Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Oct/17

17

1789 and All That

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It’s not hard to draw a line between messianic Judaism and (obviously) Christianity and from that on to later millenarian variants such as Marxism, but this review in the New Statesman by the British philosopher John Gray of Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia by Francis O’Gorman adds this twist:

The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. As O’Gorman puts it, “We may be terrified of dementia because it is widespread and its effects catastrophic. But the fear arises also because we are half-conscious, as dutiful forward-facing citizens of modernity, that we figuratively have it already.” Rather than enabling human beings to fashion new identities, a willed collective amnesia leaves them with no identity at all.

Many forces have combined to create this condition. Acutely, O’Gorman identifies one of the sources of the modern narrative in early Christianity. Announcing itself as the bearer of “good news”, Christianity “splintered the conception of human life based on sustaining a localisable past… The new faith, which must have seemed first of all a new Middle Eastern cult of the son of Joseph the Carpenter, not only discouraged acts of devotion to what had happened long ago… but also explicitly reorientated its followers’ minds to the future.”

Here, O’Gorman elides the original teaching of Jesus, which continued the traditions of charismatic Judaism, with the universal religion invented by Paul and Augustine. Yet the point remains valid. Christianity has always included “instructive rites for rejecting history”, acts of confession and penitence that are supposed to erase yesterday’s sins.

A Christian narrative of redemption in which past evils and crimes could be nullified by a dramatic act of moral renovation has inspired many modern revolutionary movements. “Christianity began the process of moving us toward the future,” writes O’Gorman. “The French Revolution from 1789 to 1815 (which was, ironically enough, violently antagonistic to Christianity as belonging to the past) clinched secular expectations about the relative values of tomorrow and yesterday.” When they sacked churches and defaced graveyards, the Jacobins were re-enacting a Christian rite in which history could be stopped and purified of sin, then begun anew.

And the Bolsheviks?

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Oct/17

13

Ubi Terror, Ibi Salus

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A week or two back, I discussed a review of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, a book out in the UK, but not due for release in the US until next year.  Back in the old country over the weekend, I took the opportunity to buy a copy, and it’s as good as the review suggested it might be. I read it in two sittings.

Much of the focus of my last post was on the fixation of the early Christians with suffering, a fixation that lingers on in the shape of a morbid belief in the virtue of suffering, a belief that manifests itself in, among other horrors, the opposition of many clerics, as cruel as it is saccharine, to assisted suicide.

But Nixey’s book is, above all, fascinating as an examination of proto-totalitarianism. Nixey, no Dawkins, is not so much concerned with the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus as she is with the behavior of the latter’s followers in late antiquity, whether it’s the iconoclastic fervor that led them to destroy so many of the great works of classical art and architecture, or the creation of a system that dictated so thoroughly what men read (book burnings were a regular feature of these years), how they worshiped and what they thought. The Judeo-Christian God was a jealous god and, unlike the expansive and eclectic collection of deities of the Roman Empire, had no room for any rivals or, for that matter, their followers. There was a sting in monotheism’s tale. To the modern reader, Nixey’s accounts of persecution in the name of the Christian God foreshadow both the furies unleashed on behalf of His Islamic alter-ego and, for that matter, Communism’s supposedly secular millenarians.

The Church, wrote Augustine, “persecutes in the spirit of love”, and, over a millennium and a half before Communism’s slaughtered one hundred million, he claimed that “where there is terror, there is salvation.”

Whatever or whoever had been born in Bethlehem, a rough beast was on the march—and, while its shape may shift,  it marches on today.

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Sep/17

30

Why Trump could murder someone and people would still support him

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In 1683 the Ottoman Turks marched toward Vienna. John Sobieski, the king of Poland, became a hero to all Europe because of his defense of the Habsburgs in their time of need. In contrast, France had traditionally been a rival of the Habsburg monarchy. In honor of their tacit alliance with the Ottomans they rejected aiding the Austrians. But by 1683 pan-Christian feeling was strong enough that the Bourbons received some blowback for their implied approval of the Ottoman thrust into the heart of Europe.

