Four Things

Several topics floated around recently, but nothing I really wanted to write on at length — on the off-chance anyone was wondering: “Why hasn’t Wil blogged lately?”

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Universal Alphabet On A Grid

Categories: Language, Personal
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2017.11.04

Multi-lingual
Part of the packaging for my Joby GorillaPod had the above label, with the same phrase in 11 languages and at least six alphabets.
(Copyright © 2016 by Wil C. Fry.)

In mid-2016, I got to thinking about about the evolution of written languages (I think I was reading The Selfish Gene at the time). Human writing developed from pictographs and glyphs to today’s mostly phonetic systems (where each letter or combination represents a sound). The trend among websites to use symbols in place of words — in order to more easily reach multilingual audiences, certain icons are becoming universally recognized to mean “menu”, “settings”, “share”, “like”, etc. — seems like a backward trend to me.

I began to think about alphabets, and how we simply have to memorize the letters’ relationships with sounds and words. The shape of the letter “A”, for example, doesn’t inherently evoke the sounds that A makes in our language. We just have to be taught that “A” makes any number of sounds, depending on usage — pan, pane, and pauper illustrate three different sounds “A” can make. The same is true for all the letters in all languages (with the possible exception of “O”).

If the shapes themselves have no bearing on the sounds they represent, then the shapes are immaterial. They are also rather random — look at them and compare them to shapes in other alphabets that make the same or similar sounds. Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, Korean (hangul), Latin (ours), and others are different enough to illustrate my point. Any person or group who develops any phonetic alphabet can use any kind or number of shapes if building an alphabet from scratch.

It made me wonder:

What if scientists and/or linguists attempted to design an alphabet from scratch today? What form would it take? How would they begin?

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Stop Saying Robert E. Lee Was ‘Against Slavery’


Colonel Robert E. Lee
This man both owned slaves and ordered them beaten. Additionally, he led armies of hundreds of thousands of men with the sole purpose of defending the institution of slavery. I use “colonel”, because that’s the highest rank he attained in the U.S. Army.

Every single time Robert E. Lee is mentioned in the news, some ignorant-of-history conservative will jump in with the claim: “But Robert E. Lee was AGAINST slavery!” Some will even claim that Lee never owned slaves. They will often add that he wasn’t defending slavery when he led the Confederate armies against the nation that trained him at West Point. “He was defending his state of Virginia.”

I’m not sure why conservatives — especially in the South, but it happens in the North too — lean so hard toward supporting the Confederate States of America, while at the same time insisting that they’re not pro-slavery or racist in any way. But they do. And they often do it without facts.

To clear the air:

• Lee Owned Slaves

First, Robert E. Lee owned slaves. Of this there is no question in historians’ minds. It is well documented that he and his wife inherited a plantation full of slaves (“about seventy”) from his wife’s father, George Washington Parke Custis.

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So Much Winning! (And By ‘Winning’, I Mean ‘Prison’)


Presidential Scandals
This chart, from Daily Kos, compares the number of indictments, convictions, and prison sentences among presidential administrations back through Nixon.

As the Robert Mueller investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign heated up late last week (resulting in arrests this morning), I started seeing a copy/paste comment around social media. The short form is: Over the past 50 years of presidential administrations, there’s only been one prison sentence handed down for Democratic administrations, while there have been something like 90 for Republican administrations. Nowhere did I see any Trumpbots refuting this assertion, which is odd enough in itself (almost any assertion one makes about Trump or Republicans is usually met with fury and obfuscation these days, if not outright lies), but I also didn’t see anyone citing any sources for it.

So I decided to look it up for myself.

Right off the bat, memory tells me that the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were rife with criminal charges, convictions, and prison sentences, while I can’t think of a single Democratic administration official who was convicted of anything. But I know memory is a funny thing, so I won’t trust it on a charge this serious.

My mission: to determine whether this copy/paste comment is true, and to provide a source-packed blog entry detailing my information.

