Meet America’s first openly gay imam
Imam Daayiee Abdullah

America Tonight
He’s been condemned by other Muslim leaders, and some local imams have even refused to greet him. But Imam Daayiee Abdullah – believed to be the only openly gay imam in the Americas – is proud of his story. He was born and raised in Detroit, where his parents were Southern Baptists. At age 15, he came out to them. At 33, while studying in China, Abdullah converted to Islam, and went on to study the religion in Egypt, Jordan and Syria. But as a gay man in America, he saw that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims had unmet spiritual needs and he became an imam to provide community support. “Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. And because of the necessity in our community, that’s why I came into this particular role,” he told America Tonight about his journey. His first act as an imam? Performing funeral rites for a gay Muslim who died of AIDS. “They had contacted a number of imams, and no one would go and provide him his janazah services,” he said, referring to the Muslim body cleaning ritual. That pained him. “I believe every person, no matter if I disagree with you or not, you have the right as a Muslim to have the proper spiritual [rites] and rituals provided for you. And whoever judges you, that will be Allah’s decision, not me.” It’s one of the mantras he lives by in his work, even as others condemn him.

A place for everyone

“The beautiful thing about God is that when you change your attitude, and say, ‘God, I need some help,’ and mean it sincerely, God is always there for you,” Abdullah told congregants one night during a regular sermon, known as a khutbah, at the Light of Reform Mosque in Washington, D.C. He serves as the imam and educational director of the mosque, which he helped form more than two years ago to be a safe space for values and practices that other mosques may eschew. During his service, women and men kneel side-by-side and women are allowed to lead prayers – actions that have sparked controversy even among American Muslims. “We do not limit people by their gender or their sexual orientation, or their particular aspect of being Muslim or non-Muslim,” he told America Tonight. “They’re there to worship.” The mosque’s congregants are diverse and represent a wide range of cultures, religious upbringings and sexual orientations.
‘The first time I talked to Imam Daayiee on the phone, I started bawling. I was like, I didn’t know there could be a place like this.’
Laila Ali was raised Muslim, but didn’t feel accepted by Islam, because her beliefs fell outside traditional schools of thought. Then, she heard about Abdullah. “A lot of us started feeling like we only had the choice to either be Muslim in name only and do whatever we want, or leave the religion altogether because there was no place for us,” Ali said. “And the first time I talked to Imam Daayiee on the phone, I started bawling … I was like, I didn’t know there could be a place like this.” Sixty-three percent of the 2.75 million Muslims living in the U.S. are first-generation immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center, many of them coming from countries where same-sex relationships are punishable by law, and in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, even by death. For its LGBT congregants, the Light of Reform Mosque is a rare safe space. But not all of them are gay. Many are just Muslims looking for a mosque that accepts all kinds. Hanaa Rifaey and her husband Rolly grew up going to local mosques with their families, but they say they didn’t really experience the kind of acceptance the way they do at the Light of Reform. “I think that’s exactly why we’ve wanted to come here,” Rifaey said. “I think it was even more important once we realized that we were starting to have our own family, was that we wanted to have a mosque where our child would feel included and welcome regardless of who he or she had turned out to be.” Imam Daayiee provides other services that are unique for an imam of a Muslim community, like marrying same-sex couples. So far in his 13 years as imam, he has performed more than 50 weddings. “We’re actually out there doing something, making a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

