Slouching Towards South Carolina

Oh South Carolina…how I wish, as a native son, I could be proud to claim you as my home. How beautiful it would be to stand tall together and eschew our crippled slouch towards a Bethlehem long bereft of meaning. Can you not, dear sister, hear the mellifluous song of progress and equality in the distant valley, faint at first, but growing louder and more sonorous with each passing day? Did you fail to discern your estranged uncle, History, penning your heedless words and acts for our child? Do you remember what we named her? Do you remember?

My sweet Carolina, your intransigent literality feels like dust and aching bones; it is the slow decay rotting the fecund magnolia of modernity before she fully blossoms; the cross and the selective application; the judgment without the compassion; the liberty but not the freedom. Where did you lose your good friend, Humor? Was he unable to escape that antediluvian midnight from which only few found the dawn? What about his brother, Empathy? I heard he was last seen on the savage road to the plantation centuries ago? Do you remember what we named our child? We named her Tomorrow, and she renounces us every day. Do you remember?

Recent events in South Carolina are troubling. First, the state budget committee led by Rep. Garry Smith, revoked the exact amount of funds two state colleges spent on books by gay authors. Now, legislators have placed pressure on one of the colleges, the University of South Carolina Upstate, to cancel a play by Leigh Hendrix entitled, “How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less”, which she was invited to perform as part of a symposium on gay topics this month. It seems our politicians are afraid that the play is a literal “How To” for those interested in the fast track to lesbianism.

Had even the slightest amount of research been done, our politicians- and a handful of conservative “journalists” who (sword and shield in hand) are always prepared to battle the pervasive evil of unopposed liberalism indoctrinating our youth- would have learned that Hendrix’s “lecture” is really just a one-person play. It is a comedic, satirical, intelligent, thoughtful, honest, and (most importantly) theatrical performance. The title is ironic, as are the portions of the show that “teach” audience members how to be gay. But as is the case with most things deemed “political” in South Carolina, black and white are the only colors in our palette, and irony and humor are nowhere to be found. How daft can these people actually be? One cannot be taught to be gay. And if one claims that they were, then it’s highly likely they are a charlatan. Being gay is not like adapting a core philosophy or set of principles. It is innate, and no more the product of choice or persuasion than our impulse to breath.

The broader issue in these cases concerns the role government should be playing in our institutions of higher learning. Colleges are pillars of knowledge, opinion, and debate; they are havens for dissent and diversity, and it is unacceptable for government officials to punish them for symposiums, course discussions, or literature chosen by their faculties. Homosexual equality is the civil rights issue of our generation, and is as pertinent to our national and international dialogue on ethics, morality, and liberty as any other enduring struggle. It’s intellectually dishonest and demeaning to students, to suggest that the topic is too incendiary or- in the words of Sen. Kevin Bryant- “perverted”, for college freshmen.

South Carolina’s conservative politicians, who often espouse principles of limited government, see no discrepancy when they argue that it is the responsibility of government to be the arbiters of taste in college classrooms. They, especially under liberal administrations, pride themselves on being seen as iconoclasts who unabashedly differentiate between the efficacy of government programs and the idealism behind them. And yet they are failing to see how coercing college conformity is the antithesis of an unobtrusive government. Without the slightest sense of irony, they are doing exactly what myriad Republicans accuse Democrats of doing in perpetuity: legislating emotionally.

What if it were religious liberty that the government was infringing on? What if our politicians were telling adherents what was acceptable to preach and believe? What if they were canceling guest ministers because they didn’t observe what the government says religion ought to be? I have no doubt that there would be a call to arms. And those leading the way would be right to do so. What’s the difference when it comes to education?

Literature, symposiums, and theater, are what all art and discussion is: a personal expression of experience that strives to make sense of who we are, why we are here, what life means, and how we collectively relate to one another. Reconciling these inquiries with our nature is how we learn to understand. And part of that process stems from our voluntary and involuntary collisions with perspectives that challenge our beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices. For many of us, those initial collisions occur in college. This is why it’s imperative that universities remain free to explore the philosophies, ideas, and constructs of every age, including our own. If South Carolina’s government can tell colleges what is and is not beyond the pale; if they can determine what is and is not appropriate on the subject of knowledge; if they can decide which manner of thinking is acceptable; if they can tell students when they are and are not ready to engage the significant issues of our time; what can we reasonably expect them not to control?

