Wednesday, December 19, 2007

December 19, 2007

YIKES! I've Been Assimilated

Remember StarTrek, The Next Generation, when Captain Jean-Luc Picard was captured by the Borg Collective?

Well, now it's happened to me. I'm being assimilated. I fought it as long as could, but they're right when they warn that "resistance is futile." It really is. And yes, you'll be next. (Oh yes you will.)

While my new overlords are busy recharging, let me explain how this came to pass.

All the way back to my earliest years I've been an out-layer. I never joined groups, unless forced to, like when I ended up in the military in the late 60's. And when I was forced to join a group it was nothing but irritation for everyone involved, me, them and anyone close enough to hear my complaints.

The bigger the group, the more I distrust and dislike it. Beginning right with kindergarden I instinctively knew that group size and efficiency were inversely proportional. The larger the group the less real stuff gets done, and what does get done costs more and misses the original goals by a mile.

Large working groups are especially vulnerable to a form of social affirmative action. At least a third of the people who make up a large working group are always useless as tits on a boar. Still everyone has to treat them as valuable members of "the team." They never do anything useful, say anything useful and, when given a task that requires them to actually produce something, they scurry from cubicle to cubicle bothering the other two-thirds:  "Hey, Steve, can I pick your brain for minute." Then they turn in their (your) report. If these people were not allowed to be part of a group they would most surely die of starvation.

That's been my experience, anyway. So I have spent my entire adult life avoiding large groups, be they in they workplace, political, religious, clubs, fads... you name it. And, up until last month, it worked pretty well -- except for that military business... but trust me, when my term of service was over, they were as glad to see me gone as I was to be gone. (Corporal Clinger couldn't hold a candle to Lance Corporal Pizzo.)

But I digress. A few months ago my wife, Sue, who works in private practice as a family nurse practitioner, decided to cut back to just two days a week. That meant we lost our health insurance which had been provided by her office.

So out onto the health insurance marketplace I ventured, for the first time.

I've written many times that nearly 50 million Americans were without health insurance, but in the abstract. Suddenly there I was about to be one of them if I did not pick a plan. So we applied to all kinds of companies to see what we could get that was affordable. That meant a high deductible, but I was alright with that.

The first place we applied rejected me. This was the first time the shoe was on my other foot. Suddenly a group had rejected ME. Bastards, I thought. Then I noticed the reason.

 A couple of years earlier my doctor had noticed my recent blood test showed my liver enzymes were up a bit. Nothing serious, but he wanted to see if that was just the way my liver worked or if there was something else going on.

Doctor Paul asked me how much alcohol I consumed each day. Not very much, I told him, a glass of wine with dinner and shot of brandy before bedtime.

He suggested I try dropping one or the other for a while and retest later to see if that was what causing it. (It wasn't) What I didn't know was the doc had written on my chart: "Try reducing alcohol consumption." I know it now because it was the reason the insurnace company cited for  rejecting me -- that one sentence. I could just see the image the insurance company screener had in her head of wino Steve, laying in a puddle of his own urine,  drinking Ripple out of a brown paper bag behind the local Stop-n-Shop.

Lesson: Don't tell your doctor anything. "Do you consume alcohol?"  Nope. "Do you now or have you ever smoked?" Nope. "Do you use recreational drugs?" Nope. "Do you eat a lot of red meat?" Nope. That's all that's ever going to appear on my future medical files, page after page of "nope."

Well, to make a long story shorter, we ended up at  Kaiser Permanente -- the Borg of American health care.  Now I don't want to diss Kaiser because they do a fine job. They are completely modern, wired to extreme, Web-friendly and remarkably efficient. Even so, they ain't cheap. With a high deductible we still have to cough up $760 a month. (It's like having to make two car payments every month, but you don't get the cars.)

Even with that hefty outlay every month, if I want to talk to a doctor I have to cough up another seventy bucks. Consequently the only time I'll be seeing a Kaiser doc is if I can't staunch the bleeding by fashioning a tourniquet out of my own belt.

Of course what you really are paying for under these high-deductible plans is coverage for the day when the big "C" or something like it, gets it's teeth into you. Without catastrophic coverage you end up in the hospital with doctors pumping you full of stuff that costs so much it chews through a lifetime of savings in three days then goes to work on your house, cars and jewelry. (All that platinum plated healthcare is still only likely to keep you alive long enough to drag your now hairless, emaciated and totally broke self to the nearest bankruptcy court.)

