Friday, August 28, 2015

Can Any of Us Really Be Safe?

In the previous entry, I wrote about the reservoir of rage in rural Oklahoma against anyone who stands for the teaching of evolution, teaching about global warming or any other environmental issue, or racial equality. And I correctly indicated that this rage is found in only a small percentage of the people.

But a small percentage can ignite a mass wave of hysteria. The examples I cited last time, especially the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, are famous. And even if they do not ignite hysteria, a small number of people can wreak havoc if they have and use guns, which, as I mentioned, the Confederacy of rural Oklahoma certainly does, though they have so far chosen not to use them. And, as any of the numerous recent shootings indicate, all it takes is one person.

Yes, all it takes is one person. My example is the man, Steve Raucci, who carried out 62 acts of vandalism, including terrorist acts (setting explosives on people’s cars and trying to burn down their houses, throwing burning newspapers into occupied bathroom stalls), in Schenectady, NY. Ira Glass tells his story on the “Petty Tyrant” episode of This American Life.  Even  though the police and most of the people who were repeatedly victimized knew who was carrying out these terrorist acts, the police could not even get a warrant, not even to search the man’s office at a public middle school (an office that belonged to the taxpayers), until someone secretly recorded a nearly complete confession from the terrorist. Until that complete confession was placed in evidence, the people who worked at Mt. Pleasant Middle School were helpless, unless they had their own guns, which were not permitted at work. Raucci even had a bomb in his office, ready to use. His gripes were personal, not political or religious; imagine what he would have done if he thought himself an agent of God!

This is why I do not want to openly pursue, other than this blog and on Facebook, the story of the rural Oklahoma armed Confederacy. I will not campaign against it where I live. If any Confederates were to decide to take violent action against me, there is virtually nothing I could do to stop them. They could spray-paint my house, or try to burn it down, they could put bombs on my car, and law enforcement would be unable to stop them. (And perhaps, based on my observations, some law enforcement agencies would not try.) Steve Raucci did all of these things to his victims, without law enforcement being able to even investigate him other than to record anecdotal observations. I strongly believe Campus Security officers where I work are doing and will do whatever they can to investigate some instances of crimes already committed against faculty on our campus, but their powers are limited.

So, I have chosen to tell you all about the rural Oklahoma Confederacy and the potential dangers it poses, but I am not going to start any actions against it, even speaking out in public, except in these blog and Facebook outlets. I feel like a Syrian unable to say anything bad about Assad, or a Russian unable to say anything bad about Putin. I merely point out that the same situation exists in America, though it is not enforced by the government as it is in Syria and Russia.

Of course, the NRA would say that I could get lots of guns and have them ready to hand at any time and wherever I am. This is in fact what one NRA spokesman said regarding the Charleston church shootings: if the people in church all had guns, they could have stopped the shooter. He was seriously suggesting that people take their guns to church. I cannot have guns at my workplace, a university. I am certain that our enrollments, already low, would drop disastrously if the Oklahoma state government instituted (as has been proposed) a policy for professors to have firearms in class. Students would, rightly, fear for their safety in such an environment. And as for my home or on my person at other times? I’m not saying whether I am armed or not. But I am certain that such a defense is, or would be, imperfect.

As I wrote before, rural Oklahoma crawls with people who are angry and delusional enough that they could, if they chose, use guns against people who disagree with them about evolution, global warming, environmental issues in general, or racial equality. So far, they have chosen to not do so. And we cannot really protect ourselves against them. The story of Steve Raucci proves this.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Missionary

I am, at the present time, a science missionary. I teach biology at the college level in rural Oklahoma, which is the hotbed of nearly every anti-science and anti-humane belief you can think of. For example:

  • Evolution. All of my colleagues teach about evolution, but I teach the evolution course at our university. Some of my students believe that if you accept evolutionary science, or even if the Earth is old, there is no point in you even believing in God. Therefore, I am considered, by some, to be an agent of Satan.
  • Global warming. Senator Jim Inhofe cites the Bible as proving that global warming cannot be occurring. Therefore, to teach about global warming—as I do extensively—is to put oneself on the side of Satan, according to some.
  • Environment. I teach about the importance of environmental stewardship, not only to protect nature but to protect the living systems that keep billions of people on Earth alive. This runs slap counter to the fundamentalist Christian belief that Jesus is going to come back and destroy the Earth soon and therefore we should deplete it as quickly as possible.
  • Racial equality. In general biology, and in evolution, I teach about the scientific evidence for the equality of human races. Racial inequality is theoretically conceivable, but is not true. But, I now report from personal experience, there are still violent people in rural Oklahoma who believe passionately in the inferiority of non-white races, and these people have guns.

