Category: current events

Religious Freedom Under Attack?

We had an interesting lesson in church on Sunday, and it’s been banging around inside my head since then, so I wanted to explore it a bit more here on digital paper. It stemmed from a talk given this past General Conference, arguing that religious freedom is under assault. I’d read the talk ahead of the lesson, and I’d listened to it back when it was given live in April. At the time, I didn’t think that much of it one way or the other. As I said in our meeting Sunday, “I’m in favor of religious freedom,” and that seems like a pretty tame assertion.

But when I read the talk again, and as we discussed it in class, I started really delving a bit more into what I thought about the concept. I know that many have argued that religious freedom is under attack, but I also believe often people use that as an argument to try and justify things they want to do, despite the fact that no real religious freedoms are being attacked. I also think it’s becoming a bigger mistake with every passing year to interpret church talks at General Conference as being aimed at Americans and only Americans. As is pointed out time and time again, more than half of Latter-day Saints live outside the US these days.

So to break this down further, it came to a few questions. First, is religious freedom under assault in America? Second, is it under assault in the world? And third, what should we do about it?

There have been many right-wing pundits who have argued that religious freedom in America is continually being eroded. I will say that I personally have never been in a situation where I’ve been denied the ability to practice my religion in a way I see fit, though I’ll add that the way I practice my religion is almost always pretty low impact on anyone around me. I’ll also add that just because I haven’t seen something personally doesn’t make me doubt that it happens. But when I’ve seen this religious freedom debate happen in the states, it’s usually come down to gay marriage, and more recently trans rights. Sixty years ago, it would have been centered around civil rights.

From what I can see, there are many conservatives who continue to believe homosexuality or anything like unto it is a choice and a sin. People aren’t born that way, they choose to live that way. And because it’s a choice, it becomes a pretty clear cut decision to oppose it in any way, shape, or form. On the other hand, those on the left (and an ever-increasing amount of scientific evidence) argue that one’s sexuality is very often not a choice and so when there are laws limiting the rights of non-straight people, those laws are discriminatory.

So when a cake shop decides it doesn’t want to make a cake for a gay wedding because the owner of the cake shop is opposed to gay marriage, the battle lines quickly become drawn. In the case in point, Colorado (where the case happened) has a law prohibiting people being discriminated against due to their sexuality. The cake shop argued it was a matter of religious freedom. The couple in question argued they were being discriminated against illegally.

Is this an attack on religious freedom, or a defense against discrimination? You could see it either way, depending on your politics.

The same happened over the pandemic with churches claiming they were being required by the government to shut down in-person services. Whether it was a question of religious freedom or public health policy again typically boiled down to politics.

I personally don’t believe religious freedom in America is under attack. I believe that certain areas of religion that cause particular friction points are being considered and defined. If I have a religion that says people with brown eyes should be beaten over the head with a club, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get away with going around actively beating brown-eyed people with a club for very long before the government steps in and puts an end to my rampage. It’s not a question of my religious freedom being restricted any more than the ban on running into a movie theater and yelling FIRE is a question of freedom of speech being impinged. Any time you have people with different views gathered in one country, you need a way to ensure there’s a balance between individual rights and the collective good. That balance will feel restrictive on both sides from case to case.

Note that I realize there are some who believe I’m wrong when it comes to the assault on religious freedom. There are many who believe I’m wrong on a lot of topics, and I no doubt am wrong in multiple instances. But until I see a persuasive argument to change my views, that’s where they’ll stay for now.

(This is not to say I don’t believe the concept of religion is under attack. I have personally been ridiculed for my religious beliefs many times, both in person and online. But I see a big difference between someone telling me I’m an idiot for what I believe and someone telling me I can’t worship in a way I see fit (when that way has no real negative impact on anyone else). I do wish there would be more tolerance for religious beliefs in our country, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.)

Onto the second question: is religious freedom under attack elsewhere across the globe? One example brought up in the lesson was the ban on Burkas in France. The majority of citizens in France felt that the practice of wearing a full face-veil was discriminatory to women, and so they made it illegal. There were arguments given by Muslims both for and against the ban. Arguments in favor of it talked about how the Niqab or Burka had no place in Islam. Arguments against talked about how it was a personal religious choice, and as such should be protected. It wasn’t as if people were running around trying to make non-believers wear Burkas.

