Category Archives: Progressivism

On the Ice Bucket Challenge and Charity

A few weeks ago marked the second anniversary of the ALS Association’s “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a brilliant fundraising drive that’s success is without precedent and I have a feeling will probably never be repeated. To celebrate, the ALSA announced that they had discovered a gene that could be associated with the disease using the funds generated by the Challenge. Most people applauded, but a few pointed out (justifiably) that it was not the monumental breakthrough that everyone had hoped for. The disease has not been cured, but we do understand it a bit better, now.

Then there was this: “The ice bucket challenge’s scientific success restored my faith in fundraising.” I have been trying to keep my mouth shut about this article for a month now, but I can’t. To say it infuriates me puts it mildly.

While the author (Mary Valle) concludes that the Challenge was a clever and deserved success, she spends a lot of the article griping that “overblown, internet-BS game[s] parading as a fundraiser[s]” can make people “feel like money keeps getting shoveled in to the charity-industrial complex with very little in the way of progress coming out.”

What bothers me is that expecting organizations to deliver miracles because the world suddenly cared for a few moments about a relatively unknown disease is both preposterous and damaging. It ignores the great things that institutions like the ALS Association do every day that we, as a society, take for granted, and that are life-changing to those who need them.

The ALS Association doesn’t just fund research. They have chapters in every state that provide services to people with ALS and their families including support groups, service referral, advocacy, loans to buy equipment, and more. This is not sexy work, but it is absolutely necessary.

Taking this a bit further, nonprofits like ALSA provide services that address problems that fall through the cracks — the ones neither the public or private sectors deal with.

Take Code Savvy, for example. Their work has a pretty simple premise: coding is a necessary skill in today’s workforce and will only continue to grow in importance over the coming years. Schools are not teaching it (kids at some Minneapolis high schools are only allowed to use their computer lab twice a week because there are too many students and too few computers for crying out loud) for want of resources. No for-profit company could implement a mass-education program that would train a huge chunk of the population in this skill cost-effectively, let alone earn a buck in the end.

So, Code Savvy steps in to fix an never-ending problem. Most of what they and other nonprofits do is the day-to-day drudgery of the Necessary.

Nonprofits are perpetually in a quandary. The folks who work at nonprofits are there because they believe there is an unprofitable need that has to be addressed, but at the same time that their organization should not exist in the first place. It’s built into the nonprofit DNA in the form of the universal “Vision Statement” that says what the world should look like when their work is finally complete.

As a friend of mine put it, if you work at a nonprofit, you should always be trying to work yourself out of a job.

I have spent my (admittedly short) working life at nonprofits. It has rarely occurred to me that I could find a job in the for-profit sector that would appeal to me, though I have often considered pursuing work in local government. I do not want to earn a monthly pay check — I want to serve. I strive to live up to the ideal that I am not working for myself and my family alone, but for the betterment of others. A lot of that kind of work is both endless and thankless, but essential. Nonprofits will do it until we have policy solutions and government departments dedicated to solving the problem.

If you think a six million dollar, one-time infusion of cash into a disease that has been known about for decades will result in a cure you are delusional. If you decided to become a sustaining donor, on the other hand, that is commendable, because you understand that there are some things that do not go away easily or quickly. That is where I agree with folks who say you cannot throw money at a problem. You can, however, convince society that an issue is worthy of collective action and then to strategically invest time and resources into its solution.

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Republican, Democratic Parties: “Whoa! Let’s not do anything hasty!”

Holding out a calming, but visibly shaking hand, the Republican party addressed the nation saying, “You don’t want to do this. You don’t have to do this!” Less animated, but equally emphatic, the Democratic party added, “Think of all the great times we’ve had together.”

Following the unexpected popularity of self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) and arch-conservative real estate mogul Donald Trump, both the Democratic and Republican parties are concerned that America might do something reckless. For years, both parties worried that America’s erratic behavior might portend something far more serious, but neither predicted this dramatic turn of events.

“Hindsight is 20/20, I guess,” said the Republican party, glancing nervously over its shoulder and addressing the nation, “Look, America, we can get revenge for the New Deal and the Great Society together! Honest!”

