Welcome!
Billy Dees - Writer, Podcaster, & Media Enthusiast 

I am Billy Dees and I am thrilled that you stopped by my website!

This website is a collection of my editorials and blog posts. The site also features many of my podcasts and videos.

Social issues, politics, and pop culture are among the topics featured. I am not an ideologue. I try to objectively examine issues and hopefully present a unique perspective to the reader and listener. Thank You.

My most recent podcast, an episode list, and live podcasts will appear here:

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Saturday
Dec052015

Are Some People Born Evil?

The recent acts of terror both at home and abroad have raised many philosophical questions about what types of individuals would be inspired to commit such horrific deeds. Are they directly influenced by their upbringing and environment to commit evil? Or perhaps is there something at the core of their being that would eventually drive them to commit atrocities against the innocent regardless of what the eventual stimuli may be in their lives?

This leads to one of the oldest debates about human behavior; nature versus nurture. This argument is used in reference to any number of human behavioral tendencies. For the sake of the topic today, are we products of an ancestral lineage that helped create us with a propensity toward evil or are we influenced by other people and other factors in our environment to learn evil traits? Again, to clarify today’s discussion we are not talking about petty crimes or minor moral dilemmas. We are talking about abhorrent evil.

Negative conditioning is most obvious any time a picture of a child surfaces wearing a hooded sheet or a Nazi uniform. This type of negative conditioning is also present on the tough streets of our most violent cities where children are often inured to violent behavior and to idolize criminals. There is no question that these children are not getting off to a good start through no fault of their own. However, despite negative odds many people rise above these types of conditioning and go on to live productive lives. Conversely, many children are raised by loving and caring families along with well-adjusted siblings in diverse communities and somehow still manage to end up choosing a dark path in life.

Specific prejudices are most certainly learned and under the right conditions can be untaught so to speak through education and guidance. However, I’m not sure that the same applies to an actual blood thirst and a desire for mass murder.

Two of the patron saints of evil are Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler. In this regard the histories of both men are worthwhile and interesting topics of discussion.

Osama bin Laden was born into a very wealthy family with strong connections in Saudi Arabia. He arguably had every opportunity to live a carefree lifestyle and was hardly a victim of an unfair start in life. Nonetheless, somewhere along the line the rich quiet child transformed into a religious extremist. As his radical views and actions grew his family reportedly disowned Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Arabian government revoked his passport.

Very young Adolf HitlerHitler’s personal religious beliefs are a subject of much conjecture and debate. It is generally presumed that Hitler was a materialist with little spiritual feeling and most likely evoked religion only to legitimize his own interests. Hitler had an estranged relationship with his father who died when Hitler was a young man. His mother died several years later and by all accounts her death was very difficult for Hitler because he was very close to her. Hitler’s ideological development most certainly began to resolutely take shape some years later after the First World War. Hitler was embittered over the breakdown of the war effort and was shocked by Germany’s complete capitulation to the terms of the surrender.

Both Osama bin Laden and Hitler were skilled communicators, intelligent, and able to amass a large radical following. Unfortunately, their bizarre and malevolent brand of charisma reaches beyond their graves to inspire deep-seated violence and hatred for a present-day generation. It is a plausible assertion that if either man directed his leadership skills toward good deeds the world might be a better place.

So, why do some people such as Osama bin Laden and Hitler actually seem to choose to commit diabolical acts?

As the understanding of the human genome has progressed it seems as though both of the arguments for nature and nurture are partially correct. Nature endows us with certain inborn abilities and traits and then the nurture aspect takes these genetic tendencies and molds them as we mature.

By contrast, The Bible addresses the notion that some people are incorrigibly wicked. “Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and regard not the majesty of the Lord.”

I do not believe that there are positive or negative spirits influencing human behavior. However, I do feel that some people will innately and deliberately turn away from what we might call a natural goodness or morality.

Most pets have been conditioned through generations of selective breeding to genetically be predisposed to co-exist with human beings. Those with the most friendly and human like attributes are encouraged to breed. They are also a product of human nurturing as almost from their birth they are raised by humans who love them and show them affection. However, there are times when a pet, despite the best pedigree and nurturing, is a dangerous threat to human beings and therefore must be destroyed.

Is it possible that some people as well are not intrinsically capable of living in a civilized world with other human beings?

There is ongoing research as to what other possible causes there may be for violent tendencies and psychopathic behavior. Many have suggested that irregularities in the brain and the limbic system could play significant roles in the development of violent behavior. Any combination of physical or mental abuse is also a major consideration. A more controversial theory from the biological and evolutionary point of view is that the transition of man from beast to the purveyor of civilization is not yet complete.

Going back hundreds of millennia, the first evidence of the use of tools by our earliest human ancestors in Africa is followed closely by the use of weaponry. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the same tools and technics that could split rocks could also split heads. We are a violent species that has utilized war as much as anything else to shape our civilizations.