On a global scale, I do believe religious freedom is in danger. There’s the Uyghur genocide in China (where Muslims are being persecuted) and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East (where non-Muslims were persecuted), to name two significant examples. Any time you have people being literally killed because of their religion, I don’t think there’s much debate about whether religious freedom is under attack. This goes far beyond smaller scale “assaults” like “should I have to wear a mask?” or “should I have to be vaccinated?” And when viewed in this light, those smaller debates feel a lot more trivial. (Though I realize they’re anything but to some of the people involved.)

So the third question: what can we do about all of it? For me, this often comes back to the eleventh article of faith of my religion: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (Again, this is clean cut when those religious practices don’t impinge on other people. When they do, things get messier.) I do believe living this principle is harder in practice than in theory. It means sometimes letting people do things you might personally not agree with. It’s easy when your beliefs line up with my beliefs. But I also believe this extends to the right of people to not worship or believe in God at all. If “how, where, or what they may” doesn’t include the empty set, then it doesn’t really include everything. And if there are more people who are atheist or agnostic now, then that is what it is. I’d like to hope all sides can get along peacefully, but it’ll take some contested court cases to keep that process in line.

Globally, there’s not much I feel I can do, which feels like par for the course for many issues . . .

What about you? What do you think about all of this, and how do you handle it?

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

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You Don’t Know Celebrities

In the aftermath of Will Smith’s infamous slap, I’ve heard and read remarks that basically boil down to, “I just didn’t think Will Smith of all people would do that. He’s such a nice guy.” I’ve blogged about this before (five years ago, when Joss Whedon turned out to be far from a shining example of awesome), but it bears repeating: unless you’ve spent significant time around someone, you don’t know them. (And honestly, even if you *have* spent significant time around someone, you still don’t necessarily know them.)

In the case of celebrities, all you really know is the persona they project onto the world. True, some of them seem to be more “authentic” than others. Kanye tweets enough to make you fairly sure who he is in person. Same for Donald Trump. See enough off-the-cuff remarks by people (especially people with filter), and you can begin to get a feel for who that person is, especially when those off the cuff remarks leave a significantly bad impression. Most people don’t try to project a persona that’s actually worse than their true self.

But for everything else? You’re typically seeing a slice of that person that they want you to see. Whether it’s attending charity events, or visiting sick kids in a hospital, or joking around at a public performance. We see little glimpses here and there, and we feel like we can fill in the blanks between those glimpses, so that we get to the point where these celebrities no longer feel like strangers. They’re friends.

Will Smith seemed like a genuinely good person, from what I’d seen of him. He played funny characters in movies and on television. He always seemed to be more or less the same when we saw him. And yes, we all have bad days, but I’m not sure we all have “I got up on stage in front of millions of people and slapped someone because they insulted someone I love” days. I mean, I love Denisa, but I don’t think I have it in me to ever ever (ever) respond that way to someone making a joke at her expense. (Sorry, Denisa.)

People are talking about how they admire Smith for sticking up for his wife. At first, I tended to believe that as well. But the more I think about it, the less I accept that. There are so many other things he could have done. He could have stood up and left the room. He could have scowled at Chris Rock. He could have waited until he won his Oscar, and then told everyone how much he loves his wife, and how petty it was to make fun of someone because of a medical condition. (Or any other reason, honestly.)

Should Chris Rock have made the joke? I’d say no, but then again, he made it at the expense of a movie star. Someone who makes millions of dollars to be out there, for better or worse. It comes with the territory, sadly, and it’s not something Smith hadn’t encountered before. But none of that really matters, in terms of how Smith responded.

He might have always seemed like a good person, but the fact is, he’s now proven himself to be a person who’s ready to do exactly what he did. And then after the slap, when the Academy asked him to leave, he refused, apparently convinced he wasn’t the one at fault. (Or at least, the fault was on both parties.) And then he stood up and tearfully explained how he was trying to protect someone he loves. Then he got a standing ovation for it.

