General Lee Speaking, This Meme Is Awful

KermitDukesCosby

You know, because of idiotic memes, I cannot even look at Willy Wonka’s grinning mug without wanting to punch something.  Now they’re trying to ruin Kermit the Frog for me too.  Bastards.

We’ll talk more about Bill Cosby and Subway in a moment, but let’s start with The Dukes of Hazzard, a television series that originally aired on CBS from 1979 to 1985.  The show followed the adventures of Bo and Luke Duke, cousins on probation for transporting moonshine.   Their trademark vehicle, which they used to commit shenanigans and to jump over stuff, was an orange 1969 Dodge Charger called General Lee.  The General Lee, as you might expect from the name, featured a large Confederate battle flag on its roof.

The cable channel TV Land started broadcasting TDoH reruns on June 10, 2015, but pulled the program just three weeks later in the wake of the Charleston shootings.  Although TV Land gave no public explanation for their decision, the show was yanked in the midst of increased public scrutiny regarding the modern display of the Confederate battle flag.  Confederate flag supporters and Civil War revisionists (but I repeat myself) cried foul, arguing that the flag didn’t stand for racism and besides, them Duke boys never meant no harm.  People who know how to use Google responded with crushing evidence that the Confederate battle flag was very much a racist symbol at the time of its creation, and that it had been resurrected by an organization with racist goals.  Granted, nobody is claiming that The Dukes of Hazzard itself was a racist show, but it did prominently and proudly feature a racist symbol.  Unwilling to admit defeat even in the face of overwhelming evidence, flaggers launched an immediate tu quoque campaign.  Their goal: to find unsavory slobs whose related franchises were nevertheless still available for consumption, and to hold them up as shining examples of liberal hypocrisy.

If you were looking for unsavory, you could hardly do better than Bill Cosby.  Bill Cosby, once America’s beloved father-figure, lived a second life as a serial rapist.  According to the allegations of more than fifty women, Bill Cosby harassed, threatened, and drugged women to make them have sex with him.  That’s rape, ladies and gentlemen.  It doesn’t get any more clear-cut than that.

Like the Confederate-flag-festooned General Lee, Bill Cosby was featured in a popular television show from the 1980s.  The Cosby Show originally aired on NBC from 1984 to 1992, and it literally made NBC’s Thursday night lineup.  The Cosby Show was in the top ten Nielsen ratings for all but its final season; still, when one thinks of the show now, one must consider the fact that even while Cosby was filming it, he committed multiple acts of sexual assault, including rape.  Clearly the man is scum.

So TV Land should be ashamed – ashamed – to continue airing a television show featuring a man who, by all accounts, is a monstrous rapist, when they pulled The Dukes of Hazzard for nothing more offensive than a decoration on the roof of a garish car.

Except…TV Land is not airing The Cosby Show anymore.  That’s right, TV Land pulled The Cosby Show in November of 2014, again, without an official explanation.  One assumes that TV Land wishes to avoid controversy – and they aren’t alone.  In fact, many media outlets pulled programming featuring Bill Cosby, and some canceled planned projects.  You would be hard-pressed to find Bill Cosby’s face on any TV channel, unless you’re watching a news story about another one of his victims shedding light on his terrible, terrible past.

Interestingly, both The Dukes of Hazzard and The Cosby Show are still available on several digital services, including Amazon, Netflix DVD, and Hulu, none of whom have announced their intentions to drop either program; ergo, the double standard that the meme tries to suggest simply doesn’t exist.  The most-talked-about network that gave the axe to the goose, gave it to the gander as well.  If other, smaller networks decided to keep one show while ditching the other…well, that is for them to explain.

Now then, let’s talk about Subway, shall we?  Subway also found itself at the center of controversy recently when its long-time spokesperson, Jared Fogle, became embroiled in a sex scandal of disgusting proportions.  Fogle, apparently not content to let Bill Cosby be the ickiest person in the world, was arrested on charges of possession of child pornography and paying for sex with a minor.  Subway severed ties with Fogle before the proverbial excrement hit the cooling device, but now the question becomes: How much did Subway know about Fogle’s actions before letting him go?

At least two people claim to have alerted Subway that something was wrong with Fogle prior to the FBI investigation that exposed his sick deeds and officially ended his career as Subway’s pitchman.  One of the whistle-blowers was a Subway franchise owner.  She says she met with upper management to alert them that Fogle had asked her about the possibility of having sex with her underage cousin, and that he had admitted to paying a 16-year-old for sex.  She suggested – very reasonably, I think – that Jared’s image and merchandise should not be displayed in Subway stores, nor should he be allowed to interact with children.  Despite her conversation with the higher-ups, Subway made no immediate move to distance itself from Jared Fogle.

Rochelle Herman-Walrond, a Florida radio host, says she spent four years recording conversations with Fogle, who allegedly confided in her about his deviant interests.  She says the information she provided to the FBI was crucial in its investigation of Fogle.  She claims to have warned Subway about Fogle’s creepy behavior via an online form, but she never received a response.  Subway denies knowledge of either woman’s allegations.