Then came the prescription meds shock. When I found out how much the two meds I take cost I almost fell off the butcher-paper covered exam table. But then I was advised that there was an alternative -- Wal-Mart, the Borg of American retailing. Wal-Mart would provide my generic prescription drugs for just four bucks for a 30-day supply!

And so here I am, after a lifetime of skipping around the edges of society, all at once -- assimilated. Just like that. Now I can "look forward" to being promoted in three years to the Borg of American Social Programs, MediCare/Social Security and  AARP, which  has been on my tail since I turned 50, and is gaining on me.

Let me tell ya, its all come as quite a shock to this old Haight-Ashbury hippie. It's like totally un-groovy. Nevertheless, here I am, assigned my very own recharging station at the local Kaiser cube, and schlepping around Wal-Mart in search of cheap drugs that don't even make me "happy," when they're taken as directed.

And what are you smiling about? They're gonna get you too, eventually. It's all a matter of scale. As more and more people occupy finite earth-space, and consume more and more finite resources, the only way all of them can get a piece of the action is through maximization of efficiencies of scale. Eventually the US will go with a single Borg-ish insurance system, because nothing else works, as we are already seeing.

We are about to all be living in a world that bears a striking similarity to the old science fiction movies we used to watch as kids, you know where everyone dresses alike and says things like, "It's another beautiful day in the village."

It's not as much Big Brother as it is  Big Borg. Big Brother just controlled what people said, saw, heard, and knew. The Borg cuts out the middle man and simply assimilates.

It's not the kind of world I chose on my own. Instead it's like climate change. It's too late to avoid it. Now we have to learn to adjust to conditions beyond our control. Most of what's about to happen is already baked into the cake. I wish it were otherwise, but it is what is.

Sometimes we can change events and sometimes events change us.

And so it has come to pass - my assimilation has begun. Resistance is futile. My goal now has become to be the most annoying, under-achieving, obnoxious, passive-aggressive little shit the Borg ever assimilated. Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky and they'll spit me back out.

In the meantime here's where I draw a red line in the sand:  they'll have to pry my nightly snort of brandy out of my cold, dead fingers.

December 7, 2007

Mitt & Me


If Mitt Romney hoped to quell concerns about his religious beliefs yesterday he failed miserably. In fact, I believe he revealed himself in ways that should cause every American to worry more, not less, about what's rattling around in this guy's well-groomed head.

During his speech Romney made several pronouncements as though they were accepted facts.

Here are those statements, in his own words, followed by my reaction as I listened to his speech: (Which I emailed to the Romney campaign headquarters as well.)

MITT:  "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."

ME: You're only half right, Mitt. The free and open practice of religion depends entirely on the freedom -- freedom to worship as one pleases, or not to worship at all.  But freedom itself is not so constrained. Freedom, unlike religion, is the natural state of being. It's how humans would live unless one of two outside, artificial forces step in and restrict freedom. Those two forces are government and religion. Each of those two forces have, in more ways than can be counted over the eons, done more to restrict human freedom than any other forces in the universe.

MITT: "Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God."

ME: Freedom also opens the windows of the mind which for many leads humans to discover that religions -- all of them -- are remnants of primitive mankind's fear of the unknown and unknowable. Religious ceremonies were -- and remain -- mankind's feeble attempts to reassure itself they could have some control over the gigantic natural forces that surrounded them and which nurtured them one day and tried to kill them the next. So they turned to magic and prayers. (How prayers are really treated)

MITT: "Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."

ME: You got that sound bite exactly backwards, Mitt. Throughout human history it's been the first goal of any religion to trim freedom's wings. The first thing a new religion does is to start making a list of things it wants people to stop doing. And, as time goes on, those list grow. They can never seem to stop with common sense rules like  "don't kill and steal from each other." Sooner or later the list of "sins" grow to include sexual behavior, what people can and can't eat and drink, what they can and can't say -- or even think, where they can and can't go, even what they can and can't  wear.  So Mitt, you were dead wrong here. Religion has always been at odds with freedom. And the more freedom given to the religious, the less freedom the religious were willing to grant the (once) free.

"Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate's religion that are appropriate. I believe there are."

ME: Absolutely right, but not for the reasons you would cite, Mitt. Two decades ago America's Christian right decided their religious opposition to certain entirely secular behaviors needed to be outlawed or otherwise restricted, not by changing people's minds, but by law. That religious blacklist included abortion, condoms use by teens, birth control, foreign aid for family planning, same-sex marriages, gays, prayer in schools.. on and on.  Fundamentalist Christians pushed to elect leaders who promised to codify their shared religious beliefs into civil law. And so it came to pass that millions of Americans who did not share those beliefs saw their freedoms eroded. Choice, and choices, narrowed. Freedoms narrowed. Had that not occurred I would have no reason to care what religious dogma a candidate holds dear. We secularists didn't start this fight, they did. The so-called "war on religion in the public square" is a self-inflicted wound. Because once one side breaches the barrier between church and state the other side will try to fill that breach.

