Politics, USA, World

Trolling Tomi Lahren’s Trolling of International Women’s Day

Wednesday was International Women’s Day—a day to celebrate women around the world of both past and present who have helped to make this planet a better place for both girls and boys alike. It is a day to celebrate all the progress that the women’s movement has made, but also a day to acknowledge the ongoing struggles that women collectively continue to face.

The latter aspect of the holiday inspired some women to participate in organized protests designed to raise awareness on issues affecting women today. These protests could have been as simple as wearing red or generating discussion around the water cooler with colleagues, or as serious as taking the day off work—both paid and unpaid—to simulate “a day without women,” and demonstrate the various important roles that women play in our economy and communities. As with any protests, some of the rhetoric was worthy of eye-rolling and some of the actions worthy of criticism, but the overall message was based on what I believe to be an undeniable truth: Women today are perhaps as appreciated and empowered as they have been at any time in human history, but that does not mean that they are as appreciated and empowered as they should be.

That message was largely lost on rising conservative darling, Tomi Lahren, who used her Wednesday night “Final Thoughts” segment to demonize anyone participating in the day’s protests, or for just being a part of modern day feminism in general. In the video, Lahren angrily lambasts protestors for their “selfish” behavior and self-victimization, asserting that “real women” don’t need to “remind the world every single day” that they have been historically slighted.

For someone that is constantly mocking liberals for their over-sensitivity, Lahren sure seemed pretty triggered herself Wednesday night over some wardrobe selections and sick days. I know that she doesn’t believe in safe spaces, but perhaps a few days of shielding herself from the social justice warriors of the world would help her to cool down a little bit. That said, I occasionally find myself agreeing with a lot of Lahren’s critiques of the left. I could do without the shouting, but sometimes beneath the bombast lies some actual legitimacy.

Wednesday night’s segment was not one of those critiques.  Lahren is not usually one to be overly-nuanced, but her outrage over the actions associated with International Women’s Day was especially overstated and out of place. Worse, on a day that is supposed to be about women empowerment, Lahren’s words served only to undermine the efforts of millions of women around the world working to gain the appreciation and opportunities that they deserve.

To Lahren, Wednesday’s protests were not about equality. They were about “special treatment”—special treatment that, in Lahren’s mind, can be summarized as free abortions and birth control for everyone. Lahren says that she doesn’t deserve special treatment because she has “ovaries and a menstrual cycle.” I disagree. I think that women should get special treatment based on the fact that they have ovaries and a menstrual cycle, just as I believe that men should get special treatment when it comes to our prostates and our testicles.

Women’s healthcare is different than men’s healthcare, and our healthcare packages should reflect that. Yes, abortion is part of this, but again that is because only women get pregnant. I can’t say that I have ever met a woman quite like the abortion-happy, birth control pill-guzzling, caricature of a feminist that Lahren describes, but I have met plenty of women who want access to affordable contraception, and affordable abortions in the unintended and undesirable circumstance where they feel like they need one.

Lahren may disagree that an abortion should even be an option for women, and indeed if she had it her way, it probably would not be, but then I hope she would still acknowledge that some “special treatment” may be necessary for the mothers now tasked with the difficult assignment of raising children that they were not prepared to have.

But then Lahren makes a good point: Don’t the problems like those above pale in comparison to the “women in less fortunate parts of the world [who] wake up without basic human rights”? Yes, Tomi! I agree! I do not think that that makes the above issues irrelevant, but I do think that women in other parts of the world face challenges that deserve our immediate and prioritized attention. After all, this is INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day. But of course, Lahren spends less than four seconds on this point, using it only as a tool to delegitimize the issues that collide with her own personal agenda.

Instead, Lahren turns to the “victim card.” “Yeah, some challenges might be a little greater for women,” Lahren admits, “but let me tell you, it feels a whole hell of a lot better to overcome those challenges, than it does to dwell on them, complain about them, or use them as an excuse to fall short. If you constantly claim you’re a victim, you will always be a victim. Free yourself.”

I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. No matter how much of a victim a woman, or anyone from any other historically marginalized group might be, the message to that individual can never be to dwell on their victimhood. It has to be a message that empowers and overcomes in spite of injustice and oppression, and that is kind of what Lahren was getting at.

But Lahren’s pep talk is missing an important piece: validation…validation that the victimization that that person is experiencing is real and not imagined…validation that life is oftentimes unfair, but that they have a right to fight back. But rather than validate, the tone of Lahren’s tirade instead suggests that any girl that has ever complained about sexism or the glass ceiling is nothing but a whiney, entitled brat projecting her own shortcomings and failures on the dismantled vestiges of the patriarchy. And that is so not the case.

I’m never going to tell a woman that she is a victim if she doesn’t feel like one. If that’s the case with Tomi Lahren, then more power to her. But I am also never going to tell a woman that she isn’t a victim when her experience tells her that she is, especially when I still see so much evidence to validate that claim.

I want to live in a world where no girl feels victimized by her womanhood—where every girl can be whatever or whoever she wants to be whether that’s a CEO or a stay-at-home mom. For many women, that world doesn’t exist right now, and that’s what makes International Women’s Day both important and necessary. I’m glad that many women took that day to make their voices heard, both the protestors and the protestors of the protestors alike, because somewhere in between the world’s most radical third wave feminist and Tomi Lahren is progress, and hopefully within that conversation, progress is what emerges.

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P.S. Here is a song I tweeted out in honor of International Women’s Day. It’s a song by a guy, but hey, I’m a guy, sooooooo…Anyway, to all the unknown legends out there: Keeping building yours!

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Politics, Religion, World

Pushing an atheist agenda

By definition, I am technically an agnostic. I don’t believe in god or ghosts or spirits or an afterlife, but I cannot say with complete certainty that any of those things do not exist. It’s a big world, and a bigger universe, and the older and wiser that I get, the more stupider I realize that I am.

