Something to cheer about

In what will undoubtedly be hailed in future generations as a landmark decision, The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, overturning as unconstitutional state bans on gay marriage, effectively making gay marriage legal across the country. While I’m disappointed in the fact that the decision was so close (5-4) and that the usual suspects are making their typical inflammatory comments (e.g., presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, take your pick of random religious leaders), this is a bit of genuinely good news in a world that too often provides none. Kudos to the SCOTUS and congratulations to the gay, lesbian, and transgendered folks out there who will finally reap the benefits of equality under the law, at least in this respect. 640px-Gay_flag.svg

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Why Republican science isn’t the same as regular science

Why Republican science isn’t the same as regular science

Science is a way of learning things about the world around us. Over the millennia, it’s done some pretty great things for us. It’s taught us how to control the flow of water, how to construct permanent dwellings, how to safely dispose of our own wastes (mostly), what the lights are in the sky, and that was just the beginning. In the last century-and-a-half, we’ve learned about how life evolved on this planet over the course of 4.5 billion years. In the last 50 years, we’ve learned about the greenhouse effect and how rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, particularly as a result of human activities are wreaking havoc on the world’s climate. Over a slightly-longer interval, roughly the last 80 years, essentially one human lifetime, we’ve developed many of the medicines that treat the afflictions that plague us as a species.

Among those medicines are the vaccines that we’ve used to treat everything from measles to HPV to hepatitis to polio. Many of these diseases have been essentially eradicated from the Western world, thanks to the pervasive use of vaccines to effectively immunize populations and prevent their constituents from getting sick and dying from the illnesses. Well, that was true until recently, anyway. By now, everyone’s heard about the measles outbreak linked to Disney World in Anaheim and believed to be the result of parents refusing to vaccinate their children with the standard MMR triple vaccine according to the prescribed schedule. Vaccine denialists, people who have convinced themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, that vaccines are harmful and cause diseases, are a bipartisan group: liberals who don’t trust “big pharma” and have been duped by listening to anecdotal evidence provided by parents of people with autism spectrum disorder make for strange bedfellows with conservatives who espouse small government and “parental choice” (a phrase which, from what I can tell, pretty much means whatever you want it to mean). However, it is uniquely right-wing Republican politicians who have made bold stands against the idea of mandatory vaccination: presidential hopefuls Chris Christie and Rand Paul have made statements, which they’ve made floundering efforts to walk back to some extent, regarding the need to vaccinate children against deadly threats. Presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and current president Barack Obama, on the other hand, have made unequivocal statements in favor of vaccinations for all. What are we to make of this?

As I said earlier, science is a tool that teaches us about the world around us. It’s a fact-finding construct so its insights are inherently descriptive but not prescriptive. As citizens we have to take the information science provides to us and make a simple calculus: do we accept its truth and adjust our policies accordingly or do we reject it (or cherry-pick it) in the hope of short-term gains despite what science is telling us? The far left and the far right have this in common: for different reasons, they don’t trust science or scientific consensus and are more comfortable with what their religious or alternative-medicine or celebrity authorities tell them. However, the far left is rarely represented in mainstream politics these days (despite what Rush Limbaugh would have you believe), while the far right has gotten louder and more accepted by mainstream right-wing politicians as the old GOP “big tent” seems to get ever tinier.

We are seeing tangible and concrete evidence now of the consequences of cherry-picking science. People are getting sick and dying because they don’t understand the concept of herd immunity and how everyone getting vaccinated who physically is able to be vaccinated protects the entire population of those who may be exposed to a pathogen. Or perhaps they’ve listened to Jenny McCarthy, who insists that vaccines cause autism and that she was able to use a natural remedy to “cure” her child’s autism (if you’re wondering, there is no “cure” for autism). Or maybe they just feel that mandatory vaccinations are a “government overreach,” an intrusion into their private lives and personal choices–and they don’t want Obama telling them how to raise their kids. Ultimately, there are lots of rationales for making bad decisions, but it is a peculiarly Republican trait of prominent politicians to declare their solidarity with what most normal people consider to be fringe lunatics: vaccine denialists, climate change denialists, and creationists.

