Technoslavery has reached new heights

TV commercial 1: A hand holds a mobile phone. The thumb reaches from lower right corner of screen to upper left, while a man’s voice tells us what an inspired design this is, and how it will make our lives so much more wonderful. (Never mind that it took four previous generations of iPhones to figure out something so obvious.)
TV commercial 2: A woman steps out of the shower and sees a floating screen in the room. Husband, brushing his teeth, comments about the way cable television subscribers are unable to simultaneously record 12 shows from 5 separate devices in 3 countries and watch them all at once. Or something like that. (Never mind that you could record every show on every channel in every nation on earth and still find that there’s nothing worth watching.)
TV commercial 3: Crowd waits in line to buy the latest trendy mobile phone. They watch two young men touch their phones together to share a music playlist and are secretly jealous. (Never mind that you’ll never actually use this life-changing feature.)
The point of all three commercials, and dozens more like them: Our lives are so much more difficult and inconvenient than they could be, if only we had all the latest devices and gadgets.
The reality of all three: Modern technology with all its trendy features is not going to improve your life in the slightest.
Remember way back in the dark ages of flip phones and iPods and Nikon cameras? Remember the dream of having all three devices combined into one — along with your computer files, email, address books, video games?
And then it happened. We all got touch-screen cellphones that take high definition movies (which we never make), play our collection of 5,000 songs (which we never listen to) and produce a thousand different fart sounds at the touch of a button (which I will not dignify with a comment).
It’s a revolution! How did we ever live without it!
Now step back another decade, when our phones were attached to wires, and we could only dream of taking them with us and being constantly in touch with our friends and family.
Take another step back, to the days when driving from town to town or flying from coast to coast seemed like a dream come true.
Yet the apparent freedom ushered in by each technological advancement of the last century turned into a new kind of slavery.
The marvel of the automobile meant we could now work across town and spend more of our lives in cars and more of our income on gas.
The miracle of flight gave us a global economy that could come crashing down at any moment when energy costs become too great.
The wonder of radio — then television, video games, and the Internet — produced the couch potato and several generations who can’t carry on an intelligent conversation.
And now, the cellphone sensation has taken technoslavery to new heights, as young girls gossip via text rather than voice, and young boys have countless new ways to waste precious hours, and kids would sooner die in a fiery crash than pry their fingers from their phones.
Human life is easier, more fun, and more fulfilling than ever, yet our society, the pinnacle of human civilization, is plagued with mental illness, ignorance, poverty, obesity and addiction.
As a wise man once said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” I would add this: Irony of ironies, no one talks on the phone anymore.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.
This column was published in the Mille Lacs Messenger on Oct. 23, 2012.

