Events for the Week, 9/15/2014

Wednesday, September 17, 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM: Know Your Arguments: Why God Exists

Join us in the Elm Room of the Maucker Union to hear arguments for the existence of god and a critical discussion. We’ll be headed to Beck’s after to continue the conversation.

Friday, September 19, 5:00 PM: UNIFI Goes to Food!

This Friday join members of UNIFI as we eat together in the Piazza dining center! We will be eating in one of the meeting rooms (to be decided) and would love to see you there!

Sunday, September 14, 11:00 AM: OUT WEEK BRUNCH!

Show your secular colors by wearing a UNIFI shirt to brunch, and buy a raffle ticket for our raffle next week to support the Northeast Iowa Food Bank! Speaking of…

Next week is Out Week!

Helping secular students be out about their beliefs, or lack thereof, with a week of service events! We’ll be raising money for the Northeast Iowa Food Bank with a raffle for donations from local businesses, tabling in the union with “Ask an Atheist” signage, and cap off the week with our Flying Spaghetti Monster Dinner on Thursday, September 25th!

Links for the Sabbath

This week’s topics: blasphemy rights and free expression in the United States.

A Pennsylvania teenager was charged with “desecration of a venerated object”. Local news in Everett, PA report that he could get two years for lewd photos a statue of Jesus. The relevant law defines desecration as “Defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise, physically mistreating in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.”

Creator of conservative political documentaries Dinesh D’Souza had been indicted for campaign finance law violations and now faces sentencing. D’Souza’s defense argued that he was facing selective prosecution on account of his conservative views and attacks on the administration; failing that, he has since pled guilty. Arguing for leniency, famed atheist and author Michael Shermer penned a letter that caused strife in the secular community. The vitriolic twitter controversy doesn’t bear repeating, but it’s frustrating to see the secular community rally against free expression1 and participation in the legal system.

My take on these cases? Whether someone agrees with your beliefs shouldn’t be the basis for determining whether or not what they did was wrong. No one deserves to go to jail for outraging the sensibilities, even if they were being an idiot. And if the alleged selective prosecution took place, no one deserves to go to jail for outraging the establishment (or atheists), even if they did create 2016: Obama’s America. If you only support the speech that agrees with you, you don’t support free speech.

  1. This author, at least, doesn’t agree with campaign fraud; but that’s an issue beyond the scope of today’s Links for the Sabbath. []
Know Your Arguments: Why God Exists

Do You Know Your Arguments?

This year UNIFI has a bold new take on our event series, Know Your Arguments. As part of this reboot, we will be taking on the common arguments that are professed by many we disagree with. Not the abstract and philosophical, but the concrete arguments that are taught in churches, youth camps, and private schools. We will take those arguments and present them respectfully and honestly. In the past, this event series has focused on the arguments for climate change, for evolution, and for disbelief in a God. When we begin our new series we will focus exclusively on the the opposite; arguments against climate change, against evolution, and against disbelief in a God1.

The first event of the new series is Know Your Arguments: Why God Exists. This isn’t a trick, or a bait and switch. We will present and advertise this as a critical analysis of the arguments for the existence of god. It’s important for us to be able to cogently discuss these arguments without building up a straw argument. That means not mocking the argument, or poking fun at those who believe its merit. This isn’t a way for the non-religious to have a laugh at someone else’s expense. Most of our members will not accept the arguments we present, but this event is intended to help everyone articulate why they do or do not accept them.

We have discussed these arguments before, as most of our community identifies as atheist or agnostic. But it is primarily the counter-arguments that are plentiful; our blog has seen many of these by members and officers. Whether through my own argument that other people don’t believe in God, or the counter-apologetics posted by others on the moral argument or the teleological argument. The emphasis has been on presenting “the secular counter-argument”. I think a change of pace might be in order.

For us to meet that change, each event in our new series will begin with the arguments we disagree with. Again, not to poke fun at the arguments, but to provide a basis for meaningful discussion. Once the presentation is over, we will invite the audience to discuss in groups. I expect there will be proponents and opponents, and the conversation may be vigorous and passionate, but at no point should it be disrespectful. With arguments wrapped up, the presenter will call the groups to address the points and counter-points they came up with.