A raging debate

Not everyone is happy with the mosque. “Being an openly gay imam and having been identified as such, I do get a lot of feedback and also kickback, but that’s OK,” he said. “I think that when people are unfamiliar with things, they tend to have an emotional knee-jerk reaction to it.” But Abdullah is firm in his belief that there has never been “one monolithic, isolated” formulation of Islam. “It’s not something that’s new. It’s just like reform and revival within Islam, about every 100, 150 years there have been these discussions and there have been people who have opposed the status quo on these issues,” he said. “So it’s not something that I’m just coming up with as a modern Islamic scholar, but something that has been in existence since time immortal.” Some local imams have refused to greet him, and many others across the country argue his work performing same-sex marriage is not legitimate, and that he should control his “urges.” “Anyone who has an inclination that is not acceptable, they have to control themselves,” Muzammil Siddiqi, a well-known imam at California’s Islamic Society of Orange County said earlier this year when asked about Abdullah. “If someone has an inclination to commit adultery or an inclination to drink alcohol or a great desire to eat pork, I would say the same thing: control yourselves.”
At the heart of the disagreement is the interpretation of Islam. “If you go to most Muslim scholars, they’re going to tell you that homosexual acts are a sin in Islam; that there’s no way around it,” said Dr. Hussein Rashid, an adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University and contributor to a report on homosexuality in U.S. Muslim communities called the Muslim LGBT Inclusion Project. “I think what we’re seeing now not only in the United States, but worldwide really, is a question of going back to sources and rereading these sources,” Rashid added. “But the tradition was and remains that homosexuality is a sin in Muslim tradition.” The various scholars who contributed to the project’s report emphasized that there is no singular interpretation of homosexuality in Islam. By examining historical approaches in different Muslim cultures, the report challenged the idea that LGBT people are not accepted in Islam. “I think Daayiee is trying to say, ‘Yes, I can be gay and I can be a Muslim, and I can tend to people who are also gay and Muslim,’ that this is part of their identity as a human being and that the religion of Islam teaches people to embrace all aspects of their humanity,” he said.

A growing movement

Though it is unknown how many American Muslims or Muslims around the world are gay, a growing number are vying to be heard. Several recent films have helped to shed light on LGBT Muslims and their everyday realities. The most well-known, “A Jihad for Love,” spans 12 countries in nine languages to share the stories of LGBT Muslims. The film “I Am Gay and Muslim” tracks several gay Moroccan men as they explore their religious and sexual identities. And the coming independent film “Naz + Maalik” follows two closeted American Muslim teens as they grapple with FBI surveillance.
Around the world, new spaces are being carved out.  Last year, a gay-friendly mosque opened in Paris – Europe’s first. Muhsin Hendricks, an openly gay imam in Capetown, South Africa, has for years been leading congregants and preaching that homosexuality and Islam are not incompatible. And in America, LGBT Muslims have some strong support. The only Muslims in the House of Representatives, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., have both advocated for gay rights. The group Muslims for Progressive Values, which helped found the Light of Reform Mosque, also has strong presence in Philadelphia and Atlanta, and is growing. And Abdullah has hope that the message he is working to spread will continue to resonate: “It is our relationship with God and our relationship with each other that really establishes our faith.”

Abuse inside Christian marriages – a personal story

Christian congregations are not immune from domestic abuse.

Christian congregations are not immune from domestic abuse.

Ten years ago I was in the middle of a situation that an anti-domestic expert called “intimate partner terrorism” on Q&A this week. My then husband was supposedly a Christian, a very pious, rather obsessive one. He was a great amateur preacher, very encouraging to his friends and evangelistically inclined. He led Bible studies. He wanted to train for the ministry.

He just had one little problem. He liked psychologically torturing me. And dragging me by the hair around our apartment. And punching me – hard, whilst telling me how pathetic I was. He gave me lists with highlighted sections of Bible passages about nagging wives and how I should submit to him. I was subjected to almost the full catalogue of abusive behaviour.

He was a classic wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Bible warns us repeatedly about people like that.

Since leaving this man, I have been shocked by the devastation that domestic abuse has caused women my age, in Sydney in general and in the Anglican Church in particular. How talented, godly, intelligent women have ended up brainwashed, sometimes with severe depression and wanting to kill themselves. With some of them leaving the church.

Which is why I have been stunned at the reaction to Julia Baird’s recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald about domestic violence in the church. A theologian, Claire Smith, and minister, Karl Faase, have both written articles in response indicating that this type of situation doesn’t happen in our church, or if it does, it’s not very often. They also claim that ministers of the church do not teach or behave in a way that encourages such things. They have claimed there is no evidence, and many others have agreed with them.

Well, I disagree.

When something like this happens to you, people start telling you things. I have since that time spoken to women who tell you that they couldn’t understand how it happened, how they just thought they had to put up with it and how they thought it was their fault.

And they thought that due to what they had been taught in church and reinforced by their spouse, that it was their duty to stay. In an Anglican diocese that specialises in telling men and women how to relate to each other “according to the Bible”, nothing they heard from the pulpit told them anything different. Sometimes it is the statements that are not made that scream the loudest. Often inappropriate statements had been made to them by their pastors, sometimes including counselling them to prayerfully “stick it out” in the midst of severe abuse.

