It’s a curious and depressing fact that while religious people very generally expect that their beliefs will be respected, they seldom show much inclination to respect the views of others.

It sometimes happens that someone makes a statement about “God.” This happens from time to time on Facebook, for example. After making such a statement, the person who made it may become quite upset if anyone expresses disagreement. They feel they should be entitled to make statements about “God” in a public forum, and they also feel that no one should disagree — or that if one disagrees, one ought politely to remain silent, out of respect.

The notion that atheists are entitled to the same respect seems not to occur to them.

Let’s be clear about this: If you so much as mention “God” in a way that indicates you believe in such a thing, you are guilty of the same faux pas that you’re happy to accuse others of. You are directly disputing the understanding of the universe that is held (with, I might add, a great deal more supporting evidence than you can marshal) by atheists. Merely by mentioning “God” as anything more than a ridiculous and unsupported hypothesis, you are stating categorically that atheists are wrong.

Now, either it is disrespectful to suggest that someone’s understanding of the world is wrong, or it isn’t. If it isn’t wrong to do that, then you have no business whatever whining when I point out that your statements about “God” are entirely unsupported by a shred of evidence, and on that basis are not to be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, it is wrong to make such a suggestion, then you simply cannot mention “God” or your notions about “God” in any public forum, because to do so would violate your own standard of conduct.

In general, I approve of the idea that when one sees or hears somebody making a possibly dangerous mistake in their thinking about the world, one ought to correct them. That’s the friendly thing to do. If your friend thinks that the way to back a car out of the garage is to put it in low rather than reverse, you need to explain to them that they’re about to put a hole in the wall of the garage. If your friend thinks that children shouldn’t be vaccinated because vaccines cause autism, the friendly thing is to explain to them that they’re entirely wrong, that they’re putting their children at risk. If your friend thinks they can safely handle a pistol without checking to see whether it’s loaded — well, in that case, you need new friends, because the ones you have are dangerous and probably won’t last long.

But when your friend has a wrong idea not about automobiles, vaccines, or firearms, but about the whole entire universe, somehow you’re expected to remain silent, because that’s the polite, friendly thing to do.

I don’t get it.

Bad Memes

There is an infectious agent (I forget whether it’s a virus or a bacterium) that causes ants to crawl out to the tips of grass leaves. This change in the ant’s behavior is of no value to the ant — the value is to the infectious agent. A cow eats the grass and ingests the ant. The virus (we’ll say it’s a virus) needs to be in the digestive tract of a cow in order to reproduce.

There’s another virus that causes rodents to become fearless around cats. Same deal. The infection results in the death of the rodent, who is now behaving in an irrational manner, charging around in front of the cat instead of running. The behavior is, however, advantageous to the virus, which needs to be in the digestive tract of the cat in order to reproduce.

These examples explain a great deal about the current political environment in the United States.

I’ve been reading about memes. The idea is, a meme is not a physical thing like a virus, but it can act in an analogous way. A meme is a pattern of mental behavior, and the pattern can either reproduce successfully by spreading through a human culture, or it can die out. Patterns of behavior that are well suited to the human brain tend to spread. Those patterns are called memes.

The behavior, in many cases, is verbal behavior. An idea that lodges successfully in your brain and urges you to speak (or write) that idea so that your fellow humans can ingest it is going to survive. That’s how the meme reproduces. It’s evolution in action.

A meme that causes your brain to bypass the fact-checking process has an advantage. It’s more likely to survive, because it’s streamlined. Fact-checking is not only expensive biologically (in terms of brain effort), fact-checking can also kill bad memes. So if the meme can bypass fact-checking by appealing to your emotions, it’s more likely to survive.

This is how the idea of “God” has become so pervasive. It appeals to our emotions. The “God” idea has to bypass fact-checking in order to survive, because fact-checking would kill it.

