Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The American Gulag

Here’s a draft of a talk I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brevard, Dec. 16, 2012

***

The American Gulag

by Cecil Bothwell

“Make me an angel

That flies from Montgomery

Make me a poster of an old rodeo

Just give me one thing that I can hold onto

To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go.”

– John Prine

The phrase “Angel from Montgomery” refers to a pardon for a prison sentence from the governor. It is also used to refer to a last minute pardon from the death sentence. The phrase originated in Alabama where the capital is Montgomery. The way John Prine framed it in his song, the woman is living in her own self made prison from which she can’t escape. Hence she needs a pardon (the angel from Montgomery).

If we take a thoughtful look at the entire prison system in America, it’s pretty clear that we are in need of an army of angels from every state capitol, to free not only the unjustly incarcerated, but to free our society from a system of laws and sentencing guidelines that is as poisonous as it is ineffective.

My personal experience of incarceration is fortunately very brief. When I was 22 years old I was a member of the Florida Farm Bureau – I was following Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “get back to the land and set my soul free” and I was homesteading a patch of Florida swamp land while I worked as a masonry subcontractor. The farm bureau had a discount offer from a local tire store, and I needed a new spare tire. I went into the store on a Thursday afternoon. While the mechanic mounted the tire, I went to the counter to settle the bill with the store owner, showed him my Farm Bureau membership card and drivers’ license, and then discovered I did not have my check book. So I said I’d have to return the next day with the check. I got tied up managing my masonry crew on Friday, and decided to make the payment on Monday.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the mechanic had put the new spare tire in my car trunk, a fact which I discovered over the weekend.

On Monday morning, early, I was awakened by a knock on my cabin door, pulled on a pair of pants and opened the door to greet two sheriff’s deputies with a warrant for my arrest for theft. You might imagine I was pretty surprised. I asked what I had stolen and they said, “You know, kid.” They insisted on accompanying me back into the cabin while I put on a shirt, socks and shoes, put me in the back of their squad car and hauled me to jail. They refused to tell me anything about the charges until I was booked for stealing a tire, and photographed, and allowed one phone call and escorted to a cell where I sat alone, wondering what would transpire. It was late that night when a friend finally appeared to bail me out, after the longest, loneliest day of my young life. Imprisonment is frightening. The sense of helplessness is devastating.

The next day I paid for the tire, told the owner that while I had previously purchased tires for both my car and my flat bed truck at his establishment, I wouldn’t be back. The judge later dropped the charges (although I had to pay court costs) and admonished me that he hoped I had learned a lesson.

I did learn a lesson: I was and remain convinced that if I had looked like the tire store owner in short hair and a plaid work shirt instead of long hair, a beard and a tie-dyed tee shirt, I would never have been charged or arrested. He had an opportunity to teach a long-haired hippie a lesson and the sheriff’s department was more than happy to help out. I doubt that the tire man missed my business.

That was obviously an extremely minor brush with the law, but it loomed very large in my life experience forty years ago, and everything I have learned about our legal system since that time has reinforced that lesson.

Much more recently I started a jail ministry with a few other folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, and garnered a great deal of first hand experience with low-level criminals in the Buncombe County Detention Center, over a five year period.

First, a note about why I wanted to start that ministry. I had been an investigative reporter for Asheville’s Mountain Xpress newspaper for several years and had received a fairly constant stream of complaints about conditions in the local jail. Like any other story that depends on whistle-blowers, it’s urgent that a reporter obtain either documentary proof of allegations, or find believable witnesses who are willing to be quoted on the record. Otherwise you have nothing more than hearsay.

Then a woman died in the jail and her adult daughter came to me alleging that her mother had been denied insulin while incarcerated and had died of complications from diabetes. A lawyer who had spent a few days in jail on contempt of court charges, came forward, though off the record, and told me that she had heard the woman moaning and screaming in pain, begging for her insulin injections, and being left untreated until she blacked out and died. Somewhat later I obtained the state coroner’s report which identified intestinal ischemia as the cause of death, and it only took a little more searching to find that intestinal ischemia is often a result of untreated diabetes.

No one was ever charged for that crime.

Another informant came forward to remind me of a death which had occurred a couple of years earlier, and had gone virtually unreported. I dug into the details I was given, did public records requests and learned that a man had been arrested for driving his tractor-type lawn mower, in his own yard, while drunk. He was put in a holding cell and was found dead an hour later. He died of a broken neck. When I reported that in the newspaper, as part of the woman’s story, I got an anonymous tip from a man who claimed to be a guard in the jail. He said, “We all know who killed him.” Then he hung up.

Then I got a call from a man named Carlos Payne, who said he had information about the jail that he’d like to share with me. From his voice I got the impression, correct as it turned out, that he was a large, black man. And while I have worked hard to overcome the cultural biases I was taught as a child, I have to admit that I was viscerally scared when he indicated that he wanted to meet me, alone, in the basement of a nearby church. A fellow reporter insisted that I not go alone, and so the two of us met Carlos in a darkened room in that church basement.

Carlos was pretty scary, and he’d done time for involuntary manslaughter. But he was also an obsessive/compulsive and had kept meticulous daily records of his time in jail and in prison. Further, he had befriended a guard in the Buncombe County jail who had obtained a print copy of his official record during three months in the jail. The official record completely corroborated his allegations that he had repeatedly requested blood pressure medication for his dangerously high blood pressure, and had been repeatedly refused that medication with the guards noting that his demands were not to be believed. They noted that he cursed them repeatedly for the failure to provide medication.

Finally, he blacked out and fell, breaking teeth which caused bleeding, and was rushed to Mission Hospital where the doctors diagnosed his extreme blood pressure, renewed the prescription he had been asking for all along, and sent him back to jail where they then provided his daily prescription and according to the record, stopped cursing the guards.

His sentence had been for 90 days in jail, with a three year suspended prison sentence as long as he obeyed the rules while in jail and reported to a parole officer during the three years. But when he was supposed to be released, he was taken before a judge who was told by the commander of the jail that Payne had violated the jail rules by cursing at guards.

According to the court record, Payne told the judge that he had only cursed because he was denied life-saving medication, and that he had quit cursing once he was provided with his prescription. The officer told the judge that Payne was lying and that the cursing had continued right up to his release date. The judge ruled that the officer was believable while the defendant was not, and sentenced him to three years in North Carolina’s prison system.

Three years later, out of prison, Payne obtained the written jail record he showed me, and wanted his story to be told.

I tell you all of that to explain why I had been trying to get inside the jail to learn what I could about conditions there for a few years. But I was denied permission by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. They do not allow visitors other than those who come in during visiting hours, to sit in front of a glass panel to talk to one inmate while guards monitor the conversation.

Then I learned about the only exceptions to that rule. Churches are allowed to create ministries which can conduct meetings with up to 10 inmates at a time, and discuss whatever they wish. Some social services organizations are also allowed to conduct counseling sessions.

So, we started a jail ministry through the Unitarian Universalist church. We had to have criminal background checks, an instructional session with the jail programs administrator, and be trained by attending a couple of Bible ministry sessions with a Baptist preacher, but then we were free to conduct our own program. It was and is the only non-bible ministry in the Buncombe County jail.

As it happened, when we finally got going, the old, crooked sheriff had gone to federal prison and a new, much more modern and professional sheriff had been elected. Whereas before, guards were selected as punishment for misdeeds as patrol officers, guards are now required to apply for what are now higher paying jobs, and have special training. Medications are well supervised and according to the inmates I’ve spoken with, guards no longer beat prisoners on the elevators. They used to administer beatings there because it is the only place where there are no security cameras.