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That said, there are some things that I am pretty sure about. I’m pretty sure that some dude named Noah did not build a boat to save the world’s animal kingdom from drowning. I’m pretty sure that the reward for detonating a bomb in a crowded marketplace is not an eternal blowjob from 72 virgins. I’m pretty sure that gay people are not walking abominations. And I’m pretty sure that every organized religion in the world that makes supernatural claims about the origins of our universe is wrong.

That doesn’t mean that I know what the origins of the universe are, but you don’t have to always know the correct answer to a question to know an incorrect answer when you hear one. Author and thinker Sam Harris has made the analogy that, while we can never know what John F. Kennedy was thinking in the moments before his assassination, we can still know some things that he was certainly not thinking—like, for example, if Donald Trump would make a good 45th president or whether or not more than 12 people would read this blog post. Likewise, even though I cannot be sure that there is no god, I still feel pretty confident that the Christian God does not exist.

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This is what makes me an atheist. Even though I can’t explain the mysteries of the universe, I don’t think that religion can either. What is more, even though I don’t know whether or not there is a god, I definitely don’t believe that there is one. Agnosticism is about knowledge, or in this case, lack thereof, but atheism is about belief. And when it comes to what I believe about the universe, it’s that it is all just one big, random accident.

There is another belief that I hold about religion: It’s bad. It’s bad not only because of the wars and the hate and the human rights abuses that it inspires, but because of the millions of nice, peaceful people to whom it promises a better life on the other side—a promise that I believe goes unfulfilled. This promise can lead people into a middling existence, never fully taking advantage of or appreciating their brief moment in the sun due to their belief that they will live under a brighter one in the next life.

Because I subscribe to the belief that religion is cumulatively bad, and that the world would be better with less of it, I also subscribe to a certain amount of the philosophy known as “militant atheism.” Militant atheists don’t believe in god, and they don’t think that others should either.   That may sound elitist (because it is), but if you put yourself in the mindset of someone who truly believes that religion causes massive amounts of unnecessary pain and suffering (which militant atheists do), it would be hard to argue that they should not push an agenda that they feel could help to reduce that unnecessary pain and suffering.

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What is more, militant atheism, as I understand it, is not so much about “converting” the religiously devout as it is about inspiring other non-believers and skeptics to speak out against religion’s more harmful effects. I know a lot of smart people who shy away from the “atheist” label because of the arrogance and pretension that it is often associated with. But while their humility is admirable, it could also be argued that this silence is part of the reason why atheists have had so much trouble in pushing their agenda. In the United States, even though non-religious people make up more than 20% of the population, lack of religious faith is still one of the biggest hurdles to holding public office, as evidenced by the huge lack of representation of openly non-religious people in the United States Congress—1 out of 535 to be exact.

However, in pushing our atheist agenda, militant atheists like myself often exhibit one major flaw—we are enormous douchebags. Our arrogance is unbearable, our presumed certainty, laughable, and the condescension with which we treat the “unenlightened” makes our supposedly benevolent intentions far less than apparent. This perception of atheists, whether deserved or not, obviously has an adverse effect on our ability to push our agenda, in many cases making the intended audience more hostile to our ideas than they otherwise would be.

And this is where us atheists need to do some introspection. If the goal of atheism, militant or otherwise, is truly to make the world a better place, than we need to start behaving like it. Treating religious people like shit is hardly making the world better. If anything, it’s doing the opposite, contributing to the pain and suffering that militant atheists are purportedly against. It also contributes to the extraordinarily harmful divisiveness that currently plagues American society, and once again, exacerbates a problem that atheists are supposed to be trying to solve.

This doesn’t mean that atheists shouldn’t push their views. While the goal should not be to antagonize, the job necessitates some feather ruffling, and no matter how humbly or respectfully one goes about articulating the atheistic worldview, some people will still get offended.   But what atheists cannot do is resort to the mean-spirited mockery that dominates so many online message boards. Atheists must keep in sight what motivates their militancy in the first place—a steadfast commitment to peace, coexistence, and human happiness—and realize that many-to-most religious people share that commitment too.

The devoutly religious Martin Luther King once said that, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”   I think that atheists would be wise to emulate those words in their own advocacy. If a better world is truly our commitment, than we should behave like the people that we imagine that better world to be made of. If we cannot do that, than we are no less fraudulent than the outdated dogma that we seek to disprove and dispel.

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Economics, USA, World

Are we all monsters?:The connection between luxury and suffering

Imagine that one morning you are on your way to work when you walk by a shallow pond. In that pond you see a small child who is clearly drowning. You can easily save the child, but it will require that you get your clothes and shoes all wet and muddy. What is more, you are running behind schedule, and saving the child will surely make you late for work—perhaps quite late, as you will now need to go home and change your clothes. Do you still save the child?

Of course you do. You do it in a heartbeat. You do it without thinking. The thought of someone who would even stop to consider their shoes or schedule is itself disturbing, let alone the thought of someone that would willfully neglect to save the child for such selfish and petty reasons. That person would be considered a criminal, a sociopath, and a monster. But if you believe renowned ethicist Pete Singer, we may all have a little bit of monster in us.

We have all walked by that pond for exactly those reasons, and many of us do it every single day. We do it every time that we treat ourselves to an overpriced cappuccino, every time that we buy a pair of designer jeans, and every time that we go out to eat, attend a concert, or take a vacation…We do it every time that we choose to spend our spare dollars on our own unnecessary luxuries rather than helping the millions of suffering humans whose lives those dollars could easily help to save.

Of course, the pond in this case is metaphorical. In reality, the children whose lives we could be saving are dying from things like malnutrition, malaria, and civil war. Still, in the case of many of those children, their lives really are savable. There are organizations that are working to provide healthy meals, medicine, and new homes in safe locations, and if those organizations were to receive more money—our money—those dollars would LITERALLY save real humans lives that will not be saved otherwise.

But we don’t do that. I don’t do that.

Just the other night I went out with some friends to the new Surly Brewery in Minneapolis. It’s a fantastic establishment—some of the best beer and Brussels sprouts in town. All in all, I spent about $40 there, tip included, and another $5 on Pokémon GO egg incubators to make all the walking to and fro a little more worthwhile. I had a really great time that night, but if I had passed that shallow pond on my walk to the brewery, would I have jumped in and saved that drowning child, knowing full well that the money in my pocket would surely be lost, that my iPhone would be irreparably damaged, and that my lovely night out at Surly would be effectively ruined? God, I hope so.

