Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion, and Other Speculations
15 FEB 2024The Radical Philosopher
If your introduction to formal Philosophy was anything like mine, it was before college, but only just, and it was confusing because it was so awfully complicated. Back then we knew the word "coincidence" and had experienced quite a few, but we did not really yet know that very many coincidences are manufactured—that is, purposefully hatched— in the minds of men, some of whom are literally philosophers, some politicians and pundits, some a little of both. Adam Kirsch is a little of both, and he has decided to re-introduce one of the most popular and least well-understood philosophers of the western world, Baruch Spinoza. It turns out that Kirsch has the chops for this task.
In the paper versions of the February 12 & 19 edition of The New Yorker Magazine his article is titled "The Reticent Radical" but in the online version "Baruch Spinoza and the Art of Thinking in Dangerous Times," which (I think) would have served those of us still reading paper magazines nicely and straightened Spinoza's curvy road somewhat. Spinoza is always introduced as a Dutch Jew, radically different from most 17th century deep and shallow thinkers, philosophers, beginning the fight to secularize modern philosophy. I think every introduction to Spinoza gives up trying to pidgeon-hole him and, rapidly, to avoid describing his ideas at all. Kirsch does a very good job of describing, without apologizing for how Spinoza managed to bathe the baby and hold on to the bathwater. All—that would be most— who introduce Spinoza as an atheist are wrong. Few manage to plant the label "pantheist" on him, or if so, do it gracefully, knowledgeably.
Baruch (Benedictus in Latin) was a deliberately vocal free thinker in Amsterdam, then he wrote (anonymously) Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1673), the quick title and description of which during my first introduction (the year I was discarding my white Episcopalian surplice and black cassock) put off my delve into such things for a couple of years. The commentaries I read then negatively over-emphasized free-thinking, although the 1950's were not exactly free-thinking we were easing out of the hiney-binder McCarthy era slowly. The better way to think about being a 17th century iconclast was to equate the term with what Ian Buruma wrote in the book Kirsch is reviewing, "Spinoza: Freedom's Messiah" —what he called libertas philosophandi— we should call it "intellectual freedom."
The point of the Kirsch article's title change is that Spinoza's way is instructive, even if it is slightly confusing what Spinoza or Kirsch really, really think:
Like deconstruction or critical race theory, "Spinozism" became a popular target for many a moralist who could not have said exactly what it meant. Yet, although Spinoza was certainly a champion of political and intellectual freedom, he had no interest in being a martyr for them, and, if his life teaches anything about thinking in dangerous times, it is how prudence and boldness can go hand in hand. Not for nothing did he wear a ring inscribed with the Latin word Caute: "Be cautious."
What that means in he context of Spinoza's life is: be prudent and bold! What that means today is perhaps not completely obvious, but look around. Who is being instructed to be cautious? I am thinking it may be really angry intellectuals.
You should know that Spinoza's brilliant mind took the heirarchical approach to theology to the max. God, becomes very abstract and very much everywhere in an infinite universe. (I forgot to tell you to hold onto your keyboard just then.) It means that God is not a person, not a trinity of two persons and a holy ghost/spirit/ideal, but a supersentient presence in everything, literally, everything, stars, galaxies, squirrels, ant hills, popsicles, and you. For teleologists—people who need to know or believe in the purpose of things, goals, and the like—Spinoza's ideas drain the crankcase of those thinkers. He makes it so that the question of Ends and Means is almost meaningless, and so it enables anyone, everyone to posit provisional reasons for existence, yes, democratically. Kirsch says it this way
He argues that the highest happiness of which human beings are capable is seeing the universe "under the aspect of eternity," which means understanding that everything is as it must be.
In other words,the universe is governed by rational laws and we can discover them together. But, alas, Spinoza believed in one truth, not 8 billion truths of a world-wide democracy. He had "no illusions about the wisdom of the crowd," having been ostracized and ejected from the Dutch Jewish comunity. As Spinoza retreated into prudence, he wrote that the people should "neglect" philosophy and leave it to philosophers. So, I say, become one. Every once in a while someone hits a jackpot and discovers part of the "one truth."
It is no coincidence that Buruma and Kirsch have brought this up now. Some in our civilization are so shaken by the fascist politics of the right wing in America they are beginning to doubt their senses. But no. You have seen correctly: the mob is out of its alleged mind.
30 JAN 2024Make Me Great Again
Already after three millennia of sharing ideas through written languages, some carved into tablets, some painted on walls, some on scrolls, we have a disorderly inventory of some the elements of human thinking. Some of the ideas have been arranged into fields of study and of practice. One of the latest to be secularized is Psychology, given that for scores of centuries we people have been able to (or have failed to) anticipate the thinking of others, particularly hazardous others. One of the first hazardous "other" may have been a parent, whose attentiveness to our physical well-being may have been disrupted by local events, like death from marauding bands from other clans, or by the nurture the parent themselves got from completely inadequate circumstances and surrounding people.
Today now, the field of psychology extends necessarily into the possibility of UFOs and into criminology, gerontology, politics, everywhere lightly or deeply. We all practice one form or another of amateur interpersonal psychology all day. It is because
According to Evolutionary Psychology, … humans as a species have evolved to try to read one another's minds, in order to better cooperate and compete with one another. For this reason, 'the human intellect is extremely well-suited to thinking about other people, their problems, and the situation they get themselves into.' This would explain our interest in fictional characters: even when we know they aren't real, humans and human-like entities are endlessly fascinating to us....” [From the New York Review of Books, March 25, 2021. “The People We Know Best,” by Evan Kindley, a discussion of the “reality” of fictional characters.]
In the course of this century we encounter lots of people whose grasp of the consensus reality is weak or pathologically selective. The pathology is, we think, caused by jarring events and evolutions within the societies to which these people were anchored. In many ways their grip on reality is assembled to answer questions or to right wrongs they believe have been incidentally or purposefully done to them. The logics of the ostensibly coherent reality they assemble to justify their daily perceptions draw on familiar psychological processes, some or many of which refer back to traumatic events like a parent dying suddenly or siblings coming to represent real threats to one's own sense of being, such as criminal behavior or commitment to divergent practices like alcoholism, drug use, alternative sexual orientations, marriage into very different cultures, and so forth.
How these people act among those of us who share a broadly accepted reality is dependent on leaders among their in-group and also on how we ourselves react and respond to their affect. You might notice among older American males who when asked about something newsworthy that they have less ability to thoughtfully consider the situation dispassionately, but instead see old traumas pareidolically 1 in their newly assembled reality. They raise their voices, as if to drown out the conventional ideas surrounding them. They often use hyperbolic and vulgar terms to characterize real people and events understood to exist in their reality and ours. If you have sufficient information about them, you inevitably conclude they're currently helpless and angry about something very personal, generally their standing in society, but how that is measured is along its dimensions we can only guess that it is a function of the intensity of their anger and discomfitures.
There are large scale events that different people encounter differently, but "classical" responses soon emerge from the hodge-podge of commentary and resistance or acceptance. The arrival of personal computers, then computers in our pockets and on our wrists, the internet, and the dramatic geographical "shrinking" of our planet is one recently. The loss of buying power caused by the Great Recession of 2008-2017 and the loss of personal mobility freedom by the Covid Pandemic of 2020-2023 have pushed millions into various schemes of denial and blaming and creating their own universes of truth.
The sad truth is that assembling an alternative reality to ease the pain and disorientation of the changes with which they were unable to contend, means that they have redefined themselves and must protect their concept of themselves as if their reality were real. The large question is whether or not these people are "lost to us" or not. It is probably a matter of reinforcements within the new assembled reality that feels nurturing to them. They are hurting psychologically, for sure, but there are so many being groomed by malevolent sociopathic narcissists that we may have to scale up our own defenses and leadership and act more concertedly to prevent them from turning the corner on what is our authentic reality.
1 Pareidolia (-ic): the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern, like a cloud or ceramic tile.
Addendum: 31 January 2024
Pareidolia is one thing, but apophenia is more expansive. Apophenia is "the tendency to preceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)." [Merriam-Webster online]. Pareidolia is about images, but apophenia gives rise to conspiracy theories. I mention this primarily because as Lawrence O'Donnell remarked this evening on his news analysis show on MSNBC, the Republicans have gone batpoop crazy with conspiracy theories such as Travis Kelse and Taylor Swift planning to bamboozle a world of fans to vote for Joe Biden at the Super Bowl in a few days. Neuro-psychologists will tell you that apophenia is a sign of significant debilitating stress and malfunction of a mind. Given that their leader is markedly "losing it" these days (and who would not under the stress), they are being led word by word into certifiable serious insanity. Pundits are hedging their bets these days!
22 JAN 2024Shklovsky and Kardishev
The Russian 20th Century astronomers presented in the title to this essay were very important to the Soviet SETI program that emerged as the US and UK and others mounted radio telescopes to scan for intelligent life in "our" galaxy and perhaps further out in other galaxies. In the US, Frank Drake and Carl Sagan and others from the Order of the Dolphin SETI society were avidly brainstorming the odds of finding signals from space that would clearly indicate their source as evidence of intelligent life. It was Drake, known particularly today for his famous equation defining the odds of there being intelligent life beyond Earth, who posted on his office door at Green Bank, West Virginia, the question: "Is there intelligent life on Earth?"
It was meant to be funny, but it led to a consideration of dolphins aka properly as porpoise, the former being fish and the latter marine mammals. And, of course in the first decades of the nuclear warfare age, it was not that funny, but fairly scary, instead. The Dolphin group decided that porpoises are intelligent, but are environmentally constricted or contained to be a non-technologically advanced intelligence, which was a good thing for the group to acknowledge.
Iosif Shklovsky wrote an import book about the dangers that planetary civilizations encounter, especially those caused by themselves, that can utterly end the civilization or stop it from further advancement. The book was very instrumental in arousing the lifelong curiosity of Carl Sagan.
Nikolai Kardishev posited an important scale by which to measure the technological advancement of planetary civilizations, principally on how civilizations are able to harvest and consume energy. Type I civilizations are able to access and store for consumption all the energy available on the planet. Type II control all the energy from a star, while Type III uses all the energy of a galaxy. The upshot being that although the signalling of a Type I (or lesser) civilization might be difficult to find and interpret, Types II and III would not, ergo, we should keep looking.
Drake's posted joke figured in to the balancing act that the scientists of the 2nd half of the last century were considering. It is by now obvious that this essay is about the joke we are making of ourselves environmentally and politically. It seems clear enough to all but the Trumpists here and their fellow-travelers elsewhere that the assumptions made by the scientists that everyone cares whether we emerge from our primal slime or not is not a broadly held consideration of human beings. Even college educated people believe their main concern is to reproduce and carefully groom their offspring to be good citizens, i.e., good providers for their own families in that next generation.
It has seemed obvious to many of us that that is a narrow view, that humans should be able to put replicating families into larger context. In fact, for some it calls into question family as an ideal unit of the procreation, maturation, procreation cycle. You should spend a few hours channel switching between the hundreds (scores at least) stand-up comics on Netflix to get an idea of how well families favorably nurture the young. Well over half of Netflix male and femme comedians have throbbing religious hang-ups. Fathers are horrible jokes for many, mothers less so, but one wonders.
Humans wonder incessantly about the really big picture and most recoil from it — the immensity of reality. They recoil to the compass of their own hypothetical control, as if stretching would change them somehow. This means that many or most are reluctant to change what seems to be working, although they know there are humans who do it differently and have better success. People like Carl Sagan and millions of others focus on the picture that enthralls them and the rest of it barely catches their attention. Carl died of cancer, but he managed to inspire a multitude to carry on. There are myths in the way for others, life after death, for one. Think about the implications of that or of the idea that might makes right and justifies patriarchy. The point is: we are not anywhere near critical enough of our civilization. Fear of retribution from those it treats poorly may be one reason.
1 JAN 2024Me
Samantha Harvey's novel "Orbital," described warmly by James Wood in the December 25th issue of The New Yorker Magazine is about being in the ISS whirling around our planet at 17,500 miles per hour sixteen times a day, and more to her point, what it must feel like being there on the "H-shaped" invention of man 250 miles up—about one thousandth of the distance to our moon— with only five companions to help explain the profound effects of living this experience.
James Wood writes of the "staggering extent of our own non-extent" out in the black vastness of the universe in which our "pale blue dot" is embedded. He writes
We may be hideously unaccompanied. Harvey wonders whether, if human civilization is like a single life, we’re in a late-teen phase of nihilism and self-harm, trashing the planet "because we didn't ask to be alive, we didn't ask to inherit an earth to look after, and we didn't ask to be so completely unjustly darkly alone."
I have been trying for years to encapsulate the stage of our existence on planet Earth, and both Wood and Harvey easily suggest "a late-teen phase of nihilism and self-harm," as if I am still mortally embroiled in it, and whereupon I choke on some berry in my oatmeal. Then there are Samantha Harvey's answers as to why, the inevitable "I did not ask to be born" and take responsibility for you and everything else, then adds "we didn't ask to be so completely unjustly darkly alone."
As world civilizations go, it would be odd, indeed, to take the one part for the 8 billions of the whole, to assume that cultures really do not mature much past the worst part of their evolution into adulthood, not to mention that cultures are comprised 15 years of childhood and around four times that of adulthood, even recognizing that males are generally incompetent as assessors of risk until age 30. Yet, why did I choke?
It struck me instantly that she jumped from the solopsistic ME to an imaginary WE, as if each of us inevitably comes to the conclusion that something almost unthinkable, namely, that humans are not only way less than our best thoughts of ourselves, but are evil squirming egos, yet found beautiful religions alongside the corrupt ones.
Most of us are no longer teenagers, most of us having climbed out of the hole dug by our own selves in our struggle for independence and our reach for the authority of adulthood and control in—perhaps over—this swarming complexity our parents, teachers, and goverments call civilization. Yes, most have given up, yet there are six in space out there, considering the situation with a perspective we here on the ground do not have. That, sirs and madams, is confidence— or just poetry!
Most of my classmates ducked early on and gave up the quixotic quest to rationalize the simplest hopes of existence with what we felt and saw and heard roaring around us. We went to college and watched how others had tucked these hopeful ideas into a memory bed we thought we might consult later on. My best friend there seemed amenable to seeing these ideas in the context of what old men call History, continued to smoke for the rest of his well-heeled life, and died, ironically, in 2020, of Covid. My best student wrestles still, but sublimates with grandmotherhood. My nearest relative thrives beautifully at the one-to-one level, not oblivious, but also not obsessed, like I am—and probably always have been.
You and I are in a new year now, the Earth having spiraled around the hurtling sun so that now the constellations again include Orion, the hunter and his dogs, Canis Major and Minor, and twinkle almost meaninglessly and unfathomably as the ISS glides by. I wish you well in what may prove to be a threshold year.
JB who may write back, if there are comments from those of you who regularly read Iron Mountain
14 NOV 2023"Sleepwalking to the Brink" There is a theory of biological evolution, famously deployed publicly by the late Stephen J. Gould, called "saltation", which supposes that there are sudden and large genetic mutations, so successful that the individuals that acquire the new genome are so much better equipped for survival of the fittest competition that the change within just over one generation becomes far-reaching throughout the population. Gould thought this idea was the better idea for explaining speciation, the arrival of new species of plants and animals from within a biologically complex environmental system.
There are some enthymemetic (hidden) root metaphors in the concept, like all the things it takes to build up pressure in the system to suddenly leap. This root metaphor, let's call it the pressure metaphor, exists in historical thinking too. Living as we do in an age of technological innovations, one has but to think of the emergence of the public internet at the end of the last century, or the emergence of the cell phone about the same time, each leap utterly changing the way many systems in civilization would operate. Both, though, were completely dependent on the development of semiconductors to replace vacuum tubes and printed circuits and miniaturization.
If the pressure metaphor is apt, then one needs to consider why anyone thought we needed cell phones. Why we needed the internet was the pressure of rapidly advancing scientific technology and the barriers to communication that exist naturally and those imposed by national security secrecy. DARPA invented the internet for the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects administration community. Dick Tracy conceived of the miniture wrist-sized communications device as a nice improvment on Bell's telephone system and infrastructure. Google says there were about 15 billion mobile devices operating in 2021 in a planetary population of roughly 8 billion human beings.
Pressure in society is realized many ways. Advertising is the obvious one. Unbalancing the economy is another, which leads to psychological as well as standard-of-living issues. Wars bring pressure as individuals worry about becoming a victim or the friend of one. Recently our planet was enveloped in a deadly pandemic and millions died and many millions were frighten into short term irrationality. We even talked on television about what all these pressures could do to us, and there was a lot of denialism about some of the causes of pressures, probably because they were so difficult to understand exactly what they were and how it happened to us.
We need to know how pressures build up on the human spirit. We could predict that there will be several, perhaps very many types of response to multiple pressures. Historians of the French Revolution of 1789 have looked for clues for why it happen then and why it took the course it did from the Oath of the Tennis Court to Maximilien Robespierre, the guillotine, and then to Napoleon Bonaparte of Corsica.
Napoleon had no causal effect on the rise of the bourgeoisie, the commercial classes, the hopeful Oath of the Tennis Court, the storming of the Bastile, or even the Reign of Terror, or the anxiety-producing end of a century in 1799, at the end of which Napoleon asserted his military power over the French government. Were the French sleepwalking into the maw of decades of war and ultimate defeat, or just what did any of them think was happening and, if there were some who could see how bad it might get, why did they not head it off?
They did not because the French society was sufficiently deranged by the change to a representative government that included non-nobles, by the butchery of the Terror, by the differences between the urban and agricultural sectors, where out in the lands of France fraught by the Grand Peur that resulted from huge changes to ordinary things by the revolutionary government, the calendar, taxes, social status all were changed, by provocateurs from the cities, most angling in to make a franc.
In Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, and other cities the commercial interests did not trust les miserables, nor vice versa. The Roman Catholic Church was at once as corrupt and as holy as ever. Gentry, secure and impoverished alike, and similiarly nobility were losing their status. The industrial revolution was visibly underway in Angleterre and Allemagne and, yes, in France, so the whole era was too much to comprehend.
Some felt they could take a stand for rationality, but they were unsure of what was rational today or tomorrow and many were guillotined for spurious reasons or real ones. The French defeated themselves by overwhelming themselves with Change. No individual understood how vast the necessary underlying changes were, nor any way of controlling them. The same thing is partly true in contemporary America right now, but without the guillotine, and instead cell phones and internet and guns.
America sometimes feels like a population of somnambulists unwilling to notice the dangers or are groggily underestimating them. Even the far radical right, entrenched with their ideas of returning to a White Christian Nationalism where their power in society would be returned have very little understanding that so much will be consumed and destroyed if some of the themes are allowed to play out. We have no guillotines working in America; we have the m15 and a megalogmanic psycho who intends to reign in America.
Someone in the Justice system needs to understand that 91 felony counts is sufficient reason to confine him, since it is known what his plans are. In that sense we have learned from the French, who by the way, gave us the Statue of Liberty.
3 NOV 2023"Appropriation and Replication"
I like art and have assembled nearly fifty artists from around the world—fewer than half Americans— showing their real-life and virtual-life art at my online gallery in Second Life, the virtual world Meta's Mark Zuckerberg has been trying to emulate and surpass with very little success. The November 2, 2023 issue of NYRB has an interesting review of recent exhibitions of Pablo Picasso's art in which Jed Perl, the review author has taken the opportunity to contrast the art of Picasso with the work of Andy Warhol, about whom I personnally can say nothing nice.