I could teach these things in some part of the world where people already believe them; I could give them evidence that they could use to see that their beliefs in evolution, global warming, environmental issues, and racial equality are fact-based, not just “politically correct.” For example, were I able to speak French, I could teach such things in France, where nearly everyone, except for the (very minority) nationalist party and (the rare) notorious Islamist extremists, everyone would agree with me. But I have chosen to be a missionary, teaching these things in an environment of hostility and, sometimes, violent hatred. We white Americans have subdued Native Americans (all 500 nations of them), demeaned blacks, and now see the trees as just obstructions to the wrecking ball of progress. And in rural Oklahoma, many people passionately believe that these were, and are still, the right things to do.

I experienced this in a direct way on Friday, August 21, 2015. I stopped at a roadside stand in Tushka, Oklahoma, that was selling Confederate flags. Despite the fact that the stars-and-bars has become an almost toxic symbol in most of the United States, it is in fact the flag of rural Oklahoma. I felt I had to tell the vendor that this symbol was offensive to even most Oklahomans. This is when he started yelling at me and telling me that Tushka, Oklahoma, was not part of the United States but was part of the Confederacy “and damn proud of it.” He bragged that his grandfather fought on the Confederate side of the civil war; I said my great-great-grandfather did also, on the Confederate side, and that I respect him but I do not need to celebrate this particular aspect of his legacy. The man further claimed that the Confederate flag was just offensive to Yankees. I informed him that my family’s roots go back six generations in Oklahoma. The very moment I began talking with him, his friend (whom he identified as a prominent citizen of Tushka) called the sheriff. The sheriff’s deputy immediately showed up and started to get out of the car and let me see his gun. He did not point it at me because by then I was already leaving—if he had pointed his gun, it would have been at my back—and I got away. Apparently he did not consider me worth pursuing, although I am sure my license plate number was recorded and, for anything I yet know to the contrary, there may still be a warrant out for me. I was unarmed and merely stopped to tell the vendor that he was offending many Oklahomans. First Amendment. I was not trying to arouse any violence (as if there was anyone present who might have joined in with me to start a riot had I done so).

I feel, though I cannot prove, that had I been black, law enforcement in that particular place would have tackled me and beat my face into the pavement. This has happened in several places, even places with much less of a Confederate presence than rural Oklahoma.

There are parts, perhaps many parts, of rural Oklahoma that are racist and where racism is supported by law enforcement. These people are a relatively small fraction of the population, but they have guns and they have religious zeal. We all know what even otherwise peaceful people can do when they are high on religion. The Crusaders raped and murdered Constantinople, even though it was (an Orthodox) Christian city; Catholics raped and killed Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; Protestant Pilgrims burned Pequots alive; Orthodox Serbs tortured and killed Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Islamists have tortured and murdered whole Muslim villages. I don’t think we are anywhere near that point yet—I don’t expect any threats in the near future to my personal safety—in rural Oklahoma, but all the elements are there, just waiting for the spark to start the flame. I am a missionary science educator in rural Oklahoma and am aware of the risks that this entails.

I can tell you that this Confederate champion was wildly angry at someone disagreeing with him in public, someone merely saying he was wrong. He was reacting the same way that North Korea, the same week, reacted to anti-communist messages being broadcast by South Korea. In that case, shots were fired across the no-man’s-land border, and, as of this writing, war between North and South Korea has been narrowly averted. Both North Korean and modern Confederate leaders are equally violently opposed to any public criticism, and weapons are ready to hand in both cases. My position as a scientific missionary in Oklahoma is not as dangerous as would be the position of a Christian missionary in North Korea (one of them was actually arrested), but in both cases the hostility against missionaries is the same.