Lest we forget, one of the newly-Republican-controlled Senate’s first official acts was to pass two resolutions: one that supported the idea that climate change is real and a companion piece expressing doubt that it is anthropogenic. These resolutions have no real meaning other than to give us a sense of the direction that Congress is heading on this issue: nowhere. With prominent climate-change denier James Inhofe (R-OK) now heading the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, there is little to no chance that we will see any significant action from this august body on this grave threat to humanity’s continued survival. The impact of continuing to seek out new sources of fossil fuels in lieu of seriously promoting renewable energy sources that do not boost atmospheric carbon levels won’t be seen in a few days, months, or years like the impact of lots of paranoiacs refusing to vaccinate their children, but the effects will be even more dramatic: mass extinctions, rising sea levels, melting polar sea ice, diseases and pests appearing and thriving further north than ever before are just some of the consequences of inaction that we can look forward to.

Aside from looking like a bit of a relic from the Middle Ages, there aren’t many dire repercussions for not accepting biological evolution. The array of evidence for evolutionary theory is so diverse and compelling that you pretty much have to  toss out all of science as a whole if you choose to dispute it. Nevertheless there is a certain small demographic of true believers that Republicans feel they must cater to in order to get enough votes to get elected. It’s disheartening that in the 21st century we are still standing people for the highest office in the land who reject the scientific foundations upon which our modern society is built.

This story from NPR shows how the Republican candidates in the presidential primary responded to questions about climate change and evolution in 2012. Among this entire crop of presidential wannabes, only Jon Huntsman took the controversial position that evolution and climate change are real phenomena. It seems increasingly likely that we can expect a repeat performance for 2016. While many moderate Republicans have been quick to repudiate the more bizarre and unfounded assertions made in recent weeks regarding the safety of routine vaccinations, these two touchstones of conservative Christian outrage are not so easily dismissed by those who wish to survive the crucible of Iowa and New Hampshire. And so they will try to have it both ways, like our esteemed Governor Jindal, who took a break from releasing self-aggrandizing press releases critical of the president long enough to declare his support for the science behind vaccines; this is of course, the same Jindal who has long supported the Louisiana Science Education Act, which attempts to muddy the waters in public education surrounding the topics of evolution, climate change, and, for some odd reason probably known only to his puppet masters in the Louisiana Family Forum, human cloning.

Indeed, Paul at least appears to be trying to make political hay from his irresponsible statement that he knew of “walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” He later tweeted a picture of himself receiving a booster shot and remarked snarkily that he wondered “how the liberal media will misreport this,” implying that that eternal Republican boogeyman, the Liberal Media aka The Main Stream Media aka The Lame Stream Media, had somehow mischaracterized his own words. Paul, who loves to tout his credentials as a physician (ophthalmologist) on the campaign trail, knows damn well that his statement above was intended to imply causation not merely correlation and that the average layperson would interpret those remarks in just that way. It’s as cynical and naked a political ploy as anything I’ve seen in some time: he scores points with the vaccine denialists by throwing them a bone about autism and quickly disavows his own remarks by blaming those “misreporting” ne’er-do-wells, the Media, thereby currying favor with the more moderate elements of his party who are all for vaccines but definitely don’t trust reporters.

So all of this brings me to my point: how is Republican science different from science? Well, it’s necessarily incomplete because they hold science hostage to the interests of various factions from whom they are relying on some kind of largesse, be it votes or the money with which to buy more votes. Acceptance of anthropogenic climate change would displease the oil and gas companies that funnel billions of dollars of campaign contributions into the cesspit that is our political system. Acceptance of the fact of evolution would displease the voting bloc of archconservative Christians still convinced that a bearded man in the sky individually crafted them and brought the world into being ex nihilo 6,000 years ago. Acceptance of the fact that vaccines prevent outbreaks of highly-preventable but highly-contagious diseases. . . well, no matter what the shrill vaccine denialists screech about thimerosal and Big Pharma’s price-fixing, it’s getting harder and harder to justify that position in light of recent events.

Here’s the bombshell, once and future kings of America: science isn’t a country buffet, where you can pick what you’re comfortable with and fits with your preconceived notions or those to whom you owe some manner of allegiance. Governor Jindal, how do you think we understand that vaccines work? Use that Brown education. The answer is that we learned about the way that viruses and bacteria evolve in response to changes in their environments (yes, I said two “e” words in one sentence). I agree with one thing you said not that long ago: the Republican Party needs to stop being the “party of stupid.” Perhaps you could start leading by example. It would make a refreshing change.