I would agree that humans could very well be influenced by our early animalistic instincts. After all, we are just an advanced species of primates and not the only members of that group to engage in aspects of warfare. However, referring to certain evil humans as animals may be an insult to animals because we have managed to kick thing up a notch in the brutality department. Megalomania and genocide are a few examples of classically unique human endeavors. 

The same power of intellect that we possess as human beings that gave us the ability to dream of traveling to the moon has also enabled some of us to craft new ways of indulging our desire to inflict pain and suffering onto other people and living things. In this regard I wonder if it is this dark side of our brainpower that has allowed us to evolve a barbarity that transcends the natural viciousness of the wild kingdom. Serial killers are prime examples of human beings who not only have an insatiable desire to kill but also mix their homicidal cravings with a lust for violent deviance. Sociopaths, who have no conscience but yet retain the uncanny ability to disguise this disastrous inadequacy, by some accounts represent one to four percent of our population.

I wonder how many of us would take a tour of the most violent and locked down death row wards in various prisons throughout the country? What would scare us the most about that experience? Would it be the fear of violence? Or perhaps, would it be that we don’t want to face the fact that the people incarcerated there are not necessarily monsters but are more normal human beings than what we would care to admit? Maybe they remind us of our own evil dark side that dwells deep within each of us. The only thing that separates us from impenitent killers is that they choose to indulge an aspect of their will that we as civilized human beings recognize as the absolute worst traits that humankind has to offer. In my opinion there has to be something misfiring in the character of what makes them human that makes their brand of evil beyond rehabilitation.

Are some people born evil? To some degree I would argue that we are all born evil. However, we are also born with a great capacity to love and care for each other. Those traits have become a valuable part of our intellectual evolutionary process as well. We comprehend and appreciate that it is much harder to create and nurture the fragility of life than it is to destroy it, and that our immense capacity to destroy life could result in the end of our species and possibly the end of all life as we know it. The common desire that we all share as human beings to be loved and respected should extend to all living things and the world that we live in. It is for these reasons that the vast majority of us win our inner struggles to become better people and work toward a better world for everyone. Our love and appreciation for each other is the heartbeat of our humanity.

In this way we as intelligent and civilized human beings have great powers of reason and a free will. There is hardly anyone of any age who is not able to recognize the act of murder as an offense against humanity and the laws of a civilized society. I would caution against shifting the blame for the evil that some men do onto other influences in society. I understand that it may be easier for some of us to believe that we are all born sweet and innocent rather than to have to struggle with our own still evolving inner demons. That is scary because frankly it is a fight that some of us will not win and eventually we all need to own up to who and what we are as an individual human being.

Ultimately, that is what separates the good people from the evil people. 

Wednesday
Nov112015

Is the Red Cup Half Empty or Half Full?

That's one tall glass of water, I mean coffee.Welcome to the latest contrived societal controversy. Starbucks is using blank red cups to sell coffee during Christmas time. Oh, the humanity! Stand back please! Oh my!

This started when a video posted by a Christian social media celebrity went viral in which he ranted that “Merry Christmas” was not on the holiday cup. He suggested that Christians should go to Starbucks and tell coffee baristas that the name to assign to the order is “Merry Christmas” thereby forcing Starbucks to write “Merry Christmas” on the coffee cup.

Starbucks should reply, “Ho Ho Ho Thanks for the extra sales!”

In the meantime do we really expect coffee shops and other businesses to have a vast assortment of cups at the ready for every celebratory religious holiday? Moreover, do we expect them to quiz their guests as to their religious persuasion?

Can you make the Sign of the Cross please? Grab a Merry Christmas cup.

Have you been circumcised? Well then, Happy Hanukah!

How about those seventy-two virgins? Happy Eid Al-Fitr and here’s your coffee extra sweet.

What goes around comes around? Here’s your Karma Frosted Mocha Latte.

What is your sign? Happy Mercury Retrograde! Here’s your coffee and your first significant event of the day! Make it a good one!

Is your cup half empty or half full?

Actually, the cup has a finite amount of liquid in it that remains a given value regardless of our subjective ideological examination. So, with that dispassionate analysis of this rhetorical cliché being said, let us apply the same practical breakdown to the blank red cup hullabaloo as it relates to beliefs.

I know some of you may be strong believers and I respect that. However, so far there is no empirical evidence of any unworldly realm beyond the physical. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something out there somewhere. Rather, it just means that at this time we can’t determine anything definitive about the hereafter and therefore any conclusions about such speculations are yet to be written on a blank slate. Ah, another appropriate cliché! How fitting it is that Starbucks should be giving their guests a blank red cup!

The only thing we know for sure is that life is short. Yes, this is not just another cliché but rather a monumental understatement. Our awareness of our own eventual mortality and the colossal value of every day of life as we know it is what unites all of us in a shared humanity.

Here’s one more cliché for you. Have a nice day! Maybe the next time a coffee barista utters that little polite banality our way we should take a moment of reflection and really appreciate it.

After all, we never know when just one more nice day is all we are going to get.