At the time, I felt sorry for him. My knee jerk reaction was to justify what he’d done, and I think that’s because (even though I try not to) I felt like I knew him. Will Smith wouldn’t do something like that unless it was very necessary. I don’t like Chris Rock (or at least, the persona he wears in public). So I wanted Rock to be wrong and Smith to be right. And because all of this happened in the setting of movie-land, it was perhaps a bit easier to justify what had happened. It’s the sort of thing that might happen in a film.

But what if that had happened in front of me? What if I were in the middle of a work meeting, and someone said something someone else disagreed with strongly, and that person stood up, marched over to the speaker, and slapped them? I have a hard time seeing how that would ever be acceptable.

If someone is attacking you first? Sure. Defend yourself. But to respond to insults with violence? No.

I’m not sure what the fallout for Smith will end up being. Since it’s Hollywood, probably not much. Mel Gibson still has acting roles, after all. Though then again, Smith did this against Hollywood itself in many ways, and that might be enough to make him a pariah. But one thing’s for sure: there are a whole lot of people who no longer view Will Smith as Mr. Nice Guy.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Where’s the Outrage?

I’m more than a little puzzled by the significant lack of any sort of real response on social media today. I woke up to the headlines of Russia rolling into Ukraine, and I’ve been reading the updates as the day has unfolded: attacks on sites across Ukraine, military coming in on three sides of the country, planes and helicopters being shot down, missile strikes being videoed.

A couple of my friends have posted something about these events on Facebook, but by and large my feed is filled with the same memes and chatter that they’re filled with every day. On the one hand, I’m not really expecting the world to stop these days whenever any one thing happens, but there’s a big difference between “unanimous outrage” and “a couple of mentions.” I remember when an event like the attacks in Paris caused everyone and their brother to change their profile picture to the French flag. Now a European country literally is invaded by another, and we’re talking about cat memes?

This isn’t to shame all the people who are posting anything other than outrage, but rather just to question what changed? My guess (and it’s only a guess) boils down to a few things:

  • General social media outrage fatigue. Since the election of 2020 and the events of COVID since then, people are just tired of saying anything at all of substance on Facebook. It’s easier to just ignore anything that might be remotely controversial.
  • There’s been a slow build up to the invasion. We’ve been hearing for weeks that Russia was likely going to do this, and now (surprise surprise) they actually did. So the shock is missing that comes with an attack out of the blue.
  • Americans just aren’t as familiar with/sympathetic to Ukraine. It was behind the Iron Curtain back in the day, and they don’t feel the same connection to it that they feel with more well known countries like Paris. (Speaking as the husband of a Slovak, which shares a border with Ukraine, I am anything but unconcerned about today’s invasion.)
  • People are somehow worried about causing a ruckus on Facebook. Yes, you’d think “invading a nation” would be something we can all agree is a bad thing. However, since just a day or two ago, some called Putin’s moves “genius” and “wonderful,” apparently that isn’t a unified sentiment, after all.

When I was growing up, I was fairly convinced we were going to have World War III in the not too distant future. I was worried about being drafted when it happened, and I was worried about nuclear strikes on America. So maybe this resonates with me more than it does with people who didn’t grow up in that environment? I really hope somehow this situation doesn’t deteriorate further, but I’m also not sure simple sanctions are going to do the trick. That’s what happened back with Crimea, and here we are with a worse situation on our hands.

I don’t know. I’m not an expert in geopolitics. All I know is I’m concerned, and I’m worried the seeming lack of concern being voiced by others will only make things worse. Hopefully I’m wrong.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Stop Trying to Ban Books

Maybe it’s because I’m a librarian, but I’ve always had this general feel that there’s a consensus that book burning is a bad thing. At least, I’ve never heard anyone speak favorably of it, and whenever it’s come up in a conversation, it’s been used as an example of What Not To Do. This is likely because it’s fairly intrinsically tied to efforts by the Nazis, and most people still believe Nazis were Not Good.

