Thursday, November 30, 2006

Comment Spam

Hey, I just wanted to give you all a heads up. Lately the spambots have found our comments. They've been posting advertisements -- usually it's just the standard Viagra/stock tips/medicine, but sometimes the content of these things is pornographic.

Every comment gets emailed to me, so I usually see these before you do, especially since lots of times they are commenting on old posts that nobody is looking at any more. When I see them, I delete them, and nobody even has to know they were there.

We have been seeing these things for a long time, maybe once every two weeks or so, but lately they've been coming in at a rate of around a half-dozen a day.

If it gets any worse, or maybe even if it persists at this annoying rate, I'll have to switch the comments so that only registered users can post. That means our Anonymice will have to sign up and use names. It's tough, I know, but if we have to do that, we will.

So, Anons, maybe you ought to ask your kids how this thing works, and see if they can help you get a Blogger account so you can continue to comment. You don't have to use your real name, of course, we don't really care who you are. But if we have to tighten up the comments, we will. A lot of blogs have had to do this.

NIST: Touch-Screens Not Enough for Voting

This is great news. BradBlog, which has been following the touchscreen voting-machine controversy for a long time, is reporting that NIST -- the National Institute of Standards and Technology -- is about to issue a ruling on the use of these infernal devices to record and aggregate the will of the people. NIST hosts the Technical Guidelines Development Committee for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, who developed the current standards, and also oversees the federal "Voting Systems Standards."

Brad quotes Michael Hickins of Internet News:
A federal agency is set to recommend significant changes to specifications for electronic-voting machines next week, has learned.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is recommending that the 2007 version of the Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines (VVSG) decertify direct record electronic (DRE) machines.

According to an NIST paper to be discussed at a meeting of election regulators at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., on Dec. 4 and 5, DRE vote totals cannot be audited because the machines are not software independent.

In other words, there is no means of verifying vote tallies other than by relying on the software that tabulated the results to begin with.

The machines currently in use are "more vulnerable to undetected programming errors or malicious code," according to the paper.

The NIST paper also noted that, "potentially, a single programmer could 'rig' a major election."

By the way, that NIST paper is very clear and readable. Follow that link to see a nice, succinct summary of the situation.

Brad is saying that NIST is going to recommend that machines, in order to be certified, must create paper ballots that can be physically counted. Because crazy things do happen. We remember that Maryland's primaries, especially in Montgomery County, were a big mess.

BradBlog makes a good point about the difference between a paper trail and paper ballots, which NIST is recommending. A "paper trail" is not verified by the voter, really isn't going to be looked at by election judges, and will just jam the printers, making it harder for people to vote. A paper ballot though can be printed, checked, and counted instead of the digital data.

It's funny, as far as I know, Democrats have suspected that Republicans would hack these machines to steal votes -- I'm sure some Republicans have said the same about Democrats, but it mostly goes the other way. I don't remember, it was something about "stolen elections" in the recent past ... At the same time, support for the touch-screen machines has mostly come from the Democratic side of the aisle. It seems likely there was some hacking -- Florida's 13th District is a major eye-opener -- but in general, most places, people's votes seem to have gotten counted.

This time.

It will be really nice, I think, if NIST puts their foot down and secures a solid technology for the activity that is the cornerstone of our democratic society.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

He Never Even Noticed

OK, this has been getting under my skin all day, so I'm just going to go ahead and post it. See what you think.

It's Newt Gingrich, in the Manchester Union Leader:
MANCHESTER - Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich yesterday said the country will be forced to reexamine freedom of speech to meet the threat of terrorism.

Gingrich, speaking at a Manchester awards banquet, said a "different set of rules" may be needed to reduce terrorists' ability to use the Internet and free speech to recruit and get out their message.

"We need to get ahead of the curve before we actually lose a city, which I think could happen in the next decade," said Gingrich, a Republican who helped engineer the GOP's takeover of Congress in 1994. Gingrich raises alarm at event honoring those who stand up for freedom of speech

OK, first of all, these guys just keep insisting that the problem here in America is that we have too much freedom. It's dangerous. If we have freedom, then the terrorists have freedom, too and we can't let them have it, so let's throw our own freedom away.

Apparently, to some people that makes sense.

OK, so a guy like this says something like that. This kind of thing is not normally worth repeating. It's idiotic: big surprise.

But it's that last paragraph. We'd better surrender our freedom "before we actually lose a city, which I think could happen in the next decade."

That rings a bell... lose a city ... lose a city ... lose a -- ah, yes.

It's like he doesn't realize that we already lost a city. To this administration's incompetence. It's like New Orleans just never registered in Newt Gingrich's brain somehow. People standing in their attics, up to their necks in stinking water, pounding on the roof for someone to rescue them, while the government argued about whose jurisdiction it was, and whether they had the right permits for the generators.

It's like he didn't even notice.


I've been off at Indiana University, visiting with some professors and grad students, and they had me give a talk. I met some really cool people, amazing idiosyncratic and humble innovators. Even though I was there to talk about my research, there was a surprising amount of interest in the doings of, too, in private conversations. Let's just say ... there is an assumption among people at that level, highly educated researchers and scientists, that the viewpoint supported by TTF is the correct one. We may find a commenter who wants to insist that this means that the universities are filled with liberals, but of course the easier explanation is that the universities are filled with smart people.

It seems particularly significant that so many of the "culture wars" battles have taken place within the arena of education. Public education is a great service that local and state governments can provide. It used to be a cliche to say that "knowledge is power," and it used to seem rather hackneyed to talk about how important education is -- everybody knew it was important. It was like taking your vitamins or getting fresh air, something everybody knew was good for you.

Yet somehow, over recent decades, we have seen an anti-intellectual climate build up within the United States that has resulted in intentional and sometimes unintentional undermining of the institution of public education. Not only have there been crises and conflicts over the teaching of evolution and sex-education, the re-writing and re-defining of history and science and the censorship of literature, but trends such as home-schooling and the push for charter schools and vouchers have led to a weakening, at least, of the public trust in its educational system. Remember, last year the sixteen-million-member Southern Baptist Convention nearly voted to pull all of their kids out of public schools.

The New York Times had a cheerful item this weekend about a new trend in home-schooling that, I'm sure you will agree, is bound to result in a brighter, more skilled, more disciplined America in the twenty-first century.

Some people are just letting their kids run wild.
On weekdays, during what are normal school hours for most students, the Billings children do what they want. One recent afternoon, time passed loudly, and without order or lessons, in their home in a North Side neighborhood here.

Hayden Billings, 4, put a box over his head and had fun marching into things. His sister Gaby, 9, told stories about medieval warrior women, while Sydney, 6, drank hot chocolate and played with Dylan, the baby of the family.

In a traditional school setting, such free time would probably be called recess. But for Juli Walter, the children’s mother, it is “child-led learning,” something she considers the best in home schooling.

“I learned early on that when I do things I’m interested in,” Ms. Walter said, “I learn so much more.”

As the number of children who are home-schooled grows — an estimated 1.1 million nationwide — some parents like Ms. Walter are opting for what is perhaps the most extreme application of the movement’s ideas. They are “unschooling” their children, a philosophy that is broadly defined by its rejection of the basic foundations of conventional education, including not only the schoolhouse but also classes, curriculums and textbooks. Home Schoolers Content to Take Children’s Lead

Sure, it sounds like fun. But don't you wonder what they learn? What are the chances that these kids at some point are going to want to stop marching into things with boxes on their heads and learn algebra?

Last summer at a school board meeting discussing whether to include materials from "ex-gays" and other nutty groups in the public school curricula, a board member said to MCPS staff: "I'd like to see if you guys can provide the answer on what criteria is being used to accept certain fact-sheets from certain organizations and reject certain other ones. What is the criteria for that?"

And ... well, several things struck me about the question, but the most important thing is that the answer should be quite clear. The school district should support education, and it should give preference to fact-sheets from organizations that represent highly educated people. It just seemed obvious to me. Uneducated people may make up a majority of the country, but when you come to making decisions for the school district, I think they should support ... education.

Is there something wrong with that reasoning?
There is scant data on the educational results of unschooling, and little knowledge about whether the thousands of unschooled children fare better or worse than regularly schooled students. There is not even reliable data on how many people are unschooling, though many experts suggest the number is growing.

Here in Chicago, a group called the Northside Unschoolers has 100 families registered on its online list. There are similar organizations coast to coast, including the San Francisco Bay Unschooling Network, Unschoolers Unlimited in Guilford, Conn., and the Unschoolers of the Ozarks, serving Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, although accurate figures for the number of families they serve are hard to come by. Adherents say the rigidity of school-type settings and teacher-led instruction tend to stifle children’s natural curiosity, setting them up for life without a true love of learning.

“When you think about it, the way they do things in school is mostly for crowd control,” said Karen Tucker, a mother of three boys who is an unschooler in Siloam Springs, Ark., and belongs to the Unschoolers of the Ozarks. “We don’t duplicate the methods of school because we’ve rejected school.”