On Mormonism and the Christian right

find it interesting that the Evangelical Christians who raised me to believe that Mormonism was a cult are now prepared to vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, a churchgoing Christian.
Billy Graham, whose evangelistic association spent decades spreading the word that Mormonism is a cult, decided the other day to remove Mormonism from its list of cults in order to give Mitt Romney a better shot at the presidency.
Here’s what the site used to say: “A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith. … Some of these groups are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spritualists, Scientologists, and others.”
Here’s the justification for removing it: “We removed the information from the website because we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.”
Interesting, but not surprising.
Countless members of the Christian Right have spent the last four years attacking their Christian brother, Barack Obama, and calling his faith into question, based on nothing but his political principles and a laundry list of lies from Bill Ayers to Birtherism. They have gleefully joined in a systematic and hateful campaign of destruction, rejecting their savior’s commandments to love their enemies, tell the truth, and judge not, lest they be judged.
This is just the latest example showing that Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity (aka “the Christian right”) has become primarily a political movement rather than a religious one.
My first hint of this came in 1978, when Democrat Rudy Perpich was running against Republican Al Quie for governor of Minnesota. Quie had friends in our church, Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, because his son went to a private Christian school in Minneapolis called Minnehaha Academy. My brother and several friends from church graduated from Minnehaha.
One Sunday morning a couple friends and I — 15 years old at the time —decided to respond to the Al Quie buttons people were wearing to church by wearing Rudy Perpich buttons. We and our parents were quickly informed that our behavior was inappropriate.
My parents were outraged. My mother was the daughter of a Free Church pastor, and my dad’s ancestors had been among the denomination’s founding members. They were not partisan Democrats, but during their youth in the 1930s and their coming of age in the ’40s and ’50s, politics were not discussed in church. For one reason, if FDR had been denounced from the pulpit in Chicago, where my dad grew up, many of the working class parishioners would have gone elsewhere.
My parents made it clear to the church fathers that my friends and I would wear our Perpich pins as long as anyone sported a Quie button, and the tempest was quelled.
Two years later, in 1980, the Moral Majority endorsed the nominally Christian Ronald Reagan over the nation’s first born again Christian president, Jimmy Carter, a Baptist Sunday school teacher whose devotion and knowledge of the scriptures would have put Reagan to shame.
At the time, Evangelicalism was a one-issue religion: abortion, of course. But as they embraced the Republican stance on abortion (or more accurately, the Republican party embraced the Evangelical stance in order to win their votes), they also embraced every other Republican position, from gun rights to defense spending to trickle-down economics to tax cuts to deregulation to capital punishment to the drug war, and they questioned or rejected whatever the Republicans told them to reject, however “Christian” it might seem: the peace movement, anti-poverty programs, public education funding, environmentalism, the women’s movement, gay rights, and the scientific consensus on climate change.
It should go without saying that there’s nothing particularly Christian or Biblical about supply-side economics nor secular about a social safety net or environmental regulation, yet judging by Evangelicals’ partisanship, you’d think “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible, while “Blessed are the peacemakers” is something the Black Panthers dreamed up.
Democrats, who no longer felt welcome in Evangelical churches, left on their own, but it was really a quiet purge. Nowadays, at least here in Minnesota, you’d be hard pressed to find a single Democrat in the typical Baptist, Free or other Evangelical church.
That’s why Billy Graham’s sudden tolerance of Mormonism should come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention to the Christian right over the last three decades. In Evangelical churches, politics trump religion every time.
Unfortunately for Graham, though, scrubbing his website of references to Mormonism as a cult cannot scrub the Internet of its terrabites of articles by Evangelicals outlining very clearly the sundry heresies of Mormonism, which Graham himself has no doubt preached in the past.
For example, “The Plain Truth about the Mormons” on calls Mormonism “a dangerous cult” and lists the following heresies:
• the belief that man can become God
• the belief that God was once a man
• the denial of the Trinity
• the questioning of the Bible’s authority
• the belief in the authority of Mormon scriptures
• the belief in polygamy
• the belief that other Christian religions are “corrupt” and “an abomination”
• the denial of the literal burning hell
• the belief that God lives on a star near the planet Kolob
• the belief in baptism of the dead
• the belief that Jesus and Satan were brothers.
• the belief in salvation by works
To these heresies can be added many others, like these listed by Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:
• the belief that God has a flesh-and-bone body
• the belief that God is married to a goddess wife and has spirit children
• the belief the there is a mother God.