It is not just uneducated people who hold these beliefs. A student wrote a paper for a class taught by one of my colleagues in which the student openly stated that blacks are inferior to whites and ought to be enslaved. People who believe these things generally do not like to think for themselves, and it turns out this paper was plagiarized from a white supremacist website.

Rural Oklahoma crawls with people who are angry and delusional enough that they could, if they chose, use guns against people who disagree with them about evolution, global warming, environmental issues in general, or racial equality. So far, they have chosen to not do so. But this is their choice. I’m not sure I can trust them to keep making the same choice indefinitely into the future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Creationists Take Genesis, but not Jesus, Literally

Most creationists are protestants and fundamentalists. Some are Catholics, but the last few decades and the last few popes have not been very good for the remaining Catholic creationists. Creationists, as most of you understand, are (primarily) Christians who insist on a “literal” reading of the entire Bible.

Well, not quite. When it comes to The Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, protestant creationists hastily abandon their literalism. According to the Bible, Jesus book the (unleavened Passover) bread and said, “This is my body.” You will find this in Luke 22 and in Matthew 26 as direct gospel accounts and it is repeated by the Apostle Paul in First Corinthians 11. Later, he took “the fruit of the vine” which everyone except teetotalers recognize as wine and said, “This is my blood.” (I suppose it could be juice from some other vine. In one novel manuscript, I describe a desert church that used gourd juice.)

Jesus does not say “This represents my body” or his blood. It says that it is. He then says, do this in remembrance of me. But nevertheless the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. Only Catholics, during the communion service they call the Eucharist, take this statement literally. According to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the wafer actually becomes the same “substance” as Christ’s body, and the wine the same substance as Christ’s blood. The bread is still gluten and starch, and the wine is still resveratrol and ethanol and anthocyanin and sucrose, but the inner “substance” is transformed into Christ’s body and blood. (I wonder what Catholic physicists have to say about transubstantiation.) Protestant and fundy creationists, during what they usually call the Lord’s Supper, alter the plain meaning of scripture and twist it to mean that the bread and grape juice are just meant to make us think about Jesus’ body and blood. They throw literalism out the window where, one would think, it matters most.

“Well, of course,” they could say, “Jesus didn’t actually mean his actual body, because He was sitting right there holding the bread which was molecularly distinct from his body. And He couldn’t have actually meant his actual blood which was still inside of his arteries and veins.” But if this is so, it makes Jesus seem pretty stupid. If it was so blinking obvious that the bread was not actually his body, why would he say that it was? Was he lying, or was he stupid? (Or was he speaking symbolically? No, creationists will not permit Jesus to do this.)

I first encountered this contradiction when I read a book about 25 years ago (which I might not have read were I not asked to review it) of letters exchanged between a literalist creationist and a scientist who was also a Catholic. Personally, I have no interest in this argument, but it does show that creationists are no more faithful to the Bible than other religious people.

And yet creationists present themselves to the rest of us as practically the owners of the Bible. They imply that if you don’t agree with them that the Earth is young, then you need not bother believing in Jesus. But, they think, it is just fine to believe in Jesus without believing that the communion bread is his body and the communion wine is his blood.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Religion and Good Ideas

Once again I am writing about a book years after it was published. Steven Johnson is one of those thinkers who can apply concepts across many different fields of thought. Perhaps the best example of this is his book Where Good Ideas Come From.

He contrasts the creativity of liquids as opposed to gases and solids. Stay with me on the development of this idea. Consider the origin of life, which occurred in water on Earth and probably must occur in liquids anywhere in the universe. In gases, molecules bounce off of one another chaotically, causing each new association to instantly fall apart; and in solids, the molecules do not move relative to one another and form new associations. Only in liquids can new associations form and last long enough to prosper. Johnson says that the same thing is true of ideas. New ideas cannot readily form in societies with rigid structures of thought. Nor can they persist, even if they form, under chaotic conditions. The chaotic conditions of thought that came immediately to my mind when I read Johnson’s ideas were the kinds of random “creativity” found in the early to middle twentieth century: the random music of composers such as John Cage and the more general randomness of Dadaism. Not much has come from these ideas. I’ve talked with people whose minds bounce from one idea to another: just when they have an insight that I think might yield fruit, they have moved on so that I cannot even talk with them about their own good ideas. Life, and good ideas, cannot form in either rocks or nebulae. (Johnson had many memorable phrases, but I think I made that one up myself.)

