“Who are they?/Where are they?/How do they/Know all this?/And I’m sorry, so sorry/I’m sorry it’s like this” –“They” by Jem

I’ve seen a lot of recent posts on Facebook recently that claim that “they don’t want you to know…” followed by something that often sort of makes sense, or at least seems partly based in fact, then takes a turn for the paranoid and tells you to rise above and see the truth and don’t let “them” keep you down.

It’s a good idea in principle, rising above and seeing the truth and not letting people keep you down, but I’m a cynic, and I’m convinced that the people who spread these messages have just as much of an agenda as the “they” to which they refer, whether “they” are Republicans, the Obama administration, your high school administration, big pharma (and corporations in general), the Illuminati, Bronies, Hare Krishnas, ceramic artists, and just about any other group-like entity you can think of. And sure, they all probably do have agendas. Some of them are likely rather more benign. I’ve yet to uncover any information leading me to believe that Bronies are out to do anything more than convince us all that friendship is magic. Heck, I’d say that’s a fairly honorable task!

All joking (well, most of it, anyway) aside, this fear-mongering and spreading of vague quasi-information with an inflammatory bent just sort of reminds me of how the Them (a quartet of 10-year-old miscreants) from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens are trying to figure out how the world works and wind up parroting their parents in all sorts of ridiculous ways. Are there people out there to get “us” (whoever “we” are) and destroy the world/society/ice cream as we know it? Almost certainly! But a lot of them aren’t nearly so under-handed about it. That’s kind of how you make change: by making it known.

Anyone who tries to tell me “They’re wrong/trying to oppress you/behind [name your catastrophe]—I have all the answers!” has got a long way to go before I’m convinced. In my opinion, anyone who claims to have all the answers to my problems—or anyone’s problems—is either deluded or lying. As Arthur Weasley so eloquently puts it in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.” You’d probably think that, by this coin, I’m a dedicated anarchist. Nope. I do believe that we need some sort of societal regulation—it just needs to be open. While I believe that people are good on the whole, I don’t necessarily think that we function well outside of some sort of structure as it stands now: it’s just far too ingrained in our brains right now to make a radical shift.

Like many things, I am a moderate in regards to rules. Of the nine alignments, I always test as neutral good. I believe in the flexibility of rules when it pertains to helping people. (Like, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, healing the sick, etc; not creating golden parachutes and corporate immunity.) I believe in people doing what works for them in general, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon anyone else’s rights. Above all, I believe that extremism is detrimental to society, even extreme moderation. I mean, you do have to wander outside the norm sometimes! I just have a hard time going one way or the other on a lot of issues when both sides make sense to me.

But getting back to conspiracy theories and theorists… I’m not sold. I don’t appreciate the mentality that others are out to get us. To be mistrusting of anyone who identifies one way or another leads to a pretty miserable life. There are definitely better ways to spend your energy. The boyfriend is always telling me not to worry about this, that, or the other thing. In regards to what “they” are planning (obviously my total destruction because I’m far too sensible…), I’m taking his advice, but then, I didn’t really need it to begin with here. I mean, by most estimates (at least, those of my age group), the government has been plotting to take us all out for about 12 years now. In fact, they’ve always been on the brink of it. So, if they want to do it, and they have the resources, what’s been stopping them?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s that this was never an issue to begin with. The issue at hand is just making crappy decisions based on bad information because sometimes, that’s the best we’ve got. But God forbid the people in charge of our country should make a mistake! That would make them… human! Like us! Oh, the humanity! (Pun so very much intended.)

However, in terms of more real (or at least more pressing) concerns, I’m all for activism. As I said earlier, you can’t change what’s going on if people don’t know about the change! (If you’ve listened to “They” by now, it’s because it’s not true that ignorance is bliss. But neither is paranoia.)

That said, maybe I ought to start campaigning for sanity. Seems a bit of a scarcity at times nowadays.

I Don’t Toe a Party Line; So What?

I have a confession:

I am a left-leaning moderate.

I don’t particularly identify with any political party that I’m aware of, especially because my focuses and opinions shift depending on a) what I do or don’t know about an issue or person, and b) what the current issues are to begin with. I just can’t say “I’m a member of the _____ party”, though, because I’m not. I disagree with at least one major stance of every party I know of, and so I refuse to be tied down by an affiliation.