Many conservative ideas survive in exactly the same way: Fact-checking would kill them. Racial bigotry, for example (a very popular meme among conservatives), appeals to our fear of the stranger. Someone who is Not Like Me And My Friends is a source of fear. The meme — the idea that other races are inferior to mine — hijacks that fear and uses it to reproduce itself, spreading through a population.

This morning I got into one of those pointless Facebook wrangles with a fellow who insisted on thinking that there’s a debate about global warming. There isn’t, not really. The details are still somewhat unsettled, but the facts are clear. The polar ice caps are melting (fact). Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (fact). Human activity produces an enormous excess of carbon dioxide (fact). Therefore, humans are causing global warming. Them’s the facts.

What seems to happen is the the meme “global warming is a hoax” has hijacked the emotional mechanism that says, “I’m just as smart as anybody else.” And also, “My friend says this, and I trust my friend.” Those are simple, emotionally appealing ideas. The meme uses those emotions to spread itself. In the absence of those emotions, fact-checking would be a lot more likely to kick in. Fact-checking would destroy the meme.

I feel sorry for people whose brains have been hijacked by bad memes. Also, those people scare me, because they’re dangerous. They’re in the grip of these mentally transmitted infectious ideas, and they’re quite likely to destroy all that’s good in our shared future.

They’re rodents dancing fearlessly in front of the cats. And they don’t know why they’re doing it. Memes are mind control agents. Check yourself.

Turn Left at Stop Sign

Some things are more important than selling books.

I’ve been thinking out loud on this blog for some years now. Long-time readers (of whom there may be three or four) will have noticed that last year I repurposed the blog, writing exclusively about writing. This was an attempt (which doubtless would have proved completely ineffectual) to use “social media” to promote the series of novels that I’m planning to publish this year. I don’t tweet, but by golly I blog. Or blob. Or glob.

In view of the current political situation, however, I’m going to have to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I commented about anything and everything. Writers who appreciate my take on other topics will of course want to stick around, and will find occasional posts on writing tucked in amongst the musing, ranting, and other ill-considered verbiage. If you’ve been enjoying the discussion of writing but find that you’re not in sympathy with my political views, all I can say is, “Fine. Go away. And good riddance.”

The time for being accommodating, for “agreeing to disagree,” has passed. It’s time to resist.

I would leave the United States in a hot New York second, but it’s hard to get a resident visa to live anywhere else when you’re retired — or at least, to live anywhere that I’d want to live. You can get a work visa, but even that is difficult to acquire, and I don’t feel much like working full-time now that I’m nearing 70. I could go to college in New Zealand, I’m sure, but when the student visa expired I’d have to come back to the U.S.

So I’m stuck here. And you’re stuck with me. Sound like a plan?

More About Learning More

I dropped out of college in the Sixties. Long story, and not likely to interest anybody, outside of a small circle of friends. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to college to finally get a degree or two. Trying to find an option that actually makes sense turns out to be a bit of a treasure hunt.

Because I’m a musician, it’s natural to think majoring in music would be the right move. Specifically, as I’m an expert in synthesizers and music software, maybe a music degree with a specialization in electronic music.

I found a school back east that has a terrific program in that area — Bard College. I know I’d love being a student at Bard, but there are several not-so-delightful factors to weigh. First, it’s fearfully expensive. We’re talking $50,000 per year, and I’m still a lowly sophomore. That works out to about $6,000 per undergraduate class per semester. Ouch! Then there are the East Coast winters. I’m an old guy, and it’s not clear how well I would handle blizzards. On top of which, it’s a one-way ticket. If I sell my house in California, move back to upstate New York, and buy a house there, I’ll get enough cash out of the deal to pay the tuition — but I’ll be priced out of the California real estate market, so if the winters prove too severe for me, I’m stuck.

