Grief Shaming – Robin Williams and PZ Meyer’s Priorities

By now it isn’t news that Robin Williams killed himself earlier this week.  Facebook feeds have been filled with grief and anguish over the passing of such a well renowned and loved comedian.  Movie clips and stand-up segments from all parts of Williams’ career are being shared and watched, laughed at and cried over.  I can’t think of a single celebrity who’s death have affected so many of us so deeply.  Even legendary stars like Paul Newman or Peter O’Toole didn’t create such a fervor over their passing.  Robin Williams was almost universally loved and respected, and now he is being almost universally mourned.

It’s often hard to find the silver lining when it comes to someone’s death, but in Williams case I think it’s been amazing to see how much frank and honest discussion about mental illness his suicide has inspired.  The dark irony is not lost on people that a man who brought joy and laughter to so many eventually succumbed to his own depression.  There was a brilliant article on the usually lighthearted Cracked.com about comedians and depression, and about how those who most make us laugh usually do so from a place darkness and pain that they’re constantly trying to hide from.

I’ve also seen an stirring amount of compassion online.  People have been reaching out everywhere to make sure that those  who battles depression know that they’re not alone, that there’s help out there, and that they’re loved and wanted.  Some who do face mental illness issues are discussing openly and frankly about the challenges they face.  An article by JT Eberhard featuring a video by Sky Williams is particularly moving, in my opinion.

In short, while it came at great cost, William’s suicide is doing a lot to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness.  Hopefully the lessons we’re learning stick.

Of course, not all the reactions are so positive.  There are bloogers who refuse to understand the way a depressed persons’ own brain can turn against them, and empty-headed pundits callous enough turn tragedy into a political talking point.  There always has to be one asshole who has to make it more about themselves.  Rush Limbaugh, however, wasn’t even the worst.

Disappointingly, the most atrociously insensitive piece I read about Williams came instead from the atheist community, namely PZ Meyers.  Meyers wrote a short piece not long after Williams’ death called, “Robin Williams brings joy to the hearts of journalists and politicians once again” in which he argues that the politicians and media outlets both are shamelessly capitalizing on Williams’ death to distract people from more important stories, most significantly, that of the killing of 18 year old Mike Brown by police in Missouri.  It’s a cynical and condescending piece with a clear subtext that suggests if you care about Robin Williams death, you’re not paying attention to what’s important in the world.  I don’t want to spend too much time on PZ’s article, but if you’re interested, there are some brilliant responses by Terry Firma, JT Eberhard, and Jerry Coyne (I particularly encourage you to read Jerry Coyne’s piece, it features a touching story involving Stephen Fry).  I’m sure there are countless others as well.

But there’s an underlying problem here I do want to discuss, namely that of grief shaming.  I see this often when it comes to celebrity deaths, though it can happen in less public ways as well.  Basically, it boils down to this:  Tragedy happens, and people who are affected by it react and a reasonable and understandable way.  However, those who aren’t affected start to resent those who are grieving for focusing on what they think of as something immaterial.  “Why could you care so much about some dumb actor when there are people being executed daily by extremists in Iraq?” is usually how this sentiment goes.

When it coms to celebrity deaths, there seems to be an inverse correlation between the popularity of the celebrity and the backlash against those who mourn their loss.  Robin Williams was almost universally loved, so only the particularly misanthropic – like PZ Meyers – bemoan the public reaction.  Heath Ledger was also pretty well respected, and the tragedy of his death was compounded by the lost potential of an actor who was, for the first time, revealing his incredible depth of talent.  But since Ledger wasn’t as popular as Williams, it wasn’t entirely uncommon to see grumbling about our misguided cultural focus on celebrity.

The time I remember grief shaming to be at it’s all time worst was after the death of Paul Walker last year.  I think I saw more complaints that anyone would dare care about some low-rate B movie star when there was so much more important going on through the world.  People complained that his movies were terrible, and that anyone who grieved over his death should get their priorities straight.

In all these cases, there seems to be an underlying assumption that grief follows objective logical rules.  Person A is this important, and is therefore worthy of this much grief.  Person B is this closely associated with the deceased, and therefore is allowed to mourn a bit more than everyone else.  Etc. etc.  This article from a funeral director explains it eloquently.

“And I admit, I’m guilty of the same type of grief shaming and grief measuring.  There’s been a few times when I’ve walked into a nursing home, hospital or home to see the grandchildren and children weeping over the body of a 90+ year old deceased person.  And I want to say, “You know last week I buried a 15 year old boy who was struck by a car … that family has a right to grieve, but this person that you’re crying over … this person has lived 90 full years of life.”

 

Grief, however, isn’t logical, or objective.  Grief is complex, it’s emotional, and it’s messy.  We can’t decide who we get emotionally attached to, and we can’t chose how someone’s passing will affect us.

I was honestly quite surprised how much Paul Walker’s death affected me.  It’s not as if I was a devoted fan, I just liked one or two of his movies.  But when he died, so young and so pointlessly, it affected me.  When I read stories like the time he saw a young couple shopping for an engagement ring, and when he found out that the husband was deploying to Iraq, anonymously paid $10,000 for their ring, it affected me.  When I think that he was generally regarded as a likable, fun person who never did anyone any harm, and who made movies that were silly stupid fun, but nevertheless entertained people, it affected me.  And when I read all over the place that I had my priorities wrong because I mourned his passing, it pissed me off.  A lot.

I can’t for the life of me see the effective difference between writing an article online belittling someone’s grief over a celebrity and bursting in on someone’s funeral and telling a mourning family that there’s more important things going on in the world, they should just get over it, dammit!

This is not to say that what’s going on in the world isn’t important.  The situation in Ferguson, MO is getting frighteningly out of hand.  What’s happening in the Middle East is also horrifying.  There is a lot going wrong in the world right now.  Our grief over Robin Williams, doesn’t change any of that, though.  Nor can any of that lessen the pain we feel over our loss.  To belittle, judge, or criticize somebody for their grief shows a disturbing lack of empathy, and if there’s anything this world needs right now, it’s more empathy.

The Blogman Cometh… again.

Wow. It’s been awhile. So, my apologies to everybody who reads my blog regularly – or at least did read it regularly, since there hasn’t been anything to read for a few months. After getting an actual job I found I just didn’t have the time to keep up with the blog. Also, I spend a lot of my time working on Ask an Atheist now (on the air every Sunday, stream at Askanatheist.tv iTunes, or other podcast services /shamelessplug), which gives me an outlet for my atheist activism.

Let me pull back the curtain a little bit. I’ve never been one who can do the quick hit blog. I have so much respect for guys Hemant Mehta and JT Eberhard who can write 5 posts a day. For me, I just don’t have it in me to write a 200 word piece and move on to the next bit of news. My style is much more involved. if you look at all my posts, you’ll rarely find anything under 1000 words. Some of them were upwards of 3000 words. I know blogs tend to be shorter, but if I’m going to spend my time writing about a subject, I want to explore that subject thoroughly. It’s something I’ve been criticized for in the past, but that’s just my writing style.

When I write a post, it’s an involved process, usually taking a number of hours. When I was at my most active last winter, I was consistently writing 3 posts a week. Every one of those posts included a couple hours of reading news stories to find something I wanted to write about, followed by a couple more hours of researching so that I wasn’t talking out of my ass and making sure I had good sources for what I was writing (that’s why my posts tend to be very link heavy). Then there was a couple hours to write a draft, revise, clean up and generally make sure the post is up to the standard I want.

Hell, this post is a perfect example. I sat down with the intention of writing just a couple quick sentences to say that I’m back. Now here I am 4 paragraphs in.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the average post takes me 6 to 7 hours worth of work. This isn’t a complaint, I loved doing it. But when I got a job, even though it was part-time, finding 7 free hours wasn’t nearly as easy. So I stopped writing.

However, I miss it. I’ve adjusted my schedule, and I think I might have found enough time to get back to writing. I certainly have a subject or two that I feel the need to sound off on. I can’t promise that I’ll get back to three posts a week. Doing the math, that was 18 to 21 hours a week I was putting in, which is a part-time job in and of itself (and one that doesn’t pay all that great, either). But keep an eye out, and hopefully I can get some regular posts up again. Look for something today or tomorrow.

Jesus supposedly was resurrected after 3 days. My blog will have to settle for waiting 5 months for it’s resurrection.