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How Religion Has Ruined Morality


Celebrate Death
I’m standing under a hideous giant cross that sits atop Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec. In the death cult that is Christianity, crosses symbolize the ancient torture device whereby God had himself killed (temporarily) in order to absolve mankind of the sin he was born into.
(Copyright © 2009 by Marline Fry.)

Religion has ruined morality. There. I said it.

I touched on this subject glancingly on my webpage Morality Without God, but here I want to treat it more directly. I toyed with other headline verbs: hijacked, twisted, stunted, subverted, etc. I think they all fit.

(Please note the three disclaimers/clarifications at the bottom of the entry.)

• Meaning

The first way in which religion has ruined morality is by clinging to a nonsensical, non-standard definition of the word. For example, Catholics can’t even define morality without talking about Creation, Original Sin, “the immortal soul”, God, “sin”, Christ, the Crucifixion, and other topics that aren’t within the purview of morality. Many Americans will be surprised that Islam’s definition of morality is much closer to the actual meaning of the word, at least in the first couple of paragraphs. Even so, Islam’s discussion of it also quickly devolves into unrelated topics: “The Islamic moral system stems from its primary creed of belief in One God as the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe… it is righteousness to believe in Allah…”

Try as they might to use reason to define good or bad behavior, religionists end up coming back to “sin”, believing in a god or gods, and obeying that god or those gods.

(The rest of us use something close to the dictionary definition, which simply talks about standards for right/wrong behavior.)

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#ItWasMe And #MeToo

Categories: Feminism, Personal, Sexism
Comments: 5 Comments
Published on: 2017.10.16

I admit I was overwhelmed yesterday as I began to see a string of #MeToo posts on Facebook — from women I know, women I’m related to, and a few other women that I don’t know in real life but who have befriended me on social media. I was simultaneously proud of them for speaking up and devastated to learn the sheer number who have suffered.

In case you’re living off the grid and haven’t yet heard of this, here’s a bit of background. Popularized by Alyssa Milano’s tweet Sunday afternoon, posting “me too” or #MeToo to social media has spread like wildfire. Milano’s tweet contained this text:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

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NFL v. Kim Davis: The New False Equivalency

I haven’t done a Silly Meme Saturday entry in a while; perhaps because I now follow fewer people who post silly memes. But I still see them occasionally.


Silly Meme
This meme, while it was intended to poke fun at conservative hypocrisy, rests on a false equivalency between Kim Davis’ marriage license protests and the protests against police brutality and systemic racism by some NFL players.

The meme at right, which I’ve now seen in several different versions, uses a photo of Kentucky Court Clerk Kim Davis. At first, the words typed on the image sound like a conservative soundbite about NFL players protesting police brutality and systemic racism, but then the sentence ends with a twist.

“Thumbs up if you agree NFL players are employees at work and should therefore keep their politics out of… whoops we accidentally used a photo of Kim Davis.”

The power of the meme rests on the assumption that viewers are familiar with both (1) Kim Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses, and (2) the conservative trope that “NFL players should stand for the anthem because they’re employees”. The idea is to point out the hypocrisy of conservatives who heartily supported Ms. Davis’ “civil disobedience” but now insist NFL players should just “do their jobs” and “protest on their own time”.

My biggest problem with the meme’s message is that it won’t change the mind of any conservative who holds both those positions, because they don’t see them as dissonant. They believe that Ms. Davis was standing up against “persecution” of her religious beliefs, much like the legendary young Hebrews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood up to Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who threw them into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a statue he’d made. And they believe the NFL players are being disrespectful to the U.S. flag for no good reason at all — perhaps because they’re “thugs”. So the meme’s only purpose then is to reassure liberals that yes, conservatives are hypocrites, and yes, we were right to criticize Kim Davis and we should probably laugh at her again.

But the whole point of the meme is falsified because its message rests on a false equivalency — an incorrect conclusion that the two situations are somehow similar. The only similarities between the Davis debacle and the NFL players kneeling is that people involved in both are actually “employees”. Let’s look at the differences:

1. Davis was a public servant — employed by a government body at the behest of voters; NFL players are employed by corporations (their respective teams). There have long been differences between public and private sector jobs.