How about a music degree from a school near where I live? Well, there’s UC Berkeley. I’m pretty sure they would have to readmit me, because I left in good standing in 1968. But they have no undergraduate electronic music specialization — their music department is entirely performance-oriented. So I’d have to play cello in their orchestra. The orchestra rehearses two nights every week, for 2-1/2 hours a night, and get this — it’s a one-unit class. Five hours of rehearsal, plus all of the hours of practice needed to learn the parts, and you get one lousy unit of credit. Factor in the grotesque process of commuting from Livermore to Berkeley — can’t take BART, because it’s too long a walk uphill from the Berkeley BART station to the music building if you’re over 65 and carrying a cello. So I’d have to drive and deal with the inadequate parking facilities. Not a swell idea.

San Jose State has a nice electronic music curriculum, but here we hit another snag. I was a full-time student at Cal State East Bay for one quarter in 2004, but I’m still a sophomore, and SJ State is not currently accepting lower-division transfer students from the other state universities. I’d have to go back to CSEB for a semester or two and then apply for a transfer. The commute to CSEB is merely bad, not horrendous, and they have capacious parking lots! But no electronic music, of course. Parking at SJSU sucks, and it’s at least as long a commute as Berkeley — a full hour each way on the freeway, basically. For years. Makes me want to drop out, just thinking about it.

How about an online degree program, then? Getting an undergraduate music degree online is all but impossible, because of the performance requirements — a senior recital and all that. I did find one school, Valley City State in North Dakota, that offers an accredited online-only music degree. You take lessons and play in an ensemble in your local area and document it for their faculty to evaluate. But, whoops! They have no string faculty, so you can’t do their online degree if your major instrument is cello.

So maybe a degree in music is a bad idea. Maybe I should major in English, with an emphasis in writing fiction. No performance requirements to sweat over, no lugging a cello around on campus, this could work. Or how about an online degree in English? Could be a winner!

Judging by their own website, Southern New Hampshire University looks good. It’s accredited, affordable, and has an online-only fiction writing degree. But after a quick trip to Yelp, I had to cross SNHU off my list. Although it’s a non-profit, not a for-profit diploma mill like some other online schools, it appears their sales force is very aggressive, their teachers underpaid and forced to adhere to a cookie-cutter curriculum, and their responsiveness to administrative foul-ups deplorable. Some people seem to like SNHU, but it got a lot of one-star reviews.

Right now I’m thinking, maybe an English degree from UC. I could take BART to campus, the cost would be manageable, and I wouldn’t have to sell my house and move to a new town where I know nobody in order to enroll. The English Department seems to have a creative writing specialization, but the course offerings in fiction writing may be a bit skimpy. A cursory reading of the degree requirements suggests that I might have to take a couple of courses in either poetry (ugh) or script-writing (yawn).

Maybe I could troll the poetry-writing class by turning in some of my refrigerator magnet poems. Here’s my latest:

She will shake two easy dreams

and smile at every velvet hand.

In the rain you must trust a window,

but do not lust after the ferocious breeze;

the weak black picture is essential.

She will stop the clouds of time

and voice the power of true honey

as we blaze together,

lick the rhythms of yesterday,

and whisper about our feet.

Do you think they’d believe me if I told them that’s a love poem?

Smut Smiters

I’m kind of burned out on the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing — trying to explain to people that a trans woman is not “a man in a dress.” But somewhere along the way, I was taking a quick, horrified glance at a couple of radical feminist web pages, and I was reminded that most radical feminists are vehemently opposed to pornography.

Whenever we find supposed leftists aligning themselves with fundamentalist Christians, we should probably be a little suspicious. But the Christians’ objections to pornography are really too silly to be worth discussing. The feminist objections, I think, can be dealt with in a rational manner.

If I understand it correctly (and please correct me if I’m missing something), the feminist objections to pornography are, first, that the pornography industry exploits women; and second, that pornography objectifies women by portraying them simply as bodies suitable for lusty purposes rather than as whole human beings.

Of course, gay male pornography complicates the picture. Really, we should be talking about “people” rather than “women.” But let’s avoid complicating the discussion.

