Patrick McDermott

"The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving."
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Boy Scouts, Gay Rights and Discovering Your Humanity

I was never a Boy Scout. My parents never signed me up. Maybe that was because they were city parents, who were born and raised in New York, and therefore never saw the Boy Scouts as something a young boy should be a part of. I myself never had much aspiration to join, nor did I feel much envy towards my friends who were a part of it. I didn’t feel that the Boy Scouts were some rite of passage that I had to experience in order to truly become a man. Although, some of my friends, and their parents, felt that the Boy Scouts taught valuable life lessons and aptly prepared them to lead a life with integrity and morality. I understood that, even though I saw it as unnecessary.

It wasn’t until I got older that I learned of the Boy Scouts of America’s policy to not allow homosexuals either as members or as leaders. Once I did, I found the idea that the Boy Scouts prepared a boy to lead a life with integrity and morality was not only antithetical to its own mission, it was indicative of the kind of systemic discrimination that comes about when people decide that ideology is more important than equitability.

In the case of the Boy Scouts, the ideology is Christian theology. Granted, the Boy Scouts should not be mistaken for an outdoorsy Evangelical youth organization. The Boy Scouts do indeed teach very practical skills to young boys, as well as instill some important values, such as providing care to those in need, serving one’s community and country through active citizenship, treating the environment with the respect it deserves and staying physically fit. However, the organization is still heavily influenced by Christian ideology. Take for example the Boy Scouts ban on atheists. The Boy Scout oath states that a scout must be able to do his “duty to God.” As a result, the Boy Scouts have banned open atheists from becoming members. For homosexuals, the circumstances are similar because in the eyes of the Boy Scouts, a young gay boy cannot fulfill their “duty to God” if they are willfully committing a sin against Him. 

This was the status quo for homosexuals for 100 years within the Boy Scouts, at least until this past week. In a long overdue demonstration of justice, the Boy Scouts voted to lift the ban on homosexuals becoming members. A great leap forward to be sure for an organization that is slow to change. However, in keeping with it’s characteristic snails pace towards justice, the Boy Scouts did not lift the ban on openly gay troop leaders. This means that you could join the Boy Scouts as an openly gay boy, but as soon as you turn 18, you are forced to quit the organization, regardless of your rank or prior contributions to your troop, or even your level of religious devotion (because there are plenty of Christian homosexuals out there). A cruel and unusual punishment to be sure and one that I hope will be rectified quicker than it took to even allow gay members. 

As expected, the backlash against the Boy Scouts for this decision has been immense, with much of it coming from none other than Christian fundamentalists and their advocacy groups, such as the Family Research Council. However, the backlash I find the most interesting, as well as the most repulsive, comes from the families who are now going to pull their boys out of the Boy Scouts in light of this policy change. One such family I found in the New York Times article I linked to above:

"Allison Mackey of Hanover, Pa., has five sons — one an Eagle Scout, three now active in scouting and an 8-year-old who had planned to join.

The family has discussed the issue and reached a decision, she said: All the sons were willing to abandon the Boy Scouts if openly gay members are allowed.

“The Boy Scouts are something we’ve really enjoyed because they celebrate manliness and leadership,” she said. But, she added, she and her husband were “looking to encourage our sons in traditional Christian values.”

Personally, she said she would be disappointed to see her sons leave the Scouts.

“To stand by principles would be difficult,” she said. “But we’re going to have to say no. The organization is giving up freedom.””

The last quote of Mrs. Mackey is what has me the most repulsed, and it is precisely what I meant before when I said that people would rather choose ideology over equitability. She firmly believes that the Boy Scouts are giving up freedom by allowing gay members to join. My question to her is very simple, “Whose freedom are they giving up?” I’m fairly certain that it’s not the organization’s itself, as they have the power to discriminate or not against whomever they please. I’m pretty sure it’s not the gay members she’s talking about either, considering she doesn’t want them in the organization at all. So whose freedom is she talking about? Oh wait, I think I got it. She’s talking about her families freedom right? Their freedom to belong to an organization that discriminates against another human being, because those people decide to do something that the Lord does not approve of. Right, it must be their freedom, it’s being trampled on, and their freedom is paramount to all others, so it must be preserved and protected no matter who gets oppressed as a result.

