I mentioned the New Humanism conference in a recent blog entry; the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy (which sponsored the conference) has a revamped website including podcasts from the conference. Tony Pinn, whose picture is currently featured on the site, edited an anthology on African-American humanist writing titled By These Hands. I had a seminar with Pinn and I also recommend his book and hearing him speak if you ever get a chance. [Apparently the featured humanist on the site rotates. They’re fancy at Harvard.]

[Too tired from all the meetings for a clever title]

June 17, 2007
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Hello–no, I’m not on vacation yet. I’ve been at the national assembly of the American Ethical Union. It’s been a great week reconnecting and learning from colleagues and Societies from across the nation. The highlight of the conference was probably the tremendously moving speech by David Kaczynski on the ethical dilemmas he faced when he discovered his brother was the Unibomber, and his current work to abolish the death penalty in New York State. There’s a brief account and picture at aeu.org.

The problem with the death penalty was highlighted for me recently by the disturbing Supreme Court decision against Keith Bowles, who after an initial conviction was given incorrect information by a federal judge about the deadline for his appeal. So he missed the deadline. The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling was, essentially, “Sucks to be you.” And we put people to death under such a court system.

Barrelhouse

June 6, 2007
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A poem of mine appears in the current issue of Barrelhouse, a newish literary and pop culture magazine. I haven’t read this issue yet, but the previous ones have had some fun and interesting fiction and nonfiction in them. If you’re a literary mag person (you know who you are), I recommend checking out Barrelhouse.

Mosquito v. Man

June 5, 2007
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To continue our bug theme, I’ve just finished a history of the Mosquito (Mosquito: The Story of Man’s Deadliest Foe, by Andrew Spielman and Michael D’Antonio). This year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring and is widely considered the mother of the modern environmental movement. Carson’s book was the major reason why the anti-mosquito pesticide DDT was eventually banned in the U.S., and there’s a very interesting criticism of the book in today’s Times.

I’ve grown up in the age of environmentalism, and although I haven’t read Silent Spring because I don’t like Carson’s writing style, I’ve accepted the common opinion that she was right. Of course, I grew up in a time and place where mosquito-borne illnesses no longer killed people, and therefore it seemed natural to be more concerned about possible long-term cancerous effects of pesticides than the possible decimation of my town by malaria, dengue, yellow fever, etc.

The Times writer joins a number of scientists who argue that Carson was wrong–that pesticides aren’t as dangerous as she proposed, or at least that their dangers are a better choice for humanity than the devastating diseases carried by mosquitos and other insects. DDT is no wonder chemical–mosquitos build up resistance to it, like any other pesticide–but it’s still used in other countries because the benefits of lower rates of disease, particularly in children, are worth possible higher rates of cancer in older people. Living long enough to die of cancer is an achievement in many parts of the world.

One story in the Mosquito book that made me pause was a disagreement between Mexico and the U.S. over mosquito control. Mexico wanted the U.S. to spray pesticides in some states close to the Mexican border, to help decrease disease in Mexico (Mexico was already spraying their territory). Americans, concerned over the harmful effects of pesticides, resisted, and the project was scrapped. Americans weren’t getting sick–our houses tend to have screens, our health care is better, etc. We are concerned with trace chemicals and with living to climb mountains in our eighties. Mexicans are still concerned with keeping their children from dying of fevers.

The moral? As usual, things are much more complicated than I thought. The best answer is neither bringing back DDT and other toxic chemicals nor ignoring the health realities of less developed countries–the best answer would be more research and finding ways to control disease and disease-carriers that are not harmful themselves. But in the meantime, I feel the need for more informed cost-benefit analysis in my knee-jerk environmentalism.

Ants, ants, ants

June 1, 2007
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Our house is infested with tiny ants, and we have been battling them. We squash them, vacuum them, poison them. So far they are not impressed and we are researching more lethal poisons.

I realize this is morally inconsistent for a vegan. Summertime seems to bring up these dilemmas. Last year it was the deer that tried to kill my dad, this year it’s the ant invasion. If cows break into the house next summer and start stealing money, I may have to buy a grill.

Seriously, though, I like bugs, especially ants. I know they do more for garden soil than even worms. I’ve read E. O. Wilson on them; I love to look at them up-close under microscopes and in movies; I’ve written poems about them. I just don’t want them in our house.