I’m sure it’s true that the pornography industry exploits women. But then, so does the garment industry in Taiwan. I’m guessing that the type of exploitation that so upsets radical feminists is that the women who are employed as photographic models or film actresses in pornography are required to take their clothes off as part of their employment. And to engage in real or simulated sex acts.

However, artist models routinely pose naked. And are sometimes paid for doing so, I’m sure. For that matter, there are nudist colonies and clothing-optional beaches. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either nakedness or being paid to get naked.

If some women feel that being in porn (or stripping) is the only way they can earn a decent living, then yes, that’s exploitation. The solution is not, however, to remove those job opportunities. The solution is to provide other well-paying job opportunities so that women don’t have to do porn unless they want to.

I’m pretty sure some of them do want to. And that fact is nobody’s business but their own. Neither the radical feminists nor the fundie Xtians get to say, “But she shouldn’t want to!” No, you don’t get to go there.

Is there something uniquely awful about being paid for sex, as opposed to, say, being paid for cleaning motel rooms or working as a cashier at Wal-Mart? No, I think we can dismiss that notion. Sex is a normal, healthy activity.

Prostitution ought to be legal, and plenty of feminists understand that. Laws against prostitution punish women. How is engaging in sex for pay on camera any different? It’s not.

In sum, the argument that pornography exploits the women who work in the porn industry pretty much falls apart when you look at it closely.

But doesn’t pornography objectify women? Doesn’t it demean all women, whether or not they’re on camera? Doesn’t it give men unrealistic fantasy ideas about women’s bodies? Doesn’t it damage men’s ability to relate to real women as whole human beings?

I think if you took a survey, you would find that most heterosexual men think healthy, well-formed 20-year-old women are sexier than healthy, well-formed 40-year-old women. I think you would find that most men are not sexually aroused by pimples, wrinkles, stretch marks, or surgical scars. (There are exceptions, of course.) Most men have, in other words, an ideal in their heads of what they would like a sex partner to look like. The ideal will differ from one man to another, but there will almost always be an ideal. A man who is equally aroused by all women, and who is not lying about it, would be extremely rare, and would probably be worth studying in a laboratory that’s equipped with brain scanning technology. We can safely say there must be something wrong with his wiring.

Men’s ideas of what they would ideally prefer in a sex partner are not created by the porn industry. The ideals are natively just there, in the men’s heads. The porn industry certainly targets those ideals, but it doesn’t create them. It can’t create them. It’s really difficult to get anyone sexually turned on by something that he or she doesn’t already want to get turned on by.

Most men understand that the sex partner they have is less than ideal — and they’re okay with that. Unless something a lot better comes along, of course. Infidelity and divorce are painful and unfortunate, but they’re not caused by the porn industry. They would exist, and probably at about the same frequency, even if pornography were prohibited. Indeed, a case could be made that pornography gives some men a sexual outlet that allows them to remain faithful to their wife. In the absence of pornography, they might feel a greater need to seek outside stimulation of a more direct and personal nature.

It’s important, too, to emphasize that when a man looks at a woman — perhaps a stranger — and is turned on by her in a specifically sexual way, without reference to her personality or her other fine qualities, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure millions of happy marriages have begun in momentary lust. Men are not such primitive, loathsome creatures that they are unable to move outward from their lust into an appreciation of a woman’s intelligence, honesty, or other attributes.

One of the basic rules of progressive politics is this: Politics stops at the bedroom door. You don’t get to have a political opinion about what turns anybody on. You don’t get to say, “But that shouldn’t turn you on!” As long as the two (or more) people involved in the sexual encounter are consenting adults, anything they do is fine, and any feelings that they have are fine.

Attempting to demonize pornography is, at root, an attempt to tell men, “But you shouldn’t be turned on by that!” It’s bullshit. Men are turned on by whatever they’re turned on by, and as long as it involves consenting adults, you don’t get to have an opinion about it.

