On Arguing the GOP ended slavery

There is so much to say about Charlottesville and racism in America. I feel a need to speak out and write something, to lend my voice, to not remain silent or indifferent in the face of evil. I also recognize that many people much wiser than me have already said so much about the limits of free speech, the difference between Nazis and other groups, and the importance of unequivocally condemning white supremacy. If you’ve not already, I encourage you to watch this video to see first-hand the white supremacists in their own words. You can read a profile of one of these people to better understand the tactics they’re using, as well as an interesting read on how the concept of freedom of speech differs from America to Europe. You also may be interested in this sharp article from my favorite NPR host responding to Trump asking if we’ll be taking down monuments to Washington and Lincoln next, as well as this similar article about how this rhetorical strategy fits with a history of “whataboutism.” It may even interest you, in fact-checking the “many sides” idea, to read this piece on left-wing violence. If you take the time to read these, you’ll probably also rightly draw the conclusion I often rock out to the smooth sounds of NPR in my car on the way to and from work, as I’m ‘bout that public talk radio life (a phrase I’m likely the first, and hopefully last, person to ever write).

 

So, much has been said and written already, better than I can say or write. However, there is one thing I’ll ask you to allow me to write on for one moment. Can we please stop with the disingenuous “Remember, the Democrats were the party of slavery, the GOP and Lincoln freed the slaves, and the Democrats were staunchly opposed to civil rights in the South” counter-arguments when someone brings up slavery, racism, taking down Confederate monuments, etc.? I have seen multiple attempts to shut down discussion using this strategy. It is often presented as essentially claiming the Democrats are the true racists and the GOP is the true party of equality, and that Dems who support getting rid of Confederate monuments and are upset by this counte-argument are being hypocritical because of their own history.

 

For those who can’t see how incredibly flawed this reasoning is, let me please lib-splain. And, before we get much further here, please note that I’m lib-splaining, not Dem-splaining; I’ll readily cop to leaning liberal in much of my politics, but my party registration is unaffiliated. So if you’d like to call me names later based on my ideas here, make sure to call me a pedantic & elitist LIBERAL scumbag, not a pedantic & elitist DEMOCRATIC scumbag. Ideological name calling is more fun if it is accurate.

 

Anywho, back to what I was saying. The problem with this argument and reasoning is that there is a difference between things that exist only in the past and things whose existence extends from the past through the present and into the future. For example, the time I spent in school as a student is done. It is what it is: the grades I got (straight As, baby), the friends I made, the parties I (didn’t) go to (like I said, 4.0, baby: I didn’t choose the nerd life, the nerd life chose me). All that is done. I can see things differently later and wish I had relaxed more and studied less, but that does not change how much I studied and what a bookworm I was. On the other hand, my career as a psychologist and professor is ongoing. Although I can’t change my past actions as a mental health professional and academic, I can change my present actions. Times where I said the wrong thing to a patient or a student are over. I don’t get to take it back. But that doesn’t prevent me from doing the right thing now. And who I am now matters a lot more than who I was. It is why we love redemption stories. Just ask the city of Cleveland how it feels about LeBron. Or for those of you still salty about King James and/or more equipped to traffic in 19th century English literature, just think of what makes A Christmas Carol so appealing. We love that Ebenezer Scrooge can change his ways, and I guarantee Bob Cratchit et al thought who Scrooge became mattered a lot more than who he’d been, especially when they had a belly full of goose.

 

It is possible to make a good faith effort to honestly acknowledge history AND do better in the present. Were the Dems the party of slavery, of Jim Crow, of the KKK? Absolutely. It is a shameful past and one that must be recognized but not honored, studied but not revered. However, which party have white southerners gravitated towards since the 1960s? Which party has been able to rely on a Southern strategy for decades? Which party pursues an agenda that disproportionately, negatively impacts people of color, with things like gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and cuts to certain government programs? And before you start up with “identity politics” and lecturing me on how the Democratic party has tricked people of color into voting against their own self-interests, please note that I’ll be happy to sit through that lecture for as long as you’re willing to sit through a similar lecture from me on how the GOP has tricked the white poor and working-class into voting against their own self-interest. Although, I do try to incorporate fun pictures, memes, jokes, and videos into my lectures (I keep my scholar game on fleek, all day son), so if you agree to sit through it, you’d at least hopefully be entertained by my lecture.

 

Yes, the Dems have a racist past, but I wonder if you asked for the political party of many of the white supremacists that showed up in Charlottesville last week, what would it be? Perhaps many might not identify with either major party, but I wonder who they vote for in elections, and I am guessing it is not the progressive liberal candidate.

 

Alternatively, if you spend years fighting racism only to gradually develop, accept, and promote racist beliefs, should we be focused on your happy history or your shameful present? How should we view someone who pulls a reverse Scrooge (and I am now trademarking that phrase)? The modern GOP bloviating about the good old days of Lincoln, ending slavery, and beating racist Democrats sounds an awful lot like the sweaty, out-of-shape former star high school quarterback reminiscing about winning state years ago while currently sitting drunk in a bar on a Wednesday night while smacking the butt of a passing waitress because he is avoiding calling his kids since the divorce because he knows it bothers their mother more than it hurts him.

 

So, please stop with the equivocating history lessons. There is important work on racism in America that needs to happen for the benefit of those living in the present, and arguments that obfuscate the problem to focus on who freed the slaves don’t help. The present certainly occurs in the context of the past, but the past should not be used to trump the present. Unless you would feel comfortable saying, “Yeah, everybody says they love Scrooge now that he loves his fellow man and shares his wealth freely, but did you know he used to be part of the war on Christmas?” Hmm, hold that thought, I think I have to go make a call to Bill O’Reilly with an idea for a new book titled Killing Christmas.

 

Until next time, reader.

 

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On Arguing the GOP ended slavery

On Fathers Day, or, Why I Sobbed at Big Fish

I remember the first time my wife saw me cry. We’d been dating for some time, and may even have been engaged. Knowing how easily I am triggered into crying, I’m kind of surprised it took that long for her to see it. When I say I cry pretty easily, I mean that if the clickbait headline on social media says you’ll cry when you see this video, I take it as a promise, not a threat. So, there we were, watching Big Fish, and if there was going to be a first time Melanie saw me cry, this was a doozy. I sobbed for probably 10 minutes at the end of the film, and I tried to explain, but I had trouble articulating, the reasons behind my tears. I mean, I literally had trouble talking I was crying so hard – it felt like this Vesuvius of feelings I didn’t even know I was harboring had decided to erupt forth, and there was Melanie, frozen like one of those villagers who never even saw it coming, not knowing what to say or do with this blubbering buffoon sitting next to her on the couch. Thank God for her loving and wise heart; she expressed her surprise, but then simply let me cry it out. I think eventually I offered some explanation about the special relationship between a father and a son, but I knew I wasn’t doing justice to the red hot emotions that had burst forth and continued to smolder for hours after the film ended.

 

Fast forward about a decade, and I think I may finally be ready, on this Fathers Day, to return to that night, to better give voice to what my emotions knew but my mind struggled to grasp. I’m probably still going to fail. When it comes to the biggest, most important, most profound feelings and experiences of life, when have words ever done it justice? For all the work of evolution, for all the work of my development, no amount of language or learning can truly capture certain moments. So, knowing what I write will be insufficient, I still will write. I think there remains beauty and purpose in the struggle to push the boundaries of self-expression; the meaning is in the striving and journey, not the destination. And, hey, even if I fall short, I may have a future writing fortune cookie inserts or vacuous motivational poster phrasing.