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The Media’s Collective Amnesia Regarding James Clapper

The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who admitted to lying to the National Committee of Intelligence last year about the scope of domestic NSA data collection, has recently testified in front of Congress, claiming that the information provided by Edward Snowden- and reported on by myriad journalists- is providing terrorists with valuable information they are using to change their methods of communication and action. He provides no evidence for this, and in spite of his proven willingness to lie in order to insulate the narrative, members of the media are acting as if his word is irreproachable.

It’s important to note that throughout recorded human history, any time a government has needed to create support for a policy, manipulate public perception of an enemy, or rationalize an action, it has almost always resorted to fear. This fear can be real or imagined, it doesn’t actually matter. As long as the populace believes that with these policies and actions- no matter how much they might infringe upon their personal liberty- they will be safe from the source of their fear, the exploitation of that fear will require minimal to no evidence. Machiavelli wrote about this extensively. Hobbes underscores it in The Leviathan, when he engages the dynamic between the Sovereign, its people, and what reasonable ratio of freedom to security the people can expect. The Founders also remarked on the danger of governance by evocation of fear, warning that there is no greater threat to liberty, than when the government uses an ambiguous fear as a means to gain more power. It is a timeless method of control, designed to receive tacit approval for suspect policies that usually involve a shrinking of liberties that the masses always appear willing to relinquish when their worst fears are summoned.

In our modern world, the fear most exploited, is terrorism. Our government has declared a War on Terror, perpetual by design and illimitable in scope, that has no borders, and whose enemy is stateless, landless, and timeless. The irony is that many of the means we invoke to extirpate this boundless concept, does the opposite. We seek to expunge the recurring threat not by means of diplomacy, education, peace or refraining from intervening in the affairs of sovereign nations, but by matching violence with violence. Thus, as our government disdains the ideological rationale of the enemy, it enacts policies that ensure only the continuation of the conflict. We would do well to recall this fact when our government argues for the necessity of covert security programs that exist precisely because it does its part to stoke the antagonistic flames of ideological warfare.

Strangely, our media allows someone like Clapper, who has openly lied to Congress about NSA capabilities, to be the unchallenged voice of both the continued necessity of these programs, and the dubious claim that making them public has given terrorists the advantage. The pertinent question here is why Clapper still possesses a job? And why should we believe anything he says? He shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t either. But you cannot convince the establishment press of that. It’s as if they have experienced collective amnesia.

If the Administration insists on allowing Clapper to not only remain employed, but to also be its mouthpiece, then the media must insist on ignoring all unsupported claims regarding the necessity of NSA programs as they currently exist.  It has been the method of this Administration and its predecessor, to vociferously ululate “Terrorism!” any time information is disseminated that reflects negatively on their purported intents and endeavors. It is a battle hardened political tactic that the media must counter so that more liberties are not voluntarily forfeited under a false premise of security. Yes terrorism is real, and yes we should expect our government to do what they can to protect our borders, but little evidence has been produced proving the efficacy of these programs, relative to their encroachment on the personal communications of millions of innocent civilians. Until the government can justify such intrusion, and show their commitment to earnestly engaging the debate between privacy and security, the people (and our media) should not fall victim to our fear.

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Glenn Greenwald: Our First Amendment Barometer

Glenn Greenwald is the intrepid journalist that was contacted by Edward Snowden last summer to disclose the fact that the NSA is accessing large swaths of data- from within the US and without- by harvesting massive amounts of information shared by civilians via electronic communication. Since first revealing this controversial information, which he ascertained from a multitude of classified documents stolen by Snowden while he was a contractor working inside of the NSA, Greenwald has remained outside the US, where he lives with his husband in Rio de janeiro, Brazil. They have lived in Rio for a number of years, primarily because the Brazilian government recognizes their marriage, but Greenwald used to visit the US regularly to do TV appearances and speaking engagements. As a result of his aforementioned revelations, most of which came while he was a journalist for the US division of The Guardian, he has been reluctant to travel internationally because he believes that the US government would seize the opportunity to arrest him for what they allege are illegal exposures of covert practices that are central to thwarting terrorism.