In summary, the site declares, “Yes, Mormonism is a cult, a non-Christian cult because Mormonism denies essential biblical teachings and adds new, false doctrines.”
Here are a few more facts about the religion that Evangelical Christians might take issue with:
The Church of the Latter Day Saints, aka Mormon Church, follows the teachings of Joseph Smith, who said he was visited by an angel who dictated the tenets of “true Christianity” to him in the 1820s in a rural county in New York.
The revelation included the following claims: that Jesus came to the New World, that the Garden of Eden was in North America, that the New Jerusalem would be in Missouri, and that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel.
The planet (or star) Kolob, which is the nearest to the Throne of God, was discovered by Abraham and Methuselah using the seer stones known as the Urim and Thummim.
These seer stones were allegedly found by Smith along with the golden plates he said were the source of the Book of Mormon. Smith said he discovered the plates on Sept. 22, 1823, showed them to 11 witnesses, translated some of them into the Book of Mormon, then returned them to the angel Moroni (or Nephi — historical sources differ on his name).
Smith initially said marriage should be between one man and one woman, but then he fell for a 16-year-old follower (or adopted daughter), Fanny Alger, and in 1843 had a revelation that polygamy was okay — and that any wife who didn’t accept it risked damnation. Smith ended up with several other wives: Eliza and Emily Partridge, Sarah Annn Whitney, Helen Kimball, Flora Woodworth, Lucy Walker, et al. Sources differ about the precise number of wives Smith had. Some say 48, some 46, 42, 33, or 29. Many were teenagers when they married Smith.
If that’s not enough to convince you that Smith was either a delusional sex addict or a self-promoting charlatan, consider this. In the 1840s, an Irishman named Michael Chandler brought some Egyptian papyri to Smith when his pilgrims were living in Kirtland, Ohio. Smith determined that they were scrolls written by Abraham and Joseph. He translated the first, which has become a text of Mormon scripture, but died before he could translate the second. The text includes the only reference to the planet Kolob and also includes teachings on plural gods, priesthood, the exaltation of humanity, etc.
Unfortunately for Smith and the Mormons, these scrolls — unlike the golden plates — survived, and are now in the vault of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With the help of the Rosetta Stone, they were translated and turned out to have nothing to do with Abraham, or Kolob, or the Mormon priesthood. Says Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a recent article on the topic, “Every single aspect of Joseph Smith’s translation was fabricated” — which doesn’t reflect well on the purported translator of the missing golden plates.
Smith was killed in 1844 by a mob of Christians in Illinois, after Smith’s church members were persecuted in New York, then Ohio, then Missouri. Eventually his followers accompanied his successor, Brigham Young, to Utah. (Young, FYI, had 51 wives and 56 children.)
In the 1890s, the church denounced plural marriage, as they changed their minds about other controversial issues throughout their history — like the belief that black men could not be priests, a doctrine reversed in 1978. (They haven’t officially reversed or repudiated their belief that dark skin is a curse but say the 1978 decision speaks for itself. The online book of Mormon has cleaned up references to the curse, and some Mormon authorities now deny that the curse doctrine ever existed.)
In their defense, early Mormons opposed slavery (unlike many Christians) and ordained black priests.
Like Catholics and most Evangelicals, they still don’t ordain women.
In general, Mormons don’t have a problem with changing their positions. They adhere to a doctrine of “continuous revelation,” which may explain why Mitt Romney has seemed so comfortable with his flip-flops. Their leaders are pope-like in their authority and their ability to create and overturn teachings.
And yes, Mormons really do wear special undergarments (“magic underwear”), which serve as a reminder of their covenants and a protection against temptation.
Many of the claims of Mormonism may seem strange to non-Mormon Americans, but many religious beliefs and practices seem odd to the uninitiated, from the animist belief that rocks and trees have souls, to the polytheism of the Hindus, to the head coverings of Muslim women, to the Christian practice of drinking blood and eating flesh.
Still, I can only imagine how Billy Graham and his ilk would respond to a Muslim candidate, even though Islam is hardly more distant in doctrine and practice from Christianity than Mormonism is.
And Mormonism does not have the benefit of age to explain its weirdness. It seems less gullible to believe in miracles that occurred 1,000 or 2,000 years ago — prior to the age of science and history and journalism — than to believe in supposed miracles that occurred a few generations ago — long past the mythic age of miracles and giants and talking asses.
Although we should beware of throwing stones from glass houses, we should consider whether our leaders’ religious views will prevent them from facing realities that may dramatically affect our country and our world in days and years to come.
Foremost among them: climate change. If religiously affiliated political leaders — Mormon, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan or Jew — choose faith over fact to prevent a nation as carbon-soaked as the U.S. from addressing threats to our species’ very existence, then we should consider whether religion in politics has become a force of destruction rather than salvation.
If it hasn’t, no big deal.
But if it has, or does, God help us all.

