False Equivalencies?

A notion handed down from Richard Dawkins to assorted atheistic laypeople goes to the effect of this: the Inquisition and Crusades were mass killings in the name of religion; however Stalin’s (and other atheist dictators’) genocides of millions weren’t done in the name of atheism. Notice the subtle semantic dodge? Because Stalin et al. didn’t specifically state to the world their atheism as the reason for their genocides (most of which were kept secret at the time anyway), it must be a “false equivalency”. My my, how convenient.

Well, if you drill deep enough into any literal comparison, it becomes a “false equivalency”. For example, two slightly different isotopes of sodium are indeed slightly different at that level, and therefore, not truly identical. Nonetheless, they give you the same salty effects in molecular bond with chlorine, offering the same level of taste, electrolytic action and solubility. Of course, even that can be arbitrarily declared a “false equivalency” by someone who doesn’t like the idea. Just because somebody claims it’s a “false equivalency” doesn’t make it so. “False equivalancy” does happen: witness, for example, the ridiculous yet common comparison of homosexuality–a behavior–to skin color, an immutable genetic characteristic and not a behavior. Yet, “false equivalency” more often is a buzz-phrase used as a weapon to stifle discussion.

Self-proclaimed Christians killed many during the Inquisitions and Crusades, true. Self-proclaimed atheists killed many in the Stalin/Pol Pot/Mao regimes. True. Each set of killers was motivated by psychopathically warped version of their personal ideals (whether rooted in faith or lack thereof) which don’t represent the basic tenets of either Christianity or secular humanism/atheism, respectively. Really, those are two sides of the same evil coin. The atheists and Christians I’ve known would not murder millions, given the opportunity–but then again, I don’t make a habit of hanging out with cold-blooded killers.

The oft-repeated regurgitation of Dawkins’ “in the name of” semantic dodge, in the context of Stalin (as if Dawkins is an authority on anything in particular aside from genetic biology…but that’s another story) is popular, is viral, makes a nice catchphrase…and doesn’t stand the salty taste test, nor is it backed up by historical truth. To the contrary, I (no more nor less an authority than Dawkins on religious matters) have decided that the Stalin/Inquisition comparison is is NOT a false equivalency at its fundamental root. Here’s one example why: The League of Belligerent (or Militant) Atheists, about which Stalin’s loyal aide Yemelyan Yaroslavky said, “It is our duty to destroy every religious world-concept… If the destruction of ten million human beings, as happened in the last war, should be necessary for the triumph of one definite class, then that must be done and it will be done.”

That statement alone damns the notion that atheism was an irrelevant sideshow of the Stalin regime–not to mention the exemplifying behavior of the regime within which the “League of Militant Atheists” thrived. This group also participated directly in killing and fatal prison/Gulag exile of religious individuals, including clergy, bishops and monks*. Indeed militant state atheism was a central creed of the USSR, and the LMA was disbanded officially only under great pressure from the Allies in World War 2. Other purges of religious figures and believers followed, however–the death toll numbering in the millions as part of one of the largest genocides in history.

“NO evidence”? There goes that idea. The League of Militant Atheists, and the philosophy with which it was associated far beyond any official membership numbers, makes one hell of an “inconvenient truth” for the field of secular apologetics.

Yet the tiresome “false equivalency/in-name-of” tenet of atheistic catechism will persist for a long time, because it does make a tasty piece of gristle for militant atheists–the modern version, not as a capitalized league, and thankfully not genocidal–to latch on with fangs bared.

Personally, I’d like to see the mutual mistrust and animosity cooled off between atheists and the religious; we all have at least some common goals and interests and should be able to get along much better. If I somehow have contributed, through my unwillingness to let what I see as heretic falsehoods propagate, then please forgive me. I am idealistic in standing by my faith and in attacking an idea (not the person), and also wish no harm on atheists. Only God will deliver the ultimate, perpetually binding judgment of us all.

At the core, we all actually see the same fundamental order of creation, whether through science or the pages of Genesis. [Quite obviously, the writers of Genesis had access to some amazing insights not available to science for another couple thousand years!] Being a scientist who also is faithful, I see science as a great, God-given tool to understand His enchanting, marvelous and infinitely complex universe better and better, and see my role in contributing to science as fulfilling a God-given talent and ability. The more I read and work and play and observe in science, the more I see God’s handiwork.

