Aron Ra Resigns as President of Atheist Alliance of America, Focuses on State Senate Run

Aron Ra- State Senate Ad- YouTube

Atheist Activist and Science Communicator Aron Ra. Image: YouTube screen capture.

Aron Ra, the atheist activist and science communicator, has resigned as President of the Atheist Alliance of America, according to an article from his blog. He has decided to move on from the organization to focus on an increasingly busy schedule related to his Texas State Senate run. “So in an effort to minimize distractions, I have resigned as President of Atheist Alliance of America to concentrate on my increasingly busy State Senate Campaign. Yes, I’m really doing this despite how much of a long shot this is,” Ra noted.

He is running as a Democrat in Texas State Senate District 2, whose incumbent, Bob Hall, is a Republican. If Ra wins the Democratic primary in the spring of 2018, he will face a district where a Democrat has not run since 2002. Nevertheless, as an insurgency grows against President Donald Trump and the GOP, he may have an opportunity to stage a spectacular upset.

During his time as Atheist Alliance of America president, he helped to relaunch the Secular Nation podcast (disclosure: co-hosted by yours truly), assisted with the coming relaunch of Secular Nation magazine, and helped rebuild its presence within the growing Atheist movement.

If you are interested in learning more about Aron Ra’s candidacy and ways to support, visit his campaign website, aronra.org.

Where are the Scientists in Congress?

si-capitoldomenight

A few years ago on Real Time with Bill Maher, astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson brought up a very interesting point about the United States Congress. “I wonder what profession all these Senators and Congressmen are? Law, law, law, law, business man, law, law. . . . There are no scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of life?,” quipped Tyson. The rest of life, indeed. According to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service, there were only 11 members of Congress (out of 535) that were scientists or engineers; all of them were in the House of Representatives, with the exception of one engineer in the Senate. This is the very definition of disproportionate, seeing as by 2010, one in every 18 jobs in the United States was in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM). By 2018, it is projected to be nearly one in five. If our congressional representation kept a parity with the private sector, there should be 30 scientists, rather than merely 11. By 2018, it should be closer to 91.

This is a sad state of affairs, something that should have changed years ago. However, with the election of one of the most unqualified, anti-science administrations in history, scientists are beginning to get political. As a recent piece in the New York Times noted, scientists are now beginning to organize and even run for office, namely UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen. Within the growing secular movement, activist and science communicator Aron Ra is running for the Texas State Senate. This is all culminating in a national March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and all-around rationalists from across the country are getting organized to take on the anti-science, anti-reason impulses of our body politic. But it doesn’t end there.

The March for Science should be the starting point of an even larger movement to reshape Congress. Our Congress needs to be more aligned with the growing body of knowledge about the harmful effects of climate change, the wrong-headed hysteria over GMO foods and vaccines, as well as a larger commitment to critical thinking. We need to have organizations and activist resources that help us find, groom, canvass for, and finally elect science-oriented reformers to Congress. So much of the rancor and divisiveness plaguing our politics is rooted in a partisan view of the truth. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” An objective, non-partisan view of facts and science should come back to our politics. Liberals, conservatives, and independents should more than happily disagree about specific actions we take on the issues, but if we can’t even agree on what the issues are, we can never really change them. Electing science-minded members to Congress will go a long way to fix many such ills we face in our country and the world.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

trump_machado-jpg_1718483346I was recently browsing one of my favorite bookstores when a realization hit me—again. I was in the presidential book section, gleaning over the latest titles they had shelved. Among the biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, I spotted a couple of books both by and about Donald J. Trump. I thought to myself, “wow, that’s rather odd. Did someone misplace these books? Surely they don’t belong here.” And then it happened; the stark truth hit me in the face like a cold, unwelcome breeze. Those books did belong there, because he will be the 45th President of the United States.

Donald Trump’s election to the White House is a reality I still haven’t gotten used to. With each passing day it feels like a bad nightmare coming apart at the seams. This incoming administration is getting dangerously close to being not only one of the most plutocratic but also one of the most ignorant. His cabinet picks are akin to a rogue’s gallery of villains, each with their own disastrous idiosyncrasies. First, there’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General. His own antipathy towards civil rights during the 1960s made him too toxic for a federal judgeship in the 1980s. Also, he’s a climate change “skeptic,” which is a theme we will come back to.