With an imploring look from the Republican party, the Democratic party reluctantly added, “I mean, the minimum wage may not be what it was in 1970, the ACA is a joke compared to what it was supposed to be, key parts of the VRA have been gutted, racial disparities are still appalling fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, respecting women’s basic health and livelihood are still considered politically contentious… but we can change! Think about all the great times we’ve had.”

“Just, walk away from Bernie Sanders,” the Democratic party said. “We’ll get through this together, you and me.”

Noticing America’s enthusiasm beginning to wane, the Republican party shouted, “Put down the Trump! Put the Trump down!”

At press time, the American electorate remained undecided, but swaying against conventional wisdom. The Democratic party, meanwhile, was trying to reason with the nation while the Republican party wordlessly motioned at Congress to disenfranchise a third of the country.

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Alabama to vote to succeed

Citing its courts’ staunch opposition to same-sex marriage, history of racism, the third worst quality of life, 40th place among state economies, high rate of diabetes, 45 worst ranking in terms of wealth inequality, the Alabama legislature has decided to consider a bill that would allow it to succeed in the union. Speaker Mike Hubbard admitted that the bill was “mostly ceremonial” and “a statement,” but that, “For too long the people of Alabama have suffered under the policies of this government and it’s time that we declare our intention to succeed in the United States.” The bill faces stiff opposition in both parties, with conservatives citing history and heritage and liberals doing the same. “Just look at the past!” exclaimed both Speaker Hubbard and Minority Leader Craig Ford in unison. The White House has not commented on the vote to succeed yet, but a source close to the Vice President Biden said, “Let them go ahead and try.”

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Democrats Confident America Will Be Reasonable

Democratic strategists are certain that Americans will reason Republicans are responsible if the Supreme Court guts the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare).

“Why bother coming up with a PR campaign?” said a top party spokesperson. “It should be dead obvious to anyone paying attention that if the Supreme Court rules in King vs. Burwell that ‘exchange established by the State’ actually means only people going through the federal exchange can receive subsidies that it’s really the Republicans who took away their cancer treatment payments. I mean, come one!

Dismissing the notion that Republicans could successfully redirect public ire for destroying a program that has given health insurance to 8 million Americans onto the very party that created it, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reed explained, “Americans won’t accept some illogical hogwash from demagogues! They’ll search out the facts and cross reference them through non-partisan sources. Why would we bother stooping to explain to millions of busy, emotionally exhausted people why their lives are a little less miserable because they don’t have to live in terror of bankruptcy because of a broken bone? Obviously they’ll know that the Democratic party is the one looking out for them.”

Minority Whip Dick Durbin laughed when asked if the Democrats have a plan to counter the inevitable and carefully crafted PR campaign Republicans will launch blaming President Obama for destroying ObamaCare. Durbin said, “Who would believe that? Just because a third of Louisiana Republicans blame Obama for Bush’s disastrous response to Katrina, two fifths of Americans think there were WMDs in Iraq,  and a majority oppose the ACA, but approve of its features, doesn’t mean folks can’t read the writing on the wall. At some point you just have to talk to people like adults and trust them to draw their own conclusions.”

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White liberals courageously listening

Author’s Note: If it is in any way unclear, I’m writing this in disgust at my own silence up until now.

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In the wake of the Charleston, SC, massacre which left nine dead at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, white liberals all across the country are paying close, silent attention to activists of color.

This Wednesday, Dylann Roof sat with church goers for an hour before drawing a gun, making racial threats, and then killing nine people of color in cold blood inspiring impotent disgust among most of America’s white liberals.

“I’ve been reading material from Rev. Denise AndersonBlack Girl Dangerous, the NAACP, and Black Lives Matter nonstop these past couple days,” said Bloomington, MN, resident Audra Johnson. “It’s the least I can do, of course.”

Thousands of white liberals read in reserved, unexpressed revulsion as news broke that Roof wanted to start a race war.  Many quietly bristled as mainstream news sources called Roof “mentally ill” and “a lone wolf” instead of a terrorist motivated by racial hatred endemic in American culture.  Some even considered contacting the media and demanding better, more honest reporting, but felt it wasn’t their place.