Assuming that both women are telling the truth, then somebody at Subway knew about Fogle’s problematic behavior long before it became public, yet Subway failed to act.  That is a very big problem.  In that case, we must shift the question: To what extent is Subway culpable in this tragedy?  And what should we, the conscientious consumers, do about it?

It’s a difficult question to answer.  Subway publicly denounced Jared Fogle’s actions.  It’s not like they’re digging in their heels in the immediate wake of public controversy, unlike some fast-food chains I could name.  Still, one suspects they could have acted sooner – they should have paid more attention to the troubling claims brought to them by those two women.  Ultimately, I suppose, the consumers will determine whether Subway escapes from Jaredgate relatively unscathed, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to insist that Subway face some very close scrutiny regarding its delayed response to the Jared Fogle case.  At the very least, it may be time for an overhaul of Subway’s communication policies and a changing of the guard in the upper echelons of management.

Would it be appropriate to boycott Subway, in the same way that LGBT-supporters boycotted Chic-Fil-A after that corporation’s financial support of notoriously anti-gay organizations became public knowledge?  Again, that is for the consumers to decide.  If you eat at Subway, there’s no reason to expect that your dollars will eventually harm somebody (going forward, anyway).  But your patronage of that restaurant might also send the message to its directors that you agree with, or at least, don’t disagree with – their treatment of the two women and the information they provided.  One could argue that you are implicitly endorsing Subway’s reluctance to put morals above profits.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if you can live with that.

So what’s the final judgement on this meme?  Well, it was TV Land’s decision to take down The Dukes of Hazzard, and although the channel didn’t specifically say why, it’s reasonable to assume that it was related to the Confederate flag controversy.  But the network also responded to the Bill Cosby scandal in a similar fashion, so there is nothing hypocritical about their actions.  And the Subway case is a whole other can of worms.  As troubling as Subway’s early response (or lack thereof) to the allegations about Jared Fogle may be, they did eventually dump him.  Each person will have to decide whether he or she is comfortable eating fresh, but no one should feel that he or she is supporting a child molester for doing so.  The author of this meme seems to think that he is terribly clever for sticking it to the hypocrites who canned his beloved Dukes of Hazzard show, but the barb of this meme is simply too weak to puncture.  This meme aims at too many targets, and misses them all.

The Right To Stomp

Flag Assault

Noooo, that’s assault, and it’s a crime.

There are a lot of problems here.  Let’s enumerate them, shall we?

  1. This meme is based on a logical error called a non-sequitur (Latin for “does not follow”).  It opens with a premise (“Stomping on the U.S. flag is free and protected speech”), then leaps to a completely non-supported conclusion (“Stomping on a flag-stomper is free and protected speech”) based on nothing more than a superficial similarity between the two acts.  In fact, stomping on any person is probably a crime, regardless of what unsavory act the stompee perpetrated.
  2. It’s disturbing how many people think that violence – or the threat of violence – is an acceptable way of addressing folks they disagree with (and they wonder why gun control advocates push for stronger gun laws).  Toddlers are often told to “use their words” when they feel frustrated, but apparently that advice has lost its grip by the time people acquire the sophisticated vocabulary necessary to heed it.  Adults who create and share memes like this are operating on a preschool level of problem-solving.  Rather than try to sway public opinion with impassioned speeches, thoughtful essays, or protests, their first thought is to come out swinging.  Sounds like somebody needs a time out.
  3. This meme is representative of the kind of hyper-patriotism that is actually, in my opinion, harming our nation.  It’s fine to love the United States, but you should realize that no nation – not even ours – is perfect.  When you hold fast to the idea that the U.S.A. is perfect, you do a disservice to your country.  When you pledge to blindly defend the nation and its symbols, with violence if necessary, against ideological criticism, then you are no longer an asset to your nation.  You are a wart, a blemish.  You are not upholding the ideals of this great nation; you are preventing them from maturing.  By violently squelching unpleasant growing experiences, you become the guy who peaks in high school; so enchanted with the way things are now that he resists moving forward.  Don’t be that guy.  You should seek to address the issues that drove somebody to desecrate the flag, not to punish them for doing so.  Speaking of which…
  4. You ought to champion the rights of people to stomp on the flag, even if you strongly disagree with the message they’re sending.  The First Amendment protects all Americans’ rights to speech, including speech that criticizes the U.S. government, its policies, its citizens, or its flag, symbolic speech, and speech that others find offensive. The Supreme Court has ruled twice (in Texas v. Johnson and in United States v. Eichman) that laws prohibiting flag desecration are unconstitutional.  Despite numerous attempts by Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment that would settle the issue once and for all, none have succeeded.  At least for now, flag desecration (distasteful as it may be) remains a valid and protected way for an individual to express his or her opinion.  You cannot claim to be an American patriot when you are unwilling to tolerate people making full use of the protections offered by the American Constitution.
  5. The name of the website that apparently produced this meme, AmericanStrong.com, is particularly ironic.  Somebody who is so offended by displays of ideological dissent that they must hurt the dissenter is the opposite of strong.  The website should be called AmericanInsecure.com.
  6. To the person who said “I’m prepared to go to jail if I see someone stomping on our flag”: are you prepared to be labeled a terrorist?  Because if you hurt or threaten to hurt somebody in order to intimidate them into espousing your political position, or to punish them for expressing their own, that’s what I’ll call you.  Of course, that’s just my opinion, and you don’t have to agree with it.  My opinion does not come with the threat of violence; only the assertion that the person who stomps an American flag is causing less harm to this nation than the person who stomps the stomper.

