A thanksgiving for this day

I want to take this time and place to say thank you to Lisa.  For 23 years we were married, and were together for more than four years before that.  We had a great sense of companionship, we worked together on everything that life threw in our way including a house fire, the deaths of parents, raising two fantastic and smart children, and all of the struggles large and small that a couple faces when they spend that much of their lives together. They were indeed good years and I treasure all the memories from those times, the good and the bad. We shared an extremely rare love, and we both grew and changed while still supporting one another.  Lisa is a great parent and role model to our children; she is very kind and compassionate just like her own mother, and she has a great intellect just like her father.  I am so very fortunate that she devoted such a large part of her life to me. Thank you, Lisa!

Thoughts on the 2016 election

Over the last few days I've seen on social media a cavalcade of simplistic attacks, cruel memes, and misinterpretations of the positions of others. I've also seen some very thoughtful posts, but the preponderance of them are unkind to say the least. As I write this it is two days after the 2016 election, in which Trump was the winner by electoral votes. Clinton won the popular vote by a decidedly nontrivial margin - at this writing her lead was around 1.7 million votes.

In response there have been any number of protests across the country; from what I've been able to tell these have been largely peaceful with a few incidents of vandalism, several hundred arrests, and two police officers injured.

I admit my dismay at the outcome and have strongly pessimistic feelings about the near future. I have no confidence in any of Trump's economic policies, or rather, what little vague lip service he paid to them. He utterly failed to articulate a single coherent or detailed policy idea, other than the same trickle down economics and tax cuts for the wealthy we got from Reagan and the Bushes. The largesse of our debt today is the result of two things: the Bush tax cuts and the wars in the middle east. Add to that the costs of recovery from the crash in 2008. Even with that, the deficit has been cut under Obama by around 2/3. The debt continues to rise because we have one party pathologically opposed to any revenue increase at all for the government.

Trump has promised to get "tough" with China on trade, which could directly and severely hurt the (American) company for which I work, along with the overall economy (US and global). His stance on foreign policy is a disturbing mixture of protectionism, belligerence, and brinkmanship.

He has a transition team for the EPA headed by an anti-science climate-change denial activist. We will probably see more drilling offshore, and our coal production/consumption will pollute the air at an accelerated pace. Fuel economy and emissions standards for vehicles? Out the window.

Socially, he has promised to immediately roll back virtually all of the gains folks like myself have made under Obama; he backs a religious "protection" act to enforce this, and he has the votes to accomplish it. Our VP-elect, Mike Pence, is an avowed (and active) homophobe who has pushed an agenda that includes forced gay-conversion therapy. Again, they have the congress in their corner. I really see some negative changes ahead. We were on such a hopeful trajectory for the last several years. I recall watching Loretta Lynch, the Attorney General of the United States, addressing the transgender community after North Carolina's HB2 was passed, reassuring us with some very kind words, and promising to do everything she could to protect us. I honestly felt like I was being hugged, and I still tear up just thinking about her speech. I know that I can expect no such sentiments from the Trump administration.

His appointment(s) to the US Supreme Court will be a huge blow to social progress for generations. He has promised to appoint justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, and his published short-list of candidates includes only anti-LGBT conservatives who will roll back marriage equality and even Roe V. Wade.

Hillary was such a status quo candidate I didn't see much chance at all that she would have derailed the economy. She had in the past expressed slightly conservative social views but as of late had shown support for minorities and the LGBT community, so I wouldn't have expected any kind of backsliding on social progress either. She believes in (or rather, understands) science and would therefore not have allowed loosening of environmental protections

I cannot help but feel that the US has made a terrible, terrible mistake. There are millions of thoughtful people who feel this same way. It's impossible to fathom how a bisexual, transgender atheist would ever be welcome in Trump's version of the United States, much less one crafted by the people with whom he has surrounded himself.

