Tag Archives: freedom of religion

The Devout Agnostic

by Jay Parr

Sunrise as seen from orbit. Taken by Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station.

I am a devout agnostic. No, that is not an oxymoron.

After considerable searching, study, and introspectionand, having been raised in the Protestant Christian tradition, no small amount of internal conflictI have come to rest in the belief that any entity we might reasonably call God would be so alien to our limited human perceptions as to be utterly, and irreconcilably, beyond human comprehension.

Gah. So convoluted. Even after something like a dozen revisions.

Let me try to strip that down. To wit: Humankind cannot understand God. We cannot remotely define God. We wouldn’t know God if it/he/she/they slapped us square in the face. In the end, we cannot say with any certainty that anything we might reasonably call God actually exists. Nor can we say with any certainty that something we might reasonably call God does not exist.

Splash text: I don't know, and you don't either.

To horribly misquote some theologian (or philosopher?) I seem to remember encountering somewhere along the way, humankind can no more understand God than a grasshopper can understand number theory.

I mean, we can’t even wrap our puny little heads around the immensity of the known physical realm (or Creation, if you prefer) without creating incredibly simplistic, and only vaguely representative models.

Let’s look at some of the things we do know. With only a handful of notable exceptions the entirety of human history has happened on, or very near to, the fragile skin of a tiny drop of semi-molten slag just under 8,000 miles across. That’s just under 25,000 miles around, or a little more than two weeks’ driving at 70 mph, if you went non-stop without stopping for meals or potty breaks.

Freight train in the American west, looking dwarfed by the landscape, with mountains visible in the far-off distance.

Even that tiny drop of slag can feel pretty vast to our little human perceptions, as anyone can tell you who has been on a highway in the American West and looked out at that little N-scale model train over there and realized that, no, it’s actually a full-sized freight train, with engines sixteen feet tall and seventy feet long and as heavy as five loaded-down tractor-trailers. And even though you can plainly see the entire length of that little train, it’s actually over a mile long, and creeping along at seventy-five miles per hour. Oh, and that mountain range just over there in the background? Yeah, it’s three hours away.

If we can’t comprehend the majesty of our own landscape, on this thin skin on this tiny droplet of molten slag we call home, how can we imagine the distance even to our own moon?

To-scale image of Earth and the Moon, with the Moon represented by a single pixel.

If you look at this image, in which the moon is depicted as a single pixel, it is 110 pixels to the earth (which itself is only three pixels wide, partially occupying nine pixels). At this scale it would be about eighty-five times the width of that image before you got to the Sun. If you’re bored, click on the image and it will take you to what the author only-half-jokingly calls “a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system,” where you can scroll through endless screens of nothing as you make your way from the Sun to Pluto.

Beyond the Moon, we’re best off talking about distances in terms of the speed of lightas in, how long it takes a ray of light to travel there, cruising along at about 186,000 miles per second, or 670 million miles per hour.

On the scale of our drop of moltener, Earthlight travels pretty fast. A beam of light can travel around to the opposite side of the Earth in about a fifteenth of a second. That’s why we can call that toll-free customer-service number and suddenly find ourselves talking to some poor soul who’s working through the night somewhere in Indonesiawhich, for the record, is about as close as you can get to the exact opposite point on the planet without hiring a more expensive employee down in Perth.


That capacity for real-time communication just starts to break down when you get to the Moon. At that distance a beam of light, or a radio transmission, takes a little more than a second (about 1.28 seconds, to be more accurate). So the net result is about a two-and-a-half-second lag round-trip. Enough to be noticeable, but it has rarely been a problem, asin all of human historyonly two dozen people have ever been that far away from the Earth (all of them white American men, by the way), and no one has been any further. By the way, that image of the Earthrise up there? That was taken with a very long lens, and then I cropped the image even more for this post, so it looks a lot closer than it really is.

Beyond the Moon, the distances get noticeable even at the speed of light, as the Sun is about four hundred times further away than the Moon. Going back up to that scale model in which the Earth is three pixels wide, if the Earth and Moon are about an inch and a half apart on your typical computer screen, the Sun would be about the size of a softball and fifty feet away (so for a handy visual, the Sun is a softball at the front of a semi trailer and the Earth is a grain of sand back by the doors). Traveling at 186,000 miles per second, light from the Sun makes the 93-million-mile trip to Earth in about eight minutes and twenty seconds.


Even with all that empty space, our three pixels against the fifty feet to the Sun, we’re still right next door. The same sunlight that reaches us in eight minutes takes four hours and ten minutes to reach Neptune, the outermost planet of our solar system since poor Pluto got demoted. If you’re still looking at that scale model, where we’re three pixels wide and the sun is a softball fifty feet away, that puts Neptune about a quarter of a mile away and the size of a small bead. And that’s still within our home solar system. Well within our solar system if you include all the smaller dwarf planets, asteroids, and rubble of the Kuiper Belt (including Pluto, which we now call a dwarf planet).

To get to our next stellar neighbor at this scale, we start out at Ocean Isle Beach, find the grain of sand that is Earth (and the grain of very fine sand an inch and a half away that is the Moon), drop that softball fifty feet away to represent the Sun, lay out a few more grains of sand and a few little beads between the Atlantic Ocean and the first dune to represent the rest of the major bodies in our solar system, and then we drive all the way across the United States, the entire length of I-40 and beyond, jogging down the I-15 (“the” because we’re on the west coast now) to pick up the I-10 through Los Angeles and over to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, where we walk out to the end of the Santa Monica Pier and set down a golf ball to represent Proxima Centauri. And that’s just the star that’s right next door.

See what I’m getting at?

What’s even more mind-bending than the vast distances and vast emptiness of outer space, is that our universe is every bit as vast at the opposite end of the size spectrum. The screen you’re reading this on, the hand you’re scrolling with—even something as dense as a solid ingot of gold bullion—is something like 99.999999999% empty space (and that’s a conservative estimate). Take a glance at this comparison of our solar system against a gold atom, if both the Sun and the gold nucleus had a radius of one foot. You’ll see that the outermost electron in the gold atom would be more than twice the distance of Pluto.


And even though that nucleus looks kind of like a mulberry in this illustration, we now know that those protons and neutrons are, once again, something on the order of being their own solar systems compared to the quarks that constitute them. There’s enough wiggle room in there that at the density of a neutron star, our entire planet would be condensed to the size of a child’s marble. And for all we know, those quarks are made up of still tinier particles. We’re not even sure if they’re actually anything we would call solid matter or if they’re just some kind of highly-organized energy waves. In experiments, they kind of act like both.

This is not mysticism, folks. This is just physics.

The crux of all this is that, with our limited perception and our limited ability to comprehend vast scales, the universe is both orders of magnitude larger and orders of magnitude smaller than we can even begin to wrap our minds around. We live our lives at a very fixed scale, unable to even think about that which is much larger or much smaller than miles, feet, or fractions of an inch (say, within six or seven zeroes).