OK, I can see that. American public schools have become mainly crowd control. Raising the next generation of Budweiser customers doesn't really require a lot of self-discipline and work, but you do have to keep them off the streets until they're old enough to buy the stuff.

Now, I'm wondering, as you are, what kind of people these are. I have come to associate home-schooling with strict religious beliefs, where -- for instance in the case of the Southern Baptists -- people would keep their kids out of school so they are not exposed to worldly and corrupting influences.

But these people ... it reminds me of a couple I used to know who lived in a VW Microbus and camped up and down the coasts of California, surfing and letting their kids run around naked exploring the beach. Is that what we're looking at here? Neo-hippies?

Ah, OK, The Times has a paragraph on the next page about that...
Unlike the more familiar home-schoolers of recent years, unschoolers tend not to be religiously motivated. They simply do not approve of ordinary education, and have decided to rearrange their lives around letting their children explore their worlds, unencumbered by the usual pupil-teacher relationship.

And then another thing I wondered about...
Much of the basic mathematics that Ms. Walter’s daughters have learned so far, she said, sprung from their desire to calculate how much allowance money they would have to earn to buy dolls featured in their favorite toy catalog.

Each child gets a small weekly allowance that is deposited directly into her own bank account, then the adding and multiplying begins. The lessons have inadvertently, and painlessly, extended to taxes, shipping fees and postage, which she sees as another benefit of unschooling.

“It’s more real-world stuff,” Ms. Walter said. “How many kids get out of high school and don’t know how to balance a checkbook?”

Mmm, sure, and how many unschooled kids know how to find the area of a circle? How many of our future engineers are going to have been unschooled?

(By the way, it's not often you catch the NYT making a grammatical error like this, using "sprung" instead of "sprang" as the past tense of "spring".)

Peter Kowalke, 27, was unschooled as a child and went on to earn a degree in journalism with a concentration in math three years ago from the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

“You don’t know everything, and there are definite gaps in most unschoolers’ backgrounds, but you cover most of what you need,” he said. “And if you find out that you need something that you haven’t studied, you’ll have much more drive to actually learn it.”

Let's say this is the norm. Let's say that kids who stay home and play with boxes on their heads all day do just as well in college as kids who sit quietly at their desks and take notes and fill in their agenda and go home and do homework instead of playing, year after year after year.

You could draw one of two conclusions from that, I'd think. You could conclude that education of children is a waste of time, no value added. Maybe education is just -- what'd they call it? -- crowd control, a way to get kids out of the house so mom and dad can go to work.

Or you could conclude that American education is a waste of time. You can go online and see comparisons of the education levels, the test scores and achievement rankings of students in countries all over the world. And where do you figure we rank? Well, not at the bottom, unless you're just considering the developed world. No, the US typically ranks in the middle on most topics, below most of the European and Asian countries -- the Wikipedia chapter on the US says The United States ranks 24th out of 29 surveyed countries in the reading and science literacy as well as mathematical abilities of its high school students when compared with other developed nations.

So it may be that our schools have reached a point that it's just as good to stay home and play, and get serious when it comes time to go to college.

Of course, that's assuming that the example of Peter Kowalke, unschooled math-and-journalism-major, is representative. I'm guessing it's not.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Blade Summarizes The Situation

It is always interesting to see how the Washington Blade, the local gay-community newspaper, perceives the controversy here in Montgomery County. They had a pretty big article this weekend about it.
After years of debate and revision, Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools are poised to approve a gay-inclusive sex education curriculum.

A committee tasked with reviewing the lessons for eighth and 10th grade students approved it Wednesday. District officials must still review the curriculum, which was praised by pro-gay activists.

“I’m perfectly happy with it,” said Jim Kennedy, co-founder of Teach the Facts, a coalition of Maryland parents and supporters of the gay-inclusive curriculum.

“A conservative person might think that it’s a liberal curriculum,” he said, “but I think an ordinary person would think it’s just an ordinary curriculum.”

Kennedy said the lessons, titled “Respect for Differences in Human Sexuality,” explain concepts like sexual identity and orientation using nonjudgmental language.

“The fact is that some people are gay, and some people are straight,” he said. “It lays it out there, and it doesn’t make a judgment one way or the other.” by Joshua Lynsen: Mont. County readies gay-inclusive curriculum

Why, yes, that was me. Josh and I had a nice chat about all this.

We'll see a certain tiny group of whiners complain about this and that, but there isn't much there to bitch about. The whole thing is pretty straightforward. The state asked for a curriculum on sexual variations, and now they have one.
But curriculum opponents are lobbying district officials to reject the proposed curriculum.

Parents & Friends of Gays & Ex-Gays, along with Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, argue that students are not properly cautioned about the dangers of anal sex. They also protest the exclusion of “ex-gay” topics in the curriculum.

Neither organization responded this week to Blade requests for comment.

CRC and PFOX want the curriculum to talk about anal sex more, because they like people to think about gay people doing things like that. But the sexual orientation curriculum isn't about sexual intercourse, it's about sexual orientation. It's about romance and love as much as what people do in bed. In fact, these sections don't even mention what people do in bed.

There is a statement in the condom lesson, telling students to use a condom for all kinds of sexual activity, including anal sex, and the CRC takes that as an opportunity to go into the subject in more detail.

They seem unaware that anal sex is an overwhelmingly heterosexual behavior. Here, look at this CDC report. They think they can slime gays with this, but I don't think anybody's going for it.

Well, I doubt that MCPS is going to add an "anal sex" unit to the health class, no matter how much the CRC whines for it.
The curriculum — which has gone to district Superintendent Jerry Weast for administrative review — is scheduled for board action Jan. 9.

District spokesperson Brian Edwards said board members could approve the new curriculum at that meeting.

The new curriculum is the district’s second attempt to rewrite the sex education program. The first rewrite triggered a courtroom showdown when conservative groups objected to the new content.

To settle the lawsuit, school officials agreed to restart the curriculum revamp process. The committee’s Nov. 15 vote was the culmination of that effort.

That's a pretty fair description of what happened.

This is a pretty long article, but I think Josh did his homework and got it right.
According to the proposed curriculum, lessons are structured to broaden student vocabulary while stressing respect.

Students in eighth grade are taught to recognize healthy relationships, and how to define human sexuality, gender identity and other terms.

The lesson also examines “the harmful effect of making generalizations or stereotyping” people based on gender or sexual orientation.

Students in 10th grade receive a more robust curriculum, including an examination of topics such as coming out. It also asks students to consider the challenges a transgender student might face.

But curriculum opponents decried the focus on empathy.

In a letter to district officials, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum President Michelle Turner said the lessons are an affront to children with strong religious convictions.

“When schools start telling our children what they must think and how they must feel about others … aren’t the schools getting out of education and into mind control?”

Hoo hoo hee hee. Mind control. Great one. The school curriculum is solidly based on literature by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association -- a lot of it was written by a panel from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Mind control, sure, whatever you think.

You know, if you write "CRC" on your tinfoil helmet, it works even better. (It's an old Rosicrucian trick.)
Turner and other curriculum opponents are asking the school board to reject the lessons Jan. 9.

In one letter, Maryland psychologist Dean Byrd says the lessons are “anchored more in activism than in science or health.”

In another letter, Grace Harley, a local grandmother who identifies as “a former transgender,” says the curriculum is discriminatory.

“The lesson plans for our children and grandchildren are entitled ‘Respect for Differences in Human Sexuality,’ and promote acceptance for homosexuals, transgenders and the intersexed,” she wrote. “Yet the only sexual orientation in our school system which receives no respect are ex-gays and former transgenders like myself.”

Kennedy said the curriculum has no mention of “ex-gays” because 12 of 15 committee members were against its inclusion.

“It was just voted down,” he said. “The group didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”

Kennedy noted that current medical and scientific evidence does not view “ex-gay” as a codified sexual orientation.

“It’s not a kind of sexual orientation — that’s really all it comes down to,” he said. “If you used to be gay, and now you’re not, you’re heterosexual, right?”

Hey, I'm sorry if my reasoning is ... too hard to follow.

Nobody is saying they don't exist or that there'd be anything wrong if a person switched. As far as sexual orientation goes, they'd only be moving from one category to another. Everybody fits somewhere, nobody's left out. If they want Brownie points for changing, they'll just have to get them somewhere else. At church, maybe.

Could we have included "ex-gay" without "ex-straight," which, as you can imagine, describes a vastly largely number of people? Could we have included "ex-gay" without "ex-ex-gay," which is also a vastly largely number? Come on, nobody wants to go there.

It just didn't make sense. Tell the judge whatever you want.
But the omission could trigger yet another lawsuit.

“I would say I’m about 99 percent sure there will be a legal challenge,” Kennedy said.

Edwards declined to comment on the potential lawsuit, or how the district might respond.

Yeah, that's not his place to comment on that. We hope that this time MCPS will be paying attention when the inevitable happens.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

How the Other Side Thinks

Family Blah Blah Megastar James Dobson was on Larry King's show the other day, talking about Ted Haggard, sexual orientation, and other things that interest us here. Sometimes it is just amazing to listen to them.