Which seems like a reasonable line to draw. But is it really? The ants aren’t in our food or anything else that would be truly gross or inconvenient. Mostly they march in straight to the garbage or the recycling (guess we’re not rinsing as well as we thought), and straight out again. How is that hurting our standard of living? What if we just tried to coexist with them? Would they ‘take a mile’ and we’d wake up one morning with ants covering every surface? Is that the fear that makes me crush every ant I see indoors? Am I really so stingy that I don’t want anything stealing even my garbage? Is it just some biologically-based need to smush anything that moves within a certain radius of my house to feel safe? Am I worried about what visitors think of our housekeeping when they see ants?

What should we do? What do you do? Do you coexist with certain kinds of “invaders” and not others? How do you decide?

Signs of Hope

May 25, 2007
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The audio file for my platform on positive trends in the world is now available on our podcasts page.

Links to texts mentioned in this platform:
“The Banality of Heroism” by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo, from Greater Good Magazine. (I also recommend looking around the rest of their site–they have lots of interesting articles on the psychology of ethics, altruism, etc.)
Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence by Peter Unger.

The Agnostic

May 23, 2007
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I was just introduced to this poem; I thought some of you might like it. I’m not entirely clear on what I think it means, but I identify with the impulse to praise, though not necessarily to anyone/thing. I’d like to hear others’ reactions to the poem. (Also, I am reprinting it here because I understand it is out of copyright.)

The Agnostic, Edna St. Vincent Millay

The tired agnostic longs for prayer
More than the blessed can ever do:
Between the chinks in his despair,
From out his forest he peeps through
Upon a clearing sunned so bright
He cups his eyeballs from its light.

He for himself who would decide
What thing is black, what thing is white,
Whirls with the whirling spectrum wide,
Runs with the running spectrum through
Red, orange, yellow, green and blue
And purple, — turns and stays his stride
Abruptly, reaching left and right
To catch all colours into light —
But light evades him: still he stands
With rainbows streaming through his hands.

He knows how half his hours are spent
In blue or purple discontent,
In red or yellow hate or fright,
And fresh young green whereon a blight
Sits down in orange overnight.

Yet worships still the ardent sod
For every ripped and ribboned hue,
For warmth of sun and breath of air,
And beauty met with everywhere;
Not knowing why, not knowing who
Pumps in his breath and sucks it out,
Nor unto whom his praise is due.

Yet naught or nobody obeys
But his own heart, which bids him, “Praise!”
This, knowing that doubled were his days
Could he but rid his mind of doubt —
Yet will not rid him, in such ways
Of awful dalliance with despair —
And, though denying, not betrays.

[Thanks to Rev. Bonnie for reciting this poem to me!]

*UPDATE*
Comments on older posts are turned off because of spammers, but I received a response to this poem I thought many of you would appreciate. Thanks to Tom for allowing me to post it.

A Stanza-by-Stanza “Doubting Thomas” Rebuttal, by T. P. O’Hare

The first two lines are judgmental, self serving and dogmatic. I’d change chinks in the third sentence to doubts, because agnostics revel in them – gleefully – while bright light does no harm to agnostics who, by digging deep into the dark corners of their minds, seek truth.

Again, the first two lines condemn independent thinking – black and white color is at issue – posing as a duality that, in reality, is a pluralistic spectrum of multitudinous color. But our hero sticks with science’s theory of light, backed by cosmologists who use it in their study of the universe. Nonetheless I am entranced by the “rainbows streaming through his hands.” The poetic metre and color context enhances our hero’s image and, we hope, his intellectual perceptions.

Now we’re back in the pits of discontent, hate or fright that somehow blights an orange overnight. Yet the sweetest oranges that I’ve tasted are found beneath blighted peelings. Go figure!

The first four lines flow with poetic appreciation of mother earth’s plentiful bounty. Yet our autonomic system is a mystery to most of us, while those who appreciate its evolutionary history maintain healthy minded activity to support it. This health insurance is more important than praise.

And while praise is of little help to truth seekers, truth is more precious than the gold or uranium that originated in black holes[1]. So the author’s intent to banish doubt weakens; it fails to banish intellectual freedom that, in turn, has the power to erase ignorance by resolving doubt in the search for truth. “Dalliance with despair,” where art thou?

