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AMAAM and recent podcasts

January 17, 2007
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Last Sunday’s platform speaker, Martin Rafanan of NCCJSTL (National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis) has donated his honorarium to the African Mutual Assistance Association of Missouri, whose mission is to help African refugees and other legal immigrants become productive members of society and to provide citizenship education to new African Americans. You can find out more about this wonderful organization at their website, www.aamaam.org.

You can hear Rafanan’s talk and my recent address on the First Amendment online on our website.

. . . which can only be good

January 11, 2007
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Stephen Colbert is worried about Missouri.  (If the link doesn’t work, you can find it through the Comedy Central site, the Stephen Colbert clip titled “Worry.”)

You break it, he buys it

January 11, 2007
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The problem with Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” theory on Iraq—we broke it, so we have to buy/fix it (besides that that’s not Pottery Barn’s policy)—is that the people who “broke” Iraq by choosing to invade it and doing such a poor job of planning and implementation are not the same people who get maimed and killed trying to “fix” Iraq. Back in the pre-democratic days of kings and lords, the common people complained that during all the wars for resources and “honor” those who started the wars and who stood to gain by them were usually relatively safe on their horses far behind the front lines. At least the kings and lords were usually there. Today, looking at the casualty lists, not even generals seem to be in any danger (or they’re amazingly lucky). The real decision-makers aren’t even on the same continent as the fighting they pontificate about. And this is considered the more rational, civilized way to fight wars—by proxy.

So the next time I break something in a store, I guess I should find the person with the least ability to protest and say, “Send him the bill.”

Perfectionism and purpose

January 8, 2007
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On my walk to work today (How can I give it up—it’s where I do my best thinking!) I re-thought my chronic guilt that my platform addresses are not as good as they should be.  Hang on–I’m not fishing for compliments, so please don’t send me any; I’ve heard and appreciate all the positive feedback I’ve received over the past year.  I’m not saying my platforms aren’t good.  I just know that they aren’t as good as they would be were I to spend even more time on them.  This is true probably of most of the things that most of us do, and if you’ve felt this way about aspects of your life I hope you’ve already realized what I didn’t until this morning:  that how you feel about your work (however you define work) should depend on your overall goals.

Sure, if I spent even more time on my platform addresses, they would be better.  But my purpose in life is not to give the best platform addresses I’m ideally capable of giving. . . . I don’t actually know my purpose in life, or at least how to articulate it.  But I do have many goals for my life, and they include balancing work, family and friends, leisure, and community; enjoying the arts and nature; staying informed about the world; spending a lot of quality time with my partner; being available to people who need me; keeping a healthy body and a relatively calm mind; having time to imagine, dream, and remember; taking the time to lead a life of voluntary simplicity.  There are more goals along those lines.  The point is that working a little bit toward all these goals whenever I can takes time and energy and thought, and moving a little closer to all of them means choosing not to focus on any one.  So I can feel guilty about not achieving one goal, or I can recognize that I’ve chosen a life in which I work toward a lot of goals that are important to me, which means probably not perfecting any.  But that’s the life I choose.

Ethical resolutions for 2007

January 2, 2007
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Greetings and Happy New Year, everyone; I hope your holidays were warm and loving. Billy and I enjoyed seeing family and friends in New York City and Connecticut.

And now here we are in 2007. Resolution time. Yes, it’s cheesy, but any excuse to examine our lives and try to make them a little more ethical is a worthy idea. The key to resolutions seems to be to make them concrete and not too difficult. We can always build on our successes, whereas although we can also build on our failures (“No place to go but up”), we’re usually too depressed.

With that in mind, my first resolution is small indeed. To buy compact fluorescent bulbs. It’s embarrassing to be less environmental than Wal-Mart (see http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/108/open_lightbulbs.html). Compact fluorescents are a good example of the small but difficult-to-make adjustments that more ethical living requires. I’ve known for many years that I should be buying these things. But when I’m at the store facing the higher prices, my mind fills with rationalizations and memories of poor light quality that are now years out of date. So I write this resolution in public, in the hopes that shame may succeed where good intention has not.

What ethical resolutions have you made to try to be kinder to others, yourself, the planet . . . ?

