8 10 2010

The opposition to building Muslim community centers and mosques around the country has generated a new fear buzzword for Americans:  Sharia.  People are freaking out about the possibility that they will have to obey some other religion’s do’s and don’ts.  What they don’t realize is that we already live under American Sharia.  These are laws that we grew up with, so we tend not to notice them or their religious basis, but these proscriptions and directives are based on irrational religious beliefs and not on common sense.

The situation is complicated by the fact that we actually have two dominant religions in this country, religions that sometimes contradict each other and sometimes feed into each other, and one of them is so deeply embedded in everybody’s upbringing that it’s rarely even recognized as a religion.

The two are Christianity, especially Protestantism, and….Economics.


The Random House Dictionary defines religion, in part, thusly:

a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe…and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

If you look at what happens in this country, most decisions are made based on economic, not “Christian,” values–i.e., will it make money for me in the short run?  Even self-styled “Christians” make economic decisions, if only because economics is so deep in our bones that most of us don’t think twice about its influence.

One good example here in Nashville is the likelihood that WRVU, Vanderbilt University’s radio station, will sell its broadcast license to the highest bidder, who is unlikely to continue the station’s tradition of edgy, non-mainstream music and community participation.  If economics were not such a dominant religion, there would be no question about transferring the license to an entity that would continue the station’s current service to the community, regardless of that entity’s ability to pay top dollar for the airspace.

Here in Nashville, too, just as in most of the rest of the country, we have seen thousands of acres of woods and farms that made a huge contribution to our quality of life turn into suburban homes and strip malls because that was the way to maximize financial profit in a belief system that places a low value on open land and a high value on development.  In the same spirit, moving factories overseas to take advantage of a cheaper workforce is only a rational decision from a very narrow economic standpoint, as is the decision that the degradation of the environment is an “externality” that does not have to be factored in to the cost of production.  These are beliefs, not facts.

One point where Economic and Protestant Sharia intersect is that both accord more respect to the wealthy than to the poor.  Consider the recent Supreme Court decision granting corporations the same free speech rights as “natural persons.”  If corporations were not fantastically wealthy, they would never have gotten this recognition.

A lower court recently made corporate persons even more equal than us natural persons when it ruled that the Alien Tort Act, under which a number of aggrieved foreigners were suing US corporations for human rights abuses and environmental degradation overseas, applies only to natural, not corporate persons.  So, corporate persons have the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to freely express themselves, but cannot be held liable for harm they cause.  Pretty neat, huh?  I submit that this distinction, this free pass, was granted, at least subconsciously, in recognition of the corporations’ superior wealth and earning power.

Gee….if corporations have all the rights of natural persons, and then some, shouldn’t conservatives demand that they demonstrate that they’re of different sexes to merge, also known as–marry?

And that question brings us to this month’s “truth in strange places” award, which goes out, a few months after the fact , to Judge Vaughn R. Walker, chief judge of the US district court of northern California.  The judge was initially appointed by Ronald Reagan, blocked by Democrats who feared he would be insensitive to gay and low-income issues, then finally appointed to the bench by George Bush the First.  Asked to rule on the Constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, he struck down the measure, saying:

the Court asked whether a majority of citizens could use the power of the state to enforce “profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles” through the criminal code. The question here is whether California voters can enforce those same principles through regulation of marriage licenses.  They cannot.

He stated further that “the state has no compelling interest” in the sex or sexual orientation of individuals applying for a marriage license, concluding:

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license.  Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.  Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

The judge didn’t come out and call Proposition 8 what it really is, but I will:  American Sharia.  Our homegrown Sharia is also responsible for laws against abortion, marijuana and other drugs, laws limiting or prohibiting alcohol sales, limits on public assistance, the push for prayer and Bible classes in public schools, discouraging the teaching of sexuality and birth control in public schools, laws against nude bathing, attempts to limit unmarried individuals’ access to birth control and other anti-sexual attitudes and legal restraints, calls for censorship of the arts, and probably other things that I am so used to looking at that I can’t even see them.

When I was a kid there were “blue laws” that prohibited stores from being open on Sundays, the Christian sabbath…in a way I miss that, it was kinda nice to have a recognized non-commercial day of the week (tho I was brought up Jewish!). But, in modern America, it’s commerce, commerce, über alles!

