The Concert For Valor

I’ve never used this forum to review a concert before; however, this seemed an opportune time to start.

Yesterday was Veterans Day.  In celebration of the holiday, HBO and Starbucks – along with a bunch of major musicians and celebrities – put on a celebration to veterans on the Mall in DC.  Organizers planned for approximately 800,000 people to show up and enjoy the show.

Several people I know elected not to attend, fearing the size of the crowd and the logistics of getting in and out of DC.  Not to mention the fact that the show was being telecast live on HBO!

I, on the other hand, was motivated to see Bruce Springsteen live – something I’ve never done before – as well as many of the other acts perform.  I also used the rationale that when people take the time to say thanks to our veterans, you actually have to show up, otherwise, the whole thing rings hollow.

So here’s how I saw the show: the good and the bad.

The Good

The weather was amazing — couldn’t haIMG_1561[1]ve asked for a better day in mid-November in DC. Temps were in the mid-60′s, no rain, light winds – shorts weather!

The line-up of musicians was amazing!  The fact they “donated” their time to support the event speak volumes about them as people and not just artists.

The crowd!  According to the local news, only 3 people were arrested last night (for fence jumping!?).  We met several, nice, single-serving friends that saved our spot when we needed to stretch our legs and wander around the pen we were enclosed in – which is a decent segue…

It was a free show – so everything that follows is simply a critique, not a complaint.  Had I shelled out bucks to attend, it would be a different story…

The Bad

With 800,000 planned for attendance, I didn’t have high hopes for a decent view.  We arrived on the Mall around 3:30pm, made our way through security, and found our way to the pen we would stay in for the rest of the evening.  However, the pen nearest the stage — a vast area that could easily hold about 100,000 people was as vacant as a megachurch parking lot on a Tuesday!

We had to ask, what was that area reserved for?  Come to find out that HBO and Starbucks (and the National Park Service) preselected people to fill in this area.  As organizers of the event, I guess that was their prerogative – and we heard they made sure that a good number of the tickets were distributed to military units so active duty soldiers, zoomies, squids and jarheads could attend (forgive my service bias…).  Couldn’t, and won’t, argue with that.  The folks that made the first pen saw a decent show — everyone else, not so much.

The stage was so low to the ground it was impossible to see even the outline of a performer on stage.  Fortunately, there were big screens lining both sides of the mall for the “props” in attendance. Unfortunately, the sound system was so poor that you could have a conversation with the person next to you, in a hushed voice, that carried over the music.

The show started promptly at 7:00pm — after all, HBO had a schedule to keep.  They opened the grounds at 10:00am for people to fill in (sans the VIP pen), so for nine hours, people did – well, not much of anything but camp out.  The organizers really failed on this — they could have had local music acts playing throughout the day.

But when you get down to it, this concert IMG_1566[1]was not about those in attendance — it was tailor made for those watching at home on HBO – the vast majority of the crowd was nothing more than a prop for the event.

The lineup:

Many of you may have watched the show on HBO, so no need to provide a setlist – though if you’re interested, you can find it here.

Just my observations – I’m a Dave Grohl fan. Love the Foo Fighters and can’t wait to see them on the 4th of July at RFK Stadium in DC!  That said, Dave did acoustic versions of My Hero and Everlong (and I love both!).  As I mentioned, the sound system was really poor and the crowd lacked any energy – maybe everyone was trying to be as quiet as a church mouse to hear the music – but the set fell flat.

The Black Keys and Zac Brown Band were both great sets!  Not sure if the organizers did anything to fix the audio – probably not – I just think both bands kicked it up a couple notches and got the crowd in to the show.  Highlight of the night was watching Zac with Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen play Credence Clearwater’s Fortunate Son.

Speaking of Bruce – he went the Dave Grohl route – played three songs that barely registered with the crowd.  While I loved the melodic take on Born in the USA – a song that was so overplayed in the 80′s that I can barely listen to today without putting the Canadian Bacon twist on it – in front of 800,000 it put about half the crowd to sleep.

Hit of the night was without a doubt Metallica.  When we got home, HBO was repeating the show and it was right at the point of Metallica’s set.  Watching it on TV was much flatter than being there – not sure I could say that about many of the other acts.  Raw, driving performance that was able to get the crowd engaged and head banging. I was hoping Zac Brown would join them on Enter Sandman (his cover is amazing!), but that wasn’t to be…

We left the show with Rhianna on the stage and only Eminem to follow.  I still can’t figure out why the organizers felt that Eminem was the best act to close the show out — we watched his set on DVR when we got home and wow!  So happy we left when we did and avoided the crowd on the Metro.  I wouldn’t say he was awful – but less than stellar is as kind as I can get.

All in all, for a free concert, it’s hard to complain.  The show did exactly what it was intended to do — give HBO subscribers a fun show to watch from home and hopefully get people to donate their time and/or money to Veteran’s causes.  Speaking of which, while their are plenty of worthy causes – please check the administrative fees for any charity you donate to.  The higher the percentage, the less money you donate actually goes to those the charity is designed to support.

So I’ll make a shameless plug:  If you want to help soldiers and veterans, please consider donating to The Fisher House.  Only about 5% of your donation goes to administrative and fundraising costs, meaning that 95 cents of every dollar donated goes to homes the foundation has near military and VA hospitals so families can be near their loved ones while recovering from surgeries without shelling out hundreds if not thousands in bills. Please read more about them and give generously! Thanks!

