Yams for All

We need to change how we think about childbearing.

Having a child is probably the single most expensive decision someone in the developed world can make.  Once a child is born, one becomes responsible for that child’s food, shelter, emotional support, education, and a thousand and one other needs harder to anticipate and describe, sometimes through socialized systems that ease access to various goods.  The guardians of children become their first and fastest path toward accumulating the possessions that they will then use to gain their first taste of independence.  Parents and other caretakers and among the most important fonts of culture, moral growth, and personal development that any person will ever have.  The enormity of the caretaker’s role is so well understood that it routinely features in sexist writings that insist that women should be content with that specific influence on the future and desire no additional option or greater agency than that.

But there is one situation in which that understanding is ignored: the decision to have a child.

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Yams for All

Animal Form and Function 8: Vertebrata

The last session in my dissection course is a two-part dissection of a pig and a frog.  This one goes into much greater detail than any other dissection in the course, so there’s rarely time for a protracted video presentation at the end.  Still, I keep a good selection of surprises for my students.
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Animal Form and Function 8: Vertebrata

Big Tent, No Flap

Every young association, whether as trivial as collecting fans of a particular author’s writing or as grandiose as an emergent political ideology, sooner or later has to decide how it feels about issues outside its original mandate.  Labor unions have to decide how they feel about the food in workplace cafeterias.  Book clubs have to decide how they feel about treating gay people badly.  Political movements have to decide how they feel about anthropogenic climate change, whether their country should react to the ongoing clusterfuck in Ukraine (and if so, how), and whether they think it’s okay that American political orthodoxy still imagines that preventing pregnancy in the unwilling isn’t part of the healthcare system’s responsibilities.

And the atheist movement, if there is a single thing that can be called such, has had to sort out its sentiments on a variety of issues.

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Big Tent, No Flap

Answering 10 Questions for Every Atheist

TodayChristian.net seems to think they have a set of questions that “Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…”  They’d better be very interesting to warrant that mess of capital letters and using the word “atheist” like someone who doesn’t know English very well.  Let’s see what these stumpers apparently are.
1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?
2.       What happens when we die?
3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?
5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
7.       Where did the universe come from?
8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
Sigh.  Here we go.

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Answering 10 Questions for Every Atheist

One School System

One of the triumphs of the human race was the invention of public schools.  With the spread of public school systems around the world, no longer would the children of farmers and blacksmiths receive only the training their parents could provide or afford to hire.  No longer would learning for learning’s sake be firmly closed to those without independent wealth or unexpected patronage.  The lot of all people was no longer simply to learn a trade and be content with that much knowledge.  The expectation arose that people would enter adulthood with a basic understanding of art, literature, music, mathematics, history, and many experimental sciences.  Later revisions and additions would make it possible for children to complete schooling with a basic familiarity with classical Western philosophy and levels of math and science that would previously have required connections in august institutions like Oxford University.

A lot of societal changes presaged this shift in human society.  In the west in particular, the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization made the propagation of farmhands and apprentices far less necessary, created a middle class that expected more for its offspring, and created a demand for educated professionals that could not be fulfilled in other ways.  The history here is massive and convoluted enough that almost anything can be linked to this social revolution with enough effort, but that history is not at issue here.

This revolution also had a dramatic effect on the role of religion in society.  Religious organizations have a long history as the core of educational systems.  In societies lacking public schools, it is usually not secular charities and benefactors that fill the gap and provide basic learning to the masses, but clergy.  In countries where public systems exist in urban areas but have not yet penetrated into less developed regions, churches and mosques often fill the gap.  In places where ethnic minorities have separate infrastructure, church and school functions are often deeply intertwined as part of what makes these groups distinct from the surrounding society.  This has given and continues to give religious institutions enormous power to shape each succeeding generation of students…dramatically reduced in societies that have managed to implement secular public school systems.  Secularism, when it works, cuts religion out of the system; socialism makes the system available to anyone, preventing religious organizations from keeping their niche by being more easily accessible.

This has enabled the public school system to become much more than it was.  As a shared time of growth and experience for the majority of a country’s youth, school became where people acquired their sense of what it means to be a citizen of their country and the heritor of its culture.  It also became the primary means by which people would learn how our world functions.  School serves many purposes, depending on the priorities of those running them and the pundit consulted: babysitting to make the workforce possible, training future workers for basic jobs, breeding moral and upright citizens, or even conferring advantages not shared by those outside the system.  But that function—bringing to the next generation an understanding of our place in the universe, how our universe functions, and how to gain further understanding—is incredibly important, and becomes more so as more and more available futures demand such understanding.

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One School System

Shifty Lines: The East African Federation

Most of the stories in Shifty Lines are and will be about separatist conflicts.  Particularly in Africa, though, the simple separatist concept does not accurately reflect the goals of the border-rearrangement movements.  While this is fairly obvious in North Africa, where two of the major ethnic groups with nation-state aspirations are spread across multiple countries, eastern Africa presents a different case.  In East Africa, like the Caribbean, a large-scale effort to combine several countries into a single federated state is underway, and stands a decent chance of success.

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Shifty Lines: The East African Federation

On Identifying as Disabled

It might seem strange, but I went a long time without identifying as disabled. Let me start from the beginning. I got diagnosed with Arthritis in 2006, my hip was permanently damaged in 2007, and I got a diagnosis for Crohn’s in 2008. Those dates of course suggest nothing of the pain and hardship that I went through getting the diagnoses and living with the various illnesses and impairments.