A Review of Here and Now, by Jeff Stilwell

We atheists have produced a lot of literature, especially in recent years.  From the heavy philosophical tomes of Christopher Hitchens, the ruthless criticisms of Sam Harris, and the scientifically focused works of Lawrence Krauss or Richard Dawkins to the more personal journeys of Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt, and even the biting satire of the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  The bookstore is one place where there’s no lack of atheist representation.  You can find deconversion stories, historical arguments, debating tools, and countless tips for getting a leg up the next time you run into a theist.  What’s harder to find, though, is art.  Author and artist Jeff Stilwell is trying to change that with his book Here and Now.

HN.Cover

The book is touted as a whimsical take on God featuring Stilwell’s skateboarding alter-ego, Thrashin’ Jack.  Using simplistic, minimalist illustrations and uncomplicated language, Stilwell spends the first half of the book telling the story of the rise of religion.  He describes early Mesopotamian gods, and the rise of monotheism, eventually culminating in the three Abrahamic religions.  While this book’s history is accurate, it’s never intended to be academic in nature.  Stilwell writes in very broad strokes, but does so in a way that keeps his themes clear.

My first instinct when reading this book was to dismiss it.  I will admit that the artwork doesn’t really work for me.  It had neither the clean simplicity of an xkcd comic, nor whimsy of Dr. Seuss.  Instead it falls somewhere in-between that just seems messy to me.  And the history lacked enough detail to keep me interested.  At best, I was just going to say that I clearly wasn’t the intended audience for this book.  But then I got to the second half of the book.

The first half of the book set the stage.  The second half of the book uses that set up to explore themes like religions place in today’s society, the intersection of morals and death, and our place in the universe.  While the elementary level language and comic-strip style artwork makes it easy to miss the complex ideas just under the surface, there are deep currents hiding beneath what at first glance seems like a very shallow experience.

Stilwell has deftly put together a great primer for understanding an atheist worldview.  Where Hitchens and Dawkins put believers on the defensive with brutal attacks on religious thinking, this book takes a different approach.  It manages to build a foundation to explain atheist ideas without being threatening.  I could see a lot of people using this book as a tool to help friends and family members understand why they think how they do.  Also, because it’s so accessible, it would be valuable for introducing atheist ideas to kids.

However it might be used, Here and Now is a valuable addition to the body of atheist literature.

Here and Now is available for Kindle right here.

I got the chance to sit in on an interview with Jeff Stilwell on an episode of Ask an Atheist.  You can listen to it here.

The Commercial that made me cry, and why I almost missed it.

Over the past few days, I’ve seeing a link to a video pop up on my facebook feed occasionally.  It was usually tied to some click-bait headline like, “You won’t believe what happens in this video!”  So I, of course, scrolled right past.  I seriously hate that type of manipulative headline, because usually it’s written to drive traffic to an otherwise pedestrian video or article.  It seems every time I click on one of those links I’m left disappointed.  Hell, sometimes the content is even something I would normally enjoy, but I’m still left with a sense of irritation that whatever link didn’t deliver the insane level of magnificence the headline promised.

Today I was reading through one of my favorite blogs when the video popped up there.  That made me actually interested in knowing what was in that video.  With all due respect to my facebook friends – all of which I love – they tend to post a lot of stuff that doesn’t interest me in the slightest.  This blog, however, is run by somebody I trust.  When he posts something, it’s usually something I’ll be interested in. And if it’s frivolous, he will freely admit that right up front, giving me the option to skip past if I’m not interested.

Unfortunately I was reading on my phone while at a restaurant, so I couldn’t play the video right then.  (Side note:  If you play videos or music in public places like restaurants or coffee shops without headphones, you deserve a place in hell.  And that’s coming from a guy who started a blog to discuss how ideas like hell are harmful.  Don’t fucking do it.)

Getting back on track, the blogger was discussing an advertisement he came across that he thought was noteworthy.  When I got home and got the chance to watch it myself, I couldn’t agree more.  Here it is:

Hey, that was cool.  It’s saying that families are families, even those that don’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting.  A gay couple with a baby?  That’s a family.  An interracial couple with a few kids?  That’s also a family.

An idea like that shouldn’t be too controversial.  Don’t we live in a world of vast diversity?  Don’t we celebrate our differences as we notice those little things we have in common?

The unfortunate answer to those questions are disappointingly predictable.  Here’s some of the comments found below that ad on YouTube.

Some school teachers and many TV programs are corrupting the minds of our children and grandchildren. They hear evil called good and good called evil on a daily basis (Isaiah 5:20). We are now living in a world where the wickedness of man is great and it is getting harder every day to bring our loved ones out of it.”

i dont give a fuck if you are gay but you cant raise baby without a MOM”

The mixed MARRIED couple is honorable in the eyes of GOD!! But the gay couple is dishonorable. Seriously. Butt sex? Two penises? Ugh. Why do some equate these differences as the same? Keep the Gay stuff UNDERGROUND!!!!!!”

I know I shouldn’t hope for much, especially in the comments section on YouTube.  To paraphrase something I heard Wil Wheaton say once, YouTube comments sections are the place on the internet that makes people say, “Woah, I’m going back to fourchan where people are reasonable.”

But still, I was disappointed in humanity.  To take such a simple and beautiful concept, and turn it into something so ugly… It’s moments like this that I remember why I started a blog in the first place.

Apparently, Honey Maid, the makers of the original ad, agreed with me, and weren’t willing to let that ugliness stand unchallenged.  So they put together another little video, the one I kept ignoring on facebook, and now I’m sad that I did.  This video brought me to actual literal tears.  Watch it, and feel a little better about the world.  I know I did.

Shit.  I think I need to go buy some Teddy Grahams.

——–

I don’t want to take away from the beauty of that ad.  It’s amazing, and I’m proud to write a post highlighting it.  It’s my way of giving it a significant spot in my little corner of the internet.

However, I do want to make another small point here.  And I will admit that this is a silly, superficial thing to rant about, but I’m going to do it anyway.

I would’ve seen this video sooner if it weren’t for click-bait websites.  I’m sick to death of every little mediocre listicle and wannabe viral video being touted as the greatest, most life-changing experience you’ll ever have.  It not only insults the intelligence of those of us who actually do spend a lot of time on the internet looking for meaningful, important, and impactful content.  It also makes it harder to find the worthwhile stuff out there.

I understand the idea of generating traffic.  Sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy make their money by selling advertising based on the number of hits they get.  It’s in their best interest to get as many as possible, and they’ve found that headlines like, “This Little Girl Got a Cut, What Happens Next Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity,” will draw more hits than, “Man Ready With Band-Aid When Girl Gets Cut.”  In the realm of the internet, pageviews are the most valuable currency.

Hell, I’m no different.  I love following my own stats page.  I love to finding out how many people have been reading my work, and even how many different countries they come from.  But I refuse to misrepresent what I’m offering.  This is a blog with the opinions of one (awesome) guy who doesn’t like religion very much and enjoys the occasional sporting event.  That’s all you’re gonna find here.

Misleading headlines, hyperbole, and click-baiting tactics are only diluting the quality of content on the internet, and that’s disappointing for all of us.  Especially when there’s amazing stuff like what I posted above waiting out there that people aren’t going to find because they, like me, get too jaded by seeing one too many pedestrian articles touted as the greatest thing ever.

Talk is cheap – Why I still don’t trust Pope Francis

It’s been over a year since Bishop Jorge Bergoglio was raised to the position of Bishop of Rome and adopted the name Pope Francis.  It’s been a good year for him and for the church.  He’s celebrated as a forward thinking Pope who is doing a lot to change the regressive culture of the Catholic Church.  He’s a religious rock star, and seems to be singlehandedly changing the image of the Church.

I, however, am not convinced.

But wait!  Of course the atheist guy isn’t gonna like him, that’s just obvious, right?  I mean, he’s the friggin’ Pope.  It’s not like there’s a whole lot of common ground for us to work with.  I assure you, when I criticize Francis, I don’t do it because I’m unable to see any good in a religious leader.   On the contrary, I really wanted to believe in this Pope.  When I listened to him talk, I thought perhaps he could actually change the course of the Church, and make it into something that does more good than harm in the world… obvious personal disagreements in belief aside.

Admittedly, Francis talks a good game.  He seems unafraid to change the tone of the conversation and seems to deal fairly with people of all faiths.  Hell, he’s even said a nice thing or two about us atheists and heathens.