That’s not to say I don’t have my opinions on things, however. I know what I think about a lot of stuff, and I know how much it matters to me, for the most part. What really doesn’t matter to me, especially in election years, is how much the other guy sucks. If you can tie that into how you’re going to be better, by all means, back up your statements with facts. But I am sick and tired of hearing “He was born in Siberia” or “He said pink instead of salmon”—we’re all human. We were all born somewhere, and we all mis-speak sometimes.

Okay, yes, I get the whole born-in-U.S.-necessary-for-presidency thing. I’m just tired of all the muck-raking and the sensationalism. Fact-checking would be so much easier if people just stuck to the facts and didn’t freak out over every single little thing. It’s a lot to ask, I know, since sensationalism is what makes news, but wouldn’t it be great if stories weren’t blown out of proportion?

On that subject, how about making promises that a candidate can keep? Saying you’ll dig the country out of debt and end homelessness and hunger in 4 to 8 years is admirable, and I wish it could happen, but, the fact of the matter is, that’s next to impossible, and we all know it. Or rather, it’s impossible, given that repairing such atrocities take time. Change takes time—it’s never instantaneous.

Gridlock doesn’t help. I get that everyone’s priorities are different, but sacrifices must be made. And I’m not talking about heaping more of a burden on the middle and lower classes to remain on top; I really am talking about cutting spending and (and I know someone will say I ought to be shot for suggesting it) paying more in taxes. But come on—if it’s obvious we can’t keep up our current spending, we can either pray that God/Buddha/the Treasury Department will shower us with money (which will not solve the problem, and, in fact, will likely make it worse), or we can actually take action. It’s like the joke about the guy caught on the roof of his house during a flood who keeps on saying that God will save him when people offer to rescue him, asks why God didn’t when he perishes, and God says “I sent two boats and a helicopter; what more did you want?!”

Cutting the little things, won’t work, either. PBS, NPR, and the like are atoms that make up peanuts compared to what we spend on defense, let alone on big political gatherings and conferences. I understand that all this spending does keep a lot of people in work, but that money could, if properly used (oh, how sad it is that this is wishful thinking at best!) help bring others out of poverty so that they, too, could share in the burden while still making livable wages. I’m not saying that they should be indiscriminately given to—not in the least.

I believe in frequent drug testing in addition to any other check-ups required to receive welfare. I also believe in putting those who are unemployed to work that they are physically able to do to fix our crumbling infrastructure, and I believe that prisoners ought to be put to work doing the same, and not just given a (relatively) cushy cell to live in rent-free. (I’ve heard of too many people going back to jail simply because it’s easier than actually making the effort to live outside.) I believe in education about contraception so that our nation’s babies (and all women, for that matter) aren’t having babies they can’t afford.

Finally, (and this is the part I will be absolutely crucified for, I’m sure, but I’m as entitled to my opinion as you are to yours), again, I do believe in higher taxes if one can afford them until we get ourselves out of this mess. Not insanely much higher. But this gaping financial chasm we’ve got going has two parts to it, as I said, earlier: out of control spending, and not paying enough to make up for it. But we can’t raise taxes by an unfair amount, and we can’t completely cut spending, so, it seems some of both is in order. Now, as to what to cut… I honestly don’t know. I’m no expert. All I know is that cutting programs worth a few million each won’t do squat, especially if they provide good service.

Speaking of being crucified for my views, though, I’m also of the opinion that McCarthyism is still very much alive and screaming and pointing in the U.S. It’s not always to the communists; it’s just to everyone else who doesn’t believe exactly what a vocal minority does. I mean, at least 75% of the time, it seems like our foreign policy is this: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend… or needs to be nuked from orbit. Still not sure on a good day.”

The point is, none of this has worked out very well for us, so why do we just keep it up? It makes us like little children who give their parents alternating silent treatments and screaming fits until they get what they want. Well, we all have the right to vote, so why don’t we exercise that right and vote these brats out of office? (I am a firm believer in “Didn’t vote? Don’t complain.”) And why don’t we put actual effort into figuring out what REALLY works to keep food on the table and people off the streets and corruption out of our halls of politics?

Okay, yeah, I’m REALLY reaching on the last one, and probably the other two as well, but realism with a healthy dose of optimism often does the trick, I’ve found. Also, righteous fury in small doses.

In summation, a quote from JFK: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

What’s a Loyalty Oath Got to Do With Graduating High School?

(In my opinion, nothing.)