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Are Atheists Really Attacking Carrie Underwood?

One of the more disturbing features of Facebook is when a friend “likes” a link it shows up in my newsfeed. A few days ago, I was “blessed” to see the following appear:

Underwood

I love the headline – so sensationalistic! “ATHEISTS VICIOUSLY ATTACK…!”

I admit, I was a little intrigued, so I morbidly decided to research this story. Who are these atheists out there viciously attacking Ms. Underwood and her song?

I followed the link from the Facebook page to the story on the Americannews.com site (full text of the article follows):

American News
Interestingly, the article points out in the first sentence that “atheists have founds [sic] a new target: Carrie Underwood.” But it never goes on to say who or what they’ve done – only that Ms. Underwood has a message for detractors. That quote comes from a different site: The Blaze. Maybe it goes in to more detail there?
Under the innocuous headline “Famed Country Singer’s New Tune Tackles Some Major Christian Themes — and Ends With a Rendition of One of the World’s Most Popular Hymns,” there is a another bread crumb to follow.

“As Deseret News noted, Underwood has always defended singing about religious themes, telling Glamour magazine in the past that country music is generally more welcoming of Christian themes.
“Country music is different. You have that Bible Belt-ness about it,” she said. “I’m not the first person to sing about God, Jesus, faith [or] any of that, and I won’t be the last. And it won’t be the last for me, either. If you don’t like it, change the channel.””

Surely in the Deseret, I’ll finally find who are these dastardly atheists that dare attack Ms. Underwood and her faith? Um, unfortunately, no oasis of insight to be found in the Deseret.

The song concludes as a choir joins Underwood in singing the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.” Despite its spiritual message, Underwood hopes that all fans will enjoy the song regardless of their religious beliefs.
“The song is hopefully uplifting no matter where you are on your spiritual journey,” Underwood told radio DJ Cody Alan. “Hopefully, it can still just make you feel happy.”

So despite the sensational headline and the appeal to good Christians to fan their hatred of atheists, there is no story there. Paul Loebe summed it up well in his article Carrie Underwood: Not a Single Atheist Cares What You Sing.
The story itself is of such little value – largely because it is so amazingly contrived. If an atheist is viciously attacking Ms. Underwood, surely there would be blood – or at least a pointed quote attributed to Richard Dawkins, or some similar horseman of the atheist apocalypse… No, the story isn’t there – the story lies within the thousands of comments in the Facebook link itself.

Staggeringly, as of today, there were 25,888 comments to the original link posted by The Patriot. While I don’t have the time to read each vitriolic comment, a random sampling suffices (quoted with original typos):

- Atheist [sic] offend me I want them banned
- Screw the atheists
- To heck with them.the atheists are crazy.That is the reason they are atheists.
- Time to tell the atheists to shut up. I am tired of the MINORITIES trying to tell the rest of us what to think…when and if and who we can pray to.
- Have not heard it yet, but if it annoys atheists then it must be good!
- Again go live where they don’t want God…
- Why can’t we just ban the Atheists?
- I think all atheist [sic] need to be band [sic] from our country, I know that is not possible but it sounds good.
- They need to move somewhere else and start a country of their own. Because this country was built on the foundation of Christianity
- Tell the Atheists to go to hell
- Atheists are probably some of the most ignorant people on this planet
- Atheist [sic] needs to go to hell
- All Atheists ; Go join the muslims …… You have more in common then you think

Even if some atheist out there was critical of Carrie Underwood’s song and for whatever reason felt that demanding it shouldn’t receive air time due to its religious content, I think we could all agree that that person is simply a nut and is not representative of an entire group of people.

Unfortunately, people such as the ones expressing their views towards atheists, as noted, fail to understand the importance atheists place on the Constitution and most especially the 1st Amendment – the freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. It’s based on this principal that 99.99% of the atheists in this country would defend Ms. Underwood’s right to sing about whatever she pleases and to make sure that people of all religious beliefs have the freedom to pursue their religious liberties without government interference or coercion.

Alas, these same individuals fail to see that by begging the government to endorse their religious beliefs places their religious freedoms at risk. Conflating secularism with “evil” as many outspoken religious leaders have done in the recent past, is simply the proverbial road to hell, paved in good intentions. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for them, but then again, this is America and intelligence is not necessarily our strongest attribute…

“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”- unattributed

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The Joy of Running?

I left the Army in 1996. One of the many things I loved about hanging up the uniform was that I’d no longer have to run. To say I hated running would be downplaying the disdain I had for it. I hated waking up at Oh darkthirty to stand in a PT formation as the sun would rise and go off on a 3-4 mile run. No more 2 mile runs for a PT test. No more running!

I held fast to my anti-running position for almost a decade when my wife Ellen suggested we join a gym in 2004. She’s always the smart one when it comes to health. She knew, despite the fact I’d lost quite a bit of weight due to a change in diet, that I wasn’t getting any cardiovascular training and conditioning. She suggested we begin playing racquetball so could actually get a little exercise. She jokes that she wants to keep me around longer, but I’ve wondered over the years if she just isn’t trying to induce an early heart attack…

One day, I can’t remember why, but I got on a treadmill. I had no idea how to operate it – so I began pushing programming buttons and found an option for APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test). Out of morbid curiosity, I decided to see just how far I’d fallen. Not that I was a decent runner to begin with, but struggling to cover 2 miles on the treadmill in under 20 minutes (a far cry from passing by the way) was an ego bruiser. When I finished, panting, sweating, wheezing, I found an inner determination to improve on that time. Of course, this meant I needed to actually start running again. Was I losing my mind? I was pushing 40 – was this what a mid-life crisis looked like? Why couldn’t I just be content to buy a corvette like regular guys? Why did it have to be running?