But when you really look a little closer, it seems that all he does is talk.  There is no actual, tangible change in the Catholic Doctrine or the way the church acts.

Take a look, for example, at his attitude towards gays.  Last July, he famously remarked, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”  I would go as far as to say that’s downright revolutionary language for the leader of a church that has been at the forefront of fighting against gay equality at every turn.  Even Pope John Paul II, who was generally regarded as a kindhearted and respectful Pope, endorsed a letter called On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons which clarified the Church’s position that homosexuality is, “an intrinsic moral evil,” and an “objective disorder.”  (For the record, psychological experts – who have actual expertise on the subject of disorders – clearly state that homosexuality is not one, but why should we believe people who actually study this stuff over what the Church says?)

In fact, Pope Francis himself led opposition to marriage equality in his home nation of Argentina before he became Pope.  As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he mobilized Catholics to fight against the legalization of gay marriage, and even personally wrote to legislators to urge them not to vote in favor of equality.  He said,

Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just its form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God … Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment… May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.”

To be clear, unless he has a different definition for the term “father of lies” than most Christians in the world, he believed that marriage equality was a move made by Satan to weaken families.

But that was four years ago, and I’ll be the first to admit that some of my views have changed in the last four years, so it’s perfectly reasonable to believe the Pope’s could have as well.  Now he says, “who am I to judge?”  He even said in another interview that the church seemed “obsessed” with issues like gay marriage, and that it should instead focus on helping people; a sentiment that even this ornery atheist can get behind.

So yes, he’s said a lot of nice things, but what exactly has he done?  Not much, it turns out.  While he says all sorts of nice things, he’s never made an actual change in doctrine.  On the other hand, he allegedly ordered a Bishop in Malta to continue to speak out against a law allowing civil unions.

Then there’s the case of Father Gary Reynolds, a priest in Melbourne, Australia who was an advocate for both gay marriage and the ordination of women.  Reynolds, who has never done more then speak in support of either issue was defrocked and excommunicated by the Church, and did so with Francis’ knowledge, if not at his order.

It seems when it comes to the gays, when Francis asks, “Who am I to judge?” he answers with, “The mothafuckin’ Pope, that’s who.” (citation needed)

Admittedly, expecting the Catholic Church to change it’s views about gay rights might be asking a lot.  Even if Francis says the right things about gays, perhaps it’s too much to ask for complete turnaround on their stance.  But what about another issue that’s plagued the church for years.  An issue with no moral ambiguity.  I’m speaking, of course, about the Church’s problem with child abuse.

It seems the last few years has been filled with story after story of the Church covering up cases of abuse by clergy.  They’ve moved priests who abused children to other parishes, allowing them to continue to abuse again, all while shielding them from secular authorities.  Francis’ predecessor was even accused of enforcing a doctrine that ordered the protection of abusive priests over the welfare of their victims, though the Vatican denies it.

To make things worse, even when the Church is ordered by the court to pay restitution to victims, Church leaders used a variety of methods to hide funds so as to avoid paying victims.

This seems like an easy one.  If the Pope is as determined to improve the Church’s image, he should make it unquestionably clear that any priest who abuses anyone, sexually or otherwise, will be immediately turned over to local authorities.  Also, order all diocese to fulfill all their financial obligations to the victims of abuse.

So is that what Francis did?  Not exactly, though he did more than just talk.  He ordered the formation of a commission which included Vatican lawyers, psychological experts, and even a former victim to advise the Church on how to best protect children and stop abuse.  That’s definitely a step in the right direction, if a minor one.  The commission has no actual authority, and only can advise the Church.

But then again, perhaps the Pope doesn’t understand the magnitude of the problem, or how it’s affecting the way people view the Church.  Strangely, Francis seems to be completely out of touch with the history of the Church on this issue.  He claimed,

The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.”

That’s patently absurd.  It is well established that the Church not only covered up abuses, but willfully shielded abusive priests from secular authorities.  And while it’s true that Pope Benedict defrocked over 400 priests over the scandal, what he didn’t do was turn them over to police.

Things don’t seem to be changing under Francis, either.  He may have formed a committee to advise him, that committee says priests are under no obligation to report abuse to secular authorities.  So even under the control of this new, kinder, more accepting Pope, the Vatican considers their image more important that justice for the abused.

This is the crux of it.  The Church claims to be the ultimate standard of moral authority, yet can’t even figure out that turning pedophiles over to the police is the right thing to do.  The moment the Church decided protecting priests who abuse children instead of children who are abused, it not only forfeited the right to be seen as any standard of morality, but it also became accomplices to the crimes of it’s clergy.

Why would the Pope even need a committee to advise him in the first place?  Abusing anyone, children or otherwise, is not only patently immoral, but also illegal.  If someone under his authority commits a crime, the right thing to do would be turn them in.  It doesn’t take a doctrine of infallibility to figure that one out.

Pope Francis gets a lot of credit.  He’s the darling of the media, was named Person of the Year not only in Time, but also in the gay rights magazine, The Advocate.  He topped Fortune Magazine’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, and both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert love him.  And  to some degree I get why; he talks a good game.  I’ve said before, I want to like him.  I want to think he’s capable of dragging the Catholic Church into the modern world.

Unfortunately, his words – no matter how admirable – are outweighed by his actions.  Pope Francis may speak like a reformer, but he acts just like any other Pope.  In a way, that’s even worse.  When it came to Francis’ predecessor, Pope Palpatine XVI, there were no surprises.  He was unapologetically regressive.  Francis, however, seems so different.  If only he’d start acting that way.

Well, at least he said nice things about atheists.  I hope he really meant it that time.

 

A lesson in Legalities – Understanding how School Prayer laws work.

There’s a lot of myths and misconceptions out there about how the law and religion intersect.  Often, it seems to me, there’s a lot of screaming and shouting without any attempt to understand what the law actually says.  I think one of the most important examples of this is the school prayer debate.    I use the word “debate” hesitantly, because the fact is that the law is fairly clear in most cases on what is and what is not allowed as far as prayer and proselytizing in schools are concerned.

First, prayer is allowed in school.  Let me repeat that.  Prayer is allowed in school.  If a student wants to pray over his or her meal during lunch, that’s allowed.  Not only is it allowed, but any attempt to stop said child from praying would be in direct violation of that child’s freedom of speech and religious expression.  Students can do whatever the hell they want as far as prayer goes.  If they want to get a group of like-minded students and have prayer sessions every day between classes, all power to them.  Nobody can, nor should stop them.  This is why student can meet once a year for a big group prayer event called See You at the Flagpole.  So long as students are organizing it, there is nothing the school can or should do to stop it.

However, students are not allowed to disrupt class time or any other event with prayer (or in any other way, for that matter).  If in the middle of math class, a group of students all stood up and started praying, it’d be perfectly acceptable for teachers or administrators to put a stop to it.  It would be no different than if a student were sent off for discipline for shouting obscenities during class.  It’s the interruption of other students’ learning environment that’s at issue.

What the laws against school prayer were designed to stop was faculty led prayer.  Teachers are not, under any circumstances, allowed to lead their students in prayer.  Teachers are representatives of the school, and by proxy of the U.S. Government, and the Constitution and court precedent is very clear that the government is not allowed to favor one religion over another, or belief over non-belief.  Any school official who leads students in prayer does so in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

This includes football coaches leading their teams in prayer, or schools inviting religious leaders to speak at school events, and that’s how it should be.  Even the people who are trying to get prayer put back into schools would probably be aghast at the thought of a Muslim teacher making kids face Mecca and pray to Allah a few times a day.  While that’s speculation, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable assertion.  Just look at a couple years ago when Louisiana passed a school voucher program, only to be horrified to find out that it would support Muslim schools just as it would Christian ones.

Conservative lawmakers regularly try to write legislation to get around the Constitutional roadblocks to teacher-led school prayer.  Recent attempted laws in Kansas and Alabama as well as other states are written specifically to allow prayers in school.  These laws include language which would allow students who don’t wish to be a part of such prayers to leave the room, but that only further isolates students who don’t believe what the majority of their peers do.

There are even schools out there that are perfectly willing to ignore the law as it suits them.  When the parents of a Buddhist student in Louisiana complained to the district about how their son was being preached to in class, the superintendent suggested the student move to another school that had “more asians.”