We were only permitted to meet with non-violent inmates. Most are there on drug or DUI charges, some for failure to pay child support, and a few for theft, and other relatively petty crimes. Most admitted some guilt, but generally disputed the level at which they had been charged. District Attorneys always throw the book at arrestees, threatening the worst possible convictions, in order to coerce plea bargains to lesser charges. That avoids court trials in terribly overbooked courts.

Although my initial motive for creating the ministry was to get inside the jail, to get a feeling for the place, to hear from inmates in their own words about the experience there … the actual ministry was much deeper. I met people operating in a world that’s mostly hidden from my position in life. Of course, I know the statistics, I read sad tales in the newspaper, I understand the financial cost to society of social welfare programs and the court system, but most of the people in the Buncombe County jail are not newspaper readers, are not politically active, don’t have library cards, don’t come to my book signings and don’t attend services at the Unitarian Univeralist church.

They didn’t go to college, they may not have graduated from high school, most don’t hold regular jobs, and they don’t eat at the mid-scale and upscale restaurants in Asheville. They are invisible from where I usually sit.

Most of the inmates I’ve met express remorse, at least about getting caught, and usually about the lives that had led to their current predicament. While the Bible ministries all tell participants that they must accept Jesus as savior, and that they will never fix their lives without Him, we tell participants that we don’t care what beliefs they have about Jesus, or the Bible, or what will happen when they die. We talk about how they might fix their lives when they get out of jail or prison, to avoid the recidivism that is so characteristic of these people. For most that I met over the years, this was not their first time in jail, and it would not be their first time in prison when they were sentenced.

More than a few told me with surprising honesty that THIS time they planned to go straight when they got out. That is, they would go straight after a couple of weeks, but first they would check in with their contacts, and do some drug deals to raise enough cash so they could live until they found jobs. One young man told me his girlfriend had their baby since he’d been arrested, and he was going to do whatever he had to do to buy Pampers and baby food and baby clothes the first day he got out.

And this is where we run into the deep problems with our current laws, our enforcement policies, our judicial system, our prison system and the collateral damage we are doing to individuals, families and communities in America.

We imprison more people per capita than any other country in the world. We have more people imprisoned than Josef Stalin’s gulag state. The world average for incarceration is 150 per 100,000 population. The American prison system stands at 753 per 100,000.

We imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes at both the federal and state levels in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and our prison population exploded.

Those with the most incentive to sell drugs are those with the least to lose. Desperate, out-of-work parents with a small baby, and who have had some exposure to drug dealing have very little to lose and a tremendous amount to gain by making a few sales, usually to people they already know.

Because drugs are illegal, there is a high markup. Marijuana, which is essentially a weed, and extremely easy to grow, could easily be sold for a nominal amount, but because it is illegal, requiring an extensive underground network for production, distribution and sale, the price per ounce runs into several hundred dollars or more, with high profits accruing at each step in the distribution chain. The same is true of other naturally occurring drugs: cocaine, heroin, peyote, and mushrooms.

Once someone has been arrested and convicted of a drug crime, the incentives become even higher, because felony convictions make it very hard for ex-cons to find decent jobs. Even with moderately good intentions, like many inmates I met, the lure of quick cash is strong. And, of course, the odds of getting caught during any one sale are very, very low.

Now as it works out, the people most likely to be arrested for drug dealing are those who carry out their trade on the street, soliciting sales to strangers. Again, it is the poor who are most likely to risk exposure in street dealing, and the poor who are most likely to be customers on the street.

The truth is that surveys reveal that illegal drug use is ubiquitous in American life. As a percentage of the population, white middle class people use as many and often more illegal drugs than poor non-white people. But they don’t get arrested very often. Deals that go down in suburban living rooms, corporate lunch rooms, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, country clubs and the like are not very likely to run afoul of drug suppression teams from the local police force. Furthermore, there is racial and class bias among law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. There are unwritten rules about driving while black or brown, rules that we children of the white ruling class never have to consider, unless we grow our hair long, or adopt other outward badges of nonconformity.

Evidence of bias was never more personally clear to me than about ten years after my day spent as a jailbird. I had just completed a year as a house parent in a group home for developmentally disabled children. I was headed to Mexico on a six week camping trip, and my hair was still down over my collar.

At a stopover in Tucson, reacting to a dare from an old friend, and abetted by tequila, I shaved my head.

Two days later I was standing on a sea wall in Mazatlan, Mexico, talking to a retired policeman. I asked him to relate his most memorable experience after a career with the LAPD. Without hesitation he said he loved the sound of his baton coming down on hippies’ heads during demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He said they split open like ripe watermelons.

I knew in an instant that he would never have told me that story before my new haircut and I adopted that new disguise for the next 8 years, just to experience the world as a skinhead instead of as a hippie. It was during that time that I first heard myself referred to as Mr. Bothwell.

The racial bias in our enforcement system is so pervasive that it is sometimes, and I think accurately described, as a new form of Jim Crow. Nationwide, about 1 in 138 people are incarcerated, which alone seems pretty high, but, of course, men cause most of the problems, young men even more so.

Among white men, aged 16-64, 1 in 87 are incarcerated. Among black men in the same age group, the number is 1 in 12. For black men in their late 20s, the number is 1 in 8.

When unemployment is high it is always higher in the African American population. Partly this reflects racism in hiring, but it also reflects a reasonable reluctance to hire ex-criminals.

A friend of mine, in Asheville, presents a case in point. Ed Chapman spent 15 years on North Carolina’s death row before he was exonerated. He had been convicted by a prosecutor and law enforcement officers who suppressed evidence, buried the result of a police line-up, and even ignored the jailhouse confession of the actual murderer (who is also on death row, for other crimes.) Once he was released, he’s had a very difficult time finding a decent job, because potential employers identify him as an ex-convict.

Our laws have helped create and build a permanent underclass. Many or most of those young black men have fathered children, and so while they are doing time their babies grow up in single-mother households, and single mother households comprise the highest proportion of homes below the poverty line. And when those young fathers get out of prison, unable to find work, they can easily represent one more dependent instead of one more wage earner in the household. Unless, of course, they are willing to do some drug deals and generate some cash.

And here I might note that while there is a high markup on illegal drugs, there are so many people dealing at the street level that studies suggest that most low level dealers don’t earn much more than minimum wage for their time. But, at least its a job.

For those whose morality is offended by my argument that we should go ahead and legalize the most popular, least physically dangerous drugs, I would say this: the American people have voted with their wallets. We have more drugs on the streets now than when the much heralded War on Drugs was declared about fifty years ago. The drugs are often higher potency. The prices are higher, due to our suppression efforts, so the profits are greater and the incentive to sell is greater. By making less harmful forms of some drugs more expensive, for example cocaine, we have spawned worse problems via conversion to crack cocaine, which delivers more bang for the buck. Because the supply chain for crystal meth is shorter, and often more reliable, if not in your own neighborhood, it is easier to get than other drugs which are physically less hazardous. We have succeeded in making the problem worse.

And at the other end of the supply chain, we are making drug king-pins rich, encouraging an international arms trade across the Mexican border and elsewhere, funding the rebel armies that protect the king-pins and destabilizing governments around the globe. For instance, heroin is Afghanistan’s major export commodity, and some Afghani Taliban groups rely on the heroin trade.

(The following paragraph is an addition to the talk as originally delivered at the Brevard UU Church on Dec. 17.)