Slowly but surely, I began to improve on times and distance – which really wasn’t that difficult considering just about any time or distance was going to be an improvement.

Over the next several months I realized I needed motivation to continue pursuing my new found hobby. I needed to put event runs on my calendar to give me a reason to train. Otherwise, I was just running to run and why on earth would I run to run? Remember, I hate running! Even as I was lowering my times, increasing my distance, and gaining a certain level of satisfaction from the result – I still was a far cry from liking what I was doing.

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Crossing the finish line at the Army 10 Miler

I can’t remember the first event I ran in – it was probably the Crofton 10K – but I began running a number of 5Ks and before taking the next leap to the Annapolis 10 Miler, then my first Half Marathon in Washington DC. This led to more 10 Milers, more Half Marathons, and ultimately my first (and only) full Marathon in Phoenix in January 2008.

All through this period, I was consistently focused on lowering my times, increasing my distance. Come race day, I would be disappointed if my result didn’t match my expectation that I had trained for. Some runs were perfect, others, not what I wanted. Often this fueled harder training to get it right the next time.

Unfortunately, following my marathon, I never felt like I was improving. I ran a few 5Ks and had good times, but I began struggling with longer distances. I found that longer runs led to a series of mental negotiations and compromises, and copping out.

When I took a new job in 2009, it signaled the end of my endurance running. While I occasionally donned my Asics and hit the road or the treadmill, it was without purpose. Lacking a goal, those runs became fewer and farther in between.

By the beginning of 2014, I had not run in nearly a year. Not that I’m big in to New Year’s resolutions, but adding running to my list of to dos in the coming year never even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until March that I decided I needed to begin working out again. [Again, this was largely due to Ellen’s motivation and her desire to keep me at least semi-fit].

Unfortunately for me, I’d put on quite a bit of weight, so running wasn’t immediately in the cards – I needed to build my cardio, strengthen my legs, and shed some pounds before logging some miles. The first step was to hit the elliptical machine. I approached it the same way I did to my earlier regimen – longer, harder, faster than the day or the week before. By April, I could start putting in some miles on the treadmill.

But I still needed additional motivation. My local 10K was a couple months away – coinciding with my 48th birthday. I had run it several times before, so I joined up giving purpose to my conditioning.

When I ran previously, I think my best time in the Crofton 10K was right around 48 minutes – right about an 8 minute mile pace. When I ran it this past June, I finished about 10 minutes slower. Seven years ago, I would’ve been disgusted with that time. But the older version of me left the course very content – I’d set out to complete the course, not to set a new PR. I ran the entire time, albeit slowly, and that’s all I wanted to do.

The next event run I would enter was the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Philadelphia. From 10K to Half Marathon in three months seemed reasonable. I began training with that in mind, running 4-5 days a week, with a long run every Sunday. I did the majority of the runs on a treadmill – primarily due to the fact that there is less wear and tear on my joints and my bounce back recovery is significantly minimized. I focused on the cardio aspect and while my pace on the treadmill was pretty good, I knew that it would not translate to asphalt. But adding incline and elevation was a must. Nearly every run I took on the treadmill incorporated an ascent.

When the Half Marathon came around, I knew I wasn’t going to be fast, or set a PR. Just like the Cofton 10K, my goal was to run the whole thing and finish. With the exception of stops – one to kiss Ellen on the course, the other to avoid a collision at the last water stop – I hit both goals.

My first Half was in 2007. I finished in 2 hours 7 minutes. I walked the majority of the last 3 miles – all uphill up Minnesota Avenue back to RFK Stadium. I left the race pretty disappointed – I thought I had trained well in advance and my result challenged that assumption. My next Half would be 6 months later in Virginia Beach. Again, I trained to finish at 1:45, and I came in at 1:51 (six minutes off my desired pace – but an improvement). I should note that Ellen ran this Half as well – her first – and she finished, although not a runner, because she’s a little studette!

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Moving in to give Ellen a smooch

So my time in Philly, 2:12, was the worst 13.1 miles time I’ve ever had – yet it turned out to be the best race I’ve ever run. There was no expectation for a personal best – only to finish and to run the whole course. That’s all I had set out to accomplish and I met that goal.

I’ve discovered along the way that I still don’t love running. And while it’s hard to escape the fact that I am indeed a runner – I’ve made my peace with running and I can grudgingly acknowledge that I kind of like it now. Distance running becomes a series of negotiations, bargains, and understanding – but the compromises are no longer part of the equation. Every run has a purpose and a goal to achieve. If it’s a 5 mile hill run, a 6 mile interval run, or just a 4 mile speed run, there is no room for compromise along the way. The longer the run, the more my brain likes to insert itself in the conversation, playing the part of Satan, offering tempting rewards for cutting it shorter. That must be Freud’s id in full force – yet the ego fights back with the superego in tow. All I know is that I need to keep moving.