Universally Self-Centered

Center of the Universe

Oh, but it is you.  And it’s me.  And it’s everybody else.  We’re all the centers of our own Universes. And I don’t mean that in some sort of philosophical or self-help way; I quite literally mean that you are the unique center of a unique observable Universe.  Go you.

This bears explaining, and the explanation can get a bit lengthy.  But hey, the Universe has been around for 13.8 billion years; surely we can spare a few moments to talk about how it works.

The Universe is expanding, which means that distant galaxies are getting more distant by the second.  Now obviously we don’t have a tape measure zillions of kilometers long, so how do we know this?  We know because the light from distant galaxies looks redder than the light from nearby galaxies.

If you carefully study the light from an object you can tell a lot about what it’s made of, without ever having the visit the object directly.  The process is called spectroscopy.  Spectroscopy tells us that the Sun is made mostly of hydrogen and helium, because sunlight contains the characteristic spectral lines of those two elements.  In fact, this is true of all stars, big or small, near or far.  Stars across the Universe seem to be largely made of the same two elements.  This fact can be a useful tool in determining if those stars are moving toward or away from Earth, and how fast.  Why?

If a star is moving toward or away from Earth, we see the familiar spectral lines of H and He in its starlight, but they seem to be slightly out of place.  This is because of the Doppler effect.  If you’ve ever heard the whistle of a train change pitch as the train rushes past you, you’re already familiar with the Doppler effect.  The Doppler effect works with light as well as with sound.  When a star is moving toward Earth, its spectral lines are shifted toward the blue end of the visible spectrum.  We call this phenomenon blue-shifting.  When a star is moving away from Earth, its spectral lines are red-shifted.  The faster the star moves, the more blue- or red-shifted its spectral lines become.  Scientists can determine not only which direction a star is moving, but how fast, by analyzing the light that reaches Earth.

All starlight shows the same set of spectral lines, but the light from receding stars is redshifted.  Source: http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/spectroscope.html

All starlight shows the same set of spectral lines, but the light from receding stars is red-shifted. Source: http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/spectroscope.html

Distant galaxies are made of stars, just like our galaxy is, and those stars are made of hydrogen and helium.  We see the same spectral lines in the light from distant galaxies that we see in light from relatively nearby stars, but the light from distant galaxies is all red-shifted.  This lets scientists know that all distant galaxies are moving away from Earth.  Also, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it recedes from our location.  For example, a galaxy that is 1 billion light years away from Earth is moving away at about 21,600 kilometers per second, while a galaxy that is 2 billion light years away recedes twice as fast.  Scientists have reached the conclusion that space itself must be expanding.  That’s kind of a weird concept; when we think of space, we may think of empty nothingness.  But space is a thing; it’s the fabric in which all matter and energy is embedded.  And this thing – this space – is constantly expanding, creating new space between us and distant galaxies.  The further away a galaxy is, the more space there is between us and it, and the faster new space is being formed.  That’s why the most distant galaxies are receding faster than those that are closer to us.

The farther away a galaxy is, the more redshifted it is, and the faster it is receding from us.  The redness of distant galaxies has been exaggerated in this diagram.  Not to scale.

The farther away a galaxy is, the more redshifted it is, and the faster it is receding from us. The redness of distant galaxies has been exaggerated in this diagram. Not to scale.

The expansion of space seems to be uniform in all directions, which has an interesting consequence: no matter where you go in the Universe, you are at the “center” of expansion.  If you teleport to the most distant galaxy ever seen, you won’t find yourself on the outside of a bubble of expanding space; no, it will still seem as if you are in the center of it all.  The Observable Universe – that volume of space whose light has had sufficient time to reach us since the Universe started – is always centered on the observer.  Your Observable Universe is different from mine, and it always will be.

So in a way, you could claim that you are the center of the Universe – the Observable Universe, anyway.  Of course, I am too, and so is everybody else.  Each person has their own Observable Universe that carves out a unique volume of space that is not observable to anybody else.  Granted, compared to the scale of the Universe, we’re so close to every other person on Earth that, in the grand scheme, our multiple Observable Universes are functionally identical, but if you like to split hairs (and you know I do), you are the center of a unique Observable Universe.  Congratulations!