Normally, I find art critics to be supercilious and virtually unbearable pedants, but Jed nails this subject almost perfectly, including a parody of the blatant commercial superciliousness into which Warhol has drug otherwise reasonably intelligent art lovers. Perl begins with some familiar tropes about Warhol and Co. I almost put down the article after two or three paragraphs, but please do not. It get gets really much better after the "sardonic homage" to Warhol is done.
If you are a Picasso fan and, also like me, not at fan of Mr. Warhol, you will learn from this article and by the end be confident that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan's opinion of Andy's "appropriation and replication" idea about art is also woefully artless.
5 OCT 2023Separation of Church and State
The first time I looked at the First Amendment I understood how flimsy the doctrine of separating church and state was. Nowhere in the US Constitution of 1787 will you find the expression "separation of church and state." The only thing the Constitution says is this:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The question came up today as MSNBC's Katy Tur's program provided the words of a Texan who denies "separation of church and state" and instead believes the First Amendment says, in effect: the Congress is prohibited from making laws establishing, or promoting, or defining, or disestablishing a religion, much less a State Religion, but it says nothing about religion being prohibited from engaging and telling Congress (or, perhaps, anyone in government) what to do or say or believe. In a nut shell, he believes the Constitution says: "separation of state from church."
I must admit that is pretty much the way I read the First Amendment. At first I tried reading the word "respecting" (verb in the present progressive) to mean "honoring or giving credence to, not meaning "relating to." And likewise the word "establishment" (noun, not referring to an action but an existing organization), such as a church, not the act of creating of an organization, which lines up as a noun with the word "thereof" after "free exercise". These make sense because there were already several religions organized and practicing in the colonies. So they were saying: hands off, Congress, play no favorites and don't mess with OR TAX them!
Notably, the Constitution does not prohibit the President or Vice President or the Supreme Court from creating a state religion or interfering with the free exercise of any religion, which is provocatively lax, since some religious sects do bizarre things and sacrifices are part of some religions, sometimes cloaked by symbolic acts. Poligamy must not have been accepted as a matter of religious belief. Thus Congress is prohibited from accepting or promoting the authority or beliefs of an establishment (church), meaning that Congress must ignore religion, yet must not get in the way of religions. I am sure that is not exactly what the colonists thought they were doing. They were trying to avoid the kind of peremptory interference from authorities to create a state religion that the authorities could (in part) control. Russia has such a system.
The proximate reason for going over this subject was the MSNBC news offerings. The more important reason is that I and others have been describing the core values of a substantial part of the Republical Party as White Christian Nationalists. While the core teaching of Christianity is to "love thy neighbor as thyself," and given that nowadays that part is held in abeyance until they can assemble all the lovable people and oust the rest, they still cling grimly to the name "Christianity" in their own minds.
White Christian Nationalist members of Congress offend the First Amendment at every turn, especially as so many members of the US House of Representatives (Congress) behave (and sometimes govern) as White Christian Nationalists. There is our problem!
The first four paragraphs of this Wiki explanation of "religion" begin to define what the Founding Fathers meant when they used the term. Various people will complain about being unceremoniously shoe-horned into a bunch of words, but we are just asking what is religion in general, even if that question is objectionable to some and produces its own brand of anxiety.
The problem with religion in the context of the kind of rationality employed in the making and living with a national constitution may be that religions exist because in practice political authority is unable to answer all the questions that come up about how to live a life as a human being on this planet.
And then there the questions about other "thought systems" being open to Congressional meddling. The IRS says that it does not tax certain organizations organized and operated for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, educational institutions, and certain other reasons. This seems fair enough until any of these organizations begin to act outside their lanes.
For most of my life Darwinian Evolution Theory, and indeed the whole of science itself, have been challenged, most vociferously by persons representing themselves as spokespersons from a religion. Tennessee for a while refused to teach about Darwin's ideas and evidence and the logic of biological evolution. But, the 1925 trial of John Scopes found him guilty, but then the verdict was overturned because of a technical error, and the trial brought the fundamentalist v. modernist / scientific controversy into broad daylight. So far, as nearly half a million anti-vax victims of Covid-19 have proved, science is on a less stable footing than Bronze Age mythology.
We cannot settle any of this now, of course. At this stage, human beings apparently need unassailably dogmatic answers to life's agonizing questions. The unpleasant fact is that dogmas breed like rabbits. The other unpleasant fact is that human beings have the word "rational," but very frequently are not!
26 SEPT 2023Bail and Bond
When you are suspected of, or apprehended while, breaking the law, you are detained, sometimes in the case of minor offenses for a few minutes to register your offense formally— a traffic ticket, for instance. If you were under the influence of alcohol or other substances, you will probably be detained until you are no longer under that influence, overnight or a day or more in jail. If your offense or the conditions surrounding your arrest are normally deemed to be the basis of the conclusion that you are likely to continue breaking that or other laws, you will be detained in jail until your situation can be reviewed by an impartial judge, who may agree, or not, with the police that you are a continuing hazard to the community or a flight risk. If the judge believes you are not such a hazard, you may post bail, a sum of money designed to induce you to return for your trial. Bail is paid under your promise — a personal bond agreement — and always has that "condition" stated, but there may be other conditions imposed, such as remaining away from the spouse you were abusing, or remaining sober, or forfeiting your First Amendment right to say just anything that comes to mind in public.
The important thing about release from jail pending one's trial is that your civil rights are always subject to restraint conditions, typically rights under the 1st and 2nd Amendments, speech, assembly, and bearing arms, because although you are presumed innocent of breaking the law, there is enough evidence presented that reasonable people in authority conclude you could be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as charged. In other words, society must protect itself from you, but at the same time must accord you protections against spurious accusations and unwarranted restrictions to your freedoms.
In all but a very few cases, persons out on bail are free to carry on with their making-a-living work, that is, to sustain themselves and those they support, family, typically. If you hold season tickets to football games of your alma mater, and attend, but have been told not to assemble in large crowds, you could be held in violation of bail conditions. The court may deny you the right to travel. It may require you to maintain or seek employment.
In the case of Donald Trump, the question is not that the court has required him to seek employment as President. His campaign for that position is not considered an occupation. It is his optional, temporary, speculative, and personal choice of activity, and clearly full of opportunities for violating the conditions of his bond. Options taken by charged individuals may be held to be incompatable with release from jail, so for instance, a court may require that Trump desist from making threatening, slanderous, or vulgar and profane comments about the case in which he is charged, including especially threats and slanders against the judge, jury, witnesses, and prosecutors.
Judge Chutkan obviously understands all the above dprinciples and their serious intent. She is faced, however, with the possibility of one or many people in the country becoming incensed over restrictions rightfully and prudently enforced by her. And, that is where we are right now.
It should be obvious that racheting the court trial date to an ever earlier time in response to Trump's violations of the conditions of his bond —thus to punish him by reducing the time available to Trump to make more incendiary and threatening remarks that induce terror and poison jury selection—only increases the likelihood of Trump's defense alleging that they did not have time to prepare an adequate defense and, therefore, a alleging a mistrial. Given the history of Trump's lone and group followers, the rachet idea is only slightly less provocative to those who might act unlawfully on Trump's behalf.
If Justice truly contemplates a verdict of guilty on any, some, or all of the 91 charges against Trump, Justice must contemplate NOW the nature of punishment, namely confinement and its ramifications. The sum of terms of confinement for all 91 charges, if convicted and given the maximum penalty is 641 years! ( scroll down a bit at that link) This number suggests to everyone that Trump has been very busy ignoring the law, so parole is not likely or warranted. It means that Trump will have his coiffure shaved close and will be given an orange jump suit in exchange, and will be held in a prison setting appropriate to close supervision by the Secret Service.
Therefore, Judge Chutkan should jail Trump for 10 days at the first instance of her finding Trump has violated the conditions of his bond by threatening her, the prosecutor, and tainting the jury pool in Washington. In addition, she should require that, if there is a violent response or terrorist act by persons known to be his supporters, then (given that hundreds of insurrectionists on January 6th said they were following Trump's orders) the period of incarceration shall be 20 days, and if there is more than one incident, 30 days, and then 60, and then the bail bond will be revoked and he will remain in jail until aquitted of all charges. If convicted he will be imprisoned, as would any other American.
If the Republican Party nominates him for the Presidency (or Time magazine declares him Man-of-the-Year, or if he wins the PowerBall lottery), those have no bearing on his incarceration. He is unlikely to win in the Presidential Election of 2024, but if he does, ipso facto he will not be able to "discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office," (US Constitution, Article II, Section 1) and, therefore he will not be released to take the oath of office, or buy and read a copy of Time, or collect his lottery money and by a Lamborghini, or go to the Super Bowl, or vote.
Trump is a inveterate and malicious bully. The best way to deal with bullies is to face them down or ignore them. The latter is now impossible. We must at last learn this while we still have the ability to do so.
31 July 2023The Overview Effect
Today is my daughter's birthday! I remember that day so very well. It happened fairly quickly for a first birth. When she arrived she was bruised, but these minor exceptions to the perfection before us went away. Holly was soon enough put in the hospital newborn nursery, where all the babies are put on "display" through a big window in the hallway, a vision that puts the entire event into a momentary broader perspective. There must have been twenty newborns there, swaddled, sleeping or musing about their trip to here. The lump in my throat wobbled a lot and I zoned out for a minute, remembering a thought I had many years earlier about my child's Being sailing through space to be born here on Earth with her mom and me.
In NewScientist magazine there's a review of a new book, now translated from the Dutch, In Light-Years There's No Hurry: Cosmic perspectives on everyday life by Marjolijn van Heemstra, which is what we all need right about now—perspective.
One of the lessons of astronomy or, if you will, consciousness of the cosmos, is the unfathomable vastness of the cosmos and, therefore, the almost incomprehensible tininess of Earth and all its bacteria, salamanders, kittens, humans, horses, and whales, not to forget the "gigantic" dinosaurs whose bones are all over Wyoming and other places.
Another lesson is that the cosmos is a process—nothing remains the same. In the search for a moment of tranquility out in the yard, gazing at what feels like the extravagance and impracticality of the Milky Way, we realize our own improbable selves are like passengers in the Metro, the Tube, the Underground, strap-hanging, our brains designed for that, for survival, but not enough for keeping the big picture in focus. As human civilization evolves, we are learning how to gain a better balance between the straps and the train and the network in this place of infinite destinations. Maybe before too long we will get a better insight into our galaxy among all the billions of others.
17 July 2023
In his famous essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin—meditating on Archilochus’s gnomic line “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—envisaged two types of thinker. Hedgehogs, like Hegel, build systems offering “a single, universal organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” By contrast, foxes, like Shakespeare, recognize the variety of experiences that do not form a whole and demand a multitude of perspectives. Berlin recognized both impulses in Tolstoy, who grasped for systems only to shatter them with his relentless skepticism.
(I cannot let pass the mention of Shakespearian "variety of experiences" mode of thinking, as our "multiple working hypotheses" mode is the very same thing.)
This article (and the Leo Tolstoy portrait by Yann Kebbi) is from The New York Review of Books of June 22, 2023, by Gary Saul Morson, "Death and the Hedgehog." Tolstoy in Russian means "thick" as in the tol'sty zhurnali, the thick journals of 19th century philosophy and political commentary. Morson's essay, nevertheless, is erudite, but very readable and thoughtful and well worth your time, especially now as not just we—the "Class of 1958"—but in fact all of us, face the "early arrival" of the grim reaper and extinction.
In Tolstoy's 1886 novel The Death of Ivan Ilych" Morson writes: "[Ivan Ilych] ... is so unaccustomed to the thought of his own death that “he simply did not and could not grasp it ....” Earlier he reiterated the insight that "All civilized life ...consists of 'curtains' designed to shield us from our own mortality." And, it is so personalized that we believe ourselves to not be part of the whole of humanity "those milliards of other ... cattle of some sort—not real people."
Death is incomprehensible we conclude, and then we fancy a lights-out "experience," a deepest sleep, but continuation of our soul, our consciousness, all very common thoughts without any basis in fact, except of course, that endless generations before us have imagined the same thing. We have their mummies and graves as proof. And we hide en masse from the contemplations that Tolstoy and others, hedgehogs or foxes, have attempted. Tolstoy and my Chinese History professor both saw in peasants the true nature of humanity ... "...what they meant by 'God' was not the church's God?" Is this not burying the problem, the "cattle problem," disguised? We must come to the realization that it will be each of us.
Admittedly thoughts of passing on are difficult; these thoughts might jinx the process we imagine, and then we change channels or wander into the kitchen for some chips or one last cookie. It occurs, however, that a well-educated generation such as ours may convince our succeeding generations that we, given our age, may have important hedgehog or fox-like insights on death they have been afraid to consider at all, hopefully then to see how to terminate their feckless fucking around and step up the pace of creating solutions to extinction. We are not cattle, nor are we lemmings, so why must we fear expressing the facts about the ultimate taboo subject, Death! Isn't it finally time to stop coddling ourselves, crippling our brains, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy!
In the last part of Anna Karenina ... Levin, the novel’s hero, endures “fearful moments of horror.” Work, achievement, any human purpose: all seem utterly pointless since death annihilates everything. Even one’s descendants—and the whole human race, for that matter—will disappear in an instant compared to eternity. With that characteristic Russian dissatisfaction with practical compromise, Levin insists that if meaning is vulnerable to time and change, a truly thinking person like himself cannot consent to continue living: “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life’s impossible; and that I can’t know, so I can’t live.”
Not only are we not cattle, we are not that sort of Russian, and we must remobilize humanity to save our planet. My dear frogs, the sea around Florida is already half way to a boil!
metaphysics and Russia & China
8 June 2023
The June 5th edition of New Yorker Magazine contains one of the better written reviews, "The Mysticism of Paul Simon," to ever appear in this—deliberately, but currently less intensely— burghal publication. Most NYr prose borders on terrible, as if terrible is the common denominator of that smoke hazy meltingpotamus. Please read Amanda Petrusich's review now, if you can.
What brings me to draw your attention to this piece is its last paragraph:
Simon’s willingness to engage so directly with unanswerable questions is bold; his inquiries linger in the air, like warm mist after a summer storm. In the wake of the pandemic, it can sometimes feel as though Americans have become more proudly reclusive, less open to the benefits of community. Yet, for Simon, the distance between people has never been less significant. “It seems to me / We’re all walking down the same road,” he sings on “Trail of Volcanoes,” over anxious strings. “Seven Psalms” made me think of the Trappist monk, poet, and mystic Thomas Merton, who wrote often about the loneliness of our path to comprehending the sublime. “Although men have a common destiny, each individual also has to work out his own personal salvation for himself in fear and trembling,” he observed. Merton also believed that it was possible to see God everywhere. “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time,” he said, in 1965. Merton was a Catholic, but he seems to be saying that God—whatever, whoever that might mean—will always appear to a person who is looking. In fact, Merton was sure of it: “This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true.” ◆ (emphasis is mine)
Reclusiveness! First, this idea is all the more apparent as we watch the young among us aching for contact—those for whom the isolation of the pandemic loomed quietly but as most world-shattering. There are those, like myself, who have found profound peace in our various degrees of reclusiveness. It is as if the young have found what a society needs to truly be a society is, perhaps, more of us and less of just selfish me.
But, as if to prove the reclusiveness, immediately the flood of horrors "out there" descends on our thoughts: guns, violence, corruption, distrust, lies and counter-lies, the experience of a lifetime among people who dared not, but sometimes thought, that offing a neighbor would solve that local problem. After all, 7,500 die every day in America. Small town people understand this differently.
Fortunately for music and for Paul's soul, he is married to Edie Brickell, whose own music consistently imparts the notion that she has reconsidered each word she writes and sings. She sometimes sings with Steve Martin and his banjo. Paul seems to have found new inspiration with her and at 81 is actually beginning to unravel some of the mysticism inhabiting our age.
23 May 2023
How (and What) Other People Think
Part Two --
In 1942, Philosophy Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Stephen Pepper published his magnum opus, World Hypotheses, a ground-beaking, fundamental discussion for anyone with a bent toward epistemology, the study of how we know things. I was transformed by this book, and my Modern European Intellectual History professor, Dr. Hayden V. White, seeing this, convinced my Russian History dissertation advisor, Dr. Hans J. Rogger to nurse me through the academic gantlet to the doctoral degree, which he did very graciously. I am truly thankful for the support of both.
Pepper's book relies on the idea that there are such (abstract) things as Root metaphors, a term I used without much warning in Part I of this essay. I hope I convinced everyone that the first root metaphor of human life is the fact and idea of competition, which means that Life for humans (and, indeed, all life forms) is a process and activity where individuals must assert themselves, contend, for satisfaction of their needs and desires against anything or anyone present or intervening to resist, impede, or prevent that satisfaction.
Trees compete for root space and sunlight, which is to say that just being there atop the hill, bearing apples, is an example of successful competition, a fact taken into account by natural selection of appleseeds arriving later by Fate into that territory. People compete for apples by buying them from a limited supply there at the store, diminishing their cash reserves, but acquiring the means for as many days to "keep the doctor away." How quickly root metaphors spread out to encompass great swaths of experience! You can feel the struggle for life at every level, but it is not entirely struggle.
Notice that the apple tree is not at war with or struggling against other beings, animal or vegetable, for the hill. It is just a fact that it is there and all others are not for this epoch of a hundred years or so. Competition can be virtually passive. Notice also that if the apple tree were a three bedroom two-and-a-half bath house and that it were for sale, the competition is about who can muster the most money for the house at the defined time it is on the market, that is, there is a context time for the sale, and the price, creating a price-value-time of the house, and yes, someone might be sorrowful that they did not get the house, but they had all their wherewithal to muster up a better bid for the house and decided not to. Do you see that the competition can be competition between one's own desires.
The first paragraph in this essay today is about a famous book and about me competing in terms of an academic standard of knowledge attainment and control, a system that is objective and subjective and competitive and cooperative. That system is designed to reach as far as we can as a culture toward understanding our world, especially us, in my case, the history of Russia. Cooperation is the second key root metaphor of human existence.
Cooperation, doing together, is about natural alliances. Alliances are created among people with common goals, like parents hopefully, so also citizens of a nation more or less by definition have either the goal of sustaining the nation or the goal of not sustaining it, but providing for their mutual political needs some other way. Cooperation gets the short end of the stick most of the time because Conflict is more exciting than Peacefulness. Within cooperation mutuality is the glue.
Symbiosis is a cooperative living strategy, suggesting working with other species such as in environmental systems, or within humans the dependence for life itself on micro-organisms of the gut. Ethics are agreements about cooperation. Humanism, somewhat ironically, is about how we have, can, and should resist unnecessary competition. The idea of cooperation is quite old, in fact much older than Gilgamesh. It goes back to the idea of cooperative settlements, caves, camps, villages, towns, cities, countries, hegemonies, each a possible root metaphor for how to behave in each situation.
Cooperation is less about price and more about value.
You have to wonder why our vocabulary easily has the term "competitive advantage" but only recently, it seems, the expression: "cooperative advantage." There are scholars studying this, among them George Lakoff, who has done important work in "framing." Framing is the use of new and mature root metaphors to convey an idea in a way that the audience will be drawn to one's desired conclusion. A vivid example occurred as the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney Administration promoted an invasion of Iraq by announcing that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was in possession of and intended to use weapons of mass destruction, the huge gnarlly nightmare scenario of world-wide destruction and uninhabitability— "which only the US was capable of preventing" —all framed with anxiety-producing competition metaphors of war, horror, death, atrocities, and certain rhetorical tropes about alien religions.