 

To understand why I reacted to Big Fish, I have to look to my own father. William Elwood Kyle. Bill Kyle. Little Billy Kyle (LBK). Willie Buns. Spider. Cool Papa Kyle. Pap Pap. I remember every night when he put me to bed as a boy, he would tell me “Thank you for coming to our house to live,” a phrase I now use with my children to express my gratitude to them and to God that I have the blessing and opportunity to be their Daddy. He attended EVERY. SINGLE. game, match, meet, race, play, quiz bowl, and other event of my youth. I know there were probably some exceptions, like some Saturdays he was at an Ohio State game instead of a cross country meet, but there is no way I’m going to hold that against him. Have you ever been to a cross country meet? You’re exposed to the elements (and they’ll run the race in just about any conditions), usually without any stands or seating, and unlike most other sports where you can observe and cheer the whole event, you’re likely there for 2 or 3 times of yelling for about 10 seconds, “Go! Run! You’re doing great! Try not to throw up!” (well, at least in my case, as I had a proclivity for spewing moments after I crossed the finish line).

 

Anyway, he was always there. He even coached my baseball team for 2 seasons. I suspect if he ever wrote his memoirs, his time coaching would be a book in and of itself. He also taught me to drive and lived to tell the tale. He gave me more “sermons” than I can recall; the Right Reverend Kyle liked to preach on life lessons such as hard work, family, and the complexities of why I was supposed to begrudgingly cheer for that team up north when they played Notre Dame or in a bowl game (did I mention we take OSU football seriously in our family?). He taught me humor with all his jokes. He played George Jones and Bob Seger records and instilled a love of music in me that persists, and I still enjoy listening to the Possum or the Silver Bullet Band from time to time. He taught me to question authority, to cut through BS, to be suspicious of anyone in power saying they had good intentions and asking for my blind trust, and to form my own opinions. He taught me the importance of family and being there and saying, “I love you.” He taught me the balance of self-confidence and humility as recognizing your limitations.

 

Yet, perhaps above this all, he taught me the value of narrative, of telling a good story. My Dad is a world class story teller. If you’ve ever had a chance to listen to him tell a story, you’ve witnessed one of the greats. He used to make up stories about a Native American boy named Indecisive who lived up to his name in story after story. Indecisive’s inability to make up his mind created an excellent theme in situation after situation, and my dad’s knack for nailing the internal dialogue really brought the story to life for his introverted son who lives in his own mind much of the time (e.g., most stories began with the alarm going off, and Indecisive had a back and forth with himself over whether to get up or hit snooze – “I probably should get up” “But 9 more minutes won’t make a big deal” “But I would like to get a jump start on my day” “But maybe the extra rest will help me start my day more well-rested” – and on and on he could go, until someone in the story yelled at Indecisive to turn off his alarm). I recognize in my adulthood and “wokeness” that this was probably mildly, benignly racist, but that doesn’t diminish how much I loved those stories as a kid.

 

But my dad’s best stories are the stories he tells about his life. He can inject humor into almost any tale, and his super-duper accurate memory for some details, especially when he links life events to random sports moments, is phenomenal. When were in Cooperstown touring the baseball hall of fame, almost every major moment in baseball memorialized had personal significance for him (“That was the time I faked sick to stay home from school to listen to the World Series,” “That was the day I got bit by a stray dog. I was afraid of dogs for years afterwards.”). I figure I was simply carrying on a family tradition when my wife got her epidural during the birth of our first child as ECU made a comeback in their 2013 bowl game (for the record, I didn’t turn the TV in the hospital room on to the game, and no one else in the hospital turned it off).

 

I recognize some people might think of stories like my dad tells about his life as tall tales, or legends, or even exaggerations. The son in Big Fish certainly felt that way about his dad’s stories, which then always allowed him to take center stage. Part of me could recognize that jealousy. Not of my dad being the center of attention – he’s a relatively private person – but of how enviable his stories are and wishing I had stories like that. However, in my years training as a psychologist, I have learned that memory doesn’t work like a video recording, where a crisp and clean accounting of reality exists, and we either tell exactly what happened or we lie. No, memory is malleable. It’s like a puzzle, where we only have some fragments here and there, and we have to do our best to guess and put the pieces together and fill in the remaining gaps. Also, each time we retrieve a memory and tell the story, we change the memory moving forward. In other words, our stories we tell about our lives are how we make meaning of our lives and make sense of how our pasts weave through our presents and into our futures.

 

I actually think my dad’s stories are probably more accurate than many, as he has such a knack for those sports-related details. However, I don’t see the accuracy of his stories as the point anymore. His stories make sense of his life, and they communicate that story, that meaning, to others, including me. Also, I can incorporate his stories and his narrative into my own, and continue that story forward into future generations.

 

And that, I think, is where the movie got me. The son realizes, as his father’s life ends, that he can continue the story, that his father’s story becomes his story. It’s a bittersweet reckoning with death; the body may die, and a person may be literally gone physically. However, figuratively, and perhaps in a way that can matter as much (if not more), a person lives on in stories (I’m not going to get into my religious beliefs here, but I’ll just be explicit this is not my spiritual/theological/religious understanding of death). The son’s inheritance is his father’s story, and my inheritance is my father’s story. The story become the foundation of my own stories, which one day when I die will become my children’s stories to tell as part of their own. And what a blessing, what an awesome gift, then, to have a great story teller for a father. What richness I inherit, what meaning and purpose my life is already infused with from his stories, if I will simply set aside my jealousy at his legend and allow myself to join in. And, paradoxically, in setting aside my pride, I get to have an even more epic story because my story is all of my father’s story, PLUS my own.

 

That’s quite a head rush, and when the weight of that hit me 10 years ago, no wonder I became Captain Crybaby Von Sobbing. Returning to that night with the perspective of years, and my own fatherhood, allows an even deeper appreciation and gratitude, though, and I’d like to conclude with that here. When my dad tells stories about his father, my Pap Pap, it quickly becomes clear that he was a strong man, and he did at least 4 things right his life: he served his country in WWII, he was smart enough to marry my Granny (a lovely soul whose name is my daughter’s middle name), he raised my uncle, and he raised my dad. However, it’s also clear that fatherhood was perhaps not his strong suit. For example, my dad used to praise me over my report cards (and, not to toot my own horn, but since the first nine weeks of 5th grade when I got a “B” in math – which I totally am not bitter about and harbor absolutely no regrets or resentment about and certainly am not keeping score about – I have given him plenty to be proud of by being “B free since ‘93”). He let slip more than once that if he’d shown my report card of 4 As and 3 A+s to Pap Pap, Pap Pap’s response would like have been, “You could do better in 4 classes.” When I ran 5 miles on Thanksgiving with my dad one year when I was about 10 years old, I asked my dad where he found the motivation to keep going, and he said he could imagine his dad saying, “Ain’t no way you’ll ever run that far, fat boy.”

 

In other words, the story of fatherhood my dad inherited was not the model of the kind of father he wanted to be. And he wasn’t anything like his own father when it came to me. Where my Pap Pap found shortcomings, my dad focuses on my accomplishments. Where my Pap Pap motivated through discouragement (perhaps reverse psychology), my dad motivates through encouragement. Where I doubt the number of times my Pap Pap hugged or kissed his sons, I embrace my father still whenever I greet him in an unashamed hug. My dad had to learn to often do the opposite of his narrative about fatherhood to be the dad he wanted to be; he started behind and had to work all the harder to be the dad he wanted to be. I, on the other hand, generally just need to follow the example that was provided to me in his story. How much easier this has made parenting for me. When I am up in the middle of the night, or when I am tired after a long day of work, and want to operate in default mode of simply following my narrative of parenting, I can trust the default mode my dad instilled in me with his own parenting is the kind of parent I want to be. I love my children, I encourage them, I praise them, and I always am there to hold, hug, and kiss them when I know nothing else to do. That is the story of fatherhood I inherited from my dad, and what a gift my father’s story is to me and my children. Happy Fathers Day, Bill Kyle; I love you, Dad!

On Fathers Day, or, Why I Sobbed at Big Fish

On Why I Vaccinate My Children

So, the other day I’m scrolling through Facebook, and I come across this article posted by a Facebook friend. I’ll give you a moment to read it, if you’d like. *sips beverage* Did you read it? Ah, who cares, you knew I was going to explain it to you anyways, didn’t you? I’m more predictable than my toddler when I ask her what she wants to wear (Red. So much red every bull in the tri county area takes notice).

