April 22, 2008

Conversations in Ellwood City, PA

The following is a description of my experience canvassing for Barack Obama last weekend. While I can't say that the sequence of events is exact, the descriptions of the people and places and the words they said to me are.

To be fair to Ellwood, the whole city is not in such a poor condition. I arrive early morning at our staging area, a picturesque home in a quaint, clean, and quiet neighborhood. A few hundred feet down the road at the local park, a city Earth Day festival is unfolding. The house I walk into is owned by a lovely woman, the wife of a local pastor, who has volunteered her home for the weekend and taken time out of her busy day caring for her young children to help the Obama campaign. But a short trip across the bridge to the West reveals a completely different world. It is a world mentioned in the news and in political speeches, but quickly forgotten by city folk. It is a world often passed by on a long drive, but never entered. It is a world where American dreams go to die.

As the early morning chill gives way to the warmth of the sun, the smell of burning trash is in the air. I have a list of Democratic households to visit, and my goal is to get a feel for Obama's support in the area. I set out to meet the people of West Elwood City. The roads are unkempt, many of the houses in disrepair, and the lawns littered with debris. The stickers and signs on the homes reveal a love for Jesus and country that is rivaled only by a love for Pittsburgh Steeler football. My morning optimism quickly fades as a man stops me on the road. He is middle aged and shoddily dressed with gray hair, a thick mustache, and a half smoked cigarette hanging from his mouth. He asks me what I'm doing. "I'm volunteering for the Barack Obama campaign, " I reply. He says condescendingly, "What do you want to work for him for? He's not going to do anything but raise your taxes." I briefly explain Obama's plan to lower taxes for the middle class, to which he simply replies, "I don't believe you." It is clear he has already made up his mind, even without knowing the facts. I move on to the homes on my list.

After knocking on the doors of a few vacant houses, I walk up to a small home with a large "This home is protected by Jesus" sticker on door. I knock. A tall woman with messy hair and a dirty white t-shirt answers the door with a hint of a smile on her face. "Can I help you?" she says. I tell her I am volunteer from the Obama campaign and her semblance of a smile quickly disappears. "I'm a Hillary supporter, " she snaps. "I would never vote for him. I would even for McCain before I'd vote for him." She slams the door in my face. I trudge on, trying not to be discouraged.

A few streets over I approach a dilapidated bungalow that sits below street level. There are no stairs. I hop down to reach the front door and knock. A large, well built man answers the door wearing a bright red union t-shirt. He carries a toddler in his right arm and a large wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. I ask him who he is supporting in the upcoming election. The man tells me that he likes Obama, but that he has to vote with his union, and they have yet to endorse a candidate. I thank him for his time and move on.

After a few hours with little success, I step onto the porch of the left side of small duplex and ring the bell. A young African American man answers. When I tell him I am working for Obama, a large smile inches across his face. He tells me he is undecided but would like to talk. We sit on the porch and talk for about five minutes. He says he is a local pastor, and that he is surprised to see me in his area. While he does not say it outright, he hints at a strong sentiment of racism in his town and I tell him that I've noticed. As we conclude he admits he is leaning toward Obama and gives me a wink. I leave the house with a lifted spirit.

Down the street I creep up to a tattered home where the door is open and country music is blaring. I knock on the side. A hairy, heavy set white man in a dirty wifebeater walks up the hallway. "Hi, I'm a volunteer with the Barack Obam--." He quickly interrupts me by moving his hand in a shooing motion as he barks, "No, no! You get out of here!". As I scuttle away, he shouts from the door, " And tell your friends not to come back neither!"

Dejected, I walk up a long steep hillside to reach the final houses on my list. The summit provides a view over the whole side of town - the worn houses, the crumbling infrastructure, the failing commercial area, and the decrepit factories in the distance - the remnants of a once booming steel town. I come upon the last home on my list. It's no bigger than a trailer, and set a distance from the road. On the front lawn an oil drum filled with trash is burning. Two girls in their early twenties sit on lawn chairs smoking while six or seven children and a small dog chase each other excitedly around the house. One of the girls gets up to greet me and I ask for the name on my list. "She doesn't live here anymore, " replies the young girl. I thank her and ask who she might be supporting. She blows a plume of smoke and smiles as she says, "Oh, I don't really pay attention to that stuff." As I head back down the hill toward my car, a pickup truck passes by with a confederate flag in place of a front license plate.

