San Bernardino shooting

That title could really be “Any shooting”, but San Bernardino is the one happening now so I titled it that. Plus, this one is affecting me. No, I don’t know any of the victims. I’m not shocked or outraged or believe this will be the turning point in the gun debate. I’m affected the way Larry David finally started caring about the environment:

I’m affected because ABC is showing the man hunt instead of broadcasting Jeopardy. I know that sounds terribly callous – and if anyone actually reads this, feel free to be as faux outraged at me as you like. But the truth is, that’s where we are with these things now. They happen with such frequency they don’t even register. I mean look at this:

So with no Jeopardy, I decided to write. At some point in the future my ancestors may want to know what it was like to live through this era. I figured this would be a good time to document my thoughts.

First, let me note I don’t fear these kind of shootings. Even though they happen every day, I realize the risk to me personally or my family is low. It can happen anywhere, but as long as it continues to not be here it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes you think of a shooting affecting you, but it’s kind of like playing the lottery. Sometimes you hear that the Mega Millions jackpot is huge and you fantasize for a minute. Then you forget about it and go about your life.

So why am I so numb to this? Well, I didn’t always used to be. When they were less frequent I would get mildly upset. And that started waning. But then Sandy Hook happened. 20 fucking kids were murdered! That was sad. And it was the one that was finally *FINALLY* going to affect change. But then it didn’t. And more shootings happened. And we realized, “OK, this will never change.” Dan Hodges summed it up better than anyone:

Legislation is impossible. You hear that people on terrorism watch lists are not blocked from buying guns and you realize how powerful the NRA is. You learn that Bernie Sanders – the most liberal major Presidential candidate – is a “gun nut“. As Senator, he voted for a law that protects gun manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers from lawsuits. No other industry gets this protection.

So that was that. Shootings just became part of life in America. This excerpt from the Economist sums up the reality of our relationship to gun violence in the absence of any political will to address the problem:

Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.

But then in August there was a murder broadcast live on TV! That was different. It was in our faces. There was a sliver of hope that something would change. But only a sliver. And of course, nothing changed.

Through it all there was a lot of talk. Some were interesting ideas. I learned that Australia actually enacted a massive buy-back to reduce guns. And it worked!

Wow, at this point it actually sounds like a great idea. But mostly there was a lot of meaningless talk. I loved that these two tweets came though my feed within a couple hours of each other:

Thanks Representative MacArthur! Now that I know you have prayed, you got my vote!

A few shootings ago I had a conversation with Pops and Dave. Is there anything that could happen that would actually cause change?

One suggestion was if the President was assassinated. No. I don’t think that would do it. Hell, half the country always hates the President. They would be too happy that he was killed.

Another was if the head of the NRA was killed. No. I don’t think that would work either. Though I would personally laugh my ass off if someone put a bullet in Wayne LaPierre, I think the NRA would use it to double-down on their bullshit.

I got to thinking, there is no one individual person that could be murdered that would cause a significant change in our gun laws. So it would have to be a group. But if kindergarteners and people on live TV didn’t spur Congress to act, what deaths could? And then it hit me…a shooter would need to infiltrate Congress itself. The mass murderer would need to actually make it into the Capitol while they were in session and wipe out a chunk of these guys. Now I’m still not 100% sure that any gun law changes would happen, but it would get the attention of those that remain. Unfortunately it’s probably the only real chance to get those that can actually enact the change to have a real conversation.

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Jeff Girgenti…ESPN Baseball Analyst

OK let me admit right from the beginning that “ESPN Baseball Analyst” is a bit of a stretch. And for those of you that need me to cut right to the end of the story, well, basically I was quoted in an article on ESPN.com. Here it is:

http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/64212/kudos-to-joe-torre-for-taking-a-stand-with-utley-suspension

So how did I get here?

It started Saturday during Game 2 of the NLDS game between the Mets and the Dodgers. In the 7th Inning Chase Utley made a dirty slide into Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada and broke his leg.

I’ve always appreciated Utley’s baseball abilities…even when he was with the Phillies. However he also always seemed like a punk to me. I understand that this is the kind of judgment people make of celebrities that we don’t really know. But maybe with Utley we have a better sense based on his World Series speech…

…or his All Star Game introduction…

…and there are probably more, but those are the first two that come to mind.