But wait…there’s more.  No really, there’s probably a lot more Universe beyond what we can see.  The results of the WMAP experiment strongly suggest that there may be infinitely more.  If the Universe at large is infinite in extent, then it has no true center, and it never has.

So either way you look at it, this meme is wrong.  If you consider only the Observable Universe (which you may as well do, since that’s the only part of the Universe we’ll ever know anything about), then you are the center.  You always have been, and you always will be.  It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do; as long as you are an observer of the Universe, then you are its center.  It is worth pointing out, though, that you are only the center of your own Universe.  You are not the center of other peoples’ Universes, which might have been a better way for this meme to state its point.

If you consider the Universe at large, then this meme is also wrong, because there is no center, and scientists will never discover one.  Q.E.D.

The Devil’s In The Details

Jeanne Assam

If you don’t already know who Jeanne Assam is or what she did, I recommend an article called “Jeanne Assam is Still Waiting“, written by Robert Sanchez for the Denver-based online magazine 5280.com.

There are certain parts of this meme that are true.  On December 9, 2007, a 24-year-old man named Matthew Murray attacked two churches in Colorado.  The first attack happened at 12:30 a.m. at the Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Church in Arvada.  There, Murray killed two people and wounded two others before fleeing on foot.  Later that day, Murray turned up at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, 70 miles from YWAM, where he killed two additional victims and injured three more.  Jeanne Assam, who was present and packing at the New Life Church, confronted Murray in one of the church’s corridors and shot him multiple times.  Wounded and defeated, Murray turned his gun on himself.  There can be no doubt that Assam saved many lives.

Assam’s brave actions were widely noted by the media, including liberal- and conservative-leaning outlets, so the meme’s claim to the contrary is simply a lie.  Still, her case seems to have new relevance in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.  If one armed church-goer could make such a difference in Colorado, could the same have happened at the Emanual AME Church where Dylann Roof murdered nine worshipers in June of this year?

Of course we don’t know the answer to that question, and we cannot infer an answer from Jeanne Assam’s special case.  You see, there is another lie contained in this meme – a lie of omission – and it greatly affects how we perceive the entire gun control debate.

Jeanne Assam was not an average citizen exercising her Second Amendment rights.  Prior to attending the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, she had gone to police academy and served as a police officer in Minneapolis.  As a consequence of her training, she knew how to safely use a firearm.  Although she was no longer working as a cop at the time of the attack, Assam was still licensed to carry a firearm, and she had been specially appointed by the New Life Church as an armed security guard.  Assam and her fellow guards were already on high alert the day of the shooting because they had heard about the attack at YWAM earlier that morning.  In other words, Assam was not just a gun carrier; she was the ideal combination of professional experience, forewarned preparation, and bravery.

That’s not to diminish the heroism of Assam’s response, by the way, but it makes an important point that this meme conveniently ignores.  Assam simply does not fit most gun advocates’ fantasy of an armed Average Joe (or Jeanne) stepping up to halt a madman in his tracks.  Assam’s gun did not make her a hero; her heroism and experience made her gun an effective tool.  And there are other facts of the case that are inconvenient for gun advocates’ arguments.

When Matthew Murray died, he was carrying a modified Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle, a Springfield Armory 9mm semi-automatic pistol, and a Beretta .40 cal semi-automatic pistol.  An AK-47 assault rifle was found in his car, which might lead one to speculate that he was planning more violence later.  All of these weapons were legally obtained, which ought to give one pause.  Even while Murray posted many of his violent fantasies online – behind an identity-concealing screen name, of course – the law cleared him to amass his arsenal.

If a gun dealer of average common sense knew what Murray was planning, he never would have sold him a gun, let alone an assault rifle (one hopes).  But there are no laws in place that would have revealed Murray’s plan before he committed it; in fact, only a severe violation of privacy would have exposed his intentions – and gun advocates are typically big fans of privacy.  So gun advocates who say that everybody should be allowed to own military-grade assault weapons, free from restriction or oversight, are left with a quandary.  Either people like Murray continue to get big guns and commit mass murders as a necessary side effect of gun advocates’ opposition to tighter regulations, or everybody submits to unconscionably intrusive psych evaluations and surrenders all of their online passwords before they get their hands on an assault rifle.

Or…or…we could just admit that private citizens don’t really need military-grade assault weapons, and that would solve the problem as well.

Now I’m not saying that nobody should have guns at all (in fact, no elected officials, liberal or otherwise, have launched serious efforts to disarm America, which means that this meme’s Official Lie Count stands at three).  If Jeanne Assam had not been packing heat on that fateful afternoon, who knows how many extra people would have died?  But if Jeanne Assam’s story proves anything, it’s that guns are most effective in the hands of highly-trained, morally-upright* individuals who have been appointed to the task of public safety.  I doubt that many of the people who share this meme have one-tenth the training that Assam has in the safe use of firearms, nor that, placed in a similar situation, they would become the saviors they fantasize about being.