This format is an effort to push secular individuals outside of their comfort zone, and be willing to discuss arguments they may not believe in. Secular and atheist organizations often look inward to their own counter-arguments as their bible. I don’t want to dismiss that as valid, as there are very large and successful organizations that need to root out supporters by expressing uniform beliefs. And these organizations cannot afford to spend time addressing nuanced arguments at the scale of a national campaign. But at our local level with students and a small community, it fits our mission better to advance a dialogue with our peers and address exactly those nuanced arguments. And for once in the life of this organization, I will be able to answer the question, “If you’re a freethinker, why don’t you consider all viewpoints?” in the affirmative.

  1. I would be remiss not to mention that there have been counter-examples, but they have been in the minority. []

Amateur Astronomy with Alex: How far is Mars?

Let’s pretend we want to go to Mars. It’s not hard to do, if you set aside the health effects of significantly reduced gravity, an unbreathable martian atmosphere, average temperatures resembling those in the colder parts of Antarctica1, and planet wide dust storms that last for up to several weeks2. Good, we’re almost ready to go. But how will we get there? Mars is pretty far away you know.

Due to its relatively high orbital eccentricity, the distance between Earth and Mars varies quite a bit. The furthest Mars can be from Earth is approximately 401,300,000 km, and the nearest it gets is around 56,000,000, about 1/8th of the first figure. Those are big numbers, literally astronomical. How can we really wrap our heads around that sort of distance? We’ll try a few approaches.

For simplicity’s sake we’re going to consider the rough minimum distance, as stated, 56 million kilometers. Recently, the Earth and Mars have come about this close together about once in each of the last few centuries3. So our first question is this: how long would it take to walk that minimum distance between home and the Red Planet?

A comfortable walking speed for most human beings is around 5km/h4. If you were to walk non-stop at that speed for 24 hours a day, for 365.25 days a year, you could walk 43,830 kilometers per year. And at that pace, you could walk the minimum distance to Mars in about 1277 and ⅔ years. To reach Mars5 before the end of 2014, you would need to start walking (and not stop) in 737. Supposing an average human life expectancy of 80, you could live and die about 16 times on your way to Mars. Maybe we should drive?

Suppose the year is 1909, and your family happens to be the proud owners of a brand new, state of the art, Model T6. It gets a whopping 13-21 mpg, fantastic by contemporary standards. This baby can hit a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour! Wow! But we’ll be on the road for a while, so let’s go easy on the engine and drive a steady 40 mph, or approximately 64 km/h. That’s 564,530.4 km per year, and at that rate, we could make our trip in just under 100 years! Some people actually live that long. They’re called centenarians. In the United States, about 17.3 per 100,000 people were living at the age of 100, according to the 2010 Census7. So, if you began the trip in your Model T as an infant in the year 1909, ignoring the imaginable health effects of spending your entire life sitting in a car, there is a non-zero chance you would be alive when you reached your destination, right around 2009.

The point of this post isn’t to help you plan a road trip to Mars. It is to get an idea of how far apart planets are in our solar system. By the way, Mars is far away from our perspective on Earth, but on a cosmic scale it might as well be our next door neighbor. We’ll talk more about bigger distances in a later post about the nearest star to our sun.

In the mean time, think about this. Today, the time it takes to send a probe to Mars is well under a single year. The initial cost to build, launch, and operate the most recent rover was $820 million. It’s reasonable to assume that the price of a spaceflight carrying humans to Mars will be measured in billions. While we will one day travel to Mars, and perhaps even maintain human colonies there, it is likely that almost if not all humans alive today will live their lives here on Earth. It’s one of those ideas that doesn’t seem especially peculiar until you really think about it, until you learn a little bit more about all the other things happening out there in the universe.