 

Basically, it details an interview between Tucker Carlson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In it, Mr. Kennedy rages against the vaccine industry, lamenting how “Big Pharma” is essentially above the law, claiming they have “blanket legal immunity,” so vaccine makers could make the big bucks. They also get to make their own rules, making it impossible to find out the facts. He rages against the fact that the number of vaccines children get has increased from the 3 he got (he’s almost 70). He’s baffled that we give children the Hepatitis B vaccine, and he claims it is loaded with mercury. He “cites” (I use that word loosely, as you’ll see why later) a recent study and claims that it shows the Tdap vaccine is killing children in Africa. He whines that he is being silenced by the vaccine industry and that no one on TV wants him on their show. Finally, he finishes by surprising the dickens out of me by providing common ground and what I take as an open invitation to go to town, scholar-style, on him: “We ought to be having a responsible debate. A debate that is real, that is based on science.”

 

Well, in a fit of “someone on the internet is wrong” I decide to comment on this friend’s post with my reassurance that vaccines are safe, that the presence of mercury in vaccines is misunderstood, that the science is being misrepresented and misunderstood, and that the media giving a platform to folks like Mr. Kennedy continues to sew confusion and prevent people from vaccinating their children, which hurts us all. I was surprised when this led to me discovering this person suspects a link between vaccines and autism, that they would advocate for not vaccinating children, and that they suspect the pharmaceutical industry is pulling the wool over our eyes. I really did not know that the belief vaccines cause autism is still a thing. As I later discovered through some surfing of the interwebs with a quick little Google search, though, there are plenty of websites out there making these claims, and some even come complete with references (or, for some, “references”). You can see for yourself examples here and here. There are plenty more if you’re truly curious, but I’ll let you explore for yourself.

 

Remember my reaction when just one friend on the internet was wrong? You can imagine, then, my reaction to finding whole pages and websites of the internet devoted to being wrong. To quote that rouge-necked sage, Lawrence the Cable Person (this is a scholarly and, let’s be honest, left-leaning blog, so we use formal names and don’t assume gender), I was madder than a skinhead watching the The Jeffersons. So, I decided to attempt to funnel that rage into a blog post, and hopefully avoid bursting a blood vessel in my eye.

 

Before I go any further down this rabbit hole, though, I need to clarify 2 things. First, I am going to mention autism at several points here, as I’ll be presenting evidence autism, in fact, IS NOT caused by vaccines. Sometimes, I fear, in the process of discussing epidemiology of different disorders, diseases, and conditions, it is all too easy to dehumanize the people we talk about. So, please, if I do a bad job of this further along, let me be good about this now. Autism spectrum disorder is a mental health diagnosis many children and some adults carry. For some, it is mild, for others, it is quite severe. However, no matter how mild or severe, it does not reduce the humanity, worth, or value of any life it affects. It can be quite impairing, but I truly believe each and every person who carries the diagnosis can live a full and meaningful life (especially when connected with the right services or treatment), or at least they absolutely deserve the right to pursue such a life. If my words below make you doubt I believe this, please forgive me, and know that this is certainly not my intention.

 

The second thing I need to clarify is that I know this may change absolutely no one’s mind. As much as I wish simply providing overwhelming evidence and citing consensus among the scientific community was enough, I recognize that it isn’t. I’m not saying the belief vaccines cause autism or are unsafe is a delusion, but I’ve worked with enough patients who had delusions to recognize that sometimes no amount of evidence is enough. As frustrating as this is, I understand it a little more easily when it comes to matters where I don’t really think evidence is the point, like matters of faith or spirituality. I have a harder time accepting it with matters of science, but I also am willing to own that science is not as objective in practice as it is in theory. Still, on this topic, I am baffled by how people who are educated, intelligent, and have access to (and often have even read) all the literature have chosen to turn their backs on the evidence and embraced quackery, anecdotal evidence, and conspiracy theories. But, it is what it is; I’m not perfect and likely have my own blindspots (I’d list them, but then they wouldn’t be blindspots, would they?). That’s not why I am writing this blog post. I am writing this for me; I’m going to address the points I want to address and say what I want to say. The vaccine topic is so huge, there’s no way I could reasonably cover all angles in one post, so I’ll just address the ones I see as being more obvious or more important. You’re welcome to come along for the ride, but feel free to pull the rip cord at any point in time. Unless you’re my mom, in which case I view your reading my blog as the same sort of maternal dutifulness as keeping EVERY. SINGLE. THING. I. EVER. BROUGHT. HOME. FROM. SCHOOL. Mom, I’m sorry you raised such a pedantic, loquacious scholar, but at least I’m happy.

 

So, on with the show. First, let’s address the mercury issue. Vaccine ingredients have long been an area of misunderstanding. In the particular case of mercury, it is an element that can come in many forms. The form associated with vaccines is ethylmercury, which passes through the body quickly and multiple studies have found to be generally be safe for humans. This is different from methylmercury, which is the form of mercury associated with mercury poisoning and IS NOT in vaccines. Perhaps  you’ve heard this before, but talk of mercury in vaccines in the way Mr. Kennedy is doing would be similar to me suggesting table salt (sodium chloride) is dangerous because it contains sodium and chlorine. Separately, sodium and chlorine are dangerous, but in the form of sodium chloride, they are completely safe (unless, of course, you ate a diet too high in salt, but shoot, even drinking too much water could kill a person – my dad says that fish copulate in water, so that’s why he drinks beer, though I’m not sure that’s what makes too much water dangerous). I am not a chemist, but chemistry is a fascinating thing and this is a great example of how a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Finally, I’ll also mention that the vaccine ingredient associated with mercury, thimerosal, was removed from almost all vaccines, except the flu vaccine, around the turn of the century, according to the AAP and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Despite its removal, autism rates continued to rise; it is pretty hard to posit a link between to variables if you remove one variable and the other variable continues to increase.

 

For that matter, let’s also examine this claim that rising rates of autism coincide with rising rates of vaccinations. This is wrong on at least two levels. One, from a theoretical level, almost any good student of science and statistics can tell you that correlation does not equal causation (even if they don’t know what it means; it’s a catchy little jingle that sticks in your head). Put another way, just because rates of two variables change at the same time does not mean there is necessarily any cause and effect connection between the two. We live in a universe of coincidences, and we have to be careful about assigning cause and effect where no such relation exists. For example, Mr. Kennedy points out that his kids have received more vaccines than he did when he was a child. Estimating from his age as stated in the article, since his childhood, there has also been a rise in the number of vehicles equipped with airbags, a rise in the number of iPhones, and a rise in the average temperature of the planet (ooh, snuck one in there without you even seeing it coming, climate change high five). These also are correlations, but I don’t see anyone crying for the truth from the airbag industry, unless it’s about defective Takata airbags, but that’s not the point. The point is correlation does not equal causation.

 

But, recall, if you didn’t slip into a coma from boredom or tune out when I said the magic words “climate change,” that I said this was wrong on more than one level. The next level is to ask, “Is there even a statistically significant correlation between vaccines and autism?” Well, at least when it comes to the MMR vaccine and rates of autism among kids in California, the answer from this 2001 article in JAMA is no heck no. Well, actually, the answer is “Essentially no correlation was observed between the secular trend of early childhood MMR immunization rates in California and the secular trend in numbers of children with autism enrolled in California’s regional service center system.” But, heck no is a lot catchier, and I like to imagine one of these authors saying such a thing over cocktails at a conference. “Hey Loring, is there a correlation between the MMR vaccine rates and autism rates?” “Heck no, Frank.” “Great, but my name isn’t Frank.” “It doesn’t matter what your name is; you’re talking to a first author of a paper in JAMA.” *mic drop* …and scene (that’s totally how it plays out in my mind).

 

But, why so many vaccines? For example, as Mr. Kennedy suggests, why vaccinate against Hepatitis B? Although HBV is spread through bodily fluid and can be contracted through needles and intercourse, it also can be passed from mother to child at birth, and vaccinating the infant can prevent this. As people can carry the HBV vaccine and not show any symptoms, depending on what level of prenatal care a mother received, she could easily have HBV, not know it, and transmit it to her child. This is especially concerning because while many people with a fully functioning immune system can fight off infection, it can be quite devastating and deadly in infants who are still working on building a fully functioning immune system.

