Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On Millennia and Marriage: Memo to SCOTUS

United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, DC
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) began hearing arguments on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. One of the concerns raised on the issue by the justices themselves (as reported in today’s New York Times) is the sheer amount of time over which marriage has been defined solely in terms of the union of a man and a woman. As the Times reported in another article today:
“The word that keeps coming back to me in this case is millennia,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy….
            “You’re asking us to decide it for this society when no other society until 2001 ever had it,” added Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justices Kennedy and Scalia are indisputably correct: same-sex marriage has never been recognized as legal in any culture at any time, throughout human history, until legalized by Massachusetts, effective 2004. Some would build upon this fact to argue that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and should never be legalized, because such legalization would break with millennia of precedent. To many people, this would be a compelling argument. However, there are problems with this line of thought:
This argument is totally illogical—it is, in fact, a classic error of logic. It also runs completely against the most basic of American values. It is contrary to the Enlightenment values that have advanced Western civilization over the last four centuries. As such, it is one of the worst arguments that it is possible to make against same-sex marriage.
The “it’s been done this way for millennia” argument is another way of saying that “it is this way, and so it ought to be this way,” a type of argument that was identified as deeply illogical by the Scottish philosopher David Hume over 300 years ago. (The basic issue is simple: there just is no logical connection between the descriptive statement that something is a certain way, and the prescriptive statement that it ought to be that way.)

But let’s get beyond logic, to values. As I’ve pointed out, the “millennia” approach says, “everyone’s always done it this way, so we should keep on doing it this way.”

How American is that?

Not very.

Let’s look at four important areas in which the U.S., and Western civilization generally, have rejected the “everyone’s always done it that way” argument.


The very founding of the United States was a literally violent break with the past. Before the establishment of the U.S., there had not been a real democracy as the basis of a major national government since the days the ancient Athenian Council of the Areopagus and the Roman Republic—each of which was eradicated before the days of Jesus of Nazareth. That would be two millennia ago. Aside from those two examples of democracy, governance by an absolute ruler was the practice throughout all of human history—for over fifty-five centuries, or over five millennia—until the founding of the U.S.

Rule by king, emperor, or pharaoh, throughout almost all human cultures, over almost the entire prior history of humankind, was the ultimate historical precedent. The ratification of the Constitution of the United States changed all of that, fifty-five centuries of human tradition, by establishing a representative democracy. Somehow, the founders of the nation found it possible to toss over five thousand years of precedent, to forklift over five millennia of all-but-universal practice. As a country, we’ve never looked back.

Religious Freedom

Much has been made about the implications of same-sex marriage for religious freedom. Although that topic must be addressed separately, we should consider how precedent-shattering the American notion of religious freedom was when the 1st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified effective 1791. From at least as far back as the days of ancient Egypt, states had sponsored some religion or religions, and often forbidden or strictly regulated the exercise of others. This was the nigh-universal practice of the major civilizations of the West from the days of Alexander the Great and the glory days of Greece, right through the days of the Roman Empire, continuing on through the middle ages and the Renaissance. Only during the European Enlightenment did this begin to be questioned. It was only with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution that the right to believe and worship as one pleases become established in a major Western nation.

Here again, somehow, the founders of the nation found it possible to toss over five millennia of all-but-universal practice—without regrets.


The institution of slavery has existed since the earliest days of recorded human history, at least since the empires of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Sumer, and the Indus. The Bible—both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian New Testament—describe slavery without giving any indication that the basic institution should be abolished. Slavery was common throughout the ancient Greek city states, and the entire Roman Empire, as well as through many countries of medieval Europe. Slavery was certainly the rule in many European colonies, including many that later became the United States.

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and when the U.S. ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, America was breaking with over five millennia of tradition and accepted practice. Somehow Lincoln wasn’t swayed much by the “I think of millennia” argument.


Until quite recently, women throughout Western civilization were completely subservient to men, virtually as controlled as slaves, and had been so for many millennia. Just considering the Roman Empire, women could not own property or make contracts in their own names; they could not vote or hold public office; and, they were totally subject to the rule of their fathers until marriage, and their husbands thereafter. The Roman practice was itself built on millennia of precedent in most nations of the ancient world, and the Roman way continued to be practiced throughout many of the nations of Europe into the 19th century and even beyond.