*I included the words “morally-upright” to exclude cops who have used their weapons in an act of police brutality.

Spoiler Alert: It Came Down

Confederate Lives Matter

Let’s be crystal-clear about this: if you put any word other than “Black” in front of the words “Lives Matter”, you are creating a problem.  At the very best, you’re misappropriating the name of a movement that protests the violence disproportionately thrown down on people of color by law enforcement and vigilantes.  That’s not nice; you shouldn’t take the name of their movement to advance your own cause.  At the very worst, you’re being really, really racist.

Yes, really.

Some people hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and assume that it’s racist, as if the leaders of the movement have no regard for non-black folks.  Actually, the phrase doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter.  All lives are important, yes, and in a perfect world everybody would recognize that.  Unfortunately, the world is far from ideal.  While we may profess with our lips that all people are created equal, our actions as a society indicate that we believe otherwise.  That’s why “Black Lives Matter” exists.  If you’re white, straight, Christian, etc, in America, nobody needs to be reminded of the importance of your life – it is taken as self-evident.  But if you’re black, it wouldn’t hurt for people – particularly law enforcement officers – to be reminded that you are also a human being, deserving of the same basic dignity and respect we theoretically afford to all humans.

As spiteful as it is to co-opt the “Black Lives Matter” title to support a different agenda, it’s particularly hateful to replace the word “Black” with “Confederate”.

For one – and this really ought not have to be pointed out – there are no more Confederate lives.  The war’s long done.  The Confederacy is extinct.  If the Confederacy lives on, it’s only in the hearts of people who sympathize with the Confederate cause, which was closely tied to the institution of slavery.

We’ve discussed this before, but it bears repeating: the Confederacy was a racism-motivated regime, and the Confederate battle flag is a racist symbol!  Of course it is.  This point is beyond legitimate debate. The Confederate battle flag was stitched and flown by people who made no secret of their belief that black people were inferior to white people, and that they ought to be kept as slaves.  After the Confederacy was defeated and re-absorbed into the United States, their flags might never again have seen the light of day, had they not been resurrected during the civil rights movements by white segregationists.  The Confederate battle flag was revived as an immutable symbol of anti-black racism.  It continues to be flown by people who wish to ignore that racism was a major cause – nay, the central cause – of the conflict that spawned it.  It is an unfortunate part of Southern heritage, but not one we should celebrate.

Just so we’re clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Southern pride, per se.  If you’re a Southerner and proud of it, then I say “Good for you”, as long as you are aware that the book of Southern Heritage has some awfully dark chapters.  If you construct a flag depicting a plate of grits and a glass of iced sweet tea, I will gladly wave it for you (although, I should point out that I’m somewhat atypical as a Southerner in that I do not enjoy either of those fares).  I have no problem with anybody expressing a well-tempered degree of regional pride, but I strongly disagree that the Confederate battle flag is the appropriate symbol of that pride.

I’d like to conclude by addressing the first statement made by this odious meme: “It Ain’t Coming Down”.  I have a couple of relevant videos.  I’ll just leave them right here.

In South Carolina, at least, it came down.  Twice.

The Meaning of Miracles

Miracles

None of this is miraculous (and one part of it isn’t even correct).  If you’re trying to convince me that miracles are real, this is not the best way to go about it.

In bygone days, a miracle was a true wonder – an event so contrary to natural laws that it could only be the work of a divine hand.  Miracles were seen as signs that the gods existed and took an interest in human affairs.  If you believe the holy texts, the ancient world was frequently the site of soul-changing, attention-grabbing miracles.  Now, not so much.  For whatever reason, the kind of miracles depicted in old scrolls – the kind that would instantly turn a skeptic into a believer – no longer happen.  It seems that as humanity has become a more scientifically literate species (on average, mind you), the inexplicable occurrences to which we used to afford miracle status – and which we later embellished and recorded in religious texts – suddenly became much more explicable.  As we shone the light of scientific advancement into the dark corners of our former ignorance, there were fewer places for gods and miracles to hide.

Perhaps because of the dearth of real miracles, the faithful are compelled to seek the miraculous in the mundane.  Therefore, the definition of miracle has evolved.  In modern, common parlance, a miracle is any unlikely but fortunate event, regardless of whether or not it defies scientific explanation.  For example, if a woman and her young child survive a horrific airplane crash, some might call that a miracle (although one might question why the miraculous power that saved them could not have prevented the crash in the first place and therefore spared the lives of the other passengers; I suppose it is not our place to ask, right?)  This type of miracle always seems to benefit one person or group of people while ignoring another group, who are presumably equally deserving.

Some people, skirting the criterion of scientific implausibility altogether, think that anything grandiose and beautiful qualifies as a miracle.  So now, every sunrise, every healthy birth, every rainbow is a miracle.  And apparently, celestial physics should also convince you of the reality of miracles.