Socialism is a frame, an historical socio-economic-political system that sees private ownership and control of the means of production as the source of economic and ethical inequities in a culture, mainly the result of the prevailing pervasive "competition ethos," which has been so solidly entrenched and framed as to seem natural, normal, and for capitalist stakeholders indisputable. Socialism has been tried at the community level in America in the Oneida Community in up-state New York, at New Harmony, Indiana, Brook Farm in Massachusetts, et al, and in various ways by the Church of JCLDS. It is ubiquitously present as publicly owned water and power utilities, fire protection, roads, bridges, sewers, schools, colleges and universities, public transportation systems, police and military, parks, USPS, medical insurance programs. The root metaphor stimulus is cooperation of the beneficiaries.
Socialism as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez see it is not anti-competitive, but a re-emphasis of socialist enterprises that serve us now, instead of the dogmatic "competitivism" (actually, profit-hungering) represented by those who want to privatize the Post Office and all medical infrastructure. And moreover, at this stage of human evolution, "cooperation for survival" is the better root metaphor than doubling-down with competitivism to organize a nation's systems and ethos.
Marxist Communism differs from Socialism in many ways, principally because Karl Marx's critical analysis of the industrial revolution and capitalist politics postulated that it was absolutely necessary that the role of capital be restrained and its risks remunerated less lavishly, and that, therefore, only the workers of the world (would be reliably honest enough to) become the beneficiary owners of the means of production in a communist dictatorship of themselves, the proletariat. But, no such Communist country has ever existed.
Lenin's contribution was that the workers would (naturally!) be led by a vanguard, the Communist Party, which it turned out, predictably, were just another group of self-interested, dictatorial, opportunist bosses, but with the full power of the nation to take ownership of virtually everything. Soviet "Communism" was called Socialism to accord with the Marxist theory of economic evolution, but was actually "a hive kleptocracy," which helps to understand Putin's oligarchic kleptocratic government, Putin being a committed Leninist Communist and by no means an economist of any stripe.
Capitalism is the socio-economic-political system that is centered on the idea that the initiative of private humans, beholding to themselves and taking personal risks, are the most agile and progressive managers of accumulating and using accumulated wealth, for which risks they believe supply v. demand based profits should be paid. There, buried in the details, is the question of whether or not accumulation of significant wealth (to be turned into risky, but profit-generating developments) is competitive, and if so, at what scale and cost. The stock market is at once an agency for individuals to participate "cooperatively" in economic development, assuming risk with the capitalists who present the opportunity. In all such cases the investment is competitive in the sense of each stock competing to be sold and also as an "opportunity cost" born by the investor, but also born by all other interested parties.
It is important to notice that it is to the advantage of a broad assortment of capitalists to keep the nomenclature and facts and framing about capitalism, socialism, and communism vague and confused, since two principal issues with capitalism are the "competitive advantage" of monopoly in the markets and the regularity of dangerous economic collapses. Clare McCaskil, former Demcratic Senator from Missouri, unfortunately demonstrated confusion about all of this on May 22 on MSNBC. Putin's Leninism is really not about the economy or the means of production in Russia, but simply how to steal it. He is a dictatorial kleptocrat with little real understanding of economics.
In practice, framing with root metaphors and the detailed associations buried in those metaphors—like the facts of beauty, scent, and thorns of roses—is inevitably mixed with plain language, plain images, and homely information about life as portrayed by soap-operas, nightly news, movies about war and crime and horses and Ted Lasso futbol. By now people think in very sophisticated, culture-laden elaborations of what at one time were naked, glowing root metaphors, or occastionally framed so boldly that it is amazing we went to war against Iraq anyway.
As far as we know today, mental activity is ratiocinative, that is, it discovers comparison and constrastive ratios among multiple percepts, which are converted to sense-data (when we become sentient) and then sometimes best understood in linguistic forms like metaphors, often including very complex sense-data with associated emotional content, like the disress over why the floor was covered in Legos, and still is a day later.
It is very complicated, but in the last hundred years or more we have been able to analyze observations and language sufficiently to notice patterns that fit the hypothesis that brains are organs evolved to notice differences and samenesses. As they do, they kindle neural circuits, making the involved neurons more likely to be involved the next time, millions of times, such that something like a matrix is formed, an engram of experience, which is then overlaid with more experience and organic inputs from endocrine systems. Eventually, we call these things ideas. Then we speak of them, compare them with ideas of other humans. Then we notice differences and samenesses and, because differences are more likely to be evidence of danger to ourselves, we favor differences and then notice that competiveness is a method for establishing differences, and so then we have the Human Condition.
MAGA is literally a look to the past, wistfully recalling a status quo that worked, they said, for the normal common citizen, who was culturally Euro-White, satisfied with mixed economy of competitive capitalism and secure, cooperative municipal socialism, and a powerful military, all based on patriarchy as a root metaphor. In a sense, the present has become itself by competing with the reality of the past, sometimes tearing it down, sometimes repurposing it, all the time re-rationalizing the inconsistencies until reason breaks with either these idols of the past or with reason itself. Trump promises nothing but a break with reason itself, powered by the permission granted to release the inevitable frustrations and obligations of being beneficially cooperative in a democracy, in other words, to abandon the predicate of our civilization itself.
History is what we have done. We can learn from it or not. Things changing all the time makes history seem less relevant, except how would we know anything about Change if we knew nothing about history? It seems clear to me that we must un-normalize war and, while we are at it, extinguish the proto-cult of competitivism. War can no longer be thought of as court of last resort; it must seen as the end of us and all the amazing things we have done together ... as a species now within maybe a century or two of First Contact with real life forms with whom we cannot now possibly compete successfully.
21 May 2023
How (and What) Other People Think
Part One --
I've put this essay under Metaphysics and Philosophy because my thoughts are not strictly scientific, but there are structural elements from science.
Caveat emptor: no one really knows how or what other people think, but we do have secondary evidence of how and what they think and why from what people commit to writing, speech, physical and "business" and cultural activities. Having said that, we barely know how we ourselves think, and are often in states of mind where what we think is very unclear and perhaps terrifying.
We begin to think — our brains are active — before we are physically born into the world. None of us knows anything about that in detail, but we believe that we have a rudimentary sense of separate self, that we hear, that we have kinesthetic sense, including proprioception, but all of which is essentially simple perception, rather than sensation, at least until—years later—when we are self-consciously ourselves. A perverse history has given us the idea of an infant's "original sin." It is a metaphor not on infants, or anything about them, but a metaphor on the minds of adult persons whose temporal and spiritual ideas are completely embroiled in a theory of human life that is congruent with lucrative rituals and doctrinal nonsense.
The first thing a born infant perceives is that they "are," but it is a crude and wordless thing approaching, but not quite a realization. They perceive proprioceptively that they are hungry, and they perceive that respite from hunger is provided, if not instantly, then more or less regularly. The most important thing infants "learn" is they are mobile, extending from sleep postures to sucking thumbs to bringing arms and legs to bear on postures. Rolling, then crawling, separateness is honed and Self is kindled and rekindled again and again, each event conditioning neural pathways to join previously established circuits or matrices (some scientists have called them "engrams"), the building process adding new "correct" inputs and slowly sloughing off "incorrect," accidental, and spurious connections. It is a huge task to discover oneself and the world, but the brain is ideally suited to this process, and indeed, other processes would not work in human brains.
If a child is born into a family with other children and/or if the child's needs are met only when pallitative (alleviative) agents are available, the child learns that they must cry/compete for attention, and since their first seconds out in the world's air were a response to glutial stimulation, they can do this by crying, and of course, this way of competing for attention has huge root-metaphoric consequences.
The real point is that their world is one we later see as conditioned by competition, mostly for attention. Care-givers generally know what could be the need. What develops is the nascent understanding of self as a competitive being, and to blunt this point, this understanding is subliminal, wordless, unrecognized by the self, and yet it is the first key philosophical condition of life. And this is, of course, not the whole definition or context of Life, but the notion that it is gets stronger and stronger and for many never recedes!
Already we can say that competing selfhood is the context of a toddler's and child's world, a world where language is established. Also during toddlerhood and childhood the person becomes aware of their effect on other people, and so they learn to be amiable and receptive and performative for the benefit of praised amiability and eventually for the assumed benefit (joy, interest, etc.) of others, principally those who attend to them. That assumption is the beginning of empathy and the realization that others may be like me inside, but just larger.
Language begins with variable intonations of crying and the sonic modulations of parents and environmental noises. It develops swiftly, painlessly, but subtly, insidiously, insidious because language is an artifact, an invention, and easily deceptive. Body language is the same and demonstrates that the range of body poses is governed by musculature and skeleton and interpreted empathically as what I would be able to say with my body, sitting upright attentively, or slouching disrespectfully, or winking indicating with "the window to my soul" that maybe there's more (or less) to what you just heard. Each language has its muscles and skeletons, its grammar and vocabulary. The rhetoric of a language differs from other languages such that point by point translations is sometimes impossible, indicating that some things can or cannot be said in different languages, although when said seem real enough and when impossible to say, leave you empty of that thought, not understanding, unknowing, maybe perplexed.
At this point it is impossible to know exactly how another person thinks, given the utterly complex life-long maturation processes underway. Their minds are so unfathomably complex, their perceptions so multifarious, their sensate apprehension and understanding of all that courses through their brain at bewildering speed, forming momentary questions (hypotheses, if you will), dissolving into nothing or quickly into memory, tagged as short- mid- or long-term, by little understood processes of context importance. So, by the time a girl and boy can themselves conceive a child—at ten years of age— despite inner complexity and environmental chaos we have simple ideas about Life and raciocinative processes (how the mind works) and here two of them are are:
The brain works by accepting information as percepts and comparing them to earlier percepts in as simple a situation as walking through a furnished living room. The brain works as a comparison engine, and that means by discovering sameness and difference in strings of one-after-the-other perceptions, registering these events as sensations, then translating them into autonomic instructions to the motor cortex or "sitrep" intelligence as status quo or not, or into language where we have learned to appreciate the noumenal world instant by instant, such as footstool is out of place, do not trip over it, or "gad, the floor is covered with Legos—be careful" or sometimes accumulating these ideas into generalizations, comparing them to other such in ANALOGIES, "what an effing mess," the linguistic event known as metaphor (and its cousins).
Prelinguistically and later with age-appropriate command of at least one language the background concept about Life is that it is competitive. One must compete for attention and satisfaction of one's other needs, food, shelter/warmth/clothing, and future company and assistance. Through the lens of COMPETITION analogies are conditioned to yield results that are or accord with and fit comparative and contrastive outcomes. We understand that the mind does not take "my love a rose" literally, but figuratively, understanding the roses are beautiful and fragrant, but then, surprisingly, roses are also thorny. The same thing happens, mostly irrelevantly and "immaterially" with ALL analogies, all ratiocination, because the brain as a "difference engine" is working continuously. Recall the adding and pruning processes of the brain creating, elaborating or ignoring all the accumulated engrams of mind.
At this point, and in deference to empirical epistemology, we should re-introduce associationist psychology, which is the study of how we associate certain concepts. The early empiricist philosophers (e.g., Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant) had no idea about the process, but built complex philosophies on the results, namely, that we have trillions of associated ideas, of percepts connected within or between engrams. Association is one side of the comparing and contrasting process above, association predicated on samenesses and connectedness and contrast on differences. The associations of COMPETITION are the goal of these essays, for these are the root-metaphor building blocks of an entire worldview apparatus.
Here are some word associations with COMPETE, COMPETITION, etc.: winner, win, loser, lose, struggle, fight, beware, wary, war, battle, challenge, clash, contest, wrestle, collide, oppose, rival, hunt, kill, jockey, lock, save, pit, prize, dominate, submit, grapple, oppose, war, advertise, loud, scream, veto, war —and thousands more.
Yes, I put "war" in the list three times. War is the least admirable of human activities, yet ... consider how our cultures are organized and what counts as heroic, especially up to 1950. That is a statement about the overall nature of human beings, so far. They are convinced that peaceful and violent competition are both normal among us. But we are not out foraging for game and contending with sabertooth tigers, wolves, or other hunters. We are the inheritors of nuclear weapons with which to destroy the planet and everything living on it. If not at the time of Gilgamesh, then very recently, we have passed into the next stage of human development ... by our own hand.
It takes a lot of hard work and training and good luck to become a modern media news analyst, physician, lawyer, or professor, governor, or president. There are only so many positions available and many more seeking them. So there is competition for the jobs and the root-metaphor of such people must be that even "fierce competition" is okay. If these people are the filter for a large part of our information and goal-setting as citizens of a complex society, is there a risk to this? Yes, of course, but is there another way to get good thinkers and honest ones? What we see is winners and unhappy losers at every turn throughout history and contemporary society — struggles and cynicism. Are we organized well enough to contain the risks of hyper-competitive people taking over sensitive jobs in our societies? I think the answer is "hell no!" The Newt Gingrich school of parliamentary procedure depends on there not being barriers to intense vulgar and even violent compeditiveness.
Part Two of these thoughts will be about containing the risks and the root metaphors necessary to achieve that goal. For homework, read AOC.
20 April 2023
Apocalypse (chronology revised)
Western cultures have been awash with trepid angst since 1945, when we tried to metabolize the idea and soon the Fact that human beings could destroy the world. In the 1950's technology shifted into high gear with the invention of transistors (1947) and thenarminiaturized onto silicon chips to create the "brains" of enormously powerful computational devices. The United States had become the financial and military powerhouse of the world, and then the US had gotten itself into three ugly wars and lost: Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The US was attacked by Muslim fanatics successfully on 9-11-2001. The US financial sector imploded in 2007 sending tsunamis of economic/financial fear across the planet. The American democracy was overtaken in 2016 by the scalded, bereft, ignorant, and disconsol grievance-ridden proto-fascists which had been lingering in the nooks and crannies of mainly second and third generation European-heritage populations of inland North America. Trump won and filched what he could from the most powerful political position in the world. Then the "Biblical" Covid-19 pandemic hit. Science that gave us nuclear weapons, the porn-popular world wide web, and vistas of a universe so immense that "our place" in the firmament dwindled to a virtual nothingness, was throttled in the US by apocalyptic madness and a cunning politics that, undermining Covid vaccinations, threw both ignorant and innocent under the bus, providing the US with well over a million victims, but poo-poohed as less than 0.3% of the population. Trump tried for a second term, failing, he unleashed the fascists to be themselves. They took over the US Capitol building for a few hours. The world stood still, mouths agape, wondering if America was done and what that would mean for them, if anything, surely something! The pace of all this in seventy some years has been too much. World cultures and, indeed even American cultures, are predicated on a pace of change that fits the usually longer chain of generations.
(You may wish to visit my Silent Generation website for a peek into the "machinery" of the American pace of cultural evolution. Stephen Bannon, pardoned by Trump, once mentioned this website, and there was a flurry of hits on it. Bannon bought into the theory propounded in Generations: A Future History of America from 1584 to 2069 and The Fourth Turning both by William Strauss and Neil Howe, a theory which is implied by the cycle theory presented in my website, namely now the change of policy and power as Boom Generation gives over, very reluctantly, to the Millennial generation during the epoch now just ending.)
For you philosophers the theory of generational cycles presented by Strauss (now deceased) and Howe is classic "historicism," which means in lay terms, the application of traditions and similar events of the past to the understanding of historical causation, that is, "history repeats itself" or more mildly "history sometimes rhymes." When I was a student, historicism was anathema, and we were taught to be empiricists. The current view on historicism, is much more forgiving of theories of causation in history. Wikipedia is a fair enough and dynamic reduction of the spectrum of opinions about most things—for instance, even I "correct" egregiously mistated things in the Wikipedia. So, when Steve Bannon gloms onto Stauss and Howe's theories, he is demonstrating a kind of rationality that ranges from the merely analogical to the dogmatic.
The term "apocalypse," (and all its other grammatical variants) was originally religious, or at least until the time our species reached modern times it had been almost exclusively a religious concept. The idea of there being a final and so far as we know conclusive victory of Good over Evil has been central to Judeo-Christian theology, more loudly in American Protestant Christian theology, central to Zoroastrianism, Mayan theology, Norse religion with its Ragnarök, Islam, and many more scattered around the world. They all have this word "eschatology" (eska.tology) polar-central to their doctrines, the word meaning the study of an inevitable event politely called "the End Times"—the ancient Greek word eskhatos, meaning "last," providing us with this word. The word is no longer strictly religious, but it is front and center these days because of the politics of "rightwing religious accelerationism," the idea that the Biblical promise of an Apocalypse is nearly upon us ... and that faithful humans should not only welcome it, but hasten its arrival!
Some suspect that the aftermath of the End Times might be less than the "rapturous" sorting of good from evil people and sending the good to heaven, but merely the imposition of an earnest theocracy on planet Earth. There are several variants about the immediate precedings to the End Times, mainly violence led by the evil, but beaten down by the good.
Why this is "topical," which word is not meant to be dismissive about it, is because from all political and religious quarters now the subject is hotly debated in front of primed and miserable audiences wracked with fears and anxieties about the collapse of the verities of civilization, or at least of their local culture. These issues prompted the New York Review of Books to enlist Mark O'Connell, who writes in this general area, to review a 100-page essay The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us by Adam Kirsch. The Review article is entitled "Hastening the End" I have never heard of Mr. O'Connell. He is less than half my age, and born in Kilkenny, Ireland. I hope you read his NYRB article. As for Adam Kirsch, he is a poet of some note, apparently, and teaches at Columbia University, but born in Los Angeles.
I should say, that apocalypticism is not the exclusive domain of the Bible-bearing right cultural and political wing, but also, quite a bit more quietly, the Marxist left wing, which envisions a world where technology and capitalism clash inevitably and fundamentally, and where Artificial Intelligence probably solves the problem in favor of technology for a medium to semi-long term of readjustment. Meanwhile, of course the far right, soiling themselves about AI and the destruction of patriarchy, privilege, and surprise parenthood, is tossing the idea around about accelerating the race to the End Times. I should say that the Left is also hoping to accelerate the progress of AI, on the suspicion that AI will help humanity to just bearly save the world from a general economic (Capitalist) disaster that in effect wipes us out.
Kirsch posits the active agents in the growing controversy as either "anthropocene anti-humanists" (borrowing the not yet fully accepted Geological epoch term), on the one hand, and the other "Futurist transhumanism," some of which ends up in fearless search of a bionic future for humanity.
[Personal note: I have written six novels that express the fundamental optimism and future-mindedness of Transhumanism, but I do not foresee eight or nine billion human beings having a ghost of chance to become bionic. I posit rather, telesentience, but not all at once, but at the same time AI is emerging and happening! Both are now!}
There are quite a few situations and characters important to this essay. I would say that the Crisis of the Environment is the one with the most "legs." If we do nothing the planet and our worlds will succumb, and so will we. The short history of our awareness that we have damaged our environment demonstrates questions about the Rationality of Human Nature in the mass, if much or any, and of the Response of Capitalism to acknowledging and accepting a reasonable role forward. It is not a pretty picture, and so far most of the muscle of world-wide cultures has been working against science and the very slowly growing realization that everyone has a role to play, which also has been a very slow realization of what the number 8,000,000,000 (eight billion) really means. When I was born there were about 2.4 billion human beings on the planet and because of WWII the rate of increase slowed, but the rate did not go into decline. Sometimes quantity has its own quality. The environment situation has been glacial for a hundred years, but is now moving in ways normal human beings can see and feel its changes.