Meanwhile, I say: God bless all atheists; for they, as for me and everyone else, religious or not, whether one chooses to have faith or not, are made in His image and have become imperfect through sin. Denying God won’t make Him disappear. Good thing I live in a place and time where I’ll not be burned at a stake by an Inquisitor or made to disappear by the Soviet League of Militant Atheists for saying that!

    * For more information, I highly recommend this book: A History of Marxist-Leninist Atheism and Soviet Antireligious Policies (History of Soviet and Atheism in Theory and Practice, and the Believer), by Dimitry Pospielovsky. It’s a text, and very expensive, so if you can find the book in a major library (as I did when studying all sorts of material about the USSR during the early ’90s), that’s the best bet.

Backlash to a Backlash to a Backlash…

For those who have been exiled in wilderness tents for the past two weeks, Republicans won big victories in Congressional “mid-term” elections this cycle and already are starting to assert themselves accordingly. A virtual mirror image of this phenomenon happened in 2006. Neither pendulum swing was an isolated event; tracking of national partisan results for President and Congress since the late 1800s shows that power is fleeting for either side.

Given such a track record, neither party should get too smug after a big election win, because as history has shown (over and over and over), that winning side hallucinates a massive mandate that doesn’t really exist, assumes too much of the electorate supports all of its favorite policies, abuses its power, then suffers a “shocking” defeat when the inevitable blowback occurs against its behavior the previous few years. That begs the question, why do these swings always seem so shocking when they are inevitable?

Partly, the surprise at such swings comes from shortsightedness and ignorance, both by politicians and the public. After all, we live in an era of flavor-of-the-year fads and ten-second attention spans, combined with an utterly wretched academic knowledge of history and civics among most of the populace. The tawdry misadventures of Justin Beiber and the Kardashian women are more important than the national debt or Middle East policy for far too many people, and that’s just pathetic! Part of the problem is that each hapless-ignoramus vote, from some schlub or ditz who can’t even name the three branches of government, counts the same as each vote from those of us who can name every member of the Supreme Court and who actually study the issues.

Politicians of both–yes, both–sides pander shamelessly to that ignorance, and the fear that they can fuel as a result. Those evil bad guys are going to take away your welfare check (left), religious freedom (right), bedroom behavior (left), guns (right), clean air (left), kids’ education (both), privacy (both), money (both)! And there are just enough nuggets of worst-case scenario truth and slippery-slope potential in such fear-mongering to make it somewhat believable. Don’t think this isn’t by design either; elections have proven to be won that way for generations. The Republicrat monolith that spawned NSA domestic spying and quantitative easing (corporate welfare if there ever was) then plays both leftists, and conservatives like me, for the sucker, because of a lack of alternatives.

Does this mean a continual mandate for compromise? Perhaps, on some issues that are not binary and where compromise is possible–usually economic ones where budgeting lines can be drawn in between partisan preferences. Both sides have a history of offering profuse lip service to compromise until it means they actually have to give up something. For example, compromise can be done on social squabbles like so-called “gay marriage”–and here’s how. Civil unions are a middle ground between zero recognition and full advocacy. The middle is always best, right?–or so the few true centrists claim. [I obviously do not agree, and neither do my mirror images on the left.] However, the left flatly refuses to compromise on that issue, revealing itself as hypocritical when complaining that the right refuses to compromise on any issue. And so the no-recognition and full-“marriage” sides dig in because neither want to accept that middle solution.

[As an aside, yes, I put "gay marriage" in quotes deliberately and without apology, because marriage by definition cannot be anything but man-woman; yet somehow I am just centrist enough on this specific issue to support legal recognition of civil unions for those who are seeking benefits related thereto. In fact, there is a very solid Libertarian argument, rooted in a literal reading of the Constitution, for no Federal involvement or recognition of any sort of marriage.]

Speaking of Republicrats: Secondarily, but importantly, we have no large, self-sustaining, third-party choices; as such, the electorate keeps being presented with a ceaseless somewhat-right R vs. far-left D target when what it often claims to want is the middle. I’m not sure a third party is much of a solution, however, because for every Tea Party that might rise up, so might a Green Party, and the republican democracy gets even more fragmented and fractious. As has happened in Europe, the Greens would siphon off votes for prevailing leftist party. The Tea Party (where I most closely fit) would siphon conservatives from Republican ranks. The Libertarians would siphon both. Good luck getting a majority on much of anything under that model, outside the occasional Green-Democrat or Tea-Republican coalition, and what does that yield? The same stinking dichotomy we have now anyway!