Don’t get me wrong; the cosmos is awe-inspiring in every facet.  The Universe is full of fury and brilliance, and its scale is mind-blowing.  But we now know – in fact, we have known for a long time – that the Universe does not run contrary to the laws of physics, and that there is nothing miraculous about it.  The Universe runs in perfect concordance with physical laws, and it is this perfect agreement between laws and reality that allows us to probe ever deeper into the inner workings of the cosmos.

Let’s consider the statements made by this meme one-by-one:

We live on a blue planet

And here it is.

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

 

This is the famous “Blue Marble” photograph, taken by the Apollo 17 lunar mission.  You’d have to be some kind of heartless grinch not to be inspired by this picture; it’s your home, and it contains every human then alive (except for the three people who were traveling to the Moon at the time).

As you can see, the world isn’t completely blue, although you get an instant impression of blueness when you look at it.  Earth’s blueness comes from its oceans, and there’s a very simple explanation about why the oceans are blue…because water is blue, and the oceans are made of water.

There’s another explanation that has to do with the fact that water preferentially absorbs red light and scatters and reflects blue light, but why make things more complicated than they have to be?  Oh sure, you don’t notice the blue color of water when you pour yourself a glass from the tap, but that’s because the color is exceedingly faint.  It takes a lot of water in one place for its color to become apparent, but that’s what oceans are: lots of water in one place.  There’s nothing miraculous about it.

Aha, the believer might say, the fact that Earth even has a large volume of liquid water is itself miraculous, for without liquid water, life as we know it could not exist.  But I contend that this too is a matter of physics, and not of divine providence.  Water is an exceedingly common molecule in the Universe, but in most cases it exists as either a solid (ice) or as a gas (water vapor or steam).  Earth’s oceans must stay within a fairly narrow range of air pressure and temperature, or else they would freeze or boil away.  All life on Earth requires liquid water; if the oceans go, so do we.

Earth’s oceans exist in liquid form because of two major factors: first, Earth orbits the Sun in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”.  The effectiveness of the Sun’s heat decreases with distance; too close and Earth’s oceans would boil away; too far and they would freeze.  The Goldilocks zone is just right – neither too hot nor too cold – for water to exist as a liquid on Earth’s surface.

But even in the Goldilocks zone, Earth could be a barren, dry husk – like our Moon – without a protective atmosphere.  Water’s boiling temperature varies directly with the overlying air pressure; if Earth were to lose its atmosphere, the boiling point of water would drop below the average temperature of Earth’s surface, and our oceans would quickly boil away.  So Earth depends not only on its distance from the Sun, but also on its protective atmosphere to maintain its life-giving oceans.

Liquid water has played a critical role in the existence of life, probably since its very beginning.  If Earth had no oceans – if it weren’t blue – it’s doubtful that any of us would be here to discuss it.  So you may call it a miracle that Earth is blue, but that only works if you assume that the Universe has some agency that wants us to exist.  In the absence of such an agency, we only exist because we can.  Conditions were right, so we evolved.  No miracle is needed to explain our existence.

that circles around a ball of fire

Hoo boy.  Besides the over-arching logical fallacy expressed by this meme, this is the single most egregious error.  The Sun is not made of fire.

Fire is generally the result of a chemical reaction called combustion.  During combustion, a fuel source combines with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, water vapor, and lots of thermal energy (heat).  Depending on the fuel source and the conditions of the fire, a fire may also release soot, ash, and other by-products.  The glow of a fire is due to the fact that the combustion products are extremely hot – so hot they give off visible light.  This phenomenon is called incandescence.

Somebody living in a less-enlightened age could be forgiven for thinking that the Sun was made of fire; after all, it glows with fierce warmth, just like the Earthly fires with which our ancestors were so familiar.  We now know (well, we should know) that the Sun’s heat and light come from quite a different process: nuclear fusion.  The Sun is mostly made of two elements: hydrogen and helium.  In the hellish inferno of the Sun’s core, hydrogen atoms are squeezed together under tremendous pressure until they combine to form helium atoms.  This is the same process that happens in a thermonuclear bomb, but on a scale zillions of times larger.  Each fusion reaction releases a burst of energy in the form of heat, light, and particles.  In essence, the Sun is a giant H-bomb that is constantly exploding,  yet is held in shape by the immense pull of its own gravity.

As fantastic as the Sun’s power is, there’s still nothing miraculous about it.  In fact, on a universal scale, the ferocious fusion reactions that sustain the Sun are positively mundane.  Just look up at the night sky; each star you can see is sustained by the same process as our Sun.  And there are many, many stars you cannot see – probably infinitely many – and most of them are busy churning hydrogen into helium within their cores (older stars tend to fuse heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, and so on).  No, the Sun is not a miracle.  It appears to be a certainty; a guarantee made by the laws that govern the cosmos.

next to a Moon that moves the sea

This only comes across as miraculous if you don’t understand how gravity works.  (To be fair, gravity is a pretty complex topic, but still one that operates according to physical laws.)  Gravity is an interaction between any two objects that have mass (or energy, which is another side of the same coin as mass).  The gravitational interaction between two bodies depends on how much mass those bodies have, but also on the distance between them.  The farther apart two objects get, the less gravitational attraction they feel for each other.