A professor of mine recently posted this article blog post on Facebook without comment: “Arizona Republicans Propose Bill That Would Not Allow Atheists To Graduate High School”. (I will say ahead of time that this is, as the url indicates, from the “Friendly Atheist”, and is an op-ed piece, so it does indeed have a slant. I will tell you right now that, had I seen this bill out of this context, I’d still be writing this.)

Firstly, I will say that the title is a little misleading. It’s not just atheists; it’s anyone who does not believe/is unsure of their belief in a Christian God. Secondly, I will say that the authors of the bill have sent out an email clarifying that they were under a time crunch and thus unable to include more “adaptable” language for those of other beliefs. I’ll comment on that in a bit. Third, the title also does demonize Republicans a bit. I refuse to believe this mentality that every one of “the other guy” is all the same, and I’m sure that there are Republicans out there who would not stand for this bill, Democrats who would, etc. To me, the party doesn’t matter in this case. That political offcials are pushing for this is merely a formality.

The oath, in its entirety (at least, as it currently is written), reads as follows:

“I, _______, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; So help me God.” (Emphasis not mine.)

As someone pointed out in a comment on the link my professor provided, it’s a lot like the citizenship oath of the United States. Now, I don’t think that requiring non-citizens to swear this oath or a similar one as part of the naturalization process is a bad thing. I also think that saying the pledge every morning is fine, provided you allow kids who are uncomfortable with it to skip out on the “under God” part if nothing else. I do believe, however, that requiring citizens to swear such an oath is absolutely pointless. (You don’t suddenly become a citizen at 18, remember—if you were born in the U.S., you’re a citizen, plain as day.) As for the kids who might not be there legally, if the oath isn’t making them naturalized citizens, again, there’s no real point. Why? Well, why should they swear such an oath to a country that isn’t “theirs”? (And what about the kids who are there on exchange, or student visas, but have no plans to become permanent residents/citizens?)

Furthermore, hopefully we’re not forcibly drafting these kids into the military or into public office fresh out of high school. If they’d like to involve themselves in those paths, that’s their choice, and they’re free to make it, but this oath is also of the sort that those in public office might take. (Admittedly, I don’t know about the military, but I’ve heard there’s some sort of oath or something that you have to swear before serving. If I have this incorrect, please inform me and I will edit accordingly!) Again, I ask you: why, then, should they recite this oath?

Another bone to pick: anyone can recite an oath and not believe or mean any or all of it, making said oath effectively (you guessed it!) pointless. It seems to me that enough lawmakers do this all the time, and on both sides of the party line. (I run pretty close to moderate politically—I don’t have problems calling out what I see wrong with anywhere on the spectrum.)

Now, to address the clarifying remarks that were sent out regarding this “loyalty oath”.

This is part of that email: “Even though I want to encourage all of our students to understand and respect our Constitution and constitutional form of government, I do not want to create a requirement that students or parents may feel uncomfortable with.”

My response to the first part of that sentence: Okay, so, have them take an in-depth civics class, especially one that encourages discussion about these things. That was a high school graduation requirement for me. I also had to learn about the Constitution pretty thoroughly in the eighth grade. Still haven’t forgotten much of it, especially the part about how everyone interprets it to further their own agenda. Everyone.

And now, the second part: I really don’t see any way that you can keep an oath like that that doesn’t make someone uncomfortable. Not in its current form. You’re either going to have to make someone uncomfortable, or you’re going to have to forgo this oath. A little bit of discomfort is, in my opinion, a fine thing. Makes us evaluate where we are and what we want. However, there is something to be said for not including in school this oath which has no educational value at best, and, at worst, sounds like the work of people convinced that everyone who isn’t them (or doesn’t agree with them) is out to undermine the fabric of society as we know it, unless we use this magical spell to keep them in their place.

Yeah, let me know how that works for you.

The Information Age Held Hostage

It seems like any information you could possibly want to find out is available somewhere these days. We are so connected by beams and wires and electronics and technology that nothing seems impossible. However, this does have a downside. Information is dangerous. I’d argue that misinformation, which seems even more widely available than correct information sometimes, is even more dangerous. Power corrupts, as they say, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And those who have power over what information is and is not disseminated often do so with their own personal interests in mind, presenting opinion as fact, or worse, deliberately leaving fact out of it altogether.