2. Davis’ actions (refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples) directly discriminated against a protected class of people. NFL players’ actions (kneeling or sitting during the pre-game National Anthem) affect no one but themselves.

3. Davis’ actions prevented a group of citizens from accessing a government service they’re entitled to. Kneeling NFL players limited nothing to anyone.

4. Davis’ actions directly contradicted her own job description, which is to provide a government service to citizens. NFL players’ actions were irrelevant to their job description (which is to play football).

5. Davis claimed her actions were religiously motivated, despite zero religions actually saying that (that entry has been in place for three years; no one has been able to name a single religion with a doctrine or rule prohibiting baking cakes for same-sex couples, issuing government marriage licenses to same-sex couples, or otherwise discriminating against them). So she was lying. NFL players notably are not claiming a religious motivation, and in fact didn’t need to give a reason at all, because what they are doing is not illegal.

6. Davis’ entire point was negated by her own lifestyle (her religion condemns her own multiple marriages, as well as homosexuality). NFL players’ points were reinforced by the reaction to their silent protest.

Selected Thoughts On Mass Shootings


Mandalay Bay
This is the Mandalay Bay Resort And Casino, as seen from Las Vegas Blvd in early 2009
(Copyright © 2009 by Wil C. Fry.)

Like you, I’m tired of talking about it. “Mass shootings”. “Lone Wolf”. “Gun Control”. All of it. More accurately, I’m tired of hearing the same old lines. From everyone. Especially the same old lines that have long been debunked.

My friend Richard Barron raised a good point yesterday:

“We can’t just write off these guys as ‘pure evil’ without figuring them out.”

Labeling mass shooters or killers of other types as “evil” (as our president did) is just a safe way to say “not like us” — and that’s where we keep getting it wrong. We look for things in the shooter’s past to show how different he was from me, because no effing way I would ever shoot up a crowd. I’m not evil. We look for reports of domestic violence, torturing animals, or other documented behavior to separate him from “normal people”. And we usually find it. Or at least we find some grievance that caused them to snap. And we pat ourselves on the back, knowing that he’s “not like us”.

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What Would It Take To Convince Me?


Hell Is Hot
A one-woman religious march in Seminole, Oklahoma, used this sign, assuring viewers that “Hell Is Hot”, accompanied by stick-figure drawings of people burning in Hell.
(Copyright © 2003 by Wil C. Fry.)

A question often posed to atheists is: “What would it take to convince you God is real?” It’s asked so often that I assume it’s taught in some hardcore Christian debating school — though I never learned this myself when I was a hardcore Christian.

I imagine each of us would answer differently.

For me, I can’t think of anything that would — by itself — convince me a god exists, though I can think of several things (listed below) that would point me in that direction. I would treat each item as a separate piece of evidence that would build toward a conclusion.

Also, it would depend on which god we’re talking about.

• Which God(s)?

If you’re a pantheist, you don’t have to convince me; I already agree that the Universe exists — we only disagree on the definition of the word “god”. If you’re a deist — believing in an impersonal creator God who set everything in motion but has since moved along — then I say it doesn’t matter. This god makes no requirements of me and doesn’t interact with us at all — it is irrelevant.

But these are not the gods normally asserted; about two-thirds of the Earth’s population claims to believe in some form of YHWH/Allah. Though there are dozens of major disagreements about this God, and hundreds of minor disagreements, in almost all claims He requires much and threatens much. If this God is real, there really ought to be evidence.

The things listed below refer to a God like the one claimed by Christianity and Islam.

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A Secular Humanist ‘Prayer’

Categories: Personal
Tags: No Tags
Comments: 8 Comments
Published on: 2017.10.01

Just Nod If You Can Hear Me
A self-portrait.
(Copyright © 2006 by Wil C. Fry.)

Clearly prayer has an effect on the person doing it, even if there is no effect beyond that person’s body. Prayer calms people, adjusts attitudes, focuses thoughts, and so on. It seems similar to the known effects of meditation or controlled breathing. There is no evidence of any of these actually curing or helping cure any adverse medical conditions, but it is nonetheless obvious that mindful meditation and similar practices have calming, peaceful effects on those who practice them.

