Friday, February 10, 2017

The Duty, the Irony: We're All in the Same Boat in More Ways than One


On November 7, 2016, most of us involved in the humanist end of secular, or non- or atheist activism, or to those with  just enough interest or curiosity about human rights issues, from race relations to sexual identity and much more,  probably started the day with a sense of a coming renewal of the confidence that went with recent legislation and court decisions, for the most part favorable, and a sense that the last bulwarks against an equal appreciation and respect for all groups were crumbling; and that our day had come, or least was within sight. The socially liberal Barack Obama was the aloof, “Just chill” enabler-in-chief. The President-in-the-wings, Hillary Clinton, was the heavy favorite to succeed him and continue steering the secular liberal Republic on the same course.


Then November 8th happened. A campaign of demagoguery played electoral vote of the many small rural states and population against the “blue wall” of the large coastal states and big city voters— and prevailed. The campaign that appealed to desperation, fear, false national pride, misogyny, hyper-masculinity, and racial and religious bigotry—parlayed with a widespread distrust of the opposition and her machine—was set to reverse the progress of the past few years—more likely decades, as it may well turn out. In the three weeks since the succession to power, the administration has been operating a manic machine of petty lies, vindictive personal insults, shameless attacks on the judicial branch, and daily degradations of the media—all the while signing executive orders as if they were the Make America Great Again ball caps at campaign rallies. Executive orders beginning with de-structuring AFA, cutting funding to organization providing abortions overseas, placing a hiring freeze the federal government, requiring two regulations struck for every new one added, approving the go-ahead of the Keystone pipeline, orders to review and recommend changes to Dodd-Frank financial regulations, ordering a report on military preparedness and threats from ISIS, and a ban on entry into the U. S. of travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries. The last has been the most contentious, though maybe not any more insidious than the rest, when all taken into account of one big, reactionary turn in policy ideology. And the last one is perhaps the one secularists need most to concern themselves: are they themselves partially responsible for planting the seeds and tending the crop of  intolerance of Muslims? Do we share a responsibility as much as any Christo-fascist, or any rural church lady terrified by someone she has never even seen? It is true that radical Islamic factions have wreaked havoc across the world for the past 2 decades and has expressed a nihilistic evil in ways not seen before. These horrors have also served as easy-picking, low fruit for everyday atheists and  learned advocates of the supremacy the overriding jurisdiction of secular law alike; radicalized Muslims, almost single-handedly were a key to the rapid growth of the non-theist movement beginning in the mid-2000s. Also fueling what could easily be classified as “reaction” against religion during this growth period were fundamentalist and evangelical (American) Christians and Roman Catholic doctrine, though neither of the two (at the time) were involved in wholesale slaughter of non-combatant civilians. Theirs was (is) a more subtle meddling in public welfare (contraception bans by the Vatican), and ongoing attempts to hurdle the metaphorical wall of separation between church and state (opposing equal rights for non-traditional sexual relationships and identity) by fundamentalist Protestants. Perhaps ironically, the hew and cry by Christian fundamentalists against Islam in general after 9/11, with a cheerleading President Bush, together with the Islamic terror campaign, was a tipping point in deciding to get actively involved for yours truly. My conversion to non-belief had hibernated 30-odd years since college, but now I was d-o-n-e with these holy warriors—all of them. It was game on!

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One of the original “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, Sam Harris, and celebrity iconoclast and atheist Bill Maher are also known for anti-Muslim polemics and rhetoric over the past years. David Silverman, President of American Atheists, looks a little like a fundamentalist atheist (if there is such a thing). From his latest book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, which he brought with him to a recent NOSHA talk, says

I’m sometimes called Islamophobic. And while I do admit to fearing some major factions of Islam, I don’t like the connotation or the politically correct assertion that such fear is irrational. Concerns about Islam are very different from, for example, concerns about Judaism because Islam is unique among religions today in posing a real threat to the human condition. I would go so far as to say an educated fear is a completely rational position.