“It really disgusts me to hear that the NRA is already blaming the victims, saying that this could have been prevented if they had guns,” Niel Clerks of Aurora, MA, considered telling a coworker he knows to be a proud NRA member, but then thought better of it. “That’s another political issue.  I mean, I could bring up Sandy Hook or Columbine, but that might make things too complicated. I should educate myself more,” Clerks thought to himself with resolve.

Both Pew Research and the Public Religion Research Institute have both found that since the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, and Eric Garner, more white liberal Americans than ever before are silently listening in righteous rage to activists and community leaders pleading for action.

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Trump Plan for Helping Working Americans: $50 per vote

Stating that he has already instituted his policies to help lower and middle class Americans and combat income inequality, Donald Trump paid average citizens to cheer him on as he announced his bid for the presidency.

“For every red-blooded, white American born in these United States, I promise to give you $50 for your support in the 2016 election,” Trump said conspiratorially, adding loudly, “And I will make this nation great again!”

Critics point out that Trump could not pay $50 to every registered voter, but his spokesman said that he does not expect every voter to support him. “We just need enough desperate people for him to be president,” said a member of the campaign team. “Besides, if every registered voter threw in for him, the difference would be negligible. Can you imagine what you would do with $42?”

Walmart has come out in support of Trump’s campaign. “Many of our products are more attainable with Trump’s stimulus plan,” they said in a press release.

Trump closed his announcement speech by saying, “We need to re-brand American. And if you want to know my plan for defeating ISIS, I’ll let you in for a limited-time offer of $25.”

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Republicans criticize “alarmist” report that 97% of astronomers agree asteroid will kill most life on Earth

A new report released by NASA has re-ignited the political debate over the Extinction-Event Asteroid.

While the study finds that 97% of actively publishing astronomers agree that the oncoming asteroid will kill the majority of plant and animal life on Earth, Republicans criticized it as “alarmist rhetoric” created by the liberal media. One of Congress’ most vocal Asteroid skeptics, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), took to the floor today holding a fist-sized rock, saying, “In case you have forgotten, these are all over the place,” before tossing it at the Chairman’s desk.

“Just look up, people!” says Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX). “Do you see a fiery ball of interstellar matter hurtling toward us? I didn’t think so.”

Asteroid activists across the country and world, however, have praised the new study. “If we don’t take action soon, we may miss our two-year deadline before Earth’s next extinction event,” said an exhausted and exasperated Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” his trademark bow-tie hanging limply from his neck. “Twenty years ago, we had options. Now… maybe Hollywood has some ideas.”

Astronomers say the Asteroid fits the hypothesized description of the asteroid that allegedly caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event during which three-quarters of the planet’s species went extinct. Numerous solutions to address the Asteroid problem have been presented, most notably using a gravity tractor, focused solar energy, a mass driver, and even launching a nuclear explosive device at the near-Earth object. Skeptics say all these proposals are “economically infeasible.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a response shortly after NASA’s announcement, stating, “Asteroid activists would have Americans (and indeed all of earth’s citizens) catastrophically reorganize our world economy and way of life to appease science fiction conspiracy theorists. NASA itself acknowledges these plans will directly lead to increased taxes, job losses in the disaster recovery sector, and decreased household disposable income.”

All the declared and expected Republican presidential candidates quickly condemned the NASA report. “Meteors have hit the Earth before,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). “Experts even say that we get hit by a meteorite five to ten times a year.”

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the favored candidate of the Koch brothers, has gone even further, suggesting, “If there’s actually a giant asteroid hurtling toward earth, it may even be a good thing,” In a time of limited resources, population reduction will lead to greater prosperity for the survivors, Walker said.

After being contacted for this article, writer and activist Naomi Klein refused to answer interview questions, saying only, “I told all of you assholes. Do you really think this changes anything? We’re all fucked.”

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Defending “Nothing in Particular”

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the rise religious non-affiliation in America. While everyone expected the usual angry rants from the conservative right, a lot of material has been put forward by the “Nones” (I know the term is offensive to some, but I kind of like it). Being unaffiliated, and having had a rough time of it when I was a kid, I’ve tried to look for stories about my own experience. So I was surprised when I found nothing out there.