In the end, it wasn’t a helpful minister or a kind friend that first convinced me that I should try to leave my abusive situation. They had no clue of what was going on as I didn’t think I was allowed to tell them. I wouldn’t even have named my situation as domestic violence at that time, so I didn’t think to call the DV hotline.  It was a copy of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. I was saved by a lending card to a public library.

My husband controlled much of my media intake, but he never realised that 19th century British fiction contained such subversive material, so he let me read it. His downfall was that he reminded me too much of the evil “rake” in the first novel and the psychopathic villain in the second. And despite the brainwashing, I thought that if Anne Bronte (who was a daughter of an Anglican clergyman) could write a novel in Victorian England where the heroine could leave an evil man like that, what was I doing staying with one 150 years later?

So what would I say to those who would minimise the extent of domestic violence occurring within church families and the inadequacy of the churches’ response to the problem?

You are wrong. Very wrong. You do not know what you are talking about.

You wanted statistics? Well, I have been unable to find a study that has been conducted on the prevalence of domestic violence in Australian churches. This not evidence that such a problem does not exist, it is just evidence that we are too apathetic to record such things and how difficult it is to get people to speak of them. However, a 2006 Anglican Church publication indicated that in Britain:

  • Domestic abuse affects one in five   adults over their lifetime (one in four  women and one in seven  men).
  • The incidence of domestic abuse within Methodist church congregations is similar to the rate within the general population and the rate within the British Anglican church is unlikely to be any different.
  • Domestic abuse occurs among all types of households and all professions, including clergy.
  • One in three suicide attempts is by a victim of domestic abuse.
  • 45 per cent of female homicide victims were killed by their present or former partner.
  • 750,000 British children a year witnessed domestic abuse (in a population of 60.5 million) and 33 per cent of these had seen their mother beaten severely.
  • Domestic abuse is a much better description of the problem than domestic violence as it includes physical violence, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse.
  • Churches have traditionally found all sorts of ways not to “own” the problem of domestic abuse.
  • The theology of self-denial and suffering has been misused by the church to encourage victims to tough it out in abusive situations. Particularly, “the example of Christ’s sacrificial self-giving has been used … to encourage compliant and passive responses by women suffering in abusive relationships”.

Some Australian statistics:

  • 23 per cent of women who had ever been married or in a de-facto relationship, experienced violence by a partner at some time during the relationship.
  • 82 per cent of domestic violence cases are not reported to the police
  • Of women who were in a current relationship, 10 per cent had experienced violence from their current partner over their lifetime, and 3 per cent over the past 12 months.
  • Thirteen women have died from domestic violence in Australia in the first 7 weeks of 2015.

As for demanding further evidence, names, dates and details – is it really the responsibility of traumatised women and men to write to the Sydney Morning Herald and detail the abuse that has occurred to them and name the ministers who they believe have hindered their recovery or whose preaching or counsel has encouraged them to stay longer than is right?

Most DV survivors do not want to become Googleable due to a highly personal traumatic circumstance.

I have not used my real name in this article based on legal advice, even though I wanted to. I wanted to because I know that I am in a stronger position and have been better supported than many of the women I have come across, and this is such an important issue to take a stand on.

It angers me that certain people have demanded evidence without realising how that reinforces the trauma and invalidates the experience of victims. If you haven’t pushed for an investigation or at least a survey within your own denomination, is it reasonable to criticise a journalist for asking questions, just because she seems to have a decent sense of smell? If the British church can admit they have a problem, then why can’t we? Because we may need to take a hard look at ourselves? Seems a bit whiffy to me.

I think we should all be glad that Julia wrote her original article, regardless of our theological position.  A defensive rebuttal of her article is of no use me or to any of the damaged women I know. They need help and validation. They need well-trained ministers who are equipped to help deal with the problem.

But if what I read online this week in the Christian community is representative, many people in the church still have “a see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” attitude. Nothing much will improve until every denomination in Australia has a strategy to deal with domestic abuse that is informed by experts and rigorously implemented in each local church.

Swallow your pride and get to it, people. If you care enough to bother.

