Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sputtering Toward Life

Today, the UN voted in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty. Coming on the heels of New Jersey eliminating the death penalty for that state, the resolution predictably faced opposition from countries heavily invested in the process.

The United States is one of them. While not all states use capital punishment and not all that have it on the books exercise the option, the United States stands as one of the receding holdouts for the practice.

New Jersey gives me hope. That several more states are looking at a similar ban on the death penalty gives me further hope. If the pendulum swings far enough, maybe we can take that last step toward putting our proverbial money where our mouth is on the issue of basic human rights.

For my previous thoughts on the subject, look here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

War on Christmas...Break out the SAMs!

Welcome to America, where apparently you need to be a Christian because...we're a Christian nation, yo.

For your reading pleasure, House Resolution 847:

( Cited from http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=hr110-847 )

Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.

Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the world;

Whereas there are approximately 225,000,000 Christians in the United States, making Christianity the religion of over three-fourths of the American population;

Whereas there are approximately 2,000,000,000 Christians throughout the world, making Christianity the largest religion in the world and the religion of about one-third of the world population;

Whereas Christians identify themselves as those who believe in the salvation from sin offered to them through the sacrifice of their savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and who, out of gratitude for the gift of salvation, commit themselves to living their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Bible;

Whereas Christians and Christianity have contributed greatly to the development of western civilization;

Whereas the United States, being founded as a constitutional republic in the traditions of western civilization, finds much in its history that points observers back to its roots in Christianity;

Whereas on December 25 of each calendar year, American Christians observe Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ;

Whereas for Christians, Christmas is celebrated as a recognition of God's redemption, mercy, and Grace; and

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.

Ignoring for the moment that this is an unbelievable waste of legislative attention, and even that it is a largely meaningless gesture legally, why was this done and what is the underlying message?

The sponsor of the bill, Representative Steve King (R, IA), introduced this resolution after a similar one honoring Ramadan was introduced and indeed, it mimes the verbiage.

He refused to vote for or against religion resolutions that did not involve Christianity, but put his name on this and voted for a previous bill recognizing Christmas and honoring Christianity. He is on record as stating that America is a Christian nation and this seems to be another effort to legitimize his viewpoint.

Funny, I was under the impression that America was the world's melting pot, a place where people of all religions and cultures could come together to build prosperous and free lives. At least, I thought that's what it is supposed to aspire to. But King and many others appear to have other ideas.

Almost every year, I hear about the 'War' on Christmas, about how secular interests are trying to destroy Christmas and thereby undermine Christianity. Sunny Hundal has some interesting thoughts on that.

For me, suffice to say that every 'secularist' I know celebrates Christmas, a holiday that has become as cultural as religious. In point of fact, Christmas is celebrated in Japan, a largely Shinto nation, even if primarily as a buildup to New Year's. But perhaps King's problem is that Christ is not a pivotal part of this celebration.

Forgive me, but we've adopted religious holidays wholesale and converted them to non-religious celebrations, and indeed Christmas is the significant date for Mithra, the Unconquered Sun - and some others - not necessarily Christ.

It is hardly unusual for celebrations to change over time and adapt to shifts in culture and changes in society. Memorial Day here in the United States, ostensibly established to honor war dead, is a date when people visit the graves of any deceased relative and as often as not is merely an excuse for an early-season barbecue. Halloween, another holiday with its roots in religion, is now more cultural and just an excuse to have parties and socialize.

As a nation with a decidedly Christian majority, the point of this resolution is even stranger than its stated impetus. There is no institutional Christian persecution, at least not in the United States...the country to which this resolution primarily applies, as stated in it's text. There is no 'War on Christmas' or other great conspiracy to rob Christians of Christ in Christmas.

What this resolution does, however, is tie our lawmakers uncomfortably to a single over-arching religious tradition. It states unequivocally (with only 9 naysayers on the resolution) that our lawmakers are favorable to Christianity and its traditions. In and of itself, this isn't a problem. The problem is that once again our legislators are bringing religion uncomfortably close to government.

With Christianity and Christmas as popular as they are in this country, the resolution itself is pointless and little more than grandstanding. Ramadan and other traditions may be honored this way as a showing to others that we accept and welcome them. Such a move is hardly necessary for Christianity in a place where it is predominant and powerful.

It is, perhaps, a way to avoid making any laws relating to Christianity while also shouting out that those in support are religious, just like Joe Kentucky and Jane Texas. It walks in the uncomfortable clothing of a religious roll-call, a checklist. After all, King had rather inflammatory words for those that opposed him in the vote.

I believe King and his supporters did this to look good to their constituents. This is a bald-faced manipulation of power to secure a continuation of power by appealing in a way that is meaningless to those it honors and offensive to those it excludes, pointedly about one quarter of the United States.