Anyway, even though some old timers want to call this a good, hardnosed play, I’m comfortable calling his slide dirty. You can’t be that far out of the base path AND start your slide that late. Though I will admit that I believe Utley’s intent was to break up the double play, not to break Tejada’s leg.

The next day the league even warranted that the slide deserved a suspension. Now as dirty as I thought the slide was, I didn’t think the league should pick this spot to start enforcing the rule. This kind of slide has gone on for years. Announce in the offseason that it will no longer be tolerated. Don’t impose a penalty during a playoff series.

Joe Sheehan is a Sports Illustrated writer that I follow on Twitter. He had the same point of view.

I replied to Joe:

Doing it now does bang home the point.

From the quote it seems as if I agree with the suspension even though I’m really just explaining its impact. Upon re-reading it, I didn’t like that so I actually deleted the tweet at some point later. It’s Twitter so nuance gets lost.

Apparently it was up long enough for David Schoenfield to read. He’s a writer at espn.com. And honestly I had no idea who this was. I had no idea that’s who Joe Sheehan was sub-tweeting at the time I replied. But he liked my quote and wrote about it. That’s how I became an ESPN Baseball Analyst!


So why do I care? …about an 8 word tweet that even I didn’t think was good enough not to delete?

I have no idea. But there’s something neat about it. I can’t quite figure it out. It’s not fame or celebrity…most of that kind of stuff annoys me. I think it’s just the fun of being able to say “Jeff Girgenti…ESPN Baseball Analyst”.

The Business of Religion

One of the things that bothers me about organized religion is the preferential tax treatment. Churches are treated like non-profit organizations and therefore are exempt from income tax. This is widely accepted to be OK. But really it shouldn’t be.

Religion is business. It’s a big business. Church is in the business of selling faith, spirituality, and a bunch of other bullshit I don’t believe in. But if you do, fine, good for you.

There are lots of people that need help to manage their mental well-being. Many can get by with the personal relationships that they have with their family and friends. Others turn to professional help, like therapists. So why should a doctor have to pay tax while the church remains exempt? I’ve thought this unfair for awhile, but a couple recent things have really crystallized this for me.

Pam and I recently watched Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The documentary is mostly about how wacky Scientology is. (Side note: I told Pam halfway through the viewing that the stuff they believe didn’t sound that much crazier to me than any other religion.) There’s also a lot about how Scientology gained church status with the IRS. Basically they muscled, intimidated, threatened and annoyed the IRS into capitulating. To hear the director describe it, you would think he was talking about the mafia.

The other thing that left an impression on me was John Oliver. On Last Week Tonight he recently took a page out of Stephen Colbert’s playbook. Colbert created a Super PAC to prove how ridiculous campaign finance laws are. Oliver created a legally recognized church. The video below starts at the part where he discusses the exemption, but the whole show is worth watching. (The first 8 minutes are about sleazy televangelists.)

The only requirements in IRS regulations to qualify as a church are that “beliefs are truly held and are not illegal”. Oliver captures the ridiculousness of this by saying “truly held beliefs that are not illegal is almost every belief”. So if every belief can be a religion, then they’re all nothing. And if they’re all nothing, then the tax exemption should be repealed.

Tradition

(Bear with me…this whole article really has nothing to do about baseball, but there is a lot of stuff that happens around baseball that relates to what I want to write.)

Earlier this week Rob Neyer of Fox Sports wrote that it was the 12th anniversary of the release of Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball”. “Moneyball” is my favorite book of all time. (Side note: I’m not a big book reader, so there really aren’t a lot to choose from.) Neyer’s retrospective reminded me how much I like the book. Yes, “Moneyball” is about baseball, but baseball is just the delivery system for Lewis. Lewis writes about financial markets and economics. His purpose in “Moneyball” was to talk about recognizing inefficiencies in a market (e.g. on base percentage (for the record, this is a dramatic oversimplification)) and how to take advantage of them.

But I got something else out of “Moneyball” and the related exposure to Bill James, sabermetrics, etc. I realized that things I believed could be challenged and I could change my mind. So in this instance, I changed from thinking that RBI’s and pitcher Wins were important.