NOSHA has no official statement or adopted policy on the subject, but its most used and viewed media, Facebook, has been a continuously charged magnet for Muhammed memes, links to bad behavior by ISIS, and the shame of burkas and girl brides. It’s easy, it’s uncontroversial, it's the echol chamber; and the material is easily found. We have all taken part. But I think now we have  seen where this could lead. A bigoted, racist, misogynistic, egomaniacal charlatan is the President. Harris and Maher, together in a very recent discussion realize we should rethink the wholesale condemnation of a religious group that restrict previously approved visas with even tougher regulations as the President called for. The latest issue of The Humanist (published by the American Humanist Association) has a topical essay subtitled “Humanism’s Role in Defending Human Rights and Civil Liberties.” And it seems from conversations and participation in the Women’s March and social media posts that most of those in our group are rightfully shocked that authoritarian attempts to restrict travel for religious reasons was proposed. If, for no other reason, all members of the non-theistic community would do well to practice an exercise in self-preservation and join in opposition to the bigotry against Muslims, as misdirected as we might find the religion of Islam itself. Those this should go without saying, we all have allowed our emotions to focus on the group and the individual rather than the ideal. But the current administration’s agenda is underwritten and becoming staffed with ideas and officials that could qualify as Christian fascists, and if there is a non-religious group about religion more reviled than religious Muslims and Jews, it is freethinkers, humanists, and atheists.

“From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.” H. P. Lovecraft

~Marty Bankson 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Dispatch from Kenner: Meeting Muslims for the First Time

Twenty four hours ago I attended a "Meet-A-Muslim" gathering in Kenner, Louisiana at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Center.

Every Wednesday from 6-7pm people of  "all faiths, or no faith" are invited for a short talk about the origin of that particular brand of Islam, listen to a short incantation from the Qoran view a short video and have the opportunity to ask any question that one might have concerning Islam.

Then you mingle while enjoying the most delicious cake and coffee.

Having been a refugee as a child, as well as an immigrant in my early adulthood, I very much feel the pain of those Muslims now denied entry into our country,

I am 81 years old, yet had never met a Muslim and I had been looking for an opportunity to do so. This is a really positive way to have contact with the hosts as well as other non-Muslim members of the community who want to make it clear that not all Americans are full of hatred of this particular religion.

I would encourage everybody to go and Meet-A-Muslim. It it will be worth your while.

~Chris Struppeck

Friday, January 6, 2017

NOSHA in 2017 - Hail and Farewell

As we move into a new year, we would like to remember and give many thanks to those who are stepping down and welcome those who have stepped up to help NOSHA with our organization going into 2017.

Both Grant Smith and Ricky Adams are leaving our board of directors after many terms of service. Smith has been a tireless volunteer at our monthly meetings handling our directional signs and Adams initiated the design and ongoing maintenance of our fun and functional website as well as being an enthusiastic "regular" at many of our social activities. Rita Premo finished her service in August as our board secretary and made herself indispensable by volunteering to take our out-of-town speakers on a tour of the city before our afternoon meetings.

Each one performed a vital role in the ongoing success of our operations and we couldn't have done it without them! We all wish them well in their new endeavors.

Our new members are Anne McKinley and Glenn Pearl who joined us in December and September respectively. McKinley brings a lot of organizational experience to the table and has already become instrumental in our Last Supper Dinner Club and our Book Discussion Group. Pearl will take over the general maintenance of our website and also has been a key organizer of our volunteer activity with Second Harvest Foodbank over the past couple of years.

We are very lucky to have them both!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Holiday Spirit by Audrey Coulter







This is a poem by NOSHA member, Audrey Coulter. She read it to attendees at our annual Winter Solstice party earlier this month and we thought it was so good that we should highlight it for everyone who couldn't be there!





I no longer believe in Christmas
Nativity scenes make me cringe
Halleluiah choruses assault my ears
Santa and elves bring me to tears

I once believed in the myth
Believed in peace, hope and love
Decked the largest evergreen tree
For all to see and complement me

I baked the puddings, pies and cakes
Wrapped and tied a mountain of presents
Tipped the postman and the teacher
Prayed in church with the eloquent preacher

But in my subconscious year after year
I began to understand my deepest fear
That all of this was a grand delusion
Resulting in profound confusion

While I am celebrating the season
The chaotic world fights wars without reason
Religions fight over which one is right
There’s no peace on earth this Christmas night

No more will I drink from the cup of mirth
Toasting the season and expanding my girth
Maxing my credit to give more and more
I’m turning it off and shutting the door

I’ll light a warm fire and reflect in the glow
Dream of a world tranquil and free
Where nations agree that war should cease
Where all are free and live in peace

Than like the old man that flies through the sky
I’ll open my wallet and give my best try
To assist those who need me and have much to fear
Now that’s the true Christmas year after year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Joy of Politics: An Opinion from a Humanist

The recent Presidential campaign and election has revived a question about the role of NOSHA  when political issues steal quietly into our discussions, or when they smack us smartly across the face, as this grotesque campaign and its regrettable cast of candidates have. Are we a political group? Should our group be involved in politics? If no, why not, or why should it be; and if so, how much involvement is appropriate?