All this is by way of pointing out that what makes Islamic Sharia scary to people is that it’s somebody else’s church’s rules, not theirs. Most of those who oppose Islamic Sharia seem all too eager to impose their own, homegrown version on the rest of us.  No, thanks.

An America under conservative Christian law–no abortions, no overt homosexuality, wives subordinate to their husbands, is the pipe dream of the “Christian dominionists,” a group whose views have been widely ridiculed, most notably by the “Dear Dr. Laura” letter, which famously asks questions like,

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

Yes, friends, these are the kind of questions that “following Biblical law” leads us into.  There is currently an uneasy alliance between business conservatives and religious conservatives, each attempting to use the other to advance their own agenda.  If next month’s election proves to be as much of a disaster for the Democratic Party as many predict, we can look forward to a clash of the Titans as Karl Rove’s crew and the Christian dominionists battle for hegemony.

My prediction?  Neither will be successful, and the country will fall into ruin around them as they struggle.  You think there have been some wild drops on this roller coaster ride?  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Jackson Browne:  “Before the Deluge


1 02 2008

That radical rag, the National Geographic, reports that our massive development of the desert southwest was based on the false idea that the wettest time in the history of the region was typical.  When it dried out in the 1200’s, the Anasazi just gave up and went elsewhere.  What are we gonna do?

 In fact, the tree rings testified that in the centuries before Europeans settled the Southwest, the Colorado basin repeatedly experienced droughts more severe and protracted than any since then. During one 13-year megadrought in the 12th century, the flow in the river averaged around 12 million acre-feet, 80 percent of the average flow during the 20th century and considerably less than is taken out of it for human use today. Such a flow today would mean serious shortages, and serious water wars. “The Colorado River at 12 million acre-feet would be real ugly,” says one water manager.

some people just don’t understand that it’s over

26 01 2008

Is there really still a market for these places?  Undoubtedly they’re intended as “second homes”–even with climate change, the northwest corner of Maine is a tough place to spend the winter.

New test for developers in Maine: climate change

Huge development around Moosehead Lake would create 500,000 tons of CO2 over 50 years, environmentalists say.


A plan to build thousands of new homes next to a lake in Maine’s north woods faces an environmental test that may one day challenge developers nationwide: What’s the carbon footprint of a new subdivision or land development?


At issue is not just the size of a development but the amount of driving it encourages. By being so far from major cities and accessible only by car, the Plum Creek project would produce, conservatively speaking, an additional 9,500 tons of emissions annually, according to the Environment Northeast study. That’s the equivalent of putting an extra 1,850 vehicles on the road.

“It’s our belief that we can’t meet the nation’s transportation goals for climate change just by improving automobile technology,” says Alan Caron, president of GrowSmart Maine, an antisprawl group that lobbies for compact urban planning and public transportation systems and helped sponsor the Plum Creek study. “You have to pay attention to where things are located.”


14 01 2007

One of the things I remember most clearly about my first visit to Nashville, thirty-five years ago, was seeing an outhouse in the back yard of a home about a mile south of downtown. I don’t know if it was still used—in fact, I doubt that it was; but that’s a keynote for the Nashville that used to be. I remember when Old Hickory Boulevard’s southern loop was a rolling two-lane road through fields and woods, and friends of mine lived in the funky, low-rent neighborhood that used to stand where Vanderbilt’s athletic fields now lie. My wife went horseback riding on the old railroad bed that is now I-440. It was a great place for a kid to have adventures.

All that’s gone now, and it ain’t coming back. What is left of an older, slower, less crowded Nashville must be consciously and conscienciously preserved from the economic fundamentalists who understand no value that is not short-term financial. The latest example of this is a proposal to build a 19-story hotel/condominium in the middle of Nashville’s historic lower Broadway district, with a thin veneer of historic facade left on Broadway to preserve the appearance of preservation. The proponents of this building say it has to be that big in order to pay back the money they are laying out for the land.

Now, I am not a devotee of the religion of economics, as most of our politicians are, but, like the devil, I know how to quote scriptures when it serves my purposes. So, let’s look at some economic facts about this proposal and its context that, I think, have not been seriously enough considered in the debate.

