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

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


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.



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


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.

Confederate Controversy Confusion

Confederate Flag 1Confederate Flag 2

On June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-American worshipers during a Bible Study at the historically-important Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  According to Roof’s own statements, the mass shooting was racially motivated; in fact, Roof apparently wanted to start a race war.

That Dylann Roof’s actions were motivated by racist bigotry should not be controversial – he told us so in unambiguous language – although, institutional racism being what it is, there are still media elements scrambling to repaint his actions as the symptoms of mental illness.  There are other aspects of the case up for debate, however.  Dylann Roof’s website contains pictures of Roof posing with a Confederate flag – much more on this in a moment – the flag often identified with the rebellion that led to the American Civil War.  The surfacing of Roof’s apparent Confederate sympathies has re-ignited a fierce debate about the lingering presence of Confederate flags in America, especially on government property.

Now before we continue, I would like to make one thing clear: take a look at the right-hand flag in the second meme above.  You’ll hear a lot of people referring to that flag as the Confederate flag, but it was never the official national flag of the Confederate States of America.  The rectangular flag sporting a blue St. Andrew’s Cross emblazoned with white stars, set against a red background, is more reminiscent of the the Second Confederate Navy Jack, used from 1863 to 1865, or the Army of Tennessee Battle Flag.  The Army of Northern Virginia used a similar battle flag, but it was square rather than rectangular.  YouTuber C.G.P. Grey has a video sorting out some of the confusion surrounding the various Confederate flags.

Still, for all the various flags that flew above the government and the armies of the Confederacy, the so-called rebel flag is what most people think of when one says Confederate flag.  Please, spare me the pedantic comments .  I know, okay?  I know.

As of this post, the Confederate battle flag still flies above government property in several states, including monuments to Confederate soldiers.  The horrific murders at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and Dylann Roof’s connection to the flag have caused many people to question why state governments are still displaying a symbol that, to many, represents racial hatred and slavery.  Defenders of the flag say that it’s not about hatred, but about Southern pride and heritage.  People who just wish the issue would go away complain about their free speech rights being trampled upon.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the historical revisionists who insist that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery anyway and who want to know why everybody’s getting so upset about it.

I thought it would be helpful – nay, necessary – to take a look at the claims being made or implied by these memes.

  • Claim: Dylann Roof is crazy.

It seems like an open-and-shut case: anybody who would brutally murder nine innocent people must be absolutely crazy; what else could you say about him?  To tell the truth, I don’t buy it.  Crazy is a hard word to define, and even harder to apply to a person.  I submit that the only disease in Dylann Roof’s mind was intense racial hatred.

  • Claim: The Confederate flag is being banned.

This is false.  The word banned implies that you do not have a choice about whether to fly a Confederate flag on your porch, or to adorn your mud-splattered pickup truck with a Confederate flag bumper sticker.  You still have a choice.  You can still get a Confederate flag tattoo on your forehead, and you can still wear your Confederate flag swim trunks.  Nobody is telling you that you cannot adorn every square inch of your body, vehicle, and home with Confederate flags.  You probably shouldn’t do that, but you can if you want to.  Your choice.

(Just so you’re aware: if you do walk around wearing a Confederate flag tee-shirt, other people have the choice to think of you as a racist douchebag.  Freedom all around, right?)

Here’s what’s really happening, alarmist meme maker.  Several state governments are considering voluntarily removing Confederate flags from government property.  They’re doing this because they realize the flag has a long connection with slavery and racism, and it’s upsetting to many of the people they claim to represent.  In an effort to be more inclusive and representative of all Americans, these states are choosing to distance themselves from the flag and its history.

The word banned might be used in connection with many retailers’ decision to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.  In that sense, corporate headquarters are banning their outlets from selling the flag.  But the flag itself is not banned in America.  That’s an important distinction to make.

  • Claim: Stomping on the American flag shouldn’t be protected speech (or the legality of stomping on the American flag is somehow connected to state governments’ decisions about flying the Confederate flag).