Public schools are an extension of the government, and the government shouldn’t be taking sides on religion.  To paraphrase a quote I heard from David Silverman:  Religious freedom means you get to believe what you want to believe, and I get to believe what I want to believe.  The government represents us both, and shouldn’t take sides either way.

There are some grey areas, though.  What about a valedictorian leading a prayer during graduation?  What about a student leading a crowd in a prayer before the beginning of a sporting event?  Issues like that are a bit more difficult to solve.  On one hand, you have a student’s right to freely express themselves, but on the other you have the rights of other students to be a part of school activities without being forced to take part in religious acts.  It’s a tough one to figure out, and smarter people than me have attempted to settle the issue.

A long time ago, I heard a story about a student who was giving her valedictorian speech during graduation, and when she mentioned Jesus, her mic was immediately cut.  In the past, I’ve said that I wholeheartedly support that student’s right to say whatever she wanted.  Since she was neither a representative of the district, or in any way in its employ, her remarks should in no way be considered as endorsed by the district.  She worked hard to become valedictorian, and she had the right to say whatever she wanted.

I’ve since come back from that opinion, but only a little.  I think that it’s important to know what she was actually saying.  If she wanted to thank Jesus for her success, or give credit to god for where she was, that should be her right.  But if she ever crossed the line to proselytizing she should’ve been stopped.  Being valedictorian doesn’t give her the right to preach to a captive audience using the school’s time and resources.  While she has the rights to her beliefs, the students listening to her speech have the right not to be preached at.

I can’t be sure what was in the content of her speech – and honestly, I don’t trust the source I linked to above for anything more than the most basic facts; it was a very biased article.  But from what I can gather, the school tried to err on the side of caution by banning any religious content in the speech, and I don’t think that was the right course.

Having said that, there’s also the case of the Texas school that voted every year whether to allow students to use the intercom to pray before football games.  The Supreme Court decided that doing so would unfairly force students to take part in prayer if they wanted to go to the game.  The fact that the students voted on whether or not to do it had no bearing.  A person’s freedom to not take part in prayer is a right, and can’t be voted away.

There are those who might see this as nothing more than an intellectual exercise.  Understand that people who fight religious encroachment in their schools often do so at a heavy price, even with the law at their side.  When Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island high school student (note that Rhode Island isn’t exactly in the bible belt), sued her school to get a mural to “Our Heavenly Father” removed, she was subjected to harassment and threats of violence, rape, and even death.  She even needed a police escort to school for a time, and her own governor called her an “evil little thing.”

More recently, a student in North Carolina fought her school for the right to start a secular student group.  When the school finally relented, the girl and her family faced so many threats that they decided not to start the club.  School prayer may seem like an insignificant issue to most people, but for those fighting against religious intrusion in their schools, the cost is all too real.

Prayer in school, contrary to popular belief, is absolutely legal.  School-led prayer, however, is not.  It’s important for people to understand the simple, yet significant, difference.  It’s no different than the rest of the country.  You can pray all you want, but you can’t make anyone else who doesn’t choose to.  It’s no different for schools, and if you think about about it, would you want it any other way?

Still not Welcome – Liberalism, Atheism, and the West Wing

Allow me to start this post with an incredibly controversial statement.  Binge-watching TV is awesome.  Ever since I got Netflix, I’ve experienced the joy of spending a couple weeks watching an entire run of a TV series.  Sometimes it’s something old that I wasn’t as familiar with as I wished to be like the original Star Trek.  Sometimes it’s something everyone’s been telling me about like Doctor Who or Breaking Bad.  And sometimes it’s spending some time with old friends like Star Trek The Next Generation.  Hell, sometimes it’s finding out something I loved once upon a time doesn’t hold up (trust me, don’t go back and watch MacGuyver – your memories are much better than the real experience).  Okay, I’m starting to sound like and advertisement.  Sorry about that.  It’s just… I love this stuff.

Anyway, my latest show is The West Wing, the classic Aaron Sorkin series about the inner workings of the White House staff.  The show is incredibly sharp and well written.  It’s got that charm that Sorkin brings to pretty much all of his work.  But there’s one way in particular that it really strikes me. It reminds me of Tom Clancy.

Wait, what?

Bear with me for a moment.  I love Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels.  They’re fun and adventurous.  They’ll never be accused of being high literature, but as far as airplane reading goes, they’re pretty damn fine books.  What I find most compelling about Tom Clancy’s novels are how they’re the idealized world of a conservative ideology.  Clancy, who was a pretty strong conservative during his life, wrote his books from a viewpoint that made sense to him.  He wrote business leaders and military men as proud and honorable people, and stressed the importance of duty and family over politics.  When I read a Clancy novel, I feel like I’m seeing the world as it makes sense to a conservative.  I see how all the parts are supposed to work.

The West Wing is that for liberals.  The Bartlet administration is the idealized image of how the world works from a liberal point of view.  Ideas are challenged and weighed on their merits, and politicians nobly work for the betterment of society and mankind.  Since I’m still early in the show (only  a few episodes in to the 2nd season) I don’t know what changes there will be in the post 9/11 episodes, but for the time being the show represents a liberal government that works effectively to help people.

Before I get into the point I want to make, I want to say that both of these stories appeal to me, though I think neither of them are realistic.  Both liberal and conservative ideologies have their shortcomings, and neither of these worlds address those effectively.  Which is fine, that’s not the point of them.  That doesn’t change the fact that whether your liberal or conservative, if you want to see what the world looks like from the other side – without straw men or a ton of hyberbole – these stories are great sources for that.

Get to the point, Dave!

Okay, okay, I’m getting there.  Today I watched an episode of the West Wing called “Shibboleth” and was left with a surprising sense of sadness at the end.  In it there was a subplot about an attempt to appoint the White House Chief of Staff’s sister to the Department of Education with the sole purpose of starting a fight with Congress over school prayer.  Without going into too much detail, the head speech writer, Toby, wanted to try to appoint the woman, who was staunchly against organized school prayer, because he knew the conservatives in Congress would opposed it.  Eventually Toby is forced to let go of the idea when some Congressmen he was talking to produced a photo of the woman breaking up a prayer at a high school football game by involving the police.

The key conversation was when Toby and Chief of Staff, Leo, are discussing why Toby wanted to start this fight in the first place.  He said he was doing it for the 4th grader who was being bullied because he refused to take part in a mandatory prayer.  He said that school prayer was another way to separate and isolate kids.  Leo’s response was, “What did they do to you, Toby?”

That line bothered me a lot.  It’s all too common that atheists are dismissed as having a bad childhood or some trauma that made them hate god.  The implication is that people can’t develop an atheist position by thought and reason, but must have an emotionally traumatic experience.  It’s not only wrong, but it’s also insulting.  It’s an attempt to take away a person’s agency.  It’s basically saying that to be an atheist, you have to be hurt and angry.  There certainly couldn’t be perfectly logical reasons someone might be an atheist.  Something must have happened to them.  This situation happened to J.T. Eberhard recently, and he wrote about it just yesterday.  It’s something most atheists are accused of at some point, if not with regularity.

As a quick side note, I’d like to point out that at no time was there a traumatic experience that caused me to question my faith.  On the contrary, when I was a teenager, I was given the choice to be confirmed in my parent’s faith or find one of my own.  After learning more about what Christians believe, I decided I couldn’t agree with it.  It was with careful thought and consideration that I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t believe in any deity.

In the West Wing episode, Toby was faced with the same accusation.  And keep in mind, he’s not atheist:  the show makes it very clear that Toby is a practicing Jew.  But Leo had to ask him what sort of trauma he faced just for wanting to take a stand against organized prayer in school – which, let us be clear, is illegal.  It never occurred to Leo that Toby might want to fight against school prayer because it’s the right thing to do.

To be fair, it was pointed out to me by my wife that the context of the conversation implied that Toby was taking this fight very personally.  The writers might have been hinting at some real trauma he faced in his past that makes him passionate about this issue, though they never explicitly said it.  But if that’s true, isn’t that even worse?  That would mean the writers themselves believe this argument – believe that Toby would have to have something in his history to make him want to stand up against school prayer.

Usually the show deals with issues in a very straightforward manner.  Intelligent people debate the merits of why one stance is better.  Occasionally they’ll cover something a little harder, and with more arguing.  Sometimes – and in the most interesting episodes, I think – they’re forced to go against they’re better judgement for political necessity.  But it’s not often that an issue is treated as if it’s only an emotional overreaction.

