Monday, November 26, 2012

34th Anniversary: Assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone


Statement, November 27, 2011 by Stuart Milk, nephew of Harvey Milk, co founder of the Harvey B. Milk Foundation

My uncle Harvey Milk gave us his life 33 years ago, knowing that the first of any civil rights movement, who so clearly and loudly proclaim their right to equality, most often meets a violent and sudden end. George Moscone was a steadfast ally and friend of both my uncle and to the core principles of equality that Harvey represented.

Today the memory of both men stand as beacons of light not just in San Francisco, not just in California and not just in the US, but across the globe to all who are diminished for simply being authentic. I am frequently asked if I am deeply saddened that my uncle Harvey did not get to see all those who eventually would proclaim a right to live openly and thereby come to stand on his shoulders or that he also did not see all the places where the light of equality would burn brighter than the darkness of antiquated prejudice-and I have long replied, he did see all those open and proud people living an authentic life and he did see those cities and states and nations that would etch equality into both their laws and their societal values, for he could not have given his life without his seeing and visualizing the dream of that day and he has left us, all of us, with a compass based on hope, hope born of bullets, not smashing into his brain, but smashing our masks and our fear of authenticity.

We also offer timely reflection today on my uncle’s ground breaking collaborative work and his understanding and explanation that we are not weakened by our differences, in fact that our potential is only reached when the full diversity of all those that make up our communities are celebrated. Today his legacy is not of a people or community or a nation being better then another, but communication and teaching of the knowledge that we are so much less when we do not embrace, without qualification, all members of our unique and varied humanity.

My uncle’s legacy has many monuments, not the least of which are the openly LGBT public officials who, through their willingness to serve and live a publicly visible life, continue to offer Harvey Milk style leadership to a world yearning for these examples. And all our strong allies, like President Obama and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi here in the US, and our many new allies across the continents who fight everyday to keep us all embraced. And monuments to Harveys legacy are given light each day with every new young gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered person who comes out and lives an authentic life – these are real tangible living monuments to Harvey’s legacy that have the clear impact to effect change, a real enduring societal change. For as my uncle said, when they know us, when we are visible to all in our lives, hate diminishes.

Today we both mourn our loss and celebrate the legacy we were left with. The memory of Harvey and George burns bright and they have inspired equality minded communities across the country and out onto the global stage to keep alive both Harvey’s dream of a truly inclusive society, without qualification and to follow the example of enduring and selfless collaboration that marked the life of both Harvey Milk and George Moscone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Annual Thanksgiving Post

 Several video clips narrating my all-time favorite Thanksgiving story...and an absolute MUST for anyone who has adopted children from abroad, anyone who immigrated to America, anyone whose ancestors immigrated to America...and anyone conscious of the current immigration controversies in American politics. These are short videos, but the entire book is readily available in stores and online, and is titled, "How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story," by Eve Bunting.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!!!

The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


Monday, November 19, 2012

Tawadros II Enthroned as Coptic Pope, Grieves over Gaza

 On March 17, 2012, we reported on the death of Pope Shenouda, the 117th leader of the Egyptian Coptic Church (see ).

Yesterday, the Coptic Church enthroned Pope Shenouda’s replacement in the culmination of one of the most unique decision-making processes in all of Christendom: he was chosen by lottery.

Two weeks ago, a young boy was chosen, brought forward to the alter, and blindfolded. He then picked one of three pieces of paper from a jar. The paper was shown to the congregation. On it was the name of Bishop Tawadros, and, according to Copts, this makes him God’s choice to be the next Coptic Pope. The congregation broke into spontaneous applause. 

Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic Watani newspaper, explained “We end up presenting three to heaven, and we ask heaven to choose one of them.”

While westerners often associate the word "pope" with the Roman Catholic Church headquaretetred in the Vatican, the Egyptian and north African Christians have looked to Alexandria (founded by St Mark) as the seat of their patriarchate since at least the second century.  They also call their spiritual leader, "Pope." 

The new pope is 60 years old, with global experience: he studied in Britain, worked in Egypt and abroad, and managed a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. 

Tawadros II steps into leadership at a very delicate time in Egypt. While Copts make up 10% of the Egyptian population (the largest Christian minority in the middle east), Christians have long complained of discrimination, especially as the country's Muslim majority have moved the nation toward religious conservatism since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.  

Tawadros II wasted no time staking out his role in Egyptian life, using the Sunday coronation to express his grief over recent Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip saying,

"We share the pain of our brothers in Gaza."

Meanwhile, the world watches as the Israeli-Gaza conflict escalates...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why Churches Should NOT be Taxed

 Over the last year, I have gained many liberal readers who have supported my über-progressive positions on many issues: the environment, bank bailouts, marriage equality, war, and the surveillance of citizens to name a few.  