The second situation of enormous importance is the acceleration of technology, some of which should be a background to re-reading the paragraph about the Environment. More though, the question raised is whether humans or human cultures are able to deal with the Evolution of Disruptive Technologies, particularly as technologies (say, the internet and personal cell phones, for two) up-ends and evaporates millennia of distance between individuals and between cultures. We called it Globalism under the more general rubric of Capitalism, but it is far more than eating European asparagus in California, or dealing with European asparagus agriculture in Fresno or the Imperial Valley. It is mythically possible to make a cell call to places we did not know existed fifteen years ago. We don't generally, but just knowing that is possible shrinks our imaginative horizons, not quite to claustrophobia, but you do not have to go too far to experience more humanity than is healthy to do so.
I will put the world-wide Covid pandemic in third place because of its complexity and the chaos it created in so many realms of culture. Needless to say, perhaps, the Covid pandemic was a Biblical Plague for many. Lots of people died, many more than anyone knows, but probably about 4 million by the beginning of 2023, of which over a million were Americans. Scripture-believing people probably took this plague as a message from their God, a wake-up call, a punishment for lax morals and religous failings, among Christians a winnowing. The Covid pandemic is still on-going, sufficiently to require masking in critical places, but so attenuated now that few worry about it. One of the most surprising consequences was the politically fabricated anti-vax movement, which to be sure existed before, but with a little cunning political persuasion became a self-fulfilling prophecy of death. Without it American deaths could have been cut by two-thirds, it is estimated. The anti-vax movement, wearing its own shoes, was part of the march on the administrative state by near- and far-right politicians, many or most of whom have 21st century ante-bellum ideas about their place in society, a caste of higher-ups, especially over Blacks, then Browns and Asians. They support Trump because Trump represents vocally and in some measure politically the anti-state feelings of those whose Liberty is now not more than the Liberty of those they have oppressed "legally" in the past and "plainly" right up until today. Covid, in the context of the two precedent "exogenous" factors, environment and technologies, especially AI, is a major contributor to the apocalyptic mood in America and in various places around the world.
There are lots of major factors that have led to or re-energized apocalyptic theories in the last twenty or so years. The fourth and last one I will mention here is philosophical relativism that has seeped into the general population most commonly because of Albert Einstein's theories of relativity, Bohr's quantum response, and Schrodinger's quantum paradox of the cat in a box being both dead and alive. We have known for a very long time—since Plato's allegory of the cave—that we humans can interpret second-hand evidence as if it were direct evidence, and some times not distinguish the difference. Philosophical relativism undermines dogma and such things as stated principles, even those expressed in constitutions. Some second-hand evidence is deliberately false, but cleverly disguised so to pass as accurate and true. Relativism provides a twist that can be exploited to establish ficticious points of view elaborated as coordinated and congruent but false realities. I must be careful here to not claim that many, most, or all religions employ this sort of "reality" building.
So, the cast of characters in the age of apocalypticism for Americans are Donald J. Trump whose narcissism dictates the extent to which he will prevaricate to hold together his narcissistic point of view and the relativistic "reality" that emerges from it.
Another main character is Vladimir Putin, whose narcissism places him at the historicistic helm of a wishful restoration of a mythically excellent Russian Empire. His delusions are more vivid than Trump's delusions, but also less tethered to western norms. He represents in the apocalyptic terms the ultimate evilness, whereas Trump represents the transition of a capitalist to an infantile amorality.
Queen Elizabeth II represents the classic historicistic tradition of the state ordained by God, but now she's deceased, the chaos of the long imagined and unhoped for transition to her successor. Again the apocalyptic chaos playing out before our eyes.
Those three each have scores and thousands of what are not really minor players or voices in the on-going narrative of our times, and there are those like Orbán, Macron, Netanyahu, Erdogan and Xi in China, or Musk, Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Wirth at Chevron who represent "directions" and pursuits that seem to culminate in something not especially pleasing to the status semper mutabilibus much less the mythic status quo. We are uneasy about players like this whose goals are opaque and inherently selfish. Their contributions to an apocalypse are real, once an apocalypse is posited loudly in our cultures.
There are many things in America that are dystopian fragments of an even less appealing whole. The worst of these is the Gun Culture and the long history of 2nd Amendmentism from the slaveholding politicians and their descendants of the last two and a half centuries to this very moment, where the immediate beneficiaries seem to be civilization's mentally challenged murderers, while the fascists stock up in preparation for the showdown.
Apocalypticism is dangerous, deadly. The goal of bringing "it all" to a conclusion that favors some idea hatched in the hindbrain of ignorant people is by definition close-ended and final, by comparison to the felicitous goal America was founded with: The Pursuit of Happiness, easy to keep "open" and meaningful as things always and inevitably change. Optimism is the way forward, however difficult it may be to sustain itself. We have to always guard against the human impulse to see big things happen in "our own time." There are people whose self-image will not allow them to resist that impulse. Making something like a nation more perfect is an endless quest, the very definition of which determines that we must persevere.
20 March 2023
One of the things that we forget, and sometimes deliberately disbelieve, is that human beings are animals whose genetic inheritance is very close to the genetic inheritance of animals like dogs, cats, chimps, porpoises, and so forth. We huuseans are placental mammals born alive, rather than hatching from eggs laid by our mothers, or our wandering out as half-developed fetuses into pouches like marsupials. The implications of the genetically close relationships are full of very interesting analogies and also blind alleys and dead ends. One of the interesting things about the evolution of the internet and social media is the sharing of information about the relationships humans have with dogs and cats and horses, particularly. The subtext of most of those videos and stories is that dogs and cats are quite intelligent, capable of affection (cats less so, it seems), but also capable of things humans cannot do, like sniff out cancer in another being.
When I was young and in the early grades of public school, the general consensus was that animals (which means breathing beings) are dumb and mostly incompetent in terms of the "bar" we humans set. We learned that having hands instead of paws, hands with opposable thumbs, was a crucial development that figures prominently in the evolution and nature of our brains and minds. The worm has turned though, and now explicit assertions of the intelligence of dogs and cats and octopuses are no longer greeted with scoffing and sharp criticism. This is a very good development, because opening up our dialogues to analogies and correspondences and outright differences between humans and animals will certainly broaden our perspectives on ourselves.
Quite by accident a couple days ago I stumbled on a very important article about human consciousness as described by Nicholas Humphrey's new book Sentience, which I believe is well-explained by the author of the article. Moreover, I believe the book, which I will order as soon as possible, opens a whole new way to look at and understand the behavior of our closest genetic fellow beings. You will not have to read very far into the article to see that the implications for the study of "animal mind" have been expanded exponentially (and I do not use that term often or loosely). Please read it!
Later on in the article Humphrey's explicit separation of the word "perception" from the word "sensation" is made. Before I try to describe it, just relax for a moment and see if you can guess what Humphrey noticed about perception and sensation among those of us who think in English or most Indo-European languages, tongues which share vocabulary roots and deep concepts that are different from other language families (I am told.)
... he recalled an influential distinction, made by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, between perception and sensation. Perception, Reid wrote, registers information about objects in the external world; sensation is the subjective feeling that accompanies perceptions. Because we encounter sensations and perceptions simultaneously, we conflate them. But there’s a difference between perceiving the shape and position of a rose or an ice cube and experiencing redness or coldness.
I have to admit I have been searching for distinctions about consciousness for many years, but had not always considered the difference between those two concepts, although I knew how to use the words correctly, I missed the difference between having sensations and not having them, which was the crucial physiological experiment he performed. So I missed the essential difference between me and (probably) a shark, or a cobra, or (obviously) an ant. All of those get the data, but it does not then necessarily reside in their mental activity as conscious mind. It might, but what Humphrey did was establish a logic that would account for an absence or a scale of sensation. Having said that, what does it imply or (at least) not reject about dog-mind, cat-mind, horse-mind, and even octopus-mind, the last of these so different anatomically and philogenetically from human minds! I am not edging toward the word "soul," only the word "mind." If you want to discuss that we can. Hint: I think they are almost the same thing.
Since we are all different, and even if we were the same, we all have different experiences and within our short- and midterm-memories much different content. For me distinguishing perception from sensation begins to explain MAGA. In fact, aside from Humphrey, the power of sensation very likely makes it very difficult for MAGA beings to perceive anything but those things that evoke strong "feelings" in either direction. And, I am positing in the background that feelings of hatred and fear are primal, but not necessarily simple. They have neural connections to the very heart of self and all that implies: self-esteem, self-consciousness, narcissism, and all the forms of self-deception.
Epistemology is my "thing." My doctoral dissertation was about the evolution of epistemology in 19th c. Russia, from concocted idealism, heavily influenced by the various assumptions of the Russian Orthodox Church in its culture, to a more mechanist-materialist-empirical position which had already evolved among the English and Scots, the French, politically among the Italians, and was about to blossom among the Germans and Scandinavians. I have wondered forever about what other beings think, including my scrappy pet cat, Peter, who was apparently a fighter in the small town in NY where we lived and Peter was ultimately defeated. I am satisfied that we all think, even the ones who appear not to, including the poorly-nourished and unprepared of our own species.
Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of sensation, while sensation is the effect perceiving has on the complex provisional but constantly evolving physical organization of our brains and, accordingly, the evolution of our minds.
It is spring at last! Does this not evoke the idea of the winter of our discontents? Do cats understand this, do dogs, do porpoises? I ask because it forces me to redefine understand!
12 March 2023
"We were a group of perhaps two dozen with a couple of stragglers hanging onto us, all of us dressed not in our uniforms, but in street clothes with all our military stuff tucked away in seabags trusted to the staff, whoever they were, to meet up with us, distribute our stuff, at a point where we were to beseparate travels alone. We wondered aloud amongst ourselves whether they knew when that freedom would come and where, but as things and situations like this unspool, none of them seemed to have been given clear orders or much information about us at all, and worse yet over the couple hours of this strange part of the evolution, some of us noticed that they were not all of the same mind about what was going on in the background, but that word would be passed as soon as it could be, or not, if things outside and beyond us connued in this southerly direction.
"I began to notice that the other troops milling around in this building seemed to be as disoriented as we were and that no one any longer seemed to be in charge, or at least, there were some who took seriously the disorderliness and the reasons for it. I thought it was because the ones who seemed to be running this place, this building, were more confused, but slightly more informed about whatever was going on and what had happened to abruptly change the situation.
"The situation was visibly deteriorating as we, for lack of clear purpose, shuffled out of the room we had been sent to and out into the broad hallway where I spied a desk and a man sitting there, but just as I did he got up and walked out of sight to where I do not know. If I had known I would have followed him to ask what he knew. The situation was that we were on the very soft edge of our country's military, but clearly civilian at the moment, but there was already rumbling that it was a national security issue outside, in the world, so to speak, that was the problem, maybe it was the long-dreaded WWIII and that most of our homeward bound destinations no longer existed, or maybe it was that one of the transports crashed or blew up while taking off. So, yes, planes and something quite serious, but it was just rumor still and, as this sank in, we all began to realize that it was something for which no one had any training or experience, and that was why no one locally was "at the wheel" steering us toward some temporary sense of purpose or reality.
"I asked a person, a man who brushed by me sort of bruskly, what was going on. He did not speak to me, but his face was torn with conflicting emotions, and as he looked back at me, I got the sense we were not on the same side, because he looked like he knew I was an officer in civies, useless, perhaps dangerous to him and whomever he had just talked to and gotten the assurance that this time the situation would probably work out for the good guys, his side, but which side did he belong to? He seemed to know, but showed nothing to tip me off, or even give me a hint to how many sides there were.
"The sidedness of his demeanor crashed down on my hopeful, perhaps naive belief that I would find someone, probably lots of them, who I could trust to be hoping for the best for our country and ourselves. It jangled across my imagination that the country was in trouble, but I did not know if there were bad guys among us, even in my group, as disorganized as it already was, and the major problem was how I was going to tell the good guys from the bad ones without letting on that the whole world, as far as I knew, was going through a fierce struggle just now, the local pieces of the struggle being crucial to the whole thing, since it was important to know that, or believe that, we could survive.
"I tried to think of questions I could ask that were disguised enough to be thought innocent, but would begin to assure me that the answer discriminated a potential foe from my friends—a shibboleth question that would unerringly separate mine from theirs! Then I could take the chance of a next question, that would pin it down, hoping of course that I had found a confrere, and hoping even more that, if I asked this question of what was left of my troop, I could instantly read the result as it would be from one person. So, being an officer, I brought my troops to attention and then told them that something really serious was afoot and probably involved national security, but that no one was really sure where any of us stood, all the more so because we do not know whether—or believe—the issue is sabotage to our transport system or another insurrection, or worse yet the Russians."
Then I woke up. I let it all wash over me again. I thought I had been a lot more sure, but realized, I need to be more ready than I really am. And how am I going to sound the alarm?! Carefully? Bluntly?
28 February 2023
Truth, Truthiness, Lies, and Damned Lies
As Rupert Murdock and his well-paid employees barbecue in court for defaming Dominion Voting Systems Corporation and their voting machines, the interesting question arises: what is Truth and what is not? The question is not idle or superficial in any way. Entire cultures and civilizations are based on the truths we embed in the explanations of the world we give to our children, our contemporaries, and to our histories. It is not an easy thing to explain, yet most of us are keenly aware of when someone is not telling the truth, and it is also true that large numbers of people choose to believe in people, things, and ideas that are not true, for which there is no evidence EXCEPT that they believe it. Santa Claus, unicorns, and orthodoxies of all kinds have throngs of believers.
Why people choose to believe in anything that is not real, or worse, that is deliberately false and unprovable is complicated, too. Infants doubtless believe that their mothers exist to serve them and feed them, and slowly this belief fades as evidence comes to their attention that mothers take care of other children, operate the household, and go away for groceries or a job or one of their jobs. In other words, from the very beginning we humans exist in a world "construed" by our own minds, a construction that very often turns out to be not true or only partly. And, we learn to take care of ourselves.
Persistence in believing something that is instantly disprovable by the experience of seeing or hearing (etc.) the evidence, must have explanations. The truth is that each of us has within an assembled or Rube Goldberg worldview. Some kids seem to have "figured it out" early in their lives. "It" is the world/universe, usually narrowed down to one's own orbit in society. So, perforce, some kids get pregnant early owing to their worldview that unwanted pregnancies will not happen to them statistically. Statistically, some are right. The truth is that not everyone can get pregnant, not all who can actually do. When it does happen, they either take responsibility for it, or not, or only in different terms eventually as the whole thing inevitably rearranges their worldview.
There are people whose worldview includes the idea that they are a person to whom things happen. Getting a "C" on a spelling test is not entirely their own doing, but rather the decision by the teacher to notice errors and award grades commensurate with the number of errors, which BTW is what actually happens, but, they easily, more or less passively, forget that the student failed to study the spelling words, takes the test without cheating, and misses five words out of twenty, 25%. It is embarrassing at first to get "C's" on spelling tests, but a number of subsequent rearrangements of the worldview from other kinds of experiences shifts the causal connection between one's own behavior and what happens because of it. Typically, the person develops a knack for not seeing the nature of connections, and begins to lose confidence; reality becomes harsh, indeed unfairly harsh, since people "just like" them are not (so far as they can see) not getting treated that way.
I would not want to lay it all out on the brow of possibly mentally-impaired spelling students. Dislexia is real, provable, and hard to fix. But, the main factor is that there are many kinds of events in the world that are reported falsely or incompetently, and we know sort of irresolutely that in reality all things are reported incompletely. There is no such thing as "the whole truth," but there is something called "the relevant truth," and quite often even that is incomplete. And, for all these there are cultural "guard rails," customs and mores, that are meant to protect young ears from mature ideas, everyone's eyes from private parts, and television audiences from tedious explanations that might lose watcherships. News broadcasters, one of my favorite examples, cannot tell every last fact of a situation, because most often not all the facts and results are available to report, such as a dangerous intersection in downtown Los Angeles where the danger is that preoccupied people will "take a chance" and put all their trust in the traffic light and fail to look around, over their shoulder for hazards.
Truth is basically what we "all" agree is convincing. That means that a brain trained to divert suspicion from itself will easily divert attention from evidence, especially evidence proffered by people they do not trust or do not like, which may be the same thing. Currently we use the term "silo" to describe groups of people who remain impervious to the evidence everyone else finds compelling. Silos are containers for corn or wheat or oats or any one thing, but not two or many kinds of things. The whole point of being in a silo is to experience unimpeded the flow of "evidence" that fits one's preferred explanation of things—and that is endorsed by people we have learned to trust, usually because they are consistent about it, and do not provide pieces from other puzzles to confuse us.
What Rupert Murdock and his main program hosts are facing is the definition of a lie. Something said can be untrue and not a lie, but if the speaker knows it is untrue, maybe egregiously untrue and therefore destructive of societal norms—those semi-silent agreements a culture may have to not reveal certain kinds of "troubling" or embarrassing or private information or public agreements about democracy and its mechanisms— it is a damned lie. Mark Twain knew about this kind of lie, the kind that hurts someone or something. Murdock and company trade in lies for money, and they are able to do that because they have an audience for it. Professional wrestling is another, much simpler example of audiences "for it" who know that professional wrestling is actually a sweaty farce, but they watch religiously to see if someone gets angry and betrays the script, and becomes a sign that the world order is breaking down!
There is logic, too, for academics and debaters to use to compare types and methods of speech in terms of defined ways of being convincing or deceptive. Logic depends very much on dictionary statements about the meaning of words, and done correctly shows how one thing in the context of other thing leads to a necessary conclusion, or doesn't, given the meaning of words already agreed upon. But Logic soon gives way to Rhetoric, a study of persuasive speech and many other things.
There are ways to redefine the intent of words or even their very meaning—on the fly—in what looks or sounds like common parlance, but is really metaphor, of which there are many kinds. One of the "simpler" kinds of metaphor is called synecdoche, which means that the word for a part is used to evoke the whole, or the whole for a part. "Lend me a hand," is a good example. "There were only a few hands on that failing ranch." These were shorthand ways of describing helpers. But, "Give me your vote," versus "Please vote for me." The difference now is the first statement no longer necessarily means "vote for me," but instead "give over to me the power to use your vote the way I please." What is dangerous about it is that the first sentence really asks to do your thinking for you! And it may not strike most people that way, but the effect over time in the same context is the release of one's authority and responsibility to someone else.
Fame and defamation are in the case against Murdock's business. Most people I know will say that his business lied through its teeth about Trump, the election, and the conspiracy theories about fraudulence in the election. What may be problematic is whether Dominion Voting Systems was actually damaged. Dominion is sueing for $1.1 billion. Murdock will try to hide behind the freedoms of the press and of speech. Dominion will counter with convincing demonstrations that Fox News is not a form of journalism but of Republican propaganda and therefore enjoys no freedom of the press protections, as for the speech, Murdock is already throwing one after another of the network program hosts under the bus on speech grounds, which he says is not something he could have controlled—which is obviously one more whopping lie.