Personally, I tend not to advocate the middle ground most of the time. I am staunchly conservative and freely state this, with no reservation. Calling me a “right winger” is not just a compliment but a badge of honor. I won’t even pretend to be centrist on most matters, because I am not pretentious. I freely admit that I don’t want compromise on a lot of issues–because it only means taking this nation halfway to hell instead of all the way. If middle-road compromise is always the best solution, all the time, no exceptions, then…I am part of the problem, and moreover, am glad of it. [Now you be honest and ask yourself, is the middle unfailingly the best path, every time, all the time?] If more of my left-wing friends would quit falsely claiming to be centrists and compromise-seeking, and instead, be brutally honest and admit a mirror image of my own unwillingness to yield on many issues, we’d at least understand each other better in our endless disparity! We won’t agree anyway, so what’s the point of play-acting like we ever could?

That said, I also admit that compromise (as malodorous and “sellout” as it seems to me in many cases) is a time-honored part of solving some problems facing this country. It can be beneficial in the net to make compromises that neither side fully likes, on some (not all) issues. There sometimes is merit to the old adage that you’re doing something right if you manage to enrage both sides.

However, there often is no middle ground on more contentious, generally yes/no topics like abortion legality, a choice of starting military action in a specific conflict area, or Federal funding for (abortion, birth control, condoms, or any other private-bedroom issue). When the left controls the presidency and Congress simultaneously, a slew of edicts and even laws flow forth favoring their side. Ditto with the right. Then the pendulum swings with the electorate, disgusted with absolute power, voting in enough of the opposite side to stop the bleeding.

Therein lies the Founders’ pure genius in setting up this representative democratic-republican system (lower-case “d” and “r”): the voters get to tell the side that has gotten cocky and overly self-assured in power: “Enough! Stop it!” This means a halting to what one side or the other deems as “progress” and the invariable sore-loser whining by that side (which I fully admit to as a conservative ’06 and ’08, even as leftists refuse to admit now and in ’04). Yet the system works. Sometimes the car of “progress” need to stop, lest it drives us over a cliff.

In the most recent midterm elections, that “Enough, stop it!” message was directed at a Democrat-ruled Senate and administration whose actions (including those carried over from previous Rs and then made worse, like NSA/FBI snooping and the growing national debt) overflowed with arrogance, hubris, and contempt for the rule of law. I hold that much of the voters’ emplacement of Republicans in 2014, and of Democrats in 2006, was not out of a mandate for the favored party’s platforms (proactive voting), but instead a backlash (reactive voting), in order to check and balance the runaway presumptuousness and abuses of the other side.

Pendulums that are constantly pushed will continue to swing. And so it will be, back and forth, this and that, Republican and Democrat, tick, tock, tick, tock. Despite highly dubious predictions by Democrats, there will be another Republican President who, at some point, partly overlaps an R-dominant Congress. Those Rs will go overboard and compel a Democrat President and Congress, who will desperately do everything they can to push that agenda as far as possible before the next backlash throws them out. And so forth, and so on…

To deny this is to deny historic truth. Since complaints without solutions are worthless, what’s my solution? I advocate complete elimination of all partisan elections. No Rs, Ds, or other letters after any candidate’s name. Let every election be decided solely on the basis of issues, not letters or parties. This ideal forces politicians to be accountable not to parties but to voters (and unfortunately, lobbyists…something we can’t prohibit constitutionally under freedom of speech and association). At least this does remove rigid party-platform politics and the problem of a candidate being stuck at the mercy of his/her national party’s platform and money machine.

Is a party-free politic realistic? Not any time soon, but I see no realistic solutions…none. As such, we’re stuck with partisanship and division, like it or not. Get used to it. Deal with it. We’ve had to for two centuries.

The lesson is simple, the truth independent of liberalism or conservatism as ideals. Human nature is that power corrupts. This ain’t changing, at least not before the Second Coming. The pendulum will not stop, and each side will swap out control of government at irregular intervals until the very implosion of society and government itself.

Tribute to “Cyclone” Jim Leonard (1950-2014)

Jim hoisting the hurricane flags. Courtesy Jim Leonard (cyclonejim.com), photo by Mike Theiss

Elke woke me Monday morning to some dreadful news: Jim Leonard, longtime friend and storm-observing pioneer, was gone, much too soon at just 64.

Even though I saw this coming (he had late-stage colon cancer that was untreatable due to weakness from a degenerative neuromuscular disease), it’s still hard to imagine. For several years, Jim gradually lost coordination–first while running, then walking, then standing. His muscles weakened, his speech slurred, and his ataxia became more intense. He still chased until the neuromuscular disorder stole his ability to drive.