But this post is sure to piss off many of my liberal readers.  Nonetheless, this blog is not meant to be a liberal rubber stamp, but to use reasoned analysis to bring together both progressives and libertarians who fear the power of an authoritarian state and corporatism - and that means crossing swords with friends every once in a while.

Calls for the taxation of churches is not grounded in sound constitutional law, sound taxation procedure, or sound historical understanding: it is based solely on resentment against churches – specifically conservative churches – whose doctrines and members advocate for conservative causes.

1. The Constitutional Prohibition

The very first words in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution  read: 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”

The admonition here has two parts:  The US Government shall not take any action that establishes an official religion (or which advantages one religion over all the others), and the US Government shall pass no law that prevents people from worshiping in their chosen church.

It is not up to the government to decide what is good worship or bad worship, recognized churches vs unrecognized churches, good doctrine or bad doctrine:  the government’s role is to stay out of religion.  In 1970, the U S Supreme Court – by a decisive vote of 8-1 ruled that the Federal Government could not tax churches, as that would constitute undue government interference in the exercise of religion.

This notion has long legal precedence.  A unanimous Supreme Court noted in 1819 in McCulloch vs Maryland that “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” Any federal income tax levied on churches – depending on how that tax rate was structured and how that tax law was written – would possess the capability of destroying or bankrupting churches.  Worse, depending on the application of the law to individual churches, it would necessarily favor one denomination over another as church organizational structures, expenses, and revenue sources (tithes, donations, yard sales, mass cards) differ from church to synagogue to mosque.  The government is not permitted to favor one group over another.  

2.  IRS Regulations Prohibiting Political Involvement by Non-Profits

Many who wish to tax religious institutions point to IRS regulations which specifically prohibit all 501c3 Non-Profits from political engagement. They argue then, that those churches that get involved in politics should lose their tax exempt status. There are several glaring problems with this approach.

First, the IRS is a Johnny-come-lately.  Yes, their regulations say this, but there regulations may in fact violate the Constitutional provisions mentioned above. Churches were treated as tax-exempt entities in law, under the US Constitution, for more than 175 years before the IRS created that regulation.  The Constitution trumps regulatory body rules.  

In any event, this regulation only came into effect in 1954, the same year that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.  It is a curious phenomenon that those who oppose God in public life often point to the fact that the “God” phrase in the Pledge is a very recent innovation..but conveniently forget that the IRS regulation is just as recent.

No IRS regulation can eliminate a Constitutional right – including the Freedom of Speech.  Anyone and Everyone in this nation has the right to engage in political commentary, and, as the recent election proved, they do. The right to speech is as fully engrained in our Constitution as the freedom of Religion….and that means we let our raucous democracy loose with political discourse.  There is a good reason that the IRS almost never goes after churches for violating this regulation: they would probably lose at the Supreme Court.

Remember, the IRS provision against political engagement applies not only to churches, but to all non-profits.

It applies to AIDs service organizations that testify at public hearings, requesting increased funding for those without health insurance.

It applies to Veteran’s Organizations lobbying city councils for increased services to the homeless.

It applies to Teachers Unions meeting with their state legislators when education budgets are cut.

It applies to the Environmental organizations when they advocate against genetically-modified food, the keystone pipeline, relaxed standards for deep-water drilling, and Arctic drilling.

You really want to strip taxes of their tax-exempt status because of their political involvement?  Better look around at all the other non-profits that exist in the same regulatory boat, my friends.

3. Churches already pay taxes.

Yes, that’s right.  The only tax levied by the federal government is Income Tax (discussed more fully below).  Other taxes: State Income Taxes, Sales Taxes, and Property Taxes – are levied by state and local governments.

Employees of religious organizations – organists, secretaries,  maintenance, cantors…already pay personal federal income tax and social security taxes on their wages.

On a state and local basis, churches can be asked to pay property taxes.  In New Hampshire, where thousands of acres of land are owned by church-operated summer camps, those churches pay both property tax on the camps and business income tax on the profit experienced by the camp. In other places, towns and municipalities place ‘assessments’ or fees for municipal services such as fire protection, water use, and trash collection.

But for most people calling for taxation, it is the issue of federal Income Taxes they wish to see addressed.

4. Basic Accounting 101 Suggests Churches Would Pay Nothing Under an Income Tax.

Think about your personal Income Tax for a second.
You place your gross income on the top line, and then you begin taking off ‘deductions’ – you, your spouse, your children, and then the standard exemption or the Schedule A that permits mortgage interest, charitable donations, and health expenditures.  At the bottom of your form, you pay tax on what’s left: NOT on your gross income, but on what was left after permissible deductions.  It’s quite common for a family making $75,000 in wages to actually pay tax on only $35,000 after all the deductions are subtracted.