Well sorry to disappoint you Mrs. Mackey, but freedom does not extend to the persecution of others, that’s what we call oppression. Although, in order to truly understand this concept and be repulsed by it, you would have to see the oppressed as human beings deserving of the same respect and treatment as everyone else. You Mrs. Mackey, and many others like you however, do not see the oppressed as equals. You see them as unrepentant sinners destined for eternal damnation. You see them as lesser than you, and you see yourself as Holier than thou. And how did you get to see things this way? Undoubtedly through an ideology that you were conditioned to never question or doubt. An ideology that in reality does not represent true justice or equitability. Instead, it represents human fallibility, and in order to preserve its existence, it locks you in and forces you to never question its origins or its intentions.

This is the problem with ideology, whether it be religious, political or otherwise. 

So what’s the solution? Well it frankly is very simple, and albeit somewhat corny. Listen to your heart. We are all wired for empathy, it’s in our nature, but sometimes things get in the way of it seeing the light of day, like ideology. So instead of keeping a closed-mind, open it up and allow yourself to experience doubt and skepticism. It will be a troubling experience at first, trust me, I know. Just push through the uncomfortable bits and you will find yourself feeling a connection to those you didn’t think you would have one with. That’s called being human. It’s an invigorating experience.

You should try it sometime Mrs. Mackey.

This Is Why…This Is Why…This Is Why I’m Not So Hot for Elections…

The reason is very simple. It’s because nothing will change. Oh yeah, sure, the result of the 2012 Presidential election could be that Obama could be ousted and a whole slew of awful policies will be put in place. Policies that will increase the gross inequality in our economic and social systems to favor the economic and political elite at the expense of everyone else. And don’t get me wrong, this would be terrible and I’ll rail against them if they come to pass.

My larger point though is about the real, substantive change that our country, at the very least, needs so desperately. The kind of change that shifts the status quo, but at the foundational level. Change that brings about real justice for all. Change that requires a different kind of economic system, because capitalism is anything but just. Change that will institute real democracy, because what we have now can’t really be classified as democracy. Change that will recognize that we live on a finite planet, and that the best way for us to sustain ourselves and the planet is to get smaller, not bigger in almost every respect. 

Changes like these will not occur through a Presidential election. Yes, things do change when a new President comes into power, but that change is superficial at best. It’s the reason why many leftists who supported Obama in 2008 are dissatisfied with him on a number of different fronts. The change he has instituted while in office is not the kind of change these supporters are clamoring for. For instance, despite all of his supposed reforms and initiatives, our economic system has not changed, in fact, some say it has only gotten worse for the 99% while the 1% live higher on the hog than they ever have before. Health care reform has some positive measures associated with it, but it is a far cry from the calls to decouple health care from the pursuit of profit that many leftists have been fighting for years to achieve. And Obama’s foreign policy has in some cases been more hawkish than former President Bush’s (see the recent controversy surrounding the National Defense Authorization Act to see how). And what’s more, none of this should come as a surprise. 

Now, if you are one of those leftists who is legitimately surprised about how dissappointing Obama has been on the issues you care most about, I need only refer you to the late and great George Carlin, who said in his spot-on satire of American society, “elections provide you with the illusion of choice.” Elections are about choosing which person appeals to you more, they are not about choosing between diametrically opposed ideologies. The ideologies of the Democratic and Republican parties are the same in the areas where differences should matter the most. When it comes to the fundamental challenges our society faces, like capitalism, consumerism, militarism, imperialism, etc., the parties are beholden to a very different master than the American people. The economic and political elitist class are their masters, because they are the ones that control their fate within our political system. They are the ones that have all the money, because many of them belong to the corporations that have benefitted so greatly from the massive inequality that they have brought about. And because they have all the money, they wield all of the power because our political system is one that affords wealth a greater voice in our discourse than actual human voices. The truth is that we have a system that nurtures egoism and selfishness, instead of empathy. And because we have this kind of political and economic system at the foundation of our society, and because elections are a product of this system, it therefore naturally follows that elections will not change the system in which it is a product of. The system will fight to preserve itself, and the way in which it will strive to do so is to validate its existence in the minds of the public. What better way to validate its own existence by giving people supposed “power” within that system, even though it was essentially rigged from the outset. 