Isabella (not her real name) is currently writing a book detailing anonymised case studies of domestic abuse occurring within church families. Contact her at:  storyforisabella@gmail.com

If you are in an abusive situation:

  • Contact the free DV hotline on 1800 656 463 (TTY 1800 671 442).
  • Walk into your local police station.
  • If you have been assaulted, call 000 immediately.

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s financial watchdog, slammed for lavish spending

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by Tom Kington

A former Sydney archbishop tasked with cleaning up the Vatican’s finances has been accused of living it up at the Holy See’s expense.

Cardinal George Pell, who was hand-picked by Pope Francis to cut outlays and shed light on the Vatican’s murky finances, has been accused of spending half a million euros in six months by flying business class and using large sums on salaries and office furniture.

The allegations, contained in leaked figures published by Italian magazine L’Espresso on Friday, suggest Cardinal Pell also spent €2508 ($3600) on religious robes at a tailor and about $6650 on kitchen-sink fittings.

After his move to Rome to spearhead Francis’ mission to free up Vatican funds for the poor, the former archbishop of Sydney said he would try to save the Vatican “millions, if not tens of millions” of dollars a year.

Since then, he has flown business class and paid an assistant he brought from Australia a $21,600-a-month salary, the magazine reported, citing leaked Vatican documents. Francis, the article added, had challenged Cardinal Pell on his spending.

Despite Francis’ decision to move into humble dwellings at the Vatican, Cardinal Pell has spent more than $5100 a month to rent an office and apartment at an upmarket address where he spent nearly $87,000 on furniture, according to the allegations.

The new leaks about Cardinal Pell’s spending were widely suspected to be the work of Vatican prelates unhappy about his incursions on their authority, and recalled the Vatileaks scandal, in which letters revealing the inner workings of the Holy See were leaked by the butler of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

On Friday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi denounced the leaks, stating that “passing confidential documents to the press for polemical ends or to foster conflict is not new, but is always to be strongly condemned, and is illegal.”

The Pope appointed Cardinal Pell last year to head of the newly formed Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, which was given sweeping powers to reform the Holy See’s finances.

In December, Cardinal Pell said he had found hundreds of millions of dollars hidden off the books at the Vatican, and blamed departments that would “lurch along, disregarding modern accounting standards”, although critics argued the money was being properly administered.

Cardinal Pell said it was impossible for anyone “to know accurately what was going on overall”. He suggested that the Italian prelates who traditionally handle the Vatican’s cash were less interested in transparency than Anglo-Saxon accountants.

 Los Angeles Times


Do Racism, Conservatism, and Low I.Q. Go Hand in Hand?

Lower cognitive abilities predict greater prejudice through right-wing ideology.
Post published by Goal Auzeen Saedi Ph.D.

This morning as I logged onto Facebook, I came upon this image. Having followed the Boston marathon and MIT shooting coverage initially, I lost some interest when it came down to the “hunt.” As much as justice matters to me, so does tact and class, and the sensationalism of manhunts always leaves me uncomfortable. I also knew it would be a matter of time before the political rhetoric would change from the victims and wounded to the demographic factors of the suspects—namely race and religion. And alas, it has.

However, what struck me most about this image posted above was the Facebook page it came from, “Too Informed to Vote Republican.” I wondered about this, recalling an old journal article I’d come across when studying anti-Islamic attitudes post 9/11. The paper referenced a correlation between conservatism and low intelligence. Uncertain of its origin, I located a thought-provoking article published in one of psychology’s top journals, Psychological Science, which in essence confirms this.

Hodson and Busseri (2012) found in a correlational study that lower intelligence in childhood is predictive of greater racism in adulthood, with this effect being mediated (partially explained) through conservative ideology. They also found poor abstract reasoning skills were related to homophobic attitudes which was mediated through authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact.

What this study and those before it suggest is not necessarily that all liberals are geniuses and all conservatives are ignorant. Rather, it makes conclusions based off of averages of groups. The idea is that for those who lack a cognitive ability to grasp complexities of our world, strict-right wing ideologies may be more appealing. Dr. Brian Nosek explained it for the Huffington Post (link is external)as follows, “ideologies get rid of the messiness and impose a simple solution. So, it may not be surprising that people with less cognitive capacity will be attracted to simplifying ideologies.” For an excellent continuation of this discussion and past studies, please see this article from LiveScience (link is external).