Yet But not all Christians fought with the Habsburgs. The Protestant Hungarian noble Imre Thokoly led a contingent of his followers against Vienna in alliance with the Ottomans. Hungarian Protestants were suffering persecution and marginalization at the hands of the Catholic Habsburg monarchy. In the years before the Ottoman invasion rebellions based on demands for religious liberty were occurring due to the vigor of the re-Catholicization efforts of the Habsburgs.

Red = Catholic and Blue = Protestant

The Hungarian Protestants allied with the Ottomans against all of Christendom because only through that alliance was their existence safeguarded.* To this day the demographic stronghold of Hungarian Protestantism is to the east, where Ottomans held sway the longest, and so shielded Protestants from Royal persecution and conversion.

The general principle here is obvious. If the cost of acceptance and approval is a negation of who you are, then you will make whatever compromises and sacrifices necessary to continue to be who you are. The Greek Orthodox church arguably made this choice when most of them rejected union with Rome as the cost for Western aid against the Turks.

The relevance for modern American politics should be clear. But if it isn’t, I’ll make it clear: many pro-Trump Americans perceive that Trump may protect them and their values, and see that anti-Trump politicians and leaders will never do so. Obviously there are a range of attitudes of people who support Trump, from genuine fondness and loyalty, to resigned acceptance that he is there only choice in a binary world.

Why is he their only choice? Perhaps “it’s time for some game theory.”

Consider a book like Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority. Many center-to-Left Americans look to the year 2050 (or 2042) as a terminal date when a social-political milestone will be achieved: white people will be made dispensable. Not in a literal sense, but the centrality of white Americans will be no more. The coalition of the ascendant will have come into its own.

At least that’s the theory. Even one of the major early theorists of the new Democratic majority is not sure it will ever come to be (count me as a guarded skeptic as well).

But that’s neither here nor there. Many people on the Left and the Right in American culture see that white Christian America will be marginalized. Demoted. They seem that people are picking sides, and you have to stick to your tribe. It’s a matter of existential concern.

Many pro-Trump Americans perceive that the Left and the cultural elite hate them deeply in their bones. Wish they would disappear. Dislike their aesthetic preferences, think their religion is contemptible, and are simply waiting for their expiration date to come due so that history will march onward, and leave them an unpleasant memory.

Some of them see their livelihoods in danger, as they perceive that their political choices and identities will make them targets for being unpersoned, without a way to keep a roof over their heads or food on their family’s table. They accept the narrative of their marginalization, and are terrified of the consequences that will be meted out to them by their triumphalist adversaries in the culture wars.

When elite Americans argue that these voters are supporting a conman, they shrug. First, they don’t trust the elites to have their interests at heart in the first place, so why trust their sincerity? These are the same elites joyfully writing think-pieces about how these middle class white Americans are no longer necessary in electoral coalitions, nor do they set the terms in American culture. The alternative offered is dispossession and marginalization with a smile, and that is not an offer they are willing to take. Better someone incompetently on your side than someone effectively against you.

American society today is in a “you are with us or against” modality. Even if you are on the losing side, there is no incentive to change sides, because no one perceives that there will be charity from one’s erstwhile enemies (notice how many liberals accepted John McCain’s rejection of Republican Obamacare replacements begrudgingly; he may have sided with them in some cases, but he wasn’t on the team). These sorts of tribal dynamics are not surprising in the age of identity politics. In India caste politics is such that plainly corrupt politicians who regularly disappoint their constituents continue to be reelected over and over. Why? Because ultimately their people have nowhere else to go.

We live in a zero-sum world now. Identity is dominant. To some extent it always was, but very few now make the counter-argument that principles matter. Better get used to it.

* A curious fact is that the ancestors of the Polish Lipka Tatars marched with Sobieski.