Yesterday The Hardball Times had a post about the 169th anniversary of the first baseball game to be played under a formal set of rules…and how that is mostly a myth. It’s a lie that is retold over and over, so people believe it. Worst than that is the myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball.

Coincidentally I went to the Phillies game last night with Pops and Dave. (Squirrel!) Pops went on about how smart of a guy Doubleday was in laying out baseball. I didn’t correct him. He can be bothered by change or challenges to his beliefs. I understand that this is typical behavior to think that things were better in the past or that they should be the way they always have been.

I understand it, but it’s definitely not me. As I get older I’m somehow getting more progressive in my thinking. And I’m willing to challenge accepted norms more often. Craig Calcaterra does a great job in expressing this in a post about baseball cards (yes, more baseball).

Last night at the game, they asked for people to remove their hats before the national anthem as a sign of respect. I blurted out “why does removing your hat show respect?” These rules that continue for no reason other than tradition make no sense to me. Does removing my hat make me happy? Does it make me money? Does it negatively impact anyone else? Does it really accomplish anything at all? Then how can it be respectful or disrespectful? It’s not. It’s just a meaningless tradition at this point. (As I was researching the origins of this I found this quote I liked: “I always thought showing true respect for the flag and song itself was in having the right to choose whether to keep my hat on or off.”)

(OK, I think I’m done with all of the baseball-related stuff.)

These are the kinds of traditions that I find myself rejecting more and more often. Gay marriage? I don’t care…because it doesn’t negatively impact me. I have stopped saying “bless you” after people sneeze because I know it’s unnecessary. I don’t get bent out of shape thinking it’s the end of civilization when states legalize marijuana. When I got married it was important to me that Pam take my last name. Now, I would want that she keep hers. I have stopped standing during the Pledge of Allegiance after reading about the Bellamy Salute. The Pledge is creepy and feels like propaganda – and again, it’s unnecessary. Earlier this week I read that moral acceptance of polygamy has more than doubled from 7% in 2003 to 16% now. I paused, but then thought as long as it’s not a sheik acquiring wives or a religion preying on children…yeah, go for it. I’m OK if everyone is consenting adults entering into a polyamorous relationship. It doesn’t negatively impact me. All of these things are unnecessary traditions.

Religion seems like they have more of these unnecessary traditions than anything else. As I like to say…thank God I’m an atheist! I grew up an atheist (or for a time before I was willing to commit called myself an agnostic). I have never been religious and therefore never had a religion to challenge. But I wonder if I was indoctrinated to faith how accepting I would have been of all of the rules and how soon I would have rejected them.

So ditch your unnecessary traditions. The 2016 presidential campaigns have kicked off. At some point a candidate will be called a flip-flopper, and it will be considered a bad thing because politicians are never supposed to progress. I don’t see it that way. I don’t care that they changed. The change itself isn’t bad. You can change your mind on things. Maybe there is new research, or more science, or a better understanding after reading a persuasive argument. In that case it’s OK to abandon past beliefs. Looking at things with an open perspective is good for progress…just like I learned from Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball”.

Open Letter to the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington – Follow up 2

Well, I wrote a letter to the editor this weekend. Today Burlington County Times published it. This is the first time I ever did anything like this. Here is the text of what I emailed (it’s mostly taken from my prior writings about this):

“The Rules of the Board of the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington should be amended. Article VII “Order of Business”, Section 2 “Pledge of Allegiance and Prayer” should be removed. Prayer at government meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

It is inappropriate for open government meetings to have any kind of prayer or religious ritual. Public officials who have tax-paid positions should not be engaging in prayer at government functions. The Freeholders have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New Jersey. These are secular constitutions that they have sworn to uphold. They are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. But when government bodies lend their power and prestige to religion, it amounts to a governmental endorsement. Even when prayers are “nondenominational,” there is no way a government body may conduct prayer that will not inevitably exclude, divide and embarrass at least some taxpayers and constituents. Observing a strict separation of church and state will offend no one and include all citizens.

This Board exists to govern on civic, secular matters. Why is divine guidance needed? Does the prayer add any value to the meeting? Would the responsibility of the Freeholders or the accomplishments of the Board have changed had they not prayed before each meeting? I trust that each member would take their obligation just as seriously. Therefore the prayer before each meeting should cease.”