 

Return to Iraq

I was very disappointed to learn last week that the president had authorized a military re-engagement in Iraq. I know in some sense we’ve never really left any of the countries we’ve had armed conflicts in, as we seem to have military bases scattered all over the world in really peculiar places from a 21st-century perspective; it is nonetheless disheartening that this president who seems to pride himself on having drawn down our remaining forces in Iraq and Afghanistan publicly, while engaging in a covert drone war that is essentially Bush’s War on Terror 2.0, is ready to begin a new campaign of airstrikes in our old quagmire.

Look, I know that Republicans want America to flex its muscles any time a pretty girl walks down the beach or a bully starts kicking sand in the bespectacled eyes of a Euro- or Middle Eastern nerd, but there’s no point in doing any of this to satisfy the administration’s war-hawk critics if for no other reason than that it won’t. Those critics have made it abundantly clear now, six years into Obama’s presidency, that there is no action that he could take in either domestic or international quarters that would be the right action. If Iraq is destabilized and eventually taken over by ISIS, they will claim this is because of his early withdrawal of forces and that we failed to provide sufficient logistical or “boots-on-the-ground” support to the central government. If ISIS ceases pushing into unoccupied sections of Iraq in order to consolidate its gains on a temporary or permanent basis, they will declare that we should move quickly to take back Fallujah and Mosul from the “terrorists.” In any case, they will always blame anything that goes wrong on Obama’s alleged failure to project America’s strength throughout the world the way that <insert your favorite Republican candidate or former president here> would have done.

So we can safely ignore that nonsense. What about America’s “you broke it, you bought it” responsibilities? It should be abundantly clear to anyone who’s been paying even the slightest modicum of attention over the last 11 years that America’s nation-building efforts in the Middle East have been and will continue to be a colossal failure for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that while we do bear some responsibility for the present state of Iraq, being the fragmented country that it was since the Allies drew its lines up after World War II, after we destroyed its infrastructure and the strong central government and replaced it with basically nothing. However we cannot seriously expect that another military engagement will result in anything other than more death, more destruction, and more misery for Iraqis. All we have to do is look at what happened in Bosnia to see how truly effective a campaign of airstrikes is for effecting political change. We would also do well to remember that the term “smart bomb” is a terrible oxymoron and however much we might like to pretend otherwise no airstrike will ever attain the precision that can be achieved with the physical presence of soldiers on the battlefield in a war zone. When we say that we’re using  targeted airstrikes to destroy our enemies, what we really mean is that the lives of our soldiers are more valuable than the lives of the citizens that live in the countries of our enemies. That is an appalling calculus to make.

I wish there were a voice of reason in Washington, someone who would stand up and say, “There is nothing to be gained by taking half-measures and pretending that this makes us somehow better than everyone else.” War is not the answer because this is a civil war, albeit one being directed from across the Syrian border. If we intervened in every civil war across the world we could do nothing else–and we would be held accountable for the next tyrannical regime that would inevitably emerge from such a conflagration. It’s not isolationism to recognize that we have never been and never can be “the world’s policeman.” While I see no harm in unilateral humanitarian missions, there simply is no dividend from repeating Clinton’s mistakes of the 1990s.

Between the initial draft of this post and its imminent publication, America has apparently committed to putting combat troops on the ground in northern Iraq and staging relief efforts from an airfield located in the same area. The news gets worse and worse.

Why Romney lost and why the Republicans still don’t get it

A lot has been written and said about the spectacular electoral failure of the Republican Party in the November election, and much of it misses the point. CNN and other broadcasters pontificated on their tables and interactive maps and talked about how the GOP lost women and blacks and Hispanics and young people, and all of these things are undoubtedly true but not all that interesting in and of themselves. The more salient part of this is why the Party of No not only flopped in its efforts to unseat an admittedly-divisive sitting president (just why he is so divisive is probably worth its own article), but lost seats in both houses of Congress, including races that were considered easy victories like Todd Akin’s challenge to Claire McAskill.

Ask 10 Republicans why this happened and you may get 10 different answers. Mitt Romney, suffering from an apparent bout of Aesop’s fox syndrome, sulkily declared that Obama must have “paid off the electorate.” He didn’t mean that literally–he meant that the president had promised those constituencies that didn’t vote red money or some other form of government largesse in exchange for his reelection. Slightly smarter or less bitter observers like Louisiana’s own Bobby Jindal or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker hastened to say that Romney’s reaction to his loss was a bit stupid and suggested that the true problem with the Party lay in its failure to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Both of these men are, of course, playing to a national audience with these statements and it’s probably the worst-kept secret in politics that they have ambitions beyond governing a single state.