In order to illustrate how people have been brainwashed to believe in the power of elections, let me describe a conversation I had with my family during this past Thanksgiving. I had been visiting my girlfriends’ family and friends during the day and had an early Thanksgiving dinner. Some of my extended family only lived about 15 minutes away from her family’s so we decided to head over there for our second Thanksgiving dinner of the day. After all of the delicious food was inhaled and we took a second to exhale, the conversations started up, and with my family, it was only a matter of time until it turned political. I’ll spare you from most of the conversation, except to say that it eventually boiled down to this fundamental difference of opinion. I was saying that elections won’t matter because what the problem is is the system that everyone works on top of. However, my one uncle was saying that he feels we just need to elect new and better people into office to change things. This argument is not new, and I’ve heard both leftists and rightists and people in the middle of the political spectrum all say it. And I especially heard it in 2008. And I am especially hearing it from Republicans and Tea Partiers this election cycle.

Now, with it being 2012 and the Presidential election only 10 months away, what do you wanna bet that you’re gonna hear this argument be made over and over and over again? I’d bet quite a lot!

What do you also wanna bet that after all is said and done, and 2016 rolls around, the same damn argument is going to be spouted again and again? I’d bet everything I own, and even the value of the most expensive things on my Christmas wish list that year, and then say, “I told you so…now here we go again.”

Get Used to the Orange Jumpsuit

The date is Tuesday, December 27th, 2012. I just got back from seeing my family for the Christmas holiday. I’m sitting in the living room of my apartment, and I’m on my computer getting ready to write another critique of US foreign policy towards Al-Qaeda in Somalia. But just when I’m about to begin, there’s a knock on my door. I’m not accustomed to getting knocks on my door, as I live in an apartment complex and visitors are few and far between. In looking through the peephole, I realize there are two police officers waiting outside my door. When I ask what they want, they say they want me to come with them for some questioning. They’re not very specific about what they want to question me on, just that it’s in relation to some reports they’ve gotten about me engaging in some “suspicious activity.” I’m nervous about what this could mean, so in the interests of not getting into too much more trouble, I agree to go with them.

Once I get to the station, I’m immediately taken to a dark back room. I’ve personally never seen an interrogation room before except of what I see on TV and in movies, but for some reason, I know that something isn’t right. The officers who escorted me leave me alone in the room. Then, not five seconds after they close the door, another door opens on the other side of the room and two men in military uniforms come in, grab me and take me by force to a van in the back of the police station. They throw me into the back, tie my hands behind my back and put a black bag over my head. 

The next time I see anything but darkness is about a day later. My eyes have trouble readjusting to the light, which is coming from incandescent bulbs in a ceiling light. The room I’m in has blank, concrete walls and has a mirror opposite me. I’m sitting in a hard, steel chair, my hands tied behind my back and I’m in an orange jumpsuit. Once my eyes fully readjust, I make out two figures standing in opposite corners of the room, both of them facing me. They both are glaring at me, as if waiting for my sight to fully recover so I can make them out as clearly as possible. The one from the left corner comes walking up towards me, with a menacing stare. I see now that he’s not American.  He’s definitely of Arab descent, but I can’t quite make out from where exactly. And before I’m able to figure out where he’s from, the man punches me in the head…

Do you think this story is straight out of some Hollywood film plotline? Well, it very well maybe, but do you think this story can only happen in the world that is a storyteller’s imagination? If you thought yes, well think again.

As you may or may not have heard, the Congress recently passed, and President Obama recently signed, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which makes the story above a frighteningly plausible one for each and every American citizen.

The NDAA includes provisions that allow for the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists or suspected supporters of terrorists/terrorism by the military with no due process. Previously, these provisions applied only to foreigners (which is bad enough), but now, the NDAA allows them to be exercised against American citizens, even though the 6th Amendment expressly forbids the imprisonment of US citizens without due process of law.