Gravity is a two-way street.  Just as Earth tugs on the Moon, the Moon tugs on Earth.  Earth is roughly 12,800 kilometers across, so one side of Earth is 12,800 kilometers closer to the Moon than the other side is.  The Moonward side of Earth experiences a stronger tug from the Moon than the anti-Moonward side does.  This gravitational gradient across the bulk of Earth is what gives rise to the tides.

Due to a complex web of forces that are beyond the scope of this already-lengthy post, there are two high tide bulges; one that roughly faces the Moon, and one that faces roughly away from the Moon.  As Earth rotates once a day, each point on its surface sweeps through these high tide bulges.  When your beach rotates into one of Earth’s high tide bulges, you see the water level slowly rise up.  When your beach rotates out of a high tide bulge, you watch the water level slowly sink.

It’s probably worth mentioning that local factors such as wind, ocean currents, seafloor geography, and so on, can have a great effect on how a region experiences tides.  Regardless, tides are not miraculous; they are well-understood phenomena that do not require divine intervention to work.

I often wonder why some people need for miracles to exist.  Furthermore, why do they clutch at impressive but nevertheless non-miraculous phenomena?  Is it because they find comfort in the idea that a deity can still interfere with the clockwork machinations of nature for their particular benefit?  Does their faith in the divine reside in unexplained mysteries?  Are they afraid that if everything is explained by science, there will be no room left for their gods?  Do they think that if their gods disappear in a puff of logic, they will be forced to undertake the always-uncomfortable task of rewriting their belief system?

I personally think that even if I were religious – if I believed in supernatural beings – I would find the idea of miracles unsettling.  A miracle – a real miracle – would be a clear sign that there is a god who is willing to sidestep his (or her; let’s not be sexist) natural laws, but any deity who is willing to interfere with the game could suddenly decide to end it.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think any being should have all that power.

 

 

Strap In; We’re Going To Talk About Privilege…Again

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Voltaire said that anything too stupid to be said is sung (or maybe it was Pierre de Beaumarchais).  I say that anything too stupid to be said or sung is put into a meme.

Take this meme, for example.  For centuries to come, experts on memes – memeologists, if you prefer – will debate about how the author could cram so much stupidity into such a small space.  How could anyone believe that white, straight, Republican, Southern gun owners have fewer freedoms than people from other demographics?

You know what this meme is really about?  Privilege.

Whoa, hey, don’t leave!  Okay, I know you’re sick to death of hearing about privilege, particularly if you have any.  But that’s one of the benefits of privilege: you can be tired of hearing about it.  You can pretend it doesn’t apply to you, or that it doesn’t even exist. (You’d be wrong, but you can pretend.)  That’s a luxury afforded only to people that have privilege.  Underprivileged people are achingly aware of the privilege that others have.  It must be the highest form of insult to an underprivileged person when somebody whom the nation bends over backwards to appease claims to be disenfranchised.

I’ve already given a name to this particular syndrome: Perceived Reverse Victimization.  I wrote about it here and here.  PRV happens when a person with privilege and power is asked to stop being such a jerk to the underprivileged, and in response, the privileged person plays the victim card.  The only right these people have lost in recent history is the right to visit unfettered abuse upon others.  If you ask me – and most other people, I think – that’s a right no one should have, but it’s the only right people with PRV can legitimately claim to have lost.  That makes this meme not only stupid, but despicable as well.  When you get down to brass tacks, this meme is essentially saying “I sure do miss the days when people who look and think like me could trample the rights of people who don’t.”

Let me be clear: white, straight, Republican, Southern gun owners are not currently being treated like second-class citizens, nor have they been at any time in recent history.  They are still near the top of the social heap.  Let’s take a few moments to look at these five (often overlapping) demographics, to assess each group’s privilege, and to consider what may have happened in recent months to make them feel (incorrectly) as if their rights are being curtailed.

White people enjoy a range of privileges so broad that when most people think of privilege, they’re thinking specifically of white privilege.  I’ve discussed white privilege before, and so have a lot of other people.  Being white ensures that you will always enjoy certain privileges, even if you don’t ask for them.  For example, when Dylann Roof was labeled a terrorist in the media for murdering nine black people during a bible study, did you hear anybody implying that all white people are terrorists?  Probably not.  But what if he had been a Middle Eastern Muslim?  The fact that Roof’s actions are not being viewed as representative of the entire white race is just one example of white privilege – a privilege that other ethnic groups are seldom afforded.