A few relevant links:

One of several good, to-scale, browser friendly models of the solar system. Just scroll down (at several times the proportional speed of light!): http://www.omgspace.net/

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot monologue, which largely inspired my amateur interest in outerspace:

HD comparison of outer space objects, from our tiny moon to some pretty damn big stars (feel free to turn down the dramatic music):

 

  1. NASA “Mars Fact Sheet” []
  2. NASA “Planet Gobbling Dust Storm” []
  3. Aug. 23, 1924; Aug. 18, 1845; Aug. 13, 1766, according to NASA: “Approaching Mars” []
  4. Wikipedia (I checked the citations, WP is easier to read) Preferred Walking Speed []
  5. If you actually try to travel in a straight line between planets, the only thing you’ll reach is empty space. For some interesting, technical information about interplanetary flight paths, you can start here []
  6. All Model T info from Ford: “Model T Facts” []
  7. Census 2010 []

KYA-Secular-Identities-Blog

Events for the Week, 9/8/2014

Wednesday, September 10, 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM: Know Your Arguments: Secular Identities

Join us in the Elm Room of the Maucker Union to find out what the heck a freethinker is, how many kinds of atheists there are, and more! Afterward, some of our members will be headed out to Beck’s for dinner.

Sunday, September 14, 11:00 AM: BRUNCH!

Start (or end) your week right with UNIFI Brunch! Rain or shine, you can expect to find us gorging on #HyChi every Sunday at the College Square Hy-Vee.

As this is the first Events for the Week in some time, I’ll take a moment to recap the events we have held over the past couple weeks.

Sunday, August 24, 11:00 AM: First Brunch

Dozens of members, new and old, made that trek out to Hy-Vee for brunch, conversation, and a fun start to the year. I was happy to see that despite everything going on with UNI’s new and improved “Welcome Week” activities, I saw many new faces!

Sunday, August 24, 5:00 PM – 8:00 PM: Progressive Picnic

On Sunday, August 25th we co-hosted our annual kickoff with six other progressive student organizations, who collectively saw at least a hundred sign-ups. And wouldn’t you know it? I saw a miracle! Close to two hundred pounds of ice were transubstantiated into snow cones and relief from the heat.

Sunday, August 30, 11:00 AM: Brunch: Space Cat Edition

Over Memorial Day weekend we had more new members join us for Chinese food and interesting conversation!

Tuesday, September 2, 4:30 PM – 7:00 PM: UNIFI Game Night

Cards Against Humanity left us in stitches, and I tried my hand at narrating a game of Werewolves that took up the rest of the evening. I hope our raucous laughter and heated accusations of treachery had the students in the coffeehouse floor above wondering what they were missing out on.

Thursday, September 4, 6:30 PM: New Member Cookout

Each year UNIFI hosts a New Member Cookout to introduce the officers. This year we had our first ever UNIFI Olympics organized by our own Laurelin Berkley. The sun and the humidity didn’t stop us from giving it our all in a t-shirt relay, bobbing for gummy worms in whipped cream pies, and racing those classic red cups across an agonizing three feet using only a straw. Team “#1”, led by VP Kate Heetland and Alumni Coordinator Margaret Nervig lived up to their name and secured gold.

Sunday, September 7, 11:00 AM: Bro Tank Brunch 2

UNIFI Bro Tank Brunch 2

I think this banner speaks for itself. Did Carl Sagan come back to attend? Did Neil deGrasse Tyson stop by to give us his approval? Let’s just say there’s no evidence they didn’t.

UNIFI Alumni: Alex Popinga

UNIFI’s Alumni Program is growing! This year’s newly appointed Alumni Coordinator will be profiling several alumni over the course of the year as well as sending out a quarterly newsletter. If you’d like to receive the newsletter and stay up-to-date with alumni things, please sign-up for the alumni program here. Our Annual Alumni Reunion will most likely take place on Saturday, December 27th in Cedar Falls. Save the date! 10654027_10203928866317887_1284466488_n

  • Alex Popinga
  • Major: B.S. Honors Research in Biology, B.S. Bioinformatics, minor in chemistry
  • Graduation Year: 2013
  • Hometown: Hampton, Iowa
  • Current Location: Auckland, New Zealand
  • UNIFI Position: Director of Membership

 

 

What are you doing with your life now and how has UNIFI influenced it?