Further, studies have indicated an automatic association between aggression, America, and the news. A study conducted by researchers at Cornell and The Hebrew University (Ferguson & Hassin, 2007) indicated, “American news watchers who were subtly or nonconsciously primed with American cues exhibited greater accessibility of aggression and war constructs in memory, judged an ambiguously aggressive person in a more aggressive and negative manner, and acted in a relatively more aggressive manner toward an experimenter following a mild provocation, compared with news watchers who were not primed” (p. 1642). American “cues” refers to factors such as images of the American flag or words such as “patriot.” Interestingly, this study showed this effect to be independent of political affiliation, but suggested a disturbing notion that America is implicitly associated with aggression for news watchers.

Taken together, what do these studies suggest? Excessive exposure to news coverage could be toxic as is avoidance of open-minded attitudes and ideals.  Perhaps turn off the television and pick up a book?  Ideally one that exposes you to differing worldviews.

*Please note comments that are offensive, defamatory, discriminatory, racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise inappropriate will be automatically removed by the author’s discretion.

References

Furguson, M.J. & Hassin, R.R. (2007). On the automatic association between American and      aggression for news watchers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1632-1647.

Hodson, G. & Busseri, M.A. (2012). Bright minds and dark attitudes: Lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice through right-wing ideology and low intergroup contact. Psychological Science, 23, 187-195.


Rev. Franklin Graham Warns Fox Viewers DC Has Been ‘Infiltrated By Muslims’
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Graham, the son of the evangelist preacher Rev. Billy Graham and president of the group named after him, was responding to a question from Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s about why the world “will not unite to stop” the Islamic State terrorist group.

Franklin Graham began to answer by assuring Muslim viewers that he loved and was praying for them before continuing.

“One of the problems we have in the West is that our governments, especially in Washington, has been infiltrated by Muslims who are advising the White House, who I think are part of the problem,” Graham said. “And we see this also in Western Europe. They have gotten into the halls of power.”

O’Reilly pushed back, asking for Graham to name a Muslim adviser to President Obama.

“I do know that they are there. I’ve been told this by a number of people,” Graham responded. “I’m not saying that they’re sitting next to the President, whispering into his ear. But they are in the halls.”

Watch below, via Media Matters:


American atheist blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh

Avijit Roy, whose Mukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog championed liberal secular writing in the Muslim-majority nation, attacked along with his wife in Dhaka

Avijit Roy’s wife Rafida Ahmed Banna is carried on a stretcher after she was seriously injured by unidentified assailants. Roy, founded a blog site which champions liberal secular writing in the Muslim majority nation.

Avijit Roy’s wife Rafida Ahmed Banna is carried on a stretcher after she was seriously injured by unidentified assailants. Roy, founded a blog site which champions liberal secular writing in the Muslim majority nation. Photograph: Rajib Dhar/AFP/Getty Images

 

A prominent American blogger of Bangladeshi origin was hacked to death with machetes by unidentified assailants in Dhaka, police said, with the atheist writer’s family claiming he had received numerous threats from Islamists.

The body of Avijit Roy, founder of Mukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog site which champions liberal secular writing in the Muslim-majority nation, was found covered in blood after the attack which also left his wife critically wounded.

“He died as he was brought to the hospital. His wife was also seriously wounded. She has lost a finger,” local police chief Sirajul Islam said.

The couple were on a bicycle rickshaw, returning from a book fair, when two assailants stopped and dragged them onto a sidewalk before striking them with machetes, local media reported citing witnesses.

Roy, said to be around 40, is the second Bangladeshi blogger to have been murdered in two years and the fourth writer to have been attacked since 2004.

Hardline Islamist groups have long demanded the public execution of atheist bloggers and sought new laws to combat writing critical of Islam.

“Roy suffered fatal wounds in the head and died from bleeding… after being brought to the hospital,” doctor Sohel Ahmed told reporters.

Police have launched a probe and recovered the machetes used in the attack but could not confirm whether Islamists were behind the incident.

But Roy’s father said the writer, a US citizen, had received a number of “threatening” emails and messages on social media from hardliners unhappy with his writing.

“He was a secular humanist and has written about ten books” including his most famous “Biswasher Virus” (Virus of Faith), his father Ajoy Roy told AFP.

