I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Should Gays (and Atheists) Marry?

Few issues unite American's more than the opposition to gay marriage. Even among Democrats, you normally will find few politicians willing to proclaim the union of two homosexuals a marriage, even if they are open minded about allowing civil unions or some other legal partnership.

I admit to having been on the fence. Gay marriage shot to the top of the culture wars after judges in Massachussetts decreed that gays had a constitutional right to marry. I get nervous whenever judges start stretching the meaning of words. Since the founding of our nation, marriage has been commonly accepted as a union between one man and one woman. Even if I agreed that the definition of marriage could and should be expanded to include gays, I would want this changed through actual political debate rather than through judicial fiat. If you allow judges to start altering the meaning of commonly understood words in order to promote some social good, you unintentially grant them the power to do great harm. We live in a land of laws, and we have an open process for changing those laws. Judges shouldn't be able to side step the normal legislative process.

That said, I am 100 percent in favor of gay marriage. I don't want to change the mind of judges, however. I think the first goal should be to change the minds of average Americans. I know that this seems to be an impossible hurdle, and it's an easier, quicker task to change the minds of a handful of judges rather than trying to sway a hundred million voters or more toward your point of view. But, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing right.

So what is my best argument that marriage is an institution that should be open to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals?

Not long ago, I was discussing marriage with an atheist couple. They seemed almost apologetic that they had decided to get married, since it was such a traditional, churchy thing to do. I was familiar with such feelings from my own life. I'm a libertarian, so I don't feel like I should have to seek the approval of a state to decide who I spend my life with. And, I'm an atheist, so I don't need to seek the approval of a god or a church. Of course, our society has built up a lot of legal advantages for married people over non-married people. There are tax benefits, you get breaks on insurance and other shared purchases, and there are estate issue that are vastly simplified if you are legally recognized as the spouse of someone who has just passed away. Once some people have these advantages, it's only natural that people excluded from these advantages would want them as well.

I've never really been happy with the whole "legal advantage" line of thinking. To me, it strips a lot of romance out of marriage. Of course, in a lot of cultures historically, marriage had nothing to do with romance. It was much more nakedly an economic tool than a means of professing love.

But, we live in a culture that has intertwined love and marriage. If you love someone, and keep loving them long enough (a very flexible standard, "long enough"), you marry them. And, that's the sweet and simple reason that atheists do frequently decide to get married; it's a declaration of love. You just want the world to know. To deny gays this same declaration of love seems small minded and small hearted.

I can almost hear the protest now among the defenders of traditional marriage. If a homosexual couple, or atheists, or whomever, wants to hold a big party and dress up in fancy clothes and make a public declaration of their love that includes cake, go for it. It's still not marriage, since the primary goal of marriage, they would argue, is procreation, which homosexual couples are biologically incapable of. Of course, this would also exclude the elderly from getting married. Or, people who are sterile for some random physical malady. Or, people who just don't want children. "Do it for the kids" seems to me to exclude too many people who we do already allow to marry.

As far as the big party, the actual wedding, that's just one day. Weddings do not a marriage make. However, in the traditional vows, you do find what I think are the most honest reasons that homosexuals, atheists, and, well, everyone, should desire marriage: "In sickness and in health, till death do us part."

If marriage were just a contract people entered to raise kids, then everyone could just get divorced after those kids grow up. But marriage isn't a contract only to work together to raise kids, or to be best friends laughing together when times are good. There's a bargain you enter in marriage that overrides everything else: You agree to be the person who will never abandon your partner just because he or she gets sick. You are agreeing to be the person who will change your partner's diapers if they get paralyzed in a car wreck. You are agreeing to sit by a bedside and hold their hands when they are withering away from cancer. You take a stand and say, "I will not abandon you in your times of greatest adversity," with the bargain being that your partner will do the same if it's you in the intensive care unit.

We live in a culture that seeks to restrict marriage from some people, while at the same time, heterosexual marriage seems to have lost its sticking power. The vows for many "traditional" couple seem to have been edited to read, "for better or for worse or until we get tired of each other, or until someone hotter comes along." It's not gays who are the biggest threat to traditional marriage. I think instead it's that we've overemphasised the warm and fuzzy romantic feelings that start a marriage and lost sight of the end game.

Marriage isn't just about the wedding. It's also about the dying. And whether you are straight or gay, Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu or atheist, you are going to one day get sick and die. It's the universal human condition, and marriage and families are the best tools we've developed as humans to help us endure our endings. To deny this comfort to anyone seems to me to be the worst sort of inhumanity.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cultural Obstacles to Scientific Literacy

I think it's a relatively undisputed premise that Americans are falling behind in scientific literacy. Most objective measures of how our students rank compared to other countries show declining proficiency relative to other nations. Partially this decline may be due to other nations improving their scientific education. Still, while I know that eye-witness testimony is the worst kind of evidence, my own personal experience of trying to find people to intelligently discuss science leads me to think that the situation is even worse than what gets reported. Science, for most people, is something they were forced to study in school that instantly vanishes from their brains the second they hit the real world. Why?