It is typical during the primary season for the candidates to express opinions that tend towards the extreme elements in their party, because the candidates know that those elements are the most likely to vote in the primaries. The language typically veers back towards the middle during the normal election campaign; this time, however, that did not happen. The Donald Trump that had shown up during the contentious primaries was the exact same Donald Trump that showed up for the post-primary campaign. None of his stances softened at all, his abusive verbal style remained in full force, his rude comments and apparent lack of self-control survived as well. His policy prescriptions, with identical lack of specificity, were as unyielding as before, And yet, he managed to pull out a victory, one which has stunned people all across the globe. On the heels of the "Brexit" vote his victory seems to follow a trend that is disturbing to so many.

In the wake of all this, there as been much gloating by those who supported him, which is not unexpected given the personality on display by the man himself. There have also been many calls for those who evinced dismay at the result to calm down, to remember what it was like for conservatives when Barack Obama won two terms as president.

It may be that as a supporter of Obama, I was unaware that anything he said was controversial, or dismissive, or polarizing, or even rude and disrespectful. Most of what Trump had to say was all of these things. I remember hearing Obama make speeches about lifting up those in need and those who had been historically downtrodden and ignored. His campaign promises included things like universal health care for all, transparency in government, getting us out of the wars in which we were embroiled, closing Guantanamo Bay, and lifting us out of recession. None of this compares in any way to the reactionary and vitriolic language used by Trump throughout his entire campaign.

Here's a few specifics I remember about Donald Trump. He promised to round up and deport 11 million people, including the families of undocumented immigrants. He said he thinks that we should go after the families of suspected terrorists. He says that torture is acceptable. He encouraged demonstrators to be thrown out of his events and laughed off them being physically assaulted. He claimed that his opponent was in favor of "open borders" when that was actually not true. He says he will just ignore international treaties that have already been negotiated and agreed upon. He said he thinks it might be a good idea if more nations had nuclear weapons. He said we should have "taken the oil" from Iraq. He has denigrated countless women, not just in his campaign but during his entire public life. When he was a 59 year old man, talking about women, he bragged about being able to "grab them by the pussy" and get away with it because he was a star. He threatened to jail his political opponent. He threatened to change libel laws to allow him to sue media outlets that published unflattering stories about him and that he would "get a lot of money." He has promised to unilaterally "get tough" on countries like China, with whom we have a very tangled and important set of trade relationships; he says the same about other countries. He promised to halt the entry of people of Muslim faith into this country. He proposed cutting taxes, and his plan would result in the top 0.1% of earners reaping more benefits than the entire bottom 60% of earners combined. His plan to replace the Affordable Care Act is to use Health Savings Accounts (?!?). He repeatedly said many things he would later attempt to deny, when there was video or other evidence to the contrary - one example is his denial that he called Climate Change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese when he had Tweeted out that exact claim to many thousands of followers. He called all 12 of the women who accused him of sexual assault "liars" and threatened to sue them. He refused to release any of his tax returns when all other candidates since 1976 have done so. He claims to be an excellent businessman but his net worth has grown only about a third as much as it would have if he had simply invested in index funds 40 years ago. Companies for which he is responsible have filed for bankruptcy multiple times. He promised to "drain the swamp" of Washington insiders in politics but has surrounded himself with lobbyists and other career political-players for his transition team as well has for his short list of cabinet appointments. He paid $25 Million to settle lawsuits brought by thousands of people alleging that his "Trump University" was a total fraud, and the sum they settled on would seem to indicate they made a decent case for it being true.

I think that's enough to be getting on with. In the absence of any political history, we must look to what we can, and what is available is what the man has said and what he has done in lieu of public service. None of the above is in dispute, all of those statements are factual.

To see how far we have come, imagine the outrage of conservatives if Barack Obama had said or done even just one single thing on that list.