Corporate Income Tax works the same way.  We do not tax companies based on the raw number of dollar bills that land in their cash register; we tax them on their PROFIT (revenue less expenses).  That means that corporations subtract their expenditures on labor, raw material, equipment, utilities, advertising, etc., before any tax is applied…because THAT is how an Income Tax functions.
Some cavalierly believe that a tax on churches would be a tax on gross donations.

Think again: an income tax on churches would be applied to Profit, not gross donations. And regardless of how much a church receives in donations, you can bet that just about all of it goes out in expenses: clergy salaries, musical instruments, food, charitable work, utilities, payments to diocesan offices, roof repairs, etc…and that means, given the experience of the vast majority of American churches, your income tax rate would be applied against a profit of….zero.  Such an effort would be a pyrrhic victory indeed: tax church profits, only to find that from an accounting perspective, there are no profits to tax.

And forget the idea of taxing gross donations: that would be like taxing raw register receipts, and treating churches this unique way would be a display of government hostility towards religion that would never pass Constitutional muster, regardless of who was sitting on the Court.

5. Liberals, Be Careful What You Ask For.

Our collective memories tend to be very, very short.

Most agitation for taxing churches comes from liberals who resent the money and the ‘power’ of conservative churches like the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, and a plethora of Fundamentalist Bible Churches who rail against every liberal cause.

But a brief walk through history shows that every great liberal victory was won because liberal churches mobilized en masse.
Do we forget that the Civil Rights movement and marches were organized by the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?  Have we forgotten that the voter registration drives conducted in the south in the 1960’s were organized in black churches?

Imagine if conservative, white southern governments thought they could destroy the civil rights movement by increasing taxes on small rural black churches, and then mercilessly taking them when property or income taxes weren’t forthcoming.  “The Power to tax is the power to destroy.”
 Women’s rights to vote, immigrant rights, union rights, the Abolitionist movement…all were spearheaded by churches. The most recent civil rights battle of our time – Marriage Equality – has seen Episcopal Bishops like the Rev. Gene Robinson using his clerical office to testify before state legislatures and encourage the Episcopal faithful to advocate for gay rights. Congregational churches, Reform Jewish Congregations, Quakers, and Unitarian-Universalists have all organized peace rallies, marriage equality campaigns, and immigrant right  initiatives.


As I wrote earlier, most of my liberal friends don’t want to see Shelters for Homeless LGBT Youth, or Environmental Organizations, or Black Churches driving voters to the polls to be taxed or lose their tax-exempt status.  

Rather, they want to use the heavy hand of government taxation to ‘punish’ those conservative churches with which they disagree.

And that, more than anything, would do violence to our Constitution, which requires an even-handed government approach to all religious groups.

The answer is not to find a way around the Constitution; the answer is to allow the free flow of ideas in a democracy, and out-organize and out-vote those with whom you disagree.

And history has shown us that we can do that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My Annual Cranky Educator Post

 I no longer have the energy to write about this. I have no desire to debate it. It Simply Is.   

Today’s college students continue to enter the classroom functionally and culturally illiterate.

In the last week, I have heard the following comments:

“Oh come, on…so like, that’s from the Bible, why should we be expected to know that?” (Referring to the phrase, “the Handwriting on the Wall”)

“This guy Bob Fosse…in what class should I have learned that?”

“No, I don’t know the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence…do YOU!?!??!”

“Why do I need to know what that (“et tu, Brute?”) means? I never heard it used.”

“Sitting Bull..he was like an Indian, right?”

“How are we supposed to know who makes the tax rates?”

“I’m in America.  Why do I need to know a Spanish word?”

“Isn’t a Valhalla a car?

From geography to history to literature, I stand in front of classes of students who appear to have never been exposed to even the most basic elements of these disciplines.  The majority can not name the Governor of their home state, or the capital cities of the adjacent states.

We’re speaking of students living in Massachusetts who can’t name all six New England States. College-level Environmental Studies students who have never heard of the term, “barrier beach.”  Americans who can not name the Allied and Axis powers in World War II.

Conservative writers often lament – with good reason – the lack of cultural literacy among American students.  If a student is clueless regarding references to Grant and Lee and Harriet Tubman or Fort Sumter…they will not understand whatever discussion or information follows those references.  If, in a business meeting, managers have no idea what it means to cut the Gordian Knot or to apply Occam's Razor - what will they do when their superiors use such a phrase in an instruction?

Or shall we just require everyone to dumb down their cultural references in order to accommodate ill-equipped, ill-prepared, cavalier, and poorly motivated employees?

Liberals will often counter that education should not be about retelling old stories or filling students heads with rote facts, but in teaching students how to think and research for themselves.  And that argument would have much validity – if we were succeeding in teaching students those skills.

But we are not.  We are failing there, too.