Sunday
Sep202015

The Planned Parenthood Controversy

Abortion, a subject that always seems to be inserted into the grandiloquence of presidential politics, has again become a central theme in the upcoming 2016 election. A new debate among legislators and the public at large about the federal funding for Planned Parenthood has arisen. 

The latest incarnation of the abortion issue became center stage when the incongruously named Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, produced what amount to sting video tapes allegedly showing the sale of baby body parts for medical research by Planned Parenthood earlier this summer. There are reportedly approximately 12 hours of footage. The content, accuracy, and to what extent the videos have been edited are a topic of much debate and investigation around the country.

At this time the general consensus about the videos is that they do show officials from Planned Parenthood discussing fetal tissue in ways that could be construed as coldhearted and appalling. However, there doesn't seem to be any blatant instance on video where Planned Parenthood discusses procuring fetal tissue for profit. There also doesn’t appear to be any strong clear moments on video of the sensationalized and goulash descriptions of squirming babies about to have their brains harvested as some candidates and commentators asserted.

The use of fetal tissue has produced some groundbreaking scientific discoveries due to the tissue’s capacity to rapidly divide, grow, and adapt to new and various conditions. Notably in 1954 researchers managed to grow the polio vaccine in fetal kidney cell cultures. In more recent years and in a changing technological medical landscape the use of stem cells for therapeutic and research purposes has become more of a central focus than fetal tissue.  Nonetheless, it remains legal to donate tissue from a legally aborted fetus and for that tissue to be used for research purposes. This is all part of a wider general dialogue that includes such terms as cell structure and DNA that worries much of the public at large.

Moral and ethical concerns about medical research are nothing new. Often these apprehensions combine with long held beliefs and superstitions to further frighten the public. When has the religious right, for example, ever presented medical research in a positive light? Most often medical research is criticized as “playing God.” An example of this would be the attitude toward human dissection. Through the eighteenth and a good part of the nineteenth century the human form was considered sacrosanct. This kept human dissection for medical research difficult to perform. State and church opposition to dissection and other anatomical experiments kept knowledge of the functional aspects of disease elusive. During this time period fear of dissection was a common phobia and fixation. 

In England the artist and satirist William Hogarth published a series of prints depicting a fictional story entitled “The Four Stages of Cruelty.” The fourth print, “The Reward of Cruelty,” portrays a public dissection. The images reflected the feelings about dissection of the era so well that within a short while after the publication of the series the Murder Act of 1752 stated that the bodies of murderers could be provided to surgeons for dissection as a further deterrent to crime and to address the shortage of cadavers at the time.

As the nineteenth century rolled on in America oddly enough it was another of mankind’s obsessions, one that never seems to be held back because of moral or ethical reservations, that was about to blow the lid off of any trepidations about exploring human anatomy; war. The Civil War helped change modern medicine.

At the time The Civil War was about to begin it had been about seven or eight decades since there had been any significant fighting on the continent. As war was about to begin in 1861, medical science was not prepared for the scale of violence that was about to begin with new and advanced weaponry. In a short time doctors were treating massive and gruesome injuries in large numbers that many of them would not have otherwise treated during the course of an entire normal medical career. In addition, soldiers from small towns came together in large assemblies and became exposed to pathogens that their bodies had no resistance to in an era when there were no antibiotics and antiseptics. During these barbaric conditions of The Civil War doctors learned techniques that forever changed medical care on the battlefield and beyond. For example, it became clear that cleanliness reduced infection and fatalities. There were great strides in understanding neurology, pain management, and other fields. In the years following The Civil War much of the mystery surrounding the form and function of human anatomy was removed and replaced with knowledge as how to better treat disease and injury. Mysticism was slowly replaced with logical scientific methods in the fields of anatomy and medicine.

It is a general given that we fear the unknown. We have a tendency to cling to long held beliefs and standards of which we are comfortable and that we understand. We are now at a new precipice of science and medical research, one that reaches not only into the anatomy of the body but of our cells, our DNA, and the very building blocks of life itself. Just as images of human dissection frightened Europe and America during the early Victorian period, tall tales of human baby parts being collected in some Frankenstein like manner in these Planned Parenthood videos have the imaginations of millions of Americans running wild. The only thing the videos are missing is a wild-haired mad doctor screaming, “Give my creation life!” It is propaganda that is designed to frighten and lather up the public against pro-choice positions.

Autopsies are rarely considered sacrilege today. Hopefully in the near future the paranoia about the research and medical advancement of stem cell research, genetics, and tissue growth will seem as silly. In the meantime we must strive to keep all of this in perspective.

The role of religion, specifically how religion is evoked to limit women’s access to reproductive healthcare, cannot be understated. A good example of this is the plethora of hyperbole regarding contraception being a sin. Oddly, a man’s choice to have a vasectomy is never referred to as an abomination against the blessedness of procreation. Nonetheless, as recently as 1965 married couples had the right to birth control but millions of single women in 26 states were denied it. It wasn’t until 1972 that The Supreme Court ruled that birth control was legal for all citizens regardless of marital status.