This week, Greenwald said that he would be looking to travel to the US in the near future to see members of his family, but also because he believes in the constitutional protection afforded to journalists in the First Amendment. He believes that a journalist should speak truth to power, and that a government with a First Amendment should not act belligerently towards those who seek to edify the electorate. Greenwald told Salon’s Brian Beutler,

“My parents are getting older, my nieces [live in the United States] — none of that is something I’m going to go home for now…. I had a foundation that wanted to sponsor and pay for and market aggressively a six-city speaking tour to talk about the NSA story and the revelations. I would have completely loved to have done it… on the assurance that nothing would happen. And because we couldn’t get it from the U.S. government, I had to cancel…I take more seriously the Constitution’s guarantee of a free press in the First Amendment,” he said at the time. “So I have every intention of entering the U.S. as soon as my schedule permits and there’s a reason to do so.” Today he remains defiant — “I’m going to go back to the U.S. for many reasons, but just the fucking principle is enough…. On principle I’m going to force the issue.”

It’s important that we do not overlook the fact that Glenn Greenwald, who is a US citizen, and more importantly, a journalist that has not been convicted of a crime, has to seek assurances from his own government that he will not be arrested if he travels to see his family. And what’s even more significant is that his government is unwilling to give him any such guarantee.

It’s no secret the way the power structure works in this country. The journalists who gain access to the sphere of influence are those who behave most obsequiously. They are the men and women who succumb to the enticing narcotic of power, the effect of which is achieved by eschewing peripheral connections and gaining entrance to the capital. They manage this, not by a desire to create an informed citizenry, but by a willingness to be a subservient stenographer, conveying the message of the government without the slightest adversarial inflection. Journalists that are connected to powerful government officials land exclusive nationally televised interviews, and get invited to dinners hosted by Washington’s elite, therefore the inclination to create friction is quite literally one that does not pay.

This is why Greenwald will not receive assurances that he won’t be detained if he travels to the US. He represents everything that the establishment media is not: a merciless glutton for truth, with an acerbic pen (and tongue) that is as nonpartisan as it is dedicated to upholding the ideal of a free press. Greenwald comes from the Noam Chomskyian school of thought, which is that the basic function of the media is to act as a check and balance to one’s government. He strives to elucidate the subtle yet tireless efforts by the government to obscure the true intentions and actions of entities like the NSA, because he understands that powerful people, unfettered to institutional or public oversight, will act recklessly in the name of power preservation, all while proclaiming that their intent is altruistic. That is unless there is a sovereign estate that can expose this desired omnipotence.  

The struggle today is that the world has become increasingly oligarchical. Corporations infect governments more and more transparently, and the press has become less independent as a result. The need to satisfy advertisers, which generates revenue for the corporations that own most major media outlets, has become more imperative than discerning what’s real. The information we now receive has been manipulated and diluted to the point where what we often encounter is at best a reaffirmation of established beliefs, but quite often strays into the arenas of misinformation, propaganda, and outright fiction. The age of sensationalist media, where entire networks have been constructed to deliver partisan ideology, has erected additional partitions to understanding. The goal is to distract, and to create distrust in the “other” camp. There is no perceived benefit to an informed viewership.

The Obama Administration has nourished this misguided media environment, by seeking to prosecute more journalists and whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. They have artfully devised a double standard for leaking, by aggressively threatening journalists and whistleblowers who reveal information damaging to the administration’s credibility, while making allowances for leaks that do the opposite. There have been a myriad of high level government officials that have leaked favorable information for the administration, without the slightest rebuke. There isn’t anything novel in this tactic of course, all administrations do this. But this level of equivocation, where dissident journalists are punished and persecuted, is an egregious affront to the democratic ideals of free speech and a free press.

This is what makes Glenn Greenwald essential in today’s political climate. This is why it is so important to mark what happens if he does attempt to enter the country. What he disclosed, thanks to Edward Snowden’s conscientious actions, is information that the public deserves to know. The degree to which these secretive programs obstruct future terrorist attacks remains crepuscular, but the debate for what kind of country we want to live in, and how these programs align with a constitutional republic, is one that we can only engage in if we know about them. Thanks to journalists like Greenwald this debate has been facilitated. And yet, because these disclosures reflect negatively on Obama’s Administration, Greenwald is being vaguely threatened for doing his due diligence.