So what’s the difference when that struggling child is on the other side of the world, thousands of miles away, but just as easily savable? The obvious answer is “out of sight, out of mind,” but while that is certainly an explanation, it is hardly an excuse.

But these thoughts have been on my mind lately. They’ve been on my mind ever since I first encountered ethical philosopher and all-around great person Will MacAskill on Sam Harris’s Waking Up Podcast. On the podcast, MacAskill describes a movement that he calls “effective altruism.” The movement is based on two assumptions: 1) That most people living in the developed world can and should do more with their time and money to help those who are less fortunate, and 2) that there are more and less effective ways to accomplish that goal. In other words, the good that we do should be strategic. If I am going to donate $50, I should seek out an organization that will use that money effectively and impactfully. Likewise, if I wish to donate my time, there is a cost-benefit analysis that should underlie how I choose to spend it.

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That latter part leads to some interesting considerations. For example, one might consider the donating of their Saturday to a charitable cause such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or a children’s hospital to be a greater act of altruism than, say, working eight hours of overtime and earning some extra dough on an upcoming paycheck. But in an “effective” sense, the time-and-a-half wage paid on those eight hours could probably do far more good if donated to the right cause than any one volunteer could do in a day of service. To put it another way, that day of service is not worth the opportunity cost of the money that one could make completing a different task that, in this case, is not itself altruistic. Using this philosophy, I have heard MacAskill argue that one of the most effectively altruistic career paths that one can pursue is actually banking and finance, assuming of course that the person is donating a large percentage of their lucrative earnings to help the world’s least fortunate people.

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You can go pretty far down the rabbit hole with this philosophizing about how to best maximize every spare minute and dollar, but while I’d like to get to that point someday, I’m not ready to go there now. Where I am ready to go, and where I think “we” in the developed world might be collectively ready to go, is accepting assumption number one—accepting the argument that we can and should be doing more to help those who are less fortunate than we are and that we should start doing those things now.

There are plenty of excuses that rationalize the pushing off of this responsibility. I know them well because I make them myself. While giving can certainly be intrinsically gratifying, online donations don’t offer the same euphoric spike as diving in that shallow pond and holding that living, breathing child in your arms—living and breathing thanks to you. In that scenario, you can feel the difference that you are making, but that fulfillment is hard to mimic with a credit card, especially when you do not get to witness the impact of your action.

What is more, the difference that your dollars make is, in reality, pretty microscopic when compared to the massive amount of global suffering that tragically plagues our planet. Even if you were to use every spare dollar over the next calendar year to buy bed nets for people in the developing world, there is no doubt that thousands upon thousands of people would still die from mosquito-born illnesses over that time. However, while that truth is sobering, those dollars still would make a difference, and it would be an enormous difference to the real human beings whose lives those bed nets would be saving—real human beings whose lives would not have been saved otherwise.

Another excuse is the burnout factor. Many of us already feel that we are struggling to make ends meet in our own lives. We live paycheck to paycheck, are saddled with mortgages and car payments and student loan debt, and don’t feel that we have a whole lot leftover to give at the end any given pay cycle. This is a real concern considering that, in order to give, people need to be motivated, and if their lives suck, that motivation will be lacking. But while the leaders of the effective altruism movement certainly would not discourage an immediate and dramatic change in lifestyle if someone were up to it, that does not seem to be what they are advocating. Instead, they are encouraging people to dip their toes in the proverbial pool. They are asking us to begin considering our own consumption habits—what’s necessary, what’s not, and where we could sacrifice small comforts and luxuries in order to make someone else’s life a little less terrible. As we begin to adjust to this mode of thought, Singer suggests that we may actually want to dip further into the pool. As one person cited in a Singer Ted Talk put it, he doesn’t even feel that what he is doing is altruistic…He feels that the life he is saving is his own.

With the publication of this blog post, I will simultaneously be dipping my toes in the pool for the first time. I will be donating $20 to the Against Malaria Foundation, which “works to prevent the spread of malaria by distributing long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito nets to susceptible populations in developing countries.” This donation is hardly a sacrifice for me. It may cost me some Poké-progress or a bottle of tequila, but I can and should be doing more. Hopefully, in the future, I will work up the willpower to do that, but for now I’m going to allow myself the humble self-satisfaction of taking the first step. Below is a link to Peter Singer’s website, “The Life You Can Save.” This site allows you to identify credible, impactful organizations that will help your dollars to do the most amount of good possible in areas of your choosing, be it children, women and girls, hunger and nutrition, or education. Click around, check stuff out, and if you want to dip your toes in the pool too, consider this your invitation to do so. The water’s warm.

https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org

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Animals, Travel, World

When being a tourist feels good: The Phang Nga Elephant Park

I have a love-hate relationship with being a tourist. On the one hand, I absolutely love to travel the world. Travelling drives me. Travelling is me. My international experiences have made me a better person than I would be otherwise—enlightening me, humbling me, motivating me to be better. My desire to travel is a big part of the reason that I went into teaching. There are not many other professions where you get the opportunity to spend nine months out of the year teaching kids about the world and the other three traveling and learning about it yourself.

But there are a lot of negative aspects to international travel too, especially when you’re a white dude from the United States of America. The tourism industry that was built to serve people like me is oftentimes reminiscent of the old colonial relationships between the “developed” and “developing” world where the privileged and powerful exploit the weaker and less fortunate for their own benefit. Even though I try my best to be a responsible tourist abroad, my masochistic desire to overthink things still sometimes leaves me wondering if our collective impact as tourists actually does more harm than good.