The transcript of the interview is HERE.

Ted Haggard's quick tumble from grace is one of the signature stories of our time. It is interesting then to watch Dobson deal with it.
KING: Have you spoken to him?

DOBSON: I have talked to him. I was asked to serve on a three person restoration panel and I originally wanted to be of help and said that I would, but I just don't have the time to do that. And I called my board of directors, we talked about it at length and they were unanimous in asking me not to do that, because this could take four or five years and I just have too many other things going on.

KING: How's he doing?

DOBSON: I don't know. I haven't talked to him since it happened.

KING: Oh you haven't?

DOBSON: I talked to him the day that the news broke and I have not talked to him since then.

KING: When you say, Doctor, when you say "restoration" you mean restore him from being gay to not gay or what do you mean?

DOBSON: Yeah, probably that, too. But in Galatians 6.1, there is a scripture that says when -- "Brothers when one of you falls into sin, those who are spiritual should work to restore him gently." That is the scripture behind the restoration process and that word, and three men, now will oversee discipline punishment -- if there is any, therapy, his behavior, his money, his future and will lead him if he is willing to cooperate, and apparently he is -- through a restoration process. We don't want to just kick him out, I mean, he's lost his church, obviously, but there's still concern for him as an individual.

KING: We discussed this before in the past, but not recently: Do you still believe that being gay is a choice rather than a given?

DOBSON: I never did believe that.

KING: Oh, you don't believe it.

DOBSON: I don't believe that. Neither do I believe it's genetic. I said that...

KING: Then what is it?

DOBSON: I said that on your program one time and both of us got a lot of mail for it. I don't blame homosexuals for being angry when people say they've made a choice to be gay because they don't.

It usually comes out of very, very early childhood, and this is very controversial, but this is what I believe and many other people believe, that is has to do with an identity crisis that occurs to early to remember it, where a boy is born with an attachment to his mother and she is everything to him for about 18 months, and between 18 months and five years, he needs to detach from her and to reattach to his father.

It's a very important developmental task and if his dad is gone or abusive or disinterested or maybe there's just not a good fit there. What's he going to do? He remains bonded to his mother and...

KING: Is that clinically true or is that theory?

DOBSON: No, it's clinically true, but it's controversial. What homosexual activists, especially, would like everybody to believe is that it is genetic, that they don't have any choice. If it were genetic, Larry -- and before we went on this show, you and I were talking about twin studies -- if it were genetic, identical twins would all have it. Identical twins, if you have a homosexuality in one twin, it would be there in the other.

Let me introject a couple of things here. This "detach and reattach" stuff is pure speculation. The "distant father" theory that NARTH promotes ... same thing, pure bull-oney. "Bonded to the mother," ridiculous. It's a joke, a kind of way of making fun of real science. There is no peer-reviewed research supporting any of this, it's pure quackery.

When Dobson uses the term "clinically true," he is blowing it out of his ... sense of wishful thinking. There is no concept in science or medicine that would be called "clinical truth" -- there are only degrees of uncertainty -- and there is absolutely nothing that backs up this crazy theory.

Further, this kind of talk about genetics is totally irresponsible for a person with an advanced education, as Dobson has. If he doesn't understand how it works he shouldn't be talking about it.

You can see why an important part of the religious right's strategy would be to undermine education, as we've seen in Montgomery County -- if the people remain ignorant, they are more likely to believe this kind of illiterate nonsense.

Larry King asked a couple of pretty good questions:
KING: Well, how could a gay person preach against gays? How could you do that?

DOBSON: Well, a lot of people wonder that. He, obviously, was, again, at war with himself. He was involved in activities that I think horrified him. He said that he fought against it, but he also knew what he believed.

It was not hypocrisy. It was a struggle between behavior and the belief system.

Note: Would you let your kids get away with an excuse like that? Yeah, dad, I would've done my homework, but there was a struggle between by behavior and my belief system ...
KING: How long does counseling last in this kind of case?

DOBSON: It could be a long time. I would think that the restoration process here, if Reverend Haggard chooses to go through with it, would be three to five years.

KING: And is success the fact that he is no longer gay? Would that be your definition of success?

DOBSON: That would be part of it. It's a spiritual restoration, too. It's a personal and marital restoration. It involves every aspect of life.

I mean, Ted himself wrote, in his letter to his church the day this was disclosed, "I am a liar and I'm a deceiver," and that has to be dealt with.

And how about them libruls?
"Those again on the liberal end of the spectrum are those who have no value system, or at least they say there is no moral and immoral. There's no right or wrong. . . . But when a religious leader, or especially an evangelical, falls, guess who is the most judgmental of him and calling him a hypocrite? . . . Those that said there is no right and wrong in the first place. The truth of the matter is there is right and wrong. And we all within our midst have failures, and they do occur."

I think it is fine for somebody like Dobson to hypothesize about what it would be like if a group of people had no value system, no morals, no sense of right or wrong. What a sensible person objects to here is the idea that there really are people like that in our country, people who are called "liberals."

To state the obvious: liberal ideals arise from a moral standpoint. Whatever, I'm not going there, the ignorance of these kinds of statements calls for a response, but ... sometimes I'm embarrassed to have to even talk about these things. And this beautiful Saturday afternoon I don't feel like doing that to myself. Sorry.

This one was an eye-opener to me:
KING: What is forgiveness to you? Like, you forgive Haggard, don't you, Mr. Haggard?

DOBSON: I don't forgive Haggard because his sin was not against me. God has to do the forgiving. I continue to love him. He is a friend. He will always be my friend. And I'm sorry for what's happened...

KING: But you don't forgive him?

DOBSON: ... but God has to forgive him. And, I mean, his relationship with his wife has to be one of forgiveness.

KING: She has to forgive him?

DOBSON: Yes. And...

KING: Not in your purview, though?

DOBSON: It's not my job to do that.

Growing up Christian, I had always understood that Jesus wanted us to forgive others. It is fascinating to see how Dobsonian Christians have relieved themselves of that burden.

These religious characters have a prominent role in today's American culture, and even though their guys lost in the elections, they're not going away. It's up to us to learn how they think, to understand their goals and tactics, so we can stop them before it gets out of hand, like it nearly did last time.

An Iraq Milestone

As of today, the war in Iraq has lasted longer than America's involvement in World War II.

1,348 days and counting.

Best Headline

Somebody should get a bonus at the New York Daily News for this one.

Down in Miami, a disgruntled cartoonist came into the newspaper offices with a fake machine gun and demanded to see the editor. It's not clear what he wanted -- he was unhappy with the newspaper's position on Cuban immigration, he'd just split up with his wife, well, eventually maybe the whole story will come out. It sounds like he was a nice guy who knew everybody, and just came unglued.

So the Daily News runs the story under the headline:
Cartoonist draws gun on paper

C'mon, you gotta give them a hand for that one.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Post: Not So Good This Time

I don't like to do this, but I'm going to criticize a local news story and the reporter who wrote it. See, we like to have good relationships with reporters, because a lot of this debate occurs in public, and the media have a lot to say about how different viewpoints are represented. So in general its better for us if reporters like us.

But I, like a lot of observers, feel that today's national crisis is really a story about the failure of the media to do their job. The role of the media has devolved from an informative function to one where reporters just repeat whatever they're told, regardless of the bias or inaccuracy of statements. Power, then, means simply having access to the media, it does not require developing a cogent argument, because there is no debate, only repetition of the views of those who have access. The result is a poorly informed public, election of corrupt politicians, and enactment of public policies that do not serve the population's interest. It happens at the national level, and it happens at the local level.

It looks like the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum conned a Washington Post reporter, who was a little less eager than necessary to do their homework. The story ran Thursday, the 16th.

You remember that two CRC members made statements at Board of Education public comments last week. Apparently that's what triggered this.
The battle over sex education in Montgomery has returned to a familiar theme, presented Tuesday in testimony to the school board: If new lessons on sexual orientation are to be fair and balanced, they should include discussion of ex-gays.

A citizens committee is reviewing proposed eighth- and 10th-grade lessons that address sexual orientation for the first time in the county schools. The speakers said the committee has taken pains to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in the lessons but has avoided the topic of ex-gays. Ex-Gay, Sex-Ed Debate

Where to start? First of all, there's no battle. The citizens committee considered some proposals to include "ex-gay" stuff in the curriculum, and voted against it. There was no battle. Oh, there are one or two whiners, but that should hardly count as a "battle" in the mighty Washington Post.

Second, the committee is not reviewing anything. This reporter should have known, by the time this story was published the committee had finished reviewing curricula.

Third, the committee did not at all "avoid the topic of ex-gays." They discussed the topic and voted against it. Just like they were supposed to do. Some suggested changes were accepted, some were not, the introduction of "ex-gays" into the curriculum was not.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I've ever heard, no high-school curriculum in the world includes anything about "ex-gays." It's a subject invented by the religious right to promote their views on homosexuality, it's not actually a real thing. I'm not saying that nobody ever stops being gay, I don't know if they do or not. I'm just saying the whole concept is something the Family Blah Blah groups dreamed up to try to keep the rest of us from accepting gay people.
Last year, a community group called Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum led a campaign to overturn the county's sex education curriculum, which a federal judge found might discriminate against some faiths that are intolerant of homosexuality.