After the spring 2014 Great Plains season–one of the few Jim missed since 1974–I learned that he had stage-four colon cancer. Yet on my calls with Jim following his cancer diagnosis, and through his ever-more slurred voice, his determined and storm-hungry spirit shone through, brightly as ever. I asked him what he wanted to do the most in whatever time was left. The answer: “Just get me in a hurricane!” That, folks, was the very essence of Jim, something no stinking cancer ever could steal from him.

So they were, the circumstances leading to my final visit with Jim. His longtime friend and old chase partner Chuck Robertson had benefit shirts made quickly, selling them online, net proceeds going directly to Jim. That’s true friendship, and I’ll admire Chuck always for it.

Image courtesy Chuck Robertson

We wore those shirts, along with several other of Jim’s old friends, on our visit in July, surprising him with them over a great, long dinner at Banana Boat in Boynton.

L-R: Chuck Robertson, Roger Edwards, Jim Leonard, Jack Corso, Terry Kern, Steve Sponsler, 2014

That fine weekend, we all shared chase stories, watched hours of storm video, ate good food, and laughed a lot. To see Jim laughing sometimes and enjoying the moments, in direct defiance of his grave situation–that alone made every cent and minute of the trip worthwhile, with all else a bonus. We quietly knew this may be the last time we would get to see him, so we made sure he had a good time, first and foremost.

L-R: Jack Corso, Chuck Robertson, Roger Edwards, Jim Leonard, Terry Kern, Steve Sponsler, 2014. Fittingly, Jim is staring at a Cb to the southwest.

Regardless of his illness, Jim told me before the trip that he still had his appetite. Damn straight, he did! I told him, “Eat all you want, it’s on me.” Jim downed one main course, then ordered and polished off a burger. It brought back memories of our many trips over the years to what Jim called “feeding troughs”–buffets in Norman, south Dade, or the Keys.

He introduced me not only to hurricane chasing, but to a lot of great food, an endless supply of amazing storm memories and footage, and to the notion that a non-meteorologist could succeed in predicting and tracking down storms on a consistently successful basis–before the days of Internet spoonfeeding. Jim was one of the few chasers I knew who was a first-class interpreter of the language of the sky. That’s how he had so much success in the pre-web era, without a meteorology degree.

Jim was a guiding light and profound source of insight to many young storm enthusiasts throughout his time as a chaser–me included. We first met in the spring of 1986, when I was an undergrad student employee at NSSL and overheard some fascinating storm-chase conversation rising from Don Burgess‘ cubicle. Don introduced us and left us to chat about (what else?) tornadoes and hurricanes.

Three hours later, there we still were, with everyone else gone home and the dark of night deepening outside. It was obvious right then that Jim didn’t just chase storms; he passionately marveled at them, deeply thirsting for and appreciating the experience in an inspiring, transcendent way. This was a rare characteristic he shared with another great storm-observing legend whom I came to know during an NSSL visit, Al Moller. In a strange coincidence, these two friends and early mentors of mine, pioneers at the craft who knew and often encountered each other on the Plains, were born the same year, and died the same year.

Even back in ’86, Jim already had a vast assortment of captivating and often humorous stories from his adventures across the Great Plains and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. I already knew of Jim’s name from copies of film movies he gladly donated to the lab, including the first knowingly filmed footage of an anticyclonic tornado, and his hurricane-intercept experience already was the subject of legends. Now here I was, talking storms with the man of legend himself–who turned out to be the most down-to-earth guy one could imagine. The following video was shot in ’84 by another storm-observing legend, Dave Hoadley, and features a then-34-year-old Jim.

We kept in touch, sending each other letters and videos. At some point, amused by Rich Thompson and I berating each other with assorted nicknames and pejoratives, he started referring to each of us by two of them: pods and hoss, the latter spelled by Jim as “haas”. His letters and phone calls with me always began, “Hey haas!” or “Uh, uh, Rogers!”—the latter after a former NHC forecaster who also called me “Rogers”. Of course, ever since, I greeted Jim as “Jims”.

A few years later, after I moved to Miami, we spent countless hours eating at “feeding troughs”, fishing in the Keys, and watching storm videos at each other’s apartments. Jim had visited NHC for years and was a welcome guest there—never obtrusive, always attentive, as he listened for the latest nuggets of forecast insight into a possible tropical development or hurricane track prediction. Jim as usual was generous with his videos, always eager to give NHC folks copies of his footage.