Greenwald articulates an incommodious truth: that government everywhere is inherently opaque, and that it is the function of journalists to illuminate that dusky assembly. When a government threatens to punish one of its citizens and journalists for acting in the public good, it’s an ominous sign for the health of liberty. So rarely does one person act as the barometer for the state of something like the First Amendment. Glenn Greenwald is that person right now, and we should all be paying attention.

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Revisiting the Founders

Today being the 4th of July I’ve decided to post various quotes of the Founding Fathers regarding liberty, privacy, and the necessary protections created to guard against the supposed “good intentions” of government. I think the following words are as valid today, as when they were stated over two centuries ago, and it’s good to remind ourselves from time to time of the ideals this country was founded on.

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”
— Thomas Jefferson

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
— Benjamin Franklin

“… rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our own will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual”
— Thomas Jefferson

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of freedoms of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
— James Madison

“All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
– James Madison

“Power always thinks… that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”
– John Adams

“There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”
– John Adams

“Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”
– John Adams

“A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
– Thomas Jefferson

“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
– Thomas Jefferson

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”
– James Madison

“Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.”
– James Madison

“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
– James Madison

“It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.”
– James Madison

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
– Thomas Paine

“He that rebels against reason is a real rebel, but he that in defence of reason rebels against tyranny has a better title to Defender of the Faith, than George the Third.”
– Thomas Paine

“Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.”
– Alexander Hamilton

“Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”
– George Washington

“It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon the supposition he may abuse it.”
– George Washington

And finally… arguably the most subversive, progressive, and inimitable document in the history of the world: The Declaration of Independence.

“IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

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A Plea to Senators Wyden and Udall: Become Whistleblowers

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been outspoken critics of the recently revealed NSA surveillance programs for some time now. In fact, with few exceptions, they’ve been the only real critics of these secret programs within our entire government. While their willingness to vocalize their concerns is commendable, their criticism has been largely reduced to vague and cryptic sound bites. According to them, the information in question is classified and it’s illegal to publicly acknowledge the details. In lieu of explicit commentary on what they believe to be an egregious abuse of power, they have chosen instead to say what they can, when they can, without actually “breaking the law”.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures, they have continued to ambiguously proclaim that what the public has learned is just the fringe, and that some of the statements the NSA have released in an effort to clarify its parameters and limitations are blatantly spurious. In spite of these remarks, the Senators continue to practice restraint, claiming they aren’t permitted to unequivocally decry the statements and programs because it would be criminal to expose them.

I am calling on Senators Wyden and Udall to dissent and openly criticize the government and NSA, with full disclosures concerning what they know about how these programs operate, and the ways in which the government has obscured the truth. It’s easy for me to espouse courage and justice in this scenario, that’s true; I’m ignorant of what these men know and am not threatened by the consequences of exposing classified secrets. I fully acknowledge the difference of opinion I might have if I was in their shoes. But in the interest of indulging this fiction, I’ll simply state that this is no time for pusillanimity.

Consider for a moment the power that revelations of government abuse- illuminated by Congressmen who sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee- would have. Think about the uproar that would ensue, if in fact Wyden and Udall became whistleblowers. They would unquestionably become the most prominent expositors of government malfeasance in US history. Currently, they’ve been relegated to infrequent enigmatic declarations warning of an indiscernible breach of trust. But the breadth of the overreach remains opaque. Pertinacity is needed by those who possess the facts. Acts of conscience must be accompanied with the temerity necessary to endure the demonization efforts of the government and media that are inevitable.

Do we not deserve to know exactly what the scope and scale of the government’s capabilities are? Shouldn’t the debate about privacy and security be transparent, so that we may have a share in how our lives are monitored? What right does Wyden, Udall, or any other government official have, to withhold this information from those who have elected them? They’d shout “National Security” or that we need to protect ourselves from “The Terrorists”, but these are just stock responses, spewed thoughtlessly by government officials when they run out of ground to give. It’s the political equivalent of telling your children not to do something because you “said so”.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’ll simply ask Senators Wyden and Udall: who do you stand with? Is it the government and their secrets, or the American people? Wyden and Udall swore to uphold the Constitution; but what if the government is subverting the ideals within? What if it is the NSA that is behaving unconstitutionally? Does that not mean that it is the government- not Wyden and Udall- that has betrayed its oath? What logic can be spun to justify the continued silence of these Senators, if in fact the government is perverting the Constitution?