I was thinking about this while observing a Catholic repeat memorized lines. The weird thought entered my head that an atheist could be well served by a sort of “prayer” too. Many atheists use some form of meditation, but I wondered about using actual words — especially for those of us whose brains were bent by religion as children.

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If We’re Going To Elect Celebrities Anyway…


2020?
Oprah Winfrey with Michelle Obama
(Image is in the public domain.)

Two days ago, media mogul Oprah Winfrey seemed to reconsider a presidential bid — despite saying just a few months ago that she would “never run for public office”. I don’t know what changed, but I can guess: her realization that her qualifications far exceed those of our current president.

Immediately, I began seeing comments on social media (and under the news stories themselves) in this vein: “No! Not another celebrity president! Isn’t one enough?”

It gave me pause because it never made sense to me to disqualify someone simply because they’re already famous.

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What Does ‘Black On Black’ Crime Have To Do With It?

• Question

Why do conservatives insist on mentioning “black on black crime” in the context of discussions about police brutality and systemic racism?

• My Best Guess

They heard/saw someone else say it, and neglected to examine whether it was a great argument. It fit their preexisting notion that black people are inherently more violent and more likely to be dangerous criminals. Therefore it seemed to justify police officers’ irrational fear and over-the-top responses when dealing with random black citizens.

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1992: A Year I Could Do Without

(I won’t be writing or posting 9/11 memorials. I’ve done that before — in 2015, for example — and in multiple poems, including Old New York Photos, Another Ode To The United States Of America, You Can Not Crush Us, Tonight, and possibly others.)


School Photo, 1992
This is my sophomore yearbook photo from Central Bible College, taken some time in the fall of 1992.

Recently, my friend Richard Barron dove into his journals to re-ponder 1992, and it struck home to me that 25 years have passed since that strange and disconnected year in my life. I can’t say for certain that 1992 was the weirdest year of my life so far, but it was indeed weird.

If you know my history, it would not be shocking to learn that the first sentence of my first journal entry of 1992 talked about going to Sunday School, or that that the entire paragraph was about church. The year began and ended with me on Christmas break from Bible college, but those bookends resembled each other very little, and the time between was punctuated with frustration, sadness, poor decision making, and death.

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Population Matters


Crowded
Stopped traffic on I-35 in Austin, Texas.
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

I’ve tried — and ultimately failed — to avoid the conclusion that humanity’s greatest threat is the increasing numbers of humans.

The latest UN report says that global population growth is slowing, but will still approach 10 billion by 2050 (which sounds like a long way off, but is only 33 years away). India’s population is expected to surpass China’s in the next seven years or so. Sixty percent (4.5 billion) of the world’s people live in Asia, while only 6 percent (361 million) live in North America.

Almost all the population growth in the next century is expected to occur in Africa, with most of the remainder to come in Asia, while Europe and the Americas are expected to remain somewhat flat.

Of course, population figures isolated from other information are simply a curiosity with no real meaning. They must be paired with other information for any impact. For example, note that currently nearly a billion people go to bed hungry each night — about one of every eight humans. And add the fact that about a third of the world’s food goes to waste each year (just a portion of that waste would be enough to feed the 800 million hungry folk).

It’s easy to say that the hunger issue is one of systems, borders, politics, and/or greed rather than the sheer number of humans on the planet. If only we developed better distribution, eliminated the wars and factions that prevent the food distribution, and so on, then we could easily feed everyone. Of course, that’s true, and some are actually working toward those goals.

At the same time, another, more surefire way to reduce hunger in future generations is to produce fewer humans — especially in the regions where people are more likely to be hungry — the very same regions where population is expected to rise the most.

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How Much Do You Know About DACA?

“Who in their right mind can be against DACA?” is my latest question for anyone remaining in my circles that still plans to vote Republican.

Not that anyone from that side will answer. They’ve ignored my previous requests for explanations — for example when I asked about President Trump’s promotion of violence against the news media.

The “Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals” policy, better known as “DACA” is one of the best immigration policies to arise in the United States in all of our nation’s history. Today, Trump administration officials announced they’ll phase it out within six months.