I guess this is a matter of opinion.  I personally have no desire to stomp on the flag, but like Evelyn Beatrice Hall, I feel very strongly that you should have the right.  People who conflate these two issues are missing the point.  Which leads me to my next quibble…

  • Claim: This is a free speech issue.

No it isn’t.  Once again, nobody is saying that you cannot make, purchase, own, or fly a Confederate flag in any of the fifty states.  Your personal rights to expression are not being infringed upon if South Carolina finally decides to pull down the Confederate flag that flies above the State Capitol grounds.  If Wal-Mart will not sell you a Confederate flag suspender thong, I’m sure you can find somebody who will.  Your life will continue, your rights unimpeded, just as before.

Of course, these aren’t the only erroneous claims made during the recent Confederate flag controversy.  If I may, I’d like to address a few other misconceptions you may have encountered in social media or at family gatherings.

  • Claim: The Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride, not racism.  Also, the Civil War was about states’ rights and high taxes; it was never about slavery until Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Regardless of the fact that some Southerners have adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of pride, the claim that it’s not also a racist symbol has never been true.  By its own admission, the Confederacy seceded from the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery.  The CSA committed itself from the outset to the idea that black people were inferior to white people, and that their “natural and normal condition” was to be enslaved to whites.  The Confederate battle flag waved over the army of a nation that considered slavery a “positive good“.

After the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag saw little use until it was resurrected in the 1940’s by a political party that strongly opposed desegregation.  Remind me again how it’s not a racist symbol?

The Tattooed Professor provides tons of links that brilliantly destroy Southern apologists’ arguments about the Civil War, slavery, and hate.  He also demonstrates the futility of engaging said apologists in debate.  If you have a friend or family member who peppers their Facebook wall with pro-Confederate memes, you might direct him to that post.  Don’t expect it to convince him, but at least you’ve introduced him to the truth.

  • Claim: The United States flag flew over a slave-holding nation much longer than the Confederate flag did, but you don’t see people clamoring to take that down.

Well, some people are.  But that’s not the point.

Yes it’s true: the United States of America has committed some horrible atrocities beneath the Stars and Stripes, including a prolonged period of racist slavery.  But while the Confederacy fought and died in defense of that peculiar institution, the United States as a nation matured and moved on.  The CSA is extinct; a testament to a failed philosophy based on racism and hatred.  The United States, for all its warts, lives on.  We’re not perfect – we never have been – but I think we’re trying to be.  Removing a symbol of racism and oppression from all government property would be a good step toward showing we’re committed to never returning to that dark past.

  • Claim: Northerners and black people owned slaves too, you know.

And now they don’t, at least in the United States.  How is this justification for the continued presence of the Confederate flag on government property?

  • Claim: Lincoln started the Civil War and blah blah blah I want the southern states to be justified in everything they’ve ever done: before, during, and after the Civil War.

Yeah, good luck with that.  The rest of us, including your more enlightened Southern peers, will continue to move forward without you.


I’ve discovered this website called Twitter.  I don’t know, it probably won’t take off.  Anyway, I’ve created an account there called @stupidbadmemes.  I have no idea what I’ll use it for, but if you’d like to find out along with me, feel free to check me out over there.

This Meme Is Pretending To Be Clever (But It’s Actually Stupid)

Caitlyn v Dolezal

This past week was a perfect storm for idiotic memes. The bizarre case of Rachel Dolezal, the former Spokane, Washington, NAACP President, exploded into public view, providing fodder for stand-up comics and provoking conversation about racial identity.  It was inevitable that somebody would make the connection between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, who inspired similar discussions about gender identity, but the truth is that these are separate stories, and deserve to be evaluated through separate lenses.

On a much darker note, the recent murders in Charleston, South Carolina, wrought a slew of memes addressing (and usually butchering) such sensitive topics as race relations, gun control, and mental illness.  In order to avoid belittling the severity of that horrific event, I’ll address some of those memes in a separate post.