If you are white – as I am – that’s not your fault.  You didn’t ask to be born white, so you may be thinking that the unbalanced social treatment of various ethnic groups is not your responsibility.  But it is your responsibility to be aware of your privilege, and to avoid saying things as daft as “white people are not free to live as they wish”.

What could make some white people feel as if they were losing rights?  Honestly, I have no idea.  To the best of my knowledge, no laws have been implemented that unfairly diminish the rights of white people.  By any measure of legal, economic, or social privilege, white people as a group have it made.  Let’s move on.

Straight people enjoy nearly as much privilege as white people.  This is especially true if you happen to be straight and cis-gendered.  (Cis-gendered means that your gender identity and your biological sex are congruent; in other words, if you were born with a penis, you identify as a man, and if you were born with a vagina, you identify as a woman.  While sexuality and gender identity are separate aspects of a person’s self, they can play similar roles in determining how much – or how little – social privilege a person enjoys.)

If you are a heterosexual person living in the United States – particularly since Loving v. Virginia in 1967 – you have never had to worry that your state government wouldn’t permit you to marry somebody you love.  Gay people have only recently gained that right, and there are still state officials pushing back against it.  If you’re straight, you’ve probably never experienced the humiliation of being lectured by overzealous pastors about how your “lifestyle choice” is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.  When you showed up at prom with your date, your school officials did not tell you that you could not enter.  You’ve never had to worry about being brutally murdered because of your sexuality.

The recent Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriages legal across the land has certainly offended many people. (A less genteel blogger might call these people “bigots” or “homophobes”, but I try to hold myself to a higher standard.)  Is being offended the same as being stripped of your rights?  This meme seems to suggest that it is.  I contend that it is not.  If you are straight, you’ve got the same amount of rights that you have always had.  You are simply asked not to deprive others of the privileges you enjoy.

Republicans have the same rights as Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, and any other political party.  In fact, Republicans currently control both houses of Congress and many, many state legislatures, which makes this particular claim especially ludicrous.  Republicans’ rights aren’t going away anytime soon.

Why would somebody think that Republicans’ rights are being shorn away?  Oh right, because a person who occupies all five points of the American star of privilege – a great percentage of whom have Republican sympathies – is also the most likely to deny that he has any privilege at all.

Gun owners have gained rights, thanks to the tireless efforts of the NRA (No Regulations Anywhere) and other gun rights lobbying groups.  Contrary to the conservative-fueled paranoid fantasies of some gun owners, President Obama and his evil cronies have not seized guns from the hands of law-abiding citizens; in fact, many states have eased restrictions on gun ownership.  Every time a mass shooting occurs, reasonable suggestions regarding gun regulations are shouted down by people who fear that they will lose their completely necessary and not at all excessive private arsenal.

Look, I don’t care if you own a gun or two – I actually do feel that it’s your right.  I also feel that there should be ample documentation about exactly what kind of guns you own and where they’re located.  While most guns will not be used in the commission of a crime, it would be nice if there existed a national database by which the guns that were used could be tracked more easily.  I know that scares some gun owners – particularly because they’ve swallowed the aforementioned nonsense about having their guns taken away – but it’s time to put aside those irrational fears and dedicate yourself to creating a safer America.  If you won’t give up your guns – and believe me, nobody with any power is asking you to do so – then at least acknowledge their destructive power and fill out a few documents.

And for crying out loud, stop claiming that your rights are being erased.  You sound ridiculous.

Southerners – oh, poor, poor, Southerners; we’ve been lied to.  Not by the Northern Aggressors, but by our fellow Southerners.  We’ve been sold an image of the Confederacy as a nation of men with noble purposes and a longing to breathe free – not as slavers hell-bent on protecting their rights to own other people.  We’ve been told that the Confederate flag – which should be a long-dead relic of a flawed philosophy – is actually a symbol of Southern pride.  We’ve been told that we are in danger of losing our rights if state legislatures finally acknowledge the Confederate flag as the symbol of hate it always has been, and take the overdue step of removing it.  We’ve been told that the decisions of private enterprises to not sell Confederate flag merchandise is somehow a violation of our personal rights as citizens.  We’ve been told that we’re the victims of censorship.

We’ve been fed a load of racist bullshit, and too many of us are swallowing it without hesitation.

I’ve lived south of the Mason-Dixon line my entire life, but I’ve never really felt like a Southerner; just an American.  Perhaps that’s why I don’t quite get this feeling of Southern Victimization.  At no point have I felt that I wasn’t enjoying the maximum amount of rights bestowed to any American citizen.  I’ve never bought into the premise that I personally suffered because of where I was born and raised.

If America lived up to its own ideals of justice and equality for all, then this meme would be, say, 50% less odious; it would still be stupid, but not necessarily hateful.  But the fact that there are still people in this nation struggling to make their voices heard above the din of a social machine telling them to know their place, makes it especially arrogant for those of us blessed with privilege to claim otherwise.