 

But, what about the evidence that vaccines cause autism or are unsafe? For example, what about the study Mr. Kennedy mentions about children in Africa. Well, I know this may come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows anything about science publishing and citation of research when pushing an agenda, but it would appear Mr. Kennedy is cherry-picking research that fits with his narrative, as opposed to actually critically looking at the entire literature as a whole. Also, even the study he has chosen actually provides evidence that vaccines are beneficial, as mortality went down when children received the DTP vaccine and the polio vaccine. You can read this fantastic take down of the article and Mr. Kennedy’s misrepresentation for a much better explanation than I can give.

 

My larger point, though, is that it is not hard with the proliferation of scientific literature, particularly with some open access journals with minimal or non-existent peer-review where all you have to do is pay to publish, to find an article or two to fit your narrative or back up your claim. Even well done research carried out by intelligent, well-meaning scientists with integrity can make mistakes or succumb to statistical errors, as almost all science works in probability instead of certainty. In such a climate, we can turn to the experts to diligently sift through the mounds of research, to weigh not just the quantity but also the quality of the research, and to help us arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

 

What do the experts have to say, then, about vaccines and their general safety and autism in particular? As should come as no surprise, if I’m taking the time to write this blog, that the evidence has been pretty overwhelming. Among those all aboard the vaccine train to avoiding-preventable-disease-town, we can include research published in a little rag called the New England Journal of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Even organizations who are dedicated to understanding and developing better ways to address autism, such as Autism Speaks, say that vaccines do not cause autism. Again, you can cite other research all you want, but in the science community, it would be like saying that even though most major film critics agree that the Godfather is one of the better films of all time, your friend Broccoli Rob said it was super boring and too long, so it must be lame. Sure, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and Broccoli Rob can watch the Fast and the Furious films as many times as he wants, but it still doesn’t mean his opinion is equally valid. And we’re talking about the cinematic taste of a horribly nick-named friend and matters of art, not science.

 

Of course, some who support not vaccinating children like to substitute anecdotal “evidence” for scientific consensus. Their children, or children they know, who have not been vaccinated, are fine and healthy. So, take that, CDC & WHO. The problem with that, of course, is that (as almost inevitably is the case with anecdotes) other stories exist that tell the exact opposite tale, such as this great story written in Slate in 2014, by someone who grew up unvaccinated, was sick often, and because of their experience, definitely is all for vaccinating their own children. The problematic rationale and logic of using anecdotes to make your case is that it only takes one exception to make the whole house of cards cave faster than my three-nager when I grill her, Law and Order style, on who took the last cookie (on a side note, I’m relieved that she apparently will have zero future in organized crime, although I am concerned with her getting stiches for being a snitch in school). That’s why we turn to the systematic collection of observations and data in science to help provide answers in which we can have more confidence.

 

And, what about a lack of government oversight and blanket legal immunity? Well, I’m sure this is going to make your jaw hit the floor faster than if I said those are my twins Beyoncé is pregnant with (they’re not; sorry for your loss Queen Bey), but again here, Mr. Kennedy is not really accurately representing reality. What I suspect he is referring to is the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), which you can read more about at their website here. In the mid 1980s, there was a flood of lawsuits against vaccines. Not too many people like to spend time engaged in activities that are likely to result in multiple lawsuits (Have you seen how many lawsuits NBA stars tend to have brought against them? It’s the only reason I didn’t go pro. That and I only hit the backboard 50% of the time). So, people stopped making and giving vaccines. As a vaccination shortage loomed, and with it the loss of herd immunity, the government took action. Rather than offer legal immunity, the VICP recognizes that vaccines, although safe, are still a medical treatment, and as such, can never be 100% without risk. For example, in rare cases, people can have an allergic reaction. So, to help both sides out, a special legal process was set up, by which people can petition for compensation if they can provide evidence they were hurt by a vaccine. Even if the petition doesn’t “win,” legal expenses can still be covered. So, in this system, how often are awarded compensation? According to the data collected by VICP, “for every 1 million doses of vaccine that were distributed, 1 individual was compensated.” Over the course of the program, this has resulted in a pay out of over $3 billion dollars – hardly a case for those injured by vaccine being left without any recourse to compensation. Additionally, if you want to keep score on the autism front, there has been one case that was won. So, that totally rips a hole right in the middle of the “vaccines are safe and don’t cause autism” argument, right? Well, actually, no. Not in the least. Legal decisions are not scientific decisions, and the science at the time was pretty clear that the case did not have scientific merit, as written about here in the New England Journal of Medicine much better than I can. What I can suggest though, is that if you’re willing to overturn mounds of scientific evidence and consensus on vaccine safety for one court case, you better also be willing to say with absolute confidence OJ didn’t kill Nicole, as he was acquitted on criminal charges. Otherwise, perhaps we can agree that the VICP does not amount to a lack of government oversight or blanket legal immunity, or to people injured by vaccines having no recourse. Also, this doesn’t even mention the FDA has a fairly rigorous process to ensure multiple steps have been taken as reasonable precautions to ensure drugs are safe before they are even given to consumers.

 

Hopefully by now, you’re beginning to see why perhaps Mr. Kennedy doesn’t get invited on-air a lot to share his ideas: in a word, it’s because he is wrong. I certainly am no fan of “big pharma,” but I think they are being invoked here by Mr. Kennedy as a boogeyman that confuses the issue (i.e., if you say big pharma is the enemy, then it could easily make someone arguing against you appear as if they support big pharma, when they, like me, might be making points that have nothing to do with support or opposition to the pharmaceutical industry, and simply are questioning the science and validity of his claims). On top of that, although I have never met or spoken with him personally, it also sounds like he might not be the most reasonable or pleasant person if you dare disagree with him. So, hopefully we’ve taken a successful trip with Scooby, Shaggy, and the rest of the gang in the Mystery Machine and solved the case of Old Man Kennedy and why he doesn’t get more air time (“And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids and your dog… and overwhelming amounts of evidence that contradict my claims”).

 

However, I’d like to wrap up with a nod to the title of this post. As you saw, I vaccinate my kids. Despite having a child with special health needs, I’m fortunate his health problems (which blessedly, are very well-managed by a wonderful team of health care professionals) don’t prevent him from being vaccinated. I’m grateful that, not only can I help keep my own children safe, but I can also help protect other children who are not able to be vaccinated, and even kids who could be vaccinated but whose parents choose not to vaccinate them (see herd immunity above). Beyond that, though, I also believe actions have consequences. When misinformation gets spread, it’s awfully hard to take it back. And when people act on this misinformation, you have situations like what has happened recently in Minnesota. People who should know better (looking at you with my stankiest stink eye, Andy Wakefield) give people who may not have the education and access to information (or even the English language proficiency) misinformation, and the consequence is an outbreak of a preventable disease in a community already marginalized by much of society.

 

I am my brother’s/sister’s keeper, and I see myself as responsible for the education of and provision of correct information to my brother/sister when it comes to vaccines. So, I suppose that maybe I did write this blog for more people than myself; even if I’m afraid my brothers/sister will never listen, it doesn’t forgive my obligation to try. And more than that, I love my brother/sister, and I want the best for them. Most of the time, I think that should be up to my brother/sister, but in this case, the evidence is pretty clear, and I feel obligated to speak the truth. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32, NLT) And, now, I really do feel free from that “someone on the internet is wrong” feeling. For those of you still with me, thank you for reading along.

 

On Why I Vaccinate My Children

On the Executive Order

When I hijacked my spouse’s Facebook post to unleash a lengthy comment about Trump’s executive order banning/freezing immigration and refuge, I knew I was going to need to write my own thoughts on my blog. For one thing, my wife is much wiser than me, so my ideas were not going to look nearly as good stacked up against hers, as compared to how they look in the vacuum of my blog. For another thing, though, as I believe I said in my original blog post, a sign to me I needed this space was my urge to unleash on other people’s posts on social media. Although this was a friendly and agreeing post, it still sent warning bells off in my head, “Yo, Geraldine Ferrar-bro (I appreciate failed VP candidates), time to put fingers to keys.” So, here we are.