I am spending many a happy hour as full-time slave to science, better known in academic circles as “PhD student” or “doctoral candidate” for the posh. Specifically, I study scientific programming and conduct research in the Computational Evolution Group at the University of Auckland. Ours is a fascinating, multidisciplinary and international field of research. We are geneticists, computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, software engineers, physicists, epidemiologists, zoologists, ecologists, psychologists, climatologists, and wine scientists (yep, no joke).  We do theoretical and also practical work. It’s pretty wicked, and I absolutely owe UNIFI partial credit to the way I’m currently passing my greatly improbable and astounding existence.

Obviously, the first UNIFI event I attended was BRUNCH!!!1. As you do. The second event was one of a series UNIFI used to put on called Grab a Brew, Share Your View. It was debate-based, there was beer, and it was brilliant. Over the course of the next few years attending UNIFI events such as these and hanging around its members vigorously honed my skills in thinking on my feet and general engagement in debate, but it wasn’t all just rhetoric. I suppose I have at least somewhat of a nature-driven propensity toward logic and reasoning, but as with so many other components of a human they require practice and refinement. And although I cannot make a causal statement, I do know that my involvement with UNIFI and a sudden, fierce interest in science and mathematics (I had been a music major previously) developed right around the same time, and it was like a Cambrian freaking explosion of fascination.

Also, the UNIFI members who were my closest friends absolutely impacted me by their friendship and support, but also by the various expertise and interests with which they inspired me.  I had an extraordinarily low opinion of philosophers before a few UNIFIers straightened me out, and the programmers and mathematicians in the group assisted me immensely – whether they realize it or not – in developing my own intuition in these areas, which are vital to my current research.

Tell us a little bit about some of your research projects.

Primarily, I have been working on problems in epidemiology.  This past year I have been focused on developing models for epidemics that follow what we call an SIR model – that is, outbreaks in which a host undergoes periods of susceptibility (S), infectedness (I), and removal (R) from the effective population by death, quarantine, recovery with immunity, etc.  This includes viruses such influenza, HIV, HCV, and possibly the ebola virus (although ebola infections also include a latent or “exposed” (E) period and may be modeled with an SEIR model instead).

Interestingly, a colleague of ours in cognitive psychology who recently published a Science paper with my research group in language evolution has proposed that we may actually observe the spread of certain religions from an epidemiological perspective.  The concept is not entirely new – Richard Dawkins, for one, has spoken of religion as a virus – but our research group actually has both the tools and now the data to sit down and model it.  From these models we will be able to tease apart the underlying parameters that cause the epidemic behaviour, e.g., rates of infection, rates of death, population sizes throughout time, and so forth.  With abundant metadata we may also be able to find correlations between environmental factors and prevalence/incidence of the infectious agent, in this case religion.  For example, what effect does economic or political turmoil within a country have on the spread of religion within it?  What about natural disasters?  Does religious fervor gain momentum under such circumstances as we would intuitively predict?  These are the types of questions we may be able to provide insight on using such techniques as the SIR model.

Were there any specific experiences you had or professors you worked with while attending UNI that led you to pursue this career path?

I mentioned before that UNIFI did influence me in a tremendous way.  There are also several professors to whom I am grateful to have worked with at UNI, namely:  Ira Simet (chemistry); Jeff Tamplin, John Ophus, and David Saunders (biology); and of course my thesis advisors Jim Demastes and Theresa Spradling (biology).  Demastes and Spradling certainly provided the most direct effect on where I am today, literally and figuratively.  It was Demastes who initially lit that fire of interest in scientific research under me, it was the joint effort between Demastes and Spradling that nurtured the flame, and it was through their research lab that I discovered my current field.  (And it was during a trip to Skepticon with a few UNIFI mates that I discovered my current PhD supervisor and research group!)

The NASA internship, too, was certainly made possible by these experiences.  Plenty of students can get a decent grade in class, but it’s what you choose to do with your time outside of the classroom that really counts.  Not only does it look good on a C.V., but you’ll write a better essay when you actually have something to write about.

What do you miss most about UNIFI?