Back at my staging area, I report my grim numbers to the woman in charge. "I'm not surprised, " she says, "at least we have more information now." I notice a pile of Obama lawn signs that were dropped off while I was out, and I ask here why she has not put one up. She sighs as she tells me that it wouldn't be appropriate due to her husband's position as pastor. I sigh in return, and thank her for being such a gracious host.

My heart is heavy on the PA Turnpike as the tiny town of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania fades in the distance. In my head I hear the words of Obama himself, words that have been replayed time and time again on the news, words about the bitterness in small town America, words that have been turned against him to paint him as "disconnected" and "elitist". But I see now that he is only honest. The bitterness is real, and those who ignore it are disconnected. There is little hope for a better America in the people of West Ellwood City.

April 20, 2008

The Devil's Handiwork

A funny dose of reality from comedian Lewis Black!

April 14, 2008

Musings On Adaptation

I did not expect to find this clip of a water lily so fascinating, yet once again the internets, this time courtesy of i-am-bored.com, have surprised me. Here you have a clear example of a plant engaging in strategic behavior in order to ensure it's own survival. I don't mean to equate adaptive characteristics to thought-out planning; what fascinates me is how something as unremarkable as a floating leaf can devise methods of survival that captivate the imagination.

Last night, the National Geographic channel premiered a much-hyped special called The Human Footprint, in which they laid out visually much of the materials the average American goes through in their 77.75 year lifespan. While some of the numbers were mundane and expected, (5,054 newspapers in a lifetime, 31,350 gallons of gas) others were surprising (to me) and troubling. Take diapers, for instance The average toddler goes through 3,796 diapers; the materials used in creating those diapers include 1,898 pints of crude oil, 715 pounds of plastic, and the pulp of 4 1/2 trees; washing reusable diapers requires 22,455 gallons of water. And this is just the beginning.

Watch the show- I recommend it, solely for the value of knowing just how much we consume in our lives. I have to make an observation, though. Trust me, I know this is a leap, but just compare how efficient natural selection can be, like in the case of the water lily, when contrasted with the machinations of the Human species. With the lily, every element of the plant has a purpose. Spikes on the bottoms to ward off fish, curled edges to push aways competitors, flowers large enough to ensnare the required insects for pollenation; there is little waste, little frivolity when the issue at hand is survival.

Do we not have the same motives in life? Are we not driven by natural impulse to procreate, to leave our mark on this earth, to entrust our genetic survival to our offspring? Then why the hell are we at such a great level so inept at grasping such a simple concept; My well being is dependent on the fitness of that which surrounds me. Why do people think that there is no consequence for their actions? I have been a member of the environmental movement since I was eleven, and I have watched with much anger as people clung to the old way of doing things, then consider changing, then talk about changing, and then really seriously talk about changing (all the while going about their daily lives as though nothing were wrong); and doing nothing.

Well, now things are happening. Corporations have exploited the complacency of our government, and have flaunted regulations that were put in place decades ago with the specific intention of protecting people. NAFTA has enabled corporations to file suit against the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican government, suing them for money lost because of legislation enacted to curb environmental damage and social problems. And this is just the beginning. How much do you think it's going to cost us just to reduce U.S. material consumption by a paltry 10%? Doing so would be a great boon for our species and our planet, but the measures that need to be taken would usurp our entire way of life, were it to be done immediately.

What we need is compromise. What we needed long ago was compromise; unfortunately, those people responsible for building our great economic empire did so with great success mostly because they unfailingly, and often deliberately, ignored the consequences of their actions. Waste was produced and disposed of with no consideration for its effect on anyone or anything it came in contact with; working conditions were designed to maximize productivity with little, (and in some cases, in spite of) regard for the well being of those doing the work; products were designed to be profitable- efficiency and quality were secondary considerations; any additions to the infrastructure of the company or the area around it were implemented with zero consideration for the environmental effect it had; just to name a few problems.

I don't mean to condemn past generations for their ignorance. I do condemn them for their lack of effort and consideration. The reason we have the problems we do today is because of a pandemic of the mind; people have little reverence for life.


April 12, 2008

The Bigger, the Gooder

Marnster & I just got back from a wonderful trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
On the way home, we took a little side excursion to visit the world's largest PLUS SIGN!!!

This huge plus sign, which dwarfs Marnster at over 100 ft. high, is located in Caryville, TN. We saw another giant plus sign in the cheesy tourist hole of Pigeon Forge, TN (the home of Dollywood).

Here is the lowdown on the immense plus signs- courtesy of Jill McNeal, WATE-TV, Knoxville...

--- A local pastor wants to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Knox County by having a giant cross erected on the horizon. The cross will be visible near the exits for Washington Pike and Millertown Pike on Interstate 640.