Some facts on DACA:

* about 800,000 people are enrolled
* it affects only people who came to the U.S. as children
* it gives enrollees a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit
* all enrollees must undergo a criminal background check
* all enrollees must be currently in school, or in the military, or must have successfully completed either
* it costs $495 to enroll (every two years)

These are not the disease-ridden rapists and drug dealers that Trump claimed and his base hated. These are high school kids — or employed people who’ve graduated high school and/or served honorably in our military. These are people without criminal convictions. They were largely raised in the U.S. and aren’t familiar with the languages or cultures of the countries Trump wants to send them “back” to. In many cases, they were so young when they came here that they don’t even remember the countries we’re going to send them back to.

What is the problem with DACA then? The only legitimate complaint I’ve seen so far is that it supersedes existing law (source), and therefore shouldn’t have come from the president’s desk but from Congress. But that can’t possibly be a reason to be against the policy itself; it can only be a reason to pressure Congress to sign it into law.

It still leaves the question: how can anyone be against the idea of DACA?

Is it true that everyone with empathy has already left the Republican party? (An online friend asserted this recently.) Do those of you remain revel in the pain of others? Is it a latent sense of white superiority? (I should tell you that many of the DACA enrollees are white.) What exactly is it, then?

Guest Author: ‘How Trumpians Convinced Me’

(This is, to my knowledge, my first entry by a guest author. The original post is here on Facebook, and is reproduced with permission from the author, Anderson Connors.)


Trumpalicious

Okay, Trumpets, you’ve changed my mind. I now support our president. #MAGA! Here’s how that happened.

I was just minding my own business, writing trollish liberal comments on conservative news sites like I always do in order to get more of that sweet George Soros money, when some very smart Trump supporters began countering me with logic, reason, and pride in our great country. Here are some examples.

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The Elusive Definition Of ‘Life’

Ever since we humans developed language, certain words have had exact and universal definitions. But other words… not so much. Perhaps strangely, some of the most important words/concepts have been the most difficult to define.


Dead As Dirt
This patch of dried mud looks entirely dead. However, a microscope would reveal that it’s teeming with life. And a rainstorm would quickly reveal that other life had only been dormant within it.
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry.)

For example, when early humans came up with the first word for “sun”, nobody ever questioned its meaning: “that big hot thing in the sky; the biggest, brightest one”. In every language, through all of history, the meaning of sun only really changed once — when we discovered that “star” and “sun” were actually synonyms instead of two separate things; it’s just that one of the stars is relatively close to us while the others are very far away.

But at the same time, words like “life” and “alive” have elusive meanings that we have yet to precisely define — though many have tried. Physicist Fred Adams (in Origins Of Existence) noted: “Achieving a universal definition of life is unquestionably of fundamental importance, but no such definition has yet been forthcoming.” Adams and others have described characteristics of life, including reproduction, metabolism, and homeostasis, but there is still not a universally agreed-upon definition of life — or what makes something alive and something else not alive.

“Whenever biologists try to formulate definitions of life, they are troubled by the following: a virus; a growing crystal; Penrose’s tiles; a mule; a dead body of something that was indisputably alive; an extraterrestrial creature whose biochemistry is not based on carbon; an intelligent computer or robot.”

— William Poundstone, The Recursive Universe

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Changing The Narrative

My wife’s eyes were damp when she came home from our daughter’s dance class yesterday. She quickly told me why.

***

“I was sitting there, and other moms were in a group talking about the Nazi rally and the Confederate statues. One woman said something about how she didn’t understand why people wanted to remove the statues. ‘It’s just history; why do people want to erase history?’ It was loud enough for everyone to hear. I didn’t say anything, because I can’t. I’ll look like the proverbial ‘angry black person’; they won’t listen to me, so I keep looking at my phone. They went on like this for a while.

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One Of The Tamer Trump-Supporting Statements Is Still Garbage

There are some rabid Trump supporters out there. Much more insidious are the ones who make an show of reasonableness. “See?” they’ll say. “I’m a reasonable person and I still support this monster.” Those are the ones to watch out for.