Matthew LaClair, student Ethical Culture hero

December 21, 2006
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Matthew LaClair was raised in the Ethical Society of Essex, New Jersey. He’s in the news right now for tape-recording his eleventh-grade history teacher proselytizing in his public school classroom, and for using those tapes to stop it. You can hear an interview with Matthew and his dad, Paul, on the Brian Lehrer show. Matthew is an impressively articulate young man trying to live his Ethical Culture values; it’s sad to hear that he and his family are being attacked in their community for sticking up for religious freedom. If you’d like to write a message of support for Matthew in the comments, I’ll make sure he gets it.

"In this season of giving . . . " (not an ad for more stuff we don't need)

December 19, 2006
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Sunday’s New York Times had an article by Peter Singer titled “What Should a Billionaire Give–and What Should You?” It’s a fascinating analysis of private philanthropy and demolishes several common rationalizations people give for not being more generous. It also describes a remarkable altruist I had never heard of, and it breaks down how the UN’s Millennium Goals for the developing world could be achieved through relatively modest investment by the richest 10% of Americans. I don’t agree with Singer that only the richest 10% should feel responsible for achieving the Millennium Goals–as I explained in my “Infinite Interrelatedness” platform (which you can hear here), my ethics says that we are all responsible for caring for each other–but otherwise I strongly recommend the article. And please let me know what you think.

Clicking for good

December 19, 2006
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I was reminded the other day of all the web sites I used to visit regularly where you could click on an ad to donate money to famine victims or breast cancer research or a dozen other things.  Such an easy way to help good causes—yet I stopped going and clicking long ago.  Has this been your experience too, ethical readers?  They still exist—or at least thebreastcancersite.com does.  Why don’t we all go to them everyday?  What’s the lesson in this?

Some of the reasons I stopped going and clicking are that the more of these sites there were, the less I went to them, because I didn’t have time to go to all of them, and I somehow felt less guilty going to none than choosing breast cancer over famine or famine over animal shelters, etc.  The other thing I remember is that after a while the sites began to beg you also to click on one of their sponsors’ ads—which took more time, but more important, since I wasn’t going to buy anything from the sponsor anyway, this felt useless at best and like cheating at worst.  Finally, I had no feedback that my little clicks were making a difference—it seemed that the only way they would is if I also convinced a lot of other people to click as well, and I figured everyone I knew was becoming as disillusioned with all these clicking-for-good sites as I was, so I didn’t want to spam them with any more.

The breast cancer site says it’s helped 2500 women this year, which is 2500 times better than none, but considering the millions of people who use the web, it doesn’t represent much clicking.  If the power of the Net is going to be harnessed to raise money for good causes, clearly a new way needs to be found.  MoveOn and similar organizations raise money by sending pleas directly into people’s inboxes, but the more organizations that do that, the less effective that tactic will become as well.  I wonder what will be next.

Anyway, I clicked for breast cancer research, and I’m going to make one of these sites my homepage so that I remember everyday.  I’m just going to pick one out of a hat and tell myself that one is not just better than none; it’s much much better.

Religious wars imagined and real

December 14, 2006
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A few years ago it was discovered that some retailers choose to hawk their wares with the phrase Happy Holidays, in acknowledgement that several holidays are celebrated at this time of year (including New Years, which I think we all agree on).  This was clearly an affront to the ongoing secularization and commercialization of Christmas, and therefore denounced by people whose jobs require that they create controversies in order to report on them.  This year many retailers have “learned their lesson,” as a Wal-Mart spokesperson said, and they are wishing shoppers a “Merry Christmas.” (What “lesson” is that, exactly?)  But the nefarious phrase “Happy Holidays” is still out there, and so the “controversy” continues.

Meanwhile and much more important, the government of Iran has just hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers and their anti-Semitic hangers-on—to much worldwide criticism and disgust, I’m glad to see.  This is what an actual war on a religion looks like, people—a state-sponsored attempt to erase the deliberate cold-blooded murder of millions of people, and the demonization of those who survive.

In an ethical world, Holocaust denial would be vigorously fought with ongoing education and outrage, and the decisions of private companies to be inclusive would be applauded.  Yet I suspect that the “controversy” of “Happy Holidays Shoppers!” will receive many times the news coverage of Iran’s conference and its ilk, at least in America.  If your winter tradition includes wishes for the coming year, may I suggest one for getting our priorities straight?

Water water everywhere

December 11, 2006
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This short article by the Earth Policy Institute points out the health, environmental, and ethical problems with bottled water.  In short, bottled water is less regulated than tap water; plastic bottles take petroleum to create and most are not recycled; and money wasted on bottled water could be spent instead getting clean water to people who really need it.  Even if tap water adds a little extra chlorine to your system, it’s better than the toxins that the manufacturing and transportation of all that bottled water adds to your lungs.