This much we do know without looking back at our history in this area or doing any soul searching about the “should” question: there are some limitations on what we can do. As a chartered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, loosely categorized as a “charitable” organization, the IRS does not permit direct campaigning for or against candidates in an election, or endorsing or contributing to candidates. If found in violation, we could lose our tax exempt status. That is the worse case scenario and is usually applied only to flagrant or repeat offenders; but an excise tax could be levied and an infraction could still end up being costly. This only applies to the organization and officially sponsored activities—individuals within the group are free to do as they please as long as the group is not directly endorsing such participation. Legislative “action”, or lobbying, is not permitted if it is a “substantial part of its activity”. Read here about the restrictions and follow the links for definitions of “political and lobbying activities”. Beyond those specific regulations about campaigning for candidates and frequent lobbying, the field seems almost wide open about political activism. There are no restrictions on legislative and issue advocacy, which, together would cover just about any political activity imaginable— from demonstrating in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic, to holding placards on a busy boulevard alongside a shopping center, to offering opinions as a witness in a legislative education committee about the problems of laws allowing for religious interpretations of the origins of life on earth being given equal time in public schools. It could mean delivering a secular invocation at a city council meeting, or setting up a table in the rotunda of the state capital and speaking with legislators and civilians alike about some of our concerns about keeping religion out of the business of government officiating and laws. It could be participating in or observing a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ prophetic play on right wing populism based on his novel It Can’t Happen Here.


Except for the first, we have, as an organization, had representatives at each of these; and did not participate in the first only because it was cancelled by the officials of Planned Parenthood as being possibly provocative and counterproductive. So we do have a history.

History also shows that “education” might be a more apt description than “charity” when categorizing our programs; and the charity operation is more accurately a volunteer labor pool. The speakers we schedule and the educational programs we produce or take part in generally center around the common core of a worldview, or ideology, for living well while respecting our fellow humans and other lifeforms in our biodiverse and common home, Planet Earth. Humanism we call it, specifically secular humanism. The foundation for this worldview was established beginning with new approaches to scientific study and a philosophical optimism: the possibility that there were some absolute truths, and that new advances in sciences and the letters could make these truths knowable. Mankind would necessarily improve his lot accordingly with this knowledge . This movement began in the 16th Century and continued to the 18th  came to be called The Enlightenment. Secular humanism holds that the knowledge that leads to truth is discoverable in the natural world and documentable with the aid of the rational human mind; but warned that a pursuit of knowledge based on revelation from supernatural beings or the tutelage of ancient mythological tales will lead nowhere but backward.

A humanist ideology may, in a nutshell, be characterized as a union of two concepts of liberty philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of in 1958. The human citizen of the world would be the embodiment and balance of 1) having certain protections from other individuals or state taking away choices or placing constraints on her; and, at the same time 2) having the freedom to be her own autonomous agent, living and flourishing as the director of her own pursuits. This ideal arrangement may be a contrivance in the evolution of human thought in an expanding population whose stability was becoming more dependent on a variety of social constructions, but it does not mean it is not natural or that it and cannot succeed. This is the intersection of a progressive secular humanism and politics, because politics is the vehicle for dispensing or withholding rights, freedoms, and justice among divergent interests.

It would follow from this that humanism, and especially secular humanism, would come a-courting the power of politics. Without the vehicle to propose and construct such a complicated rights-based framework for improving the quality of life, humanism would remain as only another idea floating around in a nebulous land of broken dreams, unlived afterlives, and visions of fantasy from religious and mythological deities. Secular humanism needs a particularly cozy relationship to stay planted in terra firma and its polis, because from that aforementioned  ephemeral land emerge very natural-looking and convincing prophets of mysterious gods, well equipped to slick talk the virtues of theocracy. A more politicized version of our local chapter of secular humanists may be necessary not simply to keep alive the promise and actuality of a humanist world, but to work against the new administration’s troubling visions and venomous threats of compromised rights and opportunities expressed during the campaign. Federal court appointments and cabinet heads that share their leader’s nationalist notions of returning to the greater country that America was in days past is not a conservative idea, but a reactionary one. We need to aid and assist in coalitions with groups that are potential targets of scorn and  repression, including Muslims. (There, I’ve said it.) Mexicans. Pakistanis, Jews and Black Americans. Homeless Syrians and Hondurans. Women’s and LGBTQ rights have always been works in progress but now become even more tenuous. For that matter, the atheist and secular community could be subject to more scrutiny and derision, particularly if they get too vocal, if the executive and legislative branches cave to much more influence from the religious right.  We need to defend the premise of dignity communicated through standards of common decency known pejoratively as political correctness. We need to resist the temptation to normalize the rogues’ gallery of white supremacists set to run this country.