As others have pointed out, it’s worth paying attention to deeds as well as words. At home, Jindal has promoted an extreme social-conservative agenda that plays well to his base–and particularly the religious right–in this most crimson of states but which has been met with suspicion by moderates and independents. His recent push to put public funds in the hands of charter and private schools aligns perfectly with his previous efforts to dilute science education in the state with his Orwellian Louisiana Science Education Act. This is an important context in which to examine Jindal’s public proclamations, wherein he pays lip service to the idea of creating a more inclusive political party that embraces many groups–the so-called “big tent.”

The reality is that this is more empty rhetoric, because the GOP has continued to push an extremist agenda, even while giving the appearance of holding its more extreme elements at arm’s length. During the election, in a case of belated damage control, the national party stumbled over itself to distance itself from comments made by numerous Senate candidates who made abortion a central issue in the campaign by stating in various ways that their god had a hand in many terrible crimes against women; meanwhile, a similar policy statement is to be found on the official party platform and on the lips of its vice-presidential candidate (Paul Ryan is basically Sarah Palin, except that he actually did read all of the newspapers).  On the economic front, fiscal hawks like Speaker Boehner are taking a hard line against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and are pushing the vague and ultimately meaningless trope of “tax code reform” that Romney was promoting as his “economic plan” during the election. This self-imposed “fiscal cliff” nonsense is the last gasp of the absurd “trickle-down economics” that  Republicans have been shoving down our throats for the last 30 years, and I hope they choke on it. The only thing that trickles down on the poor and the middle class when the rich get richer is the excrement that always rolls downhill.

Intellectual luminaries within the party suggested an alternate reason for why young people didn’t vote Republican. Bill Bennett suggested that liberals have taken over the public schools and indoctrinated America’s youth with pinko propaganda. He’s actually serious about this and it gets better. The prescription is to not to get rid of onerous and intolerant policies that drive people away the party in droves; it’s to take over schools and insert their own propaganda. It’s well worth taking a look at this film to see what Bennett and his followers have in mind.

This particular piece of idiocy just got cranked up to 11 this week in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. Congressmen Louie Gohmert of Texas and Dennis Baxley of Florida have actually suggested that the answer to mass shootings in this country is for people to have more guns. Perpetual carnival acts James Dobson and Bryan Fischer declared that their god had once again intervened to “allow judgment to fall upon us” because of abortion and gay marriage and because there is no state-sponsored prayer in schools. Sure, you can always count on fringe loonies to say things like this after children are gunned down at school, but here’s the kicker: Mike Huckabee, the guy who was almost the GOP’s candidate for president in 2012, was saying the same things. If the party leaders really want to know how they’ve gone so astray and why Americans don’t trust them anymore, nothing sums it up quite so succinctly as this.

Here’s a pro tip for Mr. Huckabee and the rest: your god doesn’t belong in public schools and your religion is not the only one in America. The amendment that goes at the top of the Constitution–# 1–declares that Congress shall make no law respecting religion. That’s the “establishment clause” and it means that government, including public institutions (like schools), are to be religiously neutral. I don’t suppose you’d be too thrilled if the kids were facing Mecca and praying to Allah on prayer mats in the public schools under the imam’s watchful eye. So go ahead and blame those of us who want to take guns off the streets, who want to protect women, who are gay, who believe you can be moral without gods; Democrats will continue to clean your clocks at the polls as we all vote against you.

And on a personal note, fuck you, you self-righteous assholes.

No one’s hands are clean in sordid Innocence of Muslims affair

As I was listening to this interview on NPR the other day, I pondered just how this mess started and who was really to blame. The answer is that we all are to blame to some degree. Is it ridiculous to storm embassies and murder people because you don’t like a movie? Yes. But should America recognize that it bears some responsibility for fostering an environment where such offensive material is not merely allowed but encouraged? Oh yes.

Mr. Saunders was speaking on a slightly different but nevertheless relevant topic: the notion that Muslims invade countries like sleeper cells, reproduce rapidly, and threaten to dominate host country populations within a few generations. It’s a bit of a silly notion but one that has been making the rounds since Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and other unsavory types first began making their way to the Land of Opportunity. The point is this: we readily accept that the “others”–the people who don’t worship the same god (well, they actually do, but don’t tell your Christian friends because they would never associate their deity with the likes of Allah), dress the same way, speak the same language at home–are a threat simply by virtue of being different. Particularly in the post-9/11 world where everyone who reads seditious books or travels to the wrong countries is to be treated with great suspicion, we have let this narrative dominate public life in this country.