What’s more, the NDAA also affords the government the authority to practice rendition on American citizens. If you may not know already, rendition is a practice whereby the government sends suspected terrorists or “intelligence assets” to countries where more extreme methods of interrogation (i.e. torture) are allowed and practiced, in order to extract information. Previously, this practice applied only to foreigners, but thanks to the NDAA, American citizens can now be a part of the fun.

The contention amongst supporters of these provisions is that they only apply to those who are terrorists or who are supporting terrorists/terrorism. However, what opponents correctly point out is that the bill in no way defines what a “supporter” means, except to say that it is whatever the government defines as “support.” In other words, the definition rests entirely upon the predispositions and biases of those in power. So although President Obama may not wish to detain and interrogate an American citizen who simply writes critiques online about US foreign policy, a future President Gingrich might not be so forgiving.

I don’t think it needs to even be stated how dangerous these provisions are. At the organization I work for (Americans for Informed Democracy), we address global issues with a focus on how the US can become a more responsible and sustainable player in the global community of nations, so that we can build a more just, healthy, peaceful and sustainable world. In order to do this however, the US must not only change what it does in its relations with the rest of the world, it also needs to lead by example in the treatment of its own citizens. After all, if we are going to preach about the value of human and civil rights to countries like China and Iran, then we must be the example that everyone can and should follow. What the Congress has done, and now what President Obama has done as well, is a blatant violation of not only our Constitution, but common sense.

However, this move shouldn’t entirely come as a surprise. Over many decades, the US has continued down a path of greater concentrations of power, especially in the hands of the Executive, and especially in times of war (President Obama being no exception). The problems with this are almost too many to enumerate, so instead I’ll focus on one, which is continually used as a justification for why we need to cede more and more power to the Executive. It’s the classic “time of war” argument, where the Executive needs to have as much discretion as possible in a time of war, in order to win it. On the surface, this argument always makes sense because if you live with the fear that you’ll be killed by a plane flying into a building, then you want to give as much authority as possible to those who have the power to stop this from happening. However, if you dig a bit deeper, this rationale always fails for several reasons.

The first being that what almost always inevitably happens is that the powers that leaders think they need to “win the war” are almost always the powers that were needed to win the last war, but not the war they are fighting now. Adaptability in fighting a new threat does not seem to come quickly enough, and then what happens is you give up your rights when doing so did nothing to stop the threat, it just simply gave more power to an authority that will not give it up easily, or at least not without a fight. If you think I’m wrong about this, just remember this fact, the Constitution clearly states that only Congress has the authority to declare war. Yet, the last declared war was the Korean War.  For more detailed information about this, refer to the War Powers Act during President Nixon’s time and then reflect on all of the examples since then of the exercise of Executive Power for the purposes of war (i.e. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, etc.).

The second reason the “time of war” argument fails is one I’ve already alluded to. The enemy we are fighting today is unlike any enemy we’ve had in our 200+ year history. In prior wars, we had a definable enemy. It was one that had a specific geographic region, with politically drawn boundaries and their own economic and political systems. And if they were to attack us, they did so with their own military weaponry. Terrorists have none of this. In 2001, Al-Qaeda may have been based largely in Afghanistan, but they trained their terrorist soldiers in Germany and Florida. And today, terrorist cells exist all across the globe, including most recently in Somalia and Yemen and probably many more places than we are currently aware of. Terrorist networks are a different animal entirely and therefore, the tools used to thwart the threats they pose should also be of a different tact, which leads me to my third and final argument.

The final reason why the “time of war” argument falls flat on its face is because what we are in right now is not a “time of war.” I say this because of two reasons, one is pragmatic and the other is more ideological. From a pragmatic standpoint, many things could be categorized as wars. In the 1980’s, it was the war on drugs. In the 1990’s, it was the war on crime. And today, there is the “war on terror” and we could even argue that there is a war on climate change as well. As a result of this, my question then becomes, when we begin to categorize everything as a war, can we validly call anything a “war” any longer if it has no distinction from anything else?