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Sep/17

27

The cretin shall rise again

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Roy Moore is almost certain to be the Junior Senator from Alabama soon enough. That much we know.

Part of me takes pleasure in the victory, as it is true that the Republican establishment of states like Alabama is sclerotic and corrupt (just like the Democratic establishment of Illinois or California). Roy Moore is certainly not a politic individual. And that makes for great entertainment. Cable news programmers just got a gift!

But Moore is also bizarre in his views in 2017. An atavism. His stance on Church-State separation was tenable a generation ago but in a rapidly secularizing America, they are not election winners outside of Alabama that they are inside the state.  In a rapidly de-Christianizing country, the tight identification of the Republican party with Evangelical Christianity is not the broad-based winner it used to be, and Roy Moore manifests all the most uncouth and blunt tendencies which are going to remake the party in his brand….

Sep/17

20

Palmyra’s Earlier Attackers

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From The Spectator, a review of a new book, The Darkening Age, on Christianity’s early centuries.  I haven’t read the book itself (it’s not out in this country until next year), but judging by the review  it looks interesting, no least for the light it throws on the Christian cult of suffering, something still all too evident today in the widespread opposition—across denominations—to assisted suicide.

In the late years of [the Roman] Empire, and early days of Christianity, there were monks who didn’t wash for fear of being overcome by lust at the sight of their own bodies. Some concealed their nakedness in outfits woven from palm fronds. One designed a leather suit that also covered his head. There were holes for his mouth and nose, but not, apparently, his eyes.

There was a monk who spent three years with a stone in his mouth to remind him not to speak. Another wept so hard, his tears dug a hollow in his chest. There were those who went about on all fours. St Anthony, one of the founders of monasticism, chose to make his home in a pigsty. St Simeon Stylites stood on a pillar for 37 years until his feet burst open.

In the reviewer’s  opinion  this shows that “Christianity is a fundamentally masochistic religion”. Despite the cult of suffering (which is real enough) and the behavior of more recent grotesques such as Jean Vianney, that’s too simplistic, but this caught my eye:

[Christianity’s] self-punishing characteristics are a particular product of time and place: not only a reaction against Roman decadence but also, as Catherine Nixey points out in her clever, compelling book The Darkening Age, a response to the end of imperial persecution. The theory goes that, after the Empire adopted Christianity, some felt nostalgic for the enlivening fear of martyrdom, and compensated by metaphorically martyring themselves. This, then, is the essence of asceticism. It was a syndrome that St Jerome dubbed ‘white martyrdom’, to distinguish it from the red kind, which got you killed in front of a baying, paying crowd.

And then there was this (my emphasis added):

Nixey’s book presents the progress of Christianity as a triumph only in the military sense of a victory parade. Culturally, it was genocide: a kind of anti-Enlightenment, a darkening, during which, while annihilating the old religions, the rampaging evangelists carried out ‘the largest destruction of art that human history had ever seen’. This certainly isn’t the history we were taught in Sunday school. Readers raised in the milky Anglican tradition will be surprised to learn of the savagery of the early saints and their sledgehammer-swinging followers.

Here are some darkening dates: 312, the Emperor Constantine converts, after Christianity helps him defeat his enemies; 330, Christians begin desecrating pagan temples; 385, Christians sack the temple of Athena at Palmyra, decapitating the goddess’s statue; 392, Bishop Theophilus destroys the temple of Serapis in Alexandria; 415, the Greek mathematician Hypatia is murdered by Christians; 529, the Emperor Justinian bans non-Christians from teaching; 529, the Academy in Athens closes its doors, concluding a 900-year philosophical tradition…

It’s important not to be tempted into facile point-scoring comparisons between the Christians of the 4th Century and ISIS in the 21st. Nevertheless else, that ancient Christian attack on the temple of Athena is (yet) another reminder that the God of the Middle Eastern monotheisms is a jealous god, and thus someone who could not be added with any ease into the (fairly) relaxed polytheism of the Classical era.