Or, at least, I have found practically nothing from the agnostic point of view, but plenty from the atheist and militant anti-religion camp. A few months ago I read Alternet’s Greta Christina’s “Christianity’s Faith-Based Freakout: Why Atheism Makes Believers Uncomfortable” which resonated with me, for the first half at least, and was compelled to write the following. I was reluctant to publish it because talking about my faith makes me uncomfortable, but I’m tired of reading gems like this, which is basically hateful trash and makes all of us Nones look bad. Moreover, I haven’t read anything expressing my point of view. Then I read Christina’s article and thought I’d found a voice I liked, but was mistaken.

Christina relates several stories about professed Atheists and other Nones being asked, and sometimes forced by friends and family, to “go through the motions.” They weren’t allowed to not practice religion. This fit my own experience, and I appreciated finding out I wasn’t alone.

But I take exception is the second half of Christina’s essay where she says,

“Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. But the simple act of coming out as an atheist denies it this consent. Even if atheists never debate believers or try to persuade them out of their beliefs; even if all we ever do is say out loud, ‘Actually, I’m an atheist,’ we’re still denying our consent. And that throws a monkey wrench into religion’s engine.”

Her point is that atheism is objectively better than theism. That belief in God, or any religious dogma, crumbles before skepticism and dissent.

Defending your beliefs is admirable, but using that to de-legitimize someone else’s is just mean-spirited.

Anyway, her argument is flawed because it works both ways: if an atheist’s nonbelief should be threatening to a theist, so should the reverse. I know a lot of rational, well-informed believers (and there are a whole hell of a lot more of them than us Nones), but that doesn’t make me uneasy about my convictions.

That said, I’ve never felt oppressed for my lack of religiosity – just insulted. I don’t harbor ill-will towards religious people, and I know I’m privileged to have grown up in a town where expressing my differences didn’t get me ostracized or make me the target of a hate crime.

Still, I don’t like narcissism, or evangelism, or the glib way anyone with firm beliefs denounces someone else’s. And I’m really skeptical of absolutes.

Since the nineties, it’s become less stigmatized to identify as non-affiliated – whether that means calling yourself atheist, agnostic, indifferent, or just nothing in particular. I’ve noticed a lot of articles written by atheists, especially responding to a late-2012 Pew Research study that found that one in five Americans identify as “none,” which is an all-time high (in 1990, it was 8%). Most spend a lot of time dwelling on “why?” Why is non-affiliation becoming so popular?

Explanations range from the rise of the internet to mainstream American religion’s intolerance of gay marriage. Others argue that because media has given us so much access to atrocities all around the world, and the ability to talk about it, that it’s hard to believe in an all-loving god. No matter what the reason, there seems to be a consensus that religion, not God, is dying in America

I’m skeptical. Written language has been around for a long time, but remembering things hasn’t gone out of style, like Plato feared. That may be a bad comparison, but my point is that people always think the world is ending and it never is.

I feel there’s a simpler explanation: there have always been a lot of atheists/agnostics/desiring–non-affiliates and it’s only now become socially acceptable to be openly None. I’ve got nothing to back that up, so it’s just a hunch.

Here, I’m tempted to draw a parallel between Nones and a plethora of innate but formerly unrecognized identities, but I’m not entirely sure that’s fair. You choose religion, not sexual identity.

Or do you? Beliefs, I mean, not religion (which you can choose) or sexual identity (which you can’t choose). Can you choose to believe in something? You can choose to put your faith in a political party, but could you make yourself believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Or Russell’s Teapot?

I cannot bring myself to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. The idea strikes me as absurd (no offense meant to believers). My rationality prohibits it, because I can’t reconcile the idea of an OSPB God with the Problem of Evil (or Suffering). I’ve been fair to the apologists and looked for arguments against me, and the most compelling one I’ve found is that Good necessitates Evil, but that doesn’t seem right because of the whole omnipotent thing.

And I’m frankly insulted (and believe others should be, too) by Pascal’s Wager, which basically says “if God exists you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing in God.” It makes Belief into an act of ultimate (literally) selfishness.

Similarly, I can’t convince myself not to believe in God. That may be a vestigial sympathy from my upbringing and cultural heritage, but it’s about as entrenched as my belief in causality and the intrinsic worth of human life.