 

To recap, for those of you who just woke up from a coma, President Trump signed an executive order severely restricting immigrants and refugees (also, for those of you just waking up from a coma: 1) Yes, President Trump, 2) Ted Mosby met “the mother,” but it was super disappointing because we discovered in the last 5 minutes of the series she died , 3) The Cubs finally won the World Series, 4)…you know what, this is going to take too long, come back to my blog when you’ve had a chance to catch up elsewhere). You can read a succinct, dry summary of what the executive order does and doesn’t do here at The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/01/trump-immigration-order-muslims/514844/. TL; DR (for the recently un-coma-ed, that means too long, didnt’ read because we keep raising the laziness bar): It severely restricts any immigration from 7 countries that have a large percentage of Muslim citizens: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. For 120 days, it suspends all refugee admissions to the country, and it indefinitely suspends admission of all Syrian refugees. This affects even green card holders (permanent residents of the U. S.), and made no provision or plan for people who were in transit when the order was signed. About the best the order can offer is that some folks can be considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, Hameed Khalid Darweesh was delayed at JFK airport initially, but it appears he has now been allowed entry. If you are not familiar, I encourage you to read about this gentleman who served the U. S. for years and had already been approved entry into the country. In short, at least in outward appearance, it appears that the executive order was conceived and executed with about the same forethought as carrying an angry snake in a pants pocket with a hole in it: it’s going to end up biting you in the ass.

 

But, this blog post is not about his story, or any one person’s story, though I encourage you to read some of the fascinating and gut-wrenching stories out there. Families separated. Students denied study. People left in limbo while all this gets sorted out. Real people whose lives have immediately been impacted by the President’s executive action.

 

No, this blog post is repudiation of this executive order and all that it stands for.

 

First, let’s look at the executive order itself in a little more detail. Now, I’m not a national security expert, just a dude with a computer/tablet/cellphone and access to the inter-webs. However, that also means the following information was available to the President and his advisors in crafting this order, presuming they cared to check. We’ll focus specifically on the countries targeted. The purported intent of the action is to secure our borders and protect national security. The sentiment appears to be, as best as I can tell, we need to protect ourselves from threats posed by dangerous people from dangerous countries. We have to be careful not to allow in people from countries that would put lives at risk because these people have a high probability of being terrorists. I suppose all of that might sound good, especially if you’re fearful of Muslims (which is a whole different blog post for a different day). However, if that is the stated intent, then this executive order is poorly created. Between 1975 and 2015, zero people from these countries have killed Americans in terrorist attacks on U. S. soil. Zero. https://www.cato.org/blog/little-national-security-benefit-trumps-executive-order-immigration

 

Instead, the 9/11 hi-jackers? They were predominantly Saudi Arabian, as you can see here: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/27/us/september-11th-hijackers-fast-facts/ . However, Saudi Arabia was not included in the ban. Some people might find it no small coincidence that our President has business dealings in that country, along with several other countries in the region that were not included in the ban, as you can see here: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-trump-immigration-ban-conflict-of-interest/. Perhaps, suddenly, all that hullabaloo about Trump needing to divest from his business ties and place his finances in a blind trust doesn’t seem too overblown or hypothetical. As those who work more closely in conflicts of interest (studying them, not having them) can tell you, appearances of a conflict of interest can be pretty damaging all on their own. Trump need not actually have been motivated by his business interests for the question to now remain ever present in people’s minds.

 

So, if the point of the order was to protect our security, it certainly is not based in the conventional wisdom that the past predicts the future (and by conventional wisdom, I mean the basis/presumption by which all inductive reasoning works). So, even if you agree with the order on principle, I think you might need to consider that it does not accomplish its stated end. And not only that, it appears poorly planned and executed. Already, we are seeing legal challenges to it, something that legal advisors to the President (assuming he consulted any that aren’t simple yes men and yes women) should have been able to easily anticipate. It also is staggering that people already approved for entry into the country by the system we have in place are being further delayed or denied entry. I say that because the current system for refugee admission takes an average of 18-24 months (you can see some great in-depth reporting from Jon Oliver on this for details: https://youtu.be/_kZsOISarzg). I am not sure how much more extreme our vetting process can become without delaying people so long that is essentially meaningless; we may as well not admit anyone at all.

 

And here is where we turn the corner into my second, broader point. Can we absolutely guarantee that everyone we admit to the U.S. will be safe and never harm anyone? No, of course not, that would be impossible. However, we already have a screening process in place that, given how much some people would have you believe the rest of the world generally, and Muslins in particular, hate us, seems to have done a reasonably good job keeping out threats to our security. At some point, we have to look at the suffering and hurt in other places of the world and the refugees it produces, and balance that against our own false sense of safety and security. We have to look at the immigrants who just want the opportunity for a better life that almost all of our ancestors (Native Americans, you get a pass on this one) came to these shores for at some point in the past 400 years or so, and balance that against our own false sense of safety and security. I say false because while some of those people who support the executive order say they feel safer, they seem to neglect that domestic terrorists and/or white men are responsible for many more deaths on an annual basis than immigrants and refugees. Yet, I have not seen or heard about any plans for executive orders banning those (although I’m suspecting you probably won’t see many white men at the latest Tyler Perry movie, so you might try going to the theater for that the next time one comes out if you’re truly concerned).

 

Are we going to be a nation of isolationists that, when the world needs us or wants us, shuts our doors because some of us are scared? Or are we going to welcome people with open arms, like the words on the Statue of Liberty suggest?

 

And, if I may speak to fellow followers of Christ for an additional moment, I really hope your answer to the latter question above is “yes.” I think Scripture is pretty clear on the topic:

 

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

—Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

 

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

—Matthew 25:41-45 (NIV)

 

I know many who profess Christ as their Lord and Savior who voted for Trump, and I refuse to make judgments based on a person’s vote alone. I heard many reasons from many people of good faith and conscience, people I know, love, and respect, as to why they could not vote for Clinton or wanted to vote for Trump. When they told me to not paint them with the same brush as Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc., I consented. When they told me they voted for Trump for a change, for jobs, for the Supreme Court, and that they absolutely deny and reject the racist, sexist, xenophobic, misogynistic things he said during the campaign, I agreed to believe them. And when Trump won the election, though I was honest about my fears and concerns, I also agreed to support the office of the President and Trump in any actions he pursued that I believed would help the people I love and for whom I feared. When people said let’s wait and see how he actually governs, let’s give him a chance, that he did not literally mean some of the things he said, I admittedly had reservations, but as I had been proven wrong again and again during the election season, I agreed.

 

Well, here we are. He is President. This is how he is choosing to govern. This is what he has actually done with his first week in office. Will those of you who came down on the opposite side of the ballot from me but claim to share my values now stand up and speak out against this? Or will you hide behind rationalizations that somehow the Bible doesn’t call us to a radical love of other humans that lets go of fear and self-interest, suggesting that the above words are quoted out of context or aren’t to be taken literally (which, interestingly enough, is the opposite claim some make on other matters, leading others to wonder if you take the Bible literally only when it is convenient)? Will you perhaps claim that we must have separation of church and state, that now is not the time to force Christian beliefs on the rest of the nation, or that our leaders must run the government by a different set of principles than we live by individually as Christians (again, interestingly enough, the opposite claim some make when they want to preserve “traditional” marriage through law or make abortion illegal – not that everyone supporting an immigration ban is pro-life and LGBT non-affirming, but I suspect there might be some overlap)? Perhaps you’ll resort to a non sequitur about Clinton, as if she has anything to do with what I’m asking of you? Or maybe you’ll try to turn the heat back on me, asking what I’ve done for refugees and immigrants (to which I would have to honestly admit, little yet; God has gifted me with words and I’m using those, but I would caution you that such a move is a risky one unless you are100% comfortable with all your own efforts on matters about which you purport to care – how many refugees, widows, orphans, prisoners, sick, elderly, etc. have you assisted? And how? Is there ever enough we can do?)?