"Led a campaign?" The only thing that worked for them was a drive-by lawsuit by Jerry Falwell's lawyers. The community opposed them every time they showed themselves. It was more like a squealing noise in the backround than a "campaign."
The advisory committee has not yet completed its task, which is to advise Superintendent Jerry D. Weast on new lessons on sexual orientation and condom use. But draft curriculum documents provided to Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum prompted a fresh outpouring of concerns.

All this paragraph tells you is that this reporter didn't do their job. The first sentence is just wrong. The advisory committee had completed their job when this story ran.

And then, to talk as if "draft curriculum documents" were "provided to Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum" only tells you that the CRC is feeding this reporter information. Those documents were handed out at the meeting to everyone who wanted one. This reporter is just telling us where they got the documents -- from CRC.

And ... "outpouring?" I mean, come on. Were there two people, or three -- out of a county of over a million residents?
Members of the group said the proposed lessons celebrate gay, lesbian and transgender communities and mostly ignore concepts of abstinence and sexually transmitted disease. Proponents of the lessons said that they introduce and define the topics objectively. Critics said the committee has proved hostile to the community of ex-gays.

"Why is the ex-gay community being censored in the lesson plan when every other sexual orientation is discussed and supported?" asked Grace Harley, a grandmother who told the board she had lived for 10 years as a man.

Man, there's a lot of stuff going on here. The idea that the lesson plan ignores abstinence and STDs is simply false. Abstinence is emphasized at every opportunity, and there is a whole long unit on STDs. Further, it is silly to say the curriculum "celebrates" anything -- I doubt that even the CRC would say that. It's a health class. It tells students some things. You don't celebrate stuff in health class.

It seems clear that this reporter doesn't really know what's in the curriculum. If they did, wouldn't it be appropriate to mention that the CRC's representation is false? I do expect more than stenography from The Post. It would have been easy to say, "The curriculum documents do not include actual statements celebrating or promoting homosexuality." Still factual reporting.

This paragraph quotes "members of the group," "proponents of the lessons," and "critics" -- doesn't anybody have a name? What standard of journalism are we applying here? (Maybe the "limbo" standard, where we see how low we can set the bar...)

And that part about the committee proving "hostile to the community of ex-gays" presumes there is a community of "ex-gays." Tell me, where does this community hang out? Do you see them anywhere? Name three "ex-gays." You can't, can you? Again, the reporter simply relays whatever they're being told, as if it were true. Some naive readers don't know if it's true or not, and accept, because they're good, trusting people, that The Post is accurate. There is a community of religious people who promote the idea of "ex-gays," but very few of them claim to be such themselves.

And look, the committee was not hostile at all; it was a cheerful and hard-working group of volunteers. They voted against including "former homosexuals" as a category of sexual orientation, because, well, it isn't a category of sexual orientation. There was no hostility. The chair called the question, and people raised their hands for yes, no, or abstain. The committee voted on hundreds of items. This one didn't pass.

Then to quote Reverend Grace, who has nothing to do, as far as we know, with the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum. Rev. Grace has had a hard life, and I don't blame her for getting back on track, doing whatever she had to do. But she's not from Montgomery County, she's not part of the CRC, and she really only speaks for her own troubled self.

The reporter tries to find the core of the debate here:
At issue is a more fundamental question: Does one choose to be gay? The gay-lesbian community is virtually unanimous that homosexuality is immutable. The notion that one can choose to be gay has been embraced by some spiritual conservatives, who contend that homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle that can be abandoned. Harley belongs to a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays.

Look, I hate to state the obvious, but everyone knows you don't choose to be gay. Even Peter Sprigg, citizens advisory committee member, Vice Monkey-Monk at the Family Research Council and professional gay-basher, wrote, in an essay we published here, that "I do not believe, and I do not know anyone who believes, that same-gender sexual attractions or desires are a 'choice.'" No, people like Sprigg argue that, even if you are born with those feelings, you're only gay if you act on them, or if you think you're gay -- his "behavior" and "self-identification." What these guys believe is that "some people" should live a false life, denying their true feelings, in accordance with the expectations of their social group. Ask Ted Haggard how that works out.

The core issue is this: should all Americans have the right to seek true love in their lives? Or should the government through its schools try to force, coerce, or persuade certain individuals to refute their own emotions, the natural feelings that draw them to another person in love? The question is whether the public schools should teach that living in denial of your true feelings is as good as, or even better than, being true to yourself.

Any religious group can come up with their own answer to these questions. It's none of my business if they decide to handle rattlesnakes and talk in tongues and pretend that gay people are straight. But it is not the place of a public school district to promote these beliefs among the general population, who generally just want their kids to be exposed to accurate knowledge.

Ahem ... so, yesterday morning's Post published a response by David Fishback, who was the chair of the former citizens advisory committee.

He has his own beef with the story.
Your Nov. 16 article "Ex-Gay, Sex Ed Debate" [Montgomery Extra], which suggested that the debate over whether homosexuality is a choice is between "some spiritual conservatives" and the "gay-lesbian community," may have left some readers with the impression that the debate is simply between interest groups.

In fact, the mainstream American medical and mental health professional associations have concluded that sexual orientation is not a choice. And they all oppose the so-called "reparative" or "conversion" therapies touted by groups like Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays (PFOX), which are based on the assumption that homosexuality is an illness and that people should change their orientation.

For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that most experts have concluded that "one's sexual orientation is not a choice; that is, individuals do not choose to be homosexual or heterosexual."

Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, sexual orientation is not a "conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed."

Similarly, the American Medical Association "opposes the use of 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation."

So the reality is that the disagreement is between some organizations such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family on the one hand, and groups like the American Medical Association on the other.

David S. Fishback

Olney Homosexuality as Choice? Medical Experts Say No

And I think most of us understand that the public schools should be promoting the views of the scientific establishment rather than some Family Blah Blah wishful thinking.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

More Turkey, Less Comment

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A lavishly illustrated "Atlas of Creation" is mysteriously turning up at schools and libraries in Turkey, proclaiming that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is the real root of terrorism.

Arriving unsolicited by post, the large-format tome offers 768 glossy pages of photographs and easy-to-read text to prove that God created the world with all its species.

At first sight, it looks like it could be the work of United States creationists, the Christian fundamentalists who believe the world was created in six days as told in the Bible.

But the author's name, Harun Yahya, reveals the surprise inside. This is Islamic creationism, a richly funded movement based in predominantly Muslim Turkey which has an influence U.S. creationists could only dream of.

Creationism is so widely accepted here that Turkey placed last in a recent survey of public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries -- just behind the United States.

"Darwinism is dead," said Kerim Balci of the Fethullah Gulen network, a moderate Islamic movement with many publications and schools but no link to the creationists who produced the atlas. Creation vs. Darwin takes Muslim twist in Turkey

Skipping down ...
Like the Bible, the Koran says God made the world in six days and fashioned the first man, Adam, from dust. Other details vary but the idea is roughly the same.

But unlike in the West, evolution theory has not undermined the traditional creation story for many Muslims.

"Science is hardly an issue in Turkey, therefore evolution could hardly have been an issue," said Celal Sengor, a geology professor at Istanbul Technical University.

Farther down ...
"Atlas of Creation" offers over 500 pages of splendid images comparing fossils with present-day animals to argue that Allah created all life as it is and evolution never took place.

Then comes a book-length essay arguing that Darwinism, by stressing the "survival of the fittest," has inspired racism, Nazism, communism and terrorism.

"The root of the terrorism that plagues our planet is not any of the divine religions, but atheism, and the expression of atheism in our times (is) Darwinism and materialism," it says.

There's more. Interesting article.

Happy Thinks-giving

Here's something to think about while you're processing all that L-Tryptophan in front of the TV.

Yesterday Matthew Yglesias noted that another blogger had made the case that the very fact that people everywhere believe in a religion is evidence that it's true. As this person said (quoting from Yglesias' piece):
... As soon as homo sapiens developed consciousness, we became conscious of (what seems to be) a numinous reality interwoven with our own; it's just possible, surely, that we started experiencing the numinous because it happens to be real...

OK, that's a pretty good case. We believe in God because He exists.

Ah, but Matt knows exactly where the hole in that argument is. And he hits it pretty hard.
The trouble, I think, is that one thing just about everyone should be prepared to agree about is that most peoples' religious beliefs are false. As you can see in the handy chart I stole from this site, there's just too much diversity in religious belief. Whatever the right thing to believe is, most people don't believe it. At best, you can combine the Christian and Muslim blocks (and the trivial number of Jews) to form a very slight majority in form of some form of monotheism. Even here, though, the folk practices of many Catholics (and unless I'm mistaken, Orthodox Christians and Shiite Muslims as well) has strong polytheistic elements. It's only a kind of rhetorical overreach on the part of atheists -- pitting "religion" versus "not religion" as the key disagreement -- that creates the appearance of a large majority in favor of "religion." On The Uncontroversial Subject of Religion...