I thought about this a lot during my recent trip to Southeast Asia. There’s no doubt that the tourism industry over there has created a lot of jobs and generated a lot of dollars, but I still question how far reaching and inclusive those benefits are. For instance, do the jobs created by the imitation Western restaurants that we patronized and the mass-produced manufactured goods that we purchased outweigh the loss of the more traditional establishments and occupations that they most certainly replaced? It was great to have English menus and cheap goods, but pizza and bro-tanks are probably not the most authentic way to experience Southeast Asia. Does the commercialization of ancient landmarks and temples help to preserve indigenous cultures by educating us tourists about their history, or does it instead work to erode those cultures by transferring access and ownership of venerated sites to Westerners with deep pockets? I learned a lot about Eastern culture at Angkor Wat and Wat Pho, but I received this education amongst a sea of other white people. Also, depending on the venue, there can be something a little unsettling about converting somebody else’s sacred place of worship into a venue for my entertainment. And who ultimately ends up with the majority of the dollars that the tourism industry generates? Public revenue can build hospitals and schools and employees of the industry hopefully earn high enough wages to make a comfortable living, but something tells me that the corporate fat cats out there are still ending up with an oversized slice of the tourism pie, while the locals living in urban ghettos and impoverished rural areas are stuck with the crumbs.

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Temple Tour in Siem Reap

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Wat Pho–home of the famous Reclining Buddha

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The Bangkok red light district serves Cornflakes

But to dwell on such negativity does not do justice to all the tremendously transformative experiences that our adventure provided—experiences where tourism was done right and where tourism felt good. Nothing fits that bill better than the day we spent at the Elephant Park in Phang Nga, Thailand.

It’s not hard to find an elephant camp in Thailand. They’re all over the place. But if you care in the slightest about the well-being of the world’s largest land mammals, most of these camps should make you feel pretty sad. They are packed full of elephants—sometimes caged, sometimes chained, sometimes both—awaiting the next group of visitors to parade around town in carriage-like saddles alongside busy highways and tourist attractions. While the saddle and chains usually don’t physically harm these enormous beasts, the psychological effects do. Elephants are smart and have a tremendously elevated level of consciousness. This means that, unlike an idiotic gold fish oblivious to its own bowl-shaped imprisonment, elephants are quite aware of the fact that they are imprisoned, and quite aware of the less than stimulating environment that their imprisonment provides. If you have ever seen a captive elephant in a zoo or a circus doing something like this, then you have seen an elephant displaying documented symptoms of zoochosis—a medical condition that describes the strange behavior exhibited by captive animals who are clinically bored out of their freaking minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not like this. Although the upfront costs made this experience one of the more expensive things that we did on our trip, it was pretty clear upon our arrival that this park was not trying to make a few extra bucks by cutting a couple of corners. Their mission was an admirable one—providing elephants with a healthy, caring, elephant-first environment in which they can safely interact with human beings. During our day at the park, we were able to ride, feed, and bathe our elephants, all the while receiving a thorough education in what it means to care for nature’s gentlest giants.

Most of the elephants at this camp were rescued from Thailand’s waning logging industry where elephants have been traditionally used as beasts of burden. Due to this physically demanding occupation, these elephants are often in need of major care, and because of their domestication, have also become dependent upon human beings for their survival. The park attempts to provide the elephants that care minus the exploitative treatment so ubiquitous in other camps. You could perhaps say that while visitors in other camps are often unknowingly participating in the exploitation of their elephants, Phang Nga visitors are instead actively learning how not to exploit theirs.

The park is not perfect. Still in the nascent stages of its development, Phang Nga is temporarily dependent on contracts with private companies who bus in their tourists for brief ventures into the park. These for-profit companies continue to require saddles for the elephants rather than the more natural, bareback riding preferred by the park owners. Chains are still used as well. Limited space, human presence, and surrounding private lands create situations in which elephants cannot always roam freely. This is less than desirable, but also represents a necessary concession that the park needs to make as it continues to search for additional lands and funding in hopes of creating the most ethical elephant experience possible. Despite these shortcomings, the passion that park owner Jake and his several employees have for their elephants is undeniable. Their words reassure that they are doing the absolute best that they can with the resources they have, and that the well-being of their elephants is first and foremost in their hearts and minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not the only feel good tourism that we experienced in Southeast Asia. Public projects like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh provided powerful educational experiences that provide all kinds of eye-opening knowledge and life-altering lessons, particularly for people who grew up in parts of the world where war and poverty are problems seen on TV. The most southern point of the island of Phuket prohibited certain vendors from its premises, allowing foreigners and locals alike to enjoy an unintrusive visit to one of Thailand’s most beautiful viewpoints. Many of the hostels and restaurants that we chose to patronize were not owned by Western chains that swipe away Eastern tourism dollars, but local small business owners who are able to earn an honest and respectable living by catering to their country’s visitors.

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

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Lunch at Phuket’s most southern point

Still, being a responsible tourist is difficult. It’s hard to know where your dollars ultimately end up and who or what those dollars are ultimately supporting. We tried to be responsible and respectful tourists during our time in Southeast Asia, and at times we almost certainly failed. But at a place like the Phang Nga Elephant Park, that task became easy, at least for a day. Phang Nga shows what the tourism industry could be—not an adversarial showdown between two parties trying to make or save a buck, but a partnership in which both parties work together to achieve common goals and do something cool.

These are the kind of feel good experiences that should be sought by all travelers who carry with them a certain sense of responsibility as they move through the world. They help us to transcend our role as tourists and become contributors to the countries that contribute so much to us through the enlightening experiences that they provide. They allow us to work in cooperation with the people and wildlife in a particular corner of the planet in hopes of making that corner a better place. In turn, these experiences also follow us home and motivate us to do better in our own country in the ways that we treat our own people and wildlife in our part of the world. Phang Nga Elephant Park certainly provided this motivation for me and my crew, and if any of us ever find ourselves back in Phuket, we will almost certainly take advantage of their open invitation to return to the park free of charge and help to care for some of the most awesome creatures that walk the planet today. If you’re looking for a similar experience, perhaps for an extended period of time, keep reading below.

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Plug: Love animals and looking for a volunteer opportunity abroad??? Phang Nga Elephant Park might be exactly what you’re looking for. Click here to email owner Jake about a potentially cost-free volunteer opportunity at their eco-friendly elephant sanctuary and provide some care to creatures that need it. The elephants will appreciate you for it.