I doubt that I’ll ever find the motivation to run another marathon along the way – possibly due to the fear that by doing so will eliminate whatever passion I seem to have for running. Been there, done that. But running 13.1 is well within the bounds of my possible. Maybe I’ll try to improve on my times in races to come, but for now, just lumbering through the course at a comfortably slow pace is just fine – it’s not like I was in a position to win it anyway…

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Poor Ray Rice

Poor Ray Rice – can he get a second chance?

I mean, this is America – the land of the second act.  Michael Vick can kill dogs willy nilly, and while vilified, he got a second act.  Granted, most of us will always remember him as a dog killer – but at least he had the opportunity to pay his debt to society (i.e., got to spend some time in the pen), but he was able to come back, make amends, and return to the sport that allows him to earn an income.

Ray?  Don’t see it happening.  He will not have the opportunity to make contrition.  Though suspended by the NFL for the year, let’s face it, he was already on the downward side of his career.  A year away from the sport, and the thunderstorm of wife slamming over his head, he will never have the opportunity for the second act.

There is nothing he can do from this point forward that allows him to contrit – to rehabilitate his image in the public eye.  Let’s face it, he’s done.  He will never play another down of football.

If he was a year or two younger, maybe, just maybe, he might have that opportunity to carry a football following this debacle.  Every yard he successfully gained might have gone a ways, at least in the minds of some, to rehabilitate the reputation he squandered in an Atlantic City elevator.  We are, as a people, always looking for the opportunity to forgive – but for our forgiveness, we expect something in return.  Touchdowns?  Performance?  Absolutely! Can’t hurt!

But Ray will probably never gain another NFL yard – let alone another NFL touchdown.  We will never have the opportunity to forgive – we’ll never celebrate his potential future successes.  If he ever has any, they will be played out on a smaller stage, none of us will ever see, thus he will always be remembered as a monster – for a 10 second moment of his life.

No excuse for those 10 seconds – they’re inexcusable.  But even hard core criminals and murderers have opportunities for second acts – but I don’t see how Ray will ever get that opportunity.

Maybe he doesn’t deserve it.  But his chance to have an opportunity to redeem himself, making amends, will probably never happen…  He will forever be seen as a wife beater – a scourge – with zero hope to reclaim a second a chance….

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“I Can’t Believe You’re an Atheist.”

“I can’t believe you’re an atheist.”

I imagine this is something nearly every openly godless person hears at least once. It is probably preceded by a line of questioning along the lines of “what is your religion or what are your religious views?”

In the absence of that line of questioning, I doubt many atheists tend to bring up the subject.

In my life, bringing up atheism is pretty low on my list. Conversationally, I’d probably mention that I hate mushrooms long before I tell someone I don’t believe in god – especially with an acquaintance. It just isn’t something that is all that important to me.

That said, when I’m asked, I’m not going to lie or skirt the issue.

I’m reminded of a dinner we had a couple years ago in Annapolis. One of my wife’s former co-workers was in town with her family and she graciously invited us along to spend the evening with her parents and brother. I happened to be seated next to her brother who chatted the whole evening about his experiences in seminary and his excitement about serving his god. I certainly didn’t wish to spoil the evening for anyone, especially since we were guests! So I was on guard for the inevitable question – which thankfully never came! Her brother spent the entire time talking about himself, he never bothered to ask about my religious views – so I never volunteered them.

But, this isn’t the norm. The norm is usually a conversation that invariably brings in religion/church, followed by the “what church do you attend?” Or worse, “have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?”

Why people feel empowered to ask such personal questions is beyond me. However, when asked, I simply respond with: “I don’t believe in god.” Or if I’m in a humorous mood, I might say “I gave up religion for Lent years ago and never went back.”

The look of confusion on the questioners face is sometime priceless. You can tell right away how homogenous some people are and if they are meeting for the first time someone that doesn’t believe in a god. Depending on the situation, and the conversation, the “I can’t believe you’re an atheist” comes out – often followed by “you’re so nice!”

It’s as though the two notions are non-symbiotic. You’re an atheist, but you’re nice – I’m having problems processing this.

But like I said, I rarely volunteer this tidbit of information. “Hi, I’m Sean. I’m an atheist.” Probably is something I’d never say in casual conversation. In fact, I can think of about 1,000 other descriptors that would apply before my lack of belief in a deity came up.

I know it isn’t meant to sound like it, but I’ve begun to think the whole “I can’t believe you’re an atheist” is really a backhanded compliment. Probably not the intent of the person saying it, but how else is it meant to be processed?

So I’ll throw these questions out to the godless people that read this blog – how often do you hear the “I can’t believe you’re an atheist?” and how does it make you feel?

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The Long War

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu observed “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” To wait by that river implies an understanding of history – the key is to have the patience to do so.

The recent Hobby Lobby decision has been cast by the [liberal] media as part of the greater “war on women” as part of the Supreme Court’s ruling that closely held corporations with strong religious views need not adhere to the laws the rest of the country must. The “fight” that is currently taking place within the American court system is often viewed through a religious freedom prism with women and the LGBT community as just part of the collateral damage; however, looking at the issue from that perspective is short-sighted and distorts the bigger picture.