Ah, yes, and don't forget, all of them believe they're the one who's got it right. It's not like they're looking at the same thing from a different angle -- you saw what Pat Robertson said. Everybody else's gods are just demons.

Yglesias had more:
There's clearly a significant human predilection for not-supported-by-science beliefs of various sorts -- in the existence of a god or gods, astrology, fortune-telling, alien visits to earth, the healing power of crystals, etc. -- but there's no particular convergence of these beliefs on anything in particular. Meanwhile, on many of the particular question you might ask about religious subjects, atheists are going to be in the majority. Like most people on earth, atheists don't believe that Jesus Christ died for man's sins. Similarly, just like most people, atheists don't believe that Muhammed was Allah's greatest prophet or that the Hidden Imam will return. And, again, like most people atheists don't believe that you'll be reborn on earth after death in a new body.

Ha! He's gotcha there, you have to admit.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Family Blah-Blah Brings Wal-Mart To Its Knees

Look at this American Family Association web site, attacking Wal-Mart:
Wal-Mart Contributes 5% Of Online Sales To Homosexual Group
The cash donation will come from online purchases made at Wal-Mart through the homosexual group's Web site.

Help recruit 1,000,000 to agree to not shop at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club (owned by Wal-Mart) on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving. Here's why:

In a show of support to help homosexuals legalize same-sex marriage, Wal-Mart has agreed to automatically donate 5% of online sales directly to the Washington DC Community Center for Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender People. The cash donation will come from online purchases made at Wal-Mart through the homosexual group's Web site. This move follows Wal-Mart's joining the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and agreeing to give generous financial help to that group.

Every purchase made online for books, music, videos, clothing and accessories, children's clothing and toys, and electronics at the site will automatically send 5% of the sales to the homosexual group ... AFA Action Alert

Wow, I'll bet Wal-Mart's going to feel that.

I'm wondering, if everybody who had a beef with Wal-Mart boycotted it all at once and hurt them financially somehow, who would get to claim victory? Between their hiring, harassment, discrimination, pay, insurance and benefits, destruction of local economies, and so on and so on, pretty much everybody hates Wal-Mart. Well, they hate it and then they shop there. Go figure.

In the battle between conscience and cheap, cheap wins, it looks like.

Anyway, looks like the Family Blah Blah guys have already declared victory -- and just in time for the ... holiday ... season, too.

Here's how the AP put it:
A conservative group that had called on supporters to boycott Wal-Mart‘s post-Thanksgiving Day sales to protest the retailer‘s support of gay-rights groups withdrew its objections Tuesday.

Wal-Mart said it would make changes in the way it contributed to such groups, earmarking funds only for specific causes it supported, such as workplace equality, rather than giving unrestricted gifts.

"I don‘t see it as backpedaling by Wal-Mart," Solmonese said. "I think the AFA failed, and thought to themselves, "Let‘s declare victory and hope nobody notices." Group drops plans to protest Wal-Mart

This is some pretty smart sleight-of-hand on Wal-Mart's part. You understand, they aren't going to do anything different, they're just changing what they call it.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams said the company would continue working with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and other gay-rights groups on specific issues such as workplace equality. She indicated, however, that the company would henceforth avoid unrestricted donations that might be used for causes Wal-Mart did not endorse.

So now, they'll donate to the group, but only if they tell them what they're going to use the money for.

Well, as bad as Wal-Mart normally seems ...
Wal-Mart ranks in the middle among companies rated by the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights group, for workplace policies toward gays. Scores of companies now have a perfect 100 rating, while Wal-Mart‘s rating has risen from 14 in 2002 to 65 this year as it added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination code and offered some domestic-partner benefits.

I'm sure the Family Blah Blah guys are unhappy about all that. Imagine them not discriminating against gay people!
Tim Wildmon, the American Family Association‘s president, said Wal-Mart had been responsive to conservative pressure on a different issue, approving use of the word "Christmas" in advertising and employee greetings this season after shifting to a "happy holidays" phrasing last year.

Now there's a victory. Getting Wal-Mart to say Merry Christmas.

I said the other day: isn't there a real problem somewhere these people could solve? I'm sure we could apply all that brainpower to something important ... OK, never mind.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Examiner Reports on the New Curricula

Pretty good story in The Examiner yesterday about the new curriculum. I'll snip a few pieces for your reading enjoyment:
How to teach high schoolers about sexual orientation is at the center of a sizzling debate in the Montgomery County public school system.

On one side is a small but very loud contingent of conservative voices screaming that ex-gays should be studied and that the topic of bisexuality be left off the table.

But a far larger group of parents and community members are defending the proposed lessons as crucial talking points that teach high schoolers about tolerance and acceptance. Sex education teachings a hot debate

Let me say something here. I am not a person who thinks that the majority is necessarily right, in anything. You don't vote on whether a statement is true or not. But this isn't that. This is a matter of values. Is Montgomery County the kind of place that tries to stuff gay people back into the closet, or is it the kind of place that accepts them, as neighbors and equals in the community?

The reason the "far larger group" is defending the lessons is because they reflect the values of our community. Doubters are encouraged to refer back to the results of the recent elections.
Last week a special committee, assembled to look over the proposed sex education curriculum, gave its approval to the eighth and 10th grade lesson plans. Now the superintendent and school board will take their turns looking over, not only the committee’s recommendations, but opposing groups’ suggestions.

I'm not sure what this means. The "opposing groups" were represented on the committee. The committee recommendations include their inputs. We sat there and listened to them, and voted on every one of the things they proposed. The school board isn't now going to look at two sets of suggestions.
John Garza, vice president of the religious-based group Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and the attorney who filed suit against the school district, said his main objection to the curriculum is that it encourages high schoolers to self-label at a very young age.

Heh. Garza's still using his old notes. There's nothing at all that encourages any student to "self-label."

I don't think he's even looked at the curriculum. He's still saying the same stuff he said the last time around. And it wasn't true then. He's hoping to get the same knee-jerk response they got last time, out of the same sourpuss bunch of complainers, whining about the deviants and the sodomites.

It gets old, Johnny. A sensible person would find something else to complain about.
One part that particularly irks Garza and other conservatives is when, taking a literal page from a California textbook, students are asked to read vignettes about five fictionalized teenagers’ personal struggles.

“Esperanza,” for example, speaks of knowing from a young age that she wanted to marry the beautiful princess, not the prince. And the entry about “Michael” says he found the strength to “come out” after watching a TV show about a gay athlete.

In Garza’s view, “if you read between the lines, it’s encouraging youngsters to come out as sexual beings and engage in sex.”

So here you can see how we get to the point that the nuts want to bleep the bleeping. There's nothing in the text to complain about, but "between the lines," yeah, that's the ticket, that's where the bad stuff is.

People, nothing in the vignettes suggests that either Esperanza or Michael have "engaged in sex." That's the point -- it's not about having sex.

Look, face it, this is ridiculous. Let's not humor these guys. Let them get their lawyers, let them file their absurd lawsuits, let them lose, and let's move on. This is all getting dreary and predictable.

Here's how the Examiner story ends:
Yet parent and pediatrician Dr. Carol Plotsky, who chaired the special committee, said that’s far from the desired objective.

“This is not about sexual activity or about behavior; this is about feelings. So what was very important to bring out that — whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual — it’s who you choose to care about, to be emotionally involved with,” Plotsky said. “This is not a curriculum that says go out and have sex.”

Of course it's not. The CRC sees everything as porn. They are incapable of seeing sexuality in terms of feelings, in terms of loving, it's all porn to them. "Between the lines" there's all kinds of dirty stuff, it's just that the rest of us don't see it.

The Examiner gave the CRC a chance to put their boilerplate, talking-in-their-sleep spin on this. But there's no opening for them. The school district was careful this time, there's nothing they can say about this.

It encourages kids to have sex? Where? It doesn't, that's where.

Monday, November 20, 2006

They Can Only Be Right

Our two-year battle over the sex-ed curriculum has had a few moments where it seemed that the dialogue got a little rocky. It was almost as if some people were real sure of themselves and didn't want to listen to anybody else's point of view. I wonder how that happens?

From RightWingWatch, a little snatch of an interview with Pat Robertson:
Q: Why [do] evangelical Christians tell non-Christians that Jesus (God) is the only way to Heaven? Those who are Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, etc. already know and have a relationship with God. Why is this? It seems disrespectful.

A: No. They don’t have a relationship. There is the god of the Bible, who is Jehovah. When you see L-O-R-D in caps, that is the name. It’s not Allah, it’s not Brahma, it’s not Shiva, it’s not Vishnu, it’s not Buddha. It is Jehovah God. They don’t have a relationship with him. He is the God of all Gods. These others are mostly demonic powers. Sure they’re demons. There are many demons in the world.

Bleeping Is Not Enough

The Family Blah Blah guys are going to try to get TV to stop bleeping the dirty words. Turns out they realized they can still figure out what the guy was saying, by reading lips, y'know, and also by ... inference. So now, even though the cussing is totally inside the viewer's head, it's still got to stop.