There are facts. There are "facts," i.e., "long-held beliefs" that are contested to be not true or only partly, the inferior ability of women in politics is one we are very glad has been contested and disproven. The world is not flat or circular; it is spherical (almost) and we have visual proof. Democrats are not all the same, and neither are Republicans, but at any given epoch one can assert that as political parties they mostly stand for what they say ... or they don't, and we are not surprised in either case. Truth or truthiness is not the question. What they say, like in any debate, has a vocabulary and that provides things to redefine, leaving aside and quietly the fact that crucial numbers of elected legislators did not represent their back-home constituents, but rather people who gave them campaign funds or other kinds of money. This is the problem we have. The subject of politics begins with dishonesty and lying and damned lies.
We are not taught how to think. We are taught what to think. Clearly, as a potentially galactic species this is not the optimal way to be. People cling to absurd ideas inside and outside of silos, because they think that truth is unitary and of a bunch of choices only one can be true, the rest being only partly true or outright false. This is not correct. Given the way our brains and sensory systems work, unitary truth is a way brains and minds work to reduce the "burdensome" necessity to seek evidence— continuously.
I have written here about MMWH as a convert, evangelist even, the Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses is for me a way of being, of how to think about everything, not just scientific theories and conjectures. Fundamentally, it says to accept an idea about the truth of simple and complex phenomena provisionally. You end up with a roiling soup of hundreds and thousands of provisional theories in your head. You are allowed and expected to favor one or some, based on the evidence you accumulate, but not exclude any until you are able to say that the phenomenon is "by definition" and then understand that even definitions are maleable. Some people cannot handle this; however, most already do it in certain areas of their lives outside of their personal silos. The essential point is that the Truth as any one person knows it is incomplete. The Truthiness, and sometimes the Falsity of our perceptions and concepts are inevitable, and so we must humbly accept that, truthfully, we actually, really, fully KNOW almost nothing!
13 December 2022
The Earth, our planet, circles the Sun, our star, every year and, because the Earth's spin axis is tilted 23.4 degrees from the vertical with respect to the plane of our revolution around the Sun, we experience seasons as the radiation from our star arrives at the surface of the planet at dfferent angles of incidence. The seasons are established by the amount of radiation received, which depends on how much of the radiation is either absorbed by the atmosphere, blocked by the curvature of the earth (at the poles) or received from directly or nearly overhead. Right now we are within a week of having the tilt at our north pole pointing most directly away from the sun. What this system produces is a cycle of seasons each year, each revolution around our star, and so we live in a cyclic system, and so many of our cultural stories are cyclic o"nes, told in very much or mostly-the-same words each year.
However, we are not going in circles or elipses, we do not get the same weather on each December 13th, and, moreover, we are not approaching the same place in space where we were last year. The sun (and all of us) revolves around the Milky Way galaxy at 230 kilometers per second (!)(828,000 kph) (514,541.4 mph), one revolution taking about 230 million years. Moreover, the Solar system is not revolving in the same plane as the galaxy, but rather 60 degrees from it, so that means the planets are cork-screwing around the galaxy such that at one time Earth is 93,000,000 miles "above" the average plane of Sun's revolution, and then "below" that plane, so it traces out a sinusoidal track around the galaxy.
And, by the way, the Milky Way Galaxy is itself moving within the Local Cluster at an amazing 1.3 million miles per hour (2.1 million km/hr). We are all heading in the direction where the stars of the constellation of Leo and Virgo are, toward other galaxies like Andromeda, a significant future event in terms of the Local Cluster, which itself surely is moving toward a mass of galaxies astronomers call the Great Attractor. All of which is to say that our "proper motion" is anything but cyclic — and neither, really, are our stories.
Life forms like us live to understand something of our existence in a linear progression from birth, childhood, teenagery, young adulthood, middle age, retirement, and old age ended by death of our beings, but dominated by cyclic happenings like creating new children and they creating new children, and on and on. So how we understand Life Itself is both linear and cyclic and it is up to us at any given moment to decide which of the phenomena arriving at our senses to be processed into understanding (or not quite) should be appreciated: cyclic or linear (or some other way).
So, for instance, I noticed that the hosts of all the news analysis shows on MSNBC I watch seemed a bit dour the other day. How am I to understand that. Four women and two men are the subjects. All had the same mood, it seemed to me. Could it be me? Of course! But, how I am to figure that out. I feel great and although taking a shower in wintertime is less enjoyable, it is no more dangerous. No, I have to assume that something happened at MSNBC that darkened the mood of this array of program hosts. Maybe someone is terribly sick and that news drew these people down, or maybe a well-liked associate was not chosen for a promotion, or maybe the brass have told them all to stop saying "twice-impeached and disgraced ex-president" when introducing Donald J. Trump into their analyses. (Clearly not that.)
Linear living—with reasoning impelled and frustrated by cyclicity—is more interesting to me as I age into the unknown with its known but not yet decided endpoint. The Christmas Story is one of those cyclic narratives that impacts not only real Christians, but all the rest of us, too. The birth of Yeshua (Yehoshua) Bar-Yosef is, two thousand years later, understood to signify Hope. Amid all the death and decay and deciduation of Winter, Hope is nice to have around. In a way we linearities are apt to congratulate ourselves and others for making it (again) this far.
We understand ourselves and our universe, our conscious, sapient lives, in terms of things and processes that have happened before, expecially those with regular apparitions and cycles. Cycles become models and rules and then laws are announced based on these understandings. Yet, yes, we know that life and the universe is not really cyclic, but linear, so we strive to evolve our understandings, giving appropriate (we hope) attention to the smaller and larger scales of things and events.
So, you see, I am happy and concerned, sometimes angry and disconsolate, because there are so many people who choose to live as cyclically as possible. In the middle ages that was the common thing to do, but we should by now be ready to accept that the so-called good old days cannot be resurrected and should not be. History does not repeat itself; it rhymes, because that is how linear people deal with the details. Poetically.
30 October 2022
Who Are You?
In the last essay the question was asked: "... what will you give up to fix it?"
"It" was and still is our society and its government and, perhaps, our economy, our philosophy, our worldview, Weltanschauung. I was on the phone this week with a German woman I met 45 years earlier and then again in the late 1990s. I remarked to her how different I might appear to her, because of my aging, not to dismiss that she had changed too, had three children, also divorced, and so forth. During the conversation I told her I do not have an image of myself, an image in/from a mirror, for instance, from any time earlier than age six or so. I have photographs, of course, but I remember them as photographs, not me.
So the question remains, what would you give up to help find a solution to the discord in our society? If you have given up smoking or ice cream or on an another person or a religion, you know something about who you are that you did not know before. That person probably has a ready image of yourself that helps explain to yourself what you are going to do next, tomorrow, and why. Always when this question comes up I hear The Beatles singing a song from Sgt. Pepper's ... Band, "A Day in The Life," —"woke up, fell out of bed / Dragged a comb across my head" — which (a) was the breakthrough song of the 20th century, and (b) always takes me back to pieces and shards of then.
There is an article "Becoming You: Are You the Same Person You Used to Be?" in the October 10 issue of The New Yorker Magazine that discusses this subject and spends a good bit of time on a new book The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life based on an intensive logitudinal study done in New Zealand, the US, and UK, of over 4,000 kids up well into adulthood. I cannot say that I found myself in the taxonomies under discussion, but I could feel the tendency of the NYr article away from Nature toward Nurture.
It is a mistake to say that Nurture has a greater, longer influence on who you are, mainly because the genetic you has been compiling for eons, with the most recent 256 contributors to you being the most important. Nine generations back it is likely that an ancestor contributed zero to your genetic inheritance. So, you have two parents, four grands, eight greats, 16 2-greats, 32 3-greats, 64 4-greats, 128 5-greats, 256 6-greats, then the 9th generation back: 512 7-greats, and my ancestor William Brett one of 1024 8-greats, he being a Puritan, "a grave and Godly man." So, some things do not carry along genetically, and some do. In this case William's emigration to Massachusetts in 1638 has more Nurture value than Nature.
We, the group that reads these essays, are likely to be quite varied, but probably anxious about the election in just over a week. I worry that groups that hang back traditionally will not interupt their football seasons to vote. I worry that the sweep-it-under-the-rug ethos will retard the response to elections that were not free and fair. I am sure that no one of us wants to give up part of their contemporary life and self to bring the country back into something like homeostatis. There are people out there who are aggrieved, and we need some way to convince them and everyone that under-the-rug-ism is off the table. And, so is racism!
Finally, it is not just by accident that articles about the nature of Self appear at this historical juncture. There are thinkers out there who realize that, even if we know something about the political state of mind of MAGA voters, that does not provide us with the cure for the situation. The experience of figuring out who we ourselves are—as honestly as possible—is prerequisite to understanding anybody else.
16 October 2022
I resubscribed to the New Yorker Magazine after a year's hiatus, which was after about 35 years of subscribing. Jumping back in was painful. I realized that the hiatus was consequential at the magazine, and that, in so far as the management tries both to lead and report, on the mood and ethos of America's largest and perha most cosmopolitan city, it seems to me to be chasing its tail again, with the word fuck included now for several years still, which is not to say that the word is vulgar or inappropriate. It merely defines the angst that colors everything, in the magazine and out. As well it should!
Nevertheless, of course, I did find .omething in the very gray traces of ink on semi-glossy paper that interested me. So I screwed my glasses on tight, leaned in to an article on the early romantic philosophers centered on Jena, Germany. Jena is, I found out, on the lesser highways B88 and B4, due east of Erfurt by quite a lot, and southwest of Leipzig, also not close, just about in the middle of Germany as it exists today in the state of Thuringia. It managed to entice several important thinkers there and what they had to say to one another and their wives and girlfriends and husbands and poets and so forth shaped some of the thinking of swaths of Germans, some of whom emigrated to North America, some few of these, apparently, were vocal, but by 2022 anonymous.
The article is in "The Critics" section, a book review by Nikhil Krishnan of Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of Self (Knopf) by Andrea Wulf, the title of the review is "Ego Trip."
As with most things philosophy is dependent on its history, the most recent history being most important, but from time to time some thinker thinks anew about something. Immanuel Kant preceded the thinkers under inspection, and his answer to the question: what is enlightenment was "man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity." At the time our thinkers assembled in Jena, Napoleon Bonapart and the French were letting us know they were to be dominant. Germany was about 1500 jurisdictions: bishoprics, margravates, kingdoms, duchies, etc. The prospect of there ever being a Deutschland under one flag was not yet a parlor topic. And so, as our thinkers set about to answer Socrates's famous question: How are we to live? The implication of the question challenged the status quo just as Napoleon was also challenging it.
The implication was that even the ancients knew the right question. In the civilization of Europe at the turn to the 19th century, the Jena answer to the question was that "how we were to live" should not be the exclusive province of religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church, but including the plethora of other off-shoots and even oriental religions. The challenge uttered by Kant was "dare to know." This suggested that individuals could try using their own minds for this task, rather than succumbing to what had been more than a thousand years of "how to live" being imposed from "above." And so, as Krishnan and Wulf explain, the self, das Ich, Ego was born as a positive idea about reality. It was the re-emergence of free will as a secular idea.
Sigmund Freud used das ich in his thinking and we understand that he meant Ego. The Jena philosophers quickly understood that ego should have limits, but how would an ego constrain itself? This opened the question of whether the constraint was external or from within. The Jena Set, as Wulf calls them, opted for deciding for oneself, rather than by externalities. The great-grandchild of this notion is the idea of personal "authenticity," which Krishnan notices is the label that his faithful put on Trump. He is authentic in this way. He makes his own path into and through the world.
Obviously, if taken as literally as the Jena Set took themselves, this form of self-making is within the frame of radical relativism in which what is true and false grays out like some website option not available to you. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor said it this way: there is "a certain way of being human that is my way." So, one concludes, devil take the hindmost, or fuck all of you, everyone in my way.
The author, Wulf, is clear that "the demands of society ... and personal liberty" are antagonistic. Duh! But double-duh! For having watched CBS's Sunday Morning show just now, the awful rift—becoming a chasm— between the reds and the blues in America widens with every word. And that is the reason for this essay. Who, which of us, is to back down from the confrontation? The Blues from a defense of societal needs and norms or The Reds from the sanctity of personal liberty? Clearly there needs to be something we can do to begin the rapproachment or the division of our lands into the Red and a Blue Republics, each knowing that they are completely correct about their stance.
They are not, as you already know.
14 FEB 22
There's an interesting article in the New York Review of Books, February 10, 2022, pp.40-42, by by Jonathan Mingle entitled The Unimaginable Touch of Time. His article begins with a short description of the March 1964 earthquake at Anchorage, Alaska, at 9.2 the second most powerful quake ever recorded. He weaves the description into a discussion of other more solid things and places, including the Standing Stones of Stenness in the Orkney Islands just north of mainland Scotland, including the story of one of those stones, The Odin Stone, with its oval aperture straight through the lower part and through which people could hold hands from either side on Valentines Day. His story wanders around for a bit and then arrives at an "epiphany" about that hole and how it was formed. The stone was destroyed by a nearby disgruntled anti-tourist tenant farmer who blew the Oden Stone to pieces in 1814. So with the Stone gone, (available only in this 18th century engraving) it is now impossible to know how that hole formed. Was it a natural hole, a geological "inclusion" that fell out somehow, or was it an artifact of the people who put the stones where we find them today, ... or both?
This recognition of the past's fundamental unknowability is central ... "Sometimes the gaps are too wide, the people, the animals, the objects, the worlds too gone, the time too much for the little time we have."Being an historian by discipline, if not any longer by trade, I immediately objected to the idea of "fundamental unknowability," while recognizing, and often saying so in my essays, that history is at best a story imposed upon facts by experience, the author's and your own. And, that idea made me think of what I might have had for lunch yesterday, and I could not remember. It came to me later. Admittedly this is an awkward introduction to the concept of being born into time, but I will try anyway.
As I now rapidly approach the eighty-second anniversary of my birth in up-state New York, which occasion was a sudden departure from our planned moving from Niagara Falls to Syracuse to my father's new teaching job, I realize, along with my peers, that Time is of the essence now—but of course it always was. Since we never know where the potholes are on unfamiliar roads, or the impact of the bump received by pregnant wives, setting off labor, the swiftly approaching conclusion of my free-loading gestation, and a detour to the nearest hospital. I see my birth there and then as so utterly contingent upon that anonymous and meaningless pothole as to bring into question almost everything.
"It's time!" mom said. Dad folded open and looked at an Esso roadmap, and said "Rochester." Jack Benny used to say the word "Rochester" a lot. Somehow my brain has the two tightly linked. My brain thinks it remembers the day, but actually it remembers what mom and dad told me when I was four, and so far as I can tell, my brain is not proud, grateful or relieved or embarrassed that I recall the date, but clearly the importance of it is not the calendar, but the event. The time was 6:30 a.m. missing Leap Day by about sixty-five and a half hours, which was a knowable contingency because I was not due until around St. Patrick's Day, weeks away. I use the words "knowable contingency" because human minds are evolved to find such patterns of the possible in the welter of information we get and put into memory every moment of our lives, mostly the conscious moments.
Time is is often described as subjective, but is it? Mount Monadnock exists whether I reclimb it or not. My computer screen persists through time. Time gives both of these objects non-subjective reality—existence. If there were no objective Time then the mountain would have been an infinitesimally short blink in reality and then gone. I guess you can say that about space as well. If it were not for Space, then Time does not happen. I am sure these notions would not satisfy Einstein or his followers, but I imagine that many of us have come to household conclusions similar to these. I have to pause to wonder whether, then, it is reasonable for me to discuss Time separately? If the past is fundamentally unknowable, when does the past begin? After breakfast yesterday? Just now? Just then?
A lot of these thoughts passed through my mind a few days ago when I was writing about Race and Racism. I got into the "unknowable" past easily and supposed things that are not outrageously wrong, even though I haven't much personal, objective, or tangible evidence for them. I reported that Race is a fictional category, and then I agreed with that report. And, then I reported that it does not make any difference, because if someone believes in it, they will inevitably predicate their real behavior on it. So, that is an excursion into the workings of the mind just as the foregoing writing about Time is. Both are ideational behavior, subjective, which I can announce because I am pretty sure now nearly everyone has these experiences.
I do not think the past is fundamentally unknowable any more than I think the time spent typing this now is unknowable now that it is in the immediate past. I agree that, since I am not taking a video of me pouring over this essay, some of what happens in this process is going to be lost to history. I just sneezed, and if I had not mentioned it just now, it would have become unknowable in this future. So, the brain and the mind within it learn to choose what is knowable and what is essentially—we hope—irrelevant.
It is time, at last, to say out loud that the word "time" in English is hopelessly ambiguous. I pondered and eventually remembered the "problem" of the French words langue and parole, the subject of which has had philosphers and their students noodling for a while. Language (langue) is the construct of rules for English, French, German, Russian, Sanskrit, et al, while Language (parole) is what I or you say.
Time, with only one word, is by analogy also both, a contruct of rules and the "palpable" carrying out of those rules. We make of it a metric, observing the series of moments in a mental, organic or other physical process. It was time for me to be born, to emerge into the daylight of frigid February, and meanwhile Monadnock mountain is what it is now after the ongoing processes of erosion, while the Alps are still being upthrust and are getting higher.
Clearly I am not really finished with this. The essay is nearly over, though. The Wikipedia entry for "time" says:
The operational definition of time does not address what the fundamental nature of it is. It does not address why events can happen forward and backward in space, whereas events only happen in the forward progress of time.I think that this is blatantly and even embarrassingly incorrect. There is no such thing as an event in only three dimensions. The word "event" they use in their comment is our clue. Events are always in time. I drive forward into my garage, and then when I leave I back out in the opposite direction. You obviously cannot do both at the same time, so these real processes are neither the same nor equivalent events and cannot legitimately be represented that way in a mathematical equation describing reality. Again, an event does not happen at all unless it happens in time. What ever happens in space happens in time. Um, let's call it "spacetime."
The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which governs physical processes—causal sequences—in physical reality, because by definition sequences are just strings of moments in time, and so, almost needless to say, it is unidirectional. The idea that information cannot be destroyed,1 not even inside a black hole, is therefore also wrong. Humpty Dumpty knew that! So did DJT! So now, perhaps, we can be getting past some of our misleading and mistaken ideas, models, and paradigms, like "planetary electrons" and two-dimensional gravitational "embedding diagrams" and "Electoral Colleges."
That is my point ultimately: from birth we try to figure out the universe with a physical organ, the brain with the peripheral nervous system, a system that has limitations imposed by evolution and by necessities of practice in the context of this planet we call Earth, potholes and all. This system has serious limitations. What we have in our epoch is a semantic hangover from the days before spacetime was conceived as the essence of human reality.
That is very nearly what I wanted to say. I have to add that if we ever meet other life forms and are able to communicate, we may find out that their limitations expand our understanding of ourselves.
1 — The measure of disorder in a system, or the measure of work (or information) that be obtained from it, is called entropy. Entropy never decreases, rarely is constant, and is not conserved, but instead increases in any real process, processes are causal sequences. Accordingly, information, i.e., the tobacco you put in your pipe, ceases to be tobacco when you smoke it. The smoke becomes irretrievably dissipated into the atmosphere and its chemical compounds will interact with others and that process will increase the entropy, too. Ideal cases are mind games and not real processes.
2 — There is no second footnote, but I would like to explain that I had no earthly idea this essay would become what it did. But, yes, I am happy to share it as some of my real thoughts about my up-coming birthday. Who knows how many more! My uncle, my father's younger brother, who never drank, smoked, or swore lived to 99!