We had some great conversations about tropical meteorology in those days, and I was impressed by his solid conceptual grasp of the subject—more so than any other non-meteorologist I’ve met, and better even than some degreed meteorologists. He could discuss the forecast implications if a particular stage of the Madden-Julian oscillation with the best of ‘em.

After collecting his severance package from Florida Power and Light, Jim moved to Guam for a couple years to chase typhoons. He met immediate success with his intercept there of Supertyphoon Yuri, yielding his famous “Storm surge!” scene:

The most upset that Jim ever became, to my knowledge, was partly my fault: I sent him damage footage that I shot of what was left of his old apartment building in the Saga Bay development, after it got trashed by both sides of Hurricane Andrew’s eyewall. Yes, he was utterly beside himself for missing that, but got the tropical antidote he needed soon thereafter in the form of Typhoon Omar’s visit to Guam.

Millions of people have seen two seconds of his footage from Omar, where an intact roof frame slammed to the ground right beside his vehicle (with Barbara White).

That snippet, along with an eerie video near Abilene TX of giant hail splashing into a swimming pool at an abandoned house, were his signature scenes.

Between that and several other videos he shot of frighteningly huge hail, he earned the secondary nickname of “Hailstone Jim”, thanks to some KU students to whom I showed his videos in 1993–1994. That wasn’t the last of his giant-hail exploits either. Stuck between forward flank and hook on a hard-right mover, with no good south options, Jim’s own car was demolished by this nasty hailstorm near Oshkosh, Nebraska, in 1999. He wasn’t pleased, but took it well later…

For over two decades, Jim also was among the first to bring each wave of technology in front of hurricanes and tornadoes, shooting with 16-mm film, then the earliest video cameras, then VHS and Super VHS, High-8, Digital-8 and memory-card units. Back when I still shot video, Jim sold a couple of his used camcorders to me at deep discounts. For a few years in the early-mid 1990s, I recorded chase footage and Hurricane Andrew scenes with the same SVHS unit he used to shoot Hurricane Gilbert (1988) in Mexico, and I still have that camcorder today.

Jim always was generous with donating his footage for spotter training, other educational uses, and scientific seminars, and gave me blanket permission to use his video for such things whenever I wanted. He had countless classic tornado videos, my personal favorite being the 3 May 1999 Fort Cobb, OK tornado (which I was seeing from 38 miles away while on the Bridge Creek tornadic storm)…

Jim lived in Norman for a short time in the early–mid 1990s, graciously letting me crash on his couch when I was in town to visit friends and/or chase. When I was in town for a few weeks of WSR-88D radar school in 1993, I spent many evenings at his apartment near the hotel, watching videos and talking about storms. And yes, when Jim wasn’t grilling up some burgers or chicken legs, we again frequented the “feeding troughs”.

You bet Jim was the master of outdoor cooking, always manning the grill at assorted storm-chaser parties in Oklahoma, Texas or Florida. He never served up a bad brat, burger or chicken leg that I can recall. By the time I moved back to Norman in ’96, Jim had returned to Florida, a man of the lower latitudes duly disgusted with cold Okie winters. Yet he still made it out to the Plains for both chase strips and storm parties.

One of my best memories of Jim was from the 13 May 2001 gathering at Tim Marshall’s house, and not just for his prowess at the grill. Jim loved kids, and mine were no exception. He always welcomed seeing them and asked about them often.

L-R: David Edwards, Donna Edwards, Jim Leonard, 2001

Nearly every year from the late ’90s on to 2011, I attended the early-December hurricane meetings at NHC, staying an extra night at my expense. Actually, it was at Jim’s expense—he put me up at his place in the Keys. I’ll forever cherish those visits, with great food and great storm videos in abundance.

Next time I hit the all-you-can-eat seafood bar at Whale Harbor, or wolf down a meal of Sicilian snapper at Key Colony Inn (where they knew him by name as “Jimmy”), I’ll gaze at the warm ocean and tropical sky from which hurricanes arise, and raise a glass in remembrance of he who, by his own accounting, chased storms “since the dinosaurs roamed the earth”: Cyclone Jim. His passion and deep appreciation for the wild sky lives on in those of us fortunate enough to have known him.

Hey “Jims”! We’re missing you terribly down here already, but are glad you’re not suffering anymore. You’ve got the best view of all the eyewalls and tornadic supercells now, old friend. Play the videos when we meet again…

Drawing of Jim (1987) by David Hoadley

Next Page →