Human rights and amendments

Rob’s story on the Mille Lacs Area Human Rights Commission forum was interesting. I posted a comment at the end of the story, and I’m copying a revised version of it here.
I’m on the Human Rights Commission’s side on these issues (as I’ve written in columns here and here, but I can sympathize with those who aren’t. No one wants to be “anti” human rights, yet that’s the feeling people get when being “pro” human rights is rigidly defined by one group or party. The reaction is similar when labels like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” get thrown around. No one considers himself or herself “anti-life” or “anti-choice.”
On the other hand, opponents of Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s would also have been offended by being labeled as racist or prejudiced, yet today, few people would say those people weren’t “anti” civil/human rights.
The state Human Rights Commission is a state agency, so we have some expectations of nonpartisanship, but the commissioner is a political appointment by the governor. The commissioner, Kevin Lindsey, has opposed the Voter ID amendment and marriage amendment in public appearances, but I’m not seeing any official statement regarding either amendment on their website. Good article in Winona Daily News about Lindsey’s opposition. I can’t link to it here, but you can google it.
Rep. Sondra Erickson said the HRC, because it’s a state agency funded by taxpayer dollars, should be “balanced.”
By Erickson’s reasoning, a Human Rights Commission during the Jim Crow era should’ve had a “balance” and not taken a position on poll taxes, literacy tests or separate drinking fountains.
The HRC was created by the state Human Rights Act of 1967 to protect individuals’ rights, not to be politically neutral.
Erickson stressed that these amendments were crafted to “let the people decide.” It’s a disingenuous argument. If that’s how she feels on these issues, then let’s bring all proposed laws to referendum or amendment. “Let the people decide” on everything, and see what happens.
Fact is, Republicans know they have a better chance of getting these partisan amendments passed because the majority of voters are prejudiced, ill informed or unaware of the motivations or ramifications.
Attempts at passing these laws in the Legislature have failed for good reasons. Amendments are an end-run around the legislative process, and they’re almost always a bad idea because they appeal to the ignorance of voters.
I’ve voted against every amendment that’s come up since I could vote, from the state lottery to “right to hunt and fish” to the “Legacy Amendment.” And I’ll vote against these, too.

On the crucial issue, the choice is clear

If ever you needed evidence that our priorities are backwards, consider a Gallup poll from last summer, which found that the environment finished 11th out of 12 issues in importance to voters. The 12th: Increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.
The issue of greatest concern, according to that same poll, is “creating good jobs,” yet we have been voting against those economic interests for decades, continuing to drink the trickle-down Kool-Aid served up by the 1 percent, who keep telling us that giving our money to the rich (“job creators”) will result in more wealth for everyone.
How’s that been working over the last 30 years? Is it easier to get by as a middle class family with one income now than it was in the 1960s or 70s? Oh yeah — there’s no such thing as a middle-class family with one income anymore.
How’s that for family values?
If you need more information that “trickle down” doesn’t work, consider that the Dow is at a record high. That means the “job creators” are doing great — so where are the jobs?
Whenever the “fiscally conservative” (aka “family values”) party is out of power, they rail against the evils of the national debt, but when they’re in power, they borrow and spend like a teenager with a Visa card. They talk about cutting spending, but when it comes down to it, they won’t cut the only expenses that would make a dent in the debt — the military and Medicare — and they talk about cutting PBS and welfare, which riles up their base against liberal elites and minorities but would do nothing to address our financial problems.
No one remembers that Ronald Reagan quadrupled the national debt from $1 trillion to $4 trillion— a greater increase, percentage-wise, than anyone before or since. The relative prosperity of those years was built on borrowed cash to pay for tax cuts. Reagan’s vice president, the elder George Bush, was right when he called Reaganomics “voodoo economics.”
The so-called “tax-and-spend” party, on the other hand, gave us Bill Clinton, who brought the country from deficit to surplus, which was squandered by his successor on a trillion dollar tax cut for the wealthy. The prosperity of the Clinton years was built on a fairer tax code and actual mathematics.
Once the party of “fiscal responsibility” was back in power, debt increased, spending increased, and the economy tanked.
Which brings us back to issue #11, the one issue that really matters but is of no interest to anyone because most of the country is preoccupied with the debt, gay marriage and voter ID laws.
It’s the one issue on which all others depend, because if the planet can’t sustain our population, or the climate changes so much that we can’t adjust, or if energy becomes so expensive that our way of life is impossible, then every other issue becomes moot.
On that one crucial subject, the seemingly minor differences between the two parties are actually dramatic. One party accepts the conclusions of scientists regarding climate change. The other doesn’t. One party supports tough environmental laws. The other thinks corporations will protect the environment out of the goodness of their hearts. One party recognizes the coming shortage of oil and the need for other sources of energy. The other thinks “drill, baby, drill” will solve all our problems forever — a fantasy as believable as voodoo economics.
No one is talking about the one issue on which all others depend, because our leaders — and voters —only look two years ahead, not 200, or even 20.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.
This column was published in the Mille Lacs Messenger on Oct. 17, 2012.