Not to mention that we’re being fooled into buying something that’s free!  Yet the fad continues to spread.  I’ve been feeling guilty and low-class lately for offering guests tap water or (gasp) asking for tap water when I’m eating out, but no longer.  Take a minute to read this and drink your tap water proudly.

Collecting blankets this Sunday

December 6, 2006
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For those in the area, if you have a blanket or two to spare around the house, bring it to the Society this Sunday, Dec. 10th;  Reggie and Randy T. have generously agreed to deliver them to a local shelter.  If you are in the area, I don’t need to tell you how badly blankets are needed right now.

Stay safe and warm everyone, and be grateful for small comforts–it sure hurts when they’re gone, doesn’t it?

Julia Sweeney

December 4, 2006
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. . . appeared on Saturday Night Live several years back.  She’s since written and performed autobiographical solo shows; her latest is called “Giving Up God,” and it’s quite funny and interesting.  As is her website, juliasweeney.com, where you can read and/or listen to excerpts of “Giving Up God” and peruse her blog, which seems to attract people who like to debate the existence of god and the supernatural and the pros and cons of religion in general.

The radio show “This American Life” featured a long section of “Giving Up God” in which Sweeney describes finally reading the Bible after a lifetime of being a Catholic, and her horror at what she finds in it.  It’s a funny and very touching monologue about belief and ethics and mortality.  To listen, go to thislife.org, click on “Complete Archive” at the left, and choose the 2005 show entitled “Godless America.”  You can listen for free at your computer or download it to your [iPod] for a dollar.

One sign of hope

December 4, 2006
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Greetings to everyone in the St. Louis area after a weekend of ice and power outages.  I hope everyone is warm and safe.

We had to cancel Sunday’s meeting, but one of the Signs of Hope I was going to mention is the growing acceptance of marriage equality.  Faster progress would be better, of course, but when you consider how long it took earlier civil rights movements to achieve more equal rights for minorities and women, perhaps the fact that last month Arizona voters became the first to defeat an anti-marriage proposal shows that the times they a’changin’ a little faster than they used to?
The New York Times just ran an article on different-sex couples who refuse to marry until same-sex couples can as well.  As many of you know, this is the primary reason my partner Bill and I are not married, although we have been together for over ten years.  I’m not picking out any China patterns because of the Arizona vote, but I am a little more hopeful.

What driving does to our brains

November 29, 2006
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We moved into our new house last week. It’s about twice as far from the Society as we lived before, which would make a walking commute over an hour, which is getting a little long even for an ex-New Yorker (45 minutes is my limit for walking commutes). I have been researching ecologically correct possibilities for getting to and from work—or at least more eco-correct than my being yet another single person in a car. I’ve known too many bicycle accidents to bike regularly, especially in the rain and sleet and dark of night. I’m researching scooters, which get more than 60 miles to the gallon, but for the past week I have been driving. . . .

Boy, you get places fast when you drive. And it’s fun to listen to the radio and sing real loud. And gas is still cheaper for our car than taking the bus would be. . . . I’m beginning to see why people like to drive, even when they have to sit in traffic regularly.

Growing up in NYC and not really learning to drive until recently, I somehow missed the whole open-road aspect of being American. Friends would talk about loving the fact that at any moment, they could tell everyone to go to hell, jump in their cars, and take off–even if they never actually did it. That feeling has become part of the American character, with good and bad results. It’s fed our expansive, entrepreneurial spirit of possibility. It’s also fed our community-destroying, isolationist sprawl, not to mention white flight. I wonder to what extent it feeds our tendency not to stay and work things out—with our friends and family, relationships, work, other nations. If we don’t like a person, people, situation—to hell with ’em. Let’s ride. Why live with discomfort, inconvenience, diversity, imperfection, difference, challenge, when you can just jump in the car and go. Of course, the grass is not greener on the other side of interstate, so we move again. And again.

I hope my psyche will be safer on a 49cc scooter. You don’t want to tell anyone to go to hell when you can’t go more than 40MPH.

More by John J. Davenport

November 27, 2006
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My Sunday platform address on “Infinite Interrelatedness” can be heard on our audio recordings page (http://www.ethicalstl.org/libraryaudio.shtml).  If you would like to read the whole article by philosopher John J. Davenport that I quote toward the end–“My Schindler’s List: A Personal Kierkegaardian Reflection”–it and many other works by him are available on his website, http://www.fordham.edu/philosophy/davenport/personal.htm.  (So far I have only read the article I quoted.)