You can, of course, guess where I am going with this. Solid, rocklike thought cannot create new insights or solve problems. Perhaps the premier example of this is religion. When you force your thinking to be built upon a solid rock, which most religions insist you must do, you cannot solve problems. This is how religion kills creativity. Religious leaders, furthermore, offer chaos as the only alternative to their rock-hard religions. If you disbelieve what they say, then you might as well just live in an “Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die” mentality—this is what Paul said, and what religious leaders since him have said. Either you should believe everything the preacher says, or you might as well go on a crazy binge of rape and pillage, they imply. But gas is not the only alternative to rock. There is the liquid alternative, which has just the right amount of stability. Formal religion says that its truths are unvarying; stereotyped liberalism says that there is no truth. (I actually do not know any people who are of this kind of liberal.) A liquid way of thinking allows new ideas to form, and the ones that are closer to truth can persist, while the ones that do not work can be washed away.

Sometimes circumstances force rocklike religion to dissolve a little. The Black Death shook up the power of the Catholic Church, opening the minds of many Europeans to various reformation movements, as well as to the Renaissance and the beginning of science. The official doctrines of the Catholic Church are not, in fact, the same as they were in 1350 or 1600, even though it took centuries for them to finally admit Galileo was right. Today, a similar dissolution may be going on with regard to gay rights (a subject to which I have not given enough thought to have any intelligent opinions). There is not necessarily a point in time when everyone admits the error of their previous rocklike thinking; but after a while they come to accept new realities. Racism has declined slowly among conservatives. Could even George Wallace say that he stopped being a racist on such-and-such a particular date? People may never actually admit the error of previously unassailable beliefs; they may simply ignore them after a while.

Fundamentalism is not just the rocklike perpetuation of old ideas. Fundamentalists invent new ideas, then ossify them. For example, prior to Oral Roberts, there was no doctrine about the special quasi-divine status of Oral Roberts. But he turned this idea into rock, and even in death he still has followers who accept this status. A more liquid way of thinking not only allows new ideas to form but can allow followers of charismatic religious leaders to recognize the artificiality of the rock to which they had once anchored.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Is Human Nature Racist?

Human nature is not innately racist. It is human nature to feel empathy for and behave altruistically toward those in your group, but not necessarily toward those outside your group. Through most of human history, human groups were confined within human races. Kids were raised to be racists because other races were outsiders.

But when kids of different races grow up together, they do not express racial hatred unless their parents or other members of society educate them to do so. Rogers and Hammerstein said in South Pacific something like, You have to be carefully taught to hate, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate…

One of the best places to see this is where I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was the scene of one of the worst racial incidents in American history, when in 1921 white racists burned down “Black Wall Street” (see also here) which was one of the most affluent black business centers in the country. All that remains today are some metal placards in the sidewalks that indicate which black businesses were burned down. Reportedly, whites flew airplanes over the black Greenwood section of town and threw incendiary material onto the buildings. I interpret this as an act of war by white Americans against black Americans.

In the first photo, visitors from France were with us to see the placards.

And yet today you can find white and black children playing together all over town. Not quite everywhere, but certainly in my neighborhood. In the intervening 92 years, racism has been largely unlearned in Tulsa. Problems remain, of course; last year a white police officer drove to the home of a black man and shot him. It has taken a long time—interracial marriage (“miscegenation”) was illegal in some states until 1967—but the progress has been astonishing. (The miscegenation laws were aimed at blacks and whites, apparently not at GIs bringing home Asian wives.)

These and other events make me suspect that there might be, among the many and diverse elements of human nature, an anti-racist sentiment floating around. It might be simply one aspect of the emotion of love. I do not know what it is. But it came seemingly out of nowhere into the mind and heart of an eleven-year-old boy who should have, by nature and nurture, been racist. If this anti-racist element indeed exists in human nature, we should embrace it and celebrate it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

How I ended up not being a racist

If anyone should have ended up being a racist, it should have been me.