If it really was the goal of the pro-life movement to unambiguously reduce abortions they could do so immediately without changing any laws or restricting women’s rights.

The first step would be to champion, not hinder, public access to contraception and sexual education and counselling. Recent declines in the number of abortions coincides with a reduction in the number pregnancies. The use of IUDs and other contraceptive implants has risen enormously since 2009 among women with access to publicly funded contraceptive methods and care. It is nothing but pure common sense that the ability of women to actively prevent an unwanted pregnancy rather than to retroactively choose whether to continue with an unwanted one reduces the abortion rate.

I have no idea why contraception is considered a sin by many people and why there is so much resistance to publicly funded contraception devices or including them as part of healthcare.

When the dynamics of suggesting that contraception is a sin are examined the nature of the awkward logic of it really begins to break down. What is the best contraception? Saying "no?" Therefore saying “no” to sex is a sin? Don’t laugh. There are many on the religious right who suggest that a wife cannot deny her husband sex.

A second way of reducing abortions would be to reduce the stigma of single motherhood and to support, not resist, public funding for single mothers needing assistance or wanting to further their educations. Again, it’s pretty much common sense that if women feel like there is support in whatever form they need for them and their child it makes it easier to become a mother. Yes, there has to be controls in place to keep the system from being abused. However, by and large the pro-life community who proclaims the “sanctity of life” for the unborn rarely uses the same term for those who are born and who are living in poverty.

There are many on the religious right who have a societal and economic disconnect with those who live in poverty. It is a world they cannot understand. They don’t know why it is that if the poor need women’s healthcare that they just can’t jump into their Acura and drive to the doctor’s office. According to reports for 2012, almost 80% of individuals receiving services from Planned Parenthood were living near the federal poverty level if not below it. Many women do not have healthcare insurance that covers a trip to a private gynecologist not only for contraception but for pap smears or cancer screenings. Many women do not have parents or other family members that they can rely on for advice or help in difficult situations. In fact, many women living in poverty are often more likely to be trapped in unfortunate circumstances which often include emotionally or physically abusive situations. 

Government funding for Planned Parenthood is an infinitesimal fraction of the overall federal budget at approximately $500 million. The aftermath of the undercover videos is currently driving the defund Planned Parenthood and the renewed abortion debate. However, abortion is only a small part of the services Planned Parenthood provides. The vast lion’s share of services are for sexually transmitted disease, contraception, cancer screenings, and other women’s healthcare services. In the year 2013-2014 approximately 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services went to abortion. Critics of this 3% statistic call attention to the fact that this figure does not necessarily explain how much of Planned Parenthood’s revenue comes directly from abortion. However, the notion that some on the religious right as well as other critics have contended that abortion is offered as a free and on demand governmental service is a fallacy. Medicaid in some cases does allow funding for abortion only in very restricted circumstances such as rape, incest, or life of the mother. States wishing to expand any provisions for abortion do so at their own expense. Patients for the most part pay for abortion services themselves or obtain assistance through their own auspices.

The move to defund Planned Parenthood is nothing but political grandstanding. I find it ironic that one of the organizations most responsible for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and consequently lower abortion rates is the one most demonized about abortion. Additionally, the horror drama depicting all of Planned Parenthood as suppliers of body parts to Dr. Frankenstein is a slap in the face to the majority of the staff of Planned Parenthood who are dedicated to the cause of women’s healthcare, especially the healthcare of poor women. The vast majorities of employees of Planned Parenthood often work for less compensation compared with that of private practices and have had nothing to do with this controversy. 

For more on this topic please reference my 2013 article A Perspective On the Abortion Issue

Thursday
Aug062015

Cecil the Lion #CecilTheLion

If you want to get a good cross section of how people view life in today’s society I suggest you follow the hashtag #CecilTheLion for a time on social media.

Male LionCecil was a male 13-year-old lion residing in the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. The lion was a star attraction at the park and was being studied and tracked by the University of Oxford. Cecil was apparently lured off the reserve by Dr. Walter Palmer, a dentist by trade and an American trophy hunter. The lion was then reportedly shot by a crossbow and wounded, tracked for almost two days, and then killed by a rifle the first of July 2015.

So far, the hunt and kill have been determined to be illegal and officials are still investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident. Walter Palmer has contended that he relied on the direction of the guides he had hired to assure that the hunt was legal. I find this explanation suspicious being that the lion had to be enticed away from where it was originally. It also troubles me that this was not even a clean kill as the lion was injured and suffering for approximately 40 hours.

The killing of Cecil has sparked international outrage and a firestorm on social media. 

I have followed many of the comments on social media and to say they cover the gamut on this topic is an understatement. The remarks range from people suggesting that we have more important issues to worry about, such as human violence, to what amounts to a blood lust for Walter Palmer himself. The dentist from Minnesota has gone underground and his practice, River Bluff Dental, has been closed.