When I first started getting sick, my end goal was to get better. It was to get back to what life used to be like before I got sick. I always looked at everything that was wrong with me and kept thinking “someday I won’t be like this. Someday I will be normal”. I spent the next few years after that working on achieving just that. I would try various medications, go to various appointments with my doctor ready to discuss how to make my symptoms stop all together. I don’t know at what point I realized that I would never “get better”. It didn’t necessarily come as some giant revelation. At some point I realized that I was no longer going into things hoping “this will cure me” but instead was thinking “this will make my symptoms less severe”.

Even after I realized that there was no “getting better” for me, I still resisted the impulse to consider myself “disabled”.  I don’t know how often I would catch myself saying things along the lines of “Oh I have a disability yes, but you know… I’m not disabled.” There was more to it than just wanting to believe that I could get better someday. I was afraid that people would judge me, but beyond that I also felt like people wouldn’t believe me.

There are two sides to the label “Disabled”.

We as a society have a very specific concept of what disability means. Anyone who falls outside those definitions must be faking it. If you are a person in a wheelchair, you better be using it because you cannot walk at all. You are not allowed to use a wheelchair if you only can’t walk sometimes, or it if hurts to walk, or anything else. If you are blind and use a white cane, you better be completely blind.  Our society has this concept of disability as all or nothing.

It creates a binary: Disabled and Not Disabled, with one side being heavily defined and anyone who doesn’t confirm 100% is faking it and taking advantage of the system. The problem of course with this assertion, as with any binary really, is that it is not a complete or even accurate picture of the world.

Many people with disabilities have fluctuating symptoms. In my case for example, most days I can walk unaided. I might limp from time to time, but otherwise I am ok. However, on other days I might require the use of a cane. On other days, the pain might get bad enough that I require the use of a wheelchair to get around.  This doesn’t make my disability “not real”, nor does it mean I am faking it when I am in a wheelchair. Many of my other impairments are also not visible to most people. When I go to the washroom three times in the space of an hour, that is me acting out my disability as much as when I am throwing up in public or the times when I don’t make it to the washroom in time. When my abdominal pain makes it impossible for me to concentrate, that is a manifestation of my disability.

What this binary does is make it more difficult for people who need services to access them, but it also makes it easier for the populations in power to ignore us. If the only people who count as being disabled are those with easy to identify symptoms, then they can pretend that accessibility is not as big an issue or requirement as it is. (Though frankly even if the only people who were disabled were those with obvious and identifiable disabilities, accessibility would still be an important consideration.)

So on the one hand you have people with legitimate disabilities feeling like they are not entitled to consider themselves disabled. But there is another side to the fear of identifying as disabled.

We as a society have this concept that people with disabilities, especially those receiving disability assistance are lazy, sad, and pathetic. That they are deserving of pity. There is an underlying current of society that holds the belief that the words “I am disabled” actually mean “my life is not worth living”. In a culture that prioritizes what any given person can do, how productive they are, it is not surprising that this is the case. Our worth is dictated by how useful we are, and people with disabilities are assumed to be useless to society as a whole.

There is active pressure from society to not identify as disabled, pressure to consider “being disabled” a bad thing. It is this same impulse that leads friends and family to say such patronizing things as “The only disability is a bad attitude” or “You’re not sick, you just need to think positive.” They cannot understand why we would do something so “negative” like be disabled or worse yet, talk about being disabled. For me finally admitting to myself and eventually the world that “yes, I am disabled” was incredibly liberating.

On Identifying as Disabled

Handle Effect

There’s a platitude that believers like to use to comfort each other in the face of adversity: “God only gives us what we can bear.”
I shudder every time I hear that.  Like Søren Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece Johannes de Silentio, I skip whatever solace believers find in that idea, and go straight to the horror.  It’s poetic shorthand for a longer thought: “This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.”
Think about that.
This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.
Out there somewhere, a cosmic calculator has determined that I have some threshold of suffering I can endure without breaking, and has responded to that information by burning my crops and giving my mother cancer.

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Handle Effect

Caring So Much It Hurts

[Spoilers for Series 2, 3, and 4 of Doctor Who follow.]

Ania and I watched the new series of Doctor Who a while back.  We never finished it, though.  We had a lot of trouble sustaining interest through Matt Smith’s tenure as the Eleventh Doctor.  Eleven was a cocksure weirdo who spent entirely too much time leading armies into battle while wearing “pacifism” like a badge and not enough doing the things that made us fall in love with David Tennant’s version.

The Tenth Doctor cared so much it hurt.

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Caring So Much It Hurts

Talking about Yesterday's SCOTUS rulings

Last night, I had the privilege of being part of an on-air hangout with Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars to discuss recent US Supreme Court rulings, in particular Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  This ruling came with a lot to unpack, a surprising amount of which was not overwhelmingly bad news for secularists and those interested in social equality for women.

It was a tremendously educational experience, as an interested party whose grounding in constitutional law and the inner workings of high-level American politics is weak, and I even got to add some perspective about how this mess would play out in Canada and the role of the Justices’ religions in their putative decision-making process.  There’s a truism about the benefits of not being the smartest person in the room, and that was massively brought home for me last night.
And now I get to share that with you all.
Talking about Yesterday's SCOTUS rulings