You may already be familiar with Jim Potter's work. If you've driven on Interstate 75 in Campbell County, you've seen Potter's huge steel and concrete cross in Caryville off exit 141.
Now Potter is looking for help to continue his crusade in Knox County.

"It's an area that needs a cross. It'd be a shame for Knox County and the city of Knoxville not to have cross, wouldn't it? Ain't that what the Lord would say?" Potter asks.

Since Potter became a born again Christian at age 50, he's has been doing everything he can to share his story. "The cross is the most outward appearance of our inward faith."

Valley View Pastor Justin Pratt says from the ridge behind the church, the cross could be seen for miles. "I think it would just serve as a wonderful monument to our community that we in this area still want to lift the name of Christ and show people we're not ashamed of who we've put our trust and confidence in," Pastor Pratt says.

Jim Potter hopes the cross would inspire all who see it, like a woman he heard from in the past.
"She said, 'Are you the one who put up this big cross down here in Loudon County? Said the hair's still standing up on my arms where I went by that cross.' She said, 'I had to turn around and find out more about it,'" Potter recalls.

Potter sometimes encounters resistance to his towering monuments. Several years ago, he had to take down a similar cross in Anderson County, due to zoning laws. Potter hopes his next plan will be smooth sailing as he tries to put up a cross to Knoxville.---

Each cross stands over 100 feet tall and costs about $60,000. Potter has put up 10 giant crosses from Indiana to Virginia.

Mark T.

April 9, 2008

A Reminder

A reminder that, though we often associate religious extremists with the fringes of society, stereotyping them as nothing more than the ignorant and close-minded base of the Republican party, you will find that this mentality crosses many boundaries. What would make a supposedly progressive-minded state legislator spew this kind of bile? Religion. Her statement that, "It's dangerous for our children to even know your philosophy exists!" sums up the problem that we Freethinkers face in this society. We are not hated just for disagreeing. We are loathed and feared because we exist.


Top Ten Books

From my copy of Publishers Lunch today:

Harris Interactive surveyed American adults to find out "What is your favorite book of all time?" The answers:

1. The Bible
2. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
3. Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien
4. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
5. The Stand, by Stephen King
6. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
7. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
8. Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown
9. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
10. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

That number one book is still wielding far too much influence for my taste. Do you think a majority would still claim it as their favorite, if they concluded that it was a complete fiction? Or almost completely fiction with a tiny bit of nonfiction now and then in reference to people's names or the occasional true event?

I don't see The God Delusion on the list. Or, The Pale Blue Eye, a stunning crime novel that came out in the last 2 years. Or Toni Morrison's masterpiece, Beloved. Or Richard Wright's Native Son. Or Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I love them all, and more, and cannot choose between them.

If anyone had asked me, my favorite book is the dictionary. After that there are too many to narrow it down, but none are on the above list. I choose the dictionary because all the other books are inside it, they're just jumbled up.
(When I say dictionary I mean to include all dictionaries, accounting for different versions and different languages.)

What's your favorite book? Is it on the above list? Are you surprised by the titles on the list? Pleased by them? Disappointed?

April 6, 2008

Three Things That Define A Freethinker, According To Michael

One- Rejection of dogma
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night — are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless. - Preface to Les Misérables

Dogma is, to sum its intent and consequence equally, the end of thought. A truly insidious idea; that one source provides the answers to all questions, the justification for all action, and the motive for all desire. While not exclusively a religious element, it is embraced most forcefully and most consistently by the faithful. Once a person commits themself to dogma, their world-view becomes corrupted by the necessity of maintaining their belief. I do not mean to say we should avoid any commitment to an ideal; rather, it is important for a Freethinker to vet any and all ideas that come to them, so as to ascertain the truth, and to commit themselves to that which proves itself worthy of devotion. Love, peace, happiness, enterprise, personal achievement; friendship, family, sex, art, humor, skill, exercise; striving to have fun, striving to try new things, striving to experience new ideas and new ways of living, striving to better ourselves, our family, our friends, our community, our country, and our planet, and our earth, and our environment; striving to achieve the closest thing to utopia (while recognizing that a true utopia is unachievable); I challenge anyone to tell me how this ideal is unrealistic. And, I challenge anyone to tell me how wanting to experience the most out of life, as I believe any true Freethinker should, is dogma.