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USA, World

When it comes to feminism, I’m a skeptic of the skeptics

Some people on the left are a little too righteous. They are holier-than-thou, overly sensitive, and speak with a political correctness that is as nauseating as it is pretentious. In the past, I’ve written about my support for those who are trying to take back the left and redefine what it means to fight for liberal values like free expression and human rights in the 21st century. In feminist circles, this attempted take-back is perfectly exemplified by the work that Christina Hoff Sommers is doing in her quest for what she calls “factual feminism.”

Christina Hoff Sommers identifies as a feminist. She regularly cites her support for the second wave feminism of the 60s and 70s that took on male chauvinism in the workplace and in the home, and won women unprecedented control over their own bodies via legal protections for their reproductive rights. But where Hoff Sommers differs from many of the feminists of today is not over what feminism was, but over her belief about what feminism has since become.

Hoff Sommers believes that modern day feminism is built on a collection of myths that over-exaggerate the ‘oppressed’ state of women in today’s world. She believes that leading feminists, particularly on university campuses, are instilling in young women a victimhood mentality, confusing them on what misogyny actually looks like and convincing them that they are victims of injustices that do not actually exist. She believes that things like the ‘wage gap’ and the ‘glass ceiling’ are feminist farces explained not by patriarchy but by natural, biological differences that exist between the sexes and the influences that those differences have on the lives that men and women freely choose to lead. She also believes that all of this has led to an unhealthy hatred of men and boys and a neglect of the unique problems that they experience in world.

I appreciate what Christina Hoff Sommers is trying to do. In thinking about people who have challenged my worldview, she has got to be one of the more thought-provoking voices that I have recently encountered. Her factual feminism makes worthy critiques of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” “privilege checking” and “micro-aggressions.” However, after a long personal marination on the merits of her arguments, when it comes to the larger questions that she poses about the validity of modern day feminism, I’m still a skeptic of much of her skepticism.

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Hoff Sommers beef with feminism stems from a divide in the feminist field that dates back to the arrival of feminism’s third wave in the mid 1990s. This divide created two distinct branches of feminism—“equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” Hoff Sommers is the first one (although some have described her as more of a “libertarian feminist”). This means that she believes in equality of rights between men and women as well as equality of economic and social opportunity. However, when that equality of opportunity fails to translate into equality of results, Hoff Sommers hesitates to point her finger at the patriarchy. That’s because, in her mind, inequality does not necessarily indicate injustice.

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Men and women are different, and different is okay. It’s okay when competitive boys choose to play football and cooperative girls choose to be cheerleaders. It’s okay when risk-taking men choose to work dangerous jobs while nurturing women choose to keep the home and raise the children. And if these choices result in working men, on average, earning more money than working women, or men being more likely to ascend to leadership positions in businesses and government, that’s okay too. This does not mean that societal gender roles are prescribed. There will always be men and women who buck the proverbial trend, and they are and should be free to do so. However, we shouldn’t be surprised when, more often than not, those trends are widely followed.

Gender feminists disagree. It’s not that gender feminists disbelieve in biological differences between men and women. Certainly there are some anatomical differences that are difficult to ignore. What gender feminists question is the ability of biology to explain the myriad of gender-based differences that exist between the sexes in society today. More importantly, what they conclude is that many of the characteristics attributed to a certain sex are not the result of biology, but instead are created by human beings; they are social constructs.

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Biology does help to explain certain social phenomena. Perhaps evolutionary biology, for example, could help to explain why men are often seen as more independent and aggressive whereas women are viewed to be compassionate and nurturing. It does make some sense that these traits could have “evolved” in men and women after millennia of hunting and gathering, where men possessed the superior biological tools for capturing and killing animals and women the only biological tools for birthing and feeding babies. This example could also provide some insight into the evolution of the idea of men as “breadwinners” and women as “housekeepers.” Before the invention of agriculture, these roles were essentially required in order to create a nuclear family.

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However, when it comes to other gender related questions, biology provides very few answers. Does biology explain why girls like pink and boys like blue? Does biology explain why girls wear dresses and boys wear pants? Does biology explain why the girl with the shortest hair in the room still oftentimes has longer locks than the shaggiest boy? And does biology explain why centuries removed from the transcendence of our societal limitations in regards to food production and childcare, so many modern families still maintain the familial structure of our ancient ancestors? No, no, no, and no.

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Which is why I find myself questioning a lot of the arguments posed by Hoff Sommers and other like-minded thinkers. Women’s rights have come a long way, but the (socially constructed) patriarchy is still very much alive. Be it objectification, domestic abuse, and sexual violence at home, or forced coverings, arranged marriages, and female genital mutilation abroad, victimhood is not just a mentality for many women—it’s a reality.

What is more, much of Hoff Sommers’ “myth-busting” doesn’t hold water. Her attempted discrediting of the gender wage gap is a good example. The gender wage gap is a statistic that suggests that the average working woman in the United States earns about $0.79 compared to every $1.00 earned by the average working man. Hoff Sommers argues that this statistic is misleading because while it seems to indicate blatant systemic discrimination against women, deeper digging reveals the truth to be more complicated. Women are not being paid lower wages than men for doing more or less the same work—they are just doing different work. What this stat really shows, in Hoff Sommers’ opinion, is that women choose different professions, different fields of study, and oftentimes work different schedules due in part to the unique demands of pregnancy and motherhood.

What’s not clear to me is the why—why do women make these choices? Why do women so often choose to be the secretary in a male-dominated office? Why do women so often choose to stay home with the children when a man could easily do the same? Hoff Sommers would argue that these choices are due to biology—measurable differences in the brains and bodies of women that help to explain their unique preferences. Gender feminists, on the other hand, would argue that they are the result of social constructs—societal expectations placed upon women that influence them both directly and indirectly to make the career choices that they ultimately make.