The people, the inside-jokes, and the activism.  There are certainly issues in New Zealand that could and need to be addressed (e.g., million-dollar tax breaks for churches), but everything is turned down several notches in comparison to the U.S.  For example, after finding a flat the first thing I did when I moved here was search for a UNIFI-esque group to join.  The closest thing I found was the university’s Reason and Science Society, which may sound ideal, but it is quite a different group than UNIFI.  Yes, there is circle-jerking over Carl Sagan, and there is scientific, philosophical, and political debate aplenty.  However, there is also an outspoken evangelical Christian as our secretary.  And they go beyond being simply not exclusive; for a while there was a disclaimer at the start of every event that:  “We are NOT an atheist group!”  It makes me uncomfortable, in that it is very reminiscent of the time I felt ashamed of the word “atheist”.  It’s a very different atmosphere.

Any advice for current members?

Be a go-getter.  Attend all the conferences you can – you never know what you might learn or who you might meet there.  And wear a UNIFI shirt while traveling for insta-best friends.

UNIFI: Not “Those” Atheists

Progressive-Picnic-e1409285722909
The word atheist is often said with the same inflection certain cable news correspondents give the word liberal, and I’m ready to sigh as soon as I hear it. Atheists are known, strictly for worse, for being as stubborn as they are awkward. Online, atheists are associated with fedoras, trench coats, and an unyielding desire to remove the word “God” from our dollars and change. It’s not a good image to have.

We aren’t those atheists. I want every student to know that we’ll welcome you with open arms and an accepting community. I want every group at UNI to know we’re willing to work with you on issues we agree on, and have a conversation on those that we don’t. To that end, we have partnered with over a half-dozen organizations this year already. UNIFI will continue to find common ground with organizations like Threehouse, also known as the UNI Wesley Foundation, and if you’re in a campus ministry or religious organization, we want to work with you too.

We aren’t those atheists. I want every student to know that we’ll welcome you with open arms and a community that will accept you.
We can dispel the stereotype of atheists with service and activism. That will often mean standing behind other groups when it’s their cause, and standing with them when they want our support. This past weekend UNIFI co-hosted the fourth annual progressive picnic with six other student orgs. We didn’t put ourselves front and center – or even right next to the snow cone machine. We were just another group among the rest. This sort of organizing is the future of our group and our movement, and it has to be if we are ever going to move beyond the stigma around the word atheist.

On issues of reproductive rights, we stand behind our friends at UNI STARR. When it comes to equality, we’ll stand behind, not before, UNI Proud, One Iowa at UNI, and the Feminist Action League. When it comes to our politicians, we’re non-partisan, but I would be remiss to say that most of our members don’t also go to meetings of the Northern Iowa Democrats to lobby for political action. And when we’re making moral judgments or bad arguments, we’ll listen to our friends in Philosophy Club. If those things matter to you, you might be interested in joining those groups.

But if you’re looking to talk about science, skepticism, and religion, we think we’re the group for you. We won’t hold back when we say evolution and climate change are matters for science, not religion. We’ll not mince words when it comes to psychics that promise to speak to your loved ones. We’ll pass on arguing about “God” on our currency, but we’ll readily give voice to the harm done by centuries of religious dogmatism. We will do these things with honesty and integrity, and I invite you to join us for an exciting year.

Guest Post by Trevor Boeckmann: What’s at Stake in the Massachusetts Buffer Zone Case?

In the next week, the Supreme Court will release an opinion in what I believe to be one of the most difficult cases of the term. The case involves a law in Massachusetts that makes it illegal for speakers other than clinic “employees or agents . . . acting within the scope of their employment” to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk” within thirty-five feet of an entrance, exit, or driveway of “a reproductive health care facility.” A group of individuals challenged the law, seeking to approach women entering the facility to encourage them not to get an abortion.

Before I dig into the law underlying the case, I want to discuss what this case is not.

  • This is not a case about yelling and screaming protesters. Justice Scalia even admitted during oral arguments that a ban on yelling and screaming within 35 feet would be upheld.
  • This is not a case about harassment. If a woman told the protesters she did not wish to speak with them, and the protesters continued following the woman and wouldn’t leave her alone, police could intervene.
  • This is not a case about an individual incident of protesters blocking traffic. Police have the power to disperse crowds.
  • This is not a case just about abortion. If this law is upheld, governments will be able to stop labor unions, funeral protesters, and anyone else they want from speaking on public sidewalks.