What I'm making for Thanksgiving

November 22, 2006
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I’ve been looking around for vegan Thanksgiving main courses–pretty much all the traditional side dishes and pies can be veganized with little trouble. And no, I don’t like Tofurky, although its dry chewiness is much like the real thing, as I remember.

Before I became a vegan, the best parts of the turkey-eating experience to me were the stuffing and the skin. So for Thanksgiving I’m making a grand stuffing with mushrooms, walnuts, apples, and soy sausage, and I’m baking it in phyllo wrappers. Perfect for smothering in mushroom gravy. Okay, I just made myself hungry; I better get cookin’.

Alternative giving this season

November 22, 2006
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Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice has compiled ideas and stories (with links to appropriate websites) sure to inspire you to think outside the shiny wrapped box this holiday season. Check them out at http://womensvoicesraised.org/holGiving.shtml. And talk with your loved ones (and those you feel obligated to buy gifts for anyway) about simplifying the holidays and doing more lasting good with your hard-earned money than adding to their scented soap collection. They may be relieved that you brought up the subject. (Thanks to Chery for this site!)

Is this why we're not more popular?

November 16, 2006
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PLEASE NOTE. THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS FALSE INFORMATION:

This quote was found on a website recently: “Ethical Culture, the religion that Margaret Bourke-White grew up in, was an officially atheistic religion. The importance of virginity prior to marriage and celibacy even within marriage were key teachings of the religion. Prior to their marriage, Margaret Bourke-White’s father introduced Ethical Culture to his fiancé. They were both members of the Society of Ethical Culture of New York, and they agreed prior to getting married that they would live by the religion’s teaching that they completely abstain from sex, except for purpose of producing a child.”

First, Margaret Bourke-White was a well-known photographer.  Second, WHAT???

I can see where someone would get the mistaken notion that Ethical Culture is “officially atheistic,” as our actual official stance of non-theism (neither denial nor affirmation of God or gods) is new for a lot of folks.  I’m not so clear on where the mistaken notions that we teach strict virginity and celibacy come from.  It’s true that Felix Adler was very bothered by the “easy virtue” of young men in his day, and as a young man himself he promoted “purity” for men before marriage.  But I don’t think he ever suggested that married people should be celibate.  And in any case, he’s dead.

Ethical Culture advocates for healthy, mutually loving, ethical relationships, period.  For some people that might mean virginity or celibacy; for other people, not so much.

Parenting podcasts

November 14, 2006
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For those struggling with or just interested in the ethical issues of parenting, grandparenting, or otherwise helping bring up the next generation, please note that we’ve had three recent Sunday-morning platform addresses on parenting that are available to listen to at http://ethicalstl.org/libraryaudio.shtml.  They are by developmental and behavioral pediatrician Dr. Tim Jordan, Leader Emeritus John Hoad, and yours truly.  Stay tuned for further platforms on this topic–the next will be on December 10 by Leader Curt Collier on “Ethics Begins at Home”–which will also be available for listening online.  And hang in there!

How we pray

November 13, 2006
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A week ago Sunday I took part in an interfaith prayer service for the women of South Dakota, because a total ban on abortions without exceptions for rape, incent, or the life or health of the woman went before the voters there on election day.  (The voters chose to defeat the proposed ban.)  I’m often a litte non-plussed at what to say at interfaith prayer services, since I don’t pray, so below is what I said.  Whether you agree with my position on this issue, I offer it as one example of non-theistic “prayer.”

“How shall we pray together, from our different beliefs and traditions?

How shall we pray for those living right now under a shadow, for those whose human rights of worth and dignity, of sovereign selfhood, are threatened?

We will pray with our ears,
Listening deeply to women, to their questions, to their relief and their regrets;
We will listen to those who would criminalize women ’s health decisions, to understand their feelings so that we may try to reach their hearts.

We will pray with our eyes,
Witnessing the ugly messages used to intimidate, witnessing the fear and determination in the eyes of women and health workers.

We will pray with our hands,
Holding the hands of women in the anguish of their decisions,
Holding placards affirming the ethics of their choices;
We will write to persuade others to uphold the rights of women and the right of every child to be wanted.

We will pray with our feet,
Escorting women to their doctors in safety and respect,
Marching for the human rights of women;
We will meet the decision-makers so they will hear our voices.

We will pray with our whole lives, that the lives of women may remain whole.

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