And I tend to agree with the gender feminists. It’s not that there is anything wrong with being a secretary or a stay-at-home mom. A secretary is an incredibly important person in most offices and who better to raise a kid than their own loving mother. What is wrong is when women take these roles not because they want to, but because they feel like they’re supposed to—like it is their place as a woman to serve the man and keep his home or like they are incapable of doing jobs more often occupied by their male superiors. And even though there are endless examples of strong, independent women currently occupying positions of power and prestige, I think that anybody who pays even the slightest attention to the world around them could admit that we as a society still send some pretty strong messages to boys and girls about what they are supposed to be.

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It’s also important to note that feminism is not just for girls. For every girl that likes to play football, solve math problems, and get buzz cuts, there is a boy who likes to read love stories, carry a purse, and cry. Feminism is also for any person who identifies as anything other than heterosexual or cisgender. Feminism is about people being able to fully be the unique human being that they are in spite of whatever gender roles society attempts to ascribe upon them. By the way, this also means that if a young girl happens to like pink, pretty dresses, and Barbie dolls, she should not be labeled as a victim of the patriarchy. Feminism should be for her too.

Hoff Sommers’ voice deserves inclusion in feminist conversations. She’s a conservative intellectual that, if nothing else, certainly helps to counterbalance the extremist tendencies of some feminists on the far left and give interested people like myself something to think about. But when it comes to her attempt to dispel feminist myths and rein in the regressive elements of modern day feminism, I think that at the end of day, she is the one who sounds like the regressive.

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Religion, World

Islam & the Regressive Left

Throughout my adult life, I have always thought of myself as a social justice advocate—someone who stands up for individual human rights regardless of race, gender, or country of origin. Someone who advocates for equity and equality in all the places that they are lacking, and challenges the systems and structures that help to keep those inequities and inequalities in place.

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Likewise, throughout my adult life, I have always thought of myself as a secularist— someone who not only rejects religion, but views it as a social ill, as something that contributes to the destruction of humanity and/or that oftentimes limits peoples’ ability to reach their full human potential.

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For someone like myself who likes to hang out on the political left, these characteristics are not all that uncommon. Lately, however, I have felt these two identities coming into conflict, like there’s some sort of irreconcilable contradiction that is manifesting between secularism and social justice.   Nowhere has this distinction been clearer than in my struggles around the issue of Islamic extremism.

The simple use of that terminology is illustrative in-and-of-itself of the intellectual dilemma I’ve been facing. Acknowledging the fact that Islamic extremism is a real thing and a real problem in the 21st century is something that can alienate one from mainstream leftist conversation. Certainly the world’s foremost leftist leader, Barack Obama, has been hesitant to use such language in his discourse no matter how many times he has encountered “that” type of terrorism during his two terms as president.

However, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that most of the cases of international terrorism seem to be associated with a particular religion. Between groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram, Islam is undoubtedly the modern leader in the production of sectarian violence. And although such a statement can earn one the title of Islamophobe or racist, very unleftist titles indeed, I still believe that statement to be undeniably true.

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Recently, however, I had a minor breakthrough—an intellectual encounter that helped me to reconcile my two leftist personas. The breakthrough is incomplete in the sense that I’m still wrestling with a lot of it, still searching for an ideological nook that feels right for me, but in the mean time, it has at least lent me a place to put my proverbial feet up.

That encounter took place during a listen to my latest favorite podcast, Waking Up with Sam Harris. The episode, entitled “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue,” features a conversation between renowned free-thinker Sam Harris and former radical Islamist turned activist-reformer Maajid Nawaz, a Pakistani Muslim seeking to turn back the tide of Islamic extremism through the promotion of a secular Islam and a peaceful interpretation of the Quran.

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It’s an enlightening and thought-provoking conversation that really should be listened to in its entirety for anyone interested in such topics, but as it pertains to my personal dilemma—the want for validation as a social justice secularist—my epiphany was mostly the result of an introduction to new terminology, specifically a term that seemed to describe the mode of thought that was needlessly driving a stake between my two otherwise fairly compatible mindsets. This mode of thought, a mode of thought I now know I reject, is derived from an unofficial group that Nawaz calls the “regressive left.”

The “regressive left” is a term that Nawaz coined to describe well-meaning liberals who, in the interest of social justice and multiculturalism, provide unintended support to highly illiberal beliefs and practices. In regards to Islam, Nawaz uses the term to refer to people who reject criticisms of the Islamic religion in the name of cultural sensitivity and tolerance, but in the process, fail to confront many of the problems that are prominent in the Muslim world at this particular moment in time.

These problems include not only terrorism and jihad, but also issues surrounding freedom of speech, religion, and press, as well as the rights of women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. While the defense of such rights and liberties should be top liberal priorities, regressive leftists have attempted to redefine the hierarchal organization of leftist values. This reshuffling has placed a dangerous form of culturally-relativist tolerance on top, a tolerance that oftentimes comes at the expense of defending the rights and liberties above.

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An example: If one were to criticize the forced covering experienced by many women in the Muslim world via the niqab or burqa, a regressive leftist may be more likely to defend Islamic culture than to defend those women oppressed by it.

Another example: If one were to make reference to the problem of Islamic terrorism, a regressive leftist may be more likely to push back against what they perceive to be an unenlightened generalization of Muslims than they would be to sympathize with the victims of such terroristic acts, the vast majority of whom are Muslims themselves.

Nawaz uses the the term “regressive” to imply a contrast with the “progressive” views that are usually associated with the political left, views that seek to advance the common cause of humanity through the espousal of Enlightenment ideals like liberty, equality, and natural human rights. These ideals are thought to be universal principles that transcend the borders that divide us, ideals that are merited to every earthly individual regardless of religion or culture. But in their attempt to embody the principles of multicultural sensitivity, Nawaz argues that regressive leftists are actually working against that “progress,” sometimes to the point where it is actually “regressing.”