Those same limitations of scale apply in a very literal sense when we start talking about our perception of such things as the electromagnetic spectrum and the acoustic spectrum. Here’s an old chart of the electromagnetic spectrum from back in the mid-’40s. You can click on the image to expand it in a new tab.


If you look at about the two-thirds point on that spectrum you can see the narrow band that is visible light. We can see wavelengths from about 750 nanometers (400 terahertz) at the red end, to 380 nm (800 THz) at the blue end. In other words, the longest wavelength we can see is right at twice the length, or half the frequency, of the shortest wavelength we can see. If our hearing were so limited, we would only be able to hear one octave. Literally. One single octave.

We can feel some of the longer wavelengths as radiant heat, and some of the shorter wavelengths (or their aftereffects) as sunburn, but even all that is only three or four orders of magnitudetwo or three zeroesand if you look at that chart, you’ll see that it’s a logarithmic scale that spans twenty-seven orders of magnitude.

If we could see the longer wavelengths our car engines would glow and our brake rotors would glow and our bodies would glow, and trees and plants would glow blazing white in the sunlight. A little longer and all the radio towers would be bright lights from top to bottom, and the cell phone towers would have bright bars like fluorescent tubes at the tops of them, and there would be laser-bright satellites in the sky, and our cell phones would flicker and glow, and our computers, and our remotes, and our wireless ear buds, and all the ubiquitous little radios that are in almost everything anymore. It would look like some kind of surreal Christmas.


If we could see shorter wavelengths our clothing would be transparent, and our bodies would be translucent, and the night sky would look totally different. Shorter still and we could see bright quasi-stellar objects straight through the Earth. It would all be very disorienting.

Of course, the ability to perceive such a range of wavelengths would require different organs, once you got beyond the near-ultraviolet that some insects can see and the near-infrared that some snakes can see. And in the end, one might argue that our limited perception of the electromagnetic spectrum is just exactly what we’ve needed to survive this far.

I was going to do the same thing with the vastness of acoustic spectrum against the limitations of human hearing here, but I won’t get into it because acoustics is basically just a subset of fluid dynamics. What we hear as sound is things movingpressure waves against our eardrums, to be precisebut similar theories can be applied from the gravitational interaction of galaxy clusters (on a time scale of eons) to the motion of molecules bumping into one another (on the order of microseconds), and you start getting into math that looks like this…


…and I’m an English major with a graduate degree in creative writing. That image could just as easily be a hoax, and I would be none the wiser. So let’s just leave it at this: There’s a whole lot we can’t hear, either.

We also know for a fact that time is not quite as linear as we would like to think. Einstein first theorized that space and time were related, and that movement through space would affect movement through time (though gravity also plays in there, just to complicate matters). We do just begin to see it on a practical level with our orbiting spacecraft. It’s not very bigthe International Space Station will observe a differential of about one second over its decades-long lifespanbut our navigational satellites do have to adjust for it so your GPS doesn’t drive you to the wrong Starbucks.

Physicists theorize that time does much stranger things on the scale of the universe, and in some of the bizarre conditions that can be found. Time almost breaks down completely in a black hole, for instance. Stephen Hawking has posited (and other theoretical astrophysicists agree) that even if the expanding universe were to reverse course and start contracting, which has not been ruled out as a possibility, it would still be an expanding universe because at that point time would have also reversed itself. Or something like that; this is probably a hugely oversimplified layman’s reading of it. But still, to jump over to popular culture, specifically a television series floating somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, the Tenth Doctor probably said it best:


So far we’ve been talking about physical facts. When we get into how our brains process those facts, things become even more uncertain. We do know that of the information transmitted to our brains via the optic and auditory nerves, the vast majority of it is summarily thrown out without getting any cognitive attention at all. What our brains do process is, from the very beginning, distorted by filters and prejudices that we usually don’t even notice. It’s called conceptually-driven processing, and it has been a fundamental concept in both cognitive psychology and consumer-marketing research for decades (why yes, you should be afraid). Our perceptual set can heavily influence how we interpret what we see—and even what information we throw away to support our assumptions. I’m reminded of that old selective-attention test from a few years back:

There are other fun videos by the same folks on The Invisible Gorilla, but this is a pretty in-your-face example of how we can tune out things that our prejudices have deemed irrelevant, even if it’s a costume gorilla beating its chest right in the middle of the scene. As it turns out, we can only process a limited amount of sensory information in a given time (a small percentage of what’s coming in), so the very first thing our brains do is throw out most of it, before filling in the gaps with our own assumptions about how things should be.

As full of holes as our perception is, our memory process is even worse. We know that memory goes through several phases, from the most ephemeral, sensory memory, which is on the order of fractions of a second, to active memory, on the order of tens of seconds, to various iterations of long-term memory. At each stage, only a tiny portion of the information is selected and passed on to the next. And once something makes it through all those rounds of selection to make it into long-term memory, there is evidence in cognitive neuroscience that in order to retrieve those memories, we have to destroy them first. That’s right; the act of recalling a long-term memory back into active memory physically destroys it. That means that when you think about that dim memory from way back in your childhood (I’m lying on the living-room rug leafing through a volume of our off-brand encyclopedia while my mother works in the kitchen), you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it. Because the last time you remembered it, you obliterated that memory in the process, and had to remember it all over again.

I’ve heard it said that if scientists ran the criminal-justice system, eyewitness testimony would be inadmissible in court. Given the things we know about perception and memory (especially in traumatic situations), that might not be such a bad idea.



So far I have avoided the topic of religion itself. I’m about to change course, and I know that this is where I might write something that offends someone. So I want to start out with the disclaimer that what I’m writing here is only my opiniononly my experienceand I recognize that everyone’s religious journey is individual, unique, and deeply personal. I’m not here to convert anyone, and I’m not here to pooh-pooh anyone’s religious convictions. Neither am I here to be converted. I respect your right to believe what you believe and to practice your religion as you see fitprovided you respect my right to do the same. Having stated that

Most of the world’s older religions started out as oral traditions. Long before being written down they had been handed down in storytelling, generation after generation after generation, mutating along the way, until what ends up inscribed in the sacred texts might be completely unrecognizable to the scribes’ great-great-grandparents. Written traditions are somewhat more stable, but until the advent of typography, every copy was still transcribed by hand, and subject to the interpretations, misinterpretations, and agendas of the scribes doing the copying.

Acts of translation are even worse. Translation is, by its very nature, an act of deciding what to privilege and what to sacrifice in the source text. I have experienced that process first-hand in my attempts to translate 14th-century English into 21st-century English. Same language, only 600 years later.