From an ideological standpoint, for me, war will always have a negative connotation because it’s associated with loss, even though you may “win” at the end of the day. Collateral damage is inevitable in some form or another, whether it be in lives or whether it be in civil rights. Too much is often given up, and little to nothing is gained in return. And as George Orwell so aptly argued in “1984,” war became not so much about defeating an enemy, but rather a justification for the greater concentration of power in the hands of the few at the expense of everyone else. The recent passage of the NDAA under the guise of us being at “war” is a perfect example of this. The truth is, we are not at war. Yes, we are being threatened by those who wish to do us harm, but the threat terrorists pose is not greater than the threat of worldwide famine as a result of global warming and climate change. We are at “war” only because those in power say we are.

So what would happen if you tore down this “time of war” justification? Well, I believe that people will begin to see new possibilities open up for them in addressing the real threats we face. For instance, they could see that focusing on providing a diversified education to everyone across the globe will help to counter real instances of religious extremism. They could see that by engaging in sustainable and responsible economic development, we could quell instances of poverty-induced violence. They could see that by directing more resources to eliminating nuclear weapons completely, we could preventing the truly doomsday scenario of a few terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon and detonating it. The list goes on. However, what I believe most of all is that people will begin to doubt whether giving up, say, their right to due process, is really a good idea. After all, all of the actual solutions just mentioned don’t involve a single instance of you having to give up your rights to anyone.

However, until that happens on the scale that is required to produce change in this society, don’t say I didn’t warn you if you one day find yourself strapped to a chair wearing an orange jumpsuit.

We are all Troy Davis…and we are Free!

If any of you are Facebook or Twitter users, you might have noticed a flurry of activity last night about a man named Troy Anthony Davis. Troy was an inmate on death row in Georgia for more than 20 years for the crime of killing a police officer in cold blood. I said Troy WAS an inmate because at 11:08pm last night, he was executed after US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas denied Troy’s last chance application for a stay of execution. Troy had submitted appeal after appeal, proclaiming his innocence even up until his final moments while on the gurney, about to be injected with the poison that would finally kill him. In that time, he also wished mercy would be given to his executioners and hoped that the real killer of the police officer he was convicted of murdering would be found. The state of Georgia believed they had found that man, and decided that justice would be best served by executing him. However, tonight was not an example of this. If justice is a product of equitability, then the conviction and now murder of Troy Davis was anything but equitable.

Troy was convicted through, frankly, a sham trial. If you hadn’t known, Troy was black and the cop he was convicted of killing was white, and no matter what some may say, racism has not disappeared from America. Throughout the course of the trial, there wasn’t a single piece of physical evidence that could connect Troy to the murder. All that the trial was based upon was eyewitness testimony, which is suspected to had been fabricated due to police pressure and coercion. As of yesterday, 7 of the 9 original eyewitnesses recanted or changed their testimony, and believe it or not, one of the two remaining witnesses to not change their story was the other main suspect in the case. However, despite all of this, and the doubt that it would naturally illicit in anyone, the various appeals courts and boards did not grant clemency or at the very least another trial. And Justice Clarence Thomas ultimately was Troy’s last hope. A hope that he, and the millions of others around the world who were struggling for justice in Troy’s name, did not attain when it was needed most.

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This Day For Me…Ten Years Ago

When I was in high school, I loved wood shop class. I found something so comforting in the focus you had to have on the work you were doing. The attention to detail was not just a desirable quality, it was in fact a necessity when dealing with tools that could easily cause severe injury. I was often in my own little world in that class, completely cut off from everything going on outside of it. That was of course until the bell rang, and you had to head to 20th Century History.

However, one beautiful morning in September of 2001 provided a different kind of wake up call for me. My classmates and I were cleaning up our workspaces, getting ready for the bell to ring to go to our next class, when the metal shop teacher came into our class. He told my teacher to turn on the TV. And right before he left the room, he said “It’s horrible, just horrible!” Needless to say, my teacher turned on the TV and my classmates and I immediately knew why the other teacher said what he said. Both towers of the WTC had already been struck by the planes, but neither had fallen yet. We were transfixed, unable to process the magnitude of what we were seeing. Oddly enough, my first thought was to think about the 1993 bombing of the WTC by Osama bin Laden. I was only 7 years old at the time of that bombing, but in high school, I was a political junkie already and had read and heard about that bombing not that long before 9/11.