What is more, Nawaz also argues, that the ideology of regressive leftists is so backwardly focused on the evasion of racism, that it actually embodies a form of racism itself. In what he calls “the racism of low expectations,” Nawaz describes how the refusal to acknowledge some of the pervasive ills in Islamic culture is representative of the “low expectations” these regressive leftists are sometimes projecting on minority populations, a projection that to many Muslims seems paternalistic and insulting. It suggests that because Muslims are “minorities,” because they are “oppressed,” they should not be held accountable to the same moral standards or expectations that regressive leftists would likely place on, say, white Christians. It would be the equivalent of a teacher such as myself having lower learning or behavioral expectations for my students of color due to the fact that they are “poor,” “disadvantaged,” and in need of the hope and advocacy that only a white liberal like myself can provide.

At this point I would like to say that I have no doubts that Islamophobia is indeed a real thing, and that many critics of Islam do indeed evoke racist rhetoric in making their criticisms, Donald Trump being a perfect example. I also have no illusions about the significant role that U.S. foreign policy has played, both presently and historically, in helping to create and/or exacerbate many of the problems that the Islamic world is suffering. I sometimes wonder if Islamic extremism would even be such a global threat if Western imperialism hadn’t done such a great job creating the perfect conditions for radicalization. All that being said, I do think that the doctrine of Islam is worthy of criticism, that religion is to blame for much of the suffering experienced in the Islamic world, and that our ability to make such criticisms has been limited by the regressive leftists and PC police who have been attempting to hijack the social justice movement for their own misguided endeavors.

The irony is that regressive leftists do not defend all religions from their secularist critics. When secularists go after Christianity for its attacks on a woman’s right to choose or a gay person’s right to marry, regressive leftists are on the sidelines cheering them on.   However, when secularists go after Islam, oftentimes for many of the same reasons that they go after Christianity, the regressive leftists shift their emphasis from universal rights to multicultural tolerance, even when the latter is directly jeopardizing the former.

I sympathize with those leftists who claim that such critiques of Islam can and do lead to harmful stereotypes of Muslims, and would argue that any criticisms of Islam should be made with only the utmost consideration of language and nuance. However, I would also make an important distinction between criticizing Islam as a set of ideas, versus criticizing Muslims as a homogenous group of people. The former is okay. The latter is not. Islam is an ideology that should be no more immune from criticism than Christianity, communism, or conservatism.   It is a set of ideas that people believe in, not a fixed trait like race, gender, or sexual orientation. And when people do it correctly, criticisms of Islam should never be confused with criticisms of Muslims as individuals. No individual Muslim should be held accountable for beliefs that they do no own and deeds that they did not sow.

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Moving forward, that is how all these conversations should be framed—not as a war on Muslims or a war on Islam, but a war on ideas—ideas that are harmful to humans. This war can only be fought in the arena of conversation, through free and open competition in the marketplace of ideas, where hopefully the good ideas defeat the bad ones. That, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly harder to do with regressive leftists, who will often curl up into their social justice shells out of refusal to engage in dialogue with “racists” and “bigots.” This is no way to defeat harmful ideas, nor the real human suffering that those ideas inflict on human beings—on Christians, on Muslims, on secularists, on everyone. But if we can’t even talk about it, how the hell are we ever going to actually do anything?

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I think that the world would be a better place without Islam. I think that the world would be a better place without religion. And I think that the world would be a better place without the regressive left. Of course, none of those things are going to happen. That’s why I am thankful for people like Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris, for their courage to take part in difficult conversations, for their willingness to speak honestly despite its repercussions, for their push back against ideas that are harmful to humanity, for challenging their listeners to think harder and do better, and for helping to reassure people like me that social justice and secularism are still compatible missions.

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Podcast Plug: Listen to Sam and Maajid’s conversation in full to hear more intellectually stimulating discussion of this issue and others including:

  • The concentric circles of Islamic identities
  • Maajid’s mission of peaceful reform
  • The role of religious motivation in Islamic terrorism
  • And much more super thought-provoking stuff!!!

Like me, you will not agree with everything you hear, but you will be given plenty to wrestle with.

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Immigration, Military, Politics, Race, Religion, USA, World

Thinking through Paris

Paris fucked me up. It was one of those events that seemed to have me reconsidering nearly everything I thought I believed—what I believed about people, what I believed about politics…It threw me into a state of mental disequilibrium so profound that a week-and-change later, I still haven’t really settled back into the post-Paris me. In that sense, this post is a thinking-through, a consideration of the clusterfuck that was last week’s events and the tangled mess of causes and consequences that connect to it, in hopes of finding equilibrium again.

When I first caught wind of the attacks, the radio man was being very cautious about the details he was releasing, but I remember knowing one detail of the attacks right away without anyone needing to tell me: the attackers were radical Islamists.

I didn’t want to be right about that. Upon confirming what I already knew on the World Wide Web, I took to Twitter, and aside from the Parisians directly affected by the attacks, there isn’t any people for whom I felt more pity than the Muslims from around the world who felt compelled to tweet out their opposition to these atrocities lest they be labeled as terrorists themselves.

But the Islamic question is upon us again, and I don’t know where I stand. I know for sure that the vast, vast, vast majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people who should not have to explain themselves nor apologize for the actions of these crazy, ISIS assholes. But I also think that thinkers like Sam Harris have a point when they say things like the religion of Islam “has a unique problem at this moment in history.”

When I try to reconcile these ideas in my own head, I find myself trying to differentiate between Muslims as people and Islam as a set of ideas. I don’t agree with any sweeping generalizations that people make about Muslim people, but I do think that you can criticize the religion of Islam, and certain radical Muslims, without being a bigot. As an atheist, I criticize Christianity all the time, and no one ever bigotizes me for it. I also have a life crammed full of Christians who are way better people than I am, people that I love and adore, despite my opposition to the theology they subscribe to. And just like it’s unintellectual to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists, I also find it unintellectual when President Obama and other liberals go out of their way to avoid using the word Islamic to describe the self-described Islamic terrorists they are describing.

But as far as doctrine goes, is Islam really any more violent than a religion like Christianity? The Quran is certainly violent, and Jesus was a peaceful dude, but the god of the Old Testament was a homicidal maniac who indiscriminately killed all those who failed to appease his capricious demands. Furthermore, Christianity experienced millennia of war and violence before it found the relative peaceful epoch that many Christians experience today.