This is what distinguishes genuine whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, and Edward Snowden: the consequences of inaction frightened them more than what would result from civil disobedient acts of conscience. In all of the aforementioned cases, these men were willing to risk everything, and did. In the cases of Manning and Snowden, we don’t quite know how their stories will end. What we do know is that they are unflinchingly courageous, and that their integrity- which sells for so little in politics- is something our government officials should aspire to. I think Senators Wyden and Udall have a unique opportunity to make history for the right reasons. They should seize it.

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Heaven: Are Atheists Welcome?

A couple of weeks ago Pope Francis stated during the homily of his morning mass that all people, even atheists, can ascend to heaven if they fulfill their duty to do good. “Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point.” he said. The tolerance and embracement implied in his comments are a departure from his predecessor, Benedict, who took a more conservative and narrow stance on people outside the Catholic faith. Francis’ words were interpreted by believers and non-believers alike as a positive sign for the future of the Church, insofar as it seemed to discard some of the more intransigent and exclusory rhetoric of times past.

Unsurprisingly, just a week after Francis’ benevolent remarks, Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesperson, countered the Pope’s inclusion of non-Catholics and non-believers by saying:“All salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

Or perhaps more tersely: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Holiness? Atheists are bound for the inferno!”

So much for infallibility.

The politics are discernible. The Holy Mother Church doesn’t want the head of Christendom telling the faithful that they can circumvent the collection plate and still attain salvation. This isn’t about atheists, this is about remaining relevant. Even still, I find this exchange amusing for myriad reasons.

I’d give just about anything to be a fly on a Vatican wall, listening to the Pope and his minions debate, without irony, which fellow humans are eligible for “saving”. The thought of old men audaciously deliberating the after-life destination of us all, is something I find great humor in pondering; especially when they’re willing to overlook the majority of the world’s population because they are “willfully evading Catholic dogma” as the Vatican statement implies. This means that people born into Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant, and irreligious cultures and families- if cognizant of the Catholic Church- are at odds with God and therefore cannot enter heaven, unless they convert. So if you’re a Sunni Muslim in Bahrain and you’re introduced to Catholicism by learning of the Crusades, you’re expected to understand that the Church is the one true path to God, and that if you do not become a Catholic you cannot be saved. Perfectly reasonable right? Just abandon your entire cultural heritage and everything you’ve ever known, and all is well. No big deal.

What are these men even debating?

If you think about it, they are arguing over a fairy land. And not whether that fairly land exists, and if so, what evidence we have to reinforce that claim, no. They are asserting this fairy land definitely exists, and that they also can determine who can travel there and how the path is properly traversed. This is akin to someone telling you that Zeus and Apollo are real and that they not only know where Mt. Olympus is, but if you believe what they say, they can guide you there. Just how credulous do they think we are? Pretty goddamn credulous apparently. And guess what? They’re right to think so. Because who would treat claims like this seriously, if these statements were being made outside of religion?

Picture the scene: an all male panel, ensconced in their own self-worth, obstinately quarreling over a fictional place. A FICTIONAL PLACE! Envision them in their flowing robes, many feeling death’s shadow creeping toward them with greater and greater celerity, telling their “truth” like Shakespeare’s idiot, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And yet even though we all possess the facility to rationally deconstruct these statements in this very way, because it is the Pope, the Vatican, and religion, this divergence is perceived to be meaningful.

The fits of laughter within must be unceasing. At least I hope so. That’s what I’d do if I was involved in the continuation of one of the world’s most enduring cons. But, knowing religion like I do, it’s safe to assume that this fatuous and illusory conflict is being argued with stoic solemnity. These men believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of this debate. Unless of course I’m mistaken, and the aforementioned politics are really what’s driving this internal friction, in which case the front of doctrinal nuance is actually a relief in a strange way. If nothing else it would mean they are aware of just how absurd this narrative really is.

As an atheist, I want to know! Which is it? Papal advocacy for my heavenly inclusion, or am I destined for an eternity in the underworld? Patience is a gift I’ve never received but I suppose I’ll have to endure the suspense.

I like to think they have agreed to settle this argument with an epic game of Papal Guitar Hero, and the Pope encores with “Stairway to Heaven” for the win. But then all of the Cardinals get upset because he didn’t check his infallibility at the door, which the rules demand. That’s clearly cheating. “Damn it!” the Pope says. “Oh well, more room for us.” And the room erupts with laughter.

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