Every word is a decision: Do I try to preserve a particular nuance at the expense of the poetic meter of the phrase? Do I use two hundred words to convey the meaning that is packed into these twenty words? How do I explain this cultural reference that is meaningless to us, but would have been as familiar to the intended audience as we woulds find a Seinfeld reference? Can I go back to my translation ten years after the fact and change that word that seemed perfect at the time but that has since proven a nagging source of misinterpretation? Especially in the translation of sacred texts, where people will hang upon the interpretation of a single word, forgetting entirely that it’s just some translator’s best approximation. Wars have been fought over such things.

The Muslim world might have the best idea here, encouraging its faithful to learn and study their scriptures in Arabic rather than rely on hundreds of conflicting translations in different languages. Added bonus: You get a common language everyone can use.


But the thing is, even without the vagaries of translation, human language isat besta horribly imprecise tool. One person starts out with an idea in mind. That person approximates that idea as closely as they can manage, using the clumsy symbols that make up any given languageusually composing on the flyand transmits that language to its intended recipient through some method, be it speech or writing or gestural sign language. The recipient listens to that sequence of sounds, or looks at that sequence of marks or gestures, and interprets them back into a series of symbolic ideas, assembling those ideas back together with the help of sundry contextual clues to approximatehopefully—something resembling what the speaker had in mind.

It’s all fantastically imprecisewristwatch repair with a sledgehammerand when you add in the limitations of the listener’s perceptual set it’s obvious how a rhinoceros becomes a unicorn. I say “tree,” thinking of the huge oak in my neighbor’s back yard, but one reader pictures a spruce, another a dogwood, another a magnolia. My daughter points to the rosemary tree in our dining room, decorated with tinsel for the holidays. The mathematician who works in logic all day imagines data nodes arranged in a branching series of nonrecursive decisions. The genealogist sees a family history.

Humans are also infamously prone to hyperbole. Just ask your second cousin about that bass he had halfway in the boat last summer before it wriggled off the hook. They’re called fish stories for a reason. As an armchair scholar of medieval English literature, I can tell you that a lot of texts presented as history, with a straight face, bear reading with a healthy dose of skepticism. According to the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, that nation was founded when some guy named Brutus, who gets his authority by being the grandson of Aeneas (yeah, the one from Greek mythology), sailed up the Thames, defeated the handful of giants who were the sole inhabitants of the whole island, named the island after himself (i.e., Britain), and established the capital city he called New Troy, which would later be renamed London. Sounds legit.


In the beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain beheads the huge green man who has challenged him to a one-blow-for-one-blow duel, right there in front of the whole Arthurian court, but the man picks up his head, laughs at Gawain, hops back on his horse, and rides off. Granted, Gawain is presented as allegory rather than fact, but Beowulf is presented as fact, and he battles a monster underwater for hours, then kills a dragon when he’s in his seventies.

Heck, go back to ancient Greek literature and the humans and the gods routinely get into each other’s business, helping each other out, meddling in each other’s affairs, deceiving and coercing each other into to do things, getting caught up in petty jealousies, and launching wars out of spite or for personal gain. Sound familiar?

As for creation stories, there are almost as many of those as there are human civilizations. We have an entire three-credit course focused on creation stories, and even that only has space to address a small sampling of them.


Likewise, there are almost as many major religious texts as there are major civilizations. The Abrahamic traditions have their Bible and their Torah and their Qur’an and Hadith, and their various apocryphal texts, all of which are deemed sacrosanct and infallible by at least a portion of their adherents. The Buddhists have their Sutras. The Hindus have their Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. The Shinto have their Kojiki. The Taoists have their Tao Te Ching. Dozens of other major world religions have their own texts, read and regarded as sacred by millions. The countless folk religions around the world have their countless oral traditions, some of which have been recorded and some of which have not.

Likewise, there are any number of religions that have arisen out of personality cults, sometimes following spiritual leaders of good faith, sometimes following con artists and charlatans. Sometimes those cults implode early. Sometimes they endure. Sometimes they become major world religions.


At certain levels of civilization, it is useful to have explanations for the unexplainable, symbolic interpretations of the natural world, narratives of origin and identityeven absolute codes of conduct. Religious traditions provide their adherents with comfort, moral guidance, a sense of belonging, and the foundations of strong communities.

However, religion has also been abused throughout much of recorded history, to justify keeping the wealthy and powerful in positions of wealth and power, to justify keeping major segments of society in positions of abject oppression, to justify vast wars, profitable to the most powerful and the least at risk, at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of countless less-powerful innocents.

A lot of good has been done in the name of religion. So has a lot of evil. And before we start talking about Islamist violence, let us remember that millions have been slaughtered in the name of Christianity. Almost every religion has caused bloodshed in its history, and every major religion has caused major bloodshed at some point in its history. Even the Buddhists. And there’s almost always some element of we’re-right-and-you’re-wrong very close to the center of that bloodshed.


But what if we’re all wrong?

If we can’t begin to comprehend the vastness of the universe or the emptiness of what we consider solid, if we can only sense a tiny portion of what is going on around us (and through us), and if we don’t even know for sure what we have actually seen with our own eyes or heard with our own ears, how can we even pretend to have any handle on an intelligence that might have designed all this? How can we even pretend to comprehend an intelligence that might even be all of this? I mean seriously, is there any way for us to empirically rule out the possibility that our entire known universe is part of some greater intelligence too vast for us to begin to comprehend? That in effect we are, and our entire reality is, a minuscule part of God itself?

In short, the more convinced you are that you understand the true nature of anything we might reasonably call God, the more convinced I am that you are probably mistaken.


I’m reminded of the bumper sticker I’ve seen: “If you’re living like there’s no God, you’d better be right!” (usually with too many exclamation points). And the debate I had with a street evangelist in which he tried to convince me that it was safer to believe in Jesus if there is no Christian God, than to be a non-believer if he does exist. Nothing like the threat of hell to bring ’em to Jesus. But to me, that kind of thinking is somewhere between a con job and extortion. You’re either asking me to believe you because you’re telling me bad things will happen to me if I don’t believe you, which is circular logic, or you’re threatening me. Either way, I’m not buying. I don’t believe my immortal soul will be either rewarded or punished in the afterlife, because when it comes right down to it, even if something we might reasonably call God does exist, I still don’t think we will experience anything we would recognize as an afterlife. Or that we possess anything we would recognize as an immortal soul.

To answer the incredulous question of a shocked high-school classmate, yes, I do believe that when we die, we more or less just wink out of existence. And no, I’m not particularly worried about that. I don’t think any of us is aware of it when it happens.

But if there’s no recognizable afterlife, no Heaven or Hell, no divine judgment, what’s to keep us from abandoning all morality and doing as we pleasekilling, raping, looting, destroying property and lives with impunity, without fear of divine retribution? Well, if there is no afterlife, if, upon our deaths, we cease to exist as an individual, a consciousness, an immortal soul, or anything we would recognize as an entitywhich, as I have established here, I believe is likely the casethen it logically follows that this life, this flicker of a few years between the development of  consciousness in the womb and the disintegration of that consciousness at death, well, to put it bluntly, this is all we get. This life, and then we’re gone. There is no better life beyond. You can call it nihilism, but I think it’s quite the opposite.