Now, I am sure that others will produce their own laundry-list of grievances against Hillary Clinton, and some of the things on those lists are surely true, and I have elsewhere acknowledged that she is a deeply flawed candidate. However, scan those lists carefully for things that are in dispute or that are not supported by the facts, or that are outright conspiracy-theory-level accusations, and the list will shorten considerably, I'm sure. My list above is not like that; there are no nut-job ideas or unsupported claims. Mr. Trump has said and done all of those things, and this is beyond any doubt, despite Mr. Trump's automatic, almost pathological gainsaying of anything unflattering.

Now, as I alluded to above, it has been alleged that those of us who are deeply unhappy about all of this should just "suck it up."

If anyone would care to make a case that successfully equates the campaign promises (or even the actions performed) by Obama or Clinton with those of Trump, I would love to hear from you.
This is not to say that there are no legitimate grievances against some of the policies that have been put forth over the last two presidential terms, or against some of those proposed by Clinton. But I have seen none of this, no reasoned or rational or analytical or even compassionate argument. All I've witnessed are crude remarks, simplistic "memes," and mean-spirited bumper-sticker sound bites. It'd almost as if the conservatives are gloating over the defeat of their enemy, like a schoolyard bully or a third-world dictator. That's not a good way to start off their rule.

In stark contrast to their attitude that "losers shouldn't complain" we have the apoplectic tantrums of a governor who it appears was defeated in a fairly close race here in North Carolina. The incumbent Pat McCrory, who at this point is some 7,000 votes behind his democrat rival, Roy Cooper, has tried every avenue to call into question as many ballots as he can. The fact that every county's board of elections is under republican control seems to have escaped him, as has the fact that most of them have rebuffed his challenges to their results. In addition to this desperate grasp at keeping power for himself, he and his cronies in the state legislature are allegedly cooking up a scheme to pack two additional seats onto the North Carolina State Supreme Court, which he would appoint before he leaves office, if that is indeed the final outcome. This is being planned because the voters of NC elected a new Justice to the court with more liberal judicial views and his election tips the balance of that court to the left. So here we have the odd spectacle of a republican officeholder who lost refusing to "suck it up" himself and kicking and screaming on the way out, grabbing desperately like a spoiled child at anything within reach of his greedy hands - yet, where are the cries of outrage by those who poke fun at the left's difficulty accepting the election of Trump? As I've said in another social media post, this is hypocrisy on par with that of the Pharisees, but it appears to be business as usual for today's republicans.

The problem with Magical Thinking

A few years ago I had put several posts on social media deriding "magical thinking." I was specifically talking about religious thinking; in generic terms this amounts to belief without evidence, or belief in the face of contrary evidence. I am pretty sure that some of those posts got me "unfriended" by folks who took offense.

I am here today to reaffirm my commitment to the dangers of this type of thinking, as we can plainly see with this past weekend's (as of this writing) horrific events in Orlando. Nearly 50 people were killed at the scene or died very shortly thereafter, and more than that number were seriously injured.  This act was perpetrated by a single person armed with a rifle and a handgun.

There are clearly motivations for his actions yet to be discovered.  What most of us can agree on, I'm confident, is that his motivations will, when they are brought to light and examined, be both absurd and based in something other than fact.  I predict they will be linked to either his religious beliefs or to the culture in which he was immersed, which, again, I predict will turn out to have been influenced heavily by religion.

However, in the near-immediate aftermath of this nauseating tragedy, I have seen other instances of magical thinking in the general sense. Examples of this include the instantaneous and sickening pre-emptive assault by the pro-gun-rights brigades here in the U.S. in response to a simple statement by the president bemoaning the ease of obtaining such weapons as were used by the shooter. The magical thinking here is exposed by the point that there is no evidence of, and certainly no proposal has been offered to enforce, a reduction in the availability of guns.  In fact, more guns have been sold in the past eight years here than in any previous 8-year timespan.  This is magical thinking at its core – firmly held not just despite a lack of evidence, but in the face of strong countervailing evidence as well.