In the United States, the right of women to vote was not secured until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Women’s legal rights in other areas—such as access to credit—were not established for many years after the right to vote, based on the millennia-old practice that I described above.

Giving women the right to vote, own their own property, and make their own financial decisions, broke with five millennia and more of tradition and precedent. Last time I looked, the sky had not fallen. 


America was built upon a willingness to abandon millennia-old practices on the basis of moral principles. The “it’s been done this way for millennia!” line of thought has been rejected time and again as America progressed from being a set of colonies oppressed by Great Britain, colonies where slavery was widespread, women were all but men’s property, and certain religions were ‘official,’ to being an independent and democratic nation where slavery has been abolished, women have equal rights to men, and the right to choose one's own religion is unimpeded.

The Supreme Court now has an historic opportunity to give full rights to another portion of our population. May it not be swayed by the idea that they are changing the practice of millennia.

That’s just being American.

And it is certainly On The Mark.

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[The photo of the Supreme Court of the United States building was created on October 28, 2010 by Wikipedia user 350z33 and cropped by Wikipedia user Pine. It appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.]

(Copyright 2015 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The State of the Union Address
--as a List of Body Parts

My take on the 2013 State of the Union message: It can largely be described in terms of body parts.

The President wants to develop the brain of America through preschool, high school with more focus on math and science, affordable higher education, and a huge amount of research and development.

He want to put the hands of America to work through his Fix-It-First program, increasing the manufacturing power of the country, and bringing business back from abroad.

In his delivery, he showed that he has heart, and knows how to appeal to our hearts.

And in his willingness to challenge Congress, this speech shows that the President has definitely found his -----.

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(Copyright 2013 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why the Newtown CT Shootings Happened:
Mike Huckabee Vs. Me

So: Mike Huckabee says the Connecticut shooting happened because we "removed God from the schools."

What an imbecile.

Great Britain, Switzerland, Sweden, and West Germany all have no prayer in schools and are about as secular as they can get; their church attendance is a small fraction of America's. Last year, those four countries together had 105 deaths from handguns, while the USA had 10,728. 

No, it's not because we removed God from schools. It's because we removed reason from our thinking.

It's because by some pretzel logic we take a Constitution that guarantees armed militias and interpret that to mean that regular citizens can carry semiautomatic handguns and purchase what amount to be assault rifles. THAT'S why.

It's because we won't admit that the Constitution, written in an era of single-shot weapons, never anticipated the revolver, let alone handguns with 30-shot magazines. THAT'S why.

It's because so many citizens have learned to respond to real-life issues with knee-jerk ideology. THAT's why.

I'd like to see Mike Huckabee say this idiocy face to face with the parents of the twenty dead children in Newtown, Connecticut. I doubt he'd make it out of the room alive.

God gave us brains and reason. May we use them.

Mike Huckabee, for making political hay out of a horrifying event, shame on you. The Just Judge shall judge between us at the last day.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why Jews Favor Mormons & Muslims Over Evangelicals—And Why You Should Care

A recent news item creating consternation in various quarters across the American nation involves a poll of American Jewish values: as a group, American Jews favor Mormons and Muslims over conservative evangelical Christians, who have long supported the state of Israel. Whoops!

The poll was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, whose website describes it as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to work at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.” In early April, PRRI issued a report, Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012: Findings from the 2012 Jewish Values Survey. This report described a wide-ranging survey of values and attitudes among American Jews, using a sample of 1,004 Jewish adults canvassed in February and March 2012 (p. 31). One part of the report addressed Jewish attitudes towards other religious groups:

Respondents were asked to rate their feelings toward certain groups on a 100-point scale, where ratings between 51 degrees and 100 degrees indicated that the respondent felt favorable and warm toward that group, while ratings between 1 degree and 49 degrees meant that the respondent did not feel favorably toward the group. Ratings of 50 degrees indicated that the respondent did not feel particularly warm or cold toward the group. (p. 18)

When asked to rate Mormons …, American Jews, on average, rated them at 47. The average rating for Muslims was somewhat lower, at 41.4. By contrast, when asked to rate the Christian Right, American Jews report an average of 20.9, a score indicating that American Jews hold considerably unfavorable feelings toward members of the Christian Right, significantly more so than towards Mormons or Muslims. (p. 19)