From our favorite Christian right web site:
(AgapePress) - Recent television advertising that used "bleeped" profanity as to grab attention and shock viewers is being compared to the Bible's warning concerning seduction and deception getting worse and worse.

Dodge, Comcast, and Volkswagen have all run recent ads utilizing the "bleep" technique to indicate profane words banned by FCC regulations from television and radio between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. In a Dodge commercial for its Caliber model, for example, a Muppet-like character shares that the car "scares the [bleep] out of me." An official with Dodge tells USA Today the marketing ploy for its "Anything But Cute" car is an attempt to "straddle good taste and getting attention." He then adds: "We think we've straddled it quite well."

A Comcast ad promoting high-speed Internet service portrays a man who, after getting a "power boost" from the cable line, blitzes through a kitchen clean-up chore at lightning-fast speed -- to which his wife exclaims: "Holy ...." A spokeswoman for Comcast says the end of the ad is not for shock value but merely to support the idea of making fast Internet performance even faster. 'Implied Cursing' in TV Ads Concerns Christian Activist

They give a few more examples. I think we know what they're talking about.
It is unlikely that Bill Johnson, president of the American Decency Association (ADA), would agree with these companies' rationale behind the commercials. Besides pushing the legal and ethical limits, Johnson believes the advertising approach is designed to desensitize the general population.

"This degradation, this desensitization leads to an accommodation and causes an erosion of our ability to recognize the difference between what is pleasing to God and what is not pleasing," says Johnson.

That is why, warns the ADA leader, it is important that Christians strengthen themselves daily through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, and time with God. "Our nature is being changed and so, therefore, when we are exposed to innuendo and subtleties and deception and seduction, we want to have nothing to do with it," he explains.

With such discipline, he says, comes an ability to fend off advertising deception. "It doesn't serve as entertainment to us any longer," Johnson shares. "It's disgusting, and we see it for what it is -- and we do not play with it, and we don't let it play with us."

Citing a Bible passage in the third chapter of 2 Timothy, Johnson says he is reminded that deception will grow worse during the last days. He thinks Christians should therefore make choices in media consumption that keep them on "God's side" -- by remaining pure in spirit and being much more discerning than in times past.

I looked through 2Timothy, 3rd verse, and didn't see anything about bad language, never mind bleeping, at all. It's just saying that Christians will be persecuted and things will get bad in the days before Jesus returns. Okay, is this what the Bible is talking about -- bleeping cusswords on TV? That's not a stretch at all, is it? That's the deception and persecution they're talking about -- that people can still guess what dirty words somebody was saying?

Sometimes these nuts paint themselves into a corner -- it's tough being better than the rest of us. Like, drinking. The Bible is full of people drinking -- Jesus even changed water into wine, right? There is not Word One in the Bible telling anybody not to drink, but the betterthanyous are against it ... on principle. You might have fun, I guess, I don't know, but they're against it. So then they've got the problem that there's nothing at all in their religious scriptures to back them up.

Same here. There's a commandment about using the Lord's name, but it seems pretty clear He's saying, don't pray for stupid stuff. Still, we let them interpret it to take the "God" out of "goddamn." OK, who cares? They can have that, if it makes them feel better.

But here now, they want to extend the vague prohibition to all words that carry a negative social sanction, and then, amazingly, they want to prohibit the replacement of such words with beeps or even silence.

Can you imagine what life would be like if the rest of us played along with this stuff?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Conflict in the Committee

OK, I'm starting to get a little caught up here. I missed Wednesday's final meeting of the citizens advisory committee, being out of the country. Sounds like it was a little more exciting than usual.

For one thing, the committee received a memo from Dr. Jerry Weast, the Superintendent of Schools, about some ... complaints ... he had become aware of. Ruth Jacobs had sent a letter to the school board and to him, complaining about some wording in the condom lesson, and María Peña-Faustino -- a member of the citizens committee -- and some CRC members had made negative statements at the Board of Education's public comments. Dr. Weast wanted a response from the committee about these events.

It appears that Ruth Jacobs' comments were mostly about the STD curriculum, which is ... it's OK, maybe it needs to be updated, but it hasn't been, and the citizens committee has not been asked to evaluate it. She also wanted to add a couple of lines to the condom curriculum, as I discussed a couple of days ago. She submitted her petition with signatures of a couple hundred doctors, as well. The petition doesn't support either side of the debate.

One of the public comments was made by Grace Harley, aka "Reverend Grace." We've written about her before, she runs a little mission in DC that tries to "straighten out" gay people. She said:
I speak today because I am concerned that your proposed lesson plans for students on sexual orientation do not include former homosexuals or former transgenders like myself.

OK, fair enough, that's what public comments are for. We have seen Rev. Grace, and another guy once came down from a church in New Jersey to argue for including "ex-gays" in the curriculum. Richard Cohen came in once, as I recall, and addressed the school board. That's three. Fine, the school board will take those opinions into account, I'm sure.

Reverend Grace also said:
... the only sexual orientation in our school system which receives no respect are ex-gays and former transgenders like myself.

OK, fine. She gets two minutes just like everybody else.

Ah, but there was something strange here. I actually wonder why she said this:
Two of the committee members you appointed to develop the lesson plans show outright disrespect of the ex-gay community and even question our existence. Yet these same members promote tolerance for gays and transgenders.

I'm thinking through the committee, picturing each face, trying to figure out who she means. I don't know, this is weird. Two members -- which ones? I wish she'd said their names.

Then there was a statement by Henrietta Brown, who we know as "Retta," but on this blog she is sometimes "Bianca" and on the CRC web site she calls herself "Precious." She has an odd complaint:
The proposed 10th grade lesson on Sexual Orientation rigorously insists on identifying students as fitting into specific categories or "boxes" of sexual orientation. There is even a "box" for a child suffering from the mental illness, transgenderism. There are boxes for heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual orientation. However, only homosexual orientation is discussed extensively. The "box" for heterosexual orientation is completely ignored.

First of all, there aren't any "boxes." The word "box" has never been used. Second, nothing at all asks students to fit into any category or "box." They are just told what the standard categories are. I will ignore her stupid comment about transgenderism being a mental illness, just because ... they make it too easy sometimes, and you end up going off on tangents.

And as for the "box" of heterosexual orientation, the curriculum covers that ninety-nine percent of the time. These few classes are on sexual variation, and yes they focus on ... variations.

Whatever, this was a comment of a type we've seen many, many times before. CRC boilerplate. This is what they sound like when they talk in their sleep.

The CRC's Steina Walter picked up Ruth Jacobs' line about the authorship of the textbook chapter that is being used in tenth grade. This cracks me up. Does anybody ever know who writes these textbook chapters? What, the lady's PhD isn't from a good enough school?

Here's Ms. Walter:
I was startled to find that the 10th Grade curriculum "Respect for Differences in Human Sexuality" was taken from a "home grown" curriculum created solely for the Los Angeles school District and had only one author Judy Chiasson.

Ms Chiasson "appears to have been selected as the author on the basis of her employment of an LGBT advocacy group Project 10. Ms. Chiasson although pursuing a PhD about the "efficacy of LGBT Diversity training had no advanced degree.

I'm not changing the punctuation or grammar. This is taken from the page Ms. Walter submitted. I don't know what those quotation marks are supposed to mean.

Speaking of tangents. I just don't know how to address this one. Ruth Jacobs had sent emails to the citizens committee making this point, and even took up a bunch of time in a meeting to criticize this lady who wrote a textbook section that the school district plans to use. And here they are taking up the school board's time with it. Is this really the best they've got?

Finally, committee member María Peña-Faustino addressed the board. She talked about the most recent citizens advisory committee meeting:
At the meeting, after the committee finished discussing adding the term transgender, the term ex-gays was also offered to be added to the vocabulary. The committee had been tolerant, open and supportive of homosexuals. I was absolutely stunned to see that the other category that of "ex-gay" in the 10th grade dictionary was not allowed to be added.

That's close. Actually, Peter Sprigg had proposed that the term "former homosexual" should be included under the category of "sexual orientation." There was a chart with a category "Sexual orientation," and under it were "heterosexual," "homosexual," and "bisexual." As there should be. He wanted to add "former homosexual." There was some discussion and the committee voted against it.

Well, for one thing, it isn't a fourth kind of sexual orientation.

She had more:
I lived in New York for 18 years and five of my best friends were gay. Two died of AIDS. Two left the gay life style and married women. One lives in California. The other married in New York and moved to Florida. The other one is still gay. So even though I did not have an agenda, I think the need to support "one more choice" that of "ex-gay" is just and fair. I have seen it with my own eyes.

In the meeting, Ms. Peña-Faustino had told us about her friends, pretty much this same story, and appeared to be on the brink of tears. Then she went on to complain that people act like those kinds of people don't exist. It had nothing to do with the discussion that had just occurred.

I don't know if a guy stops being gay, but let's say for the purpose of argument that it happens sometimes. OK, so what? Now he's straight. We had a category for that. What's the problem, does he need to get Brownie points for changing? Man, we all change. I don't do the things I used to do, but I don't expect to win any awards for that.