Because if this one life here on Earth is all we get, ever, that means each life is unique, and finite, and precious, and irreplaceable, and in a very real sense, sacred. Belief in an idealized afterlife can be usedtwisted, ratherto justify the killing of innocents. Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. The implication being that if the slaughtered were in fact good people, they’re now in a better place. But if there is no afterlife, no divine judgment, no eternal reward or punishment, then the slaughtered innocent are nothing more than that: Slaughtered. Wiped out. Obliterated. Robbed of their one chance at this beautiful, awesome, awful, and by turns astounding and terrifying experience we call life.

Likewise, if this one life is all we get and someone is deliberately maimedwhether physically or emotionally, with human atrocities inflicted upon them or those they love—they don’t get some blissful afterlife to compensate for it. They spend the rest of their existence missing that hand, or having been raped, or knowing that their parents or siblings or children were killed because they happened to have been born in a certain place, or raised with a certain set of religious traditions, or have a certain color of skin or speak a certain language.

In other words, if this one life is all we get? We had damned well better use it wisely. Because we only get this one chance to sow as much beauty, as much joy, as much nurturing, and peace, and friendliness, and harmony as possible. We only get this one chance to embrace the new ideas and the new experiences. We only get this one chance to welcome the stranger, and to see the world through their eyes, if only for a moment. We only get this one chance to feed that hungry person, or to give our old coat to that person who is cold, or to offer compassion and solace and aid to that person who has seen their home, family, livelihood, and community destroyed by some impersonal natural disaster or some human evil such as war.


If I’m living like there’s no (recognizable) God, I’d better be doing all I can manage to make this world a more beautiful place, a happier place, a more peaceful place, a better place. For everyone.

As for a God who would see someone living like that, or at least giving it their best shot, and then condemn them to eternal damnation because they failed to do something like accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe in a God like that. I might go so far as to say I flat-out refuse to believe in a God like that. I won’t go so far as to say that no God exists, because as I have said, I believe that we literally have no way of knowing, but I’m pretty sure any God that does exist isn’t that small-minded.


So anyway, happy holidays.

This is an examination of my own considered beliefs, and nothing more. I won’t try to convert you. I will thank you to extend me the same courtesy. You believe what you believe and I believe what I believe, and in all likelihood there is some point at which each of us believes the other is wrong. And that’s okay. If after reading this you find yourself compelled to pray for my salvation, I won’t be offended.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry Christmas. If you celebrate the Solstice, I wish you a blessed Solstice. If you celebrate Hanukkah, I wish you (belatedly) a happy Hanukkah. If you celebrate Milad un Nabi, I wish you Eid Mubarak. If some sense of tradition and no small amount of marketing has led you to celebrate the celebratory season beyond any sense of religious conviction, you seem to be in good company. If you celebrate some parody of a holiday such as Giftmas, I wish you the love of family and friends, and some cool stuff to unwrap. If you celebrate Festivus, I wish you a productive airing of grievances. If you’re Dudeist, I abide. If you’re Pastafarian, I wish you noodly appendage and all that. If you don’t celebrate anything? We’re cool.

And if you’re still offended because I don’t happen to believe exactly the same thing you believe? Seriously? You need to get over it.


Mere Murder?

by Jay Parr


A month ago, around 5:15 PM on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 10 (right about when our transfer information session was getting underway here at UNCG), about 50 miles down the road from here in a neighborhood adjacent to the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, 46-year-old Craig Hicks entered the condo of his twenty-something newlywed neighbors Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, and firing seven or eight shots, murdered them both and Yusor’s younger sister Razan Abu-Salha. I will not use the word “allegedly” here because Hicks turned himself in just hours later, and readily confessed to the killings. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’re well aware of this incident by now. It’s not even news anymore.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these shootings ever since.

Mr. Hicks’ that’s-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it is that it was all over a parking dispute. It is pretty widely known by now that Hicks was in ongoing conflict with any number of his neighbors, about the use of limited parking spaces in the complex and other similarly-urgent matters, but murdering three people over it seems—well—just a tad disproportionate to me. There’s obviously more going on here, even if Hicks really does think it’s that simple.

More importantly, there’s more going on here even if Hicks is just a nutjob.


The problem here is that the dead are three observant young Muslims, while the killer is a white man who, in the end, represents mainstream America as a whole. That is to say that, for the vast majority of us, gentle reader, Craig Hicks ultimately represents you and me. That being the case, this senseless killing spree—carried out by one unstable individual, with no evidence of any real forethought or planning—can’t help but be much, much more than just one senseless killing spree by an unstable individual.

Let’s take a look at the players here. The dead are Deah Barakat, a 23-year-old second-year dental student at UNC Chapel Hill and and an active participant in an international charity working with displaced refugees; Barakat’s wife of six whole weeks, Yusor Abu-Salha, a 21-year-old graduate from NC State, who had been admitted to begin the same dental program in the fall and who was heavily involved in the same charity work; and her younger sister Razan Abu-Salha, a 19-year-old sophomore in architecture and environmental design at NC State, active in a charity for deaf advocacy.


They were kids. A married couple in the first third of their twenties, and her younger sister who was still a teenager. I don’t consider myself all that old (my firstborn is only two and a half), but I was already married and getting divorced when Mr. Barakat was born, so it wouldn’t be a bit of a stretch to say that I could have been their father. For that matter, so could Hicks.

They were achievers—if not overachievers. At 23, Deah was already in the second year of dental school. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve advised who at that age had yet to figure out that if they couldn’t handle general bio, general chem, and calculus in the same semester, maybe they shouldn’t plan on going to medical school. This guy had already been in dental school—no less rigorous than med school—for a year and a half. His new bride was no less of an achiever, having finished her bachelor’s degree and been accepted into the same dental school at the ripe old age of 21. I know less about her younger sister, but being a sophomore in architecture at 19 is nothing to sneeze at. They were clearly dedicated students, and they came from families that obviously valued education. Among the few things I know about their families are the facts that Deah’s sister has a doctorate degree and that the girls’ father is a psychiatrist (i.e., an M.D.).


They were also very giving people. Deah was heavily involved in a charity that provided dental care and support to refugee children. Yusor gushed on her Facebook page about the time they had spent in Turkey, and the people they met and the work they did while they were there. Razan was also involved in charity work, at an age when most mainstream-American teenagers are routinely and utterly self-involved. I guess what I’m saying here is that, had these kids been Christian instead of Muslim, other students their age would have been openly making fun of what pious goody-goodies they were. I mean really, married in their early twenties? Don’t drink at all? Up to their eyeballs in charity work? What are you guys, some kind of evangelicals?


Those are the dead. Three overachieving, charitable youths, who also happened to be observant Muslims.