The main plot in the episode was about what the President would do about  almost a hundred refugees from China who stowed away on a container ship, and were asking for asylum in the US on religious grounds.  The refugees claimed to be Evangelical Christians, and the President had to decide if they were true believers or just faking belief to stay in America.  Faith was a major theme in the episode, and the President, who is a devout Catholic, praises the value of the faith throughout.  That alone doesn’t bother me greatly; it’s a consistent character trait, and a reasonable one to expect from a president.  But when juxtaposed with the school prayer subplot, the entire message took on a different meaning for me.

As I said earlier, the West Wing is an idealized representation of liberalism.  I consider myself  a moderate, but with distinct liberal leanings.  I tend to vote Democrat, and I have very strong opinions about social justice.  If I were to choose a team, it would definitely be team left.  But this episode made me sad because I was left with the feeling that this idealized version of liberal government didn’t want me.  I had no place there, and would’ve been seen as an extremist or crazy.  To paraphrase a line from my wife, I would at best be invisible in this world, and at worst be a villain.

Admittedly, this episode was written fourteen years ago (how old does that make you feel?), and politics have changed significantly.  The stance the show takes on gay rights are impressively dated.  For example, a character in the first season who was being nominated as a Supreme Court justice was being criticized for not being against gay marriage… and that was by the liberals.  But when I look at the state of politics now, when I see that atheists have no representation in any level of federal government, and not much in lower government, I can’t help but think that me and my community still aren’t wanted.

As an atheist activist, it’s moments like this that I’m left feeling daunted by the amount of work me and my non-theist brethren have in front of us.  And if the last fourteen years are any indication, our progress will go slowly.

That makes me sad.

Changing the channel – A response to Billy Haisley

Last week Deadspin ran an article titled, “Getting Ready for MLS?  Allow Us to Convince You Otherwise.”  In it the author, Billy Haisley, rails against the supposed failings of MLS, and tries to encourage readers to abandon the top U.S. soccer league by shitting all over the people who happen to like MLS.  Allow me the chance to highlight some of his more asinine ramblings and respond.

Haisley starts off strong with some cheap shots about aging players and returning stars:

“It’s about that time of the year again! Timber Joey is gassing up his chainsaw, Thierry Henry is stretching those creaking joints, and Michael Bradley is getting ready to lace up his boots, the prodigal son back on (well, North) American soil after so many years away. Yep, Major League Soccer, the land of has-beens and never-weres, is about to start back up, and nobody cares.”

Of course when Haisley says “nobody cares,” he actually mean he doesn’t care.  I’m sure he was proud of getting so many insults into a single opening paragraph, but all he really accomplished here is to prepare us for the fact that he writes with the subtlety of Timber Joey’s chainsaw.

After that opening, he spends a few moments actually discussing the league in a magnanimous fashion.  I’m sure it was a struggle for him, but he almost complimented MLS for some big offseason moves that brought players like U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) star Michael Bradley back to the league.  As he points out, that means that 3 out of the top 4 American players now play for MLS teams, which just a few years ago would’ve been unthinkable.

Haisley, however, wasn’t about to go a whole three paragraphs before tearing the league down some more.  He quickly moves on to criticize Bradley’s decision to come back from Italy.

“…what the fuck are you thinking, Michael? Yeah, you were already the fourth man in a three-man midfield, and probably dropped to fifth when Roma brought in Radja Nainggolan, but surely somebody else in Europe would’ve picked you up. You could’ve walked into a number of mid-table English starting 11s, maybe helped Jozy find his footing at Sunderland, or maybe joined another decent-to-good Serie A club like the Chievo Verona side Roma plucked you from. In short, you had options, man!”

By Haisley’s thinking, riding the pine in Europe will always be a superior option to playing for – and leading – a team in MLS.  He references USMNT coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who has consistently said he wants his players challenging themselves at the highest level.  To Haisley, Bradley’s decision to leave Europe for MLS is nothing less than contemptible.  In what he probably thought was witty writing, he quoted On The Waterfront to call Bradley a bum. Haisley can use all the tired clichés he wants, but that isn’t going to stop Bradley from deciding what’s best for his career.

What Haisley is ignoring is that it all comes down to the World Cup later this year.  Men’s national team players like Bradley and Clint Dempsey are coming back to the U.S. because they would rather get playing time, and even be the focus of a team, than sit on the sidelines watching other people play.  Look, the fact is that American players have to fight for respect in the rest of the world.  Bradley himself said that most coaches in Europe, if given the option of an American and player from elsewhere who were equally skilled, wouldn’t choose the American.  Spending the year fighting for playing time on a mid-table European team isn’t necessarily the most effective way for American players to prepare for the World Cup.  Michael Bradley will be the USMNT’s leader and most effective playmaker when the team heads to Brazil this summer.  Playing a similar role in MLS is the best way he can prepare for that.

The fact that Haisley can’t even put that simple concept together makes me seriously question what makes him think he has the qualifications to even write an article criticizing MLS.  He clearly has no idea what he’s talking about.

What’s funny is that Haisley not only admits his ignorance about the league, but takes pride in it.

“There are probably a number of other ‘important’ things to know coming into the new year that only diehards, people being paid to watch, masochists, or some combination of the three could tell you about, but since I am none of those, I have no idea. Why watch MLS anyways? It’s blatantly inferior soccer.”

Haisley has no idea what story lines are worth following in the league, and he’s proud of that fact.  My first thought when reading that is to ask, “Why are you writing about MLS, then?”  I don’t have the slightest interest in what’s going on this year in the South African cricket league, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna spend three thousand words trying to piss off the people who are interested.

I think that’s what really irritates me about this entire article.  Haisley doesn’t like the league, which is fine.  Don’t watch.  Nobody is tying you to a chair Clockwork Orange style and forcing you to pay attention.  Look, I’ve struggled in the past – and still do – with being disdainful or rude about other people’s interests, but the amount of time and effort Haisley has spent just to piss all over something other people like is disturbing.  Seriously dude, get a fuckin’ hobby.

As for MLS being inferior soccer, all I have to say is this:  Yes, yes it is.  You will not find players like Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo playing in MLS.  If players of that quality were here, they would’ve been bought up long ago by bigger leagues who have more money.  That’s the way it works; American soccer fans know this.  It’s the very reason that the return of American stars like Bradley and Dempsey is so important.  For once, the biggest players are coming home in their prime, and bringing their talent to improve the league here.

But just because something is inferior doesn’t mean it’s without merit.  Just because the Sounders don’t play like Bayern Munich doesn’t mean they’re entirely worthless any more than college football is worthless because it’s not the NFL.  Hell, I know people who think college basketball is more entertaining than the NBA because of the very fact that the games rely more on teamwork and tactics than superstars dunking.

By Haisley’s reasoning, however, if something isn’t the very best, it has no worth at all.  Why would you drive a Honda when there are Ferraris out there?  Hell, why would you drive a Ferrari when there are Bugattis out there?  Why would you even drive a Bugatti, there’s aircraft carriers out there!  College sports, minor league baseball, little league sports: all worthless.  In fact, why would you even watch a mid-table EPL team like Everton?  They’re clearly playing an inferior level of soccer when compared to Chelsea.  In fact, if you’re a fan of any team besides Barcelona, you’re just wasting your goddamned time.  You deserve Billy Haisley’s contempt, you lousy waste of space.  How dare you bring your inferior fandom near his beautiful game?

Okay… enough with the hyperbole.  But I hope you take my point.  Let me give one little reason why I might want to follow the Sounders instead of Manchester City.  I don’t live in Manchester.  I can’t exactly get up and go watch A.S. Roma play Juventus every week.  I can however, go watch the Sounders play.  And that has a lot of value to me, regardless of the different levels of competition.

Having said that, I would suggest that MLS isn’t nearly as inferior as Haisley suggests it is.  Here’s how he puts it:

“…we can get into specifics of what makes MLS so shitty. Mainly it’s about the dearth of individual creativity. There will always be the occasional 40-yard cracker that awes the crowd, but how often do we see passages like these two Arsenal goals? Are there even times where inventive one-touch passing like that gets a guy in scoring position before he misses the chance? And how about anything like Messi here, one man completely shredding an entire defense? Not so much, eh?”