The banking industry is implicated as well, because king-pins don’t stuff all that cash into mattresses. The British bank, HSBC, was recently found guilty of laundering billions of dollars in drug money, but was only given a slap on the wrist by the United States justice department. The negotiated penalty was $1.9 billion, a “record” settlement—equal to a few week’s profits for the banking giant. But the government had the legal authority to confiscate all of the banks assets, and all of the assets of all of the bank officers implicated in the laundering. Instead, they were let off easy due to expressed fears about what repercussions a meaningful penalty might have triggered in international finance. If you are caught with a single marijuana cigarette, the police can confiscate your cash, your vehicle, even your home. If you are caught laundering money for murderers, extortionists and international drug lords, you may lose your Christmas bonus. The injustice is bizarre beyond belief. [end of new material]

A year from now we’ll begin to learn how much money Colorado and Washington are saving due to their recent decisions to legalize marijuana. They predict savings in the millions in law enforcement, court costs and incarceration. Some foresee a noticeable uptick in tourism as well. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will honor those state-level decisions and not pursue recreational marijuana users in those states.

My experience with the Buncombe County jail ministry has strengthened my belief that most of the poor souls doing time for drug crimes would much prefer to be home supporting their families. If we legalized drugs, they might get jobs in drug stores because there wouldn’t be a profit to be made on the street, and drug king-pins are not the sorts of employers who provide paid vacations and health insurance. When I asked them about what jobs they have done in their lives, they often expressed clear pride that they had once worked doing roofing, hanging drywall, changing tires, putting down asphalt or even digging ditches for a plumbing contractor. All of us gain some sense of self-worth from contributing to society, from providing for our families, from doing our fair share.

One drug dealer I met in jail even bragged to me about the rules concerning children and charitable giving he had organized among dealers in South Asheville. He insisted that his homies had agreed never to sell to kids, never to sell near schools, and to divert money to a program that bought school supplies for the elementary school in their neighborhood.

I have no idea if they stuck to the sales rules, but I looked into it, and they definitely bought those school supplies – or at least, someone claiming to represent the local dealers had delivered the goods.

When I thought about that, it was hard to claim that school supplies paid for by drug sales were any more or less moral than our state-sanctioned education lottery, which is about as morally twisted a way to pay for schooling as I can imagine.

America can do better. I hope we can all help.

For immediate release: 1/1/13

From: Cecil Bothwell, Asheville City Council

Subject: Gun shows on City owned property

Contact: cecil@braveulysses.com, 828-713-8840

 

Bothwell demands enforcement of City gun ordinance

Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell today called for the City of Asheville to ban gun shows from City-owned properties, including the WNC Agricultural Center.

“Our municipal code specifically prohibits the carrying of weapons on City owned properties. I don’t understand why that law is not being enforced,” Bothwell said.

The City of Asheville’s Civic Center and WNC Agricultural Center have both been rented to gun show promoters in recent years, despite this long-standing ban.

Bothwell explained, “Many citizens have contacted Council members asking for action in the wake of the Newtown school murders, but the City has very little ability to regulate guns, permitting or background checks under North Carolina and United States law. However, we do have the power to enforce the laws that are on the books.”

“Gun shows not only promote the ownership and use of weapons, including the glamorization of the assault-type, semi-automatic killing machines used in too many mass murders, but sellers at shows are not required to perform background checks on buyers. That means that guns intended for rapid fire killing may easily fall into the hands of persons who are mentally unstable or who have criminal intent.”

“This is one place we can easily draw the line,” Bothwell added. “The law is already on the books.”

 

 

Section 12-42 of Asheville’s City Ordinances reads as follows:

(a) No person shall possess, use or carry any firearm, gun, rifle, pistol, air rifle, spring gun or compressed air rifle or pistol, or other similar device or weapon which impels or discharges with force any bullet, shot or pellet of any kind, including arrows with metallic tips or sharp tips of any nature, designated to penetrate and propel a bow or spring dvice, in any park or other city-owned facility. Further, no person shall possess, use or carry any knife, other than an ordinary pocket knife, which means a small knife, designed for carrying in a pocket or purse and which has a cutting edge and point entirely enclosed by its handle and that may not be opened by throwing, explosive or spring action, or a kitchen knife, when it is used or intended to be used for its ordinary purposes, in any park or other city-owned facility.

***

It goes on to exempt those holding conceal-carry permits from the restriction on parks (as mandated last year by the General Assembly) and law enforcement officers.

“Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken

And many times confused

Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken

And certainly misused

Ah, but it’s all right, all right

I’m just weary to my bones.

Still you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant

So far away from home. So far away from home.”

- Paul Simon

Over the river and through the woods.

Or—to state our trajectory more accurately—through the woods and over the river; we hung a left past the bridge; then a right; a left; a zig; a zag; another right; and there we were at grandma’s house—just 515 miles from transom to transom. Twenty hours total driving time there and back again, divided in half by a two-week visit to my partner’s home place.

That this sort of casual travel is possible is one of the miracles of 20th century technological civilization. Mobility has blessed and cursed us, enabling an endless diaspora while chaining us to our machines. In the process our dispersal may well have become the biggest psychological obstacle to creation of a sustainable society. And creation of a sustainable society is essential if we are to mitigate the human impact on global climate change.

And while I’m pointing a finger I’m not afraid to admit my own culpability.

Between April 2 and April 11 of 2010 I traveled more than 10,000 miles while feeling more than a little carbon guilt. I flew to Newark to give a speech and then to Hawaii. My best buddy from high school gave me a ticket to visit his home there. I assuaged myself in part by attending a symposium on alternative fuels hosted by the U.S. Navy which announced plans to derive 70 percent of its fuel from renewables by 2030. They’ve even figured out how to distill jet fuel from switchgrass. The state of Hawaii has made the same commitment to 70 percent renewables by 2030.

Other speeches in 2010 took me to Minneapolis and Denver, adding another 5,000 miles to my hemispheric walkabout. Toss in 10- or 15,000 miles of automobile travel, and the total is more than once around the earth.

In 2011 I flew a bit less, perhaps 6,000 miles, speaking in Cambridge and Des Moines, and with three visits to Washington DC, including a protest against the XL Pipeline, but drove more, criss-crossing Western North Carolina during my run for Congress.

And flights are up again this year: Between Miami, Providence, Denver, and Winter Park, Florida, nearly 8,000 miles, with another trip to South Florida scheduled for this December.

But my carbon guilt is deeper and wider than that. Up to the turn of the millennium I spent a great deal of time on the road, for pleasure. Cheap oil let me visit the Grand Canyon and the Badlands, New Mexican mesas and Aztec ruins, Big Sur and the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Yukon, New Orleans and Chicago, San Franciso and Washington, DC, Tijuana and Newfoundland, the Little Big Horn and the Saw Tooth range, the Okefenokee and the Louisiana bayou. I’ve canoed in every Great Lake and most of North America’s river systems. I’ve hiked in Yellowstone and the Snake River Canyon and the Chiricahuas and the White Mountains and the Green Mountains and the Cascades, the Catskills and the Sierra Nevada and the Sand Hills and the Ozarks, of course the Southern Applachians and too many more places to easily catalog. It was a grand adventure and it was cheap.

Taking the long view—disastrously cheap.

In addition to my former partner, Susan’s, inclination toward travel and my own willingness, there’s a longer-term picture to consider as well. My parents met and married in Florida, though Dad was born in Chicago (as was I). The introduction occurred because my Mom had worked in New York City for a couple of years, where she met Dad’s cousin (also from the Chicago area) who suggested the two get together after Mom returned to her high school home town, Orlando, where Dad was building homes and breeding Shetland sheep dogs. Mom was born and half-way raised in Pittsburgh. I had moved to New Hampshire and then North Carolina with a year-long stop-over in Arizona. But my trajectory had included junior high in Long Island, New York, and high school in Florida, with a couple of years of college in Atlanta.