I suppose that in the end it's really just much ado about nothing, as one man put it. There are raised voices and shaken fists and in the end a sorting of the ideology and opinion of our lawmakers. It drifts dangerously close to a litmus test not necessarily for office, but of reception for more legislation of the sort that actually can impact those excluded from the mindless back-slapping and congratulatory vapidity.

I wonder though, what those looking from the outside in are thinking when they watch what the lawmakers of the most dangerous (re: militarily powerful and aggressive) country on earth are doing as they work toward internal solidarity which then turns its face toward exclusion as it divides its battle lines into camps of 'us' and 'them.' The majority paints itself as under siege and in need of support, allies, and knowing who is for us and who is against us. It manufactures crises.

All told, another glowing example of American enlightenment, inclusion, and tolerance. It is sad when the politicians of such an advanced and powerful country have such a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of privilege as they respond to imagined demons...or do they? Maybe they really do understand what they're doing. That, perhaps, is the most profound implication of all.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Making Criminals of Customers

Teenagers frequently think the world is out to get them, that everyone hates them, that no one understands them. Most often, this is a reflection of some other issue related to identity and uncertainty. Rest assured however, that like a true paranoid, sometimes they're right.

The RIAA, in fact, does hate them...and the rest of us as well. In fact, they're busy making criminals of customers right now.

I have a huge music collection, and when the time came to digitize it, I did so eagerly. I wanted to store all those CDs I bought, the vinyl and casettes and put everything onto my computer. Later, my iPod became the vehicle of choice to hold the more than 8,000 songs I wanted at my fingertips to listen as my mood shifted. I was under the impression the golden age of music had finally arrived.

To do so, I ripped my CDs using an MP3 encoder. To this day I still don't use iTunes or Media Player or Jukebox or anything else. I have a ripper written by a wonderful Spaniard that takes every CD I buy and converts them for use on my digital players.

But now...I'm a thief?

According to Jennifer Pariser in the article linked above, making a digital copy of music you purchased for personal use is stealing. Stealing one copy but stealing nonetheless.

Like most people I've spoken with, I've been operating under the assumption that because I paid for an album I can then convert the songs to a digital format for my own use on a digital media player, be that my PC or an iPod or other such player. I was under the impression that I was supporting the labels, the artists, the production and distribution companies, the support staff and so on.

Apparently purchasing the CD isn't enough. If I want to have a digital copy I have to also buy the songs in digital form. What I don't understand is the disconnect here.

Leaving aside that if I go to purchasing music solely through digital means that anyone working in the art or manufacturing part of the industry is left out of the profit equation, this looks like a thinly veiled ploy to get me to buy my music twice if I want to enjoy modern music players.

So who's the real thief here?

As a matter of ethics and support, I have been purchasing my music and converting it to digital format, under the impression that what I was doing was acceptable. After all, it is my media. I recognize that the labels and artists retain rights to the IP but that isn't what we're talking about here. What we're talking about is the method by which I enjoy what I've paid for.

It's none of their business what I listen to my music on because I've already paid for both the media (which I use for archival purposes) and the right to listen to the intellectual property contained thereon. This is not theft, this is fair use, regardless of how they want to define the term.

But the RIAA and its affiliates seem to want to treat their customers as hostile entities. Acting in good faith I am now, in their eyes, a thief. I am not a paying customer taking part in the time honored tradition of the exchange of value for value. Rather I am a predator preying on the poor exploited megacorporations that produce and distribute music. The act of making my music available to me, digitally, is taking food from the mouths of their children; violating their right to dictate the exchange exlusively in their favor; turning me into a slavering monster with no identifiable ethical framework as I devour the fruits of their labor by...using what I bought as is convenient for me.

I don't distribute music illegally and I buy the music I digitize. I am not an enemy of the RIAA and I am not a criminal...but that's the relationship they seem to want as they file John and Jane Doe suits with universities, label honest customers as thieves, and work studiously to avoid the 21st century and how it's changed the way we all do business.

Seriously, if they pursue this they will push people into piracy. If I can't use what I buy as I want, what's my motivation to give them what they want? If I'm a criminal either way, why shouldn't I save myself some money and aggravation and pirate my music? I've paid for the right/license to listen to my music. I refuse to allow anyone to dictate the way I enjoy my music.

The thing is, I want to be a good customer. I want to support the artists I listen to. I do not want to be told I'm a criminal simply because I don't use the product I buy exactly as the seller wishes. Threats are not the answer. If the RIAA insists on treating people as criminals, that's exactly what they will become. If the RIAA instead changes tack and decides to work WITH its customers in enabling freedom of format they may just find the market giving back to them.

So think about it, RIAA. You fear that we will take the path of least resistance and pirate our music rather than pay for it...and your solution is to make it difficult to digitize what we legally purchase by telling us you regard it as an illegal act. Where do you think that will end? I, for one, refuse to buy a song twice.

I think it's pretty obvious.