MITT: "Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world."

ME: Oh, man, what chutzpah. Do you mean like you did when you were pro-choice to win the governorship of Mass. and then switched to anti-choice to appeal to the religious right in the presidential primaries? So you mean someone just like you, Mitt.

It's important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions."

ME: Well, excuuuuuuuse me for even existing, Mitt. As a non-theist I, and tens of millions of Americans like me, do not share a common creed with theists. We do not share your belief in the spirit-world. Rather than sharing those beliefs we rejectas a nonsensical belief in the supernatural. 


"We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion."

ME: Is that why the Christian right been insisting that its theologically-based moral codes be imposed on our entire population? Is that why the current "born-again" President has been stacking government agencies, such as the Federal Drug Administration to the courts, Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, even the Supreme Court, with those who share the narrow beliefs of fundamentalist Christian sects? What does the term "separation" mean to you Mitt -- separating us from the freedom to live as we each wish?

MITT: "But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God... They wish to remove all mention of religion from the public square."

ME: Whew! Where do I begin? First of all, in a free country, the public square is a debating society, not a lecture hall. If you come to the public square espousing your beliefs expect an argument. When you say people like me want to chase religion from the public square what you are really saying is you don't want us to challenge religious beliefs. Well, forget about it. Besides, people like you are yourself highly selective when it comes to just which metaphysical beliefs that are acceptable in the public squares. Just let some believers in astrology erect a monument to astrology on a courthouse steps and see how fast mainstream religious folk scream foul.

MITT: "Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life."

ME: Yes, and that's the right way to view it too. There's all kinds of things about other's lives I have no interest in knowing about; what they did in bed last night and with whom, who they voted for, how much money they earn and, right on the top of that list, their religious/metaphysical beliefs. All that kind of stuff falls smack dab into the "don't ask, don't tell" category as far as I'm concerned. The only time I get concerned is when some group starts insisting that I believe and/or live as they do. That's when your religious beliefs stop being a private affair and becomes extremely personal -- to me.

MITT: "It is as if they're (secularists) intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They're wrong."


ME: Ah, now, isn't THAT a telling comment. You believe that people like me are trying to sneak a new religion into the mix -- "secularism." Don't you see the irony in that remarkable remark? Wasn't it your "prophet," Joseph Smith, who himself "snuck" a new religion into the established Christian pack as recently as the 1830s? If I recall from my reading of history Smith was not viewed much differently than you now view we secularists.  But hey, maybe he's given me an idea. If the religious right is successful in finishing the job of breaking down the wall between church and state, the only way we secularists may be able to get what we want is to call ourselves a religion. Then we could demand our rights too. We could demand that our "religious beliefs" be codified into law too. And, whenever we are opposed by anyone we can accuse them of "religious persecution." Then we too could take advantage of all those juicy tax breaks religions get.  (The Church of Secularism ... services every weekend starting at 9 pm at Filmore East -- Hymns by the Greatful Dead. )


"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust.

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, Nativity scenes and Menorahs should be welcome in our public places.


ME: I know you have trouble seeing it from your vantage, but Islam is one the fastest growing religions in the US. What happens if the day arrives when Muslims  outnumber Christians in the US? Would you be for changing the pledge and currency to, "In Allah We Trust?" I Didn't think so. Seems your religious tolerance has its limits. Well, mine too.

MITT: "Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'


ME: I thought George Washington gave us liberty. I thought it was the courage and valor of George and all the men and women who died over the past couple of centuries to defeat those who would take or freedoms away, who we honor for our liberties. That's where our liberty came from, and that's where it's defended. And you dishonor those heroes whey you ascribe those victories to the intercession of a supernatural spirit. Every time you do that you reduce those heroes to little more godly canon fodder.


"We (Americans) believe that every single human being is a child of God –"

ME: There you go again. No Mitt, not every American believes "every single human being" is "a child of God." Many of us believe we are extraordinarily fortunate accidents of universal forces -- forces we are just beginning to unravel, but may be destined to never fully understand. We believe we are creatures of the universe, maybe the only such creatures. Maybe not the only such creatures. Maybe we're the smartest creatures in the universe, maybe not. But rather than children of some supernatural being, we believe we are, as the song in Hair put it,  "stardust." And that's where our beliefs coincide: "From dust, to dust."


"Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government.


ME: What planet are you living on, Mitt? It sure can't be this one. Freedom is a gift of good government. Bad governments take freedom away.  It's all about who's in charge. Look no further than our current (self-described God-fearing, Christian) administration. It turned out to be the first American government to sanction torture of other human beings. Under these "good Christian" leaders we've lost, rather than gained, freedom. They rolled back freedoms, like Habeus Corpus, privacy, detention without court review and spies on it's own citizens. In all fairness, "God" had nothing to do with any of that. Men did it. Men who were elected in part touting their Christian credentials. Men who promised that their faith would "inform" their time in office. And now you tell me that your Mormon faith will "inform" your administration, if you are elected. Thanks for the heads up.

 MITT: "I've visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired, so grand, and so empty."

ME: True. But did you take the time to ask why? There are several reasons those grand cathedrals are now empty. Europeans got tired of being shaken down by the church to build giant edifices to itself while so many lived in squalor. They got tired of priestly meddling in civil affairs. They got educated -- better educated than today's Americans -- and education leads to enlightenment.  Yes Mitt, they've stopped going to church, and look what happened. Europe prospers. Their social safety net makes the lives of families and the elderly far more secure than in families in church-going America. While nearly 50 million Americans can't afford health care, nearly everyone is covered in "church empty" Europe. Meanwhile Americans can only pray they don't get sick. Even the Euro is now worth one and half times more than the "In God We Trust" US dollar. That's why those cathedrals have taken their rightful place alongside Europe's other monuments to the past, like the Colosseum.  And those missing worshipers will not be returning to fill those empty pews any more than gladiators and lions will be returning to the Colosseum.

MITT: "In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day."


ME: Wrong, again. Reason and religion are like oil and water.. you have to shake the hell out of the bottle, and keep shaking, or they quickly separate. Because the two are diametrically opposite forces. Religion is based on blind faith and the suspension of critical thinking. Reason is eyes-wide open, question everything, show me the proof, critical thinking. For example, science and reason instruct us that the earth is billions of years old. Fundamentalist Christians believe the earth is just 6000-years old. Only one of those two views can be right. Deciding which one is right, and taught to budding scientists in our schools, will decide if we continue as a nation of innovation and progress or slouch into an intellectually crippled, backward, Taliban-like, society.


"And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me."

ME: And those of us who don't kneel in prayer to a supernatural being, are we not your "friends?" Are we then your enemies, or are you simply indifferent to our very existence?  Since you repeatedly equate belief and prayer as core attributes of America and Americans, does that make us un-American. See where such statements lead? Do secularists have to worry that, should you win, we might be getting visits from avenging angels of a Danite-like Romney administration? Probably not. But I am offended by the statement nonetheless, and I worry what kind public policies would grow out such exclusionary feelings.


"And, in that spirit, let us give thanks to the divine 'author of liberty.' And together, let us pray that this land may always be blessed, 'with freedom's holy light.' Thank you."

ME: No. Let me tell you what I hope (rather than pray) for. I hope we have enough sense as a nation to tell the Christian right to get back into their churches and keep it there. If they want to believe that the universe is ruled by an invisible 6-foot white rabbit, I don't care. Just leave the rest of us alone about it. I don't want a bunch of temperance-types running around demanding the rest of us be "saved" and toe their line.

The constitution gave religious folk all they need and all they deserve -- the right to believe whatever they want, worship however they wish without government sticking its nose into their religions. But that seems not to have been enough for them. They continue to demand a voice in government as well. Ironically conservatives are forever complaining about  intrusive "nanny government," but seem eager to accommodate the hype-nanny-ish "values" demands of Bible thumpers.

On the other hand we secularists don't ask for much. We aren't looking for special tax breaks, nor are we trying to force anyone to do anything they believe is wrong. If we have a creed it can pretty much be summed up as, "live and let live" and "do onto others as you would have others do onto you." Beyond that we secularists are mostly Greta Garbo's at heart... we only "want to be left alone."

We only ask of the religious among us to stay out of secular matters. If you are against abortion, then walk your talk -- don't have one. If you're against booze, then don't drink the stuff. If you're against sex -- good. There's already too many pushy religious busy bodies on the planet.

Finally let me thank Mitt Romney for his speech. Ben Johnson once wrote, "Speak, that I may see thee."

Mr. Deity

A content-appropriate video for your secular viewing pleasure.