From what I can find of the killer, he’s a paradox in many ways: Skeptical of all forms of religious extremism, loudly in favor of marriage equality and women’s equality and access to reproductive healthcare including abortion when needed (all of which I can get behind), but also kind of an extremist in his anti-theism and apparently rather belligerent about running around intimidating folks with his firearms, both of which I have problems with. I took a look at the public postings on his Facebook page. Once you get past all the clickbait it’s an interesting glimpse into his anti-theistic views.


But here’s the thing: For all his paradoxes, and for all the ways in which some of us may find his opinions distasteful and his actions reprehensible, in this case he represents all of white mainstream America. He’s the old white boy with the Midwestern background and the revolver on his hip. The one who shot three young Muslim students to death in their own home.

Sure, he’s not exactly a shining example of the mainstream American. I mean, he is in his mid forties and was studying for an associate of applied science, so not exactly an outstanding scholar. He’d had a series of crappy jobs and a couple of failed marriages, and a daughter who didn’t really want anything to do with him. He seemed to have had frequent altercations with any number of his neighbors, more than one of whom had complained about him, and it would seem he had a penchant for showing up armed to air his grievances. Apparently that wasn’t the first time he had shown up at his neighbors’ door over parking or noise, and he’s also reputed to have mocked the young women over their hijab on several occasions. So not exactly a friendly neighbor. And not exactly someone I want representing me as a white male mainstream American. But the fact remains: He’s the white dude here. He’s the “American,” regardless of where any of his victims were born or raised.


Hicks also had a collection of guns. Something on the order of a dozen of them. That does not make him exceptional among gun owners in the United States. However, it has been established that among developed nations, the US has considerably more guns per capita—and considerably more gun deaths per capita—than pretty much anyplace else. That alone puts every single one of us at greater risk for gunshot-related injuries or death, just by virtue of being in the United States.

But it goes beyond that. Despite what the fear-mongering portion of the media might have you believe, most of the people with those guns are not minorities. In fact, most of them are conservative, rural, white males. Even fewer of the open-carry activists (I prefer “bullies”) are minorities. Brown people in this country seem to learn that brown people carrying guns in this country are a bit more likely to get shot on sight, so you’re not going to find a lot of brown open-carry activists. No, the open-carry crowd is almost exclusively white. In fact, I would argue that strutting around in suburban shopping centers while openly loaded down with military-grade weaponry takes a level of hubris that is almost exclusively associated with white privilege.

That was Hicks. The white guy with the guns. In a country that has an exceptionally high percentage of white guys with guns.


For the record, I’m not completely opposed to guns, personally. I have on occasion enjoyed shooting targets at firing ranges and shooting cans out in the country. I won’t have one in my house, but that’s partly because I have a toddler who isby mere virtue of being a toddlera very unpredictable variable. However, when she is of an appropriate age, I do want her to learn to handle and use a firearm, if for no other reason that when she inevitably stumbles across one she will be able to handle it safely and confidently. If I did own a firearm, I can tell you that when it was not at the target range it would be stowed in a secure and locked gun safe, empty, maybe even partially disassembled, with any ammunition (if there was any ammunition in the house) locked up in a separate location. I sure as hell wouldn’t want it out and loaded and on my person on a daily basis. There’s just way too much to go wrong there, and for my personal anxiety level the risk of an accidental shooting outweighs any security I might gain by walking around armed.

The other problem with having firearms around constantly is that, put simply, people get angry. We all have irrational moods. Granted, some of us have them more often than others, but we all, without exception, get into moods when we are tempted to do things—or maybe we actually do things—that we wouldn’t do in a levelheaded state of mind. As a friend of mine, a writer and generally placid person, pointed out in a discussion on this topic, “I have been angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face.” If we’re all honest with ourselves, I think most of us have been there at some point or other in our lives.

The problem becomes when a bunch of usand inevitably the more belligerent among usactually have handguns strapped to our hips, because that’s when it becomes a matter of mere impulse control between “angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face,” and someone (or as it were, three someones) actually getting shot in the face.


Compound an overly-well-armed America with an Islamophobic America, and the odds get even worse for these victims. And before we start saying we don’t live in an Islamophobic culture, let’s take a look at the major spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last few years, much of it seemingly related to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to violence by Muslims—even if it’s a video of a single murder by ISIS extremists, specifically designed to be a spectacle, and the media are playing right into the terrorists’ hands by lavishing it with attention. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to the fact that the perpetrators of that violence are Muslim—not that they’re off-the-deep-end radicals, or that the vast majority of their victims are Muslim, but that they themselves are Muslim. Let’s take a look at the fact that any time a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, every single Muslim in the Western world is suddenly at a higher risk of a retaliatory attack.

Seriously, how much anti-agnostic rhetoric did you hear after Tim McVeigh blew up a huge chunk of downtown Oklahoma Citykilling well over a hundred people and well over a dozen children—in the largest terrorist attack in the United States before 9/11? I was loudly agnostic at the time, and I don’t remember getting so much as a second glance. How much did the US media shout that the IRA were Catholic terrorists? And how many pundits did we hear shouting that we should ship all the Catholics back to Rome or wherever they came from, or that we should ship all the agnostics back to I-don’t-know-istan?


But two radicalized young brothers blow up a trash can in Boston, killing the same number of people that Hicks did last month (yes, a lot more were injured), and they’re terrorists, and even though they weren’t affiliated with any Islamist terror organizations, a lot of attention is given to the fact that they’re Muslim. They’re Muslim Terrorists. And while yes, the rest of us are reminded that extremist violence can affect our lives at any given moment, every Muslim in America is at higher risk of being attacked just for being Muslim.

Two shooters representing a very radicalized arm of al-Qaeda storm into the headquarters of an irreverent Paris publication and shoot most of the editorial staff, and almost all of the attention focuses on the fact that they were Muslim, and that the publication had published images mocking The Prophet (pbuh). Not that they were Muslim extremists, mind you, but that they were Muslim. And they get presented by some particularly loudmouthed pundits as representing the entire Muslim world. And suddenly every Muslim in the Western world has to actively and loudly disavow the attack to avoid being associated with it. Because the assumption is that, as Muslims, they’re complicit. And even with all that disavowal, innocent Muslims all over Europe and the U.S. face a resurgence of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and mosques and schools are vandalized, and Muslims are harassed and attacked on the street, and the hate sites have a field day, and most of us don’t hear a word about any of that, because it’s not what sells advertising space.


And the end result of all this attention is that being identifiably Muslim in the United States (or much of the Western world, really) means constantly being under a heightened level of scrutiny from all directions. And it means being a lot more likely to encounter microagressions, intentional aggression, and even outright violence. In fact, on a daily basis a Muslim in the United States is five times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than before 9/11.