Now I feel that there’s a grain of truth to this meme, but only a grain.  Public sentiment has been, on average, much kinder to Caitlyn Jenner than it has been to Rachel Dolezal.  This meme’s sin is suggesting that the two stories are, in essence, identical, and that the varied response from the public smacks of a double standard.

That’s utter nonsense.  The Caitlyn Jenner story is very different from the Rachel Dolezal story, although I suppose the kind of person who would share this meme isn’t interested in subtle yet important distinctions. Still, let’s take a look at what makes these women so different.

You’ll remember Caitlyn Jenner as the transgender woman – formerly known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic star athlete – who revealed her new look and name on a Vanity Fair cover last month.  For anybody still struggling with the concept, here’s what it means to be a transgender woman:

  • You were born male – that is, having XY chromosomes and male sexual organs, but
  • You more strongly identify with the female gender, so
  • You might undertake certain steps, ranging from hormone therapy to gender reassignment surgery, to come more in line with how you’ve always felt (and of course you don’t have to do any of these).

For the sake of completeness, here’s what it doesn’t mean to be a transgender woman:

  • Transgender women are not mentally ill – although the stress of having to hide their gender identity from their unaccepting peers can lead to mental illnesses like depression.
  • Transgender women are not necessarily gay; they may be into men, women, both, or they may have no particular sexual interest at all.

If you meet a transgender person – male or female – it’s considered polite to refer to that person using the pronouns of his or her adopted gender.  So in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, you should say she and her.  And in case you’re wondering why you have to say she when referring to Caitlyn Jenner, it’s because she wants you to.  How about you not be a dick about it?

Now about this meme: Is Caitlyn Jenner pretending to be a woman?  Well…no.  Caitlyn Jenner self-identifies as a woman.  The way I see it, there’s a real distinction between pretending and self-identifying.  When you pretend, you know that you’re not really the thing you’re pretending to be.  For example, I can pretend to be a police officer, or an astronaut, or a doctor, but I don’t really feel like any of those things.  I can even pretend to be a woman, but I would just be pretending because I am a cisgendered male; that is, I’m quite comfortable being the gender I was given at birth.  Lucky me.  But what if I really did feel like a woman?  What if I knew I wasn’t right as a male, despite what I saw between my legs?  See, Caitlyn Jenner isn’t pretending to be a woman; she’s finally decided to stop pretending that she’s a cis male.

For most people, sex is a binary situation: you are either male (XY) or female (XX).  Gender is not binary, however; it’s a gradient.  There is a whole spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations.  By the way, this spectrum has always existed.  It’s not that we’re inventing new ways for people to be genderqueer to irritate conservatives, it’s just that we’re finally recognizing what has always been part of the human condition.  Well, some of us are.  Anyway…

What can we say about Rachel Dolezal?  Is she pretending to be black?  That’s a much trickier question, isn’t it?

Unlike sex, ethnicity is a genetic gradient.  The metrics we use to identify a person’s ethnicity – skin color, facial features, hair characteristics, etc – are really present in a wide array of beautiful variation among the human population.  It is only socially that we try to divide race into distinct categories.  What’s the difference between a white woman and a black woman?  Genetically, not much at all.  Socially – everything.

Is it possible to be transracial, in the same way that a person might be transgender?  Could a person be born to white parents and raised as white, yet always have the feeling that he or she more strongly identified as black (or Asian, or Native American, etc)?

In a sense, I think that this is possible, although the issue is frought with thorny ethical questions.  A white person transitioning to an identity as a non-white person might be accused of cultural appropriation; that is, adopting the characteristics and mannerisms of a race that has been historically oppressed.  A non-white person identifying as white might not be accepted by either race.  (In honesty, these are the same challenges faced by a transgender person.)

Honesty…that’s the key.  If you want to know why Caitlyn Jenner’s story is more acceptable than Rachel Dolezal’s, you have to examine how honest each person has been with herself and with the public.