This survey by Gallup shows how American Muslims and other Western Muslims feel oppressed and isolated within the cultures they live in. This is an atmosphere that we subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) promote when our leaders make casual references to jihads and Crusades and when the media are filled with images of ethnically black or Arab Muslims as terrorists and supervillains. Many Muslim stereotypes (being prolific breeders may be among the least offensive) pervade not just American culture but Western culture in general and in this climate of hatred and fear all it takes is one unstable individual with ready access to weapons and you get a Sikh temple massacre or a Norwegian killing spree.

America and the rest of the world should acknowledge their sins in this regard, but the Muslim countries where so much fear and animosity has been stirred by the actions of a small and as-yet-unidentified group of filmmakers who have produced the equivalent of low-budget hate porn must shoulder some share of blame for this catastrophe as well. Ordinary citizens of places like Libya, Egypt and Iran should take the self-appointed leaders who claim to speak for them to task for igniting this tempest-in-a-teapot. Amid news that Iran has upped the ante by raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, claiming that if Rushdie had been killed twelve years ago, no one would have had the temerity to make something like the Innocence of Muslims trailer, maybe it’s time that the world’s mainstream Muslims acknowledge that, while they are personally deeply offended by depictions of Mohammed in Western media and would prefer that they did not exist, they are not a reason to blow up planes or destroy embassies.

Let’s be clear about something: one of the things that makes America a great nation is that we allow the presentation of unpopular points of view. Dissent is tolerated and even encouraged to some degree. At least that’s the way things are supposed to be. Increasingly we are seeing a shift away from the officially secular society that this nation was founded as over two centuries ago as hints appear that this country can be, always was, and should be a Christian nation. This too is wrong. As most of those who spout this kind of nonsense know, most of our founding fathers were deists (believers in a vague and impersonal deity who has no interest or involvement in the day-to-day affairs of individuals) not Christians. The Establishment Clause exists because 5,000 years of human history taught those men that “officially” religious countries are inevitably set up for conflict with neighbors who are not co-religionists. Turning this country into a kind of theocracy only sets us on a path to perpetual war–like our distant neighbors in the Middle East.

Nor should we abandon that most valuable of secular principles, the freedom of speech, to legally sanction the producers of this absurd film trailer. It is, as I said above, one of the great ideals of this society that even the atheist, the racist, and the blasphemous are given a voice, not because every voice has equal merit but because we privilege no one voice over another under the law. Thus, while the president was right to release those ads decrying the content of the video as not being representative of America (and we surely hope that it is not), he was equally right not to accede to the demands of those calling for state punishment of the offenders, who have committed no crime in this country.

Mitt Romney, in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to appear relevant, jumped in front of a camera last week so he could berate the president for “apologizing.” He is an idiot. I can’t even imagine which of his goofy advisors told him that the murder of an ambassador overseas in what appears to have been a well-planned assault could be fertile ground for partisan political maneuvering.

In any case, we should all take a hard look at our own reactions to this unfolding saga and what it means for the role of religious freedom, pluralism and the dream of what America can and should be, while reminding our brothers to the East that authoritarian rule and religious laws are not the sort of virtues that we wish to emulate.

Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage does not change the political calculus

I watched with considerable interest and some amusement the coverage of the president’s remarks in favor of gay marriage on the evening news yesterday. This is a president who has long courted the gay community but has largely employed half-measures in doing so. He pledged to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” during the 2008 race but it took him two years to get a law through Congress to enact a “legal process” by which the policy might be ended and another year to actually kill the policy in practice.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a goofy policy from its inception during the Clinton administration in 1993. Essentially the armed forces accepted gays as service members provided that no one ever knew they were gay; of necessity it meant that these men and women led double lives mandated by policy, not just the same way that a non-serving gay person may lead a double life before coming to terms with his or her sexuality. Clinton, who wanted to end discrimination against gays in the military, accepted this bizarre compromise as the best he could do in cooperation with a Republican-led Congress.

Have you observed a “homosexual act”?

The president’s stance on the issue of gay marriage has been said to be “evolving” and in his statements yesterday he seems to have made it clear that one of the things that pushed him in this direction is his recognition that so-called civil unions are not, in fact, equivalent to marriage in conferring the same rights and responsibilities. Another factor is that, despite the lather that the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family work their members into, a decreasing number of Americans actually care that much about sexual orientation or see a reason why homosexuals shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges as heterosexual citizens.