Didn't Bocephus or Waylon or somebody have a pretty good song about that?

The people who talk about "ex-gays" just love to feel persecuted. But look, first of all, if there are "ex-gay" people there aren't very many of them. They are way outnumbered, for instance, by "ex-ex-gays," and also by "ex-straights," for that matter -- you don't want to start this snowball rolling. And second, as I said, if you're actually "ex-gay" then you're simply straight. Heterosexual. What's the big deal? Nobody cares if you change, nobody's going to object. It's your own business.

The committee discussed these events, I am told, and drafted a response. First, they moved to send this message to the Superintendent in response to his memo:
The committee has completed its deliberations and made its recommendations, and we reaffirm our recommendations after reviewing the information provided.

Then they voted to send him another statement:
We express surprise and disappointment that committee members, without showing the courtesy of notifying the chair or other committee members, went outside the process and violated the spirit that committee members worked hard to develop.

I understand there was some pretty intense discussion, lots of emotion.

Polarization was inevitable here. Remember, a perfectly good curriculum was developed and approved two years ago. The school board was unanimous in accepting it. Then the people came along and did everything they could to disrupt the system. There were lots of conservatives on that previous citizens committee but the nutty views had not dominated and this particular subgroup could not accept losing. The whole story of this "controversy" for the past two years has been the attempts by the Recall Group to disrupt the process.

And now, the school district's proposal didn't cater to their beliefs. The new committee didn't accept their suggestions. The community didn't vote for their candidates.

I am not so optimistic as to believe they'll give up, but a sensible person would.

So ... when do ya figure they'll file that next lawsuit?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Bad Behavior By School Board Member

Montgomery County school board member Steve Abrams ran for state comptroller in the primaries and county council in the general election, and lost pretty bad, but he still has his school board seat. Now he's facing charges and not answering his phone after some really bad-sounding behavior made the news. From The Gazette:
What began as a gentlemen’s agreement between two Montgomery County Republican candidates may end up in criminal court.

At the center of the dispute is money, claims of racism and an alleged assault.

Onetime County Council candidate Adol T. Owen-Williams charges that school board member Stephen N. Abrams grabbed him by the throat and slammed his head against a wall on Monday night after a meeting of the county’s GOP central committee in Rockville. GOP spat comes to blows

This does seem rather primitive for leaders of our community, don't you agree?
Owen-Williams, 42, filed a complaint with a Montgomery County District Court commissioner on Wednesday evening; court records show a summons was issued charging Abrams with second-degree assault and attempt to extort money through an accusation, a misdemeanor. There was no indication that Abrams has been served the summons, which can be sought by anyone whose charges are reviewed by a District Court commissioner.

Abrams did not return numerous phone calls Thursday.

It seems that Owens-Williams expected to be reimbursed by Abrams for $5,000 in campaign expenses. Then when O-W asked him about it ...
On Monday, Owen-Williams said, he waited until after the central committee meeting to ask Abrams privately about the money.

"I questioned him when I could expect payment," Owen-Williams said. "He said, ‘Listen, son, you don’t need to bring that topic up to me.’ I said, ‘I’m not your son,’ and he said, ‘Listen, boy.’ Then he charged up the stairs at me and when he got to the top of the stairs, he squeezed his hands around my neck. I yelled at him, ‘Have you lost your mind?’"

Owen-Williams, who is black, said being called a "boy" by Abrams, who is white, was offensive.

Owen-Williams said Abrams shoved him back against a wall and he grabbed Abrams’ arms, forcing him to let go.

"I yelled at him, ‘Don’t you ever put your hands around me again,’" Owen-Williams said.

Wow, this gets ugly.
Reinheimer, who was re-elected chairman of the Montgomery County Central Committee earlier in the evening, said he heard Owen-Williams shouting at Abrams to keep his hands off him. Reinheimer went to the stairway to see what was going on.

"I told them to cut it out," Reinheimer said. "They separated at that."

Abrams told Reinheimer "to call off his boy," Owen-Williams said.

Reinheimer confirmed that Abrams referred to Owen-Williams as a "boy" several times.

"I wasn’t used to hearing that, and I’m not sure why he was referring to Adol as my ‘boy,’" Reinheimer said.

This just makes me all the gladder about the outcomes of the school board elections this past week.

Mild-Mannered Mister T Is About to Come Unglued

The Republic of T. is a neat blog by a gay dad here in Montgomery County. Terrance seems cool, he has mentioned us a few times in a positive way, he came to our forum last year. The blog motto kind of gives you an idea where he's coming from: "Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal."

Though I don't think I've never met Terrance, I always had a pretty clear picture of him in my head. Tidy, polite, thoughtful... It's half stereotype and half reading between the lines, y'know. He gives these well-considered analyses of things, intellectually clear and personal at the same time, and maybe it's that "Vegetarian. Buddhist" part, I don't know, I thought I had a handle on the guy.

I am now revising my image of Terrance of the Republic of T. Let's say ... eight feet tall, green, muscles ripping the fabric of his shirt, rows and rows of pointy teeth dripping with drool, steam-clouds shooting from his nostrils.

Terrance is waiting for one of those PFOX flyers to come home in his son's backpack. Here's part of the part I can use here.
You have not seen a pissed-off or crazed parent until the day my child comes home with a flyer like this in his backpack, and one that directs him to a website like this. Take anything you have seen, ratchet it up 10 to 20 notches and you only just begin to approach what you will have in me should you be so unwise as to pull something like this where my child is concerned. A Few Words for PFOX

Yes, this is all going to get interestinger and interestinger. T. is not alone in this. Imagine a world where the school has no choice, they have to send home any literature any organization gives them. That's our world now. It's crazy, really, and it has got to change, but as it is right now, the courts have apparently taken away the school administration's power to judge what material is and what is not appropriate to send home with students. The school district has to allow everything ... or nothing.

PFOX has lost no time inserting their twisted message through this opening. Click on that link. Look at that flyer. This is surprisingly well done, for them -- looks like they spelled everything right, even, very unusual. They must have brought in outside help on this one. (OK, this is stereotyping -- why do I keep thinking that a gay guy designed this flyer?)

The way they conceal their message is so skillful. Tell me, why would you want to tell young people that they might not be gay? I have always said, the "ex-gay" message is very clever, because the real message is hidden behind a layer of cheerful stuff that seems unoffensive. They don't really say "It's sinful and wrong to be gay," they say things like "A growing number of teens with same-sex attraction are looking beyond a gay identity to define who they are."

Ain't that heartwarming? One kid's got acne, one's voice is changing, one has same-sex attraction. It's like a Norman Rockwell painting.

I am trying to imagine the intent behind this. Let's say -- I've never seen this happen, but let's just say -- that a straight teenager became convinced he was gay, and starting going out with another boy. This is the scenario PFOX seems to be addressing. OK, so he goes out with another boy ... so what? After a while he notices that girls are catching his eye, or maybe he doesn't. Let's take the PFOX horror-movie script to its limit -- this boy and his boyfriend become lovers and end up spending their whole lives together. So what? We have said he's "really" straight, but what's the difference? OK, so he's missing out on girls, whose problem is that?

See what I mean? Even if you follow the PFOX nightmare to its most horrible outcome ... what's the problem? Who cares? Why would anybody send stuff home with schoolkids warning them against that, of all things? Isn't there a real problem somewhere these people could solve?

Well, they've opened a can of worms this time. Teachers and administrators need to have control of the school, that's all there is to it.

Terrance, what do you say about it?
I will respond in the same way I would if the Klan or neo-Nazis were distributing materials in my child’s school, because the difference is minimal to non-existant.

I will have a new mission in life. You will have all manner of hell breaking loose on your head.

And T. is not alone in this.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Doctors' Petition

See what you think about this one. Ruth Jacobs, the CRC's representiative on the citizens committee, is a physician who works out of Shady Grove Hospital. She circulated a petition among the other doctors there, and got more than 200 of them to sign it. It said:
Health education is important. We the undersigned recognize that anal intercourse is a particularly high risk sexual practice and that it is associated with the highest risk of HIV infection. We further recognize that "although there is strong evidence that condom use generally reduces sexual transmission of HIV, solid data showing the effectiveness of currently available condoms during AI, a particularly high-risk sexual practice, still are lacking."

As physicians, we are concerned for the health of the students and recommend that the new MCPS condom use lesson must use the Surgeon Generals statement and NIH consensus conference statement to warn students of the risk of anal intercourse and of the risk of condom failure during anal intercourse.

There were a couple of numbers for footnotes in the text, but I don't see the notes themselves. Supposedly they reference the sources of some of those statements.

Now, there is just so much going on here, your head spins.

First of all, I don't believe there's any debate about the relative danger of anal and vaginal sex. The membranes of the anus are more absorbing, and tear more easily, than vaginal tissue. There is no lubrication, and it seems likely -- though there really isn't much in the way of data -- that condoms tear or slip off more easily during anal intercourse.