10/3/10The Air Force Academy Must Be Cleaned Up
A couple days ago a note was passed to me about yet another report of rampant, militant, Christian evangelical, fundamentalists in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The problem at the Academy is not getting enough attention, especially in this bizarre election campaign season, but it needs to get full attention, now.
I have written here and elsewhere about the pernicious influence of far right wing Christian fundamentalists in the Armed Forces, particularly at the Air Force Academy, where the problem got so bad a while back that a national hew and cry went up and there was supposed to have been an investigation and clean up. Well, there wasn't and the situation is all the more dangerous because of that. It is like stopping a course of anti-biotics before you're cured. The germs remaining are the tough-to-kill germs and they are now forewarned about people who think they are bad news.
Well, I appreciate SueZ bringing this up, but there is more to be said about the situation. These are not, definitely NOT, benign people. They are a malignancy that threatens the safety of the entire planet. The reason is that Christian fundamentalists are not reasonable. They do not hold rational beliefs about the nation. They believe in an apocalypse that will come very soon. They are in the position in SAC B-52s and missile silos, and in Polaris submarines, to pull the trigger on the authority they recognize ... which is not the Commander-in-Chief, but their version of God.
Look, if they were doctrinal Christians, they wouldn't be in the armed forces at all. They would have subscribed to the pacifistic core of Christianity and not to the "Onward Christian Soldiers" malarky that we drag out for our wars to convince the reticent to enlist. They are quite the reverse. They are the instruments of God's will, and they get to choose what they think God's will is. And, people on the ground, pastors with no credentials in public affairs, international relations, or anything else (often including theology, amazingly) get to make decisions for those who are used to taking order without questioning them ... like Air Force cadets and Air Force colonels hoping for selection to flag rank ... and Navy officers with captive audiences on their ships.
No. This is has gone far enough. Colorado Springs is not the right place for the Air Force Academy and the reason is that it is by itself a hotbed of right wing Christian fundamentalism. Moving the Academy from this place would only partly solve the problem, and admittedly moving it is not going to happen soon ... but it should.
What must happen and must happen quickly and surely and forcefully, is a complete house cleaning of the Academy from the top down. Begin now and finish it in three years. Complete house cleaning ... and expulsion of any and all cadets implicated in the harassment of other cadets on religious grounds. Period. Can their asses! We don't want any of them anywhere near a nuclear warhead or launch code. They cannot be trusted.
9/21/10"Teetering on the Apocalypse"--James Carroll
James Carroll, in Monday's Boston Globe wrote a column that is very worthy of your time. "Teetering on the Apocalypse" makes a point lightly that should be hammered until everyone knows that the implication is the danger of planetary annihilation, and worse, it is purposeful annihilation. You don't have to go back to Jonestown to understand how utterly brainwashed people react to "orders" from on high. The idea that a prophecy of apocalypse is a) real, and b) about to happen, is the most dangerous idea a species could have. But, yet, here it is, throbbing in the hind-brains of literally millions of mindless people, caught up with their childish egos still central to the universe and cock sure they (but not you) will be "saved."
The point the Carroll makes about those people who believe this "revelation" is that they vote. They vote in America, in American elections, and they vote for people just as misguided and mentally unstable as themselves. With TeaParty candidates dotting the landscape, more crazy apocalpse-seeking candidates will win. The law of averages says they will. Each such win is a nail in our planetary coffin. Yes, there are ideas so dangerous that they must be fought at every turn. Apocalypse-ism is the very worst of these.
9/17/10The Jaundiced British Eye
SueZ at The American Liberalism Project and I have a last common ancestor who died suddenly in 1760 or so, leaving his bride with three young sons to raise. That man's ancestors trail on back to the time of John and Priscilla Alden, Captain Miles Standish, et al, among whom this "colonial ancestor" of ours, a bare twenty, but educated in maths, literature, and the sciences of the day, performed much of the surveying of lands purchased from the Wampanoag tribe who had nearly two decades earlier been at that now famous autumn harvest meal we call Thanksgiving.
Our William came across the Pond nearly a generation after the group who sailed on the Mayflower, arriving in 1639 in Duxbury. The reason he ventured out of Sussex or Kent (or both) was that the King of England at the time, Charles I, was deeply mistrusted (ultimately executed, beginning the Commonwealth Period of English history) for his leanings toward the Roman Catholic Church (and taking a Roman Catholic for his wife). Charles was not the brightest candle in the chandelier of the English monarchy, and his emulation of the new breed of autocratic monarchs served neither himself or the nation. Rather he cemented a distaste for Rome that might have otherwise eroded over time.
All of these thoughts flashed through my head this morning as I read Roger Cohen's column in the New York Times on the arrival of the first pope to visit England in over 400 years. Benedict XVI could not have been a more poorly chosen emissary to that sceptered isle, as Cohen clearly points out.
The interesting thing about the visit is the tone-deafness that pervades the entourage of the Pope, the almost studied indifference to the the real world havoc created by thousands of child rapes at the hands of Roman Catholic priests and under the averted eyes of the Roman Catholic nomenclatura including Benedict himself, once specifically detailed as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to "take care of" this affront to civilization, but which he steadfastly attempted to sweep under the rug. It is interesting that the people of England and of Europe, generally, are disgusted with Rome and her emissaries, with her medievalism and recalcitrance in the face of modernity.
As last week's issue of New Yorker magazine concentrated on the C St. fundamentalists of recent notoriety and the quiet evangelism of the power elite that is their mission, secular England has to put up with the likes of Benedict, and they are not the least bit happy about it (either). Fortunately, the press is not cowed by strong secular talk anymore, and although the "rampant new atheism" of Europe is scorned by the power elites of the corporate press and pulpit in America, the time is nearly here when a young person can opt out of the conspiracy of social control that religion has become. The elites tremble in their palaces, the clergy wring their fat fingers, wondering what is to become of them.
The answer is, of course, that state and church must separate finally, and the means to that end is for thoughtful people to leave their ancestral churches in the lurch, that uncomfortable assertion of freewill that denies the popes and prelates, bishops and pastors their centuries of free lunch.
Of all the worrisome processes underway this year, the current initiative to cool down the struggle between the Palestinians and the Israeli has got to be the most important. Upon the outcome hang several significant possibilities, including a nuclear exchange (or one-way attack) between Iran and Israel. Almost as important is the mid- and long-term stance that the rest of the Muslims take in the Levant and on the Arabian peninsula and in Iran and Egypt. In other words, a lot depends on success, defined as a settlement between the contesting parties.
It goes without saying that the United States has had a special relationship with Israel from the very day of its declaration of nationhood to this very moment. There are three main reasons the U.S. has taken the position it has: one, the post-WWII post-Holocaust situation seemed to demand a Jewish state and homeland. I believe Harry Truman recognized Israel so quickly because he understood this reason. Two, America is home to very large, free, equal, and vocal Jewish communities, each representing a facet of Judaism not necessarily in concord, but always in fundamental agreement about the necessity of the U.S. supporting Israel. Three, ever since the rise of vocal, apocalyptic, fundamentalist Christianity in the post-WWII era Christians of this stripe have sought the fulfillment of "prophecy" (one line in a Psalm) that a reborn Israel, a congregation of the diaspora, a "power" in the region would herald the beginning of the End Times, the Apocalypse, the time when good Christians are raptured up into heaven. Jews understand that these fundamentalist Christians are actually hoping for the elimination of Jews that do not convert during the Last Days and the destruction of the world, Israel included, but they see an ally, so they get along ....
Meanwhile, history does not stand still and the medley of forces that militated for a Jewish state under the post-WWI British Mandate over the former Ottoman territories has been utterly changed by the influx of Jews with other ideas, natural population growth among the Jews themselves and the Palestinians who were so careless as to be on the losing side in the Six Day War. The population and the local "zeitgeist" have changed and struggled through the sixty years of harried nationhood.
Today in the New York Times Gadi Taub, in Tel Aviv, writes about the new imbalances of forces within Israel. For me his article was another wake-up call, a revelation, and a foreboding sensation settled across my understanding of The Israel Problem. I have written recently about Zionism and its ideology of and for Israel. Now I think I see that Zionism is many ideas, some very irrational and very strongly held, nevertheless. I am hoping by drawing attention to this OpEd column today that my Jewish friends will also notice that the "united front" of Zionism is anything but united and that the religious forces (as opposed to the so-called secular ones of Ben Gurian and others) do not augur well for peaceful solutions.
Nothing could be more important to the contemporary world than a peaceful settlement. Nothing. But, Taub's view is that the ground underneath the debate is shifting the wrong way. Let us hope that those with a commitment to a fair and defensible peace are able to turn this tide.
8/23/10Zionism Without Fear or Responsibility
Two days ago I wrote about American Jews leaving the Democratic Party because ... well, because they believe that President Obama is a closet Muslim or that his genes are untrustworthy or that his even-handed attempt to avoid WWIII is going to differentially impact the state of Israel, perhaps even allowing for it to be obliterated by an insane Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Ayatollah in Qum, or other crackpot religious ideologue. I scolded Charles M. Blow for passing over the cause and effect responsibility and for dwelling on the effect on American party politics. It turns out that I left out quite a bit in my facile three-minute cruise to the eastern Mediterranean, too.
There is nothing simple about the state of the State of Israel as this very interesting and very contentious essay by Uri Avnery clearly points out. Israel is riven within by opinions and vehemence bordering on, well, the ironic and the delusional. In Avnery's view the question is one of entelechy, or more simply put, the definition of Zion and Zionism. Scratch a Jew in Brooklyn or Hollywood and you will get two or more distinctly different answers with the probability of having the same net effect. Zion is Israel, the hoped-for Israel, the one there now, but "complete", or the one there now as it is. But Zionism is more than the state or the territory or even the people who believe it. Zionism is an emotional framework that accelerates the idea of a new Israel with fuel from a thousand thousand insults, harassments, murders, genocide, and paranoia.
But, you would think, such a large concept should be manageable within Judaism, even though there are distinct categories of Jew—Hassidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, etc. and etc. But Zionism is not restricted to Judaism, a point I left out (it seems) of my Saturday essay. James Carroll, of the the Boston Globe to the rescue. He properly examines the Christian fundamentalist Zionism, which one of the most perverse doctrines ever imagined, but by no means impotent or helpless because of its peculiar brand of insanity.
Christian Zionists understand the Bible to say that the Millennium will come when the Jews are in (control of) the full territory of ancient Israel, whereupon the End Days commence and all non-believers, especially the Jews, will be annihilated! Goodness, what a brand of Christian charity they have going!!
This would all be academic or religious nonsense if it were not for politics, that reflection of every facet of our gemlike species. In fact, what I left out of my Saturday essay was the horrible fact that Christian fundamentalist Zionists are playing the war against Islam tune at least as loudly as is AIPAC and the more bellicose among American Jewry. So, yes, WWIII very much depends on the mouth and finger of Ahmadinejad in Tehran, ... but it also depends mightily on the irresponsible and mentally defective machinations of Christian fundamentalist "Zionists."
8/19/10Call Them Ishmael
Three of the modern "monotheistic" religions count themselves as a "family" of Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Judaism of ancient Israel counted its forefather Jacob, grandson of Abraham, as the essential founder. Christianity was founded by Jews in Israel, following the teaching of a Jew from Israel. Islam counts its family tie to Abraham by virtue of the settlement of the descendants of Ishmael, son Abraham, in the Mecca and Medina area.
Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on Abrahamic religions suggests that some analysts believe that Christianity is not exactly a monotheistic religion. Trinitarian godhead, not withstanding, the essential meaning is easily reducible to monotheistic terms. It is all part of the development of the church in a syncretic way among the various paganisms with which it came in contact and the various proclivities of thought differing between Greeks and Romans. Trinitarianism would be calming or befunddling enough at least to keep pagans from questioning too deeply the advancing wave of syncretic Christianity.
But, some in Islam think that Christianity fails the test in the last analysis, and some among Jews think so as well. Can the peculiarities of each monotheism be at the root of all the hostility in this "family?"
An article in the Washington Post Thursday suggests that "conservative writers" are to blame for all the animus and hatred over the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan. When I read this I immediately said it was too facile an idea, a cop out of some kind, a deliberate ignoring of the audience to which these writers write.
It should be noted that adjacent to this article in the Post was one that asserts that fully 20% of Americans now believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim. How can something as preposterous as this happen? What is really going on?
It is probable that GOP strategists are willing to play the anti-Islam card to win some votes in November from people whose Norman Rockwell imagery of America is so at odds with reality that their cognitive dissonance must be deafening to any facts. The Currier and Ives view of American life is a white church steeple set in a calm and contented and worshipful village, and this no longer exists for 99% of Americans, at least half of whom wish it still did exist. This is the audience, the people who have nurtured strong and comfortable illusions about the country and their place in it. Just beneath the skin of these illusions are festering sores of ancient grudges against strange and ugly religions.
The truth is that there is truth in most of the differences and that "family" is by far the least likely place to find accommodation and amity in matters of faith. As someone said recently, Catholic Americans look upon Southern Baptists with a great deal of alarm and skepticism, and the same goes for Episcopalians and Mormons, Mormons and Christian Scientists, and on and on. It turns out that religion is intolerant, despite all the professions to the contrary. Religions are grab bags for unanswered questions, for undeniably horrid outcomes in life, for knaves and molesters to find havens and prey.
In the sense that the difference between religions are vivid and frightening, ignorance must be the essential element perpetuating hatred and intolerance. If this is true, then perhaps lower Manhattan is exactly the place where a mosque must be built, so that people can take it upon themselves to become less ignorant. And along the same lines, the so-called conservative writers and politicians who flog the fear to the ignorant are actually bringing the day closer when ignorance will be dispelled ... or if not dispelled, then clearly labeled as prejudice and intolerance.
Everyone conscious on 9/11 has an opinion about whether or not a mosque should be built near the place where once stood the fabled World Trade Center towers, destroyed in an act of fanaticism now erroneously equated with those who worship in mosques. Personally, given the rabid rhetoric that has engulfed the public discourse about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, I think that placing a mosque on or near ground zero is nothing less than a "stick in the eye" for Americans whose understanding of the event has been formed by powerful political forces and cultural prejudices. I am saying that the political-cultural reality is that a serious act of forgiveness and benevolence is so radical an idea even today that it would stand as a provocation to further misunderstanding and violence.
The NYT on Sunday ran a long article about mosques being suggested for places that a scant fifty years ago were quite unsure of what a mosque is and what goes on within them. Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was the archetype for this clashing cultures phenomenon. I have to admit that a middling town in TN is about the last place (excepting Idaho, of course) where I would expect to hear about building mosques. In other words, the idea of mosques is "merely" a reflection of the past 50 years worth of immigration from Islamic culture to America, something a nation of immigrants themselves ought to be able to swallow.
But swallowing is difficult, to be sure. James Carroll in the Boston Globe addresses the issue in a way that will probably not please Roman Catholics (and Carroll used to be a Catholic priest) or run of the mill Zionist Protestants whose aim is to fulfill prophecies not actually expressed in the Christian Bible (but certainly best-selling fictions by end-times authors). Carroll's essay unearths the essential background "Western-Christian" doctrine of violent hostility toward both Jews and Muslims. It is an important essay because you just do not get this kind of historical perspective of our prevailing nearly subconscious prejudices from the media. Perhaps the press does not know.
Carroll goes through the basic litany of the debt European intellectual progress has to Islam, but puts the contemporary "clash of (popular) cultures" question more squarely in an historical context than you probably have seen. The most provocative statement made by Carroll is this:
...Jews were a victim people, but Muslims were a world power. The success of their movement, in fact, was due to its humane and spiritually resonant message, a proclamation of the radical inviolability of each person’s autonomous interior life, which the believer could experience five times daily in prayer....
This is a statement which will, I think, rock many Christians back on their heels. Their understanding of Islam is framed and lighted by the jihadist, rather than the peaceful and contemplative overwhelming majority within Islam. Catholics and Protestants are not now, nor are they expected to be in the near future, ready to understand Islam in its own terms. Islam is the new "communism," an ideology with faith in doctrine at its center, something against which to push, to define oneself, in the absence of a handier process of group affiliation to achieve one's immediate needs for "control" and "identity."
But this must change. Building a mosque at ground zero or in Arlington National Cemetery is not the way to begin, but building in Murfreesboro or Seattle or Las Vegas or Boston or Springfield or, especially Salem, might be a good idea right now.
7/16/10The Vatican Strikes Back
Late last week the Pope and his band of institutional stalwarts said they would try to do better with cases of pederasty/pedophilia arising in the Church, including (imagine!) letting bishops and other nomenclatura of the Church know that hiding these crimes from civil authorities is naughty and should not be countenanced.
The New York Times article on the announcement was quick to point out that along with the pederasty concession, the geniuses in the Vatican decided to equate the crime of ordaining or being female clergy to pederasty—child rape.
So, it was with a great deal of "attagirl" and appreciation that we read Maureen Dowd this morning in the Times and her dismay at the peckerwood attitudes of the Curia and their all too implicated leader. Maureen nails them all and brought my thoughts to the conclusion that the Vatican is completely incapable of renewing itself and the Church they have created from the toil and gullibility of the Catholic masses. I believe with Ms. Dowd that the Vatican has thrown down one of their medieval gauntlets and, unbeknownst to themselves, have forfeited the last vestige of goodwill they might have had.
Then, as luck would have it, I read Frank Rich's very interesting and informative piece about Mel Gibson. Ordinarily I would not have given the subject another second of my time ... and certainly none of his movies my money ... ever ... but Rich is a one-in-a-million journalist and writer, so I read about the machinations and evil-doings of Gibson and his pals ... and of the the Church ... so vile as to challenge the imagination to believe.
I began my series of comments on the crisis of the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church with the hope that Benedict XVI could rise above his past and see the forest in which his vocation is lost. Clearly he has not seen it, but more importantly, he has rejected the strong voices of reason from the new world ... and the old ... calling for modernization of the Church. He and the College of Cardinals and the Curia have with the announcement this week dug in their heels against what they see as unacceptable forces of change. And, so, the die is cast.
The Roman Catholic Church will persist of its own momentum and the need of human beings to find some kind of solace in a universe that is much too large and indifferent for them to grasp and to remain sane amid their own sorrows and afflictions. The Church will push its medieval notions of the human being and, for the lack of a reasonable alternative, the poor and beset will continue to tithe themselves into penury and disconsolation. But, and this is the fulcrum of history ... this very moment ... the educated and those who have means to express their chagrin and disbelief will leave the church and form new alliances among themselves to achieve the message of their theology. The Roman Catholic Church will become in the coming century a very pallid and hollow remnant of weak men's egos and mistakes. You saw the moment when it happened.
7/16/10Dances With Cheney
I am not especially superstitious nor do I marvel at run-of-the-mill coincidences too much. Things happen and there are only a limited, very discrete number of seconds in each day. But, when this morning I opened my email there were two seemingly unrelated pieces of mail.
One was this piece on Dick Cheney's heart, which btw expresses EXACTLY my feeling on the subject.
The other I will reproduce for you in it entirety right here, right now, hoping you have already read the Mark Morford piece.
Of course you have seen the Cherokee aphorism many times. It is good that it appeared today in counterpoint and harmony with Morford, I think.
SueZ is in the hospital again, hoping to be out shortly.