Susan’s parents settled on her grandmother’s farm-turned-suburbia in Ohio, and her aunts, uncles, cousins and two siblings stayed close to home, but her other brother moved to Tucson, then Portland, Oregon. A niece and nephews spun out to Washington, DC, Knoxville and Salt Lake City/Dallas and then Atlanta, respectively. Neither of our families was particularly atypical for the post-WWII years. We spread out and dissolved the extended families of past generations. We did so because we could—often for better job prospects, sometimes on whims, for love, or, pretty often, simply to shake off the past. My buddy in Hawaii, who has since retired to Asheville, held jobs in, Florida, Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania before he headed west and his wife, from Pennsylvania who he met and married in Virginia, met her first husband in Maryland.

Cheap energy made cost no real object, and that same cheap energy made family visits, shared holidays, weddings and funerals and graduations and other base-touching reasonably affordable.

But the families were fragmented despite phone calls and (increasingly rare) written letters. (E-mail has lately abetted better and more frequent contact for many.) The easy distancing could engender real difficulty when a physically remote mother or father needed nursing care and the lack of nearby grandparents shifted more children into daycare.

Whether this social fracturing has been, on the whole, good or bad is open to debate, but the fact that cheap oil had social consequences is not.

My holiday journey over the river and through the woods traversed a landscape in transition. Farmland was sprouting subdivisions as thick and fast as springtime weeds, particularly along the Interstate arteries. The previous week, one of Susan’s brothers went to an auction of the farm which he (and their father before him) worked on as a young man. The gavel came down to the tune of one and a half million bucks, paid by a developer hell-bent on suburbia.

We have painted ourselves into a very difficult corner as cities metastasize into surrounding healthy tissue. The sprawl enabled by fossil fuel combustion has built us into a dependence on that technology that becomes harder and harder to break.

Look at the conundrum: Cheap mobility facilitates both commuting and distribution of goods. Easy commuting drives up the use-value of land far outside the cities, a change which also raises property taxes. At the same time, the distribution network permits import of food from lower valued land (usually with lower priced labor). Beleaguered farmers facing underpriced competition and overpriced land are understandably tempted to liquidate. The whole scheme floats on cut-rate oil.

Each new home on former farm land further entrenches political support for the status quo. People who have invested their savings in a home and who are dependent on a distant job to keep up mortgage payments are vested in the present cheap-oil economy. Adding insult to the internal combustion injury of the biosphere, the average size of new homes in the U.S. has grown enormously over the past five decades. More heated space will require more heat for decades into the future. Even construction methods are affected, as when cost/benefit considerations dictate the return on insulation or insulating windows vis-a-vis cheap energy.

At the same time, inexpensive oil encourages investment in inefficient vehicles, and—via conversion to electricity—in inefficient appliances of all sorts. Each consumer decision against conservation results in further stasis. A new auto which uses twice as much fuel as an alternative model locks that demand into our energy equation for twenty years or more. Ditto for refrigerators, freezers, ranges, water heaters and a host of smaller gadgets.

The chief obstacles to creation of more efficient, more frequent, more user-friendly public transit are low population density and cheap gas — and really, those are two sides of the same coin. During the oil price spike which some authorities believe precipitated our recent Great Recession, ridership on city transit systems kicked up significantly. The drop in ridership since 2009 is partly due to a temporary drop in fuel prices, elevated unemployment, and acceptance of $4 gasoline as the new normal.

And while I’m on the subject of transit, I could point out that subsidy for a transit system is a direct subsidy of employers in cities who hire low wage workers. Dish washers and bussers and other low-wage jobs frequently don’t pay enough to support automobile ownership and use. So many businesses are completely dependent on the transit system to enable their employment of those workers, at least at the wages generally offered. The government subsidies of transit would be lower if ridership were higher, so once again, cheap gas skews the equation.

Meanwhile the supply lines for food grow ever longer, and more and more of the fertilizer supply comes directly from what Thom Hartmann aptly referred to as “ancient sunlight”—fossil fuels stored up over millennia.

The U.S. has created one of the least efficient technological societies on the planet. While it’s true that we have improved efficiency over time, other countries have pushed fuel prices up through taxation to encourage conservation and made far greater strides. We have intentionally kept fuel prices low—an intentional subsidy to drivers, industry and agriculture, which, as I just mentioned, also creates demand for collateral subsidy of transit. With oil prices kept down, farm labor is devalued as well, since workers compete with cheaply fueled engines. This feeds directly into the issue of immigration because the low wages offered by farmers attract workers for whom those wages represent a step-up.

Because chemical nitrogen fertilizer comes from underpriced natural gas, we tilt the market toward chemical agriculture and away from organic. The price differential between organic and non-organic food is largely created by low priced fossil fuel supplies.

Moreover, we subsidize oil with tax money for military intervention as well as funding health care costs incurred by pollution victims. Our inefficient vehicles and high reliance on automobile use has created a childhood asthma epidemic, directly attributable to auto exhaust. Imagine how different our economic choices might be if we paid for wars and health care with taxes on the fossil fuels that create the need in the first place. In worst case conditions, such as the BP death gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, we will be dealing with toxins in the food chain for decades. The cost will never be accurately assessed.

The damage will not abate in our lifetimes.

More subtly, oil costs are externalized in the form of forest and agricultural decline resulting from acid deposition, nitrous oxides and low-level ozone. Citizens of WNC receive daily warnings about air quality and are often urged not to engage in overmuch outdoor activity because we are Code Yellow or Orange.

This in a region once famous for it’s healthful air.

When I spoke earlier of mothers and fathers and children, I was, of course, actually talking about love and sex, and modern sexuality is, for all practical purposes, a petrochemical product even before you include condoms … which you should, because today’s safe sex practices are at least partly necessary because global transportation greatly increased the dispersal of sexually transmitted diseases.

I’m of the generation that explored its first lessons in practical anatomy at drive-in movie theaters. The motel, another augmentation for close personal relationships, was invented to serve travelers on the highway system developed by the Eisenhower administration to help General Motors sell cars. The car and the motor-hotel provided the means to find privacy and anonymity that was rare in less energy intensive times.

After going to movies or ball games, my crowd in high school used to drive to a Methodist Church parking lot that was surrounded by dense shrubs and fronted on a lake. The town police knew we were basically good kids and left us alone, our parents hoped we were good kids and didn’t much complain, we all felt entirely safe because we were surrounded by friends’ in their own cars, and we were pretty much left to our own devices.

My device was a 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe, with suicide doors in back that opened on a rear seat that looked like a living room sofa. I bought it from the original owner when I was 17 and it was 20 years old and paid $75. I later gave it to my cousin who blew the engine and had it junked. I saw one online the other day offered for $35,000, ah the mistakes of youth.

More importantly, the oil economy profoundly affected the institution of marriage. World War II was, in many ways, a war about control of oil. Germany invaded North Africa in an effort to access Arab oil fields and Japan sought control of Malaya and Indonesia for oil and rubber. The U.S. won the war at least in part because we had ample domestic oil to fuel industry and war machines. There was a major mobilization of men for that war effort, women moved into traditional male jobs and the G.I. Bill permitted unprecedented access to college education. The geographical and social mobility had a huge effect on the availability of alternative mates.