Another form of magical thinking that might affect policy and the way people here vote is related to the widely accepted (and academically supported) inability of humans to accurately assess risk.  We greatly overestimate the risk of sensationalized events or those that "feel" more real to us (such as those extremely rare yet spectacular events we are exposed to constantly through media outlets, or those that involve larger numbers of people).  Congruently, we also greatly overestimate our own ability to react in a dangerous or emergency situation.  In the case of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, at least one police officer was (and, in some reports, three officers were) on the scene and engaged the attacker with gunfire outside the club, but the killer was able to enter the club nonetheless. Yet I have heard many times already in the short intervening period how "one good guy with a gun" can stop these things.  Here we had a good guy with a gun; this good guy was a trained police officer who practiced with his weapon regularly (probably more often than 90% of non-law-enforcement gun owners), and who had significantly more training than probably 99% of non-military and non-law-enforcement gun owners. Somehow he and two other similarly trained and prepared officers were unable to prevent the ensuing carnage. 

The fantasy that an average person who carries a gun, concealed or otherwise, will be mentally ready and completely capable of assessing and reacting in such a situation, not to mention physically capable and sufficiently accurate in aim, is just that: a pure fantasy based in nothing other than an insufficiently knowledgeable yet overactive imagination.  There are known instances where battle-hardened veterans of multiple combat campaigns, genuine war-heroes, fail under stress, in unpredictable ways. That a modern-day cowboy with a gun would have prevented the worst mass-shooting in the history of the U.S. (to date) is magical thinking on a very dangerous level, for those who believe thus are very committed in that belief, and will actively try to influence public policy to allow, even encourage, that lunacy. In fact they spend millions of dollars to that effect. In a similar vein, these same types will promulgate the equally fantastic notion that if they arm themselves then they will be able to prevent the government from encroaching on their civil liberties, yet our military is the most powerful in the entire history of the world, larger than the militaries of the next four countries combined. It is patently absurd to think that a few guns in the hands of weekend warriors would stop such a force from doing almost whatever it wanted.

At this point I freely admit that I am moving into a more speculative area, as I am making some guesses as to the motivations of the shooter.  There seems to be conflicting information coming to light.  The shooter’s own father claims that his son was not motivated in this instance by religion per se, but instead was offended mightily when his son saw two men kissing one another.  The club he targeted, Pulse in Orlando, Florida, is a gay nightclub.  At some point during the hostage-phase of the attack, he phoned 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq), which is undoubtedly a religiously-motivated organization.

It is a fair question to ask from whence stems this man’s hatred of LGBT persons.  Since he pledged allegiance to ISIS and was raised as a Muslim, it’s probably fair to say that he was enculturated within that atmosphere – his father is certainly dedicated to Muslim-causes.  ISIS has posted videos of its members executing LGBT persons by throwing them off of rooftops; many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran impose death sentences on those found guilty of being gay. Such edicts and laws are based upon writings taken directly from the Koran and the Hadith.  And this leads us back to the magical thought process, and the dangers of allowing it to occur.  There is no evidence whatsoever, at least nothing that we would normally call evidence in any strict or rigorous sense, that either of these sets of texts is or was divinely inspired, yet they are taken as the literal and unalterable truth by millions including those with access to massively destructive weapons, as was Omar Mateen. Omar’s thoughts and beliefs were based upon simply fantastic notions about the world, notions with no veridical correspondence to actual reality.  This situation is the same with respect to any text or utterance considered beyond the realm of human influence: Christianity (in all its flavors) and Judaism come to mind.  In fact, those two along with Islam are the so-called Abrahamic-faiths, and the foundational story of Abraham coming to the very brink of sacrificing his son is also a fantastic, magical tale.  Nowadays if a person were to bring their child to a sacrificial altar and raise the knife to commit the deed, all while claiming to be following the voice of divine authority, we would assume such a person was out of their right mind and immediately seek psychological or other emergency help – in other words, we would act as if they were beyond reason.  It is ironic that such a fantastic tale is still held as either ethical or true in any sense.