Gibbon  (From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

The refusal to play according to the rules  of that system goes, I imagine, a long way to explaining the persecution of the  early Church.

It’s also something of a mild corrective to the praise for the (not undeserved) praise for those monks who “saved civilization”. Their coreligionists destroyed quite a  bit of it too.

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Sep/17

11

A Note on the Religious Test Clause

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Article VI of the U.S. Constitution provides that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The confirmation wars and culture wars of the past couple of decades have led to a lot of misunderstanding of this passage. This 2006 piece by law professor Paul Horwitz is a good place to start in clearing things up.

Contrary to some imaginings, the No Religious Test clause does not require a President to take no notice of the religious views of a person seeking appointment to public office. Nor does it require a Senator to set aside any notice of whether a nominee is of any particular sect (or a religious non-believer or follower of Scientology) in voting for or against confirmation. Nor — to take an even more extreme claim — does it mean that members of the electorate somehow violate the constitution when as voters they take account of candidates’ religious views.

Instead, the clause prohibits laws that would bar persons from serving in federal office unless they pledge fealty to a religious tenet. It is linked in its placement in Article VI to the preceding Oaths Clause. (It is also the only mention of religion in the originally enacted Constitution.)

It is true, as Horwitz argues, that constitutional etiquette and a due regard for pluralism may have evolved into a strong and valuable public norm here even if they do not provide a right enforceable by courts. And overstepping this norm may provide a good reason to criticize a public figure who seems to hold a certain nominee’s religion against him or her. In a more recent post, Horwitz applies those standards to the recent controversy over Sens. Dianne Feinstein’s and Dick Durbin’s comments and finds that Feinstein’s and especially Durbin’s remarks do not come off well.

Each of us should remember that however we choose to interpret the clause, that interpretation will inevitably protect appointees of exactly that strain of religious belief or unbelief we like least.

For a somewhat contrasting view, see this Harvard Law Review student note from 2007, which argues that while the President is generally in the clear when taking an interest in nominees’ religion, Senators may not be during hearings because the nominee has been placed under oath and that (the author argues) is too close to the historic abuse, at which the clause was aimed, of requiring sworn religious oaths.

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Sep/17

7

The Transhumanist ‘Threat’

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The Jesuits’ America magazine is a somewhat overwrought publication, and a recent article (“Who’s afraid of Transhumanism? (We all should be)”) it ran on the ‘threat’ posed by ‘Transhumanism’ was no exception. If I had to guess, Transhumanism, a fancy word for an over-excited philosophy and technologies that have yet to exist, will turn into something largely prosaic: Continuous, often undramatic improvement.

This is a concept  that, back in the day, management consultants used to call ‘Kaizen’ for the reason that it was thought to be one of the many secret sauces in Japan’s postwar economic boom. It also sounded more sophisticated with a Japanese name, however inaccurately used  (in reality ‘Kaizen’ means any sort of improvement, continuous or otherwise).

Applied to our species, Kaizen could involve pharmaceuticals, elective surgery, some (who knows?) six million man dollar style upgrades and, yes, a spot of genetic engineering.   Nothing much to worry about, in other words.

It is when we turn away from the objections that the author of the article, John Conley, a priest and an academic, has to some of the loopier aspects of Transhumanism (a sort of Ayn Rand plus plus philosophy) to the core of his argument, that a  familiar picture emerges, that of the glorification of suffering as a positive good. This is a morbid outgrowth of the Christian tradition that can, as I noted here, be detected in other areas, such as in some of the opposition to assisted suicide.

Conley asks:

Why would we want to abolish aging and dying, essential constituents of the human drama, the fountainhead of our art and literature?

Why would we not (although I doubt that we  will get there any time soon – if ever)?

A  few years back I posted an extract from an article by New Yorker writer Aleksander Hemon, whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 9 months old. The terribly bereaved father had this to say:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world.