This finding is extremely controversial for some in the Jewish community. The Christian Right—basically, conservative Evangelical Christians—have been stalwart supporters of the state of Israel. However, as the PRRI survey shows, there is considerable distrust on the part of Jews in regard to the Christian Right. As reported in the Forward: The Jewish Daily:

“I find this shocking and concerning,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the first major group to engage evangelical Christians in support of Israel. Eckstein and other activists working on Jewish-evangelical relations expressed a sense of betrayal, accusing Jewish liberals of being prejudiced against Christian conservatives and of clinging to pre-conceived notions and stereotypes about evangelicals’ beliefs and goals.

Concern over these findings has been the subject of an article in The Blaze (later reposted on the Yahoo! News portal), which stated, about the PRRI survey, that “these results are sending shock-waves through some faith communities. 

But why is this finding such a surprise? The fact is that the Christian Right, at the same time that it supports the political state of Israel, harbors elements that endanger religious freedom in the United States for Jews—and for everyone who is not an Evangelical Christian.

Look at the facts. Last summer, Texas Governer Rick Perry (remember him?) sponsored a national prayer event called The Response. The event was financed by the American Family Association (AFA), an Evangelical Christian group which teaches that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and FOX News. This notion about the First Amendment is clearly expressed by AFA-sponsored bloggers, such as Bryan Fischer.

Really! If the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion only applies to Christians, then of course Jews would be endangered. No wonder, then, that Jews would have overall a less-favorable opinion of Evangelicals, despite their support for the political state of Israel (which is, after all, a convenient ocean and continent away).

But is it only Jews who should be concerned in this way? Oh, no.

It is important to note that, for many Evangelicals, most of the people in the United States who call themselves Christians are somehow “not really Christian.” (I explain this in detail in an opinion column on the Yahoo! Contributor Network.) Catholics? Not Christians to these Evangelicals. Same with members of the Orthodox churches, the Latter-day Saints/Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists—basically, anyone who is not an Evangelical Christian.

Now put these two thoughts together:

a)      the First Amendment freedom of religion only applies to Christians,
b)     Catholics, Orthodox, Mormons, and other non-Evangelicals are not really ‘Christian,’
c)      the only people to whom the First Amendment freedom of religion applies are Evangelical Christians—and nobody else!

Yes, there really are people who believe this. Millions of them. But this kind of political position is utterly unacceptable within a true democracy.

The religious beliefs of the Christian Right/Evangelical Christians are their own affair. However, concerned Americans of any political or religious stripe should make it a point to highlight their concerns about religious freedom with political candidates, particularly those of an Evangelical persuasion. Do these candidates believe that the First Amendment only applies to Christians? It is a good question to ask.

First Amendment freedoms for all in America: That is truly On The Mark™.

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(Copyright 2012 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Joe Paterno Must Go--Today

Coach Joe Paterno at the 2006 Penn State
Homecoming Game against U of Illinois
By now, anyone who’s up on the news is aware of the scandal involving recently rediscovered accusations of sexual abuse of young boys on the campus of Penn State University, allegedly committed by a then-member of the Penn State football coaching staff. It appears that, in one or more instances, this abuse was reported to head Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who passed the allegations to his athletic director—and no farther.

Everyone agrees that Paterno fulfilled his legal responsibility by informing his athletic director (who, allegedly, did not pass this information farther on to the police). But the issue to focus on is Paterno’s moral responsibility, and here it seems that Paterno left his responsibility unfulfilled, in a catastrophic display of loyalty to the Penn State football program, over the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Paterno has alleged that the information given to him about the incident was too general to merit contacting the police. Others deny that as an issue of fact. Even if the material were general, however, as David Jones, a sports reporter for the Patriot-News put it in an article today 

Purely from an ethical standpoint, how specific did the story need to be for Paterno to simply immediately call police himself?

Had it been his grandson in the shower with [coach] Sandusky [the alleged abuser] and McQueary [the student observing the abuse] reported to him any version of inappropriate behavior, would Paterno have merely called his technical “superior” and left it at that?

Would [athletic director] Curley and Gary Schultz, Penn State’s vice president of finance and director of the university police force, still have finally gotten around to meeting with McQueary “approximately one and a half weeks later”?