This is a case about the prophylactic measures a state can take to protect women from violence and ensure unimpeded access to roads and sidewalks. The State’s power to do so is, of course, not absolute. As we learned last year in the Fred Phelps case, the State can’t stop controversial protestors at funerals even though these protests could easily lead to violence.

Massachusetts’s law raises two free speech issues. First, is the law a viewpoint-based restriction on speech? The First Amendment prohibits the State from taking sides when regulating speech. For instance, it would be legal for a government body to outlaw protests on city streets that block traffic. However, it would be illegal for that same government body to only outlaw anti-gay speech on those same city streets. The rule is a good one. Without it, a state would be free to discriminate against any politically unpopular group.

In this case, the protesters argue that allowing “employees or agents . . . acting within the scope of their employment” to enter the buffer zone is a viewpoint-based restriction. Imagine that one morning a woman comes to a Planned Parenthood. When she’s within 35 feet of the entrance, two people walk up to her—one’s an employee and one’s a protester. The employee, acting within the scope of her employment as a greeter, says: “good morning; this is a safe place.” The protester says: “good morning; this is not a safe place.” Under the law, only the protester could be arrested. That looks a lot like a viewpoint-based restriction.

The State responds that “acting within the scope of their employment” is much narrower than the protesters think. It only includes coming and going to work and no speech activities. Thus, it would be illegal for anyone to approach our hypothetical woman, making the restriction viewpoint-neutral.

It’s unlikely this issue will win the day for the protesters. Federal courts generally allow state actors to interpret their own laws (especially if it lets them avoid a difficult constitutional question). If the executive branch is going to enforce this law against everyone, it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will tell them to enforce it only against protesters just to strike the law down.

The second issue is whether the law is “narrowly tailored.” The First Amendment generally allows states to regulate the time (for instance, no protests after midnight), place (not outside of a classroom window), and manner (no loudspeakers) of speech provided that the regulation is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “significant governmental interest.” Additionally, the law must leave “ample alternative channels for communication.” This is known as intermediate scrutiny.

There’s no doubt here that safety and stopping sidewalks from being congested are significant governmental interests. The more difficult question is whether a 35 foot buffer that stops ALL speech, including protesters who silently hold signs or offer pamphlets to women, is narrowly tailored to those interests. In other words, is there a way to craft a law that would prohibit less speech while still protecting women? Options might include a smaller buffer zone, only prohibiting loud and disruptive speech, or bringing in more police officers.

The State argues that it has already tried these other options. For instance, it originally had a law that made it illegal for protesters to be within six feet of women coming to a clinic. However, the law turned out to be challenging to enforce. It was difficult to tell how far six feet was when everyone was moving around. But, moving from 6 feet to 35 feet is a big change. The court has to decide whether there was any in-between amount that would be effective.

Another issue is that the buffer zone lasts 24 hours a day. Massachusetts might be able to have a buffer zone on Saturdays and Sundays in Boston. But why do they need a buffer on Tuesday mornings in Worcester? The protesters testified that, many times, the only “crowd” was a single elderly woman. Is she really a threat for violence and congesting streets? The court might force Massachusetts to make a more fact-intensive determination in each city about when and where the buffer zone needs to exist.

It’s hard to predict exactly how the court will write its opinion, but it’s likely that the court will ultimately strike the law down. Nearly every justice expressed some concern about the law during oral arguments. While it’s likely that some abortion clinic buffer zone will remain legal, it’s hard to say what the limits will be. Also, keep in mind that the standard will continue to evolve and be fact-intensive. If Massachusetts is forced to move to a smaller or different buffer zone, but there continues to be congestion and violence, it may be justified in going back to a larger zone.

First Amendment law is notoriously complicated, but I hope this helps to explain some of the issues the court is struggling with. If you have any questions, feel free to ask about it in the comments.

Lady Justice in Bruges

Drones, Secret Laws, and Public Justice

For two centuries now, the West has held itself to be the center of liberty and justice. Indeed, the 20th Century was marked by the joint effort of the judiciary and the legislature to even the legal playing field for all. However, that progress was marred by the growth of executive power, and in particular, secret law and a burgeoning military and police. Since the civil rights era, Americans have idly watched the slow death of justice.