Despite Hicks’ professed equal-opportunity anti-theism and despite his claim that it was all about parking (and maybe noise), I have trouble believing that the fact that these young students were Muslim had nothing to do with it. Had they been something a little less Other in the American zeitgeist, some plain-dress Christian denominationsay, Mennonite for sake of argumentwould Hicks have been so compelled to murder them in their own home? I kinda doubt it.


image © Kevin Schoonover

Maybe in Hicks’ mind it really wasn’t about them being Muslim. Much like in various law enforcement officers’ minds (or in one particular wannabe law enforcement officer’s mind), maybe the decision to shoot really wasn’t about their victims being black. Not on the conscious level, anyway. However a lack of conscious motivation on the part of the shooter doesn’t make those victims any less black, or any less dead. Just as Deah, Yusor, and Razan are no less Muslim, and no less dead.

Maybe somewhere in Hicks’ mind this killing really was all about a parking dispute. It begs the question of how a mere parking dispute got so ridiculously out of hand that three innocent people ended up being ruthlessly executed in their own home (and clearly I don’t buy it anyway). But regardless of Hicks’ motivations in the momentand regardless of whether or not he intended to make any statement larger than that of an enraged neighborhis actions, in the wider context of our gun-toting and Islamophobic culture, make him the face of American terrorism: An armed, entitled, angry white male attacking an unarmed brown innocent (or three) because he felt threatened in some way or another. An attack which ultimately reminds everyone in that Other demographic that on some level they are outsiders, that they will always be outsiders, that they are hated, and that at any moment that hatred could blow up in their faces and end their lives, or the lives of their dearest loved ones.

That is not a mere murder. That is an act of terrorism.


Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and Islamophobia

by Carrie Levesque


I do not think that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo are acceptable or justified in any way, shape or form. It is always reprehensible to respond to verbal or written attacks, real or perceived, with physical violence. Period.

But the range of responses to these attacks has made me ask myself what the kind of journalism published in Charlie Hebdo contributes to the struggle against Islamic extremism, and what impact this kind of speech has on how we as a culture talk about and educate ourselves about these issues.

My intent here is not to shame or blame the victims. I am simply asking us to consider this: Going forward in this conflict of global proportions, how can we sanction reprehensible words and actions (like terrorist acts) in a forceful and effective way, without either escalating the tensions with offensive content or compromising our right to freedom of expression?


My intent is not to criticize Charlie Hebdo. This conflict is much, much bigger than Charlie Hebdo. It is about each one of ushow we talk, how we think, and our willingness to see and respect others’ points of view.

We have to first look beyond recent headline-grabbing bombings and massacres and acknowledge there isand has long beenviolence on both sides. In the Western media, we treat Islamist extremist aggression as one-sided. As if all the world’s Muslims just woke up one day and decided they “hated our freedoms.” However, if we fail to acknowledge the centuries of Western violence, colonialism and exploitation that have shaped the world as it is today, and that validate extremists’ claims of injustice and persecution, we cannot hope to truly understand the problem or address the violence.

We have to secondly believe that we do have the power to address the violence. Most of usMuslims and non-Muslims alikefeel fairly powerless to stop extremists’ attacksor our government’s latest misguided war in another predominantly Muslim land. But before young Muslim recruits pick up guns or sign up for flight school, before we choose to effectively ignore reports of the Other’s devastation after a poorly-placed shelling by simply sighing and reaching for the clicker to see what else is on, there are words that shape those responses. There are words, media, that encourage us to see the other side as less than human. Words are weaponsof peace or of warthat we all can use.


Certainly, both sides exploit media to attack the other and spread hate, intolerance and violence. In Inside Terrorism, a text we study in MLS 620: Dangerous Minds: Terrorism, Political Violence, and Radical Orthodoxies, author Bruce Hoffman meticulously categorizes the many ways terrorist groups use media to recruit, coerce and terrorize outside their ranks, and to strengthen morale or dampen dissent within. Unfortunately, extremists’ use of media and language is something we cannot really control.

But what about our own?

The violence that has gripped Paris in the last week has been horrific. But for me, no less chilling is the response I see across Europe attacking Muslims and “the Muslim world” indiscriminately, shifting focus from the real problem of extreme Islamist fundamentalism. The anti-immigration movements’ fears about the “Islamicization” of Europe strike me as racist fabrications, but for many, the media of the far right have them convinced they are real. As in the days of Nazi Germany (or 1990s Yugoslavia or Rwanda), sometimes propaganda is all it takes.


In the US, too, people rarely distinguish between Muslims and Muslim extremists. Our media make sweeping generalizations daily about “the Muslim world,” as if it consisted of one cultureone primitive, intolerant, bloodthirsty, anti-Western people. Many viewers don’t have much problem with this: It conforms to what they think already or they don’t have (and don’t take the time to find) access to more carefully vetted information. Not surprising then that such prejudices trickle down to the next generation, made insecure by the mess that is the world today.

A friend here was telling me recently that a couple of months ago, her 7-year-old daughter said at breakfast, innocently, apropos of nothing, “I hate Muslims.” My friend struggled to stay composed as she asked, as casually as she could, “Why do you say that?” Her daughter sensed she’d said something wrong and was embarrassed and confused. She confessed it was just something she’d heard, that Muslims were bad. My friend explained that some Muslims are bad, just like some people in every group of people are bad. She mentioned some recent events that may have caused people around her to say something unfortunate like that.

My friend reminded her daughter that two families among their family’s closest friends are Muslim, people her daughter loves and trusts like family. They’d had discussions in the past about their friends’ faith, why one friend wears a head scarf, why neither family eats pork. But, my friend now understood, her daughter didn’t see their friends as Muslims. Was part of her blindness to their faith an effect of this idea she’d gotten about what or who Muslims are? Their friends aren’t terrorists or refugees living off “our oil money” (another racist attitude shared by many in Norway as in France). How could they be Muslims?


The prejudices we ourselves carry today doom us to a present full of violence.

What we are teaching our children dooms them to continue these conflicts into the future.

The things we say, write, and draw matter. They make impacts beyond our intentions. One commentator seeking to put some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in context said, “Just because we think it offensive and we are not free enough to publish this doesn’t mean it has the intent we ascribe to it, or that in France people should also lack the freedom to publish it. I won’t deny it’s mean and utterly tasteless, but as with much American comedy content, people choose to consume it or they don’t, and they well know what they’re getting” (source).

I have two problems with this. First, we and our children are exposed to media everywhere. What we consume is only sometimes a conscious choice. Second, it is a rather naïve and problematic assumption that just because some individuals don’t “choose to consume” something, that that something has no effect on the culture at large and that those individuals won’t feel the effects of that something indirectly (for example, Muslims experiencing the fallout of anti-Muslim attitudes fomented by anti-Muslim texts, written or graphic).

When we tolerate uncareful speech about Muslims, whether from media that are just careless or that are aggressively offensive, we perpetuate and condone harmful attitudes toward Muslims in the same insidious way we have for generations in our own country with African-Americans and other minorities. We insist we’re not racist because of course we make exceptions for individuals: “Oh, but I’m not talking about you. You’re not that kind of black person/gay/Jew/Muslim.” But such excuses were not convincing then, and they are not convincing now.