Instead of marrying a high school sweetheart and settling in our hometowns, we were suddenly mixing it up.

Thirty-two years ago I moved to North Carolina and landed in a vacation home subdivision populated by Floridians on the edge of the Broad River Township, which is now part of Black Mountain. Over my twenty years there I came to understand that thirty years further back that valley had been all but cut off from the modern world. A round trip to the nearest accessible town of Hendersonville began before dawn and ended after dark even if your horses didn’t tarry along the way. The Ledbetters and the Owenbys each had 13 children and a dozen of each brood married a dozen of the other.

During the 1950s, oil-powered bulldozers built by the companies that built tanks for the war pushed a road through a mountain pass and most of the children of those dozen families left for good, finding and marrying their partners in far off Asheville, Hickory or Charlotte.

As Billy Wheeler and others have sung it,

“I can’t help but blamin’ your goin’

On the coming, the coming of the roads.”

Then too, the wider choice and the ability of women to join the workforce made divorce a much more tenable or even attractive option than in an earlier time.

I mentioned a quiet church parking lot, and note that religion has been changed by cheap energy too. Megachurches are commuter churches in the same way that sports stadiums and big civic centers and big golf tournaments are commuter entertainment venues.

The reason sports stars garner such huge salaries is a phenomenon largely driven by cheap fuel. The only way NFL and NBA games and baseball pennant races are possible in their modern form is because it’s cheap to fly thousands of players all over the country to perform in venues accessed by millions of fans who rely on cheap energy to attend the games. I suppose we could get around that by creating a sports city somewhere, where all the players lived and then just televise all the games, but I think the excitement would drain out pretty fast if all the home teams lived in the same town.

Then too, many of us dance when we date, or go to concerts. Look at what cheap gas has done to music! Before WWII, if you lived in a big city, the fancy dance clubs and restaurants had resident orchestras and dance bands. If you lived in a small town, you were lucky if a couple of local folks played banjos or fiddles or guitars, and you’d go to barn dances and church socials to sing or dance.

Then came the boom in recorded music, electrified instruments, radio and TV, and the interstate highway system. Now three or four musicians could make more noise than Count Basie’s whole orchestra and repeated air play made new songs more popular than classic folk tunes. The four musicians pile into a van with their gear and start touring. Suddenly you could hear the newest pop song from the actual band that recorded it and as those bands grew in wealth they could afford to produce shows that left local bands in the dust. Shows moved from dance clubs to stadiums and civic centers, and they too became commuter events. Superstars were born.

Connecting sports and music stardom with religion, we saw the rise of Billy Graham and the mass revival. When he was a boy the touring superstars in the Bible belt were preachers who set up tent meetings for weeks at a time. Graham’s boyhood hero was Mordecai Ham, an anti-semitic fire and brimstone character who was sort of the Chuck Norris of the tent circuit. Graham built on that model with the new technology of pop music and worked the sports stadiums and civic centers to create huge commuter events that lasted just a day or a few. The economy of cheap gasoline made moving the show much more affordable. So whereas Ham would fleece the same few hundred townfolk for a month or more, Graham could fleece hundreds of thousands all around the world in the same time period.

The existence of superstars in sports, entertainment, and religion has had a collateral effect on society that is widespread and, in my view, pernicious. A lot of kids growing up in this superstar society believe that the same success and wealth is available to them. That idea tends to devalue education and everyday jobs and puts the focus on talent and luck. The fact that a kid from public housing has a much better chance of being a heart surgeon than a basketball star is lost. The fact that study and hard work can let you fashion a satisfying and productive life is set aside. Instant wealth seems possible just around the corner, as near as a winning lottery ticket.

And far beyond the immediate effect on one child, is the effect on many adults.

Cheap energy has been at the core of a modern mindset that anything is possible, that everyone has a shot at the gold ring. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to dance with the stars? Who wants to be a survivor and make a killing on Wall Street?

That has infected our politics. Many people, imagining that they too will soon be rich, cast their lot with the the rich. They then vote for policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They complain about tax hikes for the rich, even when there are tax cuts for the poor, unwilling to accept that they are, and will almost to a person, always be among the 95 percent who are relatively poor. They buy into political viewpoints that teach them that it’s poor immigrants who are keeping them down, not their own choices in the voting booth. Cheap gas has fueled both the machines and the machine politics that has created the widest wealth gap in the history of the world.

And the machines include poker machines and other forms of gaming. In a world where luck is considered to be more the arbiter of success than work, gambling makes perfect sense. Lottery tickets, limos to Harrahs, weekends in Las Vegas and Buncombe County’s former sheriff Bobby Medford’s video poker racketeering are all part of that mindset. It’s really kind of boggling when you consider the popularity of gambling these days, where everyone knows that the house always, ultimately wins and it’s considered to be great good fun to give more than you can afford to corporations which are richer than you can imagine.

In order to move toward true sustainability we must—by definition—decouple our lives from dependence on non-renewable resources, but the political will for such sweeping change is conspicuously rare.

Though I treasure the chance to spend some holiday time with distant family members and friends, it is impossible to shake a sense of foreboding. The policies that made that Thanksgiving visit possible will make our entire economic structure impossible in the not-too-distant future as the oil runs out.

There is no substitute for oil on the near horizon, a fuel so condensed and portable and malleable that it is the lifeblood of modern technological society. If you have a 150 horsepower engine in your car, you are obtaining the work of 150 horses for $3.65 per gallon. Where will you find a substitute for those horses? We are building toward a crash of monumental proportions, on a scale that could easily dwarf the experience of the Great Depression or the current Great Recession. At least in the 1930s most of us lived closer to the farm, to our work, and to our families.

We chose to believe that low fuel prices were a social good. Our elected officials made sure THAT continued, at least in part because it was an easy issue. People notice how much it costs to fill their tanks and fill their grocery bags and if those prices jump up an opposition candidate can promise to knock things back down. So incumbents keep the lid on. The larger costs are hidden and spread out as hospital bills, acidified lakes, military intervention, and more—invisible in plain sight because they are diffuse and the dots haven’t been well connected in the public mind.

Though much of my air travel in recent years has come about due to speaking engagements, two of my trips this year involved a much more personal matter. My younger brother died suddenly on March 11, in Bryson City. On March 13 I flew to Miami to be with my 90 year old mother to support each other in that time of shock and loss and grief. Two weeks ago today, I honored my brother’s wishes and scattered Cameron’s ashes on a lake in Winter Park, Florida—the lake on whose shores we lived during our teenage years.

In his life and death there’s another tale of the modern diaspora. Mom has divided her time between Miami and Spruce Pine in recent years. Cam lived in Bryson. I live in Asheville.

Scattered to the wind, we are, and living amidst strangers. We have been fooled by cheap energy into choices we might soon regret. Whether we are down to our last five drops of gasoline, as predicted by peak oil calculations, or down to the last 5 million barrels we can burn before runaway greenhouse warming makes our planet uninhabitable, I fear it may be a very, very long walk home.

“So far away from home.”

Well, I needed a title. Sometimes one’s life gets turned upside down in a positive way. On Oct. 22 I found a new home that suited me just fine, closed the deal 11 days later and moved in from Nov. 2-7. Due to the haste of the move I’m still unpacking the “mixed” boxes, and shedding stuff I presumably would have jettisoned on the front end had things moved more slowly.
Will now post the talk I intended to post after Oct. 14.

Next Sunday I’ll be talking about the social impact of cheap fossil fuels at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hendersonville. (During renovation of their home, they are meeting at the Agudas Israel Synagogue, 54 Morris Kaplan Dr.)