Witness, for instance, immediate news reports. Often, when something big happens, especially a crime, the information first dispersed is more often than not incorrect in some way, shape, or form, including simply being incomplete. (In my opinion, incompleteness in this case is incorrect.) While this is not an anomaly in and of itself, it is confusing to those trying to understand how to respond to the incident, and tying the area up with reporters helps nothing and, I’d argue, hinders a lot. What is this even for? Emergency responders know well enough how to caution people to stay out of the area, so why should reporters get a pass? Ratings? Money? Those seem like pretty poor reasons to me, especially when a person has perpetrated a crime. The criminal usually gets their 15 minutes of fame and more, which helps nothing and serves only to glamorize crime. Meanwhile, any victims are either ignored or have questions shoved at them that most can’t handle at the moment. Do we need to know the important points? Yes. But one important point in any sort of emergency is (without fail, as far as I know) STAY OUT OF THE AREA. Let the responders do their work, and you can report in more depth afterward.

Politics is an offshoot of this topic. People are so quick to pounce on one word or phrase that they miss the whole point of a speech. They also fail to take into account that politicians are human, and so they will slip up on a word sometimes. While these people are used to being in the spotlight and should have their topics well-researched beforehand if they can, this isn’t always something that can/does happen, but the world is apparently an unforgiving place. Special interest groups are all too happy to shout down anyone who doesn’t agree with them, and then complain when there are consequences for what they say, as though they don’t understand that the right to free speech does not mean that there are no consequences. I’m one of those people who will defend your right to free speech, even if I disagree with you, but only if you realize that there are consequences to being allowed to say what you want, and that not everyone will be swayed at all by what you say. (And, in a rather more cynical moment, I like to let people stick their feet in their mouths all by themselves.)

Even in the general case, misinformation does tend to lead to attacks (verbal and otherwise) on others, which accomplish nothing in the long run but making people angry with each other. It’s not productive because the point isn’t that there is a correct answer; it’s that someone was wrong and how could they be so stupid and… you get the point. It’s distasteful and sad. We’re more concerned over the fact that someone is misinformed than we are over what the correct information is that we lose sight of that information until someone brings it up, if they ever do.

Sexual biology is another common arena for this phenomenon. I understand the argument that a parent should reserve the right to teach their children about sex in a way that fits with their beliefs, but when middle- and high-schoolers are getting STDs/STIs and getting pregnant and dropping out at some very discouraging rates simply because of what they did not know, something’s gotta give! At least when kids this age were getting pregnant a couple centuries ago, they knew what they were doing was starting a family, and it was done simply because people did not live as long back then. Now that we are living longer, getting childbearing done before we run out of time is not necessary. And there is a wealth of misinformation out there, from what creates a pregnancy to how not to create one in the first place. While a lot of this is probably trolling (I’d hope nobody over the age of about 9 believes holding hands with someone of the opposite biological gender can make you pregnant), it can be hard to distinguish that from those who really believe that their misinformation is true.

I’d like to also take a minute to talk about the scare tactics that are used in a misguided attempt to delay sexual activity. Telling young adults that birth control doesn’t work does not disincline them towards having sex; it just makes them much less likely to use it if/when they do. And telling a rebellious teen that pregnancy will ruin their lives just makes them want to prove you wrong even more. While I never got into that sort of trouble as a teen, I get how wanting to prove the adults wrong and yourself right goes, and it can lead to some really stupid choices. (Also, going back to an earlier post of mine, the prefrontal cortex does not develop fully until the mid-twenties—there are scientific reasons kids are good at making bad choices, so I figure removing as much misinformation that leads them to it, even if only in part, is one of the better things we can do.)

As much as being a jack-of-all-trades is useful, having people who specialize in a certain area is useful, but sadly, in today’s society, being very good at only one or two things is interpreted as “I can’t do anything else”. Add in anonymity to being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. Someone who thinks they know what they’re talking about simply because they say it in a loud voice without backing it up is not the best choice of person to put in charge. Those who can do their research while remaining at least mostly unbiased are the best picks, but, sadly, because they don’t necessarily align with one popular ideology, they seem wishy-washy, when most elected leaders are chosen based on their ability to please people at what might be the cost of their own comfort or morals. Is the truth uncomfortable? Sometimes, yes. But if you ask me, I’d rather take the truth any day and being able to grow intellectually over having all my opinions and possibly incorrect ideas about how things work reaffirmed.