When we make offensive jokes or cartoons, we normalize these words, ideas and images; we continuously push the line of what is allowed into darker territory. Protecting this kind of speech at the expense of privileging or promoting a culture that insists on respect for others’ beliefs often escalates the prejudice, misunderstanding, alienation and violence. At the same time that we lament how nothing’s sacred anymore and how all is irony, we prize our right to mock what is sacred to the Other in the crudest, basest terms.

In conclusion, my thinking falls in line with Hoffman, our terrorism expert from MLS 620, who suggests that religious terrorism can never be completely eradicated, but that we can try to ameliorate the underlying causes of religious terrorism, and its violent manifestations, through creative solutions that build bridges rather than exacerbate divisions. He points to how the War on Terror and our heavy-handed foreign policy have only worked to support extremists’ portrayal of Islam under siege. The same, I would argue, can be said for much of what I see and hear in the media. What are we fighting? Islamic extremism or Islam? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

I think we all have to decide what we consider the most serious threat to our world, whether that’s racism, threats to free speech, terrorism, or something else.  For me, it’s racism.  That’s what I want to protect my children from most.  If we work to combat racism, to teach everyone to respect and value all other human beings equally, I think all the other problems will eventually take care of themselves.



Season’s Greetings, Bah Humbug, and All That

by Matt McKinnon


So, they’re at it again. Bill O’Reilly, Fox n’ Friends, even Mike Seaver from the 80’s sitcom Growing Pains. It’s that time of the year to gird your loins, strap on some armor, grab a sharp object or two, and get ready for the annual War on Christmas. It’s going to be brutal this year.

Or so it would seem. Heck, Kirk Cameron even has a full-length film out on how to save Christmas—titled, appropriately enough, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Spoiler Alert: It’s not a remake of that yuletide classic from 1996 Elmo Saves Christmas, so don’t buy a copy thinking it will make a great baby-sitter for the little tikes while mummy and daddy sample the ole egg nog until they’re both Blitzen.

No, this is serious. The fate of the Holiday—er—Christmas season is at stake.


Now there’s plenty of material to make fun of in this latest holiday counteroffensive, not the least of which is Cameron’s suggestion to mothers and wives: “(D)on’t let anything steal your joy…. Let your children, your family, see your joy in the way that you decorate your home this Christmas, in the food you cook, the songs you sing, the stories you tell, and the traditions that you keep.”

Yeah, that’s just my wife’s problem this time of year, what with her sixty-hour work weeks and dissertation writing—letting something steal her joy. “Come on baby, put those papers away and decorate! Cook! Sing! Tell Stories!”

And there’s even more fun to be made of the historically and theologically unsustainable claim by Cameron that it was Pagans who actually stole Christmas, making everybody believe that Christmas is really just some Pagan holiday that Christians co-opted. Christians didn’t steal Christmas from the Pagan Saturnalia and Yule: Pagans stole it from them. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the ticket. And, and, Santa Claus is really just one of the wise men from the East who lost his way and wandered into the Germanic celebrations of Yuletide (with a soot-black horned sidekick named “Black Peter” if you happen to live in the Netherlands. I forget what part of the Bible that’s in, but it’s got to be somewhere).


But instead of making fun of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, I would like to agree with—and champion—its premise that Christmas has become way too commercialized and has lost sight of anything resembling a religious and holy observance.

Except…that isn’t the film’s premise.

No, instead of arguing along with some Christian groups, that the real war on Christmas is the fact that it has been almost completely co-opted by our neoliberal corporatized economy, Saving Christmas seems to embrace the very materialistic overconsumption that eats at the soul on that sacred day.


The message is targeted to other Evangelicals and conservative Christians (who would pay to see the movie) and not to those dead-souled secularists whom Bill O’Reilly charges with making war on Christmas. And the point seems to be that Christmas really is Christian (did any of us doubt this?) and that everybody should be making as big a deal about it as they possibly can—there’s where decorating, cooking, singing, and telling stories comes in.

But also, presumably, throwing oneself full throttle into this Christmas marketing blitz that begins earlier and earlier every year, and which now includes shelling out some dough to watch Kirk Cameron save Christmas.

And then there’s Federalist blogger Mollie Hemingway who points out that Saving Christmas ultimately means Defeating Advent.


What gets lots in all of this is that, once upon a time, Advent was the rather solemn and eminently respectful lead up to Christmas (at least it was when I was a kid way back in the ’70s). Or that it was the 17th century’s version of the Evangelicals—the Puritans in New England and regular-old England—who led the first war on Christmas when they attacked it as unhistorical and unbiblical, banning it and making it illegal in Massachusetts for much of the 1600’s. Or that, despite Cameron’s (and others’) love for their holiday, or their version of the holiday, there are in fact many other holidays celebrated around the same time. Some religious, some not so much.

And there are worse things in the world today than wishing someone “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or pointing out the syncretism between Medieval Christianity and the religions it replaced. Or opting out of all the commercialized craziness to concentrate on what’s really important—what folks think is really important in their lives (which we don’t have to agree on).

But making a holiday movie that embraces all of the commercialization and materialization of our culture is not a solution to the problem of the loss of meaning in Christmas and religion in general—it’s part of the problem.


So with that in mind, I offer my own corporate-free observance, culled from various places on the internet and elsewhere, edited, redacted, plagiarized, but always heartfelt:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally friendly, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, ethnically diverse, class-inclusive celebration of the wintertime holiday of your choosing, including but not limited to (in an order not meant to suggest priority or preference):

Winter Solstice, Dongzhi, Signature of the Constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hogmany, Advent, Thiruvathira, Saint Nicholas’s Day (Western Calendar), Christmas Eve, Christmas, 12 Days of Christmas, Night of the Radishes, Saint Lucia’s Day, Saint Stephen’s Day, Saint John the Evangelist’s Day, Holy Innocents’ Day, Saint Sylvester’s Day, Watch Night, Feast of the Circumcision, Feast of Fools, Festivus, Dhanu, Twelfth Night, Epiphany, Eastern Orthodox Christmas, Monkey Day, Eastern Orthodox Epiphany (Theophany), Three Kings’ Day, Larentalia, Modranect, Yule, Hanukkah/Chanukah, Yuletide, Yalda, Sadeh, Brumalia, Saturnalia, Festival of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, Boxing Day, Winterval, Bodhi Day, Agnostica, Zamenhof Day, Day of Neutrality, HumanLight, Chrismukkah, Mummer’s Day, Kwanzaa, Agonalia, New Years Eve, New Year’s Day, Omisoka, Karachun, and/or Rohatsu,

…practiced within the traditional, religious, and/or secular perspective of your choice, with respect for the traditional, religious, and/or secular perspective of others (and mindful of your option to not practice religious and/or secular traditions at all),

…as well as a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the commonly accepted calendar year 2015, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures, traditions, and/or religious persuasions whose contributions to society have helped make America a great country (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country nor is the only “America” in the Western hemisphere) and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, and/or sexual orientation of the wishee.*


*By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms: This greeting is subject to clarification and/or withdrawal. It is transferable without the explicit consent in writing of the wisher and may be altered, edited, redacted, expounded upon, or discarded at will. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement or guarantee any of these wishes and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

Employees of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and their families may be subject to disqualification from proposed wishes if these wishes constitute an infringement on proprietary wishing rights held and enjoyed by the UNCG institution itself, its Board of Trustees, Chancellor, Provost, Deans and Associate Deans of various colleges, and/or Department Heads, as well as the Board of Governors and President of the University of North Carolina, whose own well wishes may take precedence if limited and/or counteracted by these heartfelt greetings of yours truly.