So, I’m an agnostic, which is the reason I’m writing this in the first place. Plenty of atheists and theists have thrown in to this debate, but I haven’t seen anyone give a passionate defense of agnosticism. Moreover, a lot of the authors who’ve discussed the Great War between non-affiliation and religiosity talk about agnostics and the other Nones who don’t identify as atheist with bafflement and contempt.

Somebody’s got to stand up for the “nothing in particulars.”

Agnostics get a bad rap. In the Life of Pi, the narrator says, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Richard Dawkins feels the same way, calling agnosticism “intellectual cowardice.” (I like to think agnosticism is even more hardcore than atheism, because it even finds the certainty that there is no god suspect. In that way, atheists actually have more in common with theists than agnostics do.) Most people seem to think the philosophy is milquetoast at best or, like atheism, heretical/sacrilegious/irreverent (choose your term) at worst.

But, we’ve got the majority (of the minority) on our side. The Pew Study divided the “Nones” into three groups: atheists, agnostics, and ‘nothing in particular.’ Seventeen percent identify as agnostic and “Among the ‘nothing in particulars,’ about eight-in-ten (81%) say they believe in God or a universal spirit – and a plurality of those who believe in God say they are ‘absolutely certain’ about this belief.”

Religious affiliation is declining in the United States, but that doesn’t mean spirituality and faith are, too.

I think that most of the Nones would agree that faith is complicated and emotional and there are more immediate things begging our attention. That’s how I felt about it for years. For most of my adult life, I’ve just side-stepped the problem and not thought about it. The technical term here is apatheism (functional indifference to religion and theism) or, in my case, pragmatic agnosticism.

Those are the terms that probably best describe most Nones. Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies writes a pretty good sum-up, “I guess I’m an atheist. Or I would be if I identified as anything, except — like a lot of my peers — I don’t… The only thing that unites us is the belief (if you can even call it that) that there is no god. This is also why (for me), the idea of an atheist convention is so stupid.”

I included that last part because I do think atheist conventions are anything but stupid. I’m sympathetic to her definition of identity (or lack thereof), but conventions and institutions like the Secular Coalition of America are important. The religious majority throw us together into one big pot and are distrustful of non-theists. By virtue of other people’s prejudices, it’s important to have an advocate to prevent and combat discrimination (or worse).

Back to my original point, just because I choose to be unaffiliated doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to the conversation. I’ve studied religion and philosophy, but, until recently, I haven’t asked myself how I felt. I can, of course, only speak for myself, but I think that my sentiment is shared by a lot of the Nones out there.

The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” in 1869, and defined it thus,

“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

Wikipedia offers a more technical definition that goes, “Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysical claims—are unknown or unknowable.” I prefer the former, but the latter describes what most people think of as “agnosticism,” that the existence of god (OSPB or otherwise) is impossible to prove to disprove.

There is a political angle to this. Bertrand Russell has a terrific short piece about how rationalism cuts two ways. Basically, he says there are limits to human knowledge, so everyone needs to calm the fuck down and stop doing things like burning people at stake.

For me, agnosticism means embracing skepticism, humility, and pragmatism.

It’s an attitude more than a method or view. Treat other beliefs with respect and listen carefully, because you might find some new ideas useful and appealing. Realize that there’s a sliding scale of certainty. There are things we can be pretty certain about (like that you’re reading an article about agnosticism right now) and others that are basically impossible to prove (like the non-existence of, well, anything).

That suits me. I write grants for a living, so structured arguments based on documented facts are kind of important to me. But I have also experienced transcendental feelings, have spiritual leanings, and am frequently afflicted with sensawunda.

And this isn’t all to say I don’t have firm beliefs or that agnosticism prohibits them (like not burning people at stake for disagreeing with me). I believe education and health care are rights, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is ridiculous, we have a responsibility to care for our environment, that people are mostly good but capable atrocities, and a plenitude of other things. Moreover, I think I have pretty legitimate reasons for believing all of it. And if you disagree, then I’m more than happy to fight you on the issue.

I’m not evangelizing here, or trying to denounce anyone else’s firmly held convictions. It seems to me that in all the angry clamor someone needs to point out that there’s a middle ground and you don’t need to submit entirely to one dogma or another to lead the Good Life.

Sometimes, it’s fun to just marvel at how interesting the world can be without absolute truths.

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