Will post the text soon.

Here’s what I had to say in Lakeland over Labor Day weekend.

 

One of the most potent wrenches in the toolbox of many religions is guilt. If a person can be made to feel guilty, and particularly if that person is fearful of community approbation were the guilty secret to be exposed, there is an increased likelihood that the person will comply with prescribed behavior or avoid proscribed practices.

 

We’ve all got secrets. We’ve all done things we are ashamed of, be they small or large. Maybe it’s just screening your cell phone calls, later claiming to have been on another line, or busy, or had your ringer off? Maybe a little white lie to spare another’s feelings, or hide your own? Being creative on a tax return?Petty thievery as a child, with candy or other trifles? Maybe eating the last Dove bar without offering to share?

 

And on and on up to the profoundly serious evasions of adultery, unethical business practices, lieing under oath, leaving accident scenes, accepting bribes and all the rest of the bad acting familiar from front pages and evening news. Not to mention the most egregious crimes of rape, assault, armed robbery, and murder.

 

Some of the guilt is warranted for the small and large ways we have hurt or cheated others, other guilt is imposed—societal or familial expectations that we don’t share but feel constrained to obey. Mom would die if she knew I … fill in the blank.

 

I heard Darcy Burner, candidate for Congress in Washington state, tackle the issue of shame at the Netroots Nation conference in Providence on June 8. Darcy addressed the shame that has been heaped on the decision to abort a fetus.

She talked about cultural power and the stories people have in their heads about issues.

Darcy said, “It turns out that one in three American women will have an abortion at some time in her life, but it is an issue that is kept so much in the closet that most people have no idea that their sisters, mothers, daughter or their friends have had abortions.

Darcy went on, “The LGBT movement has done this amazing job of using the idea of coming out of the closet to change the stories in people’s heads about who it is that the right wing is demonizing when they condemn gay marriage. We’ve seen tremendous progress on that issue by helping people understand that these are their friends, neighbors and loved ones who are being talked about.”

She suggested that one thing we could do to go on offense would be for women to come out of the closet about having had abortions. She asked women who were comfortable standing up to do so — to indicate that they were one of the people who had an abortion. A large group, perhaps 150 women, stood up and then Darcy said, “Now all of you who are willing to stand with these women and every woman like them please join them.” Most all of the 2,000 people in the room stood with those women who had been courageous enough to stand up first.

Then came the applause for the courage of those women. Darcy talked later with some of the women who had stood, and they told her it was the first time in their lives they had felt like they weren’t completely isolated on the issue—that there was a community of people who loved them and who would support them. It made a great difference. The veil of silence had been lifted.

This is much the same tactic as is currently being adopted by many in the atheist, secular and humanist communities. Going public with our nonbelief gives the lie to those who paint nontheists as evil, satanic, heartless and self-absorbed. That is to say, we aren’t all like Ayn Rand.

When a person with a reputation for public spiritedness, for honesty, for rescuing stray pets, for kindness, for raising well-adjusted children, for feminism, for human rights advocacy, for reaching across racial and ethnic fences, for any of dozens of actions that commend one as a good citizen, a good person … when that person comes out as a nontheist, it triggers re-thinking on the part of the observers. The world shifts.

 

Religions have been quite successful in the use of shame to moderate people’s behavior. The Judeo-Christian origin story goes right to the heart of human behavior with Adam and Eve suddenly noticing their nakedness after they ate the forbidden fruit. Up until that point they were just blissful cherubs frolicking in the perfect garden and suddenly they couldn’t get their minds off sinful sex and their alluring nudity. Consequently, all their children were sex-obsessed as well, and original sin became the order of the day.

 

It doesn’t take much experience of the world to see through that argument. It had to be pretty clear to most people, even two millennia ago, or during the Council of Niceae, or during the Protestant reformation, how babies were made.

 

Given the unfortunate truth that we all die, there wouldn’t be much future for humanity absent sexual engagement. Even if you bought into the idea that Adam and Eve could have lived forever if they’d avoided the apple, it had to be a stretcher to accept the idea that the pain of childbirth was a punishment inflicted on women for Eve’s mistake.

 

Were all of those first-created animals and plants destined to live forever in the absence of sinful sex? Then what about the apple? The reason a plant invests great energy in creating fruit is to provide a fertile starter for the seeds inside the fruit, and collaterally to benefit from animals which ingest the seeds and distribute them at some distance from the parent plant. Why was there fruit on the tree if it wasn’t intended for procreation?

Then, given that most fruit pollination requires the activity of bees and other pollinators, were the bees sinning when they distributed pollen from one tree to the next?

 

What about cows and mares and ewes? Do their struggles with birthing have something to do with Eve as well? Did Elsie and Mr. Ed and Little Bo Peep’s sheep all follow Eve’s example and sample the forbidden fruit? What did animals in the Garden of Eden eat, anyway?

 

Because the Bible tells us that, at minimum, Adam and Eve ate. It says they were told they could eat everything else in the garden other than the fruit on one tree.

 

I know this is a digression, but I’d like to point out that food we ingest is broken down into constituent parts, some of which are absorbed by the body for use in powering and building cells, and a great deal of it passes through us because it is stuff we can’t use. If the fellows who wrote the Bible had walked around the neighborhood they probably could have met farmers who had a pretty keen understanding of the cycle of nutrients, in which animal waste feeds plants, and plants make seeds, which when planted become more plants, and that well-fed plants produce more seeds. They could also have explained that melons, which were a popular mid-east food, had male and female flowers, and that the female flowers produced fruit, but only if there were male flowers nearby. Sex is really central to farming.

 

It’s pretty clear that the writers of the Bible were blissfully ignorant of how life works.

 

Of course some religious philosophers would tell you that I’m missing the real import of the whole story and that the original sin was disobedience of God’s will and that the punishment inflicted was for that act of disobedience and not for eating the apple, per se.

 

Others would argue that the core of the disobedience was that Eve and Adam nibbled on the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and that it was in seeking knowledge which ought to be reserved for God and maybe Angels, that those first humans sinned. To which I’d answer that any god that preferred beings created in His Own Image to remain stupid rather than to participate in knowing everything that could be known, had to be a compleat idiot. But, again I digress.

 

No matter whether it was simply eating the fruit, or disobedience or seeking knowledge, let’s cut to the chase. Suddenly Adam and Eve realized they were naked and grabbed for some fig leaves. This only made matters worse in the area of sexual arousal, since everyone knows that lingerie is sexier than straight out nudity.

 

In any event, and against all observable evidence, sexual urges were successfully vilified and religious leaders had their fingers on the guilt button. Sometimes this was used to keep a lid on potential community disruption—for example, the injunction against coveting your neighbor’s wife. And it has been argued that one positive effect of religion has always been to reign in the unfortunate tendency of many men to not only covet, but act on that inclination without permission of either the wife or the neighbor.

 

Herb Silverman, the atheist politician and notary public and Secular Coalition for America founder, tells a story along these lines. Some theist who was debating him asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from stealing and murdering and raping?” Herb answered, “If that’s all that keeps you from doing those things, I hope you continue to believe in God.”

 

Thou shall not steal was another rule with positive social benefits.

 

But converting innate desires to sins had the effect of making everyone feel guilty about something. Was a woman coveting when she thought the neighbor was a real hunk compared to her couch potato husband? What about thinking the neighbor’s horse or Ferrari was more desirable than one’s own mule or Ford Pinto? Was that the sin of envy poking up it’s head?