Just so we’re clear on what he’s talking about, here are gifs of the two Arsenal goals he’s referencing.

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 19ghlf0spajlngifDeadspin

You know what, those are some pretty amazing goals.  As for quality, you’ll get no argument from me.  Though, I think it’s worth noting that Deadspin called the first one “the best goal of the season so far,” so it’s not like goals are happening like that every day.  But the point Haisley is trying to make is that MLS isn’t capable of that kind of one-touch pass build-up to make such a beautiful goal.  Just out of curiosity, let’s see what MLS had to offer in this season’s opening weekend…

Huh.  If I’m not mistaken that looked like a string of one-touch passes which took some great vision and on-field awareness to break down a defense and score a goal.  But surely that can’t be right.  MLS players aren’t supposed to be capable of that type of build-up.

Oh, and what about that little comment about Messi singlehandedly dribbling through defenses?  Well, I can’t embed the video, but go take a look because, seriously, it’s friggin’ brilliant.  Here’s the thing about that.  Nobody does that.  That’s why Lionel Messi is the greatest player in the world.  When you look at his list of awards and accomplishments, it doesn’t seem possible.  Oh, and he’s just 26 years old.

However, let’s see if we can see any MLS players carving through a defense alone…

Okay, so he didn’t finish the play on his own.  Instead, after carving through three defenders, he put a perfect looping cross right on the foot of the open attacker making a run on the far post.  I suppose Haisley would think that’s just garbage compared to any other goal in the world.

We might not have Messi-like talent in the world, but that doesn’t mean we’re without talent.  Those were some great goals demanding a high level of skill both personally and as a team.  And unlike Haisley, I’m not cherry-picking perfect goals out of weeks of play.  Those goals all happened during the eight games played last weekend.

Look, MLS isn’t the biggest league in the world, and it doesn’t have the best players.  Sports in general, and soccer especially, are a meritocracy, and talent goes where the money is.  Sure, a few MLS teams could upset the competitive balance by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on players – in fact, that’s kind of what Toronto did this year – but eventually the league won’t be able to keep up with that kind of budget.  That’s why the NASL failed in the 80’s.  Teams outspent their own earning power, and the league collapsed under the weight of out-of-control contracts.

And yet those very controls that keep the league afloat is yet another criticism Haisley levels at the league.

“Instead of individual owners buying or starting teams of their own, MLS owns all of the teams in the league. The nominal owners of the individual teams make most of the day-to-day decisions but ultimately it’s the MLS front office that has final say on the big decisions. All those conspiracy theories about how the NBA office is constantly figuring out new ways to fuck over the league for the benefit of big market teams are pretty much a given in MLS. Hey, the Galaxy have always been good, so let’s keep shipping them as many Designated Players as we can! The favored teams can’t be too good, though, or no one else would have any hope.”

He includes a link to another Deadspin article from a few years ago that suggests MLS is purposely making the New York and L.A. franchises better than the rest of the league to push an east coast/west coast rivalry.  In short, the article suggests that since the team salaries are higher in N.Y. and L.A. than the rest of the teams, the league is stacking the deck in favor of the big market teams.  This is hardly an original theory, and it was pretty stupid 5 years ago when it was popular, never mind today.  Oh, plus there’s this misleading bit about the league setting the salaries for players instead of the teams.  This is all supposed to be evidence of the dark power of the MLS league overlords playing favorites at the cost of real competition to favor a special few important markets.

To properly answer these attacks by Haisley, I’m going to have to dig pretty deep into the soccer jargon.  I apologize if this is a little hard to follow for people who aren’t soccer fans, but bear with me.  It’s important to understanding why his article was so infuriating and idiotic.  So, join me as we go deep into the rabbit hole of MLS league politics and policy.

Has the league ever manipulated the rules to help out one specific team?  Absolutely.  They created an entire rule to allow the L.A. Galaxy sign English superstar David Beckham in 2007.  The short version of that story is that the league wanted to sign Beckham, but the salary cap that all teams had to abide by was too low for the salary he wanted.  The league’s solution was to create a rule where teams could sign one player who could be paid any level salary, but would only hit the cap at a certain amount.  Eventually the rule was expanded to three Designated Players (DPs) per team.

And that rule is pretty straightforward compared to how the rest of the league works.  For one, the league is built on a single-entity structure.  That means the league owns all the teams and players, and franchises them out to team owners.  Unlike NFL or NBA, the teams are not independent organizations from the league office.  All player contracts are also held by the league.  Also, coaches, general managers, and team owners need to be able to navigate the salary cap, the designated player rule, the SuperDraft, the supplemental draft, the re-entry draft, allocation order, transfer fees, inter-league and extra-league loans, allocation money, and retention funds.  To call it labyrinthine would be an understatement.

But the fact that the rules are confusing doesn’t prove a conspiracy to favor big market teams.  The rules are set up how they are for two main reasons.  First, to create a competitive balance – parity – to ensure that no team becomes so powerful or talented that no one else can compete.  Second is to stop teams and the league from overspending to the point of collapse.

For the first point, there’s an ongoing argument with fans in the league about whether parity is better or not.  I personally think it is.  Part of the reason I watch MLS as opposed to the European leagues that Haisley is so fond of is that no team can take over the league completely.  What’s interesting about La Liga in Spain where every year all the trophies are passed between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the other teams just serve as punching bags for the monetary powerhouses at the top of the table?  Or you could look to England.  In the 21 years since the founding of the Premier League, only five teams have won the title.  Manchester United has won it thirteen times.  I don’t understand the appeal of following a mid table team like Everton who’s never bad enough to get relegated, but never good enough for challenge for a title.

MLS, on the other hand, has had nine league champions over its eighteen seasons, and no team has won more than four titles.  While teams will certainly go through some bad stretches, any team can be just a couple player signings away from competing for the cup.  There are certainly those who think that’s due to enforced mediocrity by the league office, and perhaps they’re right.  But to me, it makes for a much more fun and interesting league.

As for the second reason, to ensure the continued success of the league, I think results have clearly proved out the effectiveness of that.  MLS just began their 18th season this week, which means that they’ve lasted longer than the old NASL of the 70’s and 80’s.  Not only has this league outlasted its predecessor, but it’s stronger than ever before.

A more salient criticism of the league rules is how the league office is not always up front about how those rules work with the fans and the media.  Time and time again the media is surprised by some move in the league that seemed against the rules only to find out that they were never properly informed of what the rules actually are.  It’s frustrating as hell for the journalists and the fans.  And I have to add that this here is probably a lot of cause for Billy Haisley’s vitriol aimed at the league, but he would have to know something about MLS to know where aim his criticism.  Also, just because the league isn’t always transparent about its inner workings doesn’t prove a nefarious plot to screw over small market teams.

The best example would probably be when the Seattle Sounders acquired Clint Dempsey last year (full disclosure:  if you weren’t already aware, I’m a huge Sounders fan).  The rules, as fans and journalists understood, said that USMNT players returning to the league had to go through an allocation order.  Teams were placed on the allocation list in reverse order of their finish the previous season.  When a USMNT player comes back to the league, the team at the top of the list gets the first chance to sign him.  If they choose to pass on him, then the second team gets the chance, and on down the list.

Dempsey is one of the top 5 players on the USMNT and most teams would be thrilled to have him.  However, whatever team did sign him would have to pay a Designated Player level salary just to get him here.  Most teams in the league couldn’t afford him.  The Sounders, who are one of the wealthiest teams in the league, were in talks with Dempsey, and rumors seemed to confirm that he would join the team.  There was a hiccup, though.  The Sounders were only second in the allocation order; their biggest rivals, the Portland Timbers, held the first spot.  Even if the Sounders could convince Dempsey to come, Portland would likely take him by allocation, or trade their allocation spot to another team who could afford him just to ensure the Sounders didn’t get such a quality player.

Before long, the Sounders announced the signing of Dempsey.  Fans – and not only those in Portland – were left wondering how he skipped the allocation order.  The league then announced that players coming back on Designated Player contracts didn’t have to go through allocation.  People cried foul and claimed that the league changed the rules to make sure that Dempsey ended up with one of the league’s darlings, Seattle.  It especially didn’t help when it was reported that the league paid the $10 million transfer fee instead of the team itself.  People spun conspiracy theories about how the league bosses manipulated the situation.