I would not condone violence against Walter Palmer. I do, however, consider the killing of Cecil the Lion as a senseless and tragic waste. In addition, putting a stop to all legal and illegal trophy hunting along with the crimes of poaching should be made a priority by the international community. The killing of Cecil the Lion has become a well-known incident due the celebrity status of this lion, however, the killing of lions in order that these selfish trophy hunters can ghoulishly display a lion’s head is hardly a rare occurrence. 

To begin my analysis of this story let me first try to put hunting into some sort of perspective. One of the tweets I noticed said something like, “Many people complaining about the killing of this lion go to restaurants and eat chicken and beef all the time so what’s the big deal about a dead lion?”

Well, there is a big difference between the proper hunting of an animal that is a member of a large population of a species considered a viable food source and, by contrast, the poaching or trophy hunting of an endangered species.

I am from Ohio and the deer population here is often a problem. When the deer become over populated they endanger themselves and the environment. Responsible hunting in this case is not only permissible but a necessity. Many hunters will have their kill butchered and load up their freezer to feed their families for many months. In this scenario the hunters are playing the role of natural predators. Lions play exactly the same role as hunters in the wild managing the population of any number of herds of various animals.

Natural predators in Ohio are long gone and unfortunately that is becoming the case in too many other areas of the world. Predators are more vulnerable than renewable herbivores. Skilled and intelligent predators are part of an elite group of nature’s animals that exist in small populations. After all, they can’t just eat what they are standing on. Different types of predators also have to compete with each other for territories and survival. These traits also put them at odds with human civilization. For these reasons and many more various species of predators are on the endangered list around the world.

Killing a magnificent and wonderful animal for a trophy has nothing to do with the observance of the food chain. Those who make the argument that there are any benefits to trophy hunting for the sake of the animals or the local residents are full of pretense. There are plenty of more cost effective and beneficial ways to help impoverished areas than hunting endangered species. Moreover and for example, when we consider the type of waste of life that is involved in the poaching of elephants for the sake of ivory trinkets, animals which have maternal bonds and mourn their dead, we are engaging in behavior that natural predators do not. Lions would not kill a herd of buffalo just to take their hides and leave their carcasses to rot in the sun. This applies to shark finning and so many other crimes against nature that human beings commit. I find it ironic that we describe a person who commits widespread abhorrent violent acts as an animal when in fact animals do not behave that way. Describing such a person as an animal is an insult to animals. 

Much of the notion that we as humans have the right to do as we please in nature comes from the religious right. According to these beliefs humans were made in God’s image and have dominion over all of the Earth. If rhinos become extinct that’s just too bad. With this attitude there is no reverence for the intelligence of a given species or its place in the food chain. There is human life and everything else. Only humans have a soul.

This notion of dominion over the Earth put forth by the largely Christian Right not only puts the animal kingdom beneath mankind but the world as well. It enables humans to do as they wish to the environment with impunity. After all, we can do as we please with the world because it was created for us. Besides, the only world that truly matters is the Kingdom of God.

If this is what certain Christians believe, that the world was a gift, wouldn’t it make more sense to take care of it? How often would we continue to give things to a spoiled child who constantly breaks what we give him? God must have considered the animals to be important too because He did save two of everything during the great flood right? I’ll leave those points of view and arguments to theologians and others who believe such things. 

What we are dealing with on a more practical level is that our world and its resources is becoming ever more synthetic. Farm animals and agricultural crops as well, such as corn, would not exist as we know them today without human intervention. For example, the ancestor of modern cattle is now extinct. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any farm animal in a pure wild incarnation. Furthermore, the conditions by which plant and animal food resources are cultivated are also increasingly artificial and cruel. Cattle and chickens that once grazed on acres of green farmland in years past are now penned up and fed processed food for quicker and less expensive farming.

The passing of Cecil the Lion is sad because his passing is another step toward a type of world that will soon no longer exist. This is all the more reason that big game trophy hunting being considered any type of sport is a farce. Two or three hundred years ago the world may have been a big untamed and dangerous place but that is no longer the case. What remaining large predators and other endangered species are living in now are essentially fish bowls where hunting trips to them are guided tours and the participants have loaded guns.

It is my view that we should protect endangered species so that future generations can marvel at these beautiful and magnificent creatures. Unfortunately, it has come to the point that the only areas where this may be possible are parks and protected sanctuaries.  

We need to pay attention to how we are changing the world as our own existence may depend on it. As you gaze outside toward the horizon be aware that the distance up to where you can no longer comfortably breathe is more accurately measured in feet not miles. This thin life support system that we take for granted is the same one that kept Tyrannosaurus Rex alive. That’s right, there has not been any new shipments of life-sustaining material to Earth. T-Rex breathed the same air and drank the same water that we do. The chemistry of our environment’s natural renewal process is now being stretched to its limits more than ever before.

I understand people who question Cecil’s death as a worldwide tragedy in comparison with human death and suffering. However, I can care about more than one important cause at a time. In addition, I would say that those who wish to criticize man’s indifference to life’s struggles can find better whipping boys than animal lovers. I do subscribe to the notion that a love of animals and the natural world demonstrates an appreciation of all life which is the greatest humanity of all.