My point here is that the acceptance of such obviously false tales contributes to the atmosphere of magical thinking that seems to pervade all societies, or has for the entirety of recorded history.  Humanity is suffering from cognitive dissonance, and is largely unaware of it.  We question in painstaking detail all aspects of, say, the construction of an automobile or airplane, demanding tangible and reproducible evidence that all of the claims behind its design and fabrication represent the true, factual state of reality, while at the same time we fail to expect even a whiff of supporting evidence for the most ridiculous of religious claims, precisely because they are labelled as “religious.”  And, our acceptance of those claims clearly has direct bearing on our behaviors and actions.

Humans seem to exhibit this cognitive dissonance to varying degrees – some are completely in thrall to unsubstantiated ideas and others have mostly shed them from their minds.  What is perfectly clear is that without a path to discovering truth and reality, we are at the mercy of whatever stokes our passions.  And ideological systems, of which religions comprise the largesse, more than any other human institution, have mastered the art of exploiting our emotive responses.

This is why the quotation from Voltaire in the picture above is one of my favorites – by allowing ourselves to think magically we have unilaterally disarmed ourselves.  This goes deeper than one might imagine, for even the most passive and liberal Christian still holds any number of unsupportable ideas in his or her head, and this contributes in important ways to the mindset that causes society to think it rude or inappropriate to criticize one’s religious faith or ideas.  This is the root of the problem and multiplies the confusion surrounding what would otherwise be fairly straightforward discussions. We are therefore left with no valid means to criticize or even distinguish toxic ideologies.

The odious presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has promised many ridiculous things (he is a magical thinker in any number of ways), among which is to “build a wall.”  This is indeed a stupid and terrible idea for many reasons, but what we desperately need to do is tear down the wall that already exists inside our own minds which allows us to carry so many contradictory ideas and thoughts. Only then can we speak plainly enough to eliminate the true causes behind tragedies like the one suffered this past weekend.

Open letter to LGBT Friends and Allies

This is a letter of encouragement (and thanks) that I wrote for the students at a local high school who are members of its Gay-Straight-Alliance chapter.  I thought it might be nice to publish it here:

Dear LGBTQ Friends and Allies,

I just wanted to write you a short note, in large part so that I could simply extend a very big thank-you for the mission that you fulfill at this school and in the wider community.

As I’m sure you’ve recently seen, a number of issues affecting the community that you belong to (as well as serve) have come to the very forefront of public and political discourse, in a highly-publicized and oftentimes contentious manner.  This has happened on all levels – here in our school, in nearby cities and towns, across our state, as well has nationally.  We have even garnered international attention (although I don’t think our state and our country should be at all flattered by what is being said!). All of this has happened in a very short period of time, and it comes hot on the heels of historic victories, notably in the area of marriage equality.

Although I am honestly a bit dismayed at the continuing bigotry, intolerance, and outright hatred that is still evident, I am so much more overwhelmed, and overjoyed, at the reaction of a growing number of thoughtful people against those sentiments.  I see people from all walks of life coming to our defense in compassionate and heartfelt ways; this ranges from small kindnesses like a simple smiley-face or a “like” on a social media post all the way up to the Attorney General of the United States, herself a black woman and a native of Greensboro here in NC, making a historic, heroic public acknowledgement of the transgender community as well as announcing strong social and legal defensive measures on our behalf.

What I think is key to understand is that each of you is a playing a vital part in that struggle whether you realize it or not.  Every action you take and utterance you make, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, puts a human face on the issues.  The importance of that cannot be overstated.  There is a remarkable concept that crosses the boundaries of Psychology and Philosophy called the Circle of Empathy, and it refers to those people around an individual with whom one feels a connection, or in whose shoes one can and does imagine oneself.  It is a widely acknowledged fact that as our circles of empathy have grown, societies have become less violent, more tolerant, more just, more prosperous, and are simply happier.  All of those are very good things, and the first three are especially so in regards to people like us.  So, every time you join a face and a personality to an act, statement, or an injustice, you are working to expand everyone’s circles of empathy.  You are connecting yourself as a living, breathing, feeling human being to a concept or an idea in someone else’s head, turning it from an abstract into something that matters on a personal level.