There’s a catch, though.  Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers, never once complained.  He even said of the deal, “One thing our fans should know: there was no anti-PDX MLS agenda. Internally I believe rules were fairly clear.”  Let me be clear about Merritt Paulson.  If he had a problem with the deal, he would’ve said something.  He’s one of the most outspoken owners in the history of the league, and he’s never let blowback from the league office stop him from saying what he thinks.

While I can’t prove that a secret cabal inside the MLS head office isn’t pulling the strings like Michael Corleone to favor certain teams over the others, it seems more likely that the team owners and GMs know the rules, but fans and media are sometimes left in the dark.

Here’s the important bit to remember.  The only time the league clearly made a move to favor one team over another was the Beckham situation mentioned earlier.  In that situation, MLS clearly and blatantly changed the rules to give a single, incredibly talented player, to one team.  But the rule still applied equally to every team, opening the door for teams to sign some of the biggest names in the world.  Also, in hindsight, it’s important to note that when David Beckham was signed, the league had 13 teams, an average attendance of 16,770 fans per game, and was in the second year of a TV deal worth $8 million.  In contrast, in 2013 MLS had 19 teams with 2 more coming in two years, average attendance 18,594 fans per game, and just signed TV deals worth $70 million.  The numbers show a bigger and massively more successful league compared to just seven years ago.

The only time I can think that MLS clearly made a move that benefited one team over others in the league, the entire league profited.  Perhaps those guys up in the main office know what they’re doing?

Interestingly enough, Haisley mentions Tim Leiweke when talking about these shady deals.  Leiweke was the long time CEO of AEG, owners of the L.A. Galaxy as well as numerous other sports and entertainment franchises. It was Leiweke who authored the deal to bring Beckham to the Galaxy, as well as other player acquisitions like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.  When Leiweke was hired by Toronto FC’s parent company, MLSE, to turn their struggling club around, he managed to convince them to spend millions on Michael Bradley and England National Team player Jermaine Defoe.

Haisley uses these deals as examples of the league’s preferential treatment of certain teams over others and points at the man – who doesn’t work for the league office, mind you – who authored those deals for proof.  Yet it never occurs to him that perhaps Leiweke was hired because he’s capable of working the complex league rules to put together powerhouse teams.  It’s like saying NBA commissioner favored the Chicago Bulls in the 90’s and the L.A. Lakers last decade, and pointing out that Phil Jackson coached both teams as proof.  Wouldn’t the simpler explanation be that Phil Jackson’s a pretty damn good coach?

Okay, enough about the internal workings of MLS.  The point is that Haisley points to the complicated rules of the league as proof of its inferiority without every trying to understand what those rules are or what their purpose might be.  Could the league be more transparent?  Absolutely.  In the end, do these complex rules benefit the league as a whole?  It really seems like it.  Would Haisley care to look at the actual evidence involved before insulting the league more?  Probably not.  To me, he’s like someone saying that they don’t understand evolution and therefore it’s wrong, and stupid as well.

So up to this point Haisley has attacked MLS for its players, quality, structure, and rules while not only making it clear that he doesn’t understand how the league works, but also proudly admitting that he doesn’t care to know.  How might he manage to make himself look like an even bigger idiot?  Why by attacking MLS fans, of course!

“It’s not the average guy drinking a beer and rooting on the local 11 that makes the MLS experience so insufferable. It’s the diehard true believer, enacting his worst Europhiliac impulses by aping the behavior of European fútbol fans as if it were something other than the product of a specific cultural history. The league panders to this cosplay with its ridiculous, at times downright un-American names. (I mean, Real Salt Lake? Didn’t we toss a few crates of tea in the Boston Harbor as an explicit “Fuck you!” to fucking royalty?) How is it more “authentic” and more “fútbol” to call a team Football Club Dallas when the league itself is called Major League Soccer?”

So let me get this straight.  According to Haisley, the league sucks because it’s not European enough, but the fans suck because they’re too European?  How the hell is that supposed to make any sense?  Apparently you have to be European to chant at a soccer match… or South American, or African, or Central American, or Asian.  But you certainly can’t do it as an American, dammit.  That would make you a poseur.

Oh, and as a quick aside, I guess Haisley thinks that since we held a revolution against Great Britain a couple hundred years ago, we must wash all references to any sort of monarchy out of our culture.  Quick!  Somebody contact the Sacramento Kings and Monarchs, the Kansas City Royals, and the L.A. Kings!  Billy Haisley doesn’t approve of their names!  They must be changed immediately!

This is where Haisley is at his most pathetic.  After spending half an article talking about how much better soccer is in Europe, he has the temerity to say,

“That desired demo was the trendy types who believe everything that is done better across the pond, and MLS certainly succeeded in winning their hearts.”  

It’s like he’s never even heard of hypocrisy.  For some reason he thinks people around the world enjoying soccer and the various traditions and ceremonies involved with the game is great, but the moment Americans want to do the same thing with their own league it’s fake and contrived and wrong.  And the worst part is that he seems completely oblivious to the fact that his article is dripping with the condescending bullshit he’s accusing MLS fans of.  That level of stupidity and lack of self-awareness is almost impressive.

Look, I get that MLS is not everyone’s favorite league.  You know what?  That’s fine.  I’m not a big fan of the NBA.  But I don’t rail against people who do enjoy it.  More importantly, since I don’t watch the NBA, I certainly don’t write angry screeds against it while pretending to know what goes on internally in the league.

That’s what I find so confusingly irritating about that article.  MLS isn’t hurting anybody.  It has neither the clout nor the financial backing to force other leagues out of the spotlight.  If you’re a fan of MLS, you have to purposely seek out news sources just to keep up with it.  The major sports outlets have no interest in covering the league (ironically, Deadspin seems to be one of the few major outlets that will write about MLS somewhat regularly).  If I want to keep up with MLS news, I have to find websites and podcasts dedicated to the league, because that’s the only regular and reliable source of information and discussion I can find.  Even the networks that carry the games have no interest in covering the league in their sports news (here’s looking at you ESPN).  Being an MLS fan isn’t easy, and I think those who work hard to build their own community around what’s fun and interesting in the league are remarkable.  What I don’t understand is why somebody would go out of their way to shit all over these marginalized fans.  What the hell did we do to you?  If you don’t like MLS, great.  Don’t watch it.  Don’t go to the bars where MLS fans congregate.  They’re few and far between; it’s easy enough to avoid them.

It takes a special level of stupid asshole to go out of his way to shit on something somebody else loves just for the sheer fun of it.  Unfortunately for us, assholes like Billy Haisley exist, and even occasionally manage to get published.  Haisley is probably proud of that little piece he wrote.  But he didn’t do anything but insult and piss off a bunch of people who don’t deserve his disdain.  Sports journalism isn’t improved by the likes of Haisley.  On the contrary, people like him bring the whole community down.

Sorry about the inconsistent posting.

My apologies.  I haven’t been very good about providing content for this site the last couple weeks. I’m really sorry about that. When I first started working on this blog, I intended to write five articles a week (one a day, weekdays off). I quickly discovered that putting together that much content – especially at the quality that I want to adhere to – is a pretty monumental task. I can tell you I have a lot more respect for the other bloggers I read, especially the ones with day jobs.

I soon decided that five a week was a bit ambitious, so I pulled it back to 3 a week. This was around the time I started doing a lot of production work with the Ask an Atheist radio show.  Throw in all the reading I do just to find content to write about, I settled on three articles a week:  Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  For the last two months I’ve been pretty consistently hitting that mark, which makes me happy.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been paying attention, I’ve only written one new post in the last week and a half.  I’m really disappointed with that level of output.  There are two main reasons for that, though.  First, I had a couple really complicated episodes of Ask an Atheist to work on… I’m especially proud of the Live at TCC episode.  Secondly, I got myself a for-realz paying type normal job.  For those of you who are actually productive members of society, you’d laugh at how few hours my work takes from me.  However, it is leaving me slacking on my duties (heh heh… doodie) with Ask an Atheist, and precious little time to work on the blog.  Also, I have to admit that the start of the MLS season might be taking a bit of my time as well… Go Sounders!!!

I will be posting a lovely rant soon.  It will be, by far, the longest piece I’ve written yet, but it needs a bit more editing.  Mostly, though I just wanted to say sorry for the lack of output.  I’ll try to do better, but be prepared for more sporadic posts in the near future.