There is a poem by John Donne that instructs us not to ask for whom the bell tolls because no man is an island unto himself. If you are annoyed by the toll bells for Cecil remember that our humanity is not an island unto itself either. The toll bells not only ring out for Cecil the Lion but they ring for us as well.

A little bit of us died with him.

Thursday
Apr022015

Separation of Church and State

Late March was a crazy time for debate regarding the Separation of Church and State.  Controversy was abound in Indiana and around the country after Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There was so much resistance that today April 2, 2015 he signed a revised version.

Critics of the original law suggested that it allowed businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals using religion as an excuse. The new version reportedly clearly bars a business from denying services to someone because of such things as sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile, as a similar brouhaha took form in Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson held off signing a comparable bill until revisions are made beforehand.

In the midst of all this turmoil and a holy week for many this week, I happened to run across a promotional advertisement made by Ron Reagan for the Freedom From Religion Foundation while professing his unabashed atheism. The subject was worth examining in a commentary, which I now submit for your subsequent examination

You can leave a comment below or tweet me @BillyDees

Wednesday
Mar112015

Religion, Extremism, Violence, and Faith

Editorial/Opinion

There has been much debate in the media and society at large about what the proper terminology should be for the religious extremist groups behind a growing terrorist threat in the Middle East and throughout the world. The Obama administration has taken center stage in this debate for not referring to self-proclaimed Islamic terrorists as part of “Islamic extremism.” The administration has opted for the term “violent extremism.”

For me this topic transcends the names we assign to various extremist groups. This is a multi-layered subject and what gets lost in the shuffle is the pivotal role that faith itself plays into our religious and cultural attitudes toward each other.

In defense of the President and his administration’s reluctance to use the word “Islamic” in connection with “violent extremism” there are three points that we must consider relating to foreign policy and national security.

First, the President needs the help and support of Islamic leaders throughout the Middle East to combat extremism and especially ISIS. He cannot afford any confusion in his terminology referring to the enemy. Second, in addition to religious affiliations there are political and cultural struggles going on for power and control between the Shia and Sunni along with the offshoots of each and among other regional groups. Third and critically, aspects of the Islamic religion are in fact misrepresented and used as recruiting tools by Islamic extremists to legitimize their cause and get more fighters on board who are avid believers and willing to die in the name of their religion.

At the same time, throughout the world the amount of violence linked to Islamic extremism either directly from the leadership of various radical groups or by the fanaticism they inspire is substantial. To slap an ambiguous label onto it may not serve in the best interest of identifying the problem. Additionally there is a sensitive politically correct climate which labels any criticism of Islam as “Islamophobia.” I would absolutely agree that we must avoid sweeping generalizations and paranoia. However, there is a point where my openness to “political correctness” concerning the relationship between any assortment of religious extremists and their respective faith begins to run short.

Although any given extremist group or oppressive religious cultural norm may have other economic or political motivations, faith is the contrivance that establishes allegiance to a cause. Furthermore, when examining the nuances of any religious fanaticism you almost always discover that many of the tenets held by the zealots are not as confined to the fringes of the religious mainstream as they first may seem.

Claiming that Jihadism has no real role or connection to Islamic fundamentalism is akin to saying Christianity had nothing to do with the Crusades. We could talk around Christianity’s influence of the Crusades in the same way we talk around Islamic extremism. 

Crusaders were not representative of all Christians. What really was at play was a grab for territory and power. They were using a perversion of the Christian faith to recruit followers and evoke the name of God in their conquests.

There is some truth in those statements as there is when referencing similar points in regard to Islamic extremism. However, to discount the role of the Christian faith in the systemic political and cultural mix of motivations and moral superiority behind the Crusades would be wrong. 

A modern incarnation of this type of danger is ISIS which is as large as an army, well financed, and becoming a threat to entire nations in the region. In addition to their inflated Islamic tenets they also embody an ideology that holds the west as an enemy of Islam as a whole. To ignore these rudiments of their beliefs would be a miscalculation in the analysis of the enemy.

Advocates of using the term “violent extremists” as opposed to “Islamic extremists” point out that extremists are only a small portion of the Muslim population and they do not reflect the beliefs of the majority as a whole. This is very true. In fact, Muslims are often the victims of Islamic extremism. We must also certainly acknowledge the many Muslims who have fought against violent extremists. However, stating that violent extremism is only a small non-representative portion of the Muslim population as a simple matter of fact is minimizing the overall size of the threat for everyone in its path.

It is true that only one or two percent or even a fraction thereof of Muslims fall into an extremist category. The vast majority of Muslims are also non-violent. However, regarding a religion that reportedly has 1.6 billion followers those small percentages reflect millions of people.

A litmus test for measuring the scope of religious extremism would be burning a holy book. If an official of the United States burned The Bible on the Capitol steps there would be some unhappy Christians for sure. Pat Robertson would have to go on oxygen. However, if the same thing would be done to a Quran there would be chaos all over the world. Every United States military base and embassy would be battening down the hatches because of outraged Islamic extremists.