Sexual attractiveness is a commodity. The mating game is market economics in action. We all try to make the best deal we can, and we all try to market ourselves as well as possible — through personal grooming, buying a fast car, or whatever. That’s biology, as expressed through human instinct and human culture. I’m going to be unkind here. My suspicion is that quite often radical feminists object to the portrayal of women in porn because they, the radical feminists, feel ill equipped to compete with the women in porn.

But you know, I’m ill equipped to compete with Ben Affleck. That’s reality. Deal with it.

“The New Atheists”

One occasionally sees references to “the new atheists.” It’s not a term of flattery or respect. The people who use this phrase seem, almost without exception, to be trying to discredit the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and perhaps one or two others.

Their attempts are usually irritating. Bad reasoning, ad hominem attacks, and sweeping ignorant generalizations are not in short supply. Tonight, while doing the dishes, I think I figured out what the problem is.

At a fundamental level, atheism is one thing, and criticism of organized religion is a different thing. One can be scathingly critical of organized religion (some of it or perhaps all of it) without being an atheist. Conversely, one can be an atheist purely as a personal matter, while possibly retaining great respect for religious values, religious communities, and religious symbols.

It seems to me that people who use the phrase “the new atheists” are not, for the most part, upset with the atheistic reasoning (call it a credo if you like; I won’t) of atheists new or old. Lack of belief in a deity is not the issue. The issue is that these people think you shouldn’t criticize organized religion. They think religion is entitled to be accorded some sort of unique respect — that religion is deserving of a special social standing that lifts it into a region where criticism ought not to penetrate. What they’re disturbed about is that Dawkins, Hitchens, and their allies. not content merely to profess or promote atheism, also insist on leveling devastating and well-reasoned critiques at the institutions of organized religion. And from time to time at the mental processes of religious believers.

This is, I suppose, a new trend. There have always been atheists. We have a few writings from pre-Christian Rome that suggest that at least a few upper-class Romans were atheists. It seems quite likely that several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also atheists, though they cloaked their opinions very carefully in their writings in order to avoid disturbing the status quo. But until quite recently, religion was sacrosanct. Protestants could criticize Catholics in vicious terms; Catholics could retaliate by lambasting Protestants. But very few people were willing to stand up and say out loud, “Hey, the whole thing is a crock of shit.”

It should have happened 2,000 years ago. But until the invention of the telescope and the microscope, until the theory of evolution was developed, the criticism of religion could only be of specific practices that might be considered objectionable. The foundations of the whole enterprise could only be revealed as deeply and horribly flawed when science had progressed to the point at which religious belief of any sort was no longer intellectually defensible. Those who are still trying to defend it have to resort to more and more arcane and convoluted pretexts.

As far as I’m concerned, religion — any religion, or the whole enchilada wrapped up in greasy paper to go — is entitled to no more respect than the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, Monsanto, or the NRA. All of them are human institutions, and all can be, and indeed must be, criticized using the same intellectual tools and the same criteria. For starters, do the leaders of these institutions tell lies? I don’t know whether the Odd Fellows tell lies, but I’m damn sure bald-faced lies are being told by most Christian ministers, most Sundays.

I think it may have been in Dawkins’s The God Delusion that he, or somebody, remarks that there is really no basis on which Oxford or any other university could grant a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That pretty much sums it up.


The logic is really very simple.

You’re in a crowd of a hundred people. Where, doesn’t matter. You could be at a convention, in a shopping mall, in a large restaurant, or on the sidewalk on a busy city streetcorner.

The logic is this: If none of those hundred people is carrying a gun, everybody is safer. If five of the hundred people are carrying guns, everybody is less safe. If fifty of them are carrying guns, you’re in a very dangerous situation indeed.

Why? Because in any group of a hundred people, it’s quite likely that two or three of them are either mentally ill, mentally impaired by alcohol, or just very, very angry. The more people in the group have guns, the more likely it is that one of them is going to pull out his or her gun and use it.