Rachel Dolezal now says she identifies as black, but that hasn’t always been her mantra.  At various times she has claimed to be black or biracial (even lying about her parentage).  She also claims to have been the victim of numerous hate crimes; documentation and evidence of these crimes has been sparse.  And of course she advanced to a leadership role in the NAACP based on false pretenses.  There’s nothing wrong with a white person interested in black equality, even working with the NAACP – in fact, I long for the day when all people are interested in racial equality, and organizations like the NAACP are anachronistic and unnecessary – but to lie your way into a position of leadership; well that’s simply beyond the pale, regardless of your racial identity.

Caitlyn Jenner, by contrast, has been very forthcoming about her biological sex and gender dysphoria.  Although she identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, she is not trying to deceive the public into believing a falsehood.  She is not advancing through the ranks of of a feminist organization on the pretense that she is genetically female.

If you cannot see the difference between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, then I assert that you are not interested in seeing the difference; presumably because doing so would challenge your belief that the world is simple and everything can be judged by one set of standards.  This is false.  The world is complex.  People are complex.  Even when it seems that there is a clear analogy between two peoples’ stories, it pays to look closer; to examine the details.  You might find out that humans are richly nuanced beings with strange and wonderful and terrible motivations, and then imagine – just imagine – how much more interesting the world will seem.

Water Relief It Is

Water Relief It Is

Before we dissect this meme and its medical revelations, I have a few announcements.

First, Happy 200th Post to Stupid Bad Memes!  Why is the number 200 significant?  I don’t know!  But hooray anyway!

Second, I would like to send a shout-out and a warm thank you to Deviant Art user BlameThe1st for writing a very kind review of Stupid Bad Memes last weekend.  While BlameThe1st and I may not agree on every political issue, we share a disdain for the face-smackingly stupid memes that are this blog’s bread and butter.  So thank you, BlameThe1st.  I really appreciate that.

Now then: water.  What is it?  Is it good for you, as so many people insist?  Or is it just a passing fad, like Atkins?  Will we still be talking about water in five years?

Yes.  Water is absolutely essential – to varying degrees – for every living thing on Earth.  Without water, your days are numbered…and that number is about three, on average.

Well then, you may be thinking, I guess that’s Case Closed.  The meme is correct!

Not so fast, hypothetical gun-jumper.  Yes, water is a necessary ingredient to life as we know it, but I am skeptical (Contain your shock.) about some – nay, all of the claims in this meme.  I decided to do a little research, which I would advise for anybody that’s considering passing on a meme.  And what did I discover?  I discovered that this meme, like so many other memes bearing medical advice, contains a certain percentage (approximately 100) of incorrect information.

Before I proceed, I would like to issue this caveat: in debunking this meme’s claims, I do not mean to imply that you shouldn’t drink water.  Of course you should!  Nor will I claim that the timing of your hydration breaks is unimportant; to wit, you should always drink extra water after a heavy workout, or if you’re in the grip of a stomach bug and have been puking prolifically.  However, you should not expect that following this meme’s advice will lower your lifetime chances of high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attacks.

Let’s start at the very beginning (which, according to my sources, is a very good place to start).

Drinking 2 glasses of water in the morning helps activate internal organs.

This is meaningless drivel.  Your internal organs do not require activation in the morning because they never deactivate at night.  If they did, you wouldn’t wake up.  Each of your organs continues to work, albeit in some reduced capacity, while you sleep.  And lest you think that the word activate can be taken to mean bring up to full capacity; no.  Upon your awakening, your body will naturally restore the full functioning of your internal organs, with or without additional hydration.

Now I would like to re-emphasize that you must consume water at some point during the day in order to continue functioning normally, but if you’re in decent health it does not make much difference whether you drink it immediately after waking up or later during the day.  Your organs will “activate” just fine.

Drinking 1 glass of water before a meal will help in digestion.