 

 

By the 14th Century the list had been expanded and established with a group of seven deadly sins. In addition to lust and envy we faced wrath, greed, sloth, pride and gluttony. We could then feel guilty if we were angry at a person who cheated us, wanted more than had been accorded our lot in the world, felt like we needed a break from endless toil, felt like we’d really done a pretty good job on that last project, or ate too much turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving. The clergy had a wide range of guilt buttons to push, and every one of them involved such extensive areas of grey that pretty much anyone could be made to feel guilty in one way or another.

 

Think of Jimmy Carter who was widely admired and scorned when he told a Playboy magazine interviewer that he had “lusted in his heart.” To most subscribers of that magazine it must have seemed a strange admission, coming a few pages before the centerfold. Lusting was more or less the whole point, wasn’t it? Then again, in the 1970s, the magazine arrived in a plain brown wrapper, so who was kidding whom concerning feelings of guilt?

 

Was a farmer who hoped to grow more grain next season guilty of greed? Or to grow as much grain per acre as his more successful neighbor a matter of envy?

 

Or was the neighbor being prideful when he reported his greater success? On and on and on, with variations and gradations in the category of sin.

 

It was a brilliant touch when weekly confession was thrown into the mix and it became a sin NOT to tell the priest all of the possible ways you had overstepped some imaginary line. Guilt could be lathered on, pennance exacted, and the stage set for the next failure to adhere to the rules.

 

The black plague helped a great deal in the selling of guilt. Not having a germ theory of disease, it was easy to believe that God was punishing sinners. Survivors believed that they had been spared by divine intervention, that their expiation of sins had been effective, and that, therefore, they must continue to confess and atone.

 

An interesting sidebar here is that the population collapse due to the black plague was very good for commoners. Food became more plentiful per capita, housing was cheaper and wages rose due to the labor shortage. All of this, of course, was proof of divine blessing upon the survivors.

 

Another nice touch was added by the Catholic church during the middle ages. As the power of the church expanded, so did its wealth. Churches were often the most substantial structures in a town, and the sale of dispensations began to add up. Churches began to acquire properties beyond the churchyard. Reasonably enough, priests wanted to pass along that wealth and power to their children. So the church invented celibacy and decided that its priests were married to Christ. The inheritance problem was solved, though that brilliant solution led to other problems which have only received much attention in the past couple of decades. Sexual urges seem to find an outlet no matter what rules the church or society might hope to impose.

 

Apropos priestly proclivities, a few months ago I heard comedian Bill Maher observe that the Mormon church spent millions of dollars on the Prop 8 ballot in California to ensure that the only gay people involved in California weddings are Catholic priests.

 

The rising power of the church ran side-by-side with the rising power of monarchs, and it was altogether rational for alliances to emerge. Where kings wielded armed power to demand obedience, priests wielded moral power to exhort obedience. The alliance offered military and police protection to the church, which, as an increasingly wealthy institution was subject to depradation. And it offered heavenly approval to the king whose wishes were no longer personal, but heaven-sent.

 

Both powers could claim entirely benign intent, offering to preserve the peace and protect your soul, as long as your obedience was complete. No argument was possible.

Of course, there were squabbles, as when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce and decided to divorce the Roman church along with his wife, but the basic plan remained.

 

And then came the American revolution. The immediate cause was economic. One of the earliest multi-national corporations, the British East India Company, was cheating colonists at every turn. The British government was imposing taxes on commodities, most particularly caffeine tea which, like coffee in the modern era, was the most widely used drug in North America. And many of those who had settled the colonies had come here to escape the strictures of European religion. They were indisposed to respect the rule of governors and overseers working for the English crown and the Church of England.

 

But the guiding lights of the American effort saw beyond immediate disgruntlements and understood something more profound. Freedom required more than the unfettered life available at the margins of civlization. It would need governance that answered to a majority while protecting the rights of the minority, and it would require the rule-making of government to be decoupled from the dictates of any religious authority.

 

No priesthood could be permitted to overrule the will of a free people. At the same time, no government could be permitted to dictate what any person must believe. Thus was born the separation of church and state which made American democracy the most revolutionary step in the history of the modern world. I’ll leave it to others to debate where it ranks compared to the control of fire, the invention of the wheel and plow, and the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. But the change was profound.

 

As Thomas Jefferson noted in the years following our founding:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

However, despite the carefully crafted separation that is fundamental to our government, politicians are constantly tempted to use religion and its tools of guilt and fear, to sway public opinion. And when was the last time you heard a president end a speech without saying “God Bless America”?

 

They parade their personal piety, whether real or feigned. They decry a purported lack of faith in their opponents. They cast foreign enemies as godless or without morality and invent stories to make those others seem less than human. Recall the fabricated stories of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers pulling premature infants from incubators in Kuwait. Notice the continued effort to paint Barack Obama as a Muslim.

 

The obvious question here, to any rational citizen, is, “What difference would it make if Obama were a Muslim?” Would that be of any more importance than John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism? Or Jimmy Carter’s Baptism? Or John Adams’ Universalism? Well, okay, Adams was more rational. But the point is that people believe or profess a lot of weird things. Isn’t the real question for politicians whether or not their theory of governance rests on rationalism or superstition?

 

Theodore Roosevelt observed, “To discriminate against a thoroughly upright citizen because he belongs to some particular church, or because, like Abraham Lincoln, he has not avowed his allegience to any church, is an outrage against that liberty of conscience which is one of the foundations of American life.”

 

But look at the recent vote on Amendment One in North Carolina, an amendment to the state constitution which aimed to ban not just gay marriage, but any recognition of civil union between same sex partners. Ministers were preaching in favor of the amendment from pulpits across the state. Billy Graham weighed in and lent the power and wealth of his ministry to advertising efforts to support the bill. Pro-amendment politicians went on about the sinful lives of same-sex couples, and enjoined voters to protect their families and their communities from the looming threat of gay marriage. This in a state that already had a statutory ban on same sex marriage.

 

As it happens, my own bid for the Congressional nomination in my district was affected as well. We learned that fundamentalist preachers were telling parishioners to vote for Amendment One and against the atheist, Cecil Bothwell.

 

It is striking how far conservative politicians have travelled since the 1960s when Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency.

 

In 1981, Goldwater said:

“The great decisions of government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions. We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn’t stop now. To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.”

 

Sadly, Goldwater’s conservatism has given way to religious pandering, particularly within his Republican party.

 

Consider Rick Perry’s comment last week during an evangelical conference call put together by the Rev. Rick Scarborough.

 

Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you and one of the untruths out there that is driven is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena. Somehow or another there’s this, ya know, steel wall, this iron curtain or whatever you want to call it between the church and people of faith and this separation of church and state is just false on its face. We have a biblical responsibility to be involved in the public arena proclaiming God’s truth.”

 

Whew, Rick, don’t know exactly where to start. But I haven’t heard anyone say that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena. All we are saying, is park your faith at the door. We need public policy based on science and democracy. And nobody is saying you can’t proclaim your myths in the public arena, we’re just telling you

that your imaginary friend doesn’t have a voter ID card.

 

If such pandering were only verbal, it would be simple enough to pass it off as opportunistic politicking. However, fundamentalist religious beliefs have increasingly found their way into American law, and they are eroding the wall of separation that has stood our democratic system in good stead for more than 235 years.

 

Look at the textbook industry in Rick Perry’s Texas, for example. Texas is one of the largest school systems in the U.S., therefore textbooks distributed nationwide are frequently tailored to fit Texan preferences. The Texas school authorities lately tried to exclude Thomas Jefferson from history lessons about the founding of America because of his non-theist view of the world.