First, let’s look at the developer’s claim that he needs to build a nineteen-story building on this site to repay his investment. It turns out that Westin paid “several times the going rate” for the property, according to the Nashville Tennessean, in an article citing Metro Historic Commission Director Ann Roberts. Ms. Roberts pointed out that this inflation of property values is likely to have a domino effect, raising assessments, taxes, and rents in the neighborhood, and making it financially much more difficult for the small businesses—music stores and cheap bars—that give lower Broadway its character. Now, I am not a big fan of cheap bars, but I believe people who want to engage in relatively harmless behavior ought to have place to do what they like to do, and I’m a great believer in locally owned businesses, so I don’t think it would make Nashville a better city to start to undermine this reason for people to go downtown. Opryland couldn’t make it, but lower Broadway is still functioning as a tourist destination, so why mess with it? Setting a precedent by granting this variance will just open the door to more exceptions, and there goes the neighborhood—which is kind of a funny thing to say about a semi-red light district, but I think there’s a time and a place for everything. Lower Broadway is honky-tonksville, and it should be allowed to stay that way.

OK, the tourist thing—I have strong doubts about the long-term viability of tourism as a revenue source. I think that over the next ten or twenty years, it’s going to get harder for people to move around, because the infrastructure is going to go downhill. We will see higher fuel prices, poorer roads, no money to develop large-scale public transportation—and fewer people will have the financial means to undertake travel of any sort—including business travel. The backers of this hotel are also backers of a new, larger convention center here in town, a project which I think is also sadly misguided. Nobody wants to look at the long-term trends, because they’re so scary. It is not going to be business as usual any more, people, and it’s time to drop the denial and get ready for a future that’s going to be local and hands-on rather than global and high-tech. That’s what I think. I’ve been hollering about peak oil and climate change for a long time, now, and you’ve had to admit those wild-eyed hippie visions turned out to be on the money, after you blew me off for so long. Those were just topic sentences. Now, take a deep breath and start paying attention to the details. “Think globally, act locally,” right? Well, this is the local skinny. Heads up!

Now, it turns out that the Westin project is one of at least five new hotels planned for the downtown area. Five or more new hotels. Now, the local hotel biz has actually been pretty good lately, even without Opryland, with occupancy rates running high and a going average price of about $125 per night per person, but I think five more luxury hotels might just saturate the market, even at our current level of prosperity.

I am a member of the economic class that finds the idea of paying $125 a night for a place to sleep, shower, and stash my suitcase simply bizarre. Unfortunately for the builders of the Westin, my kind of people are on the increase in this country, and their clientele is barely managing to reproduce itself, let alone grow. Where do they think all these rich suckers are gonna come from? They’re waving around impressive revenue and tax projections, but they will have no money without people to spend it, and I think they’re living in a deluded dream if they think the future is going to be just like the past. The roller coaster does not go up and up forever, guys. Don’t the dark, closed carcasses of Planet Hollywood and the NASCAR Cafe tell you anything? The party’s over. Do you think I’m a jerk for saying this? Too bad. We need to be thinking very differently about preserving Nashville if we’re going to have a liveable city in another twenty or thirty years.

The first thing we need to do is to encourage urban and suburban gardening, especially projects that feed more people than just the gardeners. Tax credits for vegetable gardens, guys. And let’s repeal the zoning ordinances that prohibit people from keeping household livestock. Yeah, feedlots suck, but if folks want milk and eggs they oughta be able to keep a cow or goat and a few chickens around without getting hassled. And, while we’re relaxing zoning laws, let’s not be so fussy about the home/business divide. Making it easier for people to work at home cuts down on automobile traffic and increases neighborhood cohesion. And parking lots…we got too much parking space in some parts of this town. I look at that colossus by the river and all the flat space around it, and I think, “Cumberland River bottomland….used ta be fertile as a foot up a bull’s ass ( as an old Tennessee farmer I knew liked to say)…how ’bout some farmland restoration?”

Professional sports is such a waste of time and energy. Excuse me, do I sound like a hopeless Puritan? No, I just appreciate direct pleasure more than voyeurism. If you like football, get out and play football, dammit, don’t sit on your fat ass and watch somebody else do the work for you. But, I digress.

I will give the Westin developers some points for green building design, but green building design, for me, has to include the context of the building, and this proposal is out of context. If they want to try their luck with a 19-story hotel near downtown Nashville, there are other locations, some very close to this site, that wouldn’t hang anybody up. And that overpriced land they bought? Caveat emptor, as the Romans used to say. And good luck. It’s a free market, guys. Nobody guaranteed you a profit.

music:  James McMurtry, “The Old Part of Town

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