Logically, then, if you choose to carry a gun (a concealed handgun, or openly), the other 99 people in the crowd are less safe. I know that people sometimes claim they carry a concealed handgun out of concern for their personal safety. So the question is, do you care about the safety of the other 99 people in the crowd, or do you only care about your own safety, and the hell with everybody else? It’s really that simple.

Yes, there are good, logical reasons to carry a gun. Not very many reasons, perhaps, but there are some. If you’re a courier entrusted with large amounts of cash or important documents, you should carry a gun. If you’re a private detective, you should certainly be able to carry a gun when your own judgment indicates that it’s a good idea. If you’re being stalked by an ex-spouse or ex-lover, absolutely — carry a gun! If you have a meth lab in your basement, or even a marijuana plantation in your back yard, having a gun within easy reach makes good sense.

But those reasons don’t apply to very many people. Most of us have no reason at all to carry a gun. Yet lots of people who don’t need them do carry them. And why? It seems to me the reasons boil down to two: irrational fear, or an arrogant need to assert one’s individual rights and freedoms even at the expense of other people’s safety.

Please note: Nothing that I have said here has anything to do with your legal rights or the Second Amendment. I’m not concerned, at the moment, about what’s legal. I’m concerned only about public safety.

It’s often useful, in questions of personal conduct, to ask yourself, “What would the world be like if everybody did this? Would I want to live in that world?” If you honestly believe that the world would be a better, safer, and more joyous place if everybody carried guns, I hope you’ll consider, seriously and at length, the possibility that your emotions may have warped your rational judgment.

I like freedom too. But we all have to live in the world together. Sometimes — quite often, in fact — our individual freedom has to be tempered by the understanding of how our actions may affect others.

Something About the Age

The modern world is not a nice place to get old in. At least not in the U.S. Rather than being venerated for our wisdom, we geezers seem to be on our way to the trash heap. What I’ve been seeing this week is happening in the music industry, because that’s where I am, but I don’t think it’s peculiar to the music industry.

One friend, now in his early 60s, has just been laid off from an editor job he has had for eight years, at a well-known country music publication. His brother, who edits a drum magazine, just now sent me an email saying he’s working a 15-hour day to meet his next deadline. He no longer has an editorial staff; it’s just him.

Keyboard’s new issue arrived today. 52 pages. That’s slim. I know Steve Fortner is doing the editorial chores there by himself — probably some 15-hour days. Recently someone posted a photo on Facebook of the Keyboard editorial staff from the ’80s, and Michael Molenda, who is still editing Guitar Player after all these years, commented that in those days we had as many editors just for Keyboard as they now have for Keyboard, Guitar Player, Bass Player, and Electronic Musician combined.

It’s not just that the publishing world has changed, though that’s part of it. What we’re also seeing is that the work of skilled writers and editors is no longer respected. Work your fingers to the bone and then get tossed out on the street — that’s the way it happens.

I feel very lucky to have gotten off as easily as I have in the geezer department, but I can’t claim any credit for it. My parents were able to buy a house in the suburbs in 1964. I inherited the house, but if my mother’s final illness had lasted ten years instead of six months, we would have had to sell the house to pay for her care. I’d be in a whole lot worse shape — maybe working 15-hour days, or maybe scrambling around trying to find a job, any job, at the age of 66, instead of being a gentleman of leisure.

It wasn’t always this way. Older workers were once respected for their ability and their accumulated knowledge.

Government Isn’t Cheap

In the course of a discussion on Facebook — the topic was marriage licenses — I agreed with one of the participants that perhaps the government shouldn’t issue marriage licenses at all. But I pointed out that this would result in a fearful legal tangle. Couples would no longer have protection against their spouse being forced to testify against them in court, because the concept of being a spouse would have no legal meaning. When a person dies intestate, their spouse would have no special claim on their property, because spousalness would have no meaning. The dead person’s blood relatives could swoop in and take the house and the jewelry (as does sometimes happen when one of the members of a same-sex couple dies). I also pointed out that the concept of a couple filing a joint tax return would have no meaning. Each member of a couple would have to file separately.