Next, there’s Betsy DeVos, the prospective Secretary of Education. A billionaire and school choice advocate, DeVos has been a champion of voucher programs and charter schools, which have been shown in initial studies to be either below or barely on par with public schools on basic reading or math. She’s also never been educated in the public schools, sent her children to public schools, or served as a public schools administrator. On top of all of this, vouchers have been consistently used to fund religious and parochial schools, which are often at odds with a proper understanding of evolution, climate change, or reproductive health. If you are someone who values public education as I do, having attended them my whole life, this is a terrible choice.

Trump’s potential cabinet is also filled with climate “skeptics” who seek to undermine the international community’s efforts to combat climate change. Scott Pruitt, the man he’s chosen to run the EPA, was described by Rolling Stone’s Tessa Stuart as a “climate denier who fought the expansion of the Clean Water Act and formed a secretive alliance with energy corporations to fight air-pollution regulations. . . .” His pick for Interior, Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, also doubts the science of climate change, saying that, “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.” Finally, there’s Rick Perry, his choice for Secretary of Energy, who’s called climate change a “contrived, phony mess.” As a coincidental aside, Perry also currently serves on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline. So much for trying to take climate change seriously.

The most outlandish pick he’s made since becoming president-elect is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Carson, who backed out of becoming HHS secretary because he thought he was unqualified, is now more than happy to take a job he has even less qualifications for. How does being one of the best brain surgeons in the world prepare you to lead a multi-faceted government bureaucracy dedicated to fair housing and urban planning? I guess being a critic of desegregating housing practices, standing against government programs for those he simply calls the “needy,” and having a friend who helped orchestrate successful real estate deals before his conviction for fraud in 2007.

Then there’s the vice president-elect, Mike Pence. As governor of Indiana, Pence supported its controversial version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which harmed its business reputation as well as harmed the civil rights of the LGBTQ community. He also supported a law that required miscarriages and abortions to be given cremation or burial. To be fair, the law never mandated the parents be present or choose which method, and it was deemed unconstitutional, but the fact that he supported it is still pretty egregious. And, as the icing on this fundamentalist cake, he gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in support of intelligent design in the classrooms. (Check out AAA President AronRa’s YouTube video, PWNing Pence, which refutes the former representative’s ideas on intelligent design and evolution.) Yet, I haven’t even given you the half of it.

So Trump’s cabinet picks and his vp-elect are only the initial soundings of things to come, but they have nonetheless shocked most of the scientific, atheist, and freethought communities. His choices have shown a complete lack of regard for science, the separation of religion and government, and plain common sense. As I reflect back on that day in the bookstore, I keep saying to myself, “One of these things is not like the other.” Trump certainly isn’t like most of the others leaders we’ve had. While there have been presidential failures like James Buchanan and Warren Harding, Trump feels like he belongs in a class of his own. As such, his choices for some of the nation’s most important jobs demonstrate that he has no idea what it means to be reasonable, ethical, or presidential.

The Peril and Promise of Democracy

7035426-american-flag-pictures-24728

It’s been a while since I’ve written for the blog, and in particular, about the election. Honestly, it has depressed me more than anything. Even if he wins California, Bernie Sander’s electoral chances are nil, making Hillary the presumptive Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump has unfortunately become the presumptive Republican nominee. The sheer fact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the presumptive nominees for the major parties is truly an indictment of our system. In fact, polling suggests that they might be the most disliked major candidates in all the history of contemporary public polling. So, what does this say about Democracy?

It reminds me of a little book that I read in college by one of my favorite authors, polemicist H. L. Mencken. Notes on Democracy, originally published in 1926, presented his critique of democratic government and the means by which it gains and retains power. Mencken’s libertarian, often elitist outlook nonetheless shines light on some of the lesser angels of the democratic process. I find his words valuable in understanding this mess of a presidential election.

Here’s Mencken’s skepticism of the supposed “distinction” between “representative democracy” and “direct democracy”:

The truth is that the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy is a great deal less marked than political sentimentalists assume. Under both forms the sovereign mob must employ agents to execute its will, and in either case the agents may have ideas of their own, based upon interests of their own, and the means at hand to do and get what they will. Moreover, their very position gives them a power of influencing the electors that is far above that of any ordinary citizen: they become politicians ex officio, and usually end by selling such influence as remains after they have used all they need for their own ends. Worse, both forms of democracy encounter the difficulty that the generality of citizens, no matter how assiduously they may be instructed, remain congenitally unable to comprehend many of the problems before them, or to consider all of those they do comprehend in an unbiased and intelligent manner.