The CBS Evening News interviewed a few members of a Hispanic church who stated that they had voted for Obama in 2008 but wouldn’t in 2012 because of this issue–the point of this being that Hispanics in swing states supposedly won the election for Obama during the previous cycle and they may defect in droves now that he is “going against the Church.” I think this is nonsense. People who are sufficiently conservative that they allow social issues to determine how they vote in major elections were never going to vote for Obama, particularly in view of the right’s continuing effort to paint Obama as slightly left of Karl Marx. If you listen to the propaganda coming out of the right-wing media, you would think that the man had nationalized every formerly private industry there was, expanded social welfare programs, replaced the Stars and Stripes with the Hammer and Sickle, and dramatically raised taxes on the richest Americans. In reality, of course, he’s done none of these things. Obama the President has proven to be far more conservative than Obama the Candidate. In this way, he’s actually a lot more like his opponent than liberals like myself would prefer. So if anything this may gain him some traction with gays but won’t really lose him votes.

So does Romney profit from this? Well, his statement after being asked was something along these lines: personally I think marriage is between one man and one woman but other people have other opinions–this is what I’ve believed as long as I’ve been in politics. In other words, it was the most Romneyesque of all possible responses. One can only speculate as to what he may have thought before he entered public life; it’s a shame when a man cannot even commit to his own opinions. In any case, Romney will never support gay marriage–because lots of people would simply not show up to vote for him or would vote for some third-party buffoon with no chance of winning–but neither will he say bad things about gays. So maybe a few people will vote for him who may have otherwise stayed home, but he won’t see any real advantage from this either.

Who benefits? Two groups, the two stakeholders who have the most to gain or lose from gay marriage becoming the law of the land nationwide: gays and people who hate them. Gays don’t get anything tangible from this outcome, only the knowledge that the incumbent in the White House would support gay marriage initiatives if his opinion had any weight in state legislatures where these decisions are actually made. Anti-gay groups get another wicker man to burn and another fundraising tool.

On the whole I expect that this will turn out to be the very definition of a tempest in a teapot.

People are assholes

I realize that’s a pretty broad stroke, but let’s look at the evidence. Leaving aside all of the stupid and horrible things humans tend to do to each other, as we could fill up pretty much the whole Internet with that, we’ll take two case studies I like to call rattlesnake roundups and Snapperfest.

If you don’t already know–and I find it hard to believe that in 2012 no one has heard of rattlesnake roundups–these are events held in a number of states on an annual basis wherein people catch rattlesnakes in the wild, frequently by pouring gasoline into their dens, and take them back to a central location where they can be examined, measured, milked for venom, beheaded, and cooked for the viewing and culinary pleasure of massive crowds of spectators. I’m not quite sure why so many people hate snakes but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is yet another thing I can blame on organized religion. Christians, thanks to their holy text, associate snakes with the Devil.

I can’t think of a single redeeming aspect of this exercise. The venom collected has no medicinal value. The hunts can and do involve wanton habitat destruction. Many of the roundups still purport to provide some kind of public service by reducing exploding numbers of wild snakes that could be dangerous to humans, although the demographic data to support these claims don’t exist. The whole thing sounds a bit like something Jeff Foxworthy made up for a monologue, but instead it’s a real-life travesty.

It’s true that rattlesnakes have a potent hemotoxic venom that is potentially fatal to humans, if they’re clumsy enough to stumble over one and have ignored its auditory warnings. Turtles, on the other hand, are on record for having caused zero human fatalities (and very few injuries). Nevertheless, a barbaric tradition that I’ve only recently become aware of in Indiana is based on the exploitation of chelonians. These wonderful activities include things like running around with an Apalone to see who drops it on its carapace the least number of times and yanking on the heads of some Chelydra to see how many cervical vertebrae can be dislocated. Watch the video below if you have the stomach for it:

I don’t understand why we as a society revel in these kinds of events which only serve to denigrate these animals. Why are we pulling snakes from dens and turtles from rivers just so we can teach kids how to injure or kill them? From sulphur bacteria in deep-ocean thermal vents to blind salamanders in cave systems to the wingless insects that eat the glue in your book bindings, our planet is filled with a staggering array of life in myriad forms that are a magnificent testament to the power of a story that began three billion years ago and (unless Man has something to say about it) will continue on long after we are all reclaimed by the soil. Would it not be better to have festivals that celebrate the diversity and complexity of life on Earth? This sort of thing is a step in the right direction.