Religion is simply a tool to be wielded in the bigger fight, but that is not what the war is about. Nor is it about women, or even gays and lesbians. This is a fight that has been taking place for at least 80 years. A fight that most people didn’t even know was still taking place!
What is this fight? It’s the grand battle between liberalism and conservatism. The penultimate war of ideology taking place at the same pace a glacier recedes – which is why no one is paying attention.

While it is fair to acknowledge that the true roots of today’s war go back to the Civil War era, we can skip a generation or so forward to American Depression and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administrations response to the economic crisis. Conservatives dominated American politics following the end of World War I and rode the Roaring Twenties all the way to the Great Depression. Conservative ideology, a laissez-faire approach to business rooted in small government, libertarian principles, lacked the requisite tools to wage a governmental response to the economic collapse.

Democrats, in no small part fueled by the progressive movement, campaigned on and won based on an interventionist government approach. This New Deal approach introduced several key legislative ideas that were anathemas to conservatives to include Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Revenue Act of 1935 that increased taxes on the wealthy for wealth distribution to assist the poor and homeless.

Many of the FDR administration’s efforts were fought tooth and nail by conservatives in congress, then ultimately by the conservative wing of the Supreme Court – so much so that Roosevelt attempted to reorganize the court in order to tilt it more favorably to progressive legislation. While his attempt to change the court through legislation failed, ultimately FDR would go on to nominate nine sitting justices during his tenure as President – all but ensuring the survival of the New Deal to the great consternation of conservatives.

The next swing in the battle of conservative and liberal ideology would play out during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s over civil rights and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society agenda. A “judicially activist” Supreme Court fired the first volley in the post World War II era with the Brown v. the Board of Education decision ending segregation in the country. Conservatives, not just southern Democrats (which despite the label were in the conservative camp), bemoaned the ruling as Federal usurpation of state’s rights.

The Civil Rights Act and the creation of Medicare under Social Security in the 60’s were additional blows to conservatism. This is not to paint conservatives as racist bigots – it is simply to acknowledge that the conservative viewpoint is to limit the level of influence the federal government has in your life and in your decisions. The notion that federal government, by law, can dictate who you must interact with in your daily commerce (whether that be racial, religious, or sexual orientation) is against the core principles of conservatives.

“Having embraced the destruction of Jim Crow and the broader cause of promoting black progress, liberals’ belief in the federal government’s plenary power facilitated their support for any measure that would, or might, promote civil rights. Conservatives opposed to racial discrimination, however, had few obvious ways to act on that belief without abandoning their long, twilight struggle to reconfine the federal government within its historically defined riverbanks after the New Deal had demolished all the levees. Mr. Perlstein portrays [Barry] Goldwater, a member of the NAACP who had fought against segregation in the Phoenix public schools while on the City Council, as anguished by the choice between a moral and a constitutional imperative confronting him in the vote on the civil rights bill.”

“In the statement explaining his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act Barry Goldwater said that if the people really want the federal government to undertake the tasks set out in the bill, they should amend the Constitution to give the government those powers.”

“Conservatives have spent half a century trying to overcome the suspicion that they are indifferent to black Americans’ legitimate demands, and indulgent toward people who are blatantly hostile to blacks. As a result, the party of Lincoln has become much whiter as it has become more conservative. Dwight Eisenhower got 40% of the black vote in 1956, the first presidential election after the Brown decision and the Montgomery boycott. Barry Goldwater got 6% in 1964, and in the 10 subsequent presidential elections the Republican candidate’s performance has never been more than a slight improvement on Goldwater’s. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued in The Atlantic Monthly, a sizeable portion of the black electorate consists of latent conservatives “who favor hard work and moral reform over protests and government intervention.” Invariably, however, the black American who feels this way “votes Democratic, not out of any love for abortion rights or progressive taxation, but because he feels-;in fact, he knows-;that the modern-day GOP draws on the support of people who hate him.” WSJ

Conservatives mounted a pyrrhic attempt to stem the tide of advancing liberalism in 1964 using Goldwater as their standard bearer against LBJ in the presidential election, and though defeated handily, his platform resonated enough to usher in Ronald Reagan 16 years later.

While the country has been fairly divided ideologically over the last 34 years, with neither the Democrat or Republican party holding significant majorities in the house or the senate (the exception being 2010 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act as democrats controlled both houses for a brief period) , one area that conservatives have been able to make inroads in to was the composition of the Supreme Court.

Of the nine SCOTUS justices, five: Antonin Scalia (1986), Anthony Kennedy (1987), Clarence Thomas (1991), Samuel Alito (2005), and John Roberts (2005) were appointed by Republican presidents. This is the block that tends to represent the majority in 5-4 Supreme Court decisions.

Conservatives that have raged against judicial activism in the past now welcome opportunities to put issues in front of the court – especially since the gridlock in congress almost ensures no significant legislation can pass both houses of congress.
But the court cannot simply rule on issues that are not brought before them regardless of their ideological leanings. In this respect, conservatives have seized the opportunity and the initiative to push back against 80 years of runaway liberalism.

In this respect, challenging aspects of case law, despite being supported by years of precedence rulings and previously failed challenges are far for receptive for the Roberts court. In the case of Hobby Lobby, the true motives had likely nothing to do with limiting contraception to female employee’s health care plans or the religious “values” of the Hobby Lobby owners. It had far more to do with using the issue as an opportunity to challenge the government’s role in interference with their commerce and how it is conducted. Religion and birth control were simply the means to bring the issue to the court.