Here are eight possible answers:

1. Religion. I know, as an atheist I'm probably supposed to argue that this is the most important cause. Fundamentalist religion pushes back against fundamental science, disputing such ideas as evolution and the size and age of the universe. On the other extreme, new age religions mangle quantum mechanics in their attempt to seem legitimate (see the movie What the Bleep Do We Know for a truly grating example). And don't even get me started on Scientology. Still, the tensions between religion and science have existed since the time of the Greeks. I don't think it's the primary culprit.

2. Our education system in general. It ain't just science where we ask, "Is our children learning?" An argument can be made that as politicians have tried to improve education, they've wound up instead improving bureaucracy. The right has tried to blame teacher's unions and the breakdown of the family brought about by liberalism. The left has tried to blame a lack of money and right wing censorship. All these things may contribute, but I don't think they quite get at the heart of the issue. I think I'm fairly well educated in science, but my education didn't come primarily from a formal education. Instead, I'm a voracious reader of books and magazines that report on science. The science I was exposed to in high school didn't have as much impact on me as the science I was exposed to reading Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. The information is out there for anyone who wants an education, completely free, or nearly so. Why don't more people make the effort to learn?

3. Technology. In a counterintuitive argument, as our technology has been improved by those who do understand science, it's weakened the minds of everyone else. I will use the analogy of the automobile: At first glance, the car has improved our mobility. We can move our bodies dozens of miles in space in a matter of minutes. But, the price we've paid is that, unless we really work at exercise, we are weaker and have less stamina than our ancestors. A century ago, the average person could probably walk a dozen miles and think little of it. Today, a dozen miles would be a challenge to most people. The use of machines to improve mobility weakened our bodies. Conversely, the use of machines to improve our knowledge may be weakening our brains. If I ever lose my cell phone, I'm screwed, because I can't remember any one's phone number. And why bother learning history since, if you ever need to know the reason the civil war was fought, you just pull out your smartphone and look it up on wikipedia? The easier and more available information has become, the less value we place on it.

4. Affluence. Our grandfathers came to this country and took jobs as janitors and cops and coal-miners so that their kids could become doctors and lawyers and rocket scientists so that their kids could become performance artists and coffee shop baristas. Of course, affluence doesn't rob people of all ambition. Some of these people have accumulated really great action figure collections. Wealth insulates people from the consequences of their own ignorance.

5. Science fiction. Heresy! So many science geeks, including myself, will report that science fiction opened the door to their interest in science. But, I also think that a lot of my education has been one long string of disappointments as I discover that so much of the foundational assumptions of science fiction, like faster than light travel, time travel, interstellar civilizations, laser pistols, jet bikes, transporters, robot butlers, etc., become less plausible the more science I know. I've bounced back from these disappointments, but I wonder how many other people wound up bummed out that science fiction has made so many promises that actual science can't keep?

6. Science television. Heresy again! Right now, you have television channels like National Geographic and Discovery with a lot of programming related to science. But, the focus is on the big and flashy stuff. If one watches Mythbusters, you might come away with the notion that science is all about making things blow up. Biology, you might assume, is all about finding great white sharks and harassing them into biting your dive cage. The study of dinosaurs on television has become the study of animation and cgi effects rather than the study of fossils. Again, I worry that science television sets up expectations that actual science can't keep. Darwin wrote an entire book on the behavior of earthworms; don't expect the Discovery channel adaption any time soon. Science can and does take place in the absence of animated dinosaurs, great white sharks, and explosions.

7. Politics devours science. Of course, politics devours everything. But, our news media outside of the segregated science shows tends to turn all scientific questions into political questions. For instance, the ongoing oil spill in the gulf has a hundred different scientific elements that deserve reporting. The physical changes that common materials experience once they are under a mile of water is important here. Ocean currents, food chains, coastline migration... there are a lot of scientific questions I'd like to see more reporting on as a result of this spill. Instead, the focus has been almost entirely on what facial expression and mannerisms Obama adopted while talking about the spill. Strip away the politics, and reporters seem bored by the subject. Once they've filmed a few dirty birds and talked to a couple of fishermen, they run out of ideas on how to cover the actual spill.