No, this would be a terrible legal tangle. Letting states issue marriage licenses is much, much easier.

The other fellow, however — a self-described “Jeffersonian Libertarian,” whatever that is — saw an opening and dived straight into it. There should be no income tax, he stated.

I took a moment to point out to him that nobody over the age of eight is to be taken seriously when they say that. An eight-year-old deserves a serious explanation of how taxation works; an adult, not. I explained that I would not respond to anything further that he might say on the subject, because he wouldn’t learn anything, and his idiocies would make me ill.

Since a lot of misguided people doubtless agree with him, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a few minutes to discuss the subject here.

Premise #1: Government is necessary. Without government, what you have is armed gangs running everything. They go where they like, take whatever they fancy, and murder anybody who tries to get in their way. There’s nobody to stop them, because there’s no government. Government is our big armed gang. In theory, it operates in such a way that everybody has to play by the same rules. The practice of government often diverges wildly and dangerously from the theory, but that’s not a reason to get rid of government! It’s a reason to reform government.

Premise #2: The modern world is very, very complicated. We face dangers such as toxic pollution and identity theft that Thomas Jefferson never dreamed of. To deal with complicated problems, we need a well-funded government. That’s just obvious. You can’t go after ten thousand scheming and resourceful malefactors with one or two district attorneys and Barney Fife. You need an active judiciary, police, courts, and prisons. You need legislators to pass laws. (Our existing legislators are a cruel joke — but again, that’s not an argument against legislation; it’s an argument for reforming the electoral process.)

Two hundred years ago, the federal government was pretty well funded by tariffs. Tariffs are a tax on imports. But that was then. This is now. In order to have an effective government in the modern world, it’s vital that we have a robust form of taxation.

If you think I’m wrong about any of the above, you’re a mental defective. A waste of perfectly good protoplasm. Please wade off into the swamp that you crawled out of, and die.

The question, then, is what sort of taxation is appropriate. We can consider sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes. We can also consider the government charging fees for services. Granted, our tax laws are a mess — but it seems clear that some sort of mixed system of this sort is probably best.

Most states and municipalities have sales taxes. The sales tax falls hardest on the poor. They pay a greater percentage of their income in sales tax than do the rich. If it were possible to raise all of the money that the government needs strictly through sales taxes, the poor would have no clothing and no furniture, because they couldn’t afford to pay the tax on such items. (There’s a reason why food is not subject to sales tax.) No, a sales tax by itself is not the answer.

Asking people to pay a modest fee for government services is certainly appropriate. But when the fees become excessive, suffering ensues. We can see this currently in the obscene fees being charged for tuition at public universities. The reason tuition is so ruinously high is because Republican lawmakers dig in their heels and refuse to raise taxes. A fee for a driver’s license? Sure, no problem. A toll at a publicly owned bridge? Okay. But a government can’t subsist strictly on fees without raising them to insane levels.

Here in California, property taxes on commercial property should certainly be much higher. The money lost on property taxes in the past thirty years due to the infamous Proposition 13 would have paid for our roads and bridges, a fine public education system, and a whole lot more. Property taxes are not the whole answer, though. For one thing, a lot of people don’t own property. Should they not have to pay taxes?

The income tax is a fairly effective way of generating government revenue. Everybody pays their fair share. It’s a progressive tax: Rich people pay a higher percentage than poor people, and that’s as it should be. The tax rate on the rich should be a lot higher than it is, and the rich have way too many loopholes to saunter through, but the basic idea is sound. The income tax is also a way of promoting social policies that the legislature feels are desirable. If you do something that is defined as good, you get a tax break. The tax code that we have is riddled with such stuff, to the point where it’s all but impossible to understand — but again, the basic idea is sound. Tax breaks are a useful way of promoting social good. If you contribute to a charity, for instance, you don’t have to pay tax on the money you contributed. That’s a simple and functional approach to encouraging charitable giving.