Thanks for all your support.  I love every one of you who are willing to take a few minutes to read my work.

You may not be one of them, but they’re one of you.

The more I’ve written on this blog, the more I’ve run into one particular objection.  People suggest – sometimes even accuse – that I’m making too many broad generalizations, painting all Christians with the same brush.  I want to take a moment to address this idea, because I think it’s important for understand where I’m coming from.

First of all, I want to admit to something which I haven’t yet been chastised for.  While this blog is intended to criticize all religions, I tend to focus on Christianity – evangelical Christianity, more specifically.  There’s a reason for this.  I’m writing from the United States, and Christianity is the most prominent religion in this country, by a vast margin.  When I write, I tend to be drawn to stories about my home.  That may be American privilege speaking, and I won’t deny that.  But stories about religious infringement in my society are much more likely to becoming from Christians than any other religious group.

Unknown-1

“Talk about other countries and other religions?  That’s downright unamerican.”

I know I have international readers who may not feel represented very well in my writing, and I’m sorry about that.  I do try to write about stories outside U.S. borders from time to time.  Muslim countries in particular are a never-ending source for stories of religious infringement of personal freedom.  Hindus and Buddhists are hardly innocent when it comes to forcing their perspective on others as well.

There’s also the fact that since I didn’t grow up in a culture where Islam or Hindu were the dominant religion, I wasn’t exposed to those faiths in the same way that I am to Christianity.  I have a much better understanding of the specifics of the Christian faith than I do any other.  Whenever I write about another religion, I worry that I’m not fairly representing them because I’ve not as familiar.  I’m not saying I never make mistakes on my blog, but I do try to limit them.

UnknownTravel Blog

Let’s just say there aren’t many eight story Buddha statues in the U.S.

Which brings me back to the way I represent Christianity.  If you look through my blog’s history, you’ll see posts covering subjects like bullying of atheists in schools, creationism and religious based anti-science, religious based attacks on gay-rights, and questions of Christian based child abuse.  All of these posts call out Christians for the way they act, and I stand by every one of them.

What I might not implicitly state, though, is that because all of those stories were about Christians doesn’t necessarily mean that all Christians act like that.  There are over 2 billion Christians in the world, and they fall into more than 40,000 sects and denominations.  The diversity of Christianity is vast and significant.  For the most part, when I talk about Christians, I tend to focus on evangelicals.  That’s a direct consequence of the fact that evangelicals are the most likely to try to put a monument on public land or force prayer back into schools.

perceiving1Stuff Christian Culture Likes

But even if you’re not trying to stop gay weddings, you’re still in that blue section.

So if you’re a Christian who’s reading my blog, and you want to stop me and say, “Hey!  I’m not like that!  Don’t group me in with those crazies!”  Relax, take a deep breath.  I’m well aware my criticisms don’t necessarily apply to all Christians.  However, since Christianity is so ubiquitous in America, I also don’t feel the need to add a disclaimer every time I write about Christians.  I think it’s safe to assume that when I discuss snake handling preachers, I’m not lumping all Christians into that category.

On the other hand, when I use those same snake handling preachers to make a point about a greater trend of non-critical thinking and faith being used in place of reason, then you might want to stop and examine your own beliefs.  While you may not be the type of Christian who thinks holding venomous snakes is a good way to prove your faith to god, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally wrong ideas you may take for granted because they were taught to you at church.  The claim that going to church makes you less likely to get divorced would be a good example.

arguing-coupleLaurenNoLauren.com

Now that’s a biblically based marriage.

Lastly, I think it’s worth noting that religious minded people seem to want to distance themselves from any criticism in my experience.  Atheists usually either don’t have that luxury, or don’t want it.  I will fight anyone who makes a claim about atheists that’s clearly and demonstrably false.  If someone tries to say that atheists are immoral or fundamentally evil, you bet your ass I’m gonna challenge that.  However, I will accept fair criticism.  If somebody accuses atheists of being disrespectful, unsympathetic, or straight up mean, I would probably agree.  There are a lot of atheists out there who are all of those things.  While I personally try to be a little more respectful, and do my best to help create a more empathetic atheist culture, that doesn’t mean the point is wrong or unfair.  I have no illusions as to my reach or influence in the greater atheist world, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing something to improve the culture.

Christians, however, instead of accepting criticism, always want to separate themselves from it.  Instead of saying that yes, there is an unfortunate correlation between religious belief an homophobia, they usually want to say, “Well I don’t hate gay people.  Those Christians over there hate gay people, but don’t put me in the same group as them.”  And to some degree, that makes sense to me.  If you’re an Episcopalian who’s very accepting of people from all walks of life, I can see why you wouldn’t want to have to answer for the beliefs of Pentecostals.  But at the same time, you are both Christian, and instead of trying to separate yourself from them, you could do more to change the perception of Christians.

snake_worship_pas_2744467bThe Telegraph

Instead asking why you have to answer for this guy, why not ask why this guy is making you answer for him?

I think that’s what I’m most trying to get across here.  If you’re a Christian who’s reading my blog, and you get offended by some claim I made about other Christians that doesn’t apply to you, instead of attacking me for lumping you with Christians you don’t agree or approve of, rather turn on those Christians for giving your faith a bad name.

Most of the religious people I know are good, honest, loving, and caring people.  I don’t ever want to suggest otherwise.  But if those same people would stand up against hate and bigotry in their own faith when they saw it, and work to change the perception of Christians from the outside, then I would have a lot less to write about, and we’d all be happier.

*** Update ***

This conversation inspired what I thought was a pretty interesting conversation on Facebook about how much culpability someone bears for the words or actions of others who share their beliefs.  My good friend, Joey, wrote something challenging my assertions above, and I thought it was both interesting and thoughtful, and most definitely worth sharing.

“…there are some 40,000 sub-sects of Christianity, leaving me to believe that Christianity is as ubiquitous a term as “oxygen-breather”, though just because a fish and I both breathe oxygen; it doesn’t mean we’re the same thing.

I suppose it’s easy to say that from the inside of Christianity. I know what I believe and it seems so WILDLY different from what the WBC [Westboro Baptist Church] believes that makes me want to say that they’re not the same as me (christian).

Ultimately “Christian” is a label meant to simplify and identify who I am through what I believe, but because it’s so diverse, I have a hard time ending with it. I’ve noticed this in other communities too, namely the “Gamer” community. It too has broken up into many sub-sects like casual, codders, hardcores, pros, board gamers, video gamers, war gamers, MTG players, RPGers and the list continues. If we both call ourselves “gamers” yet have absolutely no game knowledge in common, we might tend to say that the other isn’t a gamer because they’re not like “me”.

I think he makes a good point about how claiming to be atheist isn’t a statement of belief, but rather a statement of non-belief.  That’s a statement most atheists can get behind.  Atheists often are accused of being just as religious about their beliefs as theists.  They usually respond with some variation of, “Atheism is a religion the same way that off is a T.V. channel or bald is a hair color.”  I think that’s what Joey is trying to get across.

But at the same time, I feel that the fact that there’s very little that tie atheists together besides their lack of belief would give me more reason to distance myself or separate myself from those atheists I disagree with.  However, I usually won’t do that.  I say usually because I normally won’t accept any criticism that tries to equate me with tyrants like Pol Pot or Josef Stalin.  Sure, they might have been atheists, but their regimes weren’t known for an overabundance of reason.  But other than those extreme examples (which I feel is dismissing, in that I won’t say extreme Christians like snake-handling pastors are representative of all Christians), I’ll usually accept criticisms of my belief system, even if they don’t apply specifically to me.

Christians, however, regularly pull out the “No True Scotsman” fallacy when responding to criticism.  And that objection, well often reasonably justified, creates a de facto “moving the goalposts” situation, as well as opening Christianity to a whole knew set of criticisms.  In short, if you’re not represented by those people, but those people are using the same sacred texts as you to inform their worldview, what makes your stance more right or accurate than theirs?  I’ll go back to something I said in a previous post:  The problem with the Westboro Baptist Church is not that their beliefs aren’t biblically supported, but rather that they are.

Having said that, there is merit to the argument that since Christianity is so widespread and diverse, it’s not fair to assume that more mainstream Christians should have to answer for the opinions of more extreme views.  I thought Joey made a good point.  I might not entirely agree with him, but I thought it worth sharing.