Void where prohibited by law.

¿Habla American?: Why English as an Official Language is Blatantly Un-American

by Matt McKinnon

We the People...

Nosotros, el Pueblo…

I’m no fan of corporations.  In fact, I am often critical of them and the too-big-to-fail capitalism that has come to dominate global economics. But I am willing to congratulate them on the off-chance that they do something good or get something right.

Like the Cheerios commercials featuring a multi-ethnic girl with her family that prompted racist hate-speech from trolls everywhere. Or the recent revelation that multinational corporations are taking climate change seriously, since it poses a real economic threat to them.

Or when Coca-Cola broadcast this advertisement during the Super Bowl:

(Coke doubled-down amidst much criticism to play it again for the Winter Olympics.)

Now, I’m no dummy, and I’m certainly not naïve. I realize that the folks at Coca-Cola are first and foremost interested in their bottom line, and that means selling more Coke. And as we are all aware by now, the United States is undergoing a considerable demographic shift, so much so that white people will no longer be the majority by 2043. And more to the point: white kids will no longer make up a majority of youth in five or six years. Yes, five or six years! Which is why companies like Coca-Cola are so interested in multicultural approaches to advertising.

So yes, I know all this, and yet still find it laudable (1) that Coca-Cola produced the commercial, and (2) that they stood by it despite heavy criticism.

But enough about Coke. My real interest is the criticism that was generated by having non-white U.S. citizens sing a patriotic song in a language other than English. And the next logical step that many critics make: viz., that English should be the official language of the United States.

This impulse is nothing new. Nor is the fear and prejudice behind it.

Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin.

Our brilliant and esteemed Founding Father Benjamin Franklin railed against the unwanted influence of what he called “swarthy German” immigrants with surprisingly racist overtones:

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. “

(Indeed: Who knew that only the English were truly white?)

Of course, Franklin was wrong then, as those who criticize the Coke ad and call for English as our official language are wrong now. They are wrong for a practical reason based in historical fact: the new German immigrants did not “Germanize” the English, despite the fact that more Americans now claim German ancestry than any other ethnic or national group. No, they learned English because it was practical to do so, though some retained the use of their native tongue well into the 20th century.

Likewise, studies show that recent immigrants are assimilating in similar fashion, just as immigrants have been doing since, well, the original English came over and ironically did not assimilate into existing native cultures.

And this means that they are learning English.

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

A Pew study found that 91% of second-generation children from Hispanic families speak English “very well or pretty well” and that the number rises to 97% of third-generation children. Indeed, other studies show that not only are second and third generations learning English, they are more likely than not to learn only English—and not the language of their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland.

But there is another—deeper and more essential—reason why English is not and should not be the official language of our land. And while this argument could be made from the liberal and progressive “love-for-all-things-multicultural” perspective worthy of this “liberal studies” blog, the stronger argument is actually one more conservative in nature, rooted as it is in the very fabric of our democracy, in what it means to be American.

The argument is simple: making English, or any language, the Official Language of the United States is blatantly Un-American at its core.

In fact, the late conservative writer Joseph Sobran made a similar argument some thirty years or so ago, to the chagrin of some whose conservative principles only went as deep as their nationalism. (This was the same Joe Sobran whom Pat Buchanan called “perhaps the finest columnist of our generation” and Ann Coulter named “the world’s greatest writer” and the “G.K. Chesterton of our time.”)

Joseph Sobran.

Joseph Sobran.

The point is twofold: First, from a conservative perspective, government should be limited and should only be about the business of governing—not social engineering. Mandating that Americans learn and use English is as absurd from a conservative viewpoint as mandating that they learn and use French, or that they eat their vegetables and lay off the Supersized fries and soda. This, argues conservatism, is simply not the purview of government, and it doesn’t matter whether learning English or eating broccoli are good ideas or not (as I think they both are). What matters is that this is not the government’s responsibility to decide or dictate.

And second, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” should, as much as is possible, reflect the majority of the people, while safeguarding the rights of the minority. But such a reflection, like the people it reflects, is in a constant state of change.

So in this case, what could be more basic than the right to express oneself in the language of one’s choice? And what could be more democratic than a government committed to accommodating that language—those languages—and to understanding and communicating with its own citizens?

For what right is more basic than the choice of language? Freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? All of these are secondary, at least temporally, to the choice of language whereby one speaks, or publishes, or prays aloud to their God.

Indeed, the only act synchronous to that of speaking is the forming of one’s very thoughts. And yet, even here, do we really decide what language we use to form our thoughts? Or does our language shape our thoughts and even ourselves?

If so, what would it mean that for some U.S. citizens, their very thoughts are formed in an unofficial language?

Government should not be in the business of constraining either the free thought or the free expression of its citizens.

"We speak English."

“We speak English.”

Furthermore, the fact of English as our common language is an accident of history. Not only are we the largest English-speaking nation in the world, we are also the second largest Spanish-speaking nation (second only to Mexico). And what is more democratic than a common language that actually resonates with the voice of the people? If Spanish, or French, or Chinese should one day become the preferred language of a majority of U.S. citizens, how undemocratic would it be that their free and common expression would be constrained by the short-sightedness of having made English the Official Language?

To extrapolate from James Madison’s argument against the state establishment of Christianity in his Memorial and Remonstrance: any government that can today make English the official language can tomorrow replace it with Spanish or Arabic.


This is what it means to be American: to have the right to choose whatever language one wishes to express oneself, be it for business, or entertainment, or religion, or school—ever mindful of the need to balance this with the necessity of being understood.

As Americans, we lack an ethnic identity. And we lack an established religion. And we lack an official language.

But we are united as a people precisely because we lack these. Since our ethnic identities and religions and languages are plural. As are we.

But in this plurality there is strength.

And from this plurality there is unity.

Or, as our Founding Fathers put it,

Dean Bryant Johnson, "E Pluribus Unum" (2012), detail.

Dean Bryant Johnson, “E Pluribus Unum” (2012), detail.

E pluribus unum.

(And that ain’t English.)