Whatever, everybody agrees on the stuff in the first paragraph. Everybody believes health education is important, and agrees that anal sex is riskier than the other kind. Uh, and everybody knows you can't base an argument on a lack of data ... OK, never mind.

I am imagining a little married couple in their bedroom, considering spicing things up a little, and saying to one another, darling, we really shouldn't, you know the data is lacking on this.

So, you're asking, what is this petition for? What's it against? I mean, doctors taking a stand in favor of health, that's a tough one. The second paragraph asks for inclusion of two statements, it sounds like. First of all, the "Surgeon Generals statement" (and no, there is no apostrophe), seems to refer to a statement made sometime in the 1980s by C. Everett Koop, when he was no longer Surgeon General.

In a statement to the school board last week, Dr. Jacobs explained. "The Surgeon General has said, 'Condoms provide some protection, but anal intercourse is simply too dangerous to practice.'" OK, we've been there already, haven't we?

And then there's that "consensus conference" thing -- what's that? Again, she told the school board, but apparently not the doctors who signed the petition: "The NIH consensus conference reminds us that the highest rate of HIV transmission is through anal intercourse."

You know, the NIH consensus conference report is online HERE. It does say, in one place:
HIV/AIDS can be sexually transmitted by anal, penile-vaginal, and oral intercourse. The highest rate of transmission is through anal exposure.

I'm not saying she's lying. It does say that.

The report also says:
The methodological strength of the studies on condoms to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission far exceeds that for other STDs. There is demonstrated exposure to HIV/AIDS through sexual intercourse with a regular partner (with an absence of other HIV/AIDS risk factors). Longitudinal studies of HIV- sexual partners of HIV+ infected cases allow for the estimation of HIV/AIDS incidence among condom users and condom non-users. From the two incidence estimates, consistent condom use decreased the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission by approximately 85%. These data provide strong evidence for the effectiveness of condoms for reducing sexually transmitted HIV.

So, again, what's the point? The conference she cites says to use a condom, just like the school district's newly recommended curriculum.

Listen, let me say this again, even though I know you followed the link I provided and re-read the post about the Surgeon General's statement. In the 1980s America faced a crisis. There was an epidemic among our gay population, and people needed to do something about it. But first of all, the public needed to admit it existed. You remember, Ronald Reagan refused for the longest time to mention the topic or do anything about it.

It was a big mystery. Where did AIDS come from? How was it spread? Why did gay guys get it more than other people? And within a few years of the discovery of the disease, they figured out how it was often spread: anal sex. So the Surgeon General went out and made a statement.

Koop was quite conservative himself, and probably didn't realize that nearly half the straight people in the country were having anal sex, too, and not catching anything from it. Look through this interesting CDC survey HERE. More than a third of Americans have had anal intercourse with someone of the opposite sex -- and lived to tell about it!

So ... anal sex is relatively more dangerous than vaginal sex, for the reasons I gave above, but it's just ridiculous to tell people that it's "too dangerous to practice." It's silly.

We know what the problem is. Dr. Jacobs, like Dr. Koop, assumed that anal intercourse means "gay people." Except in his case he was trying to save their lives, in her case she's trying to persuade us that people shouldn't be gay. And good luck with that one.

Well, I notice the CRC hasn't said anything about these stupid petitions on their web site or even on their forum. It's nothing, really, doctors reading a few words and signing it. Yes, they support health. Yes anal sex is riskier. Yeah, condoms can break. There's no argument about any of that.

I wonder how many of them thought about the fact that there is no Surgeon General, or realized what statement was referred to in the petition, or that it was a statement made nearly twenty years ago. I wonder how many had read the NIH consensus conference report, and knew that it recommended the use of condoms for preventing HIV -- and how many would have objected to including that advice in the 10th grade condom lesson.

Well ... it's the best they've got.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Recommendations Are In

OK, I'm back. Now, twenty-one hours after leaving my little academic crash-pad in Wivenhoe Village, Essex, England, after a late taxi driver and standstill London traffic jams and flying late into Charlotte and being delayed and then rushed by the storms on the East Coast, I am looking at my email and see some very nice news.

It seems the MCPS citizens advisory committee has finished its evaluation of the eighth and tenth grade sexual orientation curricula and the condom lesson, and has voted to recommend them, with revisions, to the school board.

All right, guys, good for you -- it was a tough road, and I'm sorry I missed last night's meeting. I am proud of the committee for plugging through. A subgroup was there to disrupt, and they did that, and the rest of the group was patient and let them express themselves, and considered their point of view, and sometimes agreed with their suggestions, and then votes were taken, and the community was well represented by this fine bunch of people.

I understand there are some other things, but so far none of it really makes any sense to me. A petition signed by 200 doctors? A memo from the Superintendent about some complaints to the school board? A response by the committee?

I'll report more as I figure it out over the next couple of days.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Light Blogging

I'll be out of the country again for a few days. Don't know if there'll be an Internet connection nearby -- it's very likely that I won't be blogging or checking in for a while.

A Word About Hypocrisy

The recent elections represented the rejection by the American people of a kind of philosophy of self-presentation that has dominated the landscape for more than a decade. This is the philosophy that appearance is everything. If something can possibly be represented in a negative light, then it becomes in fact a bad thing. Atrocious behavior covered with heartwarming justifications becomes good behavior.

After the Ted Haggard incident I noticed quite a few articles using the phrase, "the defense of hypocrisy." In justifying the atrocious hypocrisy of Haggard, some argued that it is better to promote righteousness even if you yourself cannot live up to it.

We can see the sense in that. It is good to remind ourselves frequently of our ideals. For instance, it's not bad to be exposed to statements reminding us of the importance of marital fidelity. Maybe in a moment of temptation those words will ring in our minds and we will resist. And if the person making the statement can't live up to it, well, the concept is no weaker for that, really. In this sense, a little hypocrisy doesn't hurt anybody, and it is important to establish what our values are, in a public way, so we may all agree that we abide by them (even if we don't sometimes).

But I see two types of problems with getting behind hypocrisy as a justifiable end in itself.

For one, imagine a President who campaigns on promises of national security, and then does nothing to make the country safer. He ignores the country's real enemies and wastes military power and prestige attacking a random nation that posed no threat. He appoints nincompoops to pivotal positions of authority, and supports them as they make uninformed and self-serving choices that weaken the country's security. He promotes un-negotiated contracts with his campaign donors, allowing them to profit without limit from the government's war policies. And all the while, the President carefully nurtures a state of fear, of the expectation of danger, in the population, in order to preserve his own position.

Is there a defense for that kind of hypocrisy? I can't think of any. Someone who behaves like that is a traitor and should be charged with their crimes.

Another difficulty with defending hypocrisy is evident in the Ted Haggard situation, which is monstrous and huge. The President of the National Association of Evangelicals, a man who tireless campaigns against gays, turns out to be gay himself, violates his marriage vows and the trust of his congregation to indulge himself in pleasures that he actively denounces in others.

Some have argued that Haggard was a positive force in our society in sum, because of his constant promotion of good moral behavior, even while he himself was incapable of keeping his own counsel.

Is this a good defense of hypocrisy?

Haggard's opposition to gays was an atrocity, given that he himself knew, personally, in his heart, that attraction to members of your own sex is not something you can pray away, that it's not something you choose, and that, as his own personal choices reveal, it is not in itself harmful. In another world -- a world without people like himself -- Ted Haggard could have found a partner that actually attracted him, he could have lived a life filled with love instead of pretense. There would have been no harm. But because of the hypocrisy of the intolerant few, Haggard couldn't allow himself to do that. Popularity was more important to him than love, and so he put on the uniform of the enemy and declared war on those who were, we find out, just like himself. He is a traitor of another kind.

He could have done so much good. It would be so good to have a man who understands the Bible, who loves God as we don't doubt he does, take a stand, an upopular position, that promoted love and acceptance instead of bigotry.

He was too small to do that. He could talk about morality, but when it came to doing the right thing he didn't have the strength of spirit to act. He has been revealed as a moral coward, because he attacked that which he knew in his heart was not wrong.

There's nothing wrong with saying good things, even if you can't live up to them. Our society has values, we believe in peace and strength and fairness, every one of us, even if every one of us, in certain moments, fails to be peaceful, strong, or fair. There's nothing wrong with making statements of those values, even if they are hard to live up to.

What we have rejected is the idea that the statements are a substitute for behaviors. We are emerging from a nightmare where statements of goodness masked corruption, greed, and the perverse pleasure of lying for the sake of lying. I think of the leader of the Christian Coalition taking bribes to allow forced abortions among the slave-women of the Marshall Islands, even while he was going out denouncing abortion -- leaders taking bribes to promote the casinos while preaching against gambling -- contractors raking in billions of dollars for "reconstruction" that was never done.

It is human to strive and fail sometimes, not hypocrisy. But to mask hatred and greed in heartwarming cliches is criminal. America was gullible, we let this cloud come over us, but it is lifting now. I am proud that has been a little part of the movement that is slowly but surely turning the country around -- but let us have no illusion that the battle is won. We have a long, long way to go yet.