The extra-judicial killing of Americans is now part of our legal legacy. It is deeply concerning that the White House is keeping legal arguments to kill Americans abroad classified. Whatever one’s opinions of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a free society can’t exist when the government can secretly justify an execution without trial or challenge. Now David Barron, who had a hand in those arguments, has been nominated to be a federal judge. This nomination is a message to the administration and to the administration’s lawyers: your arguments, however perverse, are safe, and secret. I had hoped Congress would not grant the author of these documents justifying killing Americans a permanent seat on the bench.

It has been remarked that Barron has an exceptional legal mind and is eminently qualified for the bench. Maybe that’s true, but anything less than public disclosure would send a signal to the president and his successors that they can maintain secret laws as long as they have the aid of brilliant lawyers. Now as a judge, he may find himself presiding over a case on privacy rights, or concerning the consequences of extra-judicial actions by the government. Can the public trust a Congress that okays a judiciary, assenting to private memos that curtail rights without giving us a chance to see how Barron might rule on such issues?

That Congress has not challenged the administration on these things already is disappointing, but understandable. Until the intelligence leaks of the past year, trust in the executive branch seems to have been unanimous. Earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders asked whether or not the National Security Agency was spying on Americans, the agency replied:

“NSA’s authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.”

That provided little comfort to Congress in light of near daily revelations of unmitigated spying. Now the Central Intelligence Agency is under investigation for spying on the House Intelligence Committee. These agencies seemed to learn their craft from the idiom of the fox watching the hen house.

It is well past time for our Congress and the public to rein in the executive branch, and they should have made a stand here on these crucial legal documents. Any Senator would have been free to enter the documents into the Congressional Record during debate on the nomination, but they did not. Even Barron deserved a public trial.

Patriotism at Graduation

IMG_0082_0_1Last Saturday, I attended UNI’s Commencement Ceremony for CHAS’s and CSBS’s Class of 2014. I was glad to celebrate the academic accomplishments of UNI’s graduates who undoubtedly worked hard for their achievement.  Unfortunately, it seemed like the ceremony was as much a patriotic celebration as it was a ceremony to honor the academic successes of UNI students. I have no problem with patriotism and I am glad to have veterans who are willing to put their lives at risk to make the world better, but I do not think a graduation ceremony is the appropriate place to honor them.

The graduation ceremony included such patriotic ­­­­­affairs as a performance of the Star Spangled Banner, a speech about Lieutenant Robert J. Hibbs, a UNI graduate who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Vietnam War, a standing ovation for students in the military, and applause for all of the veterans in attendance, who were asked to stand and be honored. I, for one, did not attend that event to applaud America, I attended it to celebrate the graduation of UNI students, and while some patriotism is certainly reasonable—the Star Spangled Banner, for instance—I felt an entire speech for Hibbs was unnecessary, and I would have much rather seen a standing ovation for students with outstanding academic achievement than one for students in the military. Though it is commendable that students serve in the military, we were not there to celebrate American military service, we were there to celebrate scholarship.

Patriotism in public events is certainly acceptable. Celebrating one’s country comes with being a member of the public, therefore public events are an appropriate place for patriotism. For instance, the performance of of the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events, and the celebration of Independence Day are great ways for Americans to celebrate the luxury we have to live comfortably in the free, developed world, but it is only appropriate to an extent. I’m sure that there were foreign students and parents in attendance at the CHAS and CSBS Commencement who felt ostracized by the patriotism weaved into the program. It’s quite unfair that at an event meant to celebrate distinguishing accomplishments, military members receive a standing ovation, while the one winner of the Lux Service Award does not.

I know patriotism at commencement ceremonies is standard, and I’m sure UNI would have received endless complaints if they had done anything less, but adding so much national pride to the program watered down the significance of the academic accomplishments we were really there to celebrate. The academic success achieved by the graduates did not deserve to be diluted; the graduates all deserve appreciative and inclusive recognition, regardless of the county from which they come.