Not Rabid. Still Bad
This Facebook post crossed my timeline late last night

Take for example the post at right, from a family member. (Click it to see the screenshot full size.) I don’t have the time or energy to unpack everything that’s wrong with it, but note the table-turning here.

“Trump bashing” — See how easy that was? In just two words, Trump is now the victim.

“Unlike our prior president” — Because for Trump supporters, so much of what they like about Trump is that he’s not Obama. There was just something about Obama — something they rarely said out loud — that they really didn’t like about him.

The phrase goes on to paint Trump as a calm and measured person — “…take his time, gather the facts, and then respond thoughtfully…” Remember, this is in the same sentence as “unlike our prior president”. What part of that is in any way unlike Barack Obama? And what part of that was in any way like Donald Trump?

“I was impressed by his restraint and ultimate condemnation of the violent acts…” — First, the record is clear: Trump condemned the violent acts almost immediately. That was never the issue. The issue was that he said “many sides” instead of condemning the white supremacists, the bigots, the KKK, the Nazis, and whatever other ideologies were represented in the “Unite The Right” rally.

“While all this was going on, the press was condemning the First Lady for wearing high heals.” — First, “heals” is a verb and has nothing to do with footwear; you meant “heels”. Second, no, “the press” refers to print media — newspapers, magazines, etc. This person probably meant “people I follow on Facebook” or “cable TV organizations”.

But what stuck my craw was the excuse for two days of refusal to name white supremacist organizations. That excuse was “gather the facts”. See my response at bottom of the screenshot. If you’re 70+ years old, you don’t need two days to gather facts and decide Nazis are bad. If you don’t know it already, you’re certainly not qualified to be President of the United States.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person responding that took issue with the above points (see screenshot). But many more were happily liking the post, including my own father.

I should have seen this coming. Six days earlier, the same person had posted that it’s “frightening” that non-whites got to be in honors classes at a high school, referring to this opinion piece on the Fox News website about a Virginia high school.

I commented on that one too, but the original poster never replied to me; only a troll replied (see screenshot below) and then quickly blocked me when I didn’t give in.


Frightening!
The same family member posted this six days before the above defense of Trump.

The race-based fearmongering piece by Todd Starnes talks of “a disturbing letter” sent out by John Handley High School (alma mater of Patsy Cline) in Winchester, Virginia. The letter calmly notes that the local schools, “like many divisions across the country, continue to see outcomes that are disproportionate by race and social class”. It goes on to show how the local school district will work to combat this. One of the goals is for their advanced classes to eventually have “proportional representation”. Nothing in the letter indicates that selections to these honors classes will be based on race; just that through various means, the administration hopes to correct the mostly white representation in honors classes.

Starnes took it farther, of course: “Martin Luther King Jr. must be turning over in his grave” he exclaimed, possibly with a wild glint in his eye. It was unclear whether he was foaming at the mouth at this point.

My family member took it even further, suddenly assuming that bridges and airplanes would be designed by unqualified non-white people. With exclamation points, if you can imagine!

The person who replied to my comment suddenly made it about an entire “demographic” (his code for “non-white people”) being “unable to capitalize” on opportunities and “excluding some of the best”. It was bizarre to say the least.

Both of these posts are suspect, but one taken individually can be chalked up to a misunderstanding. Taken together, however, since they were only six days apart, I realized I had yet another family member defending bigotry.

For me, it drove home the point that bigots aren’t always toothless banjo players living in the hills of Kentucky; sometimes they live among us. They’re here in suburbia. They work at our restaurants, file our taxes, fix our computers, and so on.

It is also no surprise that today, Trump backed away from yesterday’s clear statement and worried about the removal of Confederate statues.

The Aftermath Of Charlottesville (UPDATED)

Categories: Personal
Tags: No Tags
Comments: 11 Comments
Published on: 2017.08.14

You’ve already heard about the violence in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. There is already a Wikipedia page for the events (there were multiple pages, but now are being directed to this one). I don’t intend to repeat the news here; I want only to express a few thoughts.

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