However, it appears more and more people seem to believe banning books is not only not that bad, but actually pretty good. I’ve been following a number of these efforts across the country, and this article in The Guardian does a good job summing them up. In short, it seems some conservative groups backed by big dollars are taking a methodical approach to trying to get rid of books they’ve decided aren’t appropriate for children or young adults. They’re encouraging parents to take this to school boards across the nation, and many parents are answering the call.

I’d like to think most of these parents aren’t doing it because they have a thing against books, knowledge, and ideas. Rather, they’re doing it because they’ve bought into the scare tactics of these conservative groups, and have decided they need to get rid of these books so they can Protect the Children. (This at the same time hordes of children across the country have smartphones (or friends with smartphones) and thus have access to this little thing called “The Internet,” where they can learn and see and watch just about anything in the world they’d like to.

I assume the difference for these parents (in their minds at least) is that while the internet might be full of all sorts of things they disagree with, they don’t think their children are actively being guided to those things. Having books about sexuality or race in a school library, on the other hand, is setting their children up to have these ideas forced upon them. When I look at the lists of “inappropriate books” these groups have come up with, I start to see red.

The thing about banning books is that it’s a two-edged sword, even if you (for some strange bizarre reason) think it’s a good idea. What if other politically motivated groups got together to do their best to remove all books about Christianity from school libraries, because of separation of church and state? Or books about the founding fathers, because they were slave holders? I guarantee you that anything you think is important and sacrosanct, there’s someone out there who thinks it’s terrible.

I don’t want to ban any books, and neither should you. Efforts like this should send a chill down anyone’s back, if they value freedom and diversity of thought. I really (really) don’t want libraries to become the next political battlefield, with citizens getting into trench warfare around ideologies they think a library is or isn’t promoting. If you’re concerned about what your children might be reading, talk to your children. But the best way to get them to read something is often to tell them they can’t read it.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

My Current, Full Thoughts on COVID and Omicron and Maine

I’m not really sure why I’m writing this post. It’s more for me than it is for everyone else, I guess. I know that at this point, it seems most people I interact with are just over COVID. They’re tired of dealing with it, worrying about it, planning how to handle it, and just generally tired over all. I completely sympathize, of course, but I also know that me being tired of it doesn’t have any influence over what’s actually happening. I might wish it were over, but it isn’t.

This is particularly important on a local level because Maine is at its peak hospitalization rate right now, and Omicron hasn’t even really hit us yet. I’m not a health official, so my opinion is just that, but I’ve been tracking case rates locally, nationally, and globally, and since Omicron has come out, it’s always been very easy to see when Omicron made it to a new spot. The numbers don’t just go up, they skyrocket. I watched India’s numbers, and as soon as a blip started, I was pretty sure Omicron was there, judging from the pattern. That was December 28th, when they went from having about 6,000 cases per day to 9,000 cases one day. January 12th, just a bit more than 2 weeks later, they had 442,000 new cases, and I’d be very surprised if they’ve come close to peaking. My guess is they have another 2 weeks to go before they reach the top.

In Florida, they had that first blip back around December 14th. A bit more than 4 weeks later, it’s looking like things might be peaking there. DC has followed close to the same pattern, as has New York and New Jersey. Just looking at other countries as well, it’s usually about a month from blip to peak, and then it takes a long while for that peak to come down. A month after their peak, South Africa still has more than 5 times as many cases each day as they had before the blip started. Their death rate is still climbing, though it’s still less than half of what they experienced for the Delta wave. (Remember: even though Omicron is “less severe” than what’s come before, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any harmful effects. And we’re still finding out how it behaves in larger populations of unvaccinated people. America: leading the world in epidemiological research yet again.)

We haven’t had that skyrocketing in Maine yet. I’ve seen it start in southern Maine back on January 4th, but elsewhere in the state, it hasn’t done much at all. In fact, it’s been decreasing, as our bout with Delta peaked just about when Omicron was getting underway everywhere else. Here where I live, there’s a chance that Omicron finally showed up at the beginning of the week, but I’m still waiting to see the latest numbers to feel completely confident about that. Overall, I expect case rates in Maine to get much worse, very quickly. If the pattern of other places holds, then we’re talking 7-10 times as many cases as we had before the blip, about a month from now. Hospitalizations double or triple, though there’s a bit more variation on that. (And with Maine’s aging population, I expect ours to be worse than others’.)