The Center for Inquiry, a US-based charity promoting free thought, said it was “shocked and heartbroken” by the brutal murder of Roy.

“Dr Roy was a true ally, a courageous and eloquent defender of reason, science, and free expression, in a country where those values have been under heavy attack,” it said in a statement.

Roy’s killing also triggered strong condemnation from his fellow writers and publishers, who lamented the growing religious conservatism and intolerance in Bangladesh.

“The attack on Roy and his wife Rafida Ahmed is outrageous. We strongly protest this attack and are deeply concerned about the safety of writers,” Imran H. Sarker, head of an association for bloggers in Bangladesh, told AFP.

Pinaki Bhattacharya, a fellow blogger and friend of Roy, claimed one of the country’s largest online book retailers was being openly threatened for selling Roy’s books.

“In Bangladesh the easiest target is an atheist. An atheist can be attacked and murdered,” he wrote on Facebook.

Atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death in 2013 by members of a little known Islamist militant group, triggering nationwide protests by tens of thousands of secular activists.

After Haider’s death, Bangladesh’s hardline Islamist groups started to protest against other campaigning bloggers, calling a series of nationwide strikes to demand their execution, accusing them of blasphemy.

The secular government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reacted by arresting some atheist bloggers.

The government also blocked about a dozen websites and blogs to stem the furore over blasphemy, as well as stepping up security for the bloggers.

Bangladesh is the world’s fourth-largest Muslim majority nation with Muslims making up some 90 per cent of the country’s 160 million people.

A tribunal has recently handed down a series of verdicts against leading Islamists and others for crimes committed during the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.


Why are Republicans constantly bashing college these days? I was one of them — and the answer may surprise you

The right’s fear of education: What I learned as a (former) conservative military man

The right's fear of education: What I learned as a (former) conservative military man

EnlargeScott Walker, Rick Santorum (Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/Charlie Neibergall/Photo montage by Salon)

My first college experience was failing half my classes at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1992.  The highlight was getting a “D” in English 101.  Like many small town kids, I was overwhelmed and underprepared.  I dropped out of UNLV, joined the military and got married.  Being a 20-year-old father and “enlisted” man showed me exactly how not to live, so I started a backward, fumbling and circuitous process of getting my undergraduate degree.  In seven years, I attended four community colleges, a university on a military base and attended military journalism school.  I pieced the whole mess into a bachelor’s degree from Excelsior College, a credit aggregator that caters to military members.

Modern conservative politics push the notion that people who flip switches, burgers or bedpans don’t need “education.”  They instead need “job training.”  In Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, someone crossed out this phrase: “to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society.”  And added this instead: “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”  Walker backed down on the language change when it was exposed, claiming it was a “mistake.”  Really it was just one more tired attack on the idea of education as a public good, one that helps people find fulfillment and meaning.

I value education more than many people, because I struggled so hard to get it.  I had a bad elementary school experience, failed the fifth grade, muddled through high school and dropped out of college.  Teachers were always kind to me, saying things like, “He’s clever, but lazy.”  They were wrong about me, just like when Republicans are always wrong about poor people being lazy or stupid.  When I failed out of college the first time I was working a full-time job far above 40 hours a week, while also going to school.  I was most worried about making a living, and my skill set mirrored that of so many in the working class: Work hard, day in and day out and be grateful.  Educational success has little to do with innate intelligence or “goodness” and almost everything to do with class, upbringing and privilege.

I also viewed education with suspicion bordering on paranoia. I came from a rural mining town in Nevada where I knew mostly blue-collar men who neither needed nor wanted a college education. Listening to adults talk they always had a favorite villain: the person who jumped ahead in line and got a job or promotion, only because he or she had a college degree.

I have my own children now, and I know the limits of parenting.  Children heed your example far more than your advice.  It’s painful to watch your children struggle. It was the same for my conservative family who encouraged me to go college. They weren’t able to offer any meaningful guidance or help, and it was not their fault.  First generation college students, like me, face an impossible climb.  If you add in conservative hostility to education, it gets that much harder.