In the midst of all of this, sports blogger Matt Hinton reports that Paterno is headed for a resignation—but look carefully for what Hinton says about the timing:

According to the New York Times, Penn State's board of trustees has initiated discussions about how to handle the 84-year-old standard bearer's exit "within days or weeks," amid allegations that Paterno effectively turned a blind eye to charges of sexual abuse by his longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Another report, by the Associated Press, describes support for Paterno among the board as "eroding." The precise timing hasn't been determined, but the inevitable is a reality: Forty-six years after he was promoted to replace Rip Engle as Penn State's head coach, this season will be Joe Paterno's last. Saturday's game against Nebraska will be his final home game in Beaver Stadium.

But why should Paterno get a “last game” in? If Paterno’s behavior was such as to merit his resignation—and it most assuredly was—then his resignation, voluntary or forced, should be immediate. Joe Paterno should leave Penn State—today. No last game, no tribute, no nothing.

Oh, I can hear the moaning from misguided fans. “You’ve got to balance whatever Paterno may have done wrong against the rest of his career,” they’ll say; “he’s such a great man, surely you’ve got to recognize that and have some perspective and give him his last hurrah,” they’ll say.

No, I don’t. This is all just misguided rhetorical sobbing that obscured the mixed-up nature of our society’s priorities.

Folks, at the risk of stating the obvious: Football is a game. Period. Yes, it generates massive amounts of revenue, but at its core it is just as game. As a game, it cannot possibly be used to excuse Joe Paterno for not picking up the phone within five minutes of hearing even the wisp of a hint of an allegation of sexual abuse by one of his coaching staff. And the fact that Paterno did not do that should incur massive and immediate consequences.

It’s important to point out here that, if Paterno had called the police, this would likely have prevented sexual abuse. But he didn’t do that. And that kind of passivity when faced with the allegation of sexual abuse cannot, must not, be tolerated.

Anything other than insisting on Paterno’s immediate departure sends the message that football is ultimately more important than protecting children from sexual abuse. I surely don’t believe that. Do you?

If you agree that Joe Paterno should go immediately, without a victory lap, then call Penn State and express that opinion to Mr. Rodney A. Erickson, the Executive Vice President and Provost, who reports directly to the President; his office telephone number is 814-865-2505, and his fax number is 814-863-8583. (The President of Penn State, Mr. Graham Spanier, is facing calls for his own resignation in this scandal. I think you’ll have an easier time reaching Mr. Erickson.)

For good measure, you may wish to call the main Penn State telephone number (814-865-4700) and ask to speak with someone in the office of the Board of Trustees.

The message to leave with these Penn State officials: Dismiss Joe Paterno immediately, certainly before the game on Saturday. Don’t send the message that football is more important than protecting children from sexual abuse.

Putting the highest priority on the safety of innocent children is surely On The Mark.

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[The photo of Joe Paterno has been put into the public domain by its creator, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Zombies Are So Popular

Zombie walk photo by Bob Jagendorf.
Zombies. Ugly as homemade sin. Scientifically impossible. And yet zombies are as popular as puppies and peanut brittle—moreso, in some circles—in all sorts of media.

“Zombie walks” or “crawls,” where people dress up in costume and zombie makeup to walk the streets of a community, are annual occurences in cities and towns worldwide, as chronicled on the Crawl of the Dead website. Interest in the forthcoming film version of Max Brooks’ 2006 zombie novel, World War Z, is so high, that when it emerged that there were differences between the book and the movie, the online hubbub was so great that the story reporting the controversy was subtitled “Internet Melts Down.” When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wanted to publicize their ideas about being prepared for outbreaks of contagious disease and other natural disasters, they put together a webpage in May 2011 titled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.”

Why all this interest? What’s the attraction?

The popularity of any given film depends on the quality of the script and the acting, the direction and the production values. The popularity of any given video game depends on factors like the game play and the quality of the animation. But the popularity of a whole genre, spanning such media as film, television, and video games, reflects factors beyond any one movie, TV program, or game. Now we are in the territory of psychology.