In the 1960s and 1970s, my aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as my parents, used the N word whenever they could. One of my uncles wanted to make sure that his daughter did not have to experience “bussing.” Does anyone remember what that was? It was deliberately transporting schoolkids by bus to a more distant school in order to achieve racial integration. In order to keep his daughter in a white school, my uncle had to get her to take a course that they did not offer at the black school. The course? Russian. In the middle of the Cold War, Alvin Rice the anti-communist wanted his daughter to study Russian so that she could avoid being bussed across town to a black school. (In a recent conversation with that cousin, she does not remember this incident—she was too young to care one way or the other about bussing—but remembers her father’s strong emotions about it.)

I also remember my parents discussing the question of whether black people were even human, and they concluded that they were not.

I remember my parents and aunts and uncles watching a news report during the 1968 Nixon-Humphrey presidential race. Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey was campaigning among blacks and he kissed a black baby. My parents and aunts and uncles were horrified. There, that one act proved that Humphrey should not be president.

Yet somewhere around 1980, this kind of talk stopped. It was rare among my cousins, and even the old folks changed the way they talked. Did they have a change of heart, or did they just finally admit that racism was dying out? I do not know. I just know that I would be astonished if any of my conservative Okie cousins used the N word (at least in my presence) ever again. And I truly believe they do not use it in private.

If anyone should have been a racist kid, it would have been me. I was raised by racists. I had it drilled into me. But, how shall I say it, it just didn’t take.  I remember what I thought and felt during the Hubert-Humphrey-baby-kissing incident. I remember thinking that what my parents said made no sense at all. It was perhaps the first time that I ever considered my parents to be wrong. I couldn’t explain why it was wrong; I just felt it.

These experiences continued. I befriended a Japanese-American guy and my parents were very uncomfortable with it, as they were with my trip to Japan as an exchange student in high school. I was enchanted by Japanese culture and studied it, and the language, intensely for a long time; I also loved the Japanese that I met as individuals. I started an airmail-letter romance with one of the girls from Japan. (Nope, never told my parents.)

Blacks, Japanese, and…Mexicans. My parents also raised me to not like Mexicans very much either. Had I tried to date any Mexican girls, my parents might have stopped me. As chance would have it, I was so timid that I only went on three dates in high school, all with white girls. (There was racial animosity going the other way, too.)

But I couldn’t help but like most Mexicans at least as much as I liked most whites. One particular experience remains in my mind. The whole band, plus the letter and banner girls, was on a bus going on a trip. My friend David and I, both white freshmen, talked with this stunningly beautiful Mexican girl, and we were smitten. I was; I think you were too, David. She was unattainable, of course: a senior. When we were all at our motel, this girl walked through a plate glass window and got minor injuries. I went to her room to wait with her while an ambulance came (I think David was there too) and I realized how much I cared what happened to her. Well, a lot of racism has disappeared from our group; at our 40th class reunion, there did not seem to be much of a white/Mexican racial divide.

Then there remains the fact that I am a member of the Cherokee tribe, although I am mostly white. My Cherokee mother told me about our family’s history, all the way back to Nancy Ward (who died in 1822). That is, we were a racially blended family. On what logical basis could we be prejudiced against blacks, Asians, and Mexicans? This didn’t really sink into me until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one of the early documentations of white American genocide against Native Americans. Much later, when I told my mother when I was in graduate school that I had a girlfriend (we got secretly engaged after knowing each other about a week and are still married after 31 years), Mom’s first question was, is she white? I said, almost. “What do you mean, almost?” “Well, Mom, somewhere along the line, one of those Cherokees got over the wall.” After a little hesitation, Mom could only laugh. My mom died on the day Barack Obama was elected in 2008, perhaps still struggling with the knowledge that the world was changing in a way she was uncomfortable with.

And today, I find myself more attracted to darker people than to lighter people, who seem somehow to be washed-out and dried up and sun-bleached. I believe this to be a psychological over-reaction against the racism in which I was raised. It is not logical; it is just a feeling.

There’s still a lot of racism around. Each week’s news brings another example of it. But maybe, just maybe, we humans have a streak of anti-racism in us that can make us, as it made me, feel repulsion toward racism. Let’s hope we do.