The choice this year of Clinton or Trump is based on a false assumption that Mencken destroys in this passage: democracy somehow produces the best results. Now, it would be unwise to assume that authoritarianism or anarchy would be better (even though I haven’t ruled out a theoretical, market-based version of the latter), but democracy exists as a game of averages. When you go in casting a ballot for the “lesser of two evils,” not only do you still get evil, you get something much more depressing: mediocrity.

Hillary Clinton is a hawkish, neoliberal establishment policy wonk who has trouble acting like a real human being. Donald Trump is a “short-fingered vulgarian” whose manic and megalomaniacal persona only attempts to mask the dangers of his rascism, xenophobia, and economic ignorance. Both options suck, and Hillary definitely sucks less, but is this really the best we can do as a citizenry? While things look bleak, I think there are also fantastic new opportunities this election opens up.

First, what about Bernie? He has done very well, and seems poised to win the majority of the remaining primaries, but he will not be able to shore up the nomination. However, he has been able to select known progressives like Bill McKibben, Dr. Cornel West, and Representative Keith Ellison to the Democratic platform committee. This is a start, even though the majority of the electorate don’t know or care about the platform. It’s just a kind gesture to Sanders, nothing more.

Now, the thing I’d like to see happen, because it would help the Democrats and Clinton, would be the name Sanders as her VP. It would ensure many Bernie supporters (myself included) would vote for him and would mend the wounds of the primary. This is exactly what Obama did in 2008, when he named Clinton to be his Secretary of State. The centrist wing and the progressive wings of the party would have a top ticket that balances out their interests and it would signal that Clinton is serious about being a change-maker. Also, Sanders has consistently polled far better against Trump than Clinton has, so his name would add more points to her column. He has said he would be open to it, and I think the Democratic party would be tremendously helped.

How has this post become more optimistic, even though I used Mencken to slam democracy towards the top? The reason for my optimism is two-fold: the hope that Sanders could be a major player in the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party and the rise of the third-party candidates.

Not since 1992 and 1996 have we had a better moment for a third-party insurgency. Jill Stein, perennial favorite of the Green Party, has positioned herself as an alternative to Bernie voters put off by Trump and Clinton. And then there’s the Libertarian party, whose presumptive nominee, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, can attract disaffected fiscal conservatives and social liberals who are tired of the status quo. Of all the third-party candidates, Johnson is the one I like the most. His commitment to getting America’s fiscal house in order, ending the drug war, fighting crony capitalism, and encouraging entrepreneurship inspires economically-conscious liberals like myself.

While the major candidates thoroughly blow, the plethora of second-tier candidates like Sanders, Stein, and Johnson represent the best of American democracy. Their visions of America, while differing, give voters a chance to select candidates for ideas, rather than just personalities or recognized names. Democracy is often messy, counter-intuitive, and sometimes flat out terrible, but if we start choosing candidates for values over bluster and popularity, it might start to suck a whole lot less.

As H. L. Mencken wrote 90 years ago:

I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself—that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating.

With that in mind, let’s enjoy the spectacle and make the best choice for ourselves.

Why I’m For Bernie Sanders

fa606cc714001982429155b53e014497

The year was 1932. The United States was at the peak of the Great Depression. Nearly a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The efforts of the Herbert Hoover administration left the country demoralized, fractured, and in desperate need of a leader. In this vacuum of weakness and despair, a dictator or a demagogue could have easily taken the reigns of power, and democracy could have failed. But that didn’t happen. In November of that year, the nation elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the first time, and changed the trajectory of the twentieth century. His near four terms in office saved capitalism at home with the New Deal and protected democracy abroad from fascism. Born into privilege yet understanding of the needs of the common person, Roosevelt came to embody progressivism for a generation. In some respects, he still embodies it today.

Many presidents have since tried to maintain the political house that Roosevelt built. Lyndon Johnson continued Roosevelt’s legacy of Social Security with Medicare and Medicaid. Reagan, with the help of Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, saved Social Security from a near collapse. Barack Obama oversaw the passage of the Affordable Care Act, expanding healthcare coverage to millions of Americans. In their own way, these men defended Roosevelt’s legacy for decades, yet still haven’t taken his mantle.