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No One Likes To Be Guilt-Tripped

Let me set the scene for you. I take the Metro in DC every night to get home from work. Last night, I was heading to an event after work. On my way to the Metro, right outside the escalator to head down to the platform, there were a bunch of protestors putting on what’s commonly referred to as a “stunt.” What they were protesting is US militarism in Honduras and they chose to display their, let’s call it displeasure, by having two protestors lie on the ground, with red paint on their white shirts, with another protestor standing over them holding a mock gun. Obviously, what they were simulating is that the US has, in essence, enabled the killing of these people through US military support of an oppressive regime in Honduras. Meanwhile, they had other protestors constantly shout to people walking by that “nothing is wrong…keep walking…nothing to see here!”

Let me state from the outset that I’m with them on the issues. US military aggression is as commonplace as apple pie, or at least it has been in roughly the past 60 or so years of American history. I personally find it disgusting how much we emphasize the tenets of death instead of the tenets of life throughout our policies, in particular our foreign policy. And I am currently dedicating much of my waking hours to get young people to not only feel the same way, but to do something about it.

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No Relief for Me Today…

News of Osama bin Laden’s death came as no relief to me. First off, I would have been much happier if he was captured and brought to true justice through a public trial here in the United States. I would have loved to see him stand trial for the murder of thousands of American citizens, and be held accountable based on the values and principles we have chosen to live by and that which are ideals that we and others should aspire to. Granted, we don’t always live up to these ideals ourselves, and I’m also a realist in that I know a trial would have probably not come to pass given the enormous controversy that was generated around a public trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to have seen him captured. However, given the reports that have been released today with regard to the operation itself, there was little chance bin Laden would have been able to be captured, and so when in the middle of a firefight, there is not much flexibility. I understand that and cannot fault the military at all for doing what they had to do.

Osama bin Laden’s death did not bring about relief to me for another reason. I do not believe that cutting off the “head of the snake” will irrevocably harm Al-Qaeda. I believe far too many people are buying into the false idea that terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda operate in the same fashion as countries and monarchs of centuries past, whereby if you cut off the head, the body would die; the army would be leaderless and would simply dissipate without their orders. A network, especially a terrorist network, is a wholly different animal. Cells are stationed across the globe and they work independent of one another. Strategy may come from the top, but from what I have read, the leadership of Al-Qaeda has spread beyond Osama bin Laden. In fact, bin Laden was seen as more of an inspirational figurehead in recent years rather than an operational strategist. And don’t forget, he was in constant hiding for nearly 10 years and required dialysis treatments consistently. I think it is more than fair to say that Al-Qaeda had already prepared for the eventuality that bin Laden would die (either of natural causes, or by force). Therefore, bin Laden’s death, although symbolic, is in my view nothing more than that. And I see people rejoicing and celebrating this as some sort of great achievement that will help make America safer, which leads me to my third and last reason as to why his death brings me no relief.

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This is About a Lot More Than Just a Birth Certificate

As I am sure most of you have heard, President Obama today held a press conference to show to the world his long-form birth certificate, which many conspiracy theorists and outright racists have been clamoring for for what seems now like an eternity. Most recently, Donald Trump, possible Republican Presidential candidate and shameless self-promoter, has been constantly talking throughout the media about his doubts with regard to the President’s native birth.

When I first heard of the President’s announcement, my first thought was actually of relief. I thought the President was doing this for political reasons in light of his recently launched reelection campaign. I thought that he was doing this to show to the rest of the electorate how “crazy” the right-wing of this country has become, and might cast doubt in their eyes of electing one of them as President. It surely must not be to convince Republicans and conservatives who originally called into question his birthplace origin, because from my perspective, those people were never going to support him anyway. The birth certificate controversy is just a sign of a much deeper rooted problem, which I’ll get to in a second. In any event, this was my initial reaction to this news, and who knows, I may be right or wrong on the President’s calculus for doing what he did.

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