Political activism is not for everyone, conservative or liberal, maybe including many in this group. But in this unknown and unprecedented environment, it looks to be a necessity for assisting in the conservation of the pinnacle of American law: The Bill of Rights. The amount or depth of political involvement should be the only real question here: how much can you do?


—Marty Bankson

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On Reading, Drama, and Advisories

When is a theatrical production not a play? When it is a reading, with  script readers  taking the place of actors and reading—while either seated or standing—the dialogue of a play written for actors by the playwright, and without a designed set or choreographed movement and action across a stage. It is still a theatrical production, but one stripped to the bare bones of voice. 

Five of the 13 players sitting in a closely packed row of chairs in front of the conference room-turned-theater at Jefferson Parish Regional Library in Metairie were members and directors of NOSHA in what was a special invitation to participate in a reading of Sinclair Lewis’ play It Can’t Happen Here on. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of its release; the play was adapted and distributed by the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Berkeley Rep, a non-profit community theater established in 1968 is currently running the complete theatrical version of the play at its home base in California through November 6.  It was a special invitation for JPL and our own secular humanist group to participate, as it was one of the fewer that 50 venues in the country that hosted and produced the event on the evening of October 24th.  

The story was a preview into what America could look like if democracy succumbed to a political solution lead by a nationalist demagogue. Getting his gloomy inspiration from the election of Hitler in Germany and the rising influence of Louisiana’s populist Governor and Senator Huey P. Long, Lewis followed the career of small town Vermont journalist Doremus Jessup, who, though deeply motivated by the ideals of truth and justice, delayed getting involved in the growing movement that elevated a folksy charmer, a fictionalized authoritarian Long named Buzz Windrip. Windrip ends up winning the nomination of the Democratic Party, and is set to run for (and win) the Presidency against the Republican Trowbridge and Franklin Roosevelt (who ended up running on a third party ticket after losing the Democratic nomination).

Library program director Chris Smith introduced the program and narrated the settings between acts and scenes of the play. Curiously the readers were never introduced to the audience individually; time constraints may have been the reason: the reading took a full two hours, pushing the ending right up against library closing time. The readers seemed well-rehearsed—they spoke with just the right amount of dramatic inflection and were on cue most of the program, though the vocal projection of several waxed and waned at times. There were more characters in the script that performers, so some were required to do multiple parts. It could be a bit confusing if the observer wasn’t familiar with the storyline, especially with no action on a stage or costume changes to help visually associate the different characters.

Probably a more significant motivation than the 80th anniversary for Berkeley Rep’s staff to re-release the program was the current Presidential election campaign and to confirm that, yes, it could happen here. The rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump has uncovered an undertow of a new and septic populism—a populism founded on nationalism and some degrees of xenophobia and racism—and has found in Trump, warts and all, a bona fide advocate. Lewis’ story includes Windrip’s paramilitary Minute Men to deal with dissidents; Trump’s deportation force will be assigned to sort out the rapists and drug dealing illegals and place them on the right side of his Mexican-funded, beautiful wall. A probable adaptation by the Berkeley writers has Windrip reveling at a rally about how protesters were handled in the good old days. The historical Father Coughlin’s and his incendiary anti-semitic radio rhetoric becoming an ally of Long-Windrip parallels the evangelical Grahams’, Falwells', and Robertsons’ current romance with strongman Trump. The boorish everyday Donald we see is merely a simulacrum of the master wheeler-dealer of foreign trade, the ultimate job creator, and Isis-slayer Generalissimo Trump that he has cultivated and grown "bigly" with assistance from a ratings/profit-driven media. The power of the media in shaping pseudo-leaders and charlatans was a major factor in the rise of yokel Lonesome Rhodes, portrayed by Andy Griffith in the 1958 film A Face in the Crowd, who also had a bad mouth/hot microphone problem, which cost him dearly.



The program of It Can’t Happen Here on the Berkeley Repertory Theater website has the following advisory:

It Can’t Happen Here includes the use of herbal cigarettes, haze, and gunshot sound effects. Berkeley Rep offers an advisory about any stage effect of potential concern to patrons’ health. We don’t offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any concerns about content, please contact the box office.