 

But, perhaps you’ll say that I generally am right, but that I’m going about it all wrong, sowing division instead of unity. Often, I find this claim laughable when used against oppressed and marginalized groups (to translate: “Stop whining/complaining/pointing out that you’re marginalized and oppressed; it makes the rest of us participating in your ongoing oppression and marginalization feel bad. If you want us to treat you better, be nicer to the people oppressing and marginalizing you first. The responsibility here is really yours, not that of the people with some form of power or privilege oppressing and marginalizing you”). However, I’m not marginalized and oppressed, and in this situation, perhaps you have a point. Additionally, one of the “lessons” people like me (lib-tards, pointy-headed intellectuals, professors in our ivory towers, the media elite – hey, don’t question me on that last one, my blog is blowing up) were supposed to learn from this election was that we need to get out of our bubble. We need to engage with others who don’t see the world like us, or else the hidden majority we’ve ignored will keep surprising us. So, let me seek unity, and ask you to please, talk with me, if that is you. Explain what I have wrong, or what I have missed. If/when you come to the conversation, though, I encourage you to expect that I will test your logic for flaws (e.g., are there exceptions, do things get wonky if we follow it out to the logical conclusion, are you equivocating), and that I will request facts (insert alternative fact joke here; but seriously, get the heck out of here with any Breitbart or Occupy Democrats nonsense). I want to engage in respectful dialogue with you. And I want to encourage YOU to not ignore people like me, and make sure YOU learn lessons of the recent past. In 2010, the Tea Party began to gain steam as a political force, from people who felt ignored and left behind by the political establishment, especially Democrats who perhaps thought they had license to govern as they wished because they held the White House and Congress. Although in some ways the Tea Party has faded, the right wing populism it fostered, I believe, gave direct birth to the Trump Presidency. People who felt ignored kept warning us, “we” didn’t listen, and now their candidate is in charge. This past weekend, thousands upon thousands showed up in Washington to remind the President and nation they are still here, and they too will not be silent. Hundreds to thousands more have showed up at the airports in the last 48 hours. Almost 3 million more people voted against the President than for him. Unless you care to see a pendulum swing back in the complete opposite direction down the road, I would suggest we all find a way to respectfully talk with each other and not at each other. So, I invite that here.

 

But until my mind is changed by facts and reason, until your arguments persuade me to share your beliefs, I unequivocally stand opposed to this executive order. I stand for love, for compassion, for mercy, and for the treatment of foreigners as native-born. It’s not just my values, they’re Christian and American values too.

 

I’m now going to return to my usual treatment of my spouse’s Facebook page (all likes all the time, if I know what’s good for me).

 

On the Executive Order

On the 2016 Presidential Election

I’d like to share some thoughts on the 2016 Presidential election. I’ve delayed a little bit in doing this because I needed some time to process. My wonderful spouse, who is smarter than me, processed a little faster and already shared some brilliant ideas. So, I’m probably not going to say it as well and use more words to say it, but what are academics for, am I right?

First, let me say, to Donald Trump and all the people who voted for him, congratulations. The election was not rigged, and he won the most electoral votes fairly. The people have spoken, and I will respect the nation’s decision. I don’t have to like it, but I will respect it, and I will respect the office of the President.

Additionally, I will refuse to give in to the temptation to hope that he fails, simply so I can have the petty joy of being able to say, “I told you so.” I want him to succeed, because if he succeeds, the nation succeeds. That is the classy thing to do, and I like to stay classier than San Diego in Anchorman. Additionally, it drove me absolutely crazy when, 8 years ago, people actively hoped for our current President to fail from day 1. If I don’t want to turn right around and be a complete hypocrite, then I’m left with little choice but to wish Trump the best.

And, I was wrong when I thought Trump wasn’t serious about running and that it was a publicity stunt. I was wrong when I thought there was no way he’d win the Republican nomination. I was wrong when I thought there was no way he’d win the general election. So, based on my track record so far, perhaps he’ll turn out to be a good President.

So, if he proposes ideas that will actually help people, I will be happy to support those ideas. Of course, if he proposes ideas that harm people, that seek to further marginalize the already marginalized, suppress free speech or press, allow people to impose their personal religious beliefs on the general public, etc., I will be right there to stand up, speak out, and oppose such ideas. These are some of my most important values, and I will continue to live them.

In the last couple days, I have seen and read plenty of analysis about why Trump won and what type of person voted for him. I believe personally that a variety of people voted for him: people who are explicitly racist and sexist, people who are implicitly racist and sexist and found whatever excuse they could to vote for him and not Hillary, and people who had legitimate reasons that had little or nothing to do with race or sex. I would like to hope that the majority of his supporters fall into the last category, but I have no way of knowing that nationally. When it comes to the people I know and love, I really want to hope and believe most, if not all, fall into that latter category. And, if you say you aren’t racist or sexist, in absence of clear evidence, I’ll take you at your word.

However, I don’t really understand the surprise and outrage of people who voted for Trump when people suggest they may be racist, sexist, xenophobic, and generally bigoted. You personally may not be (I hope you’re not), but you have endorsed with your vote someone who is, or who at least acted like it during the campaign. You may not be comfortable with those things (I hope you’re not), but at the end of the day, you weighed them as less important than the reasons you voted for him. That doesn’t mean you are bigoted too, but it does make you complicit in his bigotry and the bigotry he inspires.

He may very well change his tune and tone in the coming days, weeks, and months. I certainly hope he does. But when this is what we have heard pouring out of his mouth for the past year and a half, I also don’t understand people who don’t seem to get the level of anger and fear coming from those who didn’t vote for him. This is not whining about the horse you backed not winning the race; that can and does happen, and that is just sour grapes. Being an immigrant or a relative of an immigrant and fearing deportation is not sour grapes. Being LGBT and fearing your marriage or family will not be recognized anymore, or people will be allowed to discriminate against you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, is not sour grapes. Being a racial or ethnic minority and fearing that really racist people will feel emboldened by Trump’s victory and assault you is not sour grapes. Being a woman and seeing language describing sexual assault be dismissed as locker room talk and women who claim they were assaulted automatically not believed, and wondering what this means for how others will be allowed to talk about or treat you, is not sour grapes. Shoot, separate from any bigotry and just talking policy alone, fearing what will happen for your son’s future ability to get health insurance with a pre-existing condition (CHD) if the ACA is repealed is not sour grapes. And fearing these things for people you love and care about, even if they won’t happen to you, is not sour grapes; it is empathy and compassion.

These are real fears and concerns that could come about as a direct result of things Trump has proposed or inspired. Just because you may not feel this way does not mean others don’t, and it certainly does not entitle you to tell others how they should feel. Your way of life (particularly if you pass as white, cisgender, heterosexual, male, and Protestant) may not feel threatened, but don’t you dare dismiss others feelings so out-of-hand. If you think their feelings are based on misinformation, please, feel free to explain, but I think about the best you can do is argue checks-and-balances will stop one person from doing too much, or that he didn’t mean the things he said or the platform he took on from the RNC. There is whining because you didn’t get your way, and then there is being afraid for your way of life. It especially seems funny to me that, given that some semblance of that sentiment has been spoken by people as to why they voted for Trump (e.g., they feel like the middle class, the working class, and/or blue collar people had been passed over by the system and were seeing their finances, jobs, and way of living disappear), that people cannot see and recognize that in others now.

Simply telling people to get over it, grow up, suck it up, toughen up, etc. does no one any good, and probably makes things worse. Also, I’d be careful – telling people who until the 1960s couldn’t use the same public facilities as whites (and were considered 3/5 of a person in the original Constitution), or people who survived to escape some oppressive regime and come to the US, or people who were not allowed to marry the person they love and had to hide their love for years, or people who have found a way to survive and even thrive following a horrific sexual assault – I’d be careful telling them to toughen up. I think they’re already more than familiar with toughness and resiliency. Perhaps some of us could learn a thing or two from them, even.