The Roberts Court has taken a number of narrow (5-4) decisions to roll back certain aspects of progressive gains over the last several decades. These decisions include:

  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ___ (2014) Closely held, for-profit corporations have free exercise rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. As applied to such corporations, the requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that employers provide their female employees with no-cost access to contraception violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
  • Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. ___ (2014) A town council’s practice of opening its sessions with a sectarian prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause.
  • McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, 572 U.S. ___ (2014) Limits on the total amounts of money that individuals can donate to political campaigns during two-year election cycles violate the First Amendment.
  • National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___ (2012) The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid is unconstitutional as-written—it is unduly coercive to force the states to choose between participating in the expansion or forgoing all Medicaid funds. In addition, the individual health insurance mandate is constitutional by virtue of the Taxing and Spending Clause (though not by the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause).
  • Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013) Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which contains the coverage formula that determines which state and local jurisdictions are subjected to federal preclearance from the United States Department of Justice before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices based on their histories of racial discrimination in voting, is unconstitutional because it no longer reflects current societal conditions.
  • Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, 572 U.S. ___ (2014) A Michigan state constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The wedding of religious conservatives to Republican conservatism in 1980, forming a neo-theoconservative wing of the GOP will find the court’s rulings not completely to their liking. The court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States v. Windsor found that the terms “marriage” and “spouse” to be applied to only one man and one woman to be a deprivation of equal liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment. The limitation of government to interfere in the lives of individuals, regardless of sexual orientation, remains a pillar of true conservatism untainted by the strongly held views of the religious right.
However, the court is likely to be sympathetic to challenges of “government coercion” that forces commerce with homosexuals – especially if religious rights are in play. Again, using religion as the means to the end, expect cases such as the Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, that refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple based on his “deeply held” religious belief to find its way to the SC in the next few years and receive another 5-4 ruling in his favor.

This wouldn’t be because the court hold animosity against the LBGT community (with the possible exceptions of Justices Scalia and Thomas), it’s simply that the slim majority of the court takes exception to the government requiring an individual to engage in commerce with someone they do not wish to – in this case it would be gay people – but once that box is open, it can be applied to anyone if the right rationale is applied.

Don’t be suckered in by the “war on women” or the “war on religion” headlines – these are simply the casualties and the cost of the long war. Right now, conservatives have spent a long time waiting along that river waiting to see the bodies of their enemies float by. Liberals thought they won this war a long time ago and forgot what the fight is really about.

Recommended Reading:

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB121598863003949317

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Who’s Able To Take Their Country Back?

I’m constantly reading how “we need to take our country back.” Interestingly, this sentiment is shared by people on both (or all) sides of the political spectrum. It makes it difficult to understand from just whom we want our country back from.

 

In our representative democracy, the only voice that has any real say at the end of the day is the people that show up at the polls for elections. Want your country back? Get out and vote! Sadly, the vast majority of Americans say one thing but do another.

 

While more than half of the eligible voters (barely) show up for general elections – those every four years when a president is being chosen, the number drops precipitously in off-year or mid-term elections. The national average in the last mid-term election, 2010, was 41% — but that doesn’t tell the real story.

 

Only eight states had half or more of eligible voters cast ballots in 2010. Minnesota had the highest voter turnout in the nation that year with a whopping 55.4% getting out the vote. This compares to 17 states where voter turnout was less than 40%. Texas, with its 32.1% turnout, “led” the way as the worst of all states for civic-mindedness.

 

But national elections, while terrible in terms of voter participation, only present half the bad picture. Our election processes are largely driven by two distinct non-governmental bodies – the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. Both of these organizations are simply incorporated clubs that provide candidates for our elections. Both political parties in our predominantly 2 party system, hold sanctioned elections internally to see who will represent the club in the final election.

 

Voter turnout in these primary elections is shockingly low. In 2010, for the 42 states that hold primary elections, nation-wide voter turnout was pegged at 17.8% (up from 16.1% in 2006). The other eight states choose their candidates through a caucus process that is even far less representative. In the state with the lowest voter turnout in the 2010 election – Texas – the percentage of registered Republican voters that cast a ballot in the gubernatorial primary election that same year was [drum roll] – all of 11.4%! Of the state’s 13 million registered voters, approximately 1.5 million decided who the Republican candidate would be for the rest of the voting populace to choose from in November.

 

Politicians, and their corporate sponsors and lobbyists, are excruciatingly aware of this dynamic. The net effect, in our “democracy,” is that as a democrat or republican in Texas, 2010 – the candidate only needed to win a plurality of the vote cast. In a statewide race, 6% of the eligible voters casting ballots, was more than enough to put a candidate over the top to represent their party in the general election.

 

Fast forward to November, the winner of the election only requires 16.1% of the eligible voting public to win a senate seat or a governorship. If that candidate pulls 20%, it’s a landslide!

 

While hardly democratic, or even representative, it’s far easier to persuade 1 out of every 8 voters vice 5 of 10 to give you a vote. Keeping voter turnout low is in the best interest of the politician running.

texas 2010

Roughly 11% of eligible voters cast ballots in the Texas Republican primary in 2010. Rick Perry out dueled Senator Anne Richardson, taking 56% of the vote (or roughly 6% of the eligible voter percentage). 32% of the voting public showed up on election day in November and Perry won his 3rd term as governor with about 56% of the vote – a 16 point “landslide” victory.