 

Imagine that: the founding of our country without mentioning the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a major influence on Madison’s framing of the Constitution, the guiding light of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the leading advocate for the Louisiana Purchase! And like many Texan conservatives, Jefferson was a great advocate of states’ rights and argued against federal interference in local affairs. But he wrote that pesky Jefferson Bible that left out all the miracles! We can’t let the kids think Jefferson is part of OUR history!

 

Look at the George W. Bush administration programs supporting faith-based initiatives which have channeled tax money to churches and religious-based private schools. In most states such schools are subject to far fewer rules and regulations. Corporal punishment, for example, is commonly permitted. Should public money support practices that are deemed to be child abuse in the eyes of many taxpayers?

 

Faith-based day-care facilities are another beneficiary of such programs, and again are usually not subject to the same health and care rules we demand of for-profit or public day-care facilities. Furthermore, this embrace of religious priorities has permitted religious schools to fire employees who do not adhere to their religious tenets.

 

Bush’s faith-based regulations were extended to our health care efforts in Africa and elsewhere around the world, where, for those eight years, funding for any organization which offered abortion services was curtailed. Abstinence education took the place of birth control efforts including distribution of condoms, and AIDS prevention efforts were stymied.

 

How many more people are starving today thanks to the Bush administration’s moral strictures is hard to say. How many more people will suffer and die with AIDS is another impossible calculation. But the devastating results of faith-based public policy are very real.

 

Note the fuss that some Catholics have lately made about the requirement under Obamacare that insurance plans cover birth control pills. What the Catholic church fails to mention is that birth control pills will only be provided to women employees who want them. And as far as paying for those pills, they seem to miss the fact that insurance coverage for making a baby is FAR more expensive than the Pill. Fewer childbirths ought to make insurance rates lower.

 

It strikes me that the Catholic Church seems very intent on both having their cake and eating it, accepting Medicare and Medicaid payments, enrolling students with Federal loans, but not participating in the wider rule of law.

 

How would Catholic Bishops feel if Islamic institutions were allowed to impose Sharia Law on their employees? Or ignore aspects of secular law that contradicted their dictates? Separation works in both directions.

 

Some jurisdictions have imposed laws which permit pharmacists to deny medication to people if the pharmacist embraces a moral objection to family planning. Hence, if a woman is raped and receives a prescription for a morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy, in some places a pharmacist who doesn’t believe in abortion can refuse to sell her the pill. If this occurs in a region where pharmacies are few and far between, this can amount to the pharmacist being able to decide that the woman will become pregnant due to the rape. Is that just? Is it reasonable for a practitioner licensed by the state, who is making a good living thanks to that licensure, to be allowed to pick and choose who will receive the benefit of professional activities conducted under that license?

 

The influence of conservative religions on our government and society cannot be easily quantified, but it seems to be growing, even as our culture as a whole becomes more secular. Today young people are twice as likely to be non-religious as their grandparents, but since the 1960s conservative churches have become mega-churches and have come to wield enormous political power.

 

Those churches turned out the vote in North Carolina for the vote on Amendment One last May. A religious organization known as The Family has intruded into the inner circles of government around the world. My current congressman, Heath Shuler, lives in the C-Street House owned by The Family when he is in Washington—a building defined as a church and which therefore yields no property tax to the District of Columbia.

 

No wonder the rent is cheap!

 

Religionists have diverted our tax dollars to church schools and hospitals and community centers. And they are shaping the textbooks and curricula used in our public schools.

 

What can be done? My suggestion is that those of us who take a more humanist view of the world need to continue to speak out. We need to challenge those who would impose their mythologies on the rest of

society. And, if I had my way I would impose my own version of moral suasion on everyone in the movement. I would make you feel very, very guilty if you didn’t bother to vote.

We can make change, we can enable change, we can give permission to others to change. And we can do that by telling our stories and reminding others of the true story of the founding of our nation.

 

When I ran for City Council in Asheville, I didn’t think my nontheism was of any importance. I had only once made any public statement about my nonbelief. In the acknowledgments at the end of my political biography of Billy Graham, I observed that while the point of the book was to expose Graham’s political maneuvering, I anticipated that some critics would accuse me of attacking his religious beliefs. So just to get the cards on the table, I admitted that I did not believe in supernatural beings of any stripe.

 

I came in first among 10 candidates in an open primary race to fill three seats on Council, and some right-wingers were shocked into action. They mailed out two smear letters to thousands of likely voters. The first informed voters that I was an atheist, hell bent on destroying Asheville. The second said that I had written that Billy Graham was influenced by Adolph Hitler.

 

A man stepped up to my campaign manager in one precinct on election day. He said, “I’m not voting for Bothwell, he said Billy Graham was influenced by Hitler.”

 

Linda said, “Have you read the book?”

He said, “I don’t need to.”

Linda replied, “I did read the book and Cecil did write that. His source was Billy Graham’s autobiography.”

“Yeah, who wrote that?”

 

I came in third in the general election, winning one of the three open seats, but I don’t doubt that the smear tactic affected the outcome.

 

And here’s where the story turns very positive. The other two winners were a woman, Jewish attorney and a quietly secular humanist fellow.

 

Several years ago, the Asheville City Council routinely had a Christian minister deliver an invocation at every meeting. The City Attorney warned that other municipalities had faced legal challenges for the practice. Some of those challenges were from Dan and Annie Laurie at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

 

Council decided to rotate the invocation among Council members. Of course it was still a Christian message. But following my election, I offer purely secular inspirational messages from various thinkers, the Jewish woman composes her invocations with her father, a retired professor. Her messages range widely, from poetry to natural history to the thinking of various philosophers. The quiet humanist refuses to deliver invocations.

 

Some still offer up Christian prayers, but they ask people to bow their heads if they wish to do so. Meanwhile I sit head up during the prayers and notice that more and more people sitting in the audience have quit pretending to pray. 15 to 20 percent of attendees now look around, or read text messages on their cell phones, and otherwise ignore the religious ritual.

 

The culture of Council meetings has changed.

 

We have just come through a decade with hightly visible atheist books from Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others. The literature has branched out in non-fiction, including David Niose and Darrel Ray who are speaking here this weekend. There are books for children and young adults, like Dawkins recent science text, “The Magic of Reality.”

 

I think the next phase needs to be fiction, film, video, music and poetry in which humanism is taken as a matter of fact. To that end, my current project is a novel in which two protagonists, one in Haiti following the earthquake, and one in Japan, following Fukushima, find that humanistic nontheism offers better moral answers than the religious alternatives they have been exposed to during their young lives. That isn’t the main story, it is simply a matter of fact piece of each of their lives. We can make humanism normative.

 

Or, again, as Herb Silverman wryly observes: “Why is it that reporters call us ‘self-described atheists’? Do they ever say “self-described Catholic?’ or ‘an admitted Baptist?”

 

By the way, I’m an admitted Floridian. I graduated from Winter Park High School in 1968. I realize that I received a better foundation in science education here than I would have in many other states, and I am really proud that this state mandated the teaching of evolution in 2008. I have been honored to be included in this conference.

The theme of my scheduled talks this summer will revolve around how hate-wing politicians use guilt, shame, mockery, fear, sexuality and “family values” to steer the electorate.

July 15: Unitarian Universalist Church of Franklin, Franklin, NC

Sept. 1: Atheist Alliance of America, “Ascent of Atheism” conference, Denver, CO

Sept. 28: Humanists of Florida, Humanism vs. Theocracy, Lakeland, FL

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,313 other followers