That’s why a big part of me also believes that the violence associated with Islam is less about the religion and more about the places where people who subscribe to that religion happen to live, places where people are generally much more politically and economically disempowered than their Christian brethren in the Western World. Any religion can be radicalized, but radicalization is more likely in certain places than in others, places like war-torn Syria and Iraq or occupied countries like Palestine and Afghanistan.

And then I ask myself what the world would look like if the tables were turned—if Muslims around the world experienced the relative prosperity and stability of Christians today, and Christians the impoverished and violent dystopias of so many Muslims. What it would look like if Islamic countries controlled the UN and the IMF and the Christians nations were still recovering from decades of colonialism and imperialism. How much more vulnerable would Christians be to the radical wings of their own religion, groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan? Certainly there’s no shortage of things like racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the Christian world as it is. How much worse would it be if they were thrown into the desperate and dire circumstances known by so many Muslims, if they really had something to be angry about?

Yet most Muslims aren’t angry. They’re just scared. Scared of the same lunatics that shot up the city of Paris ten days ago. And that’s why they’re running.

Which leads to the questions surrounding the world refugee crisis, questions about the number of refugees we in the United States should accept, questions about the vetting process refugees should be subjected to in order to gain admission.

While I’ve been appalled by many of the racist arguments equating refugees to terrorists, I have to admit that some of those arguments contain a small but significant dose of truth: the more refugees that the United States accepts and the more lenient the vetting process, the more likely it is that that process will be exploited by people who wish to do the United States harm.

I really think that’s undeniable. It doesn’t mean that refugees are terrorists. Refugees are refugees. It does mean, however, that terrorism is a problem in the world, a problem that often comes from the same places as the refugees do, and that those terrorists are not above the exploitation of humanitarian compassion. If you want to make an argument for refugee acceptance, I think that’s a reality that you have to come to terms with.

I do acknowledge that reality, but I also don’t think that it has to dictate our response to our fellow human beings in crisis. I whole-heartedly agree with the overused mantra that to deny refugees based on fears of terrorism would be letting the terrorists win. More importantly, it would be letting the refugees lose, and that would be unacceptable.

Sometimes in discussions like these, the tone seems to take an us-and-them mentality.  “It will put us in danger if we take them in.”  “How are we going to help their people if we can’t even help our own people?”   Fair points, but for me, those words carry little weight when I’m looking at images like these. When I look at these pictures, I don’t see Syrians. I don’t see Muslims. I don’t see us or them. I just see children—children who desperately need a world to do the right thing in spite of any potential consequences.

And while this decision should not be a political one, it does present the United States with a tremendous opportunity to begin reforming its image in the Muslim world. By taking in tens-of-thousands of Muslims (and many non-Muslims) in need, the United States not only provides an essential service to humanity, it also simultaneously delivers a big “fuck you” to radical Islamists everywhere, demonstrating our unwillingness to let their terroristic threats dictate the way that we care for our Muslim brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings in need.

And after the Paris attacks, it is clear that we in the Western World need a reminder of who our fellow human beings are. The outpouring of sympathy for Paris was, in my opinion, beautiful. Changing your Facebook profile picture or retweeting #PrayForParis could be seen as pretty meaningless gestures, but I love the idea of the world coming together across borders and oceans to show support and offer hope, to send prayers and positive energy to a city and a people who desperately need them. No one should be made to feel bad for clicking with their hearts.

But there is something that we should feel bad about, and that is what Paris revealed about who we choose to grieve for.

I remember having this thought while watching the news coverage of Paris two Friday’s ago, but in hindsight, I didn’t know shit about Beirut or Baghdad either, and a week-and-a-half later, it’s still not those attacks that I’m “thinking through.” Black Lives Matter is usually something discussed in relation to domestic issues inside the United States, but Paris made it clear that there is a definite discrepancy in the way that we values the lives of white people compared with those of black and brown people in the rest of the world as well.

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And what about the response? What does France and its allies do to “strike back” at ISIS? It scared me when my gut-reaction to this question was eerily similar to Trump’s idea of “bomb the shit out of them,” the kind of balls-over-brains thinking that helped to create ISIS in the first place. Looking at recent history, military intervention seems to do way more to create terrorism than it ever does to eliminate it. That being said, while I hope our world leaders won’t be making such decisions with their collective gut, I can see why military intervention, in this case, might be called for.

What I know I don’t want is to see some sort of unilateral Western intervention composed of France, the States, and other Western allies. I think critics of intervention are right when they say that this is exactly what ISIS wants, a war on Islam by the West, the ultimate tool to galvanize support among the enlisted and provide additional propaganda for recruitment to ensure that their fucked-up brand of backwards hate will only continue to grow. The West can’t solve this problem alone, no matter how many bombs or drones they drop. This is a worldwide problem, and it needs a worldwide solution.

Perhaps most important to this worldwide solution is the support needed from the Muslim world, the collaborative effort from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to take out a group that should be considered an enemy to all Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and any other group that considers themselves a part of humanity. Furthermore, it will take cooperation between West and East, between Western Europe and North America and China and Russia, and a dramatic departure from the Machiavellian, balance-of-power bullshit that has defined the conflict thus far. And while a united effort of this magnitude could easily wipe the wanna-be caliphate off the face of the fucking planet, history also tells us that this kind of humanitarian-driven, united effort has zero chance of happening.

And that’s what makes this situation so impossible. That’s why nearly two weeks removed from the Paris attacks I still have no idea what the fuck to think or what the fuck to do. It makes me want to eternally avoid the likes of MPR and CNN and forever hide within the comfortable confines of KFAN and the WWE.

But thinking about these things is the least we can do. Thinking about what we can do in our lives to fight back against ignorance and hatred. Thinking about those who are less fortunate than us, and what we can do to make their existence on this planet a little more tolerable. Thinking about how we can be the best human beings we are capable of being, and inspire others to realize their full human potential as well. And continuing to remember that it is easier to be the ones tasked with thinking about these horrible events, than it is to be the ones tasked with feeling them.

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