 

The inherent problem this presents is when it comes to sweeping legislative agendas, either statewide or nationwide. When 84% of the citizens that didn’t endorse a politician are impacted by his or her legislative vote we don’t just have a problem, we don’t have a true Republic.

 

As people in this country sour on politics, the ability to capitalize on voter apathy will continue unabated. Fifty percent of the Millennial generation consider themselves “independent” voters, not affiliated with a political party label. However, in our current congress, only Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are the only two independents out of 535 representatives currently “serving.” Shunning a party label simply allows increased “voter repression” especially in states that hold closed primaries where only party affiliates have the privilege of casting a vote.

 

As the power to pick candidates at the primary level continues to shrink in the hands of a powerful minority – where instead of wooing 1 of 8 potential voters, politicians can instead focus on the 1 in 10, the ability to “change” things in this country will continue to erode.

 

Presidential elections will continue to have the cachet and ability to draw more than 50% of the voting public – but the off year elections have as much, if not more impact on the legislative agendas and direction that moves this country. These off year elections often involve choosing governors, congressional representatives, senators, as well as state legislators. Winners of these elections often boast of the mandates to enact policies campaigned on as reflective of the will of the people – but who’s will is it? When select, discreet minorities choose candidates for another minority to choose from, we hardly have a representative democracy.

 

Sources:

http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2010G.html

http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/historical/70-92.shtml

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/

http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0774721.html

 

 

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Funny What A Change In Diet Can Do

Among the advantages of being married to a registered nurse includes having doctor’s appointments made for you. I was informed in January that I was to go to the doctor. I didn’t know why, but I’ve been married long enough to just do as I was told. Hint – if you don’t understand this last statement, recommend watching the following video:

I dutifully showed up at my doctors appointment at the scheduled time and the lady at the reception desk asked why I was being seen. I looked at her and gave her the best answer I had: “Because my wife told me I have an appointment.” She seemed to understand that, looked at her computer, then informed me: “Mr. Asbury, you’re having a physical today.” I thought, well, I am 47. I’m probably due for a physical and proceeded to the poke and prod room….

My doc ordered up a blood test, and the results were pretty scary. My overall cholesterol was sitting at 300, and my LDL’s, the bad cholesterol, was at 190! I was a stroke waiting to happen!

Coincidentally, at about this same time, Ellen was launching her new business, Living Healthy Md. I volunteered to be one of her initial guinea pigs for her weekly course on how to live a healthier life and make better eating choices – something I, embarrassingly, needed to do.

In January, along with the ridiculously high cholesterol, I tipped the scale at 216 pounds – equaling a weight I had attained some 11 years prior. In 2003, I dropped roughly 50 pounds essentially by not eating, substituting my caloric intake with beer instead of food. It was a man’s diet! I should’ve have written a book, but it would have been a very thin book! Don’t eat, drink beer, lose weight. The End!

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Crossing the finish line at the Army 10 Miler

In the years that followed, I began running – a lot! I ran 5K’s, 10K’s, 10 Milers, working my way up to half marathons, and finally culminating in running the Rock and Roll Marathon in Phoenix in January 2008 (4:17 in case you were wondering…). During those years – life was awesome! I never once thought about what I ate or drank – everything I put in my body was fuel to be burned! Wasn’t always the best fuel, but fuel was fuel!

Following the marathon, I lost some of the passion that had inspired me to travel 26.2 miles. My legs never seemed to come back – my times consistently became slower, my distances shorter – I chalked it up to getting older.   At the same time, I began working a job that had me starting my day at the office at 3am. Strange, out of synch hours, coupled with not “feeling good” about working out led to easy excuses to begin skipping out on the gym. To top it off, we were sending kids off to college – a couple of whom played college sports which required us to attend their college events – which meant many hours in the car on weekends going to and fro – there was no time for working out!

But that didn’t change my eating patterns! If anything, it made it even worse – especially road food!

Slowly, but surely, the weight came back. Just as before, I no longer enjoyed getting on the scale to see just how bad it was becoming (unlike when I was losing weight when I was on it daily – sometimes several times!).

I hadn’t made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, or to get healthier – it just happened to be that it began in January with Ellen’s class. After a self-assessment of food intake – it became very apparent that I was not eating nearly enough fruits or vegetables. Now, I like veggies, and even some fruits – but I needed to “learn” to incorporate them in to my daily diet. On top of that, I needed to cut out certain bad habits that I had picked up along the way. Most especially: grabbing snacks out of vending machines (regardless of my attempts to justify the “healthiness” of the choices I was making) and cubicle grazing (taking advantage of gracious co-workers that love to taunt and tempt with public candy dishes at their desks!).

Ellen’s program also stressed exercise in addition to a healthier diet. This still took me several weeks to incorporate in to my daily routine. By mid-February though, a month after being prescribed a statin to lower my cholesterol, I knew I needed to make a commitment to get back in the gym.

What I’ve found, where I could previously pull any number of excuses out of my hat for not going, is treating the hour spent in the gym is essentially the same as attending a meeting you can’t get out of – only this meeting is for me and me alone. Once incorporated in to the daily routine – it’s calendered!