Violent retribution sparked by such things as videos and cartoons deemed as religious desecration by Islamic Extremists are also widespread and are hardly a small problem. Christians were offended by the 1987 Piss Christ, distastefully depicting a crucifix submerged in urine. However, when it was exhibited in New York that year one could make the argument that it was more beautiful than The Mona Lisa. Why? Because we live in a country that extols the separation of church and state along with free speech and an artist can exhibit such a work of “art” and not be executed. They are principles that we should never be apologetic about. 

Moreover, some of the oppressive ideals held by Islamic Extremists are in fact shared by wider segments of Islamic culture. In Yemen married men can be sentenced to death by stoning for homosexual intercourse. Under Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Sharia Law, a married man engaging in sodomy or any non-Muslim who commits sodomy with a Muslim can be stoned to death. Likewise in accordance with Sharia Law in Iran, homosexual intercourse between men can also be punished by death. Similar penalties exist from region to region for leaving the Islamic faith or adultery. I could go on here but you get the idea.

Furthermore, to pretend that the faith held by any religious extremist has nothing to do with his or her violent actions is a canard. Islamic extremists often conduct religious rituals before conducting a suicide attack and believe their actions are in service to God. What I have never heard any world leader address is the dangers of such radical and ardent faith itself.

There is a certain amount of crazy associated with religion in general. You can sometimes notice that moderately religious people are aware of this as they discuss the extent of their faith and distance themselves from the more radical elements. “Oh yeah I’m religious but you know not real religious.” In other words they are the right amount of crazy. There is a fine line between the faith that can move mountains and the faith of a terrorist organization. Sometimes to fall into the depths of religious extremism all we need is a little push.

Especially when we are depressed or in need of inner strength the desire for faith and purpose can often leave us vulnerable. Certain preachers who are far from taking a vow of poverty are happy to provide emotional sanctuary to you in the form of a lavish church along with eloquent sermons. Why wouldn’t you want to help them spread the word to shine the light on others by making a donation? Maybe you can take a bit of that feel good stuff home in the form of a copy of their new book or a subscription to their newsletter? Similar stratagems are implemented by many psychics, mediums, and other faith entrepreneurs. It is among the world’s oldest slights of hand.

In more dangerous situations faith can become a facilitator of extremism among a mix of unscrupulous things in areas of the world that undergo continual religious and political turmoil. When certain religious factions or economic groups feel oppressed it opens the door for the susceptible to have a faith in something greater than themselves and to belong to a cause. This is the perfect environment for the rise of radicalism. As this radicalism gains momentum it also obtains the allure of power. This power along with far-reaching religious and ideological rhetoric recruits new members from all over the world and from all walks of life. It can happen anywhere and is from the same petri dish that yields a cult. 

The power and manipulation of religious faith cannot be understated in regard to terrorism. It can be very comforting when someone is dying to hear that there is something better after life. At the same time this devaluation of life in the present can be a powerful incentive in persuading someone to strap on a bomb and blow up people in a crowded marketplace. The young, who often have a sense of immortality to start with, are the easiest to convince that their actions will result in a special place in the paradise of the hereafter. Standing up for “God and country” sounds very noble but like it or not it is the same credo held by a suicide bomber.

In essence this is how religious faith can be wrought into the inspiration to fly planes into buildings or for that matter throw bombs into abortion clinics.

Many Christians, some of whom are the most vocal critics of Islam, are guilty of falling into the same pitfalls of unwavering faith and also often hold the same values as their more extreme constituents.

I have had any number of conversations with various Fundamentalist Christians about abortion. When I say Fundamentalist Christians I am referring to certain Fundamentalists whose early movement grew out of resistance to theological modernism which among other things tried to accommodate the theory of biological evolution. Certain Evangelicals who adhere to the historical accuracy of the Bible and the "born again" experience in receiving salvation are also inclusive.

When I have brought up an abortion clinic bombing or shooting with various fundamentalists their response is almost always a pat statement that these actions are wrong and not Christian. However, upon questioning these activities further things get a bit more interesting. 

Do you believe abortion clinic bombings are permissible for the purpose of discouraging women from having an abortion? Do you believe defending the rights of the unborn in the name of Jesus is a noble religious endeavor? 

In these cases the rhetoric of a Fundamentalist against an abortion clinic bomber will almost always soften. Few Christians across the board refer to abortion clinic bombers as terrorists. To be clear the vast majority of pro-life activists are non-violent and do not condone violence. However, the protests directly in front of women’s clinics are clearly designed to intimidate and shame women. Additionally, there is always the subliminal threat that some religious nut case is going to do something. Women’s healthcare workers are often afraid to work at these clinics and Christian pro-life demonstrators know it.