I really do hope and believe we as a nation will move forward, that we will even find a way to unify and be stronger together. People may need some time to be angry, to figure it out, and that’s okay. Being honest about that anger is a healthy first step towards addressing it and finding common ground. In the meantime, to all my Trump friends, congratulations, and I hope you’ll be magnanimous and gracious in extending the olive branch to others in the spirit of unity. To my non-Trump friends, especially those angry or fearful, take some time if you need it, I’m here as an ear, advocate, and ally for you, and let’s remember that no matter who is in charge, we are still stronger together.

On the 2016 Presidential Election

On 9/11

Please note, the following intermixes levity with seriousness because that’s how I chose to write, or at least how it came out. And, admittedly, this piece is more a mildly self-indulgent rambling than stating a coherent position. Still, I felt compelled to write and share, and it’s your choice to read or pass.

 

I remember Sept 11, 2001 like it was yesterday, which is saying a lot for a guy who is only about 50% certain what he had for lunch – I probably had grapes because there were grapes in the fridge when I grabbed a beer after the kids were in bed. I remember walking out of the dorm that September morning, on my way to a Spanish class whose sole purpose in my life has been to allow me to sound like a pretentious snob with an affected accent when I order the quesadilla for my daughter at Chipotle (or better yet, and more honestly, when I order the quesadilla for myself at Taco Bell). I was on my way to out the door of the dorm when a couple of guys sitting in a room stopped me as they looked away from the television and asked if I had heard about the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. I said I hadn’t, then continued out the door. I figured that it simply was some unfortunate accident at that point, a small or solo flight piloted by someone who had made a terrible mistake. If a tragic plane crash could claim the life of John Denver (RIP, he-who-gaveth-WVU-Country-Roads), why not the WTC?

 

However, it quickly became clear from the chatter (in Ingles, to the chagrin of Senorita… Okay, I forget my Spanish professor’s name, but I do recall she was French, so you’ll forgive me for being fuzzy on the details) in Spanish class that this was no mistake. The dawning realization was that this was intentional. I made it back to my dorm, and the updates kept coming. The gravity of it all began to smack me in the face as the professor of my honors class made the decision that we would not have class as normal, but could watch the updates on television. This was real. This was bad. This was really bad.

 

I remember trying to call my girlfriend at that time, and not being able to get through because phone lines were all tied up. I remember trying to look online to get updates from the web, and the Internet crashing/running ridiculously slow (and not just because it was 2001). I remember staying up late talking with my roommate and his girlfriend (or soon to be girlfriend, I forget when they became official) and getting my first citation for breaking dorm rules by having someone of the opposite sex in our dorm room past 10 PM. To this day, I really would like to find the RA who decided to make their stand on rigidly enforcing the rules on this night, of all nights, and ask them if they feel petty and small and silly. They probably don’t, as drunk with power as they were, but I’d like to at least ask them.

 

All this happened my freshman year of college. I was just a week or two away from home, on my own, beginning my ascent of the ivory tower. I was thinking big thoughts and dreaming big dreams. I was going to be my own man and develop my own ideas and be a real adult. And against this back drop, the formative years of college and my early adulthood played out. When I think of 9/11, I think of it less so in terms of just that day, and more so in terms of how that day set the stage for years to come. It revealed to me things that otherwise may have remained hidden, or at least not been apparent until I was much older.

 

For example, I fancied myself a Republican when I was 18 years old, and I voted for Bush proudly in 2000 (though I had voted for McCain in the primary). I also identified as a Christian, and took seriously the ideals of Christ, which I believed included nonviolence. I also grew up with a best friend who happened to be Muslim, and I knew very personally from the example of his life that Islam is a religion of peace and love, and those vile men who hijacked those planes represented nothing of the faith tradition they claimed. And, quite foolishly and naively, I thought other reasonable, well-meaning, intelligent adults who claimed the same labels as me would see things similarly to how I saw them. Or at least adults on a college campus. If college campuses were a hotbed of protests against the Vietnam War and breeding grounds for liberal, hippie ideals, surely even a moderately conservative Methodist university like mine could muster some significant pockets of free thought.

 

However, I instead saw a significant number of people willing to sacrifice liberty in the hopes of trying to gain some safety, and getting neither in return. I saw people conflating unquestioningly following and supporting the President with patriotism, supporting military action with supporting the troops, and terrorism with Muslims (or anyone who looked Muslim, or at least different). I saw people, people who professed to be and held themselves out as good Christians, suggesting things such as “kill them all, and let ‘Allah’ sort them out.” It broke my heart and rocked my world, shaking my very understanding of who I was and who others were to its fragile core.

 

It took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that I am not a Republican (I also eschew the Democrat label, but I’ll own being so ridiculously liberal Bernie Sanders sometimes makes Commie jokes about me). It also took me a long time for me to reconcile my love of my country and its beautiful ideals with my complete and utter distaste for those running it and those who claim (or imply to claim) to have the market cornered on patriotism, as if someone can own love of one’s country and make it into a singular brand (buy your lapel flag pin today!). It also took some serious soul searching to reconcile my following Jesus with the vitriol I saw some spew in the name of Christ, to realize the Christ I follow may look radically different than the fictional American Jesus some tried to peddle in a false and self-serving narrative of American exceptionalism, rather than confront the hard truths of trying to make their lives conform to the teaching of Jesus instead of vice-versa.

 

So today, I recall 9/11, not just as a singular day. Certainly, it is worthy of pausing and remembering in and of itself, to celebrate the lives of the innocent people who died that day and the heroes who gave their lives trying to help them. But I more so recall an event, a happening so unique, so extraordinary, that it has defined the bulk of my adulthood. For better or worse, as Thursday suggested in their song War All The Time, I grew up in the shadow of the New York skyline.

On 9/11

On Defending Max Lucado

I promise you, I really wasn’t going to write a blog post related to the election. I figure at this point, generally, most of us have a good idea who we’re going to vote for or not vote for, and why. And technically speaking, this blog update isn’t really about the election. I’m trying extra hard not to get into pointless arguments via social media. If it matters to you, I do not care at all for Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, and I will be voting for Hillary Clinton because I think I ultimately agree with her more than any other candidate, including Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

 

However, if you’re voting for Donald Trump, I don’t want to unfriend you on social media or (worse yet) stop hanging out in real life. This isn’t a blog post about who I am voting for. No, what finally made my blood boil over and sucked me in to saying something is this little ditty, attacking and labeling my former pastor, Max Lucado, as a Pharisee, and elevating Trump’s Christianity above Max’s. If you’re not aware, Max wrote this about Trump back in February, and you can read a little more about his thought process here in an interview with NPR.

 

I encourage you, nay, I beseech you, to read all 3. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. *waits patiently, sips beverage, eats snack, checks email* Have you read them yet? No? Okay, fine, let me quickly summarize for you. Max has the audacity to point out that one cannot objectively describe Trump’s behavior as “decent,” that if Trump had shown up at Max’s house acting like he acts now and wanted to date Max’s daughter, Max would have said “no.” Max says he has done this, not simply because Trump is a candidate for president, as Max typically stays away from endorsing candidates or telling people in his congregation how to vote, but particularly because Trump also was touting his Christian faith and bona fides one day, and engaging in hateful, harmful name-calling and rhetoric the next (and the next, and the next, and…). And what is the response of Mr. Riley? To call Max a Pharisee who misses the point.

 

Perhaps a good place to start would be to be honest and clear about where I’m coming from here. I believe in a God who is neither a Republican, nor a Democrat, nor a liberal, nor a libertarian, nor a conservative. I don’t believe any candidate is God’s candidate, and similarly, I believe all candidates are real people, children of God whom God loves, as their creator. I hold it as Truth that God loved the WORLD (not a person, people, nation, group, religion, but the entire WORLD because God created the whole world and everything in it) so much He sent His only Son to die for our sins. This means that Jesus died the same for Hillary as for Donald, the same for Max as for James, and the same as for me as for everyone else. As much as I may see something else when I look at someone, particularly candidates for public office who I am exposed to on a daily basis, I believe God sees them as His children, just as worthy of love and salvation as I am, and with access to grace and mercy through Jesus equal to mine. If I am following God, I should be following Him in striving to see others, especially others who are different than me and with whom I disagree, as He sees them.