Between the change in diet and time exercising, I’ve begun running a calorie deficit of roughly 4,000-5,000 calories a week (or in other words, 1 – 1 ½ pounds a week). And I’ve been doing this while eating constantly. The biggest change is what I’m eating. This morning (a typical morning) featured a banana, grapes, tangerines, and an apple.

Ellen’s program stresses the health benefits associated with living a healthy lifestyle. Since starting it, I’ve dropped 19 pounds – which is great! But more importantly (or every bit as importantly!) I’ve decreased my cholesterol from 300 to 190 in the space of two months! The LDL drop from 202 to 106! My doc said he’d never seen anything like it before.

Where I was a stroke waiting to happen, my risk for heart disease and a stroke decreased like a rock!

Of course, this doesn’t get me completely out of the woods. I still have approximately 17 pounds I need to lose to get back to my desired weight and I need to maintain the good habits I’ve lived by over the last three months. And, just as important, I need to keep my appointment with the gym on a regular basis without excuse.

If you are having some weight or health issues of your own and you’re looking to make a change – recommend contacting Ellen. Even if you don’t do her program, she can point you to resources that can help – especially if you’re outside of Maryland.

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The Palatability of Agnosticism

There is a noticeable difference in the reaction of the average religious person to the response to the question of belief between “I’m an agnostic” versus “I’m an atheist.”

The former conveys that the declarant remains on the fence and is “swayable” to a belief system, while the latter conveys I’ve evaluated your belief system and consciously rejected it.

Atheism connotes, for right or wrong, a certain amount of surety that is often perceived as almost arrogant.  That perception — even among some atheists – that they are better educated and if only the religious were better informed, they too would be able to see the truth.

Agnosticism lacks that level of surety, and therefore, the arrogance factor – which may play a large factor in making it more palatable for believers.

When you get down to brass tacks though, the difference between atheists and agnostics is simply a sleight of hand.  Both are essentially cuts from the same clothe – which is why atheists and agnostics are often lumped together when polling and research studies of religious views are conducted.

Both groups have a shared absence of belief in a deity.  After this, it becomes a naval gazing exercise.  Agnostics claim there is no way of knowing whether a god or gods exist while atheists claim with a level of certainty that there is in fact, no god.

But these bumper stickers tend to obfuscate the larger commonality between them.  “There is no way to know” is a sleight of hand – it requires a level of understanding of current religious doctrines and a rejection of these dogmas.

Atheists contend that after evaluating the religious landscape that there is a certainty that none of these gods exist. It’s a subtle, but important, hair to be split and it can be the source of tension that sometimes exists between atheists and agnostics.

In my humble opinion, as mentioned earlier, there is little daylight between an atheist and an agnostic.  Neither believes in god(s), nor does either worship, pray to, or observe theistic customs associated with a required dogma.  However, we’ve created our own artificial labels to further define ourselves.  My thesis is that most agnostics are in fact atheists and that most atheists are actually agnostics — myself included.

So why is thmy new tatat I wear (literally) the atheist label en lieu of the safer, more palatable term, agnostic?

My best response is that I have a certainty that all religions are a man-made construct we’ve created over the millennia to best explain the world around us and our place within it.

That said, I’m the first to admit that I do not know if an actual “god” does or does not exist.  I adhere to the prevailing scientific explanation of our origins – from the Big Bang start to the universe 13.8 billion or so years ago to the shared evolution of life on our planet.  So, did god initiate the Big Bang and put all this in motion?  I don’t know — big maybe!  I’m open to the that idea, but I know that the whatever caused the Big Bang is NOT the god of the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Baghavad Gita – each of which is simply a human attempt to understand the origins and meaning of life and incapable of keeping up with the advancing knowledge we’ve collectively acquired over the last 500 or so years.

dawkins-scale

On the Dawkins’ Scale, I would come out a 6. “I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable.” At least the “God” we’ve come to know and think we understand.

Very few atheists, if pressed, could sit there and say there is no god – period.  What they will say is based on what they’ve seen and experienced, none of the gods of current world religions exist.

For me though, the label “agnostic” is something of a cop out.  While accurate by definition, the label conveys the idea of an active search for spiritual belief that has yet to be found.  Atheist on the other hand, conveys I’ve looked, and I’m not buying.

I think many agnostics have come to that same conclusion, but are uncomfortable with the idea of swapping their label.  Though I think if society afforded atheists with the same treatment when asked, agnostics more might be willing to take that next step.

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Random Musing

I never intended for my blog to be solely devoted to “articles.”  In fact, the main reason I started it was to give a little more space for articulating ideas en lieu of a Facebook status.

So the idea crossed my mind the other day that atheists could actually make good pastors for Christian flocks.  I know, you’re re-reading that sentence over again right now and scratching your head really hard trying to get your mind around that statement.

 

But think about it for just a minute – atheists tend to know the Bible better than most Christians.  In numerous debates between atheists and Christians, atheists constantly quote biblical passages, including the words of Jesus, to counter apologetic argument.  I know a couple former pastors turned apostate – they have the requisite backgrounds and understanding of the Bible to continue teaching Christianity.  In fact, there are a number of closeted atheist pastors right now tending to flocks.  Don’t let faith get in the way of your primary means of livelihood!

 

Gandhi once said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Maybe these Christians Gandhi refers to could stand to learn a little about being “Christian” from a nonbeliever.

 

So, as weird as it sounds, I’m just throwing this out there predominantly to get a conversation going – from all viewpoints.  What do you think?

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