So now I’ll wait and see if anything happens. And if not, I’ll figure out if I can get to an actual meeting to make a statement in person.

Open Letter to the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington – Follow up

Here is the letter I sent via email to the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington. I received no reply to the email.

The Board has had 1 meeting since then. The Rules of the Board were not discussed.

I also tweeted the letter. I did kind of get 2 replies.

Freeholder Belgard sent a reply tweet. I was pleased that she took the time to read the letter, however I would have really appreciated a response to the subject matter. “Thank you” doesn’t really tell me if she agrees or disagrees or any of the reasons why.

I also got a reply from Ryan Peters. He is not currently a Freeholder, but is running for the position this year. He sent me a Direct Message with his email address so we could discuss further. That started out productively. Here is the transcript of our email exchange:

===========================================================================================

Me:
Thanks for getting back to regarding my letter to the Freeholders. I know you’re in a bit of a different situation than the others since you currently do not hold office. But since you are seeking the position I figured it made sense to reach out to you anyway.

I have never had the opportunity to attend a Freeholder meeting in person. It’s difficult since they take place during the work day. Recently I found that the meetings are recorded and posted to YouTube. It seemed like a convenient alternative. I was immediately surprised to see the prayer as part of the meeting. I viewed some of the older meetings and they all started the same way.

So what are your thoughts on this…do you agree that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? If elected, would you push for prayer to be removed from the Rules of the Board?

——————————————————————————————–
RP:
Thank you for your email. I read your letter to the Freeholders and spent some time researching the issue. I would like to get your thoughts on what I have uncovered so far.

On May 5, 2014 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 5-4 decision that a town’s practice of opening its town board meetings with a prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the Establishment Clause when the practice is consistent with the tradition long followed by Congress and state legislatures. The town does not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer, and the prayer does not coerce participate with non-adherents.

The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway. I’ve attached the Majority Opinion including the Dissenting Opinions of Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan for your review.

——————————————————————————————–
Me:
I am aware of the Greece ruling. Unfortunately I think the Supreme Court made a mistake. I’ll go short of saying they are an “activist court” or “legislating from the bench” in this case, but simply state I don’t believe the Supreme Court is infallible. Their interpretation of the First Amendment in this case was wrong.

So, yes, the Freeholders are allowed to have prayer at their meetings. But just because they can, should they? This Board exists to govern on civic, secular matters. Why is divine guidance needed? Does the prayer add any value to the meeting? Would the responsibility of the Freeholders or the accomplishments of the Board have changed had they not prayed before each meeting? I trust that each member would take their obligation just as seriously.

===========================================================================================

…and then no additional reply. So as with Freeholder Belgard, I was pleased that he took the time to read the letter and invited me to email him. However all I got was a history lesson. I don’t know what his thoughts on the matter are. (Unless quoting Greece to me is his way of saying he agrees with whatever the law is. Seems irresponsible for me to assume that.)

So as far as I can tell I am at a stopping point unless I choose to pursue further. That would be some kind of public letter through a newspaper or something. (Though anyone can read it, I don’t consider my tweet public. My 20-or-so followers don’t care about the letter. The tweet was only an alternate way to directly try to reach the Freeholders since email didn’t work.) Otherwise I could try to speak during the public comments at one of the meetings. But as I mentioned in my email to Mr. Peters, the timing of the meetings aren’t really conducive for me to attend. So I’m not sure what the next step is. But I do know I continue to be confused as to why there is prayer at these meetings.

Open Letter to the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington

I’d like to request that you amend the Rules of the Board. Article VII “Order of Business”, Section 2 “Pledge of Allegiance and Prayer” should be removed. Prayer at government meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

It is inappropriate for open government meetings to have any kind of prayer or religious ritual. Public officials who have tax-paid positions should not be engaging in prayer at government functions. You have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New Jersey. These are secular constitutions that you have sworn to uphold. You are free to pray privately or to worship on your own time in your own way. But when government bodies lend their power and prestige to religion, it amounts to a governmental endorsement. Even when prayers are “nondenominational,” there is no way a government body may conduct prayer that will not inevitably exclude, divide and embarrass at least some taxpayers and constituents. Observing a strict separation of church and state will offend no one and include all citizens.

-Jeff Girgenti