 

Furthermore, I believe people of good conscience, including those who share the labels “Christian” or “Follower of Christ” with me, can and do occupy all ends of the political spectrum. In following Jesus, I believe there is almost always more than one way to vote in any election, more than one political party to identify with, and more than one position to take on issues of public policy, both foreign and domestic. I don’t say this because I’m some sort of moral relativist who believes all positions and views are equally valid. I don’t. However, I think good people of faith can disagree about how best to go about accomplishing what they feel are parts of their faith they are called to live out through participation in a public society and through government. Additionally, although I believe God is perfect and His Word is divine and true, I also don’t think it is some cut-and-dry instruction manual that couldn’t possibly be misunderstood or read through human bias. We should struggle for the Truth, and to sincerely and earnestly seek to live this out, but I also think a dash of humility and allowance that our imperfect human understanding could always be improved could go a long way.

 

So, this is where I’m coming from: God is above our human politics, and children of God may disagree and vote and govern differently, and I’m okay with that. This doesn’t mean I don’t have a mind or opinions of my own, that I don’t disagree with others. Of course I do, and I expect others will disagree with me. And I welcome that dialogue, especially when done in a loving and Christian tone.

 

What then, is my beef with this post by James Patrick Riley? Not only can he not find a way to disagree with Max respectfully, without going for the low blow of calling him a Pharisee, his argumentation is weak and flawed; he doesn’t even bother to suggest anything Max has claimed about Trump is untrue. He is certainly welcome to his opinion, but I hold that his opinion is wrong. That alone probably wouldn’t be enough to provoke me to write this, but he drags through the mud the reputation of a man who, though only my pastor for 2 years, played a significant role in developing my faith, and continues to do so with his writing. Max Lucado doesn’t need little ol’ me to defend him, but I want to come to his defense. And, plus, someone on the Internet is wrong! *shocked face*

 

Where do I start? First, James labels Max as a Pharisee because he ignores “weightier matters of the law.” In response, I would ask what is the weightiest matter of the law? If you read Mr. Riley’s article as I do, you’d think it is being staunchly pro-life, hating Muslims, and glorifying the rich. I’m going to respectfully point instead to Matthew 22: 36-40 – when Jesus was asked about the most important commandment in the law, he answered with loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. I would think that love would include decency – I have a difficult time imagining how I might love someone without being decent towards them. I can speak hard truth or tell people what they don’t want to hear, but still always balance it with love and decency. But instead, as the weightiest matter of the law, Mr. Riley offers abortion (hardly a cut-and-dry issue across the Christian faith – for example, you can read here how the Methodist church supports the legal option of abortion in at least some cases, and recognizes the church’s view on abortion is not church law), hating Muslims (technically, he uses the phrase “Islamo-pandering” but his disdain for an entire religion and people seems right on point with the essence of hate; ironic that he begins his blog post with the story of the Good Samaritan), and glorifying the rich (again, Mr. Riley’s exact words are “class warfare,” but somehow I feel like it’s safe to assume he isn’t concerned here with the marginalized poor, despite the numerous references to the poor and social justice throughout the Bible and Jesus’ assertion of the barrier earthly wealth can present to entering the kingdom of heaven in Mark 10:25 or his suggestion to pay your taxes in Matthew 22:15-22).

 

Second, Mr. Riley accuses Max of traditionally being private with his politics as a way to not offend the Democrats in his congregation. You have already read how I feel about suggesting one political party is somehow the party of God. To that, I would add, I don’t think Max’s reticence to tell people who he’ll be voting for is about some soft-hearted attempt to not offend anyone, or even some cynical attempt to boost or maintain church membership. Rather, I believe it has much more to do with keeping his focus on the cross and recognizing Jesus’ death and resurrection transcend all. I also believe Max is living out Romans 14:21 and avoiding doing anything else that might cause another believer to stumble. If he says he is voting for one candidate and everyone else in his congregation should too or else, and someone leaves the church and turns away from following Christ, even if that is an individual choice, I doubt Max would want that on his conscience.

 

Next, Mr. Riley criticizes Max for choosing to criticize Donald Trump, but not President Obama, again citing the issue of abortion as if it was the end-all, be-all issue of Christianity. I would point out here that Mr. Riley appears to have missed an important point – Max chose to criticize Trump because Trump was promoting himself as a Christian and courting the evangelical vote, not simply because he is a public figure running for office. He then goes on detail Trump’s very recent change on the issue of abortion and gives him the benefit of the doubt as being sincere. Riley then hits the point where he pushed me mentally over the edge, suggesting that Trump is the “real” Christian because he “acts like it,” not Max “who puts on a polite show of neutrality.”

 

Really? Have we really hit the point where people are questioning and criticizing Max Lucado’s Christianity and suggesting Trump is somehow more Christian. Mr. Riley tries to defend Trump from the variety of criticisms he has faced from some Christians for various things like casinos and gambling, being foul mouthed, arrogance, and strip clubs and philandering. He then goes on to remind us about all the people in the Bible who were imperfect that God managed to use, and that Trump is really a good guy if you’d just give him a chance, and if you won’t, it’s because obviously you’re a Pharisee who values style over substance.

 

Again, I ask, really? I don’t know if I can adequately respond to all the excuses Riley makes for Trump. But more importantly, I don’t have to. Riley is completely missing the point. Max mentions nothing of casinos and gambling, specific language, arrogance alone, strips clubs, or philandering. Rather, the issue is quite simply one of how Trump treats people: indecently. It’s not just about using the word bimbo, it’s about using that word publicly and repeatedly to describe a daughter of God. It’s about mocking a former POW. It’s about making demeaning references to someone’s menstrual cycle. It’s about using language to incite violence, or at least condone it. To put it as clearly as possible – This. Is. Not. How. Jesus. Acted. Not even close. This isn’t some issue of valuing manners and politeness and never offending people over doing the right thing – treating people well, treating others lovingly, IS the right thing. It’s the second greatest commandment after loving God.

 

Christianity isn’t a competition. Max, I’m sure, would be the first to tell you that he was just as dead in his sin before Christ as Trump. But if we’re going to look at who is following more closely in the shoes of Jesus, making disciples, loving the world, it’s not even close. To pretend Trump is more Christian in his action is complete and utter nonsense that clearly and disgustingly places politics above of faith, completely ignoring the foundations of Christianity.

 

And yes, the Bible is full of people who had shady pasts, were outcasts from the religious crowds. But one thing they shared in common, when God did use them for His will, was that they humbled themselves, submitted themselves fully to Him, and repented and turned from their sins. I can’t say on this matter of decency I see much humility, submission to God, or repentance from Donald. Instead, it seems like each week he seeks to outdo himself saying more and more outrageous and indecent things.

 

So, if you choose to vote for Donald Trump this fall, that is totally your right, and I don’t think you’re a horrible person for it. If you legitimately believe as a Christian that a vote for him is the best expression of your faith and that he will do the best job representing your values and morals, please, by all means, vote for him. I can accept people of good intentions will come down differently on politics, and I refuse to give in to the push to demonize people who vote differently than I do. But, don’t get so caught up in defending Donald Trump that you call Max Lucado a Pharisee and suggest Trump is more of a Christian than Lucado, simply because Max points out that being decent matters and that Trump is not decent. And don’t hypocritically criticize someone for being typically tight-lipped about politics while simultaneously criticizing someone for pointing out the truth about the horse you decided to back in the race. And if you do, you might want to actually point out how their critique was false or incorrect, instead of attacking their character while missing the major point of the Christian faith and instead reducing Christianity to hating Muslims and being pro-life. That’s not the Christianity Max “the Pharisee” Lucado taught me about, at least 😉

On Defending Max Lucado