6/13/10Forgiveness Does Not Mean No Consequences
On Friday in the Vatican in a solemn moment during a special mass Pope Benedict XVI asked for forgiveness for the sins of the Roman Catholic Clergy. It was a remarkable moment both for the admission and the incompleteness of the plea. The New York Times reports that additional measures will be undertaken to insure that offending clergy are not given the "Victorian cover" [my term] they have in the past, that is, that bishops, cardinals, and the curia do not read the reticence of the society to speak openly of such things as some kind of permission.
Contrition is the first word to come to my mind. Where is the evidence of contrition. Has the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger ever admitted his culpability in the covering up of the wanton rapes of Catholic school children by Catholic clergy? I do not think so. The reason I do not think so is that it is a crime to cover up a crime and to harbor the original criminal from justice. Benedict would be cutting his own throat.
The second thing that hovered through my thoughts was money. Having just read in The New York Review of Books an article about the nearly psychopathic sexual rampage of a Mexican cleric, Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the so-called "Legion of Christ", a duly approved Roman Catholic Order rivaling the power and financial means of Opus Dei, ... and seeing the the Vatican protects golden geese even when these are forcing young boys to masturbate Rev. Maciel. The actions of the Vatican can be interpreted easily and wisely as attempts to cap the flow of criticism and outing of additional cases of pederasty and child rape. The Pontiff is looking at the same sort of problem that the CEO of BP is looking at, an uncappable flow of bad news into the gulf of discontent and disbelief growing within the Church and accelerating among the critics outside. Both were involved in the deliberate falsification of information with the goal to bring money into their grasp. Both are responsible (where the buck stops) for damage to a world they were supposed to be helping which will last for generations.
Forgiveness from God is God's business if you will. I will not take Benedict's word for it that God forgives him, however. Benedict's word is not worth much these days. His latest plea shows that he has obviously not learned his lesson, is not truly contrite, and is depending instead on the kindness of a laity which sorely needs a clergy and church that understands the human condition, not one that takes advantage and preys upon it.
5/24/10A Measure of the Man
One of the things that makes the current and by no means passing turmoil within the Roman Catholic Church so very interesting is the all too obvious analogy between the behavior of the Vatican and the behavior of contemporary civil governments. They are all tied to the conventions that got their people into office, and once there, they almost literally cannot see or accept any plan that would change the fundamental power structure, even if it would basically cure the problems that that very power structure creates. This is true in Europe and in the Americas (North and South).
The other thing that makes the trouble in the Roman Catholic Church so riveting is that the Church is so huge, its influence (although waning rapidly) so extensive, and its opportunity for bringing about a truly beneficial change in the way we are on this planet. Whether we like the details of Catholicism or not, there are a billion Catholics out there with human needs and ready to accept even a half loaf of theological metaphysics if it is demonstrated to be even slightly palliative.
So, for weeks now, to the exclusion of writing about President Obama's missed opportunities, Rahm Emanuel's incompetence, Paul Krugman's economic wisdom, and many other subjects of great interest to me, I have been concentrating on the largest question: "will the Roman Catholic Church take this opportunity to reform?"
In the New York Review of Books recently a Princeton Medievalist, Anthony Grafton, wrote a short piece entitled "The Pope and the Hedgehog", for which there is only a teaser available to non-subscribers, but which is worth reading. Grafton begins with valediction to Joseph Ratzinger that will make almost any reformer puke. But, in the end, Grafton makes the point that the "hedgehog-like" behavior of the current Pope, bristling spines at a hostile world, curled up in a self-defeating ball, is exactly what we are seeing. Grafton has trouble with the power structure thing, but that is probably because he knows from all his studies and lectures that the Roman Catholic Church "saved Europe from barbarism" after the final collapse of the Roman Empire. You should know that historicist baloney like that develops its own logic and is shared widely by those, like Grafton and Ratzinger, who have irons in that fire ... still.
Then, this morning, my colleague in New York City, sent me a piece from the Irish Times written as an open letter to Pope Benedict by Hans Kueng ( KÜNG) an old acquaintance of Joseph Ratzinger, a theologian of immense importance. This "letter" is a thorough indictment of the man who is now Pope for his failure to take the opportunities in this turmoil to preserve what is Christian about the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, Joseph Ratzinger is just another man, as Grafton grudgingly agrees, a miserable leader, a hedgehog since early times, unable to clear his ambitions out of his conscience, unable to take the best opportunity in centuries to remold the Church for modern times and modern human beings.
Kueng believes that the Roman Catholic Church is in its "worst credibility crisis since the Reformation." Kueng does not mince words about Benedict XVI. He calls him an utter failure, and in a church-political move that is startling and fraught with very interesting opportunities for mischief, he calls on the bishops (the episcopate) to rise up and be heard against the self-serving hedgehog conservatism of the Curia (the bureaucracy of the Vatican) and including the College of Cardinals!
"Holy Mackerel!" I exclaimed. This is a call to "revolution" where "evolution" is apparently impossible. Kueng knows Ratzinger inside and out, he has worked with him over many decades and, now, he lets loose with a brief, a short list of theses, that rival the more theatrical ones of Martin Luther.
A week ago I thought that Benedict's call for curing the sins of the Church was a realization that the call to reform ignored meant revolution, now I think that inside the Church the heels are dug in and revolution it must be!
JB (and with many thanks to Tony)
5/22/10The Non-Celibate Clergy
There are many ways of looking at the on-going turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church. Coming from my expertise in Russian studies, which perforce included "Kremlin Watching" as a necessity, the way the Vatican behaves and responds to events is not all that different. We really did not have any spies in the Politburo, and we don't have any in the College of Cardinals. You have to make assumptions about what is made apparent, the most salient of which is that there are few, if any, accidents. What you see and hear has been vetted and discussed and tossed around the table by persons with differing views, strongly held, with various alliances and agendas, and—like any large corporate structure—aspirations for advancement. On top of all of that there are theological issues—metaphysics—which are rhetorical constructs with their own internal and not necessarily consistent logics.
So this week we hear that Austrian Cardinal Chrisoph Schoenborn has come out for a non-celibate clergy, or at least a relaxation of the rule devised at the Second Lateran Council nearly 900 years ago. The first thing you have to accept is that Austria and Germany are similar but not necessarily identical cultures with lots of communication between them, including the communication between Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, and Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn of Austria. Had the "wild" idea come from South America or Portugal or some other place not close culturally to Benedict, then you might easily decide that it was NOT a test balloon being sent up by the Vatican. Schoenborn, on the other hand, can be protected from hostiles better than any, if this idea flops.
As James Carroll (and I hitch-hiking on his analysis) have said, nothing could be better timed and more useful to the Church than the elimination of mandatory celibacy. It is the root cause of the sex crimes being perpetrated and then covered up by the existing clergy. It is no longer effective against the accumulation of property by clergy. It no long makes sense as a tool of power over an illiterate "black clergy" upon whom the Church was dependent for a thousand years. It does not square with the sheep-shepherd view taken of an overwhelmingly illiterate laity. It just does not make sense and it causes problems and provides sustenance to criminals within.
How the Church will read the response to Schoenborn is critical. It will be hotly debated and some will say that the lack of furor indicates assent, while others among the Cardinals will say it indicates ignorance. The fact is that there has been no furor reported so far. It is the sort of issue that must percolate downward to be understood at the highest levels. It will take time, but I am confident that the issue will be resolved correctly. The icing for this cake has been in production for a long, long time. Theological issues are not basic, but Church Rules are. They have to find a way to treat the impending change with intelligence. The paragraph above, the historical reasons for imposing celibacy (which were taken in extremis, by the way) are sufficient as answers to the question of Authority, which is, of course, the paramount issue to Benedict and his Cardinals.
5/16/10The Disease Calling Itself the Cure
There is an old joke that finds a few monks down in an archive pouring over ancient religious texts. The gloom and darkness are suddenly punctuated by the exclamation of a monk: "Holy heck!" he moans. "The word is "celebrate" not "celibate."
And well he has moaned since the Second Lateran Council of 1139 wherein it was decided that the cure for the problems of worldly inheritance among the Roman Catholic clergy would be to cut them off from progeny ... by celibacy.
What happened after that was a process of "natural selection" to the clergy—given the new rules—that slowly but surely selected for men in the clergy who could sustain a life of celibacy or a furtive pretense of it. But, moreover as, James Carroll writes in Sunday's Boston Globe, this intrusion into the human privacy of cleric divorced them, deliberately, from the laity among whom they moved and lived and sinned.
Carroll's essay is simply the best exposition of this subject I have ever read. He describes the nexus of power that the Council erected on this central focus of our humanity, our sexuality, our procreative freedom, our very existence. I believe with Carroll that the celibacy rule must and will be demolished and along with it nearly a millennium's worth of power politics emanating from the Church.
Things that happen take place in a context. The context of the Second Lateran Council was, broadly, feudalism. There were currents of modern finance and commerce building in Italy, but the essential fact was that of a strict hierarchy in civil life made plain by strict rules of property and subservience. Civil life was not nearly as separate from spiritual life. Medievalists will chafe at a three sentence definition of age, but the point is incontestable that we (western and eastern) are now quite different from what we were a thousand years ago.
The Roman Catholic Church needs to find the courage to address the issue. I believe that the changes between now and then include the salient feature upon which the Vatican can take its cue. That feature is literacy. No longer does a Pope have to deal with a majority clergy that cannot actually read, nor a laity, for that matter. With literacy comes freedom and the imposition of power over freedom brings revolution. It is up to Pope Benedict XVI, Joe Ratzinger of Nazi Germany, to find the courage and the way, for if he does not the Roman Catholic Church will collapse.
5/12/10The Pope's Conscience ... Or Not
Responding to written questions as he flew to Lisbon , Pope Benedict XVI made one of the most important concessions the Roman Catholic Church has ever made! He acknowledged that the trouble within the Church was of its own making and that the church has much to learn and accomplish. The report of this momentous pronouncement in the New York Times, this Wednesday follows weeks and months of journalistic leadership in pursuit of truth and honesty ... and Justice in the pederasty problem that seems to be endemic in the clergy of the Church. It is important to read this account because the account described in the next paragraphs is more than slightly different.
Before speculating on the difference, though, it important to understand that the Pope's statement is far more than most outsiders, like me, ever expected. Taking the positive assertions and declarations at face value we now see a Pontiff with a clear eye on the festering problem that has grown into a nightmare and threatens the very fundamental purpose of the Church and the creed upon which it relies and tries to promote.
Now, having said that, it is interesting, and perhaps closer to expectations that the Washington Post's report of the same Papal declaration includes the "aside" by the Pope that this criticism of the Church has been "the greatest persecution" ever endured by the Church. This remark is so at odds with the tenor and meaning of the contrition and administrative savvy meant to be expressed that is suggests a translation error. I certainly hope so, for if not, the Pope's use of a word that translates to "persecution" suggests, nay declares, that the criticism of the Church for aiding, abetting, and conspiring to cover up pederasty, child rape, and a host of other no less abhorrent crimes against Catholic children was mean spirited, vengeful, unChristian, and unwarranted. Sorry, Pope Benedict, you cannot have it both ways. You and your Church were guilty of crimes for which forgiveness is about the last thing that comes to mind.
Speaking with Catholics about this since this series of essays was begun, I have come to understand better the reverence Catholics have for the incredible burden administration of the Church is on the Vatican. The syncretism of the Church swallowed whole all manner of local customs and local scoundrels, some of which and whom have percolated to the top of the Church hierarchy. Benedict himself is a case of suspicious motivations. Nevertheless, giving them all Christian forgiveness over time, or, if you will, believing that some human beings can and do transcend early mistakes and become better people, the Church has within itself the ability to change and regenerate and it had to begin with Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.
Let us hope that the word choice is not Papal politics designed to keep a few curmudgeonly Cardinals in their seats until they can be disciplined or ejected, but as I have suggested a translation error. If not, let us hope that the NYT catches up to this story and gives us reason to be skeptical all over again.
5/1/10The Papacy Must Change
In case you began to think that the shouting is over, it is not! The shouting has just barely begun. The turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church continues and the lines have been sketched in with 4th, 8th, and 13th century formalist, monolith supporters on one side and modernist, post Enlightenment, democracy-loving, transparency-seeking multitudes on the other side.
As you can intuit from this article in the New York Times the monolith supporters are looking backward for preceding Popes to cherish and from whom to model the current leadership on or contrast against. This is exactly what organizations like the Church do. They are hog-tied by their ecclesiastical dogmas and traditions into believing that Popes are "holier than thou" and somehow representatives of God to man. Modern thought on this is quite the reverse. Popes ought to be Man's representative to God.
It really does not matter, the Papacy is corrupt to the marrow. It has had over fifteen centuries to perfect its self-serving, self-replicating, self-sustaining, and ego-centric hierarchy. The result has been international wars, endless misery sustained by meaningless fairy tales and theological magic, and now that the Church has assembled a largest congregation of predatory pederasts, thousands of cases of child molestation and child rape.
The witch hunts will go on. Pius XII the Nazi sympathizer will be a major target by radicals, showing that Popes are fully capable of horrendous crimes. But, as the Times points out, Popes like John Paul are fully capable of errors of horrible omission.
The beat goes on and will go on until the Papacy is changed. It may take a long time, but the world has that time and is permanently aghast at this institution of corruption.
4/25/10Questioning the Pope
The New York Times has been in the forefront of the recent scrutiny of the Roman Catholic Church and its siege-mentality leadership. The Times has been accused of a witch-hunt and false accusations against the Pope. Public Editor Clark Hoyt disputes the response of the Vatican and the assortment of bishops around the globe who have come to the well-meant, but complete wrong-headed defense of the Vatican and Pope. Here is his column today in the Times.
Questioning the Pope
This is one of the biggest stories ever. How could you expect the Times (or any other reputable newspaper) to give the Pope a pass on this? The evidence of criminality and criminal conspiracy in the cover-up is completely obvious and equally unconscionable. If the Church wishes to co-exist within society, it must acknowledge that civil society is the final word in criminal matters.
You might be interested in one day's news on the Catholic front--reports of resignations from the Roman Catholic clergy.
It would be nice and a bit satisfying to believe that the College of Cardinals and the Pope had put out the word to criminals in the clergy that their time was up. We don't think that happened, however. It is far more likely that public pressure brought to bear in the wake of law suits and exposé accounts for this trickle of resignations.
The problem is that the upper reaches of the clergy remain untouched, as if the rest of the clergy were instructed to not rock their boat. We will not remain resigned to this. Benedict XVI himself is implicated. Lest the fable be promoted that Joseph Ratzinger had no worldly idea what was going on, let the clergy speak to this issue directly. They have said, and it is easily verified that Cardinal Ratzinger was a micro-manager of his territory in Germany, where vicious child rapes by the clergy were the order of the day for decades on end.
As in Ireland the Church endeavored to cover up the criminal acts and is all the more guilty for having done so.
One wonders what any of the molested children would have become without this criminal intrusion into the very private parts of their lives. The fact, which is not in dispute, is that the Roman Catholic Church deliberately let this kind of criminality continue to preserve the finances and name of the church. What on earth or in heaven were these vicious men thinking? Do they really believe they are due a forgiveness for repeated acts that cripple the soul and spirit of children and the adults they grow up to be?
4/21/10Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyo
You no doubt have read about the Cardinal in the Vatican who praised a French Bishop for refusing to rat out a priest to the civil authorities who had been molesting children. I use the term "rat out" to establish the valence of Hoyo's praise. It was "us against them" street sympathy, far from the code of honorable conduct that we expect from the governors of the world's largest and most monolithic church.
Well, Cardinal Hoyos appears in the news again today because many are scandalized that this particular criminal would be chosen to lead a mass. The article in the Washington Post includes a fine picture of the Cardinal. The first thing that I saw was the severe turn of the mouth, the dictatorial demeanor.
The second thing I saw was something that looks like a Rolex watch on the man's left wrist. I wonder what year it is set to? Perhaps 1430 ... when there were at least two Popes Benedict XIV and the French owned the Papacy!
Some of my friends have asked why I am so strident about the on-going scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a dishonest question with a very complex answer. On the public face of things the scandal is about the rape of children, the sundering of their innocence, the defiling of the story of the Christ, obliterating the truth of the story and encrusting a cynical version in the trappings of temporal power and unimaginable wealth. Everyone with an average IQ and a few years of secular schooling knows these things, so their response to me is dishonest because they are denying the manifest facts of the situation in the first word of their question. But they have a way out, it seems. They can always say that a man may not judge, lest he call down the wrath of God. What a cop out, and how well trained they are!
The answer is complex because of the lie, the self-deceit, the cowardice that motivates those who will not judge. It goes then to a central tenet of Christianity (and other religions) that solace for the troubles of individuals and of mankind generally must be sought not in this world, but in the "next." It says that judgement will be meted out by God, not by man. Yet is not this religion about society as much as it is about individuals? Is not society responsible to itself for the behavior of society generally and specifically of individuals? Of course it is! We as a polity judge others and after due deliberation execute some, incarcerate others, set free those whom we believe to be innocent, and so forth. We judge and I judge, and I believe it is not my prerogative, but my obligation to the society and my own spirit.
The Roman Catholic Church as Nicholas Kristof writes so well in the Sunday New York Times is a men's club, a medieval gynophobic bastion of medieval ideas, addicted to its own temporal structure and, seemingly, fully capable of perverse male parthenogenic replication ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Adventurous minds will note that the subjection of the female in Catholic lore is precisely the way the Church feeds itself from the body of women parthenogenically.
There have been nearly two millennia in which secular male dominance has been calcified within the Church to create this reef structure upon which individuals, including raped children, and whole societies have run aground and been destroyed. It is a formidable structure, self-possessed, and fully capable of forgetting the essential message of Christianity, which I hope you will remember was born outside of power and designed for those "out of power." The essential message is that within the human spirit ... that organic self-referential process ... there resides a beauty and goodness, grace, and compassion that should (ought) to be the baseline for all human behaviors.
Siddartha Gautama, the young prince who discovered "nirvana" (enlightenment) and thus became The Buddha, the enlightened one, understood this spiritual process 500 years before the carpenter's son of Nazareth explained it in his Judaic way to his small following. The Buddha explained that human suffering is natural and inevitable, but that the suffering is a state of the spirit, not of the world or universe, and that with patient understanding the familiar events of life that produce suffering in the spirit, like the death of family members, failure of crops, failure of the self to live up to one's own expectations, can be overcome by understanding that each of these events understood as negative were implicit in the situation to begin with. The glass that shines in the sunlight and contains the milk and honey ... is already broken! It is the nature of "things" that they contain what we apprehend as their opposite. This is the nature of the material universe.
But, Christianity teases the spirit with the idea that it is not the way things are in the next life. There, it is supposed, things are completely good and do not decay, devolve, descend, deteriorate, detach, disappoint. Buddhism on the other hand, says that the spirit learns to see that reality is both growth and decay and learns from both conditions until, in an enlightened state, it is truly understood, death particularly, without fear or sorrow, but with (OM!) satisfaction.
But, you say, this is far afield from the problem of pederasty in the Church. It is, I believe, central, because the Church is not (no longer) about understanding ourselves and our universe. The essential question posed in Buddhism is ignored. Christianity is about suppressing spiritual curiosity and understanding by dogmatic doctrine, deliberately treating the masses as unintelligent sheep, filling their minds with a confabulation of stories that can be interpreted by shamanic clergy any way they choose, and they have chosen self-replication of the edifice of the Church as the primary goal.