Evidence an entire class up in arms because they had to research a topic about which they knew nothing. These students assumed that 'homework' merely meant regurgitating back whatever bits of fact or opinion that they heard five years ago.  The notion of actually conducting research from scholarly, primary sources to learn something new  is a lost art to our students, and throws them into a panic.  “Research,” in another era, meant combing through books, reading, dusting off long-unread documents, hours of synthesizing information, and actual excitement about uncovering new facts.
To far too many students today, "research" means asking the question on Google or parroting whatever Wikipedia offers about a subject. Understanding math means little more than understanding which buttons to push on a calculator.  Putting “effort” into a subject means texting someone a question, and hoping they respond.  If they don’t respond, then the student believes they have done their ‘duty,’ and it’s no longer their fault if the information is not forthcoming.

I am in my 14th year of teaching at the College level, and it's getting worse, not better.  

I don’t know what is going on in America’s public schools….but whatever is going on, and for whatever reasons – be they budgetary, economic, familial, social, attitudinal, or technological  – it is not learning.   

And it is very scary.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Media and Mathematical Ignorance

 Going into the Presidential election, many of my pro-Obama friends and co-workers were nervous.  They had been hearing ad infinitum that Romney had caught up to Obama, and that this race would be a cliffhanger.  In dogged defiance, I insisted on this blog and elsewhere that Obama would win by about 100 electoral votes (Yes, I am permitting myself some gloating).

The disconnect between the reality of Obama’s impending decisive victory, and the supposed neck-and-neck nail-biter being reported by the mainstream media (especially in the final week or two of the campaign), can only be attributed to one or two factors:

1) The mainstream media needed to lie about the election to retain audience viewership, and thus command the highest-possible amount of advertising dollars; or

2) The mainstream media are truly incompetent when it comes to understanding and analyzing statistics.

Liars, or Stupid.  Or both. Take your pick.

The maps displayed by CNN, NBC, and other major media outlets all contained a collection of so-called ‘swing states,’ where the races, according to an effervescent John King and a hyperactive Wolf Blitzer, were ‘too close to call’ because the polls were all ‘within the margin of error.” Interspersed among the Reliably Blue and the Reliably Red states were a chain of unknown “yellow” states, that simply contained all the uncertainty of a well-matched, fever-pitch sporting event.

Yes, they were within the statistical margin of error.  No, that did not mean they were toss-ups.  And herein lies the media’s thorough misreporting of facts.

Consider the actual results and the polls from four of the so-called “too-close” swing states in the week leading up to the election:

Nov 1  Survey USA,  Obama 50%, Romney 46%
Nov 4 You Gov,  Obama 49%, Romney 45%
Nov 5 Public Policy, Obama 51%, Obama 47%
Actual: Obama 52%, Romney 46%

Nov 1 NBC-Marist, Obama 49%, Romney 46%
Nov 2 We Ask America, Obama 52%, Romney 45%
Nov 3 Public Policy, Obama 51%, Romney 48%
Nov 4 You Gov, Obama 50%, Romney 46%
Actual: Obama 53%, Romney 46%

New Hampshire
Nov 5 Rasmussen, Obama 50%, Romney 48%
Nov 5 New England College, Obama 50%, Romney 46%
Nov 5 Granite State/UNH, Obama 50%, Romney 46%
Actual: Obama 52%, Romney 47%

Nov 4 You Gov, Obama 48%, Romney 47%
Nov 5 Reuters, Obama 48%, Romney 47%
Public Policy, Obama 52%, Romney 46%
Actual: Obama 51%, Romney 47%

In each case, the media insisted these were too close to call.  In each case, the media insisted that all the polls were within the margin of error, and implied – or stated outright – that they could not be reliable indications as to what was happening in those states.

And that’s where they were either ignorant or lying.

Fact 1:  Take a look at those polls again.  In not one case did Obama fall behind Romney in those polls.  If anything, the media should have reported that Obama was consistently ahead of Romney in those states.

Fact 2: Statisticians allow themselves only a 5% possibility of error.  That means that poll results that pollsters consider a ‘safe bet’ is more than 95% likely to accurately reflect voter sentiment. 

A result that lies within a poll’s margin of error does NOT mean that the difference between the candidates is negligible, or that the numbers could even be reversed; it means that the certainty of the poll accurately reflecting the population is something just under 90% or 92%.

Imagine if John King had announced the following:

“Polls in the key states of Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada and Wisconsin show a 90% certainty that Obama will win each of those states.”

That would have been an accurate reporting of what it means to be within the margin of error.

It also would have made for poor drama, and low advertising revenues.  But the fact is that “within the margin of error” means nothing more than that. 

And the reality is that Obama consistently outpolled Romney in those states, and won in those states by margins at least as big as the polls.

The polls were indeed accurate.  But the media was crippled by a combination of stupidity and desire for drama.