Two- Acknowledgement of Human Progress
There is the past and its continuing horrors: violence, war, prejudices against those who are different, outrageous monopolization of the good earth's wealth by a few, political power in the hands of liars and murderers, the building of prisons instead of schools, the poisoning of the press and the entire culture by money. It is easy to become discouraged observing this, especially since this is what the press and television insist that we look at, and nothing more.
But there is also the bubbling of change under the surface of obedience: the growing revulsion against endless wars, the insistence of women all over the world that they will no longer tolerate abuse and subordination... There is civil disobedience against the military machine, protest against police brutality directed especially at people of color. - Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

We hear constantly how violent and obscene our society is, how nobody looks out for one another and how good things used to be. I have heard many times from people much older than me about how communities used to look out for one another, and how they and the church helped to keep children under control and violence at a minimum. It's a nice thought. But it is a idea that has absolutely no basis on reality. I could explain why a person is likely to feel that things were better when they were young, but I'd rather offer a single historical perspective. I think it gets my point across well enough.

Violence has decreased dramatically in the last century. I was unaware of this until last summer. It was a revelation that helped make me aware of just how far we had come in the last few centuries. What I learned was that, if you were to tabulate the number of people killed by human hands in each century, starting with the earliest centuries we can accurately draw information from, all the way to the end of the twentieth century, you would notice two things. One, for the most part, there was a steady rate at which people slaughtered each other from year to year. The second thing, is that approximately 500 million people died in the twentieth century at the hands of another person; that number is half of what should have been expected, if you were to assume that the rate of killing from one century to another were remain consistent.

Think about it. In the century in which we saw a dramatic population rise, a drastic increase in our ability to sow destruction across the earth, via jets and missiles and nukes, with more people competing for the same amount of land and resources, we had less killing. I must also point out that the religiosity of the human race is arguably at its lowest, having declined over the same time period. Whatever explanation you may offer at the micro level, the macro truth is the one I am stating here: education, communication, and greater awareness of the plights of other people has improved the quality of life for everyone, and there is no reason to suspect that that trend will change.

Three- Quest For Wisdom & Knowledge
It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly. - Albert Einstein, "Autobiographical Notes"

The truth shall set you free; a mantra I both deplore and accept; far too many long-winded and empty sermons have preached the greatness of "truth". The corruption of an idea that should be impervious to misuse is by far the greatest offense the masses of small minds have forced upon us. Ask someone to tell you their name, their age, their gender, their hair color, their occupation, and you will get a response with little or no hesitation, without the need to think too carefully. Now ask them to make a true statement. I've tried it. Nearly everyone I posed this question to was confounded by the very concept. Why? Say something that is true: my name is Michael, I am a man, as I type this sentence, the sun is facing the opposite side of the earth. It shouldn't be difficult to ascertain truth in life. We are bombarded with things that are true every second we are awake, from birth until death. Yet, thanks to the actions of no one and nothing but our fellow Human beings, we have contrived to live in a world where anything, and everything, is subject to irrational and illogical interpretation. People define reality as it relates to their own existence; every action, every sense, every event, every intent, every single thing they become aware of is subject to interpretation as they see fit.

It is easy to ignore or diminish the difficulties in life; it is hard, and often dangerous to confront them; it is impossible to eradicate them. But, we all need to find a purpose in this life. It is the universal question everyone asks; why? Each one of us has a different answer. I do not feel as though I am being unfair when I say that not all answers are created equal. To declare that your purpose in life is to sow destruction and malice upon the earth is deplorable, just as it is to believe that your only reason for existing is to prepare yourself for the "next" stage; there are many ways to squander the only thing we know for certain we will ever have. It is my absolute conviction that our greatest challenge in life is our effort to find meaning in it. I believe that identifying what it is we want to achieve, be it something great or something benign, is the crucial first step in finding happiness from life.

So what do truth and purpose have in common? The absence of one corrupts the other. Ignorance, perpetuated falsehoods, and out right lies have affected Humanity's existence greatly, and not for the better. We are still emerging from an intellectual coma that non-reason and dogma had put us in. There is still much that needs to be done in terms of progress; whether it be our system of education or health, our government, our infrastructure, our social and economic and foreign relations, our culture, our technological advancement, our ecological impact; these things are still in their infancy in terms of what we can achieve, but already we have done much to set our species off course. We must assert control, both within our own minds and as a collective society, if we wish to thrive. We cannot let the trials and travails of past generations hold us back. We must learn to utilize the lessons of the past to guide us. We must not let fables and ignorance dictate where science and reason have already spoken. We must accept that in life, there are some lines that should, and must be drawn. In short, I believe we should all commit ourselves to discovering what really is "true", and through that, what is right.