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[1] The View from the Center of the Universe, by Joseph. R. Primark & Nancy Ellen Abrams, pg. 97

Anti-vegan hysteria

May 21, 2007
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There’s an op-ed in the New York Times today about a vegan couple who neglected and malnourished their child, and it died. Which is very unfortunate and sad. The op-ed author, however, uses this sad story to make all sorts of scary statements about the dangers of veganism. She does this because she was once a vegan and felt bad, then stopped being a vegan and felt better, and now makes a living selling animal products and books telling people to eat animal products. There are plenty of people who were meat-eaters, felt bad, became vegan, felt better, and now make a living selling vegan products and books telling people to eat a vegan diet. There are also meat-eating parents who neglect and malnourish their babies and cause their deaths, and that is equally sad.

Given all this reality, while I respect the right of the Times to publish op-eds that are clearly just one person’s opinion, I do wish they would provide actual research when op-ed writers make health claims, so that readers can make an informed judgment.

For an article by a doctor about vegan nutrition in pregnancy and childhood see www.vrg.org/nutrition/pregnancy.htm.

PS. For those new to this blog, I have been following a vegan diet for several years. I feel pretty much exactly the same as I did before I changed my diet; at first I lost a few pounds (which I was not seeking to do) and then regained them. Look for my upcoming book on how you should become a vegan because you will undoubtedly have the exact same experience I did.

Why can't we all just get along?

May 15, 2007
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So recently some traditionally religious folks were upset at Starbucks because the coffee company had the following quote on one of their disposable cups, attributed to customer Bill Schell of Canada: “Why in moments of crisis do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome? After all, we are strong enough to cause most of the catastrophes we need to endure.”

In 2005, some not-traditionally-religious folks were upset at Starbucks because the company had the following quote on another of their disposable cups, attributed to customer and mega-church pastor Rick Warren: “You are not an accident. Your parents may not have planned you, but God did. He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose. Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose. You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense. Only in God do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny.”

What’s the moral of this story? Carry a reusable cup. Help save the planet and avoid theological heartburn, whatever your belief system.

"Rediscover Mother's Day" campaign

May 11, 2007
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The Ploughshares Fund, a not-for-profit that works for peace and disarmament (see their rating on Charity Navigator), asks us to remember the original purpose of Mother’s Day, which was to promote peace, not just make pancakes.

You can go to their site, rediscovermothersday.org, to read about the history of Mother’s Day and to make donations in your favorite mother’s name to promote peace. Then you can make pancakes.

Popular podcasts from 2006-07

May 7, 2007
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Last Sunday’s audio recording of my address on democracy and war is now up on our podcasts page.

For those of you who have been considering listening to some of the online addresses but don’t know where to start, here are the most popular platforms of 2006-07. All are about a half-hour long and available on our podcasts page:

By Kate:
1. March 18, 2007: “Ethical Sex”
2. February 26, 2006: “The Religious Left and Civil Rights” [specifically about LGBT rights]
3. January 8, 2006: “It’s not easy bein’ green” [veganism and dealing with diverse ethical views]
4. April 9, 2006: “Is it time to grow up yet?” [Gen X ethics and dilemmas]
5. November 12, 2006: “Infinite Interrelatedness” [The metaphysics behind the ethics of Ethical Culture]

By guests:
1. March 26, 2006, Jim Hightower, “Health care for the privileged few? Why not health care for all?!”
2. February 11, 2007, Dr. George Johnson, “Darwin Day: Darwin confronts intelligent design”
3. April 2, 2006, Dr. Beldon Lane, “Lessons in paying attention: Lao-Tzu and the Taoist tradition”
4. January 21, 2007, Rev. Rebecca Armstrong, “Love: Its mysteries, myths and broken promises”
5. March 25, 2007, Dr. Fred Rottnek, “Patriotism, public health and health care”

Tonight Bill Moyers Ethical Culture-related

May 4, 2007
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Sorry for the clumsy post title; just wanted to get your attention quick. Tonight on PBS’sBill Moyers Journal, two of the three sections have links to Ethical Culture: Moyers is interviewing Jonathan Miller, creator of the History of Unbelief series that the American Ethical Union is co-sponsoring. I don’t know if our local station will carry it–their description of tonight’s Moyers’ show doesn’t even mention Jonathan Miller. (Maybe they just ran out of space.) Moyers is also interviewing Jerry Miller (no relation), one of the many wrongly-convicted people saved from execution by the Innocence Project, which received the AEU’s Elliott-Black Award in 2000.

If you miss the show or want to see past interviews, they become available on the web site after they air.

(By the way, the opening night speaker at this year’s AEU Assembly is David Kaczynski, who turned in his brother the Unabomber and now serves as director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. If you’ll be in Long Island on June 14, come hear him speak.)

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