For those having seen enough of the similarities already, a trigger warning might indeed have been welcomed. Or at least, please, a caution about a possible circuit overload.  But to those who are just about done at this point, and are happy to just plug their ears and hum along with with this 50 year-old ditty from The Mothers of Invention, this advisory: Don't do it.

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 Now, please, introducing our troupe, with kudos and congratulations to: Beth Deitch, Jim Dugan, William Gautreaux, Anne McKinley, and Charlotte Klasson.


~Marty Bankson

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Goodwill Takes on God's Will -- Late August 2016


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Aunt Connie's Home--Before
The crew of NOSHA volunteers who made the trip to Denham Springs to assist in the cleanup from the flooding that swamped nearly 90 percent of the homes in the area traveled in separate cars—with the exception of Dave and Joyce Thomas, who shared their ride. Joining in on the project with the Thomases were Eve Ortiz, Kathleen Branley, Jennifer Porter, Glenn Pearl, Marty Bankson, and Cecelia (a young woman referred by previously committed Adam Kay). Most used  smartphone GPS  to guide them into the subdivision and onto the street where the project was, but most  all had to park and locate a mailbox along the street to find the house number if they didn’t recognize anyone working outside. The mailboxes were buried along the curb’s edge in the heaps of soggy mattresses, broken dining furniture, stacks of wadded clothes, and rolls of ragged-edged carpeting. A small hill of ruined doors, millwork, cabinetry and sinks and fridges would continue filling the front yard from the street back toward the house as the day passed.


Eve Ortiz sampling jambalaya, surveys the progress
The Thomases' acquaintance Paul was coordinating the work. Paul calls Connie Donovan “Aunt Connie”—though their actual relationship may have been less direct. Connie is a 63-year old widow, living alone, and is still working. She was one of the fortunate few who had flood insurance, if “fortunate” is indeed even fit in the description of a  500-year flood.

Many of the modest houses in this neighborhood were built on piers and were elevated about three feet above the ground, but the neighborhood  got  6-7 feet of floodwater from the overflowing Amite River just to the west of it. The math of that equation added up to more than three feet of water in the house . Every house in the subdivision and many more subdivisions like it went under, along with most of the business along the main thoroughfares.


Paul got the crew quick-schooled and started at the basics of house gutting: taking the door and baseboard trim off with hammers and pry bars, removing the electrical switch and receptacle plates, then pulling the soggy sheetrock from the wall studs at the seam four feet above the floor. Then the crumbling and saturated mess had to be shoveled and wheelbarrowed out of the house down the front porch steps, adding more to the misery of the front yard. Bathroom vanity cabinets, toilets, kitchen cabinets, pots, pans, dishes and foodstuffs in the pantry all had to go. Two mice were sent scampering  when their space inside a wall was uncovered.
Big Fans Matter


The feeling of overwhelming loss never seems to be strong enough to keep the victims from finding something—anything—left in the wreckage that was salvageable, something to cling to; and those things become special and dear. Aunt Connie had set up a makeshift table in the front yard near the driveway, where she placed and cleaned and dried some things she found. Maybe a crystal dish; maybe a child’s trophy from a past school competition, or a stuffed panda that had been placed on a high shelf: things once mundane and overlooked now became priceless survivors. A pop-up summer shower was about to spoil what the floodwaters missed as she fussed over them, but we managed to get some scraps of plastic sheeting and a tarp over them before the hardest rain fell.


About midday someone delivered some go-boxes of jambalaya; so those that didn’t pack a lunch didn’t go hungry. And there was plenty of water for hydrating, but Cecelia had an overheating episode anyway. She later seemed confident that she had recovered to point of being  able to get to her car and drive back to New Orleans. The heat and humidity was reminiscent of the hot tropical conditions that smothered New Orleans after Katrina. Joyce and Dave’s experience in the Katrina disaster was evident as they breezed through the day’s work like small potatoes, as if pantomiming “¡No problema!”.


Paul (left) and  NOSHA Volunteers (missing: Glenn Pearl)
This volunteer effort was the most labor-intensive the NOSHA Social Aid and Pleasure Club has experienced; a true test of physical stamina and heat tolerance. But it may be remembered also as most edifying when thinking of Aunt Connie’s words of appreciation and thanks to each of us; and when reflecting on her little makeshift table, and the keepsakes that took on a new and special meaning for her—and for us.


~Marty Bankson