8. Removal from nature. This is, I think, the biggest culprit of all. Science is the study of reality, and the whole goal of civilization seems to be to remove people from close contact with reality. We spend our lives sealed up inside boxes--our houses, our cars, and our stores, and don't spend that much time outside. I was reading Mark Twain recently, and was struck by a passage where he chronicles the journey of a small caterpillar. His writing is rich with details because he didn't spend his childhood watching television. He spent it outdoors, finding his entertainment in bugs on leaves, on wild islands in the river, and beneath night skies that still had stars in them, rather than a dull silver haze of light pollution. Science has been turned into a subject, something you learn in classrooms, on television, and in books. But, the roots of science come in experiencing the world around us and asking, "why," and "how," and "what the heck is that?" If you want your kid to get interested in science, lock them outside this summer. Let them sleep in the backyard and get curious about all the stuff crawling over them. Take them fishing and let them take apart and devour a fellow denizen of the planet. Get them someplace as dark as you can so there's a chance, at least, of seeing a shooting star.

Newton discovered gravity sitting under an apple tree, and Einstein figured out relativity while biking through Alpine villages. I don't think anyone has yet reported any scientific advances that came to them while they were bowling on their Wii.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

What I Should Have Said...

I just arrived back in Hillsborough from ConCarolinas. I'll write more about the con on my other blog when I have the time, but right now I want to continue making an argument that I took part in during my last panel at the con. The panel in question was on censorship. I was making the deliberately provocative statement that there was no true censorship in America, not compared to the censorship you would find in China, Germany, or even Canada, where the government can step in and put you in jail for what you say or publish.

Now, it might seem like censorship takes place all the time. For instance, Comedy Central made South Park censor their depiciton of the prophet Mohommed. There are plenty of books that school libraries remove from their stacks because of parental complaints. The FCC will slap you with fines for saying certain words on television. Also, you have the whole movie rating system where you have restrictions on your audience if you show certain body parts or depict certain acts.

However, in all these cases, the underlying speach or art could still be legally published by the artists. A filmaker can release his film without seeking a rating. The makers of South Park could have quit in protest, and posted cartoons of the prophet Mohammed on their various blogs and other media till they were sick of drawing him. If the local school library won't carry "Susie has Two Mommies," any parent who wants their kid to read the book is free to order it off Amazon.

In none of these cases is the government going to come and put you in jail.

Where the panel went horribly off topic, however, is that another panel member told me how she'd been investigated by social services for being a witch. Someone in the audience chimed in and told me they knew someone whose children had been taken away because they were witches. I expressed an extreme amount of skepticism. First, I believe that social service workers are perfectly capable of abusing their power and taking children away from loving parents for reasons that are wrong or mistaken. But, the law plainly prohibits the government discriminating against the religion. You cannot have your kids taken from you because of your religion. Now, actions you take because of your religion might be a different thing: The fundamentalist Mormon's who were having their 14 year old daughters "marry" their 80 year old prophet a few years back are an obvious case where religion lay at the root of removing the children, but the actual laws broken were statuatory rape, not the belief in wierd crap.

The panel closed with the last word going to somone who told the tale of a topless dancer who's kids were taken from her even though her profession was legal. I had no time to respond to this. I'm certain that such things happen; no doubt topless dancers have children taken away all the time. But, I don't think this constitutes censorship; presumably, even if her child is taken away, a topless dancer is free to keep on dancing. And, I'm reminded of the very famous case of Courtney Love losing custody of her daughter. One could argue that it was to prosecute her for her famously foul-mouthed lyrics, but I suspect that the judge was moved far more by the fact that Ms. Love was also an ill-tempered drug adict. (Whose music I admire, by the way.) At the risk of slandering all topless dancers, I suspect that, in the cases where children are removed, there are other facts at hand arguing for the removal of the children.

Sure, there are actual cases of governmental censorship where some prosecutor with a name to make is going to go after some gay bookstore selling a racy calendar or comic book shop selling japanese tentacle porn. Standing up and defending the free speech rights of these people is important. But, I feel like most arguments of censorship amount to little more than whining and/or promotion. For instance, any list of books banned in recent history is going to include the Harry Potter series, removed from many a school library for promoting witchcraft. I don't think any statistics could possibly drawn to prove this, but I suspect that in schools that ban the book, you'll wind up with more kids reading it than you do in schools that just allow it the book to go onto the shelf. It's hard for me to accept the notion that a book is "banned" if I can walk into my local grocery store and buy a copy. Complaining about censorship on a book that sells millions of copies simply devalues the word.

Am I missing something here? Is there some horrible wave of oppressive silencing of free speech going on that I'm missing? Are our prison's filled with writers, artists, and musicians guilty of nothing more than expressing unapproved thoughts?