After getting a bachelor’s at 27, I went back to graduate school to study 18th century British literature at California State Hayward.  I landed a new job in Reno and moved to the University of Nevada, Reno, finishing a master’s in English there.  A few years later, I went back again, this time for a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, a school that emphasizes social justice—for many conservatives, a coded phrase that means “liberal.”  Even as a libertarian attending a liberal college, people went out of their way to be both kind and tolerant to me.  My preconceived notions about the “evil liberals of the ivory tower” looked more ignorant and narrow by the day.

Before college, I voted conservative, hated gay people, loved America and served my country in the armed services.  I’ve changed because of many factors, but I know that college and graduate school made a difference. I met people unlike myself and was forced to defend sometimes ugly political positions.  The Tea Party thrives on blue-collar “common sense” that is composed of a combination of ignorance, superstition and fear. A literate and educated populace is an existential threat to the kind of thoughtless rage that has consumed the right over the past few years.

When I write about how my politics evolved over a lifetime from conservative to liberal, people in the comments section (note: never read Internet comments) like to point out my “liberal arts degrees.”  Even my own friends like to remark on my MFA, usually by asking me to whip them up a “grande cappuccino.”  It’s funny, and I go right along with the joke too.  I understand the reality of trying to earn a living with an arts degree. At the same time, it’s troubling that educational fulfillment has turned into a punch line, even among those who believe in it.

Some people on the right are very educated. Rick Santorum holds an MBA and a JD (with honors, no less), and his vehement hatred of college seems to stem from his kooky take on religion.  Modern politics is drawing bizarre new battle lines between “family values” and a halfway decent education.  American Christians may dislike “Islam,” but they share a lot of opinions with the radical Islamic group “Boko Haram,” a name that itself translates into “education is forbidden.” In our own country, we have a massive and growing group of people who would rather have illiterate children than let their kids learn anything that contradicts their most extreme religious views.

I know many thoughtful, educated and even liberal people who hold deep faith.  Despite my own personal atheism, I accept the authentic religious experiences of others, but I’m troubled by a growing chorus of denial on climate change, evolution and the age of the planet.  Anti-intellectualism may be an American tradition, but when “mainstream” politicians embrace ignorance, education ends up as collateral damage.

“Serious” presidential candidate Scott Walker seems to have a problem with evolution, sounding like an idiot, most recently while in England. Unlike Rick Santorum who is an overeducated hypocrite, Walker lives the life of a true education hater. Asked about not finishing his undergraduate experience (which I’m not necessarily attacking), Walker said, “The reason I went to college, in large part, was not just to get an education for an education’s sake, but to get a job.” For too many politicians, it all comes down to money.

In America, to our everlasting shame, money is the absolute yardstick of goodness. I like money just like anyone, but many other things have brought me as much or more satisfaction: being a father, writing an essay or seeing a new part of the planet.  It’s easy to pick on poetry, humanity or art degrees.

I was able to go back to school in large part because my military service made it affordable. The GI Bill paid for both my master’s degrees. My background and rough start make me an unlikely champion of college education.  I’ve also been socially adjusted for my whole life to feel like a pretentious asshole and a fraud every time I bring it up.  But education makes a difference in people’s lives.

That’s why sensible people need to stand up against the vilification of education. A good start is to support Barack Obama’s free community college initiative. I earned most of the credits for my very first undergraduate degree at community colleges, and those classes kickstarted my interest in school. It’s hard to see how I would have ever overcome my own barriers without the patience of many community college instructors. Obama’s plan to fund community college will not only make our country a better place but will also improve, even slightly, the state of our shared humanity.

And to acknowledge the “other side,” education does help people find good, fulfilling jobs.  Even my “slapped together” bachelor’s degree helped launch me into a career in public relations. The job has more than sustained me and my family, while also allowing me to explore my own outside interests.

Some days I wish I could use my graduate education to find a full-time academic job, but I passed up too many opportunities and wasted too many years fumbling around. Academic jobs and humanities scholarship itself are under assault, just like so many other valuable parts of America. I’m probably a coward, but I also don’t like the idea of leaving my longtime profession to start all over. Besides, there is inherent value to education even if someone isn’t paying you for it. I know my life would be less satisfying without it. For instance, if I had turned my back on education, I could have ended up as an ignorant asshole trying to turn back the very hands of human progress, much like the party to which I once belonged.

You can follow Edwin Lyngar on twitter @Edwin_Lyngar


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