Quite

And the idea that by killing off death or ‘abolishing’ aging, we would kill off art and literature, is a curious one. Art would doubtless change as the ‘human drama’ changed, but the idea that artistic expression would wither away when we did not is ludicrous. Mankind is a creative species. The spirit of Lascaux is not so easily extinguished.

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Aug/17

19

The Attacks in Catalonia: “Blind” Violence?

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Cross-posted on the Corner.

Pope Francis on last year’s Nice attack (via the National Catholic Register):

Pope Francis condemned the attack on Bastille Day Celebrations in France, calling it an act of “blind violence.”

While Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the man who drove a truck into the 14th July crowds in Nice last year, was undoubtedly unstable, had not shown much interest in religion and lacked any formal affiliation with ISIS, it seems fairly clear what pushed him over the edge.

GQ:

In the final two weeks of his life, however, and perhaps for the first time, [Bouhlel] appeared to develop an interest in Islam, the religion into which he had been born. He played recitations of the Koran in his car; he criticized a friend for listening to music; he began to grow a beard. Online, he researched the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a killing carried out in the name of the Islamic State.

Also in evidence on [his] computer was his apparent fascination with the crowds drawn each summer to the Promenade des Anglais, on Nice’s tranquil coastline, where on July 14 the city’s Bastille Day fireworks can be watched unobstructed, reflected in the black mirror of the sea.

These things were not known by the time that the Pope diagnosed the slaughter as “blind violence”, but, given what’s happened in Europe in recent years, for Francis to describe the killings in the way that he did was as much of a rush to judgment as (in this case) immediately pinning the blame on Islamic extremism.

Pope Francis yesterday on the Barcelona attacks (via America magazine):

Pope Francis has condemned “the blind violence” of “the cruel terrorist attack” in Barcelona…

The Washington Post:

 BARCELONA — Spain was seized Friday with the realization that it had incubated a large-scale terrorist plot, as authorities across Europe mounted a manhunt following the deadliest attacks to strike the country in more than a decade: two vehicle assaults in Barcelona and a Catalan coastal town.

Investigators believe that at least eight people plotted the attacks, putting them at a level of sophistication comparable to major strikes in Paris and Brussels in recent years. Other more recent attacks in London, Berlin and the southern French city of Nice were perpetrated by individuals operating largely on their own.

Spanish counterterrorism officers were scrambling to untangle the terrorist network, which involved at least four Moroccan citizens under age 25, according to intelligence officials. In addition to those four, authorities have detained three Moroccan men and a Spaniard.

In a sign that the attack could have been significantly worse, police said they believed the assailants were planning to use propane and butane canisters in an explosive assault against civilians. Instead, the gas ignited prematurely, destroying a house in Alcanar, about 100 miles southwest of Barcelona that was being used by the suspects. The explosion killed at least two people and injured 16, including police officers and firefighters investigating the site…

Blind violence. Really? The temptation, of course, is to dismiss the Pope’s remarks as simple foolishness, but that would be a mistake. To misquote part of an old line, he has eyes and he sees. The question is what he wants everyone else to see or, more accurately, not to see.

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Aug/17

13

Des Moines: Theocrats Busted

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The Des Moines Register (my emphasis added):

The FBI raided a Catholic Worker House in Des Moines early Friday in search of evidence linked to efforts to sabotage construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

About 30 law enforcement personnel, led by agents armed with guns who identified themselves as being from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, entered the Catholic Workers’ Berrigan House just north of downtown Des Moines shortly after 6 a.m., said Frank Cordaro, a former Catholic priest who resides at the house. The agents left about 10:30 a.m. with boxes and sealed bags of property they had seized.

“As soon as they realized we wouldn’t put up a fight, the guns went down, and they didn’t cuff us because we told them we wouldn’t give them any trouble,” Cordaro said.  “They were nice. They got us coffee, but we didn’t get to see any of the stuff that they took, except to watch it leave.”