They should be ashamed of themselves! And, yes, this was implicit in the origins of the Christian Church ... but definitely not of Christ's message.
In the April 19th edition of The New Yorker magazine the lead off article by Hendrick Hertzberg is about the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. If you are one of the many who have been fondled, bung-holed, brow-beaten, and terrorized by Catholic clergy whose problem, according to Hertzberg, is that they practice "sexual abuse," you will not want to read that article. SEXUAL ABUSE!! How about rape, Hertzberg! How about brow-beating terrorism of our male juveniles! How dare you try to patch it up with a neutered, clinical term like "sexual abuse!" As if ... dammit ... there was some kind of sexual activity between clergy and children that was not abusive!!
But, that's not where it begins with Mr. Hertzberg. He has the temerity to say that the current scandal is not in the same league with the "indulgences" that so sorely vexed Fr. Martin Luther five hundred years ago, a vexation that turned into a conflagration that sundered Roman Catholicism ... temporarily. Indeed, Hertzberg sees the sale of fairy tales as more important than rape of children??!!! I reread that article several times looking for a hint of sarcasm or of irony. Nada. Because rape is not a theological issue "but an administrative one," Hertzberg gives Benedict/Ratzinger a pass.
Well, the NYr has screwed up before and Hertzberg has been there and so has Remnick. This one, though, is so far from reality that one wonders exactly what the editorial position of the NYr might be. They are undoubtedly aware that Roman Catholicism is unworthy of the mantel of trust people put onto it, so they must be afraid of the outcome, the demolition of the "monolith" and all the verities that it once stood for (they assert).
Very disappointing position Mr. Hertzberg! Try again with some kind of compassion for the victims instead of angst for the criminals at the top, middle, and bottom of the Roman Catholic clergy!
4/14/10Morford Nails the Pope
It seems odd to many of us in Western Civilization that Islam does not have an entity corresponding to the Vatican and the Bishop of Rome, il Papa, the Pope. Yes, there are imams, ayatollahs, prophets, and once there was a caliphate, which joined secular and religious into one pot. The Vatican is without peer and, just maybe, this has led to the utter arrogance and criminality that now infests the College of Cardinals and the presiding Pope.
Mark Morford, known far and wide for his "organic" epistolary stylings, for his over-the-top-and-down-the-sides frothiness, has today written it better than well. He knows, as do we, that the Catholic Church has become rotten at its core and that centers made of decadent flesh cannot survive. These rotten men cannot say 1.1 billion "Ave Marias" and fool with their beads as penance. The Pope and his closest retinue must leave the Church. They must go to the darkest part of the Earth and live out their days in humiliation and, one hopes, in contrition as the rapists and liars that they have been so proven to be.
4/13/10Courageous Priest Calls for Pope to Resign
The story goes on. The Roman Catholic Church is in turmoil, with the congregation fully understanding the concept of the "good of the Church" and, above and beyond that, the truth and the need to be faithful to the truth.
Here is a brief story of one priest who has told his parish what is in his heart and conscience. It is that a Pope who cannot face the truth of his own culpability has no business being Pope.
4/10/10For the Good of the Church
The Vatican has become slightly less strident in its denials and equivocations about rampant sexual abuse (68,000 cases in one recent year!) of children across the length and breadth of the Church. Bellicosity was a very bad ploy, of course, and ordered, we must assume, by Herr Reverend Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI himself. It was (and it is) the Pope's strong suit, however. He is first, last, and always for the Living Universal Church and seemingly oblivious to the damage it does in the world.
Power corrupts and absolute—infallible—power corrupts absolutely and without fail.
So, on this Saturday we find that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger deliberately dawdled for two years on a case in Oakland, California, refusing to acknowledge the crime against children, but rationalizing that the priest who sullied the spirit of a young boy was "very young" (33) and the "good of the Church" had to be considered.
Interestingly, the "good of the Church" was considered in the aftermath of a somewhat larger than usual exodus of parish priests from the clergy, an alarming trend, of course, but attributed wrongly to the liberalization of the the Church in the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Ratzinger was, as ever, more worried about the stoney edifice than the human occupants. His decision speaks volumes about modern Vatican Catholic ethics.
I keep harping on the issue of the Church pretending that its clergy are above the law or somehow immune from it. What on earth or heaven or hell does a priest's age have to do with his crimes against minor children? Ratzinger seems to believe that youth in the clergy is sufficiently valuable that its affronts to decency and The Laws of nations are negligible, certainly something that needs be kept quiet for the good of the Church.
If the Roman Catholic Church were a public university, Ratzinger would be gone. We have sufficient evidence of his conspiracy to hide a damaging crime from the civil authorities to convict him as an accessory after the fact. Benedict XVI should resign his office NOW ... for the good of the Church!
4/7/10Betrayal for Money and Power
The pressure is on, and it will remain on until Rome relents and reverses itself. The path forward from here cannot be more of the same. The congregation of the Roman Catholic Church are not lambs anymore, their priests may no longer bugger the weak and defenseless. The old regime must and will collapse. It is up to the venal and the corrupt to see their way clear to thorough-going reform. If they miss this opportunity, they will inherit the furies and the Church will crumble, for once again "the center will not hold."
Maureen Dowd, like James Carrol a Catholic, and like James also a thinking person, but unlike him a woman with a list of human and religious grievances that the chauvinist clergy cannot understand, and will not try to understand, has brought her brother into the fray, and the Papacy had better listen. The patience of the congregation is at an end.
The Church’s Judas Moment
4/5/10Catholicism At The Turning Point
There has never been in our lifetimes such a situation in any human institution. The Roman Catholic Church commanding perhaps a billion souls around the world has reached the end-point of its present-day view of the role of the Church. Inheriting the upheavals of industrialization and nationalism, the breakneck changes to society along with governments and cultures, the Church has gone far astray from its theological moorings, and as James Carroll carefully describes, has become a transnational business, an ugly "Enron of the conscience," certainly no better than that.
We are witnessing history now. The old order must fall. It will, but as ever the way it falls will determine how and whether the new Church will develop. I doubt Pope Ratzinger or his coterie of avarice and power see it this way, but the laity does.
Rescue Catholicism from Vatican
4/4/10The Devil At Work? Depends on Your Point of View
Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times this Easter Sunday, has another in the series courageously written and published by that newspaper. That the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has been despicably corrupt in the past is no secret, that this particular group of avaricious old men is exempt is ridiculous. The idea of Satan, quaint and yet still full of fiercesome imagery, taking over the lives of priests to undo the Church, is one of those ideas that backfires immediately. Why would such a Satan stop with mere parish priests? Why not grab hold of bishops and monseignors and cardinals and popes?
Devil of a Scandal
3/29/10What We Really Know: Harris and Carrol
You should listen carefully to this short interview with Professor Sam Harris. When he says that religion provides "answers" that we cannot possibly know, he has hit the mark directly and perfectly. People who seek answers through religion cannot tolerate "not knowing," so the fix feels good, even if it is totally without foundation.
Here is a statement from the "other side," a known Christian, raised and continuing as a Catholic, but wise enough to have understood the basic message of Christian doctrine ... not Church doctrine, by the way ... and to have understood exactly what Sam Harris said, but also failed to say. James Carrol on "Holy Week."
N.B. -- My apologies for the scant postings here recently. My colleague at another blog is in the hospital and I have been tending that website for her. That and other pressing matters have kept me from this keyboard.
3/14/10Lessons for Religious Institutions
In this article from the Saturday New York Times we learn that the current head of the Roman Catholic Church is a micro-manager, "the" chief ideologue of the Church, and yet somehow oblivious to the pedophilia taking place in the parishes of the German branch of his church, oblivious now and oblivious when it was happening under his more local nose.
We also learn that Pope Benedict XVI believes in a process he calls the "re-christianization" of Europe (and the civilizations Europeans have spawned across the face of the globe). Sitting here on the outside of his religion one wonders what exactly his point might be. Could this Ratzinger brother really believe that human beings prefer a pastoral dictator whose own moral authority is increasingly negligible?
The fact is that Roman Catholicism has but one thing to offer to the laity and that is metaphysical momentum, the notion that so many adherents could not possibly be wrong in their hearts, even if in their minds they daily choose to ignore the human truth of their establishment, that this huge and rich edifice of sanctamony and fantasy is corrupt beyond the redemption that it claims to provide for the mere giving up of one's spiritual nature to the bonds of (yes, "bonds of") an absurdist theology. The essential metaphor of Christianity is that life is to be endured with calm and grace because, if done correctly, (that is, by the lights of corrupt and venal and predatory pastors), solace during life will be dispensed and eventually learned on the promise of a metaphysical menagery concocted by beings at the dawn of human civilization. Is one supposed to believe that the Christian syncretism is authoritative in the light of its sordid history? Isn't there a better way of dealing with the loss of a parent, child, job, or anything else that might befall us in life?
In truth, and whether anyone (atheist or religious zealot) likes it or not, religion is a shadow of the common (perhaps average) human imagination. It provides insight into the nature of human cognition and personality. Religions, the temporal manifestations of these thoughts, are organizations like businesses and they trade in Authority ... you know, the way medical doctors used to trade in authority because acceptance of medical authority brought to bear the (possible remaining) internal restorative processes. Religions have a strong and necessary function in society. For some people they are the place to park their individual anxieties in exchange for hope that the next day will be brighter. For some people, whose childhood animism is not well extinguished, religion provides answers to causation questions that are beyond their own reckoning. Religions are necessary at this stage of our biological and cognitive development. They are even necessary for people like me who do not practice religious doctrines or believe in the theological constructs and metaphysics. But, religions do not have free reign to abuse us, and clearly the contemporary Roman Catholic Church is in no position to "re-Christianize" any part of our civilization. Moreover, the history of this Church is such a sordid mess of arrogance and depravity that one wonders whether it can bootstrap itself free of its history. Certainly it will take a leader much less bent on orthodoxy than Ratzinger!
In Sunday's Times the saga continues with the Vatican asserting that there is a campaign against the Pope. Yeah, well, what would you expect of a huge corporation like the Roman Catholic Church? Would you expect contrition? Would you expect an overwhelming solicitousness for the abused? Not a chance! This is arrogance at its very finest ... and true to the overarching necessity to maintain brute force authority, rather than moral authority.
2/24/10The "God Gap"
One might assume from the title of its article on the conclusions drawn by the Chicago brainiacs who think the U.S. foreign policy is tone-deaf to religions around the world that the Post thinks this is funny ... or absurd ... or something to drown with sarcasm as fast as possible. If so, I (for once) agree with the editors of that paper that our secular-but-respectful "hands off" policy regarding other nations' religions is not only reasonable and proper, it is absolutely necessary. The folks in Chicago (and elsewhere) have their heads buried in the sand and forget that Presidents visit the Vatican, attend religious rituals across the face of the planet, entertain Dalai Lamas knowing that the incident will rile China, etc., etc.
What the "God gap" people want is for the U.S. to take a religious position, of course, and that is, if not impossible, highly dangerous, because what position are they going to suggest the diplomats take? Southern Baptist? Orthodox Jewish? Buddhist? Episcopalian (which group ... the tolerant or the gay-bashers)? There is no end of trouble in this, and the Post is absolutely correct in equating our respectful posture to the fabricated missile gap of 50 years ago.
There is a point to be made beyond the obvious unAmerican-ness of a foreign policy predicated on sectarian metaphysics, however. The point that the zealots want to make is that America is a Judeo-Christian society and culture. The point that should be made is that the American culture is distinctly pluralist and that we respect (in theory and practice ... most of us) the religious rights of everyone. You see, then, that pluralism becomes and intolerable act of faithlessness to the zealots, who will have the whole cake, frosting, and candles or no one will have it.
I frankly trust the U.S. State Department to continue its low level and respectful acknowledgement of other's religious ideas, but I do not trust any part of the federal government to keep the zealots out. The U.S. Air Force (and parts of the U.S. Navy) have been captured by zealous Christian fundamentalists in the past. It is clearly wrong for anyone to use a federal government agency to promote its own religious doctrines ... but it happened and continues. This movement "towards closing the God gap" has to be thwarted, because it is a trojan horse.
1/6/10An Interview with the Devil
Every once in a while Mark Morford, who (btw) is clinging to his job at the San Francisco Chronicle by a thread as paper media flash into dust everywhere, ... every once in a while Mark puts a spin on things that is truly brilliant. This is one of them, one of the best. If you are not a smorgasbord devotee of your religion, i.e., if you are hunkered down in the "literal truth," then you might not like this, but you should probably read it anyway.
James Carroll, who writes a column in the Boston Globe each Monday morning, writes of the winter solstice, which occurs on this special day.
James tries with all his intellect and might to resolve the Enlightenment, to mend the rift between our evolution and our inheritance. He ends with the notion that "knowledge is holy," but is it really? Knowledge is what we agree upon as fact. It peels back the mysteries of life and the universe, their history, their songs and literature, the atomic structure, the quantum behavior. But knowledge is provisional, growing, replacing. It is in this way profane.
What is holy then is our leap across the boundaries of individuality to a self-conscious realization of the force animating the quest for knowledge, the realization that we are not alone in our curiosity, that life is not only dependent upon that light that wanes to its angular and orbital minimum this day, but is a new light in and of itself, a concept—the human spirit!
7/1/09Indistinguishable from Magic
Sometimes events conspire to reveal an essential truth. If you are a Liberal or Progressive, your world view is dynamic and unlikely to be anchored to just one point of reference, one point of view, one set of cherished beliefs. If you are a conservative of most any stripe you are more likely to be anchored, as it were, tethered, and in fact bound to a set of axioms about life and how to live it. Not all Liberals and Progressives are eager thinkers, and not all conservatives are mired in outdated dogmas, but even those of either camp who can chew gum and walk, tend to flinch one way or the other about the idea of modern life being better. Liberals instinctively lean into a new idea or point of view; conservatives lean away, more or less shielding themselves ... and their long held belief systems ... from the hard radiation of change.
I had a subscription to Popular Science at age ten or twelve. Back in the 'fifties this was a magazine dedicated to modern life and particularly technology. The editors had no idea how completely technology would change American and ultimately everyone's lives, but they were optimistic. The transistor is a good example, an invention which when first devised was a thing about the size of a Chiclet. It quickly replaced vacuum tubes in a variety of applications, radios and telephones particularly. Now the size of one transistor is almost a laughing matter. They are hardly visible they are so small, with hundreds and thousands fitting in the space that the first ones occupied, produced en masse and so inexpensively that they are deliberately disposable. Transistors were at the beginnings of one of the current accelerations of the magic of progress that has divided our culture and the cultures of half the countries of the world. Transistors represent a form of invisible electronics about which few people have a minds eye understanding. In this sense the technology in a modern home is for all practical purposes indistinguishable from magic. This is not a new thought, but I wish to put it into a slightly different, perhaps new, perspective.
The mind's eye seeks a lens through which to observe the world and its people. The lens of "progress" has its blind spots and distortions, to be sure, but the lens of tradition, although it appears to be clear, undistorted, and reassuring is that way only because the experience is always very much the same. The curious thing is that Liberals will inevitably settle for a while on ideas and points of view, just like conservatives, but they are restless and do not reify them and take them to be final. Conservatives, having conducted periodic inventories of what they like and what frightens them or makes them uncomfortable, have trouble projecting an idea of themselves into new situations. Yes, they are often comfortable in complex situations, but the more uncertain outcomes become the more stressed become the conservatives. If they cannot see themselves living in New York City for more than a couple of days, they simply write off New York City and reify Middletown, which is much less complicated and much less likely to present them with difficult choices and contingencies. The conservative jet fighter pilot masters his machine, but has no time to understand his town and its people, so he establishes "dogmatic" benchmarks that reassure him that his ideas are "reasonable."
So, the countries of the world are amalgams of people who are futurists or traditionalists to one degree or another. Iran, for instance, is a country where the gulf between "liberals" and "conservatives" is wider than in the Netherlands, for one example, and the traditions of the conservative groups in Iran are respected through a process of religious kinship. In fact, the kinship is something of contrivance, a public illusion, growing out of the necessities of a waxing and waning material progress. Put more straightforwardly, cultures like the Iranian one are deeply riven, with robust "progressive" values supported and enunciated by a vigorous and dynamic minority, while traditional values are given credible lip-service to avoid civil unrest. The actions of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the current circumstances is understandable, given that as a cleric his world view is essentially based on traditional values, that his understanding of modern technology and the life it creates is minimal ... (but envious). Democratic voting is an anomalous activity to clerics. One does not vote on Allah's creation or ideas. The idea of democracy has a long way to go in Iran.
In fact democratic voting is and always has been a problem in western cultures as well. In the U.S. the question of whether we have a democracy is answered by conservatives with the retort: "we have a republic, not a democracy." Liberals and Progressives quickly answer "democracy," even though they know that our form of government is a representative rather than a direct or "pure" democracy. They answer "democracy" without the trepidation that Ayatollahs and American conservatives have, because they easily understand the essential principle that belief systems are directly and inherently related to the material bases of culture. A sharecropper may vote for a policy to provide irrigation in fallow lands. As soon as his material condition changes because of that irrigation, the sharecropper's view of the world changes. It evolves. The conservatives want this to happen slowly, if at all; the "progressives" are there already, chafing at the present, leaning into the next future.
There was a book reviewed in the Sunday New York Times this past weekend entitled "No Smiting", Paul Bloom's feisty review article on Robert Wright's new book, The Evolution of God. "No Smiting" draws out the essential point that the Abrahamic religions' deities have evolved right along with the cultures that gave rise to them. Yahweh smote, Jesus (whether trinitarian or not) does not smite, in the course of 1200 years the followers of the Prophet Muhammed have evolved from bloody scimitars to ... what more genteel form? This is the essential question for Islam. The middle class citizens of Teheran and hundreds of other modern Muslim cities across the planet have evolved to a more abstract and less tribal view of civilization and their religion has evolved accordingly. But even if they understood it perfectly, most Muslim clerics do not have the courage to express themselves in the same vernacular. The very same thing obtains for the current and many past Popes of the Roman Catholic Church. In the U.S. and elsewhere, religious conservatism aligns with political conservatism in search of the answer about what will become of us in a culture of Change. The answer already evolved by the urban progressives and liberals ... a more abstract view of God and importantly, of the evolution of culture and world views correspondingly. In other words, a more tolerant and optimistic view of the course of history.
Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and Frank J. Sulloway's "Born To Rebel" are clear markers along the path to understanding the contest between modernity and tradition. From these two accounts it becomes obvious that these contrasting impulses are part of the human condition. They are not political planks or perspectives. They are not religious tenets or dogmas. They are, nevertheless, present and kicking within the expression of religion and politics. The kicking is the working out on small scales the evolving of a culture.
There is no guarantee that evolution can proceed without periods of revolution. The American Revolution was the culmination of a very long process begun in the Renaissance and given strong vocabulary in the Enlightenment. The continuation of the American Revolution, the strong discord and divisiveness we see today, has many backed up against their principles ... both sides ... with tantrums flying and demagogues making little fortunes stoking the prejudices and fears of the minority. In Iran, though, the minority is the progressive side, invidiously more successful, but self-aware of the discrepancy. The evolution in both countries must be accomplished from within, yet there is a commonality that should not be overlooked. Progress will come when the conservatives no longer fear the emergent future and its unfamiliar things! Does this not suggest that progressives and liberals in both countries need to learn how to persuasively communicate fearlessness and confidence in the future!