People who oppose the income tax usually think that the government can be drastically shrunk without painful consequences. They may even think this is a swell idea, because it will promote freedom. But you know, those armed gangs in Somalia? They have freedom. Freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Social responsibility is important too.

Do you know why there’s a Food & Drug Administration? Because in the late 19th century, babies were dying from tainted milk, that’s why. The milk was often shipped across state lines, so states and municipalities had no way to bring the baby killers to justice. The federal government had to step in. This was not necessary in Thomas Jefferson’s day, because long-distance transport of milk was not practical. In those days, if you wanted milk, you had a cow.

This is a fine example of the complexity of modern society, and of the need for strong government regulation. Yes, yes, I know — many government regulations are burdensome, and some are ill-advised or unnecessary. But if there are no government regulations, you get dead babies. Those who object strenuously to any sort of government regulation — they’re baby killers. Keep that in mind.

At bottom, those who object to the income tax are simply greedy. “I’ve got my money,” they whine. “I get to keep it! If the government tries to take it away, that’s theft!” No, it’s not theft. It’s that the government cares more about the well-being of your fellow human beings than you do, you greedy pig. The government quite regularly does a piss-poor job of spending our tax dollars, but that’s not an argument against taxation. If you don’t like how the money is being spent, we can have a debate on that, point by point. Housing the homeless? National defense? Prisons? Higher education? Inspection of meat-packing plants? Disease prevention?

The details of all these programs are complex and open to debate. Maybe we should be spending more money on primary education and less on prisons. But tax whiners don’t want an honest debate. They just want to keep their money and let the rest of the world suffer the consequences. They’re greedy children, and they have no idea how the real world functions.

But try to explain that to them. You might as well be talking to a wall.

Religion and Banjo Playing

I’m sure the banjo is a wonderful musical instrument. I’m not tempted to take it up, but I’m pretty sure the world is a better place because there are banjo players in it.

Banjo players don’t get a lot of respect, though. The banjo is on the short list of musical instruments that people like to make jokes about. Banjo, viola, trombone, accordion, and bagpipes — they all get abused from time to time.

Q: What’s the range of the viola? A: About 50 yards, if you have a good arm.

Q: What’s the difference between a chicken crossing the road and a trombone player crossing the road? A: The chicken is on his way to a gig.

I happen to play the cello. I only know one cello joke. (Q: What’s the difference between a cello and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead guy on the inside.) There aren’t a lot of cello jokes, because the cello just happens to be widely admired.

Nonetheless, my enjoyment of playing the cello is, I’m sure, no different qualitatively from the enjoyment felt by a banjo player or an accordion player. It’s all good.

Here’s the terrible secret that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable: Religion is no different from playing the banjo or the accordion.

If it pleases you to paint yourself blue and dance naked around an oak tree, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to mumble phrases in Latin while sitting in a building with lots of stained glass windows, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to bow down toward Mecca five times a day while reciting phrases in Arabic, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to take peyote and sit in a sweat lodge hallucinating all night long, that’s terrific.

And it’s nobody’s business but your own. If you get tired of taking peyote and decide to start mumbling phrases in Latin, go for it.

If a banjo player got mad and started hitting people when they made banjo jokes, what would we call him? We’d call him an asshole. No matter what your lifestyle choice, you have to expect to get lampooned once in a while. If you’re a mature adult, you roll with it. You force yourself to chuckle politely, even if you think the joke wasn’t very funny.

Anyone who thinks their religion should never be criticized or ridiculed is an asshole. If they try to shut off the criticism, that’s a lot worse — but if you even think for a moment that your religion is so wonderful and admirable that it should be exempt from criticism or lampooning, you’re an asshole.

It’s gonna happen. Deal with it.