True, perhaps having just had a surge of Delta, we’ll be spared some of the worst of Omicron. I have no idea what sort of impact they’ll have together, but I’m still expecting a bad rest of January and most of February. Our hospitals are already close to overwhelmed with our current rates. Imagine doubling or tripling that. Even if the people being hospitalized are not as bad as pre-Omicron, that’s still a very bleak future, and I’m very worried for all of my friends in the health industry.

Which is why it’s frustrating to read articles like this one, that promise “signs of hope” already in Maine. Sure, if you want to say that knowing that rates eventually peak means that we can be hopeful rates will peak here in Maine, I suppose that’s a sign of hope. “It’ll all be over soon” isn’t exactly the most hopeful message, especially when “soon” means “a month from now” and “over” means “still much worse than it is now” and “it” means “tons worse than it is right now.”

It’s also frustrating to see how badly prepared we are for this. We’ve known for weeks and weeks that regular cloth masks do almost nothing against Omicron. How do I know this? Because I ordered KN95 masks and N95 masks back at the end of November, when I’d read enough research to know it was time to up my mask game. But we still have the old mask advice, and it’s lucky to see anyone in a mask at all, let alone in one that will do any good. (It’s also frustrating to know the non-maskers will just use this as another piece of “evidence” that they were right all along to not mask.)

I’ve long said that a big advantage Maine has over the rest of the country is that we can see what mistakes everyone else makes before we have to handle a problem on our own. That’s true for many things other than just COVID. But I see many in Maine who seem to think we’re already in the middle of Omicron, and we just aren’t prepared for what’s coming. I want to be wrong. I will be so happy if I am. But if I am, this will be the one spot of all the spots I’ve been tracking where I’ve been wrong. This information has all been out there, freely available, to anyone who felt like looking. But because people are tired of worrying about it, they just stopped looking.

So what am I doing to prepare? Other than having nicer masks, we’re stocking up on essential supplies again. I’m advising everyone I know to avoid taking any unnecessary risks over the next month and a half. Nothing that would give an increased chance of needing to go to the hospital, since hospital services will be severely impacted. I’m preparing for multiple stores and services to shut down for a week or two, not because of any mandates, but because there literally aren’t enough well workers to be able to run operations. I’m expecting schools to go full remote for the same reason. Not for long: just a couple of weeks, until the peak is over, and we have enough well people to make do again.

I’m expecting to get Omicron. I’m expecting everyone in my family to get it, and most of the people I know. I think that’s more pessimistic than what will actually happen, since my family is all double vaxxed, and Tomas and Denisa and I are boosted. But I’ve learned over the last 2 years to be prepared for the pessimistic side of things to win out. That said, I expect my family to get through it mostly fine. The odds are very much in our favor, with our age, health, and low number of co-morbidities. It’s likely at least some of us will not feel good at all for a week or so, but I’m hopeful we’ll get through all of that. If things are worse than I expect, I’ll at least know I’ve done everything I can to mitigate this as much as possible.

I could go on with what I’m expecting, but I think you can guess the rest, and I don’t really feel like belaboring the point now. I’m trying to focus on a time in the middle of February, give or take, when we’re through the worst, and we can begin to reasonably hope that things will be improving, at least until the next variant comes along. But by then, my hope is that since most people will have had a version of COVID, its effects are much less.

My next book (Don’t Go to Sleep) takes place in the middle of the Spanish Influenza outbreak in New Orleans. I did a lot of research into that earlier pandemic, and I feel like that’s prepared me quite well for what to expect out of this one. It came in waves as well. I imagine those were caused by different variants. The first wasn’t terrible. The second was awful. The third not as bad, and it subsided from there. It’s just what pandemics do.

I’m not here to make everyone depressed, but at this point, the thing that’s helped me the most is to have as clear of a picture of what to expect as possible, and to know what I can do to get me and mine through it all as best we can. For the next month, that means hunkering down as much as is reasonable (knowing that the side effects of complete isolation are just not something I’m interested in doing again). It means wearing N95 and KN95 masks. And it means being ready to be sick for a while.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong?

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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