That, more than anything else, is what lies behind the stunning social and moral progress that is happening all around us now. And make no mistake that we are experiencing progress that would have been totally unthinkable, perhaps even ridiculous, not very long ago.  You are helping to make all of humanity itself more humane, and for that, we owe you such a large debt.

The term “The Greatest Generation” refers to those who grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930’s and who participated in the efforts of World War II. I see a lot of obvious similarities between those truly special individuals and the young people of today, even though the battles are very different. I strongly disagree with comments I hear about how the millennial generation is just entitled and spoiled – don’t you believe that for a second!  Surely there are flaws in each of us, but the younger generations are growing up with compassion, tolerance, acceptance, and senses of moral and social justice in measures that are unparalleled in human history.

So, again, thank you so very much from the bottom of my heart for what you are doing, and also merely for being the wonderful individuals that you are.

A Day of Silent Irony

As many of you may know, this past Friday was recognized by many as a Day of Silence, which was created by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). This Day of Silence was intended as a way to acknowledge the bullying that LGBT students regularly endure; its observance was to be made by students remaining silent for all or a portion of the school day. In my mind there could be no more passive, peaceful, or effective way to bring attention to some of the most disgraceful behaviors exhibited in our modern society against many of its most vulnerable members.

I am very ashamed to say that, at one local school, this attempt failed due to what I can only suggest is a lack of leadership – and that is in fact the kindest term I can fathom.

At this high school, located just south of Greensboro, students had intended to recognize this day by making a single table available in the cafeteria, through all three lunch periods, at which any student who desired to show support and solidarity with their LGBT peers could sit in silence. This was not an unreasonable thing to request, and the administration could so easily have accommodated it. What actually happened was several things, the first of which was that at least one student misunderstood the observance of this event to be that all students would be required to participate in some period of silence. This student posted a rather vindictive polemic on social media which quickly turned into volleys of accusations, criticisms, and diatribes. Some of these were thoughtful and some were crass. The most hurtful came from those whose opinions were strongly opposed to even the existence of such an event, and whose prose was predictably couched in terms either religious or pseudo-scientific.
It is ironic in the extreme that an event which was designed to illuminate the problem of LGBT students being the recipients of bullying and abuse in fact brought about more of those same behaviors, for what occurred was nothing less than a cloud of threats and intimidation. And, I'm sad to say, the bigots and religious bullies won the day, for there was no table in the cafeteria, no overt support shown by the administration or the school system to these students, who, I must reiterate, are among the most vulnerable, abused, and neglected among us; these students were left, as usual, twisting in the howling winds of hate-speech. What makes this doubly shameful is that there were also a number of parents involved in shouting down this undeniably peaceful observance.

We must ask the leadership at that school: do they dare to call themselves leaders if they are incapable of lifting up the least among us? I have said many times, very publicly in speech and in writing, that this school makes a strength of its diversity; I now feel somewhat naive and foolish having said that, for it seems plain to me that, to some, this term only applies to certain categories of diversity. When it comes to the tougher cases, those classes of our fellow humans who are vulnerable physically, mentally, and politically, it seems far less important to ensure that they are supported by the system, much less recognized. For my part, I am very much ashamed that this school could not summon the courage to support this worthwhile, peaceful, non-threatening, and entirely positive event. It is shameful both in terms of a failure of leadership, and also in the sense that the school should be reflective of the entirety of its community, not merely those with the loudest mouths or the biggest cudgels.

The school system provides buildings, meticulously-manicured fields, uniforms, and literally tens of thousands of dollars to support its sporting teams and other clubs and groups, but it can't even provide one single table for otherwise voiceless students during one single day of lunch? Just let that sink in for a minute – if you don't see an absurdity of epic proportions, then your senses of justice and fairness are sorely mis-calibrated.

The very silence of the polity. as evinced by their lack of positive support, spoke the loudest on that day - what a sad irony!