Cordaro said it was clear the FBI was seeking evidence related to claims of responsibility for pipeline damage by Jessica Reznicek, 36, and Ruby Montoya, 27. Both women reside at the house at 713 Indiana Ave. Members of the Catholic Worker movement place a heavy emphasis on social justice issues.

The two women held a news conference outside the Iowa Utilities Board on July 24 in which they described their use of arson and other efforts to halt construction of the pipeline in Iowa and South Dakota. The pipeline was developed by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners.

Put another way, they believe that their belief in their God gives them the right to defy the laws of a democracy and destroy private property.

The last time I checked, this country was supposed to be subject to the rule of law and not to what someone believes to be commandments laid down by their version of God.

If these ‘Catholic Workers‘  want to change the rules there is always the ballot box, but theocrats have never been too keen on that.

The Des Moines Register:

Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch began flowing on the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline on June 1 to a distribution hub at Patoka, Illinois. The two women have told reporters they began efforts to stop the construction project Nov. 8, 2016. Their first incident of destruction involved burning at least five pieces of heavy equipment on the pipeline  project in northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County.  New reports indicate the arson caused damage estimated at about $2.5 million….

Reznicek and Montoya have said they researched how to pierce the steel pipe used for the pipeline and in March they began using oxyacetylene cutting torches to damage exposed, empty pipeline valves. They said they subsequently used torches to cause damage up and down the pipeline in Iowa and into part of South Dakota, moving from valve to valve until running out of supplies.

Reznicek and Montoya were arrested by state troopers July 24 for damaging a sign at the Iowa Utilities Board’s offices and were charged with fourth-degree criminal mischief. But they were released on bond and have not been charged with any federal crimes for pipeline sabotage.

…Cordaro acknowledged Friday that it appears likely the two women will face federal criminal charges related to their claims of responsiblity.

America Magazine (“The Jesuit Review”) has more (again, my emphasis added):

Both women were part of those protests but carried out the pipeline actions on their own. Now, both await trial and could face years in prison.

“We chose to take these actions after seeing the continued desecration of the Earth, which we are to be stewards of,” Ms. Montoya told America.

They say they began their protest on Election Day by burning several pieces of construction equipment. Over the next few months, they used oxyacetylene torches to cut through pipeline valves and used gasoline-soaked rags to burn electrical equipment. Their actions delayed construction by several weeks, and they stopped when they learned the oil flow had begun.

The fact that these women say that they began their vandalism on Election Day tells you all that you need about their attitude to democracy.

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Aug/17

5

Media Suddenly Interested in Muslim Opinion of Gays

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After years of ignoring survey data and news reports that weren’t conducive to boosting Islam’s image, so-called new media is leaping on a Pew survey showing American Muslims to be more LGBTQ-tolerant than white evangelicals. Yes, just that particular strain of Christianity, adjusted for race:

U.S. Muslims are as tolerant as Protestantism in general, and slightly less tolerant than the average for all the subsets of Protestantism listed (white evangelical, white mainline, black Protestant) as well as Catholicism, but acknowledging this undercuts the alliance-building aspect to disseminating this news. And as the game of telephone and the dynamics of meme-spreading dictate, this will distill into “Muslims are more queer-friendly than Christians” when it’s being triumphantly told at the bar tonight. The same survey shows that less than half of foreigners support homosexuality, but that’s information likewise not congenial to progressivism, so don’t expect any headlines.

U.S. Muslims have changed their opinion on LGBTQ matters more rapidly than other groups (likely due to their being relatively upper-income, urban, and college-bound, and thus prone to getting the cultural memo) so you get the sense that a Most Improved Award is being treated as a Gold Star. It also speaks to the idea that seemingly contradictory alliances that are more hypothetical than real have a way of becoming real over time.

Of course simple surveys like this don’t capture the intensity of anti-gay sentiment, a rather crucial point. Sure, Huffpo, make Kim Davis the face of evil all you want, but it wasn’t an evangelical who murdered 49 people at a gay Orlando nightclub last year.

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