Just like 1932, the nation currently faces problems that are poised to undermine the very fabric of democracy itself. Income inequality threatens to cripple the economic vigor of the United States and an increasing level of polarization and corporate cronyism make the nation nearly ungovernable. Greater still, the threat of Islamist and radical Christian terrorism shakes the foundation of our security and freedom. Yet, in the face of all these challenges, the current crop of presidential candidates does not offer much promise. Donald Trump is a bigoted fascist, arguing that “all Muslims” should be banned from coming to the US. Marco Rubio argues that the unconstitutional NSA phone record collection program should be reinstated, even when it threatened the personal liberty of citizens. Hillary Clinton, the supposed Democratic front-runner, is a corporatist centrist parading around as a progressive, proving once again that she and her husband are more than happy to be all things to all people while simultaneously believing in nothing. (If you doubt me, read the late Christopher Hitchens’s essay, “The Case Against Hillary Clinton.”)

But there is one person who rises above the fray, a man who has dedicated his life to progressive change and could easily upkeep the house the Roosevelt built. That man is Bernie Sanders. The longest-serving Independent in the United States Congress, Sanders has consistently defended the rights of the poor and working class. He supported marriage equality years before anyone did. When Hillary Clinton supported the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington and held sit-ins for civil rights during his years at the University of Chicago. Principled to the point of stodgy, Sanders represents a New-Deal style progressivism that I deeply connect with.

He defends a serious return to form for progressives. The Democratic party’s years-long flirtation with Neo-Liberalism has had less than diminishing returns. The party, as a whole, is in worse shape than the Republicans nationally. Now, as you read that, you may be skeptical, but let me reassure your concerns. Republicans have control of both houses of Congress, a majority of Governor’s mansions and state legislatures (including my own in Indiana), and have used their power to restrict worker’s rights, abortion rights, and LGBTQ rights. It is not completely inconceivable, as it may seem with the current flock of GOP candidates, that they win back the White House. This is why it is crucial that the Democrats pick the right person; I think Bernie is that person.

One of the most interesting concepts I’ve read about recently is the the “Overton Window.” The Overton Window is a sociological term that describes what a broad populous is comfortable with ideologically. Politically speaking, it shifts either left or right depending on the leadership and the zeitgeist of the time. In some respects, the Overton Window is like a “bell curve” for political discourse, with radicals on each pole and centrists at the top of the curve. Conservatives, for nearly two generations, have shifted the nation’s political Overton Window farther to the right, so much so that what passes for “liberal” these days is closer to Nelson Rockefeller-style Republicanism of the 1960s. Because of this, the Republicans have lost their mind while the Democrats have lost their guts.

A lot of this changed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He shifted the Overton Window closer to the left, with the victories of Marriage Equality, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Affordable Care Act, and his historic nuclear agreement with Iran. As such, Obama reclaimed some of what liberalism meant before the wilderness years of Clinton and Company. However, he did capitulate to the Neo-Liberalists of his party, with the market-driven reforms in the ACA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-lateral trade deal whose details are still largely unknown to the public.

Bernie shifts the Overton Window even more to the left, with policy ideas that seem “radical” on the surface, but are actually well-supported by national polling. He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15, make all public universities tuition-free, create Medicare for all, and pass sweeping reforms to Wall Street. During his years as a President, he may not achieve all of these policies, but making them a priority during his campaign has shifted the national discourse, with Hillary and even some Republicans echoing some of Sanders’s ideas.

Above all else, Sanders is the most secular presidential candidate this election cycle, which is refreshing for a secular voter like myself.  He even went so far as not answering whether he believed in a god on Jimmy Kimmel’s show last fall. Instead of parading around some useless piety or quoting religious scripture, Sanders (who is a secular Jew) said:

What I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together. It is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people…We cannot worship billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.

This eloquent, yet direct statement sums up Sanders in a nutshell: a dedication to economic fairness, solidarity with the underclass, and compassion for all people. These qualities bring out the best in someone, especially someone running for the highest office in the land.

I voted for the first time in 2008, and my first vote for a president went to Barack Obama. I knew how important that vote, and his election, was for the country. It was nice to vote for someone who I actually believed in, rather than the dreaded “lesser of two evils.” Sanders’s candidacy gives me, as a voter and a liberal, the same inspiration and hope that Obama’s did in 2008, sometimes more so. His candidacy and hopeful election only underscores the success of the Obama era and a commitment to build on his legacy. Clinton does not inspire that in me, and the Republicans certainly don’t either. As such, it’s time that the United States elect Sanders for the Democratic Nomination and the Presidency, and if you think that a socialist can’t be President, just remember 1932 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.