In a recent conversation I had with a Christian Fundamentalist I asked him why the phrase “the sanctity of life” was never used in connection to the homeless or those needing healthcare. His answer was, “Those people had their chance.” I’m not sure exactly what people of whom he was referring. The poor who have never been blessed with God's grace maybe?

The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for protesting the funerals of soldiers claiming that their deaths are the result of God’s retribution for America’s permissive attitude toward homosexuality. Most Christians would not agree with their vulgar methods. This “church” is very small but the flip side of this is that substantial percentages of the public, Christian and otherwise, are in total agreement with the Westboro Baptist Church that homosexuality is an abomination and an affront to God.

The belief held by many Christians that the United States is a divinely favored nation played a key role in the implementation of Manifest Destiny. Most of the Christian fundamentalists who I have debated on this topic are still reluctant to express any empathy for the plight of the American Indian.

For the record, as a non-believer I do not feel that most religious people are a problem or are in any way infringing upon my rights. I have known many Christians and Muslims whose spirit of humanity gushes forth upon their first handshake. I happen to believe these wonderful and generous people would be just as good of people without their faith but to each his own. Concurrently, I do not believe that religious faith is a prerequisite for meaning and purpose in one’s life. The process by which some people find inner peace through religious faith is no different than those who find it through meditation or taking a hike in the woods and becoming one with nature. Inner peace dwells within us and we find it by having faith in ourselves.

Religious extremism and the violence that often goes with it speaks to the dangers of unchallenged beliefs and ideals rooted in faith. It is tragically ironic that three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; all share the same ancient texts and holy lands yet always seem to be at odds with each other. The authors of these holy writs had just a modicum of accurate knowledge about the world. Yet, what they wrote long ago is so important that we have hated and killed each other over it for millennia.

I’m not sure if that is an indictment of religion or a testament of mankind’s stupidity and insanity.

Maybe it would be worthwhile for everyone to set the comfort of religious faith aside, just once in a while, and relish the life we have in this world. Every breath, every heartbeat, and every smile is precious. We all can agree life in this world is extremely short. Maybe we should all work together to extend it as long as possible and not worry so much about the hereafter. That is the anti-extremism message I would like to hear from our politicians to other leaders of the world.

What are the odds of that? Maybe religious faith is the extreme concept that everyone is really afraid of.

Monday
Feb162015

Shooting Video with a Smart Phone #Vlogging

More than ever people love posting videos online. Various people from friends showcasing their weekend bowling match to serious bloggers are taking advantages of the newest smart phones utilizing better and better video features. 

Speaking of bloggers many of them are becoming “vloggers.” The term “vlog” is essentially a video blog combining the words “video” and “blog” or “log.” Vlogging is expected to be a top marketing trend in 2015.

There was a time when the margin of quality between video equipment and a phone was enormous. That gap is getting smaller and when you consider that a large percentage of the audience will watch videos on a phone or tablet many video bloggers are also turning to those same devices as production tools.

If you are planning to do a promotional video for your website or social media platform I would not let the fact that the production of a video post is getting easier allow you to take any worthwhile production too lightly. Just a few “do’s and don’ts” can really polish up your production and make the video much more professional looking. 

The posted video is a presentation of some of my personal recommendations for shooting a video on a smart phone. The video was shot and edited using an iPhone 6 Plus. 

The video is not overly technical and should be enjoyable for anyone who enjoys using a smart phone. It covers some very basic and common sense techniques to help your video come out smooth. 

I hope you enjoy it. Thank you.    

Tuesday
Dec092014

Yes, I Got Married!

Humor

Yes, I got myself married November 30th. At 49 I decided to get married later in life that way ‘till death do us part doesn’t take as long.

I’m not sure why I waited so long. I had enough people asking me, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll die alone?” Maybe I realized the only people who ever ask that question are people who have never been married. It seems that for those who have tied the knot dying alone is a viable option. Besides that when two people are married someone has to go first which means the survivor dies alone anyway, right?

Maybe it took me a while to settle down because I was attracted to the wrong women. There were a few times when I liked it but it already had a ring on it. Maybe I was afraid of same-sex marriage. No, not the homosexual kind. I mean after you get married it’s all the same sex.

Yes, you have to keep it interesting or it gets boring. Do you know when the 50 Shades of Grey movie comes out? Valentine’s Day. Nothing says romance like wine, roses, and an anal hook. I guess romance really is a pain in the ass.

Okay, enough of the old marriage jokes. They have all been done before by better comics. Truth is I just couldn’t make a decision. There is a theory suggesting that if you are asked whether you want coffee or tea two universes are created; one in which you choose coffee and the other one in which you choose tea. You exist in the universe of the choice you make and that sets you on a path of yet further choices. It doesn’t mean one choice is right or wrong. The only wrong choice is not making a decision. Don’t sit still in your time and place or it will slip by you.

Sure, there is risk in getting married. Some people leave wrecked marriages with nothing but the shirt on their back. However, there is risk in being single too. Certain problems in life are much better handled by two people.

I finely learned it was time to make a bold choice and set a new path for myself.

I’ll probably drop dead tomorrow.