It has long been observed that popular films reflect societal fears and nightmares, hopes and aspirations, albeit often unintentionally. The people behind the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers have sworn up and down that they were not making a movie about either Communist infiltration or McCarthyism—but that is still the way the film came off to many people. One of the seminal zombie movies, George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, has often been related to the trauma of racial conflict in America in the 1960s. But the racial subtext does not seem to be at work in more recent zombie movies, including Romero’s later work, the work of those he inspired, the games and films in the Resident Evil franchise, Zombieland, Left 4 Dead, or the “kinda zombie” film 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later.

Some people have opined that zombie movies reflect fears about the apocalyptic end of the world. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think that zombie media reflect a far more specific fear.

I think it’s about pandemic disease.

Think about it. Romero’s original film had zombies rising from the grave due to radioactive contamination from an exploded space probe; some other films have spawned zombies from radioactive waste. But most of the non-Romero zombie media of the 1990s and 2000s, especially the wildly popular ones like the Resident Evil and 28 franchises, AMC’s much-lauded TV series The Walking Dead, and Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, have taken the tack that zombies are a result of some kind of unusual viral infection, either manmade or arising in nature.

The zombie as a metaphor for the outbreak of pandemic disease makes perfectly good sense. I find it instructive that some Canadian medical researchers published a chapter about zombie epidemiology in a serious 2009 academic book on disease modeling, a chapter titled “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.”

Why shouldn’t our society be afraid of pandemic disease? We surely live in a world where the risk of such a disease, with potentially apocalyptic consequences, is greater than ever before. Consider these developments, just over the last half century:

• International air travel, even intercontinental travel, is much more common now. For all its many benefits, widespread international travel means that disease can spread much more quickly than in earlier generations.

• Population growth in rural China means that an ever-larger number of people live in close contact with the farm animals in which organisms such as avian flu virus incubate and mutate.

• Advances in biotechnology and genetics make it possible for well-heeled organizations to design their own microorganisms—including, potentially, pandemic disease viruses.

• The population of America has shifted radically from rural to urban areas, where disease is spread much more efficiently. The typical subway commuter into Manhattan passes more people during the morning commute than the average farmer in medieval Europe saw during her or his entire life.

• Misuse of antibiotics has lead to the rise of treatment-resistant forms of bacterial diseases like bacterial pneumonia—diseases that often come in on the tails of a viral infection such as the flu.

We know more about historical pandemics now. We know more now than ever about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which infected 500 million people, over one-quarter of the Earth’s population at the time, and which killed 3% to 6% of everyone on the planet—back in a day when almost no one travelled across oceans other than one-way immigrants and military personnel. This pandemic, fueled by the H1N1 virus, was followed by another H1N1 pandemic in 2009; although it was not a big event in the United States, this pandemic infected between 11% and 21% of the population of the world.

And now, just to make things a little bit better, the United Nations World Health Organization just issued an alert this past week about the rise of a new mutation of the H1N1 virus, a mutation which has killed 331 of the 565 people it has infected in recent months.

So society has good reason to be concerned about the possible reoccurence of a pandemic disease that could sweep the planet. That concern, in a context where the average person seems powerless, is reflected in the popularity of the zombie in so many types of media.

So what do we do? All the zombie crawls in the world won’t prepare people for a real pandemic. As in other aspects of life, when we meet real challenges with purely symbolic actions like jokes or even neurotic symptoms, we may get some emotional payoff, but the real challenge still remains.

As it happens, there is a lot that the individual can do. The aforementioned Zombie Apocalypse page on the CDC website actually has quite a lot of useful information about disaster preparedness, as well as a link to the CDC’s Emergency Preparedness and Response webpage. A lot of information about general emergency preparedness is available on the Emergency Preparedness and Response webpage of Provident Living, produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Emergency preparedness is something that every family and individual needs to work on a little bit every week or so. Over time—with a little planning here, and a little purchasing there—anyone can become much more capable of dealing with legitimate emergencies of any sort.

The zombie meme reflects a widespread societal fear of pandemic disease. Far from being powerless, individuals and families can do a lot to be prepared for such emergencies.

Proactively dealing with what we secretly fear is truly On The Mark.

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[The photo of a participant in a zombie walk in Asbury Park, NJ was taken by Bob Jagendorf on 3 October 2009. It was obtained from Wikipedia, and appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)