Remembering the kookaburra

I’m sitting home alone watching Nova on a Saturday afternoon and remembering when I was in Australia and a kookaburra grabbed a piece of pizza right out of my hand.
I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant and had a small piece of pizza left in my hand. I was talking, with my elbow on the table and the pizza in my hand near my ear, when the kookaburra, which is a pretty big, crow-sized bird, came flying past and grabbed the pizza right out of my hand.
Just thought I’d share that.

So Isle really is Lake Wobegon

I’ve known for years that local folks believe Garrison Keillor based his fictional Lake Wobegon stories on Isle, but I’ve never known exactly why.
I knew his uncle was a doctor who practiced in Isle, and that Garrison showed up at an Isle basketball game a couple decades ago, then did his monologue on the Lake Wobegon basketball team. Then a few months ago, I found a snarky letter to the editor of the Messenger that Garrison wrote back in the 1960s, when he was a student at the U.
Yesterday I found the most convincing bit of evidence I’ve seen.
I was at the Isle Clinic in one of the exam rooms, where there’s a framed copy of a letter from Mr. Keillor to Dr. Tom Bracken.
In it, Keillor talks about his uncle, Isle’s Dr. Johnson, and says he spent a lot of time in Isle as a kid.
He also states very clearly that when he thinks of Lake Wobegon, he always pictures Isle — and Holdingford, and a little of Anoka (his home town).
So there you have it. Isle really is Lake Wobegon (or part of it, anyway).

We needle the flaks but need them too

Public relations gets a bad rap, especially from journalists, who liken PR to another two-letter acronym for what comes out of the hind end of a male bovine.
Journalists and PR professionals are like feuding siblings. We journalists disparage PR agents as “flaks” or “spin doctors” and complain that they’re trying to cover up and mislead while we’re trying to get to the bottom of things and expose the facts.
They get frustrated with us — sometimes rightfully so — because we appear to be looking for dirt or setting up the “gotcha” moment.
Many PR writers cut their teeth at newspapers, and many journalists have spent time on “the dark side” before coming back to the greener pastures of less pay and worse hours.
The relationship between PR and journalism is symbiotic. They need us to get the information about their businesses or organizations into the paper or onto the broadcast. We need them to feed us the facts that only they have access to, or to make our jobs easier by writing our stories for us.
Much of what you read in the paper, especially a small-town weekly, is PR copy that’s been cut, expanded or massaged (or not) by your neighborhood newspaper staff. We don’t have the time or the bodies to dig up all the stories that are relevant to our readers, so we rely on flaks from businesses, non-profits, and state agencies like the DNR.
I bring all this up because of an item you may have seen in last week’s paper: The PR firm Goff Public (formerly Goff and Howard) is no longer working for the Mille Lacs Band.
On the positive side, the Band will see significant savings by ending the relationship. In a blog post I wrote in 2009, I noted that the Band’s two-year contract with Goff and Howard was $1,713,333.
But with the savings comes a loss of Goff Public’s expertise. Goff provided an essential service to the Band for 22 years during a period of intense change due to the launch of two casinos, the ongoing development of the Band government, and the intense legal battles over treaty rights and reservation boundaries.
To the chagrin of some in the Mille Lacs community, Goff’s PR efforts served the Band well in the court of public opinion.
I’ve known some of the agents at Goff for many years and have nothing but respect and affection for them. Yes, they got paid for it, but they served the tribal community with energy, kindness and professionalism.
I sometimes felt Goff did a disservice to the Band by glossing over the negatives in the reservation community and insulating the tribal government from us journalists, the wider community, and even Band members.
If all you’ve read about the Mille Lacs Band is what came out of Goff, you’d get the impression that the reservation is a cross between Mayberry and Walnut Grove, not a complex community with some serious and intractable problems.
It will be interesting to see where the Band goes from here in terms of public relations — whether they hire a new firm, do it themselves, or simply quit doing PR (which is probably impossible).
Another benefit that’s come from the Band’s 22-year relationship with Goff is that the pros have trained Band members in the PR business. The Band now has the expertise to do PR internally, saving money while bringing jobs to the community.
And that’s not spin. That’s a story good enough to make a flak’s heart flutter.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.
The column was published in the Mille Lacs Messenger on Oct. 10, 2012.