This point comes the closest to being “correct”, according to my research, but it still misses the mark by a tiny amount.  You won’t get a doctor to tell you that you shouldn’t drink water before a meal, but at least one doctor (Michael F. Picco, writing for suggests drinking during or after a meal to aid digestion.  I know, it’s picking nits to suggest that the meme is wrong for changing the order of drinking and eating, but I was unable to find any peer-reviewed research to suggest that a pre-meal glass of H2O would aid digestion more than drinking water during or after a meal.  Since the main point of the meme was to suggest that the timing of hydration was as important as the act of hydration, I give the meme no credit for this one.

Drinking 1 glass of water before a shower helps prevent high blood pressure.

This is a very peculiar claim to make.  Unless I’m reading it wrong, the meme seems to suggest that taking a shower without first drinking a glass of water will lead to an increase in blood pressure.  In fact, many doctors say that the opposite is true; a hot shower or bath actually causes your blood pressure to decrease.  The high temperature causes your blood vessels to dilate, which in turn eases the flow of blood and brings the pressure down.  But could drinking a glass of water before the shower actually accentuate this effect?

No.  Drinking water does almost nothing to change your blood pressure, because of how your body handles fluids. According to Dr Judith Airey, the misconception that drinking water reduces blood pressure stems from the fact that certain hypertension drugs are also diuretics – that is, chemicals that make you pee.  But that’s not all they do for you; in addition to making you pee more, they also eliminate sodium from your blood.  The fallacious logic goes like this: if the pee-pills work to decrease blood pressure, then drinking lots of water (which has the same effect) should work too.  Unfortunately, this isn’t true.

Simply drinking a lot of water will increase the amount of urine you produce, but not the amount of sodium that gets expelled with that urine.  Your body’s fluid control system works diligently to maintain your blood volume, which means that any excess water is simply shunted to the kidneys.  The non-water ingredients of urine get diluted, which is why drinking lots of water is likely to make your urine more clear.

Simply put, there’s no evidence that drinking water before, during, or after a shower has any additional effect on blood pressure (although the shower itself may lower your blood pressure if you have the temperature up high enough).  Shower with caution!

Drinking a glass of water before bed helps prevent strokes or heart attacks.

Doris Chung from the University of Washington labels this as a myth, for the following reason:

The American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other national health organizations, recommend several ways of decreasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke. These recommendations include keeping a healthy weight, staying physically active, eating healthy, managing stress, and refraining from smoking. Drinking a glass of water before bed is not on the list. If you have to wake up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom, Dr. Rosenfeld noted that this actually heightens your risk of heart attack and stroke because your sleep cycle is interrupted. Not getting enough sleep is linked to higher stress levels, increase in appetite, and cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods none of which are good for heart health and stroke prevention!

So there you go; contrary to the meme’s assertion, drinking a glass of water right before bedtime might actually increase your risk for stroke and heart attack (although I certainly wouldn’t publish or share a meme that makes this claim either, as I doubt the threat to public health is severe enough to warrant an anti-bedtime-water-drinking campaign).

Now I know what you’re thinking: So the meme’s claims are a bit spurious.  So what?  If people read this meme and drink more water, isn’t that a good thing?  Does it really matter if they’re mislead about the efficacy of drinking water at certain times of day?

It’s a good thing, and it’s not a good thing.  Drinking more water is probably good for everybody, but being credulous about the medical advice contained in memes is not a good thing.  This meme is a symptom of a peculiar critical thinking disorder I call Easyism – it afflicts people who believe that all of our woes can be solved by deceptively simple practices like, say, drinking water at the correct time.  Easyism also causes people to swear that baking soda can cure cancer, or that not buying gasoline on one day will cause gas prices to drop.  Easyism is embraced by people who want to see a change in the world, but who don’t want to do anything substantive to cause that change.

If you’re not living a healthy life, you’ve got to make changes – perhaps difficult changes – to get to where you want to be.  If you’re not drinking enough water, you should definitely drink more.  But…if you’re already drinking plenty of water, please don’t be fooled into thinking that something as simple as altering your hydration schedule will take you down the path to better health.  You owe it to yourself to be better informed than that.